Soul Food for Thought–The History of Stax Records

After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.

Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.

In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.

Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…

which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.

Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.

Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.

Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.

The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,

Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.

Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.

Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some.  I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”

Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.

And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.

With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,

utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.

But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.

In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.

The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;

there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;

but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.

The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–

put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…

In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.

In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.

Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:

By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.

Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.

Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.

Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”

Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.

Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.

Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.

To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.

Continuing:

By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.

Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.

Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.

Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.

When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.

For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”

Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.

Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.

The Stax building was padlocked.

In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.

The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.

The Prodigal Sun

Rolling into West Memphis from Nashville to lay down 3-day roots wasn’t going to be easy. On May 11, the country learned that the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR was shut down after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a 900-foot beam that compromised the bridge’s structural integrity, and it would takes months to complete emergency repairs (oh, infrastructure…wherefore art thou).

All traffic was being rerouted through I-55–a less than desirable 4-lane crossing–that was now backing up for miles in both directions. Leah and I agreed that the only way to avoid traffic mayhem would be to relocate east of the Mississippi.

It was a snap decision with few available options, but we scored a shady site with electricity at F.O Fuller State Park, 2 miles downwind from a sewage processing plant.

We had designs on visiting the National Civil Rights Museum built around the Lorraine Motel,

which was one of only a few hotels that hosted black entertainers of the era, like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside Room 306 on April 4, 1968, making the Lorraine Motel a symbol for the civil rights movement.

We would have liked to tour the museum, but it was closed. So off we went to Sun Studio…

to pay homage to a galaxy of recording stars whose origin stories are etched on acetate discs.

Patrons gathered inside the café waiting for the 45-minute tour to begin. It was a good opportunity to browse the weathered record collection and grab a cold drink.

The tour began on the second floor–at one time a flop house for disadvantaged musicians–where we learned about Sam Phillips’ humble beginnings,

and his role in producing arguably the first rock ‘n roll record in history.

But Sam Phillips was really looking for a white guy, someone who could bridge the gap, someone “with a Negro sound and the Negro feel.”

Fortunately, Marion Keisker, Sam’s business manager/lover was at her desk on July 18, 1953…

when a recent high school grad with long sideburns and a greasy ducktail hairdo walked into the studio with $4 to record My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin as a gift for his mother, Gladys.

Being the only one present at the time, she took a turn at the console to record his demo–her first and only time–and she immediately knew that Elvis Presley was the real McCoy.

Nearly a year later, Sam called Elvis in for an audition supported by upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. After a few sessions of Elvis noodling around, singing different genres of music while strumming his guitar, he stumbled upon an up-tempo blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called That’s All Right (Mama).

The trio eventually worked out a raw arrangement for Sam, and the rest is history.

Next thing, Sam called local DJ Dewey Philips for radio support, and he obliged by playing Elvis’s record 40 consecutive times on WHBQ, at times singing along.

Of course, it was a smash hit…

The tour continued downstairs, inside the fabled studio–where not much has changed–that gave rise to so many legendary careers.

Our guide played refrains of famous tunes recorded at Sun. There was Carl Perkins warbling Blue Suede Shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis belting out Great Balls of Fire, Roy Orbison’s crooning Ooby Dooby, and Johnny Cash intoning I Walk the Line.

Elvis had five hits at Sun Studios: That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and I’m Left, She’s Right, You’re Gone, and they’re on display.

On November 20, 1955, Colonel Parker brokered a record-breaking deal between Sam Phillips and RCA Records for $35,000, with a signing bonus of $5,000 for Elvis.

A year later, on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash reunited at Sun Record Studios for a seminal impromptu jam session dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was history in the making, producing 3 reels of tape.

Our guide delights in telling the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Sun Records.

It is widely known that Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis. The day he arrived in Memphis, he had a car drive him to Sun. Without ceremony, Dylan walked into the studio and asked if it was true that Elvis had stood on the mark on the floor during his recording of That’s All Right. Upon confirmation, Dylan knelt over the spot and kissed the ground, paying respects to his long lost hero.

