Of course everyone’s creaming over her George Michael tribute, particularly the way she stopped her performance, cursing as ever, to start over after realizing she was singing off-key. So here’s my two cents: Forget about what was really the most stunning stopping of a song in TV history—Elvis Costello’s all-guts 1977 Saturday Night Live cutoff of his Attractions after starting up “Less Than Zero” and firing them into “Radio Radio” thereby biting the hand that fed him and keeping him off an angry SNL for many years. Many years ago, at the Bottom Line, I saw Jane Siberry, sensing something wrong in her performance that no one in the audience did, stop after the first few notes of “The Valley,” declare “I can’t live with that!” and restart it. It was a truly wonderful club performance, which I italicize to set it apart from Adele’s comparably bizarre TV stoppage.
For the self-absorbed drama queen, on the other hand, took up a big chunk of valuable TV time in an interminable (over there-and-a-half hours) show—no doubt cutting into acceptance speeches of other artists while prolonging the misery of at least this one viewer. And I know I’m likely the only one who cares anymore, but on a national prime-time show that is musically geared toward youngsters, Adele’s foul mouth makes for what I’d hardly call a positive role model.
But wait! There’s more!
The big fallout from the Grammy show, as predicted and certified by The New York Times, at least, is race related. Per the Times‘ headline, “#GrammysSoWhite Came to Life. Will the Awards Face Its Race Problem?”—meaning to suggest that the Grammys, “like America,” has “an inclusion problem—or more to the point, an exclusion problem.”
Translating further, the Times said that Adele won all five Grammys she was nominated for (also including Album of the Year and Record of the Year) with an album (25) that is her “least impressive,” but with “pomp-and-circumstance soul belting [that] is the sort of classicism likely to appeal to the Recording Academy voting members, who tend to skew older and more traditional.” Beyonce’s Lemonade, meanwhile, “is musically provocative and wide ranging, and rife with commentary about the meaning of blackness in the United States.”
Be all this as it may, my first question, when it comes to music, is always, Forget race. Forget age. Forget even genre. Do I want to hear it?
In regards to Adele, again, I always felt that “Hello” is a lousy song, and I’ve never cared much for her overwrought performance while granting the obvious–she is indeed hugely talented, as is Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, both of whom I also have little affection for. As for Beyonce, Lemonade for me is so conceptually pulp that I need a lyric sheet to fully grasp it. Not that I have a problem with that necessarily: My No. 1 album last year, after all, was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, which had more going on musically and lyrically than Lemonade but was way more listenable, that is, again, for me.
But that, of course, is really what it’s all about, that is, subjectivity. I felt that Katy Perry topped both Adele and Beyonce with her performance of new single “Chained to the Rhythm,” which I’d only heard twice before, but had already been hooked by. So for me, obviously, the hook is King Bee; simplistic, yes, but hey, what can I tell you?
I think my friend Roger Friedman laid it out pretty well yesterday in his Showbiz 411 post, where he maintained that Adele won because she currently has four singles on iTunes, whereas Beyonce has none, also that 25 far outsold Lemonade.
“That’s it,” wrote Roger. “That’s what Grammy committees and voters look at. Is it right? Nope. But that’s what it is.” I’ll add that he also correctly noted that not only did Lemonade have no hit singles—the No. 10 “Formation” notwithstanding–Beyonce’s marketing efforts, while attention-grabbing, have “kept her out of the mainstream,” while her much-ballyhooed Grammy performance was a “self-indulgent crazy piece” that Roger likened to “The Last Supper,” I to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.
A lot of things are wrong with the Grammys, as I’ve been saying forever. But I’ve served on Grammy nominating committees and as bad a job as they so often do, I can say they bend over backwards to try to please everyone, which, of course, is impossible. Hence the separate Latin Grammys—and if you want to further the racism discussion, there were no Latin performers Sunday night. But really, it’s just another beauty contest, as all award shows really are. And beauty, as Kinky Friedman likes to say, is in the eyes of the beerholder.
But wait! There’s still more.
Adele made a big show out of apologizing to Beyonce for beating her for the big awards. Well, she must have seen this coming—or at least the not unlikely possibility—and if she felt Beyonce deserved them so much, and wanted her to win them so much, she could have just withdrawn her releases from competition like a Grammy-resistant Frank Ocean did and in effect ensure Beyonce’s victories, though, that might have opened the door for at least an equally deserving Sturgill Simpson.
All this reminds me of my own Grammy-related mishap, when for wanting someone else to win, I essentially voted myself out of the Recording Academy’s New York chapter’s Board of Governors. This must have been sometime in the mid-1990s, when I’d been encouraged to run for a two-year term, and after winning and serving, a second two-year term, which I also won and served.
But in all honesty, I won because I was put in the all-inclusive “At Large” category, I think it was called, meaning there were 10 names listed, if I remember right, and you voted for eight of them. Now I’d had at least a good 15 years of experience in New York as a music business trade journalist/reporter, and knew a lot of people in all areas of the industry. So not to boast, but I had at least enough name recognition to make me a shoo-in to win one of the eight out of 10 slots in the category, like me or not–familiarity here being as big a factor for success as it is at the Grammy ballot box.
Once elected, about the only requirement for serving on the board was attending the meetings, and since I was a freelance writer then and now, the promise of lunch pretty much guaranteed my presence. I don’t think I missed a single meeting in my four years. But I was probably the only one there who was hungry, the other governors being mostly successful record and music publishing company executives along with creatives—name producers like Russ Titelman and Phil Ramone and artists like Gary Burton, Nile Rodgers and Sharon Isbin.
It’s no surprise I was probably the least effective governor. First of all, no artist I ever voted for won a Grammy. And if you ever read any of my Grammy Awards show reviews, you know that only on the most rare occasions did I give as many as two out of five stars.
Then there was the chapter’s pet project, a program called “Grammy in the Schools.” Now I could understand reading, writing and ‘rithmatic being in the schools, and English, social studies and gym. But Grammy? What the fuck?
I could understand, maybe, if it was about the music, but you and I, we’ve been through that. Even with the steep decline in music and arts education in public schools, what with budget cuts–not to mention a reduced value in this country placed on anything culturally edifying–the Grammy in the School focus, as with the Grammy Awards show, was strictly mainstream commercial, hence of little interest to me and what should have been little NARAS interest in promoting to school kids. Making it worse, I felt, was that we weren’t so much promoting music as music business, that is, explaining music industry jobs to kids—not helping them learn about music.
And this sums up my big gripe about NARAS and now the Recording Academy: It cares more about the business than the art, in reality, the business of the Grammys. As I said in Centerline, the show is about the show, not the music.
As you can guess, I sat pretty much alone. But I did make one positive, if failed contribution. Some years earlier, the chapter put on what it called the New York Heroes Awards, which I always thought was a great event honoring deserving New York artists or music business people. The event had been discontinued due to costs, I suppose, so I suggested it be revived, maybe under a different name, and at a not-so-fancy venue with a not-so-fancy production at a not-so-fancy price. I wanted to honor CBGB’s Hilly Kristal, and we had made some headway into establishing it, but it never happened.
Otherwise, like everywhere else in my career, I promoted, and defended, the non-mainstream noncommercial music that NARAS only paid lip service to. Sure, they instituted a polka Grammy, but there I was, on more than one occasion, sitting at the governors table while the chapter president, who I will only say was one of the most famous record producers for one of the most famous artists, made stupid, predictable and uneducated putdowns of polka—prompting me to write him a personal letter virtually accusing him of racism against Eastern European ethnic musics–this, I remind you, many years before the current Adele-Beyonce controversy.
