Madcity 2016—Corky Siegel & Howard Levy, Le Fete de Marquette, Otis Redding, Ben Sidran, sudden death and Bernie Sanders

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

Concert Highlights–Eric Burdon and the Wild New Band of Animals at City Winery, 8/8/2016

I haven’t forgotten the first time I saw Chubby Checker.

It was around 1980 or so, and I was reviewing for Variety when he opened for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. He had a young rock ‘n’ roll band that was full of energy, and he made Frankie look tired and boring in comparison. After his set I told him about my friends Dr. Bop & the Headliners who were playing at a campus club and sure enough, he went down there and sat in.

I thought of Chubby Monday night at City Winery, when Eric Burdon did the first of his two-night stand there. The last time I saw him he was with a band made up of guys in his age range, that is, middle and older, now that he’s 75. He was great, they were great, but I will note that he sat on a stool a lot of the time. Maybe he had to—but not now: His band now is made up of youngsters and there was no stool in sight. And when he sang “When I Was Young”—which smoothly segued into “Inside Looking Out”—well, he sounded none the worse for 50 years of wear as one of rock’s greatest vocalists.

He opened with his 1970 hit with War, “Spill the Wine,” his bass player Justin Andres laying out a funky bottom from which Burdon modified the lines “When I thought I’d lay myself down to rest/In a big field of tall grass” to a big field of “medical marijuana”—in Mexican accent. Ruben Salinas added a blazing sax answer to “I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back,” and on “See See Rider” trombonist Evan Mackey took a lead.

Other Animals classics performed included “Don’t Bring Me Down” (featuring another great sax part), the anthems “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which Eric dedicated to “the spirit” of its originator, “Miss Nina Simone”–then related how he was introduced to her, upon which she said, “You’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it!”

He sang Lead Belly’s folk standard “In the Pines,” his “Bo Diddley Special” tribute from his latest album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry (opening with a tuneful dirge during which guitarist Johnzo West reverently placed his hat over his heart and Eric and the rest did the same with their hands), and of course, his Animals signature “The House of the Rising Sun,” really hitting those high notes solid.

“Hitting all the notes in all the original keys,” marveled the great guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino in a post-show tweet. “No small feat. Just wonderful to hear that voice and songs again.”

He even threw in “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it, and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” But maybe the night’s big takeaway came in his self-penned 1967 hit “Monterey,” about the legendary California pop festival and in which he invoked the participants Ravi Shankar, The Who, The Dead, Hendrix, Hugh Masakela and Brian Jones. “You want to find the truth in life?” he asked/sang the lyric. “Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”

And then he shared the wonderful story about how a girl handed him a white rose while Otis Redding was performing, and in keeping with the overall vibe, he ate it.

In memoriam, 2015

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.

And that there are so many means there will only be that many more next year, for the older you get, the more you lose—unless, that is, it’s you who are lost.

It started early last year on Jan. 2 with Little Jimmy Dickens, whom I didn’t really know, but met a few times and was in his presence backstage at the Grand Ole Opry many, many more. Andrae Crouch came next: I didn’t know him either, but had seen him live at least once, on a Gaither Homecoming show.

Ervin Drake I did know quite well. And even though he died at 95, I was still surprised. I used to run into the Songwriters Hall of Famer (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “I Believe”) and his wife Edith a lot, at ASCAP and songwriters functions and at Christine Lavin shows–where he’d usually perform and always seem forever young.

As for the notorious Kim Fowley, I’m not sure if I ever met him, though I think I did, and I’m not sure I’d have been so kind to him had the piece by Jackie Fuchs—formerly The Runaways’ Jackie Fox–about being raped by him at 16, with band mates Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Sandy West allegedly looking on, come out before mine. But let me say also that I had problems with that piece and a more recent one where she talked about the impact of the first one, particularly the charges against Jett and Currie. I found both pieces then and now way too confusing—same with those who corroborated her. And admittedly and not unashamedly being a Joan fan, I didn’t feel she deserved the contempt and willingness among so many to summarily erase her positive contributions based on one person’s recollection of a horrible incident of which the only certainty I found was that it happened a long time ago when all but Fowley were teenagers, and if the other girls were there, likely not sober—though in no way does any of this absolve Fowley.

I did meet Dixie Hall, the great bluegrass songwriter–and wife of Tom T Hall, but never met Ernie Banks, though there was no one who did not love either—especially Mr. Cub, whom I followed as a Milwaukee Braves fan in the state next door. I was a huge fan of Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers, and used to run into legendary New York TV talk show host Joe Franklin a lot—and will always regret never taking him up on his invitation to come visit him.

Not sure if I met Don Herron, but I hung out a lot on the set of Hee Haw and might have. Most definitely enjoyed his Charlie Farquharson newscaster bits. And most definitely did meet the great Rod McKuen, at a Songwriters Hall of Fame awards dinner.

I’d seen Don Covay, but knew him first from covers of his songs like the Stones’ “Mercy, Mercy” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” Lesley Gore, on the other hand, was such a dear, dear friend and music hero that when I learned of her death on Feb. 16 while at Toy Fair, of all places, I really did burst into tears. I wrote an appreciation piece for at examiner.com and then two more personal pieces here. She was “one tough broad,” as Lou Christie didn’t say, exactly, but surely meant. I know I’ll always be haunted by her loss.

Same with Bob Simon. Bob was my hero as a broadcast journalist for CBS, a poet of truth in the midst of blathering self-promotional idiocy. I actually wrote him a fanboy letter after he was captured and released during the Gulf War, and he responded.

