Legendary Rock Guitarist Wayne Kramer Talks MC50 Tour, Free Jazz Influences

Kramer and members of Soundgarden, Faith No More and Fugazi perform MC5 classics at Bogart’s on Oct. 25 

BY STEVEN ROSEN
CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / OCT. 23, 2018

MUSIC11024Wayne Kramer Photo Jenny RisherWayne KramerPHOTO: JENNY RISHER

Among the immortal rallying cries of Rock & Roll — a list that includes “You gotta fight for your right to party,” “Sex and drugs and Rock & Roll” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” — the most raucously confrontational yet ecstatically celebratory is MC5’s “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”

It’s the in-your-face opening exhortation to the title song from the Detroit band’s first album, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams. It made the group — which was into countercultural rebellion, Pre-Punk Rock, Free Jazz and sweaty dancing — revered by those who identified with them (especially in a pre-Rust Belt Midwest). It also made them the enemy of authorities — their politically-charged stance, fueled by manager John Sinclair’s leftist White Panther Party, was not appreciated in a tough city still recovering from a rebellion against segregation by African-American residents in 1967.

But the quintet’s messily high-energy Rock never really translated to a wider youth audience.

Two more MC5 albums followed, both showing growing ambition in the writing and performance, but the moment and momentum was gone and the band quit in 1972.

MC5’s reputation has only grown, however, as new artists have come to revere the group’s hip, gritty street credibility. But the kids of MC5 did not have an easy time of adulthood. Three have died — guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and singer Rob Tyner, both at 46, and bassist Michael Davis at 68.

And while guitarist Wayne Kramer is still with us (as is drummer Dennis Thompson), his road to being here has not been easy: off-and-on work as a journeyman musician; struggles with drugs and alcohol; even a prison term in the mid-1970s at Lexington, Ky.’s Federal Correctional Institution, famous as the nation’s “Narcotic Farm,” for housing junkies and other drug users. Yet, as Kramer’s new and thoroughly engrossing

MUSIC11024MC50Photo Chris Mc KayWayne Kramer (center) and his MC50 bandmatesPHOTO: CHRIS MCKAY

 

memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities reveals, since the mid-1990s he has slowly emerged not just to reclaim some of MC5’s heritage, but to shape a principled and inspiring Rock & Roll life that includes marriage and parenthood.

In the biggest step yet in his long, slow comeback, Kramer is currently touring with a group of MC5-influenced musicians — Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and singer Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla — dubbed “MC50.” The tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original live recording of Kick Out the Jams at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on Halloween of 1968. The album will be performed in its entirety, with space allowed for improvisation.

“I’m happy to report that Kick Out the Jams is holding up very well 50 years down the road,” says Kramer, who recently found out MC5 has been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the fourth time.

The audiences have been shouting along on the title song’s defiant opening chant.

“Usually, a fairly large contingent of the crowd will scream that back at us exactly like we do that,” Kramer says. “Those are people in their 40s and 50s, and some younger people. There aren’t many people who are my age — I’m 70, and 70-year-olds aren’t going out to Rock shows much. But I get a few every night who tell me, ‘I saw MC5 in ’68.’ ”

When Kick Out the Jams first was released in 1969, it drew complaints from reviewers that it sounded messy. But what those early critics missed, and what seems ever more important now, was the influence of avant-garde Free Jazz, which had been introduced to the band members by Sinclair. Kramer has worked hard with his MC50 members to achieve that kind of playing now. It’s where the original MC5 wanted to ascend to in 1968.

“Our music was rooted in the fundamental Rock & Roll of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the early instrumental Rock bands,” Kramer says. “But we reached for the future, and the planets, with Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. We were striving to move forward. I could play what popular guitar players were playing, but my question was, ‘Where does music go next, and where could I take it?’

“The Free Jazz movement showed me, and that’s where I wanted to go — to leave Western thoughts of music behind and enter into a more pure sonic dimension, more visceral, more human, more expressive than scales and modes and chords would allow.”

So Kramer found himself practicing for hours to play guitar in a style influenced by the  Images Uploads Gallery Wayne Kramer©Mike Barich1969Fest BwWayne Kramer with MC5 in 1969PHOTO: MIKE BARICH

 

great Free Jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler — to “move from scales and modes and notes into pure sound.”

With MC5’s demise, Kramer started dealing drugs and was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency and eventually sent to Lexington. The Narcotic Farm had a history of housing musicians as inmates, and one day the great Jazz trumpeter Red Rodney — who struggled with heroin addiction for much of his life — arrived. He and Kramer bonded, and began leading Sunday afternoon jam sessions for inmates.

“I was much younger, coming from the world of Rock, and we met in the music, itself,” Kramer says. “He discovered I could actually play some of the material he was used to playing, and he liked me and was a very generous man. And he became my teacher and mentor. We also had drugs in common from two different perspectives. We became very close for those couple years we were together.” (Rodney died in 1994, at age 66.)

Remembering how making music helped get him through his prison stint, Kramer in 2007 co-founded the nonprofit organization Jail Guitar Doors USA with British troubadour Billy Bragg, who earlier had started the organization in the U.K. (The name comes from a song by The Clash that mentions Kramer’s time in prison.) To date, the organization has placed guitars in over 120 U.S. prisons.

“I see music as serving an important and fundamental purpose,” Kramer says. “It’s a way to express yourself, tell your story, contribute something to the world of beauty. Most people in prison never have that opportunity, and if we don’t do something to help people change for the better while they’re in our custody, they’ll most certainly change for worse.”


MC50 performs Thursday, Oct. 25 at Bogart’s. Tickets/more show info: bogarts.com.

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Marty Balin: Cincinnati Roots; Altamont Resistance

balin

BY STEVEN ROSEN

CINCINNATI ENQUIRER / 2013 / RIP MARTY BALIN

For Marty Balin, who as a founding member and resonant co-lead singer of San Francisco’s fabled Jefferson Airplane helped usher in the psychedelic rock/lifestyle revolution of the 1960s, an upcoming rare solo date here serves as a homecoming.

The band started in 1965 and soared to fame during San Francisco’s Summer of Love, 1967. Balin, now 71, is performing Saturday night with just an accompanying guitarist at Fairfield Community Arts Center’s Sojourners Recovery Services concert series. His repertoire may include songs made popular with the Airplane in the 1960s (such as “Comin’ Back to Me,” “Today” and “Volunteers”), with Jefferson Starship in the 1970s (perhaps “Miracles” or “With Your Love’), and as an early-1980s hit-making soloist (“Hearts”), along with newer, less familiar material.

