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.