Record Store Days of yore


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

It’s Record Store Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!”

Super Bowl’s big winner? Lady Gaga. Big loser? Me.

Turns out the big winner at the Super Bowl last night was Lady Gaga, which makes me the big loser, having tweeted earlier that her halftime was gonna suck.

I took a lot of lumps, and now I’ll eat some crow: She was great, no question. But the question really is, Do I care?

Background: I’m not a Gaga hater, but not a huge fan, either. Full respect for her amazing singing and songwriting talent and hits, I just don’t feel a lot of heart, and way too much attitude in essentially trying to out-Madonna Madonna to the point where I have a hard time just looking at her.

Having said that, I have had the opportunity to interview her, though I was limited to four questions in advance, which she answered very, very well. But they were videotaped and I wasn’t allowed to use them when she and/or her handlers didn’t like the lighting or something. In other words, her focus is at least equally on image as it is on music, and I’m not that big on image when it comes to music.

And her other monster media venues—MTV Awards, Grammys, Oscars and especially Tony Bennett—have left me cold, especially Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday special at Radio City, during which, I felt, she tried to steal the show, selfishly, and was outperformed by Diana Krall and k.d. lang, who both underplayed it.

So I figured she’d go for outrage during the halftime, but to her credit—and my mistake—she went all-out instead. And yes, it was all terrific in terms of physically and vocally demanding entertainment value, extraordinary, for sure–maybe even the best-ever Super Bowl halftime show, as many are saying. I certainly can’t think of a better one.

But back to, Do I care? I most definitely care very much that she paired “God Bless America” with “This Land is Your Land” at the beginning—living up to her most admirable message of inclusion while offsetting the self-absorption of her preceding “I am a rebel” Tiffany commercial. But as great as the ensuing performance was, no, I don’t care–and it’s not altogether her fault: The continued emphasis on superstardom, at the Super Bowl, the Grammys, etc., concentrates attention on a few at the expense of the very many other deserving artists who in so many cases get no exposure at all, yet are no less worthy. And I say this not taking anything away from Lady Gaga.

“Stand corrected: #ladygaga was great,” I tweeted when it ended. But my most meaningful tweet had been posted a few hours earlier: “Bring back the sousaphones: Re #SuperBowlSunday #PepsiHalftime, @nytimes notes that over the past 50 years, halftime show has transformed from showcase for college sousaphonists into global marketing opportunity for pop superstars.”

The Times piece noted how Super Bowl I in 1967 began the tradition of featuring “enthusiastic marching bands” (from Grambling State University and the U. of Arizona at the first one) that continued for the next two decades, up until New Kids on the Block–the highest-paid entertainers at the time–launched “the halftime show’s modern era” in 1991. With Lady Gaga out of the way now–and with her show setting a virtually impossible standard to meet, let alone top–I’d encourage a return to that first tradition, maybe even bringing back what the Times rightly called “the bland, wholesome group” Up With People, who nevertheless in 1976 “preached unity and progress”–41 years before Gaga so memorably took the same message and flew with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A disuniting force.

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

Congratulations, Billy Gilman!

No one is happier than me that Billy Gilman did so well on The Voice, finishing second last night.

I was there, at Billboard, for Billy’s first album, One Voice, released in 2000 when he was 12, and got to know him, his mother, and his manager at the time—not to mention Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who had discovered him at age nine. The album’s titletrack hit the Top 40, and with it he also became the youngest artist to have a Top 40 country single.

Back then Ray was confident that Billy had what it took to stay successful after his voice changed, and last night proved him right. Meanwhile, Billy courageously came out as gay two years ago, hours after fellow country artist Ty Herndon came out.

But Billy always had a pop sensibility, as evidenced by his performance in 2000 of “Dream a Dream” with then 14-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and most significantly, his 2003 album Music Through Heartsongs—Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek.

Recorded when he was 14, Heartsongs already showed a deepened voice and a more mature album content due, remarkably, to the “heartsong” lyrics of Mattie Stepanek—the then 13-year-old best-selling poet whose books stemmed from the incurable form of muscular dystrophy that would take his life just before his 14th birthday—and the stylistically varied music by top Nashville songwriters including Richard Leigh, Tom Douglas, Bruce Roberts, Randle Chowning, James Slater, and the album’s (and One Voice‘s) producer David Malloy.

Billy and Mattie had met on Larry King Live.