Balin has traveled a long way from his local roots. He was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald here in 1942 and spent his early years in a 19th Century multi-family home on Highland Avenue in Mount Auburn, right before the street descends into Prospect Hill. His family, including an older sister, left for a new life in the west when he was just four, arriving in San Francisco after a few stops elsewhere. The 1940 U.S. Census shows that his father Joseph and mother Catherine rented an apartment in the three-family building while dad worked as a press helper for a lithographer.

Reached by phone in Florida, where he spends winters with his wife and daughter, Balin said he doesn’t recall much of his Cincinnati days. “I remember sledding down this long hillside and making big snowmen,” he says. And once gone, he said, his family —Cincinnati natives — stayed gone. “My father wasn’t close to his family,” he said.

Balin said his dad, who died last year at age 95 (his wife preceded him), made the move for his sake. “It was warmer for him and me. He told me I had bronchitis or something and couldn’t take the cold.”

Actually, Balin’s family did maintain close contact with at least one Cincinnati relative. Randy Buchwald, who grew up in Roselawn and graduated from Walnut Hills High School, went to live with the family in 1976 while attending San Francisco State. His late father, Isaac, was Joseph Buchwald’s brother. (There were also another brother and sister, with whom Randy was not close.)

“Marty and my uncle were really big on family,” said Randy, 54, who now lives in the Bay Area and is engineering director at a software company. “We’d all try to get together at least on Sunday mornings for breakfast.”

Randy stayed close, even after returning to University of Cincinnati for a business degree and then launching a career that took him to L.A. and Rome before returning to the area and renewing family contacts. “His father was like a grandfather to my kids,” he said. “They used to call him grandpa uncle.”

Balin’s father, who died last year at age 95 (after his wife), became something of a San Francisco celebrity in his own right, especially after his son’s electrified folk-rock band became famous with its 1967 hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” (Both featured lead vocals by Grace Slick.) Using the lithography skills learned in Cincinnati, Buchwald got a job with a company that made psychedelic rock-concert posters, Tea Lautrec. And his father loved the whole wild scene, Balin recalled, although he never took the pyschedelic drugs so crucial to the scene’s music.

“I can remember going to these acid parties and I couldn’t even find my way to the door and looking up seeing my dad there,” Balin said. “I’d be saying, ‘Dad, help me. I don’t know where I am.’ And he’d be saying, ‘Sit down and relax, I’ll get you home.’”

One aspect of Balin’s long career has come up for renewed attention because of a recent documentary. In Crossfire Hurricane, about the Rolling Stones’ long career, band members talk about how frightened and intimidated they were by the Hell’ Angels motorcycle members during 1969’s infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival near San Francisco. There, hundreds of thousands were cowed and silenced while Hell’s Angels serving as security brutalized and beat concertgoers.

But Balin, however, resisted. During the Airplane’s set, he jumped into the crowd to fight a pool cue-armed Hell’s Angel attacking a fan. After breaking that up, he discovered the Angel on stage, striking the same fan. Balin went to help again and was beaten unconscious. In retrospect, it seems like a heroic act.

“I’m singing and I look out and there are people beating this poor guy with pool cues in front of me, and this whole crowd just stepped back en masse and allowed it to happen,” Balin said, still incredulous. “And it just infuriated me that nobody would help this poor guy. So I jumped down and started pushing these Hell’s Angels away, and some of them started going, ‘Hey Marty, what are you doing? You’ll get hurt down here.’

“I guess I’m just a foolish guy. I don’t know, the guy looked like he needed some help and what was I going to do?”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin pay tribute to the Folk Blues masters they bonded over on ‘Downey to Lubbock’

Gilmore talks about his early creative and professional development and his Alvin collaboration ahead of the duo’s show Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Southgate House Revival

STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /SEPT. 4, 2018

MUSIC10905Dave Alvin(left)And Jimmie Dale Gilmore Photo Tim Reese PhotographyaveAlvin (left) and Jimmie Dale GilmorePHOTO: TIM REESE PHOTOGRAPHY

This was an unconventional interview with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to say the least. When we connected via phone, he was in a physical rehab center in Lubbock, Texas to visit his 91-year-old mother, Mary, who was recovering from a broken hip. Our talk was interrupted several times so he could say something to encourage her, or because doctors and a speech therapist came in to check on her progress and talk to him. For the final portion of the interview, Gilmore was reached in a Lubbock Best Buy, where he had gone to get a charger for his much-used cell phone.

Through it all, the Grammy-nominated Gilmore remained upbeat and enthusiastic about his ongoing tour with Dave Alvin, the new album that accompanies it and his love of music. A native of Lubbock in the flatlands of West Texas, he has successfully applied his distinctly gentle, unusually wavering voice to Country, Blues, Folk and Rock long before there was a name — Americana — for his style. Before that term was coined, you could call just him — as he sings on the new album’s rumbling title song, “Downey to Lubbock” — “a hippie Country singer.”

He still is just that, actually, his long flowing hair now gray and white.

“It really is a tongue-in-cheek thing, because the word ‘hippie’ to me was meant to denigrate anybody who acted weird,” he says. “It came to be a euphemism for anybody not a complete conformist. It always has kind of irked me, but at the same time it did come to refer to the people I identified with. I was particularly strange for a Country singer.”

Gilmore and Alvin — the Grammy-winning Americana singer/songwriter and sizzling guitarist known for being a co-founder of the 1980s band The Blasters — got the idea for the album when touring together for a few 2017 dates in the Southwest.


“We both assumed it would be a song swap, but immediately we discovered we knew a bunch of stuff (to play) together,” Gilmore says. “Very quickly, we started doing every show together. I’d play rhythm guitar and he’d play lead. And Dave got me back into playing harmonica, which I hadn’t done in 30 years.”

The two realized they had a shared history. Both used to attend concerts at Los Angeles’ Ash Grove music club, which lasted from 1958-73 and presented such Folk and Blues masters as Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Bukka White. Alvin was raised in Downey, Calif., so it’s understandable that he would hang out in nearby L.A. But how did a quintessential Texas flatlander get there?

“I figured with the kind of music I was into, that (California) was the place for it,” he explains. “I was already married and with a baby daughter when we moved out in 1965, and that was really the heyday of Folk Blues. That’s when I started making music on my own. My first professional gig was in San Diego while I was living in Los Angeles. Back then, I played every Saturday night for a period. I think I made about $16, but it was big time to me.”

