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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.

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

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

Four dead in Ohio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record Store Days of yore


Chris Osborne’s “Robert Johnson and the Blue Terraplane,” inspired by his classic “Terraplane Blues”

It’s Record Store Day.

A couple months after I came to New York from Madison Wisconsin in 1982 I got a job at the long defunct record trade magazine Cash Box, as retail editor. Not that I knew shit about record retail, though I did spend much of my time in high school and after at record stores.

Had they been pool halls, of course, it would have been a sign of a misspent youth, as my old man used to say. But I’d done that back in junior high, sweeping the carpets of cigarette butts and cleaning transparent scoring sheets at the Hilldale Bowl in order to gain free time at the pool tables–not that I got any good.

My record store time, though, did me well when it came to the record business, not so much in preparing me for the Cash Box gig but in gaining a knowledge of musicians, songwriters and producers, all gleaned from the back cover of long-play albums, or LPs, as they were called—later to be referred to as “black vinyl albums” after cassettes and then compact discs replaced them as the leading physical music product configuration.

There were three Madison record stores I hung out at. During junior high it was Victor’s Music in the Hilldale Shopping Center, where they had listening booths for you to sample records before purchase—not uncommon in those days. I think they also had the weekly Top Singles list from Madison’s Top 40 AM station WISM (always spoken as a word to rhyme with “jism”) there, too, but those might have been stacked a few stores down at Woolworth’s, where they definitely had the weekly chart lists from Chicago’s powerhouse Top 40 station WLS.

I vividly remember going down to Victor’s the day of Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ new releases, especially the latter’s two-sided 1967 single “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend the Night Together” the day after they did it on Ed Sullivan. But whenever I went downtown to the University of Wisconsin campus I’d hang out at either Discount Records or Lake Street Station.

Discount Records, on State Street very near the university, especially stands out in my fading memory because my friend Chris Osborne worked the counter. I think she was already in New York by the time I got here, and in the ’90s she managed the Jazz & Blues department at the Tower Records Lincoln Center outlet. I don’t know if I knew in Madison that Chris was also a painter—not to mention as rabid an Ashford & Simpson fan as I was. But I took her with me to see A&S at least once at Westbury, and I know she painted a fab portrait of Nick and Val, I think alongside a classic car, as she frequently combines music legends and legendary cars in her portraits (among her awards is the Classic Car Club of America 2003 Fine Art Award of Excellence).

Lake Street Station used to be near Discount, at State and Lake, if I remember right, during the Vietnam War demonstration days, then moved a few blocks down from Discount on State Street. It was at the first location where I spent hours reading album jackets, and at the second one, after I’d begun writing for The Madcity Music Sheet, where what remains the coolest bit of merchandising by a record store that I can remember took place.

It was the release day of Elvis Costello’s second album This Year’s Model, and Elvis was a major mission for me and the Sheet. Indeed, we put out our first and only special issue in advance of his second Madcity tour stop—at the Orpheum Theater, a few more blocks down State Street near the State Capitol, with Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille, in 1978. Again, if memory serves well, Lake Street Station was mid-block, and from the corners at both ends were cut-outs of Elvis’s famous pigeon-toed portrait from the cover of first album My Aim is True, taped to the sidewalk and interspersed with red arrows pointing the way inside the store.

Funny, but as I write this, I’m looking at the Star Power On CBS Records and Tapes nail-clipping kit that the label’s college rep gave us at the press party promoting This Year’s Model‘s release along with the new albums from Eddie Money and Billy Joel. I’ll never forget telling her how excited I was that they included Elvis, though like I said, we were huge backers at the Sheet. “But a new Billy Joel album is an event,” the CBS gal said—my cue to leave.

By the way, I love Lake Street Dive, but I always have to look up their name since I’m always stuck at Lake Street Station.

Anyway, I got to New York and got the retail editor job at Cash Box and learned that Discount Records was owned by the biggest music retail chain Musicland, and was sent to cover the conventions of the next biggest chains, Record Bar and Camelot Music—each 100-plus strong at the time (Musicland had over 400). Record Bar was great because it was essentially run by hippies and based in Durham, N.C., which was beautiful and near Chapel Hill. Based in North Canton, Ohio, Camelot’s conventions were marked by major label-supplied entertainment each night: I remember seeing John Waite there, with a rhythm section of ex-Patti Smith/Iggy Pop bassist Ivan Kral and the late Frankie LaRocka, whom I had met in Madison when he was with David Johansen and who later became a dear friend, on drums; in fact, Frankie, when he was an A&R guy at Epic (where he signed Spin Doctors), let me write the liner notes to the great The David Johansen Group Live CD release of 1993 (it had been a promo-only LP when it was first released in 1978, when Frankie was in David’s band).

