Sam Lovullo–An appreciation

I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.

I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.

Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.

And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.

But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.

I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.

In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.

And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.

People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.

Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.

Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.

Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”

“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”

John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.

John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.

Reflections on Nick Ashford, Part 20

I always come out to L.A. around third week of August, so it’s no big coincidence that I’m on the plane now, 9:10 a.m. ET, Aug. 22, six years to the day that I was flying back from L.A., during which time Nick Ashford died.

I knew it was coming, since Liz Rosenberg had called me before I left with the news that it was imminent. I’ve written about my thoughts on the flight elsewhere in this series, I’m sure–meaning, I’m pretty sure–and how when I called my voicemail upon landing was instructed to come straight to the house, which I did, in shorts and t-shirt, luggage in tow.

Every night of Aug. 22 now I tweet “Nick Ashford lives,” only this night, nine hours ago as I write this, just after midnight, I was immediately echoed poetically by Nicole Ashford, for whom her father was “always there in some form, always there pushing me on, never forgotten never gone.”

Accompanying her post was a photo of a joyful Nick practically dancing ecstatically behind toddler Nicole, gleefully riding away on her tricycle–so Nick: never happier than when beholding the happiness of others.

My eyes are welling up now, having gone back to copy those lines of Nicole’s and contemplate the picture some more. It only stands to reason that I love being around Nicole, and her mom and sister, of course. And other Friends of Nick. Such a wonderful thing to have in common, to cherish. To share.

For indeed, forever, Nick Ashford lives.

Greg Trooper’s ‘Day of the Troop’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait! There’s more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait! There’s still more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bessman update!

I’ve noticed an increase in subscribers to this site over the past few weeks–for which I’m greatly thrilled and deeply grateful…and enormously befuddled!

Maybe it’s because examiner.com folded and all my loyal subscribers there wondered if I folded with it. If so, I should state the obvious: Most of the writing here is personal in nature, longer (sometimes way longer!) than the examiner stuff–most of which was probably longer than most people want to read online or off. I’m currently researching setting up another site–with a generic name–in which to write the examiner-type stuff. Until then, I’m doing a bit of it here under the new “News” category heading.

In other words, if you’re a fan of my examiner stuff and not so much a fan of the jimbessman.com stuff, bear with me! I’ll get the new site going soon enough and announce it here, of course. Mainly, I need to come up with a name that hasn’t been taken already, as I have top designers working around the clock–or at least, somewhere within the vicinity of a clock–to get it up.

Also, if you don’t know, I tweet links to everything I write, and will also announce the new site via Twitter. And again, I’m happy anyone comes here, period, for whatever reason!

One other thing: Since the entire examiner.com site is no more, I’ve started reposting a few of the 1,907 pieces I wrote there in six years here, in the new “Bessman Archives” category. If there’s anything you remember that you want to see again by all means let me know.

John Trudell: An appreciation

I’m not the spiritual type, though I spent a lot of time with Nick Ashford. The only other person who had that kind of spiritual depth that I knew was John Trudell. As The Indian Country Today Media Network website reported, the “noted activist, poet and Native thinker” on December 8, 2015 left Turtle Island [a name given to North America in some Native American myths] to join the spirit world. The influential Native philosopher touched many throughout Indian country and beyond.”

Indeed.

I didn’t know John well, like I knew Nick. I did speak with him for a Billboard story in 2002 when Bone Days came out, which is when I would have seen him the first time, at The Bottom Line. I saw him some years later at Joe’s Pub, but he was part of a group gig, if I recall. I spoke with him briefly, then, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I don’t know if he remembered me from the Bottom Line show, but he was alone, and knew a lot of other people in the audience and there wasn’t much one-on-one hang time for me.

The Bottom Line gig, though, was way different. He was there with his group Bad Dog–featuring Mark Shark on guitar, and fellow Native American Quiltman, who sang and chanted within the tradition in providing a musical and spiritual context for John’s spoken word poetry.

