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).
Readers of this blog may recall the contribution I made last year to the book Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern,” a personal essay about a bluesman I followed avidly all the years I lived in my hometown. Now, less than a year after the book’s release, the enterprise has gone so well that the editors of the collection are planning to create an an online magazine, Belt, that will expand the concept of the book in to a continuing forum for writing about Cleveland, and more broadly, the Industrial Midwest. Co-editor Anne Trubek has announced a Kickstarter campaign to which I will make a contribution, and I encourage you to consider doing the same. With three weeks to go before their deadline they’ve already gained pledges that take them to more than half of their $5,000 goal. Like me, you’re probably receiving a lot of requests like this these days–this is definitely one worth offering your support. Here’s a link to the Kickstarter page with a video about Belt.
New Year’s Day I began to feel creeping over me one of the viruses that’s been forcing so many people to their beds. Day One’s utter tiredness soon morphed into a stomach bug. After three semi-miserable days, by Thursday night, Jan. 3, I was finally well enough to venture out of the apartment. I’d been building myself up to enough of a rally that I hoped I could manage at least a couple hours out in public. I was scheduled to be among the readers at a long-planned night of readings from Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, to which I’d contributed, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern.” I’d been looking forward to it since RBC co-editor Anne Trubek asked if I wanted to be part of the event. What’s more, I’d invited friends who said they’d be there–I couldn’t not show up. Still, not feeling good yet, I let Jason Diamond, host of the reading series Vol. 1 Brooklyn know that I’d been ill and asked if he could slot me in early on the program, in case I had to bail or something. He was great about it, putting me first. I appreciated this. I used to often speak up first in classes, and have never minded being in that spot.
The reading room at Public Assembly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a big darkish space with rows of folding metal chairs, some upholstered benches, and lights above and behind a wide stage on one side. Jason introduced the program by revealing his geographic own roots–not Cleveland but Chicago. He said that to a kid like him growing up in Chicago–while parts of the nearby Midwest clearly identified with something: Minnesota=hockey; Wisconsin=the Packers; Detroit=the Pistons, who Bulls fans hated–about Cleveland–even less was certain. It struck me that while Chicago may have its widely reputed Second City issues, it’s always the First City of the Midwest. After Jason read the brief bio about me that I’d provided, he brought me up to the stage. As I set my talking script on a music stand next to the mic I looked out across the chairs and found I couldn’t see anything or anybody. Those lights above the stage were now all behind me, leaving me peering in to a black cavern. I was a bit unsettled, not having presented somewhere like this before. When I speak, say, at a publisher’s sales conferences, I rely on eye contact with the book reps to know how my points and pitches are landing. I had some lines in my script I hoped would prompt a few laughs, or a tear, but the delivery was going to be tricky under the circs. No problem, I thought, I know people are still sitting there, even if I can’t see anyone. With that, I launched in to the piece:.
Growing up in the hotbed of rock n’ roll that was Cleveland in the 60s and 70s, I began going to hear live music before I had even turned fourteen.
This was exciting. I could feel confidence growing in the crowd that they were going to be hearing something interesting. Their interest seemed to grow as I read and talked the piece over the next six minutes. At about the midpoint, I revealed a visual aid I had brought–my copy of the album that gave my essay its name, “Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern.” This drew an appreciative titter from the crowd. I wrapped up with these two graphs:
In reporting this piece, I interviewed Cleveland musician Alan Green, with whom Stress played live gigs as late as 2010. He reminded me that Stress was born a minute after midnight on New Year’s Day in 1943, and was feted as Cleveland’s firstborn of the new year—a fitting birth for a bluesman if you remember bluesmen singing the lyric about the fabled character, “born the 7th son of a 7th mother on the 7th day.” Clearly, Stress had a suitable pedigree for a bluesman. Alan’s reminder that Stress had long ago been a New Year’s baby brought back a flood of rich memories from great New Year’s Eve shows when Stress and revelers raucously marked a new year and Bill’s birthday.
