It’s been a summer for reconnecting with old friends – for all the wrong reasons – our mutual peers are dying, but seeing familiar faces after so many years has uplifted me. I walked on air for a week after the amazing send off we gave to Ronny Clifford, bon vivant, musician, and all-around awesome guy. For years, Ronny was the front man for the Smalltown Coalition of Unemployed Musicians, better known as S.C.U.M., a wildly talented collection of local musicians who liked to jam and cover the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, and Lou Reed, just to name a few. Their Halloween and New Year’s Eve gigs are now the stuff of Blacksburg legend. All proceeds from the door went to Ronny’s favorite charity, the Women’s Resource Center in Radford, Virginia.
For Ronny’s memorial service, they put the band back together. Ronny’s wife, Lana, secured the place that was once Daddy’s Money and Buddy’s Restaurant, now-closed Blacksburg venues where Ronny both worked and played. We filled the space with musical instruments, music stands, food, and friends. The sound guy cranked the speakers, guitars blended, drums beat, keyboards shook, singers sang, Wendy wailed her amazing voice. Herb stood by the amplifier in headphones and swayed to the music. Videos of Ronny’s past performances played on a large screen above and behind the stage. Without audio, it often looked like Ronny was joining in with the live performance. Dancing on the hard red tile floor that I had shimmied on (and mopped) so many times, I was transported back to 1989, a good place for me: 23 years old and fresh out of college (I went with the five-year plan); I had a semester to kill before graduate school, I was romantically unattached, happy hour highballs were $1.50, and I had loads of fun.
A few days after his memorial service, word reached us through the Facebook group created to remember Ronny, that the new Alexander Black House and Cultural Museum in Blacksburg was putting together an exhibit about the Blacksburg music scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The timing felt serendipitous. Ronny's service had reconnected members from every band who had been part of that vibrant local music scene. Musicians and groupies alike (I was the latter) had all just spent weeks remembering those days and digging out old photos to share on Facebook. (For the record, young’uns may have started Facebook, but we old farts have completely co-opted it.) We also posted and watched old videos of local performances at Steppin’ Out or South Main Cafe that have found their way to YouTube.
The curator’s call for exhibit objects could not have come at a better moment. The memories and mementoes we had unearthed for ourselves were now, suddenly, also museum worthy.
In the brief period since I sent the museum my LifeFest CD (an album of local Blacksburg bands who got together to raise awareness about the growing AIDS epidemic in the late-1980’s), LifeFest button, and signed consent form, two more friends from that time in my life have died. Both of them were fixtures in the Blacksburg music scene. Joe Willson (yes, I spelled his name correctly), former bass player for the Yams from Outer Space succumbed, like Ronny, to cancer. Just last night I learned that Henry Kelley, who produced music videos of the music scene in Blacksburg and ran psychedelic light shows for many of the bands' live performances at South Main Cafe, also died. I had last seen Henry four years ago at Steppin’ Out. He was in town for a visit, having moved to Hawaii in the 1990’s. When I wished him goodnight, he was dancing his ass off at the Cafe at Champs, rocking out to the Kind, and smiling from ear to ear. Heaven is having a hell of a jam session right now.
For me, this makes Saturday’s exhibit opening bittersweet. If I make it (and I hope to, but I need to survive the Hokie football game first) I expect to see all of their faces in the photos that have been donated. I won’t be surprised if I hear their voices as well. The museum exhibit opening will include live music, as is only appropriate, featuring the Kind and the Electric Woodshed, two bands who formed in the 1980’s and continue to play today. It will be another trip down memory lane, to a happy time and place, but it will be tinged with sadness.
Those of us who were immersed in the music scene back then, we knew we had something special. The energy was palpable, and musical futures were bright. But things changed. Venues closed, and the town killed the spring block parties that were actually day-long rock concerts featuring all the local bands. They chucked the Tau Sig fraternity out of Virginia Tech, ending those fabulous Friday and Saturday night basement dance parties with Nervous Romance. The other frats turned to DJs for their music — or maybe their iPods. The allure of live music diminished, and Blacksburg’s culture lost something valuable.
Maybe this new exhibit will rekindle the desire in the younger generation to form bands. Maybe the good stewards of the town of Blacksburg are ready to re-embrace the crazy chaos of live music, of dancing in the streets, of losing oneself in a perfect guitar chord. We never expected to be museum worthy. It was always just about the music.