From the recording (Take Me Back to) Dillard Street
Andy - lead vocal, acoustic guitar
Teep - acoustic & electric guitars, bass
Katy - 12-string guitar
Bernadette - piano
Ben - acoustic guitar
Jim - banjo, harmonica
Matthew - drums
Phil - organ, percussion
Background vocals by The Take Me Back-Ups: Katy, Jim, Phil
A Key to “Dillard Street”
What goes through a man’s mind when, in his early fifties, he learns that he has cancer and very likely doesn’t have much longer to live? It all depends on the person, of course, and nobody but that person can ever really and truly know. Our friend and fellow band mate Andy did what the doctors told him, bravely and fairly uncomplainingly submitting himself to the pain, sickness, and indignities of surgery and massive amounts of chemo and radiation therapy. In the end none of it worked, and he was gone in fifteen months. But that’s not what this is about. For most of those fifteen months, with the help, understanding, and support of his wife Julie and his family, Andy threw himself headlong into his great passion, his music, carrying us inexorably along with him in his wake. It was quite a ride.
Andy told us about his diagnosis in the spring of 2005, about nine months after we recorded Wilson, our first album as The Near Myths. Shortly after that, since we were already thinking towards a second album, Andy and Katy came over to the studio in Wilson, North Carolina, so that Andy could record vocal and guitar parts for two other songs he had ready, “just in case.” Andy’s cancer was initially diagnosed as throat cancer, so the “just in case” was that he might not be able to sing by the time we got ready to record the second album. That was as far as we allowed ourselves to go.
Katy, Ben, and Jim had been friends with Andy for thirty years, and Katy and Jim, along with our friend Jane, had been in a band with him in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the late 1970s, called Rough Mix, often jamming with Ben and playing some of his songs. Rough Mix played a mix of folk, pop, country, and acoustic rock at late seventies Greensboro venues like The Jot 'Em Down Store on Market Street, and the club variously called The Downstairs/Aliza's/The Cafe, beneath the Hong Kong House on Tate Street. The news of Andy’s cancer was particularly hard for us to deal with because we had lost Jane to cancer only a few years before. This was too cruel. Here we had just gotten back together, renewing old friendships and creating new ones—Teep (actual name Terry Phillips) had traveled to Greensboro with Ben twice in the 1980s to see Grateful Dead shows and stayed at Andy’s both times, and Bernadette had only met Andy once in 1998 at Jane’s wake—and now, instead of celebrating the renaissance of our friendship and our music, we had to deal with this. That was our thinking, but not Andy’s. Andy decided that it was time for us to buy a P.A. system and become a full-fledged touring band. That would be remarkable enough, given our ages (all fifty-somethings save one, a forty-something) and our life situations (families, jobs, etc.), and the fact that only one of us, Teep, was a professional musician. But consider also the logistics of The Near Myths: Andy and Katy both lived in Greensboro, North Carolina; Jim lives about 100 miles east, in Wilson, North Carolina; Teep lives way across the Smoky Mountains in Knoxville, Tennessee; and Ben and Berna live on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia! There was no stopping him, though, and so pretty soon we owned a P.A. system.
Of course it wasn’t possible for us all to get together and play gigs regularly. (We used to joke about printing Near Myths business cards that said “More a Concept than a Band!”) In fact, the “full band” version of The Near Myths took the stage (such as it was) just once, during the July 2004 recording sessions for Wilson, at the Friday afternoon jam session at Robbins Jewelry and Music in downtown Wilson. Three songs with only acoustic guitars and lots of voices. The mostly geriatric regulars seemed to enjoy us, but they also clearly didn’t know what to make of us. So, we began to play in whatever configurations we could. When it was just Jim, Katy, and Andy (the North Carolina contingent), we were “The Rough Myths,” a nod to our former band Rough Mix. When Teep could make it over the mountains to play with us, we were “The Southern Myths.” When Ben and Bernadette performed as a duo way up in the Pacific Northwest, they were dubbed “The Far-Out Myths.” We practiced as often as we could, dusting off old favorites and feverishly learning new songs. Andy and I reverted to our old Rough Mix practice of switching off on bass and guitar. Every practice session was a festive event, complete with a feast provided by Katy and her husband Frank. And every time Teep made it over to join us, his little Honda loaded down with guitars and amps and CDs, it was a cause for special celebration. He turned our folk group into a band, and it was a joy to hear him and Andy jam on some Neil Young chestnut or one of Andy’s rockers. We played at the R.A. Fountain General Store and Internet Café, the Luna Bean Coffee Bar, College Hill Sundries, Fisher’s Bar and Grille, the Coffee and Cream House, The Next Door Tavern, and an unforgettable “house concert” at Andy’s in-laws in Wilson. We played a mid-day gig at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. We played on the program of a Gerontology Conference at Barton College, in Wilson, prompting Andy to quip, “Are we entertainment, or specimens?” Jim even ventured out to Vancouver once and played a gig with Ben and Bernadette there, experiencing a “We’re not worthy” moment when we realized that former Velvet Underground bassist Doug Yule, now playing fiddle in a Seattle old-time band, was in the audience. We had posters, t-shirts, press releases, and newspaper write-ups. We amassed a treasure trove of live audio and video recordings, some great and some not so great, but all indispensable.
