What Heaven is Like

Heaven is having two of the best singer-songwriters in the whole wide world play a concert in your living room.

That’s Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker of the band Wussy. (Chuck used to front a band called Ass Ponys… as he readily admits, he’s 0-2 in band names.)

Wussy’s most recent album

Wussy has released several albums to much critical acclaim (see below) and limited commercial success.

“Wussy have been the best band in America since they released the first of their five superb albums in 2005.”

Robert Christgau (“the dean of American rock critics”) in 2012

Chuck and Lisa (and the other band members) still have day jobs. It nearly breaks my music-loving heart to know that such talented artists are toiling in semi-obscurity. Then again, if they were international superstars, they wouldn’t be playing my living room. I still have goosebumps from hearing their songs, and am still on Cloud Nine from the house show.

Chuck’s voice + Lisa’s voice = music magic!

Chuck and Lisa couldn’t be nicer human beings… they create amazing art… they get to play their songs for people who absolutely adore them. Who needs American Top 40 anyway?


Radio to the Rescue

Doug Balogh recently celebrated his 80th birthday. Doug’s name may not mean much to you, but Doug meant the world to a bunch of youngsters who worked at the radio station he and his wife Linda owned and operated for more than two decades in Oxford, Ohio.

97X was a tiny station in a small college town. It had a weak signal, and it played weird music. Not exactly the recipe for runaway success. In fact, it barely registered on the quarterly list of radio ratings for Cincinnati and Dayton stations. But if you define success by the joy that station brought to both the station staff and the small-but-mighty group of dedicated listeners, then Doug’s ratings are off the charts — on the good side.

Doug gave countless young adults – many of them still in college or recently graduated – a chance to work in radio. For that reason alone, he deserves a ton of credit. But he not only gave them opportunity, but also a ton of freedom to do what they thought was best. To play the music they wanted. To be total goofballs on the air. To learn on the job. To grow up under his tutelage.

I’m probably the poster child for Doug Balogh’s Radio Refuge. I worked in radio for a few years after I graduated college, doing behind the scenes work at a company that ran an AM oldies station and an FM country station. I discovered 97X because they played bands you couldn’t hear anywhere else (Replacements, Connells, They Might Be Giants… I could go on and on). I wound up weaseling my way into some weekend air shifts there. I probably spent more in gas money than I made in hourly wages, but I didn’t care, because I had a freedom I couldn’t find elsewhere in the formatted-to-death world of corporate radio, and a connection to the listeners that made it feel like we were all one big (or not so big) happy family.

But then I had my “lost years”… I wound up leaving the radio biz and was living with my brother in Bakersfield, California and working as a travel agent. I knew I was deluding myself but I was in a bit of a rut. When I finally worked up the courage to try to get back in the radio game, the first call I made was to Doug. He had no business putting out the welcome mat for some travel agent in Bakersfield who did a few weekend shifts at the station three years prior. But somehow, some way, Doug brought me back into the fold. Because he saw something in me that I myself often struggled to see. Doug was an ace salesman, but his greatest skill was talent scout. He had a preternatural gift for sensing the right “fit” in the people who came looking for a job there.

I worked overnights for a year, mornings for a year and afternoons for six months before leaving for a larger station in Cincinnati. 97X was where I found myself… it was the radio reboot I desperately needed. It was a second chance at my first love. It was all that and more, thanks to Doug and Linda.

That was 30 years ago. I’ve said many times since that 97X was the least amount of money I’ve ever made… and the most fun I’ve ever had. The latter is much more valuable, and more precious, by far.

Prior to Doug’s big BD, his son Marty and daughter Kristy asked me to reach out to a bunch of 97X alums and get a birthday greeting from them. Several responded, and I edited the clips together for an audio surprise (seemed like a fitting format for a radio guy) that Marty and Kristy shared with Doug during the birthday celebration. I won’t share the total clip here, but you’ll hear snippets from three folks who worked on the morning show (in order: Julie Maxwell, John “JJ” Jesser and Steve Baker)

“The best job, the best memories, the best collection of people…”

“Mentor. Coach…. wonderful place”

“Best years of my life”

Some folks may think that Doug and Linda ran a tiny radio station for 20 years. But I know better – they created a magical place that still exists in our minds and hearts.

Mission accomplished!

