The remastered edition of landmark photo book ‘IOWA’ revisits the small towns of 1970s Appalachian Ohio

Photographer Nancy Rexroth is about to see University of Texas Press release a handsome new edition of the out-of-print book, treating it like a classic worthy of a 40th-anniversary celebration.


AUG. 9, 2017
Cover0809Nancy Rexroth Se MAIN


In the early 1970s, as a young photographer studying for a master’s degree at Ohio University, Nancy Rexroth found her inspiration in the small towns and rural homes of Appalachian southeast Ohio. There, she used her Diana plastic camera — considered a toy, really — to take intentionally blurry, black-and-white dream-state pictures of people and places. And in 1977, she self-published a book of that work. She called it, strangely, IOWA.

The result has slowly become a body of work that fans consider a landmark, but is still relatively unknown to the larger public. Now, Rexroth is about to see University of Texas Press release a handsome new edition of the out-of-print IOWA, treating it like a classic worthy of a 40th-anniversary celebration. Rexroth has not had another photography book since then, other than a 1977 pamphlet on how to make contemporary platinum prints. On Aug. 23 at 7 p.m., Rexroth will have a talk/book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Rookwood Pavilion.

This has been a long time coming. Rexroth has been preparing for a new edition for the past eight years, going over her 1,300 rolls of film, and wanting a new IOWA well before that. She had shown several new prints of recently discovered IOWA images during the first FotoFocus exhibition in 2012. This writer talked to her then for a story, and this article draws on quotes from 2012 as well as recent interviews and email exchanges.

“My whole experience has been that I’ve been treated so well in this process,” says Rexroth, who has lived in Cincinnati for approximately the past 20 years. “My first book was just, ‘Oh well, here’s this book.’ Now everybody has treated me very diplomatically and patiently. I’ve been through the process of a modern publication of a photography book.”

It’s amazing what Rexroth’s long-ago, original foray into using plastic cameras has turned into. It seems a long way from when she first discovered the Diana camera at Ohio University.

“I got bitten by the bug,” she says. “You couldn’t say that a person is getting a good photo because they have an expensive camera. And you find yourself being much more spontaneous. When you advance the film, it makes this ratchet sound like a wind-up toy. But I never thought of it as being a toy, ever. It was as worthy as any camera. What I could do with it is why I stuck with it. I wasn’t just snapping away — I was doing something I cared about.”

Rexroth grew up in Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where her father was a technical director of research and development for the Naval Air Systems Command. Her parents used to visit her father’s family in Iowa — the real Iowa — every summer.

“My father had such close ties with his family,” Rexroth says. “There were 14 children and they were very tight knit. And my mother grew up in Iowa, too — (my parents) met in Iowa.” Rexroth remembers these trips fondly because, she says, everything felt so bright, shiny and clean.

It was a favorite memory. Such a good one that she thought of it when photographing in such Ohio towns near Athens as Malta, Pomeroy, Chauncey, Nelsonville, Stewart, Logan, Creola, Guysville, Glouster and more. There was a feeling that the Ohio she photographed seemed behind the times, still living in the 1950s. Perhaps because she called her project IOWA, it has seemed as if her camera’s viewfinder was looking at her state of mind, her subconscious, her childhood memories, as much as her subjects. She, herself, seemed to make that connection in our 2012 interview. “I think I was showing people a longing to want to go back and be that child,” she said then.

But it’s more complicated than that, she believes. Rexroth certainly didn’t find the landscape here as shiny and clean as she found The Hawkeye State during her youthful visits there. She felt it was the opposite.

“In southeast Ohio, it was like everything was decaying and you hardly ever saw people,” she says.

Calling her project IOWA, she says now, added to the mystery of her work. Perhaps it served as a manifesto of her freedom to be an artist already defying the conventions of art photography — few if any used toy plastic cameras for their work. “I thought, wait a minute, if I call it IOWA, it will be stressing that photographs don’t have to be at all about the subject matter at hand,” she says.

Rexroth received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to continue her project after school. For her resultant book, she included 70 photos, one to a page and each a 4-by-4-inch or even smaller reproduction. (Anything larger threatened to break down the image.) And there were, actually, some photographs from outside the region — including Iowa.

Among those of her generation interested in photography, the book became a landmark publication — not just for channeling or perhaps foreseeing the quiet loneliness, the sadness, of a Rust Belt America before that term became familiar, but for doing it with an “unprofessional” camera that, just maybe, captured the truth better than something fancier.

The book didn’t stay in print long, but it had a growing impact. Those who knew her at Ohio University, which has a good program in photography, talked about her work. With time, its haunting, blurry images came to be seen, it their way, as evidence of an “old, weird America,” a term that writer Greil Marcus once coined to describe the roots of the somewhat “unprofessionally” produced Basement Tapes recordings by Bob Dylan. 

You could also see, in the images featuring the exteriors and interiors of the wooden houses of the region, an echo of Edward Hopper’s lonesome America. At times, they were frightening in their prescience — “A Woman’s Bed,” a 1970 photograph from Logan, Ohio, caught white sheets on a dark bed frame so perfectly smooth that you see the absence of the woman as much as the presence of the bed. In that and other photos, IOWA knew the losses ahead.

It was also noteworthy for what was not included — nostalgia and sentimentality. “I just had this enormous grip on what was Iowa and what was not Iowa to me,” Rexroth says. “What it wasn’t was barnyard activity and retro trucks from the ’50s. I didn’t want clichéd stuff; I didn’t want signs and cars.”

Rexroth went on to teach at Antioch College and Wright State University. A photography student at the latter was Tad Barney, now of Milford, who sought out her work and discovered IOWA. Much later, in 2013, he started a Nancy Rexroth appreciation page on Facebook.

“I decided she needed some recognition,” he says. “I was this young photography student who had been taught to make sure everything in your image was sharp and clear and in focus — no blurring. It was about getting as much information into your image as you could. And then along comes her book and it just broke all the rules. All of a sudden, photographs to me were shown to be more about a feeling, an emotion, than just information.”

Barney was especially taken with the last photograph in IOWA, “White Sky,” taken in Chauncey, Ohio. It is, indeed, just whiteness, framed in a slightly concave manner that lets the sepia border form a soft, playful edge. “A photograph could even be something as basic as nothing,” Barney says, with amazement. “I just fell in love with that book.”

In 2000, Rexroth found a Minneapolis gallerist, Martin Weinstein, willing to have a show of her work. He has stayed with her ever since and been a strong, eloquent champion of her IOWA work.

“I think it is a compendium of one of the most magical bodies of work in the 20th century in photography,” says Weinstein, whose gallery has also shown Edward Burtynsky, Alec Soth, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe and Gordon Parks.

The new edition of IOWA can be considered “remastered,” to use a music-industry term for updated versions of classic albums. It’s not a straight republication. Some 20 of the original photographs have been replaced by 23 others not used in the 1977 edition. All are published at 4-by-4 inches. And she has used Photoshop to bring out more of the details and contrasts she feels were originally intended, but that she wasn’t able to accomplish at the time by using a dark room. She actually has been testing her IOWA updating for several years on Facebook.

“When you do any reprint, the photographer has an opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate every aspect of the first edition — and to also go back and look hard at all of the images from that series and time period that were not included in the book,” says David Hamrick, University of Texas Press’ director, via email. “Nancy really wanted to add new photos and change the sequence slightly. She made a beautiful new maquette of how she envisioned the book should look, sent it to me, and then we went through every page together on the phone and agreed that a slightly revised version would be even stronger than the first one.”

One addition in this new edition is the eerie “Clara in the Closet,” taken in Carpenter, Ohio in 1973 and showing, in blurred fashion, an elderly lady inside her bedroom closet. (It was published in CityBeat in 2012.) “Playing Ghost,” taken in Ironton, Ohio in 1974, was in the first book under the name “He Demonstrates,” but was printed in a 2-by-2-inch format that Rexroth now feels was too small to see. With its new name and larger size, it has more impact. It shows two children; a boy in a sheet shows off on a house porch that is a veritable battlefield between sunshine and shadow, while a rough triangle-like outline of bright light forms around a nearby girl’s head.

