Whenever I would get a phone call from Tebbe Farrell, I’d usually save whatever I was working on and put my computer into sleep mode. Regardless of the purpose of the call — to hip me to an upcoming show, to pitch a story that she wanted me to write, to alert me to some injustice that required a damn good righting — I knew it would ultimately turn into a marathon conversation that was destined to go completely and wonderfully off tangent. The primary reason for this was quite simple; if Tebbe felt passionate about something, whether it had to do with music or a social cause or a political issue, she made sure that, a) you knew how passionate she felt about it, and b) by the end of the conversation, you’d feel passionate about it too.
Given her amazing talent for persuasion and conversion, there was little doubt that she would achieve both goals in a single phone call.
When I got Mike Breen’s email last week with the subject line “Tebbe,” I assumed that she was working him about a story that she wanted me to write and CityBeat to run. Typically, she contacted me first to make sure it was something I’d want to write (it always was), and then she’d go after Mike for the confirmation, but I figured there must be a reason that she had reversed the process.
Sadly, that was not the case.
Mike’s message was not about a story that Tebbe wanted written. This time, Tebbe was the story and the almost unbelievable and totally unexpected headline was that she was gone, felled by an aneurysm at the all too young age of 55.
The fact that I am never again going to enjoy the pleasure of being shanghaied on the phone for hours at a time by Tebbe is a source of personal emptiness. The fact that the city has been robbed of one of its most outspoken and committed activists on an endless variety of fronts is a universal tragedy.
Tebbe’s most recent cause was helping disadvantaged single mothers learn computer skills in order to put them in a more employable position, which she did through the auspices of Venice on Vine, the pizza joint run by Power Inspires Progress, a small business cooperative whose mission is to help inner city residents maintain stable employment. (The photo above is of Tebbe with Jazz artist Rick Dellaratta of the Jazz for Peace org, who had come to town for a Venice on Vine benefit.)
Tebbe was a tireless champion of women’s rights, as well as anyone who fell through the system’s cracks, but, as in all things, she was never interested in theoretical success, like the paper victory of passing toothless legislation.
For all the enormous good that Tebbe accomplished concerning the many social and political causes she soapboxed, her most lasting legacy may well be her work in the local music community. Tebbe and longtime paramour/best friend Michael Riley may well be remembered as two of the most influentual individuals in contemporary Cincinnati music history.
Old friend/co-conspirator Mark Bennison cited the pair as “the mother and father of the alternative movement in Cincinnati,” and it’s an apt description; they were among the earliest DJs programming their own shows at WAIF and, between their popular radio slots, with their club DJ gigs and their roles in promoting local bands and national touring acts, the duo were vital in shaping the direction of music in Cincinnati in the ’70s and ’80s.
Former WAIF associate Kirk Pennak recalls how Tebbe masterminded all the elements necessary to stage live radio simulcasts, securing the cooperation of Tomorrow’s nightclub to broadcast from The Pit, the club’s Tuesday night Punk alter ego (“They turned out the lights,” said Pennak. “That made it Punk …”), generating the funds for a T-1 phone line and even booking the talent, including the first area appearance of Rank & File on their first American tour.
Tebbe and Michael became the first couple of Cincinnati music, booking acts they thought might otherwise bypass the city and attending the shows that were obviously the coolest thing happening in Cincinnati on that particular evening. And when the coolest things happening weren’t happening here, they traveled around the country to see them. Even after the pair ended their personal relationship, they remained steadfast friends and constant companions. They eventually helped revive and guide the career of Blues/Soul shouter/piano pounder extraordinaire H-Bomb Ferguson starting in the mid-’80s and continuing sporadically until H-Bomb's death in 2006.
Over the past two years, all of my conversations with Tebbe eventually came back to Michael, who passed away in June of 2009. After Michael’s death, Tebbe spent five months planning a tribute to her late friend which took place at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center just before Thanksgiving. It was an impressive and loving homage that spoke as loudly to Tebbe’s dedication and loyalty as it did to Michael’s amazing accomplishments, many of which were notched with Tebbe firmly by his side.
Bennison recalled many vivid memories of hanging with Tebbe and Michael over the three decades since meeting them (like so many of us, through Michael’s days behind the counter at Mole’s Records in Corryville) — seeing and meeting Joe Strummer and Jon Langford (among hundreds of gigs attended over the years), haunting local record stores, long conversations about every conceivable type of music. He noted that when he and Tebbe went to a movie, it had to be something with a point and a message, not just mindless entertainment. And when they saw something terrible, they invoked a quote from Roger Ebert, who once criticized a film by saying it should be cut up and used for ukelele picks.
In summing up the lives of both Michael Riley and Tebbe Farrell, Bennison used a phrase lifted from the movie Reds, Warren Beatty’s biopic on revolutionary communist writer John Reed — "Sincerity of conviction."
“They meant what they said and they said what they meant,” said Bennison. “No bullshit.”
No bullshit indeed.
What will we miss going forward without Tebbe Farrell in our midst? Her dogged determination to make everything better for those that needed it most; her unwavering passion concerning everything from music to local culture to our damaged political mechanism; her complete loyalty and commitment to her ideals even (and especially when) they clashed with the prevailing view; her ability to cut through the spin and see a situation for what it was; her utter honesty, lack of pretense and directness; her unbelievable sense of empathy; her twisted sense of humor; her endlessly great stories. In short, everything that made her Tebbe Farrell.
No bullshit? That’s putting it mildly. And Tebbe Farrell never put anything mildly.