Taking ‘Puzzle’ to heart

They say there’s nothing like hitting a good golf shot, and I suppose they’re right–though having never hit one, I wouldn’t really know.

Come to think of it, I have hit one good one I can remember, a birdie putt on a Par 3, and I think it’s because we smoked a joint on the way to the green. It was like I could see a path in bluish green curling 10 feet from the ball to the hole and I just stroked it along the guiding line.

I guess it’s the intense satisfaction we get, maybe instinctive, when achieving something requiring a refined skill, like sinking a putt, swishing a basketball into the net, kicking a soccer ball or driving a puck into a goal, pitching a ball into a catcher’s glove, hitting a target with a dart, bow-and-arrow or firearm.

Or even fitting that final piece into a jigsaw puzzle. I’m reflecting on this now after seeing Puzzle, the wonderful relationship/self-discovery movie about a repressed Connecticut housewife who finds herself after getting a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle gifted to her for her birthday. Played beautifully by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire fame, Agnes then visits the puzzle shop in New York City where it was bought and answers a plea posted at the counter for a playing partner for a champion competitive puzzler (the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan).

The remainder of Puzzle—which opened last week in New York and Los Angeles–deals with Agnes’s relationships with Robert (the Khan character), her family, and the puzzles that take her out of her safe but stultifying life via the self-awareness, expression, exploration, fulfillment and empowerment she gains from them, much as one gains from any artistic or enriching diversion. Of course in her case, it also leads to a lot of painful confusion, such that at a pivotal point of self-realization, Agnes demeans it—and by extension, herself and Robert–by calling puzzling “a childish hobby for bored people.”

No, says Robert, “It’s a way to control the chaos. Life is messy, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Sorry to break the news to you: Life is random—there’s nothing you can do to control anything…but when you finish a puzzle you know you have made all the right choices.” Even after making many mistakes along the way, “at the very end, everything makes one perfect picture.”

I used to love jigsaw puzzles as a kid. We had a big dining room table that was perfect for assembling them. Now, when I go to the annual Toy Fair trade show at the Javits Center in February, I always make a point of dropping by the puzzle suppliers.

Of course, there have been big changes in jigsaw puzzles in the last 40-some years since I’d worked on one, though basic ones are still the same—lots of little cardboard pieces in a box. But 4D Cityscape, for instance, makes these great three-dimensional puzzle maps of famous cities, where you locate and place key buildings on the maps. Nervous System, whose booth I visited in May at the ICFF furniture fair at Javits, showed its new Geode Puzzle: a jigsaw puzzle inspired by the formation of colorfully banded stone agates created by a generative computer design process that mimics nature in each unique puzzle’s variations in shape, pieces and image.

Ravensburger is one of the biggest puzzle players at Toy Fair, and a few years ago they showed an immense 32,256-piece (!!!) puzzle entitled New York City and featuring a panoramic view of Manhattan, from the top of Rockefeller Center, if I remember correctly. The pieces were packaged in eight separate bags altogether weighing 42 pounds and measuring 17 x 6-feet when completed, which at Toy Fair it was–and displayed in its own specially built room within the big Ravensburger exhibition area. Last time I checked, Amazon had one for $369.99 (and free shipping).

But at this year’s Toy Fair I became fascinated by White Mountain Puzzles, a company known among other things for its 1,000- and 500-piece “collage” jigsaw puzzles, new releases shown at Toy Fair including Things We Collect (everything from baseball cards to model trains and vinyl records), Betty Crocker Cookbooks and World War I Posters. They even have a “puzzle panel” of puzzle enthusiasts on Facebook and an email list, who submit ideas and participate in regular surveys to gauge the appeal of potential puzzle images.

A new series of White Mountain puzzles shown at Toy Fair was tagged “Seek & Find,” and using the example of the thousand-piece Retro Kitchen entry in the “Seek & Find” series, contained 22 “hidden” images in the puzzle that were not pictured on the box, that image depicting a well-stocked mid-20th century-themed kitchen in full party preparation mode (a list of the hidden elements–including a spatula and thermometer–was provided inside the box).

As these collage and “Seek & Find” puzzle examples suggest, many of White Mountain’s designs are nostalgia-related. They also have an “American Pop Culture” collage series, titles including Television Families (including the Flintstones, Beverly Hillbillies, Munsters, Simpsons and Bundys), Candy Wrappers (Cracker Jack, Mike & Ike, Sugar Babies, Jujubes), Fill Her Up—Old Service Stations (Texaco, Sinclair, Shell, Mobilgas) and Route 66 (vintage artwork of picturesque scenery along the historic highway).