But Roy Clark’s show one year at Camelot was truly unforgettable. He had a terrible cold and could only croak out his songs, but it didn’t stop him from performing and having a great time—and giving his audience a show to cherish. And I still have my trophy for being on the golf team that finished second in the 1983 Maxell Camelot Tourney.

After beginning a 20-plus year stint at Billboard in the mid-’80s, I was sent one year to cover the convention for New England’s 81-store Strawberries Records & Tapes chain, which was owned by the notorious mob associate Morris Levy. But “Moishe,” who also owned Roulette Records (hit artists included Tommy James, Lou Christie and Joey Dee and the Starliters) and had owned the famed jazz club Birdland (his older brother and partner was stabbed to death there in 1959), had been charged in a highly publicized organized crime extortion case (all of this documented in the best-selling music business book expose Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business) and wasn’t at the convention.

Moishe, by the way, was convicted, but died before he could go to prison. I never met him, but I did interview him on the phone once during the trial. And I knew his son Adam, who used to hang out at Cash Box. His dad named another label after him–Adamm VIII Limited, which released an unauthorized version of John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album (theirs was titled Roots) after Levy had sued Lennon for copyright infringement over lyrics to “Come Together” that Lennon had lifted from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” Levy having owned the song’s publishing.

But back to the Strawberries convention. Not only did the most extraordinary Maria McKee perform there, but so did a girl group, the Bristols, that featured three gals who worked at the chain. I figured they’d be okay at best, but they were downright terrific—and understandably major players in Boston’s late ’80s rock scene.

As for New York’s record stores, Sam Goody’s was still big when I got here. I’ll never forget when Tower Records opened its first store in New York—its Greenwich Village flagship superstore at 4th and Broadway. I was hanging out with Ben Karol, who with partner Phil King owned the small but significant King Karol stores. I was drinking heavy and chowing down on vegetarian tamales when Ben, stunned, reverently observed, “Even old man Goody is here.”

Ben Karol was the biggest trip of all for me in record retail. I wouldn’t say he was ornery, but he was usually grumpy. He and Phil had owned a coffee shop at LaGuardia—again, if I remember right—and he was one of many old school record retailers who started out selling records out of the trunks of their cars.

I loved calling Ben regularly when researching retailer surveys, especially when the major labels raised their prices. Every retailer would moan and groan and angrily gripe over how price increases would cripple their business—except Ben. He’d always refuse to criticize the labels thusly: “I don’t know how much they need to break even.”

I used to pop in on Ben now and then on the second floor of his main store on 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. One time he had a few stacks of CDs on the floor of his office. The labels were just coming out with CDs then, and these were some of the first releases. I remember being highly excited to see them—and greatly entertained by the following story Ben laughed as he related: Many years earlier, a record company salesman had come into the store and asked Ben to play a new single that he guaranteed would be a huge hit. Ben started to play it, and halfway through, stopped it, picked it up off the turntable, opened the door and flung it across the street, turning to the stunned salesman and shouting, “Get the fuck outta my store!”

The record was David Seville’s “Witch Doctor”—the huge 1958 novelty hit that introduced Alvin and the Chipmunks.

There’s another great Ben Karol story, only this one came to me from Dave Nives. Dave was a dear friend who died unexpectedly some years ago. I like to call him “the last of the great record men”—even though Seymour Stein’s still alive—because he had such deep knowledge of vintage rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and country music, and the record companies that put it all out.

Dave was a regional salesman for Rounder Records when I met him. When he died he was A&R at Koch, and desperately wanted to sign the late, greatest polka artist Eddie Blazonczyk after I turned him on to him. “This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” Dave said of Eddie, which was absolutely true. But sharing the fate of so many great ideas in the music business, Dave was overruled from above.

Anyway, Dave was a great joke and story teller, and as he used to service the King Karol stores, he told this great one about Ben—though you’d be right to find it perfectly awful. Turns out that one of Ben’s employees came up to him one day and asked if he could have the day off to attend his father’s funeral. “We all had fathers!” Ben groused.

I used to tell this story often, one time to Holly DeSantis, another dear music friend who had also worked at King Karol. I think I was at one of her parties when George Usher, the great New York singer-songwriter, came over to me and said, “I’m the guy with the father!”