It’s also been rumored that Dylan later licked the microphone once held by Elvis, but I’m probably not the best qualified person advising Leah when it comes to germs.

Ryman

Nashville seldom disappoints, given the music, the Broadway scene, and the local history and flavor that makes Nashville such a go-to destination for letting loose.

But here we were in Nashville again for a third visit in as many years, and again, there were no concert bookings at Grand Ole Opry during our stay, just as before.

Perhaps, we should make our own music, although we would eventually take the stage at Ryman Auditorium like so many others,

by first taking a self-guided tour of the hallowed hall before having our picture snapped by the gift shop photographer.

Very little has changed since Ryman Auditorium opened…

as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Originally built as a house of worship…

by Thomas Ryman, who made his fortune from a bevy of saloons and a fleet of riverboats,

Ryman found God at a big-top revival, and vowed to build a tabernacle, allowing Nashville folks to attend large-scale revivals indoors.

The balcony opened in 1897, raising capacity to 6,000 worshippers.

Ryman died in 1904, and was celebrated inside his tabernacle. It was at his memorial service that Samuel Porter Jones, the preacher responsible for Ryman’s conversion, proposed the name change to Ryman Auditorium.

While Ryman Auditorium continued as a religious venue, it also opened its doors to popular culture and performing arts as a means of paying the bills, often hosting concerts, speaking engagements, dance recitals and theater, and earning its reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”

The Grand Ole Opry took up residency in 1943, and sold out its weekly shows for the next 31 years, becoming “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

Country music acts performed in front of capacity crowds and reached audiences around the world through radio and television broadcasts, earning them large followings and superstardom. Artists were eager to appear despite the primitive accommodations.

Leah and I took our sweet time as we perused the exhibits note by note, and studied the memorabilia from entertainment royalty…

In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry shuttered its downtown location in favor of a larger, modern venue within a theme park setting, dooming Ryman Auditorium to the wrecking ball. But the historical importance of Ryman, known as the birthplace of bluegrass (and so much more) could not go unnoticed, until the preservationists prevailed, and Ryman was saved from demolition.

After a dormant period of 20 years and new ownership, the exterior was eventually rehabbed and the building’s interior was refurbished and modernized for artists and patrons, restoring it as a world-class concert hall that past and present music legends agree has some of the best acoustics in the world, only adding to Ryman’s mystique and continuing renaissance.

As for Leah and me, all that was left for us to do was smile for the camera and take our final curtain call…

The Remains of ESP

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, returns to life each day as a Philadelphia museum that’s open to the public year-round.

Completed in 1836, the imposing, neo-Gothic-styled architecture by John Haviland was intended to strike fear in all who might consider committing a crime. At the time, it was the most expensive public construction project ever built in the country. Famous inmates included Al Capone and Willie Sutton.

Decommissioned in 1971, ESP now lays in ruin, but awaits all who are fascinated by its unique radial design, towering castle walls and folklore.

Photographer, Tiffani Burchett Nieusma first visited ESP in 2016 and was awed by the unexpected beauty of the decay. Her recorded images eventually paved the way for a future gallery show during September, 2021 with a companion monograph of her work to be published on the subject.

Tiffani is currently seeking written word submissions to complement her photography for exhibition and publication. The deadline is May 31, 2021.

Click on the link to learn more about the submission guidelines.

Having reviewed Tiffani’s album of images, I’ve composed a trilogy of poems that were inspired by three haunting photographs:

L-1001*
Well-worn cells
yell hells of desperation,
as fallen walls recall
a marginal foundation.

L-1011*
Forgotten cots
and thoughts of isolation,
house black-hole souls
with goals of rehabilitation.

P-1013*
Pane glass collapse
with passing generations,
enshrines fine design
defined by desolation.

