As a New Year’s gift to all my fabulous friends, readers and Internet acquaintances, I’m glad to share memories, an essay, and a few links about Cleveland’s Bill Miller—aka Mr Stress—a great blues harmonica player, singer, and leader of bands who died this past year, on May 18. I followed him avidly from 1972, when I turned 18, old enough to go to bars, to 1985 when I moved to NY. I think of him today, not only because his passing came this year, but because he was the first baby born in Cleveland in 1943, a bare minute after midnight. He was feted on the front page of the next day’s newspaper as the city’s first firstborn—a fitting birth for a bluesman when you consider Muddy Waters singing about the fabled blues character ‘born on the 7th son of a 7th mother on the 7th day.’ Clearly, Mr. Stress had an auspicious pedigree for a bluesman. He would’ve been 73 when the clock & calendar turn tonight. In 2012, I contributed an essay about Stress for the book Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, linked to here. Happily, I reconnected with him after I published the essay. Also, here’s Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Chuck Yarborough‘s appreciation of him, published two days after his passing; and tributes by Cleveland musician Alex Bevan; and audio of Stress in performance (one and two).
I published a version of this post on May 4, 2012, and have now updated it for 2013-14 with additional material, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” as you’ll see below. The comments below are from the 2012-13 posting–you are welcome to add your own.
May 4, a big date on my personal calendar
On this date in 1970 I was fifteen. That afternoon, around 4:30, I was standing on a sidewalk in downtown Cleveland, waiting for my sister Pamela to get off her job at Halle Bros., a local department store. Nearby, a delivery van pulled up, with the name of the evening paper, Cleveland Press, emblazoned across its side. The back door of the van rolled up and a worker began tossing bundles of that afternoon’s edition off the truck. It was a real “Front Page” moment, as in old movies when a swirl of numbered calendar pages and newspaper print resolves in to a splashy headline of bold, readable type and a brash reporter rushes off to get the rest of the story. Only this time, it was not a funny, Capraesque moment. In weirdly unfolding slow-motion I watched a particular bundle roll toward me until it landed above the fold, headline up. Like seeing a license plate in front of one’s eyes during a car accident—and remembering the combo of digits and letters forever—I read the inches-high black type: Four Students Shot Dead On Kent Campus. For several days prior, I had been following the antiwar demonstrations at Kent State, about thirty miles from Cleveland, and I knew that Ohio Governor James Rhodes had deployed armed troops to the campus. Pam soon joined me on the sidewalk and I told her the disturbing news. We shared our shock and dismay and probably dropped whatever we had been planning to do, though I have no memory after telling her about the newspaper headline. I recall that little more than a week later I heard on local radio Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s recording of “Ohio.” It was as if Neil had written a musical version of an instant book, as is still done in the book world after a terrible catastrophe. In fact, in Neil’s recent memoir Heavy Peace he recalls quickly writing the song and the alacrity with which they recorded it, pushing the acetate copies of the song out to radio stations, before the vinyl 45s had even been pressed. Here’s a youtube version of the song with many photos taken that week on the Kent State campus. Thanks to Hard Rain Productions for assembling the photo montage with the song.
Eight years later, May 4, 1978
Pamela, our brother Joel, our parents Earl and Sylvia, and I all opened Undercover Books, the bookstore that would define our lives for many years. When I was graduated from Franconia College a year earlier, with a BA in Philosophy of Education and History of Religion, I had imagined I might work for the Anti-Defamation League or some similar organization. I certainly hadn’t thought of working in a bookstore, but my siblings—with Pam having worked in department stores, and Joel at Kay’s Bookstore in downtown Cleveland–had the idea of opening a bookstore in our home suburb of Shaker Heights, where despite it being an affluent and well-educated community, no bookstore had ever been located. We were fortunate in our timing, for in Cleveland, as in several other midwestern cities, book retailing was migrating from the downtown core to the suburbs. Undercover Books caught on right away, and I got what amounted to a graduate education, provided by bookselling. As buyer for adult books for what would become our three-store indie chain, I met every day with bookbuying customers and browsers. We were regularly called upon by publishers’ sales reps, and became a go-to store for houses eager to break out books on the national scene. Notable authors who launched books at the store included Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale), Richard North Patterson (The Lasko Tangent), and Walter Tevis (Queen’s Gambit). I was with the bookstores for seven years before moving to New York City, and have written more about the transition here on this site. The bookstore proved to be a gateway to my career in the book business and it all began on this date thirty-six years ago today.
