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Ray Charles Hits the Road

Ray Charles did not seem happy to be dead. Mouth closed, of course, no big teeth flashing out, he looked waxy and diminished, not (as people think corpses should) natural and restful. The unease had something to do with the wraparound sunglasses they put on him — he probably never wore them sleeping.

But he always wore them in public, and in public he lay, entertaining the people horizontally at the Convention Center last Thursday. “We are hoping for a big turnout,” a publicist had said, and yes, over the red carpet and past the flowers and pictures and casket, Charles drew a pretty good stream.

Accompanied by many living celebrities the next day at the First AME Church on South Harvard Street, however, Charles was a bigger attraction. More coverage, more cops, more choppers.

Funerals are for the living, if not in this case for Charles’ family, who didn’t get to hear words of praise for the man as a community member, father of 12 and mensch. Friday’s media-op was a stage for different agendas.

One priority was the tacit acknowledgment of what this particular entertainer, an orphan who came from nothing, represented. The preponderance of black faces both days bore witness to a deep recognition: Without this blind/colorblind musician’s bridge building — from gospel to R&B to jazz to pop and even to country — during the crucial period of the ’50s and ’60s civil rights movement, American integration would have been an even tougher slog. Stevie Wonder got murmurs of approval when he said, “Ray was not able to outlive hate and injustice”; Wonder’s unfettered vocal skyrocketing on “I Won’t Complain” had everybody’s eyes misting. Even Clint Eastwood’s stiff tribute — to Charles the entertainer, Charles the teacher and Charles the worker — resonated with real substance.

But there was stranger stuff going on, too; the funeral felt like a platform for penitence and forgiveness. The Rev. Jesse Jackson couldn’t preach “The corruptible shall put on incorruption” without raising images of his own extramarital paternity. The reading of a missive from Bill Clinton (whom Jackson counseled during the Lewinsky mess) smelled like free publicity for a confessional new book. And when multiple felon Glen Campbell strapped on his guitar to stir a clapping throng with “Where Could I Go but to the Lord?” — well, he had all of our synapses firing with that one.

Music’s original sin was miscegenating the devil’s music with the Lord’s. Ray Charles represented both, and damn the consequences. Busted in 1964 for heroin, he did his rehab and went back to work; his next hit wasn’t “Amazing Grace,” it was “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

Well, he’s high now. In our esteem. Willie Nelson, warbling uncertainly through “Georgia on My Mind,” must’ve been glad to pay tribute to someone else; with all the genuflections that’ve been lately aimed at his old red head, he’s got to feel already embalmed. Only one person wept onstage: B.B. King, apologizing for his inability to stand up and wailing, “If you should die before I go, I’d end my life to be with you.”

There was dense, soul-shattering harmony from the Crenshaw Choir. David “Fathead” Newman’s sax throbbed “Drown in My Own Tears.” There was a jaunty toot on “Down by the Riverside” from Wynton Marsalis. There were more Ray Charles song quotations, blind jokes and blind metaphors than you could shake a cane at. It was a complicated thing that will never die, and they call it show business.


3,100 Feet From the Genius

I never met Ray Charles in person, but I did ski down the longest run in North America at breakneck speed for a chance to talk to him.

It was the winter of 1991, and I was living in Vail, Colorado, and freelancing in the arts section of a weekly newspaper (The Vail Trail — “Vail’s Greatest Newspaper Since 1965”). Ray Charles was coming to town to play Vail’s Dobson Ice Arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins sometimes did high-altitude training in the early ’90s — capacity about 3,000. There were rumors that Mr. Charles would make himself available for an interview to promote the engagement. The arts editor told me to be ready. Since my day job was selling hot dogs at “the world’s highest hot dog stand,” located on the deck of the ski-patrol headquarters at the top of Vail Mountain (altitude 11,250 feet), being ready meant having a good wax on my skis and edges sharpened. This, I did.

Of course, I was ecstatic about the potential for interviewing “The Genius.” Some of my fondest family memories were Sunday brunches with my folks blasting “What I’d Say” and “Hit the Road Jack.” These songs — sexy, ballsy, groovy — were a big part of my introduction to rock & roll.

Around noon, I got the call telling me that Ray Charles would be on the phone in something like 20 minutes. “Can you make it?” my editor asked. If not, she or someone else would do the interview. The paper’s offices were in a little railroad town called Minturn, about five miles from the resort parking lot, which was 3,100 feet below me. I was 26. I didn’t hesitate.

“I can make it.”

It was a mercifully slow day — only a few altitude-sick tourists stumbling around on deck — so my boss let me go, cautioning me to be careful.