Downey to Lubbock, which the two co-produced in a studio with assisting musicians, reflects their shared love for the artists they saw there — or would have wanted to. They do Brownie and Ruth McGhee’s “Walk On,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Buddy Brown’s Blues” and a 1928 classic by Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band, “Stealin’, Stealin.’” There are also songs by more recent Folk/Country troubadours who have passed on — Steve Young’s “Silverlake,” John Stewart’s “July, You’re a Woman” and Chris Gaffney’s “The Gardens.”

Additionally, Gilmore sings a raucous tune from the days when high-adrenaline R&B was just beginning to turn into Rock & Roll, Lloyd Price’s 1952 “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”

“That’s New Orleans music; that could be considered one of the first Rock & Roll songs,” Gilmore says. “Doing it with Dave, I have the feeling we got the original feeling of it along with a modern treatment.”

There are also two songs that have quite a bite — “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman’s protest song about Mexican migrant workers who die in a plane crash while being sent home from the U.S., and The Youngbloods’ 1969 Folk Rock hit “Get Together,” a wistfully hopeful look ahead to better, more peaceful times than the tumultuous 1960s. Gilmore sings the lead on both songs.

“Dave introduces those by saying they are both timeless and timely,” Gilmore says.

Gilmore has long been performing the oft-recorded “Deportee” — he first heard Joan Baez do it. “When we were doing this recording, Dave said he’d (first) listened to about 100 recordings of it, and then he said, ‘Wait a minute, Jimmie already has his own take on it, we’ll just do it the way he does it.’ ”


The pair has been closing their shows with “Get Together.” A longtime fan, Gilmore believes Youngbloods lead singer Jesse Colin Young sang it beautifully.

“The meaning of the song is so apropos to these times,” he says. “And I love music that’s able to reflect that.”

While Gilmore has had a successful solo recording career, he is especially highly regarded for being a member, with fellow Texas songwriters Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, of the proto-Americana band The Flatlanders, which recorded an obscure and virtually unreleased — but very prescient — 1972 album. The band didn’t last long as a going concern. But as their solo careers progressed, Rounder Records re-released the album in 1991 under the name More a Legend than a Band. Since 2002, The Flatlanders have released three albums of new recordings, and they tour together occasionally.

The last Flatlanders’ album of new material came out in 2009, so they once again can be considered more a legend than a band. But maybe not for much longer.

“We still do the one-off concerts,” Gilmore says. “And we’ve already started talking about doing another project. With us, starting to talk about it means it’s still several years down the road. But we’re still all best friends.”


Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin perform Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.

Cincinnati Unites to Celebrate Music Institution King Records’ Crucial Legacy while also Considering its Future Potential

September marks the sixth-annual King Records Month and the label’s 75th anniversary

By STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / AUG 21, 2018 
 

Cover0822King Records Building HB2The King Records building in EvanstonPHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

It may not be as big an event as BLINK Cincinnati or Oktoberfest yet, but the annual King Records Month is rapidly becoming a genuine festival. In fact, in its sixth year it can no longer even be contained in a single month, as the events are becoming as numerous as the number of hit recordings made by King’s greatest star, James Brown, or the number of classic songs first recorded by King artists — like Little Willie John’s 1956 version of “Fever,” later covered successfully by Peggy Lee.

King Records Month is supposed to occur in September — it was September 1943 when King founder and Cincinnati native Syd Nathan recorded the first songs by Country singers Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis to be released by his new record company, which went on to be a pioneer in the development of Rock & Roll by bringing Country and R&B together. King was based on Brewster Avenue in Evanston, in buildings still  Cover0822King Records Building HB5King Records markerPHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

there but not in good condition.

This year the celebrating of the “month” starts early — next Saturday in fact, with the first Celebrate the King: The Gala, a ticketed event at Over-the-Rhine’s Memorial Hall with special guests, live music and the presentation of Lifetime Achievement Awards to key figures in King’s history: the late Henry Glover, an A&R executive and producer who was an early black executive in the recording industry, plus important King musicians Bootsy Collins, Philip Paul and Otis Williams. The design company We Have Become Vikings is organizing the event; its co-founder Jason Snell did some King-related design work for projections on the exterior wall of downtown’s St. Xavier Church during 2017’s massively successful BLINK Cincinnati.

“The idea for the gala started over beers with two people active in (the King Studios project),” Snell says. “I’d just be sitting there and go, ‘What? That happened? No.’ Just being a fan of the music coming out of here and not really knowing a tenth of what hap King0822Bootsy Collins Photo We Have Become VikingsA King Records poster honoring Bootsy CollinsART: WE HAVE BECOME VIKINGS

happened… it gives me goosebumps.”

King Records Month activities also continue well past September with two high-profile events. On Oct. 25, the Cincinnati Preservation Association is bringing in Terry Stewart — the former director of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — to speak at its 23rd Annual Fall Forum Luncheon on the importance of preserving King’s legacy.

At CityBeat’s 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards’ tribute to King, Stewart came to town and famously said at the event, “There’s not a more important piece of real estate in musical history than the building over there on Brewster. If you folks don’t remember and preserve it, shame on you.”

At the urging of board member Margaret Valentine, Cincinnati Preservation decided to focus this year’s lecture on King, a break from broader topics of the recent past.

After that, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park debuts the long-awaited world premiere of KJ Sanchez’s play, Cincinnati King, on Nov. 3, which has been in development for five years as she researched the label’s history and its impact on the community. (The play runs at the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theatre through Dec. 23.)

September itself is packed with programming, from a serious panel discussion Sept. 5 at the Mercantile Library on Syd Nathan’s place in music history to the goofy fun of “The World’s Largest Twist Dance” on Sept. 7 at Great American Ball Park, following the end of a Cincinnati Reds’ game and before fireworks. King artist Hank Ballard had the first recording of “The Twist” in 1959, although it wasn’t until Chubby Checker covered it in 1960 that it became a massive hit and enduring pop culture touchstone. (See here for more events happening during King Records Month and beyond.)

Structural Security

King Recording1966Retouched Color(1)A retouched 1966 photo of the King Records studio in EvanstonPHOTO: PROVIDED

All this is remarkable, when you consider that King Records lost its founder way back in 1968, when Nathan died, closed its Cincinnati studio/offices on Brewster in 1971 and essentially disappeared from the city’s consciousness after a Nashville company bought its assets. It’s been a long, slow process to make Cincinnatians aware.

But neither the increase in the breadth and duration of events nor the easy peg of a 75-year anniversary is the only reason why this year’s annual King Records celebration/observation is so much bigger than the past five.