Another nine years, May 4, 1987
Now working as an editor at Walker & Company, my first full-time position with a publishing house, I was in the happy position of telling my author Ellen Hunnicutt that her novel, Suite For Calliope: A Music and the Circus—the first book I signed up on arriving at the company, and which was to be published that summer—had just received a starred review in Kirkus. Ellen was very excited as I read her the whole review with lines like these, “An extraordinary first novel that, in its remarkable inventiveness, intelligence, and charm-struck humanity, should draw—and more than richly reward—readers of almost every inclination. . . . A prodigiously masterful novel of profundity, breadth, and continual delight: waiting now only for what ought to be its very, very many readers.” Note I read it to her, and didn’t fax it, probably because neither one of us had one. What added to the special quality of the occasion however was that this day, May 4, was also Ellen’s birthday. You can read more about how I came to discover Suite for Calliope in this essay elsewhere on this blog.
Nowadays, when May 4 rolls around again, even if nothing so deeply tragic or personally historic is occurring in that given year, I marvel at it all. For now, I’m just really glad I created this site over the past couple years, so that this year, I have a proper venue to share my memories of May 4, from 44 years ago, from 36 years ago, and from 27 years ago.
The pictures seen here were taken in what we called “the middle room” at Undercover Books, where we placed a comfortable rattan couch. The black Labrador is our dog Noah, whose ear Joel is massaging. I am wearing the same style of pink eyeglass frames as I wear nowadays. I’ve told the story of how Joel and I came to get Noah at a dog pound in Deadwood, South Dakota, on a cross-country road trip in the summer of 1970, on a biographical blog post I tweeted out it a few months ago, with a picture of Noah and me that I cherish. I miss them both, Noah who passed in 1982, and Joel in 2009.
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) January 29, 2013
Judith Butler speaking up&on truths she believes in: “What can really be said about the Jewish people as a whole?” nyti.ms/YgGiMh
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) February 9, 2013
Last August I wrote about philosopher and author Judith Butler and her critics who wanted the Adorno Prize she’d been awarded by the city of Frankfurt to be denied her. I was glad that the critics’ demands were unavailing. My post from last summer focused on her beliefs about Israel and Palestine, and about the fact that in a twist of circumstance, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with Judith’s father as my dentist. I knew Judith’s sister, Diane. Our parents were friendly, too. As the tweet above indicates, this week Judith was again the target of critics, when a speech she gave at Brooklyn College drew protesters critical of her support for the B.D.S movement, which advocates Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel for its policies in the Occupied Territories and the West Bank.
For my part, I believe in co-existence and a two-state solution. I abhor the policies of the Netanyahu government, and believe that its construction of settlements on land that should be the subject of negotiation marginalizes reasonable voices on all sides, making a peaceful solution an ever-diminishing prospect. I condemn intolerance, hateful rhetoric, and violence. I do not share all of Judith Butler’s positions, but I emphatically support her right of self-expression and applaud the decision of Brooklyn College to uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom, allowing her to speak this week, even in the face of critics who wanted the event canceled.
I first met writer and literary journalist Robert Gray when I was Editor-in-Chief of Carroll & Graf Publishers and he worked at the splendid Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont. I loved that his email address at the time incorporated the phrase “marbleman,” as a personal homage to Vermont’s marble quarrying. We both later moved on but kept in touch, especially after he became a regular contributor to the daily book world read Shelf Awareness, and I started curating and writing The Great Gray Bridge. Robert’s pieces for Shelf Awareness are published under the rubric, “Deeper Understanding.”
Recently, I let Robert know about Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology to which I’d contributed an essay, hoping the DIY energy that produced the book would appeal to him, and that he might want to cover it in his column. He took the opportunity to heart and today published a great piece, “Self-Pub, Sense of Place & Concentric Circles,” with passages like this:
“When you want to know about a place, ask the people who live there. When you want to read about a place, read the writers whose words reveal more than just the surface of a region’s past and present. What does that have to do with self-publishing? This: For a bookseller considering the possibility of stocking a self-published book, one reliable sign of a winner is a title with a tangible sense of place. Whether or not such a book eventually finds readers beyond the region, it must begin at the center–a pebble dropped in a local pond–before concentric retail sales circles can spread. In their introduction . . . editors Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek describe the project as “a community effort to tell the story of a city.” And that’s just what it is.”
Later, Robert generously mentions my essay, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at The Euclid Tavern,” linking to an expanded version of it on this blog. I invite you to read Robert’s entire piece at this Shelf Awareness link, and my piece if you haven’t yet. Robert’s past columns can also be found at his website, Fresh Eyes Now.
I should add that the Nook, Apple, and Kindle ebook editions of Rust Belt Chic are currently being sold in their respective digital stores for the terrific price of $2.99 (link for Nook store, ITunes store, and Kindle store). Finally, I’m also happy to report that the first Rust Belt Chic event in the NYC area is coming up, Thursday, January 3 in Brooklyn at Public Assembly. I’ll be there to read, as will other northern Ohio transplants in the NYC area. It would be great to see you there!
