Sam Lovullo–An appreciation

I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.

I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.

Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.

And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.

But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.

I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.

In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.

And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.

People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.

Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.

Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.

Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”

“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”

John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.

John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.

Houston’s horror: We all got it coming

There’s a line, one of many, that sticks out in my mind from having watched Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven so many times.

It comes near the end, after the Schofield Kid marvels, with surprised self-loathing, that they succeeded in their bounty hunter mission.

“Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming,” the Kid, rationalizing his killing, tells Eastwood’s Will Munny.

Munny’s stone cold reply: “We all have it coming, kid.”

I’ve seen some comments on social media from people who, while appreciating the horror of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, point to Texas Republican legislators who voted against emergency funds for New York-area victims of Hurricane Sandy and suggest that now they deserve same. Indeed, all but one Texas Republican in Congress voted just four years ago against $50.5 billion in relief funds for Hurricane Sandy and now New York and New Jersey lawmakers have rightly assailed them, especially Sen. Ted Cruz, for their hypocrisy.

Texas, of course, is a red state, and I myself might be tempted to say Texans got it coming for helping elect a man with such disdain for the law, women, people of color, science, safety regulations, environmental protection, and so on and on and on. But not only were they hardly alone, Harvey hardly cared who voted for who, and I’m sure all those who got hit the hardest were not unanimously of the Trump voter demographic and couldn’t afford to live on high ground, let alone get back on their feet without massive help from their more fortunate fellow Americans.

I’ll concede that it is getting harder and harder to feel part of the united states. But really, if you weren’t hit by Harvey, Sandy, Katrina or any other of the big bad names, not to mention devastating unnamed earthquakes, tornadoes, fires and droughts, it’s only a matter of time, so long as we all keep wasting it out of greed, irresponsibility, ignorance, and the same disregard if not utter contempt for nature and the planet that Trump and his supporters represent and promote.

Unforgiven, for sure.

Reflections on Nick Ashford, Part 20

I always come out to L.A. around third week of August, so it’s no big coincidence that I’m on the plane now, 9:10 a.m. ET, Aug. 22, six years to the day that I was flying back from L.A., during which time Nick Ashford died.

I knew it was coming, since Liz Rosenberg had called me before I left with the news that it was imminent. I’ve written about my thoughts on the flight elsewhere in this series, I’m sure–meaning, I’m pretty sure–and how when I called my voicemail upon landing was instructed to come straight to the house, which I did, in shorts and t-shirt, luggage in tow.

Every night of Aug. 22 now I tweet “Nick Ashford lives,” only this night, nine hours ago as I write this, just after midnight, I was immediately echoed poetically by Nicole Ashford, for whom her father was “always there in some form, always there pushing me on, never forgotten never gone.”

Accompanying her post was a photo of a joyful Nick practically dancing ecstatically behind toddler Nicole, gleefully riding away on her tricycle–so Nick: never happier than when beholding the happiness of others.

My eyes are welling up now, having gone back to copy those lines of Nicole’s and contemplate the picture some more. It only stands to reason that I love being around Nicole, and her mom and sister, of course. And other Friends of Nick. Such a wonderful thing to have in common, to cherish. To share.

For indeed, forever, Nick Ashford lives.

The late, great ‘Wild Man of Borneo’ Eddie Hunt


At Five Points Academy, from left: Simon Burgess, Barry Danielian, Tim Waid, Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje and Eddie Hunt.

I went back to Madison last week in what has become an annual July visit to see my mother—she won’t read this so I can say she’s 95 and still driving—and celebrate my 65th and talk about old age with the few friends I have left there who are still alive.

Speaking of which, I drove to Milwaukee last Sunday to see Elvis Costello and had lunch with dear friend Jim Liban, the legendary blues harmonica player I haven’t seen in 20, maybe 30 years since he lived briefly in Nashville playing with David Allan Coe, who, coincidentally, I’d seen Thursday night in New York before flying out Friday morning. In catching up, Jim told me that his historic Milwaukee blues-rock band Short Stuff, which I covered extensively back in the late 1970s when I started writing, was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame, and that when it came to getting together all the many musicians who’d played in the band over the years, it turned out that more of them were dead than alive.

“The fact that we survived in and of itself is quite shocking,” Jim said to me, and I needed no explanation.

Most of the people I know or like who die I find out about it on Twitter trends or Facebook posts. Earlier yesterday I saw Eddie Hunt’s name in whatever they call that column on the right of your Facebook page with a line or two encapsulating other people’s posts that I never look at and never turn on the chat function for–being surely the least social social networker. But I’d been thinking of Eddie just the other day and would probably have clicked on it eventually, except that sometime after 9 p.m. I noticed in my notifications one from Simon Burgess: “Simon Burgess shared a link: ‘View Edward Hunt’s Obituary and express….'”

Simon, among other things, is my martial arts teacher, specifically, the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Filipino martial arts. It’s a relatively esoteric art, suffice it to say it’s essentially combat-oriented, bladed weapons-based. Through Simon I met Eddie and numerous other teachers including Leo Gaje, the famed Filipino martial artist whose family originated the system and its grand master, and Tim Waid, who studied for years under Leo and heads the Pekiti organization that Simon is affiliated with at Five Points Academy in Chinatown.

Simon and Eddie were both certified Pekiti instructors under both Leo and Tim.

“Instructors and Friends, I have to sadly tell you of the death of Mataas na Guro [master instructor] Eddie Hunt,” Tim announced via Facebook, reporting that Eddie had been found dead early in the morning by his girlfriend. Speaking for all who knew him, he added: “I loved Eddie and he was my Brother. Right now I am at a loss of more words, I just wish I could have done something to prevent this way too early loss.”

Tim recalled how Eddie had actually introduced him to both Simon and Barry Danielian, another master instructor, not to mention a star jazz-pop trumpet player who’s worked extensively with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Bruce Springsteen. Barry’s was one of many personal messages rapidly filling the Facebook feeds from Pekiti-Tirsia family friends, feeds that kept filling out as the night wore on.

I messaged Barry directly immediately.

“Just gutted,” he responded. “Feel like someone punched me in the throat. Just spoke w him last week to make plans to hang next week.”

It was apparently heart failure, Barry said. Eddie was 54.

I should note here something about not only Eddie, but Barry, Simon, Tim and Leo—and all the many other martial arts masters I’ve met through them and Five Points. They’re the nicest, most caring and dedicated people in the world. What distinguished Eddie was his usual long hair and hangdog expression, though it was more of a big, weary puppy face, I’d say. Indeed, Eddie was far more likely to lick and slobber all over your face out of happiness to see you than rabidly bite your head off–which he most certainly could do just as easily.

