Howard Bingham: An appreciation

I saw Lonnie Ali’s tweet announcing the Dec. 15 death of Howard Bingham and was saddened though not surprised.

It had been several years since I’d had contact with Howard—though not for lack of trying: I’d called him and emailed him several times over the years, but the number I had no longer had
an answering machine and I never got an email response.

I called the publisher of his most recent book Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers 1968 (2010), as he’d come with Howard to my annual Bessman Bash party in Los Angeles, and he’d lost contact, too, same with the people at Taschen, which put out the immense Greatest Of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali book that was full of Howard’s photos of Ali, including, I think, the fab pic of his baby son, cradled in Ali’s left hand, his right balled up into a fist held at the baby’s face, his own delightfully contorted in clownish anger. Some 20 years later—at least—I called Howard and a serious-sounding young man answered and said he wasn’t home. Who was speaking? I asked. It was his son, he said, “The one in the picture?” I asked. He laughed and said yes.

No doubt Ali’s camp knew about Howard’s whereabouts and condition, but I’d lost touch with them, too, when Ali’s assistant Kim retired several years ago. Indeed, it was only after bringing him up to Michale Olajide, Jr., when I visited him at his Aerospace gym in Chelsea to take down his thoughts on Muhammad Ali after his passing that I learned he was indeed ill–at least that’s what Michael had heard. Then it all made sense.

I’d actually met Michael through Howard, when Howard brought me to a pre-release New York screening of Ali at the Ziegfeld. I was standing with Howard when Michael came in with Angelo Dundee, Ali’s legendary trainer, who had also trained Michael for a while. So I sat with Howard, Angelo and Michael, and became big friends with Michael. And when I called Kim when I got back home, and told her how much I enjoyed the movie—and meeting Angelo—she asked me to wait a moment, and then, sure enough, a frail yet instantly recognizable GOAT whispered into the phone, “So how did you like the movie?”

Howard’s New York Times obit said he took an estimated million photos of Ali in the 50 years of their friendship. It quoted former Times sports reporter/columnist Robert Lipsyte’s summation of Howard as “the kindest, most generous and decent human being in that whole Ali entourage,” who “really kept him on the straight and narrow. He had this beautiful innocence about him. And a very difficult stammer that made him hard to understand.”

Yes, he did have that stammer! But he was also a quiet, unassuming man, who never exploited his relationship with Ali and unlike so many others in the Ali entourage, never took any moneyh from him.

The Times also cited Howard’s “calm demeanor,” which allowed him to stay with Ali through four wives, his conversion to Islam, the stripping of his heavyweight title when he refused military service and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. It noted that while Howard photographs Ali’s fights, his complete access resulted in historically candid shots of Ali preaching or sleeping, playing with his children or with Elvis Presley, and posing with black leaders like Malcolm X and James Meredith.

“By being there, in hotel rooms and on streets with Ali, Howard saw him in unguarded moments and put together a portfolio that reveals the man Ali really was,” Newark’s longtime Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg told the Times. “His legacy, his pictures, are a necessary piece of the Ali puzzle.”

Through Howard I also had an unforgettable lunch some years ago in Downtown Nashville with the colorful John Jay Hooker, considered perhaps Music City’s most most recognizable and charismatic political figure, and definitely among its most controversial, who himself died a year ago. It was Hooker, who had been close friends with Bobby Kennedy (Hooker served as special assistant to RFK when he was attorney general in his brother’s administration), who befriended Ali shortly before the third Ali-Frazier fight (the fabled Thrilla in Mainilla), immediately after which Ali, victorious but exhausted and sitting on his stool in the ring, turned and said, “I want to say hello to my friend John Jay Hooker.”

Funny, I don’t remember how I met Howard originally, though it certainly was a long time ago. I had an in at Photo District News, a trade magazine for professional photographers that was owned by the same company that owned Billboard—for which Howard got me an Ali quote for an Ali-related story way back when, too. I asked him him if I could interview him for PDN and he said, “It would be an honor.”

It was my honor, of course.

“Howard meant so much to our family,” Lonnie tweeted. “We will miss him dearly but take comfort in knowing he’s back with his best friend.”

I retweeted it and added, “A wonderful, wonderful man. Thanks to him I got to know you….”

@Muhammad Ali tweeted: “The world has lost a great man and an even better friend. Howard Bingham will be dearly missed by all.” None more than me.

Here’s John Jay Hooker speaking about Ali and Bingham:

I am John Jay Hooker: Ali from Genuine Human Productions on Vimeo.