In April, Cincinnati City Council approved a land swap with the existing owner of the former studio property in Evanston, who had been threatening demolition. The city had made the space a historic landmark in 2015. The transaction was completed this summer, and the city now owns King’s old studio/office at 1532-36 Brewster Ave. That means that the owners of King Records’ home are the citizens of Cincinnati, and they can now begin to plan for using the site to honor the past and possibly play a part in the community’s future. (Another part of the King property, 1538-40 Brewster, which held some of the manufacturing facilities such as record pressing, is still in private hands.)

“It is now an important public asset,” says Greg Koehler, economic development supervisor with the city. “We just hit this milestone of finally getting control over the original recording studio. Now we can talk seriously about getting this big project to happen. It’s a big lift — like a small-scale version of Music Hall or Union Terminal.”

Elliott Ruther, a co-founder of the nonprofit Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation that advocated for saving the building, says, “Here’s a truly significant spot where culture was created that had an impact on the world.”

People involved in King preservation efforts say that it isn’t just its contribution to American music that merits its remembrance. Owner Nathan was way ahead of the rest of society in running an integrated business. As Darren Blase, a co-owner of Shake It Records who studied King Records as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, explains: “(King) had an integrated baseball team within the company, but when they played in the greater industrial league, they had to break into a black and a white team.”

Before efforts can start on the restoration of the King site, it first needs to be protected structurally due to the wear of time and the elements. KING0822Jack White(King Artist Bootsy Collins,King Artist Otis Williams,Jack White,Mayor John Cranley,Evanston Council President Anzora Adkins,King Artist Philip Paul)Photo Courtesy Of Third Man Records And David SwansonL to R: King artists Bootsy Collins and Otis Williams with Jack White, Mayor John Cranley, Evanston Council President Anzora Adkins and fellow King musician Philip Paul at the original Evanston building.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THIRD MAN RECORDS AND DAVID SWANSON

“Short term, we hope to get a new roof on it before the end of year,” the city’s Koehler says. “It’s essentially missing half a roof. It’s been deteriorating; it’s essentially in abandoned condition.”

He says such roof repair will cost approximately $500,000 and will include new rafters and carpentry to support the roof. The building also needs some asbestos mitigation.

“That means you won’t be able to grow vegetables inside the building because it has a complete roof on it,” jokes Tim Riordan, the secretary-treasurer of King Studios, a nonprofit with the stated goal of exposing and energizing King’s legacy while also supporting efforts to spur revitalization in Evanston.

Riordan might have some useful contacts in that regard — he is a former Cincinnati assistant city manager and former Dayton city manager.

To work with the city on long-term plans, four nonprofit community groups that have been involved in King preservation efforts have formed a steering committee to make recommendations. Besides King Studios and Cincinnati USA Music Heritage, Evanston Community Council and the Bootsy Collins Foundation are involved. They are considering forming a new nonprofit organization that could conceivably be in charge of creating a new use for the site and supervising a fundraising campaign.

Concurrently, Cincinnati Preservation has been coordinating work on an application to get the site on the United States Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. That could help with funding — both the federal and state governments provide sizeable tax credits for the restoration of historic properties.

Paul Muller, Cincinnati Preservation’s executive director, says that kind of funding already has been used for work on such public entities as Music Hall, Union Terminal and Memorial Hall. That the King site may not be their architectural equal doesn’t matter, he says.

“Preservation is about much more than bricks and mortar,” he says. “It’s about the lives of people who create things. (Historic buildings) become useful marks for people to tell our cultural history and how we came to be as a society.”

Once and Future King

King Rendering P5A rendering of the renovated buildingPHOTO: PROVIDED

The initial steps being taken are about keeping the King building structurally secure. But the ultimate goals being discussed for the space are about much more than keeping King alive in an empty, worn-but-architecturally-sound memorial.

“Long-term demands a pretty extensive renovation of the building,” Koehler says. “That gets into things like a museum, historic artifacts on display, a studio, community space. That gets into the millions of dollars. That’s really what a lot of people in the community want to see happen in the long run, and I do believe it’s doable.”

Because the vision of what King should be is still in the early stages, Koehler says concrete fundraising efforts aren’t in place yet. But he says the plan for King to be something living and breathing in the community of Evanston is more than notional, because all four of the nonprofit stakeholders “have coalesced around that vision.”

“This would be a public memorial that we think would have a pretty significant national and international audience, as well as a local one,” Koehler says. “And there are some significant national and international recording stars interested in this and may help with fundraising at some point. And there’s a target list of major foundations as well.’’

There are some early conceptual designs that were done at King Studios’ request, but are not meant to be final. SHP Leading Design, a Norwood firm whose executive vice president, Thomas Fernandez, sits on King Studios’ board and is also on the steering committee, earlier created renderings of a building that show space for exhibits, performances, an airy room with tables and chairs and a wall lined with old King vinyl albums. There’s also a draft of a reimagined Brewster Avenue between King and Montgomery Road in Evanston that shows it turned into a colorful walking King

King Rendering P18A Brewster Avenue renderingPHOTO: PROVIDED

timeline, with historic markers on the side. Earlier, King Studios had pursued plans for a complex on Montgomery Road, in the business heart of Evanston.

“The idea in a perfect world is to still have a facility on Montgomery that’s a welcome center, maybe a record store and gift shop, and then take a cart down Brewster or walk to the original building,” says Chris Schadler, a board member of King Studios.

There is also much feeling that a revived King Records building should serve residents of Evanston, especially students, by offering music education and being a source of community pride.

There is another concern. Some feel that if and when the King site gets its second life with a museum component, it shouldn’t be a “top-down” one that solely interprets the company’s history through the eyes of the movers and shakers who owned it. There needs to be a “people’s history,” one that honors and respects all the musicians and other workers who helped create what King became.

To that end, Kent Butts — vice chair of both King Studios and the new steering committee — is trying to keep those musicians and employees still alive (or surviving family members) aware of what’s happening as the King revival grows.

“Many of them didn’t have a clue; they thought it was over with King,” Butts says. “I want to get the legacy individuals — mostly families of artists — to understand there is something here and that we’re thinking about them. It needs to be understood for history’s sake what their father or mother did for king.”

Butts has a personal stake in this — his father, Otis Williams, recorded one of King’s greatest hits, the R&B/Doo-wop smash “Hearts of Stone,” with the Charms in 1954, and still performs.

Philip Paul, a King Studios board member who became a session drummer at King in the 1950s, also believes respect must be paid to the label’s forgotten musicians. He keeps a list of lesser-known King musicians he doesn’t want to see forgotten, such as session guitarist Freddie Jordan.

