Tales of Bessman: Marla, Kayla and Emily

“To have a job where you can make things better for people? That’s a blessing. Why would I do anything else?”

The words of Marla Ruzicka, an angel and a saint. Her death April 16, 2005 from a suicide car bombing on the Baghdad Airport Road has haunted me to this day and for all tomorrows.

“We are heartbroken to share that we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller, has lost her life,” Kayla’s family said in a statement released yesterday. “Kayla was a compassionate and devoted humanitarian. She dedicated the whole of her young life to helping those in need of freedom, justice, and peace.”

Kayla was 26. Another vibrant young woman full of life and hope, who could have stayed here or gone anywhere else but there—where they risked and gave all on behalf of those so very less fortunate. Beauty in its truest.

Marla was 28.

“It’s rare anybody in a lifetime can accomplish what she did, and she did it in just a couple years,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said wen she died. Leahy had pushed through a $20 million compensation package for civilians injured accidentally by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. “She was a champion I would follow anywhere.”

A striking, smiling California blond, Marla could “talk, smile and bust her way into all the meetings she needed–with Afghans, Iraqis, U.S. military and U.S. Embassy people,” recalled a journalist who had met her in Kabul. I mentioned her to my friend Matt, a Green Beret sniper in Iraq who later did security work there for Halliburton, and he had been so touched by her that he hung her portrait on his wall.

I was so taken that for the only time in my career, I came up with a charity CD concept in her memory. Of course it didn’t get very far, though had I known what I was doing, it would have been great. I’m sure I could have gotten Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, John Mellencamp and a number of other major names had I gone to them. The only one I mentioned it to was Ashford & Simpson: “Anything you want from us,” said Valerie, who, it should be said, always helped anyone who asked for anything, along with Nick, of course.

I had a friend at Rounder whom I called, and he was into it, too. So now I had to actually sit down and figure out how to do it. Luckily my first email went to Danny Goldberg, not only a music business luminary who’s served as personal manager, major label president, PR person and journalist, but a celebrated liberal as well.

If anyone knew how to do such a thing, it would be Danny, and sure enough, Danny told me I had little chance of putting anything togethe that would make any real money, and every chance of putting together one that would lose an awful lot of it—even with major artist donations.

I only wish I could say it’s the thought that counts.

And now, Kayla.

“Kayla dedicated her life to helping others in need at home and around the world,” President Obama said yesterday. “In Prescott, Arizona, she volunteered at a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. She worked with humanitarian organizations in India, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, compelled by her desire to serve others. Eventually, her path took her to Turkey, where she helped provide comfort and support to Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes during the war. Kayla’s compassion and dedication to assisting those in need shows us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on.”

Lest we forget, Obama added, “[Kayla] represents what is best about America, and expressed her deep pride in the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, and that so many others strive for around the world. She said: ‘Here we are. Free to speak out without fear of being killed, blessed to be protected by the same law we are subjected to, free to see our families as we please, free to cross borders and free to disagree. We have many people to thank for these freedoms and I see it as an injustice not to use them to their fullest.’”

Kayla had been held hostage by the Islamic State in Syria. The U.S. government confirmed her death yesterday, though details have yet to be made known.

“On this day, we take comfort in the fact that the future belongs not to those who destroy, but rather to the irrepressible force of human goodness that Kayla Mueller shall forever represent,” said Obama.

When Marla died, Rolling Stone hailed her as “perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past 10 or 20 years. Though a novice in life–she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience–her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq.”

The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), which Marla founded, continues its focus on helping civilians caught in the midst of armed conflict.
Here’s another quote from Marla: “Even though we couldn’t stop the war, I discovered that I could be involved in the movement for peace and justice. We are all victims of war, and we all count.”

I found these quotes on the website of The Emily Fund for a Better World, along with another quote: “Every act of compassion makes a difference for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world.”

The Emily Fund, it turns out, was established to further Emily Rachel Silverstein’s “legacy of hope in action for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world, through education, mentorship and creating and disseminating educational resources to facilitate individuals and student-centered organizations to experience local and global social change through community building activities.”

