January 8, 2003

Very odd. Walking home from work and I get about halfway up my road, almost make it to the house, and I look up to see this strange light in the night sky. It resembles a spotlight and appears to be originating from somewhere over in Grandview, from the land as opposed to the air. But for one, it’s much more powerful than any spotlight I’ve ever seen – the light, which remains steady as opposed to sweeping, nearly spans the entire horizon from west to east – but also, as bizarre as this seems, it bends at about a forty-five degree angle. In other words, from wherever it’s originating, this beam climbs at a perfect diagonal, then bends at this forty five degree angle and continues overhead straight across town to the east side. To put it more clearly, it’s shaped like a rainbow, except the rainbow isn’t curved, it kinks inward at a sharp angle. Also, this band is monochromatic, the vaguely bluish white of a flashlight.

Once home, I first run upstairs, but can’t get a good look and return to the front yard. By now the angular rainbow shaped beam is falling toward the south at a slow but constant clip. To put it another way, it’s like the St. Louis arch had been directly overhead, then slowly toppled over, toward the southern horizon. Whatever the case, this bizarre spectacle eventually disappears from my line of sight behind some buildings, and I retreat indoors.

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Watershed

When I once remarked that I liked local band Watershed, a friend of mine agreed that they were good but that all the songs tended to sound the same after a while, and that they weren’t very original to start with. But I don’t know. Though seeing them play live twice and admittedly walking out in the middle of their set the first of those occasions, I have to kind of disagree with his assessment. And I know that they never were considered cool enough among Columbus’s taste making elite, so my support for them is surely a real eye roller. But I still think they were better than many of their massively hyped contemporaries, and I wasn’t alone in believing this. After all, Sony signed them to their Epic label at a time this was considered a very big deal indeed, releasing both a live EP and full studio album by the band.

Three Chords And A Cloud Of Dust, the live one, is a fascinating document just for its liner notes alone. Though owning this CD for a while now, I always forget that it was actually recorded in Columbus, at the Newport Music Hall, on January 14, 1994. The marquee depicted inside the disc has Watershed’s name in lights playing the Newport this particular Friday, with another local staple, Ekoostik Hookah, booked for the following Wednesday. Thank yous take up an entire page of the packaging and amount to a virtual C-bus who’s who of people and places, from music venues such as Bernie’s to the Used Kids record store to popular DJ Andyman at independent radio station CD101, musicians such as Willie Phoenix, hometown heavyweight champion Buster Douglas, and everyone else they loved down to the “sandwich artists” at a treasured Subway franchise. Naturally, the roll call would not be complete without a “fuck you” to Michigan basketball players Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard; meanwhile, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, on an opposite page this EP is dedicated to Terry Paul, who died the morning that show was recorded, without whom “the Newport will not be the same.”

This being 1994, there is no mention of a website. Similarly documenting these times in telling detail would be the subdued, black and white packaging, the presence of Spin Doctors producer Frankie LaRocka as co-helmsman (he had also kickstarted that band’s major label career with a 6 song live EP), and of course the songs themselves. Written by frontman/guitarist Colin Gawel and bassist slash forklift driver (according to the liner notes) Joe Oestreich, brought to life on stage with the assistance of drummer Herb Schupp, true, these aren’t the most groundbreaking songs then in existence, maybe, but certainly are catchy and played with a ton of enthusiasm. They call to mind a mix somewhere between the Smithereens and that loping, distinctly Midwestern take on punk rock – slower, less obviously snotty, but just as angst riddled. Gawel’s voice is perfectly pleasant and serviceable, although I find myself enjoying the moments he passes the torch briefly to Oestreich on a couple of tracks. The best selection of the set is one such number, How Do You Feel, which somehow adds an almost No Depression-esque Americana twinge to the proceedings, has a great opening riff and catchy chorus. An audience singalong in the closing moments doesn’t hurt, either.

They probably could have stood a little more variation in tempo on this selection, but you know it translated even better live than it sounds on here, and anyway, after a handful of listens most of these numbers are going to be stuck in that hummable place in your head exactly as they are. So consider this a job well done. I don’t really get nostalgic much for bygone eras, although listening to this does fill me with equal parts sadness and fascination, that a major media corporation was willing to spend money on these guys, and had faith that they just might be the next worldwide phenomenon.