I met him on the street once and he gave me his email. I tried for years to get him to feature Dengue Fever, and came close the second time I met him, at the secreening of a Bob Marley documentary the night of one of the Obama-Romney debates, which we watched together at a bar during the post-screening party. Bob had worked in Jamaica and Cambodia, not to mention Vietnam and the Middle East—where he earned much of his reputation. He was into Dengue Fever conceptually, and I was about to email him again about the band when he tragically—and ironically—died in a car crash on the West Side Highway, having survived decades of work in the world’s most dangerous places. Another irreplaceable loss to the world.

I knew Nashville photographer Alan Mayor. Sam Andrew I knew as guitarist in Big Brother & the Holding Company and then with Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band—the one and only Joplin being the first rocker I ever saw in concert.

I’d met the great jazz writer/producer Orrin Keepnews, and know his esteemed journalist son Peter quite well. I interviewed the pioneering “direct cinema” documentarian Albert Maysles several times over the years; he was the nicest guy.

I knew promoter/songwriter/record producer/artist manager/session drummer/record-label entrepreneur/bandleader/recording artist/music journalist Billy Block ever since he moved form L.A. to Nashville at least 25 years go and started writing for Music Row, where I had my notorious Gotham Gossip column. Billy went on to befriend just about everyone in the business and promote many of them by way of his weekly Billy Block Show/Western Beat Barn Dance.

I posted a fab video of The Chanteys performing their 1963 surf-rock classic “Pipeline” on The Lawrence Welk Show after their writer/guitarist Brian Carman died on March 1. I must have met beloved New York trumpeter Lew Soloff, but never really knew him. And I feel truly lucky to have met Michael Brown (March 19 at B.B. King’s, wehn he showed up at a show by the then recently reformed Left Banke. The creative genius behind the band’s landmark “Baroque Pop” 1960s recordings—among rock’s most beautiful ever–Brown was obviously in poor physical shape and had to be assisted to the stage to play keyboards on “Pretty Ballerina.” He left immediately, but I ran after him and caught him on the steps and told him who I was and how thrilled I was to see him and meet him and how much he meant to so many music fans everywhere. He thanked me and seemed genuinely touched.

The Bitter End’s Kenny Gorka was the most wonderful guy to New York musicians—and me. He always welcomed me with open arms—and a bottle of beer—whenever I came down to the club. And I’m forever in debt to Samuel Charters, not just for his important blues and jazz books but for producing my favorite Siegel-Schwall Band and other great acts including Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite.

I knew and loved Tony Bennett’s longtime pianist/bandleader Ralph Sharon, and we’re all indebted to him for giving Tony “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’m indebted to May Pang for a lot of things, including introducing me to Cynthia Lennon. Percy Sledge needs no introduction.

Andre Smith was particularly sad in that he was only 57 and had been such a great host of Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 years. He had a wonderful gospel funeral send-off in Harlem.

Jack Ely, as the comparatively anonymous voice of The Kingsmen’s classic rock ‘n’ roll hit “Louie Louie,” is immortal. Ben E. King, too, had an immortal voice; I met him several times, with Allen Klein, and at parties in Lynnfield, Mass., thrown by Wes Reed, an old Dr. Bop & The Headliners fan who would bring the band in to play private parties, with his other hero Ben E. also on the bill.

I met B.B. King once, at a press gathering many years ago when his manager of over 40 years Sidney Seidenberg was still alive. I remember B.B. saying how they never had a cross word in all that time.

I must have known Ren Grevatt as long as I’ve been in New York, since 1982. I knew him as an indie publicist who worked with The Dead and handled PR for promoter John Scher. Such a nice guy, and even in his ‘90s, ageless. I knew the great record company executive Bruce Lundvall almost as long, and haven’t forgotten how he let me stay in his office while he took a call and tried to convince a prospective artist to sign with him.

I met the great Anne Meara once, at a Broadway show opening party, back in the early or mid-1980s. She was clearly lit, but I’m sure she’d have been just as sweet and friendly any time. What struck me was that when I introduced myself she immediately apologized that husband Jerry Stiller wasn’t there—as if I’d been their pal forever.

Like Sam Charters, Guy Carawan was an important music historian, in his case, of folk music. A major figure in the historic Greenwich Village-based folk music revival of the 1950s, he was also a folksinger and played a big part in bringing “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement.

Johnny Gimble was one of country music history’s greatest fiddlers, while according to the American Folklife Center, no one was more important to the survival, appreciation, and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than ballad singer, songwriter, folksong collector, Fulbright scholar, and champion of the Appalachian dulcimer Jean Ritchie.

I’m so glad I got to interview Jim Ed Brown on the occasion of his last album In Style Again, and so glad he held cancer back long enough to complete it. I knew him from years of hanging out at the Opry, but always remember how he first put me off when I met him in the late ‘70s at a rural Wisconsin country music festival, when he thought I was a songwriter trying to pitch him a song after I told him I was a writer.

Ornette Coleman was so significant I had to write about him, whereas Patrick Macnee—one of my true TV heroes as The Avengers’ John Steed–I was lucky to meet and interview and find that he was as nice as his character.

Ernie Maresca was one of those unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, having had a hand in writing such landmark hits as Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” not to mention recording his own classic “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).” Dave Somerville was also an obscure name, but his voice is cherished by doo-wop fans for leading The Diamonds on the huge hit “Little Darlin’,” and my personal fave, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom).”

