Thursday, June 20, 2013

Swaying To The Music

I photographed another show last night.

I'm a little tired; I've seen and photographed six bands in the last nine days as well as having attended two movie sneak previews, a comedy club performance and a late Friday after-show party for visiting comedian Bill Burr.

It's tough being me.

But last night was different and, perhaps, worthy of a few words.  As I stood pressed up against the stage with the mainly female audience members I saw something that made me feel good about where our culture seems to be headed.

The singer took the stage.  Her band came out before her; twin brothers book-ended the singer, Brandi Carlile, as she made her way onto the House of Blues' main stage to a chorus of cheers, whistles, and catcalls.

She played for almost two hours as her slight frame bounced up and down on that dimly-lit stage to a set of country/rock/folk tunes that bellowed from her and the band.

The crowd knew the music well; the sold-out throng was mainly female.  And a good part of it were lesbians: tall ones, fat ones, some were of the lipstick variety, others formerly-married-then divorced/outed ones, and a bevy of others in various stages of defining their sexuality.  One couple was perched to my left; a very tall black lady proudly dressed in her army fatigues stood with her arms around her partner, a short, stout white woman.  They swayed back and forth with the music.

Next to them stood a family; mom, dad and two young daughters were within elbow distance of the swaying partners and no one uttered a disparaging word or attempted to cover the young ladies' eyes from the two women, obviously in love, who stood indifferent to the crowd around them.

I smiled when I saw that.  We've come a long way since the early 1990s when Melissa Ethridge and kd lang dared to reveal their sexuality to a somewhat-shocked America; after their famous coming-out parties (do you remember the magazine cover where a scantily-clad Cindy Crawford "shaved" kd lang? How quaint that cover seems today.)

Brandi Carlile, a phenomenal singer and songwriter, played for another hour after that sight, her voice echoing off the rafters of the club.  As I peered around the audience behind me I saw an awesome sight.  People of all stripes, men and women, women and women, and families alike all listened to the lyrics and, it seemed, each listener took away something a little different from what they were hearing.

It reminds me of a few friends of mine.  They have a daughter who is an amazing young woman.  She just finished up her second year of veterinarian studies at Ohio State.  She just returned from a relief trip in Central America bringing much-needed vet services to animals of small villages.  She is an accomplished equestrian.  She loves her parents, friends, and animals with a ferocity.  She has a sparkling and sometimes-biting sense of humor. 

She also has a girlfriend in a years-long committed relationship.

I don't think they'd mind me talking about her in this fashion, and any of you who know me personally know of whom I speak.  My friends accepted their daughter's sexuality a long time ago and are committed to her happiness and that she be treated equally in the eyes of the law.

A generation ago all of the things I mentioned about her would have been relegated to the back burner in favor of one defining characteristic and caustic description: Dyke.

When I see her postings on Facebook or think about her academic accomplishments that's the last thing that comes to my mind.  I see a young woman who is so much more than that; maybe if the bigots and close-minded fools who spread so much hate and fear around the planet would take five minutes to have a conversation with a wicked sense-of-humor-vet-student/animal lover/awesome daughter our world would change for the better.

Or if they attended a concert and saw a smoking hot songstress sway on the stage while belting out a throaty rendition of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," they'd see things a little differently.

For all I saw last night was a great show peppered by people from all walks of life, clapping along to a tight band.  Two hours of great music made almost fifteen hundred people happy about their lives and a respite from the fact that life can be tough.  They were taken away from their homes, their troubles, and the fact that, in some places in the world, two women in love can be jailed or even killed for daring to sway to the music, even if the songs being sung were the soundtrack of their lives.

So Brandi Carlile sang and sang; her lithe frame and booming voice filled the House of Blues.

And the thought that she's married to another woman didn't affect my appreciation of the music one little bit.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ten Bucks

I guess it's good to know where you stand in the world, right? 