“He started to read his poems, and I looked over at my father and mother choking up—and it wasn’t like my father,” Billy told me upon the 2009 publication of Messenger: The Legacy Of Mattie J.T. Stepanek And Heartsongs by his mother Jeni Stepanek.

“The kid was really touching someone who wasn’t touched a lot. But they didn’t sound like ordinary poems, but like lyrics. I wondered if there was any way I could do one on a record—as a bonus cut or something—and I called everybody in Nashville who were involved with my career at that point and pitched the idea, and it ended up being the whole record.”

Billy later learned that Mattie had rejected numerous other like offers.

“Other artists couldn’t get the message of his heartsongs,” he explained. “I’m so honored they chose me, because he was one of the greatest people anyone could ever meet.”

Heartsongs‘ standout track was “I Am/Shades of Life,” which combined two of Mattie’s heartsongs.

“David Malloy wrote the melody and I thought, ‘Man! That’s not a song but an anthem!’ I still get letters about it! But it was really long so they cut the words in half for radio. Mattie and I both felt they needed to keep the whole thing because otherwise the story was lost, so the song was re-cut. It was kind of like ‘One Voice,’ and the video was awesome.”

Billy was 21 when I last spoke with him in 2009, and had just begun writing his own songs.

“I had to go home and wait for my voice to change—which gives you an awesome out for anything!” he said. “You can say, ‘Thank you, I’m done,’ and then go on to the next thing. But at the end of the day I’m a country singer, and I never had the opportunity as a kid to do what I wanted to do with my sound—and now I can.”

I believe Billy remains a celebrity ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, having served as co-host of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. As for “I Am/Shades of Life,” it remains a favorite song of mine, with a melody and vocal I find very moving, along with, of course, Mattie Stepanek’s poetry and spoken words.

Storm Large’s talent as big and gale-force as her name

First thing Storm Large did when she took the stage at the Cutting Room Wednesday night (Oct. 26) was point to the people at one of the nearest tables, who had come to the show having seen her sing with Portland’s sophisticated pop-jazz band Pink Martini.

“It’s different,” Large said of her own shows, to knowing peals of laughter from the room’s large contingent of Large cognoscenti. Sensing, no doubt correctly, the need to drive the point home, she repeated: “It’s different.”

And so Storm Large solo is—raw, ribald and risque. Yes, she threw in Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” as a nod to the classy Pink Martini crowd, though it had howls and Tarzan shrieks within her classic pop songstress context, thereby evoking the earlier part of her unique career. As she explained, she had been a punk-rocker in Portland (fittingly, she fronted a band called The Balls), but her “theater” voice was deemed annoying by rockers as “it wasn’t considered very rock ‘n’ roll” (she emphasized this with a perfectly placed belch).

When it was recommended that she sing Broadway songs, she objected. “This music is horrible!” she had replied, for at that time—the 1980s—her Broadway preferences were Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. As for Porter, she said, “Cole Porter to Suicidal Tendencies—it’s all the same: Ninety percent of songs are about love. They just look and feel different.”

She further related how hard it had been for her to find her “female voice.” Now 47, she recalled the era of eight-track audio (“I’m old enough!”) and male vocal faves John Denver, Johnny Cash, The Weavers and Harry Belafonte to The Kinks, Clash, Stones and Beatles. And while she offered no female singers (she did cover Dusty Springfield’s take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away”), she evoked other fierce female artists like Sandra Bernhard, Judith Owen, Tammy Faye Starlite and Nellie McKay.

Large actually began her set by belting out a jazzy version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Besides Porter and Brel, she covered, beautifully, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and performed many of her own best-loved songs. These included “Angels in Gas Stations,” which followed a raunchy story about how Large was “fugly” until she “bought some titties” and immediately developed superpowers, among them the ability to wow an apparently newly-matured male (she didn’t put it that way) gas station attendant into giving her a free can of motor oil while her male bandmates cheered her on.

A predictable crowd-pleaser was her feminist anthem “8 Miles Wide,” introduced as “a suck my dick song” but literally about the figurative dimensions of her female genitalia. Here she was joined in the “Sing it boys!” final chorus by those male bandmates (including pianist James Beaton, who’s worked with her 30 years) and joined by award-winning New York playwright Mark Acito, who appears in the song’s video.