Sure enough, the polka Grammy was later eliminated, as were, among others, the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, Best Hawaiian Music Album, Best Native American Music Album and Best Traditional Folk Album. (Pop quiz: When’s the last time you heard zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional folk music on the Grammy Awards show? Better yet, when’s the first time you heard zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional folk music on the Grammy Awards show?)
Anyway, my two terms came up, and because of term limits, I was out—but not before I encouraged a fellow governor to run for chapter president, which he did, and won. Two years later when I became eligible he came back to me and asked me to run again, to which I said I’d do it, but only if I was again placed in the “At Large” category, which he said he’d do. Except he didn’t.
When I received my ballot, I was horrified to see that I’d been placed in the writer’s category—I don’t remember the exact name of it—and worse, that I was up against a woman whose name I don’t remember, but I do remember what she did: She wrote for the New York Philharmonic, as a historian. To me that was way cool to begin with, but making it more so was that not only was she very nice, she shared my lack of excitement for the board and the meetings. At the next one, after we’d received our ballots but before the voting deadline, I told her how unhappy I was that I was running against her, and that I fully intended to vote for her, which in fact I did.
Of course I didn’t think my vote would matter. I mean, like me or not, I still had name recognition, and really, after all I’d done for so many people in the industry for so many years as the champion of all music, major label superstar or indie label unknown, well, again, I was bound to be a shoo-in–especially against a gal who worked for the New York Philharmonic! I mean, no one, besides me and her and a major label classical music producer who was also a board member, gave a shit about classical music! Certainly not the Grammy Awards show producers–not then or now. And even if every member of the symphony was a NARAS member and voted for her, I had to have many more hundreds who knew me and appreciated all that I’d done.
Or so I thought. I lost, and I still miss eating those monthly lunches. A few months later I ran into Jon Marcus, the chapter’s executive director, who ran the meetings with the chapter president. Jon was a great guy who died, sadly, last year—so I can reveal what he told me then not to tell anyone.
“You know,” he said, “you only lost by two votes!”
Do the math: I voted for my opponent—and didn’t vote for me.
There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.
I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.
By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.
I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.
After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”
Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.
But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.
This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”
My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.
“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”
But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”
Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”
I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.
But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.
And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.
Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.
But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.
But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”
Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.
But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.
You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.
The enduring image of Elvis Costello following his triumphant Detour concert Saturday night (Oct. 1) at Town Hall was of the beloved entertainer holding up a guitar like a trophy, as if he’d just magically pulled it out of his hat, or if he had been playing piano, standing up in proud acknowledgement of his SRO crowd’s standing ovation, as if he’d just pulled his intact head out of a lion’s mouth.
The Detour tour is sort of an extension of his Unfaithful music & Disappearing Ink book tour of last year, in which he retold stories from his memoir interspersed with related songs played on acoustic guitar. While most of it is again played solo on a dozen or so acoustic and electric guitars—except for the piano songs—he does bring out Larkin Poe’s Rebecca and Megan Lovell to back him effectively in the latter part of the show on vocals and guitar/mandolin and lapsteel respectively.
And like the Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows of 1986 and the recent Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook tours, Costello also employed a significant prop: a giant TV set, which programmed old Elvis photos, videos, artwork, even a fab clip of his dad Ross McManus, a trumpet player and big band singer, singing the Trini Lopez version of “If I Had a Hammer” with England’s Joe Loss Orchestra. For “Watching the Detectives,” the TV screened film noir movie posters, book jackets and even album covers behind him; “Everyday I Write the Book” was accompanied by a funny photo of young Elvis signing a notepad with a three-foot long pen.
Unfaithful Music was further evoked with autobiographical stories, like the one about first working with Allen Toussaint on the 1984 Yoko Ono tribute album Every Man Has a Woman–for which he produced Elvis’s contribution “Walking on Thin Ice,” then mysteriously said, “Elvis, will you help with the broccoli?” No, Elvis explained, it wasn’t some strange New Orleans musicians’ code, but a request to accompany him on a mission to pick up some actual broccoli.
Otherwise, the songs spanned Elvis’s career, high points including an especially powerful “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” (at the piano), “Blame it on Cain” and “Nothing Clings Like Ivy” (both backed by Larkin Poe). He tossed in, too, “Little White Lies,” a 1930s pop standard covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, which he sang on a porch chair and into an enormous megaphone.
But several new songs from his current project, a musical version of A Face in the Crowd–the 1957 film about a charismatic hillbilly drifter who fraudulently becomes a national radio and TV sensation, which proved a career breakthrough for Andy Griffith–really stood out, most memorably “Blood and Hot Sauce,” and “American Mirror,” which sounds like it could be the show’s big “11 o’clock number.”
Another new piano song from the musical, maybe “Burn the Paper Down to Ash,” brought one of many references to Donald Trump.
“Speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable–into the wee hours of the morning,” Elvis said in reference to Trump’s now infamous early morning tweetstorm of the day before, in which he attacked former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Elvis also suggested that the central character of A Face in the Crowd was indeed the devil, and noted how the plot dealt with how he manages to exploit the media in peddling lies and “hooking up with politicians.”
For the record, Elvis first took on Trump at least as far back as 1986, when he did a bit about the “sin of Trump” during his first Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows on Broadway. When I saw him in concert with the Imposters in Madison, Wisconsin last summer, he made mention of “15 clowns and one big red one” in an aside about the Republican debates.
He ended traditionally at Town Hall with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (with Larkin Poe), then encored appropriately with another new A Face in the Crowd song, “The Last Word.” Deeply knowledgeable Elvis fans would have recognized one poignant tribute on the big TV monitor: a photo of a smiling Milo Lewis, Elvis’s invaluable longtime production manager, who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.
Scott Sherratt and Elvis Costello (Courtesy of Scott Sherratt)
If it’s Grammy season, it’s a given that Scott Sherratt has a vested interest.
High on the list of “first call” producers/directors of audio and video specializing in the publishing industry, Sherratt has helmed seven Grammy-nominated titles, including this year’s Best Spoken Word nominee Yes Please by Amy Poehler. His productions have won over 20 Audio Publishers Association Audie Awards and more than 60 Audiofile Magazine Earphones Awards for Excellence.
Since commencing his audiobook production career, Sherratt has worked on over 600 titles, written and/or recited by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Billy Crystal, Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren, Kim Kardashian, Gene Simmons, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Colin Powell, Mitt Romney, Ted Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Michael Chabon, Harper Lee, John Waters, Robert Ludlum, Poehler and most recently, Carly Simon, Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello.
“I work with people for days and it’s a very personal experience for them,” says Sherratt of his award-winning methods. “I take their trust and confidence very seriously: It’s all about showing a side of them that’s best in telling their story.”
He distinguishes between the “producer” and “director” credit as applied to his niche in the recording industry.
“As they relate to standard music recording terminology they are essentially the same,” says Sherratt. “There is a lot of overlap and blurred lines between these job descriptions—meaning that the director is the person in the recording sessions guiding the performance just as a producer does in music sessions. I am most often producer and director–booking studios, contracting talent, directing sessions, and supervising edit, mix, mastering and delivery.”
Each project is unique and presents it’s own challenges and opportunities, he notes.
“It often comes down to communication. I am very comfortable speaking with performers, actors, narrators, and authors and helping to develop a vibrant, energetic, comfortable, and collaborative environment in which to create something amazing. I absolutely love working with creative people–brilliant actors, personalities, and fabulous writers. It is really thrilling and I find the whole process to be tremendously rewarding.”
Sherratt says he always looks to bring added value to his productions, “so each audiobook I produce can stand on it’s own as it’s own creative work rather than simply being a companion to or alternative way of consuming the printed version of a book.”
The audiobook, actually, “often kicks the crap out of the print version,” he adds.
Making it all work is a post-production team made up of editors and other crafts people around the country.
