Greg Trooper’s ‘Day of the Troop’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Adele’s show-stoppage, Recording Academy racism, and the time I threw my own NARAS board election

Two nights after the Grammy Awards—which I reviewed negatively at Centerline.news—and I’m still seeing new articles centering on Adele, whose Song of the Year-winning “Hello,” by way of its horrendous video, I trashed here way back in October, 2015, when it came out.

Of course everyone’s creaming over her George Michael tribute, particularly the way she stopped her performance, cursing as ever, to start over after realizing she was singing off-key. So here’s my two cents: Forget about what was really the most stunning stopping of a song in TV history—Elvis Costello’s all-guts 1977 Saturday Night Live cutoff of his Attractions after starting up “Less Than Zero” and firing them into “Radio Radio” thereby biting the hand that fed him and keeping him off an angry SNL for many years. Many years ago, at the Bottom Line, I saw Jane Siberry, sensing something wrong in her performance that no one in the audience did, stop after the first few notes of “The Valley,” declare “I can’t live with that!” and restart it. It was a truly wonderful club performance, which I italicize to set it apart from Adele’s comparably bizarre TV stoppage.

For the self-absorbed drama queen, on the other hand, took up a big chunk of valuable TV time in an interminable (over there-and-a-half hours) show—no doubt cutting into acceptance speeches of other artists while prolonging the misery of at least this one viewer. And I know I’m likely the only one who cares anymore, but on a national prime-time show that is musically geared toward youngsters, Adele’s foul mouth makes for what I’d hardly call a positive role model.

But wait! There’s more!

The big fallout from the Grammy show, as predicted and certified by The New York Times, at least, is race related. Per the Times‘ headline, “#GrammysSoWhite Came to Life. Will the Awards Face Its Race Problem?”—meaning to suggest that the Grammys, “like America,” has “an inclusion problem—or more to the point, an exclusion problem.”

Translating further, the Times said that Adele won all five Grammys she was nominated for (also including Album of the Year and Record of the Year) with an album (25) that is her “least impressive,” but with “pomp-and-circumstance soul belting [that] is the sort of classicism likely to appeal to the Recording Academy voting members, who tend to skew older and more traditional.” Beyonce’s Lemonade, meanwhile, “is musically provocative and wide ranging, and rife with commentary about the meaning of blackness in the United States.”

Be all this as it may, my first question, when it comes to music, is always, Forget race. Forget age. Forget even genre. Do I want to hear it?

In regards to Adele, again, I always felt that “Hello” is a lousy song, and I’ve never cared much for her overwrought performance while granting the obvious–she is indeed hugely talented, as is Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, both of whom I also have little affection for. As for Beyonce, Lemonade for me is so conceptually pulp that I need a lyric sheet to fully grasp it. Not that I have a problem with that necessarily: My No. 1 album last year, after all, was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, which had more going on musically and lyrically than Lemonade but was way more listenable, that is, again, for me.

But that, of course, is really what it’s all about, that is, subjectivity. I felt that Katy Perry topped both Adele and Beyonce with her performance of new single “Chained to the Rhythm,” which I’d only heard twice before, but had already been hooked by. So for me, obviously, the hook is King Bee; simplistic, yes, but hey, what can I tell you?

I think my friend Roger Friedman laid it out pretty well yesterday in his Showbiz 411 post, where he maintained that Adele won because she currently has four singles on iTunes, whereas Beyonce has none, also that 25 far outsold Lemonade.

“That’s it,” wrote Roger. “That’s what Grammy committees and voters look at. Is it right? Nope. But that’s what it is.” I’ll add that he also correctly noted that not only did Lemonade have no hit singles—the No. 10 “Formation” notwithstanding–Beyonce’s marketing efforts, while attention-grabbing, have “kept her out of the mainstream,” while her much-ballyhooed Grammy performance was a “self-indulgent crazy piece” that Roger likened to “The Last Supper,” I to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

A lot of things are wrong with the Grammys, as I’ve been saying forever. But I’ve served on Grammy nominating committees and as bad a job as they so often do, I can say they bend over backwards to try to please everyone, which, of course, is impossible. Hence the separate Latin Grammys—and if you want to further the racism discussion, there were no Latin performers Sunday night. But really, it’s just another beauty contest, as all award shows really are. And beauty, as Kinky Friedman likes to say, is in the eyes of the beerholder.

