Tales of Bessman–The Fifth Beatle

Fucked-up times, the Sixties. The Beatles, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, all intertwined. I think about my own fucked-up time growing up in the Sixties and how much Ali meant to me and helped me–and so many millions of others like me–get through it. And when the not unexpected announcement of his death came in around 12:20 AM Saturday, I rightly tweeted that a lot of people my age would be thinking back a lot over these next few days.

I was right, of course.

I’m thinking now, the day before his funeral, of the first time I saw him in person–almost. It was during his exile from the ring from Marc, 1967 to October, 1970 after he’d refused induction into the Army for not having no quarrel against them Vietcong and was stripped of his title and denied the ability to fight and thereby make a living–during his athletic prime. So he started going around and giving speeches. I and one of my two best junior high school buddies, Don, drove from Madison to Milwaukee to hear him, but by the time we got there, the venue had sold out and they were putting the overflow into a room with a TV monitor.

I don’t remember the speech very well, but it was great to be in the same building with Ali, at least. As for Don, well, we were playing around with needles a lot back then. He ended up going through at least three livers before finally croaking a few years ago. Could just as easily have been me.

Same with Greg, my other best friend in junior high and high school, who hung himself around the same time as Don died. Some insane argument with his sister about the cat getting out.

Greg was with me at the Dane County Coliseum on October 30, 1974 to see the Ali-Foreman fight on closed-circuit. Few people gave Ali much of a chance, and there weren’t more than a few hundred there. As I’ve written before—at least once–when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.

It was the culmination of my wishing, imagining every single day since he was stripped of his title that he would come back and wear the crown once again. For I was that invested in him as a role model, a man of such great courage and creativity and so fun and full of life–truly the Fifth Beatle. The counterculture as one man.

Probably some time in the mid- to late-1980s, some years after moving to New York, I finally saw him in person for the first time. It was very much like how George Vecsey in The New York Times a few days ago recalled his first sighting, “circa 1968, while Ali was suspended for refusing to enter the military draft, uttering the famous line, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.’”

For Vecsey, it was a sunny midday in Chicago, “one of his cities–heck, a lot of cities were his in those heightened times.” Perhaps the Champ was just out for a stroll, Vescey, then a young baseball writer, surmised: “I had never seen Ali in person, but geez he was beautiful, big and limber and smiling, and it didn’t look like he had much else to do but walk down State Street, collecting black people and white people and brown people and young people and old people, surely not everybody in America, for he was a draft dodger and a Muslim and whatever else you wanted to call him, but he was the champion of State Street that day, the once and future champ.”

I was somewhere on Broadway in the 50s, near my office at 57th and Broadway. I saw a crowd and was curious—then saw they were following the Champ and growing in size. In seconds they’d grown by one more—me–who wiggled his way close enough to get an autograph. He stayed with it mindlessly until it dissipated when the leader got into a car and left.

Here’s another account from a few days ago, from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg, one of the few journalists to agree to call Ali Ali when he changed to it from Cassius Clay: “I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones–Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.”

The next time I saw Ali was at Madison Square Garden, at a Roberto Duran title fight. I don’t remember the year or who he fought; all I remember is Ali’s entrance just before the ring introductions, and joining everyone in the arena in shouting “Ali! Ali!”

Some years later I became friendly with Ali’s longtime photographer and closest friend Howard Bingham. I did a piece on him for Photo District News, and through him got a few quotes for an Ali piece for Billboard—though I can’t remember what it was about. And at one time I was friendly with HBO and got invited to boxing press events. They had one at their office with Ali and his biographer Thomas Hauser, for which I brought along my friend, profesional Muay Thai kickboxing champ Edge Brown. As Ali walked in he spotted Edge ad held up his fists, knowing just by looking at him that he was a fighter. It was the biggest thrill ever for Edge.

There was another HBO event, a screening, I think, at the main public library. I brought my friend Rena, a photographer, and she brought a Polaroid. So I was able to get a picture with Ali and have him sign it. Then, before the “Rumble in the Jungle” documentary When We Were Kings came out, I got invited to a private dinner with Ali and his wife Lonnie and maybe a dozen or so others, at a restaurant on 57th Street near my office—neither of which still exists. The invite was either through Howard or another friend, David Sonenberg, the successful manager then of acts like Joan Osborne and The Fugees, and a producer of the film. Ali was already well into his Parkinson’s disabilities and hardly spoke, but it was here, I think, that I told him what I said here earlier, that there wasn’t a day gone by from the time he was stripped of the title to when he got it back that I didn’t dream about it happening.

They had a big screening of When We Were Kings at Radio City, which I went to with Tim White, the late Billboard editor and my dear friend. Tim had actually hung out with Ali years earlier at his training camp in Pennsylvania for a Rolling Stone feature, I think. At the after-part we got the chance to have a few moments with Ali and Lonnie, who remembered me from the dinner a short while earlier. Again, he couldn’t say much, but she was wonderful.

That was the last time I saw Ali, but incredibly, not the last time I spoke with him. Ali was about to come out, and Howard was in town for a screening at the Ziegfeld and got me in. I hooked up with him when I got to the theater, and moments later he was warmly greeted by Angelo Dundee! So I sat with Howard, Angie, and a guy who was with Angie, who turned out to be the former No. 1 middleweight boxer Michael Olajide, Jr.–a wonderful guy, who had acted as technical advisor on the film and is now a dear friend, not to mention successful gym operator (Aerospace NYC).

I had remained friendly with Ali’s assistant, Kim Forburger, and the next day I called her at Berrien Springs, Michigan, where they were based at the time. They hadn’t seen the movie yet, and she was thrilled to get my advance rave review.

She then told me to hold on for a second, and when the second was up, her voice was replaced by the soft, unmistakable voice of Muhammad Ali, whispering, “So did you like the mooovie?”

I ecstatically stammered for a few moments about how good it was, how great he was, how thrilled I was, and let him go—then thanked Kim profusely.

When the Alis moved to Arizona I lost touch with Kim, and sadly, in the last few years I lost contact with Howard. Angelo is gone, with The Beatles, Don and Greg, and now Muhammad.

The fucked-up Sixties were almost 60 years ago. That great line, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there,” is a cliché—but a valid one. I’ve forgotten plenty, much of it just as well. But I haven’t forgotten who brung me here, my friends, my idols.

Today I rail a lot about the overuse of the word “icon.” I’ve even written about it here. But Muhammad Ali, more than anyone, defines the word. Everyone else is second at best, if not trivial.

Thinking back to Don and Greg, I’m sorry they didn’t live long enough to outlive Ali, if for no other reason than we’d all still be together now in spirit watching his funeral tomorrow.

There will always be so much to think back on for those of us whom Muhammad Ali touched so deeply, who loved him back so deeply for all the love he gave us just by being. But a simple summation comes to mind, thanks to the four other Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

Tales of Bessman: Volunteers of America

Paul Kantner’s death last week made me think of marching.

Marching past the dorms on the University of Wisconsin campus in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” blasting out of the windows along with “Street Fightin’ Man.”

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution

Co-written by Kantner and Marty Balin, “Volunteers” was the 1969 titletrack single that closed the band’s 1969 album, whose lead track was its B-side “We Can Be Together,” which was written by Kantner and inspired by the Black Panther Party’s use of the phrase “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” which appears in the chorus. Hence it was an uncommonly political two-sided single, and came out at a time when I was coming home at night reeking of tear gas that would drip down my long hair and into my eyes again when I showered.

Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution, got to revolution

I was a senior in high school, Class of ‘70. Kent State was May 4. My best guess was it was those demonstrations when a can of pepper gas or CS gas blew up in my face and I made it to a first aid station at the Hillel Foundation on Langdon Street to get treated. Maybe it was an earlier one.

One time we marched up State Street to the foot of Bascom Hill, where the National Guard was waiting. They fired a volley of tear gas canisters and I ran up the ground level ramp of the parking lot on the corner, only to find at the top that there were no stairs at that end—so I had to turn around and run all the way back down into the clouds of gas. I didn’t get caught, but I never felt so stupid.

Another time I was hiding from National Guard in the bushes along the shore of Lake Mendota, a helicopter above shining a searchlight down on us from above. That Saturday they gave free seats in the end zone to the Guard, who sat there in uniform and looked pretty harmless. But I was scared shit in the bushes.

“One, two, three, four! We don’t want your fucking war!”

“Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh! NLF is gonna win!”

I never did it, but it’s true that there were kids who threw rocks and smashed windows in the shops on State Street. One of them was a clothing store owned by a Concentration Camp survivor, who likened it to Nazi Germany. I felt sorry for him, for having his store trashed, and for being an idiot.