I’m pretty sure I met Louisiana musician Jillian Johnson, but I know I’ll never forget her. She was one of two who were randomly shot to death (nine others were injured) by a hate-filled lunatic at Lafayette’s Grand 16 movie theater on July 23. My Cajun music pal Wilson Savoy’s words bear repeating: “She changed my life forever. She inspired me more than anyone else in my younger years, and I wish I had told her what an amazing person she was before it was too late. Before her show last Saturday, before she jumped on stage with The Figs, we stood together on the side of the stage at Blue Moon and chatted all about the past and the future, about her grand plans for projects, renovations, exciting new stuff. Never a dull moment with Jillian. I never said it in the past, but I’ll say it now. Thank You Jillian. I love you.”

I met the great country vocalist Lynn Anderson several times and especially loved her hit versions of songs by the late, great Joe South. I never met or got to see Cilla Black, but I sure wish I had—and was touched by the outpouring of love for her in England when she died.

I think I met Billy Sherrill, but I certainly knew his classic country music hit productions. Of course I knew indie publicist Jeff Walker, who was as much a part of the Nashville music community as Sherrill, closely for nearly 40 years.

I might have let Frankie Ford go out quietly had it not been for my pal Rockin’ John McDonald demonstrating on his Madison, Wis., WORT-FM show I Like It Like That that Ford was much more than a “Sea Cruise” one-hit wonder. My friend Billy Joe Royal, on the other hand, didn’t need Rockin’ John’s help, having shared with Lynn Anderson a goodly amount of Joe South’s hit songwriting catalog.

I’d run into Allen Toussaint now and then, especially after he moved to New York following Hurricane Katrina. He never really remembered me until I invariably brought up how my favorite production of his was Take It, the regrettably obscure 1986 album by genius Minneapolis no-guitar/keyboard rock-polka band The Wallets, upon which Toussaint, ever the refined gentleman, waxed sentimental.

Legendary songwriter P.F. Sloan’s death in November was a personal blow, even though I’d only met him once, when Donna Loren brought him to Bessman Bash 2015 in L.A. in August. Of course I was a huge fan of a songwriter so significant—and elusive—that none other than Jimmy Webb wrote a song about him. Turned out that not only could he not have been nicer, he seemed at least as humbled to be at the party as we all were having him there.

As for John Trudell, I only met the Native American activist/poet/recording artist twice and interviewed him once, but the effect was immense. One of the great artists/humanitarians I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and a real loss to the world. His album Wazi’s Dream was my No. 1 pick for 2015.

I was hoping John’s death would be the last, but it was only Dec. 8. Historic Aussie ‘60s rock band The Easybeats’ frontman Stevie Wright followed, and then Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead. I don’t think many in America knew of Wright, as The Easybeats’ had only one hit in the U.S., though “Friday on My Mind” is immortal. Remarkably, the intense love and grief for Lemmy, while deserved, was quite astonishing in that he was a heavy metal/punk rocker, from England, with limited mainstream success.

Tales of Bessman: I remember Elvis

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“Two Beers and no dope.”

‘Scuse me while I quote myself. Probably the best lead I ever wrote—certainly the most inspired.

It had to be a week or two before the triumphant return of Elvis Costello to Madison, this time headlining the U.S. tour with Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille in Spring, 1978, six months or so after Elvis played Bunky’s, a tiny showcase club just off-campus, on his first U.S. tour in late November, 1977.

It was a landmark occasion in my then brief career as a music journalist, which had begun a year or so earlier. Yet by now I was editor of The Madcity Music Sheet, which came out biweekly and had some national and a lot of local music coverage and concert listings.

I remember how we all had gathered around at the Sheet headquarters one day reading Melody Maker—one of England’s major music newspapers–and marveling at a small piece about Elvis Costello getting busted for busking outside a London convention of CBS Records executives. He was protesting that his U.K. records hadn’t been picked up for release in the U.S. In short order, he signed with Columbia (thanks to A&R rep Gregg Geller, later a dear friend whose wife Hope, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus and also later a dear friend, became his publicist) and came to the U.S. with his band The Attractions.

Then, maybe as now, Madison, Wis., was a perfect layover for touring artists, situated between the major markets of Chicago and Minneapolis (not counting Milwaukee). Madison had a huge university campus, and we got a lot of baby acts on the way up, as well as major acts who could play theaters or the Dane County Coliseum.

The biggest guy in the biz was Ken Adamany. He’d played keyboards for Steve Miller and Luther Allison, owned The Factory nightclub where Hendrix played and Otis was supposed to when his plane crashed into Lake Monona—near where I used to live.

But now Ken was a manager. He managed Dr. Bop & The Headliners, to this day the most fun band I ever saw (“almost too much entertainment,” as bandleader/drummer Dr. Newt Bop used to say). They were hugely successful in the area and Ken funneled his earnings from them into a band based in Rockford, Ill.—Cheap Trick.

Everyone at the Sheet was big time Cheap Trick fans—except me, of course. I appreciate some of their later hits, and now that they’re nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the weakest year yet, understand if they go in. But for me they were always too cartoon-y—though I’m the guy who wrote the first book on The Ramones, so go figure. But Elvis Costello & The Attractions they weren’t.

The Attractions, of course, didn’t exist when Elvis’s first album, My Aim is True, came out. I was so exited to get it, but I remember not really getting it on first hearing, except for “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” But it all came together on second hearing, and when Sheet publisher Gary Sohmers found out he was touring, he convinced Bunky’s—without any opposition—to book him.

Bunky’s really was the best. All the best rock, jazz, comedy. They even had George Jones, who did show up—and I was the one who was drunk. It was like Madison’s version of The Bottom Line.