But Tim really nailed what made Eddie the guy you counted on to be there at Tim’s seminars: “Those of you who knew him remember that he was truly the life of the party. He brought laughter like no one else, honest, fun laughter that was truly recognized when he was not with us at that moment.”

That was really it. No matter Eddie’s experience in martial arts and ability as a fighter, he was one hell of a funny guy, and to use an appropriate idiom, played it to the hilt. He’d stumble into Tim’s seminars late—he probably had a job, though I like to think he overslept—make a few frivolous comments and crack everyone up, Tim included.

Tim, by the way, is the most serious and focused martial artist and instructor, who can make mincemeat out of you if you’re dumb enough to blink. He’s also about the sweetest human being you can imagine, and clearly loved Eddie’s irreverent disruptions as much as the rest of us. Simon and Barry, of course, had trained with Eddie forever and had willingly resigned themselves long ago.

“Eddie introduced me to Simon Burgess, and Barry Danielian, and the rest is history,” Tim concluded. “Eddie will forever be missed, and never forgotten.”

Si posted an online obit link and said simply “sad day today”–three words that needed nothing further. My response was even more minimal: “No words.”

I went to the online obit and nodded at its depiction of “a beloved son, brother, uncle & partner [who] will be greatly missed, not only for his great big loving heart, but also for his sense of humor and generosity towards all he encountered.” Then I went back to Barry’s Facebook page.

“I’ve known Eddie for close to 30 years and have shared many laughs, sweat, bruises and busted knuckles with him,” wrote Barry, one of the most spiritual people I know. “He was one of the most real people I know. And because of that he had the ability to go into many different circles and people immediately loved him. He was all heart and if you were a friend of his you were a friend for life. In many ways he was a throwback to a type of person that is sadly very rare these days.”

Eddie’s “love of martial arts, history, the warrior ethic,” Barry added, “will continue to be an inspiration to me and to all of us that knew him. I will miss him very much.”

Barry concluded: “Tell the people you love that you love them….do this often. We never know when our last breath will be. Have a peaceful return to the Divine, my brother.”

And I’ll conclude by relating that Eddie and the rest are the kind of people who give the phrase “I have your back” a whole nother meaning. For they really do have your back, and most important, show you how to have your own when they’re not there—truly one of the most important lessons in life.

And there was one other thing about Eddie that I thought of, as I reflected back at the week just concluded at home with my mother and surviving friends—for Eddie had lost his mother not so long ago–that was expressed best by another Facebook friend of the late, great Eddie Hunt.

Pekiti-Tirsia, the friend wrote, had lost its often long-haired Wild Man of Borneo.

“Well, Brother, you’ve a new haircut when you reunite with your beloved Mother. You’ll be missed. Thanks for the laughs.”

I did in fact call my mother today, Barry, and told her I love her, as I love you and all my teachers, fellow students and friends.

‘Thank you, Citizen’: Adam West and Barack Obama

Adam West’s death hit me harder than most, and I’m glad to see I was hardly alone. Indeed, even Nick Lowe raised a glass to West halfway through his Saturday night show at City Winery, and after the show gave me a few thoughts for the appreciation piece I put up yesterday at Centerline.news.

I’m not sure why—maybe because there’s always something to do with Batman going on—but I think of West not infrequently. His Batman portrayal truly was brilliant, what with his sober, deadpanned phrasing and seriousness in the most hysterically ridiculous comic book plots imaginable. But as Conan O’Brien stated, “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television. He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”

What West accomplished with Batman could only work, though, because it was so pure: West’s Batman really did believe in the basic goodness of people—and fickle as they always were, they never let him down, even in a two-part episode from Batman‘s second season–“Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizonner the Penguin”—when he ran for mayor of Gotham City against The Penguin. As Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post just after the election last year, it had obvious parallels with the presidential campaign in that a dastardly villain used his celebrity and devious wiles to nearly steal an election from a qualified candidate, though in real life, sadly, he actually did.

But at least in the TV world of Batman, the good people of Gotham City came through in the end, justifying Batman’s faith in them. Going through old videos of Batman after West died, I came across a wonderful YouTube compilation, “The Complete Batman Guest Star Window Cameos,” in which Batman invariable addresses such celebs as Dick Clark and Sammy Davis, Jr., with utmost respect, as “Citizen.”

The citizen title was equally significant for President Barack Obama, and like West’s Batman, and in the face of unrelenting criticism if not outright hostility, he never lost his cool, and in his case, sense of humor. But Obama, also like West’s Batman, also never lost his unfailing positivism–for lack of a better word to denote his total lack of cynicism and unyielding trust in the goodness—and vital importance to society—of the average citizen.

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy, to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said in his farewell address as president. It was a return to a theme I heard him evoke several times in promising that he wasn’t going away, but proudly taking on a new office, i.e., the office of citizen.

“Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”

Ariana Grande is my new hero

I wouldn’t say I’m an Ariana Grande fan as a singer, though after shazamming her as many times as I have at Dunkin’ Donuts, I can get her right maybe two out of three times now—and I do think she’s very good.

But I dare say that after Sunday’s extraordinary One Love Manchester concert, it’s going to be at least three times out of four from here on out. I even know who Niall Horan is now, and that I really like his song “Slow Hands”—or is it “This Town”?—though I don’t know whether I like him as much as Harry Styles, though I don’t know that I even like Harry Styles. And I almost have new respect for Justin Bieber.

No, I do in fact have new respect for Justin Bieber. Not so much his songs, or his godliness, but just the fact that he showed up and came out with just an acoustic guitar. Actually, in this regard, I almost give him more props than Katy Perry, whom I actually do know and love, who I think should have done without the glam white attire and toned it down like Biebs and the rest.

But upon further consideration, I can now say for sure that Ariana Grande is great, if for no other reason than that she’s responsible for what was a historic concert, right up there with Live Aid and The Concert for Bangladesh and ahead of both of them in terms of speed of presentation, even ahead of The Concert for New York City, which took over a month to stage following 9/11.

Than again, I was sold on Ariana the night of the Manchester bombing—May 22—when she tweeted, simply, “broken. from the bottom of my heart, i am so so sorry. i don’t have words.”

Really, there was nothing more to say, and saying anything more, especially the standard “Our prayers and thoughts are with the victims and their families,” would only have diluted it.

But I got in big trouble when I tweeted that her message was “very good.” One Facebook friend raked me over the coals for not pouring on the praise, one other for giving her too much credit for saying too little. I eventually felt compelled to respond, after the unanticipated and unusually loud and long uproar, lauding Ariana for her “clearly heartfelt” expression.

