In the fourth grade when I managed to get straight A’s, my mom took me to Sears and said I could choose a record as a reward. As soon as my eyes latched onto the Monkees’ “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, ltd.” (released that day, fifty years old this past November) I snagged it and it has been one of my favorite records ever since. Under the guise of Admiral (see 2014’s “Sings Please Please Me”) I’ve recorded impromptu video versions of “Love is Only Sleeping”, “Daily Nightly” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, you can check them out here…
Well, it’s been sixteen months already, but the memory sure lingers…
I remember winter nights when we’d be sitting by the fire, listening to soulful, intimate music with close friends. I close my eyes and see the summer sunsets through the trees, we’d be drinking and laughing while nomad musicians from all over sang songs of their loves and losses, often in the same breath. I recall the time I glanced over and first saw the woman who would become my wife, the image is indelible and I hope it always will be. I can still see my parents looking up at me as I did my best to emulate my father.
Yes, I still think about the Barking Spider Tavern, you bet.
When it closed, I had not been there for some time, didn’t quite live in the area anymore – what was once a short walk almost any time of day or night, became an concerted effort which required a plan. It was too easy to stay home winter nights, light a duraflame log and open a bottle of wine. It was far too easy to head out to our screened-in back porch on an early summer evening and, well, open a bottle of wine.
The Barking Spider Tavern was tucked into the middle of the Case Western Reserve University campus amongst restaurants, coffeehouses and fraternities, located in a carriage house (rich folks’ name for a garage), and so was easily missed from the street. Like the nearby Case radio station WRUW-FM the student participation was only a minor part of the equation.
Martin and Bruce owned the Spider, or at least the name. Martin became the face of the operation to many of us – he was there every day, he did the booking, often tended the bar during slow hours (afternoons, largely) and would gruffly tell you if you were playing too loud. I knew Martin from waiting on him and his elderly father at Tommy’s – his dad would order the hummus plain with extra oil and lemon, rendering it very un-Tommy’s-like.
They’d occasionally come in with Martin’s daughter Jenna, who was a teen at the time. Jenna became a schoolteacher and, as time passed, she began to moonlight as a bartender at the Spider. When Martin’s health began to fade, Jenna slowly took over the booking and every day operation.
Like her dad, she would let you know when you were playing too loud.
The Barking Spider was revered by locals and nationals, performers and patrons alike as a “listening room”, emphasizing that hushed (if any) conversation was de rigueur while the performers played. Though largely recognized as a haven for quieter music it featured everything from singer/songwriters and poets to the sprawling Carlos Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band (reggae) and a big band(!) night. One could also show up on any given night and hear an artist like the Lumineers or Jeff Buckley before the world knew who they were.
Being an intimate space, the energy in the place could transform quickly – I recall one night when the revered jazz guitarist Bill DeArango (who was in his late seventies at the time – he’d recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughn, amongst others) was performing his regular monthly weeknight gig, a typically low-key somewhat improvisational affair. A group of Russian jazz aficionados came in, for all indications having come half the world to hear HIM play. He kicked it into high gear, the joint started jumping, and the joy in his expression that night has stayed with me since.
Beads and Flowers
It was actually the Spider’s weekly open-mic that got me hooked into showing up regularly. I had begun writing and singing songs that were not a fit for the group I was fronting at the time (that group subsequently broke up). A number of folks who I’d known and played with were also participating regularly, and with other talented songwriter-singers and players we encountered a proper collective “scene” began to emerge. I’d been considering starting my own label, if only to ensure that the music I was recording would have a framework upon which I could fundamentally ensure its timely release and promotion. After consideration I thought it wise to establish a larger context within which I could present what I was doing on my own. Thus, Sound of the Sea was born, and its maiden release “They Showered Us With Beads and Flowers”, culled as a “mix” cd featuring an arbitrarily chosen group of songs that were (what I thought of as) the most characteristic of each artists’ songs, was released in late 1991. While other venues in town featured these same artists, we generally considered what was happening at the Spider to be the “launching pad” for this scene.
