Famous People I Almost Met

Lynyrd Skynyrd

When I was twenty-three, I found myself unemployed and living in my girlfriend’s room in her parents’ beautiful brick home 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 in her room and visible, with girlfriend sadly relegated to the basement.

Wonderful folks, actually, and I am thankful for them.

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 $250 attending Professional Bartender’s School and earning a Professional Bartender’s Certificate after wasting 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 the second I dangled the Professional Bartender Certificate in front of her narrowing eyes; then she pointed me 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.

Iron Eyes Cody
Iron Eyes Cody

My mind ran to Iron Eyes Cody – a pure-blood Italian, we found out later – who made an environmental television advertisement 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 roadside trash.

For a while.

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, I reckoned.

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 my 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.”

One night, only two months after donning the brown polyester Playboy bartender outfit, I was working that same back bar, where they keep rookies out of sight from the general public.

Bunnies, bottles, glasses, and drinks were the only objects in my vision when we heard a sudden commotion in the banquet room.

“Lynyrd Skynyrd just walked in,” said Nina, a six-foot-two-inch black beauty South Sider with popping biceps and a bunch of older brothers. I’m six-four and she looked down at me from those heels. Her biceps sprung while her lips snarled.

Rednecks from hell,” she added.

The partying immediately intensified and I slung drinks like a three-arm robot. About twenty minutes later, a scream filled the air:

“Get your hands out of there! I’ve already got one asshole in there!” Nina shouted.

I prayed she didn’t backhand whichever idiot made the move.

The other Bunnies told me the band fell silent, rose slowly on wobbly legs, and trudged up the stairs to the Red Room while patrons observed how scrawny they looked.

I’d seen them live at the RKO Orpheium in Davenport, Iowa in 1974 and they were absolutely wonderful, playing Free Bird before it was released.

Aerosmith opened that show and played Dream On before it hit the airwaves.

Knocked us out of our bell bottoms.

Ed King was in Skynyrd back then, a stocky blonde dude from California, but this was 1979 and these greasy-looking rockers  weaving on their feet in stained denim had a sad feel about them two years after the fateful airplane crash that cored their creative apple.

Black Bunnies in the 1970’s

Good thing Nina didn’t knock their teeth out and retire them for good.

John Entwistle

Another bartender — an American Indian named Warren — told me The Who was playing at the Stockyards the next weekend.

So my brother Jim, girlfriend Kim — a nursing student at Northwestern — Warren, and I piled into my blue 1952 Chevrolet.

City buses actually moved over to avoid that giant hunk of straight-six powered steel. 

As we walked up to the ticket counter, we noticed Warren was missing.

While we stood in the lobby waiting to enter, Warren arrived, nervously chattering:

“Here, eat this fast!”

Warren’s outstretched palm revealed three large lozenges.

What’s that? asked Jim.

Avoid! Alert! Avoid!

Quaaludes, said Warren.

We don’t need any Quaaludes, said Kim.

The cops watched me buy them, and if they find them on you you’ll go to jail, said Warren.

Idiot, I cursed as we choked down the large pills.

Except for Warren.

Suddenly three undercover cops surrounded us, frisked our pockets, found the Lude on Warren, and cuffed him.

I never saw him again and suspect he had outstanding warrants in other states, having just slipped into Chicago from Las Vegas.

If you’re lucky, you learn from such mistakes and take a little time to get to know folks before befriending them so hastily.

The concert sucked. Big time.

The International Amphitheater — on the South Side next to the infamous Stock Yards where my great great grandfather rustled cattle after he rounded them up from Canada to Mexico — was a giant cement box.

The only musical chords you could make out were the first and last of each song.

Everything in between attacked your ears like a swirling vortex of vulture screams.

Townsend leaped, Daltrey pinwheeled, Jones tried to keep up, and Entwistle glowed. Fans directly in front of him showered him with roses all night long.

Before the concert, a friend named Pat who dated English-major Bunny “Mary” — they married forty years ago right after they graduated — said he was driving Entwistle to the concert.

Meet us in the parking lot after the show, he said.

The Who

Pat earned an MS from Northwestern and retired decades later from East Stroudsburg University as a full professor and plays weekend gigs in NYC with folks like Woody Herman (now deceased) and Phil Hill. 

But at that moment in his life, Pat paid for his education by driving a limousine, wearing the black leather gloves, black tie, short coat, and little black hat while discovering local celebs like Phil Donahue were tightwads at tip-time.

Furthermore, the limo’s garage was on the West side of Cabrini-Green, a notorious housing project where electricity often failed and residents peed down elevator shafts in frustration.

Seriously.

Pat’s only avenue to the parking garage ran in front of this public housing nightmare — completely razed in 2011— and he ducked down in the seat returning to the garage as bullets previously shattered two passenger windows on his watch.

During the middle of the farting elephant contest inside the concert hall, I looked over to see both Kim’s and Jim’s chins resting on their chests, drool leaking out the sides of their mouths.

They appeared to be paralyzed from the face back.

Once that Quaalude ignited, the sensation resembled drinking a gallon of beer in five minutes. I’ve never done that, but that’s the best description I can come up with. Super drunk super fast with sleep on the near horizon.

Perhaps you saw the Jeff Goldblum Quaalude scene in The Big Chill. That’s how it works. One minute you’re having an engaging conversation. The next?

Splat.

When the cacophony finally subsided, I led my stumbling charges to the parking lot, and there was Pat in the driver’s seat and John Entwistle in the backseat, waiting.

One of my musical heroes, ten feet away, his signature about to grace my autograph book.

