This morning, I read a tweet from an old friend and associate from the alternative press, Russ Smith. We met sometime in the mid-1990s, I'd guess. Russ founded the Baltimore City Paper and Washington City Paper, then after selling both, did what everyone thought was crazy—he moved it on up to New York City and founded the New York Press, right under the nose of The Village Voice, the granddaddy of all alternative newspapers. Thus, his was the first alternative to an alternative.
The New York Press was categorically different from the Voice and was smarter by virtue of Russ being at the helm. He's no dummy. As well, his politics were different, being less inclined to jump lockstep into every liberal cause de jour. I never cared where he was politically, actually, me being among the Pollyannas of the industry. You can tell because I'm still in the friggin' newspaper business—at least for this week.
Russ is still a fine writer. Today, he edits splicetoday.com, his latest start-up, which is a compendium of topical stories, thoughtful essays, free-flow tales, and now and then, random blasts out of nowhere. "Nowhere" often seems to be Russ pining for cigarettes, the culture of the 60s and 70s, punk music or yarns about his family upbringing somewhere out on Long Island, NY. I've been to Smithtown and Hauppauge. Anything else on Long Island is the moon to me. It looks idyllic, though, by what I've read though Russ. I mean, the man grew up on grass. Me? Rocks.
This morning, Russ posted a tweet linking to an article on Splice Today titled, "Leon Russell's an Underrated Musical Genius." I fully believed that in 1975 myself. I later saw Russell perform at the Zephyr Club in downtown Salt Lake, but otherwise I hadn't given him two thoughts since. So, I put on two eggs, mixed in some leftover meatballs and began searching Leon Russell tunes on YouTube. Besides discovering Russell died in 2016—five years after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—I was transported back to long ago.
In the 1970s, I was relieved that it was my older brothers who went to Vietnam and that in my own birth year draft, they only called up to No. 80 (I was 82). Most of us were pissed at Richard Nixon (possibly not Russ) but after that, it really was a simple, transitory era that was only diminished by the onset of disco and cocaine. We had Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as presidents through most of the 1970s—that alone tells you times were a tad calmer and civil. Falsely so, perhaps, because it wasn't long before a Leon Russell song came into queue and shook me about the same as last week's 5.7 magnitude earthquake. The song was "Tight Rope."
I'm up on the tight rope, one side's hate and one is hope
It's a circus game with you and me.
I'm up on the tightwire, linked by life and the funeral pyre
But the top hat on my head is all you see.
And the wire seems to be the only place for me
A comedy of errors and I'm falling
Like a rubber-neck giraffe, you look into my past
Well, baby you're just too blind to see.
I'm up in the spotlight. Oh, does it feel right
The altitude seems to get to me.
I'm up on the tightwire linked by life and the funeral pyre
Putting on a show for you to see.<
I must have listened to the album Carney, from which the song came, a million times but I'd not heard it for nearly 40 years. I thought, "What the hell was he singing about? Do the meanings of songs change over time?"
During the era bookended by Secretariat winning the Triple Crown and Richard Pryor setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, I thought "Tight Rope" was about a trapeze walker singing about trapeze walking.
This morning, I think it's about me and about you tilting around, and the tight rope is life. Maybe it was that back then, too. I never claimed to understand poetry or art, and there's no dispute Russell was an artistic prodigy. Maybe a seer, too, for all I know. We're all a mess now. We've all become inoculated, we have the classic carney clown calling the country's shots and we are all walking the tightrope of life as a result.
For the past two weeks, I've feared each day could be the last for City Weekly. (You might soon count us among the companies that get no government financial relief, while the big corporations get their usual government handouts.)
All of the messaging is bifurcated—one side's hate and one is hope and it's a circus game with you and me. On Main Street, we're in the middle, we're the rope. I'm on the side of hope. I'm on the side of medical doctors. Anyone else remember Swine Flu, when after just one death, President Ford and the CDC enacted mass immunizations? All these years later, we don't know if it was effective, but we didn't have a clown-induced health, hoarding and Wall Street panic—and the wire seems to be the only place for me, a comedy of errors and I'm falling.
Knock on wood, no one I know has become ill. That can easily change. In the meantime, choose hope. Do good deeds. Stay clean. Stay distant. Help one another, because as Russell reminds us, we're up on the tight wire linked by life and the funeral pyre, putting on a show for all to see.
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