I admit I was embarrassed, but even George somehow found humor in it.

But I enjoyed covering record retail and frequently contributed retail stories to Billboard after moving over there. Two of them, in fact, are among my proudest Billboard contributions.

The first is what I always refer to as “the Snow Cone Story.”

I’d been going to Eunice, Louisiana—”the Cajun prairie capital”—every November to attend Marc and Ann Savoy’s annual boucherie, or Cajun hog kill—admittedly weird in that I’m vegetarian. I’d stay with my dear friends Todd and Debbie Ortego, who owned the Music Machine music/video store in downtown Eunice.

Todd’s the most knowledgeable Cajun/zydeco/swamp pop people there is, and is a party DJ and KBON radio station air personality—though he gave up the store a few years ago. But the first time I went there I was struck, not only by the active pool table in the middle of the store, but by the dormant snow cone machine in the corner. It being November, Todd explained that they only operated the machine during the summer months, when they sold a lot of “New Orleans shaved ice”-style snow cones. I was blown away by this brilliant, unique profit center and when I came back to New York asked Billboard‘s retail editor if I could do a story on it. He said yes, and I did—but he chose not to run it: It didn’t fit the usual record retailer profile, which, of course, was precisely the point.

Swear to God, to this day, it was one of the best stories I ever wrote. I found his rejection totally unacceptable.

For many days and nights thereafter I’d send him—and other Billboard editors–nasty emails and leave brutal voicemails. I think the last one was something along the lines of “Give me the snow cone story…or give me death!” The fact that I’m here to write about this now shows that he finally caved and ran it—and in fact loved it.

But I didn’t have to threaten suicide for him to run my other great record retail story, the one about Lucy’s Record Shop in Nashville. In the ’90s I used to go to Nashville at least three times a year for the big country music industry events (the CMA Awards, Fan Fair and Country Radio Seminar) and would drive past Lucy’s every morning on my way to Music Row from the Downtown YMCA, but I managed for years not to notice it: You see, it was on Church Street, directly opposite a dairy that had a big sign congratulating its employee of the month—to whom I always yelled a hearty congratulations out the window.

Then one day, an early Sunday morning, I was walking around downtown, a Sunday New York Times under my arm. This girl comes over to me and says, “Don’t I know you?” and she actually did. It was Mary Mancini.

I’d known Mary when she was a publicist at Elektra Records in the late ’80s before progressing into A&R—and then disappearing. I liked her very much, but had forgotten about her—and suddenly here she is. She’d been intrigued that anyone in Nashville would have the Sunday Times, as at this time, probably the mid-’90s now, you could only get the Times at a couple places in town.

She caught me up on her story, which began with her move to Nashville at a time when the country music-focused town was trying to expand into rock and pop. She wanted to find another label gig, until an out-of-town DJ friend complained that there was no place there to buy vinyl and suggested that she open a record store.

So she opened Lucy’s in 1992, naming it after her Weimaraner—who was almost as big an attraction as her alternative rock record stock. But Lucy’s was more than a record store, as Mary promoted a veritable community center where young people could gather and talk politics and social issues. And then she experienced a personal transformation as she herself became politicized after learning about the struggles experienced by the alienated young Nashville rockers, many of whom were dealing with gender bias and abuse.

Lucy’s did in fact become an all-ages punk rock venue/community center in addition to being a record store, but after six years Mary wanted to settle down with her husband (the acclaimed alternative-country band Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner) and live a more normal life. So she closed it and took a full-time office manager job at Nashville’s first Internet services provider—and became ever more politicized, thanks to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, involving herself in the latter with voter registration (which she’d promoted heavily at Lucy’s).

Mary co-hosted a progressive talk radio show for Vanderbilt University station WRVU-FM for the next six years, and became more active in local and state politics. She eventually took on the job of executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a public interest/consumer rights watchdog group. Then three years later, when the state senator in her district retired, she decided to run for office, and while she lost in the 2014 Democratic primary, she was elected the following year as Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

On July 26, 2016, I watched as Mary Mancini, now one of my heroes, read Tennessee’s delegate tally at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I know I wept openly.

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

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

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

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

But wait! There’s more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait! There’s still more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bubble!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A disuniting force.

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

Howard Bingham: An appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was my honor, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

My nights at the Carnegie Deli

I haven’t eaten at the Carnegie Deli in a long time, and being vegetarian, I don’t expect to before it closes down at the end of the year.

