Following Bill Fox’s abrupt retirement from performing some ten years ago, his legend grew exponentially amongst members of the Cleveland underground. It seemed everyone had their own story about the singer/songwriter who once fronted Cleveland’s power pop band that should have made it, The Mice. One of my favorites, I heard from Chris Kulcsar, the lead singer of This Moment in Black History, who recounted a time he was at a party and wanted to put an album by the Mice on the turntable. He was abruptly stopped by a fellow party-goer, because Bill Fox was there, at the party, and man, does he hate that album. Other stories weren’t so humorous, they were dark and depressing. Let’s say the past ten years haven’t always been kind to Fox.
Writing for The Believer in its 2007 music issue, Joe Hagan traveled from New York to Cleveland, in search of the elusive songwriter. It was like an episode of Cold Case. Except Fox wasn’t dead. Hagan would follow lead after lead, hoping to meet the man behind those quaint, intimate solo albums, Transit Byzantium and Shelter From the Smoke. The problem was, Fox didn’t want to be found. So while Hagan left with quite a story, he had no meeting, no interview, not even a handshake.
Anyone who read Hagan’s piece came away convinced that Fox’s career as a musician was as good as dead. You can’t prop up a man on a stage, in front of an audience, if he doesn’t want to be found.
Something has changed in Bil Fox. Something that made him decide to come out of hiding and perform. In my brief exchange with Hagan, he hinted that Fox’s return to music was spurred by the economy, and by the renewed interest in his music following the Believer story. It was a good story, and it could very well be the truth. However, for those in attendance last night, the whys, wheres and hows weren’t important. We were seeing a Cleveland legend live, in person for the first time in a long, long time.
Walking into the Tavern, the silence was overwhelming. No one dared talk. No one dared whisper as Fox performed. It seemed as everyone’s eyes were affixed on the stage, as were mine. I really wanted a Pabst, yet I was reluctant to place an order at the bar. I took in two quaint pieces of folk from Shelter from the Smoke: “Lonesome Pine” and “Get Your Workingman’s Things,” clapped graciously, and quietly made my order at the bar.
What’s changed? I couldn’t get the question out of my mind. Comparing the man in front of me to those old album covers, Fox looked like he put on a couple pounds, he may have a grey hair, or two, and he’s wearing glasses these days. He was dressed simply in blue jeans, boots, and an old blue t-shirt. Next to him on a stool was a Budweiser and a folded sheet of notes. Between songs, he’d glance at his notes, wait for the applause to fade, then start plucking around on his acoustic guitar until he found the chord for the next song. “You Can Tell Me All Night Long,” “Dixie Darling,” “Song of a Drunken Nightingale:” I wasn’t the only one who thought he’d never hear Fox’s plainly spoken, carefully detailed tales of love, life, and religion performed again.
Yet, as Fox’s appearance was that of a man who’s aged ten years, his voice hadn’t changed at all. Equal parts silk and sandpaper, smooth and gently weathered, at first light and hesitant, it would gain strength as the set progressed. He picked up confidence. He picked up the volume and the tempo for “Singin’ a Melody,” and if the crowd wasn’t so reverential I would have sung along. I couldn’t break the mood with my awkward, off key wailing. Instead, I mouthed the words in between smiles.
The stories haven’t stopped now that Fox is playing the clubs again. I heard he played an earlier gig at a bar in the Kamm’s Corner neighborhood in Cleveland. Did anyone even know him?
And there was another show at the Happy Dog, and after the show Fox took time to hang out with some of the younger musicians playing Cleveland these days. He couldn’t remember all his songs, but he had another guitarist more than happy to help.
Here’s a new one: I hear he’s been practicing with a band, I don’t know who’s in the band, and I don’t know whose songs he plans on playing, but it’s Bill Fox in a band, and you know what band he he used to play in, back in the day…
Lastly, I was just tipped that he’s scheduled a second February show for the 12th at The Happy Dog.
I’ve gotta say, these stories sure beat those dark, depressing ones I used to hear around town, and man, is it good to have Bill Fox back.