Standing Tall

A certified rock star, whose stage apparel and song lists hang in Nashville’s Country Western Hall of Fame, graced Johnson City’s Down Home Saturday night on February 8th to promote Stand Tall, an homage to Jason and the Scorcher’s 1996 release Still Standing.

Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.

The owner of this famous pickin’ parlor – Ed Snodderly – is also honored inside the CMHOF, lyrics to his “Diamond Stream” hanging prominently near the rock star’s regalia. Don’t know Ed? Perhaps you saw him at the movies playing the “crazy fiddler” in the Cohen Brother’s classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

Ed Snodderly, Village Idiot, O Brother, Whereart Thou?

And here’s the kicker:  James “Jason” Ringenberg grew up on the neighboring hog farm outside Sheffield, Illinois, in the center of America’s heartland, graduating in 1977 from Western High School with my brother, also named Jim.

“Jason” – his middle name – wandered up and down the Rock Island Line south of his home, jawing Bob Dylan tunes on the harmonica to the beat of ground-shaking freight trains, getting the music down into his DNA … while the rest of us drank beer and drove too fast.

After strumming a guitar and singing a self-penned valedictory “speech” to his high school classmates, Jason slipped down to Carbondale, Illinois to earn a bachelor’s degree (with a minor in history) and to soak up the punk vibe sweeping small clubs in the late ’70s.

In 1981, Ringenberg moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he soon formed Jason and the Scorchers with Warner Hodges, Jeff Johnson, and Perry Baggs.[1] Their potent mix of punk rock and country gained them fans around the world.[1] In the words of Rolling Stone they "singlehandedly re-wrote the history of rock'n'roll in the South". They won critical approval with the release of successful albums and energetic live performances.[3] -- Wikipedia
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.

Seriously, there’s a reason for such longevity.

Way back in 1985 I enjoyed my first international trip to the British Isles — I’d paid for college myself through a series of part-time jobs — and was finally debt-free at age twenty-eight and able to travel. Luckily,  Jason and the Scorchers were playing an Independence Day bill at the Electric Ballroom in London while I was there.

So I witnessed several hundred British youth bouncing off the walls and waving Rebel flags to “Harvest Moon” – a song recalling our Midwestern youth.

Harvest Moon, shine on down
The chill of the air wakes the ghosts of the ground.
Northern wind, I hear your voice,
But killing frost takes all hope of choice.

The sight of all those kids inflamed and jamming to the boy next door raised my hackles, as the memory still does. Here’s an article claiming Jason and the Scorchers to be the greatest rock band in the world at the time I saw them.

Ironically, my first jet flight may have been my last.

While researching this story I discovered the 1985 Air India ticket that got me there. The plane behind us went down killing 329. Terrorists tried to put the bomb on our plane, but couldn’t get it done. They succeeded the following week. We happened to be in Ireland then, riding bicycles near Dingle and hearing depth charges going off as workers tried to locate the 747 on the bottom of the Irish Sea.

Air India Ticket, 1985.
Air India Ticket, 1985.

At the same time Jason rocked the Electric Ballroom, Bruce Springsteen enjoyed seeing his image – the iconic Telecaster draped across his back for the Born in the USA album – draped upon buildings in Piccadilly Circus, while Dire Straits filled Wembley Stadium.

I went backstage, met the band, shook Jason’s hand, and noticed Ringenberg had no interest in partying like his bandmates, obvious professionals.  Jason — the eternal designated driver — kept the guys together as long as possible.  The last tour (2010) featured two original members — Jason and Warner Hodges — still standing.

The last time we talked was at a classmate’s memorial, and although Jason had aged like the rest of us, the family genetics, a harmonious healthy lifestyle, and calm domestic life revealed a wrinkle-free face marked only by laugh lines and a perpetual grin.

Jason and I aren’t close, and honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the music, though I’m fond of O Lonesome Prairie, as corny as it is.  Golden Ball and Chain is a killer rock and roll thunder bomb, indeed.  But Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, and the mailman from Crystal Lake, Illinois – John Prine – do it for me.

Surprisingly, Jason reminds me of Porter Wagner, especially his sense of humor, body shape, and wardrobe.

"Imagine introducing into this atmosphere a lanky hick from an Illinois pig farm who wore a goofy faux-leopard cowboy hat and shiny fringed shirts that made him look like Porter Wagoner on mescaline, a guy who whipped his body around as furiously as he did his microphone cord," wrote Mansfield. "Back him with three of the town's most notorious rockers," and that was Jason & the Scorchers.  --  Index of American Biographies

I saw Porter Wagoner once, hosting the Opry to a packed show at the Ryman, and witnessed a bus-load of Japanese pressing the stage, looking directly up into the stage lights.