Ironically, the right wingers in town–mostly Republican legislators from Northern Wisconsin, blamed “outside agitators” who invariably came from New York—code then, and now, for Jews. Just ask Ted Cruz.

The day after Kent State I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School with 100 others—we were called “The Memorial 101”—for protesting. I showered the gas out again that night when I got home.

This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey, now it’s time for you and me

One of the first records I bought was “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” Lesley Gore’s hit from 1963, when I was 11. She had just turned 17 when she recorded it. She always said, “You gotta make your 16-year-old self proud.”

I was 17 in 1970 at the time of Kent State. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, there was a big protest March in Manhattan, on a very cold day. I met up at Grand Central with my friends Suri Gopalan, an Indian who owned a small chain of South Asian music and video stores based in New Jersey, and Jane Sibery, the renowned Canadian singer-songwriter, who happened to be in town. We marched somewhere on the East Side. I can’t remember where the destination was—it must have been the U.N.–but the turnout was so big we never got anywhere near.

I think I got close to it toward the end, when it started thinning out and Suri and Jane had left. I do remember that I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that 33 years after Kent State, I hadn’t changed—at least where it really counted. I’m not much of a crier, usually, but I did start crying. I had made my 16-year-old self proud.

I met Paul Kantner a few times, first a few years after I came to New York. It was 1986, and he was in town promoting the album KBC Band, KBC Band being Kantner, Balin and their Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. They were on Arista Records, and I was in their publicist’s office. Paul pulled out a joint, lit it up, took a hit and passed it to me. Of course I did the same, never thinking twice. The publicist did, though, and still rags me for it.

A few years later I was at a meet-and-greet after a Jefferson Airplane show at Radio City, and told Grace Slick how we used to march to “Volunteers.” She laughed–but she didn’t laugh it off.

My favorite couplet from “Volunteers”:

One generation got old
One generation got soul.

Tales of Bessman: I remember Elvis

elvissheet1

“Two Beers and no dope.”

‘Scuse me while I quote myself. Probably the best lead I ever wrote—certainly the most inspired.

It had to be a week or two before the triumphant return of Elvis Costello to Madison, this time headlining the U.S. tour with Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille in Spring, 1978, six months or so after Elvis played Bunky’s, a tiny showcase club just off-campus, on his first U.S. tour in late November, 1977.

It was a landmark occasion in my then brief career as a music journalist, which had begun a year or so earlier. Yet by now I was editor of The Madcity Music Sheet, which came out biweekly and had some national and a lot of local music coverage and concert listings.

I remember how we all had gathered around at the Sheet headquarters one day reading Melody Maker—one of England’s major music newspapers–and marveling at a small piece about Elvis Costello getting busted for busking outside a London convention of CBS Records executives. He was protesting that his U.K. records hadn’t been picked up for release in the U.S. In short order, he signed with Columbia (thanks to A&R rep Gregg Geller, later a dear friend whose wife Hope, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus and also later a dear friend, became his publicist) and came to the U.S. with his band The Attractions.

Then, maybe as now, Madison, Wis., was a perfect layover for touring artists, situated between the major markets of Chicago and Minneapolis (not counting Milwaukee). Madison had a huge university campus, and we got a lot of baby acts on the way up, as well as major acts who could play theaters or the Dane County Coliseum.

The biggest guy in the biz was Ken Adamany. He’d played keyboards for Steve Miller and Luther Allison, owned The Factory nightclub where Hendrix played and Otis was supposed to when his plane crashed into Lake Monona—near where I used to live.

But now Ken was a manager. He managed Dr. Bop & The Headliners, to this day the most fun band I ever saw (“almost too much entertainment,” as bandleader/drummer Dr. Newt Bop used to say). They were hugely successful in the area and Ken funneled his earnings from them into a band based in Rockford, Ill.—Cheap Trick.

Everyone at the Sheet was big time Cheap Trick fans—except me, of course. I appreciate some of their later hits, and now that they’re nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the weakest year yet, understand if they go in. But for me they were always too cartoon-y—though I’m the guy who wrote the first book on The Ramones, so go figure. But Elvis Costello & The Attractions they weren’t.

The Attractions, of course, didn’t exist when Elvis’s first album, My Aim is True, came out. I was so exited to get it, but I remember not really getting it on first hearing, except for “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” But it all came together on second hearing, and when Sheet publisher Gary Sohmers found out he was touring, he convinced Bunky’s—without any opposition—to book him.

Bunky’s really was the best. All the best rock, jazz, comedy. They even had George Jones, who did show up—and I was the one who was drunk. It was like Madison’s version of The Bottom Line.

And it was such an exciting time for me in music. After I got out of hight school (I was Class of ’70, but didn’t graduate with it) and the breakup of The Beatles and the emergence of FM radio and progressive rock, I switched over almost entirely to country music. But I was hip to punk rock and new wave, and had started writing a little for the State of Wisconsin Department of Administration newsletter—DOA Today, believe it or not—more or less to help out a friend in the Bureau of Personnel who was doing all the work and complaining that he had no help.

I worked in a small office in Personnel, in a federally funded entity called Project Skill—whose mission was to find employment for people with disabilities (which, ironically, I was one). I’d taken a week’s vacation in Nashville (my first time there), met my Cajun country hero Joel Sonnier (now Jo-El Sonnier), came back and went to the corner bar that night, the Cardinal Bar, to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine—The Madcity Music Sheet—and I picked one up and paged through it—except that I think at that time it was just one sheet of newsprint folded over twice. I saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes—with guest Ronnie Spector—appearing at the Stone Hearth, which was down the block from Bunky’s, and I went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from; I would later write liner notes on a Southside compilation and become close friends with Phil Spector.

Ronnie had duetted with Southside on his first album (I Don’t Want to Go Home, 1976), so the year had to be 1977–since she toured with him the following year. The show had to be a week or two after I returned from Nashville, which was on Memorial Day. I didn’t know Gary, but I recognized him at the show and went up and told him I was there because I saw the ad in his paper. He told me to write for it. Just like that.

I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter.

I started writing about Jo-El and country music, Dr. Bop, Milwaukee’s blues-rock band Short Stuff, my Chicago blues-rock heroes the Siegel-Schwall Band, and anything else I wanted—pretty much same as now, and throughout my career. But thanks to The Ramones, Sex Pistols and especially Elvis, I also covered punk and new wave.

Especially Elvis. We all loved how he released singles with picture sleeves and non-album B-sides, how the U.S and U.K. album versions were different, how My Aim is True had “ELVIS IS KING” spelled out in the tiny checkerboard squares on the album cover, how the red “COLUMBIA” label on the discs was changed to “COSTELLO.”

And for a certain type who felt alienated growing up in the ’60s and had only rock ‘n’ roll as his friend (read: me and no doubt a good many other male rock journalists, if not all), Elvis was the second coming of John Lennon or Bob Dylan or both put together.

“When I first started out, I thought I had two seconds to get people’s attention and be remembered,” he said at a packed appearance at New York’s main public library last month, during a conversation about his just-published memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. “I said things that were edgy and found that [music journalists] liked it–and thought they’d leave me alone to write songs.”

We identified everything about him, from his anti-glam, bespectacled look (so often misidentified as nerdy) to his sound (hard-edged organ and guitar over relentless rhythms) to his themes of “revenge and guilt,” to repeat a famous phrase he used in his only interview available in the early part of his career.

I remember that the day the follow-up album This Year’s Model came out, a record store on State Street cut out a few of the pigeon-toed Elvis portraits from the first album and taped them on the sidewalk with arrows pointing the way into the store. I remember the Columbia college rep having a little press party at the Concourse Hotel across from the State Capitol to celebrate the release of the new albums by Elvis , Eddie Money and Billy Joel—and may somewhere still have the Columbia nail care set they gave us.

And I’ll never forget how the Columbia girl, when I told her how thrilling it was to hear the new Elvis album, responded: “Elvis and Eddie Money are good—but a new Billy Joel album is an event.”

Like I said, that show at Bunky’s was pivotal. It was a tiny club, maybe 200 seats if I remember right, and I stayed for both shows.

Also during his current tour behind his memoir, Elvis recently recalled how Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen introduced the first Bunky’s show. Nielsen actually got footage from the conversation and posted it on Facebook with the caption “Kind words from Elvis Costello. I have a picture from the night in Madison, WI that he’s referring to…”

This is the picture:

NielsenSheet

In the clip Elvis revealed how much he and The Attractions loved Cheap Trick and listened to them on tour.

