Sunday, January 16, 2022

"While you're there, do it"

The sad reality of Rachel Nagy's death was difficult to wake up to today. I can't imagine what her family, close friends, and loved ones are feeling. My condolences go out to all of them. I never knew Nagy personally, but anyone who heard and watched her sing felt as if they were an intimate of hers. Her voice was sublime: she could move from vulnerable, to bad ass, to mournful in the same song, sometimes in the same line. Onstage she was fun, funny, boisterous, coy, sexy, and gleefully rude (sometimes in the same song). A few months ago, I complied a 740-plus playlist of Detroit-area bands for a cross country drive. Over the course of many hours of that trip, it seemed as if Nagy and her band the Detroit Cobras popped up every few songs, grinning emcees to the party, hard-won emissaries of the Detroit rock and roll ethos that they represented so well. I couldn't have asked for better company on that drive.

The last time I saw the Cobras was in 2017, fittingly in a small bar, the Cobras' native environment. Nagy was in fine shape that night; to watch her longtime friend and cohort Mary Ramirez onstage with her was to witness a sisterly, at times even motherly, concern for Nagy, as Ramirez would listen closely—with studied cool—to every line Nagy muttered, or bellowed, between songs, there to reel in her friend a bit if she went too far. I was drinking at the bar before the Cobras hit the stage that night, and Nagy was a couple stools down, chatting with fans. I regret now that I didn't approach her to tell her how much how singing, personality, and stage presence meant to all of us.

This is what I wrote about that show:

A few weeks later, I drove fifty or so miles past farmland on quiet, rural Route 38 through DeKalb and Kane Counties to see the Detroit Cobras at Brauerhouse, a small pub and eatery in suburban Lombard. The Cobras’ patented tipsy strut through obscure, bad ass rock-and-roll songs was warmly received by a decent-sized crowd. It’s well known that you roll the dice when you see the Cobras: other times when I’ve seen the band, lead singer Rachel Nagy, she of the superbly emotive and impossibly timeless voice, had staggered onto and eventually off the stage. At Brauerhouse she was all there: confident if a bit self-conscious in the opening numbers, forgetting some of the words to “Out of this World” (“Because I’m old!” she grinned at the crowd), pausing at one point to indulge herself with a face-bury into the ample cleavage of a besotted fan at the front of the stage. She was fully committed to each bracing song, from the rocking to the “slow skate” ballads, from the silly stuff to the momentous. Whether she’s husky close to the mic or rearing back her head and belting from the back of her throat, Nagy inhabits the songs she sings, renewing each of them out of their obscure past, and the decades-old songs feel as relevant as the contemporary rock and roll played over the PA before the set. 

The rest of the band were loose, in good humor throughout the night, clearly enjoying themselves and the proximity of the tiny crowd. (A bucket of iced-down Miller High Life’s always helps.) The intimacy of the club encouraged banter among the band members and with the crowd; we were all eavesdropping. Songs were spread over the band’s several albums, and a new number, the terrific “Feel Good,” rocked the joint. The Cobras play only vintage R&B and soul covers (with the exception of the original “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)” from 2004’s Baby; “‘Hot dog’ means ‘slut’ in Detroit,” Nagy helpfully explained to us), and they play eternal chord changes and song structures so lovingly and with such loose, informal pleasure that they give the impression of summoning the crowd to crash on the floor with them as they rifle through their great album and 45s collection. At Brauerhouse that night, such an invitation seemed plausible. The phrase I Know Where You’re Coming From is emblazoned on the band’s drum set. I know exactly where the Cobras come from, too, but on this night they showed that old rock-and-roll songs can sound like they were written yesterday, in the van. 

Watching the Detroit Cobras in a small joint weeks after seeing Green Day in front of tens of thousands was less a study in contrasts than in alternate universes. As professionally rousing as Green Day was, exhorting a baseball park to rise, stay risen, and cheer, the Cobras played the room; the band was indivisible from the room. Near the end of the set, Nagy ordered a “fire brigade” to bring her a Grey Goose and soda, a feat accomplished with enthusiastic brio by a line of well-oiled fans; the bar, where before the show I’d been two stools down from Nagy, who was chatting amiably with a couple fans, was maybe a dozen feet from the stage; I saw band members alight from their van out back and duck into and out of a fluorescent-bathed hallway at the end of which was their dressing room and probably also the bar’s stock room. Before the show I practically leaned over Cobra guitarist Mary Ramirez’s shoulder as she tuned her instrument and then taped down the set lists; earlier, I’d peered into the other guitarist’s case, laying open at the foot of the stage. It was intimate, like reading someone’s diary. Nothing can replace the nearness of you, rock and roll.
Nagy's voice was ours—by ours I mean the rabid community of lifer fans of under-the-radar bands, musicians who write, or in the case of the Cobras, bring to life, the songs that star our interior Top 40, the alternate reality we fans live in where rock and roll has vital currency. Longtime Cobras friend, songwriter, musician, and producer Greg Cartwright—a pillar of that aforementioned community who wrote the touching tribute on Instagram confirming Nagy's death—said this in 2007: ""The thing is Rachel's voice. When they asked me to help them, that's the reason I'm doing it. She's definitely blessed. Someone with those kinds of natural chops is refreshing, especially when you can look at people on television shows like American Idol and see all these kids. They've studied and they've mimicked every vocal trick in the book, but they don't have any natural ability to convey feeling."
Unfortunately, that's what most of the American public wants; they've been tricked into thinking that's what music is. They don't know that music is even a spiritual thing. So when somebody comes along like Rachel who learned nothing—she didn't come from a background where she sang all her life, mimicking this guy or mimicking that person. She just has it.
I wrote years ago about accompanying the Fleshtones on a small Midwest tour in 2001. One morning in Cleveland, I think, I woke up, hung over and sleepless after a long night, and someone somewhere in the house put on the Cobras' fabulous Life, Love and Leaving album, which I hadn't yet heard. Nagy's voice and her fiercely rockin' band poured throughout that house and directly into my bloodstream; I felt as if I'd been given a shot of B-12, so renewing and redemptive were Nagy's pipes. Listening to the Cobras was a healthy regimen, I've always felt.

I'll give the last words to Nagy herself:
It's about feeding off of people. That crowd's energy, it's huge. Nowadays, everyone thinks they're a hipster and ironic, and they want to stand around and analyze what's happening. Get out there and dance. That's the point of live music. Dance around, meet a pretty girl. It's not to stand against the back wall and analyze and write for your stupid blog. Everyone's blogging and taking pictures and they forget to enjoy what they're actually doing. I guess that's more advice for the audience, but the band too. While you're there, do it. Be there. You can talk about the memories later. We only need a couple photographers in the world. We only need a couple writers.



lil m said...

Lovely reminiscence and attempt to express what it meant to be in spell of her self expression... her passing makes us all a lil' worse off, and once again the ugly elephant in the room that goes unmentioned is the painful reality that the greatest, most meaningful moments in art, if not ecstatic joy itself, are oft so closely found in the vexing vortex of self destruction.

Anonymous said...

What was cause of death?