Mom and Dad
As my brother and I had finished school simultaneously some years before, my folks had moved south – way south. As in not quite to Cuba. My dad had played the upright bass in big bands semi-professionally since I was very young (he’d once worn my mom’s short black wig on a lark to look “Beatle-esque”, poor thing was never the same). At one point they scheduled to pass through Cleveland on an annual road trip they took to visit various family members, and their visit happened to coincide with a Spider date we – Jehova Waitresses – had set
(Martin routinely booked shows months ahead of time). I was playing an old Kay upright bass for our acoustic performances at the time, and as we stood up to play our first set my folks sat just a little way out in front of me. I’d practiced diligently, recalling my father’s sharp scrutiny of his own playing skills (I can still hear his colorful language ringing through the house from his cinder-block unfinished office downstairs as he first picked up the trombone to learn). The place was packed, and I made it through just fine. I can only recall looking up at them once or twice, but they had smiles on their faces as they watched and listened. A Plain Dealer photographer and reporter were there that night to do a short feature on the band (which never looks bad in front of your people), and as my parents got up to go and we exchanged hugs, I could tell they had enjoyed themselves, all good.
That was the one time my father ever saw me play.
Being “center stage” somewhat for our group of performers, the Spider hosted many record release celebrations, not only for “beads and flowers” but for my solo recording “acrowno’stars” (in late 1996), as well as for many of my peers’ releases.
But the one image that appears to me first when I think about the Spider is seeing my wife Marian for the very first time. It was early January 2000, we’d all “survived” Y2K (an idea which seems kind of quaint today). A local group that I liked had a first-Friday-of-the-month residency, and that night I found myself having a beer with my ex-girlfriend’s best friend and her girlfriend.
At that point in my life the idea of romance seemed rather remote; I’d traveled the same social circle for some time and expected no surprises.
That night, as the band played and I sipped my beer I glanced to the right, and there she was, silhouetted under a spotlight as she stood by the bar, also watching the band. I turned back so as not to appear like I was staring, though I probably was, relative time having shifted gears in a blink. I would glance over, trying not to look obvious while seeing if my first impression was an illusion – it wasn’t. I heard the voice in the back of my head that I’d come to trust through experience saying “you better get up and say something”. Every time I glanced to see if she was still there or with somebody, it repeated the same thing. Then it said “this is a big one, if you don’t do this you’ll regret it”. I took the last sip of beer, glanced one more time and saw a couple who I was friendly with start talking with her. I figured it was the best chance I was gonna get – I stood up, walked over, and though I don’t recall exactly what I said we started talking and haven’t stopped.
Now Cleveland is a place where there’s roughly three to four degrees of separation, in terms of who-knows-who and who they know. It turned out my old bandmate Marky had worked with my wife during the time we were in the terrible parade together. They were both temps, giving away sample packs of cigarettes down on Public Square (another quaint idea). Marky enthusiastically described our band to her, and when she heard one of our songs “Sometimes I’d Rather Be Alone” on the radio, she recognized it as being Marky’s band. She liked the music, but when she heard me sing the lyric “don’t call me now I won’t call you later”, her first thought was, “Boy I’m glad I’m not dating that guy!”
We married in 2004.
As I moved away from University Circle and began to teach, I saw less and less of the Spider, or better put it saw less and less of me. Occasionally we’d have a gig or a friend’s band would play, or we’d just wind up there. But I’d become an early morning person, and the idea of going out at 9:30 when I had to be up at six just didn’t practically appeal to me as it once had.
Martin’s health had visibly begun to wane; he passed away on the first of February in 2011. Jenna took over his duties, and we were thankful and not-so-secretly hopeful that she could continue to carry on.
But life intervenes, often in the loveliest of ways. Jenna married, and when she became pregnant, she and her husband realized that the demands and lifestyle that came with running a bar would be too much. On September 18, 2016, three days after formally announcing that they would close, the Barking Spider Tavern held its thirtieth birthday party, and then shuttered its doors for good.
These days, when I think about playing out with a new project, I imagine it being at the Spider. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without it.
Thanks to everyone who helped make the Spider such a wonderful place!
Our dear friend Cindy MacKay, whose lovely “lift my eyes” and “pray for the sparrow” graced s.o.s. compilations during the 1990s, is marking her return to performing and recording with the release of a five-song ep available for free download(!) at her Bandcamp site. Favorable comparisons to earlier Joni Mitchell and Loreena McKennitt provide right reference, but don’t do justice, she’s an original – listen to her music here…