“Because they had a couple of very good looking fellows in the band and Rick with his sort of cartoon look with the guitars of many necks, you forget what great songs they wrote–and we loved them,” he said. He then recalled how he and the band had “made our way through the snow and wind to Madison, Wisconsin, and Rick got up and actually sort of explained myself and the Attractions to the local audience–who were poised with pitchforks and flaming torches at that point—and said that we were people he recommended personally and helped us get over with the local crowd. Those people up in Wisconsin, they can get nasty in the cold weather!”

Of course we weren’t really poised with pitchforks and flaming torches. But there was indeed an enormous sense of anticipation bordering on shock, and Elvis, now with The Attractions, didn’t let us down.

Even now I remember it was most of the songs from My Aim is True and several from the then unreleased second album This Year’s Model including “You Belong to Me.” The performance roiled with the ferocity of Steve Nieve’s churning keyboards driven by the rhythm section of Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas, and Elvis spitting out the lyrics and slashing away at his guitar—and on “Less Than Zero,” carving out a “swastika tattoo” with his index finger as he snarled the phrase.

I’m pretty sure he was drunk, only because he seemed so angry—though not without at least some reason.

“I’ve seen the police in England, and I’ve been to Madison, and I’ve seen the police,” he observed at one point, unprompted. “And they both have guns.”

He must have done “Radio Radio,” but if he didn’t, he definitely said, “In England, there’s only one station, and it plays the same thing. In America, there are many stations, and they all play the same thing.”

And in much the manner that he famously gestured the Attractions to stop playing on Saturday Night Live in December, 1977, he cut them off dead halfway into a song at Bunky’s late show with a slicing motion, then pointed to a couple guys against the back wall who were talking.

“Hey, you back there, talking to the person next to you. I see you. When I go to see someone I go to have a good time, not to talk!” he steamed. Maybe he wasn’t drunk—though I recall he took a drink or two from admirers up front. As for me, just those two beers and no dope–and a show that was so riveting and eventful that when I asked Gary if we could put out a special issue in advance of the Costello/Lowe/DeVille concert, he readily agreed.

The show was at The Orpheum theater, across State Street from The Capitol Theater (now the Madison Overture Center for the Arts), two blocks from the State Capitol. I remember when I got there I ran into Jim Post, the great folk singer-songwriter who collaborated with Siegel-Schwall and as half of Friend & Lover, had the immortal 1967 pop hit “Reach Out of the Darkness.” Jim lived near Madison, and told me he was there entirely because of my “two beers and no dope” lead in our Elvis special.

My lead piece, by the way, was also titled “I Remember Elvis.” It began thusly: ” November 30, 1979. Bunky’s. Elvis Costello. Two beers and no dope. I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

I hearby apologize to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Orpheum, incidentally, was also a couple blocks from the Quisling Clinic on Gorham Street. Elvis might have done “Green Shirt” that night. It was on Armed Forces, his third album, which would come out in January, 1979. He was always doing new, unreleased material in concert, even in the beginning.

“Green Shirt,” of crouse, has the line “‘Cause somewhere in the Quisling Clinic/There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.” I doubt many in Madison would have known that Norwegian leader Vidkun Quisling was a Nazi collaborator whose name is now synonymous with traitor—as Elvis most surely would have. For Churchill used the word in a famous wartime speech, and “Green Shirt” came two songs after Armed Forces‘ overtly political “Oliver’s Army.”

Vidkun Quisling was executed for treason in 1945. The Quisling Clinic was founded by cousins of Quisling, including Dr. Gunnar Quisling, who served in the U.S. medical corps in World War II and took part in the Normandy invasion. Eisenhower awarded him the Legion of Merit for developing a foreign body locator—a device used to find shrapnel in wounded servicemen–and as he was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, he also perfected the gas masks used by soldiers wearing glasses.

The Quisling Clinic, with its blonde brick, flat roofs, rounded corners and the ocular window near the entrance, was a striking example of “Art Moderne” architecture. As for “Green Shirt,” it has always struck me as one of the great examples of what makes Pete Thomas such a great drummer: hear his “bap-bap-bap-bap-bip” on the snare after Elvis sings a line. In fact, on the whole song Pete’s drumming is as much a part of the arrangement as Steve’s swirling keyboards.

I came to New York the day after Christmas, 1981. I think I took the Dog. I had a few friends at record companies and MTV from working for the Sheet and stringing for Variety and found out from one of them that Elvis was playing New Year’s Eve at the Palladium, NRBQ opening. The day of the show they released some tickets and I got front row center, balcony.

A few months later I started working full-time at the now-defunct record business trade magazine Cash Box, and two years later I left and began contributing to Billboard for over 20 years. I was lucky to see Elvis, write about Elvis and get to know Elvis and the Attractions during these years.

I can say that Pete is universally acknowledged as the nicest guy in the business, let alone greatest drummer. Steve somehow remains the keyboard boy genius, shy and quiet but very funny, who cracks me up every time I see him. Imposters bassist Davey Faragher is also a great guy and talent, whom I got to know well through Pete, with whom he plays in the fab L.A. country shtick band Jack Shit when they’re not on the road elsewhere.

I never got to know Attraction Bruce Thomas much (no relation to Pete, if you didn’t know), but he’s a Bruce Lee authority and respected my interest. This was after the first time I introduced myself to him, in the Ritz balcony when he was still with Elvis and the band. I told him who I was and that I was with Billboard and was a huge fan. “Fuck off!” he responded, quite emphatically, and it was wholly appropriate.

As for Elvis, well, no surprise for you, I’m sure, to learn that he’s far and away the most intelligent artist I’ve ever been lucky enough to know, let alone interview—though I really haven’t interviewed him formally in a long time. He hardly needs journalists like me any more to get his message across. But you can’t ask for a more forthcoming person on any level, really. Even with his tonnage of artistic output, on the occasions when I’ve emailed him—and I try to respectfully keep them rare—he often responds within minutes, sometimes with an intricate chapter length treatise. Anyone who’s seen him speak on TV or in person knows that he can just spout off the most thoughtful discourse spontaneously.

After I left Madison I rarely returned. Only to see my father a couple times before he died and shortly after for his funeral, and after that, for the memorial for Dr. Bop. Then two summers ago I went back to visit what’s left of my family, and when I saw that Elvis was performing in Madison this last July—with The Imposters—I scheduled another trip to Madison around it. I saw it as an opportunity to bring my career around full circle, and was prepared for an event of unparalleled self-awareness, if not discovery.

It’s not like I have a lot of friends left in Madison. Most of them are dead by now, or have moved on in other ways. But I did have one friend, Robin Gates, whom I’d brought to see Elvis at Bunky’s. He and his wife Jan had bought tickets for the show right away.

When I got to Madison I called my friend Tom Herman to see if he’d be my plus-one. I’d worked with Tom at the State, and am forever grateful to him for allowing me a leave of absence to see if I could make it as a journalist. Then again, maybe I should blame him.

Either way, when I called him, not only was he up for it, he reminded me that I’d brought him to Bunky’s that long ago night as well. Then it turned out my sister Ruthanne wanted to go, which caught me by surprise. She does a classical music show on the University of Wisconsin public radio channel, and I never thought she’d be interested in Elvis–despite his excursions into classical music.

I’d last been in touch with Elvis a few months earlier and let him know I was considering coming to Madison to see the show. I’d seen Pete only a few weeks earlier when he was in New York drumming with indie rock band The Weepies, and told him it was pretty much a done deal. I knew I could get in through Pete or Elvis, with a plus-one for sure. But now my sister wanted to go, and I didn’t want to exploit my friendship any further—though of course I was fully prepared to.

I waited until noon day-of-show to call Pete at the hotel. No surprise they were staying at the Concourse—as they were playing at the nearby Overture Center. It was July 23, and one of only a handful of dates that Elvis and The Imposters were doing by themselves apart from their summer tour opening for Steely Dan.

“What kind of fucking hole are we in?” Pete answered, in reference to the hotel. I wish I could somehow fully convey his accusatory befuddlement and tongue-in-cheek exasperation, for I had no choice but to bust up laughing. He did the same and told me to get there at ten-to-three and we’d go to the venue for soundcheck.

I got to the Concourse on time, and as I walked in Elvis’s longtime road manager Robbie McLeod was at the counter. He didn’t know I was coming.

“This place is so weird,” he said, after I explained how and why I was there. All I could do was sheepishly gesture to myself and say, “Hello!” It explained all he needed to know about Madison and me. Steve and Davey showed up shortly and while neither expected me, nor were they surprised. Pete came down, as always in shorts, prompting Robbie to joke about his ever-casual street attire. Steve and Davey were now talking to four gals who were also staying at the hotel, who’d driven down from Minneapolis for the show.

