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.
I was young and brash and carried that youthful feeling of invincibility. I didn’t like the clientele at this place and it was easy to see that they didn’t like me. So I would just say whatever I wanted to the people in the club, some of whom thought I was funny and some of whom, decidedly, did not.
When we started there, the club owner told us that if people requested songs, we had to sing them. I asked, “What if we don’t know the song?” He said, “You do it anyway.” I asked, “What if we . . . ” He said, “You’re not hearing what I’m telling you. Do the song.”
People were always coming up and requesting songs that we didn’t know, even enough to fake, and if I was the one they were asking, I would say, “We don’t know that song.” And they’d say, “So?” And I’d say, “So . . . we can’t sing it.” And they’d say, “But it’s a big hit record. You know it.” And I’d say, “But we haven’t learned it and we’ve never practiced it.” And they’d say, “Just make it up.” And I’d say, “If I could make up a song that was a big hit record, I wouldn’t be singing here.” And they would do something, like letting me glimpse one of their weapons. And I’d say, “Okay. I’ll do the song.” But I’d add, “After we do this next song.” Because, usually, they’d leave by then or forget they had even asked for it. They just didn’t want to hear anyone say no to them.
One time, a guy came up and asked for a Neil Diamond song that was popular at that time, called “Play Me.” The one with a chorus that goes:
“You are the sun. I am the moon. You are the words. I am the tune—play me.”
I’d heard it on the radio, but I’d never really listened to it. So I said, “I don’t know that song.” He said, “So?” And we went through the whole routine, except this time the guy didn’t leave. He said, “My girlfriend really wants to hear that song. And I know you can do it.” I could tell he was serious, so I said, “Okay,” and I looked at him and I sang:
“You are the moon. I’m a buffoon. You’re a baboon. I’m a bassoon—play me.”
The guy glared at me. He casually pulled back his sport coat so I could see he had something tucked into his waistband. Back then, I had always felt totally invincible, but it occurred to me, right then, that this guy might actually be “Vince.” Luckily his girlfriend came over and whispered something to him. I think what she must have said was, “Your wife just came in.” Because they left immediately.
As soon as they disappeared, Jim stepped over to me and, off-mic, said, “One night you’re really going to get in trouble and you’ll be amazed by how much I’m NOT going to help you.” And he added, pointing to the far corner of the room, “I’ll be in that kitchen so fast, it will make your head spin."
I was shocked into reality. It was a true wake-up call. And it was a lesson that stayed with me, forever—that, among other things, maybe I’m not always right. And sometimes, when I’m not right—or even if I am—not everyone is always going to have my back and risk their own safety or reputation. There are a lot of people coming to Cleveland this month whom I hope have learned the same lesson. Though I get the feeling that some of them haven’t. Or at least one of them. He could have used someone like Jim. But I think it's too late now—certainly for Jim, and probably for him.
David Budin is a free-lance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.