But the American Pop Culture puzzle that caught my eye was The Sixties—my decade. Illustrated by artist James Mellett, the 1,000-piece, 24×30-inch collage had so many of my heroes, key events and cultural representations growing up: baseball card replicas of Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, a Green Bay Packers helmet, JFK, MLK, RFK, LBJ, Khruschev, Castro, The Beatles, Joplin, Jagger, Hendrix, Woodstock, drugs, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Rolling Stone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Flower Power, Black Power, a VW bug and hippie van, the moon landing. Oddly, I had a hard time with two of the bigger likenesses, of two of my bigger heroes: Muhammad Ali and Clint Eastwood.

So I wrote a little piece about White Mountain and sent it to Sean Minton, one of the company’s partners, whom I interviewed, asking him at the same time if he might send me the Sixties puzzle—along with a bottle of puzzle glue and a frame. The puzzle and glue arrived a few days later, but not the frame, so I figured maybe I’d asked for too much.

Now I live in a tiny studio apartment, filled to the brim with the detritus accumulated after 40 years of freelance journalism. In other words, I don’t have any space for a dining room table—let alone a dining room. The best I’d be able to do would be to clear some space on the floor for the puzzle assembly, but that would have to wait until the day came when I’d buy a frame, and that day was far away.

But to get a head start I did go on Amazon to see what price they had on frames, only to find a whole lot of other puzzle-related accessories I hadn’t even imagined.

Besides various frames and glues there were sorting trays, roll mats and other devices for carrying or storing finished or unfinished puzzles, large Portapuzzle carrying cases that likewise keep pieces in place while providing a work station, spinning Lazy Susan puzzle bases, puzzle “work surfaces” with sliding storage drawers, even dedicated folding puzzle tables and tabletop easels. If only I had the room!

So all I could do was hold the Sixties puzzle box, unopened, and stare at the picture, until one day, some weeks later, I got a big, 24 x 30-inch box in the mail, maybe another four inches deep. I had no idea what it could be until I saw White Mountain’s return label. Sean had sent me a frame after all! Now what would I do?

I waited another couple weeks or so, getting more and more anxious over the prospect of actually putting it together—and how I could do it without realizing my greatest fear: losing pieces. Eventually I had to give in, and managed to create enough floor space to lay out the box that the frame came in, opening it up vertically to twice the frame size, then taping the four-inch flaps at the corners to contain the pieces. I opened the box, tore open the clear plastic bag holding the pieces, and dumped them into the center of the box.

It was like the beginning of an acid trip. Suddenly everything was blown apart and disjointed. Nothing made sense.

In the movie, Agnes can put a puzzle together easily in an afternoon. When she meets Robert, he shows her how to assemble a puzzle efficiently as a partnership: Sorting the pieces by color, he says, is “the Number 1 rule of competitive puzzling”–among other tried-and-true team strategies.

In my case, I probably didn’t do anything different from what I did the last time I did a puzzle some 50 years ago. While turning over the upside-down pieces I separated the border pieces, then did the same with the right-side-up ones. I then went ahead and constructed the border. All this took most of a Sunday afternoon, at least; Agnes would have had the whole thing put together by then.

But I really didn’t have enough space in the box to work with—though that wasn’t the worst problem, which was the tremendous pain in my knees from kneeling on the floor, not to mention my back and neck from hunching over the puzzle for many hours.

Once most of the border was done I could start dealing with the obvious and major images—Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE pop art image, for example, or the big “Top Songs of the 60’s” LP record or the many representative ‘60s buttons and badges (“Make Love Not War,” “Support Our Boys in Vietnam”)—working on several areas at once, forming floating “islands” within the borders that grew as more pieces were found and added, impinging upon others until that magic moment when the one piece was found that “anchored” the island to the border.

But “island” and “anchor” are my terms, same with “feet”—the varied appendages of pieces that I kept telling myself I was searching for during the endless endeavor to focus on specific shapes, with and without colors matching the holes they would fit in. After a day or so of said talking to myself it dawned on me that there must be a time-honored jigsaw puzzle nomenclature, and sure enough, I found online that what I called “feet” were also known as wings or ears, though there was no universally accepted comprehensive classification of puzzle piece shapes. Other terms for piece-parts employed by both manufacturers and puzzlers include, when paired, loops and sockets, knobs and holes, tabs and slots, keys and locks, and my favorite, denoting the knob that fits into the hole of the adjoining piece, “bobble.”

Besides the pain–which required regular breaks for stretching and repositioning–I was hindered by the lack of adequate space to spread out the many small “puzzles within the puzzle” with their presumed loose pieces, and since I didn’t have any of the sorting tray systems, I made one of my own out of the puzzle box and a couple plastic food containers. But there was no solving the other major problem: hopelessly lost track of time.