Arlington Cafe

My jaw nearly hits the floor to see this place now. Can there possibly exist a more indelible message that nothing ever lasts? My friends were mostly never fans of this fabled club at 1975 West Henderson, whereas I was an early convert, yet what seemed immediately after ascending to its all-time apex and winning over even those staunch holdouts, doors began shuttering and cobwebs descended from the rafters.

Arlington Café was always a bit of an anomaly, but made its idiosyncrasies work. Situated at the end of a shopping center counting Kroger as its anchor tenant for eons, in front of a sleepy, upper middle class neighborhood populated with stuffy senior citizens, by day this bar was a dark dive which working class drunks were fond of slipping off to for their liquid lunches. Then come nightfall, shortly after the DJ slid into his glass lined booth and began cranking out modern dance mixes, it came alive with a completely different and still younger clientele, albeit one all the daytime regulars felt perfectly comfortable rubbing elbows against, having perhaps never left themselves even after the final happy hour bell finished ringing.

Much of this was attributable to at least four distinct moods to be found within its cavernous interior, and perhaps as many as six. Achieved effortlessly, I might add, a natural extension of its contour, flowing with contrivance. Contrast this against busted downtown experiments like Long Street, a much ballyhooed dance club which hit everyone over the head with all their themed rooms, tallied some staggering crowds in the early going, and soon bit the dust. Meanwhile, Arlington Café thrived, expanded, even, as it annexed the shops in front and added a second, massive dance floor.

There was even this cool, long, almost impossible to believe and semi-secret tunnel which had for some reason been carved in between the Kroger and the cafe’s western wall, leading interested seekers from the shopping center’s front parking lot around to the bar’s rear entrance. That side of the club, once indoors, also featured a vaulted glass ceiling – various people through the years told me this was retractable, even, though I never witnessed such and doubt that tidbit’s veracity – towering above a smaller dance floor or two, a horseshoe shaped bar, and seating on a couple of different levels, while the eastern, more spacious room beyond featured all of the same, pretty much (minus the vaulted ceilings) but with a larger dance floor where the DJ plied his wares from a walled in nerve center, and there were also scores of pool tables, along with the juke for non-disc jockey curated nights. And in later years, after the businesses in front were annexed, still larger dancing regions existed for would be booty shakers, in front of those pool tables. Giants TVs mounted everywhere, of course, and the lighting I recall as being colorful, neither too bright nor too dark regardless of the hour or day. But mostly what I remember are the forever changing vibes, dependent upon whatever moment you chose to show up.

 

 

Larry’s Open Mic Night

Does anyone else remember open mic poetry night at Larry’s, an OSU campus institution? For all I know, it may no longer be there – or maybe it is, and open mic night is still going strong as well – but my wheelhouse with this establishment was Monday nights in the late 1990’s, back when it was unquestionably one of the best kept semi-underground secrets in the university area.

It took me months upon months of reading about it in The Other Paper and Columbus Alive, their local happenings listings, before I finally worked up enough nerve to head down there one night in November. A cold night with bitter wind whipping around me, I walk/half jog down E. Woodruff Avenue and around the corner to this joint, grabbed a seat, timidly, at the bar. I order a Rolling Rock and survey the scene. Part of my reservation, I must admit, was hearing rumors now and then that Larry’s was secretly a gay bar…which itself was often countered by others insisting, no, the regulars just like to spread rumors that it’s a gay bar to keep it from being mobbed by frathole clowns and underage drinkers like all the other watering holes on campus. At any rate, my first impression is that Larry’s looks like your run of the mill dive, which I’m sure is just how the regulars like it. A cozy, almost coffeehouse vibe pervades this place, actually, and I can imagine becoming a protective aficionado myself after a few visits.

The guest of honor this particular evening is an out of town poet named Pamela Steed Hall. Open mic night runs from 7-9, and it seems that I’ve arrived just as festivities are about to begin. Mrs. Steed Hill takes the stage first, although it’s really just a cleared out section of the normal floor in back, and begins reading a number of selections from her recently published poetry collection. Her reading style is only okay, in my estimation, but the writing itself can only be described as awesome.

Following her, the host of this event – a funny, old school hipster guy with graying hair and one seriously dry sense of humor – gets up to read off a winning raffle number, with the prize being some underground poet’s chapbook, also recently published. Though this poetry night is partially funded by the Ohio Arts endowment, they also sell tickets for $1 each, by appearances a weekly ritual. When the graybeard had made his rounds moments earlier, I too had shelled out for a single entry, figuring why not support the arts, eh? The result for this particular drawing makes someone else happy, but not yours truly, which is to be expected.

