Songs And Stories

Invincible. Or maybe not ...

A friend of mine died recently. Jim was a few years older than I. When we met, in the late-1960s, he was a significant player in the local folk music scene here. At that time, I was starting out in the professional folk-singing world and he served as an unofficial mentor to me.

I soon left Cleveland for New York, where I recorded and toured and did all of the things that go with that business. A few years later, I returned to Cleveland to re-group, so to speak, and figure out how to proceed. While I was trying to determine what kind of musical project to start next, in that early-‘70s July, Jim offered me a gig backing him up in a club that was filled every night with Mafia-related figures and Mafia wanna-be figures.

This upstairs restaurant/downstairs bar was a nice spot in a wealthy section of town. It was the kind of place where every man who came in wore a jacket and tie—and carried at least one weapon, which he had used before and would, no doubt, again.

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Volume 9, Issue 7, Posted 5:51 PM, 07.01.2016

There goes the neighborhood—again

A few tattoo parlors have popped up in Cleveland Heights in the past year or so. And I’ve been hearing more and more people complaining about them. People around my age. But I’m not one of them, for a few reasons.

The first one is that it doesn’t matter to me, because, you know—who cares? Why should I, or you, care? If someone—someone who is not you—gets a tattoo, it doesn’t hurt you or do you any harm.

Second, getting tattoos is a big fad right now; people of all ages are getting them. And, I need to add, people of all races are getting them—because I know that’s a concern of many old white people. I’ve heard and overheard conversations about that. But white people are getting tattoos, too, in at least equal numbers—so don’t worry that your neighborhood will change in ways that you would rather it didn’t.

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Volume 9, Issue 6, Posted 5:52 PM, 05.31.2016

Corner the market

I thought of a good business to open: a dollar store. I think it would be good because I was driving around one day and I noticed a corner that didn’t have one.

Remember when almost every corner had a drugstore—I guess it was in the 1980s. A Gray Drugs on one corner of an intersection, a Revco on another, a Medic on yet another. The concept was to build your store right near the other ones and just hope you’d be the eventual winner. And that was building them from the ground up, not taking over an existing space. It was a big gamble, especially when you multiplied it by, say, 100 stores around the region.

Before that, all those corners held gas stations. You know the intersection of Coventry and Mayfield, where there are two gas stations? Once there were three, the third standing on the south-west corner, where the convenience store is located now. That one was heavily damaged in the early ’70s by a car bomb intended for a friend of legendary Cleveland mobster Danny Greene. The guy had become an enemy of Greene’s, and evidence indicated that Greene himself detonated the bomb from a block away. The intended victim was not killed, but the garage was destroyed and then replaced by a new building housing stores. (A couple of years later, Greene was killed by a car bomb in Lyndhurst after a dentist appointment. That’s why I never go to a dentist. You just never know.)

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Volume 9, Issue 5, Posted 12:08 PM, 04.30.2016

Make more mistakes

I attended Heights High in the late 1960s, and I know that at least some of this is my fault, but I didn’t take very many classes there that proved useful to me. Other than Choir, which was a class period and counted as a class, and which, as I often say, saved my life, I did take a business law course that helped me soon after I left school and started signing contracts in the music business; and a music theory class.

The music class was taught by the school’s band and orchestra director, Mr. Mackey, a man who had been born around the turn of the 20th century. He was a large, strict, mostly humorless, no-nonsense guy with a slight accent of some kind. I had taken music theory courses when I was younger and I knew the basics. This class covered the basics and then went beyond, at which point it became pretty interesting.

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Volume 9, Issue 4, Posted 1:51 PM, 03.28.2016

The kosher Chinese Philadelphia coloring book Seder

I recently found a coloring book among lots of papers in old file folders I was sorting through, trying hard to get rid of stuff I no longer needed. And, no, it wasn’t one of those fancy adult coloring books that are all the rage now. It was one that I bought for 25 cents, one March, about 16 years ago. My kids were in their early teens 16 years ago, so it wasn’t theirs. It was mine.

When I was a teen, March was always one of the hardest months for me to actually make it to high school classes. Every month was bad—I really hated school—but March was probably the worst. But even on many of the days I skipped school, I often snuck into Heights High for 4th-period choir (which you could do back then, but can’t now). Especially in March, because that was the month we usually had spring break (or, as we used to call it, “Easter vacation”); and that was when the Heights Choir went on tour for a week, to different cities, to perform and see the sights.