The fastest way down was by the Riva Ridge run, 4.5 miles top to bottom, mostly expert terrain. I wasn’t necessarily an expert skier at the time, but I acted like one that day, making long, giant slalom turns and keeping my speed as high as possible, dangling on the edge of out-of-control, hoping the ski patrol wouldn’t flag me down. Then again, maybe they’d understand and provide an escort.

I got to the office in time. I remember Ray Charles as being incredibly gracious with his time and energy during the interview. (The Vail Trail wasn’t exactly big-time, and he didn’t need us to sell tickets.) The thing that stuck with me was his memory of sight — Charles didn’t fully lose his sight until he was 7 — and what a difficult thing that must have been to live with. More difficult, it would seem, than losing a limb. But when you’ve been hit upside the head with poverty, watching your brother drown in a bathtub (the 5-year-old Charles was too small to pull him out) and the Jim Crow South, maybe blindness is a blessing because you can’t see what’s coming next.

And maybe these were some of the experiences that made him The Genius, the genius I couldn’t possibly fathom in the context of our small interview. But I did feel it. Even on the phone I could feel it.

When we were done, he told me to come see him after the show.

“How will you know it’s me?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll know.”

—Joe Donnelly


MELEE
at the Knitting Factory, June 18

There’s something about the manicured lawns, glistening malls and perfect weather of Orange County that breeds wide-eyed pop-punk bands who look like they’ve never witnessed one bad thing in their lives. Closely resembling their O.C. (frat) brothers Something Corporate, Melee have the lovably eccentric semi-nerd front dude; some truly world-class, harmony-heady songs; and Billy Joel/Ben Folds–ish keys-based compositions, all presented with the grinning Prozac glaze of suburban pageant entries.

Tonight Melee are playing at home, for a magazine-sponsored party at which half the attendees are band buddies. When they open, as on the about-to-be-released Everyday Behavior, with “Got It All” and “New Day,” one thing’s immediately apparent: The disc’s production doesn’t do them justice. Everyday Behavior can make Melee sound like dated, overly sincere college rock à la Gin Blossoms, but under the somewhat informal conditions of the Knitting Factory’s bar, the ragged edges lend an authenticity and a sense of irreverence to some potentially chummy tunes.

Main man Chris Cron (who handles lead vocals, guitar and keys) might be the lost member of Britain’s Royal Family, grinning his way through compositions that match recent pop-punk panache with weighty ’70s singer-songwriter chops, and strutting into the crowd, mock arena style, when released from microphone duties. Cron’s warm, vibratoed delivery (bizarrely resembling that of Silverchair’s Daniel Johns) survives and thrives in the live environ, and matters are kept moist by guitarist Rick Sanberg’s relentless sub-Santana countermelodies and bassist Ryan Malloy’s hook-defining harmonies.

Everything adds up: mature songwriting skills meeting youthful zeal and a salable Warped Tour veneer. Melee should be irresistible, yet their in-joke, playing-to-our-friends presentation suggests they won’t yet resonate much beyond college campuses and SoCal all-agers. (Paul Rogers)

CALIFONE, REBECCA GATES
at Spaceland, June 18

You may recall Rebecca Gates as the singer/guitarist for the Spinanes — the energetic, très twee guitar-and-drums duo on mid-’90s Sub Pop. Indeed, before Belle and Sebastian’s sullen, sexy pop came along, the Spinanes ruled the radio waves of Clinton-era liberal-arts campuses everywhere. Oh, but how times have changed. Tonight, Gates’ performance was nothing short of a snooze attack. Accompanied occasionally by a keyboardist/cellist, Gates serenaded Spaceland’s restless crowd with her husky coo while ho-hum-strumming a cycle of reverb-and-tremolo-drenched chord progressions . . . for well over an hour. If she’d pounded a quadruple espresso, devised a shorter set list or added a few more players, both her songs and her audience would have been greatly invigorated. Here’s hoping she was just having an off night.

Califone (featuring Tim Rutili, formerly of Red Red Meat) played a brilliant set of American folk music, uniquely melding the atmospheric grandeur of Pink Floyd with the narcoleptic vibe of Massive Attack’s trip-hop. Surrounded by a wealth of pedal effects and flanked by two drummers and a second multi-instrumentalist, Rutili often sang, played organ and plucked slide guitar all at the same time. The band improvised soundscapes that acted as segues between heavily reworked versions of songs from their albums Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People and Quicksand/Cradlesnakes. However, sound problems drove even devoted listeners to plug their ears or leave early — a piercing squall of banjo and violin placed too high in the mix buried Rutili’s vocals through most of the performance. Which was a damn shameful thing to do to Califone’s music, which can be intimate, expansive and even awe-inspiring. (Arlie John Carstens)


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