It’s an interesting parallel to consider a musician with the understanding that you are somehow connected. Music carves out the identity of who we are alone; its strange and beautiful edges throw shadows that shape our places in the world. It’s a responsibility of the “music writer” to articulate a sharp portrait of artists told from darkened stretches of road, bathed in light before hungry mobs of communal souls, and to share with unflinching honesty why they love what they do.
Every story, band profile, retrospective and review creates an enduring entwinement with an artist. For 40 years, EU Jacksonville has documented the expressions of local musicians with the same degree of introspection and enthusiasm as the international recording artists we’ve had the dizzying good fortune to cover.
Throughout the seasons of name changes and re-design, former staff writer Rick Grant was a constant at EU Jacksonville. For over 30 years, he was steadfast in his coverage of local music, keeping readers informed about the city’s music scene, introducing nationally known musicians and promoting local musicians. Grant knew what they were about and where to see them, hitting up three or four venues a night regardless of who was playing. Whether it was Big Engine at Pier 7 or Goat Whore at Brewster’s Pit, he was there scribbling notes in his black-rimmed glasses and signature fedora.
A musician at heart, Grant and his wife Elaine opened a recording and production company called Homestead Studio, Inc., in the late ’70s, when jazz fusion was all the rage. Their major project was a band called Trayn whose record did well at jazz stations across the country.
After Homestead closed, Grant started writing for the Southeast Entertainer, founded in 1976 by Tony Trotti, a musician and local businessman. In 1979, Trotti stepped down as vice president of George Washington Life Insurance to dedicate his time to the weekly publication, which was renamed the First Coast Entertainer.
When Trotti died in 2003, former associate publisher-turned-owner Will Henley bought the publication and rebranded the concept to Entertaining U later EU Jacksonville. With Henley at the helm, the newspaper experimented with different formats during the 2000s before landing on its current monthly tabloid format and expanded website in March, 2008. Grant wrote movie reviews, music reviews and conducted thousands of interviews. “I really thrived on it, because I loved the work,” he told former EU staff writer Anna Rahban in a 2009 interview. “I just about covered everybody you can imagine,” including most everyone in the North Florida Music Hall of Fame.
The first band Grant covered was the Dalton Gang. He’s interviewed everyone from Jim Graves, who came back to Jacksonville after playing with the Rossington-Collins Band, to Derek Trucks to Bonnie Raitt. Artists who hadn’t let their fame go to their heads were his favorite interviews. “The blues people [were] usually really nice,” he said. “They didn’t cop an attitude along the way. People like B.B. King and Koko Taylor – they were just the greatest interviews because they were down to earth.”
Grant was the first journalist to cover Conrad Oberg at 10 years old when the guitar phenom played at the London Bridge – “He’s a true musical genius,” he said – and was among the first to cover JJ Grey and his band Mofro. “They’re great because they never let any of the business affect them,” he recalled. “They’re still the same guys they were before.”
He also experienced his share of unforgettable moments like the time he caught Hank Williams, Jr. with a bottle of vodka when he claimed to be sober. “He was supposed to have quit drinking, and that was a big deal. He had gone through rehab, and I go backstage, and he has a glass of vodka and a bottle of vodka on the side, and he was just wasted out of his…I don’t know how he went on stage. He did, and he played his set. … [Those artists are] very difficult to interview because they don’t want to see you really, but they think they need the press.” Grant remained one of the most visible proponents of local artists until his (semi) retirement in 2008.
I (Liza Mitchell) started writing for EU Jacksonville in 2009 after responding to a post looking for someone to cover country music. It was the thing I had the least amount of knowledge or interest in, but I was itching to get back to writing, so I hoped I would learn to like it or fake it at best. I had no idea that I was opening the door to so many amazing stories shared with me by incredible artists. Each conversation took on its own life, though many of the musicians I’ve interviewed over the years were part of my own story long before the call was connected.
Within a few days of joining the EU Jacksonville staff as a contributing writer, I received an email with Ray McKelvey’s contact information with a note that the man known to most as Stevie Stiletto was expecting my call. I spent a great deal of my high school years listening to the Stevie Stiletto & the Switchblades. I still play his version of “White Christmas” every year.