And it was such an exciting time for me in music. After I got out of hight school (I was Class of ’70, but didn’t graduate with it) and the breakup of The Beatles and the emergence of FM radio and progressive rock, I switched over almost entirely to country music. But I was hip to punk rock and new wave, and had started writing a little for the State of Wisconsin Department of Administration newsletter—DOA Today, believe it or not—more or less to help out a friend in the Bureau of Personnel who was doing all the work and complaining that he had no help.

I worked in a small office in Personnel, in a federally funded entity called Project Skill—whose mission was to find employment for people with disabilities (which, ironically, I was one). I’d taken a week’s vacation in Nashville (my first time there), met my Cajun country hero Joel Sonnier (now Jo-El Sonnier), came back and went to the corner bar that night, the Cardinal Bar, to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine—The Madcity Music Sheet—and I picked one up and paged through it—except that I think at that time it was just one sheet of newsprint folded over twice. I saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes—with guest Ronnie Spector—appearing at the Stone Hearth, which was down the block from Bunky’s, and I went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from; I would later write liner notes on a Southside compilation and become close friends with Phil Spector.

Ronnie had duetted with Southside on his first album (I Don’t Want to Go Home, 1976), so the year had to be 1977–since she toured with him the following year. The show had to be a week or two after I returned from Nashville, which was on Memorial Day. I didn’t know Gary, but I recognized him at the show and went up and told him I was there because I saw the ad in his paper. He told me to write for it. Just like that.

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.

I started writing about Jo-El and country music, Dr. Bop, Milwaukee’s blues-rock band Short Stuff, my Chicago blues-rock heroes the Siegel-Schwall Band, and anything else I wanted—pretty much same as now, and throughout my career. But thanks to The Ramones, Sex Pistols and especially Elvis, I also covered punk and new wave.

Especially Elvis. We all loved how he released singles with picture sleeves and non-album B-sides, how the U.S and U.K. album versions were different, how My Aim is True had “ELVIS IS KING” spelled out in the tiny checkerboard squares on the album cover, how the red “COLUMBIA” label on the discs was changed to “COSTELLO.”

And for a certain type who felt alienated growing up in the ’60s and had only rock ‘n’ roll as his friend (read: me and no doubt a good many other male rock journalists, if not all), Elvis was the second coming of John Lennon or Bob Dylan or both put together.

“When I first started out, I thought I had two seconds to get people’s attention and be remembered,” he said at a packed appearance at New York’s main public library last month, during a conversation about his just-published memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. “I said things that were edgy and found that [music journalists] liked it–and thought they’d leave me alone to write songs.”

We identified everything about him, from his anti-glam, bespectacled look (so often misidentified as nerdy) to his sound (hard-edged organ and guitar over relentless rhythms) to his themes of “revenge and guilt,” to repeat a famous phrase he used in his only interview available in the early part of his career.

I remember that the day the follow-up album This Year’s Model came out, a record store on State Street cut out a few of the pigeon-toed Elvis portraits from the first album and taped them on the sidewalk with arrows pointing the way into the store. I remember the Columbia college rep having a little press party at the Concourse Hotel across from the State Capitol to celebrate the release of the new albums by Elvis , Eddie Money and Billy Joel—and may somewhere still have the Columbia nail care set they gave us.

And I’ll never forget how the Columbia girl, when I told her how thrilling it was to hear the new Elvis album, responded: “Elvis and Eddie Money are good—but a new Billy Joel album is an event.”

Like I said, that show at Bunky’s was pivotal. It was a tiny club, maybe 200 seats if I remember right, and I stayed for both shows.

Also during his current tour behind his memoir, Elvis recently recalled how Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen introduced the first Bunky’s show. Nielsen actually got footage from the conversation and posted it on Facebook with the caption “Kind words from Elvis Costello. I have a picture from the night in Madison, WI that he’s referring to…”

This is the picture:

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In the clip Elvis revealed how much he and The Attractions loved Cheap Trick and listened to them on tour.

“Because they had a couple of very good looking fellows in the band and Rick with his sort of cartoon look with the guitars of many necks, you forget what great songs they wrote–and we loved them,” he said. He then recalled how he and the band had “made our way through the snow and wind to Madison, Wisconsin, and Rick got up and actually sort of explained myself and the Attractions to the local audience–who were poised with pitchforks and flaming torches at that point—and said that we were people he recommended personally and helped us get over with the local crowd. Those people up in Wisconsin, they can get nasty in the cold weather!”

Of course we weren’t really poised with pitchforks and flaming torches. But there was indeed an enormous sense of anticipation bordering on shock, and Elvis, now with The Attractions, didn’t let us down.

Even now I remember it was most of the songs from My Aim is True and several from the then unreleased second album This Year’s Model including “You Belong to Me.” The performance roiled with the ferocity of Steve Nieve’s churning keyboards driven by the rhythm section of Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas, and Elvis spitting out the lyrics and slashing away at his guitar—and on “Less Than Zero,” carving out a “swastika tattoo” with his index finger as he snarled the phrase.

I’m pretty sure he was drunk, only because he seemed so angry—though not without at least some reason.

“I’ve seen the police in England, and I’ve been to Madison, and I’ve seen the police,” he observed at one point, unprompted. “And they both have guns.”

He must have done “Radio Radio,” but if he didn’t, he definitely said, “In England, there’s only one station, and it plays the same thing. In America, there are many stations, and they all play the same thing.”

And in much the manner that he famously gestured the Attractions to stop playing on Saturday Night Live in December, 1977, he cut them off dead halfway into a song at Bunky’s late show with a slicing motion, then pointed to a couple guys against the back wall who were talking.