*All images courtesy of Tiffani Nieusma

Happy Campers

Leah and I are on the road again, continuing our Great American Road Trip–part 4, with some significant changes and improvements.

Last year, during the summer of Trumpandemic, we took an abbreviated trip to upstate New York in search of open outdoor vistas with blue skies and limited exposure to crowds, which we found at Letchworth State Park.

Soon after, we rounded the top of New England to enjoy a requisite Maine lobster dinner…

to dip a toe in the Atlantic on Hampton Beach…

and to gawk at the wealthy from Newport’s Cliff Walk.

We hugged the coastline until we reached Chincoteague, Virginia…

in search of precious ponies…

and to listen to the silence at the Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, VA.

The trip was short (only 5 weeks and far from our ambitious itineraries of past years) yet refreshing, and daring (for all the anticipated COVID closures) yet unremarkable with one notable exception…I wrecked the Airstream in Tarboro, North Carolina.

Halfway to Tignall, Georgia (our final destination) and needing a lunch break and a leg stretch, we stopped at a charming town boasting a historic district of 18th century and antebellum landmark homes recognized by the National Park Service. I parked the Airstream inches from the curb on a narrow residential road across from Blount-Bridgers House, an 1808 Federal-style mansion-cum-museum,

and returned an hour later to continue our journey.

I casually pulled out, unaware that a protruding power pole ID tag had snagged the rear awning support and ripped all the cleats out from the aluminum skin, taking down the entire awning assembly and crushing the end caps to the tune of $17,000.

Thankfully, our insurance completely covered the damage. As we drove our beloved, but bandaged 27FB Flying Cloud to the Tampa Airstream dealer for repair, we considered the possibility of an upgrade should one be available. As luck would have it, a Florida family was trading a 2018 Globetrotter 27FB at the time, pending delivery of their new Airstream by February 2021.

We felt as if we had won the lottery. A deposit was offered on the spot, considering a total lack of previously owned inventory throughout the country.

The deal was sealed in April, when Leah and I picked up our reconditioned summer rig and took it for a dry run in Ruskin, FL in preparation for our summer adventure. We enjoyed the whisper-quiet, ducted AC; the ease of deploying the power stabilizer jacks; the convenience of rolling out the power awning; and the notion that our roof-mounted solar panels could provide us with increased boondocking possibilities.

Join us on the road as we explore 44 destinations (mostly new, sprinkled with some favorites) for the next 20 weeks:

  • May 1: Lake Powhatan/ Asheville, NC
  • May 4: Natural Bridge, VA
  • May 7: Vineland, NJ/ Northern NJ
  • May 12: Philadelphia, PA
  • May 15: Pittsburgh, PA
  • May 18: Jackson Center Airstream Factory/ Dayton, OH
  • May 19: Indianapolis, IN
  • May 21: Nashville, TN
  • May 24: Memphis, TN
  • May 27: Hot Springs/Little Rock AR
  • May 29: Eureka Springs, AR
  • June 1: Oklahoma City, OK
  • June 4: Amarillo, TX
  • June 6: Albuquerque, NM
  • June 10: Taos, NM
  • .June 13: Great Sand Dunes NP, CO
  • June 16: Rocky Mountain NP, CO
  • June 20: Cheyenne, WY
  • June 22: Flaming Gorge, UT
  • .June 25: Bear Lake State Park, UT
  • June 28: Craters of the Moon NP, ID
  • July 1: Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey, UT
  • .July 3: Crystal Crane Hot Springs/ Burn, OR
  • July 4: Bend, OR
  • .July 9: Crater Lake NP, OR
  • .July 12: South Beach State Park, OR
  • July 15: Seaside, OR
  • .July 18: Olympic NP, WA
  • .July 21: Olympic Peninsula, WA
  • July 25: Mount Rainier NP, WA
  • July 28: Bothell, WA
  • Aug 2: North Cascades NP, WA
  • Aug 5: Spokane, WA
  • Aug 8: Glacier NP, MT
  • Aug 12: Great Falls, MT
  • Aug 14: Billings, MT
  • Aug 16: Deadwood, SD
  • Aug 19: Badlands NP, SD
  • Aug 22: Sioux Falls, SD
  • Aug 25: Baraboo, WI
  • Aug 29: Clinton Lake State Rec Area/ Dewitt, IL
  • Sept 1: Land Between Lakes National Rec Area, TN
  • Sept 5: Top of GA Airstream Park
  • Sept. 9: Skidaway Island State Park, GA
  • Sept 15: Home

