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Karma comes home

That’s me, on the left, with WXXI’s Randy Gorbman, reporting live from the jazz fest this summer.

Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted…?

Oh, yes. Reporting on the Rochester arts scene. Music, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, literature. Dressing up your dog in holiday-appropriate costumes. The stuff that represents the best of humanity. All of that – or, at least my role in it – came to a skidding halt when I was laid off by the local daily newspaper in September of 2017.

But what the Democrat and Chronicle does not value – and I know, I was in the meetings – WXXI understands. I have been doing two stories a month for the area’s public radio station for a little more than year. Covering the jazz fest, the Fringe Festival. Most recently writing about the loss of Rochester Music Hall of Famer Bat McGrath. And exploring the tale of Lesley Riddle, the black country-blues singer who played a huge role working with The Carter Family to popularize country music in the 1920s. Then he was promptly forgotten, before being re-discovered in the 1960s after having lived in obscurity for more than two decades here in Rochester. A Rochester story that parallels that of blues legend Son House so much, it is almost uncanny.

But two stories a month is not enough for a community whose arts scene is so vibrant, so interesting. We face a lot of problems in Rochester. Poverty. A dysfunctional city school budget. Mistaking a plate heaped with macaroni, home fries, hot dogs and meat gravy as cuisine. But artistic creativity is not an issue in this city.

So on Monday morning, I started at a newly created position at WXXI. Arts & Life Editor, Which, I assume, means I’ll have to check my own spelling. And we have plans. Vibrant, interesting plans, although perhaps falling a little short of Oprah giving a car to every member of her studio audience. YOU GET A CAR! AND YOU GET A CAR! Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, and months, you shall be rewarded.

We’ll make it happen as fast as we can. The only things that will hold us up are technical issues. Like, I’m staring at the phone on my desk. It has 28 buttons on it. I don’t know how to use the thing.

The arts scene is equally complex. Our deep cultural scene must be represented by not only telling the stories of our hometown musicians, and artists, but by treating the city as every bit deserving of attention from the biggest names in the arts as any major city receives. The arts is how we celebrate the triumphs, and address the difficult issues, of society.

It’s important to remain on the razor’s edge of culture. I’m your guy, I stopped wearing yoga pants a few years ago.

I tried to make good use of my two years in exile. I had aging-parent issues. The dog got long walks. I read a lot; Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is astonishing, he wasn’t anything like the guy you learned about in junior high history class. I had my own book published, “22 Minutes,” the story of a Lake Ontario sailor and a tragic World War II naval battle. 

But here’s the best part: the support I received from friends and strangers was unexpected, beyond what I would ever ask for. My last act before walking out the D&C door for the final time was to post a message on Facebook, explaining I’d just been laid off. I expected a few responses. “Sorry Dude, I’ll buy you a drink if I ever see you again.”

Instead, a tsunami of responses hit. Outrage from hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom I didn’t know. Strangers stopped me everywhere – in grocery stores, in restaurants – to tell me how much they missed my writing, and how they’d cancelled their subscriptions.

And it just kept on coming. An unexpected support system emerged. At my going-away party – we called it “The Freedom Party” – friends presented me with a beautiful laptop computer and read poems about me. Friends gave me tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. There were lots of dinner invitations at friends’ homes. I’d walk into a bar and a glass of red wine would magically appear in my hand. We’d go out to eat at a restaurant and at the end of the night my friends had quietly paid the bill. I had several friends, suspecting financial hardship, offer to loan us money. Not just a few hundred bucks. I mean a few thousand dollars.

Amazing friends. I’ll never forget their support. I’ve written virtually every day on that new laptop. Blogs, freelance stories, a few songs, a novel about surrealist artists and robots. It’s better than it sounds.             