In a way, IOWA has a muse — a Puck-like older man named Emmet Blackburn, a railroad worker, seen dancing a jig near an uninhabited wooded area in the first editionIt became a favorite, a touch of joy in a work that otherwise saw mortality omnipresent in southeast Ohio. The new edition adds several more photos of him, plus one of the bed in his home in Pomeroy.

“He loved being photographed and he introduced himself to me,” Rexroth says. “So I started photographing him. He never saw this book. I was sure he wouldn’t like it because they were ‘out of focus.’ What I should have done was take regular photos with my Nikon and give him copies.”

The University of Texas Press-published IOWA honors the first one’s cover, with its lavender color and minimalist typography, Hamrick says, but also is a slightly smaller format to reduce the white space around the small photos. There is also, for the first time ever, a hardbound edition with a jacket. Among other changes, Rexroth and photographer Mark Power have written postscripts to their original introductions, and two new contributors have written essays.

One is Alec Soth, the prominent Minnesota-based photographer whose “Rexroth’s Strawberries” essay compares IOWA to Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Wild Strawberries.

“When I reflect on IOWA, why do I find myself thinking of cinema?” Soth begins. “Is it because the jittery monochromes remind me of film racing past a projector’s lamp? Or is it the fictional quality of the work, given that nearly all the pictures were made outside Iowa? Mostly, I think, I am reminded of cinema because Rexroth’s images seem not to set the hard facts of place but instead to evoke the world of dreams.”

All this praise, and all the recent hard work of looking at her past, has Rexroth thinking back to when she started her project. “What was I doing?” she says. “Well, I was just exploring with the camera. I’m so glad I didn’t ask myself those questions then. I felt like it was my secret and people could see the photographs and either like them or hardly be able to look at them.”

She also admires her chutzpah then. “To get into houses, I would say I was working on a project for school,” she says. “It was very strange — people looking out of their houses and seeing me as I would go into their backyards and on their porches. I don’t remember people asking me to leave or anything. ”

All that was a long time ago. “I was so young,” she says.

As this new edition reaches bookstores, Rexroth realizes she’s had a chance to return to her IOWA and see it with more mature eyes.

“Going back after 40 years and re-evaluating the thing, I found ‘new’ images I had not noticed before,” she says. “I just had to be older to expand my view of what IOWA was.”

In an email, she explains her views of IOWA in 2017 further: “IOWA is now its own country, with its own space in the world of feelings,” she says. “It is a place we all go to, sometime, and we recognize it when we do see it on our arrival. It is a part of the human zeitgeist and has always been there, morphing away on the dark side of things, sad and joyful, and filled with incredible longing.”

Nancy Rexroth will sign IOWA 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Rookwood Pavilion. The book is available from University of Texas Press.

Aug 10 2017 16:46Posted by carolyn

Nancy Rexroth’s concept of her own personal IOWA has weathered the tests of time and is a classic testament to the concept that artistry exceeds the limitations of our tools

Ten of Cincinnati’s Best Outdoor Public Fountains

If you tell someone Cincinnati’s identity is connected to water, they’ll probably assume you’re talking about the Ohio River. Yes, there is that. But it’s also about the role of outdoor public fountains in the city’s history and recent resurgence.

AUG 27, 2014 


If you tell someone Cincinnati’s identity is connected to water, they’ll probably assume you’re talking about the Ohio River. Yes, there is that. But it’s also about the role of outdoor public fountains in the city’s history and recent resurgence.

The bronze Tyler Davidson Fountain (Fountain Square, Fifth and Vine streets, Downtown) — also known as the Genius of Water — has been the centerpiece of Downtown since gifted by Henry Probasco in 1871, even as the buildings around its Fountain Square home radically changed. Recent renovations have tended to diminish the role of the fountain itself as the sole reason for the Square to exist, but whenever the wind is right and its spray soars out into the plaza and onto visitors, it reasserts itself as the king — or queen — of its domain.

Photo: Deanna Rowe


Moving just a few blocks north, Over-the-Rhine’s turnaround has been symbolized by the crowds packing Washington Park (1230 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine) since its $46 million redesign in 2012. If there is a key exciting component to this “new” park, it is the 7,000-square-foot interactive water feature with its 130 pop-up jets designed by BHDP/Human Nature.

Photo: Jesse Fox


Because of its central location in the park, it is far more than a recreational “sprayground” for children. It is a refreshing tourist attraction for adults, a 21st century Genius of Water.

So with these two in mind, CityBeat compiled a list of Greater Cincinnati’s “Top 10” most appealing fountains. There are far more fountains than can be included in any single compact list, of course. The following is the rest of the 10 best — the remaining eight — in no special order.


After Tyler Davidson, the fountain in front of Union Terminal/Cincinnati Museum Center (1301 Western Ave., Queensgate) probably is the city’s most-photographed. With its clamshell sprays and its boldly curved sections that cascade from the top section to a lower pool, it nicely complements the beautifully stylized Art Deco building itself. Overall, the elaborately shaped fountain looks dreamed up by choreographer Busby Berkeley — only a million-dollar mermaid is missing. The evening illumination is so soft, much of it coming from pedestal lights, that it strikes the water like shimmering moonlight.

Photo: Jesse Fox


The fountain was built to replace the large pond destroyed by Union Terminal construction in 1933. So it is large, holding 3,200 gallons of water. According to the Cincinnati Museum Center, kids at one time played in the fountain’s lower pool.

If you want a fountain whose shape and subject matter directly relate to its location, there’s no better example than the Amelia Valerio Weinberg Memorial Fountain (800 Vine St., Downtown) on the Main Library’s Vine Street Plaza. It’s also known as the “book fountain” because sculptor Michael Frasca, a founder of Spring Street Pottery, made an enticing series of oversized ceramic-tile books to accompany the gentle waters. It works as symbolism — the “free flow” of information and the “thirst for knowledge” — but it primarily works as an appealing sight in its own right. The piece, a result of Weinberg’s bequest, dates to 1990.


Not far from Fountain Square is the Federal Reserve Bank Plaza (Fifth and Main streets, Downtown), tucked into a quiet space just across from busy Government Square. Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday from May through October, its main attraction is the water sculpture by the late California artist Oliver Andrews, which dates to 1972. Emerging out from a rectangular reflecting pool are two abstract stainless steel pieces, one tall and vertical and one flattened and narrow like a stylized submarine tail. One can admire its formalist, unadorned quest for the cleansing purity of Minimalism — a great concern on artists of that era that still resonates today.

Smale Riverfront Park’s (The Banks, West Mehring Way, Downtown) water features are designed to dazzle, especially at night. Like the “new” Washington Park, Smale debuted in 2012. The water elements were designed by Sasaki Associates (of Watertown, Mass., appropriately) to create a flow of movement from the elevated city toward the Ohio River below. Thus, they serve as pedestrian bridges — albeit wet ones.

At the end of Walnut Street is the Grand Stairway, flanked by adjoining fountains and pools that are bathed in colored lights. At the bottom of the stairway, on its west side, the small pools branch out. It’s meant to conjure grandeur, like walking a red carpet to a glitzy Hollywood premiere.

Across Mehring Way and one block east of Walnut, opposite steps leading to Main Street, is the Fath Family Fountain. You can walk a narrow aisle between illuminated jets of shooting water (and get wet doing it), or sit on a bench to the side and just watch the play of the spray.

Photo: Kaila Busken


t’s with mixed feelings that I choose the Otto Armleder Memorial Aquatic Fountain at Yeatman’s Cove Park (601 E. Mehring Way, Downtown). In its first incarnation as the Concourse Fountain that opened in 1976, it was a masterpiece of interactive urban landscape architecture. Designed by Philadelphia architect Louis Sauer, who also did the more Brutalist One Lytle Place apartment tower above, it consisted of a shallow pool into which — on one side — water would shoot from an adjoining, right-angled tower (some called it a giant “shower head”). 