Emily Rachel Silverstein, I learned, was a sensitive and caring person, who had become vegetarian and began participating in peace marches when she was 10. She wrote her first letter to the president when she was in sixth grade, and was a member of the National Honor Society, Hightstown High School Marching Band, the swim team and the Adopt a Holocaust Survivor Program.

She made the Dean’s list at Gettysburg College, where she was co-president and lived in Peace House, whose mission was to create awareness of world peace issues. She was also involved in Amnesty International, Free the Children and other social justice activities, and studied Arabic to better address her concern for women’s rights in the Muslim world. In 2009 she helped organize an antiwar demonstration—Funk the War–a few weeks before she was brutally murdered by an ex-boyfriend. A week later students participated in a week-long event called Tent City, which she helped organize in order to help bring awareness to the homelessness crisis.

Emily Rachel Silverstein was 19. I didn’t know her, or Marla, or Kayla. But I’ll never forget any of them.

In memoriam, 2014

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

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 11

I was pressed into service this afternoon at Nick’s Bench, a.k.a., The Bryant Park Bench That Says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Apparently, it was my turn to protect it from vandals.

I was meeting with Sandrine Lee, a wonderful commercial/art photographer, a.k.a., Will Lee’s wife. She knew the bench well.

The first attack came without warning: Suddenly I saw whitish liquid splatter on my khaki cargo shorts, a fraction of a second after I felt a massive wad drop on my forearm. Stunned, Sandrine reached for a handkerchief to help me wipe off the bird shit.

Nick was such a spiritual being. I’m the exact opposite, so I gave no thought that maybe he was upset at me for that joke I played on him years ago, when CBS Sunday Morning was shooting a segment of a great Ashford & Simpson feature at the bench. When Nick and Val and the camera crew arrived, they found it was occupied by a homeless man, fast asleep as Nick had once been there when he first came to New York, homeless and alone. Upon closer inspection, that bum on the bench turned out to be…me.

But had I been spiritual, I might have had second thoughts half an hour or so later, when I felt a second massive wad land hard a couple inches left of my right earlobe on what little hair I have left. This one, Sandrine said as she dabbed me with her handkerchief, was a different color.

They had it in for me, the birds. I know. The bench was clean. Sandrine was clean.

The only explanation I can come up with is that they regard me as unworthy, either of sitting on Nick’s Bench next to Sandrine, or sitting on Nick’s Bench, period—or both. Sandrine, I can’t argue. But Nick? Nick found everyone worthy of sitting at his table in the Cat Lounge at the Sugar Bar, and surely wouldn’t bar me or anyone else from sitting on his bench in Bryant Park.

So I’ll be back on the bench tomorrow morning, birds. But with a box of Kleenex and a hat.

Tales of Bessman: Why I love Sara Watkins  

Certainly there are plenty of reasons to love Sara Watkins, starting with her immense talent and the fact that she’s simply adorable.

But I’ll forever remember when she, her brother Sean and Chris Thile were in town, at least 10 years ago and probably more, when they were surely still in their teens during the first run of Nickel Creek. And I know Sara was nowhere near drinking age when I told them at an early evening showcase at the Living Room, it being a Thursday, that if they weren’t doing anything later they should come to the Sugar Bar for Open Mic.

Much to my surprise, Sara seemed most interested, and took down directions. But I never expected I’d see her, and she wasn’t upstairs in the Sugar Bar’s Cat Lounge, where I told her I’d be, hanging out with Nick, of course.

I’m just glad I decided to go downstairs and look to see if maybe she was down there—which, in fact, and to my great amazement, she was, all alone. I was thrilled, and tried to get her to come upstairs, but she didn’t, I don’t think. She was happy standing in the back, all by herself, enjoying the music.

She wasn’t the only artist or music business person I successfully cajoled into coming to the Sugar Bar, not by a very long shot. But maybe the most memorable, and I thought of all this last Thursday night while watching her again, during the reunited Nickel Creek’s concert at Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park.

There’s always been something special about Sara. Inquisitive, fearless.