“We live in an exciting time where transferring large files is easy and fast, allowing me to hire the absolute best people in the business regardless of where they live,” Sherratt explains. “I am a bit of an audio nerd, and it is truly important to me that everything sounds great. The mastering legend Bob Ludwig recently complimented some of my productions, and that in itself makes all the extra effort feel worthwhile.”
Being an “audio nerd” comes natural to Sherratt, who brings his extensive background as a musician to his audiobook projects. A guitarist, bassist, vocalist and composer—as well as studio engineer and producer—Sherratt has also acted on stage, film and TV; he has managed stages and tours, and produced live shows in addition to albums and audio books. And he’s toured and recorded with various rock bands for years before settling into his current vocation: He toured with and produced three albums of music for experimental theater playwright/director Richard Maxwell, and produced The Lonesome High album with Willem Dafoe.
Sherratt has since composed and performed music on many of his audiobook productions.
“It’s the most fun when I can call upon some of my favorite musician friends to help out with music for a particular project,” he says. “Last year Rodney Crowell—for whom I produced the audiobook for [his 2011 memoir] Chinaberry Sidewalks–gathered some musicians together in Nashville and wrote and performed some terrific music for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which I produced in L.A. with narrator Reese Witherspoon. Rodney also wrote and performed a perfect guitar piece for Sissy Spacek’s memoir [My Extraordinary Ordinary Life] that I produced a few years ago.”
Music artists frequently provide or perform exclusive material for their audiobook projects with Sherratt.
“[Sonic Youth’s] Kim Gordon gave me a track I loved for her book Girl in a Band and I was thrilled to record Elvis Costello playing guitar for [his new memoir] Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It is, of course, perfect, and we also recorded some pieces for a track we included on the companion soundtrack album released by Universal Records.”
Observing that it’s a “golden age for audiobooks” in that “more audio is being produced than ever before,” Sherratt has a hard time naming favorites.
“I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities and recorded many amazing people in their homes, most notably Oprah,” he says. “She drove us around her unbelievable California estate in a golf cart and had her private chef prepare delicious meals. I even got her to sing on the recording—and yes, she can really sing! I also recorded Jennifer Lopez at her house last year—also fun.”
Poehler’s Yes Please was “a true production standout” in that Sherratt not only recorded Poehler in Los Angeles along with Michael Schur, but Carol Burnett in Santa Barbara, Patrick Stewart in New York, Poehler’s parents in Boston, and Poehler with Seth Meyers and Kathleen Turner at Saturday Night Live.
“I also produced and recorded a live show with Amy at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Hollywood, which we included on the audiobook. Add to that terrific music by Freddie Khaw, and a track from Steve Albini, and it’s a one-of-a-kind, fabulous item.”
But working with Costello “really was a dream come true,” says Sherratt. “I have been a fan for so many years, and it was such a treat to go to Canada and lock myself in the studio with Elvis for a week. He is every bit as brilliant as I knew him to be.”
Besides working with all the major publishers and numerous independents, Sherratt is additional dialogue replacement (ADR) and casting director for the U.S. version of the animated U.K. TV series Chuggington, and produces and directs other TV and video projects.
Sherratt will stay in Los Angeles after the Grammy Awards to produce a project with X’s John Doe and music publisher/former A & R rep Tom DeSavia. “They’ve written a fabulous personal history of the L.A. punk scene called Under the Big Black Sun—named after an early hit by X.”
But he now laments the one that got away.
“My ‘Great White Whale,’ the long-rumored autobiography by David Bowie!” says Sherratt. “But even if it happened now it wouldn’t be the same: Every author should narrate their own memoirs while they can, because every autobiography that is not read by the subject is less than it might have been.”
Usually I write something it’s pretty much over, unless I’m on the elliptical and my mind wanders, like the other day at the gym. For some reason I thought back to my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece from May. And then I was reflecting further on the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, and what “makes it so great.”
To recap, the RockHall, in responding to Steve Miller’s criticisms during his post-induction press conference, stated that what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great is that it can “ignite many opinions”–a characterization that I ignited as one big crock of shit.
I then took issue with Ice Cube, who said, also in his acceptance speech, that rock ‘n’ roll is neither instrument nor style of music, but “a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.” I didn’t care much for this definition, either, especially since he pointedly left out country, not to mention polka.
Like I said, not many country stars are in the RockHall, with Johnny Cash the only one coming quickly to mind outside of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers-both inducted as “Early Influences.” Seymour Stein always argued for Conway Twitty, whose career began in the 1950s with the rock ‘n’ roll chart success of hits like “It’s Only Make Believe.” I’ll always remember my late, great friend Dave Nives, who held various marketing and a&r indie label gigs and correctly ascertained, after I brought him a CD by polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk, “This is real rock ‘n’ roll.”
What is real rock ‘n’ roll, then, or what we have called since the l970s, “rock”? I have little idea from looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I thought, as I realized, with deep disappointment and mounting bitterness, that I’d only been on the machine for three minutes.
Then I drifted further into considering one of the main tenets of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, which these mostly old boys likely lifted from art criticism as a whole, that the rock ‘n’ roll artist must always take risks. As in crossing the street without looking? I wondered. As in throwing a pass from the one-yard-line on first-and-goal?
This is why I was never part of that old boys club. I never wanted my favorite artists to take risks. The Beatles could do it, for sure, but who else, besides, say Kenny Rogers?
Did I just say Kenny Rogers? Yes! By risk-taking criteria, Kenny Rogers is arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time! The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand. Dropping out of the U. of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group–out of which the First Edition formed.
With the First Edition, Rogers scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” hit in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,”
“Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored “Ruben James”–the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written and produced by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. He also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and mainstream pop producer David Foster. Besides Parton–who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”–Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Carnes and James Ingram, Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He’s been represented on the charts in one way or other the last six decades, while spinning off a successful acting career–most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”
Really, the guy’s done everything any critic could ask for and way, way more.
But otherwise, lets look at The Ramones, for example. Sure I like the Spector-produced End of the Century as much as the next guy–that is, if the next guy likes it–and I always loved Road to Ruin‘s country-flavored “Don’t Come Close.” And don’t forget, I wrote the fist book on The Ramones (Ramones-An American Band, if I remember correct)! But really, I and you really just want to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.”
Or Elvis Costello: Sure I love the country album Almost Blue produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, or The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, or any number of other artistic excursions beyond “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” But I always hope that when he performs with the band in concert, he goes back heavy on his second album, This Year’s Model, his first with The Attractions, and far and away his most intense rock record.
Which brings me, circuitously-and I’m off the elliptical and back home now-to Gene Sculatti and the Binary Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gene Sculatti, truly one of rock’s great theorists, is credited by U.K. author Jon Savage, in 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, as one of the writers for the seminal rock magaine Crawdaddy who actually began using the word ‘rock’ to describe the new mid-‘60s experimental rock forms manifest on albums like The Beatles’ Revolver and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. But what brings us to him here is his most brilliant Binary Theory.
Right up there with gravity, relativity and evolution, the Binary Theory—and I hereby admit that I’m pretty much a layman here, in terms of understanding such scholarly rock stuff—addresses the deceptively simple elemental principle that a rock artist initially does whatever he, she or it does (roots-rock, let’s say) and becomes successful doing so. They keep doing it the first few albums and tours, and then the success wanes. So they announce with great fanfare a new direction (dance music, let’s say), and enlist the top songwriters and producers in the field—but the ensuing record stiffs. So they announce a return to form (in our example, back to roots-rock) with even more fanfare (a.k.a. hooey), either admitting to the mistake of the failed new direction or more likely, blaming the record company and/or just-fired management.