So now I took One Love Manchester personally and watched the entire thing, even if Katy and Miley Cyrus and Imogen Heap—and now Ariana–were the only artists I wanted to see. And it paid off, on Twitter at least: I had my biggest day ever, with 137,693 “organic impressions” on 39 tweets, when I average 2,000 or so per day. I also got 55 retweets and a whopping 202 “likes.”

But enough about me. Besides staging this concert, Ariana donated $1 million to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund in coordination with the British Red Cross, re-released her single “One Last Time” with proceeds going to the fund, created a donation page, added a prayer message in front of all her YouTube videos while disabling comments to take the focus off her, offered a video call to victims, visited victims in the hospital, and offered to pay for funerals.

She truly is remarkable, indeed heroic. Very, very good.

I was reduced to tweeting, “The kids are alright,” properly crediting Pete Townshend. It got 4,943 organic impressions and 17 “engagements.”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 19

Honest. I didn’t go there to get shoes.

I just went to the Sugar Bar last Tuesday night to be with the family. The Sugar Bar Family. The Ashford & Simpson Family.

We were out in full force to be part of Valerie and daughters Nicole and Asia’s giveaway of Nick’s shoes—92 pairs, to be exact.

Nick, of course, dressed like the celebrity king that he was. As I’d noted a couple weeks earlier in my centerline.news post on the giveaway, at his funeral Val revealed that if he walked out of the house and made it to the corner without being noticed, he’d turn around and go back and change. And now, closing on six years later, she had all those shoes and didn’t know what to do with them, so instead of giving them to Goodwill, she and the girls decided to give them away to Nick’s fellow “dreamers,” Nick having himself been a dreamer when he came to New York from Willow Run, Michigan, in 1964, with little else besides his dream of making it in the big city: In fact, he spent months homeless and sleeping in Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park before famously meeting Val at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, and with her, eventually becoming one of the most revered and beloved songwriting/performing teams in popular music history.

I got to the Sugar Bar a few minutes after the event’s designated 5 p.m. start. Mr. Ken was already there—Kenneth Williams, legendary “hairstylist to the stars,” who’s based in L.A. and always called “Mr. Ken.” He’d arrived in town early and had already picked out his pair.

“It’s really hard to fill Nick’s shoes,” he said, “but I’m trying.”

He added that he’d go anywhere and do anything for Nick and Val, and he was speaking here for all of us.

Val and the girls—and the shoes—were in the small dining room in the back, behind the stage and the kitchen. As soon as Val saw me she asked, “What size do you wear?”

Eleven-and-a-half, I told her. “Clown Shoes,” they used to call me in Junior High.

I knew from my Centerline piece that the sizes ranged from 10 1/2 to 11 1/2, but I didn’t know I’d be eligible—I mean, I hadn’t written a note, and I’m really not much of a dreamer: I never could ever have dreamed, in fact, that I, Jim Bessman, from Madison, Wisconsin, who grew up listening to Ashford-Simpson compositions on the radio, would some day get to know them, let alone get to try on Nick’s shoes.

David Sugar was there, another friend of the family. He was wearing a vest beneath his jacket, made out of tiny golden chain link that resembled the one Nick used to wear on stage. Val was gently scolding him for handing in a 20-page treatise on why he qualified for a pair, when she only wanted a line or two. Like the kids say, “TL, DR”—”too long, didn’t read.”

But David said he’d actually edited it down to 20 pages, and Val gave him two pairs for his effort. Then she asked me for my shoe size. Honest, I was a bit taken aback: As noted, Nick was a star, and dressed like it. Me, I’m a free-lance writer, who usually wears shorts and t-shirts and sneakers designed for severe over-pronators—with prescription orthotic inserts. In other words, Nick’s shoes were for the most part way too dressy—and classy—for me, though I did spot an ultra-cool pair of black-and-white two-tone loafers that were totally rockabilly, but too small.

And most of the shoes were, as was stated on the Sugar Bar website, size 11. So I didn’t figure on finding anything my size, let alone social status. But I did try on a pair of dark brown ankle-high boots that except for the thin round laces could pass for black, and to my surprise, they felt great. I turned to Asia, who said they looked “spritely.” “Said by a sprite!” I said, to which she smiled and replied, “I have my days.”

This would certainly be one of them, I thought, then went upstairs to run them past Miss Tee, Nick and Val’s forever loyal personal assistant/office manager. She loved them–just as I loved Nick’s grey leather riding pants that she was sporting with typical flair. Nicole liked them, too.

My line from that point, much repeated the rest of the evening, was, “I can only hope that somehow Nick’s greatness flows upward from my feet.”

But David Sugar had a better one. He said he’d gladly give up his newly acquired Nick shoes and walk barefoot from Wall Street to Harlem for five minutes more with him.

Someone else said, per Val, something that might have topped both of us: “Nick’s soul is in the shoes.” Whether or not it was a pun, it was beautiful.

For Nick was “a special man,” as Val said to a guy who walked in, who had seen the announcement of the shoes giveaway on the Sugar Bar website. His was the Cinderella story of the night, as he was the one who tried on Nick’s two-tone slippers and found a perfect fit.

I was now sitting on a barstool next to Val when Scott Bomar arrived. Scott’s at the new BMG Books, whose first title The “Odesssey”—The Zombies in Words and Images, is just out. He also is co-host of Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters, a monthly podcast of in-depth interviews with noteworthy songwriters, and was hoping to meet Val and get her on the show.

I made the intro, but by then I’d downed enough Black Label on the rocks to have lost all inhibitions—or at least enough to sing the chorus of Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” (after explaining that keyboardist/bandleader Rod Argent remains one of the original Zombies) to the woman I consider as great a female vocalist—let alone songwriter–as any.

It wasn’t good for me and I know it wasn’t good for her.

Luckily, David came by and he and Val continued the banter about the length of his note. A couple came in and gave Val a big hug. “What’s your size?” she responded, and off they went to the back, Scott tagging along. Alas, his feet were too small, but he was lucky, too, in that he came back in time to meet Joshie Jo Armstead, Nick and Val’s collaborator on songs like “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and one of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue’s early Ikettes, as she walked in.

I had another Black Label on the rocks. I was well into my third round of maudlin.

I wish I had a tape recorder every time I talked with Nick, I told Val. I always tell her that when I get to this blood alcohol level.

