I knew I’d cry, just not how soon and for the entire time—and that I’d be such a blubbering idiot about it.
I knew it because I was already so moved, conceptually, by the Women’s March on Washington—and just about everywhere else in the world where people who care about the planet and not just themselves exist, even including Antarctica! But as I walked east late Saturday morning on 42nd Street toward Grand Central Station, besides the significance of the Women’s March the day after the official consecration of evil, my thoughts ran also to the last time I marched: February 15, 2003, in opposition to the imminent Iraq War.
Jane Siberry was in town, maybe she played Joe’s Pub the night before. She met me at Grand Central, as did my friend Suri Gopalan, then maybe the top U.S. distributor of South Asian music and video. It was very cold that day as we marched up the East Side, and it was so crowded we never made it near to where the rally stage was. Indeed, Jane and Suri were long gone by the time I turned onto whatever the avenue was and caught sight of the stage many blocks down and could hear the speakers.
And then I cried. It was a cry of joy that after all these years, these decades after protesting the Vietnam War as a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin, when I’d come home from the University campus, once after being kicked out of high school for protesting Kent State, with tear gas seeped into my clothes and dripping down my hair in the shower (one time I needed to be treated at the Hillel foundation on Langdon Streeet when a can of National Guard pepper gas blew up right in front of me), that here I was, after all this time, right where I began, true to my idealistic younger self, where I was supposed to be.
I shouldn’t call any of this nostalgia, but I could feel the tears welling up once again as I crossed Sixth Avenue, and when I caught up with a girl carrying a sign and wearing a Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket, the floodgates opened and never really shut. Around 45th and Fifth a cop let me join the march from behind the sidewalk barricades, as I had neither registered for a start time at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at East 47th Street and First Avenue, nor gone there anyway. Rather, I figured on going to Grand Central, which was being used as a warming station–though it was warm enough for me to keep my medium jacket and heavy hooded sweatshirt open, thereby exposing the old red Janis Ian t-shirt I managed to dig out specially for the occasion.
The march would travel down Second Avenue and turn west on 42nd Street before turning north on Fifth and ending at Trump Tower at 56th. I was hoping to run into friends I knew would be there from tweets and Facebook posts—Rosanne Cash and Sandra Bernhard and David Johansen—but as it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t so much crying as bawling, uncontrollably: Poor Janis Ian t-sirt! Snot noodled down upon it continuously, tears streaming down my face.
Weird thing is, I don’t usually cry much—though I do cry at movies (I’m sure they’re still cleaning up the puddle I left at last month’s Dangal screening!) and whenever I hear Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee and Jane Siberry, or watch Barack and Michelle Obama. And I’m open about it, so that when I tweeted “Weeping openly behind protest gal with Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket,” a Facebook friend observed that I seem to cry a lot. “I’m a crybaby,” I responded.
It got so bad when I got in the middle of it that I couldn’t chime in on any of the chants, I was so overcome with emotion. Of course I wouldn’t have joined a Spanish one that I had a feeling was somewhat lewd since the gals were having so much fun with it, but when they ended with “When they go low, we go high” I was sniveling too much to form words. And I wouldn’t even attempt to add my voice to the little girls shouting out Planned Parenthood chant support.
I did try to sing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something I never do at sports events–when the church organ at St. Thomas Church played it, but nothing came out. Same with “We Shall Overcome”—by the way, a fantastic touch from the church. Even the signs had me boohooing (a word I’ve never used, that I picked up from Tanya Tucker’s hit “Down to My Last Teardop”–that shows I’m running out of “cry” synonyms): “Dissent is Patriotic,” “I can’t believe my daughters have to do this too,” “Hate doesn’t live here anymore” (when I got home I had to post Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), an iconic blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign that the woman holding it said was 15-years-old and used at five demonstrations, a “Keep your laws off my body” sign that an elderly lady said was 25-years-old.
A brief aside: So I was struggling to send out tweets through the tears and keep up with my Facebook and Twitter timelines, and on Facebook came word, though one of my friends and favorite singer-songwriters Maria McKee, that Maggie Roche of the most wonderful Roches had died.
“One of my favorite records of all time,” Maria wrote, in reference to the Roches’ self-titled 1979 album. “RIP Maggie Roche.”
“Crushed,” I responded, then tweeted, “Overcome now by sadness at news that Maggie Roche has died.” And I cried some more.
But Maria also posted “I’M SO PROUD TO BE A WOMAN TODAY! WARRIORS I LOVE YOU ALL! #RESIST.” I tweeted, “Cue Lee Greenwood: ‘And I’m proud to be an American….'” and passed a couple old ladies with blue ball caps embroidered with “We’re still here.” “Talkin’ ’bout my generation,” I tweeted.
The Devil’s Tower was now looming large as we neared 56th and Fifth. And suddenly there was a new, softer chant: “Bubble!”
Actually it wasn’t so much a chant as it was an expression of wonderment. Sure enough, the most perfect five-inch soap bubble rose over the sea of people filling Fifth Avenue, evoking my thoughts of The Red Balloon and the plastic bag of American Beauty.
And we had reached the northernmost part of the march, police barricades preventing us from getting any closer to the Tower of Doom. I followed those marchers directly in front of as they turned off to the right and headed east, passing the cutest quartet of little girls holding up a “Girl Power” sign on the south side of 56th, halfway to Madison Avenue. I turned south at the corner and there were still marchers with signs everywhere, coming or going or just hanging out. Best one: “Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights.”
I looked at my phone and saw that Barb Jungr, England’s great pop/cabaret singer whom I’d seen just two weeks before at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton, had tweeted me, “In London doing same and fave sign I’m Quite Cross. It’s so English.”
I got to 42nd Street, turned right and rejoined the march, now with those who had started a couple hours after me. Here it was so packed that it took probably 40 minutes to get from Madison to Fifth. The best sign brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I used to work a block from Oscar Mayer headquarters, as it parodied the company’s jingle: “My vagina has a first name: It’s don’t fu%#king grab my pussy/My vagina has a second name, it’s seriously don’t fucking grab my pussy.”
Finally reaching Fifth Avenue, where the marchers turned right for the final leg, I kept going and headed home, thought not before finally finding at least a small part of my voice and uttering the old protest warhorse “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and the Obama battle cry “Yes we can!” And I thought of this passage toward the end of his final speech in Chicago two weeks ago: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans–especially so many young people out there–to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”
“Guess what? We didn’t lose!” I tweeted. “We are not alone!”