An Overnight Success – years in the making

Adrian Belew is widely regarded as one of the best and most innovative guitarists in rock music. He recorded and toured with Frank Zappa, then the Talking Heads, then David Bowie. He led the prog rock band King Crimson for decades.. and he’s had an acclaimed solo career.

When he was in his teens and 20s, Adrian spent several years playing in cover bands, first in Cincinnati and later in Nashville. Years… not months. He easily could’ve given up. He certainly thought about it. But instead he stuck with it. He played the cover band gigs to make a living, but he used the rest of his time to focus on getting better at playing and songwriting.

When no one else believes in you, you have to believe in yourself.

The story of how Adrian became part of Frank Zappa’s band is the stuff of legend. How many other guitarists have been discovered because of a chauffeur? But if he hadn’t been playing that cover band gig, it never would’ve happened.

Success doesn’t happen overnight. It happens because you put in the work. One gig at a time.

Fare Thee Well, Hippie Bob

I like weird music. Well, “weird” to most people. Certainly the bands I love are well outside the mainstream. I’m good with that.

Because my tastes tend toward the obscure, most of the live concerts I attend have a small-but-mighty crowd. (I’ve been to gigs where the people on stage outnumbered the audience.)

Believe it or not, there are other folks who share my musical tastes. You start noticing the same faces at shows. And for a long stretch in the late 90s and early 2000s, it seemed like every show I went to — especially singer-songwriters shows– I’d see the same older dude with a ponytail. The Venn diagram of our musical tastes overlapped significantly.

So I finally introduced myself to him, and every show after that, we’d compare notes on new albums we liked and upcoming shows on our radar. His name was Bob Gregory (I called him “Hippie Bob”), and he taught photography at Sycamore High School in suburban Cincinnati for decades before retiring to a life of going to sparsely-attended shows and being bothered by some music nerd (c’est moi!). He was a sweet dude, soft-spoken, funny, and kind.

The last time I saw Hippie Bob at a concert, several years ago, he was having some health issues and wasn’t able to attend as many shows as he’d like to.

I’m now at the age where I follow the Carl Reiner morning ritual:

“Every morning before having breakfast, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section, and see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I’ll have my breakfast.”.

Carl Reiner

Last Sunday I read that Hippie Bob had passed away earlier this month at the age of 82.

We weren’t exactly buddies. Just kindred spirits. But I always enjoyed catching up with Hippie Bob. The world could use more people like him, not fewer. R.I.P. my music friend.

Radio Killed the Radio Non-star

When I was six, I wanted to be an astronaut. I mean, what boy didn’t during the height of the space race?

By the time I was 10, the dream had changed from outer space to airwaves: I wanted to be on the radio. Playing music. Cracking jokes. Writing theater-of-the-mind skits. Doing goofy character voices.

Radio was classy once…

It’s why I majored in Communications (with a concentration in Radio/TV) in college. It’s why I took an entry level job scheduling the commercials at a crappy AM station (R.I.P. “all oldies, all the time, 1230 AM WDJO”) – because it was a “foot in the door.”

So young… and so naïve

It’s why I worked weekend overnight shifts at a country station, where my assigned on-air name was “Cincinnati Redd” and I played music I didn’t really like in the wee small hours – because it was a chance to get some experience.

It’s why I made the hour-long drive from Cincinnati to Oxford, Ohio on the weekends, to play music I did like for an even smaller audience. It’s why I came back to that station a few years later, and worked the overnight shift, making less than minimum wage – because I was chasing the dream.

It’s why I left an on-air gig at the station in Oxford to be an errand boy at a group of stations in Cincinnati… because it too was a “foot in the door.” I wound up working for a radio legend, Gary Burbank, on a 50,000-watt clear channel station, on a show that was syndicated to dozens of other stations around the country . Cracking jokes. Writing theater-of-the-mind skits. Doing goofy character voices. The dream came true. But it happened 10 years too late.

This 60-second snippet from a great podcast called The Memory Palace sums up why the dream died:

When the corporations took over the mom and pop stations, they sucked all the fun out of it. And they killed a lot of dreams.

I still miss radio – but really I miss the idea of radio… radio as it was once, not radio as it is. Sure, there are podcasts, and there’s Spotify. It’s not the same. Never will be. Radio was ethereal… and that made it magical.

Please listen to the entire The Memory Palace episode from 2017. It’s a brilliant tribute to a lost station, and a loss of innocence. There are clear parallels to 97X, the station where I worked in Oxford, Ohio… which was bought out by a corporation and now is a Spanish language station.