“How do my nose hairs look tonight, folks?” he cackled.  “Long enough for ye?”

Jason’s three years younger than I, and hog farmers usually don’t hang out with hog farmers due to the smell.  Two nice-looking farm girls living south of us were good friends, but they resided on the Hog Farm from Hell with thousands of confined porkers.  Made our two-hundred-fifty outdoor rangers smell like roses, so I never went over much.  When I did, we’d laugh at rich Chicago folks driving by with handkerchiefs draped over their faces.

Olfactory fatigue is God’s gift to the hog farmer.

One of my favorite images of Jason was on a summer day in my sixteenth year after I bought a Gibson SG Junior and a Fender Princeton amp. Exactly two minutes after I hit the first power chord, there he was, standing in front of me asking about the guitar – his house a half-mile away.


I certainly admire Jason’s genuineness, his exceptional energyif we could harness that left leg, whole cities could remain off the power grid – the truth inside his lyrics, and the passion he brings to every show, no matter the size or location.

There were about thirty at the Down Home Saturday night, all rabid fans. They asked him to play obscure songs only true admirers would recall.  At the break, Jason sat down at our table to swap news. A polite word for gossip.

“The word is your mom is driving around town twenty miles an hour while reading the Bible,” I said, sheepishly.  Felt the blood leap up into my face.

Passing fake news is a Mark of the Devil these days.

A true hero of Sheffield, Jason earned it by exemplifying Midwestern values, kindness, humility and a perpetually positive attitude.  His mother, ninety-one this year, still drives to town for groceries and warms your heart with friendly hugs every time you see her. The intelligence flashing in her eyes mirrors Jason’s, smiling eyes perpetually admiring God’s handiwork, grateful eyes pondering the blessings and grace that make this life possible to navigate.

“That’s a rumor,” said Jason.  “She got picked up for driving too slowly and not knowing what to say, she held up a Bible that was lying on the passenger seat.”

Long pause.  Then wife Lana cut in, trying to save my trash face:

“I grew up on a small farm near Sneedville, Tennessee.  If nothing’s happening, folks make stuff up to fill the void.  Exaggeration is the name of the game.  Storytelling never ends.”

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping. 

One day you’re a teen power-chording a new amp on the front porch, the next day you’re watching the neighbor in his heyday wowing London, and then suddenly you’re receiving social security checks and the graying troubadour from across Route 6 croons to your wife in a small room of adoring fans while she marvels at human connections transcending space and time, connections threading through us from cradle to grave.

Which is something to acknowledge and cherish.

While we’re still standing.

 


Videos from The Down Home, 8 February 2020, Jason Ringenberg, Stand Tall tour.
Absolutely Sweet Marie
Farewell Angelina
God Bless the Ramones
If Money TalksJohn Muir Stood Here
Mother of Earth (Jason Ringenberg)
Mother of Earth (The Gun Club)
The Price of Progress
The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug (Sheffield, Illinois, Brother’s Pub, 2014)

 

The Perfect Prison

When I was twenty-three, I found myself unemployed, and living in my girlfriend’s room in her parents’ beautiful brick house on the South Side of Chicago in an affluent white neighborhood slipping into descent after the M.L.K. riots of 1968. They kept me upstairs and visible, with girlfriend relegated to the basement.

Chicago during 1968 M.L.K. riots.
Chicago, summer of 1968.

I remember wandering the streets day-after-day-week-after-week begging for work, sliding in and out of tawdry bars – sticky-floor flyblown dives I’d never venture into for a drink on my own – but places I now prayed would hire me because I’d just spent my last $250 attending “Professional Bartender’s School” and earning a “Professional Bartender’s Certificate” after spending a week pouring colored water out of fake liquor bottles into appropriate glasses.

Armed with this “certificate”, I wandered into dozens of Chicagoland watering holes, but no one would hire me. Sheila’s Puke Shack owner S. Hardnutter threw me the stink eye when I dangled the Professional Bartender Certificate in front of her narrow eyes, then pointed toward the door.


Each night I’d limp home on sore feet and sit on my girlfriend’s bed and despair.  I remember a lone tear running down my cheek one night, followed in a few seconds by spontaneous laughter because Iron Eyes Cody – a pure-blood Italian, we found out later – currently starred in an environmental television ad as an American Indian saddened by the rape of the land, a single tear running down his cheek, which miraculously prodded Americans into picking up trash.