When I got home I saw that 25,000 were marching in Madison–the total since reported as between 75,000 to 100,000. That night I tuned into my old friend Rockin’ John McDonald’s I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison’s listener-sponsored station WORT-FM and heard him play in succession the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution.”
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.”
Bill Carter, the legendary former Secret Service agent for President John F. Kennedy whose later music business experience includes managing artists like Reba McEntire and legal representation for the Rolling Stones, recently recounted his remarkable career before the George Washington University Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity at the Marvin Center Amphiteater in Washington, D.C.
But Carter also addressed the anxiety that students naturally feel as they near the end of their college studies.
“Life is not always going to go as you think it will, so expect the unexpected,” he said, then illustrated with examples from his own unexpected experiences following high school graduation in his tiny hometown of Rector, Ark. College not being an option, he joined the Air Force in 1953, then attended Arkansas State University on the GI Bill. Higher education, he said, prepared him for and provided the opportunities that would guide his future.
Deciding to go to law school at the University of Arkansas, Carter first accompanied is brother, who went to Dallas to take a civil service exam. Rather than just sit there, he took it, too.
Broke following 18 months of law school, he was about to take a job as an insurance adjuster (“It paid $450 per month and they furnished you a car. Sounded like heaven to me.”) when he was contacted by the U.S. Secret Service, which had found him through the Civil Service roster in Dallas.
“I wonder what direction my life might have taken had I not taken that test,” Bill told the students. “Now the 26-year-old kid from Rector was in training school in Washington, which included the White House. Never in my wildest imagination growing up in Rector, did I think this kid would ever make it to Washington, much less meet the president of the United States.”
Carter was in Washington on that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, and was sent to the White House immediately following the assassination.
“Those four days still haunt me and will until I die,” said Carter, who was assigned to the Warren Commission investigation in Dallas, and brought Marina Oswald to the commission’s hearings in Washington in March, 1964.
“JFK inspired my generation with new ideas, hope, and vision,” Carter told the students. “He touched and remolded lives, and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history.”
Devastated by the death of Kennedy—“the most magnetic personality I have ever met, and I have met several”—he left the Secret Service in 1966 and returned to law school and graduated in 1967. But his time in the Secret Service led to future opportunities.
While practicing law in Little Rock in 1969, he was hired, because of his Washington contacts, to represent a young man who was trying to establish a cargo airline. After three years of legal work to change Civil Aeronautics Board regulations, Federal Express was born.
Then in 1973, Bill’s friend Wilbur Mills, the powerful Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked him to help another friend whose clients were in trouble. And thus began Carter’s work for the Rolling Stones, who had been barred by the State Department from returning to the U.S. because of open drug use and riots by fans at American concerts in 1972.
Carter’s exploits with the Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life and Bill’s own memoir, Get Carter.
“Needless to say, I spent a lot of time getting various members of the Rolling Stones out of legal troubles so they could perform in the United States,” he related. “And while I was busy doing that, I also established friendships with some of the most colorful characters that ever walked the planet. Me, a kid from little Rector, Arkansas.”
Bill also shared other adventures stemming from his new entertainment business involvement, most notably his friendship with actor Steve McQueen and the retrieval of his body following his death in Mexico. But besides representing the likes of the Stones, David Bowie, the Bee Gees, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings and Bill Gaither—to name a few—Bill represented Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1974, bringing him into a confrontation with President Nixon in his White House office.
“None of these opportunities would have come my way had I not been prepared to take on the challenge,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be fearless, and you’ve got to be ready to do what it takes—even if you think the job is beyond your skill.”
Always remember, he instructed, that “hard work creates opportunity.” You never know who you will meet at a job, he explained, and the opportunities that flow from those fortuitous meetings.
But even the best education, he suggested, “is not always enough to be a good and effective lawyer.” While he himself was “never a brilliant lawyer,” he allowed, “I had common sense and knew how to deal with people. That kind of knowledge is a valuable commodity, but you’re not going to learn it in a classroom.”
It’s vital, then, to “get to know your future clients–the ones who will be counting on you to help them. The better you know the big variety of life’s circumstances, the better prepared you will be to relate, and help.”
So “believe in yourself, hold strong to your faith, and know there is a world out there waiting for you to make a positive impact,” Carter concluded. “One person can change the course of history. Be that person. You can do it.”
Noted fraternity president Will Jennings, “Most of the speakers we bring in to discuss what they have done with their careers in law focus on how necessary it is to get into the best law school and work for the best law firm as quickly as possible. With the recent economic recession, those who are interested in law in my generation are always worried about the next several years and are under a lot of strain from mentors and peers who constantly tell us we will be unemployed or underpaid if we don’t follow a career center’s clearly defined plan better than anyone else.”
“But Bill offered the students a different story—one of hope,” added Jennings.
[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]
He’s already excelled in several careers, from Secret Service agent for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, to tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, to artist management for the likes of Reba McEntire and Shenandoah.
But all of Bill Carter’s achievements now come into play in his latest incarnation—inspirational speaker at colleges.
In fact, Carter’s most recent speech last month at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) may well lead not only to more such engagements at colleges in America, but corporate appearances here and overseas as well.
“I’ve had inquiries from Berlin, after meeting a guy from a music school in old East Berlin at a One Spark [crowdfunding] event here in Jacksonville,” says Jacksonville’s Drew Armstrong, who represents Nashville-based Carter for personal appearances.
“We were talking about Bill and his connection with music and the Stones, and he was more interested in Kennedy,” Armstrong continues. “He’s in his early 20s, and was fascinated because of Kennedy’s famous ‘I am a Berliner’ speech. But it only reinforced what I felt could be an excellent opportunity for Bill: He could just as easily speak at a corporate business meeting about crisis management and strategic negotiations because of his experiences outside of music—and all the things he’s done in life.”
Carter’s exploits with the Rolling Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life (Carter first appears in the first line of Page Two) and Carter’s own memoir, Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones. But he was involved in numerous other significant events, including, besides Kennedy’s and Johnson’s presidencies, notorious Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, whom he represented and brought before President Richard Nixon in the White House; the founding of FedEx, which required federal bureaucratic changes; and smuggling the body of Steve McQueen out of Mexico.
“The Rolling Stones were banned from the U.S. and all the expensive lawyers in New York couldn’t do anything, but Bill did because he knew how to talk to people,” says Armstrong. “He knew how bright Mick Jagger was and brought him to the State Department to meet people and show them he was a smart young business man. This and so many of Bill’s other stories can apply in any business setting, because they illustrate the principles of working with people to iron out issues and accomplish goals—especially now in our country, when people on opposite sides of the table can’t work anything out and shut things down.”
