Nancy Reagan

I guess I shouldn’t be puzzled by the media beatification of Nancy Reagan, who always seemed nice enough–though I’m among the apparent minority who always found her lovely but cold with an icy smile, perfect hair and clothes notwithstanding. And leave it to the “new” MSNBC to lead the way Sunday, with its solemn funeral music and Nancy portrait and lifespan after every commercial break–and especially Boy Wonder Chuck Todd, who if I heard him right, said that she was the most influential First Lady in American history, forget Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama–perish the thought, of course, that he say anything nice about Michelle Obama.

But perhaps I slept through the Reagan years, for about all I remember about her was that Godawful 1980s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign slogan. True, it was quite effective–but not in winning the unwinnable “War on Drugs.” Rather, its biggest success was forcing Highway 101, and their label Warner Bros.–lest it be accused of not falling in line–to put in the parenthetical in the title of their great 1988 country hit “(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes.” God forbid a country song about love be misconstrued with advocating drug use!

Looking back at it now, “Just Say No” prefigured the Republican Party mantra of the Obama years, and is a symbol of the personal and social repression that the GOP has come to represent by embracing the negative over the positive. And if anyone did in fact say no to drugs–and perhaps many did–it didn’t stop the current highly publicized heroin epidemic. All it accomplished for certain–besides modifying a country song title–was saying no to research on the potential benefits of marijuana usage, that and the continuation of a war that has wasted billions of dollars and immeasurably harmed countries whose products supply our insatiable demand for that which we’re supposed to say no to.

To her credit, Nancy did finally say yes, but only in as it applied to stem cell research, and only once her beloved Ronnie took sick with Alzheimer’s. Too bad for her, her husband and the rest of us that George W. Bush, in this and so many other regards, had taken her Just Say No campaign to heart.

The Homeless Lady

Was going to tweet about The Homeless Lady this morning when I saw her splashed all over the fucking New York Post front page, but I didn’t have the heart or stomach or whatever body parts I have that still function, let alone feel.

The Homeless Lady, and I capitalize it because now she is a public figure, like it or not, and while she was named, I won’t name her here. She’s been rolling some 20 or so shopping carts full of shit up and down my block for so many years I can’t remember. I have to walk past it all every day, and I suppose maybe she’s a nuisance to someone, maybe drivers on the street or others on the sidewalk, but I can’t imagine it’s that big a deal. But I don’t look at her or talk to her. I keep moving, she keeps moving, and I respect her for it.

I’m sure she didn’t ask for publicity. To my knowledge she wasn’t harming anyone or annoying or threatening anyone or looking intimidating like some of the other homeless or vagrants and panhandlers in the nabe. When I saw her on the Post front page I figured her end had to be near.

I was right. Walked home from picking up the mail around 6 p.m. and there were cops, camera crews, and being that O.J.’s been back in the news lately, I’ll say a good 50 looky-loos, cellphones out, taking pictures. Not me. I just kept walking while the cops helped the sanitation workers dump her entire life into the garbage truck while everyone else took their pictures and “film at 11.”

I didn’t look, I didn’t stop, but I felt like an asshole anyway. To my credit, I won’t tune in at 11.

Epilog:

Two days later, walking home from Whole Foods, late afternoon, 100 yards from my building, and there she is walking out of the driveway of the truck wash. Why she was there I don’t know.

She was bundled up to the max, as usual, but with only one bundle, a small black shopping bag with chord handles, like she’d been shopping at some high-end ladies store, which she wasn’t. I had a bigger double bag of groceries.

She’d been reduced to nothing now. I didn’t look her in the eyes, but for the first time in all the years I’d walked past her, I looked directly at her and nodded.

Her perpetually pained expression never loosened.

In memoriam, 2015

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

And that there are so many means there will only be that many more next year, for the older you get, the more you lose—unless, that is, it’s you who are lost.

It started early last year on Jan. 2 with Little Jimmy Dickens, whom I didn’t really know, but met a few times and was in his presence backstage at the Grand Ole Opry many, many more. Andrae Crouch came next: I didn’t know him either, but had seen him live at least once, on a Gaither Homecoming show.

Ervin Drake I did know quite well. And even though he died at 95, I was still surprised. I used to run into the Songwriters Hall of Famer (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “I Believe”) and his wife Edith a lot, at ASCAP and songwriters functions and at Christine Lavin shows–where he’d usually perform and always seem forever young.

