Of Adele’s show-stoppage, Recording Academy racism, and the time I threw my own NARAS board election

Two nights after the Grammy Awards—which I reviewed negatively at Centerline.news—and I’m still seeing new articles centering on Adele, whose Song of the Year-winning “Hello,” by way of its horrendous video, I trashed here way back in October, 2015, when it came out.

Of course everyone’s creaming over her George Michael tribute, particularly the way she stopped her performance, cursing as ever, to start over after realizing she was singing off-key. So here’s my two cents: Forget about what was really the most stunning stopping of a song in TV history—Elvis Costello’s all-guts 1977 Saturday Night Live cutoff of his Attractions after starting up “Less Than Zero” and firing them into “Radio Radio” thereby biting the hand that fed him and keeping him off an angry SNL for many years. Many years ago, at the Bottom Line, I saw Jane Siberry, sensing something wrong in her performance that no one in the audience did, stop after the first few notes of “The Valley,” declare “I can’t live with that!” and restart it. It was a truly wonderful club performance, which I italicize to set it apart from Adele’s comparably bizarre TV stoppage.

For the self-absorbed drama queen, on the other hand, took up a big chunk of valuable TV time in an interminable (over there-and-a-half hours) show—no doubt cutting into acceptance speeches of other artists while prolonging the misery of at least this one viewer. And I know I’m likely the only one who cares anymore, but on a national prime-time show that is musically geared toward youngsters, Adele’s foul mouth makes for what I’d hardly call a positive role model.

But wait! There’s more!

The big fallout from the Grammy show, as predicted and certified by The New York Times, at least, is race related. Per the Times‘ headline, “#GrammysSoWhite Came to Life. Will the Awards Face Its Race Problem?”—meaning to suggest that the Grammys, “like America,” has “an inclusion problem—or more to the point, an exclusion problem.”

Translating further, the Times said that Adele won all five Grammys she was nominated for (also including Album of the Year and Record of the Year) with an album (25) that is her “least impressive,” but with “pomp-and-circumstance soul belting [that] is the sort of classicism likely to appeal to the Recording Academy voting members, who tend to skew older and more traditional.” Beyonce’s Lemonade, meanwhile, “is musically provocative and wide ranging, and rife with commentary about the meaning of blackness in the United States.”

Be all this as it may, my first question, when it comes to music, is always, Forget race. Forget age. Forget even genre. Do I want to hear it?

In regards to Adele, again, I always felt that “Hello” is a lousy song, and I’ve never cared much for her overwrought performance while granting the obvious–she is indeed hugely talented, as is Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, both of whom I also have little affection for. As for Beyonce, Lemonade for me is so conceptually pulp that I need a lyric sheet to fully grasp it. Not that I have a problem with that necessarily: My No. 1 album last year, after all, was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, which had more going on musically and lyrically than Lemonade but was way more listenable, that is, again, for me.

But that, of course, is really what it’s all about, that is, subjectivity. I felt that Katy Perry topped both Adele and Beyonce with her performance of new single “Chained to the Rhythm,” which I’d only heard twice before, but had already been hooked by. So for me, obviously, the hook is King Bee; simplistic, yes, but hey, what can I tell you?

I think my friend Roger Friedman laid it out pretty well yesterday in his Showbiz 411 post, where he maintained that Adele won because she currently has four singles on iTunes, whereas Beyonce has none, also that 25 far outsold Lemonade.

“That’s it,” wrote Roger. “That’s what Grammy committees and voters look at. Is it right? Nope. But that’s what it is.” I’ll add that he also correctly noted that not only did Lemonade have no hit singles—the No. 10 “Formation” notwithstanding–Beyonce’s marketing efforts, while attention-grabbing, have “kept her out of the mainstream,” while her much-ballyhooed Grammy performance was a “self-indulgent crazy piece” that Roger likened to “The Last Supper,” I to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

A lot of things are wrong with the Grammys, as I’ve been saying forever. But I’ve served on Grammy nominating committees and as bad a job as they so often do, I can say they bend over backwards to try to please everyone, which, of course, is impossible. Hence the separate Latin Grammys—and if you want to further the racism discussion, there were no Latin performers Sunday night. But really, it’s just another beauty contest, as all award shows really are. And beauty, as Kinky Friedman likes to say, is in the eyes of the beerholder.

But wait! There’s still more.

Adele made a big show out of apologizing to Beyonce for beating her for the big awards. Well, she must have seen this coming—or at least the not unlikely possibility—and if she felt Beyonce deserved them so much, and wanted her to win them so much, she could have just withdrawn her releases from competition like a Grammy-resistant Frank Ocean did and in effect ensure Beyonce’s victories, though, that might have opened the door for at least an equally deserving Sturgill Simpson.