Iron Eyes Cody
Iron Eyes Cody

Swinging for the fence the next morning, I took a train downtown and hit all the major bars on Michigan Avenue, earning a ubiquitous thumbs down. Fingering the last $10 in my pocket, I stood at the corner of Walton and Michigan Avenue, eyeballing The Drake, where visiting Queen Elizabeth bedded down.

Too classy for my zero experience.

Looking southeast — across the street at the old Palmolive Building — I saw the Playboy Club‘s flashing siren lights. Shrugging off the gut instinct to stop wasting time, I walked inside and told the smiling bunny at the door that I needed to see the human relations rep.

Who turned out to be my girlfriend’s sister’s best friend.

“You’re in luck!” she smiled. “We need a bartender pronto, and you can start Monday morning. Get here at ten for an orientation on lunch, which starts at eleven.”


The Playboy Club turned out to be a mixed blessing. Although I was able to rent my own place and start saving, the nature of the business fired up already simmering jealousies.

I’d graduated from college the previous December with an English degree and accepted the only job I could find – once again through nepotism – when Future-Mother-In-Law told me about a job opening at her school, a junior high in Chicago Ridge.

The permanent teacher was taking a year off after giving birth, and a succession of substitutes tried and failed to make a stand with her students, kids from blue collar families with moms and dads who worked long hours and didn’t have much time to spend with their offspring, so they threw money at them instead. Blue collar kids accustomed to bullying each other in the absence of parental guidance.

At six-foot-four-two-hundred-twenty-pounds I became substitute number seven immediately following Christmas break. That semester – my first in a classroom by myself – gave me the confidence to carry through the rest of life.

Years later I chatted with a man at the airport as we waited for a plane, and during the conversation we uncovered the fact we’d both taught junior high English on the South Side of Chicago.

“How long did you last?” I asked.

“One year,” he said.

“What did you do after that?”

“I quit, joined the Marines, and went to Vietnam for a vacation,” he said.


That semester I taught English to kids with names like “Toots” and “Doobie” and was required to coach 7th grade girls’ basketball; unfortunately, the 8th grade girls’ basketball coach was a conniving blonde bombshell who sensed the unease in Future-Mother-In-Law and went right to driving her nuts by sitting next to me during games, flirting whenever FMIL was in eyesight, and wearing a string bikini to the Indiana Dunes when the three of us accompanied a busload of kids at the end of the school year.

FMIL hadn’t really taught long, this being her second attempt. She’d left the profession in her early twenties to raise four children through high school while her husband, a prince, worked at US Steel.

During her free time all those years she soaked up daytime television, eventually becoming brainwashed by sexy-soap-opera-actors teaching her to trust no one – especially me – while the hot blonde simultaneously poked out of a white see-through hand-crocheted bathing suit on blazing Indiana beach while Little Richard sang Tutti Frutti from the top of a telephone pole.


When the junior high job ended and the bartender’s school landed me in the Playboy den of iniquity, my days with girlfriend dwindled.

A clean-cut Iranian floor manager named Sami started me off in a service bar out of sight from the public with liquor bottles in overhead racks, a double-sink, an ice machine, mixers, and a cash register at the end of the stainless-steel counter. The bus boys were Palestinian, the cooks Mexican. If you learned early on to treat the women right, all worked smoothly.

Bunnies would approach this portal with drink orders, and I’d pile beverages on trays before they sashayed on high heels and kidney-pinching bunny suits back to thirsty Joes elevated to Playboy Key Holders with an annual credit card fee.

The bunnies were kids like me, trying to eat under roof while putting themselves through school, putting together a stash to make a move in life, trying to survive the dollar-draining nature of the big city. There were long ones, tall ones, big ones, brown ones, black ones, round ones … crazy ones.

We were kids.
We were just kids. Laurie Proffitt, center, has enjoyed a successful photography career for decades.

And although I stayed true, my girlfriend came to visit during lunch one day — at my request — and stood in the doorway of the little service bar as I mixed drinks and piled them on bunny trays. As each female appeared, we talked business, and I often called them by name. The window I pushed drinks through revealed bunnies from their waists to their chins. Neither girlfriend nor I could see hip-tags or faces.

“How do you remember their names?” asked girlfriend as she gazed open-mouthed at the exposed set of breasts arching into the bar window.

“See that mole?” I said as “Carla” arrived with an empty tray. Having grown up on a hog farm in Western Illinois, I was not especially enamored with big breasts, though I admired their magnetic ability on the average Joe’s iron head.

