Sweet Jane: Legendary Cleveland Critic Jane Scott Passes On; Inspired Many, Rocking Heaven No Doubt
There was an unspoken, almost unacknowledged war at our house – and it only happened on Fridays. But on Fridays, it was on! It was a race to the front door, and that morning’s pristine copy of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Whomever had possession of the paper controlled it until they were done…
My father wanted to read about business, local sports, major headlines, serious things. I wanted – with every fiber of my being – serious things, too. I wanted to read Jane Scott!
Jane Scott, the world’s oldest teenager even then, was the bridge between my 12- and 13-year old self, dazzled by songs and overwhelmed by the notion of the people who created them, and the source of my pleasure, my pain, my quickly evolving insight into who I was and all the confusing emotions that made no sense. I would never meet people like that, glamorous rock & roll sorts… not in my pink suburban bedroom with the canopy bed and a summer already filled with tournaments and tee times.
Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, James Taylor, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers and the Wilson Sisters of Heart were far too exotic to ever share the air that I breathed. They were shiny people, channeling truth I desperately was trying to understand – and they knew. They knew…
The best I could hope was to worship from under the Pavillion at Blossom Music Center, maybe the first tier at the Richfield Coliseum – or a shadowy corner of some bar where I’d convinced the bouncer to look the other way, wrapping my library card in money or getting some musician to “swear” I was “their niece.”
Jane Scott closed the gap. She was my friend who was their friend.
She was curious, and she loved the music. She believed in the joy music held, the triumph and power of rock & roll, even its ability to shift how people view the world. It was an interview with Jackson Browne for his tour stop for Late For The Sky where he spoke about environmental concerns, nuclear power and Greenpeace that sent me on a mission to learn about things that are toxic.
That was Jane Scott: what mattered about this artist? How to bring it out? Make it shine?
And she was never cynical.
Never cynical. A Grammy-winning musico I know half-sneered, “She never wrote a bad review about anyone…” And it’s true. She believed in finding what worked, maybe acknowledging a problem, but never harping on what was lacking.
As a young journalist in Miami, I fell in with the maverick journalists who ran Tower Records’ Pulse magazine, given away free in the stores. It was a loss leader designed to intrigue people about records, and it became a very well respected music publication by virtue of the quality writers they engaged. Their motto was pure Scott: “We listen to a lot of records. We write about the good ones.”
Not that I realized growing up that Jane Scott was paving a yellow brick road for me, She was an artery of truth and understanding, oxygen for a kid who was more alive between the grooves of a 33 1/3 circle of vinyl than most moments of most days.
I would pour over every inch, nodding my head, taking it in. What I was hoping to find, I can’t say… But I knew that taken as a whole, I was coming to understand what the soul of rock & roll looked like, the essence that created the music that wafted through the airless third floor attic where I existed with my turntable and the dust bunnies. Too hot in the winter when the heat rose, too hot in the summer when the temperatures got trapped under the eaves.
Carly Simon. Wendy O Williams. Chrissie Hynde. Lou Reed. They were all there. And more… Southside Johnny. Bruce Springsteen. The Eagles, especially Joe Walsh. Linda Ronstadt. Later the Stray Cats. Romeo Void. Devo. The Dead Boys. r.e.m. Missing Persons. U2.
And on, and on, and on….
Live Aid. Woodtstock ’94. Lollapalooza. Since Sept. 15, 1964, if it was rock & roll and it mattered, the woman with the oversized red glasses and blond pageboy was there. She carried a huge purse that contained ear plugs, three pens, notebooks, a peanut butter sandwich. She was ready for whatever might happen – and often did.
This is, after all, the woman who followed Jimi Hendrix to a Cleveland Heights Chevy dealer and watched the reality-shattering guitarist buy a blue Corvette. She saw Springsteen at the Allen Theatre in 1975 and wrote “His name is Bruce Springsteen. He is rock’s next superstar…” long before TIME and Newsweek thought about putting the Asbury Park wharf rat on simultaneous covers.
Maybe she was lucky. Maybe she was so voracious to experience it all – the good, the bad, the REO Speedwagon – that her margins for being right were huge. I didn’t care. I didn’t think about any of that, I just fell head over heart week after week into whatever rabbit hole she was illuminating.
Pink Floyd? Sure. Todd Rundgren? Absolutely. Bob Welch? Why not?
Why not? Indeed. You never know, I’d think. If perhaps Yes would never strike me, surely there was something to Kim Carnes that would. Valerie Carter, who was produced by Lowell George from Little Feat, and Rickie Lee Jones. Carlene Carter bent at the waist with all that fringe, talking a broken white line between her heritage as the (grand)child of country music’s seminal Carter Family and the vows that made her the better half of Brit’s pre-punk Stiffness Rockpile. She sang with Dave Edmunds, she married Nick Lowe.
It was all there. All I had to do was beat John Gleason to the front door.
And Jane led me to the world of CREEM, Rolling Stone, Circus, Hit Parader, Song Hits!. Then later British publications like NME (New Music Express) and Melody Maker. It was a keyhole I could peer through, inhale a little of the rarified air. Jane Scott made sure the people who read her had that much. She made sure the humanity and the magic shone through.