Yes, we are happy campers!

Car Parts

As an automobile enthusiast, I had occasion to visit the recently opened Classic Car Museum of St. Augustine on a drab weather day. It was a fitting opportunity to take my newly acquired Porsche 718 Cayman out for a drive before the expected rain.

The 30,000 sq. ft. garage displays 80 cars from Sidney Hobbs’ collection,

showcasing every decade through the 20th and 21st century,

with a miscellany of antique and classic cars from private collectors consigned for sale.

While I appreciate the automobile in its entirety, it’s the design nuances that steer me to it–the features of the vehicle that typically connote high style–always balancing the form and function:

like fins from the 50’s;

or hood ornaments;

or lights;

or radiators.

Sometimes the accents serve little purpose…

and sometimes they do.

And sometimes it nothing more than a bunch of hot air.

But the unspoken truth is, none of it really matters unless the car is driven.

Cliffhangers

No tour of Newport, Rhode Island is complete without appreciating the summer “cottages” along the Cliff Walk. The walkway runs 3.5 miles along the Atlantic, offering panoramic views of crashing waves against a craggy seawall…

adorned with massive mansions belonging to America’s 19th-century titans of industry.

Leah and I parked at Easton’s Beach…

and followed clearly marked directions to the trail head,

for a walk through time to reflect on the splendor sponsored by owners during Newport’s Gilded Age.

Designed by a cadre of elite architects of the time, these summer homes represent the stylistic diversity of 200 years of architectural history in Newport, and offer a window into the world of its illustrious owners.

To date, many mansions like Rosecliff have been rescued by Newport Restoration Foundation after having been neglected for dozens of years, and threatened with demolition. Boasting the largest ballroom among its neighbors, Rosecliff has become a popular wedding venue.

The Cliff walk is essentially a pedestrian hike, but can be challenging in places,

with rocky outcroppings…

and unlikely obstacles that require reasonable footwear other than flip flops.

Of course, there are plenty of houses to ogle along 3.5 miles–some that have become museums, like Rough Point…

or repurposed as a Salve Regina University administration building, like Ochre Court…

or converted to condos, like The Waves…

while newer home owners along the walk eschew the notoriety.

But the real entertainment comes from people met along the way–for instance, a sunbathing cliffhanger getting in touch with her inner mountain goat just beyond the 40 Steps marker.

But she was not alone, as Wilson was seen lounging nearby.

Avoiding T.S. Isaias

With Tropical Storm Isaias skirting the Florida coastline, and hundreds of northeast coastal towns preparing for wind-driven rain, subsequent storm surge, and certain power outages, Leah and I are presently gazing at a hypnotic sky across Johnston County, NC.

Rather than wait for bad weather, we put Florida in the rear view mirror in search of blue skies elsewhere. Seven hours of driving north through occasional downpours and lightning strikes across our windshield brought us to Selma, NC, where torrential rain was turning our campsite into an ankle-deep pond.

At first, we waited patiently inside the F-150, but within minutes the rain reduced to a drizzle, giving me a much needed window to set up camp…except for a nearby limb that crushed a power line and prevented us from accessing electricity.

tree limb down

Eventually power was restored by 1 AM, when the AC magically resumed its roar inside our capsule, and delivered timely relief from the incessant humidity.