“Hey, you back there, talking to the person next to you. I see you. When I go to see someone I go to have a good time, not to talk!” he steamed. Maybe he wasn’t drunk—though I recall he took a drink or two from admirers up front. As for me, just those two beers and no dope–and a show that was so riveting and eventful that when I asked Gary if we could put out a special issue in advance of the Costello/Lowe/DeVille concert, he readily agreed.

The show was at The Orpheum theater, across State Street from The Capitol Theater (now the Madison Overture Center for the Arts), two blocks from the State Capitol. I remember when I got there I ran into Jim Post, the great folk singer-songwriter who collaborated with Siegel-Schwall and as half of Friend & Lover, had the immortal 1967 pop hit “Reach Out of the Darkness.” Jim lived near Madison, and told me he was there entirely because of my “two beers and no dope” lead in our Elvis special.

My lead piece, by the way, was also titled “I Remember Elvis.” It began thusly: ” November 30, 1979. Bunky’s. Elvis Costello. Two beers and no dope. I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

I hearby apologize to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Orpheum, incidentally, was also a couple blocks from the Quisling Clinic on Gorham Street. Elvis might have done “Green Shirt” that night. It was on Armed Forces, his third album, which would come out in January, 1979. He was always doing new, unreleased material in concert, even in the beginning.

“Green Shirt,” of crouse, has the line “‘Cause somewhere in the Quisling Clinic/There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.” I doubt many in Madison would have known that Norwegian leader Vidkun Quisling was a Nazi collaborator whose name is now synonymous with traitor—as Elvis most surely would have. For Churchill used the word in a famous wartime speech, and “Green Shirt” came two songs after Armed Forces‘ overtly political “Oliver’s Army.”

Vidkun Quisling was executed for treason in 1945. The Quisling Clinic was founded by cousins of Quisling, including Dr. Gunnar Quisling, who served in the U.S. medical corps in World War II and took part in the Normandy invasion. Eisenhower awarded him the Legion of Merit for developing a foreign body locator—a device used to find shrapnel in wounded servicemen–and as he was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, he also perfected the gas masks used by soldiers wearing glasses.

The Quisling Clinic, with its blonde brick, flat roofs, rounded corners and the ocular window near the entrance, was a striking example of “Art Moderne” architecture. As for “Green Shirt,” it has always struck me as one of the great examples of what makes Pete Thomas such a great drummer: hear his “bap-bap-bap-bap-bip” on the snare after Elvis sings a line. In fact, on the whole song Pete’s drumming is as much a part of the arrangement as Steve’s swirling keyboards.

I came to New York the day after Christmas, 1981. I think I took the Dog. I had a few friends at record companies and MTV from working for the Sheet and stringing for Variety and found out from one of them that Elvis was playing New Year’s Eve at the Palladium, NRBQ opening. The day of the show they released some tickets and I got front row center, balcony.

A few months later I started working full-time at the now-defunct record business trade magazine Cash Box, and two years later I left and began contributing to Billboard for over 20 years. I was lucky to see Elvis, write about Elvis and get to know Elvis and the Attractions during these years.

I can say that Pete is universally acknowledged as the nicest guy in the business, let alone greatest drummer. Steve somehow remains the keyboard boy genius, shy and quiet but very funny, who cracks me up every time I see him. Imposters bassist Davey Faragher is also a great guy and talent, whom I got to know well through Pete, with whom he plays in the fab L.A. country shtick band Jack Shit when they’re not on the road elsewhere.

I never got to know Attraction Bruce Thomas much (no relation to Pete, if you didn’t know), but he’s a Bruce Lee authority and respected my interest. This was after the first time I introduced myself to him, in the Ritz balcony when he was still with Elvis and the band. I told him who I was and that I was with Billboard and was a huge fan. “Fuck off!” he responded, quite emphatically, and it was wholly appropriate.

As for Elvis, well, no surprise for you, I’m sure, to learn that he’s far and away the most intelligent artist I’ve ever been lucky enough to know, let alone interview—though I really haven’t interviewed him formally in a long time. He hardly needs journalists like me any more to get his message across. But you can’t ask for a more forthcoming person on any level, really. Even with his tonnage of artistic output, on the occasions when I’ve emailed him—and I try to respectfully keep them rare—he often responds within minutes, sometimes with an intricate chapter length treatise. Anyone who’s seen him speak on TV or in person knows that he can just spout off the most thoughtful discourse spontaneously.

After I left Madison I rarely returned. Only to see my father a couple times before he died and shortly after for his funeral, and after that, for the memorial for Dr. Bop. Then two summers ago I went back to visit what’s left of my family, and when I saw that Elvis was performing in Madison this last July—with The Imposters—I scheduled another trip to Madison around it. I saw it as an opportunity to bring my career around full circle, and was prepared for an event of unparalleled self-awareness, if not discovery.

It’s not like I have a lot of friends left in Madison. Most of them are dead by now, or have moved on in other ways. But I did have one friend, Robin Gates, whom I’d brought to see Elvis at Bunky’s. He and his wife Jan had bought tickets for the show right away.

When I got to Madison I called my friend Tom Herman to see if he’d be my plus-one. I’d worked with Tom at the State, and am forever grateful to him for allowing me a leave of absence to see if I could make it as a journalist. Then again, maybe I should blame him.

Either way, when I called him, not only was he up for it, he reminded me that I’d brought him to Bunky’s that long ago night as well. Then it turned out my sister Ruthanne wanted to go, which caught me by surprise. She does a classical music show on the University of Wisconsin public radio channel, and I never thought she’d be interested in Elvis–despite his excursions into classical music.

