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Ray McNiece

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Road diary


Back on the road, and then back again. Scroll down...


historical entries, past road trips...

Road Diary. January 28th, Decatur, Kodac's Abode

The sun gonna shine through my back door someday...like today, as I slide open kodac's glass door and let it flow January sunshine and birdcalls I haven't heard since last fall in Ohio through. Pale light gleams off the evergreen myrtle and ivy in the otherwise sere woods back of his house. I'll walk down the swale to the creek in a while to stretch my legs before climbing into the mustang after rush-hour abates this evening and head for Savannah for an overnight crash before heading to Orlando where the 2003 Floridaze tour starts in earnest. It's a chilly, by their standards, 47 degrees here where I'm recuperating from the first legs of this tour at streetpoet, songwriter Kodac Harrison's beat flophouse here in Decatur on the outskirt of Hotlanta. We met in the early 90s during my first foray here when I performed at Slyvia's Art of the Century, a funky little gallery that provided my entry into the alternative scene and have since become beatnik brothers. In a bit of synchronicity he's also sporting a goatee these days -- so I guess you could call us a couple of beatnik billygoat brothers. He's off at work painting. We share that rent-making trade also, though I haven't lifted a brush for over 10 years now, preferring to make my dough by falling on my behind in cafegymtorium floors for kids from one end to the country to the other. But I know Humpty Dumpty is not going to get up one of these days soon. My stint in Florida will only be a mere three weeks this year, which may seem a paradisal episode for Cleveland's weathered the long grey frigid winter, but is considerably less than my usual 2 month sojourns.

I've hunkered down here at Kodac's for the last two days to recuperate from the first two long legs of this year's tour that included gigs at the North Carolina School for the Arts Saturday night, and at Java Monkey here in Decatur on Sunday night, the same time at the stupor bowls collective hypnosis of simulated warfare and deluge of 2 million dollar 30 second commercials. In spite of that we had a packed house and a listening audience. Kodac backed me up with some blues on the opening number, hometown haunt, which includes a couple stanzas on meeting ex-football all stars in a bar we used to hang out in. Appropriate for Stupor Bowl Sunday. I threw in a fictitious score between poems that had the Browns beating the bucks by huge margins. I did Definition of Making a Living Cleveland Ohio just after that, then the song I Can See the City which was featured on Faces of Steel, a documentary of the Steel Industry that aired last year just as LTV, the last mill in Cleveland, was closing. After that I transitioned to a couple of pieces about Kerouac, Letter Left On the Porch (which is featured on the website) and Kerouac Walk, a new song poem about walking with his ghost through College Park. I talked a little about the impending war and did Memorial, a poem dedicated to my niece, an agent orange baby, and Billy Pentacost, a Gulf War Vet. I followed that with The Word and e.

To backtrack, I barreled out of Cleveland two and half hour after my high noon estimated time of getting the hell out of icebox due to me finishing up a proposal to retrace Kerouac's journeys cross-country immortalized in On the Road. I hoping to get the Kerouac Project and its principal benefactor to fund a tour of city appropriate excerpts from jack's work along with my own beat-inspired poems backed by local bands in an 8 city three week tour starting in Lowell and going to NYC, Asheville, New Orleans, Denver, Frisco, Chi-town and back to Cleveland.

It would commemorate his journey and also promote the Kerouac project, and, in the spirit of wanderlust, be kicks in the great holy goof tradition. So, I dropped that in a frozen mailbox and hit the trail, driving through three walls of nearly white out flurries until I got out of the greater Cleveland area. I just want to assure everyone, the sun does still shine. Just south of Canton it peeped out. Well, a ghostly wafer thereof, before the grey lake affect pall pulled back over its wan face. A pale mint swallowed by the maw of winter. Then, as I crossed the Ohio, it burst forth through snow laden cumulus clouds that nearly scrapped the West Virginia Hills in a great organ chord Hallelujah that lighted this haiku just past Eden's Fork Road

In a holler along the freeway,
sunset shines on grey warped barn
and white chapel door

The fortuitous last gasp of winter sun vision of my late start. Well, that's the spirit of the road, improv, make it up as you go along, that thrill of adventure of what's around the bend which makes one want to go down Eden's Fork Road, conjuring images of snake's tongue or a split that goes toward paradise or perdition and you don't know which is which, or maybe adam's rib is down in the holler there accompanied by his high lonesome moan. Yes, the late start would come back to haunt me. I wanted to get through the desolate wide winding West Virginia turnpike while there was still the limited daylight sayings time. No go.