At once most interested and most interesting.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 10

Val’s sax player Todd Schefflin invited me to a JT Project gig tonight in Harlem, and maybe I’d have gone except that I’m heading out to Westbury this afternoon to see Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman—The Turtles–and their annual Happy Together Tour.

I was in Bryant Park when I got Todd’s Facebook invite, directly across the park from Nick’s bench, in the shade and plugged into a power outlet. I wrote back to Todd that I’ve known Mark and Howie as long as I’ve known Nick and Val.

It made me stop for a second to take in the fact that I always refer to Nick in the present tense—that I always relate to him as if he’s still here.

I guess that means he is.

Maya Angelou: An Appreciation

I didn’t know Maya Angelou that well, but even those who did most always referred to her as Dr. Angelou, out of the respect that she didn’t so much demand as command. Mostly, of course, I knew her from Ashford & Simpson-related events.

What stands out in my memory was Dr. Angelou’s immense presence. She had an appropriately regal bearing and gait, and every word she uttered, stated softly but with full conviction, had weight and purpose.

Not to say that she was always austere. At Nick and Val’s famed Fourth of July “white parties” at their Connecticut residence, where everyone had to wear all white, she was the emcee for the pre-dinner poolside entertainment, culminating always with Nick’s hysterical entrance (he was once carried out on a throne, like an Egyptian pharaoh). She was always very funny herself, if no less measured in her speech.

Being a poet, she also spoke musically. Then again, she was also a musician, having started out as a dancer and calypso singer: Her 1957 album Miss Calypso—released on Scamp Records—was reissued in 1996, the same year as Been Found, the extraordinary album mix of her spoken word and Ashford & Simpson music.

She’d met Nick and Val through their great choreographer George Faison, and had invited them down to her annual Thanksgiving celebrations at her home in North Carolina.

For Billboard, Nick told me how at one point he had decided to go downstairs to “mess around” with a piano in the basement. But he felt lonely after a while and shouted for people to come down and join him.

“I told Val to play piano and Maya to add something,” he said. “We started singing, and something started to happen—and they didn’t know I had a tape recorder going underneath the piano. But me and Val are always spontaneous. It was a new experience for Maya, but she loved the idea of instant feedback.”

The tape contained the foundation for the Been Found track “I Remember All.” Nick said that they initially envisioned Dr. Angelou as a guest artist on one song for what they intended to be an Ashford & Simpson album, but that she was so excited about it that they continued the collaboration—though with a slight adaptation to the A&S songwriting process.

“She taught us not to go into a room and close the door and be afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “When you write in a spontaneous way, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, because whatever comes out of your mouth a lot of times is stupid. But she’d have people come in and sit around like an audience while we worked, and it became like a seminar.”

Dr. Angelou especially loved being part of the intensely romantic quality of Ashford & Simpson’s songs.

“So many people have decided that sexuality goes out by the time you’re 55,” she told me (at the time she was 68). “I don’t believe it, and I’m trying to keep romance alive well past 65. By doing [the album], I’m refuting that much-bantered-about idea that ‘old’ means ‘cold!’”

Dr. Angelou performed on seven of the 11 songs on Been Found–essentially her highbrow hip-hop to the trademark A&S secular gospel music and chorus, its titletrack finding glorious salvation in love. It certainly made all the sense in the world that these two spiritually creative forces would find each other.

“What I like about this album is that it gives us a fresh feeling,” Nick said. “We’ve been a duet so long, it’s a shot of adrenaline to work with a genius like Maya Angelou.”

“As much as people love you, everybody’s so jaded,” Val added. “A new A&S [album] comes out, and people say, ‘Okay.’ But this gives them more interest to put it on instead of putting it aside and getting to it later.”

Dr. Angelou gave Ashford & Simpson a shot of adrenaline in concert staging, too. The New York concert they did together featured the kind of artfully spectacular sets Nick and Val used to have back when I first saw them in the early ‘80s, i.e., a skyscraper from which a ramp folded out for them to descend down onto the stage at the beginning of their High-Rise show.