“If we couldn’t get the chord changes together, they’d send for Freddie Jordan and he’d put it together,” Paul says in praise of the musician. “I promised his wife that if I got an opportunity, I’d make sure he would be honored.”

While all this is going on, national and international interest continues to grow as more is learned about the early and influential Country and R&B records that came out of King. A string of visiting Rock musicians have paid their respects in recent years — Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, Jack White, Billy Gibbons and more.

“We’ve always said, and there is tons of evidence to support it, that King can sustain a claim to being the birthplace of Rock & Roll,” Schadler says. “I’ve always said there should be billboards on Interstate 71 and 75 that say, ‘Welcome to Cincinnati, the Birthplace of Rock & Roll.’ ”

That may happen soon.

Through the Years: Bob Dylan in Cincinnati

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / updated version of a story that first ran in CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, August, 2012

Bob Dylan, who plays PNC Pavilion on Aug. 26 with special guest Leon Russell, has performed in the Cincinnati/Dayton area so often in the past five years he seems like a resident. This will be his seventh show since 2007 — his fourth in Cincinnati.

His shows now have a certain genial predictability, too. With a band that plays hot roots-rock infused with jump-blues/country-boogie elements, he plays older hits from the 1960s and 1970s along with highlights from his more recent “comeback” albums of the 1990s and 2000s.

But there was a time when any show he held here was suspenseful and full of surprise, because he toured so rarely and was changing the pulse of American music, as well as his own identity, with every record. And when he lost much of his following in the early 1980s, he fought determinedly and defiantly to win it back.

Using the charts of Olaf Bjorner’s Bob Dylan Yearly Chronicles, it’s possible to find 26 shows in Cincinnati, Dayton and Oxford since 1964. Comparing those to what was happening in his career at the time, we’ve culled 10 especially memorable dates. (If you were at any, please share your recollections.)

• Taft Theatre, February, 1964: The exact date of Dylan’s first listed Cincinnati show is missing, but it would appear to be early in the month, soon after he started a cross-country trip following the early-January release of his game-changing The Times They Are A-Changin’ album of acoustic protest songs. Based on a set list from a May show in London, the show here featured songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn in the Game” and the album’s now-famous title song.

• Music Hall, Nov. 7 and 18, 1965: This was his second trip in Cincinnati this year (Bjorner’s records say he bookended two Music Hall dates between shows in Cleveland and Toronto); he had done a solo performance at Taft Theatre on March 12, for which a poster survives. But he was now a Top 40 rock ‘n’ roller touring with a fully electric band. His “Like a Rolling Stone” had been released in July and was an instant hit, and he played Cincinnati with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They would become the Band in a few years. If the Cincinnati show followed the format of others on this tour, he opened with an acoustic set featuring “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Desolation Row” and other recent, surrealistic ballads. Just four days after the Nov. 18 show at Music Hall, he would marry first wife Sara Lowndes in New York.

• Riverfront Coliseum, Oct. 15, 1978: Dylan had stayed away from this area for 13 years, but was a bigger concert draw than ever when he arrived with his World Tour Band that featured eight other musicians and three female back-up singers. The 27 songs included older material plus poignant songs from his 1970s albums Blood in the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.

• Memorial Hall, Dayton, May 21, 1980: Ever changing, Dylan had become a gospel-rock singer and proselytizing Christian during this period – and his tour, with a great band and six female back-up singers supporting the album Slow Train Coming as well as previewing songs from Saved, finished there. This was a time when Dylan alienated his audiences – a second Dayton show had to be scrubbed for lack of sales — with frightening song introductions like this one before the song “Solid Rock”: “Well I remember trying to tell people in the sixties that hard times would come but it would change. I told them about it in 1963. Those harder times are coming now. The 1960s are gonna be just like a little lamb compared to the 1980s.”

• Music Hall, Nov. 4-5, 1981: For the tour supporting his final gospel-rock album, Shot of Love, Dylan wisely dropped the apocalyptic stage patter and broadened his repertoire to offer a retrospective of his work. Touring with a band that included Al Kooper on organ, this helped revive his fortunes. On the first night, there was a duet with back-up singer Clydie King on the Tin Pan Alley standard “It’s All in the Game” — they also shared vocals on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” both nights.

• Riverbend Music Center, Aug. 10, 1989: For his second show at Riverbend in two years (part of what has become known as his still-ongoing Never-Ending Tour), Dylan had a fiery combo — led by guitarist G.E. Smith from Saturday Night Live’s band — that tore through 1960s classics. And he treated the crowd to another Tin Pan Alley oldie — “I’m in the Mood for Love.” Steve Earle opened.

• Cincinnati Gardens, Feb. 19, 1998: Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind, his most heralded album since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, was just a week away from winning key Grammy awards when he arrived here with perhaps his best band since the Band. Larry Campbell, Bucky Baxter, Tony Garnier and David Kember moved effortlessly between acoustic and electric arrangements as Dylan proudly played Time Out of Mind selections and select older material.

• Bogart’s, July 11, 1999: Dylan and band took a night off from his co-headlining arena tour with Paul Simon to headline this special gig at the venerable Corryville rock club, which holds about 1,500. Again a mix of acoustic and electric numbers, it featured a hot version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” during the encore. This was a good year for Dylan in our area — he also played Dayton and Oxford.

• Taft Theatre, Oct. 15-16, 2007: He last played the Taft 42 years ago (in 1965), but he still had enough currency to charge $75 and $55 for tickets, and with his band played a satisfying set — often on electric keyboard rather than his more familiar guitar — that included songs, like the spooky “Ain’t Talkin,’” from his 2006 album Modern Times.

• Fifth Third Field, Dayton, July 10, 2009: Dylan’s short, unusual co-headlining tour of minor league ballparks with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson came to Dayton because of Fifth Third Field’s attractive downtown location.

Will this upcoming concert turn out to be equally memorable? Hard to tell, but Dylan isn’t coasting on his legacy yet. He has his 35th studio album, Tempest, due out Sept. 11.

 

Neil Young and Jonathan Demme talk about ‘Heart of Gold’ at Sundance

youngdemme

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN / DENVER POST & CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /2006

PARK CITY, Utah – Jonathan Demme orders orange juice for himself, Neil Young and this reporter at downtown’s  Zoom Restaurant — a  refreshing way to begin a morning interview on behalf of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

The film, which Demme directed, features Young showcasing gently intimate, quietly thoughtful acoustic arrangements of folk- and country-rock songs from last year’s Prairie Wind CD, plus older material. The concert was staged for the camera over two days last August at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with audiences present.

