Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.


Election Eve at the Beacon

Design historian Grace Jeffers tells the ‘truth to materials’ at ICFF

grace
(Photo: Jim Bessman)

Last week’s ICFF trade show at the Javits Center featured an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) educational program of talks by industry experts, with none more jarringly thought-provoking than eminent independent design historian/materials specialist Grace Jeffers’ Man Made Natural: Insights Into the Authenticity of Materials.

Jeffers’ thesis was that there is a bias in the design trade toward natural materials in design, but that “the truth is that synthetic material is a better solution—and a more environmental solution.”

“I’ve been giving this talk all over the country the last year-and-a-half,” Jeffers said later, “and it really rattles their cages. It frames the whole ‘real vs. fake’ issues in a different way.”

Indeed, Jeffers uses a dramatic illustration of her point in her talks: breast implants.

“There’s the attitude that the real thing is better that the fake, that breast enhancement is vanity,” she said. “But if you had a cancer mastectomy, it’s a blessing. It’s still the same implant, but the context—and attitude–is different. The material doesn’t change—what changes is us.”

She noted that while we tend to think of “fake” objects being “cheap” and “shoddy,” “in history, they’re more durable and desirable,” and turned to the history of billiard balls as an example.

In the 19th Century, she said, the British billiard industry was using ivory for billiard balls, but realized that the African elephant was approaching extinction because of it, and offered a huge reward for a synthetic billiard ball substitute. That substitute was celluloid.

“Celluloid was developed in the mid-1800s as the first plastic invented as a solution for the problem of endangered nature,” said Jeffers.

Another natural material cited in Jeffers’ talks is the hard tropical timber species Afromosia, which is found in Democratic Republic of the Congo and used in flooring and furniture.

“It’s being deforested, which is why pygmy elephants and bonobos are becoming extinct in the wild,” she said. “They’re losing their habitat, and selling the wood funds warlords in the Congo. I realized that people had no idea about any of this and didn’t understand using such materials in a bigger context.”

She noted how the “truth to materials” philosophy that the innate qualities of the materials should influence the projects created from them “is one of the guiding principles of design and architecture, but in my talk I question, Is it valid, accurate, or useful today? Ultimately my argument is that we should understand what truly is wild and embrace how synthetics can actually keep the world in the wild—that sometimes using synthetics can preserve nature, that sometimes synthetics are the solution to the problems in nature and not the cause.”

Jeffers acknowledges that hers is “a very, very different way of thinking and looking at materials [that] flips how people in design traditionally look at these things.

In addition to her ASID talk, Jeffers was present throughout ICFF at the Wilsonart Challenges/Appalachian State University exhibition hall booth. Jeffers teaches as part of laminate manufacturer Wilsonart’s annual Wilsonart Challenge student design scholarship program to foster the careers of emerging furniture designers in North America, which challenges students at a designated design school–a different one each year–to create a unique chair using Wilsonart Laminate.

“When we started with Appalachian State, the school said, ‘We will not work with wood grain laminate,’ because it was ‘fake and awful.’ And I said, ‘Okay, you feel that way today, but sit in on my talk and then tell me your opinion’–and they agreed and completely changed their tune. Of all my students in the booth, only one out of seven did not use wood grain laminate in their chairs, and he used linen print [laminate].”

All the students therefore “embraced imitation,” concluded Jeffers. “It framed the way they looked at material.”

Next up for Jeffers is a lecture next month at Chicago’s NeoCon commercial interiors trade show, a preview, she says, of the wood chapter of her forthcoming encyclopedia of design materials, The New Materials Handbook, due out next year through Thames and Hudson, London. And in September commences the next chair competition, this year at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies—the winners to exhibit at ICFF 2016.

[This article originally appeared in Examiner.com on 5/25/2015.]

Storm Large’s talent as big and gale-force as her name

First thing Storm Large did when she took the stage at the Cutting Room Wednesday night (Oct. 26) was point to the people at one of the nearest tables, who had come to the show having seen her sing with Portland’s sophisticated pop-jazz band Pink Martini.

“It’s different,” Large said of her own shows, to knowing peals of laughter from the room’s large contingent of Large cognoscenti. Sensing, no doubt correctly, the need to drive the point home, she repeated: “It’s different.”

