Forces At Work: On the Road to the Land
My first research trip to Northeast Ohio--a magical, auspicious time in which circumstances and people aligned magnificently to make the book the world needs on this region soar and sing...and soon!
It’s often hard to know where to begin, right? When I had a classroom, I had an amazing classroom library, which very much included a zine library, because I wanted young people to see that anyone could publish their own literature. I had this one student named Oscar, who I could never get to express anything. I worked with him for a year and a half between student teaching and my first and only year of full-time classroom teaching. I had this zine on the shelf with a cover that featured the following Q and A:
Q: HOW DO YOU START SOMETHING?
A: YOU START IT.
Oscar pointed it out to me one day. After that, it became a sort of encouragement cheer we would do when I was trying to get him to start writing in class. Each time we would repeat it, it would get a little louder and more exuberant until it exploded into action, hopefully. Oscar finally turned something in about a year into working with him, when I had the students cut up poems and re-use the words in their own combinations. I watched him sitting at the table with the pile of words struggling for weeks. We did the zine cheer a lot. Eventually, he unveiled this poem below, and it’s probably the most I’ve ever cried in front of a student and definitely one of the happiest days of my life. Of course, when he finally makes something, he’s able to make this amazing multimedia textual art where he is using form to communicate content in such an advanced way, making his difficulty with expressing himself a fully engaged, inseparable thing from the actual expression itself. He perfectly captures in the work the process of struggling to create it.
A few years ago, when I first began to write more seriously and consistently about music, I asked a few music journalists who I respected for advice about becoming a music journalist and publishing a book. Regarding book writing, Michael Azerrad told me: “It doesn’t matter where you start. Start anywhere. The important thing is to begin.” How do you start something? (You start it.)
I’m writing a different book than the one I thought I was going to write first, but I’m writing the one that needs to be written right now. The one that everything is clearing the way for, the one that will be a conduit for my own healing…the one that is definitely being guided and protected by some sort of cosmic, universal hand. Since I’m writing a book about a music scene whose principal actors are sort of rapidly aging out of the living world, I decided to go based on age and health. I decided I have to just start interviewing people before any more of them die. I decided to ignore the other thing Azerrad told me about being a specialist on people before interviewing them, because I don’t have the luxury of time and because talking to people aids research so much more effectively than trying to track things through books and articles. The number one priority is to talk to everyone while they are still here. What they tell me will inform where the research goes, what books and articles I read, and in what order. You have to start somewhere.
This is where it begins: I’m at the auto mechanic shop around the corner from my apartment in Chicago trying to see if these guys can replace my windshield wiper fluid tank, so I can drive to Cleveland in the first big snowstorm of the year. These guys keep saving my ass and not letting me pay them anything for it. They say I’m “their neighbor,” but I think they’re my fucking angels. This is a big cup of sugar, and neighbors barely seem to exist anymore. They didn’t have the part they needed, and I didn’t have time to run to get the part and have them install it, so they melted the plastic where the hole had formed and welded it back together. I had exactly enough windshield wiper fluid to get to Cleveland in the overnight snowstorm.
I’ve had to accept the fact that my dog, Lucy Parsons II, is just going to have to be with me all of the time. She is simply too anxious to leave in the care of anyone else. Additionally, I don’t wanna be on Zoom unless I absolutely have to be. Lucy is going to have to become Erin Margaret Day’s Lucy, the Kelly Reichardt’s Lucy of DIY music journalism. So, she’s with me in the car on a multi-state road trip, where I’m slowly discovering that the way she will be desensitized to the noise of huge trucks is through no-notice exposure therapy on pitch black Indiana highways in a snowstorm. I had to leave her in the car at a truck stop to get coffee and snacks; when I came back, she had disconnected from her seat belt and obviously been leaping back and forth from seat to seat in a total panic. It’s all worth it, though, because now Lucy is a bona fide and enthusiastic (if still very anxious) road dog, and I’ll never have to worry about her not becoming a genius again, because she drank from Lake Erie for a few days.
Lucy liked the Airbnb so much, she immediately took a shit on the floor that she was too scared to take outside in the high winds with the highway truck sounds of northeast Cleveland at 1am. I didn’t stop for any real food on the journey, because the lines were too long to leave Lucy terrified in the car the whole time. I always forget after living in Chicago for almost a decade that in mid-size Rust Belt cities, things close early, even on the weekend. I tried to get food at a few places before it was made very clear to me that I probably shouldn’t be driving around the east side of Cleveland—which I don’t know at all—in the middle of the night having no idea where I am or what I should do.