But wait! There’s still more.

Adele made a big show out of apologizing to Beyonce for beating her for the big awards. Well, she must have seen this coming—or at least the not unlikely possibility—and if she felt Beyonce deserved them so much, and wanted her to win them so much, she could have just withdrawn her releases from competition like a Grammy-resistant Frank Ocean did and in effect ensure Beyonce’s victories, though, that might have opened the door for at least an equally deserving Sturgill Simpson.

All this reminds me of my own Grammy-related mishap, when for wanting someone else to win, I essentially voted myself out of the Recording Academy’s New York chapter’s Board of Governors. This must have been sometime in the mid-1990s, when I’d been encouraged to run for a two-year term, and after winning and serving, a second two-year term, which I also won and served.

But in all honesty, I won because I was put in the all-inclusive “At Large” category, I think it was called, meaning there were 10 names listed, if I remember right, and you voted for eight of them. Now I’d had at least a good 15 years of experience in New York as a music business trade journalist/reporter, and knew a lot of people in all areas of the industry. So not to boast, but I had at least enough name recognition to make me a shoo-in to win one of the eight out of 10 slots in the category, like me or not–familiarity here being as big a factor for success as it is at the Grammy ballot box.

Once elected, about the only requirement for serving on the board was attending the meetings, and since I was a freelance writer then and now, the promise of lunch pretty much guaranteed my presence. I don’t think I missed a single meeting in my four years. But I was probably the only one there who was hungry, the other governors being mostly successful record and music publishing company executives along with creatives—name producers like Russ Titelman and Phil Ramone and artists like Gary Burton, Nile Rodgers and Sharon Isbin.

It’s no surprise I was probably the least effective governor. First of all, no artist I ever voted for won a Grammy. And if you ever read any of my Grammy Awards show reviews, you know that only on the most rare occasions did I give as many as two out of five stars.

Then there was the chapter’s pet project, a program called “Grammy in the Schools.” Now I could understand reading, writing and ‘rithmatic being in the schools, and English, social studies and gym. But Grammy? What the fuck?

I could understand, maybe, if it was about the music, but you and I, we’ve been through that. Even with the steep decline in music and arts education in public schools, what with budget cuts–not to mention a reduced value in this country placed on anything culturally edifying–the Grammy in the School focus, as with the Grammy Awards show, was strictly mainstream commercial, hence of little interest to me and what should have been little NARAS interest in promoting to school kids. Making it worse, I felt, was that we weren’t so much promoting music as music business, that is, explaining music industry jobs to kids—not helping them learn about music.

And this sums up my big gripe about NARAS and now the Recording Academy: It cares more about the business than the art, in reality, the business of the Grammys. As I said in Centerline, the show is about the show, not the music.

As you can guess, I sat pretty much alone. But I did make one positive, if failed contribution. Some years earlier, the chapter put on what it called the New York Heroes Awards, which I always thought was a great event honoring deserving New York artists or music business people. The event had been discontinued due to costs, I suppose, so I suggested it be revived, maybe under a different name, and at a not-so-fancy venue with a not-so-fancy production at a not-so-fancy price. I wanted to honor CBGB’s Hilly Kristal, and we had made some headway into establishing it, but it never happened.

Otherwise, like everywhere else in my career, I promoted, and defended, the non-mainstream noncommercial music that NARAS only paid lip service to. Sure, they instituted a polka Grammy, but there I was, on more than one occasion, sitting at the governors table while the chapter president, who I will only say was one of the most famous record producers for one of the most famous artists, made stupid, predictable and uneducated putdowns of polka—prompting me to write him a personal letter virtually accusing him of racism against Eastern European ethnic musics–this, I remind you, many years before the current Adele-Beyonce controversy.

