Our Cleveland Plain Dealer just published a Spotify playlist of new/recent releases from Cleveland artists; lucky number thirteen on the list is our singin’/guitar-slingin’ friend (and Fits of Hail drummer) John Kalman. You can find the article/playlist here or check out John’s LP “A Drive, Awake” and more (on youtube – “little baby blue” is a personal fave and good jumping-in point).
happenings as far as the eye can see and the ear can hear
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…
How many times in the course of our lives do we encounter folks who become pivotal to us, influencing our thinking, actions, and (ultimately) our outcomes? Not in the way a spouse or close friend would over a length of journey, but those who by the nature of living an idea/pointing in a direction in a particular moment create a personalized masterpiece of influence on our beings with one or two seemingly simple brush strokes.
In my own questionably humble case, there was the high school english teacher who first encouraged me to write, and the fellows who urged me to bring a bass guitar I’d bought to actually come over and play with them (we were all novices, playing three hour versions of “down by the river”). There’s the gal who shared her plan to give up her enviable circumstances in the midwest to take the chance at doing something great on the west coast; her notion motivated me to shift gears and come to northeast Ohio to finish school and play music, not necessarily in that order.
Another such person for myself and many in the music/creative scene here was Jim Clevo.
For the uninitiated the words tireless enthusiast and staunch advocate could begin to describe Jim. Many who knew him considered him to be somewhat eccentric (a good fit around here), if only for his sheer, intense dedication and single-mindedness toward what he saw as his gospel, that to bring the music scene and its inhabitants in northeast Ohio to the attention of the greater music world.
Many here who mourned his recent passing also spoke of the difficulty he had in managing relationships with those who reasonably sought to help or emulate him (intense and single-minded may also apply here). Fairness considered, the vast majority of people who sought him out did so mainly to improve their own circumstances by taking advantage of what he willingly offered. It wasn’t a recipe for building trust and true friendship necessarily, even when genuine gratitude was forefront in the mix.
Jim could be very funny in a pointed and acerbic sort of way; perhaps most folks never saw that particularly because in the context of what he did he was generally always “on”. Music was always the greatest common interest thus the overriding topic of conversation amongst us all.
Perhaps what made Jim’s presence most compelling was simply that he opened up a world of possibilities for many of us. His idea to present and promote Cleveland music at many of the music conventions that were just beginning to emerge in the late 1980s/early 90s did just that. When Jim first went to South by Southwest in spring 1988, it had only recently been established by a small group of Austin music professionals to bring worldwide attention to the burgeoning Austin music scene. My group at the time (the terrible parade) had seen opportunities come and go, but when he took his first Cleveland compilation cassette to South by Southwest that spring, the phone began to ring with interest again.
(Insert “aha!” moment here.)
The best tribute I could ever pay to Jim would be to simply share some of the things that effectively resulted from his efforts. I think he’d like that.
In no particular order:
1) Hooked us up with a record label
Jim came back from the CMJ Seminar in New York in autumn 1988 with news that he had met a Boston-area college dj who was familiar with and very fond of my group from a recording we’d done a few years before. Furthermore, this fellow (a righteous gent named Chris Porter) was starting a label and was interested in hearing more from us. In the following three years, his label Presto! released an LP/CD and a 7″ for us, each receiving high-profile critical favor (Melody Maker and Billboard, respectively). In addition, Chris has provided many outstanding opportunities for subsequent musical endeavors of mine/ours, and he remains a trusted friend and ally to this day.
If Jim had only ever done this for me, he’d still be in my hall of fame, first vote.
2) Set the template for musicians working together cooperatively
In 1988 when Ohio raised its legal drinking age across the board to 21 (beer had been legal for 18-year olds), the music scene took a serious hit as a significant percentage of its patrons were no longer allowed to frequent the clubs legally. Shortly after, Jim began to produce compilations of original music from northeast Ohio to promote at the various conventions he was attending. In order to promote these efforts locally, he began to stage compilation showcases at local clubs; the response was eye-opening, as he showed that through cooperation it was no longer necessary for one band or artist to have to carry a night as the main draw. Moreover, it was not necessary to produce an entire release in order to receive press or radio airplay. The story goes that one group, Bluto’s Revenge, began with the purpose of putting a song on one of Jim’s cd compilations; the band (who are still performing) stayed around long enough to open for Spinal Tap at Nautica Stage and get featured on a mid-1990s WMMS cd compilation (covering “sometimes I’d rather be alone”).
In 1991 when I was thinking of starting a record label, I co-opted Jim’s compilation/ showcase model and applied it to the folk/rock/nightmusic scene here to produce the label’s flagship release “They Showered Us With Beads and Flowers”. By then Jim had begun to consult/broker cd production and manufacturing for many of the artists in the area; he stewarded a number of our label releases over the following years and in late 1996 he staged a release show for my cd “acrowno’stars”.