“That’s the riff, yeah,” says Sculatti, taking a moment out of deep study in his ivory tower to talk down to a relative ignoramus.
“It’s important to distinguish the binary move, though, from such things as organic progressions like The Who evolving from lean, mean mods to arena-ready pomp-rockers, or mere trend-hopping, like the Beach Boys doing a 10-minute disco version of ‘Here Comes the Night’ off of Wild Honey, or the Grateful Dead doing disco on Shakedown Street. And it’s different from polymaths like Prince or Bowie, who could slip into new and different musical togs monthly and always wear them well.
“Then there’s the Stones, who pulled the binary as a canny, if brief, career move: ‘Oh, you think you know us only as noisy young rowdies? We’ll show you!’ Hence ‘As Tears Go By,’ ‘Lady Jane,’ maybe even ‘Play with Fire.’ And Elton, who starts as an earnest Band follower, all Americana’d up–but eventually realizes what a cul-de-sac that is and lightens up into the pop guy he really always wa,s i.e. ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ ‘Island Girl.’”
But “the real blatant binary cats are Kiss,” contends Sculatti, “who snag their biggest hit ever by momentarily abandoning bludgeon-rock for the reflective ‘Beth,’ and Alice Cooper. He starts out as a good solid rocker, gains some rep emphasizing the horror-show bit, but then–I’m almost sure pointed in this direction by management, who knew that songs about nightmares and dead babies wouldn’t get him into the Top 40–suddenly makes a complete U-turn and starts doing, and succeeding with, housewife-friendly ballads like ‘Only Women Bleed’ and ‘I Never Cry.’ I’m pretty sure I remember an interview with him later when he’d semi-retired and was doing the golf bit with Groucho: He said he could never go back to doing the immature shock-rock he’d become known for. Then, lo and behold, a few years later–and continuing well into the present day–he’s out there with the guillotine and all, right back where he started from.”
Sculatti kindly recaps.
“The binary is most often done by the act that dead-ends with whatever it first came to prominence with, so someone decides an about-face is the only rational move. Maybe it’s like Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’: Stuck for inspiration in the studio? Leave, go outside and stand on your head for 10 minutes or play hopscotch with the neighborhood kids–just do something different and your muse will return!”
Meanwhile, Sculatti, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Creem, Billboard, Mojo and other publications while authoring books including The Catalog of Cool, San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, Too Cool and the Kindle book Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving and Making Up with the Music of the Grateful Dead, is issuing Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ’bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016, in both paperback and Kindle editions on Sept 21. The book collects more than 60 pieces from his prolific career. He’s also a featured participant in the just-released documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism.
I was at the Delta Terminal at LaGuardia early morning July 14 waiting for my nonstop to Milwaukee when I saw that fellow music writer Joe Bosso Facebooked how he loved Grand Funk Railroad growing up, and how he couldn’t understand how the critics hated them.
I laughed out loud.
I had hated them, too, at the beginning, when me and the guys sat around smoking pot, guzzling beers and sniffing glue nonstop to “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But everything changed when they started having hit singles like “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul.” A million years later I was privileged to write the booklet notes to the box set Thirty Years of Funk: 1969–1999 and become big friends with frontman Mark Farner. Joe, who rightly called GFR “a total kickass band,” had just interviewed Mark, and drew an ambiguous response from the esteemed Ira Robbins-co-founder of the late, great Brit-rock/new wave-oriented mag Trouser Press-who observed that 150 music writers had been invited to meet the band at the beginning at New York’s Gotham Hotel.
“Exactly six journalists showed up,” Ira tallied, then cited the famous block-long billboard in Times Square promoting the Closer to Home album, at a cost of $100,000. He seemed to be suggesting that Grand Funk’s success was due much to marketing; for sure it wasn’t press adulation. Not wishing to cause my usual Facebook firestorm, I merely stated, “I wrote the notes for the box set. Mark is a sweetheart and great as ever,” prompting Ira to kindly reply, “You’re a midwestern partisan, you are!”
“On my way back to Wisco as we speak!” I wrote back, and it was now time to board.
It was my third annual July trip to Wisco, as I call it, to visit my ninetysomething mother in Madison. I didn’t plan anything when I went back two years ago, but I got lucky: My high school buddy Andy Linderman, now the renowned blues harmonica player Westside Andy, had a gig on July 4 at Waupun–a tiny town 50 miles northeast of Madison mostly known for being the site of the state prison–and I tagged along. The annual Celebrate Waupun festival had two stages–the blues stage, that Andy was part of, and of all things, a Cajun music stage, the big name being Feufollet, a Lafayette band I’d first seen there in the late 1990s when they were all kids. They’re young adults now, after personnel changes including the addition of Kelli Jones-Savoy, the hugely talented wife of my dear friend and huge Cajun music talent Joel Savoy from nearby Eunice, The Cajun Prairie Capital.
It turned out that Feufollet was playing one of my old Madcity haunts, the Crystal Corner bar, a few days later, so I got to see them twice while I was in town. But also playing the Cajun stage was of all people, Jim Schwall, guitarist for the Siegel-Schwall Band, one of the main reasons I got into writing about music in the mid’70s in the first place.
I’d first seen Jim at The People’s Fair rock festival in Iola Township some 140 miles north of Madison, which took place in late June of 1970, when Siegel-Schwall played sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend festival. As I’ve written here elsewhere*, it was life-changing. I think Andy was at the fest, but I know he’d originally turned me on to them and I instantly became a devotee, turning everyone I knew onto the band and seeing them again scores of times throughout the next decade. I wrote about them extensively when I began writing about music, and continued after moving to New York in the early ’80s, eventually positioning myself to oversea the CD reissue of their entire Vanguard catalog.
Jim’s Siegel-Schwall partner Corky Siegel became one of my closest friends, but I never knew Jim that well. After moving to New York he moved to Madison, so I missed out on getting to know him better there. So I was thrilled to get to see him and hang out a bit during the day at Waupun, where he was playing bass in Madison’s Cajun Strangers.
“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” Jim told me, by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands. I can’t remember what band Andy was playing with, but I know it wasn’t his, and that like Jim, he played in a number of local blues bands as well.
I was smarter last year in planning my trip, but that’s because I knew well in advance Elvis Costello was playing in Madison with The Imposters–their own gig during a couple days off from their tour opening for Steely Dan. I wrote about the show—and it’s significance to me and my career—here last year*; another high point of last year’s trip was getting to hang out again with Jim, at the Atwood (Avenue) Fest.
This year I was hoping maybe Jimmy Liban was playing somewhere. Jim Liban, another great blues harmonica legend, from my hometown Milwaukee.
Of all the artists—and they probably number in the hundreds if not thousands—whom I saw and loved and supported in my writing career who deserved and didn’t get the widespread mainstream recongition they deserved, none ranks higher in my estimation than Jimmy Liban. Luckily, he put out a record a couple years ago, I Say What I Mean, and I made it my Album of the Year in examiner.com. He hadn’t had a record out in God knows how long, and wouldn’t have had not a young (relatively) guitar player named Joel Paterson, who had played with Jimmy when he was cutting his own musical teeth in Madison, decided, now that he was well established in Chicago and had started his own indie label, to put out an album of Liban originals.
I Say What I Mean did get Jimmy a gig in Europe, and also took him to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. But remember: This is the blues, so there wasn’t much else. When I called him a few weeks before booking my trip, he told me that he was in the middle of a one-year hiatus from playing—though he had promised a friend that he’d play his wedding, and was honoring that commitment. When the year was up he’d decide if he’d want to play again, but for now, it just wasn’t any fun any more, essentially playing the same Milwaukee haunts for the same Milwaukee people. I shared his frustration, and added it to my own.