Armstrong has seen how well Carter’s “amazing stories” work in the college setting.
“Young people eat them up, but his life lessons are more important,” he says, specifically, “Nobody can tell you what to do or guide you—those decisions are in your heart.”
He reports that over one-third of the 60 or so MTSU students stayed for way over an hour to speak with Carter personally after his talk with the school’s Department of Recording Industry chair Beverly Keel.
“Bill’s talk was one of the most moving and memorable events on campus in my 20 years at MTSU,” says Keel. “The students hung onto his every word, whether he was talking about successfully working with the State Department to allow the Rolling Stones to tour in the U.S. or working in the White House the week of the Kennedy assassination. As Professor Amy Macy commented afterwards, you could hear a pin drop.”
Remarkably, “I didn’t see one student glance at his or her phone the entire time!” adds Keel. “What was so beneficial was that he offered advice to our students and shared what he learned along each chapter of his life. They were inspired by the fact that he came from poverty, made his own way since age 17, as well as the fact that each job in his life somehow prepared him for the next.”
Indeed, Carter related his “very poor background” in the tiny rural Arkansas town of Rector. “I told them of my own situation and that stimulated them somewhat, I think,” he says. “I didn’t have any self-confidence, but had to learn to survive on my own, and they needed to hear that–to keep the faith and work hard and let opportunities come along.”
He contrasts his appearance at MTSU with a previous one at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Those kids seemed to come from well-to-do families, but the Middle Tennessee kids are struggling financially. But they all had one thing in common: insecurity about facing the world—and I realized that my generation experience little, if any, stress: You get out of school and find a job! But there seems to be a lot of stress on this generation–and a lot of expectations. Everybody expects them to do well, but there are less opportunities than in the past, and they’re scared to death and insecure about the future. We put all that stress on young people!”
So Carter stayed after his MTSU talk as long as there were students who needed him.
“There were several inspirational moments,” says Keel, “but the one I recall most vividly was when a student from Africa approached him and said, ‘I understand about hardship,’ and beat his fist over his heart. That powerful connection moved me to tears.”
Recording Industry Department professor Amy Macy, who had worked with Carter when she was a staffer at RCA Records and he managed label acts Shenandoah, Lari White and Lonestar, particularly lauds Carter’s ability to “spin a story—and sell a concept.”
“In class, I encouraged the students to practice this concept, especially if they are not comfortable at talking,” adds Macy. “We all have ideas that we must present and get others to believe in, and now is the time to deepen our selling skills and strengthen our ‘gut’ and step out of our comfort zones. Bill showed them how easy it can be to share what he knows.”
Carter’s life “also reflects the idea of taking advantage of moments presented,” notes Macy, singling out his story about accompanying his brother to a civil service exam in Dallas, then taking it himself on a whim. His score eventually resulted in his job with the Secret Service.
“Bill encouraged the students to find their God-given path that was embedded in them from the beginning,” says Macy.
But Carter cautions that today’s college kids “need to find more than just a job, but meet the expectations of success—and understand that success is not measured by dollars and cents but by happiness.”
“After I spoke at George Washington,” he says, “I told the president of another college, ‘You ought to offer a course in life. You teach everything but what to do once you graduate–how to deal with society and the world. Hell, when I graduated, I was a survivor and knew I’d find some kind of job—and it didn’t matter what it was as long as I got paid! But I never had goals, and today, maybe, kids have too high goals set for them by parents and peers and whoever.”
Armstrong, who’s known Carter since the early 1970s, echoes Macy in quoting Reba McEntire.
“She said, ‘Nobody can tell a story like Bill can!’ But in all the time I’ve known him, he never, ever talked about Kennedy,” states Armstrong, who shot video of Carter’s MTSU talk for promotional use. “It was too emotional for him. But when his [2005 memoir] Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones came out, there were things about Kennedy that I never heard, and when we shot the video at MTSU, he talked about the assassination and there was even more things I’d never heard, and he was very emotional: He talked about how nice Kennedy was to everyone and spoke to everyone on their level, from maintenance people in the White House to Charles de Gaulle. And how he went to the White House the night they brought his body back—that stuff is emotional, and to hear it from someone who was actually there, first-hand!”
Carter also shared his conclusion regarding the assassination.
“It comes up every time, of course,” says Armstrong. “He’s very respectful of everyone’s opinion, but says, ‘This is what I know, and I interviewed everybody.’”
Having been sent to Dallas to interview everyone from Lee Harvey Oswald’s family and friends to his landlady, members of the Russian community, Jack Ruby, and witnesses at the Texas School Book Depository, Carter has always maintained that Oswald acted alone.
“It’s so powerful,” says Armstrong. “All of that—and such a great inspirational message of how a guy from Rector, Arkansas, whose parents were hard-working and with no wealth whatsoever, could get to the White House and the Rolling Stones. If we get him one or two corporate bookings, he’ll be on the preferred speaker circuit.”
As for more college bookings, Keel concludes, “We are already brainstorming on how we can bring him back to campus as often as possible!”
[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]
I’m happy to be in L.A. today, but I’d love to be in Nashville tonight when the Dixie Chicks return to the sold-out Bridgestone Arena 13 years after they were unceremoniously–or maybe in fact with great ceremony–blacklisted by country radio following Natalie Maines’ impromptu and instantly infamous comment of March 10,2002.
On that day–as recounted in today’s Tennessean–the DixChix, then one of the biggest acts in the country, period, watched news coverage of the buildup to war with Iraq while preparing to perform a concert in London. Their then current hit “Travelin’ Soldier,” about a young Vietnam soldier who didn’t make it back, was the top entry on the country radio airplay charts, and they didn’t want to have to play with a war on the horizon that they didn’t support.
Maines acknowledged this in introducing the song: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the London crowd. “We do not want this war, this violence,” she said, then sealed the group’s fate: “And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
In short order “Travelin’ Soldier” was pulled from radio and disappeared from the charts. Stations quit playing the Chicks entirely, some inciting ex-fan gatherings where their records were destroyed. They never had another country radio hit.
“The real tragedy is all the great music we will never hear because their momentum was stopped,” Beverly Keel, chair of the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University, said in The Tennesean . “It was the perfect storm of the time and the place and what she said.”
Indeed, the only thing I can liken it to was Muhammad Ali’s historic refusal to be inducted into the Army in 1967, costing him the best three and a-half years of his life as an athlete, not to mention all the money he would have made during them–not to mention cementing his status then in much of the country as a hated, ungrateful traitor. The difference, of course, is that Ali knew going in what it would likely cost him, whereas Maines spoke spontaneously and probably didn’t know what hit her–though it didn’t affect her, either. She and bandmates Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire never once attempted to “walk back” her comments, to use the now popular way of denoting a politician’s softening of a comment that proves intolerably damaging.
