Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

If you follow me on Twitter you know how I like to post YouTube videos relating, usually loosely, to trending celebration days-everything from National Donut Day (June 2), say, to Spirit Day, which occurred just last week (Oct. 20). As for Spirit Day, though, I didn’t know what it was when I started looking for Spirit’s 1968 hit “I Got a Line on You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In the Sky.”

Before posting them, luckily, I learned that Spirit Day, instituted in 2010, recognizes united opposition against bullying and shows support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, with Spirit Day observerse wearing purple–the color representing “spirit” on the rainbow LGBT flag. The day is a big enough deal to have it’s own special Twitter purple ribbon symbol for hashtags.

Clearly, “I Got a Line on You” and “Spirit In the Sky” weren’t appropriate for Spirit Day, not that I always let political correctness always stand in the way. But I was sensitive enough this time to the significance of LGBT concerns to seek a better video, and the perfect one came to mind instantly: “Born This Way.”

No, not the vastly inferior Lady Gaga song-that was a total rip from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” as everyone–including Madonna–knows! No, I mean Ashford & Simpson’s emotionally powerful and empowering “Born This Way,” with Terry Lavell singing, which they hastily released digitally early in 2011 when Gaga announced her upcoming single of the same title and somewhat similar, if decidedly vainglorious, theme.

Ashford & Simpson’s “Born This Way,” which was written in 2006 for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel Invisible Life about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, was the first recording for Lavell, who was then starring as Mercedes in the hit Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.

“Never in my life did I think I’d record a song with the most legendary songwriters ever!” he told me for examiner.com. “I love it, and everyone who’s heard it loves it.”

Indeed, it was a fabulous song and dramatic performance by a guy who clearly understood the lyric, as related by a young man who knew he was different since he was “a little baby boy,” ignored by his mother and beaten by his father, who prayed he could change but woke up every day the same—and finally discovers self-acceptance:

For those just like me who don’t always seem to fit
We’ve got a right to be
We’ve got to stand up to it
The time is now, this is it
Look at this big beautiful world and all its varieties
Each living thing has its purpose
We’re all in His image
What could be better
We’re supposed to live and love together.

And the chorus:

I was born this way
It’s not your problem, it’s not your fault
God made me and it’s okay
So don’t try to change me
I was born this way.

Lavell, a New Orleans native who had previously toured in Hairspray and Smokey Joe’s Café and appeared on TV in Sex and the City and The Dave Chappelle Show, had spectacularly introduced “Born This Way” when it was a key song in producer showcases for Invisible Life. He reprised his electrifying performance at Ashford & Simpson’s September,
2008 shows at Feinstein’s when he stunned audiences by coming out from the wings unannounced to sing it with them and for that moment, at least, all but steal the show: “The sassy long-legged beanpole,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “appeared out of nowhere to zigzag across the stage like a bolt of lightning.”

“They came to see La Cage and afterwards said they wanted to record it,” said Lavell of Nick and Val. “Their version is just as good [as Gaga’s]. It’s different and more of an anthem song.”

And while Nick and Val didn’t write “Born This Way” expressly for him, Lavell felt a personal connection with it.

“It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve had something that feels like it was written for me,” he said. “The crazy part is that it wasn’t! But it just feels like verbatim, it’s the story of my life–like I lived this.”

He added: “I want so much to do work that means something, and ‘Born This Way’ is a celebration of being exactly who you are. Of course you understand it’s about a guy being gay, but so many people can relate because it’s just telling an individual story about being whoever you are, and is more a celebration song–in the great Ashford & Simpson dance tune style.”

I also spoke with Nick and Val when “Born This Way” was released.

“It’s weird how the same ideas and thoughts can float into the universe and emerge from different minds and different places,” Val said, referring to Gaga’s song. “I think there’s enough love in the world for Lady Gaga and Terry Lavell,” said Nick–as only Nick would.

Nick and Val wrote 20 or so songs for the Invisible Life musical, which, wrongly, was never produced. But I vividly remember that they’re all great–having twice seen the run-through for producers. Regarding “Born This Way,” Holden lauded it as “a high-powered dance number,” and like so many Ashford & Simpson classics, it does in fact build in drama and intensity to a huge chorus—“that big A&S sound!” as Nick once put it, when I interviewed him and Val many years ago for Billboard.

That big A&S sound. What was so big about that big A&S sound was the structure of gospel music–the tradition that they came out of–that they brought to secular music, which worked particularly well in the theatrical context of Invisible Life. A&S fans, of course, can point to their masterpiece 1982 experiment in R&B theater with their Street Opera album, the entire B-side of which was a mini-Porgy and Bess suite of songs depicting the hard if not harsh realities of urban Africa-American working-class life—though never lacking in the love and hope that A&S more than anything represent.