And so Storm Large solo is—raw, ribald and risque. Yes, she threw in Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” as a nod to the classy Pink Martini crowd, though it had howls and Tarzan shrieks within her classic pop songstress context, thereby evoking the earlier part of her unique career. As she explained, she had been a punk-rocker in Portland (fittingly, she fronted a band called The Balls), but her “theater” voice was deemed annoying by rockers as “it wasn’t considered very rock ‘n’ roll” (she emphasized this with a perfectly placed belch).

When it was recommended that she sing Broadway songs, she objected. “This music is horrible!” she had replied, for at that time—the 1980s—her Broadway preferences were Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. As for Porter, she said, “Cole Porter to Suicidal Tendencies—it’s all the same: Ninety percent of songs are about love. They just look and feel different.”

She further related how hard it had been for her to find her “female voice.” Now 47, she recalled the era of eight-track audio (“I’m old enough!”) and male vocal faves John Denver, Johnny Cash, The Weavers and Harry Belafonte to The Kinks, Clash, Stones and Beatles. And while she offered no female singers (she did cover Dusty Springfield’s take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away”), she evoked other fierce female artists like Sandra Bernhard, Judith Owen, Tammy Faye Starlite and Nellie McKay.

Large actually began her set by belting out a jazzy version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Besides Porter and Brel, she covered, beautifully, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and performed many of her own best-loved songs. These included “Angels in Gas Stations,” which followed a raunchy story about how Large was “fugly” until she “bought some titties” and immediately developed superpowers, among them the ability to wow an apparently newly-matured male (she didn’t put it that way) gas station attendant into giving her a free can of motor oil while her male bandmates cheered her on.

A predictable crowd-pleaser was her feminist anthem “8 Miles Wide,” introduced as “a suck my dick song” but literally about the figurative dimensions of her female genitalia. Here she was joined in the “Sing it boys!” final chorus by those male bandmates (including pianist James Beaton, who’s worked with her 30 years) and joined by award-winning New York playwright Mark Acito, who appears in the song’s video.

“I love New York City, because it shows you who you are–and who you are not,” Large said. But it being a few days before Halloween, the set’s showpiece was a Portland-centered song that she wrote a while back for a benefit CD, Dearly Departed: True Lies in Song, Unearthed at Lone Fir, to help maintain Lone Fir Cemetery–final resting place of Portland pioneers, city founders and developers, military veterans, firefighters, women’s suffragists, politicians, early Chinese workers, asylum patients, and Eastern Europeans who migrated to Oregon—who had met with untimely departures.

Dearly Departed is comprised of songs about some of the residents of Lone Fir, including Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first convicted axe murderess (a victim of domestic violence, she took an axe to her husband’s head in 1854), and subject of Large’s “Asylum Road.”

“She did the laundry in the penitentiary, then an insane asylum,” said Large, who said a lot of other things about the historical needs of the men of the “Wild West” that was Portland at that time. “After reading all about her, I wondered, ‘Why weren’t you a hooker?’ But she was a frontier wife in the 1800s, and I felt so super-sad about her, and the responsibility to tell her story with respect for her situation and struggle, yet make it musical and entertaining.”

Returning to the 2000s, Large darted into the audience, confiscating cellphones and shooting photos of their owners before switching them up, to be sorted out later. “This is what live music is for!” she railed. “Just be here.”

She ranted, too, about driverless cars and iPad-ordering at airports–modern developments that take away jobs from people and make them obsolete. And wishing Hillary Clinton a happy 69th birthday, she suggested that “we all need to brush up on foreign languages, in case we all need to flee.”

Here she listed all the horrors associated with the Trump campaign, surmising that he never achieved “enough pussy to grab, or buildings with his name on it.” Yet here is also where the divide in the Storm Large stage act—ofttimes X-rated, but in a most uplifting way–was most pronounced: “Who hurt you?” she asked of Trump, then humanized him—at least to a degree.

“Like it or not, he’s a human being,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of terrible shit. I’ve said some terrible shit.”

It was an appropriate preface to her song “Somebody to Love,” prior to closing, appropriately, with a reprise of the National Anthem.

Introducing Centerline.news

Introducing a new website, Centerline.news.

Yes, this is finally my answer to the fall of Examiner.com back in July. I’ve started a new site for the sort of stuff I did for Examiner, though without the silly. limiting categories and titles. So now I can really write about everything else that didn’t fit in the what, five Examiner titles I had?

