I’m back in Chicago, under the weather a bit. Maybe I’m getting too old for all these road trips. On Sunday, I drove nine hours from Catskill to Cleveland. One hour of it, outside of Buffalo, was through truly nasty weather. Copious rain, high winds, hail. No one was in the left lane; there was just a line of us, with just enough visibility to periodically make out the flashing taillights of the car in front. Finally, it became just heavy rain, and there was a rest stop, where I called my friend Cindy Barber (aka Sin De Baba). I can hear her pretty well on a phone, probably because I’ve known her voice for so long. I told her where I was, and we calculated how long it would take me to get to Cleveland. “You’ll have to come to the club,” she said.
I’ve known Cindy for thirty years. She, Lee Batdorff and I put out the old ‘alternative’ Cleveland Express newspaper together, in the 70’s. The paper was her idea. Cindy’s always been a mover and a shaker, even on a frayed shoestring budget (the Express was put together in her basement, under a buzzing fluorescent light, with Lee making bicycle trips to the typesetter, me on the waxer). She’s also always been a devoted music lover; she wrote the band and record reviews even back then.
Years ago, she suffered a nasty professional setback as a result of a corporate takeover. It was similar to the one I just had (though she was treated much, much better than me, financially). I visited her shortly afterwards. We were driving around her eastside neighborhood late at night, and she said, “Look at that place!” It was an abandoned Croatian social hall. “I want to buy that and start a nightclub, a music club!” I thought she was nuts. It wasn’t a popular neighborhood, in spite of a small enclave of artists on the lake, where she lived. It was full of deserted businesses, empty stores; it looked completely depressed, as only some neighborhoods in Cleveland can look.
But she did it. She and her partner Mark worked (and still work) damn hard; six to seven shows a week, at least two bands every night, often more. I visited them in the club’s early days, and they put both me and that night’s band up, in and all over their house. Right now, the Beachland Ballroom is third in Esquire magazine’s “Best Bar in America” poll (you can read about it and vote here). And, they have one of the “Best Sandwiches in America” as well: a deep-fried peanut-butter and jelly, which Esquire calls the “Trailer Park Monte Cristo”. The entire neighborhood is beginning to thrive, with shops (they also run a vintage clothing and record store, Mark’s forte, in the basement of the club), recording studios, and music stores.
It rained the rest of the way through New York state. I zoomed through a tiny bit of Pennsylvania, then kept to the speed limit in Ohio. Everybody and their white-haired granny was passing me, but I at least I did not get pulled over. By the time I got to the club, I was mightily burnt out. I walked in to the Beachland’s foyer, where I could feel the band’s thrumming in my feet, and said, “I’m looking for Cindy.” One of the two young men at the ticket booth said, “Are you Melissa?” and stamped my hand when I nodded. He said, “She’s in there somewhere!” I went in; it was a packed house, with a lot of people standing in the back, in the outer aisles. I shut off my hearing aids and watched for awhile, then made my way to the bar, where I asked for Cindy. “If you wait here, she’ll come through eventually.” said the barmaid. The first band ended, and there was an influx into the bar. Cindy came in, hugged me, said, “You need food!” and just like that, I had an excellent sandwich, which no one would let me pay for. She zoomed past again, and dropped off a bottle of cold water. “I just need to take care of the band, make sure they have everything they need, then we can take off,” she said (having taken care of me, making sure I had everything I needed, first. And she was right, the food revived me).
Then, we went to the house, and drank a bottle of wine, talking over our lives as we always do. And that was important, very important, for me at this juncture. That’s all I’ll say.
The next day, I went back to the club, and wandered around and watched the command center in operation; it’s a huge hub of activity. People were on two of the four computers; the phones rang constantly, electricians came in and out, the stage in the front tavern was torn up while they rewired something or other (there are two full bars; in one, lesser known bands play, while the major bands play on a curtained stage in a huge theater-sized room; the second bar is off that, and the kitchen is between the two bars). Cindy says they have to get in there at a certain time, when the west coast band agents begin to call; the major bookings are sometimes a year in advance; and the entire club’s bookings are solidified three months ahead. I even contributed a bit of lettering, adding an opening act to a band poster; then Cindy and I went for lunch, and I headed back to the freeway, feeling even better about the future.
Sin De at the command post
A back yard for artists and music lovers.
Here’s more about Cindy: scroll down to “something had to be done”.