What’s especially sad about Invisible Life is that “Born This Way” remains the only song from it that’s ever surfaced. Nick and Val themselves recorded another key song from the Invisible Life compositions, the stirring, climactic “God Has Love For Everyone,” its title pretty much telling you everything. I still hear the chorus ringing triumphantly in my mind.

But I’d almost forgotten about the “Born This Way” video! The clip mixes studio footage of Lavell recording the song with performance footage shot at a Thursday Open Mic show at Nick and Val’s fabled Sugar Bar restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It may have been the last video shot of Nick. If so, well, it couldn’t have been more fitting, with him singing with the background singers, generously giving the spotlight up for another artist like he–and Val, in the video playing piano–did all the time.

Songwriters Hall of Fame announces 2017 nominees

shof17

The Songwriters Hall of Fame [SHOF] announced this morning its nominees for induction at its Annual Induction & Awards Gala, to be held June 15, 2017, in New York.

The nominations are in two categories, non-performing songwriters and performing songwriters.

The non-performing songwriter nominees are Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Randy Goodrum, the team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Tony Macaulay, Max Martin, Kenny Nolan, the team of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Paul Overstreet, the team of P.F. Sloan & Steve Barri, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Allee Willis and Maury Yeston.

The performing songwriter nominees are Bryan Adams, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, the band Chicago’s Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm and James Pankow; Gloria Estefan, David Gates, Vince Gill, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Kool & The Gang’s Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell and George Brown; Jeff Lynne, Madonna, George Michael and Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart.

Voting SHOF members have until December 16 to vote for three nominees in the non-performing category and two in the performing category. Information on the nominees—and how to become a voting SHOF member—is available at the SHOF website.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing the work and lives of those composers and lyricists who create music around the world. It celebrates songwriters, educates the public with regard to their achievements, and produces a spectrum of professional programs devoted to the development of new songwriting talent through workshops, showcases and scholarships.

CF45

The theme was, “Rock out!,” so it was appropriate that my old friend John Fogerty was playing, which is why I went to the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation benefit dinner at Cipriani Wall Street a couple weeks ago. And rock out I did, which would have been hard not to do, considering John’s one of the greatest rockers in history and hasn’t slowed down a whit at 70.

But I didn’t follow the second command of the theme—”Invest in cancer.” I’m not sure what it meant exactly, but I am sure I’ve invested plenty enough already. Too much for my own good, it turned out, earlier in the week, when I saw that cancer PSA again on MSNBC, the one where all the cancer patients or survivors or living-with-cancers look at the camera and whine about what cancer has taken from them.

“Cancer,” I tweeted, “if you return everything you took I won’t press charges.”

I thought it was funny. I think everything I tweet is funny. Not everyone else does. Clearly.

Although 17 friends did hit “like,” not everybody got the joke. From a friend in India, “Sending wishes, light and gratitude to the divine for your recovery.” As I told her, trying neither to reveal nor hide the truth, “Sweet of you, Isheeta, but health aside, I was goofing on a cancer public service announcement on US TV.” From my cousin Shayna, who knew, “Jim, this is a heartbreakingly funny comment. I hope you are ok. I am sending much love!”

Thanks, Shayna!

“Know exactly how you feel Jim,” wrote another, and while I didn’t respond, let me say right here, I most certainly hope not! Then again, since this Cancer Funnies series is the only thing I publish that I don’t promote, how could she, that is, know what I’m talking about other than the PSA?

But one friend I hadn’t seen in probably 20 years completely missed it. First she came back with a heart emoticon. Then “How are you Jim! It has been years, but yet no time at all!”—this with a smile emoticon.

Then I unintentionally opened the floodgates with “If you only knew, Rhonda, if you only knew”—though I at least had an inkling.

Rhonda, by the way, is not her real name. She’ll never read this, of course. Then again, maybe she will….

“I hope everyone knows I was responding to the TV PSA….,” I wrote, hastily, trying to avert the not so secret truth getting out without anyone subscribing to jimbessman.com and donating to my cause.

“I get it!” said Rhonda, though she could only really have gotten less than the half of it, especially since she followed with the dreaded, “Hope you are well!” followed by “I am here if you want to chat!”

Goddammit! I don’t want to chat with anyone! And especially not about cancer!

“Very sweet…” was the best I could do.

“You are part of The Tapestry Of My Life!” she wrote. That being the case, I said to myself, said tapestry is due for a thorough cleaning.