Once this is finished, a number of local amateurs take turns upon the microphone. I wanted to see how this thing went before working up the nerve to perform myself, with an eye on possibly doing so the next time I visit. It turns out there’s a totally quotidian process involving a lined sheet of notebook paper on a table, and the first number of poets to sign it per night get to recite, with everyone else left off and missing their chances at immortality, at least for another seven nights.

First up among the locals this time around is a tall bearded lad named Colin Dearth. Reminiscent somewhat in appearance of Jim Morrison, Dearth approaches the podium accompanied by this short, pale and skinny sidekick named Victor. Much like those old silent movie actors, Victor says nothing but cracks me up anyway with his facial expressions, at one turn silent and brooding, the next smiles – not to mention the pressing question of what is he doing up there, anyhow, itself a riotous concern.

Even more hilarious is Dearth’s choice of material, though. He (with possibly an assist from Victor) had picked out a recent sports page article from The Columbus Dispatch to read, a piece celebrating the OSU basketball team’s most recent victory, and now Colin begins reading it. Reads it with a passion, too, particularly the catch phrase “ball in the basket,” which crops up at least three times in the piece. Grinning coyly, Dearth raises his voice every time it occurs during the course of his recitation. A sample:

“I’m real proud of our team,” coach Jim O’Brien said, “they played real well and put the BALL IN THE BASKET.”

Throughout, meanwhile, Victor either makes his mournful faces, or nods when this central slogan rears its head.

Dearth leaves the podium after threatening to get up again next week, and Victor trails dutifully behind him. Up next is a somewhat serious cat in glasses, balding despite his young age, name John Glover. “I’m going to read two poems. One is 19 lines long, the other is 4,” he explains, then does just that. His style I would characterize as decent though unremarkable. Following him is a serious scholar with greyish black hair and beard, even thicker glasses than the host. This would be Frank Richardson. He recites slowly, in a deep, resonant voice, and his poems are long, crammed with all manner of obscure and forgotten words. Good stuff.

The middle section is for the most part boring – a black girl, Rita Baker, who’s too singsong-y for my tastes, then a flat out dull 60’s leftover named Elizabeth James. After that you have some kid named Dale Williams, whose reading abilities are strong even while employing only so-so source material, and Barbara Goodall, a grandmotherly old lady who fares about average, though better than expected.

Two final poets close out the night in strong fashion. Ken McCauley, a college age white boy whose style and material were both excellent, has one especially good piece about an existential type character being “discharged from the bus” as it comes to a stop. I’m taking a wild stab here that this one is highly autobiographical. Then there’s Christopher Apple, who in my mind had the greatest poem I heard all night. He’s a serious looking black kid with melodic, poetry slam worthy flow, and tonight’s highlight was a selection titled Something. The repeating refrain to this long, cleverly worded poem is, “something…I don’t know,” a phrase he returns to often.

The following Monday, I work up enough nerve to head down there with the intent of reading my own stuff. Technically speaking I haven’t written any poetry, ever, but do have a spiral bound notebook of crappy song lyrics, which will suffice. The whole point of this exercise is to force myself to get up there on stage. Giving speeches back in school, or getting up in front of a crowd to sing or play an instrument never really bothered me, but this seemed more personal somehow and I could feel my heart speed up just to think about it. So I stop at the Wendy’s next door first, for a bite to eat but also to steel my nerves before entering that shrine of the spoken word.

Colin Dearth is actually the featured performer this week, which suits me just fine – I find his material excellent (no mere sports page recital this time!) and his delivery even better. Plus, as an added bonus, he typically launches into extended monologues between each selection, and these might be the cream of the crop. He talks about his first poetry reading ever, which seems to be a significant instance of synchronicity relating to my own struggle, squirming in the chair, that he would broach this topic. That night, the occasion of his maiden recital, he had staggered in wasted, possibly not even aware a poetry session was underway, and stumbled up to the podium to recite a few insane lines off the top of his head. Since then, his approach has become slightly more refined. Warmly reminisces about recitals past, here and elsewhere, of “blowin’ a doob in back” before making his way to the stage, and once reading from a room in the rear of the building via a walkie talkie placed on the podium. All in all, I felt I could have listened to him read and talk for hours.