We never wanted it to end, but of course there came a time, in June of 2006 at the Coffee and Cream House in Greensboro, when we knew Andy’s performing days were over. On a beautiful but blistering hot day, in a tent set up outside, Andy played one brief set with us, featuring his new Martin guitar and his new song “(Take Me Back to) Dillard Street.” It was Andy’s crowd, with virtually every family member and every friend he’d ever had in attendance. We’d hoped to play two sets, but after the first one, shortened by several songs, he was wiped out. He and Julie sat in the air-conditioned van while Katy, Teep, and Jim played a three-song encore. It was a wonderful, triumphant, sad, miserable, spectacular day. A few weeks later he was gone. But not before he made one more difficult, shaky, uncertain trip back to Wilson to record guitar and vocal tracks for the new song. When Andy emerged from Katy’s car that day, with his wife Julie supporting him, he was like a stick man, leaning on a stick, with plastic tubes up his nose for oxygen. It was hard to see him like this, but on the other hand, here he was, by god. The session was a hard and long one. Andy had little energy and no stamina. Every breath was a painful rasp, and he was fighting the morphine fog. But he got it done, and that’s what you hear on “(Take Me Back to) Dillard Street”—the sound of a man giving himself away.
They say that before you die, your life passes before your eyes. That seemed to be the case with Andy. But instead of enjoying the show by himself, he invited us to watch it with him. “(Take Me Back to) Dillard Street” was his final gift to us and to all those friends that had gathered to wish him well at the Coffee and Cream House. It’s a long, reminiscent, autobiographical song, in the same vein as Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” or Neil Young’s “Ambulance Blues.” And while you don’t necessarily need to know all the private references to enjoy the song, it doesn’t hurt. So The Near Myths, with the help of some old Greensboro friends, have pooled our thoughts and memories, or what’s left of them, and compiled a guided tour of “(Take Me Back to) Dillard Street.” The song opens with a pleasant, low-key invitation, “Come on in and have a seat, take a load off of your feet,” followed by a wistful plea, “Take me back to Dillard Street again,” which is precisely what the song does. Of course it’s the Dillard Street of the mid seventies to early eighties, though.
On the face of it, there was nothing particularly remarkable about 706 Dillard Street. It was an old nondescript two-storey house that had been divided into four apartments—two down, two up. Concrete steps led up to the porch. Dillard Street itself was a small street that sloped gently downhill in a southerly direction from West Lee Street, a large, busy, industrial street. Across West Lee Street a few blocks north lay the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a mile or so east was the funky part of downtown Greensboro, South Elm Street. As you faced the front of the house, Andy lived in the upstairs apartment on the right, and Jane lived across the hall, on the left. An old woman named Mrs. Macsomething or other lived below Jane, and the apartment below Andy was occupied at different times by different people, among them a curly-haired guy named David who looked like Albert Brooks. We always thought of Mrs. Mac as being old and weird, though she was probably neither as old nor as weird as we imagined.
So into this low-rent paradise in the summer of 1976 comes a 21-year-old college student named Nicholas Anderson Oglesby, “Andy,” and his wire-haired black and white puppy Spotter, with “pockets full of nothing but guitar picks” and maybe fifty cents. Ben and Jim also hit town in 1976 to attend the MFA creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro. Jane was already living in her apartment on Dillard Street, with her dog Charlie who was Spotter’s brother, and Katy was her best friend.