I didn’t really set out to do this: write about music, make dreams come true. There was no template for that in Shaker Heights, Ohio where the true cash crop is corporate housewives. Girls like me wouldn’t know where to begin, or what to do when we got there. And besides, how would one go about it?
Watching Jane Scott was a good start. She led with her heart and closed with her abiding curiosity. Where did the music come from? What did it mean to the people making it? Why did they do it? And what made it special for them?
That seemed to be the basic through line of everything she did. It fed my soul for years as a kid at the kitchen counter, slurping down Fruit Loops or Cocoa Crispies, Captain Crunch when I could convince my mother there was any nutritional vale to them. Reading amazed before the humiliation of climbing into the school car would befall me. The cereal went down without ever being tasted: I was consumed by whatever Ian Hunter, Grace Slick or Cheap Trick had shared with Jane Scott that week.
“Cleveland Rocks”? Indeed. “You Wear It Well”? Rod Stewart transitions again, as did Bowie. A bunch of ramshackle losers – like the Replacements and the Georgia Satellites – all opened up for the guileless (as Lou Reed explained her) woman. She had her ways, and I absorbed them without even knowing.
Without even knowing. One thing, an accident really, led to another.
A week of golf with a demi-famous person — who would grow up to be the impossibly famous Vince Gill — and a missed high school journalism assignment. A quick interview, a tossed off suggestion. The reality that 15 years of playing golf was now over at not quite 18. The need to put something there, and the truth that being a voice on the radio didn’t get me close enough, offer the outlet I was yearning for.
So I started writing. College paper, local rag, fanzine. But always with the knowledge that I was only as good as my slugline, the inserted line beneath my name that explained how I was affiliated with this publication. “Special to…” or “Staff Writer,” “Palm Beach Post Music Critic.”
Along the way, if it paid, I wrote for ’em. Black Miami Weekly, In Records Timez, The Weekly News, a fistful more I can’t recall. But also there were legendary fan publications – Rock & Soul, Country Song Round-Up, especially punk’s wonderful Trouser Press.
I was the market correspondent for Performance. Had a guest editorial in Billboard as a 19-year old college junior about plugging into the potency of the Live Factor. Always The Miami Hurricane, the college paper I rode roughshod over, terrorizing editors and writing long, knowing pictures can be resized.
Turned down by The Cleveland Scene, I was writing for The Plain Dealer a few months later, as well as The Miami Herald. At the time, The Herald was a Top 10 daily newspaper – and I was a college sophomore.
Tell the story, find the essence, look for the quote.
What did they have to say? How do you get them to tell it?
I had no training. No idea or clue how to… Just a fire for the music, a need to know where the songs came from, what they meant and why they mattered so much to me.
My father’d advised against journalism in college as I’d already had several pieces published – including the lead story in the 1979 United States Golf Association’s Amateur Championship program. “You know how to write,” he’d counseled. “Go learn something.”
So there I was: fueled up on the fear of being found out, driven by this yearning to understand. Odd things like Nazareth, the Catholic Girls, Modern English before they melted with you, the Bangles in a van and Cindy Lauper when no one outside New York cared. And the country acts that paved my way into the Herald: John Anderson, Alabama, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, TG Shepard, Johnny Lee.
Back music, too. I can’t forget the other book end. Heck, the Dazz Band was my entrée into The Plain Dealer, “an upclose look” at the hometown band who’d go on to win a Grammy in 1983, tying Earth, Wind & Fire for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. The Commodores. Ashford & Simpson. Patti LaBelle. The System. Shalamar plus solo Jody Watley and Howard Hewett. DeBarge.
You get the idea. Heck, Pavarotti, who singled me out when the “grown-ups” kept ignoring my raised hand at a press conference. Impressed by my question, we talked for a while after.
The stakes kept going up. The artists more intense. The level of access more elevated.
Every now and then, I’d step out of my body, get the shakes. There was only one answer: What would Jane Scott do? Or even more exactingly, What would Jane Scott ask?
No truer North Star to steer by. Gracious curiosity. Why did you do that? Tell me about the song most people never noticed, the weighty one that mattered? How are you feeling?
And she meant it. Whatever she asked, she wanted to know. You could tell by the way people responded. She got people to be honest, to drop the chip on their shoulder… to be vulnerable. Even Lou Reed, a man so cantankerous he’d walked out of our first interview for no apparent reason – only to be brought back by his publicist, was a supplicant of the woman who once wrote obituaries.
What would Jane Scott do? Go out, of course. See a band. Wear a big smile on her face. Laugh as she considered what might be, what’s missing, how to find her way to the center of all of it. She did, too. No one found the center quite like Jane Scott.
I know, because I read her voraciously. Knew the humility, the love, the passion for the music and the people who made it. She had no shame about it; saw her writing as a privilege. She took it seriously, and she brought a lot of people to acts they might not have cared about.