The entire series is well-worth a listen – you’ll find all of The Memory Palace episodes here. Host Nate DiMeo has a gift for audio storytelling, and for uncovering hidden gems from history.

The Memory Palace podcast is among the most potent pieces of audio being produced today; the show’s short tales are so emotionally concentrated that, upon listening, they bloom in the space between one’s ears, like a single drop of dye propagating through an entire glass of water. Nate DiMeo, the show’s sole creative force, often seems to be operating on a level wholly separate from that of other podcasts”

From the AV Club

The twists and turns of life’s Journey

This past weekend, Mrs. Dubbatrubba and I attended a fundraiser concert with our neighbors. The show was called “The Cancer Journey.” (Note to the fundraiser organizers: you’re not exactly “selling the sizzle”… or selling a ton of tickets… with a name like that.)

The reason “Journey” was in the title was because Kevin Chalfant was sitting in with the cover band. Never heard of Kevin Chalfant? Neither had I. So I did some exhaustive research (a.ka. “checking Wikipedia”).

It turns out that Kevin was a rock star. But not quite a big of a rock star as he might’ve been. He was the lead singer of a band called 707 that had a rock hit with “Mega Force” back in 1982. In 1990, he teamed up with a few former (and future) members of Journey, Ross Valory, Gregg Rolle, and Steve Smith, in a band called The Storm.

Yep, that’s rock star hair…

Released by Interscope Records in late 1991, The Storm hit the album charts and the band’s first single, “I’ve Got A Lot To Learn About Love” surged well into the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Faring even better at Mainstream Rock radio, the single peaked at No. 6 on the national Billboard charts, and its follow-up, “Show Me The Way” went to No. 22. That spring, the band went on a major US tour in support of Bryan Adams, then at his commercial peak, and playing arenas, moving on to open for Peter Frampton, as well as several headlining dates.

From Wikipedia

Wow, two hit songs and tours in front of big crowds… but that’s when fate intervened for the first time:

When it came time to release the second Storm album in 1993, however, the band found their label, Interscope, entrenched in the burgeoning rap scene. The band’s second album, The Eye of the Storm, did not find label release until 1996, and by then the winds powering The Storm had died out.

Ibid… and nice “winds powering The Storm” line…

But fear not — Kevin’s connection with the Journey dudes was about to pay off.

By 1993, Journey had been on a nearly seven-year hiatus, and the late-70s lineup was poised to regroup, minus singer Steve Perry, who was in the midst of working on a second solo album. Chalfant stepped in to tackle Perry’s parts for a live performance in October 1993 for a Herbie Herbert roast at Bimbo’s in San Francisco, he performed five songs with Neal Schon, Jonathan Cain, Gregg Rolie, Ross Valory, Steve Smith and Aynsley Dunbar at a roast for manager Herbie Herbert.[24]. Chalfant proved to be a good fit and was invited to formally join the band. Chalfant then began writing material in 1994 with Rolie, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain in anticipation of a full album and tour.

Same Wiki entry as above

Wow, things are looking up for our friend Kevin. He’s about to become the lead singer for Journey…

By 1995, however Steve Perry had returned for a brief, Grammy-nominated reunion of their early-80s lineup instead, leaving Chalfant suddenly on his own again.

Wow, talk about the mother of all bait-and-switches.

Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’ / Don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow

So the reformulated Journey keeps on filling arenas and outdoor sheds — with, it should be noted, a lead singer they found on YouTube — and Kevin Chalfant plays casinos and fundraisers with his “Journey Experience” show.

The dude has chops too.

The misquote of Hunter S. Thompson really does apply here.

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

During his on stage patter, Kevin Chalfant referenced his faith. He seemed happy. At peace. Even though he and his old Journey buddies went separate ways.

If you must go / I wish you luck

Joourney “Separate Ways”

Even though “The Cancer Journey” is a terrible name for a concert, it raised funds for a great organization. Cincinnati Cancer Advisors is a non-profit that offers free second opinions to cancer patients.

Cincinnati Cancer Advisors exists to improve the care of cancer patients seeking a second opinion so that they walk away with a thorough understanding of their diagnosis and confidence in their plan of care.

So they give cancer patients more reasons to…. yes, you guessed it… Don’t Stop Believin’.

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