Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson: Passion, Creativity + Fight, How Rock & Roll Dreams Come True
I’m in a shitty hotel room, chattering and chilled to the bone. I’ve driven all day, and it doesn’t even matter. Sometimes you do what you have to do – even when it doesn’t make sense to the people who know you.
It’s not irrational. I know exactly why I’m here — shivering, waiting for the heat to actually kick in. And it’s not just the funeral for an iconoclast with a huge heart and bigger balls, even though that’s why I’m here.
It is about the world in which we live, the vineyard in which I’ve toiled going on thirty years. It’s the way I’ve spent my life and the beliefs I’ve held. Especially at a time when doing the right thing, fighting for greatness, believing the music matters is at best quaint, but most likely is viewed – no matter what “they” say – as chump stuff.
Steve Popovich, who passed away Jun 8th in Murfreesboro, TN, would disagree. He’d tell you to fight for what’s right, to stand up for what’s different, believe in the music, not the business or the politics or the egos… to know great, no matter the guise, and make sure it gets heard.
Steve Popovich was that kind of guy. That’s how he lived… right ’til he died.
That kinda guy… big, bottomless heart. True believer. Fearless advocate for what he believed. Tireless in pursuit of great music – be it polka or Michael Jackson, Boston or David Allen Coe. When Meatloaf sold 200,000 copies of his first album and Epic Records informed him they’d done all they could do, he went market-by-market and created a sensation, making Bat Out of Hell the biggest selling record that year.
That’s the thing about true hearts and big dreams … they don’t let go. They’ll haunt you. Take hold and keep holding. Rarer than rubies, when you encounter one, you never forget. They will make you do things you can’t believe you’re doing.
Like driving 10 hours dead exhausted at the end of a record launch and an Oscar winner on a red carpet … to sit in a church where I know barely anyone … to honor a legacy so many would never understand. Because it’s just not done that way. Not any more. Not to the point where people even understand why it matters.
And yet, if you know, experienced, saw or even glimpsed Steve Popovich in action, there was no way you could turn away. How could you? To see passion, raw and unfiltered, 250 proof and looking for matches … that was the kind of thing that left people speechless.
Only Steve Popovich would never settle for that. He wouldn’t let people stand by mute. He’d cajole and engage and encourage. He wanted you to know… for sure … but he wanted to know. All about you. And every single you in the room, the street, the world. What did you think? need? feel? what makes you thrill? ache? rage?
He was genius at it.
Which is what made him the kind of promo man who can change everything for a rocker, a songwriter, a band.
Which is what made him the kind of A&R man who could convince a barely post-teenage Michael Jackson to sign with Epic Records.
Which made him the kind of guy who picked up Johnny Cash and polka king Frankie Yankovic during his Nashville tenure and let them feel like kings, not scraps in a record business that seemed to have thrown them away.
That was the thing about the coal miner’s son from Western Pennsylvania: he not only knew the margins, he understood them. Just like he understood the working class, the blue collar, the faceless mass that one by one added up to platinum, double platinum – or in the case of a husky operatic tenor with designs on rock & roll – 14 million in the end.
That was the thing about Steve Popovich, as Meatloaf, that 14 million piece success, so beautifully noted as he eschewed the podium to stand by the white draped casket at St John of the Cross: “Steve passed on us twice, but he never dismissed us.”
Steve Popovich wouldn’t. Indeed, couldn’t. If he hid behind the notion he was just “some Hunkie,” he understood the power of passion. Knew that if you had talent fueled by that ardor, there was nothing you couldn’t do … you just had to believe and refuse to give up. No matter how crazy or futile it seemed. As industry legend Ron Alexenburg noted, Steve Popovich carried Meatloaf’s flame for almost a year – one market at a time – until Bat Out of Hell kicked in. In his tenacity, he wouldn’t give in. In his faith, a superstar was forged.
Someone spoke of his denial, how it kept him from embracing how mighty his opponents were … and how that allowed him to persevere. They talked of how every day the business broke his heart, but every morning, he woke up happy, willing to believe in the power of dreams and music.