On the other side, steps rose up from the water’s edge and were interspersed with what appeared to be mysterious concrete monoliths when you faced them (actually they were multi-sided). Water oozed and poured downward from them, and you could walk or sit in this area and get as drenched as you wanted. It was an inspiration for what cities could do to make the built environment playful. 

But this free water attraction needed a lifeguard, and for economic reasons the Cincinnati Recreation Commission in 2009 filled in the pool and created a sprayground that doesn’t require supervision. The steps that provided access to the “monoliths” were fenced-off. The steep seating area behind the “shower head” is still open, but a plaza exit at the top is now padlocked, as are several other areas.

Aesthetically, the effect of this change is ugly — instead of the powder blue of the pool, you see the reddish-brown of the sprayground’s surface. But it is cooling to walk amid its jets, and Sauer’s still-operating silently hulking “monoliths” still have a wondrous quality. The “shower head” is still a thrill when its nozzles send spray at you. Cincinnati Parks Department has taken over this space as well as nearby Sawyer Point Park, so perhaps someday it can return Concourse Fountain to its original state. 

Maybe the loveliest swath of small, landscaped public green space in Cincinnati is the six-acre Campus Green (Martin Luther King and Campus Green drives, Clifton Heights) on the northeast edge of University of Cincinnati’s main campus. Developed in 2000 by Hargreaves Associates as part of UC’s Master Plan, it combines mound-like hillocks and a young arboretum with walkways and benches. It now offers a fine view of the recent redesign of Morgens Residence Hall, which was transformed by being encased in a new glass “envelope.” 

An important component to this environment is the modest but soothing “water stairs,” its curved contours suggesting the space for it was created by several scoops of a large garden shovel. That makes it appear planted and organic. Best of all, the area sits where once there was a parking lot. How’s that for a true Green revolution? The fountain operates 7 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays and during special weekend events.

I’ve driven by tiny Annwood Park (1900 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills) countless times without having any idea of the secret grotto in it. Then Steven Schuckman of the Parks Department sent me a list of water features and the name Hardin Grotto caught my eye. Where was it? On a subsequent visit, I found the tucked-away grotto with its waterfall and pool just off the side street, Annwood Street. You wouldn’t know it’s there unless you already know it’s there. With greenery on both sides, it’s like a scale-model version of something you might find hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains. It makes for a nice respite in a surprisingly rustic locale.

While I haven’t prioritized the fountains on this list, I have saved my favorite for last. It’s the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Reflecting Pool in the Alice Bimel Courtyard (953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams). The pool is marble and just a couple inches deep. Its long, narrow rectangular form has just enough of a gap between the smooth edge and the pavement to allow the water to overflow, like a liquid curtain, into a drainage area below. 

Along one side, granite benches holding potted flowers alternate with ivy-filled basins. Water continuously, mesmerizingly spurts out of demurely placed spouts inside the latter and into the pool. There are some tree-shaded tables and small geometric-shaped benches for sitting nearby, and the museum’s café offers outdoor table service with a view. 

Hargreaves Associates in association with KZF designed this as part of a 2004 renovation of the museum’s interior courtyard, and it has a very ordered, Zen Garden-like feel. This is something worthy of Isamu Noguchi, or maybe Donald Judd if he tolerated a little decoration. When I visited, some young ladies remarked that they wanted badly to slip off shoes and walk in the placid water. It seems to me you could walk on it.


New Signs of Creativity in Rock Radio Programming

(Pete Fornatale, 1945-2012)
March/April 2010
Reversing a long decline, a new flowering of soulful and creative rock programming has gained momentum on the radio. It is heard on commercial and public/community terrestrial stations, via satellite and on the Internet.

Inventive, imaginative, hip music programming is cropping up or becoming established on stations and websites, allowing listeners once starved for variety and “deep catalogue” to hear everything from Alice Cooper’s favorite 1960s-era garage-rock songs to funky, forgotten post-war blues gems from Cincinnati’s King Records.

With musicians-turned-deejays playing an important role, radio has revived the personality-driven, music-intensive shows that were a hallmark of both the early days of Top 40 and, in a different way, early FM rock. Among those who have (or recently have had) their own shows are: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Ian Whitcomb, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Little Steven, Steve Earle, Mike Watt, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Genya Ravan, Wreckless Eric and more.

The first great heyday of FM rock came after the 1966 Federal Communications Commission’s mandate that broadcast companies could not simulcast AM programming on their FM stations. Stations came up with original rock-music formats, often called “freeform,” not knowing what would work commercially and not caring.

“That really is the FM story,” said deejay Pete Fornatale, who has had a long and illustrious career on FM in New York City.

“FM stations were thrown to the wolves in a sense—AM was where the money was, so this band of revolutionaries got to infiltrate and create this new way of approaching radio and rock ‘n’ roll. It was ruined by its own success. Once corporations realized they really could make money from FM, they started putting in all these handcuffs and gloves that made it impossible for the person on the air to be an artist.” Today, the “revolutionaries” are back.

Rock radio, using the term “radio” broadly, is again becoming a haven for hip deejays playing stuff they like and using their personalities to complement their musical choices. Perhaps the time is again right; streaming and satellite radio are still new, terrestrial stations are struggling with advertising in the ongoing Great Recession, musically sophisticated college and community stations are drawing not only adventurous young people but also Boomers who grew up with freeform and miss it. Since public stations depend on listener support rather than advertising, they’re happy to meet that demand.

Fornatale has the weekly Mixed Bag Radio show on Fordham University’s WFUV-FM, where he also has an interview show that features musicians like Brian Wilson, Al Kooper and Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy). He was long associated with one of New York’s great progressive FM stations, WNEW-FM.

Fornatale actually started at Fordham’s station, where in 1964 he helped pioneer freeform. He pitched a new idea for a program that recognized the changes being brought to rock by the Beatles and others.

“In the academic environment, rock ‘n’ roll was frowned upon as three-chord, primitive music that didn’t fit amongst the classical shows, informational shows and operatic shows that predominated,” he said. “I made the case the music had matured—it wasn’t just the histrionic, sexualized rock ‘n’ roll of the Elvis Presley of the 1950s but had matured into an art form. On that basis, I sold the concept of my show.

“The idea was to play album cuts, not hit records, to interview artists who made the music, and instead of treating them as islands of music, putting them all together, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Fornatale explained. “To this day, as a programmer, I’m looking for ‘oh, wow’ moments that take the music away from being background—going for conscious active listening where you’re taking people on a trip with you.”

One of the surprises in the current resurgence of inventive, engaged programming is the activist role being taken by musicians. Some of these shows are informal. Wreckless Eric, who had one of British new wave’s greatest hits with “Whole Wide World” and lately has been recording and touring with wife Amy Rigby, makes half-hour shows of his favorite records for his website. He plays anything and everything from the James Last Orchestra’s instrumental version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” to Jimmy Reed blues classics. “It’s picking up a hell of a lot of plays,” Eric said last summer. “The first show has about 500 downloads so far; the second one 370 so far.”
Bob Beemon, a Cincinnati art teacher by day, takes on the persona of Mr. Rhythm Man on Saturday evenings for a college station based across the Ohio River in northern Kentucky. There, he spins old R&B, blues and soul platters and humorously and goodnaturedly clues his fans into roots music.

Beemon especially devotes time to records released in the 1950s and early 1960s by King Records, home to James Brown, Hank Ballard, Freddie King, Bull Moose Jackson and many others.

He makes on-air references to the mysterious (and non-existent) “Mr. Rhythm Man Dancers,” and programs with an improvisational sensibility. On one show, for instance, he played two Johnny Winter rave-ups, spotlighted Elvis Presley’s version of “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” spun Bob Dylan’s “Father of Night” and, in a short set devoted to the flute, showcased Roland Kirk’s groovy version of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “Somehow in my ear it all makes sense, so I just have to trust my senses,” he said.