The following day was hot and steamy. We took a ride into downtown Smithfield–a ghost town of shuttered businesses–

iron cycle

to explore our surroundings, 

Lee's surrender

and happened upon the Ava Gardner Museum. 

Ava Gardner

I would have enjoyed a trip down memory lane with Ava, the area’s favorite sharecropper’s daughter from Grabtown, however the museum was closed due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, all I could do was appreciate her stardom through a pane of glass,

Ava Gardner interior

and wonder how and when it will be safe to go to the movies again.

Wise Guys

Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.



There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

Mt Rushmore1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

Bergen Walking Tour

After docking in Bergen, the Viking Star’s final destination of our 13-day cruise along Norway’s western coastline,

Viking Star at port

Leah and I were ready to explore our surroundings. First we wandered through the 13th century ruins of Bergenhus Fortress,

Holman ruin

maquette (2)

courtyard (3)

before entering Håkon’s Hall…

Haakom Hall facade

to regard the 1950’s restoration of the royal banquet hall that dates to King Magnus’s wedding celebration in 1261,

Haakom Hall

and where all furnishings have subsequently been replaced to commemorate the 700th anniversary of its first use.

arches and furnishings

Our walking tour continued along the Bryggen Wharf, a UNESCO World Heritage site preserving original Middle Aged buildings from the Hanseatic League trading era,

Bryggen Wharf

and the Old Wharf–

Bryggen courtyard

featuring a sea serpent once rumored to venture out from Bergen caves during summer nights to feed on sea traders.

serpent

We strolled across the cobblestones of Øvregaten, Bergen’s one-time market for craftsmen and traders,

cobblestones

but now home to residences,

residences (2)

galleries and specialty shops.

K. Lien

Finally we reached Bergen’s most popular attraction–its Fløibanen,

Floibanen1

a funicular railway taking riders to the top of Mount Fløyen.

Finicular map (3)

We passed through three stations in eight minutes,

mid station

until we finally reached the top.

last stop (2)

Once we got our bearings,

signpost (2)

we were rewarded with a wintry chill and a view that took our breath away…

panorama

unless that was the mountain troll’s doing?

Leah and troll

 

P.S.  This post (my 351st) represents 3 years of blogging! Looking forward to another productive year.

Stavanger

Leah and I crossed a rocky North Sea from Tilbury, England aboard Viking Star (more on this Viking ocean liner later),

cruise port

and docked at Stavanger Port on an overcast morning.

Port Authority

Stavanger is Norway’s third largest region, and best known as the European capital for the oil and gas industry–which explains the town’s Norwegian Petroleum Museum, and its unusual derrick-like design on the city’s waterfront.

petroleum museum

Stavanger is also a popular tourist hub, as it’s the gateway to the fjords. To that end, Leah and I had booked an off-ship excursion to Rogaland to cruise through Lysefjord in search of Preikestolen, better known as Pulpit Rock.

But with some time to kill before our departure, we disembarked early to stroll along the harbor plaza to find our bearings, and regain our sea legs after a day and a half of cruising.

welcome

The plaza was sleepy for an early Wednesday morning, but it was refreshing to have the place to ourselves.

bronze man (2)

We could enjoy the local art (that celebrates the shrimping industry)…

pillar sculpture (2)

without concern for another’s footsteps.

Dalai Lama

We opted to tour the Gamle Stravanger (Old Town), where 173 wooden buildings from the turn of the 18th century have been preserved…

rooftop cluster

down to the cast bronze utility plate covers.

Stavanger 1866A casual walk along Old Town’s winding roads of white cottages…

 

Old Town tree

soon brought us to an end-of-the-road cafe,

cafe

where old begat new,

old town district

and reminded us how far we’ve come…

My Little Ponies

and the distance we’ve traveled.