No, Centerline doesn’t look as slick as Examiner. Heck, it doesn’t even look as slick as Jimbessman.com! That’s because Examiner’s energy was devoted in making a slick-looking site, presumably in order to attract advertising and page clicks. As for written content, like I always said, a two-year-old could write for Examiner, indeed, your pet dog and cat probably could, though maybe not your goldfish. It did have some standards.

But I don’t mean to slag Examiner. Huffington Post is hardly different, at least not anymore. The quality of writing there, except maybe for a few of the “name” political writers, is no better than the worst of Examiner, as the writers seem to be mostly twentysomethings—at least that’s where their interests lie. Journalism in the new millennium has wholly gone the way of People magazine and USA Today.

Not that Centerline.news is out to change anything. No, Centerline will continue my career trajectory in covering things that others generally shy away from, if not run away at full speed. It won’t be as personal as Jimbessman.com, probably, but maybe more professionally written—that is, so far as I’m able to approximate a professional writer.

Then again, I am a professional writer! I do hope subscribers and visitors here will now subscribe to Centerline.news as well. And thanks, always, for your continued support here!

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

If you follow me on Twitter you know how I like to post YouTube videos relating, usually loosely, to trending celebration days-everything from National Donut Day (June 2), say, to Spirit Day, which occurred just last week (Oct. 20). As for Spirit Day, though, I didn’t know what it was when I started looking for Spirit’s 1968 hit “I Got a Line on You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In the Sky.”

Before posting them, luckily, I learned that Spirit Day, instituted in 2010, recognizes united opposition against bullying and shows support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, with Spirit Day observerse wearing purple–the color representing “spirit” on the rainbow LGBT flag. The day is a big enough deal to have it’s own special Twitter purple ribbon symbol for hashtags.

Clearly, “I Got a Line on You” and “Spirit In the Sky” weren’t appropriate for Spirit Day, not that I always let political correctness always stand in the way. But I was sensitive enough this time to the significance of LGBT concerns to seek a better video, and the perfect one came to mind instantly: “Born This Way.”

No, not the vastly inferior Lady Gaga song-that was a total rip from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” as everyone–including Madonna–knows! No, I mean Ashford & Simpson’s emotionally powerful and empowering “Born This Way,” with Terry Lavell singing, which they hastily released digitally early in 2011 when Gaga announced her upcoming single of the same title and somewhat similar, if decidedly vainglorious, theme.

Ashford & Simpson’s “Born This Way,” which was written in 2006 for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel Invisible Life about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, was the first recording for Lavell, who was then starring as Mercedes in the hit Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.

“Never in my life did I think I’d record a song with the most legendary songwriters ever!” he told me for examiner.com. “I love it, and everyone who’s heard it loves it.”

Indeed, it was a fabulous song and dramatic performance by a guy who clearly understood the lyric, as related by a young man who knew he was different since he was “a little baby boy,” ignored by his mother and beaten by his father, who prayed he could change but woke up every day the same—and finally discovers self-acceptance:

For those just like me who don’t always seem to fit
We’ve got a right to be
We’ve got to stand up to it
The time is now, this is it
Look at this big beautiful world and all its varieties
Each living thing has its purpose
We’re all in His image
What could be better
We’re supposed to live and love together.

And the chorus:

I was born this way
It’s not your problem, it’s not your fault
God made me and it’s okay
So don’t try to change me
I was born this way.

Lavell, a New Orleans native who had previously toured in Hairspray and Smokey Joe’s Café and appeared on TV in Sex and the City and The Dave Chappelle Show, had spectacularly introduced “Born This Way” when it was a key song in producer showcases for Invisible Life. He reprised his electrifying performance at Ashford & Simpson’s September,
2008 shows at Feinstein’s when he stunned audiences by coming out from the wings unannounced to sing it with them and for that moment, at least, all but steal the show: “The sassy long-legged beanpole,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “appeared out of nowhere to zigzag across the stage like a bolt of lightning.”

“They came to see La Cage and afterwards said they wanted to record it,” said Lavell of Nick and Val. “Their version is just as good [as Gaga’s]. It’s different and more of an anthem song.”

And while Nick and Val didn’t write “Born This Way” expressly for him, Lavell felt a personal connection with it.