On the other hand, Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt), in addition to touring and recording with Bruce Springsteen, has turned his weekly homage to garage rock, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, into a syndicated powerhouse. It reaches one million listeners weekly on (mostly) commercial terrestrial stations. He produces a spinoff channel on Sirius Satellite Radio for which he employs music-business deejays such as Ravan, Andrew Loog Oldham, Kim Fowley and Handsome Dick Manitoba; the spinoff reaches another million listeners.

“These numbers are starting to become real, starting to become numbers that can actually affect things,” Van Zandt said.

What motivates a rock star to want to become a deejay? Leave it to the profanely hilarious Mojo Nixon, whose daily show The Loon in the Afternoon, on Sirius Satellite Radio’s hell-raisin’ Outlaw Country channel, to put it most bluntly: “We’re in the entertainment business,” he said.

“It’s a way to do what you do but different. You don’t have to get in a van and drive to fucking Toledo on a Tuesday night and play a show in front of Joe the Plumber and his angry kid who want to hear Skynyrd or some damn thing. It’s a way to keep your hand in it without having to be in it. Other people (may be) musicians cutting back and dabbling in radio, but I’m now a radio man.”
On his show, Nixon—whose satiric songs include “Don Henley Must Die” and “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child”—is free to choose his own music, and his own salty language, as long as it loosely has a rebellious, rockabilly/ country-rock spirit. That includes Hank Williams, David Allan Coe, Billy Joe Shaver, Rock and Roll Trio, the Band, early Bob Seger and more. And he can advocate, as he does for the longtime alt-country artist Joe Ely, of the Flatlanders.

“To me, Joe Ely should be mentioned in the same breath as Springsteen or John Fogerty,” Nixon said. “His 20 best songs are as good as their best 20. Now he didn’t write them all, he probably only wrote half. But he’s the perfect combination of rock ‘n’ roll and hillbilly music.”

That kind of advocacy is another thing drawing musicians into radio. On his famous Theme Time Radio Hour, which offered new episodes on XM Radio from May 2006 to April 2009, Dylan used an innocuous weekly theme, like Hello or Weather or Walking, as a way to educate and entertain his fans about modern music’s ancients and elders: Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Snow, the Carter Family, Bo Diddley, Louis Jordan.

He also played a lot of newer music, including alt and indie rock.

When Dylan declared, for example, Professor Longhair’s pre-rock era Mardi Gras in New Orleans to be “one of the best records that ever come out of New Orleans,” as he did on his Maps show, people listened.

His opinions on alt-rock can also turn heads. On his Radio episode, he introduced Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” by speculating, “If anyone is the Bertolt Brecht of America, that person is, to me, Jonathan Richman.” Theme Time Radio Hour was itself a possible tribute to Dylan’s beloved Guthrie, who from 1940-1941 hosted a three-times-weekly, 15-minute CBS Radio show called Back Where I Come From and featured Burl Ives and Leadbelly. In those days, radio, even coast-to-coast network radio, could be remarkably creative.

Other musician deejays use their influence to champion their own influences, which fans raised on corporate-FM rock might not know about. In a way, it is the same impulse that led rockers like Van Zandt, Petty and John Mellencamp to once produce “comeback” albums for their forgotten heroes, like Gary US Bonds, Del Shannon and Mitch Ryder.

“There’s a certain authority that comes from somebody in a competitive field saying, ‘This guy is great, I recognize his greatness, I’m not afraid of it,’” Van Zandt said, laughing. “If an egomaniac is suggesting someone else is great, you’re going to respect that; it has extra authority. He’s actually selling something other than himself.”

(Alice Cooper)
Hosting a show can also be a decent career move for a rock superstar. Alice Cooper, whose last big hit was 1989’s “Poison” and whose commercial peak was the 1970s, but who has remained an outsized and beloved rock celebrity, was approached by Dick Clark Productions six years ago to do a weekly show. At the time, Van Zandt’s program was underway, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider was making waves with his syndicated metal show House of Hair, and satellite radio was revving up with two competing and now-merged corporations, Sirius and XM Radio, hungry for content that subscribers would pay for.

The thinking was Cooper could play the older, male-oriented, theatrical classic rock he was associated with—AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Queen, Led Zeppelin—and tell listeners stories about his friendships with those musicians. But he had a little different idea—a chance to shake up dull classic-rock terrestrial radio.

“Everybody was going into space, and I said I’d rather stay in terrestrial radio, because everybody is going to have a one-hour show up in space somewhere,” Cooper said. “I don’t need to get away with bad language; I don’t use bad language. But I would like to get away with playing songs that deserve to be played on terrestrial.”

His Nights with Alice Cooper show now airs on 90 US stations, plus others in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada. He anchors 30 hours of weekly original programming, produced and distributed by the United Stations Radio Networks. His time slot reaches 1.1 million listeners each week, and his affiliates have a weekly reach of over 6 million listeners.

“There are not enough old Rolling Stones records from the England’s Newest Hitmakers era; the same with the Kinks and Who,” Cooper said. “And early Pink Floyd—Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd—is absolutely amazing music. And I could play a whole side of Procol Harum and people would go, ‘Wow, what was that?’ Who do you think Queen listened to?”

He plays plenty of familiar metal songs and musicians, by request or out of affection, but Cooper also delves into the deepcatalog of groups from the 1960s and 1970s that he loves and classic-rock radio ignores: Edgar Winter Group, Pretty Things, Humble Pie, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Slade, Lita Ford, Ramones, even the one-hit-wonder Beatles imitators the Knickerbockers. “Even I don’t go far enough to play Laura Nyro or people who are my personal favorites,” he said. “I can’t force them into that show because it just doesn’t fit.”
David Dye, host of NPR’s popular, influential World Cafe since 1991, was deeply influenced by his first job as an announcer in FM rock’s heyday (World Cafe’s flagship station is Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania-licensed WXPN). “Thirty years ago, I got lucky and my first experience in radio was a completely freeform FM station, all progressive rock,” Dye said. “I had a boss who encouraged me to play everything from big-band to classical music to anything that fit, and his idea was to make people understand what’s happening currently by showing the roots of things. My whole thing was making music sound great through the segue, getting from one thing to next.”
World Cafe isn’t freeform as such—it’s a planned-out daily show featuring artist interviews and live performances along with recordings. The show fearlessly gives time to both the most respected veterans—Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler—and newcomers still struggling for an audience, like a young singer-songwriter from rural Illinois named Lissie Maurus.
It takes its programming seriously as art and seeks to inform and turn on its listeners to the best of what’s new and old. It’s on some 200 stations and has a weekly audience in excess of 500,000. Unique in 1991, any number of stations around the country now follow World Cafe’s model.

New creative deejays conduct fascinating scholarship to rediscover good rock and pop of the past. In fact, some styles of pop considered too square for FM in the 1960s are now being treated on some new, hip radio shows like high art.

Andrew Sandoval, a Los Angeles music researcher who compiled last year’s Where the Action Is!: Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 boxed set for Rhino Records, has a weekly show that champions “sunshine pop” and its derivatives. His Come to the Sunshine is carried by the Internet-only, all-volunteer radio station Luxuria Music, which promotes itself on its site as promising “exotica, lounge, space-age bachelor pad, bossa, soft-psych, go-go, Latin jazz and more.”

Sandoval plays the kind of bright-sounding, optimistic and well-produced studiocrafted pop—often Beach Boy-influenced— in vogue in late-1960s Southern California before the Laurel Canyon-based singer/ songwriter era started in the early 1970s.

A recent program focused on Curt Boettcher, a deceased songwriter/producer/ arranger who worked with the Association, Tommy Roe, Gene Clark, the Millennium, the Plastic People, the Sunshine Company, the Hep Stars and many other acts. Sandoval devoted another show to Gary Lewis, of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, presenting his work, considered kitschy by many, as lost art.

“I’d only seen his records in dollar bins, and never thought much of Gary Lewis,” Sandoval said. As the son of Jerry Lewis, he wasn’t taken very seriously musically. “I started investigating his records and found he made a lot of great ones. So one Labor Day, when the Jerry Lewis telethon was on TV, I had a Gary Lewis telethon and played nothing but his records for two hours.” Sandoval raved about Lewis’ 1968 Sights and Sounds as a lost classic, “The record is amazing, on the level of other late-1960s pop masterworks like Pet Sounds.”