A warm Rock and Roll Hall of Fame salute to Steve Miller and Paul Stanley

New inductee Steve Miller did us all a big service Friday night at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he criticized the organization for neglecting female rockers during his acceptance speech, revealed its mistreatment of inductees during his press conference, then lambasted the publicist for trying to cut him off.

As for his first complaint, I always like thinking I was kicked off the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee years ago because I always spoke out in favor of Lesley Gore, Nancy Sinatra, Joan Jett and the Shangri-Las—not to mention males like The Turtles and The Hollies (Jett and The Hollies have since gone in), even though the form letter giving me the boot (along with a number of others) claimed that they wanted people who were more knowledgeable about 1970s rock—no matter that I’d written the first book on The Ramones.

So good on you there, Steve. Then again, as I’m from Madison, Wisconsin, I know how you inspired my homegirl Tracy Nelson’s signature song “Down So Low”–even if you did break her heart.

As for the RockHall’s treatment of inductees, he slagged the entire induction process backstage, in press accounts accusing the organization of disrespecting “the artists they say they’re honoring, which they don’t.” Here he specified licensing agreements between the show and inductees, and how they only gave him tickets for him and his wife while making his band and their wives fork over $10,000 per.

What I loved most, though, was how when the event’s publicist tried to stifle him, he stood his ground-—and then some: “No, we’re not going to wrap this up–I’m going to wrap you up,” he said. “You go sit down over there and learn something.”

What I’ve always hated about these award shows, or for that matter any major media extravaganza, is the way that media is herded and controlled (see Donald Trump media pens) like sheep—even if most of the time we are. Of course he wasn’t so much sticking up for the press and against big-event publicists as he was for himself and fellow RockHall inductees, but even an indirect slap at media manipulation, even among the most manipulatable, is to be applauded.

“This is how close this whole show came to not happening because of the way the artists are being treated,” he said, holding up two fingers very close together. And then he did wrap it up and walk off.

The RockHall tried to act diplomatic afterwards via a statement: “Rock ‘n’ roll can ignite many opinions,” it said. “It’s what makes it so great.”

Now there’s one big crock of shit statement! It’s the music that makes it so great, and it’s the many opinions that makes the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so despised! In fact, it’s those opinions—a good many if not most of them stupid—that makes defining rock ‘n’ roll apparently impossible! Another new inductee, N.W.A.’s Ice Cube, makes my point.

“The question is, ‘Are we rock ‘n’ roll?'” Cube said in an acceptance speech in which he proclaimed that N.W.A. and hip-hop belong there next to the Beatles, Elvis and Chuck Berry, “and I say–you goddamn right we rock ‘n’ roll.” His explanation? “Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument. It’s not even a style of music. It’s 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.”

You may have noted, as I most certainly did, that he left out country. 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.”

Ice Cube didn’t say “polka,” either. But he—and N.W.A. mate MC Ren—got into a tiff with 2014 inductee Gene Simmons over the very point at hand.

KISS’s Simmons had told Rolling Stone that he was “looking forward to the death of rap,” that rappers didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame because they didn’t play guitar or sing—much as Phil Spector once told me that “rap music” is actually an oxymoron. In The New York Times shortly before his induction, Cube said he respected Simmons, “but I think he’s wrong on this, because rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument and it’s not singing. Rock ’n’ roll is a spirit. N.W.A is probably more rock ’n’ roll than a lot of the people that he thinks belong there over hip-hop. We had the same spirit as punk rock, the same as the blues.”

Here he invoked the “spirit” characterization of rock ‘n’ roll, that once again, takes precedence over the music itself. He added in his induction remarks that “rock ‘n’ roll is not even a style of music,” with Ren answering Simmons directly: “Hip-Hop is here forever. Get used to it.”

Never the type to suffer in silence, Simmons tweeted Saturday: “Respectfully, let me know when Jimi Hendrix gets into the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. Then you’ll have a point.” The next day Cube retorted, also via tweet, “Who stole the soul? Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Chubby Checker help invent rock & roll. We invent it. Y’all reprint it.”

Simmons’ final reply: “Cube, I stand by my words. [I] respect N.W.A, but when Led Zep gets into Rap Hall of Fame, I will agree with your point.”

Rolling Stone, covering the exchange Monday, quoted from a 2014 Simmons interview with Radio.com: “A few people decide what’s in and what’s not. And the masses just scratch their heads. You’ve got Grandmaster Flash in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Run-D.M.C. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? You’re killing me. That doesn’t mean those aren’t good artists. But they don’t play guitar. They sample and they talk. Not even sing.”

But KISS and N.W.A. did have one thing in common, in addition to the capital letters. Neither band performed at their induction. As Cube told the Times (and echoed Miller), “we really didn’t feel like we were supported [by the RockHall] enough to do the best show we could put on.” In fact, the members of N.W.A. actually cut out early without taking questions.