Living in New York City today I remain a devotee of going out to hear live music, a happy habit I formed forty years ago listening to Mr. Stress. I must add that after Rust Belt Chic was published last fall, Stress read my essay and we’ve been reunited via telephone and the Internet, after more than 25 years being out of touch. He’s very glad to see his career remembered in this book. Even with macular degeneration, he still reads voraciously with the aid of voice-enabled software. We were in touch on his birthday two days ago, his 70th, and he knows I’m presenting his story here tonight.
I felt good delivering this tribute. It was mete and right to honor Mr. Stress who warrants more homage and notoriety for having given so much to the blues and Cleveland’s live music scene over many decades. As I added for the crowd, Stress’s impaired vision may be at least partly attributable to his music-making, for he told a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter in 2011,
“I woke up one morning and. . . I had lost a third of my vision. I’ve heard it comes from [a harmonica player] blowing so hard, you pop blood vessels. I can’t drive or get around as well. But it ain’t stopping me from playing the blues.”
As I finished I glanced up from my pages and looked into the darkness. A soft “Whew” and a whistle came from the audience, then an uprush of clapping. I was amazed at how long the applause lasted, seeming to go on for many seconds. I couldn’t have asked for a more attentive audience, or a more appreciative reception.
I was followed by six other readers, five of whom were contributors to Rust Belt Chic, all former Clevelanders, and one guest Michigander, who told a story about Detroit. It was a grand night, made grander by the boisterous crowd, easily more than 50 people–this, only three nights after New Year’s Eve–Jason Diamond‘s inspired MCing; and stellar presentations.
The order in which the seven of us read, from last to first is pasted in below, with our bios as they were provided to Jason, readers’ relevant links, and a brief note on the topics each of us presented. I made an audio recording and if I’m able, will later share my reading on Mr. Stress. I want to thank certain friends who came to the event: Bridget Marmion, of Your Expert Nation, a book marketing firm with which I am also associated ; Daniel Zitin, independent editor, and his son Benjamin; and Peter Ginna and George Gibson, of Bloomsbury Publishing (they are also colleagues with RBC contributor, Pete Beatty, who was the evening’s last reader.). Copies of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology were sold that night, and you can buy it too, from Cleveland-area retailers, online booksellers, and the RBC website. I urge you to support this unique expression of community literary spirit.
Meantime, if you want to read my essay pretty much as I delivered it Thursday night, please find it at the post below this one here on The Great Gray Bridge. You may also click on this link for the complete post with photos, the contributor bios and their topics of discussion.
Essay text, as read and spoken by me on January 3, 2013 for the Rust Belt Chic event at Public Assembly, Williamsburg in the Vol. 1 Brooklyn reading series. A related post, a blog piece on the whole evening, may be read via this link. Copies of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology may be purchased from Cleveland-area retailers, online booksellers, and the RBC website. I urge you to support this unique expression of community literary spirit.
“Growing up in the hotbed of rock n’ roll that was Cleveland in the 60s and 70s, I began going to hear live music before I had even turned fourteen. Music Hall, with its fixed rows of seats trimmed in maroon velvet was a regular venue for bills such as Cream with Canned Heat; the Grateful Dead with the New Riders of the Purple Sage; Traffic; John Mayall; the Allman Brothers; and The Band, among many other acts. In 1972, just after turning eighteen, then Ohio’s legal drinking age, I began to discover live music venues that were even more fun as a hang-out than Music Hall.
On the eastern edge of University Circle, near Euclid Avenue and Ford Road was a squat red building known as the Brick Cottage, where I discovered that Mr. Stress, a venerable Cleveland bluesman often performed. Stress dubbed this club the “sick brick,” a rueful yet fond homage to the many nights of alcoholic excess committed within its walls. Mr. Stress was the Paul Butterfield of Cleveland—a white bluesman who sang and played harmonica and led his band with an unerring sense of what made the blues so entertaining and sustaining to live music lovers. He was always comfortable on stage with a cohort of diverse sidemen, young and old, black and white, tattooed players and professorial piano players.
