All in a Day at the Hey Hey
As I write, I am sitting at the computer, which has a semi-permanent home on the deep freezer, at the Hey Hey Club in Columbus, Ohio. John has just wet-mopped the floor. Debbie is busy crushing some ice and restocking the beer after a night of music. The television is blaring the Air Force football game. Brian just walked in looking for a cup of coffee. Sue Gall, the club owner, is heading out to pick up her grandson Tyler. It is a beautiful fall day, with temperatures that would be expected in September rather than November.
I just finished reading the book John Lennon, by Phillip Norman. This is some 600-plus page glimpse into the famous songwriter's life. I was surprised to read how his grandfather (who was born in Dublin) had traveled over to America and performed as part of a minstrel show that toured not only the States, but headed over to Ireland and Europe as well. Liverpool was at once Irish and surprisingly American. According to Norman, the Liverpudlians were nicknamed "Cunard Yanks" for the cruise line that went back and forth between Liverpool and New York. Even the accent was considered a blend of Irish and American.
I was happy to see that one of the greatest songwriters in our lifetime was steeped in a great mix of influences that eventually came to bear fruit as the Beatles. (A mix of music that goes well with another band I know!) His life was certainly a tough one. He and his father were separated and never fully reconciled during his lifetime. His mother abandoned him to his aunt and became more of a sister than a mother. His Aunt Mimi took care of him but sort of denied him the nurturing that a young child craves. He had a string of deaths that rocked him to the core, with the passing of his mother and his best friend, Stu Sutcliffe. According to this book, he grew up with a chip on his shoulder that would stay with him throughout his life. In many ways his talents were the type where one is "cursed with a blessing." He was at once an artist, writer, and songwriter. He was torn between which muse to serve. Ultimately rock n' roll did cross over the pond to save his soul and give him a direction. Fate stepped in and with it came a cast of people who collectively created some of the most recognizable and significant music. George Martin, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, and countless others allowed him to become the person that he was and shaped his music. In the process, he became larger than life to a lot of people, especially fans. His life, of course, was cut short by a person who felt that he knew John Lennon and that John Lennon wasn't conforming to his "ideal John Lennon." I wonder how changed our world would have been had he had the chance to continue to live.
What resonated the most with me was that John Lennon was a very human human being. I wonder if I would have been friends with him had I known him. He was at once funny and intelligent, but also had a sinister side that could cut people to the quick. He would eventually apologize, but it might be two or three years in the making. A roller coaster of a person. Perhaps high maintenance. But still, out of this person came such brilliant music, especially during his partnership with Paul McCartney. I think in spite of his musical success, he was just on the cusp of finding peace with who he was as a person. In that light, the true tragedy was that John Lennon was lost before he really could be found.
I read in the book that Lennon really missed the days he played live in the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany. There was a group of fans and "characters" that would make each evening an adventure. The band faced the challenge of playing late sets into the early morning. It was ironic that a band like the Beatles that would play four or five sets during a night would play only 20 minutes a show when they were famous and then stopped playing live altogether.
I kept that thought in mind as I enjoyed another evening of playing at the best listening room in Ohio--the Hey Hey Club. There are a lot of characters that come in to catch the performance at the club, with many driving from as far as Wisconsin. I think it is a very real room which is totally geared toward listening to music. That night at the Hey Hey, we had a wonderful performance on the pickle barrel by a percussionist and Switchback fan named Soupbone. Soupbone is from Cincinnati. He happens to be blind. He is married to Monica, who is also blind. They took the bus up to Columbus and then a taxi to the Hey Hey Club. They are totally independent and, in spite of the challenges of being blind, are completely at ease with getting around. A lot of the fans of the Mid-Ohio Switchback Fan Club come out to see Soupbone play. It was neat to sit with them during breaks and talk about what it is like to be blind. Soupbone gave me a demonstration on how to fold your money so that you don't confuse the bills. He is also able to use echo-location, like a bat, by clapping his hands to "see" where a building or car is located. He reads the internet, works at a tape factory, handling 2,300-lb rolls of cellophane tape for a lift, all done by feel. He also puts in time at the local radio station. In short, he and Monica are an inspiration. Soupbone took out his stick case and we rolled a pickle barrel over to him. It is a tall oak barrel with iron rings and someone had opened one side to use as a shoe shine stand. So there's a little shelf that allows some resonance. He selected his favorite brushes and the audience was treated to a Switchback show with some wonderful percussion done on the flat top of the barrel. Soupbone took some solos and Monica sang along with the Switchback tunes. The highlight of the evening was that we had Soupbone up on the stage to sing "Mustang Sally" for a grand finale. Our last set of the evening at the Hey Hey has become what we call the "Mike Weilbacher" set. Mike started writing requests for songs and a tradition was started, kind of a challenge to have us play everything from Dylan to Fields of Athenry. So Soupbone's rendition of Mustang Sally brought the house down.
The other song that brought the house down was totally unrehearsed. The men's and ladies' rooms are on either side of the stage. You can tell who a veteran of the club is by how easily they are able to discern which room is which. The rooms have names on them, but at the late hour of the night, it seems that some people get a bit confused. We were asked to cover "Lay Lady Lay" for the Weilbacher set. We started in on the song just as a young man sauntered out of the bar area and toward the stage. A bunch of ladies had gone into the ladies' room and were emerging when this young man just walked right in, oblivious to the gender designation. The ladies did a double take, but kept going. We tried to keep singing while he was in there, but somehow the seriousness of Dylan's love ballad lyrics were made pretty ridiculous by this guy taking over the ladies' room. The audience picked up on this and it seemed that each line of the song was a reference to his indiscretion. By the time we got to "his clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean" the audience was cutting up quite a bit. And out walked our hero to a standing ovation. He hadn't a clue what was going on but stood for a while and just enjoyed what had become a tribute song in his honor.