That left Corky. I went to his website and sure enough, he had a gig on July 16 in Fort Atkinson, a 45-minute or so drive from Madison, at Cafe Carpe. I booked the trip, flying to Milwaukee and taking the Badger Bus to Madison. That first night, it turned out, was the start of the four-day Le Fete de Marquette festival, in of all places, Madison’s Central Park. I didn’t even know we had a Central Park in Madison, and that it was a walk from where I used to live on South Hancock Street a few blocks back of the State Capitol. I went there with my old pal Jeff Laramie, owner of the booking agency SRO Artists, who used to be second in command at Mountain Railroad Records, home of artists including Jim Post, Steve Young, a pre-Timbuk3 Pat MacDonald and Spooner–which was fronted by Doug Erikson, later to become Duke Erikson of Garbage, and had on drums Butch Vig, also of future Garbage and Nirvana production fame.
It being Madison, I smoked some pot, followed Jeff and wife Terri around and was blown away by the music (like the festival name suggests, it focused on French-related music), and the one artist I remember seeing is Cyril Neville. I only wish I remembered the conversations I had with Jeff and Terri because I know I had at least five ideas for great stories/commentaries, and I was too high to take down any notes, none of which likely would have made sense had I done so. I at least remember one thing that I think Jeff said, that echoed my thoughts on pre-Democratic Convention Bernie Sanders.
I of course supported Bernie’s positions, but I didn’t support Bernie. He lost me from the beginning on vocabulary ,three words in particular—the first being revolution. I don’t care what he meant, revolution connotes violence. If it doesn’t scare a lot of people to death outright, it puts them way the fuck off.
Bernie’s second bad word was obvious—socialism. Again, even though I doubt most people can correctly defin it, socialism scares people and puts them off, especially since it still widely and wrongly connotes communism. Maybe America is ready to elect a socialist, not to mention a Jewish socialist. I just didn’t want to bet the Constitution on it.
The third word was establishment. Bernie kept railing against the establishment, much as I did when I was a teen high school radical in the late ‘60s. Except this ain’t the late ‘60s, and now I’m the establishment—and I’m not ashamed of it. I always love President Obama’s line from the 2008 campaign, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And I’m proud of who I was in the ‘60s in Madison, when there was an awful war going on and a Selective Service draft and a generation gap, and to suggest, like the Bernie or Bust people, that now Obama and Hillary Clinton and I are essentially the same as Nixon, well, I’ll have none of it.
And now I’ll add a fourth word, one that has to do with what Jeff or I did or didn’t say: rigged. Yeah, Bernie, like Trump, riled up his followers by claiming that the “system” is rigged, when he was losing a good fight fair and square. Here he only reinforced a main paranoid tenet of American culture since the JFK assassination, that everything that happens that’s bad is a conspiracy, then, with Trump, helped extend it by giving his followers free reign to believe that winners are corrupt and therefore win unfairly, hence their victories are illegitimate. This breeds cynicism, incivility, unwillingness to compromise, a belief that if you don’t get everything you want, nothing is preferable.
Now by no means an I saying that Hillary is spotless, or that I like her, though it turns out that I do, very much–having in fact hated her eight years ago when she ran against Obama, having been a Clinton hater long before then. But she earned my respect and eventual admiration for sucking it up after losing, campaigning for Obama, serving as his Secretary of State and now winning the nomination fairly and handily as the candidate far and away most supportive of the President–which Bernie was to a lesser extent, his chief supporters to a far lesser one. Again, I support Bernie’s positions, which are closer to mine than Hillary’s, and I recognize her weaknesses and shortcomings as a candidate–but in relation to Trump, they’re virtually nonexistent, and the differences between her and Bernie are likewise truly miniscule. All this said, I do hereby salute Bernie for doing the right thing at and since the convention, and am relieved that the bulk of his followers do appear to have similarly sucked it up.
I just wish I could remember the other stuff we talked about, but that old Madison Green—not to mention a new addition in the Madtown Mule—a beer infused with lime and ginger made by Capital Brewery, that I drank an entire mule team of—-made me forget everything except the sight of people as old as me who still lived in Madison and still went out to hear music, and that it was such a great setting in a park in the middle of the near East Side with the majestic State Capitol building visible in the sunset, the Capitol that you can see from miles away as you near Madison on the Badger Bus, that I used to walk through on my way to State Street and the University-area music clubs when I lived there and wrote for The Madcity Music Sheet and was a stringer for Variety before moving to New York.
I do remember one other thing, part of the Bernie discussion, that I myself came up with and gave to a girl that we were talking to, a friend of Jeff’s, that I know she never acted on, that I should have—a t-shirt slogan: “Vote conscientiously–not your conscience.” If anyone who reads this is so inclined to print up and sell some shirts, honor compels you to cut me in.
I returned to the festival the next night to meet up with Rockin’ John McDonald, my friend of over 40 years—as long as he’s had his beloved I Like It Like That oldies radio show every Saturday night on Madison’s listener-sponsored WORT-FM. I thought I was cool wearing my orange New York Public Library t-shirt, but RJ topped it with his vintage blue Dr. Bop and the Headliners entry. That day, by the way, I returned for the first time since leaving my third job with the State of Wisconsin in either 1978 or ‘79 to the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson, overlooking Lake Monona, where I worked two blocks south of the Capitol.
I needed a birth certificate, as I was suddenly thinking of fleeing to India and didn’t have a passport. I walked into the building and thought I’d stepped into The Twilight Zone: Not everything was the same—there was a security station in the lobby that wasn’t there in the ‘70s. It all looked brighter outside, too. But the institutional flooring and hallways were the same, and it was a step back in time that I recently depicted here.
I can’t remember, but I think my office was on the second floor; I think my second job with the State, a file clerk at the Division of Corrections, was on seventh floor, and the first, where I was a reader/typist for a blind man at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, was also on an upper floor.
The clerk at the Bureau of Records, of course, was my age 40 years ago, modified in the passage of time and mores by arms full of tattoos. When I was done I walked out and got to the lobby and stopped, giving in to the stupid impulse to go back and tell her that I used to work in the building 40 years ago. She feigned interest.
Since I worked there, and long after I left Madison, they built a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, the Monona Terrace, behind the State Office Building, on the Monona shore. They put in a plaque on the terrace in memory of Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967. I was with my friend Beth, whose husband Tim Onosko, the renowned futurist/author, was one of my dearest friends and supporters, an older brother/mentor. Tim died of cancer a few years ago. Pancreatic. I thought he’d beaten it and will never forgive myself for not knowing he hadn’t, though Beth assures me it was okay, he didn’t want anyone to know. Except I should have known and it wasn’t okay.
We went out on to the terrace, and I sat on one of the benches surrounding the Redding plaque and looked out onto the quiet, still waters of Lake Monona, silently wondering what might have been. What might have been had Otis lived, and Tim. Had I stayed in the Madcity.
Saturday mid-afternoon I took my mother’s car and drove to Fort Atkinson with my 21-year-old niece Ariela to see Corky and Howard at Cafe Carpe. We got there while they were doing soundcheck. I hadn’t seen Corky since he was in New York four years ago to play Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Dr. L. Subramaniam. I don’t remember the last time I saw Howard, but it was probably at one of his gigs at the Association of performing Arts Presenters (APAP) some 10 years ago, maybe.
Corky and Howard play together a lot, but this was the first time I’d see them—and I was bringing along my niece Ariela, 21, who’s a classical piano student at New York’s Mannes School of Music, who was also in Madison visiting her mom (my sister). After greeting Corky, his wife/manager Holly and Howard, Corky echoed my excitement over her getting to see Howard (as well as Corky), who does things on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica—i.e., play it chromatically by conceiving an “overblowing” technique–that no one else knows how to do, let alone articulate. You really don’t need to be a musician, let alone understand music, to know when you hear Howard play that he’s doing something that sounds great, but makes absolutely no sense technically speaking.
