Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 16

It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.

No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.

Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.

We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.

No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.

[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]

Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.

This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.

Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”

It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).

Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.

I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.

But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:

One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry
.

Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.

I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).

I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.

This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.

First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”

Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.

And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.

Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?

Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.

And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.

I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.

Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.

[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 2

If we’re lucky, there are people in our lives who influence us in a big way, in a good way, in the best kind of way.

Maybe it’s a parent, older sibling, another family member or family friend. A teacher, social worker, therapist, member of the clergy.

I had Mrs. Schmidt, a junior high school guidance counselor, who meant a lot to me. Some social workers, psychiatric nurses, nurses’ aides and hospital orderlies afterwards. An occupational therapist. A physical therapist.

I remember a teacher or two, certainly Miss Nottested–and I know I’m misspelling her name–for teaching me how to type (not spell) in high school and taking an interest, too, in what I typed, which was mostly high school alienation ramblings.

But for me it was mostly musicians.

The Beatles first, foremost and forever. Dylan, of course, though his influence post-high school and Blonde On Blonde has long since faded. Corky Siegel and The Siegel-Schwall Band. Laura Nyro, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Johansen, Tony Bennett. Most of them I got to know and was further inspired personally.

John Mellencamp, too. He agreed with me that people respond to the music, at least first, not the words. For me it’s melody, rhythm, voice, instruments and then the words—and usually I can’t make them out anyway, and if I can I don’t have the attention span to stay with them so I have to have them in the CD booklet in front of me to make any kind of sense out of.

So I don’t care so much about the words–except for a few songwriters. I actually have a book of Hal David lyrics, which really are poems without Burt Bacharach’s music, glorious as it is. Likewise, there’s way more to the words of Kris Kristofferson than “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford.

It’s hard to top The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or even better, “All You Need Is Love.” But Nick equaled them at the very least on “Reach Out and Touch.”

“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was Diana Ross’s debut solo single after leaving The Supremes. It was released in April 1970, and only made it to No. 20 on the pop charts (No. 7, R&B). But it was a centerpiece of her concerts, where people used to reach out and touch the hands of those near them.

Like so many Ashford & Simpson Motown era songs—“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love”—it has achieved immortality.

The much-covered call for caring and kindness made for an unforgettable moment at the 1985 Live Aid show in Philadelphia, when Ashford & Simpson—the only r&b act in the line-up–brought out Teddy Pendergrass for his first public appearance since his near-fatal car accident in 1982. Paralyzed, Pendergrass pointedly directed the stadium crowd to focus on the song’s inspirational words and message.

In 2005, Ross closed Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope with it, and it was her finale, too, at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Concert held in Oslo, Norway.

It was also the climax of Ashford & Simpson shows. Nick had this great bit where he’d announce that he was “departing from the program” and then ask bandleader Ray Chew to slow down the tempo in leading into it. Then he’d feign irritation at Ray for not slowing it down enough.

After many years of seeing the show many times each year, I finally went up to Ray after a show and said, “Ray. I’ve seen this show a lot of times, and I can never understand why you can never get the ‘Reach Out And Touch’ tempo right!” I’ll never forget the anguished look on his face and how he started to stammer that it was all a shtick until I busted up laughing.

Reach out and touch

Somebody’s hand

Make this world a better place

If you can

Me and Liz Rosenberg used to go to see them all the time. In fact, I became friends with Liz after it was suggested I contact her, by another record company publicist at the time, after I’d called him in 1983 after seeing Asford & Simpson the first time, at Radio City, and couldn’t stop talking about them. They were at Capitol Records, then, with the High-Rise album out. Liz had worked with them when they were at Warner Bros., long before she became synonymous with Madonna. We used to see them together all the time from that point on.

One time at Westbury, I had an aisle seat and Liz was next to me. Or maybe I was one in from the aisle and she was two in. Or maybe I was two in and she was three…. Anyway, Westbury Theater, or whatever corporate name it has now, is an in-the-round theater. So when they got to “Reach Out And Touch,” Nick went up one aisle and Val went up another, shaking or slapping hands with aisle-seaters as they sang. Nick was coming up our aisle, and when he got within two rows, Liz could no longer contain herself.

“Nick!” she shrieked, then got up and vaulted over me and anyone else who might have been between me and Nick as he reached out his free hand to touch hers. Of course, she landed, not too gracefully but appropriately, at his feet.

Take a little time out of your busy day

To give encouragement

To someone who’s lost the way

Nick would also preface “Reach Out And Touch” in concert with the story of how he had fallen asleep one night while Val was watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but woke up when she suddenly started screaming: “Reach Out and Touch” was being used as an Olympics theme! Before an estimated TV audience of 2.5 billion people! He wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming….

Or would I be talking to a stone

If I asked you

To share a problem that’s not your own

We really blew it, we Americans, in taking the easy, nationalist music route after 9-11. We essentially permitted Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to lead us into two wars, not to mention forever pervert Major League Baseball by supplanting “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the Seventh Inning Stretch theme.

As I wrote in Billboard, two weeks later (September 24, 2011): “But as we return to the semblance of normal, I suggest moving beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare. How about Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive ‘This Land is Your Land,’ or better yet, Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’? As the next line of the compassionate latter title implores, Make this world a better place, if you can.”

If you see an old friend on the street

And he’s down

Remember his shoes could fit your feet

Try a little kindness you’ll see

It’s something that comes very naturally

We can change things if we start giving

Ashford & Simpson songs covered other topics and themes, of course, but they all come back, essentially, to giving, something that for Nick came so very naturally. In person, and in song.

I went even further in my appreciation of Nick, written for examiner.com, the day after he died: “Then again, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ goes beyond anything Ashford & Simpson–or any other writer–has accomplished. In simply instructing everyone to ‘reach out and touch somebody’s hand’ and ‘make this world a better place if you can,’ Ashford essentially set to music what he in fact practiced throughout his entire life.”

Such a simple lyric. The best kind of influence.

Reach out and touch

Somebody’s hand

Make this world a better place

If you can.

For me it was musicians.