I guess I have an inherent reverence for Native Americans, at least the myth and legend of the Native American as gleaned rightly and wrongly as a kid from John Wayne and John Ford and Tonto and Saturday morning TV cowboys and Indians, and later The Outlaw Josey Wales and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement (John was its national chairman), AIM member Leonard Peltier and Thunderheart.

John starred in Thunderheart, largely playing himself, I’m sure.

I understand he wrote the “Freedom Speech” in the pivotal scene where he’s captured and beaten by FBI agents on the South Dakota Sioux reservation where the movie, loosely based on the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, is set.

Some 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM followers had occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation–site of the 1890 massacre by the U.S Cavalry of over 300 men, women and children being relocated to the reservation. The occupiers sought the removal of an allegedly corrupt and abusive tribal president, and protested the U.S. government’s failure to live up to treaty obligations.

During a 71-day standoff, a Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were shot to death, and a civil rights activist disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered. In Thunderheart, John’s character Jimmy Looks Twice, an Indian activist who is suspected of murder, was also inspired by Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who remains famously imprisoned for life following a controversial trial and conviction of murdering two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975–after being acquitted of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee cop.

Peltier’s story, incidentally, was the subject of a 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala, directed by Thunderheart director Michael Apted and including an interview with John, who was himself the subject of the 2005 documentary Trudell.

In Thunderheart (also 1992), Jimmy Looks Twice tells sympathetic FBI agent Ray Levoi, himself part Indian (well-played by Val Kilmer), “Sometimes they have to kill us. They have to kill us, because they can’t break our spirit. We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It’s about power, Ray.”

The lines–and John’s portrayal–deeply affected me, as did the rest of his history. According to the Los Angeles Times obit, he had a 17,000-page FBI dossier: “He’s extremely eloquent,” one FBI memo read, “therefore extremely dangerous.”

In 1979, while John was demonstrating in Washington, D.C., his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law perished in a fire at her parents’ home on Nevada’s Duck Valley Indian Reservation–hours after John burned an American flag at the FBI building. The cause of the fire was never determined, but John and others suspected the government.

“One world ended abruptly and completely and could not be resurrected or re-put together,” he later told the Times. It was then that he began to write, and his poetry was promoted by the likes of Kilmer, Bob Dylan, Robert Redford (who compared him to the Dalai Lama), Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. The Times said that he considered poetry to be first among the arts, and quoted him thusly: “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.”

Brown produced John’s 1992 remake of his acclaimed 1986 album AKA Graffitti Man with late Kiowa guitarist/songwriter Jesse Ed Davis, having previously help him record the 1983 album Tribal Voice with Quiltman.

“I started with Quiltman to put spoken word with the oldest musical form–Native American music–and he was willing to go for it, though we had no experience,” John told me when I interviewed him. “Then I wanted to put it with the newest musical form–electric guitar–and I met Jesse Ed Davis and he was the only one who knew what I was talking about.”

After Davis died in 1988, “Mark [Shark] picked up his guitar, so to speak, and carried on. Then Quiltman came in [again] and it was quite an evolution, adjusting traditional Native American songs to where he just makes his own harmonies to go with contemporary songs.”

Naturally, I had jumped at the chance to speak with him when the opportunity arose with Bone Days. As I wrote in Billboard, his intensely delivered recitations, backed by Shark’s ethereal guitars, were given heightened otherworldly power by Quiltman’s chants, giving the album its own extraordinary power.

“Because the whole point,” he told me, “is to take from our native culture and from contemporary culture without using one artform to mimic the other so that our native identity remains the native identity, the contemporary identity remains the contemporary identity, and the mixing of these two musical identities creates a third musical identity.”

Then he laughed.

“In my mind, at least, that’s how it plays,” he said. “But I don’t know about the rest of the world.”

When I walked into the dressing room before the Bottom Line show, though, it wasn’t like Joe’s Pub.

Unlike our phone conversation, John was stone sober in demeanor, intimidating behind his sunglasses.