Howard tried to put it in piano terms for Ariela–but even that was ridiculous.
“I make my mouth do the stuff my fingers would do,” he said. I doubt she understood him. I certainly didn’t.
“I’m not really thinking about this,” he added, speaking, I supposed, of his harmonica. “I visualize the piano.”
He might just as well have been speaking in tongues.
It was at Café Carpe, a wonderful little café/bar/listening room—-maybe 50 seats–in a century-old brick building on the Rock River with a screened porch overlooking the water, owned and operated by regionally renowned folkie Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch. Holly raved about the pumpkin pie; the carrot cake was definitely the best I ever had.
On the wall of the music room was a bumper sticker that read, “I may be old but that’s okay…I got to see all the great bands.”
Bill introduced the show with a Hitchcock like “Good evening,” then asked how many in the SRO room were musicians. At least half raised their hands. I can’t imagine any of them understood what was going on with Howard, either, other than it was, using Bill’s words, “absolute magic.”
Comedic, too. Corky walked to the stage from the back while playing harp, Howard doing same a few paces back in a goofy processional. On stage they tried to out-footstomp each other while Corky played and sang Little Walter’s classic blues “Mellow Down Easy,” leading into a blues harmonica battle between the two.
They went on to trade solo pieces, both on piano and harmonica and sometimes both. At one point Corky laughed out loud at a Howard harmonica solo, which was entirely appropriate considering he was essentially defying all science, such that all one could do was laugh out loud. Howard said that the harmonica is the only instrument that you can pick up upside-down when you’re drunk and not know it. That sort of made sense, but really, it was like listening to Albert Einstein’s feeble attempt at relating with the village idiots.
Then Howard did a Beatles medley including “In My Life” and “Michelle,” his chording so complex that melodies were sometimes barely decipherable, as if he were somehow blowing into a kaleidoscope. “America the Beautiful,” with harp in right hand and left playing piano, segued into “This Land is Your Land,” then he shifted to both hands playing piano and Corky returning, playing harmonica before they sat together at the piano bench duetting—or more accurately, practically crawling over each other while changing hand position, Corky’s at first in between the taller, lankier Howard as he wrapped around him from behind, then the two with their hands alternating before Corky picked up a harmonica, then Howard did the same, each now playing harmonicas with one hand, piano with the other, in left-right-right-left hand mirror image. They also handed off solos on harp and piano and back and forth to where it became dizzying to follow the dazzle.
But that wasn’t all: Howard also played a bass harmonica, penny whistle and on an encore, an angklung set of tuned shakers. But when he doubled the melody on harp and piano simultaneously, well, mouths were agape, and at least in my case, still is. He and Corky walked off together to Siegel-Schwall’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” each finishing the other’s phrases.
The first half of the trip now done, the rest would focus on the few friends in Madison I have left who are still alive, our conversations invariably concerning our respective cancer treatments, except that in Robin’s case he added a new wrinkle to the medical history in having dropped dead at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago—luckily within short distance from a defibrillator. Of course I asked the expected question, i.e., Did you see anything on the other side? Rob’s answer, of course, was no.
Tom, whom I worked with at the State Office Building (same with Rob), seemed to be coming along great after intensive treatment for throat cancer. He was skeletal two years ago, and now he’s playing soccer and drumming in a band.
I had lunch with Chuck Toler, who was partners with Ken Adamany back when I first started writing. The money they made managing Dr. Bop & the Headliners went into developing Cheap Trick. We called Ken, who sounded great. Ken owned The Factory, the nightclub Otis was going to play the day his plane went down in Lake Monona.
Next day was my last—Tuesday, July 19–and I’d end it with some old-time club hopping starting at Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, near my mom’s, where Westside Andy and the Glenn Davis Duo are playing every Tuesday evening during the summer outside on the deck/patio at 5:30 p.m. I’d checked Andy’s schedule before flying out and saw that he was playing every night I was there, all out of town gigs except for this one. He recognized me immediately in his side view mirror when I snuck up on his car after he parked.
It was the second week in a row that an old friend had surprised him, the first being a gal we knew from high school whom he hadn’t seen forever—whom I haven’t seen since—who looked great, who had married the brother of another high school friend, but the husband had died—death being more and more the operative word in these kinds of conversations. Back from a recent Stockholm swing if I heard right–alwasy a 50-50 proposition at best–Andy was still playing with any number of local blues groupings, this one being with Davis, who plays guitar and kick drum and sings. Like Corky and Howard, they turned to Little Walter with “Just Your Fool” while I was there, which was about an hour or so before heading downtown, Andy’s latest album Blues Just Happen in hand, to the Cardinal Bar. I used to hang out there a lot 40 years ago, when it was my corner bar and a straight-friendly gay disco with the best dance music in town.
Tuesday summer early evenings at the Cardinal now are turned over to Ben Sidran’s “Salons for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Free Thinkers,” in which my old friend Ben, Madison’s renowned jazz pianist/author/composer who cut his teeth in The Ardells, a Madison band made up of UW students in 1961 that also included Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—and Jos Davidson, who would go on to play bass in an early Siegel-Schwall configuration. Ben also played in the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s.
He was on break when I got there and ran into Stu Levitan, president of WORT-FM’s board of directors and head of the Madison Landmarks Commission, whom I’d hung out with at the Marquette fest when I met up with Rockin’ John. He told me that Ben was at the front of the bar. Sure enough, Ben was sitting by the window, engrossed in a conversation. So I stood nearby waiting for him to look at me, though I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me, it had been so long since I’d seen him in New York. I know the last time I saw him in Madison was at a Dr. Bop gig, since we both would be called up to sit–and drink–at the ultimate oldies show band’s famous onstage Celebrity Bar.
So I stood there waiting, then noticed a familiar looking woman looking at me like she’d seen a ghost—which would have made sense had she recognized me. Except who’s going to recognize me here now? I thought, and usually people who think they recognize me are soon disappointed when they find out I’m not who they hope I am.
Except that now this woman was smiling broadly and seemed certain it was me, and suddenly it dawned on me that she was right! It was Lynette Margulies, frontwoman pianist/vocalist of jazz-pop group Four Chairs No Waiting back in the day, whom I hadn’t seen since back in the day. I have no idea how she recognized me, but really, I should have recognized her right off.
Lynette immediately interrupted Ben and told him who I was, and he practically fell on the floor. “It’s old home week!” he said when he regained his blance and composure, and sure enough, he’d been locked in conversation with another old Madison journo friend who also lived in New York and was in town visiting. As for Lynette, she remembered when I reviewed Four Chairs when I was stringing with Variety just before splitting for New York—and will never let me off now for not recognizing her right away.
(Photo: Lynette Margulies)
As for Ben’s second set, it really was fabulous—almost all new music by him and and his guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Todd Hammes. Loved the song “College,” especially the line “that’s the place…where I went wrong”–that is, if I read my notes correctly—always a 50-50 proposition at best.
“Who didn’t go wrong in college?” Ben asked when it was over. “And if you didn’t go wrong in college, you missed a huge opportunity!”
“Too Much, Too Late,” he said, was “in the spirit” of his “guru” Mose Allison, which made me think of how I always look at Corky as my guru, though I should add that Simon Burgess is my actual guro, or teacher, in Filipino martial arts.
“It’s the ‘singles’ show!” Ben joked, “just the hits tonight!”
Again struggling to decipher my notes, I can’t tell if someone asked about Steve Miller, or if Ben brought it up on his own. He did say how everybody asks him about Miller, and observed how Miller’s been playing “the same 12 songs for 40 years,” no doubt because of the big bucks he gets paid to do them.
