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I’ve run out of excuses

It’s over. And now it can be confessed. I am a fraud. For decades, I’ve been writing about the arts, while never creating much of any arts myself. No music. Or oil paintings. Or marvelously clever bird houses. Or even provocative graffiti sketches on the walls of public restrooms. Just words, words, words. That’s all I did. The world is overflowing with words. Too many of them. Watch cable news, and you’ll see.

Enough, already. So I retired last week. There was a big party at Abilene Bar & Lounge. With people I had worked alongside just days earlier, and people I hadn’t seen in years. People who had previously been simply sources on the phone, and now I could connect to a face. And many of my favorite musicians playing all night long. Phil Marshall, and his raging version of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” A serious guitar player, who many years ago introduced me to the joy of vintage cocktail music.

I listened to each musician’s music, even as I tried to engage everyone in conversation; there was not enough time or breaks between songs to really do it right. And I nearly fell off my bar stool when I spotted my long, long, longtime friend, Mike, making his way through the crowd.  A relationship that goes back to our high school days. He’d driven from Alexandria, Va., to be a part of this.

Eager to celebrate my departure, friends gave me bottles of bourbon and favorite wines, re-christened “The Critical Mass,” with new labels featuring a caricature of me (fairly accurate). Along with other cool stuff like a peace-sign key ring, which I immediately put to use.

At age 66, I’ve never before owned a respectable key ring.

Lots of WXXI and CITY Magazine swag, including travel mugs, a baseball cap and a Lawrence Welk holiday DVD. Promises of future dinners. And my final story, a career retrospective, nicely framed and preserved behind glass, like an extinct bird.

Shot glasses of Jamison’s whiskey magically appeared in front of me.

I was thinking: I should retire more often.

And yet, “retire.” That’s the wrong word.

Recalibrate, that’s the word I’m looking for.

I’ve done it before.

Phil Marshall and John Kelley jamming at the retirement gig.

Here’s a biographical bit that I don’t often share: I began this journalism journey as a sportswriter. So yeah, I’ve seen Pete Rose naked. After a decade of that, I moved on. To writing about music. One of my first interviews was with Stan Ridgway, who’d had an MTV hit a few years earlier, in 1982, with “Mexican Radio.” Kind of an offbeat song: “I wish I was in Tijuana, eating barbecued iguana,” he sang, accompanied by an image of an iguana – or a questionable representation of one – roasting on a spit over a fire. I went to Ridgway’s show at the old Rochester music club, Red Creek, and gave him a copy of my story. He was genuinely excited about showing it to his mother.

I hope a lot of the people that I wrote about over the years showed my words to their own mothers.

Times change. No one watches MTV anymore. I won’t be reporting on the arts anymore. But music will continue to be a focus of my life. Here’s Suzi Willpower at the party, blowing away the crowd…

 

Last weekend, I stopped by Record Archive. I’ll always be grateful to the Archive, and co-owners Alayna Alderman and Richard Storms, for hiring me for a few months after I was laid off by the local newspaper. It filled a void, until our public radio station, WXXI, and CITY Magazine, picked me up off the junk pile and squeezed a few more years out of my carcass.

While at the Archive, I also grabbed the new CD by The Third Mind. A super group that includes a favorite singer, Jesse Sykes, and a favorite guitarist, Dave Alvin. It is glorious psychedelic rock, one of the best things I’ve heard in a while. I also found an old Thelonious Monk vinyl album from Italy; I’ll bet he never saw a penny from it. And, an impulse buy: Jungle Feast, a debut album by something, or someone, going by the name Exotico Paradisio. A 2020 re-creation of that old cocktail music that Marshall first introduced me to, with exotic instruments accompanied by screaming birds and monkeys.

Then I swung by a bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Little Book of Aliens, by a University of Rochester astronomy professor, Adam Frank. In the book’s introduction, he promises to explore the beer-fueled debate (that’s how he frames it) on the minds of his fellow astronomers: Are we alone?

To further explore that question, I also picked up investigative journalist Garrett M. Graff’s UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There. Frank’s book didn’t bother with such a weighty subtitle, but both should work together to answer questions that have intrigued me for much of my life.

Martha, Jennifer and Spevak.

So there you have it. Recalibration, or whatever you want to call it, offers the opportunity to casually investigate my odd interests. Cryptozoology, that’s one. The Loch Ness Monster. And Bigfoot. The history of the Flat Earth. For all of these pursuits, I don’t take the position of “prove they exist.” I prefer, “Prove they don’t exist.” It’s much more exciting that way.

And I’ll take on one more re-recalibration. Write. Two bouts of COVID over the last couple of years, and a general world weariness, led to me drifting away from The Critical Mass. I’ll start plugging away again. Right now.

I’ve had one book published, 22 Minutes: The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island: A Lifetime Survival Story. See, Garrett M. Graff isn’t the only writer who needs two colons for his subtitles. Now it’s time to hit the accelerator pedal on the word processor. I have 2½ book manuscripts in the works, both non-fiction and fiction.

So, write. With little else to occupy me, I have no excuses.

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.

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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.

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