So, I came back to the Airbnb, wasted some more time trying to pull off food delivery, and then resigned myself to the ramen noodle-flavored cashews I got at the truck stop in Indiana. I thought a bath might help me go to sleep when I was hungry, so I found the tub stopper and was pulling some of that magnificent Lake Erie water into the bath. I decided to check my email while the tub was filling and noticed one I had missed for a few days from Robert Wheeler (Pere Ubu, Home and Garden). This was when I knew that forces really are at work with the book research!
It turned out that my Airbnb host is a co-owner of the Beachland Ballroom, which was only maybe 1000 feet from my Airbnb, where Robert was playing a benefit show with Home and Garden on Sunday afternoon. I told him I would try to see if my host could accommodate me staying later into the evening on Sunday, so that I could go after my interview with Robert Kidney from 15-60-75 (The Numbers Band) in the midday. My host had another guest coming in, but I had sent her some links to writing I have done relating to the book work, and she wanted to support the work I am doing—there were going to be a lot of people I’d need to talk to for the book at this event. She said I’d have to leave the Airbnb before my interview Sunday morning, but that she had a storefront near the venue where Lucy could hang out while I went to Kent for the interview and then while I was at the show!
I brought books relating to the Kent State massacre to read for my interview, but I also knew I was probably going to be too excited and also exhausted from the novelty of everything and getting into the swing of things to really concentrate on something like that. Outside of interviewing Robert Kidney, this trip was focused on just…opening the space of the work, getting reacquainted with the Land, establishing that this is something I am really doing. Starting it.
So, that’s what I did on Saturday until it was time to go to the 15-60-75 show in Akron. First, I got my bearings around the Waterloo Arts District my Airbnb host was key to the development of, starting at Six Shooter Coffee. They recommended Gus’s Diner 185 for my first hot meal in a long time. I was so tired and wired that it took me a long time to figure out what to eat. (I get to this point in hunger where I become extremely picky; no food is good enough after having waited so long to eat something!) I asked the servers for directions to a grocery store, because I needed more hot dogs for giving Lucy her many medications every day. While checking out at the Dave’s Market in Euclid, I was surprised and delighted when the automated woman at the self check-out next to me said: “One. Cil-ANNE-tro.” I also needed to pick up more gloves, which I’ve lost many times already long before winter even technically began.
When I got back to the Airbnb having finally eaten, I took Lucy in the car to Euclid Beach for a formal meeting with my birth lake. However, between the extremely high winds, sort of alarming and ferociously loud amount of birds on the shore, and probably also the many Lake Erie Bass Monsters lurking beneath the surface, Lucy was very frightened and wanted to go back in the car.
After dropping her off at the spot, I decided to walk over to the record store I saw on the walk to the coffee shop earlier, Blue Arrow Records. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much talking in a record shop in my life. This is the first time I am experiencing my hometown as a writer and researcher, as someone who wants to be a fly on the wall, taking everything in anytime I am anywhere: the records, the old magazines, the music playing in the shop, and every single side conversation going on around me. There are so many here! Where I’m usually very anxiously inside of myself inside social spaces, I’m learning to expand my attention to a whole space doing this work. This one guy is talking about Smog Veil reissues. I asked to see the Peter Laughner album behind the counter. I have no idea off the top of my head if the record offers things that aren’t part of the box set I already have, and it costs $90, so I leave it. I don’t feel like doing research or even really shopping: the Cleveland air and Cleveland skyline are too good for my soul right now. I leave with a Pebbles comp and three Alan Freed live show albums for research purposes, having met my special Cleveland record store goal of spending less than $100.
I never go to Cleveland without stopping at my favorite tiny record store in America, Bent Crayon. John’s shop is largely full of music I’ve never heard of before and it requires a level of attention I for sure did not have, but I wanted to say hello and support the shop. I decided to check out the books, acquiring the Numero Group book on Soul Music of Ohio—which is amazing—and The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution, 1968-69 on Blank Forms. I haven’t gotten to look at it much yet, but John said it’s incredible, and I think it will be important in connecting things that were happening in free jazz and avant garde literature to the modernization of rock music in Northeast Ohio in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. So far, Sun Ra has been in everyone’s mouth as something they were picking up on, and Albert Ayler is from Cleveland. I am maxing out my special Cleveland record store goal here at exactly $100.
One of my goals for this trip was to go to my first house while I was on the west side at Bent Crayon. I also needed to pick up some CBD for Lucy’s ride home with the trucks at this pet store in Lakewood, so it worked out really nicely. They asked if I wanted one of those frequent customer cards where I get rewarded for my loyalty, and I said yes, because I believe in a future where I’m in Cleveland doing research regularly enough to get a discount sometimes at the Pet’s General Store in Lakewood, Ohio. There’s these weird one-person-sized sidewalks over there and I barely remember them, but it also feels like home. After the doctors and nurses at Fairview General Hospital played me “Life Stinks” and decided my birth had been a great success, this is where my parents took me: 14221 W. Birchwood in Cleveland, Ohio. (In two months, Mark Edwards would release Peace, Love, and Murder within the same city limits. I would look like this.)