In 1973, I went off to Franconia College in New Hampshire. By 1978, when I returned to Cleveland full-time, Stress and his band had moved up the block to the Euclid Tavern, at Euclid & 116th Street where they joined forces every Wednesday and Saturday night for a long-running residency. This club, a lot larger than the ‘Brick,’ included a central music room with a low stage for the band in front of a dance floor, an outdoor area in back, plus a basement bar. It was a veritable cruise ship of nightlife. During breaks between sets I often made new friends in my ambles around the lively deck. In the room opposite the stage was the main bar, a wide hitching post of a drinks station where multiple bartenders pulled beer taps and poured liquor. Above them was a sign that became a lifetime motto for me: ‘It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re on the ground with the turkeys.’
Mr. Stress—real name Bill Miller—was a TV repairman by day. ‘Stress,’ as most knew him, was a big reader, a history buff who avidly consumed books, including many on the Vietnam War and military history. In 1978, when my family and I began running Undercover Books, a bookstore in Shaker Hts., I’d order Nam books that Stress asked me about and bring them to the club for him. (Sometimes he paid for them, sometimes I just gave them to him–my personal payback to Stress for the enrichment he always lent the local music scene.)
Like me, many Stress fans came to the Euclid Tavern every week. I was friends with Danny Palumbo, who got around in a wheelchair. Danny worked for the State of Ohio in workplace compliance for accommodating the disabled. Never hindered in his enjoyment of the fine blues that Mr. Stress and the band put out, Danny would dance in his chair along with everyone else crowding the floor, boogieing to up-tempo numbers like “Crosscut Saw” and “Firing Line,” or swaying to laments such as the mournful ‘Black Night,’ when guest sax player Mal Barron would sometimes sit in. Danny had a colorful way of talking about the female friends he’d meet each week at the bar, and I recall him once saying of a certain Tanya, a particularly cute and curvaceous regular, that given the chance he’d eagerly ‘drink her bathwater.’
Another Stress fan I saw just about every week was Michael Lloyd, an African-American friend who like me had for a time worked at Municipal Stadium. We met when we were each vendors for Indians ballgames. I sold beer, Michael sold hot dogs. I did it for one summer, he did it for several and then moved in to the season ticket office. He was a tall and handsome fellow, with a smooth manner and sweet speaking voice. I thought of him as the Euclid Tavern’s Smokey Robinson of. He was a sharp dresser and a great dancer, and always drew to himself the prettiest, most statuesque new female visitors to the club. They would walk into the place, clearly wondering what this rough and raw place was all about; Michael would spot them and deftly take them under his wing for the night.
Stress enjoyed bantering with his bandmates and regulars got to know his repertoire very well. As Stress would reach the punch line to one of his hoary gags, a bartender would chime the tip bell, a badda-boom underlining the corny humor. One of Stress’s favorite lines was, ‘The more you drink, the better we sound.’
In the early 80s, Stress put out an album, ‘Mr. Stress Live at the Euclid Tavern.’ Here’s my copy of the LP, which I listened to while composing these recollections. I bought it before moving to New York City permanently in 1985. When visiting family back home, I would sometimes return to the club. Except for Stress with a new band, I never saw my old friends. It seemed people had moved on. As years passed, I occasionally wondered if he was still playing at the Euclid Tavern, or playing in Cleveland at all. I also wondered if the Euclid Tavern was still standing, even as the rest of University Circle underwent many makeovers and Cleveland picked itself up off the mat of urban decline time and again. While reporting this piece, I found a phone number for the establishment and asked a bartender if Mr. Stress still played there. Sounding a bit surprised, he replied, ‘No, he hasn’t played here for a couple years.’
Next I spoke with Plain Dealer reporter John Petkovic who’d written a 2011 story about Stress. He’d reported then that in 1993 the musician had had a heart attack. Stress also told Petkovic, ‘I woke up one morning and. . . I had lost a third of my vision. I’ve heard it comes from [a harmonica player] blowing so hard, you pop blood vessels. I can’t drive or get around as well. But it ain’t stopping me from playing the blues.’
Petkovic referred me to Alan Greene, a Cleveland musician who played gigs with Stress as late as 2010. Alan told me Stress is still living and now considers himself in ‘semi-retirement.’ Alan also mentioned that New Year’s Day 2013 Stress will turn seventy, which brought back a flood of rich memories from great New Year’s Eve shows when Stress and revelers raucously marked a new year and Bill’s birthday. Alan also mentioned that when Stress was born, a minute after midnight on New Year’s Day in 1943, he was feted as Cleveland’s firstborn of the new year—a fitting birth for a bluesman if you think of Muddy Waters singing about the fabled blues character ‘born the 7th son of a 7th mother on the 7th day.’ Clearly, Mr. Stress had an auspicious pedigree for a bluesman.