Sure enough, the polka Grammy was later eliminated, as were, among others, the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, Best Hawaiian Music Album, Best Native American Music Album and Best Traditional Folk Album. (Pop quiz: When’s the last time you heard zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional folk music on the Grammy Awards show? Better yet, when’s the first time you heard zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional folk music on the Grammy Awards show?)

Anyway, my two terms came up, and because of term limits, I was out—but not before I encouraged a fellow governor to run for chapter president, which he did, and won. Two years later when I became eligible he came back to me and asked me to run again, to which I said I’d do it, but only if I was again placed in the “At Large” category, which he said he’d do. Except he didn’t.

When I received my ballot, I was horrified to see that I’d been placed in the writer’s category—I don’t remember the exact name of it—and worse, that I was up against a woman whose name I don’t remember, but I do remember what she did: She wrote for the New York Philharmonic, as a historian. To me that was way cool to begin with, but making it more so was that not only was she very nice, she shared my lack of excitement for the board and the meetings. At the next one, after we’d received our ballots but before the voting deadline, I told her how unhappy I was that I was running against her, and that I fully intended to vote for her, which in fact I did.

Of course I didn’t think my vote would matter. I mean, like me or not, I still had name recognition, and really, after all I’d done for so many people in the industry for so many years as the champion of all music, major label superstar or indie label unknown, well, again, I was bound to be a shoo-in–especially against a gal who worked for the New York Philharmonic! I mean, no one, besides me and her and a major label classical music producer who was also a board member, gave a shit about classical music! Certainly not the Grammy Awards show producers–not then or now. And even if every member of the symphony was a NARAS member and voted for her, I had to have many more hundreds who knew me and appreciated all that I’d done.

Or so I thought. I lost, and I still miss eating those monthly lunches. A few months later I ran into Jon Marcus, the chapter’s executive director, who ran the meetings with the chapter president. Jon was a great guy who died, sadly, last year—so I can reveal what he told me then not to tell anyone.

“You know,” he said, “you only lost by two votes!”

Do the math: I voted for my opponent—and didn’t vote for me.

I replied: “And both those votes were mine!”

Super Bowl’s big winner? Lady Gaga. Big loser? Me.

Turns out the big winner at the Super Bowl last night was Lady Gaga, which makes me the big loser, having tweeted earlier that her halftime was gonna suck.

I took a lot of lumps, and now I’ll eat some crow: She was great, no question. But the question really is, Do I care?

Background: I’m not a Gaga hater, but not a huge fan, either. Full respect for her amazing singing and songwriting talent and hits, I just don’t feel a lot of heart, and way too much attitude in essentially trying to out-Madonna Madonna to the point where I have a hard time just looking at her.

Having said that, I have had the opportunity to interview her, though I was limited to four questions in advance, which she answered very, very well. But they were videotaped and I wasn’t allowed to use them when she and/or her handlers didn’t like the lighting or something. In other words, her focus is at least equally on image as it is on music, and I’m not that big on image when it comes to music.

And her other monster media venues—MTV Awards, Grammys, Oscars and especially Tony Bennett—have left me cold, especially Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday special at Radio City, during which, I felt, she tried to steal the show, selfishly, and was outperformed by Diana Krall and k.d. lang, who both underplayed it.

So I figured she’d go for outrage during the halftime, but to her credit—and my mistake—she went all-out instead. And yes, it was all terrific in terms of physically and vocally demanding entertainment value, extraordinary, for sure–maybe even the best-ever Super Bowl halftime show, as many are saying. I certainly can’t think of a better one.

But back to, Do I care? I most definitely care very much that she paired “God Bless America” with “This Land is Your Land” at the beginning—living up to her most admirable message of inclusion while offsetting the self-absorption of her preceding “I am a rebel” Tiffany commercial. But as great as the ensuing performance was, no, I don’t care–and it’s not altogether her fault: The continued emphasis on superstardom, at the Super Bowl, the Grammys, etc., concentrates attention on a few at the expense of the very many other deserving artists who in so many cases get no exposure at all, yet are no less worthy. And I say this not taking anything away from Lady Gaga.