But of course, I have bigger fish to fry – namely, getting up and reading my own singsongy stanzas. After Dearth is finished, they have anyone interested waltz up and sign in, with only the first twelve earning a slot tonight. Initially I’m thinking to myself, in copout escape hatch fashion, “hey, I’ll wait and see if there are any slots left after everyone else signs up, then maybe add my name to the list.” But after a tortured second or two decide, screw that, I’d come here to read and would not be denied. Good thing I make that call when I do, too, for I wind up being exactly the twelfth person to put my name in the proverbial hat. Yet when the slots themselves are assigned, I am saddled with an early one, either second or third, which is fortunate in the sense that I don’t have an opportunity to lose my nerve.

Everything and everyone else is pretty much a blur. I remember clutching my blue notebook with these two typewritten sheets inside, the ones I’d transcribed to my computer and printed earlier to avoid fumbling through handwritten pages. I remember cautioning everyone before I begin, too, with the disclaimer that this is my first ever performance. They applaud before syllable one, then, which does help ease the nerves a bit. And my delivery is without question a wooden monotone, although the words themselves are not bad, as I rattle off the lyrics to Vibraphone and Fall Away Like Dust. Then it’s over. People clap and I hustle back to my dark back corner – and as I pass his table in front, Victor gives me the a silent thumbs up and nod of the head, which is all the approval I need.

Love Letter To Columbus

The first job I ever held was at a McDonald’s fast food restaurant in Mansfield, Ohio. At the time, whether it is still there or not, there was one of those familiar green highway signs directly in front of this establishment, announcing the mileage from here to two nearby cities:

Cleveland 73

Columbus 73

Which is itself an interesting piece of visual stimuli. But if I were to ask any random stranger from any other state (and possibly any random stranger from Ohio, as well), which of these two cities he/she is most familiar with – as in, not necessarily visited, but has heard the most about – he/she would without fail cite Cleveland. Yet Columbus is in fact the largest and most populous city in the state, it has been for decades. Columbus is the 15th largest city in the entire United States. Upon graduation from high school, if I had to handicap the skewed percentages, I would say that 20 of my classmates (at the bare minimum) moved to C-bus for every one that ended up in Cleveland, mostly because we considered the state capital a slam dunk far more interesting place to be. Serious folks with access to statistics debate whether Columbus is larger than Boston, Massachusetts, because it is just this close.

And yet no one has ever heard of Columbus, Ohio. The purpose of this blog shall be to investigate why. Also to shed a light on why I find this city so immensely compelling, nearly a decade after I last lived there, having been born nowhere near here. To this day I cannot wrap my mind around the intricate social experience that living in Columbus represented. Having grown up in such a countrified extreme that our postal address at one time read RR8 – as in, rural route eight, more useful a designation to the poor soul delivering our mail than either town name or zip code could have been – it would be easy for me to fall back on the tired shtick that I am a small town guy, always will be. Yet moving to C-bus at the age of 21 forever changed this; I will forevermore be a big city person, and nothing else will ever compare.

And I mean this quite literally, that nothing else can compare. The cultural experience, and the way your mind gets working in such complicated mechanisms, these are experiences you will never have living in the middle of nowhere. Anyone clinging to that dreary dogma about small town life has simply not experienced day-to-day existence in a major city. And possibly not even the right major city – for six years now, I have lived withing driving distance of and worked five days a week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet try though I might, it has proven virtually impossible for me to become seriously interested in the meta-story of Charlotte. I just can’t bring myself to really care about and dissect this place in quite the same way. More outsiders have probably heard of Charlotte than they have of Columbus, it even has the edge in major professional sports by a 2-1 margin, but I am here to tell you that these two cities are worlds apart. And the cultural hub of Cackalacki, or whatever you choose to call it, if I may spoil the trailer here, it suffers bigtime by comparison.

Let us begin this primer course, then (at least for as long as it is able to exist online, without being taken down for copyright infringement) by considering the following piece:

Dumb Century Cropped

Can you read this? If not I will find a way to upload in a better format. But basically my objective with this blog is to a) dig deeply into each of these stories, and many more, b) dissect how Columbus has managed to remained the country’s best kept secret thus far, c) divulge the inside tales I have, the personal histories as related by those I know, that will hopefully help to connect some of this material. I want the reader to eventually be able to, say, understand fully what is going on in this city from one end to the other in, like, the month of April 1979, or January 1994, or December 2006, in a way that would prove impossible via any other source.

So dig in, and enjoy! This is sure to be one wild yet informative ride.