Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

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For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

Tales of Bessman: I remember Elvis

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“Two Beers and no dope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the picture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hearby apologize to Robert Louis Stevenson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might have had three beers and no dope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In memoriam, 2013

The pieces I least like writing, yet to me are the most important, are what I call “appreciations.” The New York Times does them, too, but mine are a little different.

Mine are little tributes to artists or other important figures who have died—important, that is, to me, and knowledgeable people I know or can reach quickly for quote. Not obituaries, they’re pretty much comments as to these late luminaries’ significance, strung together in a context that is illustrative, though not first-person personal.

But I’ll get a little personal and definitely first-person here in going through the list of names I wrote appreciations on this past year, if in fact I have something personal to add.

Starting form the beginning, I was a fan of Patti Page and the Andrews Sisters’ Patty Andrews, but I didn’t know them personally. The Troggs’ Reg Presley, on the other hand—and to use a couple words from the chorus of “Wild Thing”—did indeed “move me” in person.

I saw the original Troggs perform at least once—not sure if the original band was intact the second time, at a Cavestomp! garage rock show, after which I got to hang a bit with Reg, who sounded great and was the nicest guy. What always amazes me so much, though, is that besides such a crude sound on “Wild Thing” and other hits, The Troggs somehow yielded one of the most beautiful ballads of the 1960s in “Love Is All Around.”

Sadly, I never met George “Shadow” Morton, but of course I worshiped the records he made, besides the Shangri-Las’ classic hits, The New York Dolls’ second album Too Much Too Soon and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” I didn’t know The Bottom Line’s Stanley Snadowsky like I know his partner Allan Pepper, but no one hung out at their club more than me.

Phil Ramone, however, I knew very well and for a very long time. We served on committees together, worked on projects together. He was every bit the national treasure everyone said he was.

Although I never met Annette Funicello, like any other guy my age I was in love with her. The great music documentary maker Les Blank, I met several times in Eunice, Louisiana, with Marc and Ann Savoy and the kids, whom he documented in Marc And Ann (1991).

Jonathan Winters goes without saying. I met George Beverly Shea, and saw him perform at Gaither Homecoming shows and Billy Graham Crusades.

The great English rock album graphic designer Storm Thorgerson I didn’t know, but legendary Australian rocker Christina Amphlett I knew well, and loved deeply—from the moment I saw her on The Divinyls’ first U.S. tour. Such a special artist, and I still ache thinking about her.

I met Richie Havens a few times—such a nice guy. I knew George Jones a bit, and always like to tell how I was the one who was drunk when he actually did show up sober in the late ‘70s, at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, and did a whale of a show before a handful of people, and how I grabbed him backstage after and told him about this incredible “new wave” singer-songwriter in England, Elvis Costello, who in one of his only interviews, said that he was one of his favorite singers. George said that, “what was his name? Elvis?” had sent him a song that was on his desk in Nashville, but that he hadn’t listened to it.

“George!” I shook him more emphatically, being totally smashed. “You must listen to that song, record it—and get Elvis to sing it with you!”

Which is exactly what happened, that song being “Stranger In The House.” Of course, whether or not it happened because of me, I can’t really say, except that when I first met Nick Lowe–again after a show at Bunky’s–and told him this story, he said, “You’re probably the reason he did the song!” And many years later, in Nashville at a Columbia Records luncheon for media radio and retail accounts during Fan Fair, I went up to George and recounted it for him, sure that he wouldn’t remember. But before the end of the lunch, he came back over to me and leaned over and said, “You know, I kind of do remember! If you have any more songs, send them over!”

Turns out I did have a song that I did send to George, but I don’t know that he ever got it: New York Doll David Johansen’s “Heart Of Gold.” Would have been perfect for him. And while I’m at it, I sent Hank, Jr. The Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” which, Bocephus, you really still should do.

And speaking of The Doors, I knew Ray Manzarek a bit, too. Wonderful guy, full of energy and genius. “Fifth Ramone” Arturo Vega of course I knew, having written the first book on The Ramones.

But Chet Flippo’s death really hit home. He was my music journalist role model, ever since I discovered that he was also a fan of both Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones. And he was kind enough to respond to a fan letter I sent him from Madison, and sit down with me at the Rolling Stone office when I came to New York on a vacation. I was never luckier that I became friends with him and even got to work with him when he ran Billboard’s Nashville office. He’ll always be my role model—and hero.

I was lucky, too, to have met Slim Whitman—and see him perform. If I remember correctly, I gave up backstage passes for Bruce Springsteen at the Dane County Coliseum and drove to Milwaukee to see Slim at the Performing Arts Center. If so, it was one of the smartest choices I ever made, as close to hearing heaven on earth as any of us will ever get.

Bobby (Blue) Bland I didn’t know—besides his classic records. I knew the great guitarist/songwriter J.J. Cale a little, more so legendary country music man “Cowboy” Jack Clementmainly through another late and dear, dear friend, Steve Popovich, who brought us both to Cleveland for a polka music festival.

Eydie Gorme I didn’t know—but sure wish I did. Met Beatles’ promoter Sid Bernstein a few times, but didn’t really know him. And I was so lucky again to know Lou Reed as a friend, mainly because we both loved Doc Pomus and trained in martial arts—both of which he loved to talk about.

That leaves Ray Price, whom I didn’t know but revered—and was lucky to see perform with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Asleep At The Wheel during the 2007 The Last Of The Breed tour—and porn king Al Goldstein, whom I also revered, knew closely, and will miss always.

[For more on Al, hit the link, and also see the piece I did on him on this site.]