I was in the middle of auditing two college courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I was able to pull myself away from the puzzle to go to the Monday and Wednesday classes. But that was it. I stopped going to the gym, stopped eating, stopped taking medication, answering the phones, returning emails, tweeting and facebooking. Forgot about the news online and TV and recording my usual shows and movies. Aching and exhausted, I’d finally lie down around 2 a.m. for a few hours, then bleary-eyed, resume my obsession.

The good part was that with every piece properly placed, there was one less one to find. And after so many hours—and days—of trial-and-error, I eventually started remembering where some of the unplaced pieces were, once their mates were in position—kind of like the old Concentration game show and card game.

But by now, totally addicted, I was having a hard time seeing straight. Luckily, pieces were starting to miraculously appear, and some that I picked that I though I knew where they went I suddenly found fit somewhere else. Everything was starting to speed up: As the acid trip started wearing off, the dust of the initial explosion settling, the slow rebuilding of consciousness and control gave way to clarity.

Still, there was one final, nagging fear, going all the way back to the last time I did a jigsaw puzzle at home on the family’s dining room table: Did I lose any pieces? This time there would be no cat or dog to blame if I had—only my nasty habit of setting a piece down out of the way amidst the surrounding clutter and forgetting where I set it. And the faster I was finishing it up, the bigger the empty spaces yet to be filled seemed to be.

I was sure I was missing anywhere from five to 20 pieces, yet lo and behold, when I put in what I thought was the final piece, I had one left over! By now I was both so exhilarated and delirious that I actually freaked out–to use another acid trip metaphor—then had to pore over the completed puzzle and finally run my hand on it slowly and methodically until I sensed the one missing hole.

I don’t know if it was joy or exhaustion, but I was drained emotionally upon completing the puzzle, incredibly, in only three days. I was just so driven to get it done and out of the way—and not lose any of the pieces in the process. Of course, it wasn’t over, even then: I still had to glue it—which wasn’t a problem after watching a few YouTube videos—and then get it into the frame, which was a problem in that even with all the glue, some sections popped out while transferring it to the frame and had to be reset.

As for the “problem” of the jigsaw puzzle pursuit as a whole, I found a pretty good quote while researching competitive puzzling, which I didn’t know even existed until seeing Puzzle.

“It’s a problem where you know there’s a solution. If you just work at it you know you can solve it and when you’re done you know you’ve solved it completely and correctly,” said Mike Helland of the championship four-person team The Collectors, to CBS Minnesota, on the eve of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, home of the country’s biggest jigsaw puzzle contest, in January of last year.

Or as Robert says in Puzzle, “What other pursuits can give you that kind of perfection? Faith? Ambition? Wealth? Love? No. Not even love can do that. Not completely.”

By this time in the film Agnes, by way of puzzling, has stepped out of her marriage and family, and has become so bold in her newly achieved sense of self that she even casts away Robert’s puzzle rules, and wins—with him—on her own terms.

As I always stay until the end of the credits, I was able to catch Sean Minton’s name in the closing thank-yous, along with another puzzle trade contact, Paula Jo Lentz of Ravensburger. And now I must note that while White Mountain doesn’t offer a golf puzzle as such, its Things to Do in Naples FL features a colorful road map with the location of things to do and places to see, bordered by 40 or so squares singling out posh resorts and popular attractions like The Caribbean Gardens Zoo, Everglades Excursions, and Naples Grande Golf Club–one of the top 100 resort courses in North America.

Ken Burns, the Memorial 101, and the other Alison Krauss

I met Ken Burns in Central Park at a kickoff event for his 2009 The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, which included performances from Jose Feliciano, whom I was so excited to meet, and my friends Alison Krauss & Union Station. Peter Coyote, the series narrator, was there, too, and it was great to meet him: I was a huge fan of A Grande Arte (US title: Exposure), a 1991 Brazilian film directed by Walter Salles Jr. in which he learned knife-fighting; I was training in Filipino martial arts, and knew that its knife fight-training and fighting scenes were unusually realistic.

Peter was impressed that I knew the film, which to my knowledge never came out on DVD—despite my efforts to convince Criterion and other companies to do so. He said it was one of his favorites, too.