Our adventure continues…

Photos I Shouldn’t Have Taken

Our time in London was limited–only two days to explore the sights. With so much to see and so little time, Leah and I buckled down for a tour of London’s greatest hits, which easily includes a visit to Westminster Abbey, England’s Gothic royal church, and familiar site for British coronations and weddings, and national celebrations dating back to the 11th century.

WA panorama

We walked around the massive structure until we found the gate entry. Signage informed us that access to this London landmark would set us back 23£ ($30 with current exchange rates), but seniors were entitled to a 3£ discount.

north facade

The price seemed steep, but the opportunity to walk through history doesn’t come along every day.

relief of Christ

There is a strict NO PHOTOGRAPHY policy inside, which the church keepers will tell you is for the benefit of giving their guests an experience without distraction, and to perserve the solemnity of a working house of worship.

Nevertheless, we walked through the transepts and chapels listening to interactive video recordings while admiring the captivating architecture and memorials, and reflecting on the notion that Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton lie beneath our feet.

But with a newly purchased camera dangling around my neck (Sony RX10 IV), I couldn’t resist the urge.

WA main hall

I had to see what this camera could reproduce in low light…

quire

using advanced stabilization software for hand-held shots…

High Altar1

until I was admonished by an Abbey marshal in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel while capturing an overhead view from a polished mirror.

royal tomb room

My bad! He wouldn’t leave my side until I reversed the shade and capped my lens. Even then, I could feel his eyes trained on me as I walked around the royal tombs acting as contrite as I could possibly be.

Fortunately, photography IS allowed in the College Garden,

courtyard

the Cloisters,

cloisters

and the Chapter House.

columnfresco

stained glass reflection

As we prepared to leave through the Great West Door, Leah and I walked past the Grave of the Unknown Warrior toward the Coronation Chair behind glass, I was so tempted to surreptitiously point and shoot…but thought better of it. Lesson learned.

As serendipity would have it, the Marshal and I reunited outside, and all was forgiven.

marshall

We parted as friends, and I believe I was absolved for my vainglory sin. He used our final moments together to tell us the tale of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, his favorite modern martyr, whose ediface adorns the Abbey’s Great West Door.

Elizabeth

According to Marshal John…

Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt was born on 1st November 1864. She was named after Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Catholic saint of her own family. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live under the protection of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. If her childhood was Lutheran, the religious culture of her adolescence was distinctively Anglican. In 1884 Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Elizabeth found Orthodoxy increasingly absorbing, and in 1891 she adopted the faith.

Although her life had assurance and all the comforts of eminence, it rested on fragile foundations. The Tsarist state maintained its grip over a changing society by repression. Talk of revolution persisted, and grew louder. Acts of terrorism mounted. On 18th February 1905, the Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated.

This marked a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. Now she gave away her jewellery and sold her most luxurious possessions, and with the proceeds she opened the Martha and Mary home in Moscow, to foster the prayer and charity of devout women. Here there arose a new vision of a diaconate for women, one that combined intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. In April 1909 Elizabeth and seventeen women were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy. Their work flourished: soon they opened a hospital and a variety of other philanthropic ventures arose.

In March 1917 the Tsarist state, fatally damaged by the war with Germany, collapsed. In October, a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, seized power. Civil war followed. The Bolshevik party was avowedly atheistic, and it saw in the Orthodox Church a pillar of the old regime. In power, it persecuted the Church with terrible force. In time, hundreds of priests and nuns were imprisoned, taken away to distant labour camps, and killed. Churches were closed or destroyed. On 7th May 1918 Elizabeth was arrested with two sisters from her convent, and transported across country to Perm, then to Ekatarinburg, and finally to Alapaevsk. On 17th July the Tsar and his family were shot dead. During the following night Elizabeth, a sister from SS Mary and Martha named Varvara, and members of the royal family were murdered in a mineshaft.