He took on – and beat in court – Sony Music, a behemoth multi-national corporation. Never one to be intimidated, he knew this truth – and he wouldn’t be brow-beaten or condescended to by a group of Harvard-educated attorneys.
He was Don Quixote, tilting at wind mills. Only Steve Popovich helped so many people get their hands on the brass ring … built bridges when it wasn’t happening … created chances where anyone else would’ve laughed. Boston, Southside Johnny, the Michael Stanley Band.
He believed in people who believed in their music, who had the fire and weren’t afraid to blow on the flame until it burst into some kind of blaze. Even the Michael Stanley Band – whose seminal Stagepass is reputed to have sold gold on Northern Ohio copies alone – turned into a powerhouse of mythic Midwestern proportion: selling out the Richfield Coliseum for two nights faster than Led Zeppelin, staging multiple SRO night stands at the outdoor amphitheater Blossom Music Center and retiring with a ten night capacity stand at the more dignified Front Row.
Two out of three of those places are gone. Blossom, summer home to the Cleveland Symphony, has a few other reasons to survive. But all those altars to what music can mean to kids coming of age in the real world before reality tv, leaked home porn and trainwreck drug use could make anyone a sensation. That was the thing that Steve Popovich instinctively knew and absolutely built a life on.
And so the tributes came: Clive Davis. Miami Steve Van Zandt, Ian Hunter. Meatloaf in person, and 80s teen sensation Robbie Benson. Record men, local ethnic people he’d embraced, national level radio bigwigs, co-workers from back when, Northern Ohio icons like Daffy Dan and Beachland Ballroom owner Cindy Barber, dignitaries from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and family. Especially family.
If Steve Popovich loved music, he stood for family. How many of the speakers called him “Pops,” and that was how the larger – literally and figuratively – than life figure liked it. He believed in his kids, his grand kids, other people hanging onto their roots and their blood.
He was fierce about that, fierce the way only a Midwesterner who believed in certain kinds of sanctity can be. That notion of how strong family is gives them a foundation to dig in and fight, to believe in loyalty, commitment and making something more where nothing exists. But it’s never nothing – there is always the invisible connection that is family, friendship, creativity, respect.
Funny thing about this death. Came when I’m drifting. Not sure if any of it matters, if people care about songs that reach down inside, show you what you didn’t know you were feeling, reminded you how great something small can be. Things that last, because they’re things that can be cemented by, and among, small groups of people.
It’s been a long time since I’ve truly worked a record. But a promise made three years ago has found me guardian angel-ing The Dreaming Fields by Songwriter Hall of Famer Matraca Berg. It’s a grown up work about how life buckles and stumbles, the things we do to survive, coping with disappointment and soldiering on. It harkens back to Neil Young’s most organic records, Joni Mitchell’s most brooding, personal works. The journalists are overwhelmed. Too much grunt work, not enough inspiration. Little records that could – especially ones that don’t come on their own wave of critical mass – are impossible dreams. Every placement, just about, is hand-over-hand, phone-call-after-phone call. But the record is — in a world where hyperbole has become the new white noise and platitudes land like so many leaves in the fall, weightless and anonymous – – – amazing. Once people hear it, they’re transfixed; their souls open and they remember how music can change everything.
The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Rolling Stone The Boston Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Huffington Post, No Depression.com and NPR’s All Things Considered are the tip of the iceberg. There is more to come … and there is SIRIUS/Xm, too.
Popovich would approve. The calling and witnessing for love, not money, friendship not career, move. But it’s labor intensive, and who works like that anymore? Why would you? And with every placement so hard won, how long can you keep it up? How many hits until some kind of word of mouth critical mass kicks in?
At what point does the dreamer become a fool?
At what point does forgoing one’s life in the name of someone else’s dream seem lunacy not heroism?
At what point do you realize the loyalty you show may not be the loyalty returned?