But my lasting image of Dr. Angelou is in the house in Connecticut, after the fireworks, after nearly everyone but family had left. She was sitting in a room, surrounded by a dozen or so children, enrapt at her feet.

I felt too old to sit down with them, so I don’t know what she was saying. But I watched from the next room, enrapt, too, and in my own way, childlike in her presence.

Tales of Bessman: The Slow Knife Draw

Martial arts, for me at least, have been particularly humbling.

I’d done a couple years of tae kwon do in my twenties and made it to green belt in the system, and then I started writing and devoted every waking minute to it. But I always wanted to get back into martial arts, just not in a formal wear-the-uniform, bow-to-the-flag-and-teacher kind of way.

Then I fell in love at first sight with a butterfly knife. The highly illegal (in New York) Filipino balisong, with the handles that swing out with the blade in truly menacing fashion. I was able to open it and close it without cutting myself, but could never do any of the fancy flips and twirls.

Probably 15 years ago now I found a teacher in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)—Pekiti Tirsia Kali, to be specific–Simon Burgess. A genius. British. As he said the other day—again—“You are the true test of my patience.”

Some people pick everything up naturally and quickly. Not me. To this day I’m uncomfortable in class. It takes me back to flunking out in high school for never understanding anything. And the perpetual frustration of having everyone start out with me showing them the basics, then a few weeks later, they’re showing me the baiscs. This has been going on for probably 15 years at least.

I think of this now looking back at Tuesday’s session at Five Points Academy—Simon’s martial arts gym, which specializes in Muay Thai kickboxing, of which he’s also a teacher–when I practiced the knife-draw techniques we started working on last week. It’s something I’ve never worked on much—a conceivably fatal mistake, and one that I came close to making a few years ago.

So I was practicing drawing a folding training knife with my right hand out of my waistband, opening it and then going into a thrusting attack mode—and cut the index finger on my left hand.

It was a small laceration, a quarter-inch or so, probably done when I was transitioning from a “No. 3” right-to-left hooking horizontal thrust into a straight-ahead rolling jab and scraped the knife—not necessarily the dulled but still potent edge—against the finger, the rolling left hand not having properly cleared the jabbing knife.

No one saw it, but it was still pretty embarrassing. I knew it would bleed—not drip or run or flow, but that in a minute or so, blood would appear in the crease of the cut and smear my shirt when I slapped the back of my left hand against my armpit whenever I jabbed or thrusted, which is what you’re trained to do, since you’re leaving your armpit exposed when you thrust or jab, and the armpit protects a major artery that presents a kill-shot opportunity for your opponent.

But the key, of course, is to deploy your knife, that is, get it out from concealment and open it in the first place.

Compounding my problem is that I suffer from basal thumb arthritis in both hands, meaning that the cartilage is pretty much gone at the base of the thumbs, from overuse. Too many space bars.

At times it’s been quite painful, but arthritis or no, I’m just not very nimble when it comes to opening a tactical, that is, fighting folding knife that isn’t spring-assisted, like a switchblade. These knives usually have a hole or groove or lug for your thumb to fit in or on and push against in swinging the blade out and snapping it into place.

Tactical folders, and many utility pocket knives, also have a clip for attaching to your front pants pocket or waistband, in fact, Spyderco knives, famous for introducing the thumb-hole, are often called “clipits.” I probably had one clipped in such a manner as I walked down 11th Avenue around 12:30 a.m. If I’d have kept it there, there’s no telling what awful things might have happened.

I got to 47th Street and saw three guys urinating on the corner of a building undergoing reconstruction, long since the headquarters for Ogilvy & Mather. I was two blocks from home and didn’t think much of it, but enough, at least to take out the knife and have it ready, thumb in the groove.

This part of 11th Avenue was pretty dead then. Now it’s much nicer, with a fancy Japanese hotel a block or two up and across the street. But back then there was no one up to any good there that time of night.

I turned the corner at 45th. My building isn’t even halfway to 10th. Twenty feet from the door I heard footsteps behind me, getting quicker and louder. I whirled around and there were those three guys—whom I’d already forgotten about–almost on top of me. I immediately did the most important thing a trained martial artist can do.