In the Soviet Union Christianity survived in the face of periodic persecution and sustained oppression. But Elizabeth was remembered. In 1984 she was recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.

I’m certain that Saint Elizabeth, in her charity, would have pardoned me too.

Western Towers

To avoid taking interior photos of Westminster Abbey, go to https://www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/photo-gallery for complementary images.

Impressions of Tate Modern

Leah and I could not leave London without visiting Tate Modern, a post-industrial power plant repurposed to house a wide collection of global artists, past and present, who conceptualize their vision through a variety of mediums.

These are only a sampling of my impressions of their work and installations…

Welcome

entrance

fountain

yarn

the whole world

Who Owns What

blinds

Basalt columns

Roy (3)

Sabra and Shatila Massacre

kids and painting

missiles (2)

DM 1 (2)

Amazon innoculants

tower of music

escalators

 

 

Wynwood Walls

Miami Beach was too overcast and blustery to spend time by the ocean,

Ocean Drive

and the hotel pool was too chilly to swim…

underwater (3).jpg

so Leah and I took an excursion to Wynwood Walls to survey the graffiti draped across Miami’s warehouse district.

Artists of the Walls (2)

While there is plenty to see and appreciate within the gates…

shapes and splatter (2)

reclined alligator jaw

piper cat

painted wall and rock

Kobra corner

eyes nose and teeth

faces

…and inside the containers…

gearshark

Ray by Kobra.jpg

a walk around the neighborhood delivers an extended impression of what can happen when an idea catches fire,

The World Is Yours

hose plant wall

long man

garage

Basquiat and Warhol

BAR

angry storefront

electric lines and hope

and ignites a movement that transcends artistic boundaries and property lines.

Harpers Ferry–Then and Now

One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.

confluence

The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.

barrels

However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.

trestle

In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,

militia

yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.

St. Peters

Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),

Heyward Shepherd memorial.jpg

five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.

questioning after capture

John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

trial

Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

hanging

How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.

John Brown (2)

John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,

Appalachian Trail

…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.

stone stairs to heaven


The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.

Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.

white house

And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.

As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,

church nave (2)

while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.

If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

gravesite

Sounds remarkably familiar.

More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.

floating

Bayernhof

“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.

We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–

chandelier

befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.

floor mosaic

Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),

father figure

and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.

Charlie

After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.

Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.

overlook

However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–

painted glass ceiling

featuring 6 bedrooms…

guest bedroom

8 bathrooms, 3 full-sized kitchens, 12 wet bars, 10 fireplaces…

bedroom

a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…

observatory

a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,

basement cave

a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…

swimming pool

a wine celler with a working copper still…

wine cellar

a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…

pool room

a home office…

office desk

and a boardroom (only used twice)–

boardroom

his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.

Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.

A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:

 

 

 

As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.

Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.

Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…

 

 

 

and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since.

Charlie would have been very pleased.

I know I was.

 

 

15 Minutes of Fame

I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.

It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.

When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.

Debbie Harry

Warhol's Debbie Harry

He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.

“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.

These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,

HS portrait (3)

through his productive New York days,

New York graphic artist

until his demise in 1987.

The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:

“…900 paintings;

Flowers (2).jpg

Lizs'

Judy

Aretha

Jackie

portraits (8)

Elvis

Skull

…approximately 100 sculptures;

brands boxes

Clouds1

…nearly 2,000 works on paper;

Campbell's Soup tryptic

…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;

8 varieties of soup

…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”

The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;

wall of fruit

skulls

…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.

 

Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of  female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”

torsos (2)

That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.

elephantorsos (2)

Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.

silkscreening

silkscreen

While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.

Sizing Up the Mattress Factory

The cultural evolution of Pittsburgh’s North Side began with the Mattress Factory–an anchor and incubator for contemporary art that’s been cutting the experimental edge of international expression by artists for artists since 1977.