And then we got on the bus for the long drive of maybe two blocks to the Overture. I hadn’t been on the bus with the guys in almost four years to the day when we went from New York to the Gathering Of The Vibes Music Festival at Bridgeport, Conn.’s Seaside Park. Actually it was just Pete and Davey: Steve went on Elvis’s bus, and when we got there, he was dressed in some goofy black Civil War preacher’s outfit, for lack of a better way of describing it. “How are you, my good man?” he asked after I boarded. Then he started laughing, in tacit acknowledgement of how ridiculous he looked and sounded.

On the bus now Pete and Steve were locked in conversation about all the ice cream Steve kept in the fridge. Minutes later we were entering the back door of the Overture, shortly before Elivs arrived and joined us on stage. He remembered I was going to be there, and immediately went about working up the set list with the band while I stood, stage right, five feet or so back from Steve’s Steinway. Elvis loved the piano sound Steve was getting on “Almost Blue,” which was gorgeous, to be sure.

I’d witnessed this before, soundcheck with Elvis and the Imposters, at Atlantic City on New Year’s Eve a couple times. It’s pretty extraordinary, to say the least. They do a good hour-plus sculpting a set that may or may not resemble what they actually do a few hours later in concert.

Three things really stood out this time. When he rehearsed the Bacharach-David classic “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”—a song he performed on the 1978 Stiffs Live tour and album but never in the U.S.—he said that for 38 years he’s been singing it wrong, something to do with an improper placement of the word “just,” which in Dusty Springfield’s classic version does shift position before and after “don’t know.”

Then, looking at his set list and seeing “Chemistry Class,” he muttered to himself, “You’re fucking kidding me.” I chuckled, to myself. Needless to say, it didn’t make the cut.

Toward the end there was a song that Davey was uncomfortable with. As I didn’t take notes—I was a guest, not a reporter–I cant remember what it was. But Elvis, who’s been telling audiences on his book tour how he taught himself to read and write music when he began composing non-pop pieces, sang the song solo for Davey, reciting each guitar chord change along the way—and there were a great many of them.

“Chemistry Class,” by the way, is from Armed Forces. Shortly after Elvis played Bunky’s, Rockpile, with his producer Nick Lowe, played there. Elvis’s and Nick’s visionary manager Jake Riviera was at the show, and a a party after, told me that Armed Forces, which hadn’t been released yet, was Elvis’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I had no reason to doubt it, and if Armed Forces wasn’t as impactful as Sgt. Pepper’s, it was stunning nevertheless, and Elvis would go on to write hits with Paul McCartney.

“When we recorded Armed Forces we listened to a lot of records while we were traveling,” Elvis said in the recent talk where he spoke of Rick Nielsen and Cheap Trick, citing Bowie’s “Berlin records” and Abba records—which, he noted, might not “seem a likely fit for a lot of people”–and Cheap Trick and Wings. “That was our jukebox,” he said, and it made a lot of sense in that Armed Forces was heavily produced pop in comparison to the stripped down intensity of This Year’s Model.

I reminded Elvis of the Cheap Trick/Bunky’s connection during dinner in the catering room. Someone mentioned the Minneapolis gals, and he was taken that they drove all the way down for the show. Of course, I wanted it on the record that I flew in all the way from NYC.

“But you’re weird,” said Elvis. Then he sweetly showed me a few vintage pictures from Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that he had on his phone. And I use the word “sweetly” on purpose, for this is the same guy who nearly 40 years ago had two Bunky’s SRO audiences on the edge of their seats, if not peeing in their pants.

After dinner I went out to meet Tom, Rob and Jan and my sister. Walking around the lobby I kept looking around for other people I knew from Madison whom I hadn’t seen since Bunky’s or the Orpheum, but there was no one. Then again, maybe I hadn’t factored in that they would all most likely look a lot different, as I know I unquestionably do.

I did take notes during the show, but they weren’t very good. I was just to into it, being a fan, enjoying the moment. Later I picked up the set list online:

1. “Wake Me Up”
2. “Watching the Detectives”
3. “Accidents Will Happen”
4. “Human Hands”
5. “Flutter & Wow”
6. “Little Triggers”
7. “Country Darkness”
8. “Bedlam”
9. “Watch Your Step”
10. “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”
11. “Everyday I Write the Book”
12. “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea”
13. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”
14. “Lost on the River #12”
Encore:
15. “The Long Honeymoon”
16. “Almost Blue”
17. “God Give Me Strength”
18. “Shot With His Own Gun”
19. “Another Girl in My Head”
20. “Alison”
21. “Church Underground”
22. “Motel Matches”
23. “Stella Hurt”
Second encore:
24. “Jimmie Standing in the Rain/Brother Can You Spare a Dime”
25. “Ghost Train”
26. “American Without Tears”
27. “I Hope You’re Happy Now”
28. “High Fidelity”
29. “Brilliant Mistake”
30. “Pump It Up”
31. “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

As you can see, it was a monster set. Probably two-and-a-half times as long as their opening sets with Steely Dan, which looked to be pretty much the same each night.

Somewhere along the line Elvis said it was his own first show in Madison in 33 years, if I heard it correctly. I’m glad I left town when I did.

When he and The Imposters kicked in on “Watching the Detectives”—the set’s second song—I was watching my whole career pass by: His index finger-squeeze accompanying “it only took my little finger to blow you away” brought me back to Bunky’s and “swastika tattoo.” A comment about “15 clowns and one big red one”—clearly about the Republican candidates—reminded me of the first Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows on Broadway in 1986, when even then he did a bit about the “sin of Trump.” And a story about listening to the radio and hearing Dark Side of the Moon and “Stairway to Heaven” evoked hearing the same things on radio stations everywhere.

The Imposters, meanwhile, sounded terrific, as always. They’d already done a few dates with Steely Dan, but this was one of the first—and only—shows they were doing on their own during the short stretches of off days from the Steely Dan tour.

What was incredible was that they hadn’t played together in the three years since the end of the Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows. I don’t know how much rehearsing they’d done or needed to do to get back into the groove on songs that they’ve played for decades, but I do know Pete’s work ethic: He books himself into a studio and plays to tapes for days on end in preparations for anything he’s involved in. A true pro in every sense of the word.

I continue to try to make sense of my mostly unintelligible scribble from that night. I was glad he followed “Detectives” with “Accidents Will Happen,” lead track from Armed Forces. I always liked it when he opened shows with it—which he often did—since the opening words are “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin,” and it showcases Steve so well.

Then again, so did just about everything. He played a lot of piano—most notably, maybe, on “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” which did make the cut. The latter part of the set proper picked up steam with “Everyday I Write the Book” and “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” but I really lost it when a guy got up and started dancing on “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and the crowd sang the responses in the second verse: It really brought home why I was there, that after all this time Elvis—and his first album—were still relevant, and by extension, perhaps, so was I.

The first set of encores—Elvis’s sets of encores are like the second half of the show—began with an “Imperial Bedroom suite” of that album’s “The Long Honeymoon,” which had him singing at the mic without his guitar, and “Almost Blue,” Steve playing piano like he was painting a picture. It also included two songs from his 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (the hit “God Give Me Strength” and “I Still Have That Other Girl”) and a few songs just with Steve—sort of a reprise of their 1996 tour as a duo, including the compositionally complex “Shot With His Own Gun.” There was a lot of applause-instructing pointing by Elvis to Steve throughout the show, but especially here.

The first encore—nine songs altogether!—also had a solo acoustic mini-set including “Alison,” and a long piano ballad version of “Motel Matches” which Elvis just sang the shit out of—no surprise since the song requires such vocal precision, and Elvis is the rare vocalist capable of it. The second set of encores—eight more songs—ended rapid-fire rock with the traditional closers “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Like I said, it was a monster set, and monster show. Even the band felt so, and Elvis did, too, in an email response a few days later. I don’t know why, but the place was only half-full. And when I brought everyone backstage after (it was a rare instance where I had an all-access laminate allowing me to do so) it wasn’t the typical clusterfuck—to use a word I detest but is fitting in this case—that it would have been in New York. Rather, it was pretty much just Pete, Steve and Davey in their small dressing room.

Steve Tannen, of The Weepies, was there, too. He’d driven up from Iowa City, where he and wife/fellow Weepies principal wife Deb Talan and their three young sons live. It was a three-hour drive, an hour less than from Minneapolis, so I guess I was still the weird one of the group. I think there were a couple others, and it was a blast. Everyone posed for pictures, and the guys couldn’t have been nicer. I was so impressed with Steve and the story of how the Weepies survived and thrived during his wife’s cancer treatment that I ended up writing a long story about it.