All this reminds me of my own Grammy-related mishap, when for wanting someone else to win, I essentially voted myself out of the Recording Academy’s New York chapter’s Board of Governors. This must have been sometime in the mid-1990s, when I’d been encouraged to run for a two-year term, and after winning and serving, a second two-year term, which I also won and served.

But in all honesty, I won because I was put in the all-inclusive “At Large” category, I think it was called, meaning there were 10 names listed, if I remember right, and you voted for eight of them. Now I’d had at least a good 15 years of experience in New York as a music business trade journalist/reporter, and knew a lot of people in all areas of the industry. So not to boast, but I had at least enough name recognition to make me a shoo-in to win one of the eight out of 10 slots in the category, like me or not–familiarity here being as big a factor for success as it is at the Grammy ballot box.

Once elected, about the only requirement for serving on the board was attending the meetings, and since I was a freelance writer then and now, the promise of lunch pretty much guaranteed my presence. I don’t think I missed a single meeting in my four years. But I was probably the only one there who was hungry, the other governors being mostly successful record and music publishing company executives along with creatives—name producers like Russ Titelman and Phil Ramone and artists like Gary Burton, Nile Rodgers and Sharon Isbin.

It’s no surprise I was probably the least effective governor. First of all, no artist I ever voted for won a Grammy. And if you ever read any of my Grammy Awards show reviews, you know that only on the most rare occasions did I give as many as two out of five stars.

Then there was the chapter’s pet project, a program called “Grammy in the Schools.” Now I could understand reading, writing and ‘rithmatic being in the schools, and English, social studies and gym. But Grammy? What the fuck?

I could understand, maybe, if it was about the music, but you and I, we’ve been through that. Even with the steep decline in music and arts education in public schools, what with budget cuts–not to mention a reduced value in this country placed on anything culturally edifying–the Grammy in the School focus, as with the Grammy Awards show, was strictly mainstream commercial, hence of little interest to me and what should have been little NARAS interest in promoting to school kids. Making it worse, I felt, was that we weren’t so much promoting music as music business, that is, explaining music industry jobs to kids—not helping them learn about music.

And this sums up my big gripe about NARAS and now the Recording Academy: It cares more about the business than the art, in reality, the business of the Grammys. As I said in Centerline, the show is about the show, not the music.

As you can guess, I sat pretty much alone. But I did make one positive, if failed contribution. Some years earlier, the chapter put on what it called the New York Heroes Awards, which I always thought was a great event honoring deserving New York artists or music business people. The event had been discontinued due to costs, I suppose, so I suggested it be revived, maybe under a different name, and at a not-so-fancy venue with a not-so-fancy production at a not-so-fancy price. I wanted to honor CBGB’s Hilly Kristal, and we had made some headway into establishing it, but it never happened.

Otherwise, like everywhere else in my career, I promoted, and defended, the non-mainstream noncommercial music that NARAS only paid lip service to. Sure, they instituted a polka Grammy, but there I was, on more than one occasion, sitting at the governors table while the chapter president, who I will only say was one of the most famous record producers for one of the most famous artists, made stupid, predictable and uneducated putdowns of polka—prompting me to write him a personal letter virtually accusing him of racism against Eastern European ethnic musics–this, I remind you, many years before the current Adele-Beyonce controversy.

Sure enough, the polka Grammy was later eliminated, as were, among others, the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, Best Hawaiian Music Album, Best Native American Music Album and Best Traditional Folk Album. (Pop quiz: When’s the last time you heard zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional folk music on the Grammy Awards show? Better yet, when’s the first time you heard zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and traditional folk music on the Grammy Awards show?)

Anyway, my two terms came up, and because of term limits, I was out—but not before I encouraged a fellow governor to run for chapter president, which he did, and won. Two years later when I became eligible he came back to me and asked me to run again, to which I said I’d do it, but only if I was again placed in the “At Large” category, which he said he’d do. Except he didn’t.

When I received my ballot, I was horrified to see that I’d been placed in the writer’s category—I don’t remember the exact name of it—and worse, that I was up against a woman whose name I don’t remember, but I do remember what she did: She wrote for the New York Philharmonic, as a historian. To me that was way cool to begin with, but making it more so was that not only was she very nice, she shared my lack of excitement for the board and the meetings. At the next one, after we’d received our ballots but before the voting deadline, I told her how unhappy I was that I was running against her, and that I fully intended to vote for her, which in fact I did.

Of course I didn’t think my vote would matter. I mean, like me or not, I still had name recognition, and really, after all I’d done for so many people in the industry for so many years as the champion of all music, major label superstar or indie label unknown, well, again, I was bound to be a shoo-in–especially against a gal who worked for the New York Philharmonic! I mean, no one, besides me and her and a major label classical music producer who was also a board member, gave a shit about classical music! Certainly not the Grammy Awards show producers–not then or now. And even if every member of the symphony was a NARAS member and voted for her, I had to have many more hundreds who knew me and appreciated all that I’d done.