I don’t recall much of what was said. I’m sure I introduced myself as the guy from Billboard who interviewed him, which he would have remembered. I’m sure I mentioned Thunderheart during the phoner, and if I hadn’t brought up his small role in Steven Seagall’s 1994 Alaskan environmental action film On Daedly Ground, I did then. And we most certainly talked Native American and White American politics.

I presume it was a pipe, for I distinctly remember the words “peace pipe” being uttered, but I can’t imagine by me. But someone proffered a pipe or joint and everything loosened up and by the time I went to my seat I was in proper mind to experience live the poetic visions of which John spoke, that he related with his music. By the way, in 2012, John and Willie Nelson co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which calls for the legal cultivation of hemp for clothing, biofuel and food.

About the only other contact I had with John was indirect, through another modern day saint, Kris Kristofferson. Kris wrote “Johnny Lobo” about John, about “a warrior fighting for his people and his soul” who like John had served during Vietnam (John was in the Navy, on a destroyer off Vietnam):

Loaded down with lessons that he carried
Home from Viet Nam to Wounded Knee
Johnny Lobo burned a flag he knew had been dishonored
Paid the price for thinking he was free
Someone set his house on fire, burned it to the ground
With his wife and children locked inside
Later when the bitter tears were falling to the ashes
Something good in Johnny Lobo died.

But something good in John Trudell also lived. And even though I never spent a lot of time with him, I remained so moved by him that I was stunned and broken by his death. And I was hardly alone.

I called his longtime assistant Faye Brown a few days after, and she still could barely talk. John’s family released this statement: “We know all the people who love John want to know about plans and how to pay their respects. John left clear instructions for his passage and for what he wanted to happen after he crossed over. He did not want a funeral or any kind of single gathering. He also did not want his family to write a standard style obituary or ‘toot his horn.’ He didn’t want to tell people how to remember him. His wishes are for people to celebrate life and love, pray and remember him in their own ways in their own communities.”

“With love for all,” the family closed.

His close friend Kevin Marsh, who held him in his arms lovingly as he “passed through to the other side,” related John’s final moments.

“John was extremely ill,” wrote Marsh. “Cancer is the worst, plain and simple. But he was good with what was happening to him, the transitioning from this world to the next.”

He continued: “John was at peace, such a total, calming peace befitting a warrior of his caliber. It was stunning is what it was. The sparkle in his eyes never left him–it never went away ever. No glazing over like most folks when they leave. Not John. The sparkle never left his eyes.”

After his eldest daughter came in and said, “Hey, Trudell! How ya doing?,” John looked up and said, “I’m good.” And that was it.

And then Marsh added, “We do not stop because John is not on this earth because we still are and the work is not even close to complete. The next generation of Trudell’s are primed to take up where their father left off. All the non-profits that would always table at John’s gigs still need a place to go to get the word out and plans are in the works to keep the work very very much alive and moving forward–together.”

He concluded: “And remember, ‘John’s good.’ He said so.”

Here’s John’s “Stone People,” from his last album, “Wazi’s Dream”:

Death is a ghost where there is no death
Death is a death where life forgets to live.

You can’t call back a tweet

I tweet a lot, and when I’m watching something like the Grammys or the Republican debates, fast and furious–sometimes too fast and furious.

Case in point: After listening to Lindsay Graham blather on with his Obama hatred and warmongering–and noticing how tiny he looked next to the other three junior debaters (Pataki, Santorum, Jindal), I tweeted, “Why Lindsay Graham didn’t ask for a step ladder is beyond me. #RepublicanDebate”

I know I actually gave it some thought in the wording, so that I had to be somewhat aware that I was kind of making fun of his height. As my tweets go directly to Facebook, I got a couple responses, but when I saw them a couple hours later–and they were favorable–I felt embarrassed, and compelled to admit, via another tweet, “Kinda regret snarky comment about how little Lindsay Graham looked at #GOPDebate. I ain’t so tall, either. Small-minded observation stays.”