Then Robbie brought Elvis in. He looked exhausted. He might have come in anyway, but I’m pretty sure he did it just for me, as it’s not like he knew anyone else there, and there were no music bizzers to meet-and-greet—surprising, in that I figured there would at least be some radio or retail or something. Then I realized that I hadn’t come out of my Bunky’s reverie and was still living in the days of music business past, when all those things existed.

I might have had three beers and no dope.

My sister offered to take a picture of me with Elvis but I said no, and I didn’t want to ask him to pose with anyone. He would have done it, of course. But he was still finishing up his book. He’d just done a monster show. He had to phone home. I’d gotten plenty enough from him for one day. One career. I’d gone home, but it wasn’t his home.

The one thing he didn’t do, that I was hoping for, was “Green Shirt.” I almost said something about it at dinner and am glad I didn’t. He probably would have called a second sound check in between bites and learned it.

The Quisling Clinic, by the way, is now the Quisling Terrace Apartment Homes, having been restored, converted and added onto since I left town. It was originally built in the 1890s as a house, acquired in the 1940s by the Quislings and renovated as a clinic, with alterations and additions, in 1946, taking it into the Art Moderne style.

The Capitol’s now the Overture, and Bunky’s is long gone.

Elvis is now on the road touring his book, with a new round of solo performance dates to follow.

Nothing’s scheduled with the Imposters, and there’s no telling when—or if—I’ll ever get to see them again, in Madison or anywhere else.

Tales of Bessman: Garth Brooks and the new Adele video

If I wasn’t the first I most surely was among the first reviewers of music videos, having critiqued them at the short-lived Rock Video magazine–edited by Danny Fields–back in the early ’80s. I also did a sort of Siskel & Ebert thing for Nashville’s Music Row trade magazine, in which I was invariably the curmudgeon opposite another reviewer (Bob Paxman, a nice guy, which I most assuredly wasn’t) who 99.9 percent of the time disagreed with me.

Let me just say that while there’s nothing like a great music video, virtually none of them are great, and most of them are just plain shite. We had an okay thing going for a while at Music Row until I got an angry email from a low level music video production house staffer taking issue with my review of one of its productions. I remember it was a stupid letter, and I responded stupidly: She forwarded my letter to Music Row’s editor—remember: this was a trade magazine—and I was out on my ass.

I don’t remember that video or exactly what I said in my letter. I also don’t remember the video that prompted my dear late friend Sherman Halsey–who directed Tim McGraw’s videos–to bust up laughing when he read it in-flight: “I can’t believe a reputable music writer used the word ‘barf’ in a review!” he told me (italics are mine).

The only video review I remember is my trashing of Garth Brooks’ controversial clip to “The Thunder Rolls”—which of course went on to win the 1991 Country Music Association award for Video of the Year—even though it had been banned by TNN and CMT due to violent content.

The video, like the song, had to do with a cheating suburban husband who returns home to his wife on a stormy night when “A strange new perfume blows/And the lightnin’ flashes in her eyes/And he knows that she knows/And the thunder rolls.”

And she guns him down.

Garth played the husband and locked ridiculous with a beard and mustache, later explaining that he wanted viewers to find him so despicable that they’d want to shoot him as well; as such, he appeared in marked contrast to the intercut performance footage, where he was shown as his country boy self singing the song clean-shaven and wearing his cowboy hat. I looked all over for the video and was only able to find an upside-down and backwards image copy at this site.

My contention–and it was emphatic, as I recall–was that a whiff of strange new perfume was not grounds for murder. My negative review was later quoted in an early Garth bio–and not as a compliment.

I was in Nashville shortly after my review was published, and was invited to Garth’s managers’ office for some sort of press party or reception. I don’t remember if it was Garth-related, but he was there—and not particularly happy to see me.

Now I’d known Garth from the beginning, having been old friends with one of his managers. I had breakfast with him in New York before his breatkthrough hit “Friends in Low Places” from the preceding year, so I went over to him and extended my hand. He shook it, but not without expressing his disappointment over my review.

I think I was more surprised that he’d even seen it than uncomfortable by his reaction, and stammered something to the effect that it had hardly hindered his superstardom. Looking back now, it was just another oddity in his Country Music Hall of Fame career, like his ill-fated Chris Gaines rock star alter-ego experiment, his aborted retirements, his habit of referring to himself in the third person and his wife as “Miss Yearwood.”

There’s no denying, of course, that he earned his superstardom—and Country music Hall of Fame recognition. He remains the biggest star ever in country music—unless you consider Taylor Swift country.

And I always remember his kindness to my dear Minnie Pearl (he named ), his loyalty to the Grand Ole Opry, that time at Fan Fair–when it was still at the Fairgrounds–when he signed autographs for 24 hours straight, and how he’s always remembered me since–in a good way.

I thought of Garth yesterday when I gave in to the hype and joined 57 million others in watching Adele’s video for “Hello,” released barely two days ago. And once again the thunder rolled.

Well, maybe it didn’t roll, but the rain falls pretty hard throughout “Hello,” which like most every video in rock, pop or country, has, besides rain, a steamy romance that’s falling apart, up to and sometimes past the point of murder.

I watched it twice. The first time was on a site I found on Twitter, that had it, but counted the time backwards, unlike YouTube, which goes forwards. Hence I had to sit there while six minutes and six seconds of my life ticked off backwards, second by second, never to return. The second time I watched it on YouTube, only to see the lost seconds pile up.

Six minutes and six seconds! For a music video!

I mean, this ain’t Citizen Kane we’re talking about, though after two minutes waiting for the song hook–which I’m still waiting for, by the way–it was starting to feel like Birth of a Nation—especially as the first 20 seconds of the black-and-white clip are silent. Then you hear Adele on a flip phone–that’s right, a flip phone!–losing her signal because she’s way out in the sticks. Nice nails and windblown hair, though!

She opens a creaky door to an apparently long-vacant house with covered furniture full of dust, and it’s like an old horror film–which it’s becoming more and more like as more and more seconds go by without any music; indeed, she seems to go into a trance until the first piano notes finally sound at 1:15. Then she turns on the gas, brews some tea, lots of unfocused shots suddenly focus and I have a headache.

There’s a flash cut of a man smiling. She opens the door and goes through papers on a desk, picks up a desk phone and makes a call, and since nothing much is going on in the song of melodic or lyric interest I’m straining to hear what she’s saying–since you can hear the conversation! Not even she respects the song!

More flashing to the guy, who happens to be black—-messing up the Birth of a Nation analogy.

And he’s in the rain! But then he’s inside cooking a big pan of something or other, presumably during happier times, the couple’s happy talk now audible. But suddenly she’s outside in sharp focus and now singing in full music video anguish. Then it’s back to boyfriend, now smiling–but he can’t keep his trap shut even as her beautifully manicured hands grab his cheeks, either to caress or stifle him. C’mon, man! This is her big comeback song, for Chrissake! He turns away angrily, now in the parking lot and the pouring rain–and the whole fucking thing is only half over!

Cut to an antiquated phone booth in the middle of the woods covered with vines and leaves in what passes for surrealism in music videos. That the handset is dangling indicates symbolism, I guess, but I never did understand Bergman.

Some crosscutting between her singing and an agitated encounter with the guy, who’s either throwing clothes at her or getting hit by the ones she’s throwing at him. Cut to her on the phone and a tear runs down her cheek, or maybe it’s my cheek now–four minutes deep, now, with no end in sight.

Cut back to Adele singing outdoors and apologizing. Cut to me and I’m not accepting it–er, cut to him back in the rainy parking lot and he’s not accepting it. Only thing missing is Miley Cyrus flying in on a wrecking ball, grabbing Adele and dragging her out of the wind back in the woods.

It ends with her looking down at him from an upstairs window. It’s not raining. He’s speaking on his own flip phone and is clearly much younger than her, his forearm full of tatts. He’s not happy. She’s not happy. I’m not happy.

Except that at least I have a smartphone–and I’m sorely tempted to call Music Row.

Tales of Bessman: Jeff Walker, Fan Fair, Bob Merlis, Phil Spector and Bahnee’s Beaneruh

This one really woke me up this morning: “Industry Executive Jeff Walker Passes.” It was a tweet from musicrow.com.

Jeff was everywhere whenever I was in Nashville, either as an artist or event publicist, or general industry hang-out guy. Two memories stand out.

