HARLEM, MANHATTAN/JOPLIN, MO: Sometimes you go looking for a story. And then, every now and again, a story finds you. I think John Lennon put it best when he said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
You may have heard about his town. It was recently decimated by a massive tornado; one of the worst in more than fifty years [see some of the unforgettable photos of the devastation here]. Or maybe you’ve forgotten by now. It was in the headlines for a while but not anymore. Along with the 24 hour news cycle, we’ve all gotten on with our busy lives: Always another terrorist act, YouTube video, depressing economic bombshell, or political scandal in the headlines tomorrow to steal your attention, right? Surely those folks must be fine by now.
And why, you may ask, are you reading this on SonicScoop? Who is Ross Gipson and why should you care? Because, ultimately this a story about music, New York and what New Yorkers do best, which is pulling together when the going gets tough and helping their fellow man. If like most people, you too have forgotten the details of how Joplin, Missouri made the headlines, here’s a little refresher in Ross’s own words:
“I am getting ready to move to North Carolina to attend law school and have been living with my friend Sean Poindexter and his wife Amanda until that time. When you live where I do tornadoes are something you deal with every year, and most people I know have always had a jaded attitude toward them.
“For the most part, they are isolated things that form in fields and tear up farms. So when they issued a tornado warning that day we weren’t overly concerned. The sirens went off on our side of town and the Poindexters and I gathered our cats and went to their bathroom, which was the safest place since it was an inner room. The reason we went is because the radio said that a tornado had actually been spotted outside of Joplin.
“When there’s one on the ground near you then you should always take shelter. So we did but we still weren’t that concerned. Like I said, this has happened before. We sat in the bathroom and actually joked about it. This was the day after the supposed Rapture was to happen that the crazy preacher predicted. I remember Sean saying, ‘I guess this is the Rapturnado.’ We all chuckled.
“Then the radio started coming in with reports that a tornado was actually entering Joplin and had been spotted at a location a block away from us (This report actually turned out to be inaccurate. The original storm was so big that it had been spotted from a camera at that location, but we didn’t know that). The mood became very somber.
“Suddenly my thoughts became very existential. It was one thing to be in a situation where tornadoes were around you. It was quite another to actually be in one. I thought, ‘So this is how it ends? Sitting on a toilet, with the Poindexters, surrounded by cats? Great.’ Within about five minutes the power went out, and we heard the storm roaring through the city. Again, we thought it was a block away from us, so I expected the roof and the walls to start giving away, and I thought I was probably going to die. It sounded exactly how people describe it – like fifty freight trains coming through. We continued to listen to the battery operated radio.
“They sent a reporter out after the storm had passed to survey the damage. He reported as he was driving, and when he got to Rangeline he started screaming: ‘THE WALGREENS IS GONE! HOME DEPOT IS LEVELED! WALMART IS RUBBLE!” It was that report, coupled with reports that St. John’s Hospital had been hit and destroyed, that made me realize this was no small tornado. This was a big one and I was lucky to be alive and to still have a car and a place to live.
“I went outside after the storm passed and two things struck me immediately: First, the smell of sawdust was thick in the air. Second, was the sound of sirens in the distance and the sound of thousands of car alarms going off. It wasn’t until the next day that I actually witnessed the damage firsthand.
“I actually drove what was left of a neighborhood I used to live in around 24th and Pennsylvania. This is the area the high school was in. It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Trees looked like barkless sticks jutting up from the ground, twisted wreckage as far as the eye could see against the back drop of a blank horizon. I instantly thought of all the people I knew in these neighborhoods, of the grocery store that I still shopped at, of how I could have easily been out and about when this storm hit.
“I was lucky. None of my friends or family lost their lives. A few of them lost homes. My friend, Beatrice Haase, lost her friend and co-worker at Missouri Southern State University, Professor Jose Alvarez. And her daughter Victoria DuBuis lost a good friend named Will Norton who had just graduated high school and was on his way back from graduation with his father when their car was carried up by the storm. I spent four days with this family, and it was difficult to see them going through this anguish. It once again showed me how fortunate I was, but also made me sad that I couldn’t do more.”
In the end, 160 people lost their lives, more than 8000 homes were destroyed and 211 businesses were lost.
Joplin, MO, Meet NY, NY
A few weeks after the tornadoes hit, while the news was still fresh here in New York, singer Chris “Breeze” Barczynski, whom I had played with for some time in a band we had together, Citizens Of Contrary Knowledge, approached me about a project to help the people of Joplin.
He said he wanted to record a version of the Pretenders’ song, “I’ll Stand By You” and asked if I would be into producing it. The idea was to send it up online, ask people to give to this cause and donate the proceeds directly to the folks in Joplin. It sounded like a good thing so I said yes.