Just on the other side of Charleston, the state capital golden dome glowing with the last lingering light of day, I pulled off on MacCorkle Ave. I had down a residency for middle schoolers for six weeks up at that end of the chemical alley that is the upper Kanawha Valley years back. Stayed in a vintage hotel with Christine Lassiter, activist poet playwright who has since passed on, and wanted to pass by to pay my respects to that memory. I didn't see her before she was gone and that haunts me to this day. She was so committed to helping kids. So I stopped there to eat the leftover omelet I had brought from my late breakfast in downtown Willoughby before i left and watched the river carry those memories to wherever rivers carry such things, to the deep blue sea I reckon. Then I swigged some green tea ginseng bottle of fuel and prepared for the dark snake of the west by god turnpike on the coldest night they've had in years...I never made it even to the pike. A few miles before i noticed the hot gauge in the red and started to smell anti-freeze...luckily I pulled off before i got on the unpeopled hills of the pike. My thermostat must have frozen. An hour later, after checking my hoses and consulting with the aged cashier of a gas station/convenience store in the shadow of a petro-chemical mill about the possibilities of a tow (she consulted an even older security guard who had a nephew with a truck, pretty soon everybody and their cousin was in on the trouble). 

Road Diary, January 30th, O-town (Orlando) Lake Adair, not far from Jack's House

Long haul down from Atlanta all day yesterday, 75 mph steady on I-75 7 hours with an hour stretch my legs break walking around the GIANT $3 BOOK SALE in valdosta, a scam, don't fall for it, mostly drek, but did find a les roberts mystery I'll read on the beach in the keys. Then back in the 'stang that's wobbling a little due to the snow tires I put on just before christmas and didn't dare take off before i left...need to get them balance. This car has cruise control which is easier on the repetitive motion injury right strained achilles tendon, knee bone connected to the hip bone etc so that the day after those long hauls i count my bones to see if any rattled off in transit. Wonderful First Floridays sunset as I rolled across the causeway just past Gainesville, lighting up Payne's prairie wildlife preserve, the real floriday before it was inundated by gated communities. Visiting there years back I asked the ranger what special sights I should be keen for, and he told me the Buffalo were around. I thought he was pulling my leg, but sure enough, midway through my hike I looked up at a herd, Bulls First, trundling towards me on the savannah trail. Well, one of the secrets of life is get outa the way.

Magnificent and noble creatures. Pondered that memory (and how they hell they got there...a lost tribe from the plains?) as I drove on through Ocala down the pike towards Orlando. Drove right up to Shady lane and Clausen, Jack's place, where the current writer in residence, Linda from Hollywood via Michigan, was waiting. She's been a journalist but is 50 pages in to her novel set in the fifties, appropriate for the period furnishings of the house, 1957, the year On the Road, one of those Great American Novels, was published. I went up the ABC Liquor store across the road from the Princeton Diner where Kerouac allegedly used to eat breakfast, and bought a bottle of beaujolais so we could tip a few back with the spirit of Jack. She's staying in the back bedroom where Jack he slept because she brought her cat along and the agreement says no pets. But they had an emergency board meeting and decided since jack liked cats so much it was cool. I soaked my bones in the tub threw down some advil and went to bed.

So here I set the next morning at Lake Adair -- the roadway around it under construction...so not the idyllic return I had hoped for. I walked the circumference to stretch out my g-force compacted spine. Bachellorette real estate agents in brand new SUVs with cell phones glued to their heads cruised by the shoreline estates, further along 3rd generation Italian-American masons are refurbishing stucco, round the bend a black crew pours a curb, as latin-american workers blow grass clippings off lawns in front of houses that don't really look lived in, but more like ads for better homes and gardens. It's America as gated community here at the beginning of the 21st century...ah Jack, whither goest thou America, in thy shiny car in the night, in your mad pursuit of happiness, did you lose true freedom's sight? 