The first came during my second trip to Nashville, 1976 or 1977 or thereabouts, a year or so after my first trip to Nashville. I’d met my hero Jo-El Sonnier then (when he was still Joel), and started writing about him—and music in general—a few weeks after returning. Sometime within the following year I met his manager Earl Poole Ball (he didn’t use the Poole then) at a Johnny Cash show at the Dane County Coliseum, as Earl was John’s keyboard player. I knew Earl’s name from Jo-El’s publicity stills, and Earl knew who I was from the first Sonnier piece I’d written in The Madcity Music Sheet and forwarded to Jo-El.

My first trip to Nashville was with a high school buddy and his girlfriend (now wife), during a vacation from my job as a typist/secretary at the State of Wisconsin. This time I took the Greyhound to Nashville. Earl and Jo-El picked me up at the station and I stayed in Earl’s Wall-to-Wall music publishing company office in Music Row on 16th Avenue South. Jo-el slept on the fold-out couch and I slept on the floor.

It was the first week of June, and scorching. The office had no air conditioning; worse, it had no shower, so it was pretty much bird baths in the bathroom sink for a week. About as grubby as I’ve ever lived, and that’s saying a lot. And as usual, I had no money.

And it was Fan Fair Week. Now the humongous CMA Music Festival held all over downtown Nashville and Nissan Stadium and drawing upwards of 75,000 fans, Fan Fair had begun in 1972, when it brought 5,000 fans to Municipal Auditorium, where Roy Acuff, Tom T. Hall, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and others performed. It moved to the Tennessee Fairgrounds in 1982, by which time I was living in New York and working for the music trade Cash Box—and had become a Fan Fair regular. I made the move with it to downtown in 2001, but it was nothing like that first one, when I survived for three days on popcorn pilfered from the Con Brio Records booth when no one was looking.

Con Brio was active in the late ‘70s and was founded by Jeff and his father Bill Walker, an Australian-born American composer and conductor who had worked with such country stars as Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins and Eddy Arnold, and was musical director for TV’s The Johnny Cash Show. Con Brio’s biggest name artist was Jan Howard, who had sung on Cash tours with the Carter Family. But their priority artist at Fan Fair was Terri Hollowell, who charted five singles during her brief tenure at Con Brio, then retired to focus on family.

I remember meeting Terri, but more memorable, aside from having desperately needed a hot meal and a shower, was seeing “Ragin’ Cajun” Doug Kershaw—the reason I became a writer in the first place. He had recorded Jo-El’s “Cajun Born,” and I went to see him–and interview him–at an outdoor rock show in Oshkosh opening for Chilliwack, Muddy Waters and headliners J. Geils. At Fan Fair, I saw him sing his signature hit “Louisiana Man” at the auditorium with brother Rusty, the first time in years that the two performed together, and maybe the last time; he originally recorded “Louisiana Man” with Rusty–who died in 2001–as Rusty & Doug.

I also met my lifelong pal Bob Merlis during Fan Fair Week. Maybe a month or so earlier—or a year, but in the spring—Warner Bros. Nashville had provided two then baby acts, Con Hunley and Margo Smith, for a free outdoor fan appreciation day show near Madison put on by the local country station WTSO. I met the WB/Nashville publicist Bonnie Rasmussen, who was just wonderful, by the way, and asked her if she knew Doug Kershaw, who at the time was signed to Warner Bros. She immediately informed me in no uncertain terms that I had to get in touch with Bob Merlis, since he was also a huge Cajun music fan.

Bob ran national Warner Bros. Records publicity out of L.A., and when I got home I mailed him a few clippings as an intro. He put me on the mailing list—which at the time I didn’t know existed—and I started receiving WB album releases. Then when I showed up at the label’s Nashville office one morning during Fan Fair, I surprised Bonnie, who like everyone else had a Bloody Mary in her hand, much as I did a moment later. After all, it was Fan Fair, and everyone was celebrating. But I wasn’t the only out-of-towner, and when I asked Bonnie if Bob might have been there as well, she said that indeed he was, as a number of top WB/L.A. execs always came in for Fan Fair.

She brought me to him and there he was, middle of June in a lightweight sport coat and bow tie. He knew who I was from our correspondence and we talked a bit about Cajun music, all the while holding up a cassette tape recorder which was clearly recording our conversation. After a few minutes I gave in to curiosity and asked if he was recording us. Yes, he said, he was recording all his conversations while he was in Nashville. Why, I asked. “Because when I get back to L.A. I’m going to edit them!” Bob Merlis replied.

I thought about this for a second or two, then decided I would be his disciple for the rest of my life.

Many years later I was talking with Jeff and somehow Con Brio came up and I mentioned how I’d eaten all its popcorn that long ago Fan Fair. Jeff laughed, and when I asked whatever happened to Terri Hollowell, he laughed again and reintroduced me to Terri, who was now his wife—and the reason she retired to spend time with her family.

Many years later, too, I took my first trip to L.A. I was now a contributor to Billboard, which paid my air fare, since I was there to help cover their annual music video conference. I rented a car and stayed with a friend living on the beach in Playa del Rey. Bob hosted the first of what would become the annual Bessman Bash at his house; last Saturday night there were maybe 100 or so partiers in attendance for Bessman Bash 2015.

The first Bash, however, had at most a dozen guests. Bob was close with Phil Spector,and I had met Phil myself toward the end of the preceding year when he showed up in Nashville during CMA Week to pick up a BMI Award for the country chart-topping 1987 cover of his 1958 Teddy Bears pop hit “To Know Him is to Love Him” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, from their Trio album.

Through Bob I knew some people in Phil’s entourage, and as he was leaving with them via the underground entrance to the parking lot, he walked by me and I was introduced. He didn’t even look at me and just walked by, with his people, until he reached the doorway, then abruptly turned around—as did everyone else—and sauntered back over to me and Art Fein, host of L.A.’s longtime cable rock’n’ roll talk show Art Fein’s Poker Party, who was also close to Phil and part of his crew.

“So who’s the guy with the beard?” Phil asked Art, upon which I practically jumped onto him to shake hands and identify myself. When we were planning that first Bessman Bash, I asked Bob to invite Phil, and a couple hours into the party, the doorbell rang. Our friend Tom Vickers went to get it, and came back to me, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. “There’s someone at the door for you,” he said.

It was Phil. He was all alone. I effusively thanked him for coming and ushered him into the vestibule, where he stood for two hours. Didn’t even remove his coat. It was just him and me for the first half hour or so. I offered him a drink and he accepted water, but that was it. No food, no alcohol. Never left his spot. Eventually everyone came over to him and shy and uncomfortable as he was, he couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. He would come to many Bessman Bashes over the following years, often bringing his lovely daughter Nicole. We’ll never forget his many kindnesses.

Jeff Walker was the major promoter of country music videos back then, and I ran into him at the video conference. A few of us went out do dinner that night, including Billboard’s then managing editor Ken Schlager. We went to some trendy place that was a big celebrity hang, expensive and with a fancy menu. Jeff was not impressed.

“Don’t they have any buguhs, like at Bahnee’s Beaneruh?” he asked impishly, his Aussie accent distorting both “burgers” and “Barney’s Beanery.”

Barney’s Beanery? I said, clearly indicating that I’d never been there, if in fact I knew what it was—which I didn’t, until I was reminded it was illustrated on the classic album cover of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s classic 1968 album Cheap Thrills. Schlager’s eyes suddenly lit up as his lips formed a mischievous grin. Without a word he closed his menu, set it down, and stood up. The rest of us did the same and followed him out of the eatery as all the beautiful people looked at us in disgust.

Half an hour later Jeff, who was a great guy and a great friend and a major figure in the Nashville music community until his sudden death yesterday, was biting into his buhguh at the famous Bahnee’s Beaneruh.

Tales of Bessman: How Jim Ed Brown taught me who I am

I’d been a writer probably a good five years before it dawned on me that I actually was one, that when asked what I did I should say, “I’m a writer.”

But even that was problematic, as I learned early on from Jim Ed Brown.

It was at an afternoon country music festival, I can’t remember where, maybe an hour or two out of Madison. I can’t remember the full lineup, either, but The Kendalls were hot and they were on the bill, maybe the headliners. Years later, many years later, I’d write the liner notes to Jeannie Kendall’s debut CD.

The only other act I remember was Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. Their big hig “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” was Summer of 1976, but The Kendalls’ breakthrough “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” came out in September, ’77, so this must have been Summer of ’78. I think I started writing in ’76, mostly about country music, since that’s all I was listening to then, and since no one cared about country music, I had easy access to everyone from Dolly Parton to Johnny Cash to George Jones. Can you imagine? They were all invariably thrilled that anyone was interested in them.