I looked it up and Graham is 5′ 7″–only one and a-half inches shorter than me. Then I thought of my friend and music hero/genius Paul Williams, who always jokes about how short he is, but I’m sure he’s the only one who ever really notices it.

Then again, Paul’s a giant in terms of talent. Graham is a political pygmy. But like I said, in terms of my original tweet, I ain’t so big, either.

Talking to Myself Out Loud: Identifying with Rachel Dolezal

There’s a great Godfrey Cambridge line in the 1970 Ossie Davis-directed action comedy classic Cotton Comes to Harlem, “Is that black enough for you?,” which likely spawned Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough for You” 1973 follow-up to his signature “Me and Mrs. Jones”–itself sampled by Schooly D in the 1989 rap song of the same name.

Turns out that Dolezal really wasn’t black enough, not with her disingenuous defense of her trying to pass, not without success, for African-American, which didn’t bother me so much as her over-the-top defensive birther stance that there was no biological proof of her relationship to her parents.

Then again, I’m just as guilty, if not for trying to pass myself off as black–though I often do say, when the conversation turns to race, that I’m “light-skinned”–than for co-opting black culture, as has been done by now by virtually everyone in the world.

Somewhere long ago I read or heard how white boys wished they were black, or at least certain white boys, of which I most certainly was one, once I started listening to the blues back in Madcity Wisconsin. Early Bob Dylan brought me to the Madison Public Library, Bob Dylan, who himself embraced black music and culture so tightly that he recorded with Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams and by himself under the blues guise of Blind Boy Grunt. And when I started listening to the blues, besides all the country and folk blues records and Chicago blues records I checked out of the library, it was the Siegel-Schwall band, then made up of three white blues players and one black, that became my biggest and lasting influence.

I make reference here to the Born in Chicago documentary featuring Corky Siegel, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel and Nick Gravenities–all of whom learned the blues at the feet and amps of Chicago blues pioneers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, just as the Rolling Stones, Animals and Yardbirds were covering the same records in England.

So I can easily understand Rachel Dolezal, not to mention Caitlyn Jenner and anyone else who wishes they were born someone else or somewhere else. And as for listening to the blues and wishing I were black, well, it didn’t stop there. I went on to listen to and love country music, Cajun music, Russian, Indian, Arabic, going so far, at least in relation to country music, to affect what must be about the most blatantly phony Southern accent any guy that could never shake his Midwestern accent ever attempted, almost to the point of self-caricature.

As for being black, I always remember how I’ve enjoyed being among the few whites, er, light-skinned blacks at all black gatherings, like the first time I was in Jamaica and went to Trench Town, the Kingston neighborhood where the likes of Bob Marley gave birth to reggae, that was so dangerous and off-limits to whites that a number of residents had to be bribed to let me in. Or the first time I saw Ashford & Simpson at Radio City in 1983: It was a sold-out show, and I didn’t count more than half a dozen or so of us light-skinneds. Many years later Nick & Val’s assistant Miss Tee scolded me for not having black-eyed peas on hand for New Year’s–a Southern tradition.

“You’ve been hanging around black people so long, and you don’t have no black-eyed peas?” she asked, incredulously–then hand-delivered a big potful. It was up there with being called the “N-word” by one of the great white blues harmonica players, spoken–and taken–with great affection and respect. A fellow Rider in the Storm, he, too, had managed to leave the House in which he was born to become someone else he wanted to be.

I love how one of my dearest Facebook friends commented how race is “a social construct erected to oppress certain groups of people.”

“That is the only way in which it is a real thing–because truly at a basic atomic level there are no racial differences,” she explained. “But the social construct has made race real and has made the concept very powerful. It has been a scourge that persists too often today. Tragic and stupid….”

Lesley Gore

I was on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for several years before being unceremoniously dumped, ostensibly because they were looking for people who were more knowledgeable about the 1970s (that I wrote the first book on The Ramones, apparently, was of no consequence), but I like to think that it was because every year at the nomcomm meeting I would put up Lesley Gore for nomination.