As for the notorious Kim Fowley, I’m not sure if I ever met him, though I think I did, and I’m not sure I’d have been so kind to him had the piece by Jackie Fuchs—formerly The Runaways’ Jackie Fox–about being raped by him at 16, with band mates Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Sandy West allegedly looking on, come out before mine. But let me say also that I had problems with that piece and a more recent one where she talked about the impact of the first one, particularly the charges against Jett and Currie. I found both pieces then and now way too confusing—same with those who corroborated her. And admittedly and not unashamedly being a Joan fan, I didn’t feel she deserved the contempt and willingness among so many to summarily erase her positive contributions based on one person’s recollection of a horrible incident of which the only certainty I found was that it happened a long time ago when all but Fowley were teenagers, and if the other girls were there, likely not sober—though in no way does any of this absolve Fowley.

I did meet Dixie Hall, the great bluegrass songwriter–and wife of Tom T Hall, but never met Ernie Banks, though there was no one who did not love either—especially Mr. Cub, whom I followed as a Milwaukee Braves fan in the state next door. I was a huge fan of Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers, and used to run into legendary New York TV talk show host Joe Franklin a lot—and will always regret never taking him up on his invitation to come visit him.

Not sure if I met Don Herron, but I hung out a lot on the set of Hee Haw and might have. Most definitely enjoyed his Charlie Farquharson newscaster bits. And most definitely did meet the great Rod McKuen, at a Songwriters Hall of Fame awards dinner.

I’d seen Don Covay, but knew him first from covers of his songs like the Stones’ “Mercy, Mercy” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” Lesley Gore, on the other hand, was such a dear, dear friend and music hero that when I learned of her death on Feb. 16 while at Toy Fair, of all places, I really did burst into tears. I wrote an appreciation piece for at examiner.com and then two more personal pieces here. She was “one tough broad,” as Lou Christie didn’t say, exactly, but surely meant. I know I’ll always be haunted by her loss.

Same with Bob Simon. Bob was my hero as a broadcast journalist for CBS, a poet of truth in the midst of blathering self-promotional idiocy. I actually wrote him a fanboy letter after he was captured and released during the Gulf War, and he responded.

I met him on the street once and he gave me his email. I tried for years to get him to feature Dengue Fever, and came close the second time I met him, at the secreening of a Bob Marley documentary the night of one of the Obama-Romney debates, which we watched together at a bar during the post-screening party. Bob had worked in Jamaica and Cambodia, not to mention Vietnam and the Middle East—where he earned much of his reputation. He was into Dengue Fever conceptually, and I was about to email him again about the band when he tragically—and ironically—died in a car crash on the West Side Highway, having survived decades of work in the world’s most dangerous places. Another irreplaceable loss to the world.

I knew Nashville photographer Alan Mayor. Sam Andrew I knew as guitarist in Big Brother & the Holding Company and then with Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band—the one and only Joplin being the first rocker I ever saw in concert.

I’d met the great jazz writer/producer Orrin Keepnews, and know his esteemed journalist son Peter quite well. I interviewed the pioneering “direct cinema” documentarian Albert Maysles several times over the years; he was the nicest guy.

I knew promoter/songwriter/record producer/artist manager/session drummer/record-label entrepreneur/bandleader/recording artist/music journalist Billy Block ever since he moved form L.A. to Nashville at least 25 years go and started writing for Music Row, where I had my notorious Gotham Gossip column. Billy went on to befriend just about everyone in the business and promote many of them by way of his weekly Billy Block Show/Western Beat Barn Dance.

I posted a fab video of The Chanteys performing their 1963 surf-rock classic “Pipeline” on The Lawrence Welk Show after their writer/guitarist Brian Carman died on March 1. I must have met beloved New York trumpeter Lew Soloff, but never really knew him. And I feel truly lucky to have met Michael Brown (March 19 at B.B. King’s, wehn he showed up at a show by the then recently reformed Left Banke. The creative genius behind the band’s landmark “Baroque Pop” 1960s recordings—among rock’s most beautiful ever–Brown was obviously in poor physical shape and had to be assisted to the stage to play keyboards on “Pretty Ballerina.” He left immediately, but I ran after him and caught him on the steps and told him who I was and how thrilled I was to see him and meet him and how much he meant to so many music fans everywhere. He thanked me and seemed genuinely touched.