But when I went up to Jim Ed before he and Helen went on to see if I could talk to him after the set, since I was a writer, he was uncommonly cold. But he did say to come back after, which of course I did. And when I started asking him and Helen questions, he suddenly warmed up.

“I thought you were a songwriter!” he said, and I immediately realized that if you tell a Nashville artist you’re a writer, to them “writer” means “songwriter.” Jim Ed figured I was just another songwriter come to pitch him some songs, and he just wasn’t in the mood to do business.

But everyone else gets it wrong, too, even to this day. Tell people you’re a writer, they think you write fiction, or can write fiction, or poetry or a play or movie script. To them it’s all the same. Alas, not so. There are different kinds of writing, and rarely do they overlap.

I’m a reporter, primarily, a journalist, if you will. I report what you say. Maybe the arrangement of sentences and paragraphs is creative, but that’s about it. Novels, poetry, film and TV scripts, that’s all creative writing. I know some journalists that write novels, poetry, even hit songs. More power to them.

Me, I write formula. Beginning, middle, end. It’s much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: The story’s all there in the box, all the pieces. You just have to fit them together, but there’s only one way they fit together. It’s just a matter of time, is all.

And since I get the pieces from you I can’t claim too much credit for creativity, even if I am the one making the pieces. A journalist. A reporter.

Thanks for making me understand what I am, Jim Ed.

Tales of Bessman: Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara

The older you get the more friends you lose—and at a faster pace.

Bruce Lundvall died last week (May 19), a few days after Ren Grevatt (May 16), whom I knew better and wrote about here shortly after. Then Saturday Anne Meara died.

Ren and Bruce were old school music business guys, Ren in PR and Bruce in record label operations, mostly at prestigious jazz labels. I won’t say I knew him well, but we were very friendly and I knew he would always take my call, even when he was a record company president. But I only really spent quality time with him once, shortly after I came to New York and landed a job at Cash Box.

I’m pretty sure it was ’84, when he created the Manhattan adult-contemporary label and revived the historic Blue Note jazz label for EMI, but it could have been before that, after he launched the Elektra Musician imprint for Eletkra Records in 1982, after leaving CBS Records, which he had headed and signed the likes of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Wllie Nelson. He would go on to work closely with other varied artists including Richard Marx, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Stanley Jordan, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, Rubén Blades, Wynton Marsalis and of course, Norah Jones.

In other words, Bruce was a big deal when I met him, and remained one long after. But he never acted like one, especially that day when I went to his office to interview him.

It was probably a general what-are-your-plans type story, and we were well into it when he was buzzed and decided to take the call. He started talking to the caller, and it became clear that it was an artist he was wooing. Feeling awkward, I waved at him and whispered that I could leave if he wanted to conduct business in private.

Bruce just waved me off. I just sat there, enrapt, listening to him tell the potential signee what he could do as the head of a small, independent label, who cared about his artists and could give them full and individual attention–unlike a huge, major label like CBS, from where he came. Sure enough, his entire career was marked by that kind of hands-on, personal commitment in support of his artists.

Anne Meara wasn’t a friend, but she made me feel like one the first and only time I met her.

I think it was around the same time as I met Bruce, or a little later, at a Broadway show opening party at a Midtown hotel. I recognized her immediately, having been a big fan from seeing Stiller & Meara on Ed Sullivan so many times.

She was effervescent, to use a word maybe for the first time. Starstruck, I introduced myself as an editor for the music business trade magazine Cash Box.

“Oh, Jerry couldn’t be here tonight!” she responded, almost apologetically—as if I’d been close pals of Stiller & Meara forever.

That was pretty much it, but when I saw from Howard Kaylan’s tweet that she had died, I felt like I had lost someone I knew that long and that closely.

“I can’t picture a world without her,” tweeted Howard. “Stiller and Meara/the Sullivan Show RIP sorry B”—“B” being Ben Stiller.

Ben Stiller, my co-star in While We’re Young—though the scene we were in, at the same coffee shop that I’m in with Naomi Watts and Adam Driver, but immediately after, was cut. Sorry B.

But I did see Anne one other time, at Mary Travers memorial in November, 2009. She recited “Conscientious Objector,” by Travers’ favorite poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem refuses to assist Death in taking other lives by violence (“I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death”).

The memorial ended with everyone–also including then Sen. John Kerry, George McGovern, Max Cleland, Pete Seeger, Whoopi Goldberg–singing along on “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It was an evening of unabashed liberalism, a throwback to when the word “liberal” was a badge worn proudly and sung loudly.

And I sang along with Anne Meara.

Click the link for my examiner.com appreciations of Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara.

Tales of Bessman: Hands off David Letterman!

Over the years I became big friends with Paul, Will and Felicia—not to mention the wonderful warm-up comic Eddie Brill. But meeting Dave was never going to be in the cards, which was fine. But I did have one unforgettable encounter, as much as I’ve tried to forget it.

Being friends with any number of guests, I was at the show many times, though it wasn’t until the last time I went, to see Valerie Simpson perform, that I actually sat in the house. Except for then, I was always in the dressing room with the artist and then in the green room during the show. That’s’ where I was when David consented to come in after the show—an extreme rarity, I believe—to make a picture with John Fogerty.

I tried to get out, since the room was packed and it was a big production for Dave to come in and do the picture. His handlers were everywhere and I got stuck against a wall. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make myself small enough.

Dave entered, and as bad luck would have it, he brushed against me. He turned around and said, “You grabbed my ass!” I nearly threw up all the chocolate chip cookies and Diet Cokes I’d gobbled up and swilled there during the show. If I said anything, it was a garbled stammer.

Maybe it’s just as well. If I had been able to speak clearly, I could only have said, “I did NOT grab your ass!”

Some things, for sure, are better left unsaid. This most certainly was one.

Tales of Bessman: Minnie Pearl, Dick Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry House

After finding out Friday that the Grand Ole Opry House has joined the Ryman Auditorium in the National Register, I hastily knocked off a little piece for examiner.com reporting the facts, ma’am, just the facts. Among them was that then President Richard Nixon attended the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974.

I left out that it was nearing the end of Nixon’s presidency, as he would resign on August 9. In his hopelessly awkward, embarrassing and clearly guilt-ridden way, he was blatantly seeking what was likely his last refuge: at best a conservative audience that was still in his corner, at worst a bunch of hillbillies who probably saw him as too liberal. Who else but Roy Acuff introduced him, and he played piano and sang, and Tricky Dick notwithstanding, clumsily clowned with Roy’s yo-yo.

I made my first trip to Nashville two years later, and by the time President George H.W. Bush became the next sitting president to visit the Opry House—for the 1991 CMA Awards show—I was an Opry regular. In fact, I was either four rows in back and two seats to the left of President and Barbara Bush, or six rows back, two seats left. I can’t remember exactly because I was so stoned when I got there, as was my tradition at all black-tie events Nashville. Probably four rows, because I used to sick-joke that two rows closer and I’d have been within strangling distance.

It was at the height of my career then, and the CMA and Opry took care of me good. I do remember that everyone attending the show had submitted their Social Security numbers well in advance, for vetting by the Secret Service. Still, there were no metal detectors, and I didn’t feel like I was being surveilled at all, especially after it dawned on me that by constantly bending over and setting my notebook, pen, or program on the floor and picking them up again, it might well have looked like I was, say, assembling some kind of makeshift weapon.

I ran this thought past my pal Bill Carter, the next day, the Bill Carter who was the ex-Kennedy Secret Service agent who had taken Marina Oswald into protective custody immediately after the assassination, and who is on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir for fixing his and the other Stones’ legal troubles from the 1970s on.

“Oh, they were watching you from the moment you walked in!” Bill reassured me.

I couldn’t find a video of Nixon at the Opry House to post with my examiner.com piece, so I settled on Minnie Pearl’s performance from that night. Here it is again:

“Come to see us at our new house!” Minnie implored. “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one of them!”

She looks so adorable, doesn’t she? Beautiful in fact. She’d have been 61 then—a year younger than I am now. The hillbilliest person you can imagine, but you know it was total shtick: Born in the small mid-Tennessee town of Centerville, she was the youngest of five daughters of a prosperous lumberman, and graduated from what is now Belmont University in Nashville, then its most prestigious school for young ladies. She majored in theater studies, and taught dance for several years after graduation.

She went on to join a touring theater company out of Atlanta, producing and directing plays and musicals while creating her Minnie Pearl character, which she introduced in 1939, then brought to the Opry the following year. And while she played a hillbilly to the hilt, she stood up for the induction of harmonica legend DeFord Bailey—the Opry’s first African-American performer—into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which finally happened posthumously in 2005.