She asked if I’d spoken with Liz. That’s Liz Rosenberg, publicist to the stars–Madonna, Cher, Stevie Nicks, etc., and Ashford & Simpson when she and they were with Warner Bros. Records when I came to New York in 1982.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve told Val this story, but I added one more. I’d actually told it to Tee a couple weeks before, so it came even more readily.

Nick and Val were doing their 1983 High-Rise album show at Radio City. I was the retail editor at the now long-defunct music trade magazine Cash Box, and my boss got us tickets to the show. I don’t think there were a dozen white people there—and we were two of them. We had pretty good seats on the floor, a bit more than halfway back, and someone had reefer, which of course I smoked—though it would have been life-changing anyway.

I was so blown away, in fact, that the next morning I called about the only friend I’d made so far in the music business in New York, a publicist at Epic Records, Elliot Hubbard. I probably was even less coherent trying to describe the Ashford & Simpson experience to him than I had been at the show.

But Elliot got it, told me to call Liz Rosenberg at Warner Bros., that she was also a huge A&S fan. So I called her cold, but I was with Cash Box, so she took the call, her voice quite professional until I told her why I was calling. And as Nick and Val have done for so many others, they brought me and Liz together, gushing and forever in Ashford & Simpson.

Me and Liz saw Nick and Val so many times together, in fact, that as Val told Scott, we could just as well have done their show for them, since we surely knew it better than they did. I mentioned how indelible in my memory the opening to that Radio City High-Rise show was, how the lights went down, the curtain came up, and their was this Empire state Building-like skyscraper in the middle of the stage, with the middle folding out downwards into a staircase, Nick and Val in all their glory perched at the top. I was practically in tears just thinking back on it, and I’m getting chills again now just writing about it.

Val, of course, thought it was kind of dumb. But what about the set at the Pier show? I asked. This one must have been a couple years or so later, when they played the old venue at the pier across from the Intrepid. There was this big round pillbox, for lack of a better way of describing the set piece, and the top lid slowly slid down to reveal what appeared to be Nick and Val asleep in bed. The crowd started roaring and they woke up, sat up, rubbed their eyes and marveled at the whole thing before getting up and starting the show.

“We almost suffocated in there waiting for the show to start!” said Val. But the talk of me getting high at Radio City made her think of all the times me and Liz went upstairs at the Sugar Bar to do the same with Nick—and she cracked up recalling how we’d come back down practically speaking in tongues.

But that’s what Nick was like to us, I told Val—for the millionth time, at least. It was like we were his disciples, looking up at him, mouths agape, as if on some hill in Galilee, listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Though it may all be lost in a marijuana haze, my mouth is agape again now as I try to piece this all together.

Val, of course, just laughed.

“He respected your writing,” she said, “and he felt comfortable with you and Liz.”

So now, overcome by her comment, I told her how I can never speak of Nick in the past tense, that it just doesn’t make sense to. And it’s not that I can’t deal with him being gone, it’s that I can’t even comprehend it–that someone so huge in our lives could be gone.

Val, of course, understood, as did Nicole, when I said the same thing to her.

And really, what more is there? What more is there besides Nick’s shoes?

There were maybe a dozen pairs left by the time I stumbled out into the night, stopping off at the bus shelter at 72nd and West End to change back into my 11.5, 4E Brooks Beasts, saving Nick’s shoes for the most special occasions. Besides, if I had them on when the clock struck midnight, I’m sure I would have turned back into a pumpkin.

Walking downtown on West End I thought of something that Nicole had said before I left.

Her father’s shoes, she said, were so fabulous that some people who were size 9 when they walked in could leave with a pair of Nick’s size 11s.

“He had so many different styles,” she added. “There were some shoes we didn’t even know he had! But if he liked them, they fit him.”

Then Nicole revealed a heretofore unknown magical aspect of Nick Ashford.

“And now we know he had shape-shifting feet!” she said.

“I hope mine now shape-shift, too, to fill his shoes!” I responded.

And, again, that somehow Nick’s greatness flows upward from my feet.

Epilogue: Two days later I had lunch with Liz and recounted as much of this as I could still remember, particularly the part on how we met. She picked up her phone and called Tee, who chewed her out lovingly for not being there.

Liz asked if there were any shoes left, because she wanted a pair.

“I’m not going to wear them,” Liz explained. “I just want to look at them.”

I can report that the conversation ended happily. I can further report that I am now looking at my own pair of Nick’s shoes.

Stayin’ alive with Kris Kristofferson

“It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”

I’ve never forgotten Muhammad Ali’s words, softly spoken in utter exhaustion following his epic 1975 Thrilla in Manilla fight with Joe Frazier. They resonated again at City Winery Sunday, April 30 after Kris Kristofferson’s third of three nights.

I don’t mean them about Kris, at least not healthwise. Yes, he’s lost much of his memory, as has been widely reported over the last few years. I can’t say for sure he even remembers me and I’ve been blessed to be friends with him a long time, counting my liner notes to his 2004 two-disc The Essential Kris Kristofferson compilation among my proudest career achievements.

But I can say that he puts on a pretty good front, letting you know right off that his memory is shot—like Ali, “too many blows to the head,” he says, having boxed and played football and rugby in his younger years. And I can also say he’s never sounded better, at least from the show I saw—and I hadn’t seen him sing a whole show probably in five years at least, though I did see him have a blast singing a Beatles song three years ago at a Beatles tribute event the night before the Grammy Awards in L.A.

I say he’s never sounded better, though I should put that in context: He’s a great singer in my estimation, and I love his voice—but I wouldn’t say he has a great voice, not in the manner of traditional pop singers like Sinatra, say, or that he sings like, say, his fellow country outlaw Johnny Paycheck.

I once saw Paycheck do a show, maybe 15 years ago at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville, with Merle Haggard and George Jones. Jones, of course, is considered by many to be the greatest country singer ever, with Haggard perhaps a close second. Well let me tell you, no one put more heart into his voice than Johnny Paycheck—and no one has more heart, period, than Kris Kristofferson.

It’s like Dylan. From the start of his career, understandably, he was labeled, wrongly, as someone who “couldn’t sing,” who didn’t have “a good voice.” I think both might apply to Dylan today, but back at his height, I’d say he had a unique voice and a highly original vocal style that was certainly “singing” of the highest order. And there are those, too, who discount Elvis Costello, who is in fact a great pop singer, for his vocal timbre, really, which is a solely a matter of taste.

As for Kris, I wouldn’t say he was a “soul singer” because of its R&B connotations, i.e., Otis Redding he ain’t. But I can say that no one sings with more soul–in addition to heart—as Kris Kristofferson. And no, he doesn’t stay on a note long, but he always hits it.

