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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
The Songwriters Hall of Fame [SHOF] announced this morning its nominees for induction at its Annual Induction & Awards Gala, to be held June 15, 2017, in New York.
The nominations are in two categories, non-performing songwriters and performing songwriters.
The non-performing songwriter nominees are Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Randy Goodrum, the team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Tony Macaulay, Max Martin, Kenny Nolan, the team of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Paul Overstreet, the team of P.F. Sloan & Steve Barri, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Allee Willis and Maury Yeston.
The performing songwriter nominees are Bryan Adams, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, the band Chicago’s Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm and James Pankow; Gloria Estefan, David Gates, Vince Gill, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Kool & The Gang’s Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell and George Brown; Jeff Lynne, Madonna, George Michael and Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart.
Voting SHOF members have until December 16 to vote for three nominees in the non-performing category and two in the performing category. Information on the nominees—and how to become a voting SHOF member—is available at the SHOF website.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing the work and lives of those composers and lyricists who create music around the world. It celebrates songwriters, educates the public with regard to their achievements, and produces a spectrum of professional programs devoted to the development of new songwriting talent through workshops, showcases and scholarships.
I’m glad Eric Burdon wasn’t invited to Desert Trip/Oldchella, because we were lucky enough to have him at City Winery for two sold-out nights this week in between the two big weekends at the Coachella festival site in Indio, Calif. I’m not saying he’d overshadow his fellow septuagenarians—Eric’s 75—but he’d have placed second to none of them.
The Monday night set—the first of the two nights–wasn’t that much different than the outstanding one he and the same band of relative youngsters did at the venue back in August, though instead of “Spill the Wine” he opened with “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it. The other major difference was a novel blend of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with the chorus of his and The Animals’ “Sky Pilot,” for which he lead the SRO room in singing along to its rising “you’ll never—ever—ever—reach the sky.”
It’s what I call a “power chorus,” so powerful that you really need no prompt in thrusting your fist in the air and singing along. So many of Eric Burdon and The Animals’ immortal hits are marked by such a power chorus, like “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and the two 1960s generational anthems “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” all of which Burdon performed at City Winery. He also did The Animals’ 1967 hit “Monterey,” in which he invoked Ravi Shankar, The Who, Hugh Masakela, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix in evoking the historic Monterey Pop Festival, at which all these artists performed, which Eric attended.
Here he repeated a wonderful story he told in August, about how a girl had given him a flower while Otis Redding was singing—and he ate it. Yet today, almost 50 years later and at 75, Eric Burdon remains a flower child in the best sense.
“Let’s have a Trump-free night,” he said, affirming the Summer of Love values at the start of the show, and through the rest of it he remained true to his great line in “Monterey”: “You want to find the truth in life? Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”
Again, I’m not saying he’d overshadow his fellow septuagenarians at Oldchella. But I can say that none of them will be in better musical shape, nor will any of them have a stronger commitment to all that they and their peers represented “down in Monterey.”
(Re-posting this examiner.com piece thanks to the current Trump-induced “taco trucks on every corner” Mexican immigrant hysteria.)
Tom Vickers, left, and Bob Merlis at Leos Tacos Truck
“The Taco Revolution has exploded to such a degree that you have to go out of your comfort zone,” said Tom Vickers.
It was the day after the music business veteran showcased R&B vocal great Billy Valentine at Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks. He was taking a visitor from New York, who was very much impressed by Valentine’s gig, on what has become known as the Saturday Taco Hunt.
The two were joined by legendary music publicist Bob Merlis as they walked into Mondo Taco, a small shop on the corner of La Brea and San Vicente unknowingly passed by many times on the way to LAX.
Entering, they were immediately welcomed and thanked by the owner.
“It was my fourth time there,” said Vickers, “but at any given point in time, there’s a list in my wallet, probably with eight to 10 places I want to go but haven’t yet.”
He pulled out the list, then cited three that he’d been to, and sure enough, eight he hadn’t–yet.
“I’ve been to 13 so far, and have four favorites,” Vickers added.
Mondo Taco was one of them.
“A relatively new spot, it has many of your traditional favorites but also mash-ups of various other cuisines built into a taco,” Vickers informed. His favorites, from the Crawls list include “French Kiss” (“slow-cooked pork with mushroom Dijon sauce”) and “Angry Chicken (“white meat chicken with buffalo sauce and creamy blue cheese dressing”).