While cleaning the attic one day, I found a stack of newspapers. Democrat and Chronicles, and the now extinct Times-Union. All dating back to 1989, 1990, and when I first moved to Rochester, as assistant sports editor of the Democrat and Chronicle. I’m not sure why I kept them. The big news in Rochester then was serial killer Arthur Shawcross. But looking at those newspapers, now more than two decades old, I was astonished at how large they were. Not only their dimensions, but the number of pages. And on those pages, dozens of local bylines and photos. There were swarms of young and smart reporters like Steve Orr and Gary Craig. Crime news, sports news, society news, threatening weather, bowling scores. Each issue of those old newspapers was a portrait of a day in Rochester, yellowed, preserved like an insect trapped in amber.

It’s not like that anymore. Orr and Craig are still there, still smart but not quite so young, looking kinda lonely in the dwindling newsroom, the job titles on their business cards now reading something like Craig’s “Murder, Dead Gangsters and Ukulele Players Beat.” And he’s pretty good at it. Yet the baseball team, the Red Wings, is covered only when convenient. And our arts scene is a neglected mansion. One of our local rock bands, to paraphrase the president, “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” and you wouldn’t read about it.

But that’s the disaster that’s today’s media landscape. Corporate thinking is silencing one of the most-vital engines of democracy. Today, media properties are junk vehicles being sold for parts.

Robert Siegel, the now-retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” was in Rochester two weeks ago, and something he said struck me as the truth. Your local newspaper, wherever you live, is likely owned by some out-of-state corporation. Making decisions not for the community that your newspaper serves, but for the financial benefit of shareholders. Public radio, and public television, is a different business model. It does get some federal money. Sometimes donors step up with a big check: Thank you Betty Strasenburgh, Rochester activist and philanthropist, you’re why I’m sitting in this chair in the WXXI building on State Street. But mostly, WXXI survives through a public that acknowledges it must invest in some kind of media vehicle that stands apart from the forces that have disemboweled newspapers and commercial radio.

Two other D&C newsroom employees were laid off on the same morning as I was, both of whom had been there longer than me; I calculated that nearly 90 years of institutional memory went out the door that day. But WXXI is growing. Monday, my first day here, was also the first day for videographer Max Schulte, who I worked with at the D&C for more than 20 years. Arriving a week earlier, and now working on the fifth floor of this building, is David Andreatta, former D&C columnist, now the new editor of CITY newspaper; it’s a subsidiary of WXXI, so some of my writing will appear there. Denise Young is a WXXI editor, I once worked with her at the D&C as well.

You can see where this is going. The morning I was offered this job at WXXI, September 16, was two years ago to the very day that I was laid off at the D&C. Some folks say karma’s a bitch. But it depends on where you’re standing at the moment. Because karma is often the truth, revealed.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

My book, but not my story

Ernie Coleman.

I look out the front-room windows. Damp, foggy, just another Rochester day. But it’s not, it’s not just any other day for me.

This is the official publication day for my book, “22 Minutes.” I use the word “official” because the books have already been printed, they’ve been sitting in a Pennsylvania warehouse, waiting for you.

And I use the words “my book,” even though it’s not my story. In 2012 I sat down with a 93-year-old man, Ernie Coleman, and listened to him talk. “22 Minutes” is his story.

Like most good stories, Ernie’s story was actually several stories, all intertwined.

There is the story of Ernie as a teenager from East Rochester High School who takes a series of jobs to help the family through The Great Depression: hustling as a golf-course caddy, working a fox farm to provide furs for women’s coats, assembling explosives in a fireworks factory.

There is the story of Ernie the carpenter. Building houses, building sailboats.

There is the story of Ernie the sailor, a legend on Lake Ontario.

There is the story of Ernie the family man. He built that family through four marriages, adoption, stepchildren. Ernie was candid, he told of the affair that destroyed his first marriage, the tragic deaths of his second and third wives. Some of the kids zigged this way, some zagged that way, there were successes and strife. One of his daughters was gay, and fell into a life of drugs and abuse at the hands of her partner. There were reconciliations.

There is the story of Ernie joining the Navy during World War II. Tales of going AWOL, of getting in a brawl with zoot-suiters, of running a Navy carpenter’s shop at Pearl Harbor that brings to mind the scamps of the old TV show “McHale’s Navy.”