All this was apparently lost by a Chicago reviewer who savaged his recent show there, as I learned backstage. This made my blood boil, both by itself and for conjuring up the memory of another scathing review many years ago in The New York Post of a show that I was at, written by a reviewer who got Kristofferson when he apparently expected Caruso. And it being the Post, the guy was clearly a flaming right-winger put off by Kris’s saintly humanitarianism.

Not to keep harping on it, but no, Kris isn’t a mellifluous singer, then again, neither is Rod Stewart, to mention another great singer with a raspy voice. But in fairness to the Chicago critic, who complained about his “ravaged…weather-beaten” sound—the highest compliment, as far as I’m concerned–maybe he did in fact catch a bad show, though I can’t imagine it.

I mentioned Johnny Paycheck. Kris actually evoked for me, Johnny Paycheck’s greatest performance—his last substantial hit, “Old Violin,” which reached No. 21, country, in 1986. The song is essentially a reflection on a life given to music and a realization that the end is near, indeed, in Paycheck’s deliverance, the closest thing on record to dyin’ that I know of.

And yes, Kris is now 80, 81 next month. Paycheck, Haggard and Jones are gone, same with Kris’s friends and contemporaries Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. All that’s left from that generation now is pretty much him and Willie Nelson.

But like I said, Chicago notwithstanding, Kris has never sounded better—again, within context. Still movie star handsome if more grizzled than last I saw him, he opened with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties,” a song thematically similar to “Old Violin” in that it now dawns on the singer that he’s “lost and alone in deep water,” not knowing “how much longer there is to go on.”

True, compared to its initial release on his 1986 album Repossessed, his voice has aged to go with the lyrics—making them all that much more affecting. And he played fine on guitar and harmonica, such that when he finished, the sold-out City Winery crowd, enrapt in dead silence, erupted into applause.

“That’s a lot to live up to!” he said, then proceeded to do so in a set (with brief intermission) that pretty much ran the gamut of his truly legendary career, each song its own high point.

I want to say here that Kris is one of my four favorite lyricists, the others being Hal David, Nick Ashford, David Johansen. And he’s so much, much more than one of the most famous lines in music: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” which he sang, of course. “And there’s nothing short of dyin’/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” comes to mind every Sunday morning, as does “cleanest dirty shirt” (both from “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which he also sang). Or “ain’t it just like a human,” followed by the title line “Here comes that rainbow again”—and the title of the most beautiful “Loving Her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).”

I’m partial too, to “Jesus was a Capricorn”‘s “Everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on/Who they can feel better than at any time they please/Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on/If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.” He sang that, but not the most powerful title in his songbook, “They Killed Him,” also about Jesus, and Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and “the brothers Kennedy.” The chorus: “My God, they killed him!” Dylan covered it on his 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded.

I don’t know about Chicago, but man, there’s just so much in a Kris Kristofferson show.

“You paid a lot to watch some old fart play,” Kris said to the audience, almost apologetically. They would have none of it.

Lisa, Kris’s most wonderful wife, let me sit on a stool on the stage against a side wall, well out of view of most of the audience. Rosanne Cash had sat there the first night. An old girlfriend, sitting at the other end of the stage, was able to get a great picture. She said it looked like Rose was crying. I know there were times two nights later when I was.


(Photo: Cathryn Levan)

It reminded me a bit of watching Paycheck at the Grand Ole Opry. I was lucky to see him there a number of times. I always used to hang out backstage in various dressing rooms–Porter Wagoner’s, Roy Acuff’s, Bill Anderson’s, Jimmy C. Newman’s, Grandpa Jones’s, Riders in the Sky’s. The amazing thing, though, was whenever Paycheck played, everyone backstage—artists, friends, family, Opry hands—they all came out to watch. Paycheck was that powerful. That deep. People were dumbstruck watching him, now a physical shell of what he was–he suffered from emphysema and looked tiny–and singing from the pit and then rushing off to his bus to get hooked up to an oxygen tank.

But like I said, Kris looks great. Ellen Burstyn, who won the Best Actress Oscar opposite Kris in the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was there. She’d actually never seen Kris play and warmly embraced him after. She looked great, too, and I was suitably starstruck. After she left I brought up Ali, since Port Authority had an exhibition of Ali photos a couple months back, one of them with Ali and Kris. Lisa said how Ali and his wife had visited them in Hawaii, that Ali “was a man among men.” We all lamented his passing, and that of his best friend and our dear friend, Howard Bingham, the great photographer.

And of course we mourned John Trudell. I’d put John up there with Kris as a lyricst, though his songs were more spoken-word poetry set to music. I was lucky to know him a little, whereas Kris wrote “Johnny Lobo” about him and extolls him in “Wild American” ahead of Steve Earle, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He also appears in the 2005 Trudell documenary.

Apropos of all this, Lisa said something else, that stuck with me: “We’re all dying.”

She said it with the brightest, warmest smile, the same one that accompanies just about everything she says. It was like, “Big deal. So what?”

I suppose we’re all shipwrecked in the eighties, those of us who are our age. For sure I know I am (see “Cancer Funnies”). I guess at this point, it all comes down to the way we go out.

Luckily for all of us, Kris is alive and well—well enough to have a new record out (last year’s Grammy-nominated double-disc The Cedar Creek Sessions, not to mention last year’s The Complete Monument & Columbia Album Collection box set) and even a new movie in the forthcoming western Hickok, about Wild Bill (he plays George Knox, the mayor who hires Wild Bill as town marshall).

Lisa said that they were now living the “senior dream,” traveling the country in a tour bus to concert stops, for Kris loves to play. We all walked out, but Kris graciously stopped to sign autographs for everyone still waiting outside. It was chilly and approaching midnight.

I walked to the subway, carrying a bottle of the Kris Kristofferson commemorative wine that City Winery made up for the special occasion. Running through my mind was one last lyric, from “Best of All Possible Worlds,” that Kris sang an hour or so earlier.

“And I don’t need this town of yours more than I’ve never needed nothing else/Cause there’s still a lotta drinks that I ain’t drunk.”

Record Store Days of yore


Chris Osborne’s “Robert Johnson and the Blue Terraplane,” inspired by his classic “Terraplane Blues”

It’s Record Store Day.

A couple months after I came to New York from Madison Wisconsin in 1982 I got a job at the long defunct record trade magazine Cash Box, as retail editor. Not that I knew shit about record retail, though I did spend much of my time in high school and after at record stores.