Not that a vej can’t get anything to eat there, as I’ve known since first arriving in New York in the early 1980s, and in short order getting a job at the long gone Cash Box music trade magazine.

Cash Box was at 57th and Broadway then, easy delivery distance from the Carnegie, just a few blocks away on 7th Ave. It’s so long ago I can’t remember what day our deadline day was, though I think it was Thursday. That day we’d stay in for lunch and order out from the Carnegie, and this I remember clearly.

The Carnegie figurehead then was late co-owner Leo Steiner, whose caricature was emblazoned on Carnegie napkins along with the slogan “Carnegie Leo makes a goooood sandwich!”—the “good” strung out because the Carnegie’s famously “overstuffed” sandwiches were indeed that, so long as “good” means “immense.”

I mean, if they didn’t have a foot-long hot dog, Carnegie sandwiches were surely a foot-high, and as big as a fortress, defended, to the death, by surrounding plates full of varied dill pickles. The corned beef sandwich, as an example, was piled high to the sky. My egg salad sandwich was as big as a mountain.

I also ordered a side of fries, though by the time they got there, they were pretty soggy, laying flat and lifeless in their thin cardboard box like (as they might say at the Carnegie) a lox. And then we all made the worst possible mistake you could make with a Carnegie sandwich, on deadline day or any other: We ate the whole fucking thing at once.

Let me tell you: You eat a whole Carnegie Deli sandwich in one sitting, you’re down for the count. I could have lived maybe a month or two–easily–on one of those sandwiches. The rest of the day was accompanied by the sounds of groaning from us comatose Cash Box staffers, who nevertheless did get their copy in on time—the quality of which I cannot recall.

But I remember groans other than my own and my fellow Cash Boxers, namely Alison Krauss & Union Station. When AKUS first started playing at New York—at the Bottom Line—they were still pretty much kids: late teens, early twenties, first times in the Big City. Naturally they gravitated toward the Carnegie, and naturally they pigged out bigtime.

It was an honor and a privilege to pig out with them. They’d even order double to bring back to the bus. Kept them all going all the way back to Nashville, for sure, and maybe back to New York again. Like the Carnegie motto said, “If you can finish your meal, we’ve done something wrong.”

But AKUS was hardly alone in heading to the Carnegie after a gig, though one time after a Texas Tornadoes show (again at the Bottom Line) the band decided to go to some other late-night joint that I can’t remember, somewhere in the East 30s or 40s. I was in a cab with Augie Meyers, but when we got there we found it closed due to a kitchen fire. It might have been pre-cell phones, because we couldn’t contact Doug Sahm and the rest of the guys in another cab. So we just decided to head over to the Carnegie, and when we got there, Doug and the others were already there and chowing down.

But My last memory of the Carnegie is especially fitting, as it concerns the one and only Jackie Mason—one of many celebrities who were regulars there. It was probably 1987, the year Warner Bros. released the soundtrack album of his Broadway hit show The World According to ME, though it could have been the followup Brand New, released via Sony in 1991. Whichever the label, they had a release party for Jackie at the Carnegie, and of course being a huge fan, I was there.

I’d get to know Jackie a bit over the years, from going to his shows and running into him on the street. Then a couple years ago I joined him and his entourage for dinner a few times, until I either said something wrong or didn’t say something right. He turned to the guy sitting on his left and said, to my perverse and lasting pleasure, “I’m speaking to a fucking moron!”

And that was it, though he did say he’d call me—just not when. Sadly, if and when he does, it won’t be to meet him at the Carnegie.

By the way, Carnegie Leo died at age 48 on December 31, 1987, and was eulogized by none other than Henny Youngman as “the deli lama.” Cause of death, according to Wikipedia, was complications of a brain tumor—a creative euphemism, no doubt, for terminal indigestion.

My moment with Arnold Palmer

palmer
(Vestron Video, 1989)

So I’m thinking of hitting that bucket of balls at a driving range in L.A. last month–first time I had a golf club in my hand in years—and finding that my slice was as wicked as ever, all this in relation to the death yesterday of Arnold Palmer, whom I once saw, after being asked to hit an iron some 200 yards down the fairway at a video camera set-up, land it effortlessly within 10 feet.