Even now during their sold-out 55-city tour they’ve been performing before a large picture of Donald Trump as Satan.
“I get banned for not liking Bush and now Trump can practically put a hit out on Hillary and he’s still all over country radio!” Maines tweeted last week. “Hypocrites!”
Within days of the Chicks’ banishment I was approached by a radio station to discuss the situation, clearly with the understanding that I would follow what we now call “the narrative,” that being that the Chicks were finished. The war had begun, and in the early goings, seemed to be going great from the Texas president’s perspective.
But I refused to go with the script.
I had two points: One, that it was way too early to predict the Chicks’ future based on a war that only started. “Who knows what it will be like in a month or two?” I said, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the gist.
Two, I noted that whether or not they ever again received any country radio support, the Dixie Chicks had already amassed an immense fan base, who likely would not turn en masse against them, and could conceivably continue to buy their records–depending, of course, on quality. Sure enough, their last studio album, Taking the Long Way (2006), sold well over double-platinum and won Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, and for its unapologetic single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
“Nashville loved these women, Nashville signed these women, and Nashville made these women stars,” author and country music historian Robert K. Oermann told The Tennessean. “It was a shameful chapter that we allowed to happen, and you couldn’t blame the Chicks if they did feel betrayed.”
But you can sure stand up and cheer them tonight at the Bridgestone for returning to Nashville in triumph, outspoken political stances intact.
I was at the Delta Terminal at LaGuardia early morning July 14 waiting for my nonstop to Milwaukee when I saw that fellow music writer Joe Bosso Facebooked how he loved Grand Funk Railroad growing up, and how he couldn’t understand how the critics hated them.
I laughed out loud.
I had hated them, too, at the beginning, when me and the guys sat around smoking pot, guzzling beers and sniffing glue nonstop to “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But everything changed when they started having hit singles like “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul.” A million years later I was privileged to write the booklet notes to the box set Thirty Years of Funk: 1969–1999 and become big friends with frontman Mark Farner. Joe, who rightly called GFR “a total kickass band,” had just interviewed Mark, and drew an ambiguous response from the esteemed Ira Robbins-co-founder of the late, great Brit-rock/new wave-oriented mag Trouser Press-who observed that 150 music writers had been invited to meet the band at the beginning at New York’s Gotham Hotel.
“Exactly six journalists showed up,” Ira tallied, then cited the famous block-long billboard in Times Square promoting the Closer to Home album, at a cost of $100,000. He seemed to be suggesting that Grand Funk’s success was due much to marketing; for sure it wasn’t press adulation. Not wishing to cause my usual Facebook firestorm, I merely stated, “I wrote the notes for the box set. Mark is a sweetheart and great as ever,” prompting Ira to kindly reply, “You’re a midwestern partisan, you are!”
“On my way back to Wisco as we speak!” I wrote back, and it was now time to board.
It was my third annual July trip to Wisco, as I call it, to visit my ninetysomething mother in Madison. I didn’t plan anything when I went back two years ago, but I got lucky: My high school buddy Andy Linderman, now the renowned blues harmonica player Westside Andy, had a gig on July 4 at Waupun–a tiny town 50 miles northeast of Madison mostly known for being the site of the state prison–and I tagged along. The annual Celebrate Waupun festival had two stages–the blues stage, that Andy was part of, and of all things, a Cajun music stage, the big name being Feufollet, a Lafayette band I’d first seen there in the late 1990s when they were all kids. They’re young adults now, after personnel changes including the addition of Kelli Jones-Savoy, the hugely talented wife of my dear friend and huge Cajun music talent Joel Savoy from nearby Eunice, The Cajun Prairie Capital.
It turned out that Feufollet was playing one of my old Madcity haunts, the Crystal Corner bar, a few days later, so I got to see them twice while I was in town. But also playing the Cajun stage was of all people, Jim Schwall, guitarist for the Siegel-Schwall Band, one of the main reasons I got into writing about music in the mid’70s in the first place.
I’d first seen Jim at The People’s Fair rock festival in Iola Township some 140 miles north of Madison, which took place in late June of 1970, when Siegel-Schwall played sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend festival. As I’ve written here elsewhere*, it was life-changing. I think Andy was at the fest, but I know he’d originally turned me on to them and I instantly became a devotee, turning everyone I knew onto the band and seeing them again scores of times throughout the next decade. I wrote about them extensively when I began writing about music, and continued after moving to New York in the early ’80s, eventually positioning myself to oversea the CD reissue of their entire Vanguard catalog.
Jim’s Siegel-Schwall partner Corky Siegel became one of my closest friends, but I never knew Jim that well. After moving to New York he moved to Madison, so I missed out on getting to know him better there. So I was thrilled to get to see him and hang out a bit during the day at Waupun, where he was playing bass in Madison’s Cajun Strangers.
“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” Jim told me, by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands. I can’t remember what band Andy was playing with, but I know it wasn’t his, and that like Jim, he played in a number of local blues bands as well.
I was smarter last year in planning my trip, but that’s because I knew well in advance Elvis Costello was playing in Madison with The Imposters–their own gig during a couple days off from their tour opening for Steely Dan. I wrote about the show—and it’s significance to me and my career—here last year*; another high point of last year’s trip was getting to hang out again with Jim, at the Atwood (Avenue) Fest.
This year I was hoping maybe Jimmy Liban was playing somewhere. Jim Liban, another great blues harmonica legend, from my hometown Milwaukee.
Of all the artists—and they probably number in the hundreds if not thousands—whom I saw and loved and supported in my writing career who deserved and didn’t get the widespread mainstream recongition they deserved, none ranks higher in my estimation than Jimmy Liban. Luckily, he put out a record a couple years ago, I Say What I Mean, and I made it my Album of the Year in examiner.com. He hadn’t had a record out in God knows how long, and wouldn’t have had not a young (relatively) guitar player named Joel Paterson, who had played with Jimmy when he was cutting his own musical teeth in Madison, decided, now that he was well established in Chicago and had started his own indie label, to put out an album of Liban originals.
I Say What I Mean did get Jimmy a gig in Europe, and also took him to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. But remember: This is the blues, so there wasn’t much else. When I called him a few weeks before booking my trip, he told me that he was in the middle of a one-year hiatus from playing—though he had promised a friend that he’d play his wedding, and was honoring that commitment. When the year was up he’d decide if he’d want to play again, but for now, it just wasn’t any fun any more, essentially playing the same Milwaukee haunts for the same Milwaukee people. I shared his frustration, and added it to my own.
