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.]

John Trudell: An appreciation

I’m not the spiritual type, though I spent a lot of time with Nick Ashford. The only other person who had that kind of spiritual depth that I knew was John Trudell. As The Indian Country Today Media Network website reported, the “noted activist, poet and Native thinker” on December 8, 2015 left Turtle Island [a name given to North America in some Native American myths] to join the spirit world. The influential Native philosopher touched many throughout Indian country and beyond.”

Indeed.

I didn’t know John well, like I knew Nick. I did speak with him for a Billboard story in 2002 when Bone Days came out, which is when I would have seen him the first time, at The Bottom Line. I saw him some years later at Joe’s Pub, but he was part of a group gig, if I recall. I spoke with him briefly, then, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I don’t know if he remembered me from the Bottom Line show, but he was alone, and knew a lot of other people in the audience and there wasn’t much one-on-one hang time for me.

The Bottom Line gig, though, was way different. He was there with his group Bad Dog–featuring Mark Shark on guitar, and fellow Native American Quiltman, who sang and chanted within the tradition in providing a musical and spiritual context for John’s spoken word poetry.

I guess I have an inherent reverence for Native Americans, at least the myth and legend of the Native American as gleaned rightly and wrongly as a kid from John Wayne and John Ford and Tonto and Saturday morning TV cowboys and Indians, and later The Outlaw Josey Wales and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement (John was its national chairman), AIM member Leonard Peltier and Thunderheart.

John starred in Thunderheart, largely playing himself, I’m sure.

I understand he wrote the “Freedom Speech” in the pivotal scene where he’s captured and beaten by FBI agents on the South Dakota Sioux reservation where the movie, loosely based on the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, is set.

Some 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM followers had occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation–site of the 1890 massacre by the U.S Cavalry of over 300 men, women and children being relocated to the reservation. The occupiers sought the removal of an allegedly corrupt and abusive tribal president, and protested the U.S. government’s failure to live up to treaty obligations.

During a 71-day standoff, a Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were shot to death, and a civil rights activist disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered. In Thunderheart, John’s character Jimmy Looks Twice, an Indian activist who is suspected of murder, was also inspired by Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who remains famously imprisoned for life following a controversial trial and conviction of murdering two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975–after being acquitted of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee cop.

Peltier’s story, incidentally, was the subject of a 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala, directed by Thunderheart director Michael Apted and including an interview with John, who was himself the subject of the 2005 documentary Trudell.

In Thunderheart (also 1992), Jimmy Looks Twice tells sympathetic FBI agent Ray Levoi, himself part Indian (well-played by Val Kilmer), “Sometimes they have to kill us. They have to kill us, because they can’t break our spirit. We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It’s about power, Ray.”

The lines–and John’s portrayal–deeply affected me, as did the rest of his history. According to the Los Angeles Times obit, he had a 17,000-page FBI dossier: “He’s extremely eloquent,” one FBI memo read, “therefore extremely dangerous.”

In 1979, while John was demonstrating in Washington, D.C., his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law perished in a fire at her parents’ home on Nevada’s Duck Valley Indian Reservation–hours after John burned an American flag at the FBI building. The cause of the fire was never determined, but John and others suspected the government.

“One world ended abruptly and completely and could not be resurrected or re-put together,” he later told the Times. It was then that he began to write, and his poetry was promoted by the likes of Kilmer, Bob Dylan, Robert Redford (who compared him to the Dalai Lama), Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. The Times said that he considered poetry to be first among the arts, and quoted him thusly: “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.”

Brown produced John’s 1992 remake of his acclaimed 1986 album AKA Graffitti Man with late Kiowa guitarist/songwriter Jesse Ed Davis, having previously help him record the 1983 album Tribal Voice with Quiltman.

“I started with Quiltman to put spoken word with the oldest musical form–Native American music–and he was willing to go for it, though we had no experience,” John told me when I interviewed him. “Then I wanted to put it with the newest musical form–electric guitar–and I met Jesse Ed Davis and he was the only one who knew what I was talking about.”

After Davis died in 1988, “Mark [Shark] picked up his guitar, so to speak, and carried on. Then Quiltman came in [again] and it was quite an evolution, adjusting traditional Native American songs to where he just makes his own harmonies to go with contemporary songs.”

Naturally, I had jumped at the chance to speak with him when the opportunity arose with Bone Days. As I wrote in Billboard, his intensely delivered recitations, backed by Shark’s ethereal guitars, were given heightened otherworldly power by Quiltman’s chants, giving the album its own extraordinary power.

“Because the whole point,” he told me, “is to take from our native culture and from contemporary culture without using one artform to mimic the other so that our native identity remains the native identity, the contemporary identity remains the contemporary identity, and the mixing of these two musical identities creates a third musical identity.”

Then he laughed.

“In my mind, at least, that’s how it plays,” he said. “But I don’t know about the rest of the world.”

When I walked into the dressing room before the Bottom Line show, though, it wasn’t like Joe’s Pub.

Unlike our phone conversation, John was stone sober in demeanor, intimidating behind his sunglasses.