This was probably 20 years or so ago, long before selfies and maybe even cellphones, so I sure don’t have a picture with me and Arnold, and I can’t say how long my hair was—which could well have been an issue: I tend to let my hair grow long, then cut it short once or twice a year, tops. If it was long, well, I figure that might explain what I felt was Arnold’s coldness, if not outright antipathy, toward me.

Long hair and a beard. Maybe I’m putting too much on appearance. For sure, no one could have been more eager for an expenses-paid trip to Florida to interview Arnold Palmer about a golf instructional home video program he was taping. Notice that I said “home video,” and let me stipulate here that it was for videocassette. Like I said, this was long before the selfies era, indeed, back in the dark ages of videocassettes and VCRs, er, videocassette recorders.

I’d been a golf fan forever, though maybe Arnold sensed that I was a big Jack Nicklaus fan over him, much as I was a big Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali fan over the boxing establishment favorites back in the day—the day, of course, being the 1960s, when I most certainly fit the hippie mold in politics and appearance. Now, sadly, much of my hair is gone, and what I have is so short that Arnold might well have liked me (if he got past the beard, though longer hair—and facial hair—have long since come to the PGA). But I’m sure he’d still sense that politically—and above all, in social class—I’m way to the left of his patrician tracks.

But I just saw a picture posted of Ali and Arnold together, when they were honorary captains at the 2007 Orange Bowl. And I wrote a piece here last November when Ali expressed his “great pleasure” that Jack, as “one of sports biggest living legends,” would receive the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.

“Jack’s passion for excellence on the golf course is only surpassed by his love and passion for children and their well-being,” Ali said, via a statement. “For decades, he has used his celebrity to bring awareness and support for children’s health. I can not think of a more deserving person for this special inaugural award than the Golden Bear, himself.”

“There are very few in the sporting world who are more synonymous with the word ‘legacy’ than Muhammad Ali, so to have his name attached to the prestigious Legacy Award is so fitting,” said Jack. “He is not only known universally as the ‘Champ,’ but he has been a wonderful global ambassador for sports and our country. This is a marvelous way to honor his contributions past and present, and to ensure that generations going forward will have the opportunity to learn, respect and admire all Muhammad Ali has done for the sporting world. That is why to be the first recipient of the Ali Legacy Award is both humbling and an honor.”

But who knows what Jack and Arnie thought about Muhammad when he was Cassius—let alone when he refused induction into the Army? And I should note my disappointment last May when Jack, whom I also interviewed and who was wonderful, said he’d vote for Trump, calling him a “good man [who’s] turning America upside down [and] awakening the country.”

As for Arnold now, I’m was with Jack all the way—my personal experience notwithstanding.

“We just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports,” jack said in a statement. “Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans—Barbara and I among them. We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed. He was the king of our sport and always will be.”

And let the final word come from President Obama, who tweeted, with a photo of him putting in the oval office while Arnold and others looked on, “Here’s to The King who was as extraordinary on the links as he was generous to others.”

He went further in an official statement: “With his homemade swing and homespun charm, Arnold Palmer had swagger before we had a name for it. From a humble start working at the local club in his beloved Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to superstardom as the face of golf around the globe, Arnold was the American Dream come to life. Along the way he racked up win after win–but it wasn’t his success that made him King. Arnold’s freewheeling, fearless approach to the game inspired a generation of golfers and, for the first time on TV, enthralled an audience across the world. Sure, we liked that he won seven majors, but we loved that he went for it when he probably should have laid up. That spirit extended beyond the links where he gave freely of himself and poured everything he had into everything he did: from building hospitals to personally responding to countless letters from his fans. And he did it all with a grin that hinted maybe he had one more shot up his sleeve. Today, Michelle and I stand with Arnie’s Army in saluting the King.”

Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

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For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

Tales of Bessman–Alan Vega, Suicide and The Blind Man in the Bleachers

Alan Vega’s death on July 16, and being back in Madison, Wis at the same time, brought me back to when I first heard Suicide’s self-titeld 1977 debut album, and The Blind Man in the Bleachers.

“The Blind Man in the Bleachers” was a No. 2 country hit in 1975 for Kenny Starr, a cover of the Top 20 pop hit that year by David Geddes. It really was one of the schmaltziest country hits ever, about a blind man in a high school football stadium bleachers who longs to hear his second stringer son’s name announced, but doesn’t show up for the season final. Turns out he died, which is how he gets to “see his son [finally] get in the game” and lead the team to victory.