That left Corky. I went to his website and sure enough, he had a gig on July 16 in Fort Atkinson, a 45-minute or so drive from Madison, at Cafe Carpe. I booked the trip, flying to Milwaukee and taking the Badger Bus to Madison. That first night, it turned out, was the start of the four-day Le Fete de Marquette festival, in of all places, Madison’s Central Park. I didn’t even know we had a Central Park in Madison, and that it was a walk from where I used to live on South Hancock Street a few blocks back of the State Capitol. I went there with my old pal Jeff Laramie, owner of the booking agency SRO Artists, who used to be second in command at Mountain Railroad Records, home of artists including Jim Post, Steve Young, a pre-Timbuk3 Pat MacDonald and Spooner–which was fronted by Doug Erikson, later to become Duke Erikson of Garbage, and had on drums Butch Vig, also of future Garbage and Nirvana production fame.
It being Madison, I smoked some pot, followed Jeff and wife Terri around and was blown away by the music (like the festival name suggests, it focused on French-related music), and the one artist I remember seeing is Cyril Neville. I only wish I remembered the conversations I had with Jeff and Terri because I know I had at least five ideas for great stories/commentaries, and I was too high to take down any notes, none of which likely would have made sense had I done so. I at least remember one thing that I think Jeff said, that echoed my thoughts on pre-Democratic Convention Bernie Sanders.
I of course supported Bernie’s positions, but I didn’t support Bernie. He lost me from the beginning on vocabulary ,three words in particular—the first being revolution. I don’t care what he meant, revolution connotes violence. If it doesn’t scare a lot of people to death outright, it puts them way the fuck off.
Bernie’s second bad word was obvious—socialism. Again, even though I doubt most people can correctly defin it, socialism scares people and puts them off, especially since it still widely and wrongly connotes communism. Maybe America is ready to elect a socialist, not to mention a Jewish socialist. I just didn’t want to bet the Constitution on it.
The third word was establishment. Bernie kept railing against the establishment, much as I did when I was a teen high school radical in the late ‘60s. Except this ain’t the late ‘60s, and now I’m the establishment—and I’m not ashamed of it. I always love President Obama’s line from the 2008 campaign, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And I’m proud of who I was in the ‘60s in Madison, when there was an awful war going on and a Selective Service draft and a generation gap, and to suggest, like the Bernie or Bust people, that now Obama and Hillary Clinton and I are essentially the same as Nixon, well, I’ll have none of it.
And now I’ll add a fourth word, one that has to do with what Jeff or I did or didn’t say: rigged. Yeah, Bernie, like Trump, riled up his followers by claiming that the “system” is rigged, when he was losing a good fight fair and square. Here he only reinforced a main paranoid tenet of American culture since the JFK assassination, that everything that happens that’s bad is a conspiracy, then, with Trump, helped extend it by giving his followers free reign to believe that winners are corrupt and therefore win unfairly, hence their victories are illegitimate. This breeds cynicism, incivility, unwillingness to compromise, a belief that if you don’t get everything you want, nothing is preferable.
Now by no means an I saying that Hillary is spotless, or that I like her, though it turns out that I do, very much–having in fact hated her eight years ago when she ran against Obama, having been a Clinton hater long before then. But she earned my respect and eventual admiration for sucking it up after losing, campaigning for Obama, serving as his Secretary of State and now winning the nomination fairly and handily as the candidate far and away most supportive of the President–which Bernie was to a lesser extent, his chief supporters to a far lesser one. Again, I support Bernie’s positions, which are closer to mine than Hillary’s, and I recognize her weaknesses and shortcomings as a candidate–but in relation to Trump, they’re virtually nonexistent, and the differences between her and Bernie are likewise truly miniscule. All this said, I do hereby salute Bernie for doing the right thing at and since the convention, and am relieved that the bulk of his followers do appear to have similarly sucked it up.
I just wish I could remember the other stuff we talked about, but that old Madison Green—not to mention a new addition in the Madtown Mule—a beer infused with lime and ginger made by Capital Brewery, that I drank an entire mule team of—-made me forget everything except the sight of people as old as me who still lived in Madison and still went out to hear music, and that it was such a great setting in a park in the middle of the near East Side with the majestic State Capitol building visible in the sunset, the Capitol that you can see from miles away as you near Madison on the Badger Bus, that I used to walk through on my way to State Street and the University-area music clubs when I lived there and wrote for The Madcity Music Sheet and was a stringer for Variety before moving to New York.
I do remember one other thing, part of the Bernie discussion, that I myself came up with and gave to a girl that we were talking to, a friend of Jeff’s, that I know she never acted on, that I should have—a t-shirt slogan: “Vote conscientiously–not your conscience.” If anyone who reads this is so inclined to print up and sell some shirts, honor compels you to cut me in.
I returned to the festival the next night to meet up with Rockin’ John McDonald, my friend of over 40 years—as long as he’s had his beloved I Like It Like That oldies radio show every Saturday night on Madison’s listener-sponsored WORT-FM. I thought I was cool wearing my orange New York Public Library t-shirt, but RJ topped it with his vintage blue Dr. Bop and the Headliners entry. That day, by the way, I returned for the first time since leaving my third job with the State of Wisconsin in either 1978 or ‘79 to the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson, overlooking Lake Monona, where I worked two blocks south of the Capitol.
I needed a birth certificate, as I was suddenly thinking of fleeing to India and didn’t have a passport. I walked into the building and thought I’d stepped into The Twilight Zone: Not everything was the same—there was a security station in the lobby that wasn’t there in the ‘70s. It all looked brighter outside, too. But the institutional flooring and hallways were the same, and it was a step back in time that I recently depicted here.
I can’t remember, but I think my office was on the second floor; I think my second job with the State, a file clerk at the Division of Corrections, was on seventh floor, and the first, where I was a reader/typist for a blind man at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, was also on an upper floor.
The clerk at the Bureau of Records, of course, was my age 40 years ago, modified in the passage of time and mores by arms full of tattoos. When I was done I walked out and got to the lobby and stopped, giving in to the stupid impulse to go back and tell her that I used to work in the building 40 years ago. She feigned interest.
Since I worked there, and long after I left Madison, they built a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, the Monona Terrace, behind the State Office Building, on the Monona shore. They put in a plaque on the terrace in memory of Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967. I was with my friend Beth, whose husband Tim Onosko, the renowned futurist/author, was one of my dearest friends and supporters, an older brother/mentor. Tim died of cancer a few years ago. Pancreatic. I thought he’d beaten it and will never forgive myself for not knowing he hadn’t, though Beth assures me it was okay, he didn’t want anyone to know. Except I should have known and it wasn’t okay.