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Volume 9, Issue 3, Posted 7:59 PM, 03.01.2016

Merry Chris Mis

Cleveland Heights has long been known for its diversity. That’s why—well, one of the reasons—I was surprised to read a letter to the editor in the Plain Dealer a few years ago by a person from Cleveland Heights, who complained that people who aren’t overjoyed by someone saying “Merry Christmas” to them just aren’t . . . I don’t know—Christian, I guess.

So I wrote a letter to the editor myself. I don’t write many letters to the editor. My letter was, well . . . it was the only one I’ve ever written. It said:


“The Dec. 16 letter from Chris Mis ("Merry Christmas! Now did that hurt?") succinctly summarizes the attitude of many well-intentioned people who just don't get it. It says, ‘No one is being damaged or deprived by being wished Merry Christmas.’ Well, maybe not in the writer's unintentionally biased opinion.

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Volume 8, Issue 12, Posted 3:02 PM, 12.01.2015

Chez Bozo

November 1976—exactly 40 years ago—I wasn’t doing anything I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be writing music, playing my music (somewhere), writing comedy, performing comedy . . . those kinds of things. I just wasn’t. I was stuck.

I used to get together with other artist friends—musicians, actors, dancers, visual artists—and we’d all commiserate about that same situation. We would usually meet in bars. In the middle of the afternoon. We all hated doing that, but there wasn’t anywhere else to meet. This was before the big coffee movement. Or, at least, before it hit Cleveland. I was living in a small third-floor apartment in some unfriendly guy’s house. Everyone else had other reasons why we couldn’t gather at their places.

But one afternoon, a few of us were sitting around a table in Chester’s, a bar on Coventry, and someone wished aloud that there would be a place other than a bar where we could all meet.

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Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 3:52 PM, 10.30.2015

Kids from other neighborhoods

One of the first Halloween costumes I can remember wearing was that of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. I was in the second grade at Coventry Elementary School. Every year, on Halloween, students were allowed to wear costumes after lunch, for the rest of the afternoon. My Scarecrow costume was pretty close to the one Ray Bolger wore in the Wizard of Oz movie. But I insisted on dressing as the Scarecrow before Dorothy took him off his pole, when he had a broomstick, or something, through his sleeves to make his arms stick straight out at his sides. So my mother used a broomstick, minus the broom, for my costume.

But, of course, then I had to walk back to Coventry School, from Belmar and Mayfield roads, with my arms sticking straight out at my sides—and of no use to me—and then sit in class, with my arms sticking straight out at my sides. I began to lose the feeling in both of my arms, and my back and neck started hurting.

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Volume 8, Issue 10, Posted 8:47 AM, 10.01.2015

My years as Superman's pal

It’s not a story problem. But it’s a story—about math—and a problem.

I went to elementary school—Coventry—during the 1950s, the Cold War era. We practiced the “duck-and-cover” technique of sitting on the floor with our backs to a wall, bringing our knees up, and putting our heads on our knees with our arms wrapped around our heads. Doing that would protect us from the atomic bomb they assured us would be coming.

My third-grade teacher, a simple and not very insightful person, who was born in the late-1800s (and who also, by some cruel twist of fate, became my fourth-grade teacher), told us how, when the Russians did start to drop bombs on Cleveland, we would be taken away in buses with glass tops (so we could watch for the planes) to some forest, somewhere, without our parents.

I spent most of my time in her class doing two things: either staring out the window, fantasizing about Superman coming to save us all from “the Russians” and me from my school and teacher (and, in the process, making me his pal, instead of Jimmy Olsen); or making up jokes. As I got older, the Superman fantasies were replaced by writing songs and creating choral arrangements. Actually following the classes and their lessons never quite kicked in.

It was also during third grade when some man came in and, with the teacher, pulled each kid aside for a few minutes to pigeonhole us.

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Volume 8, Issue 9, Posted 2:15 PM, 08.31.2015

The porches of August

I was sitting on my deck, at the back of my house, communicating on Facebook, when something I read reminded me of the front porches of old, and how, when I remember the one on the house where I grew up, it makes me think of August.

Why August? I’m not sure. Possibly because, after spending about 10 weeks out there, I became aware of the subtle hints of the impending change of seasons, rather than—during the rest of the year, when I stayed inside much more—the big, obvious ones. Being out there every day, I'd notice signs, like the slight thinning of the leaves on our big trees that in June and July had blocked much of the sun from our west-facing upstairs porch. Or maybe it was because I knew, every year from the age of 5 through 18, that the new school year was only weeks, and then days, away, and how I dreaded going back to school every one of those years.