“It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve had something that feels like it was written for me,” he said. “The crazy part is that it wasn’t! But it just feels like verbatim, it’s the story of my life–like I lived this.”

He added: “I want so much to do work that means something, and ‘Born This Way’ is a celebration of being exactly who you are. Of course you understand it’s about a guy being gay, but so many people can relate because it’s just telling an individual story about being whoever you are, and is more a celebration song–in the great Ashford & Simpson dance tune style.”

I also spoke with Nick and Val when “Born This Way” was released.

“It’s weird how the same ideas and thoughts can float into the universe and emerge from different minds and different places,” Val said, referring to Gaga’s song. “I think there’s enough love in the world for Lady Gaga and Terry Lavell,” said Nick–as only Nick would.

Nick and Val wrote 20 or so songs for the Invisible Life musical, which, wrongly, was never produced. But I vividly remember that they’re all great–having twice seen the run-through for producers. Regarding “Born This Way,” Holden lauded it as “a high-powered dance number,” and like so many Ashford & Simpson classics, it does in fact build in drama and intensity to a huge chorus—“that big A&S sound!” as Nick once put it, when I interviewed him and Val many years ago for Billboard.

That big A&S sound. What was so big about that big A&S sound was the structure of gospel music–the tradition that they came out of–that they brought to secular music, which worked particularly well in the theatrical context of Invisible Life. A&S fans, of course, can point to their masterpiece 1982 experiment in R&B theater with their Street Opera album, the entire B-side of which was a mini-Porgy and Bess suite of songs depicting the hard if not harsh realities of urban Africa-American working-class life—though never lacking in the love and hope that A&S more than anything represent.

What’s especially sad about Invisible Life is that “Born This Way” remains the only song from it that’s ever surfaced. Nick and Val themselves recorded another key song from the Invisible Life compositions, the stirring, climactic “God Has Love For Everyone,” its title pretty much telling you everything. I still hear the chorus ringing triumphantly in my mind.

But I’d almost forgotten about the “Born This Way” video! The clip mixes studio footage of Lavell recording the song with performance footage shot at a Thursday Open Mic show at Nick and Val’s fabled Sugar Bar restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It may have been the last video shot of Nick. If so, well, it couldn’t have been more fitting, with him singing with the background singers, generously giving the spotlight up for another artist like he–and Val, in the video playing piano–did all the time.

Project/Object’s Frank Zappa repertoire nostalgic for Swarmius’ composer Joseph Martin Waters and old high school buddy

Friday night’s (Oct. 21) Cutting Room pairing of Project/Object—The Music of Frank Zappa, featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston with San Diego electronic ensemble Swarmius was a dream bill—but only for two dreamers in the room.

That would be me and Joseplh Martin Waters, the professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University—and the acclaimed composer-performer who conceived Swarmius. For the Cutting Room gig Swarmius was made up of conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and guests Gene Pritsker (guitar) the artist Mark Kostabi, whose artwork graces the Cutting Room walls, and who also composes and plays piano.

The term “trans-classical” has been created to describe the music of Swarmius, and it does in fact serve up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, heavy on classical, jazz, rock and electronics and performed by the monster musicians the concept requires. His Cutting Room set focused on new material from the forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical, and like preceding Swarmius recordings, is surprisingly accessible, with Joe’s conducting (without a baton) while programming from an Apple laptop onstage with his instrumentalists: You can actually follow the development of his complicated compositions easily just by watching the emotional drama and intensity in his hands and face as he conducts, said compositions including, at the Cutting Room, Trans-Classical‘s “instant gratification single” “EeOoEe,” which has just been released digitally ahead of the album.

That’s right, I still call him Joe, because he was just Joe Waters back at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, Class of 1970, albeit a musical whiz kid even then, when his band was Spindlebean—a loose aggregate of musicians, and friends (and at least one stoner) who sang along to Joe’s Zappa-like lyrics and melodies. So it was extraordinary indeed to be sitting next to Joe at the Cutting Room, 46 years later, listening to longtime Zappa band veterans vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis and keyboardist Don Preston, now 84, play the music of Frank Zappa.