“Stand corrected: #ladygaga was great,” I tweeted when it ended. But my most meaningful tweet had been posted a few hours earlier: “Bring back the sousaphones: Re #SuperBowlSunday #PepsiHalftime, @nytimes notes that over the past 50 years, halftime show has transformed from showcase for college sousaphonists into global marketing opportunity for pop superstars.”

The Times piece noted how Super Bowl I in 1967 began the tradition of featuring “enthusiastic marching bands” (from Grambling State University and the U. of Arizona at the first one) that continued for the next two decades, up until New Kids on the Block–the highest-paid entertainers at the time–launched “the halftime show’s modern era” in 1991. With Lady Gaga out of the way now–and with her show setting a virtually impossible standard to meet, let alone top–I’d encourage a return to that first tradition, maybe even bringing back what the Times rightly called “the bland, wholesome group” Up With People, who nevertheless in 1976 “preached unity and progress”–41 years before Gaga so memorably took the same message and flew with it.

On Obama and New York’s Yemeni grocers

The thing that always struck me about Obama is that as much as I—liberal through-and-through—loved him, he really was the perfect Republican, meaning he was a committed Christian devoted to the “family values” that the Republicans have always espoused. Never was there ever even the hint of personal scandal, and none of all the alleged political ones ever held any water.

Only one thing ruined him for Republicans: skin color. No, make that two things: skin color and intelligence. Mega-intelligence.

I reflect on this as my Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood Yemeni grocery store owners join their New York countryfolk in closing shop—some 1,000 in all—today from noon to 8 p.m.—in response to Trump’s Muslim ban. That’s a big chunk of vital retail.

Then again, Yemenis are vital to New York City, as are Muslims from all countries. And like Obama, the ones I patronize, at least, are also dream Republicans: hardworking, family-oriented people, who came to this country like all of our ancestors who weren’t Native Americans–in search of a better life, be it to escape religious or political persecution or whatever.

I’ve always felt that’s the greatest thing about New York: Everyone from everywhere—all countries, creeds, colors, gender identities–is all together, such that we’re forced to deal with each other out of common humanity, rather than kill each other over random differences of birth.

Those of us who live here are lucky, indeed.

Crying like a baby: Women’s March NYC, 1-21-2017

I knew I’d cry, just not how soon and for the entire time—and that I’d be such a blubbering idiot about it.

I knew it because I was already so moved, conceptually, by the Women’s March on Washington—and just about everywhere else in the world where people who care about the planet and not just themselves exist, even including Antarctica! But as I walked east late Saturday morning on 42nd Street toward Grand Central Station, besides the significance of the Women’s March the day after the official consecration of evil, my thoughts ran also to the last time I marched: February 15, 2003, in opposition to the imminent Iraq War.

Jane Siberry was in town, maybe she played Joe’s Pub the night before. She met me at Grand Central, as did my friend Suri Gopalan, then maybe the top U.S. distributor of South Asian music and video. It was very cold that day as we marched up the East Side, and it was so crowded we never made it near to where the rally stage was. Indeed, Jane and Suri were long gone by the time I turned onto whatever the avenue was and caught sight of the stage many blocks down and could hear the speakers.

And then I cried. It was a cry of joy that after all these years, these decades after protesting the Vietnam War as a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin, when I’d come home from the University campus, once after being kicked out of high school for protesting Kent State, with tear gas seeped into my clothes and dripping down my hair in the shower (one time I needed to be treated at the Hillel foundation on Langdon Streeet when a can of National Guard pepper gas blew up right in front of me), that here I was, after all this time, right where I began, true to my idealistic younger self, where I was supposed to be.

I shouldn’t call any of this nostalgia, but I could feel the tears welling up once again as I crossed Sixth Avenue, and when I caught up with a girl carrying a sign and wearing a Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket, the floodgates opened and never really shut. Around 45th and Fifth a cop let me join the march from behind the sidewalk barricades, as I had neither registered for a start time at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at East 47th Street and First Avenue, nor gone there anyway. Rather, I figured on going to Grand Central, which was being used as a warming station–though it was warm enough for me to keep my medium jacket and heavy hooded sweatshirt open, thereby exposing the old red Janis Ian t-shirt I managed to dig out specially for the occasion.

