Three nights in L.A.

Thursday night, August 22

I’d arrived in Los Angeles Monday the 19th. Had dinner at Bob Merlis and Lynda Keeler’s that night, along with some wonderful friends of theirs from Palm Springs. Tuesday night was the weekly “Old Man’s Dinner” at The Park, where 12 of us grey- and no-hairs gathered to commiserate about the state of “Our Beloved [Music] Industry”–as our pal Tom Vickers always puts it–while toasting those who had left it for good (Peter Fonda that week, for rock-rich films like Easy Rider, and Larry “The Mole” Taylor, great bassist of Canned Heat and other artists, who had died that day and with whom I had dinner in New York some years ago along with Augie Meyers and Los Lobos).

Wednesday it was dinner with Tom and Victoria Vickers, in whose “Garage Mahal” back-of-the-garage room I was staying before moving over to Bob’s on Thursday. After dinner I went with Ned Claflin to hit a big bucket of balls at Weddington Golf & Tennis in Studio City, and in a remarkable feat for an old man who hadn’t touched a club in the two years since the last time we went there, I five-ironed three balls into the barrel 50 yards out–though one was on the bounce.

It had all been leading up to Thursday night and the Rolling Stones at the Rose Bowl, as Bob was the longtime publicist for ABKCO, the management/publishing/recording company that owned the Stones’ early catalog, from which the bulk of the concert setlist came. 

I did a lot of work over the years for ABKCO, too, when founder Allen Klein was alive. I wrote several liner notes for his reissue compilations (Herman’s Hermits and The Animals among them) and an essay for a Stones songbook.

I loved Allen–whom a lot of people didn’t. He was incredibly kind to me and even though I was a Billboard reporter, let me hang in his famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame suite at the Waldorf Astoria during the dinner, as I didn’t have a seat that year. Besides Allen, his Girl Everyday Iris Keitel was there, along with his son (now ABKCO president) Jody, Phil Spector (another dear friend and most generous and thoughtful one), Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham–Andrew having discovered and managed the Stones before Allen took over.

A lot had been said while I sat next to Keith on a sofa across from Phil, Allen and Andrew, swigging from the bottle of Jack Daniels Keith kept passing over to me. It had helped that I’d told him I was close to Bill Carter, the ex-Secret Service agent (for Kennedy and Johnson—and no, there was no conspiracy, and yes, Oswald acted alone, and I know this from Bill, as told to me personally and as recorded in his Get Carter: Backstage in History from JFK’s Assassination to the Rolling Stones, for which I wrote the foreword) who first appears in Keith’s memoir Life on the first line of Page 2, as he had later acted as the Stones liaison with the feds–in effect being the Stones fixer and Keith’s savior.

Like I said, a lot had been said, particularly between Keith and Allen and clearly going back to old grievances and maybe new alliances–while I sat there stoned and getting increasingly drunker wondering when Allen was going to turn to me and tell me to leave. He never did, but when it was time for everyone to go back down to the ballroom for the Hall of Fame jam (“I’m not even going to plug in,” said Keith. “They only want to see some moves anyway!”), Allen came to me and softly said, “You know, you can never repeat any of what you heard.” 

“I know, Allen! Thank you for letting me stay!” I stammered, and I do hope he wouldn’t think I’d broken his confidence by now relating any of this, and am confident he wouldn’t.

But Allen’s been gone now many years, much as I’ve been gone from Billboard–not to mention Our Beloved Industry. While I’d seen the Stones several times under ABKCO’s auspices, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could impose upon them for more tickets. So I hadn’t seen them in at least a couple tours, if not more.

On our drive to Pasadena, I revisited the Memory Motel, to borrow from the title of one of my favorite Stones songs. And that’s kind of what the night became—though they didn’t do “Memory Motel.”

To evoke another Stones song they didn’t do, what could have been the last time I saw them was at Madison Square Garden, 10 years ago, maybe many more. I remember thinking they were good*, but not as good. The first time was memorable for a couple reasons. I wasn’t even writing yet back in 1975, when I saw them at Milwaukee’s County Stadium (The Eagles and Rufus opened). I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and living in Milwaukee–where I was born—and went to Milwaukee Braves games (I actually saw Sandy Koufax hit a home run there–I think he only hit two in his career), and when a friend in New York knew someone who was able to get me Stones tickets, I’m pretty sure I’d taken my high school buddy Greg, who was a Stones fanatic like me. His favorite song was their cover of Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” from their 1965 album Out of Our Heads, and we used to sing along to it over and over in his basement.

At best, everything now is bittersweet, looking back. The Memory Motel houses good memories, and some not so good.

Greg and I did a lot of drugs together in high school, though I don’t think Greg ever graduated to needles like I did. I was a mess before I’d started on drugs, so it was self-medication as much as anything, ending up in two hospitalizations, the second lasting over a year. When I got out I was determined to stay clean, and did so until that Stones show, when I smoked a joint for the first time in a couple years, at least. I always look back at those years of staying straight as The Lost Years.