I thought about that watching the very bloated Molly Hatchet perform a lights out set of exquisite Southern Rock perfection shortly after Danny Joe Brown had returned to the band. It was the mid-80s, and I loathed everything they were musically; because of Jane Scott, I loved everything they were and did for their fans.
Jane Scott – and the art of loving what is.
Also, the art of appreciating what one loves. To not get so caught up in the moment – as I did after my third session with Neil Young the first time he and I met on behalf of Tower Pulse for his country Old Ways, leaving my tape recorder on the bus – that perspective gets lost.
Perspective, even if you’re trying to look on the sunnyside, is everything. Calibrated appropriately, it lets you tell the truth without being vapid. But it must be watched and maintained. There is a difference, and if you choose to focus on what’s good, you have to be aware of what’s wrong. Being clear-eyed can let you lean to what’s working, because you’re not just some fan foaming at the mouth. You realize, too, there is a sacred contract with the reader to tell the truth, not opine and pontificate, but share and show.
Shortly after my name started appearing regularly in Rolling Stone, I had the opportunity to do a panel in Cleveland… for a North Coast something or other, a demi-New Music Seminar that was mostly stillborn. I can’t tell you anything about who was there, what the topic was – though I remember making a plea to the attending to believe in their dreams and maintain their standards along the way – or much else, beyond it was in the Flats.
There is one moment, though, that stands out. As the panel was ending and people were coming up to the podium, a lady approached with red glasses and a a blonde pageboy. She was smiling. Her head was bobbing. Joy extruded from her.
“Yes, yes, I’m Jane Scott,” she said As I nodded back, muttering like some simpleton echo chamber, “Yes, yes, I know…”
“You’re from here, right?” she asked. “You went to Laurel, didn’t you?”
I stopped cold in my tracks. All the Spin, Rolling Stone, Musician, CREEM bylines hardly mattered. Jane Scott knew who I was!
“I did, yeah,” I replied, mystified.
“I thought so,” she beamed. “You used to write me letters…”
Which I did. Occasionally. When I agreed and it seemed like no one else did.
“And I think you used to write for us, too,” she continued.
“Yes, yes,” she said again, happily. Then she got down to business. “And could I ask you a few questions?”
She was writing a wrap-up. I can’t even remember what she asked. It just was. Right there, where it used to be Pirate’s Cove. Jane Scott, who I’d loved since I figured out what rock & roll was, asking, well, me. Maybe it was shock, or maybe awe. Regardless, I joined a pretty heady list.
In that moment, “the world’s oldest rock critic” made me feel every bit as special as she had Linda Ronstadt, Motley Crue, Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison, Roger Daltrey and beyond. That was one of her many gifts.
She wasn’t afraid to be unabashed about what she loved. Like the Los Angeles Times‘ Robert Hilburn, Jane Scott made it okay to get beyond the indifference or sangfroid of modern criticism – to enjoy without needing to come off as some kind of lord passing judgement.
It was just about the moment, what was said, shared, offered.
The last time I saw Jane Scott, we didn’t speak. Not that I didn’t want to, just that it wasn’t to be.
I’d flown to Cleveland to take Alex Bevan, my first idol who’d graciously agreed to sing at my mother’s funeral well over a year before, to see the fourway songswap occasioanlly done by Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. Getting there early to visit with my songwriter friends, to take Alex on the bus to meet Lyle and Guy, heading to dinner… the bustle of it all… the rhythm of the evening got me back to the bus later than I’d anticipated.
“Do you know Jane Scott’s here?” Lovett asked.
I shook my head.
“Hmmm, well, we’ll see…” he offered, recognizing my pique.
I’d promised to introduce the four men that night. We both knew Jane would be seated by the time I slunk out front to take my place with my friends. I peered across the first rows but couldn’t see her. Ever the appreciator of others, Lovett introduced her from the stage, had a light shine on the woman who outshone the spotlight…
“She is a real treasure,” Lovett proclaimed, and the audience cheered.
Lyle Lovett was right. She is a real treasure. The kind we should all cherish when they cross our paths, whether they’re the bank manager, our child’s teacher or a woman unafraid to “love some band” – as Sapphire the groupie proclaims in “Almost Famous” – “or little piece of music so much it hurts.”
Jane Scott loved what she loved. She wrote about it. And she wrote about other stuff, too. Always intriguing, always looking for truth. But especially, always inspiring people who loved music to dig deeper, seek more and find the part that made them feel most alive.
Feeling alive was everything to her. Or as she told The Plain Dealer‘s John Soeder when she tired, “What I like about rock & roll is you can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself… The blues perpetuate you’re feeling of despondency.
“Rock gets you up on your feet, dancing! And you forget about it. The beats gets you going.”
No doubt they’re “going” in heaven right now. Probably Hendrix met her in that blue Corvette when she hit the Pearly Gates, told her he knew where Morrison was holed up and they were gonna go rock with Joplin later. No doubt, she’s laughing with the wind in her air – just as alive in heaven as she ever was on Earth, and for anyone who ever read her, they know: Jane Scott was always as alive as alive can be.
and for anyone looking for a more formal elegy for an inspiration + mentor