Road Diary, Lake Ivanhoe, College Park, January 31st

Well if you're going to be depressed, a 72 degree blue sky florida morning 'neath spanish moss swaying at the end of january is a good place to feel it. Debacle of a performance last night at Broken Speech. Since I appeared here last year a theatre company has moved in upstairs and it just so happened their opening night was the same night as the poetry gig...so no mic to begin with, then we had to wait til intermission to start and by the time that died down and we did start, I was a third of the way through my set when the theatre manager sent a do not applaud flyer through the crowd, followed by him just shutting the whole shebang down...so we sit and wait for the 2nd act to finish, then there's a talk-back so around 11:30 we're allowed to start up again...proving once again the once noble vocation of poet has been reduced to the poor red-headed step child of the arts. Seems i was projecting through the walls, had to over the hiss of the espresso machine, though i couldn't hear anything from the play. The barrista said it best, they pay the rent. Cheapskate poets strike again..."can I have a water, extra ice..." Ironically I was in the middle of the Kerouac poem (Letter left on the porch of the Kerouac house...cf webpage) , a tribute to the power of quietude, that they shut the reading down. So this is what it comes down to...And the set started with such promise, with "hometown haunt" a blues bar poem with its football references appropriate to the Super Bowl buccaneers of Tampa. Adam the barrista backed me up on the guitar. Then "Definition of Making a Living, Cleveland, Ohio," kind a lets people know where I'm coming from, followed by I "I can See the City' song that was featured on the Faces of Steel documentary on PBS. Then the aforementioned Kerouac piece. How the hell they could hear me upstairs over the din of ambient noise and espresso hissings, I dunno. Meanwhile across the street the in crowd lined up outside velvet ropes like wannabes for MTV's real world. A trend monster pushed here ben affleck clone boyfriend into the door way as they walked by mockingly..."go do some poetry with the rest of those losers. So yes, depressing --especially when the latest gross out hollywood potty comedy grosses 10 million the first weekend after falsely advertising it as a kiddies movie on nickelodeon, so it is in the time of anything goes for the almighty dollar. Step away from the TV...step away from the TV...step away from the TV...but as Roethke says, in a dark time the eye begins to see. Ridiculed and belittled as we are, marginalized even outside academic poetry circles, we must persist, down here where breath steams and streams...I leave you with Melville "In these flashing revelations of grief's wonderful fire, we see all things as they are; and though, when the electric element is gone, the shadows once more descend, and the false outlines of objects again return, yet not with their former power to deceive." We shall see, said the blindman.

Road Journal, Feb. 9, South Channel Big Pine Key, Fla. Sunday...

In the great balancing act of the cosmos, the bad gig up in Orlando was obliterated by the set at Montego Bay's Theatre of Dreams Saturday Night. Jim and Jeannie Somma moved the show from the black box theatre to the upstairs of the restaurant bar just off A1A in Big Pine Key, North of Key West about 25 miles. The venue change was auspicious. Not only had I intended to play there last year, but my parents vacationed in Montego Bay, Jamaica back in '66 and brought back my little sister Micki as a souvenir of their second honeymoon. So, weary from the drive down, 4 hours through mainly one lane traffic, wary of key deer when I pulled into Big Pine at Dusk due to the countless signs warning me so (and I still have seen nary a deer hereabouts, wondering if its some kind of jack-a-lope tall tale) I pulled in with less than an hour and 1/2 till show time. I guzzled a can of sobe adrenalin rush to bump me up and trudged upstairs...to a fairly thin crowd. Not to worry, by show time 50 or so Piners peopled the tables, including a biker trio on one side, the leader of the pack wearing a F*** OFF t-shirt under his grizzly beard, three lush muses on the other, and an izod/dockers yacht crowd snowbirds dead center. I quickly sketched out a revised set list to hold that diverse audience. I most definitely pumped up the entertainment quotient. Again, not to worry, the Biker henchmen laughed where he should have, the lushes had yet to get deep into their cups and the yacht crew was getting it...It was clear sailing pretty much from jump...the good folks even brought me back for an encore after an hour plus set of old favs and new stuff. Special thanks to Brian, who backed me up on Hometown haunt with slow blues, on Velvet Elvis with some rockabilly licks and on the Big Easy Sway with some Nawlins Jazz. We all repaired to the Tiki Bar thereafter and to Coconuts even later, for a nightcap. I slept well that night with the theatre of dreams running through my floridazed mind.


Delrica writes: The snow may have had us down but not all of us were out!  We had an intimate, but wonderful house of poets and spectators Sunday night.  Thanks to all those who  braved the weather to get there!  Up to the open mic: Mike, Akenji, Curtis, Michael Collins and Delrica!!  Thanks guys for participating!  Our feature Ray McNiece did not leave a soul disappointed Sunday night...he was amazing, just amazing!  Between poems and anecdotes and some awesome guitar pickin', I don't think there was an emotion that wasn't tapped in this spectator!  After a brief break, our slammers (Alex Frisby, Benjamin, Twain Dooley and Ian Troy) duked it out in the invisible poetic ring, with American University's own Derrick Brown calibrating the night.  When the dust settled, it was Benjamin in third (w/ 51.1 pts), Alex Frisby in second (w/ 53.7 pts) and topping out the night, Twain Dooley (w/ 57.6 pts).  Make sure you swing by tonight for our features from NY Jackie Sheeler and Marj Hahne!!! Also a quick reminder, make sure you come out to slam.  Semi finals is on April 27th, and you need 8 (count em 8) points to qualify for semi-finals (that gives you SEVEN weeks to qualify!!). So dust off those notepads, clear them throats and get your butt out here to SLAM!!!!!  See you there!