The Bitter End’s Kenny Gorka was the most wonderful guy to New York musicians—and me. He always welcomed me with open arms—and a bottle of beer—whenever I came down to the club. And I’m forever in debt to Samuel Charters, not just for his important blues and jazz books but for producing my favorite Siegel-Schwall Band and other great acts including Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite.

I knew and loved Tony Bennett’s longtime pianist/bandleader Ralph Sharon, and we’re all indebted to him for giving Tony “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’m indebted to May Pang for a lot of things, including introducing me to Cynthia Lennon. Percy Sledge needs no introduction.

Andre Smith was particularly sad in that he was only 57 and had been such a great host of Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 years. He had a wonderful gospel funeral send-off in Harlem.

Jack Ely, as the comparatively anonymous voice of The Kingsmen’s classic rock ‘n’ roll hit “Louie Louie,” is immortal. Ben E. King, too, had an immortal voice; I met him several times, with Allen Klein, and at parties in Lynnfield, Mass., thrown by Wes Reed, an old Dr. Bop & The Headliners fan who would bring the band in to play private parties, with his other hero Ben E. also on the bill.

I met B.B. King once, at a press gathering many years ago when his manager of over 40 years Sidney Seidenberg was still alive. I remember B.B. saying how they never had a cross word in all that time.

I must have known Ren Grevatt as long as I’ve been in New York, since 1982. I knew him as an indie publicist who worked with The Dead and handled PR for promoter John Scher. Such a nice guy, and even in his ‘90s, ageless. I knew the great record company executive Bruce Lundvall almost as long, and haven’t forgotten how he let me stay in his office while he took a call and tried to convince a prospective artist to sign with him.

I met the great Anne Meara once, at a Broadway show opening party, back in the early or mid-1980s. She was clearly lit, but I’m sure she’d have been just as sweet and friendly any time. What struck me was that when I introduced myself she immediately apologized that husband Jerry Stiller wasn’t there—as if I’d been their pal forever.

Like Sam Charters, Guy Carawan was an important music historian, in his case, of folk music. A major figure in the historic Greenwich Village-based folk music revival of the 1950s, he was also a folksinger and played a big part in bringing “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement.

Johnny Gimble was one of country music history’s greatest fiddlers, while according to the American Folklife Center, no one was more important to the survival, appreciation, and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than ballad singer, songwriter, folksong collector, Fulbright scholar, and champion of the Appalachian dulcimer Jean Ritchie.

I’m so glad I got to interview Jim Ed Brown on the occasion of his last album In Style Again, and so glad he held cancer back long enough to complete it. I knew him from years of hanging out at the Opry, but always remember how he first put me off when I met him in the late ‘70s at a rural Wisconsin country music festival, when he thought I was a songwriter trying to pitch him a song after I told him I was a writer.

Ornette Coleman was so significant I had to write about him, whereas Patrick Macnee—one of my true TV heroes as The Avengers’ John Steed–I was lucky to meet and interview and find that he was as nice as his character.

Ernie Maresca was one of those unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, having had a hand in writing such landmark hits as Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” not to mention recording his own classic “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).” Dave Somerville was also an obscure name, but his voice is cherished by doo-wop fans for leading The Diamonds on the huge hit “Little Darlin’,” and my personal fave, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom).”

I’m pretty sure I met Louisiana musician Jillian Johnson, but I know I’ll never forget her. She was one of two who were randomly shot to death (nine others were injured) by a hate-filled lunatic at Lafayette’s Grand 16 movie theater on July 23. My Cajun music pal Wilson Savoy’s words bear repeating: “She changed my life forever. She inspired me more than anyone else in my younger years, and I wish I had told her what an amazing person she was before it was too late. Before her show last Saturday, before she jumped on stage with The Figs, we stood together on the side of the stage at Blue Moon and chatted all about the past and the future, about her grand plans for projects, renovations, exciting new stuff. Never a dull moment with Jillian. I never said it in the past, but I’ll say it now. Thank You Jillian. I love you.”