But Peter is also the voice of Ken’s 18-hour The Vietnam War series, which concluded it’s two-week premiere run two weeks ago on PBS. I watched it with a dread shared probably by everyone of my generation, knowing that if I hadn’t lost it by the time it got to Kent State, I surely would then. Sure enough, my eyes moistened and dripped during the eighth of the 10 episodes when the indelible scenes of the May 4, 1970 Kent State killings were replayed. It brought back the never-forgotten memories of my moist and dripping eyes after being smothered by clouds of tear gas on the University of Wisconsin campus during the Vietnam War protest years.

I’ll never forget running up the parking ramp next to the McDonald’s at State and Lake Streets just a couple blocks from State and Park at the foot of Bascom Hill after a canister of gas was tossed or fired in my direction by the National Guard. I ran all the way up to the top of the ramp, only to realize, to my breathless horror, that there was no stairway*, and that I had to run back down, now into the clouds of gas that were billowing upwards and out into the ramp.

But I had it worse one night when a can of pepper gas exploded right in front of me and into my eyes. I was a bit lower on State Street, and I knew that the Hillel Foundation a block north on Langdon was a treatment center. I got there somehow and they flushed it out of my eyes and I was back out on the street. Like every other night of the many nights of Vietnam War protests on campus, I’d get home after and shower the gas out of my long hair and back into my eyes before rinsing it all out.

Once the gas came, the massive demonstrations, which would start in twilight and center at State and Park, would break up in all directions.

One time I was in a big group walking up Bascom Hill into the heart of the university. It got dark and there were police everywhere, and a National Guard helicopter overhead with a searchlight beaming down on small groups of demonstrators and lighting the way for arrests and/or police brutality. I hid in the bushes on the shores of Lake Mendota hoping to not get spotted. We called it “bringing the War back home.”

The Vietnam War brought it all back home, all right, including, of course, the music. Much of the soundtrack was ‘60s anthems, many of them war-related, like famous Dylan, Baez and Beatles songs. The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was used, and it was one of the songs that blared out of dormitory windows as we marched by—even though the words are really about the lack of street-fighting men in “sleepy London town.”

The other song I remember blasting out of the dorms made perfect sense, and should have been in The Vietnam War: Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America”:

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul.

Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.

Many years later, downstairs at Radio City at a reception after a Jefferson Starship show, I told this to Grace Slick. She laughed and said she’d heard that from a lot of people.

Over the years I got to meet and sometimes know a lot of the artists whose songs were part of the Vietnam War soundtrack, most notably including Dylan, Baez, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. CSN&Y, of course, consecrated Kent State with their hit “Ohio.”

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Add songs from the aforementioned artists and talk about “the soundtrack of our lives.”

I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, for protesting the Kent State killings, along with 100 others. An underground paper called us “The Memorial 101.” I celebrated by getting tear gassed again downtown on campus that night.

There are four images indelible in my mind from Vietnam and I knew I’d see all of them in The Vietnam War.

First was the South Vietnames officer holding the pistol to the head of the Vietcong guy in Saigon and blowing his brains out.

Second was the little naked girl with her back burned off running down the road.

Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.

Fourth was the teenage girl, 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of the student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, crying out in shock and anguish.

The dead boy was Jeffrey Miller. Killed, too, were Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause. Like I always say, “the other Alison Krauss.”

Four dead in Ohio.

I remember their names like I remember James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—the three civl rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964, and Viola Liuzzo, whose son I met in July in Milwauke at an Elvis Costello concert, she being the civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan in Alabama in 1965. And now Heather Heyer.

A year earlier—the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1969—I was at St. Paul’s University Catholic Church, on State near Park and Bascom Hill, for a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom I would later get to know. In fact, it was at Mary Travers’ memorial in 2009 where I met George McGovern, as great a man who ever served his country.

I had gone to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where McGovern was nominated, disastrously. Can’t remember the name of the park where all us demonstrators gathered and crashed, though one night I wound up in some cool place in Coconut Grove. At the park I hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Abbie Hoffman and Germaine Greer. And I went to a screening of the documentary F.T.A. starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who were there) and the musicians and performers who accompanied them on their touring satirical revue staged at coffeehouse and parks near U.S. Army bases where soldiers against the war congregated–F.T.A. generally understood to mean “Fuck the Army,” or as was also stated in the film, “Free the Army.”

It was a wonderful film that was apparently yanked out of distribution immediately because Jane infamously went to Hanoi the same week it opened. I saw it again a few years ago when it came out on DVD and it really was great. It also starred folksinger Holly Near—whom I later got to know—and Len Chandler, the historic African-American folk/protest singer-songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene who influenced Dylan–and who I wish I’d gotten to know. He did an antiwar song in the film that I’ve searched all over for and can’t find, called “My Ass is Mine.” It went, as musicians often say, something like this:

First they draft your ass
Then they train your ass
Then they kick your ass
And then they kill your ass
Well they can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass.