Here Stu, who later explained that he was just quoting Ben from one of Ben’s books, called out something on the order of how those big bucks also paid for Ben’s graduate education so he should shut his mouth, and for sure, Ben’s stint with Miller included his lyrics to “Space Cowboy.”
“At least write a song!” Ben continued, speaking directly to the absent Miller. “It seems like such a waste.”
At least Ben sure made it seem that way from his end, considering the quality of his new songs. I’d been sitting with Patenaude’s proud mom, and he sat with us for a few minutes after the show.
It’s like learning,” said Patenaude, a youngish cat who’s played with Ben since the mid-2000s. “It’s really loose and fun. He tries something out and sees if we feel it and if it works.”
Ben then told me that he rarely makes it out to Manhattan any more.
“There’s no reason to come to the city any more,” he said, though he does get to Brooklyn, where his son Leo, also an esteemed musician/composer who co-produced the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” for the soundtrack to the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, lives. And while he’s working on a new album—and Stu said that the whole first set was new songs that were also great—Ben said that he realized there was no point to it, at least in terms of today’s record companies, airplay and traditional music business marketing.
But what are you going to do? I asked. You’re a musician, and a musician makes music. I’m a writer, and a writer writes—even though I just lost examiner.com, my main outlet, that barely paid. I still have this site, that I have to pay for. But what am I going to do?
Stu, meanwhile, is working a on a book about Madison in the ‘60s, and I again ask you, Stu, to mention that I was one of the Memorial 101 who were suspended from James Madison Memorial High School for protesting Kent State. Before closing out the night—and trip—down the street at the Essen Haus to catch a little of jazz concertina player Brian Erickson, I walked over to where the cigarette machine used to be next to the front door, where I picked up a copy of The Madcity Music Sheet the night I got back from a week’s vacation in Nashville on Memorial Day in 1977-—my first time there—when I dropoped by the Cardinal to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine and I picked one up and paged through it—then just a single sheet of newsprint folded over twice–saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (with guest Ronnie Spector) appearing in town at the Stone Hearth, and went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from musically.
I met Gary Sohmers, the Sheet’s publisher at the Southside gig, and not knowing anything about me other than that I’d come to the show after seeing it highlighted in his paper, he asked me to write for it. I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter. The only difference is that there was no cigarette machine now at the Cardinal.
I told Stu and his girlfriend how great this night had been, indeed, the entire trip–in terms of seeing so much fantastic music. She said maybe I should move back to Madison–the perfect setup for one of my favorite Sandra Bernhard lines, Sandy, of course, being from Flint, Michigan.
If you can make it in New York, says Sandy, you’ll be a failure everywhere else.
Four years ago when Darlene Love received the ASCAP Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award at the 2012 WhyHunger Chapin Awards Dinner, she wanted it made known that she was ready and willing for more work than her annual Christmas show bookings. Thanks to seizing the moment at the 2014 Academy Awards, when she helped accept the Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom (being a central figure in the documentary about backup singers) and exploded into a spontaneous a cappella chorus of the gospel hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” as well as her belated 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she’s getting plenty of quality non-holiday work now, including her Lincoln Center Out of Doors show two weeks ago (July 23) at Damrosch Park.
In fact, her career is so big now that the show required two sets, the first consisting of songs from last year’s terrific Steven Van Zandt-produced, ironically titled album Introducing Darlene Love (it took 30 years to come into fruition, she explained), the second focusing on her 1960s career establishing hits produced by Phil Spector. Highlights of the first included Van Zandt’s show-opening “Among the Believers,” Elvis Costello’s “Still Too Soon to Know” (with her guitarist/bandleader Marc Ribler subbing for the record’s fellow Spector alumn duet partner Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers),and Jimmy Webb’s impassioned plea “Who Under Heaven.”
Besides Spector classics including “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home,” Love showcased her own backup singers (Milton Vann, Baritone MacKenzie and 35-year Love backup signer Ula Hedwig) on songs including Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” which was produced by Russ Titelman, who was not only in attendance, but was once upon a time a guitarist in the Shindogs houseband of ‘60s pop music TV show Shindig!–of which Love, then also part of The Blossoms female vocal backup trio, was likewise a regular.
Russ Titelman (right) at Damrosch Park’s Darlene Love show (photo courtesy of Russ Titelman)
But the second half also included “Marvelous,” Walter Hawkins’ gospel classic that is also on Introducing Darlene Love, which she performs powerfully at every show as a tribute to her late backup singer and friend Patty Darcy.
Titelman, meanwhile, found Margaret Ross Williams, lead singer of The Cookies, also of ‘60s fame via the hits “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)” and “Chains” (covered by The Beatles), and also an important female backup vocal trio for artists including Neil Sedaka and Little Eva. Love’s contemporary, Williams noted how so many others of their time are now gone.
“Darlene is inspiring us to keep going in our own way,” said Williams, and with Love then three days away from turning 75, a video birthday greeting was screened prior to the second set with messages from the likes of Costello, Medley, Van Zandt, Hedwig, Paul Shaffer and Joan Jett, whose “Little Liar” she covered on Introducing Darlene Love and at Damrosch Park.
She closed with Spector’s “River Deep–Mountain High,” and while her Spector recordings made her legend, unlike virtually all the other Spector-associated artists, she’s long since furthered it on her own. And though it was a scorching summer evening, she made the obvious clear: “I’m not sweating, honey,” she responded to an incorrect observer. “I’m glowing!”
If they were just a flash in the pan, Nice as Fuck, or Nice as F**k, or NAF was a blinding flash in an intimate pan, based on the trio’s two rapid-fire 30-minute sets Monday night at the Bowery Ballroom, following two similar ones at the Deep End Club closing party Friday night.
NAF acutally formed earlier this year at Tennessee Thomas’s East Village boutique/community center, which the former Like drummer launched three years ago. Fronted by Jenny Lewis, NAF is a girl supergroup of sorts, with Thomas on drums and Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster on bass. Sharing the shop owner’s activism on behalf of progressive causes (it grew out of her involvement in the Occupy movement and became the home for activities concerning other issues like women’s rights and fracking), the band debuted at Bern NY Bern, an April fundraiser for Bernie Sanders at New York club Flash Factory. Thomas had supported Sanders mightily in the media—even including an interview on BBC Newsnight–and at her store.
“It’s hard to sustain a business on Peace & Love alone,” Thomas wrote on her Facebook page when announcing the Deep End Club’s closing concert. “For 3 magical years we’ve used [it] to promote peace & love. [It] has been our clubhouse & birthed NICE AS FUCK! The band has taken the message on tour, & what a beautiful note to end our east village experience on!”
Deep End Club closing concert (Photo: Jim Bessman)
Indeed, it was in the store window that NAF wrote and rehearsed the songs on their self-titled nine-song EP, which Lewis released in June on her Love’s Way label. According to Thomas’s father Pete Thomas—better recognized as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer behind Elvis Costello—the EP was cut in some guy’s bedroom in one week at a cost of $1,000.
Tennessee noted the “very sad” news of the shop closing when called upon by Lewis to explain the NAF song “Cookie Lips” during the band’s Bowery Ballroom sets.
“It’s about getting ‘crumbs of affection,’” she said, “when you get crumbs of affection—like texting—and want the whole cookie!” Such a thing is sometimes possible, she exclaimed, citing “the good news” of Forster being six months pregnant.
(Photo: Jim Bessman)
NAF had come out following a great mix of ‘60s and ‘70s records from Alix Brown, like Tennessee a great DJ, musician, activist and Deep End Club habitue. She was stationed at the back of the Bowery Ballroom stage, hidden by a throng of attendees on stage, too, and a big balloon “tree” tying in with the closing night Deep End Club decor; NAF, then, was set up in the middle of the floor, in about as small a space as the Deep End Club window, their gear placed before a big peace sign light fixture and sealed off by velvet ropes until just before the gals came out, so that when they did, there was no separation between populist band and adoring populace.