“I love New York City, because it shows you who you are–and who you are not,” Large said. But it being a few days before Halloween, the set’s showpiece was a Portland-centered song that she wrote a while back for a benefit CD, Dearly Departed: True Lies in Song, Unearthed at Lone Fir, to help maintain Lone Fir Cemetery–final resting place of Portland pioneers, city founders and developers, military veterans, firefighters, women’s suffragists, politicians, early Chinese workers, asylum patients, and Eastern Europeans who migrated to Oregon—who had met with untimely departures.

Dearly Departed is comprised of songs about some of the residents of Lone Fir, including Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first convicted axe murderess (a victim of domestic violence, she took an axe to her husband’s head in 1854), and subject of Large’s “Asylum Road.”

“She did the laundry in the penitentiary, then an insane asylum,” said Large, who said a lot of other things about the historical needs of the men of the “Wild West” that was Portland at that time. “After reading all about her, I wondered, ‘Why weren’t you a hooker?’ But she was a frontier wife in the 1800s, and I felt so super-sad about her, and the responsibility to tell her story with respect for her situation and struggle, yet make it musical and entertaining.”

Returning to the 2000s, Large darted into the audience, confiscating cellphones and shooting photos of their owners before switching them up, to be sorted out later. “This is what live music is for!” she railed. “Just be here.”

She ranted, too, about driverless cars and iPad-ordering at airports–modern developments that take away jobs from people and make them obsolete. And wishing Hillary Clinton a happy 69th birthday, she suggested that “we all need to brush up on foreign languages, in case we all need to flee.”

Here she listed all the horrors associated with the Trump campaign, surmising that he never achieved “enough pussy to grab, or buildings with his name on it.” Yet here is also where the divide in the Storm Large stage act—ofttimes X-rated, but in a most uplifting way–was most pronounced: “Who hurt you?” she asked of Trump, then humanized him—at least to a degree.

“Like it or not, he’s a human being,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of terrible shit. I’ve said some terrible shit.”

It was an appropriate preface to her song “Somebody to Love,” prior to closing, appropriately, with a reprise of the National Anthem.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

If you follow me on Twitter you know how I like to post YouTube videos relating, usually loosely, to trending celebration days-everything from National Donut Day (June 2), say, to Spirit Day, which occurred just last week (Oct. 20). As for Spirit Day, though, I didn’t know what it was when I started looking for Spirit’s 1968 hit “I Got a Line on You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In the Sky.”

Before posting them, luckily, I learned that Spirit Day, instituted in 2010, recognizes united opposition against bullying and shows support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, with Spirit Day observerse wearing purple–the color representing “spirit” on the rainbow LGBT flag. The day is a big enough deal to have it’s own special Twitter purple ribbon symbol for hashtags.

Clearly, “I Got a Line on You” and “Spirit In the Sky” weren’t appropriate for Spirit Day, not that I always let political correctness always stand in the way. But I was sensitive enough this time to the significance of LGBT concerns to seek a better video, and the perfect one came to mind instantly: “Born This Way.”

No, not the vastly inferior Lady Gaga song-that was a total rip from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” as everyone–including Madonna–knows! No, I mean Ashford & Simpson’s emotionally powerful and empowering “Born This Way,” with Terry Lavell singing, which they hastily released digitally early in 2011 when Gaga announced her upcoming single of the same title and somewhat similar, if decidedly vainglorious, theme.

Ashford & Simpson’s “Born This Way,” which was written in 2006 for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel Invisible Life about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, was the first recording for Lavell, who was then starring as Mercedes in the hit Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.

“Never in my life did I think I’d record a song with the most legendary songwriters ever!” he told me for examiner.com. “I love it, and everyone who’s heard it loves it.”

Indeed, it was a fabulous song and dramatic performance by a guy who clearly understood the lyric, as related by a young man who knew he was different since he was “a little baby boy,” ignored by his mother and beaten by his father, who prayed he could change but woke up every day the same—and finally discovers self-acceptance:

For those just like me who don’t always seem to fit
We’ve got a right to be
We’ve got to stand up to it
The time is now, this is it
Look at this big beautiful world and all its varieties
Each living thing has its purpose
We’re all in His image
What could be better
We’re supposed to live and love together.

And the chorus:

I was born this way
It’s not your problem, it’s not your fault
God made me and it’s okay
So don’t try to change me
I was born this way.