“The first Zappa album that really caught my attention was Uncle Meat,” said Joe afterward, referring to the 1969 double album. “This I listened to obsessively with my friends while we were experimenting with marijuana and psychedelics in high school, and it became a central playlist of our little community. But my all-time favorite was We’re Only in It for the Money [1968]. I found the album cover and the title shocking, and was incredulous that it could be lampooning the gods of popular music–the Beatles–jabbing and belittling their generation-defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already achieved iconic status.”

He continued: “The first time I heard We’re Only in It for the Money I was tripping on acid, and the ‘through-composed’ album structure, where one song seamlessly merged into the next, and where text and composition, social commentary, acoustic instruments and electronics all swirled around together and through each other, was a deep aesthetic revelation.”

Joe recalled attending his first Zappa concert sometime around the release of his classic 1969 Hot Rats album.

“I remember sneaking into a big music festival, climbing over the fence to see the band! I found the music on Hot Rats to be generally intriguing and aesthetically challenging, in places puzzling, and inspirational. I think my favorite work was ‘Peaches en Regalia.’ But otherwise, I had not attended a Zappa concert since seeing the original band sometime in the early ‘70s at a music festival in Milwaukee. It was the second time I had seen them, and the period when they were doing pieces like ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ so it must’ve been somewhere around 1974 [when the song was released as a single]. It was in a big auditorium, and I was seated far away from the stage–and, frankly I didn’t really like that music very much: I found it mildly funny but musically uninteresting compared to the earlier music that I had loved and listened to incessantly. And I didn’t particularly like the virtuosic, modal-based guitar solos that Zappa was putting out in those days. I found them harmonically uninteresting and long winded.”

Indeed, after that Milwaukee Zappa show, Joe’s interest in Zappa waned. “Soon after I was pursuing my own formal music education, which took me far away from popular music for the better part of the next decade.”

My own interest in Frank Zappa, however, only increased around this time, especially since I began writing a couple years later. I’d see him many times after moving to New York in ’82, including his annual Halloween shows at the Beacon Theatre. I even met him a few times, interviewed him on the phone, got to know his late wife Gail a bit, and son Dweezil—for whom I wrote his first Zappa Plays Zappa tour bio. I met his younger brother Ahmet, too, when he and his wife signed children’s books at New York’s BookExpo last year at the Javits Center.

But back to Joe.

“I never lost complete interest in Zappa,” he said, “and especially became reinvested when he achieved recognition by the esteemed French avant-garde classical conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, the brilliant, belligerent, influential and outspoken champion of, and contributor to, the notorious mid-century genre of classical music that came to be known as ‘post-World War II integral serialism.’ This genre involved the application of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method to every musical parameter. Literally every note in these compositions had a complete and individualized set of performance instructions, which resulted in intense gibberish for both performer and listener. The aesthetic philosophy underlying this music was Schoenberg’s dictum ‘If it’s art it’s not for the people, and if it’s for the people it’s not art,’ which dismisses all of the music beloved the world over, including the Beatles, Gershwin, and Dylan. Dylan’s recent anointment with the Nobel prize in literature is a repudiation of this snobbery, but the fire still rages in the forests of academia.

“Boulez, in the early 1950s, with his sharp tongue eviscerated and destroyed any composer who dared to stray outside integral serialism’s incomprehensible non-melodies, non-harmonies, and non-rhythms, which were the result of overthinking and misunderstanding not only the neurophysiological mechanisms by which organized sound accrues meaning and emotional agency, but also the role and responsibility of the artist in the context of a majority proletarian culture. So his recognition of Zappa represented a turnabout of sorts, though of course Zappa had since childhood always had one foot in the classical avant-garde: On his early albums he had a quote from Edgard Varèse, another French composer from earlier in the 20th century—‘The present day composer refuses to die.’”

Joe himself had been “drenched in classical music of the 20th century, a large body of work which by and large has and had been completely ignored by the listening public as well as the community of professional classical musicians and conductors, but which was promoted exclusively by the composers employed as professors in the academies of music throughout Europe, the U.S. and all western looking music institutions throughout the world. By then I was already struggling to reconcile my populist rock band roots with the ivory tower aesthetic vested on me by music school. I listened to The Yellow Shark [Zappa’s 1993 avant-garde classical album with the German Ensemble Modern, his last album release prior to his death that year, for which Boulez was among those thanked in the liner notes] a few times and put it aside, planning to revisit it later–but still haven’t gotten back to it 23 years after.