While many of the new creative announcers use freeform FM as their Holy Grail, there is a countervailing approach where announcers eschew rock as art and just want to have fun, the way Top-40 deejays did before rock ‘n’ roll became seen as an art form.

Van Zandt’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage is a leading proponent of fun. He loves the spirit of mid-1960s Top 40, when his heroes made radical-sounding but still conventional 45-rpm singles like the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” the Young Rascals’ “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” or Paul Revere & the Raiders’ string of hits.

“My main thing is pre-artform rock, when it was still called rock ‘n’ roll, when guitar solos replaced sax solos but still were just 20 seconds,” Van Zandt said. “That was the high point for me, before 10-minute solos began and songs got longer. I’m concerned that when people stopped dancing to rock ‘n’ roll and started listening, that’s where our problems started.”

Other inventive rock programs attempt to have fun with the music. NPR distributes The Annoying Music Show, out of Chicago, which searches for “the most awful music ever recorded,” according to its website.

A pioneering precedent, the great Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen), began playing his “mad music and crazy comedy” 40 years ago on a Pasadena public station and is still at it. His weekly program is on just seven terrestrial radio stations now (including one in Middle Yukon/Lower Koyukuk, Alaska, which itself sounds pretty funny), but Hansen has developed a sizeable Internet listenership.

At its height of popularity, his program, which honored the tradition of Top 40 (and older) novelty-rock songs, was syndicated on terrestrial stations throughout the country. The influential Hansen turned a risqué song from the 1950s, Bennie Bell’s “Shaving Cream,” into a Top 40 hit in 1975, and played recordings sent in by listeners, including an accordion-playing teenager named (Weird) Al Yankovic.

Hansen has grown philosophical about why his show had the impact it had at the time it did. “Rock had taken a very serious turn, whereas rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s was fun and lighthearted, meant for dancing or simple little love songs and the occasional one about a lack of love,” he said. “I think Pink Floyd is magnificent, but it’s as serious as classical music. It strove to be profound and deep. And other bands tried to make their music serious in other ways. My thought was people were starting to miss the funny stuff.”

If there is one station trying to encapsulate everything about the new revival in creative programming, the seriousness and the wackiness, it would be Jersey City’s community-supported WFMU-FM. It proudly promotes itself as freeform—and lives up to its claim. Available way beyond the Big Apple and nearby communities through online streaming of its live and archived programming, its worldwide listenership has grown since starting an Internet presence in 1998. In 1996, its operating budget was $300,000 a year, now it is $1 million, thanks to contributions from Internet listeners.

WFMU’s programming can be as wild as Sam the Sham’s-“Wooly Bully,” or as artfully experimental as Philip Glass’ soundtrack to The Fog of War. Deejay Dave the Spazz likes to sprinkle chimp noises into his shows, and another show is cheekily called The Best Show on WFMU.

“We leave it all up to the deejays to come up with what they want to play,” said Brian Turner, music director. “We don’t subscribe to any format except we try to make connections within the frame of a set. And we encourage them to drop in a surprise.”

Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan—a connoisseur of all manner of rock—often guest hosts, and a morning show called This Is the Modern World With Trouble fearlessly wanders the globe from one unfamiliar but musically revelatory song to another, without worry of losing listeners. One recent morning, that show segued from “Good Luck in the New Year” by Linda Young and the Silvertones to “Sun Is Shining” by Lizzy Mercier Descloux to the Dynamites’ “Kingston Dub Town” to Molly Berg and Stephen Vitiello’s “Variation 2.”
“New music or old music—both spheres exist equally at WFMU,” Turner said. “The philosophy is to make a piece of art out of radio.”
Making a piece of art out of radio—building song sets, programs and even whole stations as innovative, creative, exciting, educational and fun as the music that gets played—seems to be important again. This could be the beginning of a new golden era for rock radio. If so, thanks is due to these new deejays—young and old, famous and not—who didn’t give up on the possibilities of the medium after years of dull corporate radio gave them every reason to do so.

For Garland Jeffreys, It’s Never Too Late

Garland Jeffreys’ successful second act continues at age 71

NOV 3, 2014 

Veteran singer/songwriters stop performing and recording for all kinds of reasons — health, fatigue, lack of success, too much success or changes in music trends all sometimes figure into it.

But the reason the New York City-based musician Garland Jeffreys, who will be performing Wednesday at Southgate House Revival, didn’t issue a U.S. album of new material from 1992 until 2011’s heralded The King of In Between is more unusual. He wanted to spend time with his daughter.

Before that, he had been active since the late 1960s. His first album, Grinder’s Switch Featuring Garland Jeffreys, came out in 1970 and was followed by seven more studio albums of new material until 1992’s Don’t Call Me Buckwheat.

“I have no doubt that staying home and being with my child, walking her to school and nursery school and being with her all those early years, was very good for her and very good for me,” Jeffreys says, during a recent phone interview from his family’s Manhattan apartment. “It was a more important experience than anything in the world, as I look back on it.”

With his daughter now in college at Wellesley and his wife managing his career, Jeffreys has resumed writing and performing and is finding a devoted audience for his groundbreaking mixture of Rock, Folk, Soul, Latin, Blues, Doo-Wop and Reggae. Last year, he released another album, Truth Serum. Besides his active touring schedule, he’s guested with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nile and Alejandro Escovedo. When The King of In Between was released, David Letterman invited him to perform on The Late Show to celebrate.

He’s become very busy and very forward-looking at age 71.

“Some people say it’s kind of late. But it’s not too late at all,” Jeffreys explains. “I’ve been so fortunate. I have my health, I’m playing and I have a wonderful family.”

Jeffreys helped create the urban wing of Americana — marked by sometimes-romantic, sometimes-gritty songs about the diverse groups of people who live in cities, especially New York. His background (his father was African-American and his mother Puerto Rican and he was raised in Brooklyn) gave him an original perspective.

His songs could be empathetic like “Ghost Writer” or “Matador,” observant about arts, news items and pop culture (“Lon Chaney” and “Wild in the Streets”) or angry at injustice (“Don’t Call Me Buckwheat”). While his influences are varied, he was especially moved by Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks album; his 1970 Grinder’s Switch used the same producer. And rising above everything was his love for Rock & Roll as a unifier. While he never had big U.S. hits, “Matador” proved popular in Europe.

For his U.S. comeback, The King of In Between, Jeffreys chose songs that represent who he is and where he’s from.

“Opening the album with ‘Coney Island Winter’ was perfect,” he says. “It made an identification between me and where I came from and reintroduced me to my public.

“I left Brooklyn quite a while ago, but I still go to Coney Island and visit some of the spots that I love. And a song like ‘I’m Alive’ (also on the album) makes that statement that I’m alive in terms of my vitality. If I didn’t have that vitality, I couldn’t do it. But I have all the energy I need.”

Racial identity has been a topic that Jeffreys has long explored because of his own background, but his take on it has never been rote.

“In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, you could move around very easily,” he says. “It was unusual; it was very mixed. I had Italians on the left and right and we were a mixed-race family. I was raised a Catholic, and the Baptist church in the next block was all black. So I had the experience very early of being around all kinds of people at the same time. The people in the neighborhood were very friendly. It wasn’t a conflict.”

But as he got older and ventured more often into the larger city (and country), he discovered not everyone was like that. He sometimes was the object of racial epithets.

“I would hear that and I would cringe,” he says. “I knew I never wanted to be compartmentalized. I knew very young that I wanted to be part of the world rather than part of a part of the world. And I thank my lucky stars for that unusual perception at an early age.”

After enrolling at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, Jeffreys became friends with another student from Brooklyn who loved Rock & Roll, the late Lou Reed.

“We both loved the same kind of music — Doo-Wop,” Jeffreys says. “Frankie Lymon was my idol. That music was just incredible and Lou felt the same way. That’s the thing that bonded us initially.”

