There is a very old saying in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that tangos off the tongue like so: "Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water." Bodhisattvas have been riffing on that one for centuries.
In present-day Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Bay is working through a simple chord progression, methodically embracing the neck of his Fender Telecaster. Not so much the Buddhist he may outwardly appear, he is rather a guitarist. He is practicing. And as the shadows shrink back against the walls of his Tremont storefront on this quiet Tuesday morning, he will practice some more.
"I've been lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he says, looking up from his instrument only to confirm how deeply he means this. The clean tone of his guitar contrasts against his raspy voice, and the words hang sweetly in the air. A cat named Goober perches on a nearby windowsill and surveys the neighborhood, occasionally casting a glance back at Bay, who is still flexing a bluesy lick.
The guitarist might be talking about how he met his girlfriend Denise Graham, about whom he speaks with Neruda-inspired love. He might be talking about how the guitar hanging on his wall right there—that Orville Les Paul he's treasured for years—made its way back to him after being stolen one gray afternoon in Lakewood. He might yet be talking about a Wednesday night in 1994 that altered the musical landscape in this town forever.
Surely, though, luck has quite little to do with any of this. Bay's been practicing since he was a young kid from the neighborhood whose name no one knew. And the practice is everything.
"It will become what it becomes if you let it," he says, discussing the music he's working on. Or is he talking about life? "Be in this moment now and listen—and let it evolve."***
Now: Michael Bay is driving down West 58th Street, heading north toward the hilly terminus above the West Shoreway. The Parkview Nite Club, an unassuming little joint, flashes "FOOD—LIQUOR" in dull light above the roadway. Bay is driving here because it is Wednesday night, and this is what he does every Wednesday night.
Inside, people are buzzing on the heady foam of imported IPAs and the succulent ground chuck of Parkview's dynamite burgers. "Have a whole bunch! Tip your server well!" they're reminded happily by a friend. They're also awaiting the arrival of Bay and his closest compatriots, bassist Michael Barrick and drummer Jim Wall—The Bad Boys of Blues—who will each arrive shortly for the evening's routinely awe-inspiring main event. Laughter rolls down the bar. Every seat's taken, but you can ease in and lay down an order. No problem.
You could gather a hint of what's to come by checking out the massive photo collage hanging in the back hallway of the place. All the musicians who passed through the weekly jam night's first 10 years are pictured. Tonight is jam night once again, and the magic is rekindled as old friends congregate inside.
The musicians, meanwhile, amble through the double doors and set up their rig in the corner, leaning toward the crowd occasionally to talk shop with a passing friend. A fellow guitarist leans his ax against the back of a nearby booth, tossing a casual nod to Barrick. A pinball machine sputters and whirls in the corner. Familiar faces abound; this is, in a sense, a homecoming.
And this has been going on for 20 years. For some, it's just the best damn show in town; others, a temple.
"The Bad Boys of Blues: I just think they're top-notch. They're the cream of the crop. And they make me want to do my best," singer Becky Boyd says. It's Aug. 28, and she's hosting tonight's jam at Parkview. She's been hanging with the Bad Boys for years, long a fixture on the scene. People are visibly excited to see her on the bill tonight. Her jazzy flair reels in devotees by the droves.
Boyd met Bay and the rest of the crew when she was playing around town in a band called the Delgados in the early '90s. The budding jam night, then a fledgling event tucked neatly among Lorain Avenue hovels, needed a singer—a host for the night. Everyone seemed to play, but no one sang. Along with many others who would eventually wander into the circle, Boyd took hold of the mic and wrangled the restless tide of the blues.
It would be simple enough to say that everything was different back then. To a certain point, though, perhaps it was. This was before the Cleveland Blues Society was even a thing. Before the Guitar Conservatory. Before Parkview jam nights. Before the Savannah.
But in 1994, Michael Bay and the gang were just playing music. Really, in so many other ways, nothing has changed. He was just playing guitar and looking to get a little jam together each week. Still is, honestly.