Had they been pool halls, of course, it would have been a sign of a misspent youth, as my old man used to say. But I’d done that back in junior high, sweeping the carpets of cigarette butts and cleaning transparent scoring sheets at the Hilldale Bowl in order to gain free time at the pool tables–not that I got any good.

My record store time, though, did me well when it came to the record business, not so much in preparing me for the Cash Box gig but in gaining a knowledge of musicians, songwriters and producers, all gleaned from the back cover of long-play albums, or LPs, as they were called—later to be referred to as “black vinyl albums” after cassettes and then compact discs replaced them as the leading physical music product configuration.

There were three Madison record stores I hung out at. During junior high it was Victor’s Music in the Hilldale Shopping Center, where they had listening booths for you to sample records before purchase—not uncommon in those days. I think they also had the weekly Top Singles list from Madison’s Top 40 AM station WISM (always spoken as a word to rhyme with “jism”) there, too, but those might have been stacked a few stores down at Woolworth’s, where they definitely had the weekly chart lists from Chicago’s powerhouse Top 40 station WLS.

I vividly remember going down to Victor’s the day of Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ new releases, especially the latter’s two-sided 1967 single “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend the Night Together” the day after they did it on Ed Sullivan. But whenever I went downtown to the University of Wisconsin campus I’d hang out at either Discount Records or Lake Street Station.

Discount Records, on State Street very near the university, especially stands out in my fading memory because my friend Chris Osborne worked the counter. I think she was already in New York by the time I got here, and in the ’90s she managed the Jazz & Blues department at the Tower Records Lincoln Center outlet. I don’t know if I knew in Madison that Chris was also a painter—not to mention as rabid an Ashford & Simpson fan as I was. But I took her with me to see A&S at least once at Westbury, and I know she painted a fab portrait of Nick and Val, I think alongside a classic car, as she frequently combines music legends and legendary cars in her portraits (among her awards is the Classic Car Club of America 2003 Fine Art Award of Excellence).

Lake Street Station used to be near Discount, at State and Lake, if I remember right, during the Vietnam War demonstration days, then moved a few blocks down from Discount on State Street. It was at the first location where I spent hours reading album jackets, and at the second one, after I’d begun writing for The Madcity Music Sheet, where what remains the coolest bit of merchandising by a record store that I can remember took place.

It was the release day of Elvis Costello’s second album This Year’s Model, and Elvis was a major mission for me and the Sheet. Indeed, we put out our first and only special issue in advance of his second Madcity tour stop—at the Orpheum Theater, a few more blocks down State Street near the State Capitol, with Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille, in 1978. Again, if memory serves well, Lake Street Station was mid-block, and from the corners at both ends were cut-outs of Elvis’s famous pigeon-toed portrait from the cover of first album My Aim is True, taped to the sidewalk and interspersed with red arrows pointing the way inside the store.

Funny, but as I write this, I’m looking at the Star Power On CBS Records and Tapes nail-clipping kit that the label’s college rep gave us at the press party promoting This Year’s Model‘s release along with the new albums from Eddie Money and Billy Joel. I’ll never forget telling her how excited I was that they included Elvis, though like I said, we were huge backers at the Sheet. “But a new Billy Joel album is an event,” the CBS gal said—my cue to leave.

By the way, I love Lake Street Dive, but I always have to look up their name since I’m always stuck at Lake Street Station.

Anyway, I got to New York and got the retail editor job at Cash Box and learned that Discount Records was owned by the biggest music retail chain Musicland, and was sent to cover the conventions of the next biggest chains, Record Bar and Camelot Music—each 100-plus strong at the time (Musicland had over 400). Record Bar was great because it was essentially run by hippies and based in Durham, N.C., which was beautiful and near Chapel Hill. Based in North Canton, Ohio, Camelot’s conventions were marked by major label-supplied entertainment each night: I remember seeing John Waite there, with a rhythm section of ex-Patti Smith/Iggy Pop bassist Ivan Kral and the late Frankie LaRocka, whom I had met in Madison when he was with David Johansen and who later became a dear friend, on drums; in fact, Frankie, when he was an A&R guy at Epic (where he signed Spin Doctors), let me write the liner notes to the great The David Johansen Group Live CD release of 1993 (it had been a promo-only LP when it was first released in 1978, when Frankie was in David’s band).

But Roy Clark’s show one year at Camelot was truly unforgettable. He had a terrible cold and could only croak out his songs, but it didn’t stop him from performing and having a great time—and giving his audience a show to cherish. And I still have my trophy for being on the golf team that finished second in the 1983 Maxell Camelot Tourney.

After beginning a 20-plus year stint at Billboard in the mid-’80s, I was sent one year to cover the convention for New England’s 81-store Strawberries Records & Tapes chain, which was owned by the notorious mob associate Morris Levy. But “Moishe,” who also owned Roulette Records (hit artists included Tommy James, Lou Christie and Joey Dee and the Starliters) and had owned the famed jazz club Birdland (his older brother and partner was stabbed to death there in 1959), had been charged in a highly publicized organized crime extortion case (all of this documented in the best-selling music business book expose Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business) and wasn’t at the convention.

Moishe, by the way, was convicted, but died before he could go to prison. I never met him, but I did interview him on the phone once during the trial. And I knew his son Adam, who used to hang out at Cash Box. His dad named another label after him–Adamm VIII Limited, which released an unauthorized version of John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album (theirs was titled Roots) after Levy had sued Lennon for copyright infringement over lyrics to “Come Together” that Lennon had lifted from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” Levy having owned the song’s publishing.

But back to the Strawberries convention. Not only did the most extraordinary Maria McKee perform there, but so did a girl group, the Bristols, that featured three gals who worked at the chain. I figured they’d be okay at best, but they were downright terrific—and understandably major players in Boston’s late ’80s rock scene.

As for New York’s record stores, Sam Goody’s was still big when I got here. I’ll never forget when Tower Records opened its first store in New York—its Greenwich Village flagship superstore at 4th and Broadway. I was hanging out with Ben Karol, who with partner Phil King owned the small but significant King Karol stores. I was drinking heavy and chowing down on vegetarian tamales when Ben, stunned, reverently observed, “Even old man Goody is here.”

Ben Karol was the biggest trip of all for me in record retail. I wouldn’t say he was ornery, but he was usually grumpy. He and Phil had owned a coffee shop at LaGuardia—again, if I remember right—and he was one of many old school record retailers who started out selling records out of the trunks of their cars.

I loved calling Ben regularly when researching retailer surveys, especially when the major labels raised their prices. Every retailer would moan and groan and angrily gripe over how price increases would cripple their business—except Ben. He’d always refuse to criticize the labels thusly: “I don’t know how much they need to break even.”

