Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

bessgaither
For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

The Great (Al) Goldstein

I’m not much for wishing anyone “RIP.”

Rest in peace? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? That no one robs your grave like some Egyptian pharaoh?

But I’m close to wishing a peaceful rest for my dear, dear friend Al Goldstein. Maybe the most restless mess of a man I ever knew, and surely, in spite of himself, high up among the most lovable.

You could easily shrug him off as one big id, but there was so much more to him than his voracious appetites for sex and food and maybe above all, freedom of expression.

I loved the quote in The New York Times obit, from “the manifesto” in Screw’s debut issue in 1968. “We will apologize for nothing.” And it rightly pointed out how he ‘lived to shock and offend.” But to my mind, at least, those he sought to shock and offend had it coming, way more often than not—on two occasions, myself included.

But really Al, am I so bad because I’m such a huge Burt Bacharach-Hal David fan that I told you how much I loved the 2003 Broadway production of their musical revue The Look of Love, which was so soundly thrashed by the critics that it closed after only 48 performances—one of which you went to, on my recommendation, and hated, so much so that you did the first of two golden Al Goldstein Midnight Blue “Fuck You”’s to me?

Obviously, yes.

But was I really so bad that in the middle of another “Fuck You” the following week, you lost your train of thought, then reverted back a week and went after me again?

“Jim Bessman. You visited me in two hospitals. You took me to concerts. You got me CDs. This is the thanks you get: FUCK YOU!”

If you never watched Midnight Blue, Al’s legendary cable access program that came on Friday nights at midnight and mixed hardcore porn footage with Al’s fever-pitched rants against ex-wives, lawyers, restaurants, movies, the government and good friends, well, you missed out on the LOL genius of Al Goldstein.

One year I turned him onto Tammy Faye Starlite. Real name Tammy Lang, Tammy Faye most recently has won acclaim for her portrayals of the late German rock chanteuse Nico, of 1967’s legendary Velvet Underground & Nico “Banana Album” fame. But the former yeshiva student first found her own fame—make that infamy—in her Tammy Faye Starlite guise as an overwhelmingly obscene and biased evangelical Christian country rock ‘n’ roll act that is either blasphemous or hysterically blasphemous depending on your sense of humor.

In other words, she was right up Al’s alley. Sight unseen, he asked her on the show, and asked me to sit there while he interviewed her, in character, going back and forth between asking her questions and hurling insults my way. And he liked her so much that he kept there long, so her segment would appear in two parts.

I had to leave after the first part, unfortunately before Penn Jillette showed up. An atheist saint for standing up for and caring for Al in his final years of dire need, an uncomfortably put-off Penn sat in on the second part of Al’s Tammy Faye interview, not realizing it was all brilliant born-again shtick. He challenged her religiosity at all turns, yet failed to dent Tammy Faye’s facsimile of impenetrable piety. Al just lapped it up until nearing the end of the interview, Penn finally got the joke.

Of course not even Tammy Faye Starlite could be as utterly repellant Al Goldstein, but there was always something somehow adorable about Al, even cuddly. And most of Midnight Blue was his producers making fun of him: I still crack up thinking of the bit where they liften the scene in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen’s Willard is being instructed to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Brando’s Kurtz.

“He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” Willard is told.

“Al Goldstein?” he asks, thanks to the magic of Midnight Blue voiceover. Cut to footage of Al sitting at his desk, gleefully thumbing his nose at the camera.

That was Al.

And then there were the “Fuck You”’s.

I was there on several occasions when they’d set up a video camera to tape the segments. Al would have a sheet of paper with half a dozen or so topics, then go through them extemporaneously and rapid-fire, climaxing at the end of each one with both hands outstretched, middle fingers angrily thrusting upwards along with the most disdainful “Fuck you!” deliverable. It was truly breathtaking to behold.

When he died yesterday after spending the last few years in hospitals and nursing homes and deteriorating from numerous physical ailments, Penn Jillette tweeted, “My friend, and hero, Al Goldstein is dead. I will miss him and the world will be a little less free and honest.”

He was my hero, too, and in 1999 I somehow managed to squeeze in an article in Billboard about how record companies were advertising on both The Howard Stern Radio Show and Midnight Blue—though I can’t for the life of me remember which label used the latter. But Al was thrilled to get noticed by such a respected publication, and from that point on I was invited to every Screw/Midnight Blue staff meeting, which always was well stocked with pizza.

He’d invite me to his frequent dinner parties, too, where he’d pick up the tab for 10-20 friends at his favorite delis, Korean or Chinese joints. Gilbert Gottfried was a regular, so was “Uncle” Al Lewis and author Larry Ratso Sloman—another deeply caring friend of Al’s.

His kindness and generosity knew no bounds: I brought a couple girlfriends over the years, and he told them how beautiful they were–though he did question their soundness of mind for being with me. And I took him everywhere: to Joey Reynolds’ radio show, to see Sandra Bernhard and the Oak Ridge Boys; Al loved country music, and the Oaks were thrilled to meet him.

Then again, everyone was thrilled to meet Al Goldstein. His outgoing personality was as big as his obese girth, and even after he had his stomach stapled, lost a ton of weight, and actually looked great, that personality was no less big.

And big as he was, Al always stood up for the little guy and those, like him, who were maligned and misunderstood. Like Phil Spector. He loved Phil, and was ecstatic when I had Phil send me an autographed Spector box set to give him. They had a lot of good in common, unbeknownst to the general public.

“Yes, Al. You are missed. So missed,” tweeted Penn, calling him “one of the greatest proponents of free speech of my generation.” Yes, he was that, and so much more.

My biggest regret is that I was unable to make his voice heard again after he went bankrupt. I failed in attempts to interest people in putting new “Fuck You”’s up on their websites, and could never figure out how to do it myself. With his passing, a thunderous voice shouting out in the wilderness has been silenced.

I’m just lucky to have known him, and glad that he made it to 77—when he could have given up long before. Besides all that weight, he’d lost his home and all his possessions (what I wouldn’t give for DVD copies of Midnight Blue!)—but never his fighting spirit and sense of humor.

Bedridden and deathly ill, Al Goldstein was still a joy to be around. He went out the giant that he was.