Our house, on Belmar, near Mayfield Road, was not a big one, but the porch stretched across the entire width of the structure, making the porch relatively large.

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Volume 8, Issue 8, Posted 11:02 AM, 07.31.2015

McElfresh and McGaughey—saving lives with music

I’m always saying that the Heights Choir saved my life. It’s true. I was headed in the wrong direction. Probably a few wrong directions. And even though I’d been singing and performing music professionally since I was around 13 years old, I did not get into the choir in my first year of high school—which, in those years, was the 10th grade—because of my grades.

I brought my grades up a little, just enough, and auditioned for the choir at the end of 10th grade and was allowed in for the next school year. Not only was it going to be my first year in the choir, but it would also be that of our new director, Claire McElfresh, who had served for several years as the director of the Men’s Chorus and Girl’s Glee Club.

The choir began its year two weeks before the school year started, meeting twice a day for a couple of hours each time. The very first minute of the first of those sessions set me on a course I’m still following, nearly 50 years later.

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Volume 8, Issue 6, Posted 11:01 AM, 05.29.2015

Why people don't come to my shows

I think I understand why people who have never heard me play music don’t want to come to hear me play music.

I mentioned in last month’s column that I had lots of musical training while growing up in Cleveland Heights, at music schools, music stores and in Heights public schools—Coventry Elementary, Roosevelt Junior High and Heights High. I didn’t mention that I quit high school, toward the end of my 12th-grade year in 1967, to pursue a career in music.

I moved to New York City and got into a rock band right away. That band eventually—a few years later and after many personnel changes—evolved into Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

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Volume 8, Issue 5, Posted 6:35 PM, 04.30.2015

Heights High has 'really changed'—right?

In a few weeks, I’ll be standing on the stage of the Heights High auditorium. I appeared on that stage about 40 times while I was attending the school, in the late 1960s, usually performing music. This time I won’t be performing; I’ll be giving monetary awards to two graduating seniors who have excelled in music and the visual arts.

I have done this almost every year for the past decade, awarding the Friends of Cain Park Scholarship for Excellence in the Performing and Visual Arts to students who have not only excelled in their respective artistic areas, but have also decided to continue their studies of those fields in college, and are planning to use their skills and talents in their careers, often as a way to help others.

I’ve been a member of the Friends of Cain Park’s board since the group’s inception in 1991. I’ve served as the board’s president for the past 20 years, having been elected to the position at the only meeting I’ve ever missed. (So let that be a lesson to you about why it’s good to always attend your organization’s meetings.)

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Volume 8, Issue 4, Posted 10:38 AM, 03.31.2015

'Home to the Arts'

Cleveland Heights calls itself “Home to the Arts.” All the reading I’ve done about the city shows that this has always been true for at least a century, possibly because of its proximity to Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra; the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Music School Settlement; the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Cleveland Play House; and others of the city’s great arts institutions that began in the early 1900s—and the fact that many of those organizations’ participants lived in Cleveland Heights.

From the time I started kindergarten at Coventry Elementary School and all the way through Heights High, there were always children of Orchestra members, of CIA and CIM instructors, and of others in my classes. And most of my own training took place right here as well.

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Volume 8, Issue 3, Posted 11:40 AM, 02.27.2015

'Wear Your Love Like Heaven'

“Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” The single by British singer-songwriter Donovan reached number 23 on the Billboard pop chart in November 1967. What did it mean, you ask? Well, while the words were typically obscure for that artist and, especially, for that era, “wear your love like heaven” meant, essentially, “be nice” and “don’t be afraid to show it.”

My father, in his later years, used to say, “People just aren’t very nice anymore.” He died in 1989. Imagine how he’d feel about that now.

A couple of weeks before my father died, I met and talked to Donovan. I had arranged to meet him after a concert he gave in Cleveland, to interview him for a magazine article. Though he has never really stopped performing and writing songs (never for very long, anyway), his biggest successes came in the mid- to late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

When Donovan played that concert in Cleveland in the late ‘80s, it had been a long time since he’d performed here.