Lavell, a New Orleans native who had previously toured in Hairspray and Smokey Joe’s Café and appeared on TV in Sex and the City and The Dave Chappelle Show, had spectacularly introduced “Born This Way” when it was a key song in producer showcases for Invisible Life. He reprised his electrifying performance at Ashford & Simpson’s September,
2008 shows at Feinstein’s when he stunned audiences by coming out from the wings unannounced to sing it with them and for that moment, at least, all but steal the show: “The sassy long-legged beanpole,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “appeared out of nowhere to zigzag across the stage like a bolt of lightning.”

“They came to see La Cage and afterwards said they wanted to record it,” said Lavell of Nick and Val. “Their version is just as good [as Gaga’s]. It’s different and more of an anthem song.”

And while Nick and Val didn’t write “Born This Way” expressly for him, Lavell felt a personal connection with it.

“It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve had something that feels like it was written for me,” he said. “The crazy part is that it wasn’t! But it just feels like verbatim, it’s the story of my life–like I lived this.”

He added: “I want so much to do work that means something, and ‘Born This Way’ is a celebration of being exactly who you are. Of course you understand it’s about a guy being gay, but so many people can relate because it’s just telling an individual story about being whoever you are, and is more a celebration song–in the great Ashford & Simpson dance tune style.”

I also spoke with Nick and Val when “Born This Way” was released.

“It’s weird how the same ideas and thoughts can float into the universe and emerge from different minds and different places,” Val said, referring to Gaga’s song. “I think there’s enough love in the world for Lady Gaga and Terry Lavell,” said Nick–as only Nick would.

Nick and Val wrote 20 or so songs for the Invisible Life musical, which, wrongly, was never produced. But I vividly remember that they’re all great–having twice seen the run-through for producers. Regarding “Born This Way,” Holden lauded it as “a high-powered dance number,” and like so many Ashford & Simpson classics, it does in fact build in drama and intensity to a huge chorus—“that big A&S sound!” as Nick once put it, when I interviewed him and Val many years ago for Billboard.

That big A&S sound. What was so big about that big A&S sound was the structure of gospel music–the tradition that they came out of–that they brought to secular music, which worked particularly well in the theatrical context of Invisible Life. A&S fans, of course, can point to their masterpiece 1982 experiment in R&B theater with their Street Opera album, the entire B-side of which was a mini-Porgy and Bess suite of songs depicting the hard if not harsh realities of urban Africa-American working-class life—though never lacking in the love and hope that A&S more than anything represent.

What’s especially sad about Invisible Life is that “Born This Way” remains the only song from it that’s ever surfaced. Nick and Val themselves recorded another key song from the Invisible Life compositions, the stirring, climactic “God Has Love For Everyone,” its title pretty much telling you everything. I still hear the chorus ringing triumphantly in my mind.

But I’d almost forgotten about the “Born This Way” video! The clip mixes studio footage of Lavell recording the song with performance footage shot at a Thursday Open Mic show at Nick and Val’s fabled Sugar Bar restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It may have been the last video shot of Nick. If so, well, it couldn’t have been more fitting, with him singing with the background singers, generously giving the spotlight up for another artist like he–and Val, in the video playing piano–did all the time.

Project/Object’s Frank Zappa repertoire nostalgic for Swarmius’ composer Joseph Martin Waters and old high school buddy

Friday night’s (Oct. 21) Cutting Room pairing of Project/Object—The Music of Frank Zappa, featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston with San Diego electronic ensemble Swarmius was a dream bill—but only for two dreamers in the room.

That would be me and Joseplh Martin Waters, the professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University—and the acclaimed composer-performer who conceived Swarmius. For the Cutting Room gig Swarmius was made up of conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and guests Gene Pritsker (guitar) the artist Mark Kostabi, whose artwork graces the Cutting Room walls, and who also composes and plays piano.

The term “trans-classical” has been created to describe the music of Swarmius, and it does in fact serve up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, heavy on classical, jazz, rock and electronics and performed by the monster musicians the concept requires. His Cutting Room set focused on new material from the forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical, and like preceding Swarmius recordings, is surprisingly accessible, with Joe’s conducting (without a baton) while programming from an Apple laptop onstage with his instrumentalists: You can actually follow the development of his complicated compositions easily just by watching the emotional drama and intensity in his hands and face as he conducts, said compositions including, at the Cutting Room, Trans-Classical‘s “instant gratification single” “EeOoEe,” which has just been released digitally ahead of the album.