I realize I’m so old now that I think everything was at least 10 years ago, but it was the night of a Bessman Bash (to be defined later) at Bob’s many years ago now that Greg committed the most ridiculous of suicides, if a suicide can be ridiculous–and I definitely don’t mean to lighten it’s horror by calling it that. Rather, it only makes it more horrible: After all, Greg had remained one of my best friends, though I hadn’t seen him in the 25 or so years, maybe, since I was sent by Cash Box, (the long defunct music trade magazine I worked at full-time for my first two years in New York) to cover an audio tape manufacturers’ trade conference in Jacksonville, where he lived. But he would always call me on my birthday, as he had a savant-like knack of remembering birthdays, such that I used to call him “Mr. Birthday.”

As I understood it from his ex-wife—who had called me during the Bash, but whose message I didn’t play until the next morning–he got in a fight with his older sister, who blamed him for letting the cat out a basement window. Again, I don’t know if I got the story right, but his sister somehow fell through a screen/glass door, the police were called, and Greg was arrested, then at some point, for whatever reason (I heard he was afraid he wouldn’t get hired again for carpentry work in Florida, where he still lived, since he now had an arrest record), he hung himself.

Greg had returned to Madison to help care for his disabled mother, who died shortly before him. I’d been close to his parents, and friends with his sister–now his only survivor–and doubt that she’d ever see this, but she’s had enough loss in her life to see it recounted here, so I’ve left their last name out. But I thought of Greg, and County Stadium, as I entered the Rose Bowl with Bob and his middle son Ben, who works for him and lives near the stadium.

I won’t offer a review of the show—I didn’t take notes–other than to say that it was the best I’d ever seen the Stones, making me glad I always objected to those critics who’ve been asking them to give it up for decades now. My thing is two-fold: If people are willing to spend big money on seeing you, why not? And if you’re a musician who wants to keep playing for people who are willing to spend big money on seeing you, why not? As Ben Sidran told me a few summers ago when I was visiting my mom in Madison, when he acknowledged that while he was working on a new record, no one was going to buy it: “What am I supposed to do? I’m a musician.” Like I’m a writer, relegated to writing for my own sites now: What the fuck else am I gonna do? And besides the great blues guys kept playing until they dropped. Muddy Waters and B.B. King never quit. Tony Bennett still sounds great in his 90s. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are still touring in their 80s, and fans still come out in droves.

So so what Mick Jagger just had heart surgery, Charlie Watts is 78, and Keith Richards, now without his gypsy/pirate headband, now looks like a balding, dried-out prune, with his mouth open half the time like he’s about to drool, every now and then breaking into a trademark grin when looking over to bassist Darryl Jones, mostly, or his longtime guitar cohort Ron Wood.

But in no way am I suggestng that Keith, whose stage garb even seemed subdued in Pasadena, wasn’t all there. Evoking another Stones title, he was live’r than I’ll ever be–but more within the music than I’d ever seen him, his lead licks and rhythm chords being right-on at all times. For sure, he had his “moves”–the raised pick hand after a decisive strum, the low kneel worthy of an athletic Jagger prance. And when it came time for his solo segment–“You Got the Silver” and “Before They Make Me Run”–his vocals were as spot-on as Jagger’s, and he seemed to be having more fun.

Woody, though, looked to be having the most fun, running about the stage and impishly pointing his guitar at the crowd while playing. And whatever he does to his hair, I wish I had enough left to do the same. Jagger’s hair goes without saying, and while he otherwise shows the same years as we all do in the deep furrows of his face, he likewise sounded no less great than the rest and appeared none the worse for heart-valve-replacement wear.

Speaking of sound, it was great where we were sitting (great ABKCO seats, maybe a quarter of the way back from the stage, low in the stage-left lower level of the stadium seating (Ben had a great seat on the field). And the big projector screen visuals couldn’t have been better in singling out and following the musicians’ in their varied configurations.

Friday night, August 23

Friday night we went out to FivePoint Amphiteatre in Irvine–an hour out of L.A., though it took two to get there because of the Friday afternoon traffic–to see three more Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acts: ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cheap Trick. We were there for ZZ, since Bob’s worked with them since both were at Warner Bros. Records, and I’ve written liner notes on two of their releases and can’t get enough of them—especially our special guy Billy F Gibbons.

Two things of note happened on the long drive to Irvine, one of which I’ll relate now: Bob had a tape of the late New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”), from the radio shows he hosted on the NOLA community station WWOZ. It was unexpectedly gripping in that K-Doe talked—and talked and talked—like a preacher, but without any substance. It wasn’t word salad, but he went on and on and never went anywhere but around in circles, so I was always on the edge of my seat, wondering if there would ever be a climax—and even though there never was, it was a blast listening to him keep you hanging. Truly brilliant, in an outsider way.