I tried to run.

Tried, I said, because here I found out a sobering fact about myself. At my age—61 now, early-to-mid 50s then, the top half of my body is faster than the lower half. In other words, instead of running, I toppled over!

“Fuck!” I said to myself, facing the realization that I was about to be killed 20 feet from my apartment.

As I went down I tossed the keys in my left hand to the ground, same with my gym bag. I broke the fall with my left hand and elbow, scraping both. I had nothing when I got back up, nothing except the knife in my right hand—which I’d had the foresight to pull out and hang on to back on 47th and 11th, then promptly forgot about. Adrenalin pumping, I managed to get the blade out with my thumb just barely enough to flick the rest of it open.

Now there really is something about the click-sound of a folding knife blade being flicked and banged into locked position. It carries an announcement: “Hey, motherfuckers! You want me? Fucking come and get me!”

One of them yelled, “He’s got a knife!” and they all backed up. This bought me a moment, which I used to grab my gym bag and dash to my apartment door. Luckily it was unlocked. Unluckily, the vestibule door was—and in the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten to pick up my keys!

If they followed me into the vestibule I was likely dead. At least I had the presence of mind to call 911. I waited two minutes for the cops and then got real stupid: I went out to get my keys—hoping they were still there.

They were. The attackers were gone. I lucked out.

The cops got there two minutes later. They were very nice. I didn’t mind at all telling them the truth, that I had a knife and I flashed it. They understood.

I did mind that I tumbled the way I did. That I scratched a finger, elbow and knee. And to this day I have no idea what I would have done had they not backed off, pulled out their own knives—or guns—and followed me into the vestibule.

I called Simon the next day and confessed how lame I was.

“What are you talking about?” he said, so sensibly as always, ever looking at the positive. “You didn’t get hurt [by the attackers]. You didn’t hand over your money. You did fine.”

Next time at Five Points he and Steve, co-owner of the gym and another Muay Thai teacher, applauded as I walked in. I still feel stupid about it, and the story has since been handed up and down the system as a shining example.

But the reality remains: I dropped like a fucking bowling pin.

When I first started with Simon, he saw the trouble I was having in opening a folder singlehandedly. He said to just use both hands, that is, use my left hand to pull the blade away from the handle.

There’s a lesson here, an important one: If you can’t do something, do something else.

Yes, the optimal way to open a folder with a thumb hole/lug/groove is with the thumb hole/lug/groove. But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Do what you can do. As Bruce Lee said so famously, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”

Of course, this didn’t stop me from trying to do it the proper way, and once again, Simon, some 15 years later, had to tell me to use both hands.

The true test of his patience.

A couple weeks ago I hung out with Tom Bisio. Tom’s a legend in martial arts, especially Pekiti-Tirsia, though he got out of it years ago and became an equally renowned practitioner of Chinese martial arts and medicine.

I got to know Tom, not through martial arts—he was out of Pikiti by the time I got in—but through his wife Valerie Ghent, longtime programmer/backup singer for Ashford & Simpson and now Valerie Simpson. I was at their apartment partying after a great Ghent solo show, and engaged Tom in martial arts conversation—including if he’d ever played with a butterfly.

Of course he had—we all have—but he never really used one. He explained how once he was in a training exercise and tried to deploy it and dropped it—and that’s the whole point right there: Unless you’re really adept at something that requires a technical skill, when it comes time to do it for real and the pressure’s on, you’re liable to fuck it up.

Tom knew he wasn’t good enough with a balisong to deploy it under pressure. Simon knows I’m too old and arthritic (“You’re wrists are fucked up!”) to deploy a one-hand opening folder effectively with one hand under pressure.

And of course, I know it, too.

Epilogue: I went to class yesterday and before it began, was talking with Coach Emily, a professional Muay Thai fighter who was teaching a Muay Thai class.

“I’m glad you didn’t see me cut myself the other day,” I told her. “But I’m really glad Simon didn’t see it.”