So it’s not my fault that she’s not up where she belongs, though when I started my own Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon, she was one of the first inductees.

Lesley was also one of the first stars I met when I moved to New York in 1982. It was at the Chem Bank at 57th and Broadway, where the Cash Box office was–where I worked. I’m sure I was the ultimate geek when I went up to her and introduced myself and then started slobbering all over her—as well I should: After all, “Judy’s Turn To Cry” was one of the first records I ever bought. I still remember the great B-side, “Just Let Me Cry.”

It remains one of those wonderful things in my career and in my life that I got to know her so well as the years went by. But I didn’t know she was sick. I should have figured it out when she stopped responding to phone calls and emails the last few months, but no, I just figured she was busy and gave her space.

I really should have figured it out last month at APAP—the Association of Performing Arts Presenters annual trade conference at the Hilton, where she was scheduled to showcase. I tweeted my excitement and got there early to surprise her—but she wasn’t there, and no one knew why.

I emailed her again, no response. And then I got carried off with work and whatever else gets in the way of the important things in life.

I’m thrilled to see so many wonderful tributes to her now on Facebook and Twitter. My tweets followed Mark Lindsay’s tweet announcement in the middle of the afternoon. I was at Toy Fair at the Javits Center, the annual toy trade show full of thousands of toy manufacturers and dealers, a business centering on fun and joy and happiness, and suddenly, incongrously, I was fighting back tears.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Lesley Gore in rock ‘n’ roll history. That she’s not in the Hall of Fame is true travesty,” I tweeted. When I got home I called Lou Christie, who knew Lesley since 1963, when she had “It’s My Party” and he had “The Gypsy Cried.”

“We stayed friends for all these years,” Lou said, fielding the calls we make at such times. “She was hard and tough, baby. She’d want me to tell you that, too! And she knew she was very talented and very smart and had a great sense of humor. I loved the sound of her voice, and she was a better singer than most people knew. And she went out there and put it all on the line.”

I’ll have more to say about Lelsey shortly and not so personal at examiner.com. I just wanted to get this up now quickly, and with a couple videos. But first I should say that although I knew her very well and loved her very much, I’m not at all alone in either regard. As I told a Facebook friend who offered condolences after reading my tweets, while it surely is a personal loss for me and more so for Lou, it’s personal for anyone who feels it. Lesley touched us all, and we’re all the better for it. And sadly, Lesley was hardly alone among female rock artists (Connie Francis, Nancy Sinatra, The Marvelettes, The Shangri-Las, etc., etc.) in suffering unforgivable neglect by those who should most know better—The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.

So here’s video of two legendary rock ‘n’ rollers and longtime friends and contemporaries who aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

And while there are so many Lesley Gore hits to remember her by—most obviously her proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”—here’s one to help us smile through the tears:

Finally, big thanks to Chris Matthews, who an hour or so ago on Hardball, amidst all the overblown coverage of Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special and the pseudo-singers and celebs it honored, saw fit to run an old Lesley clip and simply, succinctly state, “A loss for the world.”

Tales of Bessman: Marla, Kayla and Emily

“To have a job where you can make things better for people? That’s a blessing. Why would I do anything else?”

The words of Marla Ruzicka, an angel and a saint. Her death April 16, 2005 from a suicide car bombing on the Baghdad Airport Road has haunted me to this day and for all tomorrows.

“We are heartbroken to share that we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller, has lost her life,” Kayla’s family said in a statement released yesterday. “Kayla was a compassionate and devoted humanitarian. She dedicated the whole of her young life to helping those in need of freedom, justice, and peace.”

Kayla was 26. Another vibrant young woman full of life and hope, who could have stayed here or gone anywhere else but there—where they risked and gave all on behalf of those so very less fortunate. Beauty in its truest.

Marla was 28.

“It’s rare anybody in a lifetime can accomplish what she did, and she did it in just a couple years,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said wen she died. Leahy had pushed through a $20 million compensation package for civilians injured accidentally by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. “She was a champion I would follow anywhere.”