I met the great country vocalist Lynn Anderson several times and especially loved her hit versions of songs by the late, great Joe South. I never met or got to see Cilla Black, but I sure wish I had—and was touched by the outpouring of love for her in England when she died.

I think I met Billy Sherrill, but I certainly knew his classic country music hit productions. Of course I knew indie publicist Jeff Walker, who was as much a part of the Nashville music community as Sherrill, closely for nearly 40 years.

I might have let Frankie Ford go out quietly had it not been for my pal Rockin’ John McDonald demonstrating on his Madison, Wis., WORT-FM show I Like It Like That that Ford was much more than a “Sea Cruise” one-hit wonder. My friend Billy Joe Royal, on the other hand, didn’t need Rockin’ John’s help, having shared with Lynn Anderson a goodly amount of Joe South’s hit songwriting catalog.

I’d run into Allen Toussaint now and then, especially after he moved to New York following Hurricane Katrina. He never really remembered me until I invariably brought up how my favorite production of his was Take It, the regrettably obscure 1986 album by genius Minneapolis no-guitar/keyboard rock-polka band The Wallets, upon which Toussaint, ever the refined gentleman, waxed sentimental.

Legendary songwriter P.F. Sloan’s death in November was a personal blow, even though I’d only met him once, when Donna Loren brought him to Bessman Bash 2015 in L.A. in August. Of course I was a huge fan of a songwriter so significant—and elusive—that none other than Jimmy Webb wrote a song about him. Turned out that not only could he not have been nicer, he seemed at least as humbled to be at the party as we all were having him there.

As for John Trudell, I only met the Native American activist/poet/recording artist twice and interviewed him once, but the effect was immense. One of the great artists/humanitarians I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and a real loss to the world. His album Wazi’s Dream was my No. 1 pick for 2015.

I was hoping John’s death would be the last, but it was only Dec. 8. Historic Aussie ‘60s rock band The Easybeats’ frontman Stevie Wright followed, and then Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead. I don’t think many in America knew of Wright, as The Easybeats’ had only one hit in the U.S., though “Friday on My Mind” is immortal. Remarkably, the intense love and grief for Lemmy, while deserved, was quite astonishing in that he was a heavy metal/punk rocker, from England, with limited mainstream success.

The Carly Simon fallacy

Every few years, it seems, there’s a resurgence of interest in Carly Simon via her 1972 hit “You’re So Vain,” i.e., Who is it about?, and her coy handling of the so-called “mystery.”

This time it’s because she has a memoir coming out, titled after her 1978 album Boys in the Trees. In a recent interview with People she apparently confirmed that the second verse is about Warren Beatty. I say apparently because I ddin’t read the interview, just an account of it in HuffPost leading with how for years, “music and pop culture fans alike have tried to figure out who Carly Simon’s song ‘You’re So Vain’ is really about (Mick Jagger? James Taylor?). We’ve been met with cryptic clues, but we could never say with certainty who that elusive ‘you’ really is.”

It doesn’t say who “we” is, but I most certainly have never tried to figure it out, nor has anyone I know. Simon’s sex life just isn’t that interesting to me, and besides, it remains one of the dumbest songs I’ve ever heard—and that’s just the lyrics. The tune itself isn’t much and the fact that the record became so successful, I’m convinced, is because of Jagger’s uncredited backup vocal on the chorus, Jagger himself being one of the celeb names bandied about over the years as the song’s subject.

The only true mystery of the song is how people continue getting so worked up over a guy who really isn’t so vain after all. I mean, if he probably thinks the song is about him, he’s right!—hence, no vanity. The entire song is based on fallacy!

But look closer. Force yourself. Yes, the guy’s a self-absorbed dandy (“Your hat strategically dipped below one eye/Your scarf it was apricot”), but if he has “one eye in the mirror” as he watches himself gavotte, well, as Simon herself admits, “all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner.” Conceited he may be, but no other female is put off by it in the slightest—nor was Simon, at least at one time.

Really, “You’re So Vain” is nothing more than a high-class rejection song with one memorable line (“I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee”) that is so conceptually wrong there’s probably an arcane philosophical term to describe it.

Coincidentally comes word that another ridiculous yet immensely popular song, Lee Ann Womack’s 2001 crossover country hit “I Hope You Dance,” has been made into an inspirational documentary (I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song featuring the likes of Womack, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson and Vince Gill) to debut on Thanksgiving on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel, with DVD and related book out on Dec. 1.