The march would travel down Second Avenue and turn west on 42nd Street before turning north on Fifth and ending at Trump Tower at 56th. I was hoping to run into friends I knew would be there from tweets and Facebook posts—Rosanne Cash and Sandra Bernhard and David Johansen—but as it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t so much crying as bawling, uncontrollably: Poor Janis Ian t-sirt! Snot noodled down upon it continuously, tears streaming down my face.

Weird thing is, I don’t usually cry much—though I do cry at movies (I’m sure they’re still cleaning up the puddle I left at last month’s Dangal screening!) and whenever I hear Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee and Jane Siberry, or watch Barack and Michelle Obama. And I’m open about it, so that when I tweeted “Weeping openly behind protest gal with Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket,” a Facebook friend observed that I seem to cry a lot. “I’m a crybaby,” I responded.

It got so bad when I got in the middle of it that I couldn’t chime in on any of the chants, I was so overcome with emotion. Of course I wouldn’t have joined a Spanish one that I had a feeling was somewhat lewd since the gals were having so much fun with it, but when they ended with “When they go low, we go high” I was sniveling too much to form words. And I wouldn’t even attempt to add my voice to the little girls shouting out Planned Parenthood chant support.

I did try to sing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something I never do at sports events–when the church organ at St. Thomas Church played it, but nothing came out. Same with “We Shall Overcome”—by the way, a fantastic touch from the church. Even the signs had me boohooing (a word I’ve never used, that I picked up from Tanya Tucker’s hit “Down to My Last Teardop”–that shows I’m running out of “cry” synonyms): “Dissent is Patriotic,” “I can’t believe my daughters have to do this too,” “Hate doesn’t live here anymore” (when I got home I had to post Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), an iconic blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign that the woman holding it said was 15-years-old and used at five demonstrations, a “Keep your laws off my body” sign that an elderly lady said was 25-years-old.

A brief aside: So I was struggling to send out tweets through the tears and keep up with my Facebook and Twitter timelines, and on Facebook came word, though one of my friends and favorite singer-songwriters Maria McKee, that Maggie Roche of the most wonderful Roches had died.

“One of my favorite records of all time,” Maria wrote, in reference to the Roches’ self-titled 1979 album. “RIP Maggie Roche.”

“Crushed,” I responded, then tweeted, “Overcome now by sadness at news that Maggie Roche has died.” And I cried some more.

But Maria also posted “I’M SO PROUD TO BE A WOMAN TODAY! WARRIORS I LOVE YOU ALL! #RESIST.” I tweeted, “Cue Lee Greenwood: ‘And I’m proud to be an American….'” and passed a couple old ladies with blue ball caps embroidered with “We’re still here.” “Talkin’ ’bout my generation,” I tweeted.

The Devil’s Tower was now looming large as we neared 56th and Fifth. And suddenly there was a new, softer chant: “Bubble!”

Actually it wasn’t so much a chant as it was an expression of wonderment. Sure enough, the most perfect five-inch soap bubble rose over the sea of people filling Fifth Avenue, evoking my thoughts of The Red Balloon and the plastic bag of American Beauty.

“Bubble!”

And we had reached the northernmost part of the march, police barricades preventing us from getting any closer to the Tower of Doom. I followed those marchers directly in front of as they turned off to the right and headed east, passing the cutest quartet of little girls holding up a “Girl Power” sign on the south side of 56th, halfway to Madison Avenue. I turned south at the corner and there were still marchers with signs everywhere, coming or going or just hanging out. Best one: “Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights.”

I looked at my phone and saw that Barb Jungr, England’s great pop/cabaret singer whom I’d seen just two weeks before at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton, had tweeted me, “In London doing same and fave sign I’m Quite Cross. It’s so English.”

I got to 42nd Street, turned right and rejoined the march, now with those who had started a couple hours after me. Here it was so packed that it took probably 40 minutes to get from Madison to Fifth. The best sign brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I used to work a block from Oscar Mayer headquarters, as it parodied the company’s jingle: “My vagina has a first name: It’s don’t fu%#king grab my pussy/My vagina has a second name, it’s seriously don’t fucking grab my pussy.”