Then Kim and Jim began to sway.

Spinning slowly like two tops on their final rotations.

Suddenly, they stopped swaying and stood at attention.

A pregnant moment elapsed.

Then they fell — simultaneously — onto their faces.

Pat covered his countenance with his hands. John Entwistle smiled and waved like he’d seen this all before.

I waved back, rolled them over, wiped gravel from their mouths, and dragged them by their coat collars back to the rusty-blue 1952 Chevrolet with the big dent in the roof.

Our shadows long and lean in the limo lights.

Lady Di

My first trip abroad (I was twenty-eight, on summer break from a suburban Chicago high school) found me walking through Hyde Park in London, on my way to a train to Camden where my old next-door-neighbor Jim Ringenberg was playing the Electric Ballroom with his band Jason and the Scorchers on the Fourth of July.

Jason Ringenberg, 1979
Even 27 years later, I still think 4 July 1985, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, was one of the most thrilling performances I've ever seen. The lead singer wore a western suit; the bass player looked like a punk riverboat gambler, with black trousers and waistcoat, and bootlace tie; the guitarist was a metaller, with long hair and leathers; the drummer, spiky-haired and ratty looking, had a confederate flag flying where one of his toms should have been.

—Michael Hann

The park bustled with activity and all at once a vivacious young woman dressed in a stylish white top, white shorts, white socks, black rollerblades, and a black Sony Walkman strapped to her side charged directly at me, so I side-stepped into the grass as she twirled around, smiled, caught her breath, and then took off again.

As I turned to watch her skate away, three bodyguards dressed in black jogged by, giving her thirty yards.

Princess Diana

A fan magazine later wrote she’d been listening to a particular Dire Straits song that week, as they were about to Skateaway at Wembley.

The President of Bangladesh

In 1999 I spent the month of February in Bangladesh, touring the nation and living in rich folks’ homes on a Rotary International assignment.

Rotary helps people all over the world, and are at the brink of eradicating polio on the planet. We were there to tour Rotary-built hospitals and wells they’d dug before acid leaching out of the Himalayas poisoned them.

At the end of our stay, we returned to Dhaka, a city so sprawling and crawling with human life that the exact population is unknown.

Then the nation went on strike for three days. The air cleared, revealing what some believe to be the exact location of the Garden of Eden.

Soft breezes. Palm trees. Perpetual 78-82 degrees. The sweet smell of bougainvillea filling the air.

Suddenly, the strike broke up and hundreds of thousands of two-stroke motors fired back up.

By three in the afternoon, I could not see my hand clearly in front of my face.

When I returned to the US, I spit up black tar for three weeks.

At the end of our stay, we visited the government palace and met the President, a figurehead position in Bangladesh.

Like America needs.

Seriously, the executive branch has gained way too much power in recent years, and a single person isn’t up to the job.

Obviously.

So I propose we create an executive cabinet split among political parties (50/50 at the moment), twelve men/women with talent, courage, vision, and clean records to run the nation.

A team dedicated to preserving and extending American values of truth and dignity — not the deep purses of special interests, major corporations, or foreign nations — an honest executive branch taking the heat for failures, and the credit for wins.

While a “figurehead” president flies around kissing babies, breaking champagne bottles on new ships, and slapping backs at Rotary Club meetings.

Golfing with other big wigs. Tweeting pleasantries to all fifty stars on the flag about how we’re working together and solving problems like the virus, global warming, education, and childhood hunger.

Bringing folks from disparate backgrounds together, healing wounds, and modeling the advantages of unity.

What a concept.

The grey-bent toddlers currently throwing hissy fits over vote counting have one foot in the grave and the other on the banana peel of history. Perhaps their selfishness will one day magically disappear?

***

So as we’re sitting in the anteroom, I’m wondering what this Bangladeshi president looks like. Oman Sharif?

Then we’re called into his office. We sit and wait. Suddenly …

In walks Groucho Marx.

A dead ringer.

We casually sip tea and eat shortbread biscuits while exchanging small talk.

I snort loudly into my tea when Groucho lifts his eyebrows several times making a remark.

We say goodbye, the President shakes our hands and smiles, we leave.

Your lower lip is bleeding, said a college outside the palace.

Had to bite them, I said.

Me too! she laughed as we doubled up, shook hysterically, and stomped our feet on the palace steps.

Maya Angelou

While teaching at a junior college in East Tennessee, I spent one day a month in Nashville as president of the faculty, meeting with the governing board, and Maya Angelou happened to be in town one evening I was there.

A newspaper article said she’d receive $50,000 for a one-hour performance.

No one is worth $50k an hour, I thought to myself. After the show, where she’d sung (made us all cry), danced (made us all laugh), told her story (tears upon tears), and read poetry (enlarging our souls), I thought:

That was worth $150,000. She got ripped off.

Then I walked across the street into a bookstore where I browsed for twenty minutes when all of a sudden I felt a spiritual presence by my side.

When I turned, Maya Angelou looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said hello. I mentioned how much I enjoyed the show. We talked for ten minutes.

               Maya Angelou

After five or six questions concerning my background, how I used my time, mission work, church, and family life, her eyes saw straight into me, and she spoke of things about myself that I knew were there, but feared. Because if I acknowledged those gifts from God, I’d have to act on them.

I listened.

So tears drip onto the paper today as I scribble these notes.

Furthermore, the caged-bird sang once again on Tuesday.

And the entire world applauded, then danced in the streets.

Standing Tall

A certified rock star, whose stage apparel and song lists hang in Nashville’s Country Music 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)