I might as well have asked her outright to tell him, Emily being nothing if not mischievous.

“Did you know Jim cut himself the other day?” she chirped gleefully as Simon approached.

“How did you do that?” he asked, sternly.

“I was practicing the knife draw we were working on last week,” I said.

“Not with a live [real] blade…,” Simon said, gobsmacked, as they say in England.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“You can’t cut yourself with a training blade!” he contended emphatically.

I assured him that you could indeed. He was neither impressed nor amused.

Coach Emily laughed.

Here’s Simon with his teacher Tim Waid:

Concert Highlights–Valerie Ghent at Joe’s Pub, 5/1/14

As longtime backup singer/keyboardist for Ashford & Simpson, I’ve been seeing and admiring Valerie Ghent for years. But her Muse CD release party last week at Joe’s Pub was something else.

The big surprise was that much of the time she got up and away from the piano, leaving the keys in the capable hands of veteran New York blues pianist Dave Keyes. She later credited Simpson, actually, for convincing her to leave the safety of the keyboard bench and move to the stand-up mic—where she was flanked by her own terrific backup singers Keith Fluitt and Dennis Collins.

Ghent seemed completely comfortable in her new role of stand-up singer moving about with ease and singing with equal authority—or so it seemed. She said after that she’d been sick for weeks and that her mid-range was weak, though her low and high ends were okay.

It all sounded fine to me. Then again, as she also pointed out later, we never really got to hear her lows and mids when she sang with A&S—or now with Simpson–since she sang only high parts.

At Joe’s Pub Ghent hit the highs on “groove” songs like the chugging A&S-inflected “Wheels On a Train” from her previous album Day to Day Dream (2012) and really let loose on the titletrack, climaxing with catlike squeals. But as it was an album release party for Muse, the centerpiece of the show came after she dismissed her hard-funk band and brought out cellist Dave Eggar and violinist Katie Kresek to accompany her on piano.

Muse, she explained, is a very different album–12 piano/vocal ballads that bring her back to her musical roots, in that she started in music playing cello at age five. The intimate piano-and-strings setting of new album songs like “You’re My Star” focused on her vocal range before she returned to the hotter groove tunes with the full band.

Ghent made special note of a couple songs co-written with her husband Tom Bisio—a renowned martial artist/Chinese medicine practitioner with whom she has also collaborated in teaching and instructional texts. I’ve actually taken one of their seminars, and applauded loudly.

At his table, Bisio smiled sheepishly and said that he had told her not to mention it.

Tales of Bessman: Ronnie Milsap at the Dane County Coliseum

I choked up when I saw the news that my old pal Ronnie Milsap will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought of the first time I met him, in the late 1970s at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin. I had just started writing around then, for The MadCity Music Sheet, mostly about country music and punk rock.

The show at the Coliseum was incredible. I held my breath with everyone else as Ronnie did this blind man shtick where he got up from his piano bench and walked out to the edge of the stage, stopping just before walking off and falling into the audience.

He did another bit where he introduced the band except for his drummer, who was black. When everyone complained—the drummer included—Ronnie apologized and said that it was so dark back there that he couldn’t see him.

I hung out with Ronnie after the show and roared with laughter as he related how he went out driving with some friends, getting behind the wheel and doing what they told him to do. He had a blast telling it.

He did a country version of “Honky Tonk Women” that night. The next time I went to Nashville—it must have been for Fan Fair—I  brought along my copy of Let It Bleed, which featured the Stones’ countrified version of the song, retitled “Country Honk.” Ronnie wasn’t aware of it, as I discovered when I presented it to him personally. But he vividly remembered meeting me at the Coliseum—and has never forgotten it all this time later.

I think this was my second trip to Nashville, after going there on a vacation from my typing job at the State of Wisconsin. It’s too long a story for now, and I may have written it up elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that I met my Cajun country music hero Jo-El Sonnier–though it was “Joel” at that time—and when I returned to Nashville this time, I had left the State job to focus on writing.