I’d last been in touch with Elvis a few months earlier and let him know I was considering coming to Madison to see the show. I’d seen Pete only a few weeks earlier when he was in New York drumming with indie rock band The Weepies, and told him it was pretty much a done deal. I knew I could get in through Pete or Elvis, with a plus-one for sure. But now my sister wanted to go, and I didn’t want to exploit my friendship any further—though of course I was fully prepared to.

I waited until noon day-of-show to call Pete at the hotel. No surprise they were staying at the Concourse—as they were playing at the nearby Overture Center. It was July 23, and one of only a handful of dates that Elvis and The Imposters were doing by themselves apart from their summer tour opening for Steely Dan.

“What kind of fucking hole are we in?” Pete answered, in reference to the hotel. I wish I could somehow fully convey his accusatory befuddlement and tongue-in-cheek exasperation, for I had no choice but to bust up laughing. He did the same and told me to get there at ten-to-three and we’d go to the venue for soundcheck.

I got to the Concourse on time, and as I walked in Elvis’s longtime road manager Robbie McLeod was at the counter. He didn’t know I was coming.

“This place is so weird,” he said, after I explained how and why I was there. All I could do was sheepishly gesture to myself and say, “Hello!” It explained all he needed to know about Madison and me. Steve and Davey showed up shortly and while neither expected me, nor were they surprised. Pete came down, as always in shorts, prompting Robbie to joke about his ever-casual street attire. Steve and Davey were now talking to four gals who were also staying at the hotel, who’d driven down from Minneapolis for the show.

And then we got on the bus for the long drive of maybe two blocks to the Overture. I hadn’t been on the bus with the guys in almost four years to the day when we went from New York to the Gathering Of The Vibes Music Festival at Bridgeport, Conn.’s Seaside Park. Actually it was just Pete and Davey: Steve went on Elvis’s bus, and when we got there, he was dressed in some goofy black Civil War preacher’s outfit, for lack of a better way of describing it. “How are you, my good man?” he asked after I boarded. Then he started laughing, in tacit acknowledgement of how ridiculous he looked and sounded.

On the bus now Pete and Steve were locked in conversation about all the ice cream Steve kept in the fridge. Minutes later we were entering the back door of the Overture, shortly before Elivs arrived and joined us on stage. He remembered I was going to be there, and immediately went about working up the set list with the band while I stood, stage right, five feet or so back from Steve’s Steinway. Elvis loved the piano sound Steve was getting on “Almost Blue,” which was gorgeous, to be sure.

I’d witnessed this before, soundcheck with Elvis and the Imposters, at Atlantic City on New Year’s Eve a couple times. It’s pretty extraordinary, to say the least. They do a good hour-plus sculpting a set that may or may not resemble what they actually do a few hours later in concert.

Three things really stood out this time. When he rehearsed the Bacharach-David classic “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”—a song he performed on the 1978 Stiffs Live tour and album but never in the U.S.—he said that for 38 years he’s been singing it wrong, something to do with an improper placement of the word “just,” which in Dusty Springfield’s classic version does shift position before and after “don’t know.”

Then, looking at his set list and seeing “Chemistry Class,” he muttered to himself, “You’re fucking kidding me.” I chuckled, to myself. Needless to say, it didn’t make the cut.

Toward the end there was a song that Davey was uncomfortable with. As I didn’t take notes—I was a guest, not a reporter–I cant remember what it was. But Elvis, who’s been telling audiences on his book tour how he taught himself to read and write music when he began composing non-pop pieces, sang the song solo for Davey, reciting each guitar chord change along the way—and there were a great many of them.

“Chemistry Class,” by the way, is from Armed Forces. Shortly after Elvis played Bunky’s, Rockpile, with his producer Nick Lowe, played there. Elvis’s and Nick’s visionary manager Jake Riviera was at the show, and a a party after, told me that Armed Forces, which hadn’t been released yet, was Elvis’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I had no reason to doubt it, and if Armed Forces wasn’t as impactful as Sgt. Pepper’s, it was stunning nevertheless, and Elvis would go on to write hits with Paul McCartney.

“When we recorded Armed Forces we listened to a lot of records while we were traveling,” Elvis said in the recent talk where he spoke of Rick Nielsen and Cheap Trick, citing Bowie’s “Berlin records” and Abba records—which, he noted, might not “seem a likely fit for a lot of people”–and Cheap Trick and Wings. “That was our jukebox,” he said, and it made a lot of sense in that Armed Forces was heavily produced pop in comparison to the stripped down intensity of This Year’s Model.

I reminded Elvis of the Cheap Trick/Bunky’s connection during dinner in the catering room. Someone mentioned the Minneapolis gals, and he was taken that they drove all the way down for the show. Of course, I wanted it on the record that I flew in all the way from NYC.

“But you’re weird,” said Elvis. Then he sweetly showed me a few vintage pictures from Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that he had on his phone. And I use the word “sweetly” on purpose, for this is the same guy who nearly 40 years ago had two Bunky’s SRO audiences on the edge of their seats, if not peeing in their pants.

After dinner I went out to meet Tom, Rob and Jan and my sister. Walking around the lobby I kept looking around for other people I knew from Madison whom I hadn’t seen since Bunky’s or the Orpheum, but there was no one. Then again, maybe I hadn’t factored in that they would all most likely look a lot different, as I know I unquestionably do.