The chorus of Andy’s song is one of the things that makes it so interesting and compelling. “Take me back to Dillard Street” Andy sings, but the line that follows is “Take these things away from me.” What are the “things” mentioned here? One possibility is certainly all the unpleasant things related to Andy’s cancer—the chemo, the radiation treatments, the drugs, the nausea, the hair loss. That’s probably it, but the song itself is so full of the “things” of that time and place (the years Andy lived on Dillard Street) that it’s tempting to read the line as maybe a final remembering of and letting go of all those memories—the people and places and things of his life. Buddhist philosophy says that’s the source of all our sorrows—attachment to the material world. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to feel a need to “make peace” with your life and circumstances before you leave this world. And giving them their due in a “farewell” song is one way to do that. The other thing that’s interesting about the chorus is that as the song evolved, Andy varied the third line each time he sang the chorus, focusing on a different memory each time. The first time it’s “I’ll be on the roof if you need to see . . . me.” Several of us have memories of crawling out Andy’s living room window and sitting on the roof and, well, taking the air. The second time the line becomes “I’ll be on the porch playing Jack’s guitar.” That would be Andy’s old Yamaha acoustic, the one he played on Wilson. He got the guitar from a friend of his named Jack in a dubious trade. The third time it’s “I’ll be on the bench with Nadine.” Nadine was the dog Andy had after Spotter, but it was also the name of his dad’s classic Gibson ES-125T electric guitar which Teep played on Andy’s song “Fool Me Once.” The last time the line is “I’m across the street at Curlee’s.” “Curly” was a guy named John who lived across Dillard street from Andy. Andy’s friend Jimmy says Curly was killed ten years or so ago in a car wreck. “Take me back to Dillard Street,” Andy sings again, “Take these things away.”
The second verse pretty clearly evokes what it was like to hang out at 706 Dillard Street back then. The “Twin Cheese from down the street” refers to a local burger joint a few blocks down West Lee Street called “Biff Burger.” It was situated across from Lexington Avenue, where Jim lived during his first year in Greensboro, before he and Ben moved in together in The Ghetto, on Mendenhall Street. Katy picks up this thread of the story, “The Biff Burger (now ‘Beef Burger’ since it was sold), believe it or not, is still there. It was a strange, sort of dirty looking weird place thirty years ago. They dip the hamburgers, which would go around this continuous conveyer contraption under a broiler, into a brew of god knows what. Probably some of the same stuff in it now from back then. But we used to eat them and they were great!” Some of us think maybe we do recall a “Ralph” who used to work there. That’s Phil, our producer, saying the “Dip it, Ralph!” line by the way, at Andy’s request. “Flatcar” is Murray, from Verse 5. He picked up the nickname after his legendary freight hopping escapade. Bruce is Bruce Piephoff, still a well-known folk singer/songwriter/poet in Greensboro, and Laura is his significant other. They lived in the Dillard Street house at one point, as did Ike and Lee (downstairs). “Jane and Katy and Jim and me” would be Rough Mix, who used to practice at the Dillard Street house, sometimes in Jane’s apartment and sometimes in Andy’s. “Tunes Filled the Rooms” was under consideration for a while as the title of the second album by The Near Myths.
“Meg” in Verse 3 was part of the late seventies scene in Greensboro; she was a small, lively, pixyish character, like one of the “Peanuts” gang come to life. Andy adapted one of her poems into his song “Salmon,” on Words to Burn, which contains the lines “You said something ‘bout the river and you left town,” and “The Salmon is the river of no return.” And of course the phrase “words to burn” did become the title of The Near Myths’ second album. NC98 is a highway in central North Carolina that runs from Durham across Falls Lake, through Wake Forest, and then into Highway 64 in Nash County. It could have been part of a backroads route from Greensboro to the Outer Banks. The Salmon, by the way, is a real river in central Idaho that is known as “the river of no return.”
The first two lines of the fourth verse take us down Walker Avenue, a few blocks west of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Logan’s Bar was one of several student hangouts on Walker Avenue, across the street from the legendary Pickwick Bar, a notable gathering place for writers, intellectuals, and bohemians. Logan’s was your basic dive bar, a dim, dusty, crowded place with several pool tables. Noted author and UNC-G professor Fred Chappell occasionally tended bar at Logan’s, which, in addition to “nickel draft,” featured sporadic literary readings. (Katy says the old Logan’s Bar spot is now occupied by a joint called The Blind Tiger.) Jimmy P. and Clayton are old friends of Andy’s, and were part of a long-running Monday night group that gathered to play poker and watch football on TV. Verse 4 then moves from Logan’s, on Walker Avenue, to West Lee Street, where, in the late 1970s a big circus came to town. The circus came in by train, and as circuses often did when they came to town, held an impromptu parade down West Lee Street to the circus site. Ben remembers watching it with some fellow co-workers from Hot Wax Candle Company, where several of us worked for a time. He says that, besides the elephants, one of the more striking features of the parade was the legendary blond-haired lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big cats. Andy apparently cut class at UNC-G in order to watch the parade. Before its name was changed to UNC-G in 1963, when men were first admitted, the school was known as the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, hence “W.C.”