Some people go through their entire lives and never have an idea of how the rest of the world perceives them. A great example would be Hitler; he thought of himself as the savior of the German people, elevating the Visigothic horde in a thousand-year reich, all to the tune of some Wagnerian opera.  The rest of us see him for the little-dicked monster that he was: a failed artist rife with daddy issues, trying to prove on the world stage that he was an overachiever, unlike his absent daddy, by killing off most of Europe's Jews.  He went to the grave with an ever-so-slightly elevated opinion of himself,  with a glaring lack of self-awareness as to how the world would truly remember him.

On the other hand, I know exactly where I stand and, apparently, I'm like one shower away from looking like a homeless person.

Last week I had an opportunity to hit the road with my truck driver buddy Jeff. We've been good friends since the fourth grade; he was recently home for about ten days to celebrate Easter with his family.  One night, over a few beers, it came up in conversation that he had to make a run to Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston to pick up a load.  His mission: pick up all the gear for the upcoming Dropkick Murphys' tour and deliver it to the Left Coast by mid-April. After the final stop in South Boston he planned on coming back through Cleveland. 

We've talked for a few years about me tagging along for a ride to see how truck drivers live.  I made arrangements for my son and his buddy to house sit the herd while I would be gone.  I packed a bag, charged up my camera batteries, and climbed aboard his truck for a week of sight-seeing, no responsibility, and a Kerouac-style existence all punctuated by an intro to basic CB lingo and copious amounts of late-night road food.

Which begs the question:  Why is every other restaurant in New Jersey and New York a diner?  I've never seen so many diners in my life; the proto-typical rectangular 1950s-era eatery should be on New Jersey's state flag. Or maybe it needs to replace their current state symbol.  I used to think that the Garden State was just a gaggle of track suit-wearing mafiosos with bad comb-overs.  Now I have the unfortunate visual of said mobsters eating in a bright chrome-and-neon diner with a blue-haired waitress named Irma serving them, conversing in that Joisey twang while wolfing down huge portions of chicken-fried steak.  Oh yeah, by state law a framed picture of Sinatra must adorn a wall somewhere in the diner with a special spotlight shining upon it twenty-four-seven..

So now you get to have that visual, too. And, yep, it's a fairly accurate one.

However, they may not have been mafiosos...they may have been public-sector union retirees too lazy to change into appropriate clothing.  Or comb their hair properly.

To be fair, the diner food is generally very good, portions are large and the prices very reasonable.  So, take that, Denny's.

Four days into our trip (ever pee in an old cider jug while standing in a truck bouncing along at 70+ miles an hour down a mountain?  Checked that off the bucket list--a few times, actually) we were parked in a field that, until recently, housed an old gas station.  It was now an overnight truck stop about thirty miles south of Boston.  A sports bar called the Great American Pub stood sentinel across the busy two-lane road that connected Boston to Fall River.  The night before I had one-too-many Sam Adams, a personal pizza and a dozen (or two) spicy wings.  Somehow, I've forgotten that I'm not twenty-two any more and these Bacchanalian rituals usually lead to unintended consequences the next day.  Or two to three days.

So, I rolled off my three-inch mattress tucked, all bunkbed-style, six feet below Jeff's snoring, lifeless body, mustered outside in my underwear and socks, needing to relieve myself all trucker-style in the parking lot.  As my one good eye scanned for cops who may have a problem with a chubby white guy from Ohio peeing all over the commonwealth's sacred soil, I focused on the immediate surroundings. I noticed a Dunkin' Donuts not a hundred feet away, visible through a copse of trees. Thankfully, no cars were idling at the drive-thru to witness my makeshift potty.

After hauling myself back into the truck, donning the proper clothing and grabbing a towel, shaving-kit, and a fresh pair of underoos, I hopped down the six feet to the ground and made my way to the donut shop with the notion of cleaning myself up in their bathroom.  I gotta admit, I felt a little uncomfortable using a public bathroom as a shower but no one gave me any grief when I locked the bathroom door behind me and quickly washed my hair under the faucet.  I brushed my teeth, ridding myself of the morning breath that was punctuated by a hint of hops, a dollop of anchovy, and the slightest aroma of medium-heat buffalo sauce; a reminder of the lost-by-seven-points near-victory we had in last night's trivia contest at the Great American Pub.

