Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.


Election Eve at the Beacon

9-11 ruminations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our war displaced 3 million Iraqi people.

Our war created 2.5 million Afghan refugees.

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

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

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

To me the chorus was so beautiful:

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

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

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

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


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

And the greatest is love.