My parents weren’t cool with their underage daughter hanging out where the Switchblades played during the late 80s, so I was forced to make do with a tape my friend Brian Truman made for me with the Switchblades’ 13 Greatest Hits on side one and a punk mix of stuff like the Cramps, Minor Threat and Suicidal Tendencies on the flip side. I wore it slap out. One of my biggest regrets was never getting the chance to see Stevie Stiletto play live. At least now I could tell him as much.
Much of his life on stage is chronicled in the documentary “My Life Is Great: The Stevie Stiletto Story,” 30 years of raw material pieced together in a montage of videos, concert footage, interviews and other scraps of a hard life lived. At the time of the interview, the documentary had recently premiered at the former Five Points Theatre, now Sun-Ray Cinema. To celebrate the screening, Stiletto said he camped it up and painted his face with white makeup. “People thought I was sick. They didn’t realize my face was caked with the white makeup,” he said. “I thought it was funny really.”
It wasn’t a stretch. With arms stained with faded tattoos and a sunken face carved with deep channels of excess, McKelvey suffered from Hepatitis C and cirrhosis caused by years of drinking and drug use. He cleaned up before being diagnosed with cancer. In 2009, he was sober and as healthy as he could be despite years spent living as a dying man, complications of the excess he regretted but a life he wouldn’t change.
McKelvey said he never dreamed that his life would be the subject of a film, but he was grateful to be around to see it. A week or so later, I received a handwritten note scrawled with the same crude skull drawings I used to etch into my high school notebooks thanking me for my time, a DVD of the film and copies of the CDs “Beautiful Music for Ugly People” recorded in the Switchblades’ signature punk style and “Ugly Music for Beautiful People,” a collection of 18 acoustic tracks showcasing McKelvey’s talents as a singer and songwriter. Ray McKelvey died March 24, 2013, at his Westside home.
For the last decade, I’ve written about my own heroes and the heroes that inspired them. I’ve conducted interviews in non-traditional settings, from talking to Charlie Benante of Anthrax while sitting in a Jacksonville Beach parking garage (not in a car, actually sitting on the ground of the third floor) and to waiting in the student pick-up line at Fletcher Middle School. As I looked around, all the other moms were chatting away on their cell phones, and I smiled because I knew I was the only one talking to Alice Cooper.
There have been ridiculous moments, like the time Jon Moss of Culture Club asked me to identify myself at their show at Morocco Shrine by lifting up my t-shirt. As we’re all past our prime, I assured him it would be better for all involved if my shirt stayed down. The publicist, still on the other line waiting to time me out of my 15-minute interview window, dissolved into a series of gasps while Mikey Craig scolded Moss for ruining what he said was “a solid interview” up until that point. I laughed into the receiver, even harder when they realized that the call was still live.
I would count Rick Springfield in the top tier of bucket-list interviews. Springfield was my first real celebrity crush, and I was devastated when his show with ‘Til Tuesday at Metropolitan Park was canceled by a storm. Years later, I had the chance to interview him to advance his show at The Florida Theatrex in 2014. I could barely contain my excitement, even when he forgot about our scheduled phone call two days in a row.
Springfield talked about being handpicked by Dave Grohl to participate in the documentary Sound City. All of the artists chosen, including Springfield, had recorded their early – and in cases like Fleetwood Mac who recorded Rumors in 1975 and Nirvana, their most famous – material on the old Neve sound board at Sound City, a hole-in-the-wall studio in Van Nuys, CA with an enviable history. After the studio fell into a slump, a little-known Seattle band recorded its 1991 album Nevermind there.
Grohl was inspired to make the documentary after buying several items when the studio closed in 2011, including the Neve 8028 analog mixing console. The sound board was the portal for the Grammy-winning hit Jessie’s Girl, and the exact spot where Springfield would meet a young beauty named Barbara Porter, who for the last 30 years is known as Mrs. Springthorpe (his real surname).