And there is Vincennes. Ernie’s ship. One month after Ernie was assigned to the cruiser, after it had sailed out of Pearl Harbor, Vincennes was sunk in a brutal battle that was a part of the Guadalcanal campaign. Three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser were sunk, about 1,000 men died, 332 of them on Vincennes. It was the worst open-sea defeat in the history of the United States Navy. And it took the Imperial Japanese Navy only 22 minutes.

That’s the 22 minutes of “22 Minutes.” A brief moment that haunted Ernie for the rest of his life.

When we sat down together that first morning in 2012, that’s what I really wanted to talk to Ernie about. The Battle of Savo Island. But it brought back the nightmares. And we never spoke of Vincennes and Savo Island again.

The book we produced together, “Chasing the Wind,” was filled with details that Ernie summoned from his remarkable memory. But Vincennes? That became my detective story. And over time, I pieced together what had happened to Ernie that night off Savo Island.

We self published “Chasing the Wind,” and I took Ernie all over the city with the book. Book clubs, readings, even folk-music concerts. We sold 1,200 copies, pretty good for a self-published book. Ernie couldn’t believe people were so interested in his story, that they wanted him to sign the book. He was happy to talk about sailing, and other aspects of his life. But he never talked about Vincennes. “It’s in there,” he’d say, pointing to the book. He never read those chapters.

It wasn’t over. I had several literary agents tell me that I needed to re-write “Chasing the Wind.” Put myself, and my relationship with Ernie, in the book. And keep alive this chapter of American history, Savo Island, and the heroism in defeat, that is overshadowed by the final successes of the Guadalcanal campaign.

“Chasing the Wind” became the book within the new book, “22 Minutes.” The new book fills out Ernie’s story, adds my own impressions of this hero, our trips to retirement homes and book signings, and how he dealt with his own approaching mortality. We even see that Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, led a 2015 expedition that found Vincennes on the Pacific Ocean floor, where it had rested in the quiet darkness for decades. Billionaires have those kinds of resources at their disposal. We just can’t help ourselves, gawking at our tragic histories.

So, with all of that, this long process, “22 Minutes” isn’t simply, “My first book.”

We’ll have a party next week to celebrate the publication, 6 p.m. May 9, at the fabulous Record Archive Backroom Lounge. You’re invited.

An idea of what a man is, for the 21st Century

I wrote this interview with morgxn for Record Archive, where the pop star performs and has a meet-and-greet at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The sound was in morgxn’s head: A modern mix of pop and electronics. But no one else in his hometown seemed to be hearing it.

“Growing up in Nashville, to me, was like the genre didn’t exist,” he says. “When I was growing up, there was nothing except country music, and I knew that wasn’t me. Personally speaking, Nashville was a hard place to be an outsider.

“Honestly, I think I had to leave Nashville to figure out what I wanted to say artistically, and how I wanted to say it.”

Morgxn – pronounce it just like “morgan” – sold everything he owned, except for what fit in a suitcase, and moved to Los Angeles. Where he found the right ears. Hollywood Records, a label that loves that edgy mix of pop, rock and circuitry; Rochester’s Joywave is also signed to Hollywood, offering a similar sonic sensibility.

Last year Hollywood released morgxn’s major-label debut, Vital. It is the outsider sound that he was hearing. Alternative pop, backing his sweet soul voice. And Vital carries powerful messages for people like him, who feel treated as outsiders. People who identify along the diverse spectrum of LGBTQ. Morgxn brings that message to Rochester Wednesday, with a 3 p.m. performance and meet-and-greet in the eclectic Backroom Lounge at Record Archive.

That move to LA was eight years ago. And at first, it seemed to be working almost magically. Within days, he’d scored a random invite to a music-industry party at The Village, the studio where Bob Dylan recorded Planet Waves and Frank Zappa made Joe’s Garage. “I was there with someone from Nashville, completely fresh to LA,” morgxn says. “And this woman said to me, ‘Do you want to meet Stevie Nicks? Turn around, she’s right here.’ And Stevie Nicks was six inches away from me.”