Why people were moved by this song I’ll never know. Yes the chorus line has a mother expressing her wish for her children: “And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance/I hope you dance.” But come on! Is it imaginable that anyone else–mother, father, sibling, friend, alien from outer space–would soulfully sing, “I hope you sit it out”? Not on this planet.

Paris, 2015, and music

A comment by Bono re Paris got me thinking.

“If you think about it, the majority of victims last night are music fans,” he told an Irish radio personality in an on-air interview Saturday, U2 having been scheduled to perform that night at AccorHotels Arena in Paris in a concert to be broadcast on HBO.

“This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror or whatever it’s called,” he added.

I’m not so sure about it being a “direct hit” specifically aimed at music so much as hitting an easy and obvious target, much like the soccer stadium, much like the World Trade Center and the Boston Marathon. Strike where there are a lot of people focused on something else.

But I do find significance in hitting a music venue, because music is something ISIS and Al Qaeda and the Taliban–and any dreadfully repressive power–lack.

Music, and the arts in general, is a beautiful thing, the most beautiful thing about being human. It gives us pleasure beyond instinct, though for many of us it’s essentially instinctive and instinctual. Without it I know at least I, for one, would certainly be much less human, if not altogether empty spiritually.

But these groups that I’ve mentioned want none of it. Rather, they’ve shut themselves off from it and have sought, not without success, to destroy all the beauty of humanity, all that is good and of meaning that we share as human beings on this planet.

“It’s very upsetting,” Bono said. “These are our people. This could be me at a show. You at a show, in that venue. It’s a very recognizable situation for you and for me and the coldblooded aspect of this slaughter is deeply disturbing and that’s what I can’t get out of my head.”

I can’t get it out of my head, either, but it doesn’t stop me from humming a tune.

9-11 ruminations

Every year I feel this awful ambivalence on 9-11. I understand and appreciate the need to feel unified as a country and “NeverForget,” as the Twitter hashtag says. Then again, never forget what? The horror of that morning? Not to worry, it’s indelibly imprinted in the minds of all who were conscious that day—not to mention those of us who live in New York City. But after that it all kind of falls apart.

Never forget how great we are—as so many of today’s #NeverForget tweets demand? How resilient and unbending? How about, How nationalist and vengeful?

But loved this one: “#NeverForget that 1.57 billion people were forced to accept blame for the actions of the few,” this accompanied by a pie chart estimating Al-Qaeda with less than 10,000 members, the Taliban with 36,000 out of all 1.57 billion Muslims.

Or better yet, “#NeverForget God is in the business of disarming violence, not escalating it,” with a link to the Patheos Progressive Christian Newsletter entry “Things to #NeverForget on 9/11” by Episcopalian priest David R. Henson. An excerpt:

“But on this day, as a Christian, there are some other things I want us to never forget about 9/11 and the retaliatory War on Terror that happened in response.

On 9/11, 2,977 innocent Americans were killed by terrorists.

In the 14-year war on terror, 5,280 American soldiers were killed because of our country’s response to the 9/11 attacks.

Conservatively, reports estimate the War on Terror claimed 1.3 million lives in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our war killed 5 percent of the Iraqi population, people who had zero ties to what actually happened on 9/11.

Our war killed at least 465 people for every person who died on 9/11. Some estimate we killed 670 or more per person.

Our war displaced 3 million Iraqi people.

Our war created 2.5 million Afghan refugees.

I posted a couple songs. Here’s the first–Alan Jackson’s No. 1 country hit, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning):

I always thought this was the best of the 9-11 song lot, far and away. Nothing vengeful or nationalist about it, unlike so many other country artists who would pull a trigger with little regard as to what gets hit. No, Alan’s just a simple man, asking simple yet profound questions:

Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on I Love Lucy reruns?

To me the chorus was so beautiful:

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell
You the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.

Elvis Costello took me to task for favoring Alan over Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” which for me was so overwrought and symbolic. But I could understand his reasoning, that Alan, like so many Americans, should be knowledgeable and responsible enough to at least know the difference between Iraq and Iran.