KISS had long been shunned by the RockHal nomcomm, and by the time they finally were inducted, also chose not to perform, due to dissension among band members. This was hardly unusual: Paul McCartney didn’t even show when the Beatles were inducted in 1988, proclaiming that “after 20 years, the Beatles still have some business differences, which I had hoped would have been settled by now. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, so I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them at a fake reunion.” And none of the Sex Pistols were present in 2006 when they were inducted, Johny Rotten, contending in a handwritten letter that the RockHall was “a piss stain” and noting that the band would have to pay $25,000 to sit at a main table. And even at last week’s ceremony, inductee Chicago’s Peter Cetera didn’t show, and Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos, who did attend and perform, complained on Facebook after how the other three originals had forced him out of the band.

“The spirit of rock ‘n’ roll means you follow your own path regardless of the critics and your peers,” Paul Stanley had said in his KISS acceptance speech, ironically presaging Cube’s speech Friday night: “Rock ’n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life. That is rock ’n’ roll, and that is us.”

Stanley also observed that KISS had stuck to its path for 40 years.

“Here we are tonight basically being inducted for the same things that we were kept out for,” he noted, and nodded to the fans. “Let’s not forget that these people make it all possible. We just benefit from it.”

I was reminded how, many years ago, I interviewed Paul for a Billboard KISS special, and told him that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was irrelevant without KISS.

“You know, we have our own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s in the record store bins.”

And really, what’s in the bins is what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great.

The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

Didn’t agree much with the late conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, but he was an excellent writer, and I read his weekly “On Language” column in the Times Magazine regularly. I’m sure he’d agree with me that like the words meme and trope, neither of which I know how to use correctly, icon, which hardly anyone else knows how to use correctly, is likewise a good writer’s overworked, and in its case, wrongly used term.

What rankles me so much about “icon”—and by extension, “iconic”—is how it came suddenly out of nowhere and is now inescapable, such that not a day goes by when I don’t get a PR pitch regarding someone or other who’s an icon or iconic, which, presumably, is why I should give a shit. But i don’t, because they’re invariably neither.

It’s so out of hand that last week I got a release titled “Legacy Lounge Brings Suiteness to Iconic Levels at the London West Hollywood.” Okay, I guess “suiteness” is a clever made-up word, or else a play on “sweetness.” Whatever. But whatever the fuck it is, bringing it to “iconic levels” makes no sense at all, that is, “level” singular or plural can’t be made iconic, that is, unless you stretch the meaning of iconic far beyond its traditional usage.

Okay, so what constitutes the use of “iconic”? Simply put, it has to refer to an unmistakable icon. The word usually means “a usually pictorial representation,” that is, image, or “an object of uncritical devotion,” that is, idol (merriam-webster.com).

But the word “idol” has been so watered down (thanks, to finger one culprit, to American Idol), that it’s lost its connotation of singularity. I mean, not everyone is an icon, or an be, unless we’re allowed to worship a lot of idols equally.

Hence, the only real icon in contemporary music who comes readily to mind is Madonna. Of other highly visible current female pop artists, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all are surely superstars, even shining much brighter than Madonna now in terms of airplay and sales, but have a very long way to go before ranking with Madonna as a true cultural icon.

As for other female pop artists, Aretha Franklin comes to mind, as she stands by herself and could rightly be considered an icon. Nancy Sinatra really defines the word, what with her signature look based on her signature song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) and with an iconic career also defined by acting in the Elvis Presley classic Speedway and with Peter Fonda in the pioneering outlaw biker genre film The Wild Angels, her other landmark hits with songwriter Lee Hazlewood, the James Bond movie theme “You Only Lid Twice” and her chart-topping “Something stupid” duet with her father. Obviously her father was a male pop music and acting icon, as was Presley. Iconic actresses who come to mind include Marilyn Monroe, of course, and Bette Davis, since after all, she had a song written about her eyes.

In country music there are several female vocalists who are icons in the genre, namely Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, though Dolly would be the only one with the mainstream pop recognition to ensure her overall icon status. Likewise, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who, incidentally have another duet album just out, are both male vocal country music icons, but only Willie could be considered an icon in general, and he would pale in iconic level—now I’m using that idiotic construct—next to Johnny Cash, who most certainly was iconic any way you look at it.

My point is, the words “icon” and “iconic” should not be applied so freely if they are to retain the required sense of uniqueness. Me? I tend to use “legendary” in reference to any veteran artist with any kind of history, who’s reached a point where at least some kind of “legend” has been established.