Baltimore Notes:

Chris writes: Most of this evening was brought to us by the efforts of two wonderful SLAMicide! regulars: Sound was given to us out of the kindness of the heart of Alex Colvin, who just happened to keep his amp, mike and extension chord in his car; witty banter and enthusiastic introductions in the open mike portion came to us courtesy of slam diva/dynamo Delrica Andrews, who has officially stepped into the role of co-hostess while Amy Long is on hosting hiatus. Delrica opened an exceptional open mike that included our sound god Alex, his daughter Hanalyn, Adriana, Allison, JB, Ilyaimy's Heather (long time, no see!), Mike, Heather, and the Harford County three-piece Pajama Party.

A smattering of musical open mikers set the stage (such as it is) for our high-energy feature, Ray McNiece.  The Cleveland performer began his set from the audience, bellowing lines from Patsy Cline's "Crazy", which opened his first piece, a spirited lament on love entitled "Crazy Heart", which included much darting around our little venue: jumping on chairs, running up to individual audience members, throwing open the door to yell outside -- was only foreplay for a set that oozed with passion and intensity.  Ray didn't limit himself to the gift of spoken word: he also whipped out his guitar. He even invited Joe, Pajama Party's percussionist back onstage to accompany him on the bongos.  As evidenced by the mob that surrounded him afterward, the audience was both inspired by and immensely grateful for his electrifying presence.

 A break allowed us to warm up for our first ever theme slam.  Tonight we celebrated erotica in the form of a passionate opener from Granma, a steamy calibration piece from Chris, and some hot and heavy competition from DeDe, Tiger, Frog and Amy (yes, that's right, she's not hostng, but she can still be coaxed into slamming!

When the writhing and moaning had subsided and we were able to catch our breaths, Amy had seduced her way into third with a 24.1 (blasted time penalty!), Tiger sank her claws into second (25.2), and DeDe claimed the throne as Queen Of Erotica with a 25.7, earning herself, cash, qualifying points, Mardi Gras beads, and lap dance (the last two of which were provided by Ray).  Thanks to all for one of the most exciting nights we've had in quite a while!

Stay tuned for our continuing series of theme slams, scheduled for the last Monday of every month. Theme Slam for March: Swap Slam! Got a favorite slammer you've dreamed of honoring or a piece you've always wanted to claim as your own?  Now's your chance.  This month's theme slam pairs two slammers who will swap pieces and perform their partners' work as though it is their own against other pairs. Sort of like the pairs competition in ice dancing, don't you think?  Performers will be scored as a team, with the top prize going to the pair who scores highest.  So grab a partner, swap poems and start practicing! Swap Slam is Monday, March 24!

Why I am Playing at the Bowery Poetry Club by David Amran Dec 3rd:  My trio, accompanying poet Ray McNiece, former writer in residence of the Kerouac Writer's Residence in Orlando, which I helped get started. After playing music for Ray with my trio, I will play a set of my own. Ray is an outstanding poet, scholar, teacher and ambassador for Spoken Word at its finest. I was honored to be asked by him to do this, as a way of also honoring my work with Kerouac.

There is a whole Kerouac connection to this evening, because Steve Allen, five weeks before he died, in his last public concert, performed with me in Orlando and we raised enough money to make the Kerouac Writers Residence in Orlando a reality. After three years of fundraising, under the guiding hand of Marty Cummins, we put the Residence in the black. Steve Allen and I were the ones who first played for Kerouac's public readings.

I started collaborating with Kerouac in 1956 until 1969 when Jack died, and Steve Allen first played with Jack in 1958 at the Village Vanguard and that Fall had Jack appear on his national TV show, and also recorded with him.

Ray McNiece was chosen as a Kerouac House writer a few months after Steve Allen and I performed our benefit concert for the Kerouac Writers residence in the Fall of 2000. When Ray recently asked me to play for him, as I did with Jack, for a New York/Florida connection, I was happy that I was free to do so. The Bowery Poetry Club is one and a half blocks from the old Five Spot, where I played in 1957 before On the Road was published, and Jack used to come to the Five spot to read with me.

(Bob Holman has a poster with a photo of me playing there from Esquire magazine, in his office. He is supposed to have it framed for the club. This photo is in Time Warner History of the 20th Century and the cover of two books. There are black and white copies available, and the proximity of these two places, with the Bowery Poetry Club a few hundred feet from the old Five Spot, where it all started, should be of historic interest).

Playing at the Bowery Poetry Club completes a circle started 45 years ago!

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