I used to pop in on Ben now and then on the second floor of his main store on 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. One time he had a few stacks of CDs on the floor of his office. The labels were just coming out with CDs then, and these were some of the first releases. I remember being highly excited to see them—and greatly entertained by the following story Ben laughed as he related: Many years earlier, a record company salesman had come into the store and asked Ben to play a new single that he guaranteed would be a huge hit. Ben started to play it, and halfway through, stopped it, picked it up off the turntable, opened the door and flung it across the street, turning to the stunned salesman and shouting, “Get the fuck outta my store!”

The record was David Seville’s “Witch Doctor”—the huge 1958 novelty hit that introduced Alvin and the Chipmunks.

There’s another great Ben Karol story, only this one came to me from Dave Nives. Dave was a dear friend who died unexpectedly some years ago. I like to call him “the last of the great record men”—even though Seymour Stein’s still alive—because he had such deep knowledge of vintage rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and country music, and the record companies that put it all out.

Dave was a regional salesman for Rounder Records when I met him. When he died he was A&R at Koch, and desperately wanted to sign the late, greatest polka artist Eddie Blazonczyk after I turned him on to him. “This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” Dave said of Eddie, which was absolutely true. But sharing the fate of so many great ideas in the music business, Dave was overruled from above.

Anyway, Dave was a great joke and story teller, and as he used to service the King Karol stores, he told this great one about Ben—though you’d be right to find it perfectly awful. Turns out that one of Ben’s employees came up to him one day and asked if he could have the day off to attend his father’s funeral. “We all had fathers!” Ben groused.

I used to tell this story often, one time to Holly DeSantis, another dear music friend who had also worked at King Karol. I think I was at one of her parties when George Usher, the great New York singer-songwriter, came over to me and said, “I’m the guy with the father!”

I admit I was embarrassed, but even George somehow found humor in it.

But I enjoyed covering record retail and frequently contributed retail stories to Billboard after moving over there. Two of them, in fact, are among my proudest Billboard contributions.

The first is what I always refer to as “the Snow Cone Story.”

I’d been going to Eunice, Louisiana—”the Cajun prairie capital”—every November to attend Marc and Ann Savoy’s annual boucherie, or Cajun hog kill—admittedly weird in that I’m vegetarian. I’d stay with my dear friends Todd and Debbie Ortego, who owned the Music Machine music/video store in downtown Eunice.

Todd’s the most knowledgeable Cajun/zydeco/swamp pop people there is, and is a party DJ and KBON radio station air personality—though he gave up the store a few years ago. But the first time I went there I was struck, not only by the active pool table in the middle of the store, but by the dormant snow cone machine in the corner. It being November, Todd explained that they only operated the machine during the summer months, when they sold a lot of “New Orleans shaved ice”-style snow cones. I was blown away by this brilliant, unique profit center and when I came back to New York asked Billboard‘s retail editor if I could do a story on it. He said yes, and I did—but he chose not to run it: It didn’t fit the usual record retailer profile, which, of course, was precisely the point.

Swear to God, to this day, it was one of the best stories I ever wrote. I found his rejection totally unacceptable.

For many days and nights thereafter I’d send him—and other Billboard editors–nasty emails and leave brutal voicemails. I think the last one was something along the lines of “Give me the snow cone story…or give me death!” The fact that I’m here to write about this now shows that he finally caved and ran it—and in fact loved it.

But I didn’t have to threaten suicide for him to run my other great record retail story, the one about Lucy’s Record Shop in Nashville. In the ’90s I used to go to Nashville at least three times a year for the big country music industry events (the CMA Awards, Fan Fair and Country Radio Seminar) and would drive past Lucy’s every morning on my way to Music Row from the Downtown YMCA, but I managed for years not to notice it: You see, it was on Church Street, directly opposite a dairy that had a big sign congratulating its employee of the month—to whom I always yelled a hearty congratulations out the window.

Then one day, an early Sunday morning, I was walking around downtown, a Sunday New York Times under my arm. This girl comes over to me and says, “Don’t I know you?” and she actually did. It was Mary Mancini.

I’d known Mary when she was a publicist at Elektra Records in the late ’80s before progressing into A&R—and then disappearing. I liked her very much, but had forgotten about her—and suddenly here she is. She’d been intrigued that anyone in Nashville would have the Sunday Times, as at this time, probably the mid-’90s now, you could only get the Times at a couple places in town.

She caught me up on her story, which began with her move to Nashville at a time when the country music-focused town was trying to expand into rock and pop. She wanted to find another label gig, until an out-of-town DJ friend complained that there was no place there to buy vinyl and suggested that she open a record store.

So she opened Lucy’s in 1992, naming it after her Weimaraner—who was almost as big an attraction as her alternative rock record stock. But Lucy’s was more than a record store, as Mary promoted a veritable community center where young people could gather and talk politics and social issues. And then she experienced a personal transformation as she herself became politicized after learning about the struggles experienced by the alienated young Nashville rockers, many of whom were dealing with gender bias and abuse.

Lucy’s did in fact become an all-ages punk rock venue/community center in addition to being a record store, but after six years Mary wanted to settle down with her husband (the acclaimed alternative-country band Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner) and live a more normal life. So she closed it and took a full-time office manager job at Nashville’s first Internet services provider—and became ever more politicized, thanks to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, involving herself in the latter with voter registration (which she’d promoted heavily at Lucy’s).

Mary co-hosted a progressive talk radio show for Vanderbilt University station WRVU-FM for the next six years, and became more active in local and state politics. She eventually took on the job of executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a public interest/consumer rights watchdog group. Then three years later, when the state senator in her district retired, she decided to run for office, and while she lost in the 2014 Democratic primary, she was elected the following year as Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

On July 26, 2016, I watched as Mary Mancini, now one of my heroes, read Tennessee’s delegate tally at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I know I wept openly.

Greg Trooper’s ‘Day of the Troop’

Me and Peter Himmelman have had this long-running joke since a few years after I came to New York in 1981 and he and his Minneapolis band Sussman Lawrence moved out here temporarily a few years later before becoming the Peter Himmelman Band after he signed with Island Records in 1985.

“You gotta make it big,” I told him then, “so I can ride your coattails.” Every time I’ve seen him since, he’s said, “The coattails are out! Hang on!”

Too bad he goes so fast I could never get a good grip, even though he’s never been the huge recording star he always should have been. He’s still done very well as a recording artist, singer-songwriter-performer, TV/film score composer and most recently, self-help book author (Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life).