I picked up the phone and called some of my talented musician friends to see if they would be into lending their support to our effort. All responded with a resounding YES! From a production standpoint, one would be hard-pressed to improve much on The Pretenders’ classic arrangement so we took a decidedly more acoustic, Americana tack with our approach, which was performed as a duet with another great singer we both knew, Christine Tambakis. The song came together very nicely and every time we needed a particular musical element, it just seemed that the right person was there to say yes. It was kind of effortless.
So in that spirit, I posed a funny question as we were completing tracking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we reached out to mix guru, Bob Clearmountain, and see if he would want to come onboard to help out our cause and make this effort the best it can possibly be?” Aside from an incredible discography of some of the biggest hit songs and albums over the last thirty plus years, he also mixed the original hit for the Pretenders.
Well, in that “F*ck it, why not” moment I emailed his manager, told her our story and flat out asked if Bob would possibly be into it. A few days later, she wrote back to say that if we could be flexible with the mix date, he might actually consider it but he wanted to hear a rough mix first…(damn, really?) So we crossed our fingers and sent off a rough mix to him.
To our great surprise, they wrote back around the Fourth of July and said he liked our arrangement and that he was onboard to mix it. We were floored. But the caveat was we would have to wait a few weeks as he was finishing up Bruce’s new record (yeah, that guy from New Jersey). What do you say when Bob Clearmountain says he wants to work with you but you have to wait until he finishes up with the Boss? You wait!!!
Experience “I’ll Stand by You for Joplin” produced by Rainbow Bridge NYC.
Way too Late – or Right on Time?
So we used that time to start reaching out and planting seeds with some key connected folks we knew who could help our message spread. Not surprisingly, some people responded by asking the question, “Isn’t it a little late now? It’s already been like more than a month (now almost four!) since this was news. A lot of people are already helping. Who’s going to care about your idea?”
(Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?!)
Surely, these folks must be out at Best Buy buying their new replacement plasma TVs by now, right? And that’s when the lightbulb went on to illuminate our mission: After the news trucks have all left and the major disaster relief corporations have done their part to help stabilize a recovering community by rebuilding some of its basic infrastructure, what happens to the folks who are staring down a very long road asking how they’re ever going to rebuild their lives to some level of normalcy? Who is there to rebuild their hopes and dreams?
And so our project, Rainbow Bridge NYC, was officially born. Musicians bridging the gap in the aftermath. Checking off the Joplin “Things to do” list one situation, one soul at a time. It was our way of saying to the folks in Joplin that 10 years ago on September 11th, when we New Yorkers found ourselves in the headlines during a time of major crisis, the world responded with a huge outpouring of love and support. It helped to pull us through a tragedy no one could ever have anticipated.
We wanted to say to the people of Joplin that, “Today, NYC has got your back and we’re going to help remind the world that you could still use a little help.”
Our approach is to build this awareness by making people a part of the story, rather than passive observers. We began to seek out artists in Joplin to let them know what we were building in New York on their behalf and asked if they would be interested in becoming a part of our production to help establish that two way communication between us. Music would be the bridge.
Building the Rainbow Bridge – Meet Ross Gipson
That’s when I happened upon Ross Gipson, searching Google for singers in Joplin. He had a song he wrote, “Wounded Town,” that he has up on iTunes and was donating the sales proceeds to the relief effort in Joplin. He had a different look about him, and the high voice I heard in the song made me wonder if it was him or someone else singing. It turns out his answer is one hell of a story that began long before his town ever became headline news.
I wrote to him and introduced myself, which began an email conversation that painted for me a firsthand picture of the situation on the ground in Joplin. Ross opened my eyes to a tiny slice of life somewhere out there in that “real America” we sometimes hear about from the concrete confines of our great big city.
Ross Gipson is 31 years old and didn’t exactly have your run-of-the-mill childhood, as it turns out.
“When I was six years old I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The doctors put my chance of living five years in the single digits. The way they treated leukemia and other cancers in 1986, as compared to now is very different. The best metaphor I can give you is that I went through bloodletting compared to what people go through today.”
“Growing up was hard. I was smaller than all the other kids. I couldn’t run as fast, kick the soccer ball as far, or do the other stuff kids my age did. I had friends and the kids at school were nice. They didn’t tease me for looking different or being different but I never really felt like a normal kid completely.”
Ross began his musical journey playing drums in 5th grade because he didn’t have the lungs or lips to play a horn or a saxophone, and he always had a knack for rhythm. He started writing songs around his senior year of high school, which is also about the time that he discovered Robert Johnson and started exploring blues music in general.
He cites Bob Dylan as the king of lyric writing and the catalyst for his true journey into the craft of songwriting. Other influences include Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Ben Folds, The Mountain Goats, Dan Bern, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, “and anyone else who writes a good song.” It turns out there’s also a strong visual component to Ross’s art.