When we finally got to the venue, Cheap Trick had just started, and Ben was a big fan and wanted to hear them. Bob, I, and Bob’s other company publicst Amy Block went looking for the Toppers, but to no avail, so we joined Ben in watching the rest of Trick’s set.

I realize it was kind of odd that I wasn’t the big Cheap Trick fan everyone else was when I started writing, for The MadCity Music Sheet in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, when Cheap Trick was the area’s biggest act, and the one we covered the most. Maybe they were too power pop for me, especially since when I first saw them I was listening to country music, mostly, along with punk and new wave.

Cheap Trick was from nearby Rockford, but was managed out of Madison by Ken Adamany along with my pal Chuck Toler. Ken had been a musician—he played keyboards in bands with Steve Miller–and ran The Factory, the club near the UW campus where Otis Redding was going to play when his plane crashed into Lake Monona that day (I was in high school then, but later worked at the State Office Building overlooking the lake, and lived just a few blocks away). In the ‘70s he managed Dr. Bop & The Headliners, an enormously successful oldies show band, which I became close to in a later incarnation.

I first met Ken, I’m guessing, in 1977, probably at an album release party for their second album, In Color, though it could have been ’78, for their third, In Heaven. I remember being introduced to Ken, probably by the Sheet’s publisher Gary Sohmers, and that it was a lot like meeting Bill Carter years later, shortly after I’d moved to New York, maybe in 1982 or ’83 at a press party at Tavern on the Green for his client William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Golden’s Nashville MCA Records publicist Kay West, a brilliant writer who would become one of my favorite friends, introduced me to Bill, a good ole boy from the tiny impoverished town of Rector, Arkansas and now based in Nashville where he continued working with the Stones and was about to manage Reba McEntire to superstardom, and later my Cajun inspiration Jo-El Sonnier to his greatest commercial success.

Kay introduced me to Bill as William Lee’s manager. Being ex-Secret Service, Bill had an aura of calm competence, mixed with restrained charisma. I wanted to engage him in conversation, and led with the obvious: “Do you work with anyone else?” I said. “Oh,” Bill drawled, stretching it out. “The Rolling Stones….” I didn’t blame him for cracking up laughing when my mouth opened wider than Keith’s at the Rose Bowl. Hope I didn’t drool, but I might well have.

Ken was way cool. Too cool. He wore shades. Then again, he was the biggest music business guy in the MadCity. I extended my hand to shake his—which he pretty much kept raised at his side. But don’t get me wrong. I love Ken. He gave me one of the biggest compliments when I ran into him on Sixth Avenue outside Black Rock—the black skyscraper that then housed CBS Records, of which Cheap Trick’s label Epic Records was a part.

I’d only been in New York a couple years then at most, but Ken told me how proud he was of me for having left Madison for New York and “making it.” It meant a lot to me then, as it does now.

But now we’re back in the hospitality lounge behind the stage at FivePoint, where Cheap Trick is greeting its VIPs. The band left Ken long ago, and not in a nice way. Still, I wanted to reconnect, or more accurately, connect with them as someone who was there way back when.

So I went up to Robin Zander, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, with an eager Ben in tow. We both introduced ourselves, then I boldly told him that I was close to Dr. Bop & The Headliners, not sure how he’d react.

Actually, it went right past him—for maybe two seconds. Then it hit him, and he damn near collapsed in disbelief. He excitedly asked if I knew Ken–and was not at all put off when I said I did indeed–and was further blown away when I told him I worked for The MadCity Music Sheet. And he was happy to recognize that both of us had lasted long enough to meet again after that promo party 40-plus years ago, and that he and Cheap Trick had remained active and fresh, what with three new albums released in as many years.

Meanwhile, Billy F Gibbons was holding court a few yards away—in pajamas! I’ve only known one other star so comfortable in his stardom, not to mention sartorial splendor—Nick Ashford. We let Billy regale his VIP fans until he begged off, being that it was nap time: He would catch a few ZZs during Skynyrd’s set before regrouping with his own to close the show, part of the Toppers’ 50th anniversary tour. He wouldn’t even let Trickster Rick Nielsen waylay him when he vainly tried to chase him down prior to shutting his nap room door.

So we all went out to see Skynyrd, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years, when I took my dear, late friend Roy Horton, the Country Music Hall of Fame music publisher who worked closely with the historic likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Roy was also a musician, and with his older brother Vaughn—also a Country Music Hall of Famer—played in the country group The Pinetoppers, most notably on the 1951 classic “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” which was notably covered by the likes of Patti Page and Les Paul & Mary Ford, and was a Vaughn Horton composition.

