Why do I keep coming here?
It’s far from my house, I’m not a bar person, and driving down W. 58th is similar to what I imagine riding a pedal wagon down a Palestinian sidewalk must be like. But, as soon as I park and get out of the car, I start to hear the sound of a bluesy freight train coming through the walls of The Parkview Nite Club, and instead of getting out of the way, I move closer and closer until I’m standing face to face with it. I scan the crowd and spot a table where I can sit and let the machine drive right through me.
Michael Bay, Jim Wall, and Michael Barrick are The Bad Boys of Blues, and every Wednesday night for the last 21 years they’ve hosted an open blues jam that has attracted some of the best talent in the Cleveland area. It’s pretty simple: you go up and ask to play, you get three songs a set, and the person singing is pretty much in charge of leading the band (calling out tunes, appointing solos, etc.).
They make it seem effortless. As a person with a minuscule amount of musical ability, I get inspired. Every time I watch Michael Bay play his telecaster, the first thing I do when I get home is grab my guitar and plug in. I play for about an hour, and then I go to sleep. The next morning I find that my driveway is littered with the corpses of dead possums and various other forms of urban wildlife that I’ve slaughtered with my inadequate, borderline pathetic exhibition of sonic expression.
“It’s like watching sprinters run,” says Tom Stankiewicz, a local drummer, and dear friend, who has attended one of the jam sessions in the past. “On the surface it seems so second nature to them. It doesn’t appear to be that difficult. Then you jump on the track and try to keep up with them. The next thing you know, they’ve lapped you twice, and you feel like puking your goddamn guts out. It was pretty intimidating, but you’re a better musician when you leave.”
After I watch the first set, I leave to go have a smoke on the back patio, and I see this skinny, bespectacled guy with a Gibson SG plugging in. I’ve never seen him play here before, and I don’t think much of it. When I return that guy is howling into the mic with every ounce of soul he has in his entire fucking body. Then about halfway through the song, he turned that SG into an instrument of death. I’ve never seen him here before, but it turns out I was watching Ray Flanagan of Ray Flanagan and the Authorities. The 23-year-old has been playing at The Parkview for years and is establishing himself as one of the best young singer/songwriters in the scene today.
A few days after I watched his set, I talked to him briefly about the first time he played there, and what it is about the club that makes it such a special place to play.
“I don’t remember the first time I played at The Parkview, but I do remember it taking awhile not to be scared to go there. I still get nervous to go up there on some nights. If you have to pick one Cleveland jam—in my opinion—it’s The Parkview without question. It’s a great place for musicians, especially young ones, to go through the ringer. It’s sort of a training grounds. It’s a safe place to practice and try things out. The key thing to realize is that while it can seem nerve wracking because of the amount of talent that is sometimes in the room, it’s just a jam night. It’s a pretty low pressure situation.”
Talking to the musicians that play there kills me because they seem like humans. They’re personable, courteous, and happy you’ve come out to see them play. But, as soon as they cross the mics and the music starts, you realize that these aren’t people; they’re monsters. They’re bluesmen who work hard at their discipline and enjoy every second of it. They play because it’s fun, and I go for the same reason.