So I unlocked the door, meandered to the counter and ordered a large coffee and two jelly-glazed donuts.  Upon taking my seat and gazing around the restaurant, I saw a scene not unlike a donut shop you'd encounter anywhere else in our united states.  A Boston radio station's morning zoo crew obnoxiously blared through the ceiling-mounted speakers. Five men, brandishing baseball caps, torn jackets, and walkie-talkie radios sat two tables away.  They were talking about their wives, the Red Sox, and plans for the upcoming weekend. 

The only noticeable difference from the same type of conversation in my hometown was this groups' apparent disdain for the letter "R."  It seems no one in New England likes to use this letter.  "Beer" becomes "bee-ah" somewhere a little bit north of Newport, Rhode Island.  I overheard a guy talk about sharks.  I wasn't sure what he meant because I only get a "shock" when I stick my finger in an electrical outlet, not when dipping my toe into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

I sat sipping my coffee, munching on a donut, and nursing a too-early-for-this-shit thousand-yard stare when an older lady appeared in my peripheral vision.

"Young man?" she said. 

I snapped to.  Young man?  I looked at her and an age-spotted hand pointing in my general direction.  I smiled at her.  "Here," she said.  I looked at a crisp ten-dollar bill in her right mitt. 

"It looks like you've had better days; why don't you get yourself a hot meal."

I sat back, confused, for a moment. 

Jesus Christ, I thought.  This woman thinks I'm homeless.  A quick glance at my table probably confirmed that notion:  my towel, rolled up, sat next to my coffee cup.  The shaving kit was next to my half-eaten donut.  I hadn't shaved since Monday and a scraggly three-day shadow covered my chin.  If I would have had a large garbage bag tied and sitting at my feet the ensemble would have been damned-near perfect.

I must have sat quiet for a good thirty seconds before saying anything.

The five guys two tables away stopped talking and were now intently listening to my little drama.

Uhhhh, I spit out.

"Thank you for your kindness but I'm okay."  The smile somewhat left her face.

I explained that I was a photographer traveling with my buddy.  I pointed to the big white truck inhabiting most of the adjacent  lot and told her that life on the road wasn't exactly the Ritz; I grabbed a little hot water whenever I could.  Her smile was replaced by embarrassment.  She apologized profusely, to which I smiled.

She wouldn't stop apologizing and begged me to take the ten bucks, probably to relieve her embarrassment.  I declined, but thanked her for her kindness; a rarity not found in most of the world's chain-store donut shops.

She slowly backed away, red-faced and humiliated from her no-good-deed-goes-unpunished faux pas.

I finished my donut, added more cream to my coffee and then grabbed my stuff.  As I started to walk out the five guys gave me some good-natured ribbing.  "Ya shoulda kept the money!," one of them said. 

I smiled and walked out the door.  It wasn't even eight o'clock yet and I had received a sobering, eye-opening experience.

Apparently, a Sam Adams-induced blank stare and the lack of one lousy shower is all that separates me from looking indigent. 

My hangover was now gone, replaced by a chuckle and the realization that I needed a haircut and that maybe...just maybe... I'm not cut out for life on the road.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's Steve

I'm sitting here in the man cave attempting to put words into an order that somewhat resembles my mother tongue.

The screen on my laptop is still a little out of focus; perhaps my contacts are dirty or it's just the inevitable afterbirth of being out, well, maybe just a little too late last night.

Almost twenty-four hours after the fact, there's a slight ringing in my right ear and my equilibrium is still a tad off.  Maybe it was the half bottle of DayQuil that I chugged last night before heading out. That was a surefire college-tempered remedy used to combat a worsening cold/sinus infection/ebola thingy that's been bothering me since my Typhoid Mary son coughed directly on me the day after Christmas.