I was working at the State of Wisconsin at the time, a typist-receptionist in the Department of Administration Bureau of Personnel, in a federally funded program called Project Skill, which was designed to give physically and mentally disabled people job opportunities (myself included, having–get this–earlier worked as a reader-typist for a blind man in the same old downtown State Office Building in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation). One day this blind guy came in to work, but he wasn’t a client. I can’t remember what his exact staff position was, but Dennis in fact became one of my best friends—thanks largely to his wife Maddy.

Maddy, you see, was a great cook. She used to pack the best lunches for Dennis every day, and me being hungry, well, I stole them. Incredulous people would always ask, “How could you do that?” “Easy,” I’d answer. “He was blind.”

Not that Dennis didn’t try hard. He’d hide his lunch in the closet, in his desk, in places I can’t remember, but to no avail. I’d watch him fumbling around for his lunch and his eventual realization that it wasn’t where he hid it, and cover my ears for the inevitable “FUCK YOU!” that followed. Actually, “FUCK YOU!” was our mutual greeting: Every time he’d call me on the phone, either at home or in the office—and my desk wasn’t more than 20 feet from his—there’d be a pause after I answered, then a loud “FUCK YOU” (if in the office, a loud whispered “FUCK YOU”). I, of course, always responded in kind.

It wasn’t long before Maddy started packing a second lunch, and Dennis and I would walk the couple blocks from the State Office Building on 1 West Wilson Street to the State Capital Square, walking around the Square while eating—that is, when I wasn’t trying to push him into the street or he wasn’t trying to hit me with his cane. At least once a week or so he’d come over to my place a few blocks East of the Square on Hancock Street and listen to records, or I’d take the bus with him to the West Side for dinner followed by Crazy Eights, which, somehow, he invariably won amidst ceaseless gloating.

This had to be around 1977-78–the advent of punk and new wave, which is when I went back to listening to rock after having immersed myself in country music around 1970 when prog-rock and pop-rock replaced ‘60s Top 40 radio and underground rock FM stations. Hence, I knew of “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”–a hit that understandably hasn’t withstood the test of time. As for my Blind Man in the Bleachers, well, Dennis shared my love of ‘60s rock, but pretty much hated punk and new wave. To this day the only time I ever sat through an entire Saturday Night Live was the landmark one on Dec. 17, 1977, when Elvis Costello & the Attractions filled in for the just disbanded Sex Pistols, and it was over at Dennis’s with several of his and Maddy’s other friends. I think there was only one other person there who thought Elvis was incredible–let alone had any idea who he was.

But I played everything for Dennis—Elvis, The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Sex Pistols, Clash, Talking Heads. I don’t recall that he liked any of it, but he did have an assistant who was also a big punk fan, who actually saw the Pistols when they played the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas on that ill-fated U.S. tour.

And, of course, Suicide. I went back to that first Suicide album right after the death of Vega, whom I met many years later in New York when I interviewed him for Billboard. Even now the minimalist album is gripping from instrumentalist Martin Rev’s “Ghost Rider” techno-electro get-go and Vega’s “America America is killing its youth” lyric proceeding into breathless abandon.

And how about “Frankie Teardrop,” which inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”?

It had an insane electronic beat and a fundamental keyboard grind that heightened the tension in Vega’s tale about the downtrodden psycho killer/suicide Frankie Teardrop (“Let’s hear it for Frankie!”), which erupted into a frantic screech as the subject exploded.

But it was “Cheree” that really set Dennis off. He’d goof on me non-stop for Vega’s “Cheree Cheree, oh baby,” mercilessly exaggerating Vega’s already exaggerated delivery.

I began my writing career in the Project Skill office, when Steve Tatarsky, who worked in the Bureau of Personnel and had earlier worked at The Milwaukee Sentinel, complained how he had to write the Department of Administration newsletter, titled–get this–D.O.A. Today. I offered to help Steve out, even though I had no writing experience outside school–and I’d flunked out of high school.

The only article I remember writing for D.O.A. Today was a somewhat investigative piece on the remodeled men’s room down the hall. Being an old building, it had these beautiful marble walls, institutional gravel floors, and big wooden doors in the stalls–also beautiful. But for some stupid bureaucratic reason, they decided to replace the doors with some kind of hideous orange formica, and I think they covered up the marble as well. It took a long time to do, and when it was finished, the modern upgrade looked awful.

I quoted an unidentified source who used the facility regularly, but as this was all almost 40 years ago, I don’t think he’ll mind if I reveal his name now.

“It looks like a Burger King!” said The Blind Man in the Bleachers.