Mission statement

Just a short walk from Randyland, the Mattress Factory factors heavily in site-specific installations occupying a collection of once-abandoned, but rehabilitated properties that have contributed greatly to the economic development and revitalization of a once-depressed community.

timeline

Not knowing what to expect, Leah and I dropped in during a transitional time for the museum, when much of the Main Building was undergoing preparation in anticipation of a late September opening.

But what we saw pushes the boundaries of form and information, while pushing the buttons of eccentric taste and interpretation.

Two outlying row houses housed separate exhibits. Our exploration began at the Monteray Annex…2nd Home statementstorage

chair on bricks

easel chair

…and continued at the Sampsonia Annex…

MFAnnex
Loper statement
Loper installation

…before returning to the Main Building, where we followed the advice of an admissions clerk, and started on Floor 3 for a look at Yayoi Kusama’s two rooms…Kusama statementcircles

Leahquin

…followed by a voyeuristic installation by Greer Lankton.Lankton statementbedroom

When the elevator dropped us at Floor 2, we paused long enough in the darkened foyer for our eyes to adjust, before feeling our way through a serpentine corridor that guided us to James Turrell’s light projections.Turrell statement3-D form

blue rectangle

We finished our tour with a stroll around a compact courtyard garden designed by Winifred Lutz.

garden

While not as exhaustive as a Whitney Museum Biennial, the Mattress Factory holds a firm place in the art world, where artists can dream and “create remarkable works of art that help us see the world in a fresh and different way.”

Randy’s Pot of Gold

Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.

Randy

He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.

He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”

torsos and painted rocks].jpg

He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”

garden gate

Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.

red knight

Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.

swan planters

“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.

stairs (2)

But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.

“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”

The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident). 

land beach

An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.

Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.

Randy house

That was the genesis of Randyland…

Randyland entry

a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,

Welcome to Randyland

People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.

every which way

They stop by for the novelty…

belonging

for the vibe and the energy…

sandbox

and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.

knit fish

Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”

Randy with paint photo.jpg

Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;

neighbor paint

and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.

rainbow pergola (2)

What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.

Neal-Leah-Randy

Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:

“Hey, pretty mama…”

“I love your weave…”

“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”

signpost

Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.

Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.

Say cheese

It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.

Cleveland Rocks

The sole reason Leah and I traveled to Cleveland was to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, period…

and it didn’t disappoint.

Cleveland Rocks

exterior

Leah and sign (2)

Classic rock music filled the cavernous lobby…

Power of Rock

and lighter-than-air concert props hung from cables…

Pink Floyd plane
Pink Floyd’s plane

Phish hot dog
Phish’s weiner

U2 cars
U2’s cars

It was a crusty carnival atmosphere on the outside, but we were there for the gooey goodness of the center.

Evolution of Rock

Inside was like a multi-media circus. There was so much information and memorabilia organized on the walls, on the ceilings, and inside floating kiosks that whiplash seemed inevitable. And the Hall was buzzing: with so many tourists, campers, musicians, and music enthusiasts, that at times it felt like a mosh pit, as I moved from one area to another.

To be expected, there was a tribute to Woodstock…

Yasgur Farm Dairy

Woodstock poster

and Dick Clark…

WGN TV

a salute to the 2019 inductees…

2019 inductees

and the icons of rock: Elvis,

Elvis

The Beatles,

The Beatles

Burning the Beatles

The Rolling Stones,

Rolling Stones

and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.

Jimi Hendrix sound board

Hendrix guitars

There was plenty of concert apparel to gush about…

 

Tom Petty hat
Tom Petty

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

Stevie Wonder shirt
Stevie Wonder

Elton John jumpsuit
and Elton John

And there were interactivities to capture one’s creativity, like Garage Band.

Garage Band

Most importantly, when the last lyric was sung and the last chord was strummed, it was time to shop!

Gift shop lore

Because in our own minds, we are Rock Stars, 

mugs-1.jpg

and Rock Rebels!Rock Rebel