Readers of this blog will recall that I contributed an essay, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at The Euclid Tavern,” to Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology. Co-editor Anne Trubek reports that the book is selling well, in its ebook and trade paperback editions, and is frequently being reordered by book retailers including Amazon.com. Anne posted news on Facebook tonight that the Nook, Apple, and Kindle ebook editions are right now being sold in the respective digital stores for the terrific price of $2.99 (Nook store, ITunes store, and Kindle store)
I’m also glad to report that the first Rust Belt Chic event in the NYC area is coming up, Thursday, January 3 in Brooklyn at Public Assembly. I’ll be there to read, as will other northern Ohio transplants in the NYC area. It would be great to see you there!
If it’s Sunday, it must be football, right? In keeping with the day, Shaun Usher, the British proprietor of the always-splendid website Letters of Note has reposted on his site’s Facebook page a funny exchange of correspondence that I chuckled over when he first shared it last February. It gave me another good laugh today. Shaun’s placed the 1974 letters under the heading Regarding Your Stupid Complaint. They were between Dale O. Cox, Esquire, a persnickety Cleveland Browns season ticket holder, and the Browns’ team office.
As readers of this blog may recall, from pieces such as How to Enjoy Sports Even When Your Teams Have a History of Failure, and a Personal History essay, I grew up following the ups and (often the) downs of Cleveland sports teams. With my late father and brother, I had the great good fortune to attend the last professional sports championship of a Cleveland team–when in the 1964 NFL title game the Browns upset the Baltimore Colts, 27-0. As the scanned copy of a grade school composition of mine will attest, the season ticket holders we sat near in the upper deck in Section 42 were a colorful bunch, like “Bert, a lover of wine” who “often fixe[d] himself a Diet-Rite and wine cocktail,” and Eddie, who “As soon as the first half ends, breaks out [a] thermos of chili . . . he shares with John, while John splits one of his many bottles of wine with him.” (See bottom of post for the whole piece.)
In the summer of 1977, after I was graduated from Franconia College, I worked as a beer vendor at Cleveland Indians’ baseball games. I enjoyed walking the wide open grandstands of cavernous Municipal Stadium, calling out such pitches as “Beer Here!” and “Get Your Cold Ones!”. My happy run as a vendor ended though when I worked a Cleveland Browns pre-season game, and was appalled to discover that the placid beer-drinking Indians fans I’d come to enjoy serving had morphed into, as I wrote in that personal history essay, “an unruly, inebriated mass. . . I was lucky I didn’t have my rack of beers stolen along with all my earnings.”
With these recollection of public drinking and intoxication at Municipal Stadium, you can see why I derive such a good laugh from the correspondence between Mr. Cox and the Browns (headings and signatures abridged):
November 18, 1974
The Cleveland Browns
I am one of your season ticket holders who attends or tries to attend every game. It appears that one of the pastimes of several fans has become the sailing of paper airplanes generally made out of the game program. As you know, there is the risk of serious eye injury and perhaps an ear injury as a result of such airplanes. I am sure that this has been called to your attention and that several of your ushers and policemen witnessed the same.
Please be advised that since you are in a position to control or terminate such action on the part of fans, I will hold you responsible for any injury sustained by any person in my party attending one of your sporting events. It is hoped that this disrespectful and possibly dangerous activity will be terminated.
Very truly yours,
Dale O. Cox
The Browns’ reply, from their General Counsel and cc:d to team owner Art Modell, was written only three days later:
Dear Mr. Cox:
Attached is a letter that we received on November 19, 1974. I feel that you should be aware that some asshole is signing your name to stupid letters.
Very truly yours,
CLEVELAND STADIUM CORP.
James N. Bailey,
cc: Arthur B. Modell
In the years following the exchange with Mr. Cox, Art Modell–who died this past September at age 87–would later be tagged with infamy among many Cleveland sports fans for relocating the Browns to Baltimore in 1996. Yet it’s plain to me that at least in 1974 he was still a stand-up guy, or he wouldn’t have condoned his team attorney sending such a funny, profane letter to a customer who was himself a lawyer, and one who included in his letter an implied threat of litigation–“I will hold you responsible for any injury sustained by any person in my party attending one of your sporting events.” Would any caution-ridden lawyer today dare to send such a letter in response? If you have thoughts on this and would like to continue the conversation, please let me know what you think in the comments field below. A final point on Mr. Usher’s Letters of Note presentation for this exchange. He uses a photo in it of a Cleveland stadium, but it is the new Browns stadium, built and opened in 1999, on the site of the old Municipal Stadium, where I attended games as a boy and worked in 1977.