“So all this was my mind set when I sat down after our set at the Cutting Room, to listen to Project/Object, fronted by the great vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis, who joined Zappa in 1978, and Don Preston, who played with Zappa from 1966 to 1974–the years during which I was a rapt teenage fan. In short, I didn’t know what to expect. And what I discovered, to my delight, was a huge range of repertoire that spanned about 20 years as far as I know of the Zappa catalog, all played extremely well by an ensemble of eight musicians, who had been on tour for the past month or so and were super tight, and at the same time, super relaxed.”

Yes, it really was a great show. They did one of my faves from Frank & The Mothers of Invention’s 50-year-old 1966 debut album Freak Out! —“Who Are the Brain Police?”, also “Down at Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage and “Call Any Vegetable” from Just Another Band in L.A., which had my pals Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) from The Turtles on background vocals.

Special mention goes to Don Preston, who has 20 years on me, somehow. Just so great on “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from We’re Only In It for the Money, even playing a solo by tapping on his cellphone—a solo so hot his phone erupted into flame. Joe Jackson was in the house and seemed impressed, though I wasn’t, since my Samsung Galaxy Note 7 can do the same thing.

“There was a wonderful warm, friendly vibe that exuded from the band as a whole and from the individual members, who were open and welcoming, supportive and curious about Swarmius,” said Joe, and sure enough, Project/Object’s vocalist/guitarist Andre Cholmondeley gave the band a big plug at the start of their set.

“I also discovered myself liking a lot of the repertoire that I had been so dismissive of in the mid-‘70s, such as Joe’s Garage. I think I was too young to understand the understatement and artistic brilliance underneath the overt sarcasm, humorous allegory and punchy rock grooves. All in all I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear with the pleasure of hearing fine musicians deeply committed to music that came from a singular genius. I have a newly deepened respect for Zappa, and I am looking forward to revisiting, and re-listening to—finally!—Yellow Shark!”

And I’m looking forward to seeing Dweezil’s 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F @%K He Wants show Sunday night, the night before Halloween, at, where else? The Beacon!

Songwriters Hall of Fame announces 2017 nominees

shof17

The Songwriters Hall of Fame [SHOF] announced this morning its nominees for induction at its Annual Induction & Awards Gala, to be held June 15, 2017, in New York.

The nominations are in two categories, non-performing songwriters and performing songwriters.

The non-performing songwriter nominees are Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Randy Goodrum, the team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Tony Macaulay, Max Martin, Kenny Nolan, the team of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Paul Overstreet, the team of P.F. Sloan & Steve Barri, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Allee Willis and Maury Yeston.

The performing songwriter nominees are Bryan Adams, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, the band Chicago’s Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm and James Pankow; Gloria Estefan, David Gates, Vince Gill, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Kool & The Gang’s Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell and George Brown; Jeff Lynne, Madonna, George Michael and Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart.

Voting SHOF members have until December 16 to vote for three nominees in the non-performing category and two in the performing category. Information on the nominees—and how to become a voting SHOF member—is available at the SHOF website.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing the work and lives of those composers and lyricists who create music around the world. It celebrates songwriters, educates the public with regard to their achievements, and produces a spectrum of professional programs devoted to the development of new songwriting talent through workshops, showcases and scholarships.

Newly RockHall-nominated Zombies to tour ‘Odessey and Oracle’ next year

Turns out The Zombiesnomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t the only news relating to the historic British Invasion group to be announced this week.

Now comes word of a North American Zombies tour next spring–to continue to England and Europe later in the year–to include the final full-album performances of Odessey and Oracle reuniting all four surviving members of the group: lead vocalist Colin Blunstone, keyboardist/vocalist Rod Argent, bassist/vocalist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy (original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004).

Also next year—in March—comes publication of a lavish, LP-sized coffee-table book, featuring lyrics for the Odessey and Oracle songs and many of their other classics, all handwritten by the songwriters and accompanied by original artwork from Terry Quirk, creator of the famous Odessey and Oracle album cover, and Vivienne Boucherat, who has conceived individual illustrations for each of its songs. Text will additionally include Zombies’ anecdotes behind the songs and their recording.