We went out on to the terrace, and I sat on one of the benches surrounding the Redding plaque and looked out onto the quiet, still waters of Lake Monona, silently wondering what might have been. What might have been had Otis lived, and Tim. Had I stayed in the Madcity.
Saturday mid-afternoon I took my mother’s car and drove to Fort Atkinson with my 21-year-old niece Ariela to see Corky and Howard at Cafe Carpe. We got there while they were doing soundcheck. I hadn’t seen Corky since he was in New York four years ago to play Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Dr. L. Subramaniam. I don’t remember the last time I saw Howard, but it was probably at one of his gigs at the Association of performing Arts Presenters (APAP) some 10 years ago, maybe.
Corky and Howard play together a lot, but this was the first time I’d see them—and I was bringing along my niece Ariela, 21, who’s a classical piano student at New York’s Mannes School of Music, who was also in Madison visiting her mom (my sister). After greeting Corky, his wife/manager Holly and Howard, Corky echoed my excitement over her getting to see Howard (as well as Corky), who does things on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica—i.e., play it chromatically by conceiving an “overblowing” technique–that no one else knows how to do, let alone articulate. You really don’t need to be a musician, let alone understand music, to know when you hear Howard play that he’s doing something that sounds great, but makes absolutely no sense technically speaking.
Howard tried to put it in piano terms for Ariela–but even that was ridiculous.
“I make my mouth do the stuff my fingers would do,” he said. I doubt she understood him. I certainly didn’t.
“I’m not really thinking about this,” he added, speaking, I supposed, of his harmonica. “I visualize the piano.”
He might just as well have been speaking in tongues.
It was at Café Carpe, a wonderful little café/bar/listening room—-maybe 50 seats–in a century-old brick building on the Rock River with a screened porch overlooking the water, owned and operated by regionally renowned folkie Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch. Holly raved about the pumpkin pie; the carrot cake was definitely the best I ever had.
On the wall of the music room was a bumper sticker that read, “I may be old but that’s okay…I got to see all the great bands.”
Bill introduced the show with a Hitchcock like “Good evening,” then asked how many in the SRO room were musicians. At least half raised their hands. I can’t imagine any of them understood what was going on with Howard, either, other than it was, using Bill’s words, “absolute magic.”
Comedic, too. Corky walked to the stage from the back while playing harp, Howard doing same a few paces back in a goofy processional. On stage they tried to out-footstomp each other while Corky played and sang Little Walter’s classic blues “Mellow Down Easy,” leading into a blues harmonica battle between the two.
They went on to trade solo pieces, both on piano and harmonica and sometimes both. At one point Corky laughed out loud at a Howard harmonica solo, which was entirely appropriate considering he was essentially defying all science, such that all one could do was laugh out loud. Howard said that the harmonica is the only instrument that you can pick up upside-down when you’re drunk and not know it. That sort of made sense, but really, it was like listening to Albert Einstein’s feeble attempt at relating with the village idiots.
Then Howard did a Beatles medley including “In My Life” and “Michelle,” his chording so complex that melodies were sometimes barely decipherable, as if he were somehow blowing into a kaleidoscope. “America the Beautiful,” with harp in right hand and left playing piano, segued into “This Land is Your Land,” then he shifted to both hands playing piano and Corky returning, playing harmonica before they sat together at the piano bench duetting—or more accurately, practically crawling over each other while changing hand position, Corky’s at first in between the taller, lankier Howard as he wrapped around him from behind, then the two with their hands alternating before Corky picked up a harmonica, then Howard did the same, each now playing harmonicas with one hand, piano with the other, in left-right-right-left hand mirror image. They also handed off solos on harp and piano and back and forth to where it became dizzying to follow the dazzle.
But that wasn’t all: Howard also played a bass harmonica, penny whistle and on an encore, an angklung set of tuned shakers. But when he doubled the melody on harp and piano simultaneously, well, mouths were agape, and at least in my case, still is. He and Corky walked off together to Siegel-Schwall’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” each finishing the other’s phrases.
The first half of the trip now done, the rest would focus on the few friends in Madison I have left who are still alive, our conversations invariably concerning our respective cancer treatments, except that in Robin’s case he added a new wrinkle to the medical history in having dropped dead at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago—luckily within short distance from a defibrillator. Of course I asked the expected question, i.e., Did you see anything on the other side? Rob’s answer, of course, was no.
Tom, whom I worked with at the State Office Building (same with Rob), seemed to be coming along great after intensive treatment for throat cancer. He was skeletal two years ago, and now he’s playing soccer and drumming in a band.
I had lunch with Chuck Toler, who was partners with Ken Adamany back when I first started writing. The money they made managing Dr. Bop & the Headliners went into developing Cheap Trick. We called Ken, who sounded great. Ken owned The Factory, the nightclub Otis was going to play the day his plane went down in Lake Monona.
Next day was my last—Tuesday, July 19–and I’d end it with some old-time club hopping starting at Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, near my mom’s, where Westside Andy and the Glenn Davis Duo are playing every Tuesday evening during the summer outside on the deck/patio at 5:30 p.m. I’d checked Andy’s schedule before flying out and saw that he was playing every night I was there, all out of town gigs except for this one. He recognized me immediately in his side view mirror when I snuck up on his car after he parked.
It was the second week in a row that an old friend had surprised him, the first being a gal we knew from high school whom he hadn’t seen forever—whom I haven’t seen since—who looked great, who had married the brother of another high school friend, but the husband had died—death being more and more the operative word in these kinds of conversations. Back from a recent Stockholm swing if I heard right–alwasy a 50-50 proposition at best–Andy was still playing with any number of local blues groupings, this one being with Davis, who plays guitar and kick drum and sings. Like Corky and Howard, they turned to Little Walter with “Just Your Fool” while I was there, which was about an hour or so before heading downtown, Andy’s latest album Blues Just Happen in hand, to the Cardinal Bar. I used to hang out there a lot 40 years ago, when it was my corner bar and a straight-friendly gay disco with the best dance music in town.
Tuesday summer early evenings at the Cardinal now are turned over to Ben Sidran’s “Salons for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Free Thinkers,” in which my old friend Ben, Madison’s renowned jazz pianist/author/composer who cut his teeth in The Ardells, a Madison band made up of UW students in 1961 that also included Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—and Jos Davidson, who would go on to play bass in an early Siegel-Schwall configuration. Ben also played in the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s.