Roy was a delightfully impish little 80-plus-year-old when I knew him, and he loved going to shows. He had been instrumental in the formation of the Country Music Association, and while he was the son of a coal mining superintendent in Broad Top City in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, he was a founder of the Country Music Association and had long promoted country music out of historic publishing company peermusic’s New York office, where he was known for his kindness–and every year sent me a much-appreciated quart of Jack Daniels for Christmas.

I’d been offered a pair of tickets to see Skynyrd at Radio City and was honored, as always, to bring Roy as my plus-one. Turned out we had third-row center seats, and Roy stood for the whole show, loving the attention he got from the pretty young girls upfront.

So I thought of Roy at FivePoint during Skynyrd’s set, but I also thought of another Madison friend who had died too young, and tragically, a couple years ago.

Karen Knodt was a photographer at The Sheet, and took a lot of pictures that went with my stories (as did, incidentally, Debby Hastings, who was also a great bass player and went on to be Bo Diddley’s band leader for many years, up until his death). I particularly remember that Karen took great shots of Elvis Costello, but her favorite band, by far, was Cheap Trick. When I first moved to New York I lived in Hoboken, and Karen used to call every night—but it got to be too much. She might have already moved to Hawaii and would be pretty drunk and lonely and would call late and talk and talk and talk and I just couldn’t deal with it: I was working at Cash Box as the retail editor—my last real job–and had to get up every day to walk to the train to New York, then switch to a subway and be in the Midtown office by 10 a.m. The office, by the way, was a few blocks from Black Rock, so I must have been working there when I ran into Ken Adamany.

But I always did feel bad about losing contact with Karen, so I was very happy when she friended me on Facebook a few years ago. She was still in Hawaii and apparently doing well, playing golf—which we both loved talking about—and working. Now and then she’d respond to a post and I’d respond to her response–and then a few months went by with no communication, to the point where I became cognizant of it, and went to her page, somewhat worried.

Sure enough I saw that Karen’s last post had been some months previous, leading me to fear the worst. It took a lot of doing—she hadn’t left much of a trail—but I eventually learned that she had indeed died, though the cause was unclear, but probably due to some sort of complications from paralysis, I was able to ascertain, following a fall down the stairs. Now, upon closer inspection, I realized that many of her most recent pictures, which showed her painting cheery watercolors of Hawaiian coastal scenery, had been made with her seated in what looked to be a wheelchair, in what looked to be a hospital setting.

All things considered, she seemed to have been happy. But I never found anyone to corroborate, not through Facebook or Google except, finally, for a cousin, on whose page she confirmed Karen’s death, but provided little information otherwise. I messaged her and she never responded.

I think Karen departed before Cheap Trick was inducted into the RockHall. I know she would have loved the Facebook photo of me and Robin, with his arm around my shoulder, from FivePoint.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s set, by the way, was excellent. Even though only Gary Rossington is original; vocalist Johnny Van Zant—brother of original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who died in the 1977 plane crash that also killed the band’s Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, has been its frontman since 1987. All seven band members were tight as ever, and I loved that the two female backup singers—always known as The Honkettes–Dale Krantz-Rossington (Gary’s wife) and Carol Chase, were age appropriate; also worthy of respect was the recognition, via a video scroll at the end of their set, of all the many Skynyrd band and crew members since its inception.

Skynyrd had its own hospitality area backstage, so there was no interaction afterward. We did go back and grab a quick chat with Dusty Hill before he hit the stage for the ZZ set– great as ever, if a bit shortened due to the three-act package—and we did get a little quality time after with the ever-accommodating Billy and Gilly (wife Gilligan).

Saturday night, August 24

On the drive back I was able to focus on that other aforementioned momentous occurrence on the drive to Irvine: I had received a Facebook message on my phone from Lori Berk-Rolat, a dear publicist friend from New York, now living in L.A. and excited about attending Sunday’s annual Bessman Bash over at Bob’s, a tradition, like they say about The Masters, unlike any other. She wanted to know if I’d like to join her, her husband Geoffrey and a girlfriend the next night to see Kris Kristofferson at the Starlight Bowl amphitheater in Burbank. Bob and I had been talking about going to see the incredible Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl that night, but Kris takes all, so I emailed his wife Lisa when I got back to Bob’s.

I’ve been blessed to know two saints in my life: Ashford & Simpson’s Nick Ashford, and Kris Kristofferson—both also two of my favorite lyricists. Coincidentally, I’d observed the eighth anniversary of Nick’s death the night before—August 22—the night I went to the Stones. I was lucky to have seen Kris two nights in a row back in April at City Winery and hang with him and Lisa after the shows, and now, maybe I’d get lucky again.

If Kris, 83, is a saint—and he is—Lisa keeps him that way. By now everyone knows his short-term memory challenges, yet there he was on stage once again, killing it, as far as I and the audience were concerned. True, he did sound a bit tired in the beginning, maybe his gruff singing voice even gruffer. But if he was tired, he picked up steam as the show continued.