After Jeffreys actively resumed his career, Reed showed up at a show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan and guested on several songs.

“And then Lou said, ‘I got to go,’ ” Jeffreys says. “He stepped down and as he started walking, I started singing a cappella: ‘I have a girlfriend/She says I’m her only one/We wanna get married/But we’re so young/So young/Can’t marry no one.’ Lou turns around, comes near stage, gets down on his knees in front of whole crowd and bows down to me. It was fantastic.”

Told by this reporter that the song he has started singing over the phone — 1961’s ethereal ballad “I’m So Young” — is by a Cincinnati group, The Students, Jeffreys replies, “Isn’t that something? Small world, isn’t it?”

Ben Sloan brings his Percussion Park to a progressive Price Hill

The park encourages people to stop and play colorful, hand-crafted instruments that include everything from a wooden bass marimba to drums repurposed from propane tanks.

 MAY 10, 2017 


Just as there have been such recreational innovations as skateparks and bike trails in recent years, there are now “outdoor musical instrument” parks — places that encourage people to come and play music for awhile.

Some are “percussion parks” with such built-in instruments as marimbas, chimes, cymbals, tuned drums and vertically arranged pagoda bells. One company, Colorado’s Freenotes Harmony Park, claims to have provided such “perfectly tuned sound sculptures” in all 50 states and on five continents.

One thing that makes Cincinnati’s new Percussion Park so special is its neighborhood location in a previously vacant lot at the corner of Warsaw and McPherson avenues in Price Hill. It serves as a notable sign that the low-income neighborhood, with its history of West Side conservatism, now is embracing progressive ideas about the arts. That comes as a nonprofit community development corporation, Price Hill Will, works to improve the quality of life for its residents, many of whom are minorities, including families from Central America and Mexico.

Equally impressive is the fact that Percussion Park is the idea of a local 28-year-old Cincinnati musician, Ben Sloan, who created it in true labor-of-love DIY style by making the instruments. A Northside resident, Sloan is a drummer with a degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. He has toured with the band WHY? and also teaches percussion to students preparing to join Price Hill Will’s innovative MYCincinnati free youth orchestra, begun in 2011 and the subject of citywide acclaim.

During Percussion Park’s recent dedication ceremony, Sloan told the assembled crowd, which included members of the MYCincinnati-affiliated Percussionistas group and their families, “This is so fresh, so new to the neighborhood. Who knows what the lifespan is? I hope it’s forever.”

That opening day was one of inclusion and celebration. The colorful instruments beckoned to passersby. They included a wooden bass marimba, with blue-capped yellow PVC-resonators and attached mallets donated by a British manufacturer of outdoor musical instruments, Percussion Play; several drums repurposed from propane tanks and with cut-out “tongues” for pitch control, plus one larger piece adapted from an old bronze water heater; a vertical vibraphone, or hanging chimes, consisting of gleaming stainless steel tubes; and a large stainless steel mixing bowl, suspended upside-down from a purple repurposed bike rack, that functions as a low-pitched gong. All were affixed onto a concrete pad; some were underneath a pergola. A cedar-chip pathway had been created to lead to the instruments from the sidewalk.

Children from the Percussionistas, part of MYCincinnati’s pre-orchestra training, sat on their plastic orange buckets and banged out rhythms with their drumsticks. They engaged in call-and-response with Sloan, their teacher. A talented 10-year-old, Rhianna Turner, played the bass marimba. Sloan, himself, played a short set with close friend Adam Petersen and vocalist Sheldon Belcher. And musician Jennifer Simone built an ecstatic groove through first recording herself playing the percussion instruments, then looping that sample while she still played live. The crowd danced, took pictures and joined in playing.

Ben Sloan leads the Percussionistas in a performance.Ben Sloan leads the Percussionistas in a performance.PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

“I think it’s really cool to have a place to go outside and still play instruments,” says Rhianna, who plays violin in the youth orchestra. “Ben has tried really hard to get Price Hill to have music.”

Another youth orchestra violinist, 17-year-old Kalla Ervin, says, “I think it’s a brave idea to put something  new in this area. You’re waiting for the neighborhood to have a spark creatively, for people to express themselves musically.”

Sloan’s idea for this park had humble origins. “The mom of a very close friend sent me this video featuring an 8- or 9-year-old boy playing a 5-gallon bucket with his foot,” Sloan recalls during a subsequent interview. “And he had a kick-drum pedal so he could play it like a normal bass drum. A couple of paint cans were mounted, as if they were toms, and it really resembled a drum set.”

Sloan got a kick out of watching it. But he also had a revelation.  “The formation of it allowed for you to be playing a drum set that was outside,” he says. “So I had an idea for a percussion park that was essentially an outdoor drum set. But through a lot of research, I realized that getting parts for the mechanical things just wasn’t feasible. They were too delicate and that kind of metal would rust. So I started thinking how I could build something outside for kids to play.”

Actually, that revelation didn’t come in isolation. There’s been a larger cultural and academic awakening to the importance of percussion instruments. Classical music ensembles — groups like So Percussion, Bang on a Can, nief-norf and CCM’s own Percussion Group Cincinnati — have developed sizeable followings. (Percussion Group Cincinnati’s Russell Burge was one of Sloan’s teachers at CCM.) And the movie Whiplash popularized drumming.

“I think it’s happening because rhythm is really awesome, really exciting,” Sloan says. “I want percussion to be at the forefront. The first thing MYCincinnati students get is percussion, before they start playing violin or viola or cello. Partially that’s to instill some rhythmic sensibility in them. Rhythm as a tool is really valuable.”

Sloan adds that percussion musicians also have a long DIY tradition. “Indigenous cultures all over the world have used whatever is around,” he says.

In early 2016, Sloan set out to make Percussion Park a reality. He first thought of Price Hill as a location, since he knew the families of students he taught.

“This neighborhood could have some more vibrancy, so I thought it would be nice to plant it here,” he says. (Locally, there are already some musical instruments in Washington Park’s children’s area, and Smale Riverfront Park’s foot piano is an attention-getter.)

He contacted Laura Jekel, Price Hill Will’s director of creative-placemaking and community arts initiatives. She is also a classically trained cellist who personally started the MYCincinnati orchestra. 

Using a two-year grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, she had been trying to integrate the support of arts and culture into her organization’s structure. In Price Hill Will’s comprehensive vision for neighborhood revival, art activities are considered a good use. 

“Price Hill Will tries to approach community development in a holistic way, realizing that it doesn’t happen in a bubble just by doing housing,” Jekel says. 

MYCincinnati’s Khalana Kelly plays bass marimbaMYCincinnati’s Khalana Kelly plays bass marimbaPHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

So when Sloan presented his idea, she was immediately supportive. “We like supporting great things that are happening in the neighborhood,” she says. “When people come to us with great ideas, we want to do anything we can on our end to have something amazing like that in our neighborhood.”

Sloan wrote a proposal to People’s Liberty and received a $10,000 grant. 

“Juries of community members decide what People’s Liberty funds (and) we’re glad they chose Ben’s project,” says Eric Avner, People’s Liberty’s CEO, by email. “We saw the same potential as the jury, that Ben wanted to share his passion and expertise in percussion with the community. He created strong relationships with the neighborhood, specifically through Price Hill Will and MYCincinnati, so he’d have some help implementing his bold plans.”

There was available space, too, because Hamilton County’s land bank was holding a spot that Price Hill Will thought crucial because it was in the business district, according to its executive director Ken Smith. Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, working with students at UC’s  College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning and with Human Nature, a landscape architecture firm, was caring for the large, sloping lot through a program called Vacant Lots: Occupied.

With the groundwork in place, Sloan turned to a network of family and friends for help. Although his parents divorced when he was very young, he visited his father, Stephen Sloan, in Virginia regularly. The elder Sloan had extensive woodworking experience and available lumber, so father helped son with the wooden instruments. 