After my west side excursion, it was basically the late afternoon already, since I stayed up late making my hungry and very mentally alight self tired in the bath and slept in late. I needed to eat again and I was also just feeling really exhausted. I decided to get pizza from Citizen Pie and just pet Lucy and watch some crap TV until it was time to get ready for the show in Akron. I knew I should prepare for my interview, but I didn’t have the concentration for it. I needed to focus on being present for every moment of this trip as it unfolds. I got the Collinwood pizza, named for the neighborhood I’ve been staying in, and it was perfect. Now I had food to eat after the show, too.
It’s rare that I ever dress up anymore. I work as a dogwalker and a writer, which saves me from almost ever having to look presentable anywhere. I have the same C-wrench earrings in my ears all the time, but when emptying out all of the articles of stagecraft from my Pelican to pack it for my first research trip as a music journalist, I brought every pair of earrings I have. I made sure to bring the energy domes for Akron and I decided to actually dress up, packing this great dress I acquired years ago, but haven’t had a lot of opportunities to put on. This is what I looked like the night I became the Queen of Akron, as evidenced by the popcorn covered in bacon and fancy cheese they brought me at the end of the night, even though the kitchen was closed.
The drive to Akron was stressful; it was snowing again and I was dangerously low on windshield wiper fluid the whole way. I stopped at an Autozone earlier in the day to see if I needed more fluid or if the tank was leaking again—it seemed implausible I went through a full one just driving six hours, but apparently, I did. I was too embarrassed to ask for help opening up the hood of my car, though, so this meant I was going to have to find someone to help me with this at the gig. I’ve never owned a car until last year, so there’s lots of basic things about cars and car ownership that I still don’t know or haven’t practiced enough to reliably figure out on my own. But that’s kind of embarrassing if you are almost 36? And I’m pretty horrible at communicating my needs and asking for help, in general. So, that was an immediate stress in the back of my mind walking into Jilly’s Music Room.
The show was wonderful! The band played three or four sets of probably twenty to thirty minutes each. I was sitting with Robert Kidney’s wife, Janet, and these two guys who ended up being previous members of the band who were doing some guest performances that evening. I knew the guy to my immediate left had to be somebody who’d been in the band, because his air piano was way too on point! We talked for a good while about my book and my argument that the cultural transition from the ‘60s to the ‘70s happened in Northeast Ohio and about the music we were listening to…about the kind of music we love and why. Eventually, he gave me his card: Chris Butler of Tin Huey and the Waitresses.
I made sure to get their address from Janet for the interview the following day. I was too uncomfortable to ask anyone for help with my car situation in the venue, but fortunately for me, Janet appeared in the parking lot at the same time as me. I explained the issue and she helped me open the hood of my car, so I could travel back to Cleveland in the worsening storm as safely as possible. I drove off only to realize a couple streets away that I didn’t have my new custom molded ear plugs. I turned around and went back to the venue, where Janet found them on the floor underneath the table where I had been sitting. (I need to get little earrings to keep them attached to or something; that would have been the third set I have lost in the past few years since I’ve started using them!) I was very pleased to have pizza to eat when I returned.
The next morning, I drove back to the Akron/Kent area. Everything was luminous from the freshly fallen snow, or maybe it was also luminous because of the magic inherent in everything happening in real time the whole trip. We spent two hours talking by the window and it absolutely flew by. We both cried a little bit when he spoke about going to Peter Laughner’s wake and wanting to tell his mother something to remind her of how wonderful her son was, too…telling her that he was going to end 15-60-75 early on, but agreed to keep at it for a few months at Laughner’s request. In that time, they got the house band residency that would make their career. I obviously didn’t know Peter Laughner, but I’ve definitely loved and lost a lot of people to substance abuse and suicide. We didn’t want to stop talking, so I’m going to come back soon and talk more…when I’m more prepared. This has just been an important opening.
"We need a new history, and I'm not going to see it, but you don't invest in a moral future expecting to see the result." -Robert Kidney
When I came back, Lucy was doing pretty good as the Pup Ambassador of Cleveland Rocks: Past, Present, and Future. I was pretty worried about moving her to a new place and immediately leaving her there, but it seems like she did fine. Hopefully, over the course of time, she will figure out that I have never abandoned her, so she doesn’t need to worry about that ever happening. Robert and Janet Kidney enjoyed the story of how my dog happened to be staying in Cindy Barber’s storefront, so I could interview him and go to the benefit show at the Beachland in the afternoon. Everything is lining up to make this work soar and sing; she’s a rock and roll dog now. I drove back to Cleveland inspired and delighted. I walked Lucy and spent some time with her at the storefront before I went to the show.