I did take notes during the show, but they weren’t very good. I was just to into it, being a fan, enjoying the moment. Later I picked up the set list online:

1. “Wake Me Up”
2. “Watching the Detectives”
3. “Accidents Will Happen”
4. “Human Hands”
5. “Flutter & Wow”
6. “Little Triggers”
7. “Country Darkness”
8. “Bedlam”
9. “Watch Your Step”
10. “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”
11. “Everyday I Write the Book”
12. “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea”
13. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”
14. “Lost on the River #12”
Encore:
15. “The Long Honeymoon”
16. “Almost Blue”
17. “God Give Me Strength”
18. “Shot With His Own Gun”
19. “Another Girl in My Head”
20. “Alison”
21. “Church Underground”
22. “Motel Matches”
23. “Stella Hurt”
Second encore:
24. “Jimmie Standing in the Rain/Brother Can You Spare a Dime”
25. “Ghost Train”
26. “American Without Tears”
27. “I Hope You’re Happy Now”
28. “High Fidelity”
29. “Brilliant Mistake”
30. “Pump It Up”
31. “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

As you can see, it was a monster set. Probably two-and-a-half times as long as their opening sets with Steely Dan, which looked to be pretty much the same each night.

Somewhere along the line Elvis said it was his own first show in Madison in 33 years, if I heard it correctly. I’m glad I left town when I did.

When he and The Imposters kicked in on “Watching the Detectives”—the set’s second song—I was watching my whole career pass by: His index finger-squeeze accompanying “it only took my little finger to blow you away” brought me back to Bunky’s and “swastika tattoo.” A comment about “15 clowns and one big red one”—clearly about the Republican candidates—reminded me of the first Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows on Broadway in 1986, when even then he did a bit about the “sin of Trump.” And a story about listening to the radio and hearing Dark Side of the Moon and “Stairway to Heaven” evoked hearing the same things on radio stations everywhere.

The Imposters, meanwhile, sounded terrific, as always. They’d already done a few dates with Steely Dan, but this was one of the first—and only—shows they were doing on their own during the short stretches of off days from the Steely Dan tour.

What was incredible was that they hadn’t played together in the three years since the end of the Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows. I don’t know how much rehearsing they’d done or needed to do to get back into the groove on songs that they’ve played for decades, but I do know Pete’s work ethic: He books himself into a studio and plays to tapes for days on end in preparations for anything he’s involved in. A true pro in every sense of the word.

I continue to try to make sense of my mostly unintelligible scribble from that night. I was glad he followed “Detectives” with “Accidents Will Happen,” lead track from Armed Forces. I always liked it when he opened shows with it—which he often did—since the opening words are “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin,” and it showcases Steve so well.

Then again, so did just about everything. He played a lot of piano—most notably, maybe, on “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” which did make the cut. The latter part of the set proper picked up steam with “Everyday I Write the Book” and “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” but I really lost it when a guy got up and started dancing on “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and the crowd sang the responses in the second verse: It really brought home why I was there, that after all this time Elvis—and his first album—were still relevant, and by extension, perhaps, so was I.

The first set of encores—Elvis’s sets of encores are like the second half of the show—began with an “Imperial Bedroom suite” of that album’s “The Long Honeymoon,” which had him singing at the mic without his guitar, and “Almost Blue,” Steve playing piano like he was painting a picture. It also included two songs from his 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (the hit “God Give Me Strength” and “I Still Have That Other Girl”) and a few songs just with Steve—sort of a reprise of their 1996 tour as a duo, including the compositionally complex “Shot With His Own Gun.” There was a lot of applause-instructing pointing by Elvis to Steve throughout the show, but especially here.

The first encore—nine songs altogether!—also had a solo acoustic mini-set including “Alison,” and a long piano ballad version of “Motel Matches” which Elvis just sang the shit out of—no surprise since the song requires such vocal precision, and Elvis is the rare vocalist capable of it. The second set of encores—eight more songs—ended rapid-fire rock with the traditional closers “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Like I said, it was a monster set, and monster show. Even the band felt so, and Elvis did, too, in an email response a few days later. I don’t know why, but the place was only half-full. And when I brought everyone backstage after (it was a rare instance where I had an all-access laminate allowing me to do so) it wasn’t the typical clusterfuck—to use a word I detest but is fitting in this case—that it would have been in New York. Rather, it was pretty much just Pete, Steve and Davey in their small dressing room.

Steve Tannen, of The Weepies, was there, too. He’d driven up from Iowa City, where he and wife/fellow Weepies principal wife Deb Talan and their three young sons live. It was a three-hour drive, an hour less than from Minneapolis, so I guess I was still the weird one of the group. I think there were a couple others, and it was a blast. Everyone posed for pictures, and the guys couldn’t have been nicer. I was so impressed with Steve and the story of how the Weepies survived and thrived during his wife’s cancer treatment that I ended up writing a long story about it.

Then Robbie brought Elvis in. He looked exhausted. He might have come in anyway, but I’m pretty sure he did it just for me, as it’s not like he knew anyone else there, and there were no music bizzers to meet-and-greet—surprising, in that I figured there would at least be some radio or retail or something. Then I realized that I hadn’t come out of my Bunky’s reverie and was still living in the days of music business past, when all those things existed.

I might have had three beers and no dope.

My sister offered to take a picture of me with Elvis but I said no, and I didn’t want to ask him to pose with anyone. He would have done it, of course. But he was still finishing up his book. He’d just done a monster show. He had to phone home. I’d gotten plenty enough from him for one day. One career. I’d gone home, but it wasn’t his home.

The one thing he didn’t do, that I was hoping for, was “Green Shirt.” I almost said something about it at dinner and am glad I didn’t. He probably would have called a second sound check in between bites and learned it.

The Quisling Clinic, by the way, is now the Quisling Terrace Apartment Homes, having been restored, converted and added onto since I left town. It was originally built in the 1890s as a house, acquired in the 1940s by the Quislings and renovated as a clinic, with alterations and additions, in 1946, taking it into the Art Moderne style.