Released in 1968–ironically after the group had disbanded—Odessey and Oracle yielded The Zombies’ landmark hit, “Time of the Season,” the following year. It’s been widely acknowledged since then as a pop album masterpiece, with “Time of the Season” being used in numerous films and TV shows.

Blunstone and Argent, who enjoyed successful solo careers following the original Zombies demise, reunited in 1998 and then revived The Zombies name in 2004. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle, the four surviving original Zombies performed three concerts at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in March, 2008.

Last year White and Grundy again joined their former bandmates for select performances of the album in the U.S., in which The Zombies current lineup–bassist Jim Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey and Steve Rodford (Jim’s son) on drums–also played. Those shows furthered the band’s remarkable resurgence as a major concert draw more than 50 years after they first hit big with “She’s Not There”—their 1964 single inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame just last year.

As many reviewers have noted, The Zombies today have somehow never sounded better.

Kashif–An appreciation

Singer-songwriter-producer Kashif died Sept. 25 at 59. He had only recently resumed performing after a long absence from the concert scene—and was working hard on a documentary series about the history of R&B.

But outside of his self-published 1996 book Everything You’d Better Know About the Record Industry, little had been heard from the multi-talented R&B artist, who was such a major force in the 1980s.

“He was turning everyone’s head around about the electronics of R&B,” says music researcher/historian and former Billboard columnist Brian Chin. “That was when his song ‘I’m in Love’ by Evelyn King was sold out in every record store, and I was hearing it several times in one afternoon–on every radio station I was monitoring.”

That was 1981, when Evelyn “Champagne” King’s recording of Kashif’s “I’m in Love” topped both soul and dance charts in Billboard—and reached No. 40 on its Hot 100. Also in the ‘80s, he recorded his own albums—as Chin notes, heavily employing electronics and synthesizers—while working with the likes of Melba Moore, George Benson, Meli’sa Morgan and Kenny G. He produced Whitney Houston’s first big hit “You Give Good Love” for her self-titled 1985 debut album and duetted with her on its “Thinking About You,” which he also co-wrote.

He scored, too, in the New Jack Swing era of the late ‘80s, with his own hit “Personality.”

“Kashif was so impeccably qualified top-to-bottom that his how-to book inevitably was titled Everything You’d Better Know About the Record Industry,” says Chin. “He remained accessible for three decades of hit-making, and that’s why I know I’m always going to feel his loss personally.”

Oscar Brand–An appreciation

Oscar Brand, one of folk music’s great luminaries, died Sept 30 at 96.

He was “a national treasure,” per folk music authority Stephanie P. Ledgin.

“Oscar Brand has left an enormous number of accomplishments in music, television and beyond that will entertain and educate for many years to come,” says Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “He was warm, funny, engaging, abundantly generous in his talents. It was truly an honor to have known and worked with him.”

Ledgin’s connection with Brand came during the latter part of a remarkable 70-year career dating back to the 1940s. His Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show, which aired every Saturday on New York’s WNYC-AM, extended into its 70th year after its launch in December, 1945. On it he introduced the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, all the while refusing payment so as to avoid being censored.

A two-time Peabody Award winner, Brand was a most prolific musician himself, and after his Army service during World War II moved to Greenwich Village and wrote a book How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me. He eventually recorded hundreds of campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, protest songs, military songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties, filling over 100 albums. Doris Day charted in 1952 with his “A Guy Is a Guy,” and his “Something to Sing About”—also known as “This Land of Ours”—became the unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.

Additionally, Brand hosted the Canadian TV show Let’s Sing Out (in which he featured such folk music pioneers as Malvina Reynolds, The Womenfolk and The Weavers, and introduced then unknown Canadian singers like Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot) and collaborated on musicals including The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

Brand participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches, and was a board member in the ‘60s of the Children’s Television Workshop, for which he helped develop Sesame Street. He joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) board of directors in the early years of the organization and was responsible for creating the first SHOF Museum, then located at One Times Square in 1980.

On behalf of SHOF, president/CEO Linda Moran expressed gratitude for Brand’s “invaluable contributions,” adding, “he will always be remembered fondly by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.”

Moran further notes the many years that Brand served as the organization’s curator—and that he remained an active board member up until 2014.

“On a personal level, Oscar was a handsome, charming, witty, brilliant gentleman, and I will always fondly remember him for the support and guidance he gave me in my role as president of the SHOF,” says Moran.