That’s right, I still call him Joe, because he was just Joe Waters back at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, Class of 1970, albeit a musical whiz kid even then, when his band was Spindlebean—a loose aggregate of musicians, and friends (and at least one stoner) who sang along to Joe’s Zappa-like lyrics and melodies. So it was extraordinary indeed to be sitting next to Joe at the Cutting Room, 46 years later, listening to longtime Zappa band veterans vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis and keyboardist Don Preston, now 84, play the music of Frank Zappa.

“The first Zappa album that really caught my attention was Uncle Meat,” said Joe afterward, referring to the 1969 double album. “This I listened to obsessively with my friends while we were experimenting with marijuana and psychedelics in high school, and it became a central playlist of our little community. But my all-time favorite was We’re Only in It for the Money [1968]. I found the album cover and the title shocking, and was incredulous that it could be lampooning the gods of popular music–the Beatles–jabbing and belittling their generation-defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already achieved iconic status.”

He continued: “The first time I heard We’re Only in It for the Money I was tripping on acid, and the ‘through-composed’ album structure, where one song seamlessly merged into the next, and where text and composition, social commentary, acoustic instruments and electronics all swirled around together and through each other, was a deep aesthetic revelation.”

Joe recalled attending his first Zappa concert sometime around the release of his classic 1969 Hot Rats album.

“I remember sneaking into a big music festival, climbing over the fence to see the band! I found the music on Hot Rats to be generally intriguing and aesthetically challenging, in places puzzling, and inspirational. I think my favorite work was ‘Peaches en Regalia.’ But otherwise, I had not attended a Zappa concert since seeing the original band sometime in the early ‘70s at a music festival in Milwaukee. It was the second time I had seen them, and the period when they were doing pieces like ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ so it must’ve been somewhere around 1974 [when the song was released as a single]. It was in a big auditorium, and I was seated far away from the stage–and, frankly I didn’t really like that music very much: I found it mildly funny but musically uninteresting compared to the earlier music that I had loved and listened to incessantly. And I didn’t particularly like the virtuosic, modal-based guitar solos that Zappa was putting out in those days. I found them harmonically uninteresting and long winded.”

Indeed, after that Milwaukee Zappa show, Joe’s interest in Zappa waned. “Soon after I was pursuing my own formal music education, which took me far away from popular music for the better part of the next decade.”

My own interest in Frank Zappa, however, only increased around this time, especially since I began writing a couple years later. I’d see him many times after moving to New York in ’82, including his annual Halloween shows at the Beacon Theatre. I even met him a few times, interviewed him on the phone, got to know his late wife Gail a bit, and son Dweezil—for whom I wrote his first Zappa Plays Zappa tour bio. I met his younger brother Ahmet, too, when he and his wife signed children’s books at New York’s BookExpo last year at the Javits Center.

But back to Joe.

“I never lost complete interest in Zappa,” he said, “and especially became reinvested when he achieved recognition by the esteemed French avant-garde classical conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, the brilliant, belligerent, influential and outspoken champion of, and contributor to, the notorious mid-century genre of classical music that came to be known as ‘post-World War II integral serialism.’ This genre involved the application of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method to every musical parameter. Literally every note in these compositions had a complete and individualized set of performance instructions, which resulted in intense gibberish for both performer and listener. The aesthetic philosophy underlying this music was Schoenberg’s dictum ‘If it’s art it’s not for the people, and if it’s for the people it’s not art,’ which dismisses all of the music beloved the world over, including the Beatles, Gershwin, and Dylan. Dylan’s recent anointment with the Nobel prize in literature is a repudiation of this snobbery, but the fire still rages in the forests of academia.

“Boulez, in the early 1950s, with his sharp tongue eviscerated and destroyed any composer who dared to stray outside integral serialism’s incomprehensible non-melodies, non-harmonies, and non-rhythms, which were the result of overthinking and misunderstanding not only the neurophysiological mechanisms by which organized sound accrues meaning and emotional agency, but also the role and responsibility of the artist in the context of a majority proletarian culture. So his recognition of Zappa represented a turnabout of sorts, though of course Zappa had since childhood always had one foot in the classical avant-garde: On his early albums he had a quote from Edgard Varèse, another French composer from earlier in the 20th century—‘The present day composer refuses to die.’”