But I never did hear back from Lisa, so when I got to the venue I went directly to the merch stand and asked the gal selling t-shirts if she could let her know I was there and give her my cell number. We found our seats just as the show started, and I kept the phone out—silenced—hoping in vain for a text, reflecting on how Kris, on and off the stage, is the most unaffected singer-songwriter-actor legend imaginable.

I remembered how Bill Carter had told me years ago, after booking him on a Homecoming homevideo taping of veteran country music stars at the Opry House, that when he offered to send Kris a limo to pick him up at the airport, Kris said, “That’s all right. I’ll just take a cab.” And the time at the BMI Awards Banquet when they gave Kris the biggest honor, the BMI Icon Award, and I had to leave early to go catch John Fogerty at the Ryman Auditorium.

Kris had started eating dinner before the awards presentation, and I interrupted him in mid-bite to apologize for leaving, but that I just had to go see Fogerty for the thousandth time. Kris stopped eating, paused, and I could see what he was about to say in his gleaming eyes: “Gee. I’d like to see Fogerty!” BMI can thank me for convincing him to stay and get his award….

Back at the Starlight Bowl, he was maybe two-thirds of the way through when he paused once again, and said, “This one’s for Jim Bessman!” –and I practically went into shock, if not cardiac arrest. So did my friends, whom I had to calm down so as not to disturb everyone else in the bowl.

 The song, by the way, was “The Pilgrim–Chapter 33,” and I don’t know if it was by design, but I could definitely see myself in a lot of the lyrics. Then again, I can see myself in a lot of Kris’s lyrics, as I’m sure many of us can. Especially “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Loving Her was Easier,” and on this night in particular, “Why Me Lord?” I mean, what have I ever done to deserve his recognition, let alone knowing him and Lisa in the first place? Or Nick, Billy F, Carter, Bob, and on and on?

But I also felt that maybe, with the dedication, they were saying, “Sorry, Jim, but we have to leave right away,” and sure enough, when the show ended and I rushed up to the stage to see if Lisa might be within sight, his fiddler Scott Joss (along with keyboardist/bassist Doug Colosio and drummer Jeff Ingram, the remnants of Merle Haggard’s Strangers—though when Kris was here in April they were joined by Haggard’s sons Ben and Noel on guitars and vocals, since Kris’s set with The Strangers includes several Hagg classics) said that she was hurriedly rushing Kris out of the venue, as everyone was indeed tired from a couple weeks of touring. So I told Scott who I was.

“I know who you are,” he said, to my further amazement. “We were all talking about you before the show!” I humbly told him how thrilled I was with the song send-out and asked him to convey that to Lisa and Kris, and figured that was it, until, returning from the men’s room, I regrouped with my friends and realized that we were in fact at the backstage entrance, and that a car was roped off right at the door.

Maybe Kris and Lisa are still here, I thought, and when a couple came out of the entrance, they confirmed it. Moments later Lisa herself popped out, carrying stuff that she hurriedly put in the car, then rushed back in. She didn’t give anyone an opening for conversation, let alone eye contact. When she came out a second time I sheepishly called out “Lisa!,” which she was either too focused to hear or more likely pointedly ignored. Just as she was about to re-enter the backstage I tried again, a little louder, but loud enough to at least get her to glance in my direction.

My luck continued. Not only did she see me, not only did she recognize me (I had my haircut earlier in the week, first time since I was out here last year, and would have looked somewhat different from when they saw me in April), but she said, “Jim! Come here right now.” It wasn’t a command, but I took it that way—happily so. I apologized to my friends and quickly followed her into the backstage room where Kris was sitting with only one other person.

She asked if I’d heard my dedication and I told her how totally blown away I was, or something to that effect, then brought me over to Kris. But before I could get in even the quickest over-the-top adulatory drool—they all must have been exhausted, and she was clearly in a hurry to get them out—she this time did command me to take Kris to the car and not let him stop to sign anything or pose for photos. So I suddenly transitioned–after muttering to myself, “Why me, Lord?”–from fawning fan to sober security man.

Now I’ve been around security for 40-plus years now, so it’s not like I don’t know how to get a guy in a car. But Kris is the king of kindness—it’s ingrained in him, and sure enough, someone called out to him and he naturally stopped, wanting to accommodate, as is his second nature. But no matter how many years I’ve been around security, doing it is not my nature, period. So I was more than a little bit proud of myself that I sternly told Kris to get in the car and that whether or not I said it loud enough for him to hear, he did indeed slide into the front seat, next to Lisa, who had already buckled herself into the driver’s seat. I have no memory at all of what I said to them in thanking them both profusely, but whatever it was, I’m glad they both laughed.