Finally reaching Fifth Avenue, where the marchers turned right for the final leg, I kept going and headed home, thought not before finally finding at least a small part of my voice and uttering the old protest warhorse “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and the Obama battle cry “Yes we can!” And I thought of this passage toward the end of his final speech in Chicago two weeks ago: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans–especially so many young people out there–to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”

“Guess what? We didn’t lose!” I tweeted. “We are not alone!”

When I got home I saw that 25,000 were marching in Madison–the total since reported as between 75,000 to 100,000. That night I tuned into my old friend Rockin’ John McDonald’s I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison’s listener-sponsored station WORT-FM and heard him play in succession the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ and the Vietnam War Moratorium redux

It was perfect timing, running into Peter Yarrow a week ago Sunday unexpectedly at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). He was meeting and greeting talent buyers strolling the Hilton’s vast exhibition halls, where he was stationed at the BiCoastal Productions agency booth to assist in the promotion of Lonesome Traveler: The Concert, the acclaimed 2015 off_Broadway musical now being packaged as a concert event, that he has endorsed and can be featured in as guest star depending on his availability.

Subtitled “The Roots of American Folk Music,” the show celebrates the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Dylan and of course, Peter, Paul and Mary, in the context of folk music from the 1920s to the ’60s and beyond.

I didn’t meet them until much later, but I first saw Peter, Paul and Mary at a church on the University of Wisconsin Campus, where they performed at a Vietnam War Moratorium—but I’m not sure of the dates. According to Wikipedia, The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which was a massive demonstration/teach-in all over the country, took place Oct. 15, 1969, and was followed by a Moratorium March on Washington a month later on Nov. 15.

So it had to be the second Moratorium (the word means “a suspension of activity”), because I do remember that PP&M were leaving that night for D.C. to join the march. It’s terrible I don’t remember the church—maybe St. Paul’s?—but it had to be at the end of State Street, where the UW begins. Peter, though, remembered the church well, not to mention everything surrounding the Moratorium.

The last time I’d seen Peter was a couple years ago or so, doing pretty much the same thing, except at Toy Fair at the Javits Center. Not sure which exhibition booth he was ensconced in this time, because I think there were two toy companies that had “Puff, the Magic Dragon” toy product out, but he was probably at the one with the plush Puff toys. Wherever, he was signing Puff, the Magic Dragon illustrated children’s books, packaged with a CD of Peter singing the PP&M classic and other songs with his daughter Bethany and a cellist—and, of course, posing for pictures with starstruck baby boomer toy business people.

But at the Hilton, I was for once more than just the starstruck baby boomer kid at the Moratorium who didn’t even meet Peter Yarrow, as well as the starstruck baby boomer music journalist who had met him many times since. No, this time I approached him as an equal in that both of us had starred in the 2015 Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young.

Yes, I exaggerate! Not Peter’s role, for he had a meaty part as a leftist intellectual—hardly a stretch—whereas I was an extra–hardly a stretch–sitting at an Upper West Side coffee shop while Naomi Watts, her back to me, was meeting with Adam Driver, with Ben Stiller, playing Watts’ jealous husband, storming in after.

If you see the movie, you might recognize me by the bald spot on the top of my head—which I didn’t even know was there! Then for a second or so the camera pulls back at the end of the scene to reveal my truly recognizable receded hairline profile. Just don’t blink.

But it was so fun, and certainly arrogant, to address Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow as my co-star! That he didn’t blow me off is testament to something or other, his befuddlement, most likely. But it did lead him into some interesting observations, and an affirmation by both of us of our continued commitment to the ’60s ethos.

“It took a cultural, ethical point-of-view,” he said of While We’re Young, “and when I read the script I realized it was the antithesis of what I try to espouse in the songs I sing–as was the case with Peter, Paul and Mary all those years. And it profoundly preceded the rise of Trump.”

Here he pointed to Driver’s less-than-truthful aspiring film director character, who is “perfectly able to live without finding any sense of responsibility or guilt and can act unethically in terms of respecting the rights and creativity of Ben Stiller’s [documentary filmmaker] character. I thought that that counterpoint made it a very important film—but I didn’t expect it to become such a powerful commentary on what’s happening now in our country.”