He was on break when I got there and ran into Stu Levitan, president of WORT-FM’s board of directors and head of the Madison Landmarks Commission, whom I’d hung out with at the Marquette fest when I met up with Rockin’ John. He told me that Ben was at the front of the bar. Sure enough, Ben was sitting by the window, engrossed in a conversation. So I stood nearby waiting for him to look at me, though I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me, it had been so long since I’d seen him in New York. I know the last time I saw him in Madison was at a Dr. Bop gig, since we both would be called up to sit–and drink–at the ultimate oldies show band’s famous onstage Celebrity Bar.
So I stood there waiting, then noticed a familiar looking woman looking at me like she’d seen a ghost—which would have made sense had she recognized me. Except who’s going to recognize me here now? I thought, and usually people who think they recognize me are soon disappointed when they find out I’m not who they hope I am.
Except that now this woman was smiling broadly and seemed certain it was me, and suddenly it dawned on me that she was right! It was Lynette Margulies, frontwoman pianist/vocalist of jazz-pop group Four Chairs No Waiting back in the day, whom I hadn’t seen since back in the day. I have no idea how she recognized me, but really, I should have recognized her right off.
Lynette immediately interrupted Ben and told him who I was, and he practically fell on the floor. “It’s old home week!” he said when he regained his blance and composure, and sure enough, he’d been locked in conversation with another old Madison journo friend who also lived in New York and was in town visiting. As for Lynette, she remembered when I reviewed Four Chairs when I was stringing with Variety just before splitting for New York—and will never let me off now for not recognizing her right away.
(Photo: Lynette Margulies)
As for Ben’s second set, it really was fabulous—almost all new music by him and and his guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Todd Hammes. Loved the song “College,” especially the line “that’s the place…where I went wrong”–that is, if I read my notes correctly—always a 50-50 proposition at best.
“Who didn’t go wrong in college?” Ben asked when it was over. “And if you didn’t go wrong in college, you missed a huge opportunity!”
“Too Much, Too Late,” he said, was “in the spirit” of his “guru” Mose Allison, which made me think of how I always look at Corky as my guru, though I should add that Simon Burgess is my actual guro, or teacher, in Filipino martial arts.
“It’s the ‘singles’ show!” Ben joked, “just the hits tonight!”
Again struggling to decipher my notes, I can’t tell if someone asked about Steve Miller, or if Ben brought it up on his own. He did say how everybody asks him about Miller, and observed how Miller’s been playing “the same 12 songs for 40 years,” no doubt because of the big bucks he gets paid to do them.
Here Stu, who later explained that he was just quoting Ben from one of Ben’s books, called out something on the order of how those big bucks also paid for Ben’s graduate education so he should shut his mouth, and for sure, Ben’s stint with Miller included his lyrics to “Space Cowboy.”
“At least write a song!” Ben continued, speaking directly to the absent Miller. “It seems like such a waste.”
At least Ben sure made it seem that way from his end, considering the quality of his new songs. I’d been sitting with Patenaude’s proud mom, and he sat with us for a few minutes after the show.
It’s like learning,” said Patenaude, a youngish cat who’s played with Ben since the mid-2000s. “It’s really loose and fun. He tries something out and sees if we feel it and if it works.”
Ben then told me that he rarely makes it out to Manhattan any more.
“There’s no reason to come to the city any more,” he said, though he does get to Brooklyn, where his son Leo, also an esteemed musician/composer who co-produced the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” for the soundtrack to the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, lives. And while he’s working on a new album—and Stu said that the whole first set was new songs that were also great—Ben said that he realized there was no point to it, at least in terms of today’s record companies, airplay and traditional music business marketing.
But what are you going to do? I asked. You’re a musician, and a musician makes music. I’m a writer, and a writer writes—even though I just lost examiner.com, my main outlet, that barely paid. I still have this site, that I have to pay for. But what am I going to do?
Stu, meanwhile, is working a on a book about Madison in the ‘60s, and I again ask you, Stu, to mention that I was one of the Memorial 101 who were suspended from James Madison Memorial High School for protesting Kent State. Before closing out the night—and trip—down the street at the Essen Haus to catch a little of jazz concertina player Brian Erickson, I walked over to where the cigarette machine used to be next to the front door, where I picked up a copy of The Madcity Music Sheet the night I got back from a week’s vacation in Nashville on Memorial Day in 1977-—my first time there—when I dropoped by the Cardinal to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine and I picked one up and paged through it—then just a single sheet of newsprint folded over twice–saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (with guest Ronnie Spector) appearing in town at the Stone Hearth, and went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from musically.
I met Gary Sohmers, the Sheet’s publisher at the Southside gig, and not knowing anything about me other than that I’d come to the show after seeing it highlighted in his paper, he asked me to write for it. I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter. The only difference is that there was no cigarette machine now at the Cardinal.
I told Stu and his girlfriend how great this night had been, indeed, the entire trip–in terms of seeing so much fantastic music. She said maybe I should move back to Madison–the perfect setup for one of my favorite Sandra Bernhard lines, Sandy, of course, being from Flint, Michigan.
If you can make it in New York, says Sandy, you’ll be a failure everywhere else.
Fucked-up times, the Sixties. The Beatles, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, all intertwined. I think about my own fucked-up time growing up in the Sixties and how much Ali meant to me and helped me–and so many millions of others like me–get through it. And when the not unexpected announcement of his death came in around 12:20 AM Saturday, I rightly tweeted that a lot of people my age would be thinking back a lot over these next few days.
I was right, of course.
I’m thinking now, the day before his funeral, of the first time I saw him in person–almost. It was during his exile from the ring from Marc, 1967 to October, 1970 after he’d refused induction into the Army for not having no quarrel against them Vietcong and was stripped of his title and denied the ability to fight and thereby make a living–during his athletic prime. So he started going around and giving speeches. I and one of my two best junior high school buddies, Don, drove from Madison to Milwaukee to hear him, but by the time we got there, the venue had sold out and they were putting the overflow into a room with a TV monitor.
I don’t remember the speech very well, but it was great to be in the same building with Ali, at least. As for Don, well, we were playing around with needles a lot back then. He ended up going through at least three livers before finally croaking a few years ago. Could just as easily have been me.
Same with Greg, my other best friend in junior high and high school, who hung himself around the same time as Don died. Some insane argument with his sister about the cat getting out.
Greg was with me at the Dane County Coliseum on October 30, 1974 to see the Ali-Foreman fight on closed-circuit. Few people gave Ali much of a chance, and there weren’t more than a few hundred there. As I’ve written before—at least once–when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.