Yet Sloan knew he needed metal instruments, too. But he didn’t know much about making those. His $10,000 budget precluded buying manufactured ones; he wanted to be eco-conscious and reuse and adapt existing objects. Fortunately, a friend was ceramist Mauri Moskowitz, whose family has owned a scrapyard in Saint Bernard for 116 years. And that company is artist-friendly — Moskowitz keeps her studio there.

She invited Sloan to tour and take what he wanted. “He was really blown away — he saw a bunch of shapes and was full of ideas for how all this metal material and recycled stuff would make sounds,” Moskowitz says. “He’s definitely the kind of person that walks around with beats on his fingers all the time. He just taps everything and is looking for a new sound.”

Since he had never actually worked metal, he turned to the sister of his closest friend and fellow percussionist, Adam Petersen, for help. Anna Petersen is an artist specializing in metal sculpture who knows welding well — her thesis project at Columbus College of Art & Design involved found scrap metal. 

“Any of the fine tuning, making things sound the way they should, was up to him,” Anna says. “For me, the work was structural — I had a heavy hand in the bases made for each of the instruments, and anything that involved the welding was all mine as well. But he helped with the grinding, the taking away of rust and old paint.” 

Sloan also had support from his stepfather, Matt Kotlarczyk, a rehabber and noted Cincinnati sculptor. He used Kotlarsczyk’s Northside studio to store and assemble his percussion creations. Kotlarczyk himself had been a drummer in a band when he first met Sloan’s mother after she and her son returned to Cincinnati from Virginia. (Sloan’s mother is Tamara Harkavy, founding director of ArtWorks.) Sloane credits Kotlarczyk with getting him interested in drumming in the first place, and at the Percussion Park opening he dedicated his accomplishment to his father and stepfather.

“I’m so glad he’s constructed this combo of visual and performing art,” Kotlarczyk says. “To be standing there and seeing what he was dedicating to me and his dad, this extraordinary body of work that he feels such a connection to — I couldn’t ask for more.” 

People’s Liberty’s Jake Hodesh (right)holds mallets as his daughter Naomi plays.People’s Liberty’s Jake Hodesh (right)holds mallets as his daughter Naomi plays.PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

Now that Percussion Park has been open a couple weeks, there is more work to be done. Two wooden tongue drums were damaged, possibly intentionally, shortly after the opening and Sloan has removed them for repair. That doesn’t perturb him. 

“My expectation going in was these have a limited lifespan,” he says. “But somebody’s going to love it while it’s there and have a good time playing it.”

And he’s planning how to keep Percussion Park vibrant and exciting. Quite a bit of space is still vacant in the lot, and he can see some kind of amphitheater there for percussion performances. “Maybe there will be commissioned work from some older artists working in Cincinnati to utilize that set of instruments and we’ll tie it in with my class,” Sloan says. “But my first goal is just to have a presence there. My plan is to be there a lot. I want to be there on Saturdays for a few hours — just set up my drum set and play with people, give lessons if they want, or just have conversations.”

Quite literally, he will be beating a drum for the role of arts in Price Hill’s future.

To learn more about PERCUSSION PARK, visit

Steven Soderbergh Revives 1970 Rarity ‘End of the Road’ Co-Written By Terry Southern: ‘That’s What Independent Film Should Feel Like’

Steven Soderbergh Revives 1970 Rarity ‘End of the Road’ Co-Written By Terry Southern: ‘That’s What Independent Film Should Feel Like’

Like the carefree spirit of the late 1960s, the independent film “End of the Road,” produced and co-written by Terry Southern, didn’t last long in a hardened new era. But thanks to one of modern cinema’s most influential filmmakers, this controversial “lost” movie from indie film’s daringly free-spirited countercultural days is getting a fresh start.

Warner Home Video will issue “End of the Road” on DVD Tuesday, Sept. 18 — the first time it will have appeared in the format. But the release isn’t happening because the public has been clamoring for it, though maybe it should have been. It’s because Steven Soderbergh wanted it to happen.

“I thought then it needed to be seen,” Soderbergh says in a telephone interview. “I have to give Warner Bros. props. The physical DVD market is not one that’s generating the revenue it used to. And for them to be putting this out is a big deal and a great thing. So I hope there are enough cinephiles out there who pick it up.”

Soderbergh is a longtime devotee of Southern, a celebrated literary figure of the era and co-screenwriter of cultural signposts “Dr. Strangelove,” “Barbarella” and “Easy Rider.” (Southern also was close friends with “End of the Road” director and co-writer Aram Avakian.) And Warner Bros. has released some of Soderbergh’s most commercial films, including “Magic Mike,” “Contagion” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy. So in exchange for the studio, which held the rights to the Allied Artists release, reviving “End of the Road,” Soderbergh agreed to shoot a companion 30-minute making-of documentary, “An Amazing Time: A Conversation About ‘End of the Road,’” to give it some marketplace currency. With assistant Corey Bayes, Soderbergh worked on the doc while shooting his 2011 thriller “Contagion.”

“End of the Road” is adapted from a 1958 John Barth novel about a recent university graduate, Jacob Horner, who suffers a mental crisis and seeks treatment from a mysterious doctor that encourages him to teach English grammar at a nearby college. The cast included Stacy Keach as Horner, James Earl Jones as Doctor D, Harris Yulin as a college professor and Dorothy Tristan as his wife, with whom Horner has a tragic affair that results in an unwanted pregnancy. (At the time, Tristan was Avakian’s wife.) The film updates the narrative to the late 1960s, when society was being ripped apart by the Vietnam War, riots and assassinations.

Southern and Avakian had met while studying French literature at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill after World War II and stayed close friends. “In Paris, Dad and Terry were into jazz, writing, getting high a lot, more writing, seeing cool girls, traveling around Europe,” explains Alexandra Avakian, Aram and Tristan’s daughter, via email. “Dad and Terry were über-hip, Beat, existentialist. They had their own view of the universe.”

A true indie production, “End of the Road” was shot outside the studio system in Great Barrington, MA, with financing from Max Raab, whose Villager company designed preppy clothing for young women. By all reports Raab left the crew alone, and as a result the actual filming experience was a positive one — almost communal, if Soderbergh’s documentary is any indication.

“This was a very nostalgic piece for me, because it’s clear everybody felt like the shooting of the film was a great experience and a unique one in their careers,” Soderbergh says of making the doc. “You look at that and say, ‘It’s not like that anymore.’ It’s very rare for people to go off and have an experience like that, for a variety of reasons — not just that the business has changed a lot. My hope is that you would watch this and go, ‘Wow, I wish I’d been a part of that!’”

“End of the Road” made little money initially, though its fortunes might have been different had the nine-page inside feature on the film that Life magazine was planning for the Nov. 7, 1969, cover not been bumped for an interview with Paul McCartney refuting the “Paul Is Dead” rumors then sweeping pop culture. The film’s box-office failure was partly because of its mind-blowing, avant-garde techniques. But it was also because the film had received an X-rating based on two scenes: an infamous shot of a mental patient appearing to have sex with a chicken, and a longer, gruelingly realistic scene of a botched abortion. (The film is now rated R.)

Southern died in 1995 at age 71 in relative obscurity and in debt, despite his incredible run in the 1960s. His novel “Candy” was a naughty sensation; he was Oscar-nominated for his work on “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider”; he was credited as a founder of New Journalism for his 1962 Esquire article “Twirling at Ole Miss”; he covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for Esquire along with Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and John Sack; and he landed on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” record (wearing shades).

“I knew who he was through the seminal films that had his name on them,” Soderbergh says. “And I had read ‘Candy’ and [his later novel] ‘Blue Movie.’ I knew he was a funny, smart cat who was legendary for punching [scripts] up and having really good ideas. Clearly, he was a real force and a fascinating figure.”

It was about 10 years ago that Soderbergh learned of the struggles that Nile Southern, Terry’s son and the executor of his estate, was having paying off his father’s debts. He then had a meeting with Nile arranged through Elliott Gould, a friend of Terry Southern’s who had played a recurring role in Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies. Soderbergh helped Nile place his father’s literary estate with the New York Public Library and learned of the son’s enthusiasm for “End of the Road,” his father’s great “lost” cinematic project.