This whole day was a whirlwind of energy and activity. I could have gotten to the show early and met Scott Krauss (Pere Ubu, Home and Garden, Scarcity of Tanks) when he was alone setting up his drums, but my interview with Robert went too late. The room was pretty busy when I got there. Eventually, I found Cindy and let her know I am an anxious wreck, so she should introduce me to people I should talk to. (This is another good example of me asking people for help, by the way.) I met Robert Wheeler and Andrew Klimek (x_x, Scarcity of Tanks, Red Dark Sweet) for the first time, but I got distracted talking to Cindy and a bunch of people she introduced me to and never got to meet Scott Krauss! After they called the raffle numbers, I realized it was after 6pm and I really needed to get out of Ohio as soon as possible in order to work in Chicago the next day. I also needed to move Lucy to the car and then bring Cindy back her keys. Since I can’t leave Lucy alone in the car for a long time, I sort of had to just Irish goodbye out of the situation after I got Cindy back her keys, which is basically my default, anyway. I hate having to interrupt conversations or wait to talk to people. I gotta go! It’s obvious I’ll be back soon. All of a sudden, things feel less immediately necessary. The work is protected. I am certain there will be time and space and magic and opportunities… things aligning and opening at long last. Soaring.
I wrote most of my winter 2023 mixtape in the days leading up to the road trip, sides A through C. Side D I composed through the trip, on the road, singing these songs about going home and growing up into the total darkness of night and the fury of the snowstorm. It tells the story of my life from age 13 to 36—the age I was when I got into punk and came out about the abuse I’d experienced for most of my life up to that point and my family had to leave Cleveland during the criminal trial to the age I am now, writing the book the world needs on how my hometown modernized rock music. It’s a mixtape about this moment in which many threads of my life and my process of healing are coming together in this miraculous and powerful way and many things I never believed were possible are actually happening.
There was a definite magic to how it all lined up on the road. “Dutch Oven” by Young People, intended to represent me going back into the territory of my formative trauma on the tape, sounded its opening clang just as we passed the sign for the city where my abuser was recently struggling to find anyone willing to defend his crimes against me when I was a child in civil litigation. The snowstorm clarified as the Cleveland skyline came into view, exactly the way the snow goes from a torrential chaos to a calm, soft, floating, glowing, gorgeous surrounding vibe when you stop shaking a snow globe, as the Styrenes’ “In C” sounded magnificently from the car stereo; I had to admit upon sight of the Terminal Tower in holiday lighting, that this is truly the greatest holiday music I’ve ever heard. And that I’m not sure I love anything more than the Cleveland skyline.
I’m waiting on another run of C-64s to record sides C and D, but I’ll have it in your ears ASAP. In the meanwhile, I’m trying to send off my book proposal before I leave to blast the winter horn of the new year in Detroit this weekend. (That’s what Side C is about!) I’m gonna make good on this book proposal by the end of 2022 idea I had a year ago. But then I’m already working on my first article for Cleveland Review of Books in the first days of 2023, so I guess I need to set a new goal for the year.
In 2023, I will become a Serious Author. There! More broad…farther reaching. Maybe after that I will spend a couple weeks composing an essay in haiku for the CSU Poetry Center’s Essay Open Reading period before it ends in mid-January. I have this great idea for a really mean riff on Dave Eggers called An Astonishing Work of Punk Minimalism. It’s about punk at the turn of the century…I think. Let’s see if I feel like creating at least 100 pages of this after I send in my book proposal and review Hole Studies. If not, I told Craig Bell (Mirrors, Rocket From the Tombs, Saucers) that Lucy and I are coming to visit him in Indianapolis the weekend of the 14th/15th, so I can just devote myself to preparation for that. I’m also starting to learn bass and I also still have nine Spring Into Winter Mercury Retrograde Sanity Mixtape Series tapes to make, too. It seems likely I will also compose my spring 2023 mixtape during this very active and fertile retrograde—here’s side A so far:
Austin Coleman, Joe Washington Brown, and Group - Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)
The Staple Singers - Sit Down, Servant
Carl B. Stokes with the Oliver Nelson Orchestra - Sit Down
S.O.U.L. (Sounds of Unity and Love) - Burning Spear
Universal Liberation Orchestra - Communion
Sea Glass - Spring Chant
Ensemble Volcanic Ash & Janel Leppin - Children of the Water
It’s for another Goddess from Cleveland. Her name is Kiernan Laveaux.
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This is a glorious piece of writing. I can’t wait to follow how this project unfolds in 2023.