So I had a gig last night.  After stuffing my pockets with cough drops, I made my way downtown to shoot Cleveland's hardest-working band, Nitebridge, at my favorite hangout.  The music was loud. The drinks flowed freely.

The blondes were pantiless.

First of all, it's a difficult task to shoot a band when the entire dance floor is filled with elbow-to-elbow drunken revelers from within spitting distance of the lead singer back to the far wall, where the serious gropers were getting busy. I thought that hard-core groping and tongue-darting was a high school endeavor best left to the hallowed spaces of a school gym during a tenth grade Christmas mixer.  I guess not; much of the back wall was filled with middle-aged people in the various stages of heavy petting.  It looked like a late night Cinemax movie with much of the good stuff edited out.

I tried to flit through the crowd; I'd get a shot or two off before being elbowed by an overzealous drunk.  My new lens almost took a direct hit from a PBR; after that close encounter I decided to stand off to the side and attempt to shoot from the relative safety of a perch inside the server station; my camera and I were wedged between the computer monitor and a bad-dye-job-dishwater blonde making out with some Mr. Clean-looking guy with a big pirate earring in his left ear and a shiny, recently-polished chrome dome.

As I moved away from the couple, trying to protect my camera body from her body, a gorgeous blonde, about five-foot-nine, wearing a little blue dress came into my peripheral vision.  A guy sauntered up to her.  They started dancing. He looked a little like an Israeli commando: short, sawed-off even, shaved head and a five o'clock shadow.  Maybe, I thought, Mossad has a small presence here in Northeast Ohio?

So they started canoodling, getting closer and tighter with every song.  If I had to rate this guy's performance I'd give him a solid B+; It was just after midnight and the floor-to-ceiling windows were now getting steamy from all the sweating and gyrating on the makeshift dance floor. As this couple moved in tandem with each other, it was only a matter of time before they'd be grabbing their coats and heading for the Holiday Inn Express right around the corner from the club.  They were smiling.  She whispered something into his ear.  He pulled back, instantly laughing.  I wondered what she whispered to him.  Was it a simple joke?  Her hotel room number? Ten minutes passed. They were getting very personal with each other when I witnessed something so monumentally stupid, so out of character for a man who is about to close the deal, that I could only laugh at this bush league wrinkle.

His hands, over several minutes, had gravitated towards her ass. Instead of resting them on each cheek and slowly caressing her butt, he did something that goes against every commonsensical I'm-about-to-get-laid-so-don't-do-anything-stupid-at-the-last-second errors.  I'm at my perch, having been joined by a few others, and had a play-by-play. He put his hands on her ass...they started moving around in little circles in a whole Mr. Miyagi wax-on, wax-off motion.  He grabbed her dress by its edges. Then he flipped it up quickly, exposing her itty-bitty-thong-covered-ass to about fifty people.

He then broke out laughing.


The half-drunk smile instantly left her face. She pursed her lips and squinted her eyes. By the look on her face she was embarrassed. I heard her say his name. "Steve, why would you do that?" He looked at her, trying to come up with a rational explanation as to why he would moon her lily-white ass to a whole crowd of unsuspecting  people, other than it was funny to him at that exact moment.  Steve looked at her in silence. They exchanged quiet words for a few moments and within a minute or two were dancing again.  But there was a look of defeat on his face; his smile had now become something else.

Then, to my right there was a small disturbance on the dance floor. A pasty white dude strutted up to the band with a request.  He pointed to his woman, a raven-haired beauty, and lulled her onto the hardwoods with a slight gesture of his index finger. She obeyed and they started to tear up the dance floor. I can honestly say that, since the human race took up dance as a form of deeply personal expression a few thousand years ago, there's never been a worse dancer.