“I always thought it never got the attention it deserved,” says Nile, who now lives in Boulder, CO, and once interviewed Avakian, who died in 1987 at age 60, for a 1982 New York University class on the counterculture. “I used to see it in the ’70s at Cinema Village, where it played often and had cult status. I posted black-and-white pictures of Avakian in the Village, so into the film was I. I’ve been a champion of its merits since I was in my early 20s.”

(In an auspicious coincidence, as “End of the Road” was nearing release, Nile received a $20,000 matching production grant from the NEA for “Dad Strangelove,” his and Diane Markrow’s in-progress documentary about his father. Soderbergh is the executive producer; D.A. Pennebaker is a consulting producer. “I’m looking for any footage of my father,” Nile says.)

Barth, however, has been on record as not liking the film adaptation of “End of the Road.” In an introduction to a 1988 edition of the novel, he wrote some negative remarks, especially about the chicken scene. (“Chicken Man,” by the way, was played by the late poet Joel Oppenheimer.) Soderbergh did not interview Barth for his “End of the Road” documentary, but he may get the chance to talk with the author soon since he owns the rights to Barth’s novel “The Sot-weed Factor,” which he plans to turn into a 10- or 12-part miniseries.

Alexandra, a photographer and Nile’s friend since childhood, also has long been an advocate for the film. “Thanks to Steven and Warner Bros., the release means my father has a voice again, though he passed away in 1987,” she says. “For me it is nothing less than a fabulous occasion.I hope all kinds of people will see this film across a wide spectrum. They should approach it with an open mind; see it several times. ‘End of the Road’ is a cry for help on behalf of America in a tragic time in many ways. My father was a social critic and any way you look at this film you will see something of value that you will never forget.”

Soderbergh also has respect for the director, who co-wrote the “End of the Road” screenplay with Southern and Dennis McGuire. Avakian had co-directed a 1959 documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” and then established himself as a top editor on “The Miracle Worker,” “Mickey One” and “You’re a Big Boy Now” before choosing “End of the Road” to direct. (He went on to make two other films, “Cops and Robbers” and “11 Harrowhouse.”)

Working with the great cinematographer Gordon Willis (“The Godfather,” “Annie Hall”), whose first film was “End of the Road,” Avakian created some provocative, beautiful, mesmerizing scenes. An early standout shows Horner standing silent on a train platform for what seems like an eternity as a montage of black-and-white photos of his childhood, as well as snapshots of 1960s political outrages, flashes by. It’s as if the whole chaotic, upsetting world is roaring toward him like a speeding train, and only his catatonia can protect him. On the soundtrack, Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me” plays. (Aram’s brother George, an award-winning record producer especially noted for his work with jazz artists, supervised the film’s music.)

“I think the train-platform sequence is absolutely stunning, one of the best five-six minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen,” Soderbergh says.

Tristan, who was divorced from Avakian in 1972, said in an interview that she hopes today’s audience will see “End of the Road” as “a piece of work of that time, very innovative. And they can glean what was going on at the time from it — very anti-war, anti-government. And it was also pro-abortion. You don’t go to back alleys or you die.”

“End of the Road”’s wild tonal shifts can be startling, and the scenes at Dr. D’s “farm” can seem very stylized at times. Soderbergh cautions that he realizes the film will go too far for some, especially in the long scene involving a botched abortion presided over by the crackpot doctor.

“It’s still a polarizing film; the final scene is hard to watch,” he says. “But I like the sense of possibilities in the film. You feel the filmmaker is going out and is not afraid. That’s what independent film should feel like, what it should try to do.”


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Ohio’s Strange Monument Honoring Robert E. Lee

War-related memorials and monuments are one of the most common forms of public art, and it will probably stay that way as long as there are wars to remember. But just because we have these everywhere, we shouldn’t take their existence for granted.



War-related memorials and monuments are one of the most common forms of public art, and it will probably stay that way as long as there are wars to remember. But just because we have these everywhere, we shouldn’t take their existence for granted.

One of the strangest — not because of the way it looks, but because it exists at all — is the monument to General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armies, in southwest Ohio. Yes, Ohio — not only a loyal member of the United States during the Civil War, but also the home state of President Lincoln’s commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant (who was elected president himself).

And also home to other Ohioan generals, who were instrumental in defeating the Confederate states, which had seceded from the United States primarily to maintain slavery. If any state would seem to not have a need to honor Lee with a monument, it would be Ohio.

Yet there it is, in a grassy area along the roadside just outside the city of Franklin, north of Cincinnati in northwest Warren County at the corner of the (old) Dixie Highway (old U.S. 25) and Hamilton-Middletown Road.It is a large, ruggedly shaped boulder with a bronze plaque in the center, fenced off from the roadway by some petite white pillars and a draped metal chain.

The plaque depicts Lee astride his horse, Traveller, and reads, “Erected and Dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Friends In Loving Memory of Robert E. Lee and to Mark the Route of the Dixie Highway. ‘The shaft memorial and highway straight attest his worth — he cometh to his own.’ — Littlefield/Erected 1927.”

On my recent visit, the grass around the monument had been cut, and a small American flag was at the base. I had to park on the shoulder of the highway since there was no lot for stopping. Practically no one I talked to knew about it, other than those who study and document such things. (Franklin City Clerk Jane McGee, who said she had only learned about the Lee monument recently, said it appears to be on city property.)

In an online forum at American Road magazine, a contributor mentioned finding other Lee monuments that the United Daughters had placed along then-new national Dixie Highway routes.

But Cindy Branam, president of the Ohio division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said she had never heard of the monument until a recent call from a blogger. Her research shows it appears to be one of three markers her group had installed in Ohio — the others acknowledge actual historic sites, Confederate cemeteries at Johnson’s Island and Columbus. She also supported a new one in Wellston, Ohio, near a battle site.

The Cincinnati Enquirer advanced the 1927 dedication ceremonies for the “marker,” noting that among those present would be the president of Ohio’s United Daughters of the Confederacy, Ohio’s director of highways, and — on behalf of the city — the publisher of the Franklin Chronicle. A male quartet would sing “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny” (Lee’s home state was Virginia), an official from Virginia’s Washington and Lee University was to give an address, and the audience would sing Lee’s favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” 

This occurred in an era when entrepreneurs and others were interested in creating “national highways” to lure the growing number of motorists to new destinations. Earl Swift’s book The Big Roads tells how Carl Fisher came up with the Dixie Highway idea to promote his Miami Beach development with Midwesterners. So great was the demand by municipalities to be included on this highway he devised two Midwestern routes to the South – one from Detroit through Cincinnati and Knoxville and another from Indianapolis through Nashville. Much of the routing followed a patchwork of existing roads.

The true irony and oddity about all this is that the monument is across the street from Woodhill Cemetery, which Franklin Township owns. And it has a true Civil War memorial — and a state historical marker — dedicated to area soldiers who fought and died for the Union in the Civil War.
Twenty-one of them are buried in the cemetery. In the book The History of Franklin in the Great Miami Valley, contributor Dorothy Scholl tells of the surprise many in the area felt when a motorist knocked the Lee monument off its foundation in 1981. Until the resultant news coverage, few had any idea what the monument was about as they zipped past it.
Scholl talked to Judge J.T. Riley, a prominent resident, who said that Franklin businessman Barry Brown spurred the monument’s creation, in part because “Lee did as much anyone to heal the wounds left by the fighting of the Civil War.” If that’s the true purpose of it, and it wasn’t just a tie-in with a then-new highway to the South, it isn’t explained fully on the plaque.
As recent tragic events in Charleston, S.C., have shown, those wounds haven’t completely healed yet. And there is a debate that perhaps there has been too much commemoration and not enough atonement for the Confederacy and what it stood for. That debate largely has been taking place in the South, but the presence of the Lee monument in Franklin means Ohio could benefit from it, too.