“They also have over eight vegetarian options,” he added, here naming “Garlic Bomb,” consisting of mushrooms and garlic, “slow-cooked into a delicious concoction that just tastes great on a taco,” as his top Grows category pick.
Mondo Taco also has a Swims set of tacos, and Vickers likes to choose one from each of the three headings per sitting.
“Like many of the establishments I’ve located, they also serve agua fresca, a Mexican fruit drink utilizing various melons and fruits. Their watermelon agua fresca is truly refreshing!”
Merlis praised the Mondo Taco menu for its “artisinal tacos.”
“They’re not mass-produced, but very unexpected,” he said. “There’s the French one, and a Moroccan/Argentine hybrid, so it was not the ordinary, predictable taco, though they still have the regular ethnic bill-of-fare–but it transcends that and is very high quality.”
Merlis also noted that the Mondo Taco employees are “hip—but not hipsters. They’re not arch, but earnest.” The Taco Hunt itself, he said, “catalyzes the kind of exploration you wouldn’t otherwise do: We used to go to the same place every Saturday and broke out of it, and as a result, have visited parts of the city we’ve never been to before: the City of Bell, Sylmar and other places in South and East L.A.”
The Taco Hunt is “not just random,” stated Vickers. Rather, “I try to research where we’re going: You can discuss favorite tacos like favorite records!”
Echoing Merlis, Vickers concedes. that he patronized Yuca’s taco stand near Los Feliz for “too long without venturing out.”
“For over 30 years my Saturday ritual was to go to Yuca’s on Hillhurst Ave.,” he said. “It’s renowned for the carne asada burrito, and they even won a James Beard award for dishing up some of the best street Mexican food in L.A. But a little over three years ago I decided to lessen my intake of red meat. Hence, Yuca’s carne asada suddenly became a dietary no-no.”
In an effort to eat more fish, Vickers “switched [taco] allegiances” to Ricky’s Fish Taco stand just down the street from Yuca’s. “However, when my good friend Bob Merlis noted that I was trading in red meat for deep fat fried-in-lard fish, the dietary tradeoff was negligible,” he soon realized.
Then, some three months ago, the esteemed Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold wrote an article about the 14 best Mexican food locations in Southern California.
“I had tried four of them,” computed Vickers. “This lit a fire under me to explore more of this fine cuisine!”
Every Saturday from that point on Vickers enlisted various friends to join him everywhere from taco stands to sit-down restaurants and trucks scattered throughout the Los Angeles region.
“Many incredible spots were discovered,” he said, “some through good articles, some through Web searches and sites such as L.A. Taco, Chowhound and Yelp. Through them I discovered a whole ‘nother level of taco experience that has captivated my–how do I say?–love of Mexican cuisine and culture.”
And besides Mondo Taco, what are Vickers’ other three current taco faves?
“Chichen Itza–located in the Mexican Cultural Center near USC, has incredibly delicious food in a great setting, and is one of my new favorite go-to spots,” he reported. “La Casita Mexicana, in the City of Bell, is beyond great: not a sit-down taco stand but a full-fledged restaurant with an incredible gift shop attached. It serves up traditional Mexican regional recipes, both veg- and meat-centric–all delicious. Their moles are absolutely fantastic as is their signature dish, the Chile en Nogada.”
As for Mariscos Jalisco, a taco truck located in Boyle Heights, their specialty, related Vickers, is a crispy tortilla stuffed with shrimp, deepfried and covered with ceviche and avocado. Also noteworthy, “a lone mariachi singer regales you with guitar and songs while you eat your crispy shrimp taco on a sidewalk bench.”
But Vickers stresses that there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of taco places to choose from in Southern California, and Melenie Caldwell, Merlis’s longtime assistant, noted that “obviously, they haven’t gone to Highland Park”–clearly a hotbed of taco activity.
Perhaps next week Vickers will explore Highland Park, as he admitted “I have only begun my Taco Quest.”
But he did come back to his table at Mondo Taco, refill of his watermelon agua fresca in hand, with “the big news”: a new Mondo Taco “on Sunset Strip near the Whisky” is in the offing.
He was obviously satisfied at the original store, as he was overheard murmuring “mondo” as he walked out.