Living in New York City today I remain a devotee of going out to hear live music, a happy habit I began forty years ago listening to Mr. Stress. I must add that after Rust Belt Chic was published, Mr. Stress read my essay and we’ve been reunited via telephone and the Internet after more than 25 years being out of touch. He’s very glad to see his career remembered in this book. Even with macular degeneration, he still reads voraciously with aid of voice-enabled software. We were in touch on his birthday New Year’s Day and he knows I’m presenting his story here tonight.”
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) December 27, 2012
Happy to share the above tweet, and expand upon it. Next Thursday, January 3, 2013, at Public Assembly, 70 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, near the Bedford Street station stop of the ‘L’ train in Williamsburg, a posse of Clevelanders, some transplanted to NYC, and others just visiting, will read from Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. I will be presenting my contribution to the book, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern,” a personal essay on a venerable bluesman I followed avidly the years I lived in Cleveland. I hope to see you there!
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!
Delighted to see that Rust Belt Chic, the book to which I contributed an essay, “Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern,” is getting lots of coverage. One of the best parts of writing the essay has been that it’s put me back in touch with the venerable Cleveland bluesman, Mr. Stress, whom I followed avidly for many years.
This week, Andrew Sullivan’s blog at The Daily Beast website, The Dish, wrote about Rust Belt Chic in a piece called “Between Ruin and Rebirth,” citing the book and Roger Ebert’s review of a new documentary, “Detropia.” Fitting, with the Tigers beating the Yankees on Thursday and advancing to the World Series. Relatedly, Friday’s NY Times brought a smart essay by Bill Morris, on the recent rejuvenation of Detroit’s downtown. It seems that the topic of urban decline and rebirth is never far from the collective mind.
Rust Belt Chic has also been covered by Karen D. Long, Book Editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a weekend piece, “‘Rust Belt Chic’ warms to scruffy, problematic Cleveland”. Long writes that the community enterprise that fueled the book “resembled a pop-up civic action.” Typifying this approach, co-editors Anne Trubek and Richey Piiparinen asked all the contributors–in the event that the book sells well enough to make back its expenses and reaches profitability–if we would want an honorarium payment, or prefer to plow our earnings into another indie project to be chosen from among book ideas presented by the contributors, with one (or if we’re really fortunate, more than one) project being chosen for funding. I have a ready book idea–a new volume to be culled from the Guinness Book of World Records-recognized diary of Edward Robb Ellis, whose A Diary of the Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist, I edited and published in 1995. I am happy to have chosen the latter option.
In case you missed an item I put up last month, one of my fellow Rust Belt Chic contributors is Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author. In the past year, she left the Plain Dealer while for her husband Sherrod Brown’s run for re-election to the US Senate from Ohio. A few weeks ago, on the Rust Belt Chic Facebook page, I saw this note from Ms. Schultz:
“Sherrod didn’t get home until after midnight last night, but as soon as he saw my newly arrived stack of ‘Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology,’ he had to pick up a book and take a look. ‘Wow,’ he said, over and over, as he recognized one writer’s name after another, read aloud some of the titles and marveled at the photos.” Here’s my whole piece, “Senator Sherrod Brown ♥s “Rust Belt Chic”.
I hope you buy the book as a print or a digital edition, or get one of each, not simply because you want to support this communal effort, but because it offers thirty-five fine examples of narrative journalism, chronicling a distinctive part of the country that is too often overlooked on the literary and cultural map. I also urge you to follow the book’s Twitter feed, @rust-belt-chic. On my own Twitter feed, @philipsturner, I’ve started a hashtag, #MrStress. You may also ‘like’ the Rust Belt Chic Facebook page. Thank you for supporting this exciting experiment in cultural urban renewal.
Finally, I got word today that there will be a public event with Rust Belt Chic contributors in Brooklyn, NY, on January 3. I hope to be there, reading from my essay on Mr. Stress. More details when I have them.