3) Introduced me to South by Southwest(!)
Music trade conventions such as New Music Seminar, Berlin Independence Days, CMJ and South by Southwest (SXSW) were established to provide promotional and networking opportunities for those plugging their talents, wares and services in the art and artifice of making music. It gave those of us who aspired to improve our lot the forum to make direct contact with those who could facilitate opportunity. Scoring an artist showcase at one of these events could serve the purpose of raising one’s profile nationally and internationally as well as at home. In a more immediate and practical sense a convention showcase provided a fundamental cornerstone on which to base booking and promoting accompanying tours. Perhaps, most importantly, conventions were opportunities to hang out with others who felt as passionately about music as we did, a much-needed booster shot.
When Jim first explored SXSW, it was only about music – no multimedia, no Bieber or Miley, and maybe one or two non-SXSW showcases populated by Austin bands who hadn’t been selected for official showcases. As conventions in NYC (like CMJ) were characterized by industry people being “at work”, SXSW was completely “at play” – it was mid-March, the weather was sunny and 75 (small wonder so many Clevelanders got on board), and everybody relaxed and had fun. It was still a manageable size, unlike the overripe SXSW of today; you could get a table at a restaurant (largely outdoors, and the food and drink were outstanding), and you could see 98% of the artist showcases that you wanted to. The fact that Jim knew and worked with the folks who had created it also greased the skids somewhat for us to land showcases as we dropped new recordings. Last but far from least, we always came home with a renewed vigor that carried us through the following months.
When you say “South by Southwest” to many of the musicians and music people who attended at the time you’ll get a immediate smile and an agreeing nod. The handful of years we went there leap to my mind as the most pure fun I’ve experienced in the time I’ve done music, the epitome of a working music vacation (including tours we played around the convention). We were always so excited to go that the preparation involved never felt like “work”.
In his way, and especially when it came to South by Southwest, Jim was pied piper, carnival barker, and ringmaster; he was at his best.
The last time I spoke with Jim (spring 2015), he described the physical and medical gauntlet he had been through; he laughed when I told him that he was “the cat with nine lives” (not an exaggeration).
He also talked about his experiences as an advocate for open adoption records legislation (he had been adopted, and the lack of medical history from his natural parents and family had left him unprepared for significant health issues he had experienced).
In the last part of our conversation, he described the transcendent feeling he’d experienced on returning to the orphanage where he’d spent his early youth. It seemed by his description that he had found some peace as well as a piece of himself in an extraordinary place and experience.
author’s note: When I finished typing this draft and hit “Save” on my computer, a small piece of the Berlin Wall that Jim had brought back for me from Berlin Independence Days in 1990 fell from its perch on the side of my desk. I thought “Is that Jim? Is he happy/unhappy with this?” I figured it was the Berlin Wall falling, so…
“there is beauty in every season around these parts, even and sometimes especially in winter; as a host (we are tourists here, if you think about it) its welcome becomes a bit worn, the party is overlong with inevitable stragglers. nevertheless all (or most, at least) is forgiven once it finds itself beyond our rear view. we say ‘let’s do this again sometime’, hoping we won’t have to.”
So one may say to one’s self, “Why stay?”
Beside the fact that for three months of the year leaving town means going outside. After that, summers are as lovely as they are fleeting, who wants to waste those doing the thought and work of moving?
Okay then, let’s back up a step – why come here to begin with?
Well, I can say there’s the music. As an Ohio U. student in the early ’80s, a passing encounter here in Cleveland with David Thomas from Pere Ubu (he was reading a fanzine in the Drome record store when it was downtown) the week after Ubu’s “Dub Housing ” record had become my favorite clued me that this could be a righteous place to be. The experience (he excused himself as I passed him, didn’t think that was going to happen anytime soon with someone from Pink Floyd, nope) spoke to the immediacy I felt within the nascent punk/new wave/whatever music we were playing, listening to and witnessing in clubs at the time.
So again, why stay?
It’s been said that if the music leads you here, the lake could make you stay – unforgiving in winter, yet as generous in summer, many shades of gray and just enough blue to give you hope, sunsets and fresh air if that’s what you like. It goes from quiet to whispers and roars in a way that some may think of as going 0 to 60 in a gentle almost lumbering manner, the sound subsuming the noise in one’s head if standing or walking nearby.
There are more reasons here, but perhaps the question is wrong to find the right answer, which is:
It’s never been time to leave.
It was time for the terrible parade to stop, not gone perhaps, but certainly at rest. It was time for Sputnik to fall back to earth, the second bounce being the one that smarted the most.
But even with open door and invitation elsewhere I never heard that voice say “it’s time to go” (as opposed to a bouncer closing the night, “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here”, that I’ve heard…).
So here we go friends, greetings from the Erie Sea – cheers!