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Loving Where it Hurts the Most

Bill Mallonee has been called one of the top 100 songwriters in the world, but an audience is hard to find.

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With its pressed tin roof, scuffed wood floor, and the sort of chairs that make you glad the lights are dim, Cincinnati's Northside Tavern looks an unlikely spot to see the world's 65th-greatest living songwriter. It's two hours past the posted showtime, and Mallonee sits on a chair near the door and tunes a duct-taped guitar as the sun falls behind the scruffy mix of vegan restaurants, Somali groceries, and Buddhist centers outside.

"Are you here to see Bill?" I ask the only woman who appears to be waiting for the music.

She looks toward the bay window that serves as a stage, a mirror ball dangling improbably overhead.

"Who's Bill?" she replies.

In June 2006, Paste magazine ranked the hundred finest living songwriters and put Mallonee at 65th place—ahead of Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and Michael Jackson. Mallonee gained some prominence in the 1990s as the lead writer and singer for Vigilantes of Love, but these days the brutal economics of the road have stripped him of a backing band; the entire tour operation now consists of Mallonee, his wife, and their black Scion.

At the Cincinnati bar, only a handful of patrons pay attention to the music. But Mallonee sings in signature style anyway, eyes closed and throat shaking out the words as though each syllable must first be wrested from the bone. Veins bulge on his neck, tendons pop on his arms.

He performs an abbreviated set interspersed with stage patter, playing the room as though an invisible audience fills the bar and benches. In reality, the clientele bellies up to the bar, talks, and drinks. A few applaud after songs, then go back to their beers.

Mallonee's songs about mental illness, marriage, Vietnam vets, loneliness, and the whole "cloth ...

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