I’m flying back to New York from L.A. this morning as I write this on November 20, 2011, thinking back some three months to the last time I flew back from L.A., Monday afternoon, August 22, 2011—a date which will live in infamy in my life and others, no doubt, very many others.
Infamy, says Merriam-Webster: evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal, shocking, or brutal. Fitting for Pearl Harbor, as FDR so historically proclaimed.
Evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal. And while I knew it was coming, it was still so grossly shocking, brutal beyond words and comprehension, to this day and for all days.
The death of Nick Ashford.
I knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. But no one really did, at least not until Monday morning, when Liz Rosenberg called. She had only found out he’d been seriously sick a week or so earlier. I’d known pretty much from the beginning, but didn’t know exactly what it was—or that it was going to end like this.
So I kept it quiet. I asked Val about him regularly, and thought whatever it was, he’d get better and it would be okay. I had no reason to think anything worse.
It couldn’t have been much more than three months that I’d spent time with him last, hanging at the Sugar Bar on a Thursday night Open Mic. He was fine then, at his center table upstairs in the Cat Lounge, watching the performances on the wall monitor, graciously receiving friends and fans, posing for pictures with anyone and everyone who asked.
There’s always a rose, now, in a vase on the table. Sometimes a glass of champagne.
The last time I saw him was at Aunt Bea’s funeral, Valerie’s aunt who died a couple months before him. Aunt Bea always made the greatest cakes that us lucky ones got to taste after everyone else left at the day-long “white parties” Nick and Val hosted on the Saturday nearest July 4, when they had their place in Connecticut. Everyone wore white, everyone ate and drank and lounged around the pool and enjoyed the wondrous A&S vibe–and a few of us had our Aunt Bea’s cake and ate it, too.
Nick came late to Aunt Bea’s funeral and left early and I didn’t get to speak with him but he looked great. He always looked great.
So I thought he was okay, and hadn’t kept up the way I should have, overwhelmed by my own problems. When Liz called frantically I called Val immediately for an update, and while she didn’t say it was good, she also didn’t let on that it was almost over. But I don’t think she knew that, either. I’m sure she didn’t.
Really, we were all in denial. We all still are.
I called Miss Tee Sunday afternoon from the beach. Altamese Alston. Miss Tee. Ashford & Simpson’s longtime assistant. If I said she was the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever been around, I’d still be understating it.
I’d always call Tee from the beach in LA, just to check in—and give her the opportunity to joke about how well I must be doing, being that I’m calling her from the beach in L.A. She sounded glad to hear from me but didn’t say much, gave no indication of what was really going on—as I knew she wouldn’t. Val once said of Tee: “If you tell something to Tee that you don’t want me to know, don’t worry—I don’t know it.”
But I pretty much knew it anyway. I was staying with Bob Merlis, Liz’s longtime West Coast cohort at Warner Bros. Records publicity, and working out of his office. He was about to take me to the airport for the 1:30 p.m. flight back to New York when the call came in.
She hadn’t heard any word from Val or Tee in days, she said, and couldn’t take it anymore. She finally called the house.
Tee answered and said things weren’t good, that the paramedics were there.
I got an email from Liz an hour or so later on my Blackberry at LAX.
“You’ll be up in the sky… so perhaps you’re in a better position to talk to the man/woman above–should one be up there,” she wrote. “So say a lot of prayers and for now, we are not allowed to indulge in freaking out as we have to keep it together for them. But we will freak out to each other of course. Just when things couldn’t get better……”
Now one of my closest friends, Liz was Nick and Val’s publicist when they first came to Warner Bros. (long before Madonna) and remained close with them ever after. I became close to Liz within a year after moving to New York in 1982 and seeing Ashford & Simpson for the first time.
I saw them at Radio City and it remains one of the maybe five most memorable shows I’ve ever seen. It was their High-Rise tour, “High-Rise” being the name of their 1983 album—their second for Capitol after leaving Warner Bros.—and its hit titletrack single.
I was working at Cash Box magazine, a long gone record business trade. The man who hired me got four tickets; besides us, there might have been that many other white people in the full house.
I’ve never forgotten it and obviously never will: The stage had an Empire State-looking edifice in the middle, and when Ashford & Simpson’s crack backup band struck up the single, a hidden ramp unfolded and lowered from the center of it, revealing the beaming A&S standing there in all their glory.
Now reduced to the words of a novice concert reviewer, “the crowd went nuts” as Nick & Val descended the steps and progressed into a show I would eventually see with Liz so many times that in her booklet essay accompanying the 2008 two-CD Ashford & Simpson set The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities, Val said that Liz and I might as well just do their show for them, since we both knew it better than they did.
Waiting to board, I responded to another email from Liz that said “No news” in the subject, the message saying: “From A&S world. Safe travels. Love.” I keyed the Blackberry: “Thank you. I’m freaking the fuck out. Boarding in half hour. Love you so very much.”
I got on the plane and ordered the inflight Internet service. I had maybe four hours of battery on a full charge.
I did some work in those four hours, and kept checking emails with mounting dread. I was still a couple hours out of Kennedy when the laptop ran out of juice.
I looked out the window into the darkness–except for the flashing light on the wing tip. Should there have been a man/woman above, I’d likely be the last one he/she would want to hear from at this or any time—atheist sinner that I am. Rather I kept hoping to see the William Shatner gremlin form the classic Twilight Zone episode making faces at me and driving me into sheer madness or utter horror. Anything would have been preferable to the helplessness/hopelessness I was feeling now.
When the wheels touched down I powered up the Blackberry and held my breath as the afternoon’s emails steadily added up. The one I hoped against all hope not to see had been sent at 7:45.
Liz’s subject was “Our Nick has left us.”
The message was “E or call when you land. I’m at house.”
It was after 11 when I walked into Nick and Val’s East Side townhouse. I had on cargo shorts and short-sleeved cargo shirt, an Obama-Biden inaugural ballcap, and my luggage.
There were at least 30 people there. I hugged Liz, then Val.
“I lost my honey today,” said Val.