The Capitol’s now the Overture, and Bunky’s is long gone.

Elvis is now on the road touring his book, with a new round of solo performance dates to follow.

Nothing’s scheduled with the Imposters, and there’s no telling when—or if—I’ll ever get to see them again, in Madison or anywhere else.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 13

I’ve been thinking about Nick a lot lately, but then again, it’s that time of year.

It was a month or so ago when Darlene Love played B.B. King’s and did her wonderful tribute to Marvin Gaye, whom she’d sung behind back in the day. Two of the songs are classic Ashford & Simpson compositions: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the latter featuring one of my all-time fave A&S couplets in “There’s no looking back for us/We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough.”

Sure ‘nough, that’s enough.

Shit.

Why can’t I write something so complete?

Full context:

I will go where you lead
Always there in time of need
And when I lose my will
You’ll be there to push me up the hill
There’s no, no looking back for us
We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough
You’re all, you’re all I need to get by

Compounding it all, Dionne Warwick was there. Reminded me how Nick and Val had hosted a party for her at the Sugar Bar years ago, for an album release. I don’t remember the year, but I remember the day, December 8. I brought my friend Beefy—the legendary Troy Charmell of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, who always loves going to the Sugar Bar, and then we made our annual Dec. 8 walk over to nearby Strawberry Fields to observe with joy and song the death day of John Lennon, who gave us the Nick-like “All You Need is Love.”

And now I’m in the air nearing L.A. and get an invite to the Sugar Bar to attend a showcase Aug. 22 for Lili K, described by her publicist—who knows how I love the Sugar Bar—as “Chicago’s jazz infused ‘throwback soul’ songstress.”

August 22. A date like December 8, the day Nick died, in 2011. Ironically, on that day four years ago I was flying back from L.A., and upon landing, headed directly from Kennedy to Nick and Val’s house, in shorts and t-shirt carrying my bags. Such a sad occasion, yet even then, somehow full of the joy and song and life that was Nick then and now.

And on this Aug. 22—Saturday night—it’s the annual Bessman Bash—a wonderful backyard party thrown by my pal Bob Merlis at his house in Larchmont. There will be plenty of great people and music and fun, as it always was at the Sugar Bar, whenever Nick was there. Or anywhere that Nick was.

Nick will be there, of course. As he always is.

Here he is, in one of his last performances, singing, with Val, “You’re All I Need to Get By”:

Concert highlights: Ralph Stanley, 8/10/2015

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who took me to see Ralph Stanley the first time. Sue Something, I’m thinking. I definitely owe her as it was a pivotal music experience for me back in 1971 or so. Definitely at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, in an upstairs ballroom.

Sue turned me on to bluegrass, as well as Cajun music–which five years later became my entry into music journalism and the music business. But that first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys, little did I now then that Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley were the youngsters in his band. I would get to know Ricky very well throughout my career, and I knew Keith good, too, and his wife Lorrie Morgan, before he drank himself to death in 1989.

I think they did my favorite Ralph Stanley song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, that long ago night in Madison. I’ve never forgotten hearing it around 3 a.m. driving back from Milwaukee on some clear-channel country station, then switching over and hearing a live version of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded, I think, in concert in Japan. Somehow both recordings had the same power.

This time, at City Winery in New York last night, I returned Sue’s favor indirectly, taking Emily Kenison, my friend Beefy’s daughter. Beefy’s better known as Troy Charmell, multi-instrumentalist for legendary Madison-based ‘70s band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, and current half of Those Weasels, a fun duo also starring Dr. Bop’s frontman Al Craven, The White Raven. Like me some 44 years ago, Emily, just out of law school, had no idea who Ralph was, or what bluegrass is.

She does now.

Ralph’s set started with the current version of his Clinch Mountain Boys band, including his son Ralph 2 on lead guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on rhythm—also the main vocalist, who did most of the talking. He sang a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his grandfather, “Papaw I Love You,” from his recently re-released album The Legacy Continues; in it he refers to his “father figure” Ralph, on whose boots he fell asleep on stage as a two-year-old, as “my hero” and “best friend.”

When Ralph came out after a substantial opening segment from the band, he looked every bit his 88 years, dour and stone-faced in the manner of Jackie Mason (84), not at all robust like Tony Bennett (89). He seemed to have shrunk a foot or two since the first and last times I saw him, too frail now to play banjo, let alone hold one. Yet when he steadied himself at the mic and began singing his classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” his voice was surprisingly strong, same with “O Death,” delivered so famously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the dirge here a tour de force full of unintended but undeniable meaning in his a cappella plea, “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”

When the band ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” Ralph appeared disoriented, but clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. If nothing else, it was muscle memory if not sheer force of will, and they closed with the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Nathan promised that Ralph and the band would be out to sign merchandise, and I waited 10 minutes or so for Ralph. I hadn’t spoken to him since 2009, when we talked about his support of Obama in his dressing room at B.B. King’s. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time while waiting, which was nice, but didn’t want to risk a second time, and besides, Ralph looked tired and there was no guarantee he’d even remember.

But I did round the corner thinking of trying the bus, and ran into a young fan hoping for a Ralph autograph, who said Ralph wasn’t feeling well so they took him on the bus to rest. No point in knocking, but I did take a photo of the bus, which was Ralph 2’s, but carried a huge ad for a local law firm representing, among other things, black lung cases.

Ralph1

I didn’t tell the kid, but I did hope that Ralph 1 would be spared over for another year, at the very least.