Or so I thought. I lost, and I still miss eating those monthly lunches. A few months later I ran into Jon Marcus, the chapter’s executive director, who ran the meetings with the chapter president. Jon was a great guy who died, sadly, last year—so I can reveal what he told me then not to tell anyone.

“You know,” he said, “you only lost by two votes!”

Do the math: I voted for my opponent—and didn’t vote for me.

I replied: “And both those votes were mine!”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 14

Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.

Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.

For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”

At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.

“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”

“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”

“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”

“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”

I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.

“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”

Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.

If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.

But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.

Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.

“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.

“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”

Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.

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.

Concert Highlights–Jill Sobule at City Winery, 4/24/14

Two big things have happened of late for the great Jill Sobule.

“Last week I started getting hate mail again from Katy Perry fans wanting to kill me!” she told a doting City Winery crowd at the end of her Thursday night show. “So I’m bringing back ‘I Kissed a Girl.’”

Turning to her Dinah Shore Junior band guitarist Alex Nolan, she asked how old she was when she heard the 1995 hit, which preceded Perry’s same-titled but different hit by 13 years.

“I would have been 11,” said young Nolan, innocently.

“Fuck you!” responded Sobule, innocently. “Did you know what it was about?”

“Yeah,” said young Nolan.

The other big thing for Sobule is a new album, Dottie’s Charms, and the big interest it’s already generating. A concept album, Dottie’s Charms takes its name from an old charm bracelet given Sobule as a birthday present—that she never wore.

“I’m generally fine with wearing dead people’s things: vintage clothes, shoes, but there is something odd and slightly ghoulish about having a stranger’s life story dangling from one’s wrist,” Sobule explains on her website. “And that’s what a charm bracelet is–an archive of places, things, people, and events in another human being’s life. It’s kind of personal.”

So she put it in her “drawer of forgotten and misfit gifts,” then checked it out again last year after the cowboy hat charm caught her eye and encouraged a closer examination. Discovering from a round charm with the name “Dorothy” and a birthdate etched in the back, she began putting Dottie’s life together out of other charms including a jet plane, Statue of Liberty, Mackinac Island, Kentucky, a swiveling office chair, horses, piano, ballet slippers, and a tiny Jewish mezuzah.

She mentioned the bracelet to cultural historian David Hajdu, whom she had once suggested a music collaboration with, along with other favorite authors. Hajdu took home a photo of the Mackinac Island cham and a few days later gave her a “wonderfully heartbreaking and funny lyric,” which became the album track “I Swear I Saw Christopher Reeve.” She then approached the likes of Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Mary Jo Salter, Luc Sante, and Sam Lipsyte, each with a different charm from which to flesh out the story of Dorothy/Dottie.

The City Winery gig, then, celebrated the release of Dottie’s Charms. With Nolan, keyboardist Joe McGinty, bassist Amanda Ruzza and drummer Ben Perowsky, Sobule and Dinah Shore Junior played songs from the album and crowd faves, most notably including encore “When They Say ‘We Want Our America Back,’ What The F#@k Do They Mean?”–a perfect concert companion to the previously played “Statue of Liberty” from Dottie’s Charms.

Lyrics by novelist/essayist Lethem, “Statue of Liberty” is a melancholy piano tune transposing a sighting of the Statue of Liberty into a failed relationship. “They Say They Want Our America Back” references the Statue in its topical lyrics involving the complaints of those who want to go back to when “life had a paler shade of white…before there was Ellis Island and that statue we got from the French”:

“When they say, ‘We want our America back’
Our America back
Our America back
When they say, ‘We want our America back’
Well, what the fuck do they mean?”

Two other big things from the show: Sobule’s mom was in from Denver (“She made the mistake of eating a whole pot Gummy Bear when I told her to eat one-quarter!”), and rapped her rebuttal to her daughter’s “Big Shoes” song-complaint about being born severely pigeon-toed and having to wear “really really ugly big corrective shoes” through sixth grade.

“If not for me she’d have crinkly toes, and still be wearing Dr. Scholl’s,” Ma Sobule inserted.

And in addition to her little signature Vagabond Travel Guitar–affectionately known as “The Jillster”—Sobule rocked out intermittently on a big electric, and on her apocalyptic final encore “A Good Life,” banjo.

“All I ever really wanted was to play guitar!” she said after the show. “George was my favorite Beatle. What more can I say?”

 

Jill Sobule’s “When They Say ‘We Want Our America Back’, What The F#@k Do They Mean?”

Jill Sobule’s “A Good Life”: