CF43

My dear friend Ann Ruckert died Saturday night. I posted an appreciation yesterday at examiner.com, but I left out anything personal.

If you want to know about Ann, here’s the link. Otherwise, May Pang summed things up nicely: “For all who knew her, she was a fixture in our music community and had a very big heart.”

I sent the link to the friend that I mentioned early in this series, whom I ran into, to my great surprise and chagrin, at that first day at the cancer radiation clinic. Still not naming name, he’s another fixture in our music community, thereby another dear friend of Ann’s.

He recalled being included in “that rarified air” of Ann’s famous Sunday “salon” brunches at her West Side apartment, where he got to meet one of his idols, Ann’s close friend and songwriting legend Gene McDaniels (he wrote “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” a big hit for Ann’s friend Roberta Flack) in the dining room.

“I wanted to tell him how much his recordings and songs meant to me but that can be daunting sometimes so it might have been left unsaid,” my friend said. “The only lesson I can take away from this moment is this: Don’t wait. I can’t say I remember if I told Ann how much I admired her passion and strength. A few of my friends have died recently and I don’t know if they knew how much they meant to me.”

Well, my friend, that goes double, triple, quadruple for me. Ann was as much a friend to me as she was to everyone, yet I let my own health and other problems overwhelm me to the point where I fell out of touch and didn’t realize how ill she was, hence never got to tell her how much I, too, admired her passion and strength–and how much she meant to me.”

It’s a lesson I should have learned with Nick Ashford, Steve Popovich, Al Goldstein. Apologies to you all, wherever you are.

At least I know it had to be tacitly understood.

Tales of Bessman: Why I love Sara Watkins  

Certainly there are plenty of reasons to love Sara Watkins, starting with her immense talent and the fact that she’s simply adorable.

But I’ll forever remember when she, her brother Sean and Chris Thile were in town, at least 10 years ago and probably more, when they were surely still in their teens during the first run of Nickel Creek. And I know Sara was nowhere near drinking age when I told them at an early evening showcase at the Living Room, it being a Thursday, that if they weren’t doing anything later they should come to the Sugar Bar for Open Mic.

Much to my surprise, Sara seemed most interested, and took down directions. But I never expected I’d see her, and she wasn’t upstairs in the Sugar Bar’s Cat Lounge, where I told her I’d be, hanging out with Nick, of course.

I’m just glad I decided to go downstairs and look to see if maybe she was down there—which, in fact, and to my great amazement, she was, all alone. I was thrilled, and tried to get her to come upstairs, but she didn’t, I don’t think. She was happy standing in the back, all by herself, enjoying the music.

She wasn’t the only artist or music business person I successfully cajoled into coming to the Sugar Bar, not by a very long shot. But maybe the most memorable, and I thought of all this last Thursday night while watching her again, during the reunited Nickel Creek’s concert at Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park.

There’s always been something special about Sara. Inquisitive, fearless.

At once most interested and most interesting.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 10

Val’s sax player Todd Schefflin invited me to a JT Project gig tonight in Harlem, and maybe I’d have gone except that I’m heading out to Westbury this afternoon to see Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman—The Turtles–and their annual Happy Together Tour.

I was in Bryant Park when I got Todd’s Facebook invite, directly across the park from Nick’s bench, in the shade and plugged into a power outlet. I wrote back to Todd that I’ve known Mark and Howie as long as I’ve known Nick and Val.

It made me stop for a second to take in the fact that I always refer to Nick in the present tense—that I always relate to him as if he’s still here.

I guess that means he is.

Maya Angelou: An Appreciation

I didn’t know Maya Angelou that well, but even those who did most always referred to her as Dr. Angelou, out of the respect that she didn’t so much demand as command. Mostly, of course, I knew her from Ashford & Simpson-related events.

What stands out in my memory was Dr. Angelou’s immense presence. She had an appropriately regal bearing and gait, and every word she uttered, stated softly but with full conviction, had weight and purpose.

Not to say that she was always austere. At Nick and Val’s famed Fourth of July “white parties” at their Connecticut residence, where everyone had to wear all white, she was the emcee for the pre-dinner poolside entertainment, culminating always with Nick’s hysterical entrance (he was once carried out on a throne, like an Egyptian pharaoh). She was always very funny herself, if no less measured in her speech.

Being a poet, she also spoke musically. Then again, she was also a musician, having started out as a dancer and calypso singer: Her 1957 album Miss Calypso—released on Scamp Records—was reissued in 1996, the same year as Been Found, the extraordinary album mix of her spoken word and Ashford & Simpson music.

She’d met Nick and Val through their great choreographer George Faison, and had invited them down to her annual Thanksgiving celebrations at her home in North Carolina.

For Billboard, Nick told me how at one point he had decided to go downstairs to “mess around” with a piano in the basement. But he felt lonely after a while and shouted for people to come down and join him.

“I told Val to play piano and Maya to add something,” he said. “We started singing, and something started to happen—and they didn’t know I had a tape recorder going underneath the piano. But me and Val are always spontaneous. It was a new experience for Maya, but she loved the idea of instant feedback.”

The tape contained the foundation for the Been Found track “I Remember All.” Nick said that they initially envisioned Dr. Angelou as a guest artist on one song for what they intended to be an Ashford & Simpson album, but that she was so excited about it that they continued the collaboration—though with a slight adaptation to the A&S songwriting process.

“She taught us not to go into a room and close the door and be afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “When you write in a spontaneous way, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, because whatever comes out of your mouth a lot of times is stupid. But she’d have people come in and sit around like an audience while we worked, and it became like a seminar.”

Dr. Angelou especially loved being part of the intensely romantic quality of Ashford & Simpson’s songs.

“So many people have decided that sexuality goes out by the time you’re 55,” she told me (at the time she was 68). “I don’t believe it, and I’m trying to keep romance alive well past 65. By doing [the album], I’m refuting that much-bantered-about idea that ‘old’ means ‘cold!’”

Dr. Angelou performed on seven of the 11 songs on Been Found–essentially her highbrow hip-hop to the trademark A&S secular gospel music and chorus, its titletrack finding glorious salvation in love. It certainly made all the sense in the world that these two spiritually creative forces would find each other.

“What I like about this album is that it gives us a fresh feeling,” Nick said. “We’ve been a duet so long, it’s a shot of adrenaline to work with a genius like Maya Angelou.”

“As much as people love you, everybody’s so jaded,” Val added. “A new A&S [album] comes out, and people say, ‘Okay.’ But this gives them more interest to put it on instead of putting it aside and getting to it later.”

Dr. Angelou gave Ashford & Simpson a shot of adrenaline in concert staging, too. The New York concert they did together featured the kind of artfully spectacular sets Nick and Val used to have back when I first saw them in the early ‘80s, i.e., a skyscraper from which a ramp folded out for them to descend down onto the stage at the beginning of their High-Rise show.

But my lasting image of Dr. Angelou is in the house in Connecticut, after the fireworks, after nearly everyone but family had left. She was sitting in a room, surrounded by a dozen or so children, enrapt at her feet.

I felt too old to sit down with them, so I don’t know what she was saying. But I watched from the next room, enrapt, too, and in my own way, childlike in her presence.

The Fall of the House of Bessman, Chapter 1

So my career has come down to this: I had no place to write outside my own website, and then I found examiner.com while researching.

They were looking for writers and obviously had no standards—and paid by the click. Since July 10, 2009, I’ve written 1,424 stories and have yet to make one month’s rent.

But most of the stories I’m happy about in that I got some kind of spiritual kick, not that I’m spiritual, but at least I felt I did something worthwhile, i.e., writing about something that meant something to me, whether or not anyone read them, which few obviously did. And examiner.com didn’t care.

Maybe once or twice a year I get an email saying how they “thoroughly enjoy” what I’ve written, so much so that they’re “sharing it at a higher level,” meaning that they’re promoting it on the site. I got one a day ago.

I should be happy, right? Except they’re promoting one of the few pieces that I did next to nothing on, that I basically edited and modified a press release! Nothing uncommon in the whole scheme of journalistic things, but something I rarely do because it usually doesn’t interest me. Since I’m not getting paid more than pennies, I generally write about what I care about, like I more or less said.

The case in point is an announcement from the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) about the Hal David Starlight Award going to Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. Now as I said at the bottom of the piece, and as I do with all SHOF stories, I noted that I contribute to the SHOF newsletter. In fact, I’ve been a longtime supporter of the SHOF for years and years. For God’s sake, I’ve been in the music business for decades and as the cliché goes, it all starts with a song.

But do I care about Dan Reynolds? Imagine Dragons? God, no! I wouldn’t be able to even name an Imagine Dragons song had I not copied a few titles from the press release! Did examiner.com ever promote anything I wrote–like 99.9 percent of the 1,424 stories I’ve written there since July 10, 2009–that I cared about. God, no!

So my career has come down to this.

CF35

A year after my seed implants and I maintain a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

I answer the doctors’ questions and don’t ask any of my own.

Except for one.

When the urologist looked at the latest blood work and said the PSA level was still high, I asked if it was something I should worry about.

“No,” he said, speaking also on behalf of the oncologist. “We’ll worry about it.”

I didn’t ask whether or not I should feel reassured.

Disclosures

Okay, so the Federal Trade Commission in 2009 revised its guidelines regarding, and I’m quoting from its website, “the long standing principle that ‘material connections’ (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers–connections that consumers would not expect–must be disclosed.”

It added “new examples [addressing] what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other ‘word-of-mouth’ marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

Now I come from the record business. Free records, free concert tickets, free lunches, free drinks, free trips. Nice Christmas presents, back in the day.

Conflicts? I wish! And I only wish I got the big bucks that the big political journos get for secretly helping out candidates, or starring in movies or whatever. Especially now that the record business is dead and so is so much of the journalism/reporting that went with it.

But even when it was alive I wrote bios and press releases and liner notes for companies that I was also writing about for publications. I can’t say every other music writer did the same, but I don’t know any who didn’t. It’s low pay to begin with, and now that we get paid by the click—not even half a cent per click on the main site I write for—we’re supposed to disclose who we have business relationships with, being so-called “endorsers” when we write about the businesses.

I’ve been pretty good about this at examiner.com, in that whenever I write about someone or something I’ve had or have business with, I’ll note it parenthetically, that is, if my name’s attached to it, i.e., CD liner notes or contributions to websites or newsletters. I’m not sure how I’ll handle it here if and when, but I love the way Teri Tom did it on her blog.

I don’t know Teri personally, but she’s renowned for being an authority on Bruce Lee’s martial art Jeet Kune Do, having studied it extensively with his late student Ted Wong. She’s also a dietitian whose clients have included the likes of Manny Pacquiao.

She writes on her blog that according to the FTC, if she interviews someone and they pay for lunch, she needs to disclose it. Same if she’s given a t-shirt with a logo and wears it in a photo.

“Disclaimers all over the place,” Teri says. “This would be tedious for me and a continual eyesore for readers. But rules is rules.”

To get around it, or as she puts it, “to cover my ass and preserve your reading experience,” she instructs her readers that for every recommendation, link, and product she uses, assume all of the following: She got fed. She got some sweet gadgets. She got busy w/member of story. She received mad scrilla. She got a helluva schwag bag. She got stock options.

She really is brilliant. So I’m going to admittedly rip her off but reduce it by saying that you can assume for everything I write on this site, I’m paid off big-time in one way or another. And I most certainly hope that your assumption is right! Like the bounty hunter says to Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, “A man’s got to do something for a living these days”–and this is what I do for a living.

Then again, if you know the movie, Clint responds with, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy,” and blows him away.

So in order to help me avoid a similar fate, please consider tipping your waiter.

A man’s got to do something for a living these days.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 8

One of my favorite Nick stories—and I’ve mentioned it here before—is how he was homeless when he first came to New York, and slept on a park bench in Bryant Park. Many years later, Val bought a Bryant Park bench and had a brass plaque reading “Nick Ashford Slept Here” affixed to a corner.

A few years back, when CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on Nick and Val, they taped a segment at the bench. They filmed Nick as he walked to the bench, but when they got there—and I’m quoting myself, now–“a rather filthy homeless person was sleeping on it”—much, perhaps, as Nick himself had done. That homeless person, upon closer inspection after he “woke up,” was none other than Yours Truly–much to Nick’s surprise and delight.

Exactly a year ago Bob Merlis and I went to the bench and took pictures of each other napping on Nick’s bench, then posted them. We thought it was the coolest thing, and it was. But it took me almost exactly a year to come up with the idea of a Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page, where everyone can go and post their own pictures of themselves and the bench. My hope, of course, is that it will become a tourist attraction, on par with, say, the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty—which is only as it should be: Nick Ashford wasn’t as big physically, maybe, but he was definitely statuesque and no less monumental.

And no one, no thing, was more New York.

Anyway, I only yesterday thought of creating the Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page, and quickly got way ahead of myself. First of all, this website has been under reconstruction for a couple weeks, and  today, out of necessity, I finally figured out how to add another post. Second, I haven’t even figured out how to change my profile pic on my own FB page, let alone put up a background, and when I clicked on the “Create Page” link, just to see where it would take me, I ended up creating the page without actually wanting to—I mean, I wanted to, but not so fast!

I quickly called Val to make sure she was okay with it. My guess is she was either too amused or confused to say no. Then I couldn’t for the life of me find the pics of me and Bob on the bench, so I rushed out first thing this morning and took a selfie—and I hope I never use that God-forsaken word again—of me on the bench, and a background shot of the bench, and managed to get them both up okay. Then Bob found the originals and posted them, but for some reason they wouldn’t show up unless you clicked on the post—until I accidentally figured you could make them visible by clicking on the “Highlights” button and changing it to “Posts by Others.”

In other words, I have absolutely no fucking idea what I’m doing! As if you didn’t know….

Anyway, the hope remains that people will use the page to post their own photos, reflections, thoughts on the most wonderful Nickolas Ashford–and by extension, the most beautiful Valerie Simpson—and all that the magical Ashford & Simpson represent.

And thanks, Val, for the bench. I go there often.

CF32

I see via Twitter it’s World Cancer Day and I guess I should observe, if not celebrate.

I continue in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mode. I don’t ask the doctors anything, they don’t tell me anything other than “come back in three months.”

I had lunch with some friends in L.A. last week. One of them’s gone through at least as much shit as me, and we were all afraid he wasn’t going to make it. All things considered, he looked pretty good, if frail, having lost a ton of weight.

“They say if we make it through the sixties, the seventies are downhill—before the ‘Final Summons,’” he said. At least I think that’s what he said. Maybe it was “the Last Call.”

Had dinner with another bunch of friends, one of whom had his prostate removed, and swears by it. Another friend, who had the radiation, didn’t make it–to dinner, that is: Too distraught by the death of his sister.

Two other friends were sharing heart attack stories.

But I have developed a new way of urinating: Left leg well forward, maybe halfway around the bowl. I tend to shoot left, and that way, if I miss entirely, at least I won’t spray the wall.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 7

Yes, she lived with a very deep man.

Just two nights before the show, at a prominent music publisher’s Christmas party, a prominent music publishing friend took me aside and marveled about Valerie Simpson. “I don’t know how does she do it?” she said. “Neither do I,” I replied.

It was the day after the ASCAP Foundation Awards, where for the third year in a row, Val presented the “Reach Out and Touch” Award in honor of Nick Ashford, which she established in his memory to advance the careers of promising songwriters by providing financial assistance for professional recordings of their work.

And now, Saturday night, in the small LeFrak Concert Hall at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts in Queens College, she was performing for not even a half-full house, thanks to the first big snowstorm of the year.

Shit. It took me two and a half hours to get there from Chinatown. I took the Q uptown as far as it went, to 57th Street. Then waited for the N and took that to Lex and 59th when I realized I needed the R, then waited forever for the R and took that as far as it went, to 71st and Continental Ave. in Forest Hills. It really was like a can of sardines.

Then I waited in the snow with a million others for the Q64 bus and was lucky to get on the first one that came. There was little visibility, and I didn’t know where I was anyway, so I asked the bus driver how many stops to Kissena Boulevard and Jewel Avenue, where the Queens College website said to get off. He didn’t know.

At least he said he’d call out the stop, which he didn’t. I smeared the moisture off the window in the nick of time to see the sign for the stop lit up on the bus shelter, then got lucky again in guessing the right direction for the one-block walk to the campus entrance. But there was no signage there, no one in sight to direct me to the Kupferberg Center, so I walked around the dark, silent, snowed-in campus for half an hour before finding it just 15 minutes before showtime.

But what a show it was.

“Anybody here tonight came here out of love!” Val said, which most certainly was true, and traditional: Anybody who ever came to an Ashford & Simpson show came out of love, which is what Ashford & Simpson was always all about.

“What brought you here tonight?” Nick would shout out during Nick & Val’s performances of “The Boss.” A full house would always scream back, “Love!”

I remember one time at Radio City he tried to materialize it.

“I wish I could take all the love I have and ball it up,” he related, with his hands packing a big, invisibile mass into an imaginary snowball, “and throw it out over all of you.” And then he mimed an upward toss of the  big snowball of love into the top of the middle of Radio City, and I’ll be damned if everyone there didn’t see it break open at the top into thousands of shiny golden pieces that gently landed on everyone there and left them warm and aglow.

“It’s okay, we’re going to party anyway!” said Val.

She started with “Nobody Knows” from Ashford & Simpson’s 1979 album Stay Free–and such a classic Nick theme.

Nobody knows the inside

That’s where all your little secrets hide

Nobody knows the inside

Maybe you, you got too much pride

And nobody knows the inside

Oh, I ain’t got no magic mirror

Nobody knows the inside

That’s why, that’s whi I can’t get no nearer.

“That’s why, that’s why I can’t get no nearer!” That’s pure Nick Ashford poetry! The genius of Nick Ashford.

We wanna hear what it’s all about

Try to, tell somebody, tell somebody

Go on and get it off, get it off your chest…

Nick always wanted to get to the core, get to the real. Yes, Val lived with a very deep man.

I’m thinking now of their great 1983 single “It’s Much Deeper.” But Val followed with the no less deep “It’ll Come, It’ll Come, It’ll Come,” the lead track and single from their 1976 album Come As You Are. God, she was digging deep.

I know you had a hard time

It’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come.

He was always so supportive, encouraging, caring.

She is always so supportive, encouraging, caring. And God bless her, she did “The Boss.”

I was so right

Thought I could turn emotion on and off

I was so sure

But love taught me who was the boss.

It brought us here tonight.

She brought out Felicia Collins to play guitar and sing on my favorite “Found A Cure,” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” I ran into Felicia again a week or so later, at a Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top guitarist) gig at City Winery, with her fellow Letterman band star Will Lee. She was still raving about Val, overwhelmed that she had asked her to sit in at her show and gave her so much room. Pretty much the sort of conversation, with minor personal modifications, that one has with anyone about Val.

For the record, Val’s show also included “One More Try” from Come As You Are, which they never performed on stage, and was co-written by Val’s brother (and Village People lead singer) Raymond Simpson and featured Felicia’s dynamite rock guitar play; Val’s classic pre-A&S solo single “Silly, Wasn’t I” (“so short,” she said, “that before people started to like it, it was gone!”); and the titletrack of her current solo album, “Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again”—another wondrous Nick Ashford conceit.

She prefaced “Dinosaurs” with a bit of positive seasonal reflection/instruction: “As time marches on, you need to think a little more about yourself. It’s up to you to make yourself a priority, to be what you want to be.”

Again, the old A&S affirmation, the perfect lead-in to the Motown foundation of their songwriting.

“There’s a deepness and density of the A&S catalog,” she said, noting how hard it was to choose just a few of the songs for the set. “It’s a nice problem to have: [Figuring out] which songs you might want to hear as opposed to saying, ‘I only got two.’”

“I think there’s that depth,” she explained, “because I lived with a very deep man—Nick Ashford. But if I start talking about his story, it’s a whole nother evening!”

She chose “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and introduced it, like she has done since Nick died, by relating how its meaning has changed. Hence, she starts it off slow and solemn:

I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame

She played the piano as Nick’s portrait flashed on the screen above her, the one that’s on the wall to the left of the bar at the Sugar Bar, with his head leaning against his right hand and seeming to look back you, so sweetly, kindly.

Standing away from the piano, she followed with “You’re All I Need,” clearly, by the way she gestured outward and around with her hands, singing to the audience. And sure enough, she thanked her many friends in the crowd for being all she needs to get by, but really, she’s just allowing those of us who love her to feel that we’re helping her, when of course, it’s the other way around.

Felicia came back out to sing on the encore “I’m Every Woman,” and Val ended the show with “Street Corner,” in which she coaxed daughter Nicole to come up and sing backup, thereby joining her sister Asia and Clayton Bryant. Ray Simpson came up, too. The rest of Val’s band was the usual greatness: pianist/conductor Pete Cannarozzi, keyboardist/vocalist Valerie Ghent, bassist Eluriel “Tinker” Barfield, drummer Bernard “Pocket” Davis and saxophonist Todd Schefflin.

Luckily, I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar in the band van. Val looked after me as she always does, as she always does everyone, but in my case, at the restaurant, because I’m vegetarian, making sure I had plenty to eat.

I left a little earlier than everyone, but around midnight nonetheless, tired from trudging through the snow earlier.

I stopped for a moment at the end of the bar, by the door, looking at the picture of Nick, now encircled by a string of Christmas lights. Saint Nickolas.

Something about it that makes Nick look particularly adorable, almost cute, which he most certainly was. Then again, you could use so many words to describe Nick, many of them opposite: He went from cute to rugged, soft to tough. Everything fit him, and he fit everything.

I remember Miss Tee saying how when you walk past this particular picture of Nick, his eyes seem to follow you. Christmas lights flashing, I remember how he was called “the black Jesus” at his funeral.

He never did understand how I idolized him.

“We did it again, Boo-Boo,” Miss Tee said to the picture the night President Obama was re-elected.

I walked out into the snow, leaving behind a room full of people who had come to Nick’s Sugar Bar out of love, like any other night.