Minnie was also adored by the likes of Dean Martin and Paul Reubens, who brought his Pee Wee Herman character to a Minnie Pearl tribute show in 1992—a year after she suffered a stroke. I had seen her regularly at the Opry up until then, and always worshipfully said hi.

An Opry regular myself, I was particularly close to Grandpa Jones, Jimmy C. Newman, Skeeter Davis and Porter Wagoner—now also all gone—and Bill Anderson and Riders in the Sky–among the still living.

One time, not long before her stroke in June, 1991, Minnie appeared at the Jim Halsey Company’s annual hang at his Music Row office the afternoon of the CMA Awards. Agent/manager Jim Halsey had worked with everyone from Minnie to Roy Clark, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Hank Thompson, James Brown and the Oak Ridge Boys, and still works with the Oaks.

Jim’s son Sherman was a pal, and a talented and successful music video director and a wonderful guy. Sadly, he died, too, a year and a-half ago. When I got to Jim’s office that afternoon, I immediately hooked up with Sherman, and we both made a beeline to Minnie, who was leaving with her husband Henry Cannon. Sherman would have known Minnie all his life, but he was no less enthralled in her presence as I was. We just stood there, hanging on her every word, beaming ecstatically.

“Did you boys smoke pot?” she finally asked.

“No, Minnie,” I said, “but you can be sure we will before the show!”

Minnie was bedridden following her stroke. At first she was tended to at home. For some reason, I felt compelled to see if I could visit her, and for some reason, they let me. I went out to the house—a large estate home next to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion–but I don’t remember much about the visit.

Soon after, she was moved to a nursing home. My understanding was that Henry was very stern about who could visit her, and that I most certainly didn’t qualify. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

I’d become friendly with Minnie’s assistant, and it was through her that I managed to sneak in to see her every time I was in town, which at that time was three times a year. It was all done very secretly: She’d let me know when was a good time to go, usually mid- to late afternoon, when no one else was there. And sure enough, I’d get there and Minnie would be alone. The nursing staff expected me, and maybe Minnie did, too.

I say maybe, because Minnie was a stroke victim: She was partly paralyzed, and I was never really sure how great her grasp was on reality. I mean, we’d talk about what she’d been doing, and she’d say something like how much Garth Brooks loved her and had been in to see her the day before, which most certainly could have been true—he did in fact name his first daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl Brooks—and that the day before that she’d been in New York, which most certainly wasn’t. And that’s how it was with her: She talked nonstop, going back and forth from presumed reality to assured fantasy, and I had to hold on for dear life not only to keep up but to keep her going.

One time—I think it was the last time–she was in the day room when I got there. She was having a bad day. We started talking and she started crying, and the nurses looked on, like maybe I should leave.

“Oh, he don’t give a shit!” she said, and I had to bite my tongue not to bust up laughing—out of respect, of course, and undying love. They then gave me the ultimate honor of pushing her bed, wheels unlocked, through the hall and back to her room.

It was dark when I left, and as I walked to my rental car, I faced the ultimate horror: Henry!

Henry Cannon was really the perfect Southern Gentleman. Serious and polite, he ran an air charter service for country stars including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. I’d met him a few times but never really knew him. But I knew he knew me.

I was leaving, he was coming. We met in the parking lot halfway to my car.

“I want to thank you for always remembering Minnie and coming to see her,” Henry said softly. “I know it means a lot to her.”

I was so dumbfounded I don’t remember what I said, or that I said anything.

Minnie died on March 4, 1996, from complications from another stroke. She was 83.

Nixon was 81 when he died almost two years before Minnie. That they were both at the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974 was probably all they had in common.

Tales of Bessman: Bob Simon, Brian Williams and Dengue Fever

There’s Brian Williams, and then there was Bob Simon.

But Bob didn’t make anything up, or devote his time at celebrity. When it came to honesty and integrity in broadcast journalism, he was the real deal.

I was a CBS News guy, back when it was CBS News–a long time ago. Walter Cronkite and the other surviving Murrow’s Boys–and those that followed, including Dan Rather and Bob Simon, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, through Vietnam, Watergate, and the big stories that Bob Simon was so much a part of.

Met Cronkite at Jann Wenner’s 40th birthday party in 1986 at some hot dinner spot in Chelsea or Soho, so trendy that it didn’t have an address or name. I wasn’t invited, of course. But BeauSoleil was playing and they brought me along. I think the only person I knew was Seymour Stein, who introduced me to Ofra Haza. She really was beautiful.

Let’s see. Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, that’s all I remember now. Ahmet Ertegun and every other record company chieftain in New York had to be there. It was a Who’s Who of Rolling Stone magazine covers of the time, and those who made them happen.

And Walter Cronkite. Unlike Williams and CNN, Uncle Walter really was the most trusted name in news–not the most busted. When he told America there was no light at the end of the Vietnam tunnel, LBJ had no choice but to throw in the reelection towel. He even brought Sadat and Begin together.

But when I saw him speak at an event a few years earlier to promote an LP box set of spoken word speeches and news broadcasts (The Way it Was–The Sixties), he said, in response to an obvious question, that the most important story he’d been part of was the moon landing.

I was hugely disappointed. And I told him so at the party. He was clearly taken back, and sheepishly said, “Well, it’s like asking, ‘What’s your favorite soup?’”

I met Dan Rather, another CBS News hero, at another party, to promote James Carville’s 1996 book We’re Right, They’re Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives. I remember telling Carville of my growing concern about Whitewater, which was then getting play in the press, and what it would mean for Clinton’s presidency. He didn’t want to talk about it and brushed me off with something about how it was all politically motivated and wouldn’t amount to anything.

Carville’s wife Mary Matalin was there. I couldn’t stand her so I made a point of introducing myself. She was very sweet. I walked out into the rain just as Dan came in with his PR person, whom I knew when she worked in the record business. She introduced me and I told him what a huge fan I was. He said we should get together for coffee. I still hope it will happen.

I met Bob Simon many years ago walking down 8th Avenue. I stopped him and stammered how he was my hero, how I’d written to him after his capture and release by Iraqi forces in 1991 during the Gulf War–and how he’d written back.

He was quite tall in person, not very warm or humorous–not unfriendly, either, but serious. Pretty much like how he was on the news, throughout a career covering everything from the troubles in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1971, to Vietnam in ’71 (he won an Overseas Press Club award—one of four of them, along with four Peabodys and 27 Emmys–for reporting on Hanoi’s 1972 spring offensive, and another for the fall of Saigon in ’75 when he was on one of the last U.S. choppers to leave), wars in Grenada, Somalia and Haiti; martial law in Poland; Israel during the Yom Kippur War and Egypt after the 2011 uprisings.

For me, his best work was after he was named CBS News’ chief Middle East correspondent in 1987. Jewish, he offered far and away the most even-handed accounts of any mainstream media, rather than the usual one-sided pro-Israel commentary. He had a cutting edge and tone to his reporting, and his brilliant writing—and on-air reading of it—reflected it. A humanitarian, he was fearless and cynical in his war coverage, and I was starstruck and humbled in the presence of a most towering figure in American broadcast journalism.

But sadly, he never did the one story I pitched him, and now never will.

It was at a DVD screening a couple years ago of the documentary Marley . It was sponsored by a big-time Hollywood PR gal, and I was quite surprised to have been invited. I was so insignificant that they never even followed up my interest in interviewing the director.

It was October, 2012, the night of the first Obama-Romney debate. After the screening I hung with Bob at the bar watching it. I also told him about Dengue Fever, my fave band from L.A., featuring Cambodian diva Nimol Chhom and five L.A. rockers who specialized in the little-known rock music originating or deriving from Cambodia in the ‘60s, by artists who perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

I told Bob that the remarkable story of this unique band was right up his alley, and he was interested; having reported from Cambodia and being so sensitive to other peoples and culture–and especially considering that this music was wiped out at least partially as a result of America’s wars in Southeast Asia–he immediately saw the value in an American band enlisting a Cambodian songstress and reviving her country’s rock music legacy.

The next day I emailed him a ton of info on Dengue Fever–much of which I’d written–and he responded: “Thank you. It sounds interesting. I am going on the road for a couple of weeks but will have my assistant look into it.”

Nothing further ever happened, sadly. I emailed him more things from time to time, most recently on Jan. 14, when I sent him the link to a great L.A. Weekly piece. So I’m confident that Dengue Fever’s story will now be told, sooner rather than later, but by someone other than just me.

But no one could have done it like Bob Simon. It’s the saddest thing that it won’t be him.