Page Two: Praise and Lamentation
Saying goodbye and a final thank you to Clifford Antone
The Body: If you've spent any kind of time in the clubs, the first time you visit one during the day can be a seriously disquieting experience. We're specifically talking about a music club, not a restaurant or bar with music. The rooms are dark; beer bottles cover every surface. There used to be an ugly, deep smell of the night before's and all the nights before that's cigarettes. I guess that smell is gone.
Usually, a shard or two of light cuts into the room, emphasizing the pervasive desolation. It's a terrible way to confront a club you love, like looking too closely and for too long into the face of someone whom you just met and are attracted to, discovering they're wearing a whole lot more mileage than you noticed at first. The dark club, dim lighting, the noisy bar, and whatever you've been drinking have conspired against you; earlier thoughts of romance or adventure now turn to those of escape.
During daylight, most clubs look like they are in the process of being torn down or prepared to receive prisoners. They make Cinderella's carriage seem at least still colorful and attractive when it turns back into a pumpkin and the revelation that a Kansas huckster was the Mighty Oz seem minor. In the light of day, the club, devoid of its costume and airs, is empty of emotional textures: just a dank, smelly room full of tables and chairs.
But then comes the evening, and you can't help but believe you had gone to the wrong address that day and had actually been at some other club: Now it is the adventure-inviting stage for the often dramatic and sometimes frenzied reality theatre of each and every night's night-after-night nightlife the bodies, booze, bands, music, desires, tensions, boredom, activities, and lusts swirling against a backdrop of glasses clinking and beer company bar-ad lights.
In great clubs, great nights become common because that mixture is so sweetly textured. Usually these clubs are defined by the personalities of the people who run them.
The Heart: Now, the blues are by nature inherently at odds with themselves; to quote Kris Kristofferson, they are "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." The blues never forget nor forgive pain, loss, and brutal, mundane tragedies, but in their invocation they offer celebration. Lyrics and music are as one, with the music usually being the driving emotional force. The blues are about frustration, loss, hopelessness, failure, oppression, desire, and failed love being of innocence and experience, of condemning sin and encouraging participation in it, of heaven and hell, saints and sinners, as rigid moral guidelines are accepted as God's construction and at the same time ignored. The blues both celebrate and castigate excessive drinking, adultery, sexual activity, lustful behavior, vengeance, and crippling despair.
The blues don't merely accept the more dire and strained side of emotional life, but rather obsess on it, although without being really loyal or confined to its morality. They resist as well as accept tragedy.
More often than not despite the deep pain, personal anguish, and scarring emotional truths being presented they also lyrically catalog lust, desire, and disaster. The music both deepens and more finely contours the canyons of despair, offering no escape but a joyous transcendence a blood-stirring, central-nervous-system connection, independent of logic, which emotionally insists on a greater vision, a more dynamic energy generated by the very ambition of such presentations.
The blues rage against the dying of the light. Sometimes unexpectedly and too quickly, a light is extinguished. Clifford Antone died on Tuesday at the age of 56.
The Soul: "You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul." (Doug Sahm)
There is nothing simple here, no easy analysis or simplistic characterizations. Clifford was a true believer, a preacher in the holy church of American music, a deacon of the community of those who drink, sin, and profoundly repent. Clifford was a soulful confidence man (what great club owner isn't?), a twice-convicted pot dealer, an ex-felon, and someone who lived his life in love with and devoted to music always a street prophet, signing up souls for the blues.
A hustler and a charmer, Clifford was the club's host, its consultant, inspiration, emcee, and even, occasionally, a bass player. A teacher to new generations and a mentor to musicians, he championed the new as he did with Angela Strehli, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds while he honored the great, studied the tradition, and accommodated innovation. He ran a great club, discovered and/or encouraged talent, and helped revive the blues nationally. None of that was done by plan; instead, it was all driven by the love of Clifford's nearly obsessive embrace of the blues. Driven by his heart, Clifford's life was a love affair with the blues, an affair that proved richly rewarding for everyone involved.
Now, in pursuit of fulfilling his heart's ambition, he sometimes went off on campaigns more of the head, involving schemes and plans. Not that Clifford wasn't smart, but in those adventures he had no instincts to trust, no greater passion driving every moment, as he did with the club. Often, those schemes did not end well.
The Man: Clifford could just seem so much larger than life: He was big, usually looking rumpled in a rumpled suit, often wearing a baseball cap on his head. Both of us were the kind who could put on a heavily starched, brand-new shirt and find it rumpled and worn before we finished buttoning it. Clifford was of his club, moving through it, shaking hands, and listening his style so without grounding that he looked like the kind of man always shown running such clubs, whether in the Twenties or the Nineties: not of their time, but of the night and the music.
Sometimes Clifford would fade from being a music legend and club owner into the fan that burned at his core. He would stand by the stage, bouncing up and down, bouncing in anticipation of the music to come or excitement at the music being played. I honestly couldn't tell you if he physically moved or not, but he bounced.
Clifford would get so excited he would run to the front of the stage just to stare at one player or another.
The Club: Clifford Antone didn't care about the room; he knew it was the music, not the woodwork the people, not the putrid color of the too-dark-to-be-perceptible wallpaper. Running a music club was a calling for Clifford, not a business; each evening was a gathering, a spiritual offering of praise and lamentation.
The Music: Clifford loved the blues, and he loved all music. He especially cherished musicians, providing crucial support to the success of so many of them over the years. Every couple of years or so, one night at the club Clifford would enthusiastically squire me over to meet some new teenage musical prodigy.
The News: It was at home, watching the news, when I first heard about Clifford. A gasping sound came from my throat, a slow moan of hurt propelled by a sudden absence of a chunk of my heart. The sound, as much silence as pain, slipped into the night as a prayer.
All across town, sounds escaped from so many lips. The long dark moan came up from out of radio stations, bookstores and coffee shops, clubs, restaurants, and markets. A sound from Hyde Park duplexes, West Side mansions, downtown lofts, and Eastside shotgun shacks, from barbecue joints, band homes, rehearsal halls, and gathering places all over town.
At first, I didn't want to believe it; the story was uncertain. Just a couple of months back, I had heard such heartbreaking news that I decided it was an April Fools' Day joke, staying in denial for almost a week. This time I was determined to do the same, but then I heard a sound like hard ice cracking. I knew it had to be the sound of Susan Antone's heart breaking, and that this loss was real and forever.
I called Margaret Moser. Then she called me back. Clifford was dead at 56.
The tragic news spread; phone calls were made and e-mails sent. The moan snaked its way across the country, growing thicker and darker as it traveled back and forth throughout the night. In Memphis, Chicago, and San Francisco, the long slithering moan found backing choruses, as it did in New York City, Los Angeles, and Nashville. In blues clubs across the country, among musicians whose art was about loss, in a community where pain was never far away and never accepted, the word was spread in heartfelt but inaudible ways.
There have been three times when we changed the Chronicle's cover at the last minute that stand out. Each of these cases involved a death:
Stevie Ray Vaughan
What more can be said once those three names are listed? This is a historic, inspired and inspiring, tragic brotherhood, and each loss is as painful as the others. As the curtain falls on this light, let's just note that the three were friends, and they changed worlds together!