Now I’m tempted to say that having a song dedicated to me by Kris Kristofferson, and then doing unexpected security for him after the gig, was the night’s highlight, if not the entire L.A. trip’s. But just getting to see Kris is as good as it gets: Like I said, I have been blessed to know two saints in my life, Kris and Nick, and like Nick, whose song lyric focus can be summed up by the title of Ashford & Simpson’s 1973 debut album Gimme Something Real, Kris’s songs—and his singing of them–cut to the core of human experience and emotion.

And like the Stones, Kris never lets age or illness stop him from doing what he does so singularly: perform what I consider some of the greatest songs ever, with the same realness and conviction that he had when writing and recording them.

Speaking of the Stones, I should note, in case anyone is hip enough to wonder, that Kris did not perform “Blame It on the Stones” (the lead track from his 1970 debut album Kristofferson), then again, I’m sure he was playing somewhere else the night of the Rose Bowl. The song is typical Kris, then in his mid-30s, defending the then young generation from perplexed parents projecting their own ignorance and irresponsibility onto the Stones.

The next night was the fabled Bessman Bash, where the likes of Phil Spector, Billy F Gibbons, Sandra Bernhard, Peter Asher, John Mellencamp, David Mamet, Jonathan Richman and Farrah Fawcett have graced us with their presence (“Farrah Fawcett?” I said, incredulously, when informed by a publicist friend that the event could make Rolling Stone, only to be told, incredulously, that she was the woman I’d just given directions to the bathroom.)

I was glad musician Tom Kenny, best-known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, happened to be at the Starlight Bowl the night before and heard my shout-out–so I’d have another witness to back up my story, since I could still barely believe it myself.

“You’ve been building up to the Old Man Dinner Band!” joked Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (whom Charlie Watts had once asked to meet after seeing Elvis open for the Stones), the Old Man Dinner Band (a.k.a. O.M.D.B.) made up of musician regulars at that weekly Old Man’s Dinner at The Park. The O.M.D.B. was one of two bands Pete (a.k.a. The One and Only Pete Thomas, as Elvis always introduces him at shows) was drumming in that night at the B.B.

Coincidentally, it was Elvis’s birthday that day, and the next day, when I would fly back to New York, would be both Bob’s and Valerie Simpson’s.

I would think again of Val as I flew back on Monday, as it was immediately upon landing from the flight back in 2011 that I learned that Nick had died—and I went immediately to their house in my shorts and t-shirt and carry-ons.

I’d emailed Val before leaving, thinking how lucky I’d been to see Ashford & Simpson perform twice over the years at an outdoor summer street festival in L.A. And now flying back again, I had another unforgettable concert experience, three to be exact.

Our Beloved Industry.

Davin Seay: An appreciation

From left: Bob Merlis, Randy Travis, Davis Seay and me, at the CMA Awards

The hardest thing about getting old is seeing those dear to you leave.

Davin Seay’s death a week ago (July 15) was particularly hard for a lot of us, that is, everyone who knew him. The long thread of condolence posts on Bob Merlis’s Facebook announcement showed how loved Dav was, as a writer, friend, and person, and while he excelled as all three, maybe it was as the third that was most noteworthy.

“He was a guy absolutely incapable of artifice,” Bob wrote. “What you saw was always the real thing and his ‘thing’ was always heartfelt, genuine and enlightening. No two ways about it: This is a huge loss.”

Indeed.

Dav was Bob’s writer at Warner Bros. Records in Los Angeles for many years—and one of his closest friends. I was close enough that he gave me one of my best freelance gigs—a Bee Gees bio–when his own work schedule was too crammed to allow him to do it. It meant a trip to the Bee Gees’ compound in Miami Beach, where coincidentally, I did the first interview with them following the death of brother Andy Gibb.

In my own work, no one was more supportive than Dav, same with my eclectic music tastes. I especially appreciated that whenever I posted a polka video he was always right there to “like” it. Which reminds me of the time when we were at a black-tie Nashville BMI Awards dinner, when Davin, one of the few friends I know to have been religiously (but never insufferably) spiritual, referred to Steve Popovich, who turned me on to polka and whom Dav now joins among the handful of those dear ones I miss terribly, as the “divine afflatus”—afflatus, according to Wikipedia, being Latin for “inspiration,” and derived from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, (“The Nature of the Gods”). He also designated both accordion-based polka and Cajun music as “The Accordion Grail.”

Davin, Bob, I and four other WarnRecs execs were also part of what Tony Pippitone, then president of Warner Special Products, called “The Magnificent Seven,” being that the seven of us always attended John Fogerty events whenever we were together. One of them, a Fogerty concert at the Ryman Auditorium, took place the same night as another BMI Nashville dinner, the one that bestowed upon Kris Kristofferson BMI’s ultimate Icon Award.

The dinner prior to the awards presentations had begun, and I was torn: I desperately wanted to be there to see Kris get his due, but I had to be at the Ryman with The Magnificent Seven for Foge. So before leaving, I interrupted Kris mid-bite, and apologized profusely for having to walk out and head over to the show.