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Volume 8, Issue 2, Posted 10:15 AM, 02.02.2015

Full Circles

This 1969 Moby Grape song has been playing in my head a lot lately. It starts with the words “Changes, circles spinning. Can’t tell the ending from the beginning.” Many other popular songs carry the same message—like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” and “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King”—because while the experience is one that’s common to most of us, it’s also still sort of a phenomenon: the realization that a lot of our important occasions repeat in different (or, sometimes, the same) ways; that some significant life-cycle events eventually come “full-circle.”

During all the years I worked full-time as a rock musician, I had to work various day jobs to be able to afford my so-called “full-time” music career. Those jobs always involved food—cooking in restaurants and for catering companies, in a hospital kitchen, and other culinary institutions. My favorite of those jobs was at Rocco’s Market in Coventry Village in the middle and late 1970s. Rocco’s was a gourmet deli and produce shop in the structure that had housed the garage for the former apartment building that became CoventryYard (the space now inhabited by the Grog Shop and the Inn on Coventry).

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Posted 11:38 AM, 01.05.2015

A bit of history, alive and singing

You’ve never heard of one of the most important people in history. Probably. A tiny percentage of the people who read this article will recognize the name Jackie Washington (though some of those might be thinking of one of the two other semi-famous Jackie Washingtons). The Jackie Washington I’m talking about is performing at Nighttown on Nov. 11, which I find amazing, because he's historic, and because it is such a rare appearance.

Here’s why, in a ridiculously simplified overview, I think Jackie Washington is historically significant: The late-'50s and early-to-mid-'60s folk music scene encompassed the Folk Revival and the original singer-songwriter movements. Following the Kingston Trio’s million-selling single “Tom Dooley,” on Capital Records, which took everyone by surprise in 1958, all of the other labels signed a few folk artists, hoping to cash in on what they determined was a folk music fad.

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Volume 7, Issue 11, Posted 6:43 PM, 10.30.2014

Elvis and the Russians vs. the New Math

Two things happened to me in school in October 1957 that altered the course of my life. They were different, unrelated things, until they came together several years later.

First, I should say that every teacher I had, all the way through Coventry Elementary School, had been born around the turn of that century, 1900, and most, probably, in the 1890s. You know Western movies and cowboy TV shows? That was the 1890s. Just for a reference point; and just for some background.

Here’s more background: 1957 was the peak of the first wave of rock music, with hit records by rock pioneers including Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, the Coasters and others.

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Volume 7, Issue 10, Posted 11:53 AM, 09.30.2014

What I did and didn't learn at Heights High

I told my father that when I grew up, I wanted to get a job thinking. He said, “Good luck.” But, really, that’s what my jobs as a writer and a musician are—thinking. The writing and performing parts come last, after a lot of thinking.

That conversation with my father took place 50 years ago this month, in September 1964. It was a sunny Sunday following my first week of high school, at Heights High, and I started out with some vague notion of trying a little harder that year to stop being such a terrible student.

I sat down in my room to read a chapter in my history textbook, about which I was then supposed to write a paper. I read the chapter and then started on the paper, by which I mean I started thinking about it. But my eyes fell on a magazine I’d recently purchased called Hootenanny, about folk music and musicians.

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Volume 7, Issue 9, Posted 10:23 AM, 08.29.2014

20 songs about death adds up to one fun afternoon

Last summer, my folk group, Long Road, played a small number of concerts, on occasions that included the National Senior Games and the grand opening of Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. It appeared that a pattern was forming, and I couldn’t help but wonder where we would go from there and where we would play this summer.  I got my answer: Lake View Cemetery.

It seems like a natural next step—not that I feel ready to take that next step in real life. But show biz is another thing.

Among the beautiful and historic cemetery’s many wonderful features, it offers a summer concert series, now in its second year. The free concerts will be held on certain Sunday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. near the James A. Garfield Monument.

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Volume 7, Issue 7, Posted 6:38 PM, 07.01.2014

Pop music legend to play Cleveland Heights

When I was in 10th grade at Heights High in 1964, I took a trip to New York City. While I was there, I went to the famous Café au Go Go to hear this band I’d heard about, the Blues Project. I thought it was going to be an acoustic group because the one member I’d heard before—Danny Kalb—had appeared a year or so earlier on a compilation album, also called "The Blues Project," which featured several young, white acoustic blues artists.

When the band appeared on stage, I was shocked—and disappointed—to see that it was a rock band. But when they started playing, right from the very first note, I was completely mesmerized and enthralled.

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Volume 7, Issue 6, Posted 3:25 PM, 06.02.2014