I’m sort of playing “navigation lady” with my friend Benj Clarke. We’re both on our cell phones with Benj trying to locate my secluded street in Westwood.
It doesn’t take him long to figure out how to get here, but why would it? He was the circulation manager at CityBeat for a number of years, so he knows Cincinnati’s streets pretty well.
We were coworkers some years back. I was in the accounting department at CityBeat with the circulation department right across the hall. Benj and I would sometimes talk about our love for music.
He loves The Beatles, as do I, and I could always tell that music is where his heart is — that being a full time musician was his dream. That dream is now a reality.
Benj, along with his girlfriend Sarah, is back visiting his hometown from out west. He’s now a successful bass player in California.
Benj introduces me to Sarah. I suggest going to LaRosa’s, thinking that she hasn’t yet been to this Cincinnati icon. Turns out I’m right. I haul my old bones into the back seat of their car, and we head off to Boudinot Avenue.
When he was living in Cincinnati, Benj worked at CityBeat by day and played his gigs at night. He also hosted a radio show on WAIF-FM called SpinCincinnati that featured local music. Besides that, he was the talent coordinator for a Northern Kentucky cable access television show called City Nights, where local bands would come every week to play their music.
“Both my radio show and my position at City Nights went on for years,” Benj says. “I was immersed in the scene, so Cincinnati music is still in my blood.”
He was having a good time, but Benj wasn’t living his dream. That changed when Jackson Browne came to town.
As the waitress brings us our lunch order, I ask Benj to tell me the story again. I look over at Sarah, who’s smiling. I think she wants to hear it again, too.
“On Saturday, Oct. 2, 2004, I was killing time with a few friends at Mike’s Music next to Bogart’s,” Benj says. “As we were on our way out, I noticed Jackson Browne walking in. After some deliberation on the sidewalk, I left my friends to take a chance on saying hello to the famous guy. Turns out JB was in town with his band to perform at the Taft with Bonnie Raitt and Keb Mo to support the Kerry campaign and rock the Ohio vote. He was at Mike’s with his bass player, and the three of us got to discussing politics, music and media.
“When it came time to get to the theater for the sound check, Jackson absently asked if someone would call him a taxi. I seized the moment and offered to give them a ride downtown, citing my cab-driving experience as an assurance that they’d be delivered safely. The image of Jackson Browne in the backseat of my car, as we tool through Over-the-Rhine, is a good one for me.”
When they arrived at the Taft Theatre, Browne invited Benj backstage, where he spent the day hanging with the band and crew. The experience awakened something inside him.
“I was confronted with the part of myself that wanted that life more than anything else, and always had, but I wasn’t confident enough to declare it fully,” Benj says. “The main thing that struck me was that these guys were so completely normal, not having any more charisma, talent or superhero powers than me or anyone else I knew. In that awareness, I had no more excuses to avoid stepping fully into authenticity. And I was given a mantra: California.”
During the following 12 months, Benj’s life changed here in Cincinnati with a serious relationship breakup and the end of some long-standing engagements. While it was painful and upsetting, he thinks his universe was in a “cleaning condition” to break away from his hometown.
“I packed everything that would fit in my old Mercedes, barely enough room for me and my dog, and left Cincinnati on Oct. 2, 2005,” Benj says, “a year to the day from when I first met Jackson Browne.”
Benj is now a full-time musician playing with such acts as Larisa Stow & Shakti Tribe, the Hani Naser Band, Jennifer Corday and many others. Simply put, he’s making it.
With our lunch at LaRosa’s over, I look at Sarah — who’s also a musician — and ask if she liked the veggie pizza she ordered. She says she did.
Sarah’s a quiet girl, but I think a good match for Benj. They look so cute holding hands while eating their lunch.
Benj doesn’t need me or a navigation lady to get me back to my house after lunch. During the ride, I ask him if he regrets leaving Cincinnati. Benj says no.
“I cannot overstate my fondness for my hometown,” he says. “I have so many great friends from so many different social circles, but many of my friends here tend to keep their dreams politely tethered, realistically tempered. I don’t want to say that big dreams can’t grow in Cincinnati, but for me the signposts of expansion pointed west.
“I love my life there and my place in Long Beach with Sarah. We celebrate our little victories and navigate the bumpy roads just like everybody does.”
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]