At the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival two nights before this interview, the sold-out audience at the 1,270-seat auditorium gave a standing ovation to Young — dressed in black Western-wear and cowboy hat with longish gray hair — right at the start.

This reception was a kind of unspoken “thank you” from the audience to the 60-year-old Young for surviving surgery last year for a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. The melodic Prairie Wind songs, with quietly reflective lyrics about his life until now, were for the most part written and recorded between his initial diagnosis and surgery.

The movie, in turn, was a means by which Young was offering his own form of “thank you” for being alive. It was filmed not long after his recovery from the surgery. Young and Demme first worked together when the singer-songwriter contributed a song to the director’s 1993 drama Philadelphia.  Demme also made one of the all-time greatest concert films, Stop Making Sense, for Talking Heads as well as Storefront Hitchcock with British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.

“Everything I do in one way or another from now on is going to be a thank you — just walking down the street,” Young declares, sitting at the restaurant table next to Demme. His voice, unaffectedly straightforward and plainspoken, perfectly matches the direct way he looks at his interviewer while answering questions.

The Prairie Wind songs sound affecting in the film. And the elegiac power of the older songs from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as from 1992’s Harvest Moon, is surprising. There’s something at work here besides nostalgia in his versions of such compositions as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “I Am a Child,” “Comes a Time” and “Needle and the Damage Done.”

In this film, they become about watching how Young has changed — or remains unchanged — while one is also struck by how preternaturally mature these songs were when written. As a young man, he already seemed so concerned about “getting old,” to quote a memorable phrase from 1972’s “Heart of Gold.”

“I seemed to know more about it then than I do now,” Young says, prompting him and Demme to heartily laugh. “I don’t even know where I was coming from back then.” That prompts him to remember the circumstances under which he wrote one of his earliest songs, the mournful “The Old Laughing Lady.” “It’s the oldest song in Heart of Gold, he says. “I wrote it before I even got to Buffalo Springfield (the late-1960s rock band in which he was a member). I was in a White Tower in Detroit, across from a club and wrote it on napkin in the middle of the night. I had no place to go, no house, no hotel, no money.”

The job of the troubadour, Young explains, is winning an audience over with new material and then making it hear the old songs in a new way. And that’s not easy for someone as famous as he is.

“I have to overcome the celebration aspects of it — you know, people see me and get so excited and want to hear every song that’s their favorite song,” Young says. “Once you succeed at that, people are opened up and really listening to you. So then we get to the point we’re doing old songs and they’re still in that mode. They’re going, ‘I’ve got to pay attention here.’ It presents a whole new look at the old songs. This is what singer-songwriters are supposed to do.”

Here, Demme — who will be 62 on Feb. 22 — interjects that a Boomer audience that grew up with Young may indeed hear some of those songs differently now than decades earlier. “I know, when I first heard ‘Heart of Gold’ or ‘Old Man,’ I loved them and I was really grooving to them,” he says, snapping his fingers.

“When I see them now in the film, the emotional kick lurking under those lyrics comes across to me in a way it never needed to do before. At that phase in my life I wasn’t contemplating anything. I was digging the music.”

Young acknowledges that important change. “In some ways, some of the lyrics resonate a little differently than they did,” he says.

He also credits his fellow musicians at the Ryman event for giving the older songs added power — they include Ben Keith on pedal-steel guitar, slide guitar and dobro; Spooner Oldham on B3 organ and piano; and singers Pegi Young (his wife), Diana Dewitt and Emmylou Harris.

After the interview comes to an end, this reporter takes a few minutes to collect belongings and go down the stairs from the restaurant’s second floor to the exit. Coming up from a quick break is Young.

So one final question is asked: What next? Young answers directly with the unexpected frankness of a man who is still a bit shaken by his experiences, but glad to be alive. “I’m just looking for a sign,” he says.

(Photo by Peter Bregg/Getty Images)

Cincinnati organization reclaims, celebrates and activates urban passageways for pedestrians

Allies for Alleys

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / JULY 26, 2017

Cover0719Alley Preservation HB21

 

Christian Huelsman enjoys wearing a T-shirt with a back designed to look like a roll call of stops on a Rock band’s North American tour, only instead of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, etc., these names are decidedly unfamiliar to most of us: Colby Alley, Nagel Alley, Manchester Avenue, Renner Street, Unnamed Alley Steps, Saint Joe Street, South Wendell Alley, Rice Street Steps, Sharp Alley, Glanker Street, Goose Alley, Eton Place.

Closer inspection of the shirt reveals that it is commemorating the 2015 Eton Place Alley Festival, a 2.1-mile walking tour and activation of “street haunts and alley jaunts” hidden in Cincinnati. You may well have missed the event, held in Mount Auburn and Over-the-Rhine. But if Huelsman — co-founder of the 6-year-old organization Spring in Our Steps, which has received nonprofit status — has his say, you’ll be hearing much more about such spaces in the years ahead. Especially the alleys, most of which are brick-lined. Cincinnati has slightly more than 500, according to his research.

Huelsman has a dream for alleys to become urban spaces that are as beautiful and cherished as our parks. This is pretty radical — many of us see them as often gritty, littered, bad-smelling and sometimes dangerous places to get through as quickly as possible and only if you must. But he expresses that dream so poetically, with such effusive romanticism, that you want to succumb. Here’s the passionate cri de coeur, the declaration of love, that he wrote on social media several years ago for South Wendell Alley in Mount Auburn, the subject of an early and difficult cleanup by Spring in Our Steps:

“This place remains my sanctuary, symbolic of every turn, U-turn and detour my heart has taken over nearly four years. It has cajoled more sweat to drip from my body, inflicted more nicks and cuts, prompted more palpitations from my chambers and awarded more tears of joy than even the mostly six years it took to finish my degree. But it’s all a journey. I can’t imagine my life without this space, this alley and all it represents…”

The degree Huelsman mentions is an undergraduate degree in urban planning from University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. As for the arduous cleanup, which among other things uncovered the near-secret existence of an overgrown public stairway, he wrote, “I’ve done it for nothing but I’ve done it for everything: to survive and thrive.”

Spring in Our Steps is a small organization with just four board members, including Huelsman. (A fifth position is open.) It was founded in 2011 by him and Pam Sattler. For its alley and stairway cleanups, it has relied on volunteers. For current income, which it has used for community events, it has relied on a $10,000 grant from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation.