I’ve had another joke running almost that long with Marty Stuart, after seeing him play Studio 54 with maybe six or seven others besides myself in the audience. I was writing for Music Row magazine then, and Marty asked me to report that there were several hundred in the audience. As my column was the wholly irreverent “Gotham Gossip,” I dutifully did in fact report as directed that there were several hundred at the Studio 54 show—-a number has that inflated exponentially with every successive Marty Stuart performance I’ve witnessed in New York to where his January, 2015 gig at City Winery drew 30,000 to the 300-seat room.

There’s one other fave artist I had a running joke with. I became friends with singer-songwriter Greg Trooper early on, too, before he took on Will Botwin as his manager–Will also managing the likes of Rosanne Cash and John Hiatt before cutting out for Columbia Records and eventually becoming president. I worked out of the same office as Will back then, and every year from then on, whenever Greg stopped by to visit, I’d say, “It’s the Year of the Troop!” It was a joke, yeah, but I meant it.

But the Year of the Troop never came, and with his death on Jan. 15, now it never will. And that’s just wrong.

Greg Trooper was special, as a singer-songwriter, entertainer and friend. All this came out in the Day of the Troop, at least, Saturday, at the Celebration of Life and Music of Greg Trooper at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, which brought together many of Greg’s New York area peers—the New Jersey native had lived in Nashville and Brooklyn—and fans.

They’d buried Greg’s ashes in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn the day before—most of them, at least. Greg’s wife Claire Mullally said they’d spread the rest later at various places that were dear to Greg.

He was “a beautiful man,” she said, a “decent, gentle human being” who would have loved the celebration. She yielded the stage to a succession of great artists and performances starting with his nieces Sadie and Louisa Holbrook, who sang lovely a cappella, as Claire said they do regularly at family functions—including funerals. Greg wanted to record them, Claire said; in fact, he did record Oona Roche, young daughter of David Roche, giving her her first and lasting taste of the studio. Oona sang splendidly with Greg’s son Jack Trooper, who not surprisingly looked and sounded so much like his father on his song “Inisheer.”

Oona’s father David sang Greg’s “Land of No Forgiveness” with her aunty Suzzy Roche, who related that both Roches had met their lives’ loves through Greg. And if Greg hadn’t introduced all of the program’s participants to their partners, he surely impacted them in equally significant ways.

For Mary Lee Kortes, who sang his “Everything’s a Miracle,” it was a sense of support, “nothing he said, just the way he was.” Willie Nile spoke of Greg’s “warm smile and welcoming heart,” and Amy Rigby said that he’d shown her the way to leave New York for Nashville and come back again; she also noted that Greg was “deep dark and funny in a way only a person from New Jersey can be,” then sang “his only funny song,” “So French.”

Austin’s Darden Smith had come up for the occasion and recalled how Greg was uncommonly “so willing and good and nonthreatening” for a collaborator—and told a funny story about how they were at a songwriting retreat where Greg took a few 11-year-old kids and made a song out of what they were saying. “Throw a Stone” was the best song of the retreat, Darden said, then sang it: “Throw a rock/Throw a rock/Not at your brother/Throw a rock.”

Laura Cantrell, who came to New York from Nashville in the mid-1980s, told a funny story about how she wasn’t sure she’d be a professional singer-songwriter when she interned a few years later at listener-supported Jersey City radio station WFMU, where Greg was performing and she brought him a glass of water—only to spill it on his guitar. While clearly not pleased, she said he was good about it, and later wrote a song with her, “Can’t Tell a Soul,” which she sang.

Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell was everywhere, just like he’s been since I met him when he was in Greg’s band in the early ’80s–recording and touring with everyone from Bob Dylan to Levon Helm. Here he accompanied several of the singers, and with wife Theresa Williams sang Doc Watson’s poignant folk dirge “Your Long Journey.” He saluted Greg with another word that pertained to both his artistry and humanity: authenticity. And Greg’s authenticity was evidenced one last time, thanks to producer Stewart Lerman, who played two stunning songs from Greg’s forthcoming final album: “Way Too Soon,” which brought those in the packed room to their feet, and “Columbia Blue,” which featured Loudon Wainwright III on backup vocals.

Maura O’Connell, whom I first met when she recorded for Warner Bros. Nashville in the late ’80s, closed the program with Greg’s “Ireland” and the traditional Irish song “A Parting Glass.”

I hadn’t seen Maura, and many of the others, in years, if not many years. It took her a moment to remember me, in fact, but only another moment to tell me that she’s pretty much retired, the music business being what it is for us elders. I should mention that her last album Naked With Friends (2009), a cappella and star-studded with the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, was Grammy-nominated, but that’s neither here nor there anymore.

I told her that she wasn’t alone—meaning, me—but both of us weren’t alone, as I found out when I went over to Larry and Theresa, who have their second album together coming out, and laughed knowingly in considering its unlikely commercial prospects.

Andy York was there. At least he has semi-steady work leading John Mellencamp’s band. Willie Nile was excited about his forthcoming album of Bob Dylan covers, and Mary Lee Kortes has a terrific album project, The Songs of Beulah Rowley , produced by Hal Willner, awaiting release depending on marketing strategy, she said, neither of us knowing what that means anymore.

I hadn’t seen or spoken with Suzzy Roche since her sister Maggie died around the same time as Greg. She was holding up as good as could be expected and looking forward to her Mother’s Day show with daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche and guests at City Winery.

I also met Jack Trooper, though I had met him once before with his dad at an Outdoors at Lincoln Center concert, I think–the last time I saw Greg, I think, many years ago, I’m sure. I was surprised to learn that Jack isn’t a singer-songwriter like his dad, but a cook. I wasn’t surprised to learn what a nice guy he is.

I didn’t get to say hi to Laura Cantrell, who is far and away the best singer-songwriter today in country music, though you wouldn’t know it if you listen to country radio—meaning to say she’s so good country radio has no fucking idea who she is. But take out the word “country” and substitute any other genre and I could say the same thing about all of the singer-songwriters who performed, for there are none better anywhere on the radio dial.

And that goes double for Troops, whose coattails never came out for me to grab hold of and ride, even though 30,000 fans and friends filled St. Mark’s Church.

“It’s our duty to sing his songs now that he’s not here,” Joe Flood had said, before singing Greg’s “21st Century Boy” with Mary Lee singing backup. It had been the Day of the Troop, at least, and for me, at least, it will forever be the Year of the Troop.

[Click on the link to my appreciation piece for Greg at Centerline.news.]