He had attended the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg musical Finian’s Rainbow the night before, a show centering on themes of immigration, economic greed, racial reconciliation and fighting bigotry.

“At the end I sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with the cast, and spoke about why the music is so critical: It’s intention is to bring a tear to your eyes and dissolve the distance between us—and let us now unite in the face of a disuniting force.”

A disuniting force.

I told Peter Yarrow I would be marching again come Saturday, the day after the inauguration of the Disuniting Force. And Peter Yarrow of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” hugged me and called me “my Brother.”

Howard Bingham: An appreciation

I saw Lonnie Ali’s tweet announcing the Dec. 15 death of Howard Bingham and was saddened though not surprised.

It had been several years since I’d had contact with Howard—though not for lack of trying: I’d called him and emailed him several times over the years, but the number I had no longer had
an answering machine and I never got an email response.

I called the publisher of his most recent book Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers 1968 (2010), as he’d come with Howard to my annual Bessman Bash party in Los Angeles, and he’d lost contact, too, same with the people at Taschen, which put out the immense Greatest Of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali book that was full of Howard’s photos of Ali, including, I think, the fab pic of his baby son, cradled in Ali’s left hand, his right balled up into a fist held at the baby’s face, his own delightfully contorted in clownish anger. Some 20 years later—at least—I called Howard and a serious-sounding young man answered and said he wasn’t home. Who was speaking? I asked. It was his son, he said, “The one in the picture?” I asked. He laughed and said yes.

No doubt Ali’s camp knew about Howard’s whereabouts and condition, but I’d lost touch with them, too, when Ali’s assistant Kim retired several years ago. Indeed, it was only after bringing him up to Michale Olajide, Jr., when I visited him at his Aerospace gym in Chelsea to take down his thoughts on Muhammad Ali after his passing that I learned he was indeed ill–at least that’s what Michael had heard. Then it all made sense.

I’d actually met Michael through Howard, when Howard brought me to a pre-release New York screening of Ali at the Ziegfeld. I was standing with Howard when Michael came in with Angelo Dundee, Ali’s legendary trainer, who had also trained Michael for a while. So I sat with Howard, Angelo and Michael, and became big friends with Michael. And when I called Kim when I got back home, and told her how much I enjoyed the movie—and meeting Angelo—she asked me to wait a moment, and then, sure enough, a frail yet instantly recognizable GOAT whispered into the phone, “So how did you like the movie?”

Howard’s New York Times obit said he took an estimated million photos of Ali in the 50 years of their friendship. It quoted former Times sports reporter/columnist Robert Lipsyte’s summation of Howard as “the kindest, most generous and decent human being in that whole Ali entourage,” who “really kept him on the straight and narrow. He had this beautiful innocence about him. And a very difficult stammer that made him hard to understand.”

Yes, he did have that stammer! But he was also a quiet, unassuming man, who never exploited his relationship with Ali and unlike so many others in the Ali entourage, never took any moneyh from him.

The Times also cited Howard’s “calm demeanor,” which allowed him to stay with Ali through four wives, his conversion to Islam, the stripping of his heavyweight title when he refused military service and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. It noted that while Howard photographs Ali’s fights, his complete access resulted in historically candid shots of Ali preaching or sleeping, playing with his children or with Elvis Presley, and posing with black leaders like Malcolm X and James Meredith.

“By being there, in hotel rooms and on streets with Ali, Howard saw him in unguarded moments and put together a portfolio that reveals the man Ali really was,” Newark’s longtime Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg told the Times. “His legacy, his pictures, are a necessary piece of the Ali puzzle.”

Through Howard I also had an unforgettable lunch some years ago in Downtown Nashville with the colorful John Jay Hooker, considered perhaps Music City’s most most recognizable and charismatic political figure, and definitely among its most controversial, who himself died a year ago. It was Hooker, who had been close friends with Bobby Kennedy (Hooker served as special assistant to RFK when he was attorney general in his brother’s administration), who befriended Ali shortly before the third Ali-Frazier fight (the fabled Thrilla in Mainilla), immediately after which Ali, victorious but exhausted and sitting on his stool in the ring, turned and said, “I want to say hello to my friend John Jay Hooker.”