But soon, six inches became miles. Morgxn was writing songs and performing, then booking one-way plane flights to another city, in search of that elusive opening. Working day jobs to survive. Teaching piano and voice in LA, selling real estate in New York City, showing off apartments he could never afford.

“Having a dream sometimes feels impossible until it’s happening,” morgxn says. “I was about to give up and go home, back to Nashville, and I was going to what I told myself would be my final job interview in LA, at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment. And I was thinking to myself: What if people come in and see me there? I’m not doing music, I’m here.

“I walked back to my apartment, and in my mailbox, from when I had sung over a DJ, was a check from that performance. It was enough of a nod from the universe to keep going.”

Morgxn’s confidence had been tested. “There were many times when the idea of how to keep going felt insurmountable,” he says. But his perseverance paid off in 2016 when he began releasing singles on his Wxnderlost label: “Love You with the Lights On,” a cover of Duran Duran’s “Notorious” and the rocker “Home.” Joywave jumped on board with a remix of “Home,” helping to boost morgxn to over 4 million online streams. In October of last year, morgxn was joined on Jimmy Kimmel Live by EDM-fueled rockers Walk the Moon for yet another a version of “Home.” There, morgxn wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “The Kids Are Not Alright,” which ties in with his work with Covenant House, which “takes youths off the street, and gives them the tools to get back on their feet,” he says. “A lot of them are LGBTQ identified, and a lot of them have been kicked out of their home because of that.”

Finally, the unreal feeling of being introduced to Stevie Nicks at a music-industry party, and her actually taking the time to talk to this kid, was becoming reality.

“She probably wanted to find any excuse to get away from the execs,” morgxn says. “We were sitting next to each other on a love seat, and she imparted her mentality about LA. Without really trying to, I took that to heart.”

Here’s what he’s taken to heart: Personal authenticity. And he found that reinforced by another Rochester connection. Teddy Geiger. The Rochester-raised, one-time teen heartthrob is now writing songs for One Direction, Maroon 5 and Shawn Mendes, and late in 2017 announced she was coming out as a transgender woman.

“We met at a few parties,” morgxn says of Geiger. “And after she was coming out, it was important for me to give her whatever space she needed. But I did I reach out and tell her, ‘I’m still inspired by you and the message you’re bringing the world.’”

As for his own identity, morgxn pauses for only a half-second before declaring: “Human.” The songs of Vital, morgxn says, are him sharing his own life. “It is me,” he says.

“I think what was so hard for me, is the rejection of who you are. Growing up in the South, being rejected for just being yourself, being rejected for who you love, it’s honestly crushing. That’s where ‘translucent’ and ‘Carry the Weight’ connected for me. One is being crushed by something, the other is crushing the oppressor.

“Sometimes people need connections. The conversation about gender and sexuality is not one that can be argued on a senate floor. They are conversations between neighbors.”

And they are conversations between generations.

“Part of world is healing and speaking up about what is real for me and what is real for you,” morgxn says. “I was just in Wisconsin for a show, and that was the first time I talked about how my dad had passed in the middle of making this record. It changed my life completely, and changed the way I make music. This sounds so naive, but I didn’t know how much I would have to talk about my dad. I thought it would be too much for people. But after that show, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you.’”

Translucent. The word is defined by Mirriam-Webster as meaning “permitting the passage of light.” And, “free from disguise or falseness.” The video for “translucent” opens with morgxn auditioning for an acting role. But he’s quickly rejected when he can’t muster the kind of authoritative masculinity that he’s being asked to put into the character.

Light. Truth. “We had a complicated relationship, for sure,” morgxn says of his father. “He grew up in a time where men were supposed to be a certain way. But from the moment I was born, I was different. I came out different, and everything I did was different.

“I think he struggled himself to be able to be the kind of man he wanted to be, he just grew up in a different time. But now, there are no rules to being a man. If he were alive now, he would see how the world is changing. We are the ones changing the world.”

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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