Unfortunately, nobody can do justice to Andy’s tall-tale version of Murray’s legendary freight-hopping adventure which he sketches in Verse 5. We’ve all heard it more than once and laughed ourselves silly each time. The gist of it is that Murray was walking home one fall evening from Logan’s Bar (Beeler was a barkeep there). Murray was cold, not having on much of a jacket, and as he approached the railroad tracks, he heard a train coming. The train was going slow, and since the tracks ran by Murray’s house, he figured he’d hop the freight, like he’d always heard, catching a quick ride to his house where he’d jump off. Unfortunately for Murray, the train immediately began to pick up speed and by the time it got to his house, he was afraid to jump off. The train didn’t stop until it got to Danville, Virginia, 40 miles northeast of Greensboro. A nearly frozen Murray stiffly clambered down from the flatcar in the pre-dawn hours in Danville and used his last dime to call Andy from a payphone to come pick him up.
By the summer of 1980, neither Ben nor Jim lived in Greensboro. Jim had gotten married and he and his wife Laurie had moved to Memphis, and Ben had gone back to his home state of South Carolina. Consequently, documentation and elucidation of the great fire of Dillard Street described in verse six is lacking. Presumably this event occurred sometime in the 1980s, pretty much as Andy narrates it. One can’t help but appreciate the clever rock and roll allusion to “Stairway to Heaven” in the last line.
Verse seven recounts Andy’s first encounter with Teep, who traveled to Greensboro with Ben to see the Grateful Dead at the Greensboro Coliseum on April 30, 1981. The verse is replete with musical references, beginning with Ben and Teeper “truckin’ through,” an allusion to the Dead’s signature song “Truckin’.” On this particular verse, by the way, that's Ben playing the acoustic guitar, and Teep playing the electric. Line two continues the musical motif with a reference to Graham Nash’s second solo album, Wild Tales, which they listened to while there, and then another reference to the Dead with the phrase “long, strange trip.” Rough Mix indeed was history, having played its final gig in late 1979, while “new Myths revealed to me” most likely refers to Andy’s musical “meeting of the minds” with Teep on this visit, during which they melded completely while spontaneously playing the harmony lead guitar figure from David Crosby’s song “Page 43,” mentioned at the end of this verse. The original recording of “Dillard Street” contains a musical quote of the eight-note “Page 43” guitar harmony figure at the end of this verse, but we were never able to get permission from David Crosby’s publisher so we regretfully omitted it from the final version.
The last verse is pretty much a repeat of parts of verses 1 and 2, with the addition of references to four more members of the song’s large cast of characters, Jeff and Donnis, long-time friends last seen at Andy’s funeral, and Joe and Bobby, who were old-time music fanatics and friends of us all. Joe Shelton still lives in Greensboro, and is a regionally acclaimed old-time fiddler and dulcimer player, while Bobby Wagner, originally from Maryland, was a musical gadabout in Greensboro during the late seventies who was basically the fifth member of Rough Mix, often playing mandolin with us.
Well, that’s about it. 706 Dillard Street is long gone. There’s a strip mall there now. Katy, Jane, and Jim toured through the recently razed and renovated neighborhood in the spring of 1998 in Katy’s big car shortly before Jane took a turn for the worse and her spirit left us all behind with a playful thump on the head to Katy. We’d seen Andy earlier that evening at a poetry reading Jim did at the Barnes & Noble at Friendly Center. It was a pleasant but slightly awkward reunion, years after the demise of Rough Mix and some years before the birth of The Near Myths. After the reading, Jane, Katy, and Jim settled in at an outside table at a Spanish restaurant at the bottom of the hill on Tate Street below UNC-G that used to be the Belstone Fox, and before that was some other restaurant where Katy first met Frank in the mists of pre-history. We had a lovely meal, lingering over a couple of bottles of red wine and remarking how in a college town things change all the time but nothing ever really changes. Then we climbed into Katy’s car, put on some tunes, and cruised the old UNC-G turf once more, eventually winding up on Dillard Street.