It was the culmination of my wishing, imagining every single day since he was stripped of his title that he would come back and wear the crown once again. For I was that invested in him as a role model, a man of such great courage and creativity and so fun and full of life–truly the Fifth Beatle. The counterculture as one man.
Probably some time in the mid- to late-1980s, some years after moving to New York, I finally saw him in person for the first time. It was very much like how George Vecsey in The New York Times a few days ago recalled his first sighting, “circa 1968, while Ali was suspended for refusing to enter the military draft, uttering the famous line, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.’”
For Vecsey, it was a sunny midday in Chicago, “one of his cities–heck, a lot of cities were his in those heightened times.” Perhaps the Champ was just out for a stroll, Vescey, then a young baseball writer, surmised: “I had never seen Ali in person, but geez he was beautiful, big and limber and smiling, and it didn’t look like he had much else to do but walk down State Street, collecting black people and white people and brown people and young people and old people, surely not everybody in America, for he was a draft dodger and a Muslim and whatever else you wanted to call him, but he was the champion of State Street that day, the once and future champ.”
I was somewhere on Broadway in the 50s, near my office at 57th and Broadway. I saw a crowd and was curious—then saw they were following the Champ and growing in size. In seconds they’d grown by one more—me–who wiggled his way close enough to get an autograph. He stayed with it mindlessly until it dissipated when the leader got into a car and left.
Here’s another account from a few days ago, from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg, one of the few journalists to agree to call Ali Ali when he changed to it from Cassius Clay: “I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones–Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.”
The next time I saw Ali was at Madison Square Garden, at a Roberto Duran title fight. I don’t remember the year or who he fought; all I remember is Ali’s entrance just before the ring introductions, and joining everyone in the arena in shouting “Ali! Ali!”
Some years later I became friendly with Ali’s longtime photographer and closest friend Howard Bingham. I did a piece on him for Photo District News, and through him got a few quotes for an Ali piece for Billboard—though I can’t remember what it was about. And at one time I was friendly with HBO and got invited to boxing press events. They had one at their office with Ali and his biographer Thomas Hauser, for which I brought along my friend, profesional Muay Thai kickboxing champ Edge Brown. As Ali walked in he spotted Edge ad held up his fists, knowing just by looking at him that he was a fighter. It was the biggest thrill ever for Edge.
There was another HBO event, a screening, I think, at the main public library. I brought my friend Rena, a photographer, and she brought a Polaroid. So I was able to get a picture with Ali and have him sign it. Then, before the “Rumble in the Jungle” documentary When We Were Kings came out, I got invited to a private dinner with Ali and his wife Lonnie and maybe a dozen or so others, at a restaurant on 57th Street near my office—neither of which still exists. The invite was either through Howard or another friend, David Sonenberg, the successful manager then of acts like Joan Osborne and The Fugees, and a producer of the film. Ali was already well into his Parkinson’s disabilities and hardly spoke, but it was here, I think, that I told him what I said here earlier, that there wasn’t a day gone by from the time he was stripped of the title to when he got it back that I didn’t dream about it happening.
They had a big screening of When We Were Kings at Radio City, which I went to with Tim White, the late Billboard editor and my dear friend. Tim had actually hung out with Ali years earlier at his training camp in Pennsylvania for a Rolling Stone feature, I think. At the after-part we got the chance to have a few moments with Ali and Lonnie, who remembered me from the dinner a short while earlier. Again, he couldn’t say much, but she was wonderful.
That was the last time I saw Ali, but incredibly, not the last time I spoke with him. Ali was about to come out, and Howard was in town for a screening at the Ziegfeld and got me in. I hooked up with him when I got to the theater, and moments later he was warmly greeted by Angelo Dundee! So I sat with Howard, Angie, and a guy who was with Angie, who turned out to be the former No. 1 middleweight boxer Michael Olajide, Jr.–a wonderful guy, who had acted as technical advisor on the film and is now a dear friend, not to mention successful gym operator (Aerospace NYC).
I had remained friendly with Ali’s assistant, Kim Forburger, and the next day I called her at Berrien Springs, Michigan, where they were based at the time. They hadn’t seen the movie yet, and she was thrilled to get my advance rave review.
She then told me to hold on for a second, and when the second was up, her voice was replaced by the soft, unmistakable voice of Muhammad Ali, whispering, “So did you like the mooovie?”
I ecstatically stammered for a few moments about how good it was, how great he was, how thrilled I was, and let him go—then thanked Kim profusely.
When the Alis moved to Arizona I lost touch with Kim, and sadly, in the last few years I lost contact with Howard. Angelo is gone, with The Beatles, Don and Greg, and now Muhammad.
The fucked-up Sixties were almost 60 years ago. That great line, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there,” is a cliché—but a valid one. I’ve forgotten plenty, much of it just as well. But I haven’t forgotten who brung me here, my friends, my idols.
Today I rail a lot about the overuse of the word “icon.” I’ve even written about it here. But Muhammad Ali, more than anyone, defines the word. Everyone else is second at best, if not trivial.
Thinking back to Don and Greg, I’m sorry they didn’t live long enough to outlive Ali, if for no other reason than we’d all still be together now in spirit watching his funeral tomorrow.
There will always be so much to think back on for those of us whom Muhammad Ali touched so deeply, who loved him back so deeply for all the love he gave us just by being. But a simple summation comes to mind, thanks to the four other Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”
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.
“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.
I tweet a lot, and when I’m watching something like the Grammys or the Republican debates, fast and furious–sometimes too fast and furious.
Case in point: After listening to Lindsay Graham blather on with his Obama hatred and warmongering–and noticing how tiny he looked next to the other three junior debaters (Pataki, Santorum, Jindal), I tweeted, “Why Lindsay Graham didn’t ask for a step ladder is beyond me. #RepublicanDebate”
I know I actually gave it some thought in the wording, so that I had to be somewhat aware that I was kind of making fun of his height. As my tweets go directly to Facebook, I got a couple responses, but when I saw them a couple hours later–and they were favorable–I felt embarrassed, and compelled to admit, via another tweet, “Kinda regret snarky comment about how little Lindsay Graham looked at #GOPDebate. I ain’t so tall, either. Small-minded observation stays.”
I looked it up and Graham is 5′ 7″–only one and a-half inches shorter than me. Then I thought of my friend and music hero/genius Paul Williams, who always jokes about how short he is, but I’m sure he’s the only one who ever really notices it.
Then again, Paul’s a giant in terms of talent. Graham is a political pygmy. But like I said, in terms of my original tweet, I ain’t so big, either.