As I looked at the calendar recently, considering the dozens of ways I might disappoint my wife on our 25th wedding anniversary this summer, I was struck by a rather startling revelation. I realized that the year we were married was the same year that I started writing about Cincinnati music.
I moved here from Michigan in ’82 on the heels of a bad marriage and met Melissa at my first official job at a Clifton print shop; in short order we began dating and, against all odds, moved in together. She was a fine artist and introduced me to her circle of friends, and through the print shop I met Al Porkolab, then owner and head mahout at Bogart’s. I eventually left the print shop, working briefly for Al as the club’s publicity liaison, and when I began suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (everyone who worked for Al eventually came down with some form of the shitwillies — a nice guy, a less than exemplary boss), I quit. Melissa had recently shed the print shop and we embarked on a short but memorable stint as poor people, eating rice and oranges a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks.
I was still working part time at Cookie’s Record Exchange in North College Hill (I had helped the owners relocate from Michigan in 1981 and they let me couchcrash and work the store for room and board), and through the store, I met Monica Morgan, who published local arts paper The Entertainer. When I told her one evening I was gainfully unemployed, she said she was looking for someone to do paste-up on the magazine, and I offered immediately.
On my first day in late 1983, I casually mentioned that I also did a little writing and I would be glad to provide that service as well. She immediately took me up on the offer when a page opened up; I reviewed the new Paul Kantner solo album, because it was the newest thing I owned, having bought it at Mole’s as a promo the week before it came out.
Around the summer of ’84, I began writing Entertainer features, some involving various local bands. Upon moving here, I discovered an incredibly diverse music scene comprised of really good cover bands and a wildly eclectic group of original artists.
I had seen (and then helped book at Bogart’s) the raisins, the Young Invaders, Elaine and the Biscaynes, The American Beauty Band, The Libertines, The Auburnaires, Runner, The Keepers and Junta among others. Before too long, I had done features on Mara (the area’s best Prog outfit, fronted then by old friend/former Bogart’s manager Mike Kelly), Ocean (one of the great Jazz Fusion bands in town, led by guitarist Bruce Fox), Drumbones (assembled by much-too-overlooked guitarist Peter Mayer) and a host of other great local artists. It was an amazingly fertile time for local music.
Melissa and I worked at The Entertainer together, and left together to start a new magazine with Al Porkolab that we called Ink Wire — my idea and way too clever — but it only lasted six months (on the positive side, it allowed me a forum to give The Afghan Whigs their first review of Big Top Halloween and to do a big feature on my favorite band from that period, Bucking Strap). After taking a break to concentrate on my design career, I returned to writing reviews for John Fox at the weekly Everybody’s News; when he left there, he eventually asked if I would write for his new publication called CityBeat. The rest, as they so often say, is history.
In my nearly 15 freelance years with CityBeat, I’ve been witness to plenty of new incarnations of the city’s vibrant local music scene. Clearly it’s not an ideal situation; I talk to many locals and their concerns sound similar to comments I heard 20 years ago (hard to get people in Cincinnati off the couch and into clubs, not enough places to play, not enough money to ditch the day job).
The fact is that, even for its many flaws, the scene in Cincinnati is pretty amazing. There has never really been a defining sound here; people have been inspired to pick up an instrument, assemble a band and take to the circuit, not to sound just like the band that inspired them but to do their own thing, take their own chances and inspire their fans to do the same thing that they did. And while there are always genres represented in the Cincinnati scene, the bands within those genres typically find something fingerprint-fresh to do with the well-worn musical tools at their disposal. Wussy may ultimately be an Americana band, but they’re on a wavelength all their own.
So as I ponder the incredible accomplishment of having lasted as both Cincinnati scribe and married man for 25 years (not counting my previous five betrothed years; that wasn’t a marriage, it was a sentence), I am awed by my amazing luck. I was lucky enough to find a music scene that is as eclectic and weirdly vibed as my personal taste in music, and I was almost supernaturally fortunate to find a woman with the patience and love to accept my eclectic and weirdly vibed (and obsessive, let’s not forget obsessive, I mean, wow, seriously) taste in music, and everything else as well.
I’m now at an age where I’m sporting bifocals, the salts overwhelm the peppers in my rapidly receding hairline and when I wake up, my frame sounds like a box of dominos being kicked down a fire escape, and yet I am heartened by several cogent facts. First, the Cincinnati scene has remained vibrant and cool for the nearly three decades I have been following it and shows no signs of decline. Second, although she trembles on the knife’s edge of sanity — largely because of me — my wonderful wife Melissa continues to find creative ways to not throw me out of our home. And lastly, Jane Scott was the Pop music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer until her retirement six years ago … at the age of 82. That’s a record I would be honored to match, and this is the scene I’d be honored to cover along the way. I’m ready to go for gold … who’s with me?