“John Fogerty at the Ryman?” Kris queried, then paused, eyes gleaming. “I’d rather be there myself!” When I got to my seat just as Fogerty hit the stage, I was in the same row as six others, likewise in tuxes, likewise BMI refugees. Davin, of course, was among them.

For no one was more of a music person than Davin Seay–and I can’t say anything better about anyone. So it is with greatest sadness that I must try to process that we are now The Magnificent Six.

Gary Stewart—A Record Store Day appreciation

I was shocked, like many I’m sure, to learn, maybe around 2 a.m. this morning from a friend’s Twitter post and then from several obituaries, of Gary Stewart’s death.

I tweeted my own sadness and this excellent quote from Randall Roberts in The Los Angeles Times: “As a music enthusiast, Stewart advocated for lesser known, unjustly dismissed or overlooked music by artists including The Monkees, Love, Dionne Warwick, the Neville Bros. and hundreds of others, and in doing so helped reframe cultural conversations by bringing into the present recordings considered to be long past their expiration date.”

My tweet simply said, “Deeply saddened by the passing of Gary Stewart, head of A&R for the fabled Rhino Records at its height. Great friend to many, had a huge impact on keeping so much great music alive.”

I was going to leave it at that.

Went to the gym when I woke up and after the old man (my age) on the elliptical two over from mine who was singing “Heart of Gold” to his headphones so bad it would embarrass even Neil Young finished, had enough quiet in the otherwise deserted room to reflect more on Gary and all he meant to everyone–even L.A. Mayor Mayor Eric Garcetti, who tweeted, “Amy and I mourn the loss of Gary Stewart. He was our partner at @LAANE & @LibertyHill–one of the funniest, most humble people we knew. A true champion of justice. A model of modesty, and most of all, our dear friend. L.A. is better off for everything he did. We miss you, Gary.”

LAANE, I googled, is Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. As for Liberty Hill, it’s a foundation that works to build power through grassroots organizing in communities across Los Angeles County. It tweeted, with a photo of Gary speaking, “The Liberty Hill community is devastated to learn that our dear friend and former board member Gary Stewart has passed away. On behalf of the entire Liberty Hill family, we extend our deepest sympathies to his loved ones.”

Gary deserved more from me, I acknowledged to myself on the elliptical.

First, like everyone who’s commented on his passing has said, he was a great guy, and that counts for plenty. Second, like me and likely most of those who knew and worked with him, he was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but more than me and most, backed his beliefs with social action, hence the Garcetti and Liberty Hill tweets. He even mandated that all Rhino employees set aside time each year for community service.

Like his email signature stated, “Gary Stewart—Opinions Galore,” and his opinions always jibed with mine.

But it was Gary’s opinions on music that impacted me personally more than anything, starting when I first made his professional acquaintance in the early 1980s, first as retail editor at the record business trade Cash Box, then as regular correspondent at Billboard. For me—and many other music journalists—Rhino, with its landmark reissues of the music we grew up with and forever loved, was the shit. I talked to him regularly for Rhino-related stories, and eventually wrote numerous liner notes for Rhino reissues.

“I think his true passion was for compiling, separating out the things he thought were important, the things that really mattered–the greatest songs, the greatest ideas, the greatest people–from the inessential stuff that he could safely leave behind,” music producer Andy Zax told the Times. Said Rhino co-founder Richard Foos: “I give him almost all the credit for overseeing everything. Approving every album, which were hundreds a year. He was probably the greatest, most moral, giving, loving person I’ve ever met.”

He definitely gave me one of my biggest honors in the business when one day he said, “As long as I’m at Rhino Records, you’ll always be on the mailing list!”

Of course, his long tenure at Rhino eventually ended, as did mine at Billboard. I still get Rhino press releases, but I don’t even bother responding to them: Years go by and you’re just a leftover name on an old contact list. It’s the nature of the business, the nature of nature. Yet those of us whose lives are music soldier on best we can.

Gary tagged a Joan Rivers quote, “It doesn’t get better—you get better,” onto his email signature, though I’m not sure how much better either of us got in the interim prior to my contacting Gary at the end of February for a comment on an appreciation piece I wanted to do on Peter Tork. I hadn’t been in touch with him for quite a while, I realized, as my first two email addresses didn’t work. I was able to get a viable one from a friend, and while Gary was happy to hear from me, he uncharacteristically obsessed over my message–after promising to come through with a thought or two: It wasn’t like the old days when he could easily give a quick phone response to a tradepaper question about an upcoming Rhino release. Now he needed a couple days to dwell on it, and I had to write back and ask him if he was still able to do it.

I also explained to him that I was writing about Tork because I appreciated him and The Monkees (and Gary), but that as the piece was for one of my sites (centerline.news) and that in all honesty, few people would likely read it, it was no problem at all if he couldn’t come through.

Besides, I added, I wasn’t getting paid anything. I write because I’m a writer.