A striking, smiling California blond, Marla could “talk, smile and bust her way into all the meetings she needed–with Afghans, Iraqis, U.S. military and U.S. Embassy people,” recalled a journalist who had met her in Kabul. I mentioned her to my friend Matt, a Green Beret sniper in Iraq who later did security work there for Halliburton, and he had been so touched by her that he hung her portrait on his wall.

I was so taken that for the only time in my career, I came up with a charity CD concept in her memory. Of course it didn’t get very far, though had I known what I was doing, it would have been great. I’m sure I could have gotten Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, John Mellencamp and a number of other major names had I gone to them. The only one I mentioned it to was Ashford & Simpson: “Anything you want from us,” said Valerie, who, it should be said, always helped anyone who asked for anything, along with Nick, of course.

I had a friend at Rounder whom I called, and he was into it, too. So now I had to actually sit down and figure out how to do it. Luckily my first email went to Danny Goldberg, not only a music business luminary who’s served as personal manager, major label president, PR person and journalist, but a celebrated liberal as well.

If anyone knew how to do such a thing, it would be Danny, and sure enough, Danny told me I had little chance of putting anything togethe that would make any real money, and every chance of putting together one that would lose an awful lot of it—even with major artist donations.

I only wish I could say it’s the thought that counts.

And now, Kayla.

“Kayla dedicated her life to helping others in need at home and around the world,” President Obama said yesterday. “In Prescott, Arizona, she volunteered at a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. She worked with humanitarian organizations in India, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, compelled by her desire to serve others. Eventually, her path took her to Turkey, where she helped provide comfort and support to Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes during the war. Kayla’s compassion and dedication to assisting those in need shows us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on.”

Lest we forget, Obama added, “[Kayla] represents what is best about America, and expressed her deep pride in the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, and that so many others strive for around the world. She said: ‘Here we are. Free to speak out without fear of being killed, blessed to be protected by the same law we are subjected to, free to see our families as we please, free to cross borders and free to disagree. We have many people to thank for these freedoms and I see it as an injustice not to use them to their fullest.’”

Kayla had been held hostage by the Islamic State in Syria. The U.S. government confirmed her death yesterday, though details have yet to be made known.

“On this day, we take comfort in the fact that the future belongs not to those who destroy, but rather to the irrepressible force of human goodness that Kayla Mueller shall forever represent,” said Obama.

When Marla died, Rolling Stone hailed her as “perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past 10 or 20 years. Though a novice in life–she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience–her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq.”

The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), which Marla founded, continues its focus on helping civilians caught in the midst of armed conflict.
Here’s another quote from Marla: “Even though we couldn’t stop the war, I discovered that I could be involved in the movement for peace and justice. We are all victims of war, and we all count.”

I found these quotes on the website of The Emily Fund for a Better World, along with another quote: “Every act of compassion makes a difference for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world.”

The Emily Fund, it turns out, was established to further Emily Rachel Silverstein’s “legacy of hope in action for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world, through education, mentorship and creating and disseminating educational resources to facilitate individuals and student-centered organizations to experience local and global social change through community building activities.”

Emily Rachel Silverstein, I learned, was a sensitive and caring person, who had become vegetarian and began participating in peace marches when she was 10. She wrote her first letter to the president when she was in sixth grade, and was a member of the National Honor Society, Hightstown High School Marching Band, the swim team and the Adopt a Holocaust Survivor Program.

She made the Dean’s list at Gettysburg College, where she was co-president and lived in Peace House, whose mission was to create awareness of world peace issues. She was also involved in Amnesty International, Free the Children and other social justice activities, and studied Arabic to better address her concern for women’s rights in the Muslim world. In 2009 she helped organize an antiwar demonstration—Funk the War–a few weeks before she was brutally murdered by an ex-boyfriend. A week later students participated in a week-long event called Tent City, which she helped organize in order to help bring awareness to the homelessness crisis.

Emily Rachel Silverstein was 19. I didn’t know her, or Marla, or Kayla. But I’ll never forget any of them.