Funny, I don’t remember how I met Howard originally, though it certainly was a long time ago. I had an in at Photo District News, a trade magazine for professional photographers that was owned by the same company that owned Billboard—for which Howard got me an Ali quote for an Ali-related story way back when, too. I asked him him if I could interview him for PDN and he said, “It would be an honor.”

It was my honor, of course.

“Howard meant so much to our family,” Lonnie tweeted. “We will miss him dearly but take comfort in knowing he’s back with his best friend.”

I retweeted it and added, “A wonderful, wonderful man. Thanks to him I got to know you….”

@Muhammad Ali tweeted: “The world has lost a great man and an even better friend. Howard Bingham will be dearly missed by all.” None more than me.

Here’s John Jay Hooker speaking about Ali and Bingham:

I am John Jay Hooker: Ali from Genuine Human Productions on Vimeo.

Congratulations, Billy Gilman!

No one is happier than me that Billy Gilman did so well on The Voice, finishing second last night.

I was there, at Billboard, for Billy’s first album, One Voice, released in 2000 when he was 12, and got to know him, his mother, and his manager at the time—not to mention Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who had discovered him at age nine. The album’s titletrack hit the Top 40, and with it he also became the youngest artist to have a Top 40 country single.

Back then Ray was confident that Billy had what it took to stay successful after his voice changed, and last night proved him right. Meanwhile, Billy courageously came out as gay two years ago, hours after fellow country artist Ty Herndon came out.

But Billy always had a pop sensibility, as evidenced by his performance in 2000 of “Dream a Dream” with then 14-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and most significantly, his 2003 album Music Through Heartsongs—Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek.

Recorded when he was 14, Heartsongs already showed a deepened voice and a more mature album content due, remarkably, to the “heartsong” lyrics of Mattie Stepanek—the then 13-year-old best-selling poet whose books stemmed from the incurable form of muscular dystrophy that would take his life just before his 14th birthday—and the stylistically varied music by top Nashville songwriters including Richard Leigh, Tom Douglas, Bruce Roberts, Randle Chowning, James Slater, and the album’s (and One Voice‘s) producer David Malloy.

Billy and Mattie had met on Larry King Live.

“He started to read his poems, and I looked over at my father and mother choking up—and it wasn’t like my father,” Billy told me upon the 2009 publication of Messenger: The Legacy Of Mattie J.T. Stepanek And Heartsongs by his mother Jeni Stepanek.

“The kid was really touching someone who wasn’t touched a lot. But they didn’t sound like ordinary poems, but like lyrics. I wondered if there was any way I could do one on a record—as a bonus cut or something—and I called everybody in Nashville who were involved with my career at that point and pitched the idea, and it ended up being the whole record.”

Billy later learned that Mattie had rejected numerous other like offers.

“Other artists couldn’t get the message of his heartsongs,” he explained. “I’m so honored they chose me, because he was one of the greatest people anyone could ever meet.”

Heartsongs‘ standout track was “I Am/Shades of Life,” which combined two of Mattie’s heartsongs.

“David Malloy wrote the melody and I thought, ‘Man! That’s not a song but an anthem!’ I still get letters about it! But it was really long so they cut the words in half for radio. Mattie and I both felt they needed to keep the whole thing because otherwise the story was lost, so the song was re-cut. It was kind of like ‘One Voice,’ and the video was awesome.”

Billy was 21 when I last spoke with him in 2009, and had just begun writing his own songs.

“I had to go home and wait for my voice to change—which gives you an awesome out for anything!” he said. “You can say, ‘Thank you, I’m done,’ and then go on to the next thing. But at the end of the day I’m a country singer, and I never had the opportunity as a kid to do what I wanted to do with my sound—and now I can.”

I believe Billy remains a celebrity ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, having served as co-host of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. As for “I Am/Shades of Life,” it remains a favorite song of mine, with a melody and vocal I find very moving, along with, of course, Mattie Stepanek’s poetry and spoken words.

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.]