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!”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 14

Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.

Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.

For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”

At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.

“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”

“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”

“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”

“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”

I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.

“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”

Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.

If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.

But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.

Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.

“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.

“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”

Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.

Tales of Bessman: Garth Brooks and the new Adele video

If I wasn’t the first I most surely was among the first reviewers of music videos, having critiqued them at the short-lived Rock Video magazine–edited by Danny Fields–back in the early ’80s. I also did a sort of Siskel & Ebert thing for Nashville’s Music Row trade magazine, in which I was invariably the curmudgeon opposite another reviewer (Bob Paxman, a nice guy, which I most assuredly wasn’t) who 99.9 percent of the time disagreed with me.

Let me just say that while there’s nothing like a great music video, virtually none of them are great, and most of them are just plain shite. We had an okay thing going for a while at Music Row until I got an angry email from a low level music video production house staffer taking issue with my review of one of its productions. I remember it was a stupid letter, and I responded stupidly: She forwarded my letter to Music Row’s editor—remember: this was a trade magazine—and I was out on my ass.

I don’t remember that video or exactly what I said in my letter. I also don’t remember the video that prompted my dear late friend Sherman Halsey–who directed Tim McGraw’s videos–to bust up laughing when he read it in-flight: “I can’t believe a reputable music writer used the word ‘barf’ in a review!” he told me (italics are mine).

The only video review I remember is my trashing of Garth Brooks’ controversial clip to “The Thunder Rolls”—which of course went on to win the 1991 Country Music Association award for Video of the Year—even though it had been banned by TNN and CMT due to violent content.

The video, like the song, had to do with a cheating suburban husband who returns home to his wife on a stormy night when “A strange new perfume blows/And the lightnin’ flashes in her eyes/And he knows that she knows/And the thunder rolls.”

And she guns him down.

Garth played the husband and locked ridiculous with a beard and mustache, later explaining that he wanted viewers to find him so despicable that they’d want to shoot him as well; as such, he appeared in marked contrast to the intercut performance footage, where he was shown as his country boy self singing the song clean-shaven and wearing his cowboy hat. I looked all over for the video and was only able to find an upside-down and backwards image copy at this site.

My contention–and it was emphatic, as I recall–was that a whiff of strange new perfume was not grounds for murder. My negative review was later quoted in an early Garth bio–and not as a compliment.

I was in Nashville shortly after my review was published, and was invited to Garth’s managers’ office for some sort of press party or reception. I don’t remember if it was Garth-related, but he was there—and not particularly happy to see me.

Now I’d known Garth from the beginning, having been old friends with one of his managers. I had breakfast with him in New York before his breatkthrough hit “Friends in Low Places” from the preceding year, so I went over to him and extended my hand. He shook it, but not without expressing his disappointment over my review.

I think I was more surprised that he’d even seen it than uncomfortable by his reaction, and stammered something to the effect that it had hardly hindered his superstardom. Looking back now, it was just another oddity in his Country Music Hall of Fame career, like his ill-fated Chris Gaines rock star alter-ego experiment, his aborted retirements, his habit of referring to himself in the third person and his wife as “Miss Yearwood.”

There’s no denying, of course, that he earned his superstardom—and Country music Hall of Fame recognition. He remains the biggest star ever in country music—unless you consider Taylor Swift country.

And I always remember his kindness to my dear Minnie Pearl (he named ), his loyalty to the Grand Ole Opry, that time at Fan Fair–when it was still at the Fairgrounds–when he signed autographs for 24 hours straight, and how he’s always remembered me since–in a good way.

I thought of Garth yesterday when I gave in to the hype and joined 57 million others in watching Adele’s video for “Hello,” released barely two days ago. And once again the thunder rolled.

Well, maybe it didn’t roll, but the rain falls pretty hard throughout “Hello,” which like most every video in rock, pop or country, has, besides rain, a steamy romance that’s falling apart, up to and sometimes past the point of murder.

I watched it twice. The first time was on a site I found on Twitter, that had it, but counted the time backwards, unlike YouTube, which goes forwards. Hence I had to sit there while six minutes and six seconds of my life ticked off backwards, second by second, never to return. The second time I watched it on YouTube, only to see the lost seconds pile up.

Six minutes and six seconds! For a music video!

I mean, this ain’t Citizen Kane we’re talking about, though after two minutes waiting for the song hook–which I’m still waiting for, by the way–it was starting to feel like Birth of a Nation—especially as the first 20 seconds of the black-and-white clip are silent. Then you hear Adele on a flip phone–that’s right, a flip phone!–losing her signal because she’s way out in the sticks. Nice nails and windblown hair, though!

She opens a creaky door to an apparently long-vacant house with covered furniture full of dust, and it’s like an old horror film–which it’s becoming more and more like as more and more seconds go by without any music; indeed, she seems to go into a trance until the first piano notes finally sound at 1:15. Then she turns on the gas, brews some tea, lots of unfocused shots suddenly focus and I have a headache.

There’s a flash cut of a man smiling. She opens the door and goes through papers on a desk, picks up a desk phone and makes a call, and since nothing much is going on in the song of melodic or lyric interest I’m straining to hear what she’s saying–since you can hear the conversation! Not even she respects the song!

More flashing to the guy, who happens to be black—-messing up the Birth of a Nation analogy.

And he’s in the rain! But then he’s inside cooking a big pan of something or other, presumably during happier times, the couple’s happy talk now audible. But suddenly she’s outside in sharp focus and now singing in full music video anguish. Then it’s back to boyfriend, now smiling–but he can’t keep his trap shut even as her beautifully manicured hands grab his cheeks, either to caress or stifle him. C’mon, man! This is her big comeback song, for Chrissake! He turns away angrily, now in the parking lot and the pouring rain–and the whole fucking thing is only half over!

Cut to an antiquated phone booth in the middle of the woods covered with vines and leaves in what passes for surrealism in music videos. That the handset is dangling indicates symbolism, I guess, but I never did understand Bergman.

Some crosscutting between her singing and an agitated encounter with the guy, who’s either throwing clothes at her or getting hit by the ones she’s throwing at him. Cut to her on the phone and a tear runs down her cheek, or maybe it’s my cheek now–four minutes deep, now, with no end in sight.

Cut back to Adele singing outdoors and apologizing. Cut to me and I’m not accepting it–er, cut to him back in the rainy parking lot and he’s not accepting it. Only thing missing is Miley Cyrus flying in on a wrecking ball, grabbing Adele and dragging her out of the wind back in the woods.

It ends with her looking down at him from an upstairs window. It’s not raining. He’s speaking on his own flip phone and is clearly much younger than her, his forearm full of tatts. He’s not happy. She’s not happy. I’m not happy.

Except that at least I have a smartphone–and I’m sorely tempted to call Music Row.