Joe himself had been “drenched in classical music of the 20th century, a large body of work which by and large has and had been completely ignored by the listening public as well as the community of professional classical musicians and conductors, but which was promoted exclusively by the composers employed as professors in the academies of music throughout Europe, the U.S. and all western looking music institutions throughout the world. By then I was already struggling to reconcile my populist rock band roots with the ivory tower aesthetic vested on me by music school. I listened to The Yellow Shark [Zappa’s 1993 avant-garde classical album with the German Ensemble Modern, his last album release prior to his death that year, for which Boulez was among those thanked in the liner notes] a few times and put it aside, planning to revisit it later–but still haven’t gotten back to it 23 years after.

“So all this was my mind set when I sat down after our set at the Cutting Room, to listen to Project/Object, fronted by the great vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis, who joined Zappa in 1978, and Don Preston, who played with Zappa from 1966 to 1974–the years during which I was a rapt teenage fan. In short, I didn’t know what to expect. And what I discovered, to my delight, was a huge range of repertoire that spanned about 20 years as far as I know of the Zappa catalog, all played extremely well by an ensemble of eight musicians, who had been on tour for the past month or so and were super tight, and at the same time, super relaxed.”

Yes, it really was a great show. They did one of my faves from Frank & The Mothers of Invention’s 50-year-old 1966 debut album Freak Out! —“Who Are the Brain Police?”, also “Down at Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage and “Call Any Vegetable” from Just Another Band in L.A., which had my pals Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) from The Turtles on background vocals.

Special mention goes to Don Preston, who has 20 years on me, somehow. Just so great on “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from We’re Only In It for the Money, even playing a solo by tapping on his cellphone—a solo so hot his phone erupted into flame. Joe Jackson was in the house and seemed impressed, though I wasn’t, since my Samsung Galaxy Note 7 can do the same thing.

“There was a wonderful warm, friendly vibe that exuded from the band as a whole and from the individual members, who were open and welcoming, supportive and curious about Swarmius,” said Joe, and sure enough, Project/Object’s vocalist/guitarist Andre Cholmondeley gave the band a big plug at the start of their set.

“I also discovered myself liking a lot of the repertoire that I had been so dismissive of in the mid-‘70s, such as Joe’s Garage. I think I was too young to understand the understatement and artistic brilliance underneath the overt sarcasm, humorous allegory and punchy rock grooves. All in all I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear with the pleasure of hearing fine musicians deeply committed to music that came from a singular genius. I have a newly deepened respect for Zappa, and I am looking forward to revisiting, and re-listening to—finally!—Yellow Shark!”

And I’m looking forward to seeing Dweezil’s 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F @%K He Wants show Sunday night, the night before Halloween, at, where else? The Beacon!

Newly RockHall-nominated Zombies to tour ‘Odessey and Oracle’ next year

Turns out The Zombiesnomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t the only news relating to the historic British Invasion group to be announced this week.

Now comes word of a North American Zombies tour next spring–to continue to England and Europe later in the year–to include the final full-album performances of Odessey and Oracle reuniting all four surviving members of the group: lead vocalist Colin Blunstone, keyboardist/vocalist Rod Argent, bassist/vocalist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy (original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004).

Also next year—in March—comes publication of a lavish, LP-sized coffee-table book, featuring lyrics for the Odessey and Oracle songs and many of their other classics, all handwritten by the songwriters and accompanied by original artwork from Terry Quirk, creator of the famous Odessey and Oracle album cover, and Vivienne Boucherat, who has conceived individual illustrations for each of its songs. Text will additionally include Zombies’ anecdotes behind the songs and their recording.

Released in 1968–ironically after the group had disbanded—Odessey and Oracle yielded The Zombies’ landmark hit, “Time of the Season,” the following year. It’s been widely acknowledged since then as a pop album masterpiece, with “Time of the Season” being used in numerous films and TV shows.

Blunstone and Argent, who enjoyed successful solo careers following the original Zombies demise, reunited in 1998 and then revived The Zombies name in 2004. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle, the four surviving original Zombies performed three concerts at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in March, 2008.

Last year White and Grundy again joined their former bandmates for select performances of the album in the U.S., in which The Zombies current lineup–bassist Jim Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey and Steve Rodford (Jim’s son) on drums–also played. Those shows furthered the band’s remarkable resurgence as a major concert draw more than 50 years after they first hit big with “She’s Not There”—their 1964 single inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame just last year.

As many reviewers have noted, The Zombies today have somehow never sounded better.