But its advocacy of the emotional bond between contemporary Cincinnatians and our public alleys, many of which date to the 19th century and have outlived their original purpose of providing a rear service entrance for buildings, has struck a chord.

“Their value is in the historic granite curbs and the bricks,” says Jules Michael Rosen, Spring in Our Steps board member. “They’re just as much a historic asset as the buildings are downtown.” (Though Rosen believes public stairways — another of the organization’s focuses — hold more promise than alleys as urban pedestrian thoroughfares.)

That belief in alleys as a great civic resource has support from the city, too. “Alleys are certainly public assets, and by their nature and role in Cincinnati’s fabric, a historic asset,” says Michael Moore, director of the Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE), via email. “They are called out in (a section) of the Cincinnati Municipal Code and their use and/or restoration requires review on a case-by-case basis.”

As a result of that city support, on a recent Friday afternoon Huelsman attended the dedication of a new, long-percolating cooperative project between DOTE and Spring in Our Steps. Wearing that distinctive T-shirt, he arrived at the foot of the Main Street Steps to meet a small group of others.

This project is the Stairway & Alley Signage Project, involving the placement of 12 concrete bollards, with aluminum sign panels, along eight pedestrian gateways on the hillside between Mount Auburn and Over-the-Rhine. DOTE’s Moore says this $20,000 project was chosen because the steps, especially, can help get neighborhood students to Rothenberg Academy, a public school. But they’re for everyone. Once all are in place, some intersections whose locations would test the best Cincinnati Uber drivers or postal carriers, such as the junction where Peete Street, Peete Alley and the Peete Street Steps all meet, will have identification signs that also say, “Pathway cleared by Spring in Our Steps.”

“(That) means we have adopted them per our maintenance agreement,” Huelsman says. “We have agreed to host regular cleanup events to ensure regular surface maintenance (trash pickup, weeding, etc.) of these spaces … so that they continue to be viable, safer pedestrian connections in the community.”

Remarkably, Huelsman had come in for the event from Minneapolis, where he’s been working for the past year as a community livability specialist for that city’s downtown improvement district, as well as being a member of Minneapolis’ Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He has stayed active in Spring in Our Steps despite his distance and activities out of town, organizing local events, planning the signage and posting about city alleys on social media.

“Christian has done an incredible job of managing things, even from Minneapolis,” says Spring in Our Steps co-founder Sattler. She’s been less active in recent years, but attended the signage project’s dedication.

“There’s been more awareness from the city that there are people paying attention to these spaces,” she says. “There’s definitely a stronger connection with the city, just knowing there are people paying attention to these spaces and that they do matter.”

Huelsman’s larger vision is to see public acceptance for a concept called “living alleys,” which serve the public-at-large rather than just being where businesses get deliveries or load products.

“In a living alley, it’s about how people interact with the space, whether they are making use of it for leisure or brunch/lunch activities,” he says. “It’s about bringing in elements that attract people.”

This may sound counterintuitive, since cities already have open streets and sidewalks, plazas and parks as focal points for human activity. Urban alleys — narrow and often lined with buildings that create shadows and feel enclosing — are generally little used or, worse, used for such nefarious activities as public urination.

But Huelsman believes they have great potential if made more accessible and inviting for pedestrian use and activity. “There is a natural human inclination to go where people feel secure and feel they have full visibility of their environment,” he says. “A person’s interaction with a space, when their back is to a wall, creates a sense of control over the experience. So the enclosure of an alley works for the purpose of creating comfort. It allows people to feel they have full scope of what their surroundings are.”

The trick, he says, is to recreate the alley “as a focal point for human activity.” (Also, he points out, to the extent that cars use alleys, they tend to be driven at much slower speeds than on streets. Thus, they are less of a threat to pedestrians than thoroughfares.)

This is a transformation that’s not going to come without challenges, as a walk along the Stairway & Alley Signage Project route reveals. As Peete Street starts to turn into the much narrower Peete Alley at one end, the terrain begins to get rugged and a little bit weird. Graffiti on a chunk of rock points to “free hugs” awaiting adventurous urban explorers willing to go off-road. As the alley portion begins, there are a couple buildings, at least one of which looks vacant. Unnerving graffiti can be seen, like “If $ Is the Foot.”

Worse, it looks like the alley’s rare surface of 19th-century cobblestone pavement — it’s one of the city’s few cobblestone alleys — has been removed. Perhaps someone came back to this remote spot with a large vehicle, possibly to do some construction work, Huelsman suggests; there’s also a dumpster placed in the area. Spring in Our Steps had spent three years cleaning up this space, highlighting the cobblestone.

“We put a lot of time and energy into it,” Huelsman says. “But it’s hard to keep people accountable when it’s not being cared for or there’s nobody there to care for it.”

This is a problem elsewhere, too. Even Huelsman’s beloved South Wendell Alley has gotten overgrown again. (On a subsequent visit along Peete Street and Peete Alley by CityBeat photographer Hailey Bollinger, the dumpster and possibly some of the graffiti were gone.)

Amazingly, as we stand around this area and bemoan the visible destruction, a young man comes seemingly out of nowhere, nonchalantly walking up a pathway that doesn’t even seem to exist but is where the alley subtly bends, tightens and continues downward to Vine Street. He is carrying a bag with some purchased items and walks right past our small group without stopping. “If it’s an available pathway, people are going to use it,” Huelsman says.

Spring in Our Steps realizes they need to organize residents of the areas where it works to maintain their alleys and steps. “Engagement with residents, not just in the immediate communities of these spaces but also with volunteers in general, has been a huge struggle for us,” Sattler says.

But there are other people and organizations standing up for our alleys. Sometimes literally. Margy Waller, an Over-the-Rhine resident and community activist, almost got arrested last summer trying to protect quiet Adrian Alley from damage.

“I was working at home early in the morning and heard a loud noise coming from the alley behind my house,” she says. “I looked out my window and saw there was a big piece of equipment drilling through the bricks. So I went to see what was going on and it was a contractor for the city’s Water Works — they needed to get into the line underneath the alley. I asked them to stop because I was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to be drilling through historic bricks.”

She is right on this — DOTE’s Moore says his department’s 2016 Street Restoration Manual demands that “methods and materials used in making the permanent restoration shall match the existing pavement or surface conditions or be replaced as directed by the DOTE Inspector.” But it took Waller awhile to get that point through to the contractor, who wanted to keep working. She took action to protect the bricks.

“Eventually, I stepped in front of the machine onto the bricks so they had to stop,” she says.