I don’t recall much of what was said. I’m sure I introduced myself as the guy from Billboard who interviewed him, which he would have remembered. I’m sure I mentioned Thunderheart during the phoner, and if I hadn’t brought up his small role in Steven Seagall’s 1994 Alaskan environmental action film On Daedly Ground, I did then. And we most certainly talked Native American and White American politics.

I presume it was a pipe, for I distinctly remember the words “peace pipe” being uttered, but I can’t imagine by me. But someone proffered a pipe or joint and everything loosened up and by the time I went to my seat I was in proper mind to experience live the poetic visions of which John spoke, that he related with his music. By the way, in 2012, John and Willie Nelson co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which calls for the legal cultivation of hemp for clothing, biofuel and food.

About the only other contact I had with John was indirect, through another modern day saint, Kris Kristofferson. Kris wrote “Johnny Lobo” about John, about “a warrior fighting for his people and his soul” who like John had served during Vietnam (John was in the Navy, on a destroyer off Vietnam):

Loaded down with lessons that he carried
Home from Viet Nam to Wounded Knee
Johnny Lobo burned a flag he knew had been dishonored
Paid the price for thinking he was free
Someone set his house on fire, burned it to the ground
With his wife and children locked inside
Later when the bitter tears were falling to the ashes
Something good in Johnny Lobo died.

But something good in John Trudell also lived. And even though I never spent a lot of time with him, I remained so moved by him that I was stunned and broken by his death. And I was hardly alone.

I called his longtime assistant Faye Brown a few days after, and she still could barely talk. John’s family released this statement: “We know all the people who love John want to know about plans and how to pay their respects. John left clear instructions for his passage and for what he wanted to happen after he crossed over. He did not want a funeral or any kind of single gathering. He also did not want his family to write a standard style obituary or ‘toot his horn.’ He didn’t want to tell people how to remember him. His wishes are for people to celebrate life and love, pray and remember him in their own ways in their own communities.”

“With love for all,” the family closed.

His close friend Kevin Marsh, who held him in his arms lovingly as he “passed through to the other side,” related John’s final moments.

“John was extremely ill,” wrote Marsh. “Cancer is the worst, plain and simple. But he was good with what was happening to him, the transitioning from this world to the next.”

He continued: “John was at peace, such a total, calming peace befitting a warrior of his caliber. It was stunning is what it was. The sparkle in his eyes never left him–it never went away ever. No glazing over like most folks when they leave. Not John. The sparkle never left his eyes.”

After his eldest daughter came in and said, “Hey, Trudell! How ya doing?,” John looked up and said, “I’m good.” And that was it.

And then Marsh added, “We do not stop because John is not on this earth because we still are and the work is not even close to complete. The next generation of Trudell’s are primed to take up where their father left off. All the non-profits that would always table at John’s gigs still need a place to go to get the word out and plans are in the works to keep the work very very much alive and moving forward–together.”

He concluded: “And remember, ‘John’s good.’ He said so.”

Here’s John’s “Stone People,” from his last album, “Wazi’s Dream”:

Death is a ghost where there is no death
Death is a death where life forgets to live.

Concert Highlights–Carlene Carter at the Cutting Room, 6/12/14

Carlene Carter sang “Me and the Wildwood Rose” midway through her set at the Cutting Room last night. It’s a song from her 1990 album I Fell in Love, which she wrote about traveling as a child with her grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter, her mother June Carter Cash and aunts Helen and Anita Carter—then billed as Mother Maybelle & the Singing Carter Sisters—and her own little sister, Rosie.

In a big shiny car we’d head down the road
To sing for the miners who brought out the coal
Many a time I slept on the floorboard cold
On a quilt with my little sister
The Wildwood Rose

“It has a lot more meaning for me now that they’ve all passed on,” she said. But with her great new album Carter Girl (I should know. I wrote the liner notes.) she’s taken on the honor and responsibility of continuing the historic Carter Family tradition while adding to it.

She’s focusing on Carter Girl, of course, on her current tour. Accompanied by her longtime guitarist Sean Allen on guitars and lap steel, and on the album’s duets, husband Joe Breen, Carlene played acoustic guitar, autoharp and piano, standout songs from the album including first single “Little Black Train,” “Blackjack David” (Kris Kristofferson sings on the album version), “Troublesome Waters” (Willie Nelson) and her adaptation of the Carter Family’s “Lonesome Valley” (“Lonesome Valley 2003,” with Vince Gill, evoking the passing of her mother and stepfather Johnny Cash).

The Carter Family was further represented by Carlene’s version of “My Dixie Darlin’,” which she had also included in I Fell In Love, and she encored with her own big country hit from that period, “Every Little Thing.”

Speaking of which, she acknowledged that she had “tried all kinds of different things in her career—and I mean that: all kinds of different things!” and hinted at some of them at the start when she announced, “Don’t be scared. I’ve got underwear on tonight! Things do change.”

But her unchanged talent notwithstanding, the laughter turned to tears when she said, also of “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” how she thinks of her departed Carter girls everyday.

“I’m so lucky to still be here and play and be with friends,” she said. “I’m going to start to cry,” she added, and did—then finished, most appropriately and effectively, with the family’s signature hymn “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By).”

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.