“I only do things that are meaningful to me, either and/or the subject and the friends I can give recognition to,” I told him. He thanked me profusely for thinking of him, and I apologized just as profusely for not thinking of him right away! After all, no one had done more than Gary in reissuing The Monkees catalog, not to mention all the rest of the true “music of our lives,” as the oldies cliché goes.

The “wasn’t getting paid anything” part must have hit home, for he asked me if he could chip in some money—which I gratefully declined. An hour or so later I received an email that he had in fact donated to my PayPal account—for which I now thanked him profusely.

I went ahead and wrote the Tork piece and quoted him, sent him the link, and never heard back. One thing that haunts me now is one quote I didn’t use: Tork, Gary said, was the Monkees’ “author in abstentia—not a ghostwriter but more of a ghost influencer”–key word now, of course, being “ghost.”

The initial reports indicated that Gary died by his own hand. I have since heard that he had a life-threatening illness. He did mention a “non-threatening medical thing,” but I didn’t press it.

And I won’t suggest anything further, as again, I hadn’t been in touch with Gary much over the last few years while our professional paths diverged. All I know is that anything can happen in life, good and bad, and that I was only glad—as was he—that The Monkees had brought us back together again. Sadly, it would be the last time.

There’s an old saying in the record business—and I have to call it that for context—said in reference to someone, usually male, who epitomizes the best of the business, and I can at least say with certainty that it most certainly applies to Gary Stewart: He was “a great record man.”

And it’s so ironic, yet karmically just, that today is Record Store Day.

I remember Roy Clark


Roy Clark performs his hit “I Never Picked Cotton” on “Hee Haw”

I met Roy Clark a number of times, mostly on the Hee Haw set, where I was a regular during the fall and summer tapings—which coincided with what was then called CMA Week (the Country Music Awards show and attending performing rights organizations and awards dinners) and Fan Fair (now CMA Music Festival). I never really got to know him—not like I knew Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl—but I do have a couple great personal memories, both from the early 1980s, soon after I came to New York and got a job with the music trade magazine Cash Box as Retail Editor.

As Retail Editor, I established relationships—mostly phone—with the key record stores and chains in the country. One of the biggest was the Ohio-based Camelot Music, which had 455 stores in 37 states when it was bought out in 1998. I attended two of their conventions in or around their North Canton headquarters while I was at Cash Box, and if I remember right (never a given), it was four days at a nice hotel, with lots of meetings and recreational activities for the key home office execs and store managers, along with the major label and distributor reps who serviced them.

They also had entertainment every night, usually baby bands supplied by the majors. I vividly remember seeing John Waite perform after his split from The Babys, probably in 1982 when his solo debut album Ignition came out on Chrysalis. Ivan Kral, formerly bass player with the Patti Smith Group, was on the record and in the band, as was drummer Frankie LaROcka, whom I’d met in Madison when he was on David Johansen’s first solo album and tour, and was great friends with until his untimely death in 2005.

But the show I remember most is Roy Clark’s.

Roy was sick that night, a bad–very bad–cold. So very bad that he’d pretty much lost his voice. In fact, it probably would have been better had he lost it entirely, for then he might not have felt obligated to perform.

But ever the professional, perform that night Roy Clark did. He apologized upfront, of course, then croaked out the song lyrics like he was a big, jolly old frog with a guitar—accent on “jolly.” To this day I can’t imagine Roy—or anyone—enjoying himself more on stage. He didn’t care at all what he sounded like—or if anyone else cared. He was indeed a pro all the way and was going to give his best to the people who made and sold his records, and have a blast doing it—and so did we all. Obviously, I’ve never forgotten it.

Around the same time I got one of my first—if not the first—freelance writing gigs in New York, for Guitar World, I think. They wanted someone to talk to Roy about Merle Travis, and knew I’d written about country music and was a knowledgeable fan.

So I did a phone interview with Roy, and we talked about Merle Travis and his influence on Roy and all guitar players. It was only proper, of course, that I also ask him about himself, so I ended by asking him how he saw himself in relation to Travis as a fellow guitar great.

Like the Camelot gig, I’ve never forgotten his most humble response.

“You know, there are a lot of mailmen out there who are better guitarists than I am,” he said, then added, “I’m just glad they’re mailmen!”

As, of course, are we all.

The last time I saw Roy was some years ago already, when he appeared at the Opry, probably during CMA Music Fest, for he was also in town to join other surviving Hee Haw alumni at a reunion taping that I also attended.

Starring with Roy on the Opry bill that night was Charley Pride, and the two old Opry stars and Country Music Hall of Famers greeted each other warmly before proceeding to one-up each other—or maybe one-down each other—with their physical ailments and illnesses. It was truly hysterical, but like that long ago gig in Ohio, I guess you had to be there.


Two guitar greats: Roy Clark and Glen Campbell

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.

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 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.

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.”

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.