A more artful example of Over-the-Rhine alley revival occurred last year when ArtWorks and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful collaborated on 14 mini murals along alleys between Main and Sycamore streets, south of Liberty Street. Called New Lines, this program included the alleys Goetz, Plough, Cogswell, Enon and Bland. “It was both to increase pedestrian use and access and to decrease blight and litter and make people feel safe so they could walk through alleys,” says Keep Cincinnati Beautiful’s Marissa Reed.

New homeowners — and new residents of Cincinnati — are discovering the pleasure of neighborhood alleys. There’s a good example in Northside, where a network of them sometimes crisscrosses its streets. Some are in good shape and access garages behind homes; others are overgrown and tough to navigate. Some folks might see them as a nuisance, a detriment to privacy, but Kelly Johnson and husband Chris Kerns saw them as a real plus when they moved from a “cookie-cutter” Northern Kentucky subdivision into a custom-built home on Fergus Street between Lingo Street and Chase Avenue. (There are two new homes on the street so far.)

Cover0726Kelly Johnson HB5Recent Northside arrival Kelly Johnson sweeps Pope Alley, adjacent to her home.PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

They are right at the intersection of Gray and Pope alleys; the entrance to their garage is on Gray and the couple has started sweeping their portion of Pope. They are out to revive their small segments of Northside’s alley grid.

“One of the features we really liked was the idea of keeping the alleys,” Johnson says. “We walked those alleys to different places around Northside when we were first thinking of building here. We loved that they connected to the main drag of Hamilton Avenue. It’s such a lovely walk along Pope Alley, though there are definitely some spots that need to be cleaned up. And I feel like I can walk the dog without having to worry about cars. We’ve considered the idea of keeping our alley looking good all the way to Hamilton.”

The opposite of alley revival is alley removal — and it does happen. DOTE’s Moore says the city has turned down requests to vacate, sell or privatize portions of alleys, as in a request by Chatfield College to take a portion of Kemp Alley in Over-the-Rhine. But, if there’s a compelling reason, as in a developer’s recent request for a portion of downtown’s alley-sized Bowen Street for a planned Kroger grocery and residential tower, the city might agree.

“Vacation and sale of an alley is not common, but the city probably averages two requests per year and approximately five or six requests for leases each year,” Moore says. “However, not all of these requests are granted.”

Huelsman and Spring in Our Steps would just as soon see none granted. “The sale of alleys to private interests eliminates options for pedestrians and opportunities to develop the city in more dynamic ways,” he says. “The leasing and gating of alleys only provide a short-term safety solution. Alleys should remain public and receive the same amenities we consider in making our streets and sidewalks safer and more desirable.”

The next Spring in Our Steps community event occurs Friday, beginning at 6 p.m., and Huelsman will be back from Minneapolis for it. It’s called the Dead End Film Festival and will also have some music, “lawn” bowling and other activities, in a very surprising and even eerie locale. It’s where two Over-the-Rhine alleys, Coral and Drum, meet to form a “T” between Main and Clay streets, just north of East 13th Street. Coral between Drum and East 13th can be a little gamey — during a visit with Huelsman, a syringe and socks lay on a curb near the brick pavement, which had been painted a light blue. There was trash near a garage door that faced the alley. But beyond that — behind a fenced-off and gated dead-end portion of Coral — was a more picturesque, kinder and gentler stretch of alley. There was what seemed to be an oasis, where trees grew in the right-of-way. And someone, Banksy-style, had stenciled two white tulips on a building wall. Spring in Our Steps has gotten access beyond the padlocked fence and on Friday night will project short films in this space. It’s possible the dead-end portion of Coral might someday become Spring in Our Steps Park.

“Over the years, we’ve cleaned up that space behind the gate tremendously,” Huelsman says. “It used to be covered in tall weeds, beer bottles and all sorts of siding had been disposed there. We really take ownership of the space and continue to improve upon transgressions of the past.”

All Cincinnati alleys should have such dedicated champions. But perhaps, with Spring in Our Steps, they all do.


SPRING IN OUR STEPS presents the Dead End Film Festival Friday at Coral and Drum alleys in Over-the-Rhine. More info: springinoursteps.com.
PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

Ten Interesting Alleys

Christian Huelsman, co-founder and executive director of Spring in Our Steps, finds these 10 Cincinnati alleys especially interesting.

Colby Alley (Over-the-Rhine)

An extensive granite block alley with a view of Rhinegeist (formerly a Christian Moerlein bottling plant) that runs behind structures from the former Moerlein empire and ends at the foot of the old Jackson Brewery/Metal Blast Building. From Eton Place to West McMicken Avenue.

Combs Alley (Camp Washington) 

Zigzags and angles of settled brick that weave through Camp Washington’s well-loved northern half, from Valley Park and the World War I Doughboy statue to the interstate. From Bates Alley to Massachusetts Avenue.

Corn Alley (West End)

A rare exhibition of cobblestone paving terminating at the rear of the historic Lafayette-Bloom School building. From Freeman Avenue to its eastern terminus.

Fortview Alley Steps (Mount Adams)

A picturesque alley stairway featuring two beautiful homes with exclusive access via steps. From Hill Street to Fortview Place.

Goetz Alley (Over-the-Rhine)

Spanning nearly the full depth of OTR south of Liberty Street and running parallel to Main Street, it offers an intimate neighborhood experience with a window into the city’s lush hillsides. From Michael Bany Way to Liberty.

Pope Alley (Northside)

A popular walking route beginning with a piazza at the business corridor and running to the Northside Children’s Playground. From Hamilton Avenue to Fergus Street.

Schorr Alley (Clifton Heights)

The lengthiest known alley without intersecting streets, it climbs steadily from the original commercial core in Clifton Heights to today’s bustling business district near the University of Cincinnati. From Warner Street to West McMillan Street.

Sharp Alley (Over-the-Rhine)

An inclined walking route with an identity crisis, it starts as a brick alley, continues with granite paving near the former Hudepohl Brewery and flows onward as an alley stairway. From Back Street to Mulberry Street.

South Wendell Alley (Mount Auburn)

From the former estate of beer baron Christian Moerlein, it travels past the dwarfing stone retaining wall and wilderness along its length and ends at a long-closed public stairway. From Mulberry Street to St. Joe Alley.

Weaver Alley (Downtown)

A nearly three-block stretch beginning at Doerr Alley that crawls under a sky bridge at The Phoenix, passes by a mix of historic and contemporary buildings along Garfield Place and goes to Plum Street and the front steps of City Hall.