“We all helped shape each other,” she continued. “You did a much better job than I did!” I said, hoping to absolve her of all blame.

“REALLY?” This was starting to enter dangerous waters, so I tried to reel it all back in with, “Thank you. You’ve been a wonderful audience…” If I was on Twitter I would have laughed out loud.

One friend bought it, I guess: “Love yourself, and we will add more love to the mix!” But I wasn’t sure, so I returned to the beginning with, “I won’t press charges!”—earning another friend’s “best status ever” proclamation.

Then, from a rare friend who knew the truth: “You had me worried.”

I was really hoping it had run its course, now, and it had, except for Rhonda. She was now taking issue with my “you did a much better job” response, and was now messaging me privately, thank God.

“Why do you say that? I remember our hallway talks like it was yesterday, we all built that sturdy foundation together. Thank God we had each other in a safe and sacred space and were never alone. Bert Padell brought so many of us together. He is truly one of my mentors. You OK?”

She was referring to the fabled Seventh Floor at 1775 Broadway, where I rented a tiny room from “accountant to the stars” Bert Padell. Everyone from Madonna to The Ramones did business there, and Rhonda worked for a top producer who also rented office space.

“Hey one last question did or do you have cancer?”

She had missed the joke, and I couldn’t lie.

“I was joking on the cancer PSA, but yes, in fact, I do have prostate cancer. Am destitute and have lost everything.”

“You have cancer! Why are you destitute and why have you lost everything?”

I really didn’t want to go into it.

“I really don’t mean to pry!”

“Come on. you have a tribe of loved ones to help you!!!!!!!!”

Yeah. That and 10 cents will buy me a good cigar.

“I have nothing and no one.”

“Jim you can be an asshole, but we still love you! And I do mean a mean asshole, at times. I am here for you let me know what you need please.”

Now I appreciated the affirmation, here, but when was I mean to you, dear? I thought, but didn’t write.

“Please talk to me. If I did not have a husband and a family I would be on the street right now! I mean that!”

Honestly, as much as I could have done without this exchange, I wasn’t avoiding it. It was past 10 p.m., and I’d fallen asleep.

“COME ON JIM! Please don”t leave me!”

“PLEASE!”

“Please let me sleep tonight/I will hunt you down tomorrow!”

“JIM REALLY! I NEED TO SLEEP!”

“You have a phone and FACEBOOK!”

“GOOD NIGHT! GOD SPEED, I AM HERE! LETTING YOU GO!”

“Don’t make me call the authorities, I will.”

“I am calling! unless you tell me not to!”

“I am calling!”

“PLEASE call me”

She left her phone number.

“COME ON JIM!”

“Do I need to check on you?”

“I will!”

I woke up at 4:16 a.m.

“Hey! Fell asleep. Just woke up at 4:16….”

Rhonda returned at 9:01.

“You brought out the Mother in me. I was concerned and I have a tendency to over react. The word destitute really got me. What do you need? I may be able to help. I would really like to do that!”

I didn’t know how to respond.

“Hey it is me! I really need you to be honest with me about what is truly going on and what your needs are. I will keep it private but would love to help you get whatever help you need. YOU ARE LOVED JIM, most of the time we don’t feel it but please know it! You are Blessed weather you like it or not to be a part of a community that still cares about one another. Please reach back to me. I will not preach to the choir! Just want the absolute best for you!”

This seemed appropriate: “You’re very sweet Rhonda. I’m drinking myself into oblivion now. If I don’t call you tomorrow remind me.”

She came back with “me too!”

But she couldn’t wait.

“please call me now,”she said, leaving her number.

Except that I actually was drinking myself into oblivion.

“Believe it or not I’m at a cancer foundation dinner. If the cancer don’t kill me, at least the cirrhosis will.” Again, I would have laughed out loud had I tweeted this.

“I am sweet, too sweet, but you are worth it!!!!

“Hardly.” Two bourbons followed by one Canadian was starting to kick in.

“So you are an asshole! Godspeed!”

Some how I felt better. It was time to Rock out!, so to speak.

The PR gal who invited me–why, I’ll never know–had been unusually helpful in getting my message to Bob Fogerty that I was there and was hoping to say hi to him, his brother and sister-in-law Julie. Hadn’t seen them in two years almost to the day, when John smoked the Beacon with a set including the entire Cosmo’s Factory and Bayou Country albums along with most of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s other big hits, as well as his own solo classics.

I did get a few minutes with John and Julie before they did a VIP meet-and-greet–during which one of his signature flannel shirts was auctioned off for $10,000–and then a full, dynamite 90-minute show with his full, dynamite band. I didn’t wonder how he does it, since I knew from the video presentation at the Beacon that he not only practices guitar four hours a day, he jogs six miles daily.

