WRUR 88.5 Different Radio

Jeff Spevak

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle. He has also been published in Musician and High Times magazines, contributed to WXXI, City newspaper and Post magazine, and occasionally performs spoken-word pieces around town. Some of his haikus written during the Rochester jazz festival were self-published in a book of sketches done by Scott Regan, the host of WRUR’s Open Tunings show. Spevak founded an award-winning barbecue team, The Smokin’ Dopes, and believes Bigfoot is real. His book on the life of a Lake Ontario sailor who survived the sinking of his ship during World War II will be published in April of 2019 by Lyons Press.

Danielle Ponder and her band -- Avis Reese, Derek Bennett, Levi Bennet and Jonathan Sheffer -- are on the stage at The Little Theater. In front of them are 280 seats, virtually all of them empty.

This is not the gig from hell. This is the COVID-19 reality.

It was 1966, and Armand Schaubroeck was ready for his close-up.

“He had us sit on that couch that’s on The Velvet Underground album,” Schaubroeck says. “I don’t know if he was trying to make the couch famous, but that’s where he shot most of his photos and his screen tests.”

A murmur of excitement rolled through the area’s movie-going community, long in coronavirus limbo, when word came out early Saturday afternoon that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had just announced that theaters throughout the state – umm, except you, New York City -- could reopen as of this Friday.

The news seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Then reality hit: Restarting an industry is not as simple as firing up the popcorn machine and hitting the projector “on” switch.

Winter’s coming. A long season of coronavirus discontent is settling over us.

A shift in our community interactions has already proven to be inevitable.

After a slow, downward spiral, one of downtown Rochester’s iconic bars, Richmond’s, closed last weekend. The place goes back more than three decades, back to when it was Schatzees.

Morning glory vines have overtaken my backyard this summer. They are deceptively beautiful, with their lush greenery and scattering of delicate trumpet flowers creeping up the deck railings, thin tendrils reaching out to embrace the legs of the grill. The morning glory grows with startling virility. If the dog stood for too long within its reach, I might have to tear the vines from her legs.

But in truth, the morning glory is a lie. It is a noxious weed. If I allow it to spread, it will kill everything beneath it.

For fans of metaphors, the morning glory is 2020.

As best as Francie Marx can reassemble the story after more than seven decades, Robert Marx was 19 years old, serving in the U.S. Army Air Force as a military policeman somewhere in Europe. World War II had just ended, and he was assigned to sit outside the cell of a prisoner. Francie recalls Robert describing him as "a pathological killer."

"And if the guy wanted a cigarette, Robert would light one, put it on the floor, push it forward with his foot," Francie says. "This guy could then smoke the cigarette."

One year ago, the giant fantasy undersea visions of Plasticiens Volants’ French inflatables bobbed and weaved in the crisp fall air over the heads of thousands of people on Rochester’s Parcel 5. London’s Massaoke karaoke singalong of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” echoed off the sides of downtown buildings. 

The world has reached the point where, after a tough day at work, you can’t pull up a barstool and unwind with an expertly made Negroni cocktail without feeling like it’s an act that puts your friends and family in danger.

Not since the coronavirus pandemic, “when the world changed,” Chuck Cerankosky says.

“But we’re all still here. The bars are still here, we’re struggling to survive. We’re trying to navigate through this forest of precautions and guidelines and morality.”

The Spring Chickens had a gig last week. It was the first live-music performance I’d attended since mid-March.

That’s quite a stretch of home quarantine for someone who is usually out three or four or five evenings a week. Maybe attending shows, or eating dinner at a restaurant or a friend’s house, or wandering over to a neighbor’s house with my dog. 

It’s nothing but the best for The Empty Hearts when the band goes off in search of inspiration. As Andy Babiuk tells it, there was this one night …

“I was backstage at a Stones show, hanging out with Mick Jagger,” Babiuk says, “and he goes, ‘Hey Andy, I have this song that I think would really work for The Empty Hearts.’ And he literally like, sang the whole song to me.”

Alas, it was, literally, a dream gig.

“And so I got up and I hummed the song into my iPhone and went back to bed,” Babiuk says. “Had I not done that, I would have never remembered it.”

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