I was at Billboard on 9-11, the music publishing editor then. Besides the predictable dusting off of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic chestnut “God Bless the USA,” the big song of the moment was “God Bless America.” I wrote a column about it, in which I suggested that as we returned to “the semblance of normal,” we also move “beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare.”

Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive “This Land is Your Land” made sense, but Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” made the most–then and now.


Reach out and touch somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place, if you can.

And the greatest is love.

Waiting for Miley Cyrus

The day before the annual MTV Video Music Awards crapola and I oddly find myself more looking forward to it than maybe even the first one 31 years ago, when all of us in the biz back then had drunk the Kool-Aid and were swept away by the asshole moonman.

Now, a 63-year-old man with music tastes reflecting my age, I’m also thinking back on my flimsy indirect Miley Cyrus connection via her dad.

I can’t remember if it was Key Largo or Orlando where Mercury/Nashville held a weekend junket for media in 1992 to showcase three of its baby acts including Billy Ray, and I can’t remember the other two, though one might have been Shania. And while I never got to know him that well, I was great friends with his (and Buck Owens’) manager Jack McFadden. I still remember Jack’s cutting riposte to my buddy Travis Tritt’s disparaging remarks during Fan Fair that year regarding Billy Ray’s out-of-nowhere career explosion by way of “Achy Breaky Heart”–which were shared but unuttered by many others in the country music community: “He’s [Tritt] just feeling the heat from our afterburner!”

Then a few years later, after Billy Ray’s career had seemingly flamed out almost as fast as it burst, I was asked to appear on one of those dumb celeb news shows, I think it was Access Hollywood, to comment on his chances of making a comeback with his then just-released new album. It was not at all impossible, I stated, with authoritative certainty, only to be told I’d never be asked on the show again for refusing to do stupid B-roll walking-through-the-hall or sitting-at-the-computer bullshit.

“I’m not an actor!” I huffed. “I’m a writer.”

Sure enough, I never did the show again.

As for Miley, well, I never watched Hannah Montana. So I never paid much attention to her until the infamous performance at the VMAs with Robin Thicke two years ago, when I found the twerking and tongue lolling vulgar and annoying, then was put off further by every succeeding outrageous stunt culminating with the video for “Wrecking Ball,” which I hated: By now it all seemed so calculating, like Madonna, and the song itself became tedious after a couple listens, with its bouncy verse and big, overwrought chorus. No denying, though, she sang it all very well.

Maybe it was her heartfelt induction of Joan Jett into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that turned me around, or her staunch refusal to apologize for what she does and who she is–along with her outspokenness in support of scores of progressive charities and causes. Here the one that really got me was her own nonprofit Happy Hippie Foundation, with its mission “to rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.” To launch the foundation, she created a Backyard Sessions series of videos, many with guests like Jett and Ariana Grande, in which she respectfully covered classic rock songs including The Turtles “Happy Together,” garnering praise from none other than that group’s lead singer Howard Kaylan.

Miley told The New York Times (“in between freshly rolled joints”) that MTV told her, “This is your party,” and promises to give them a “psychedelic” and “raw” show unlike any previous ones—precisely why the network hired her, no doubt. But she also revealed that she’s working on “avant-garde” new music with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, which, in conjunction with a new visual Instagram style influenced by underground Net artists, indicates that she’s continuing to experiment and grow as an artist as she is as a person.

“When you look at it now, it looks like I’m playing hopscotch,” she said of her 2013 VMA appearance. “Compared to what I do now, it looks like nothing. I can’t believe that was a big deal. It wasn’t shocking at all.” She added: “I still love it. But I now watch it, and I see someone that isn’t me now.”

Who she is now, it seems to me, is an uncommonly centered, concerned and caring person for 22, completely opposite from the narcissistic pop superstarlets of her stature—Taylor Swift in particular. To be fair, Swift also gives plenty to charity, and has commendably established a close relationship with her massive fan base.

But Swift seems focused on surface, i.e., her physical appearance, celebrity friends and post-adolescent romance, whereas Cyrus, though younger, is so much broader and deeper in interest and reach. Here’s hoping to see more of this come into play tonight, whatever the shock value.

The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

Didn’t agree much with the late conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, but he was an excellent writer, and I read his weekly “On Language” column in the Times Magazine regularly. I’m sure he’d agree with me that like the words meme and trope, neither of which I know how to use correctly, icon, which hardly anyone else knows how to use correctly, is likewise a good writer’s overworked, and in its case, wrongly used term.