I came back down to my table in time to hear emcee Chris Wragge, co-anchor of CBS 2 News’ early “happy talk” “news” show This Morning, try to lead everyone in a “Cancer sucks!” cheer while pretty young female things went around the tables passing out “Cancer sucks!” temp tatts.

I was introduced to a major philanthropist/socialite who wanted to introduce me to Samuel Waxman, who was only a table over. “He saved my dad from lymphoma!” she said

Sam was in the middle of a mouthful, but swallowed politely.

“You guys in the press do such a great job for us!” he said appreciatively–underscoring the fact that this was no music business function. I really wanted to slap him on the back like we were old frat brothers and say, “Oh, yeah. I got prostate cancer, you old coot!”

But I thought back to my thread and returned to my seat.

Waiting for Miley Cyrus

The day before the annual MTV Video Music Awards crapola and I oddly find myself more looking forward to it than maybe even the first one 31 years ago, when all of us in the biz back then had drunk the Kool-Aid and were swept away by the asshole moonman.

Now, a 63-year-old man with music tastes reflecting my age, I’m also thinking back on my flimsy indirect Miley Cyrus connection via her dad.

I can’t remember if it was Key Largo or Orlando where Mercury/Nashville held a weekend junket for media in 1992 to showcase three of its baby acts including Billy Ray, and I can’t remember the other two, though one might have been Shania. And while I never got to know him that well, I was great friends with his (and Buck Owens’) manager Jack McFadden. I still remember Jack’s cutting riposte to my buddy Travis Tritt’s disparaging remarks during Fan Fair that year regarding Billy Ray’s out-of-nowhere career explosion by way of “Achy Breaky Heart”–which were shared but unuttered by many others in the country music community: “He’s [Tritt] just feeling the heat from our afterburner!”

Then a few years later, after Billy Ray’s career had seemingly flamed out almost as fast as it burst, I was asked to appear on one of those dumb celeb news shows, I think it was Access Hollywood, to comment on his chances of making a comeback with his then just-released new album. It was not at all impossible, I stated, with authoritative certainty, only to be told I’d never be asked on the show again for refusing to do stupid B-roll walking-through-the-hall or sitting-at-the-computer bullshit.

“I’m not an actor!” I huffed. “I’m a writer.”

Sure enough, I never did the show again.

As for Miley, well, I never watched Hannah Montana. So I never paid much attention to her until the infamous performance at the VMAs with Robin Thicke two years ago, when I found the twerking and tongue lolling vulgar and annoying, then was put off further by every succeeding outrageous stunt culminating with the video for “Wrecking Ball,” which I hated: By now it all seemed so calculating, like Madonna, and the song itself became tedious after a couple listens, with its bouncy verse and big, overwrought chorus. No denying, though, she sang it all very well.

Maybe it was her heartfelt induction of Joan Jett into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that turned me around, or her staunch refusal to apologize for what she does and who she is–along with her outspokenness in support of scores of progressive charities and causes. Here the one that really got me was her own nonprofit Happy Hippie Foundation, with its mission “to rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.” To launch the foundation, she created a Backyard Sessions series of videos, many with guests like Jett and Ariana Grande, in which she respectfully covered classic rock songs including The Turtles “Happy Together,” garnering praise from none other than that group’s lead singer Howard Kaylan.

Miley told The New York Times (“in between freshly rolled joints”) that MTV told her, “This is your party,” and promises to give them a “psychedelic” and “raw” show unlike any previous ones—precisely why the network hired her, no doubt. But she also revealed that she’s working on “avant-garde” new music with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, which, in conjunction with a new visual Instagram style influenced by underground Net artists, indicates that she’s continuing to experiment and grow as an artist as she is as a person.

“When you look at it now, it looks like I’m playing hopscotch,” she said of her 2013 VMA appearance. “Compared to what I do now, it looks like nothing. I can’t believe that was a big deal. It wasn’t shocking at all.” She added: “I still love it. But I now watch it, and I see someone that isn’t me now.”

Who she is now, it seems to me, is an uncommonly centered, concerned and caring person for 22, completely opposite from the narcissistic pop superstarlets of her stature—Taylor Swift in particular. To be fair, Swift also gives plenty to charity, and has commendably established a close relationship with her massive fan base.

But Swift seems focused on surface, i.e., her physical appearance, celebrity friends and post-adolescent romance, whereas Cyrus, though younger, is so much broader and deeper in interest and reach. Here’s hoping to see more of this come into play tonight, whatever the shock value.

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.