I took the Greyhound and Jo-El and his then manager Earl Poole Ball—back then he didn’t use the “Poole”—picked me up at the station. I’d also met Earl at the Dane County Coliseum, when I saw him playing piano in Johnny Cash’s band and recognized his name from Jo-El’s publicity stills.

I slept on the floor of Earl’s 16th Avenue South Wall-to-Wall Music Publishing office. Jo-El had the fold-out couch. It was one of the grubbiest periods of my life, though not that much removed from today.

Leaving out the sleaziest parts—like me living for three days off free popcorn at a Fan Fair booth—one of the coolest was listening to Earl and Jo-El talk about music, Ronnie’s in particular.

I loved the records as a listener and fan, but Earl and Jo-El marveled at their production value, Jo-El constantly referring to it as “on top.” I didn’t know then, and don’t know now, exactly what he meant, other than that it had to be as good as it gets, and definitely the best then coming out of Nashville.

“His sense of hearing must have been so sharp that he could make such sonically super-sounding recordings,” Earl recalled yesterday. “Also, I think maybe he owned his own studio and could take his time in the mixing.”

Many years later, after I’d moved to New York, I learned that Ronnie’s initial success as a recording artist came in New York at Scepter Records, the ’60s home of The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson and B.J. Thomas, among others. The young Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were staff writers there, and their composition “Never Had It So Good” made it to No. 19 in 1965 on the R&B chart for Ronnie, and was his biggest hit for the label.

But a Ronnie B-side, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (co-written by Nick and Val with former Ikette “Joshie” Jo Armstead), became their ticket to Motown when Ray Charles heard it, covered it, and sold a million copies of his version. When Ronnie played a rare club gig in New York in the ’90s at the Bottom Line, Nick and Val sent him a bouquet with the message, “We never had it so good!”

Incidentally, Val, and maybe Nick, likely sang backup on Ronnie’s Scepter recordings. And when I spoke with Ronnie a few weeks ago about his new album Summer Number Seventeen, the first thing he said was how he remembered meeting me at the Dane County Coliseum.

Here’s Ronnie’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”:

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 9

We move so fast through life, whether or not we’re particularly active.

And it never gets easier.

It’s Tuesday already and only now am I looking at notes and reliving Friday night’s Valerie Simpson show at B.B. King’s and after-party at the Sugar Bar.

Of course I went with Liz Rosenberg.

Like Val always says—and wrote it in a dedication on the Ashford & Simpson double CD of hits and remixes that came out a few years ago, Liz and I should just have gone ahead and done the A&S shows for them, since we’d seen it so many times we knew it better than they did.

Before meeting Liz outside B.B.’s, I spent an hour by the Nick Ashford Bench at Bryant Park. I felt it was only fitting. The bench that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.”

Someone else was on the bench when I got there, and I was fine with that–though I wondered if he knew it was a sacred site. I probably should have told him. After he left I sat on it for a few moments and then hobbled over to B.B.’s.

Five days earlier I damn near busted my fucking big left toe stumbling on the stairs up to my apartment. It turned purple and looked like the time maybe 10 years ago when I busted my big right toe in a martial arts mishap. There’s nothing they can really do with a broken toe, I learned then, other than tape it to the toe next to it and tell you not to walk and give you a stiff-bottomed shoe since you have to.

Luckily, the left toe wasn’t broke, but the right one that was now has arthritis and I expect the same eventually with the left one.

Anyway, I limped over to B.B.’s. We stood in line while a somewhat arrogant guy who had no idea how important we were, shit, that we knew Val’s show better than she did, made us wait in line. But really, he was only doing his job. I was actually glad we had to wait because it meant that the place was packed.

When we got downstairs Tee was there. Tee Alson. Miss Tee. Nick and Val’s assistant forever.

I could say she’s the most extraordinary human being on the planet but that still  wouldn’t do her justice.

She’s always pissed off at me for one thing or another. This time it was because I hadn’t called her back. Of course I didn’t know I was supposed to. Of course that’s no excuse.

I hope she doesn’t read this. But I really should write a book about Tee. I’d tell you Tee stories right now but she’d be pissed off at me if I did, even though they’re all great. She really is the most extraordinary human being on the planet and that still doesn’t do her justice.