What rankles me so much about “icon”—and by extension, “iconic”—is how it came suddenly out of nowhere and is now inescapable, such that not a day goes by when I don’t get a PR pitch regarding someone or other who’s an icon or iconic, which, presumably, is why I should give a shit. But i don’t, because they’re invariably neither.

It’s so out of hand that last week I got a release titled “Legacy Lounge Brings Suiteness to Iconic Levels at the London West Hollywood.” Okay, I guess “suiteness” is a clever made-up word, or else a play on “sweetness.” Whatever. But whatever the fuck it is, bringing it to “iconic levels” makes no sense at all, that is, “level” singular or plural can’t be made iconic, that is, unless you stretch the meaning of iconic far beyond its traditional usage.

Okay, so what constitutes the use of “iconic”? Simply put, it has to refer to an unmistakable icon. The word usually means “a usually pictorial representation,” that is, image, or “an object of uncritical devotion,” that is, idol (merriam-webster.com).

But the word “idol” has been so watered down (thanks, to finger one culprit, to American Idol), that it’s lost its connotation of singularity. I mean, not everyone is an icon, or an be, unless we’re allowed to worship a lot of idols equally.

Hence, the only real icon in contemporary music who comes readily to mind is Madonna. Of other highly visible current female pop artists, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all are surely superstars, even shining much brighter than Madonna now in terms of airplay and sales, but have a very long way to go before ranking with Madonna as a true cultural icon.

As for other female pop artists, Aretha Franklin comes to mind, as she stands by herself and could rightly be considered an icon. Nancy Sinatra really defines the word, what with her signature look based on her signature song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) and with an iconic career also defined by acting in the Elvis Presley classic Speedway and with Peter Fonda in the pioneering outlaw biker genre film The Wild Angels, her other landmark hits with songwriter Lee Hazlewood, the James Bond movie theme “You Only Lid Twice” and her chart-topping “Something stupid” duet with her father. Obviously her father was a male pop music and acting icon, as was Presley. Iconic actresses who come to mind include Marilyn Monroe, of course, and Bette Davis, since after all, she had a song written about her eyes.

In country music there are several female vocalists who are icons in the genre, namely Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, though Dolly would be the only one with the mainstream pop recognition to ensure her overall icon status. Likewise, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who, incidentally have another duet album just out, are both male vocal country music icons, but only Willie could be considered an icon in general, and he would pale in iconic level—now I’m using that idiotic construct—next to Johnny Cash, who most certainly was iconic any way you look at it.

My point is, the words “icon” and “iconic” should not be applied so freely if they are to retain the required sense of uniqueness. Me? I tend to use “legendary” in reference to any veteran artist with any kind of history, who’s reached a point where at least some kind of “legend” has been established.

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….”

The ‘iconic’ Caitlyn Jenner

The New York Post, of course, splashed the Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner on the front page, but really, a day later, this is old news. In fact, it’s been old news, really, for months.

Yes, I’m happy, too, that after all these years Jenner has now shown courage in asserting her true self. But let’s not forget the courage of Richard Raskind, the ophthalmologist and tennis pro who transitioned back in 1975 to Renée Richards and then had to fight tooth-and-nail for acceptance as a female tennis player–and who was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. Or even Ellen DeGeneres, who came out in 1997 with a “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover, though like with Jenner, that was so heavily teased in advance it was no big surprise.

What’s different this time, really, is that big cash Kardashian cow. Indeed, Jenner hasn’t been an “iconic” American sports hero–as some in the media now make him out to be–in the 40 years since Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Olympic Decathlon. “Sports hero,” yes, but only “iconic” as a minor TV personality, Keeping Up with the Kardashians notwithstanding. Perhaps he’s been a person of value to society besides celebrity, but not to my knowledge, unlike say, Beau Biden, whose tragic death Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover inevitably minimalized.

But Caitlyn Jenner now has the chance to become truly iconic on her own terms, depending, that is, if she has anything more to offer her reality and ours than the trashy reality shows that has made her an icon. Her hugely promoted transition, while momentous, is just a moment in a fast-moving mass media story, not to mention a fast evolving-society in which she is now primed to play an important leadership role, should that now be her choice.