Blood boiled up the chin of girlfriend’s face, onto her cheeks, then up her forehead, and with a turn of her heel I was suddenly alone in the Windy City, bereft of my only reason for being there in the first place.

The Mole
Carla’s nefarious mole.

Several months later, I’d worked my way up to the “night shift” at the main bar and enjoyed meeting out-of-town folks in the midst of convention bacchanals, though many of the women — upon reaching alcoholic euphoria —  lashed out with tongues more lascivious than any deranged Roto-Rooter man ever wagged.

One night, just after midnight on a slow shift with few people at the bar, management uncloaked in their black suits and fired every bartender on the floor.

Except me.

“You were the only one not stealing,” said Sami. “We’d been sending in people to sit at the bar and observe for two weeks now. What these dirt bags do is ring up a lower amount than they sold, then put the remainder in their pockets. Oldest trick in the book.”

One of those rounded up and kicked out of the revolving door was Howie Wong, the first bartender Hugh Hefner picked for the original Chicago Playboy Club on Walton, not far from his mansion on North State Parkway. Howie was taciturn and unfriendly, so I never knew him well.

But three months later I was walking down a side street and above a newly-painted door an electric sign flashed:  Howie’s.  Taken aback, I stepped inside and there were the six recently-fired bartenders, along with Howie at the cash register, preparing to open their new digs. Turns out they’d pooled their purloined cash – Howie dipped for decades – and opened this business. Together.

“How’s this going to work?” I asked. They just smiled and shrugged their shoulders. Six months later Howie’s was history, naturally.

Which brings me to the point of this essay.

Prisons would be more effective if we piled like-minded criminals atop one another.

As the world lurches toward nationalism and the rule of authoritarians, we need a way to deal effectively with run-away dictators.

Imagine islands – the Aleutian archipelago comes to mind with its Alaskan fresh air breeziness – islands exclusively housing like-minded criminals. Redneck Racist Island harboring Dylann Roof wannabes. Female Redneck Racist Island next door, ten thousand Rosanne Barrs separated by churning seas and hungry flesh-eating fish.

The Aleutians
The Aleutians

Black Racist Island covered with Al Sharpton wannabes. Criminal Mexican Island.  Catholic Priest Pedophile Island. White Collar Embezzler IslandWhite Collar Crook Island. Rapist Island. Man-Trapping-Liar-About-Rape Island.

Ad infinitum.

The unending torture of individuals imprisoned under these conditions would test the “cruel and unusual” clause under the Eighth Amendment, but this treatment would be justified due to its effectiveness and ultimate benefit to society.

Can you imagine a self-aggrandizing, constantly lying, narcissistic blowhard in a green parka – absent makeup – wielding a hand-ax, a book of matches, and some fishing gear, and marooned for life on a frozen slag heap in the middle of an ocean with hundreds of other convicted narcissistic blowhards and a few Kodiak bears on Russia Money Laundering Island?  A pleasing and peaceful thought, indeed.

Perhaps the perfect prison doles out the perfect punishment.

For those of you who bless your children by reading to them, check out “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf” by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s the story of a girl who loves pulling the wings off of insects, but her bullying comes to a bad end:

An evil spirit soon took possession of Inge, and carried her to a still worse place, in which she saw crowds of unhappy people, waiting in a state of agony for the gates of mercy to be opened to them, and in every heart was a miserable and eternal feeling of unrest. It would take too much time to describe the various tortures these people suffered, but Inge's punishment consisted in standing there as a statue, with her foot fastened to the loaf. She could move her eyes about, and see all the misery around her, but she could not turn her head; and when she saw the people looking at her she thought they were admiring her pretty face and fine clothes, for she was still vain and proud. But she had forgotten how soiled her clothes had become while in the Marsh Woman's brewery, and that they were covered with mud; a snake had also fastened itself in her hair, and hung down her back, while from each fold in her dress a great toad peeped out and croaked like an asthmatic poodle. Worse than all was the terrible hunger that tormented her, and she could not stoop to break off a piece of the loaf on which she stood. No; her back was too stiff, and her whole body like a pillar of stone. And then came creeping over her face and eyes flies without wings; she winked and blinked, but they could not fly away, for their wings had been pulled off; this, added to the hunger she felt, was horrible torture.

"If this lasts much longer," she said, "I shall not be able to bear it." But it did last, and she had to bear it, without being able to help herself.

The perfect ending for a bully’s sad life.

Similar to an immortal history book full of verifiable facts, I reckon.