Tales of Bessman: Garth Brooks and the new Adele video

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

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

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

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

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

And she guns him down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six minutes and six seconds! For a music video!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Bessman: Minnie Pearl, Dick Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry House

After finding out Friday that the Grand Ole Opry House has joined the Ryman Auditorium in the National Register, I hastily knocked off a little piece for examiner.com reporting the facts, ma’am, just the facts. Among them was that then President Richard Nixon attended the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974.

I left out that it was nearing the end of Nixon’s presidency, as he would resign on August 9. In his hopelessly awkward, embarrassing and clearly guilt-ridden way, he was blatantly seeking what was likely his last refuge: at best a conservative audience that was still in his corner, at worst a bunch of hillbillies who probably saw him as too liberal. Who else but Roy Acuff introduced him, and he played piano and sang, and Tricky Dick notwithstanding, clumsily clowned with Roy’s yo-yo.

I made my first trip to Nashville two years later, and by the time President George H.W. Bush became the next sitting president to visit the Opry House—for the 1991 CMA Awards show—I was an Opry regular. In fact, I was either four rows in back and two seats to the left of President and Barbara Bush, or six rows back, two seats left. I can’t remember exactly because I was so stoned when I got there, as was my tradition at all black-tie events Nashville. Probably four rows, because I used to sick-joke that two rows closer and I’d have been within strangling distance.

It was at the height of my career then, and the CMA and Opry took care of me good. I do remember that everyone attending the show had submitted their Social Security numbers well in advance, for vetting by the Secret Service. Still, there were no metal detectors, and I didn’t feel like I was being surveilled at all, especially after it dawned on me that by constantly bending over and setting my notebook, pen, or program on the floor and picking them up again, it might well have looked like I was, say, assembling some kind of makeshift weapon.

I ran this thought past my pal Bill Carter, the next day, the Bill Carter who was the ex-Kennedy Secret Service agent who had taken Marina Oswald into protective custody immediately after the assassination, and who is on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir for fixing his and the other Stones’ legal troubles from the 1970s on.

“Oh, they were watching you from the moment you walked in!” Bill reassured me.

I couldn’t find a video of Nixon at the Opry House to post with my examiner.com piece, so I settled on Minnie Pearl’s performance from that night. Here it is again:

“Come to see us at our new house!” Minnie implored. “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one of them!”

She looks so adorable, doesn’t she? Beautiful in fact. She’d have been 61 then—a year younger than I am now. The hillbilliest person you can imagine, but you know it was total shtick: Born in the small mid-Tennessee town of Centerville, she was the youngest of five daughters of a prosperous lumberman, and graduated from what is now Belmont University in Nashville, then its most prestigious school for young ladies. She majored in theater studies, and taught dance for several years after graduation.

She went on to join a touring theater company out of Atlanta, producing and directing plays and musicals while creating her Minnie Pearl character, which she introduced in 1939, then brought to the Opry the following year. And while she played a hillbilly to the hilt, she stood up for the induction of harmonica legend DeFord Bailey—the Opry’s first African-American performer—into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which finally happened posthumously in 2005.

Minnie was also adored by the likes of Dean Martin and Paul Reubens, who brought his Pee Wee Herman character to a Minnie Pearl tribute show in 1992—a year after she suffered a stroke. I had seen her regularly at the Opry up until then, and always worshipfully said hi.

An Opry regular myself, I was particularly close to Grandpa Jones, Jimmy C. Newman, Skeeter Davis and Porter Wagoner—now also all gone—and Bill Anderson and Riders in the Sky–among the still living.

One time, not long before her stroke in June, 1991, Minnie appeared at the Jim Halsey Company’s annual hang at his Music Row office the afternoon of the CMA Awards. Agent/manager Jim Halsey had worked with everyone from Minnie to Roy Clark, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Hank Thompson, James Brown and the Oak Ridge Boys, and still works with the Oaks.

Jim’s son Sherman was a pal, and a talented and successful music video director and a wonderful guy. Sadly, he died, too, a year and a-half ago. When I got to Jim’s office that afternoon, I immediately hooked up with Sherman, and we both made a beeline to Minnie, who was leaving with her husband Henry Cannon. Sherman would have known Minnie all his life, but he was no less enthralled in her presence as I was. We just stood there, hanging on her every word, beaming ecstatically.

“Did you boys smoke pot?” she finally asked.

“No, Minnie,” I said, “but you can be sure we will before the show!”

Minnie was bedridden following her stroke. At first she was tended to at home. For some reason, I felt compelled to see if I could visit her, and for some reason, they let me. I went out to the house—a large estate home next to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion–but I don’t remember much about the visit.

Soon after, she was moved to a nursing home. My understanding was that Henry was very stern about who could visit her, and that I most certainly didn’t qualify. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

I’d become friendly with Minnie’s assistant, and it was through her that I managed to sneak in to see her every time I was in town, which at that time was three times a year. It was all done very secretly: She’d let me know when was a good time to go, usually mid- to late afternoon, when no one else was there. And sure enough, I’d get there and Minnie would be alone. The nursing staff expected me, and maybe Minnie did, too.

I say maybe, because Minnie was a stroke victim: She was partly paralyzed, and I was never really sure how great her grasp was on reality. I mean, we’d talk about what she’d been doing, and she’d say something like how much Garth Brooks loved her and had been in to see her the day before, which most certainly could have been true—he did in fact name his first daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl Brooks—and that the day before that she’d been in New York, which most certainly wasn’t. And that’s how it was with her: She talked nonstop, going back and forth from presumed reality to assured fantasy, and I had to hold on for dear life not only to keep up but to keep her going.

One time—I think it was the last time–she was in the day room when I got there. She was having a bad day. We started talking and she started crying, and the nurses looked on, like maybe I should leave.

“Oh, he don’t give a shit!” she said, and I had to bite my tongue not to bust up laughing—out of respect, of course, and undying love. They then gave me the ultimate honor of pushing her bed, wheels unlocked, through the hall and back to her room.

It was dark when I left, and as I walked to my rental car, I faced the ultimate horror: Henry!

Henry Cannon was really the perfect Southern Gentleman. Serious and polite, he ran an air charter service for country stars including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. I’d met him a few times but never really knew him. But I knew he knew me.

I was leaving, he was coming. We met in the parking lot halfway to my car.

“I want to thank you for always remembering Minnie and coming to see her,” Henry said softly. “I know it means a lot to her.”

I was so dumbfounded I don’t remember what I said, or that I said anything.

Minnie died on March 4, 1996, from complications from another stroke. She was 83.

Nixon was 81 when he died almost two years before Minnie. That they were both at the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974 was probably all they had in common.