“Up until my senior year I wanted to be an artist. Ever since I was old enough to pick up a pencil I have drawn pictures. I still draw today, though now I think I am better at songwriting than art. After I started writing songs and I noticed people starting to like them my fantasy became the stage.” But it turns out that performing didn’t come so easily for Ross.
“I have small hands to begin with. And I have joint issues in my hands so playing a guitar is nearly impossible. I play ukulele because it’s small enough that I can at least play most of the chords. I also don’t have the lung capacity most people have, so my vocals tend to be on the quiet side, which makes running sound on me an issue unless we have good mics. And sometimes I just don’t have the energy to do it, which is why I have been exploring song publication rather than becoming a performer.”
So I asked Ross what he would most like to accomplish if he could do more with his music.
“Three things, I think. First, I want people to hear my songs and draw something from them they can relate to. When you can make an experience a shared experience then that opens the door to understanding, and then you’re really communicating.
“Second, and this is going to sound selfish but it ties into my third thing, I want my songs to help me make a name for myself. I want Ross Gipson to be a name people associate with songwriting because…
“Third, I want people to define me through my accomplishments as a musician and songwriter, and not as the guy who had cancer, or who looks and sounds different. I want the Ross Gipson story to be about music.”
When he asked why we wanted to pursue this project for Joplin I explained to Ross that we felt a certain compulsion to give something back and show some of our own love and support, considering what the world had shown New York in our time of need. Hell, after Katrina there was also a bit of “Never again, not in our backyard,” considering how badly America handled that travesty.
Said Ross, “I don’t know anyone specifically who went to New York and helped during 9/11. I do know that both sets of grandparents, my mother and father, myself, and other members of my family contributed to Red Cross during the recovery efforts. I know many, many good people who live in New York City, and my thoughts were entirely with them throughout that time. It’s good to know those good people are thinking of me during my city’s bad time.”
Quite contrary to the typically never-ending artists’ life struggle for recognition of their craft, tell someone that you are putting your time and artistic passion into creating a new movement, all with the goal of helping other people through music and suddenly the response is, “How can I help? How can I be involved?” The experience so far has been nothing short of transformative.
Here’s Where YOU Come In
So now you, the reader, have a choice. Joplin, Missouri is officially old news. So much has happened since then to fill up the headlines and our Inboxes that it could very easily disappear from your mind the second after you read this and who could blame you?
I mean you’re busy. You’ve got a life. Who has the time? And you could choose to leave it that way with “them” somewhere over there and “you” over here at a safe distance from caring. But these folks in Joplin, they still have a very long road ahead of them.
In fact, I just spent a recent weekend in New York playing tour guide to Rick Castor, band director for Joplin High School, which was another casualty of the storm. We’re working with him to help replace some of the many band instruments lost to the tornado, among other issues. He had been invited with five of his students to be on “Huckabee” to tell their story and jam with Mike.
All the students had lost their homes. One lost both his parents, was himself found technically dead but ultimately survived with a broken back and much more. He couldn’t even go to his parents’ funeral because he was laid up in the hospital. Doctors took out three lower vertebrae and replaced them with metal rods. Miraculously, he was walking with us around the city three months later. Tell us again about that really stressful day you’re having today?
Or you could choose the contrary path and get involved. It’s a similar path those heroic firefighters chose back on that tragic Tuesday morning, 10 years ago on September 11th, when everyone was running out of the burning towers to save themselves and they chose instead to run inside. It was all about putting others before themselves.
In this case, your choice is not life-threatening. But it’s no less important in the grand scheme of things. It’s about becoming aware, which begins by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I hope if you are reading this, you will come onboard too and join our effort and that you will help spread this message. Our initial efforts will be focused on specific music-related causes in Joplin, which you can find out about on our new website, http://www.rainbowbridgenyc.com and our Facebook community page.
Some amazing things have already conspired to help us move this ball forward but that’s for another article. In the meantime, please check out the song on our website. We’re feeling pretty good about it. It did not suck to have Bob Clearmountain mix it either. We would love to know what you think.
If Ross Gipson taught me anything it’s this: John Lennon was right. You wake up one morning and the life you thought you knew, that you were going to get on with living that day just changed forever. And all you can do is try to figure out what comes next because nothing, from that moment forward, resembles what you planned it to be.
So here’s your chance to do something you were absolutely not planning to do after reading a SonicScoop article. Get involved. Get informed. Make a difference. Feel good.
NYC-based producer/artist/engineer/more Mark Hermann spends his life in the professional service of music. He has toured the world with rock legends, produced hit artists, and licensed music for numerous TV/film placements. Hermann also owns a recording studio in a 100-year old Harlem Brownstone. Keep up with him at his homepage.