Rock royalty from Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear and Sir Paul McCartney came together to create a new chapter in history. The result was the soundtrack “Sound City: Real to Reel” and features new music from some of the most unlikely pairings. “I think that pretty much everybody he contacted said yes. It started out as just interviews, then he got different people together to write and record through this old console that we’d all recorded all of our hits through,” Springfield said. “It was an important studio for a lot of people and started a lot of careers.”
When Robby Krieger presented An Evening of The Doors Greatest Hits at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in August, 2015, his son Waylon Krieger stepped into the role of lead vocalist left vacant by Jim Morrison, a space the elder Krieger considers his son’s birthright. Krieger was clear that Waylon wasn’t a tribute artist or impersonator, but rather tapping into his biological connection to the music to deliver an authentic interpretation of his father’s legacy.
“He says he feels like he is channeling Jim quite a bit. He’s not trying to do a Jim Morrison-clone type thing. I mean, he doesn’t try and look like Jim, but he does a great job. He’s only been doing this for about eight months, but he gets better with every show,” says Krieger. “Like I told him, out of all the people in the world, he’s the one that has the most right to do it, more than anybody else because of the blood line. I’m not going to be doing this forever, so I would love it if he took over the torch.”
Ben Taylor didn’t try to hide his legacy. He calls the elephants in the room by name. To us, they are Carly Simon and James Taylor. To him, they are just mom and dad. “The best way for me to address it is to challenge myself. The right way is really just being very grateful and respectful in remembering that’s where I came from, and they have inspired me so much,” he said to me in 2014 before a show at Jack Rabbits. “If I didn’t know my music, and I came to see me, I would probably be coming to do it because of who my folks were, so I don’t get resentful about it at all,” he said. “It’s a nice challenge for me to have to continuously come up with a more genuine way of expressing my thanks to their support of me and in regard to the people that they are.”
Despite having grown up in his unconventional household, Taylor is a road warrior, lacking in pretension and exhibiting no traces of what he called the “celebrity brat syndrome.” Those people that take opportunities that they didn’t earn themselves represent the double-edged sword of growing up as the child of famous parents. “The only opportunities you deserve are the ones that you earn yourself,” Taylor said. “If you are taking opportunities based on someone else’s merit, the chances are that you don’t have the experience to back it up yet.”
Speaking with an artist like Dweezil Zappa, it’s easy to measure the short distance between the apple and the tree. He speaks in proud, colorful strokes about the legacy of his late father and how Zappa Plays Zappa was conceptualized as a tribute to the music and as insurance that new generations of fans understand and appreciate the depth of his father’s instrumental compositions.
“There is really nothing that has caught up with it or that sounds like it. There are sounds that are just ahead of its time,” said Dweezil. “For this music to carry on and for people to really get it, it needs to be played live. My goal was to almost re-educate a new generation by exposing them to a broader range of his music being played live.”
As a young teenager, he performed and recorded with his father, but he played baseball–the only Zappa that played any sports–making him an anomaly in the family. Like many kids his age, he admired guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. “There was a very distinct point that I said music is going to be cooler than Little League. That was the night when Eddie Van Halen called the house and decided that he wanted to come over. He came over and was playing the guitar. My dad played, and I got to play a little bit,” he said.
“I had a baseball game the next morning, but this guitar jam session thing ended at 2 or 3 in the morning and my game was at 8. I remember that baseball game was very different. I loved baseball, and I was serious about it, but it was that night that I said, ‘that’s it. I’m switching to guitar.’ I was always a fan of the music, so the lesson I got from everything, if you’re going to be working for a living, you might as well do something that you like.”
Throughout the years of stories, EU Jacksonville continues its mission to tell the stories from local, regional and national artists that follow their passion and devote their lives to their craft. It’s a lesson we should all strive for. I’m grateful that I took a chance and continue to do something I love. “The thing I have learned is to say yes to everything and continue to find ways to enjoy all that you have,” said Brian Ray, guitarist for Sir Paul McCartney. “You never know which one of those opportunities is going to lead to the job of a lifetime.”