Being with Liz and part of the A&S family, as it were, has always been the pinnacle of my career. Of my life. And so much of it is thanks to Tee.

And it’s not just me. Everyone who’s ever been in the A&S orbit I know feels exactly the same way and would say exactly the same things.

And I hope I don’t come off sounding conceited or suggesting that I’m worthy. Nick and Val and Tee never said no to anybody or anything, obviously. That’s why B.B.’s was packed with friends, family and fans, all virtually indistinguishable and interchangeable.

As I write this I’m also writing a partial review of the show for examiner.com, partial because the focus is really “Dinosaurs are Coming Back Again,” and how transcendent Val’s performance of it was this particular night. All I’ll add about the show here is that it really certified that she has become a solo performer without peer, as she had been a duet partner without peer together with the peerless Nick Ashford. And that for the encore, “I’m Every Woman,” she called up all the singers in the audience to join, among them, Alyson Williams, Joshie Jo Armstead, Felicia Collins, Ebony Jo-Ann, and of course, Asia Ashford, now so poised and adorable—exactly as she was the first time I saw her on stage, the first time she ever was on stage, at the end of an A&S Radio City Music Hall show when without Nick & Val’s planning, the then maybe two-year-old Asia was passed up to the stage, where she stood, dumbstruck, then smiled and started dancing.

Oh. I should also mention that Val gave a speech about how she relied on all her friends to pull her through the period following Nick’s death, when in fact, it was Val who pulled all of us through.

At the Sugar Bar after, she gave another speech, after a terrific set by the JT Project—the band that recently started a third open mic night at SB, this a jazz one, on Wednesday nights, featuring the house band co-fronted by Val’s young, fabulous sax player Todd Schefflin, who co-starred with her at B.B.’s on “Dinosaurs.”

She said how Nick had created the Sugar Bar essentially to provide a home for all of us, a place where we could go, not only to enjoy the music that was so much a part of our lives, but a place where we could all come and hang and just be ourselves, no matter the people we had to be in our jobs and families and restricted lives outside the Sugar Bar’s welcoming and safe environs.

Liz and I were busy being ourselves in the Sugar Bar’s back Garden Room. Tee was there. So was Ken Simmons, an old friend who currently books talent at WBLS.

Ken knew about Nick’s Bench, from all my Twitter postings and recent creation of the Nick Ashford’s Bench Facebook page. He plans on going, so I told him to make sure he takes a selfie and posts it on the page.

He asked where it was, and I said by the Carousel.

Liz wanted me to give him more than that, i.e., what street it’s near.

The first time I went to Nick’s Bench, I didn’t know where it was. I started with the bench closest to 6th Ave., on the 42nd St. side, then worked my way around the lawn clockwise until I found it by the Carousel. It couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, and it was kind of like going to Mecca, I would guess.

There was a waitress at B.B. King’s, incidentally, named Mecca. She worked the table of Carmela Kasoff–Liz’s Warner Bros. Records’ pal back in the Ashford & Simpson WarnRecs days—and was very nice, but too young by at least three decades to know the Gene Pitney classic “Mecca.”

I asked Richard Thompson once about Mecca. He’d already made the pilgrimage. I asked him what it was like, walking around the Kaaba and beholding it. “It’s really yourself,” he said, quietly.

The journey to Nick’s Bench isn’t as long and far away as Mecca, yet I didn’t want to make it so easy to find without at least a minimal effort. And I like to think that besides the spirit of Nick that symbolically resides there, you get to see a little more of yourself in relation to it by visiting it.

It’s definitely a shrine, a people’s shrine, a place to pause and catch a breath and moment of rest from moving so fast through life.

And as Nick and Val’s daughter Nicole leisurely descended the steps leading from the Garden Room upstairs to the Cat Lounge, I thought of something Nick once told me, as we were sitting on the steps between the building’s second and third floors.

“You know,” the Great Sage said, “I thought it would get easier when I got older.”

Then he smiled and said, “But it didn’t.”