Tennessee played what was essentially a practice kit intended for Costello tour rehearsals, Pete said—a Sanders t-shirt covering the snare. It was small enough to fit in the Deep End Club window, and featured a bass drum head painted a light blue, red and white target by handyman Pete to match the store colors.
(Photo: Sarah Tate)
NAF wore their customary green army fatigues, black berets, and “Nice As Fuck” t-shirts–as did many of the like-age young women surrounding them, some also wearing shirts emblazoned with the NAF motto “Give A Damn,” and all knowing all the band’s lyrics and singing along. Lewis, who contributed spare phrases and effects on a little keyboard, sang to everyone circling her and the others, even embracing one while singing. Especially on “Higher,” she resembled Patti Smith–otherwise it was a minimalist drum-and-bass sound, though quite a groovy one thanks to Tennessee and Forster. Pete rightly likened the overall sensation, visually and sonically, to that of an amphitheater.
Going through the entire EP in real time, NAF reminded me of Danny Fields and how he told me that a major reason he signed The Ramones (whom Brown played during her warmup) to management was that their sets clocked in at under 20 minutes. Even at a good 10 minutes longer, I’m sure he’d have loved NAF, who closed strong with the Ramones-like “Door” and “Guns” (its “I don’t wanna be afraid/Put your guns away” couplet made for an easy, committed singalong), and the thrice-repeated “NAF Theme”: “We’re Nice…as Fuck! Wish you…good luck!”—maybe their generation’s “Fish Cheer.”
And with that they smiled, flashed two-handed peace signs, and were gone—maybe for good. Forster’s having a baby, Tennessee’s taking time off, and Lewis “is going back to being Jenny Lewis,” said Pete. Of the show—especially the second set—he commented: “very inspiring.”
But Pete’s friend Joe Blaney, whose engineering credits range from The Clash to Prince, felt that NAF could still pick up where they left off at any time, and as Tennessee wrote in her Facebook announcement of her shop’s closing, “The Deep End Club will definitely re-emerge in another form in the future.. But thedeependclub.com in the meantime! Here’s to PEACE AND LOVE!”
Alan Vega’s death on July 16, and being back in Madison, Wis at the same time, brought me back to when I first heard Suicide’s self-titeld 1977 debut album, and The Blind Man in the Bleachers.
“The Blind Man in the Bleachers” was a No. 2 country hit in 1975 for Kenny Starr, a cover of the Top 20 pop hit that year by David Geddes. It really was one of the schmaltziest country hits ever, about a blind man in a high school football stadium bleachers who longs to hear his second stringer son’s name announced, but doesn’t show up for the season final. Turns out he died, which is how he gets to “see his son [finally] get in the game” and lead the team to victory.
I was working at the State of Wisconsin at the time, a typist-receptionist in the Department of Administration Bureau of Personnel, in a federally funded program called Project Skill, which was designed to give physically and mentally disabled people job opportunities (myself included, having–get this–earlier worked as a reader-typist for a blind man in the same old downtown State Office Building in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation). One day this blind guy came in to work, but he wasn’t a client. I can’t remember what his exact staff position was, but Dennis in fact became one of my best friends—thanks largely to his wife Maddy.
Maddy, you see, was a great cook. She used to pack the best lunches for Dennis every day, and me being hungry, well, I stole them. Incredulous people would always ask, “How could you do that?” “Easy,” I’d answer. “He was blind.”
Not that Dennis didn’t try hard. He’d hide his lunch in the closet, in his desk, in places I can’t remember, but to no avail. I’d watch him fumbling around for his lunch and his eventual realization that it wasn’t where he hid it, and cover my ears for the inevitable “FUCK YOU!” that followed. Actually, “FUCK YOU!” was our mutual greeting: Every time he’d call me on the phone, either at home or in the office—and my desk wasn’t more than 20 feet from his—there’d be a pause after I answered, then a loud “FUCK YOU” (if in the office, a loud whispered “FUCK YOU”). I, of course, always responded in kind.
It wasn’t long before Maddy started packing a second lunch, and Dennis and I would walk the couple blocks from the State Office Building on 1 West Wilson Street to the State Capital Square, walking around the Square while eating—that is, when I wasn’t trying to push him into the street or he wasn’t trying to hit me with his cane. At least once a week or so he’d come over to my place a few blocks East of the Square on Hancock Street and listen to records, or I’d take the bus with him to the West Side for dinner followed by Crazy Eights, which, somehow, he invariably won amidst ceaseless gloating.
This had to be around 1977-78–the advent of punk and new wave, which is when I went back to listening to rock after having immersed myself in country music around 1970 when prog-rock and pop-rock replaced ‘60s Top 40 radio and underground rock FM stations. Hence, I knew of “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”–a hit that understandably hasn’t withstood the test of time. As for my Blind Man in the Bleachers, well, Dennis shared my love of ‘60s rock, but pretty much hated punk and new wave. To this day the only time I ever sat through an entire Saturday Night Live was the landmark one on Dec. 17, 1977, when Elvis Costello & the Attractions filled in for the just disbanded Sex Pistols, and it was over at Dennis’s with several of his and Maddy’s other friends. I think there was only one other person there who thought Elvis was incredible–let alone had any idea who he was.
But I played everything for Dennis—Elvis, The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Sex Pistols, Clash, Talking Heads. I don’t recall that he liked any of it, but he did have an assistant who was also a big punk fan, who actually saw the Pistols when they played the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas on that ill-fated U.S. tour.
And, of course, Suicide. I went back to that first Suicide album right after the death of Vega, whom I met many years later in New York when I interviewed him for Billboard. Even now the minimalist album is gripping from instrumentalist Martin Rev’s “Ghost Rider” techno-electro get-go and Vega’s “America America is killing its youth” lyric proceeding into breathless abandon.
And how about “Frankie Teardrop,” which inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”?
It had an insane electronic beat and a fundamental keyboard grind that heightened the tension in Vega’s tale about the downtrodden psycho killer/suicide Frankie Teardrop (“Let’s hear it for Frankie!”), which erupted into a frantic screech as the subject exploded.
But it was “Cheree” that really set Dennis off. He’d goof on me non-stop for Vega’s “Cheree Cheree, oh baby,” mercilessly exaggerating Vega’s already exaggerated delivery.
I began my writing career in the Project Skill office, when Steve Tatarsky, who worked in the Bureau of Personnel and had earlier worked at The Milwaukee Sentinel, complained how he had to write the Department of Administration newsletter, titled–get this–D.O.A. Today. I offered to help Steve out, even though I had no writing experience outside school–and I’d flunked out of high school.
The only article I remember writing for D.O.A. Today was a somewhat investigative piece on the remodeled men’s room down the hall. Being an old building, it had these beautiful marble walls, institutional gravel floors, and big wooden doors in the stalls–also beautiful. But for some stupid bureaucratic reason, they decided to replace the doors with some kind of hideous orange formica, and I think they covered up the marble as well. It took a long time to do, and when it was finished, the modern upgrade looked awful.
I quoted an unidentified source who used the facility regularly, but as this was all almost 40 years ago, I don’t think he’ll mind if I reveal his name now.
“It looks like a Burger King!” said The Blind Man in the Bleachers.
‘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:
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”
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”
15. “The Long Honeymoon”
16. “Almost Blue”
17. “God Give Me Strength”
18. “Shot With His Own Gun”
19. “Another Girl in My Head”
21. “Church Underground”
22. “Motel Matches”
23. “Stella Hurt”
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.