Michael Stanley, a Popovich windmill, would write a song called “Different Reasons” that contains a lyric that speaks to it all:
“You can always tell a dreamer,
You just can’t tell them,
tell them anything…”
And so it is. A girl an ocean away, fixing to play the legendary Glastonbury Festival. Her oldest friend, sitting in a church pew, wondering how everything that mattered got lost in the flood. A roomful of folks who know the difference feeling cuckholded by the status quo.
But once you know, how can you not know?
How can you honor Steve Popovich and accept the diminishing of what can be?
You don’t. Indeed, you can’t.
It is three days later. I am in a progressive bistro near Case, near Hessler Street and all the museums, the symphony hall, I’d come here after the funeral, to think and drink and eat and escape – and I have returned to finish this.
In 48 hours, much has happened.
A 3:30 rise for a flight to Nashville to drive 500 miles to Savannah, Georgia, to get out of the car and interview Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about their band. To make sense of my notes, to watch the show – and musicians engaging in webs of soul, of funk, of jazz, even as they grounded in a gritty blues-steeped rock.
They were exultant. The horns and the singers, the twin drummers, the bass player who plays like the best chocolate cake, creamy and dark and sweet and moist, a keyboardist who evokes and steams the songs and Trucks’ liquidy solos that are mercury and ether, melodic without being complex to the point of constriction.
And Tedeschi sings like breathing, soul exhalations of doubt and need and desire.
It is a holy thing, and they have forged a family out there. Not just with the kids and the parents on the road, but the whole 11 man band and crew. It is what the Allmans might’ve been long ago without the drugs and the drama, but regal and engaged.
Popovich would’ve got it, liked it. Family hanging together, making it work, creating something sultry, satisfying and stirring. The very best of what can be.
And then back up, scanning the radio, driving I-16 to I-75 to I-24. Five hundred miles with two bursts of hail, to pay some bills, wash some clothes and go to the airport again.
Somewhere in the blur of 1000 miles in 24 hours, more news arrived. Bill Johnson, the twice Grammy-winning art director from Sony Nashville, a visionary Rolling Stone Art Director responsible for too many iconic pictures – including Patti Smith smudged with soot between two burning oil barrels, has passed on as well.
Another wild creative, bon vivant, curator of love and people, a believer that the pictures had to be as potent as the music. A charming smile, a fearless sense of finding more in the crassest product.
He was a genius, a smart ass, a mutterer, grumpy and excited. Mostly, though, he was the keeper of one of the greatest loves I’ve ever seen: he and his wife Cynda burned with attraction and appreciation, grace and possibilities. To see them was to know what love is.
What love is…
For the music, for the family, for each other. It is the currency on which everything that matters runs. Hotter, faster, deeper, more … yeah, whatever.
Sitting shell-shocked with a French press of coffee, in a town where my values were defined, I can only wonder about how things that matter have become so transitory. I know that you can’t force others to know the difference, but you can expose them and hope they realize the difference.
Steve Popovich did. So did Bill Johnson. They got it. And they believed it was worth fighting for. You could say it was a different time, and it was. But if their lives truly marked us, then how do you walk away when you know?
Somewhere in the clouds that have just dumped an hour of solid rain on this slate patio beyond a picture window, I can see him in sweat pants and baggy baseball jacket laughing, thinking, “Yeah, she’s got it.”
Not because he wants to be right, but because he wants people to remember. Remember the reasons why, the things that last, not even what he did. What he did is written in the books, how he lived can live on if we just refuse to accept the erosion and status quo.
Know the difference, raise the flag. Be the standards you know, not the getting by, plastic injection-molded faux soul, pseudo-emotion pap that passes. It can be fomented via Twitter, YouTube, Pandora and the rest, but it ain’t built to last.
Watching the sun come out, I consider what I know… and how strong I might be.
While world jazz plays on the sound system, I hear a searing voice. Ronnie Dunn’s power exhortation, from the chilling kid grows up country-gospel witness, “I Believe.”
“And you can’t tell me this all ends
With a short ride in a hearse…”
Surely, no. Surely, no. If we live to believe we’re leaving something behind, then consider the lives that have touched yours, and believe. Sad as I am, raw as I will be for a while, I do. And that, in this puddle of pain, is a pretty great truth to hang onto.