John Jeter’s Rockin’ a Hard Place

30 12 2012

Many people have great stories that will never be heard because they don’t have the skill to put their memories into history. John Jeter doesn’t have that problem. He’s a  facile writer with a respect for dates, names, and the memorable anecdotes found in his fine book, Rockin’  a Hard Place, a cautionary memoir that crosses and recrosses the counterintuitive boundaries of business and art.images

John and his wife, Kathy, run The Handlebar, a listening room, a pub, and a cafe in Greenville, SC. They both left lucrative and coveted newspaper jobs in the mid ’90s because the business had exhausted their interest. A new job, a new location, a new challenge were on the menu. They ordered con brio without looking back. They’re served a multi-course, life-altering meal from the karmic kitchen.

Nick Lowe’s dad gave his son some relevant advice: Love something? Keep it as a hobby.

John’s love of music and the passion to evangelize to a waiting audience led him into a string of business pratfalls. John brushed aside some great advice from Livingston Taylor, who performed at The Handlebar’s opening night: “Never book anyone just because you’re a fan.” Disregard at your own financial risk, the warning went from a longtime professional. Taylor was right.

Rockin’ a Hard Place is not so much a book about music and musicians, though both are at the center of the story and John’s heart. It’s more about the daily grind of putting on a show and making a living in an environment that can crush the soul of any self-respecting club owner. John subtly brings a reporter’s nature to focus his storyline: brief but not overly detailed backgrounds on musicians and their work; the inner workings of city governments and the interminable meetings they entail; dates, times, names. These are the bread and butter of journalists and the unavoidable bane of business owners.

His day to day working life more often than not consisted of, as he puts it, “mission-distracting, anxiety-inducing, and totally unnecessary bullshit.”images-2

Such as? The ceaselessly complaining neighbors, the ice machine that his landlord says unnecessarily jacks his water bill up, the Lightfinger Louis’s who take anything not nailed down, the heavy cloud of interminable debt, the crowd-anemic concerts with big name headliners, and the shows by bands you’ve never heard of that packed the joint.

This is what the customers generally don’t see and don’t want to have to deal with.

That’s what ticket prices are for, they’d say. They’d be right, but someone picks up all these details so that art can flourish. John and Kathy are two that care enough to do it right.

What do fans know? Mostly, a lot. Often, nothing. Like the guy who stomped out of a Joan Baez show at The Handlebar and protested “I had no idea that she was so … political.”

Rockin’ a Hard Place offers wonderful vignettes of the music fans who often drift into and out of the Handlebar. Make sure you read all the way to the end, where you get a dose of Herb, the lighting guy. He’s been around, he knows a lot of musicians, he’s been a lot of places, he ran the lights for free if necessary at The Handlebar. Too bad we couldn’t have gotten his memoir too.

Music is at the center of John’s life, for better or worse. It lights his way in often confusing ways in a town where he found himself a stranger baffled by the opposition to simply putting on a show. It’s tellling that Greenville voted the local IHOP as Best International Restaurant the year The Handlebar opened.

He’s written a cracking good book about taking the musical good word to the public and wanting people to enjoy music as much as he does. If you’re a music fan or a just trying to run a small business, you’ll find much to enjoy here.