This dude pulled out the textbook of cliched dance moves and had, within fifteen minutes, entertained every shitty one of them from the 1920s all the way through 1995 or so.  He especially hovered around 1977 and displayed as many disco moves as his memory and hips could muster.  I saw the Charleston mashed up with some Tony Manero, peppered with a dash of Fred Astaire and topped off with a smidgen of Martha Graham free-form reminiscent of an epileptic seizure that I had witnessed while walking down my high school hallway in the ninth grade.

He pulled out the pistols, shot them off, blew the smoking barrels and put them back into their imaginary holsters.  He licked the tips of his fingers and stroked tight little circles around his nipples. He did Travolta's Saturday Night Fever pose, right hand and index finger triumphantly pointed into the rafters, twice in about five minutes.  He ran his fingers through his hair and did the whole She's-a-Maniac routine from Flashdance.

I was mesmerized.  I watched for a good twenty minutes as he owned that dance floor.  It was the most amazing piece of performance art I'd ever witnessed.  He was abysmally horrible on that floor; people were giggling from the sidelines while Dance Fever, with laser-pointed focus, boogied away the night.

Oblivious to anyone or anything around him, he danced on and on.

And on.

They danced until the band took a short break.  He extended his right arm and offered the brunette his awaiting hand, sweating through the white button-downed shirt and, perhaps, memories of a disco fever that had enveloped him decades earlier. Their exit from the dance floor was very dramatic; it reminded me of Dracula summoning one of his vampire brides to his side.

As the band left the stage, the Mossad agent walked by me and smiled.  I asked him how the night was ending.  He mentioned that Miss Thong was his older sister's friend.  Blondie was 38 years old.

And a virgin.

She, apparently, told his sister that she wanted to do something about that. Perhaps even on New Year's Eve.

He appeared to be in his late twenties, full of vigor, testosterone and a few too many Red Bulls and vodka molotovs.  He told me that he was very close in sealing the deal that would have ended the night with her little blue dress on a hotel room floor. He so wanted to deflower a woman that liked little tiny thongs, blue dresses and an unhealthy grip on her overly-ripened hymen.

I laughed a little.  I asked him why he flipped up her dress if it was a sure thing?  At least he copped to a truth.

"Because I'm fucking stupid," he said. He shook his head twice, lowered it, and sulked with the knowledge that he truly was fucking stupid.

He smiled and shrugged his shoulders; we shook hands and he walked away, his conquest nowhere in sight.

A few minutes later I packed up my gear and waved goodbye to the band.  It was close to two-thirty ay-em, they were still playing and I was having difficulty hearing much out of my right ear.  A constant ringing had replaced most of its auditory functions a few hours earlier; a thirty-something blonde with a cardboard "Happy New Year" tiara had struck up conversation an hour earlier and, even though I was standing two feet from her, couldn't hear a word she was saying.  She may very well have asked me if I wanted to hook up and ring in the new year with a bang, so to speak, and I wouldn't have understood that.  Whenever she said something I just nodded in agreement and tossed back an appropriate "uh-huh," or "yeah!"

I shook the club owner's hand and wished him a happy new year; I walked towards the door and saw the blue dress virgin, feverishly talking to a guy in a white shirt and pink tie.  Not the most masculine-looking dude, but perhaps he would do what Mossad couldn't.  Good luck, I thought as I walked past, you may get a bounty almost four decades in the offing.  She slipped him a tongue as the door closed behind me.

I realized how deaf I truly was as I made my way into the Cleveland night. Most sounds were muted as if I was wearing a pair of loose-fitting ear muffs. It was lightly snowing and a few people, sans winter coats, were huddled into small groups.  I saw Dance Fever and his woman, standing under a street light, away from the curb and near the entry for the House of Blues.  They broke out into dance again.  There was no music except, perhaps, for the soundtrack in his mind.  As I scurried across Euclid Avenue I took one last glance back at them.

Tripping the light fantastic, they ushered in the new year in their own specific way; oblivious to the rest of the world around them.

And I smiled.