* * *
Tragedy and loss are an inescapable part of living and aging, but it sometimes seems that The Near Myths have dealt with more than their share. In the summer of 2008, since Ben and Bernadette would be down from Canada visiting Ben’s family in Spartanburg, South Carolina, The Near Myths decided to perform two gigs in Greensboro – August 1, at a downtown restaurant called Solaris, and August 2 at The Flat Iron, the bar where we had held a musical wake for Jane ten years before. Our producer Phil Valera would join us on bass and keyboards, and we were going to practice for several days before the gigs at Katy and Frank’s house in the country outside Greensboro. Katy and Frank, as always, were planning an elaborate menu of food and drink for the week, and Katy made the arrangements for the gigs.
On Saturday, July 12, 2008, two years and a few days after Andy’s death, Katy called Jim with the unbelievable news that her husband Frank, whom we had known for more than thirty years, had shot and killed himself in their back yard sometime Friday night. In the numbness and shock following Frank’s death, Jim, Ben, and Berna made it to Greensboro for the funeral visitation. We all assumed that the rehearsals and gigs were cancelled as Katy began to deal with her grief. However, after several days of consideration and conferring with her family, Katy made a brave and unexpected decision. “We’ve had all these plans made for so long,” she said. “Frank and I were planning menus the week he died. What am I going to do with myself if we call everything off? Sit around this big old house all alone and cry all day and night? It’ll be hard, but I think it would be better for me if we go ahead with it. I need friends. I need music.” We understood.
And so once again, as it so often had been in the past, music was our balm, our solace, our joy, the glue that held our world together. We took over the hosting duties from Katy and even managed some memorable meals – the long, unhurried hours of cooking and eating with wine and conversation we had always loved when visiting Frank and Katy. The gigs went well. Katy had an occasional moment of doubt about performing live in such an emotionally fragile state, but in the end she managed it with grace and beauty. The practice sessions were the main thing, though. Yes, there were tears and difficult moments, but there was also the old spiritual camaraderie of the music – the connection of tight harmonies, the certainty of knowing your part, the communion of old friends with a long history and a shared passion. Angels and spirits whispered in our choruses, inspired our laughter. All night long tunes filled the rooms for free . . .
(TAKE ME BACK TO) DILLARD STREET
(Copyright © 2007 Andy Oglesby)
Come on in and have a seat, take a load off of your feet
Take me back to Dillard Street again
Pockets full of nothing but guitar picks, in the summer of ’76
Me and Spotter and fifty cents moved in
Take me back to Dillard Street
Take these things away from me
1) I’ll be on the roof if you need to see . . . me
2) I’ll be on the porch playin’ Jack’s guitar
3) I’ll be on the bench with Nadine
4) I’m across the street at Curlee’s
Take me back to Dillard Street
Take these things away
Bring your guitar and something to eat, Twin Cheese from down the street
(Dip it, Ralph!) Flatcar’s got some Texas Pete downstairs
Bruce and Laura, Ike and Lee, Jane and Katy and Jim and me
Late at night tunes filled the rooms for free
No hard feelings, just say “Thanks,” Meg took a job on the Outer Banks
Six-pack drive down Highway 98
Left behind some words to burn, something ‘bout the river of no return
Never knew what lessons we might learn
Nickel draft at Logan’s Bar, pumping brakes on Clayton’s car
Monday nights made Jimmy P. the star
Pachyderms with giant feet, trunk to tail down West Lee Street
Cuttin’ class at W.C. again
Sometime back around ’81, Murray hopped a flatcar and the fun begun
Headed north and running out of sun
He was just walking home from Beeler’s bar, caught a free ride but it went too far
Danville shining bright beneath the stars
Early one cold Sunday morn, Spotter woke up, had the sense to warn
“Something don’t smell right, I can tell”
Hobo he don’t like no snow, he camped out on the landing below
Tried to build a stairwell to hell
Ben and Teeper came truckin’ through, ’81 maybe ‘82
Wild Tales of a long strange trip come true
Rough Mix was history, new Myths revealed to me
I remember “Page 43”
Come on in and have a seat, take a load off of your feet
Take me back to Dillard Street again
Jeff and Donnis, Joe and Bobby, Jane and Katy and Jim and me
All night long tunes filled the rooms for free