I got drafted in 1971. They were using a lottery system and my birthday drew a low number, 100, I think, or maybe it was 90. I’d originally been given a 1-Y classification, meaning I was qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But I still had to get on a bus one morning with other draftees and ride to Milwaukee and take a physical exam. About all I remember is the shit box lunch they gave us and stooping down around in our underwear and doing the “duck walk.”

I was pretty confident of being disqualified for good, due to very real mental illness–not to mention bad asthma and feet flatter than a Vietnamese rice paddy. Sure enough, I was given the coveted 4-F classification–not acceptable for military service. Years later I was burning a big one with Ray Benson, the great frontman of the great western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He suggested someone write a book about how famous people got out of going to Vietnam. I don’t remember how Ray got out, but I did have a high school friend who put a bullet in his foot claiming it was a hunting accident—which was epidemic at the time among draftees—and another who passed his physical, then told the draft board that he was gay, which he wasn’t. They punched him hard in the jaw and told him to get the fuck out of there.

Had I not got my 4-F I would have applied for conscientious objector status, though if I told the truth that I was atheist I might have been denied. So I would have gone to Canada, or jail, or Australia: I’d actually researched Australia at one time as they advertised for migrants in the classified ad section of The New Republic, then a genuinely liberal magazine, and I had a fondness for kangaroos and The Easybeats.

But I can’t remember if it was after all this or before, when I either saw Jane Fonda again or for the first time. But either way, it was pretty pathetic.

She was speaking on campus at some big, packed lecture hall just off State Street. At the end she took questions, and I desperately wanted to ask her something, just to have a personal exchange. I meekly raised my hand, stood up and started asking, and halfway forgot who I was and where I was and what I was doing, let alone whatever it was I was trying to ask. She was so beautiful, still in the Klute gamin haircut, and I was so starstruck. But she was so good: She knew what I was trying to ask, finished my question and answered it.

But it only got worse. I couldn’t control myself, and trailed her and a handful of other activists all the way down State Street to the State Capitol, where they met with a representative or two who were also antiwar. I don’t think I said a word the whole time.

So I had to laugh out loud when John Musgrave, a Marine and maybe the most eloquent and thoughtful Vietnam veteran appearing in The Vietnam War, acknowledged how Jane Fonda was everyone’s fantasy, so much so that he hated her when she went to Hanoi and became “Hanoi Jane.” But after stating this, Musgrave, who eventually turned against the war himself after returning to the States, paused and smiled, in spite of himself: “She was our fantasy,” he said, and even now, 50 years later, she still is.

A number of other Vietnam War vets, family members and other functionaries participated in The Vietnam War, and while most of them likewise looked back with some degree of regret if not shame, a few also stood out. These included Carol Crocker, who also turned against the war after losing her older brother Denton W. Crocker, Jr., known now forever to me and probably everyone who watched as “Mogie.”

While Mogie and John Musgrave were fighting the War in Vietnam, I and so many others in Madison and the rest of the country were fighting against it. But it was marred in Madison by the Aug. 24, 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing, which was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center that was housed in the UW building, but unintentionally took the life of university physics researcher Robert Fassnacht—whose name I still remember.

I still remember the names of the four bombers, too—Karleton Armstrong and younger brother Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. I met the Armstrongs after they were caught and released from prison, and met David Fine after he was caught and sentenced, and trained briefly at the taekwondo school I attended before beginning his prison term. Leo Burt was never apprehended.

I was surprised, many years later, that Ethan Coen knew the names of all the bombers, who called themselves “the New Year’s Gang,” having failed in an attempt to destroy the huge Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk County by means of dropping homemade explosives from a stolen small plane on New Year’s Eve, 1969. But the Coens were from Minneapolis and no doubt went through the same shit as I did growing up, and had also lived briefly in Madison when their dad taught a semester at the UW. Their lesser-known 2009 movie masterpiece A Serious Man, while not concerning Vietnam specifically, delivers much of the flavor of being a kid growing up in the ’60s in the Midwest, using Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I knew by heart, for much of the soundtrack.

As for growing up with the War, this was documented in The War at Home, a documentary film of the Vietnam War years in Madison. And it all came back home to me while watching The Vietnam War. Then again, it never really left.

As Phil Gioia, U.S. Army, put it so well in The Vietnam War: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had probably never been polarized since before The Civil War and unfortunately we’ve never really moved far away from that and we never recovered.”

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines, the last line, in fact, of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in reference to The Civil War, which had destroyed his family and turned him into an understandably vengeful but not unjust outlaw: “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

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.”