Madcity 2016—Corky Siegel & Howard Levy, Le Fete de Marquette, Otis Redding, Ben Sidran, sudden death and Bernie Sanders

Mad3

I was at the Delta Terminal at LaGuardia early morning July 14 waiting for my nonstop to Milwaukee when I saw that fellow music writer Joe Bosso Facebooked how he loved Grand Funk Railroad growing up, and how he couldn’t understand how the critics hated them.

I laughed out loud.

I had hated them, too, at the beginning, when me and the guys sat around smoking pot, guzzling beers and sniffing glue nonstop to “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But everything changed when they started having hit singles like “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul.” A million years later I was privileged to write the booklet notes to the box set Thirty Years of Funk: 1969–1999 and become big friends with frontman Mark Farner. Joe, who rightly called GFR “a total kickass band,” had just interviewed Mark, and drew an ambiguous response from the esteemed Ira Robbins-co-founder of the late, great Brit-rock/new wave-oriented mag Trouser Press-who observed that 150 music writers had been invited to meet the band at the beginning at New York’s Gotham Hotel.

“Exactly six journalists showed up,” Ira tallied, then cited the famous block-long billboard in Times Square promoting the Closer to Home album, at a cost of $100,000. He seemed to be suggesting that Grand Funk’s success was due much to marketing; for sure it wasn’t press adulation. Not wishing to cause my usual Facebook firestorm, I merely stated, “I wrote the notes for the box set. Mark is a sweetheart and great as ever,” prompting Ira to kindly reply, “You’re a midwestern partisan, you are!”

“On my way back to Wisco as we speak!” I wrote back, and it was now time to board.

It was my third annual July trip to Wisco, as I call it, to visit my ninetysomething mother in Madison. I didn’t plan anything when I went back two years ago, but I got lucky: My high school buddy Andy Linderman, now the renowned blues harmonica player Westside Andy, had a gig on July 4 at Waupun–a tiny town 50 miles northeast of Madison mostly known for being the site of the state prison–and I tagged along. The annual Celebrate Waupun festival had two stages–the blues stage, that Andy was part of, and of all things, a Cajun music stage, the big name being Feufollet, a Lafayette band I’d first seen there in the late 1990s when they were all kids. They’re young adults now, after personnel changes including the addition of Kelli Jones-Savoy, the hugely talented wife of my dear friend and huge Cajun music talent Joel Savoy from nearby Eunice, The Cajun Prairie Capital.

It turned out that Feufollet was playing one of my old Madcity haunts, the Crystal Corner bar, a few days later, so I got to see them twice while I was in town. But also playing the Cajun stage was of all people, Jim Schwall, guitarist for the Siegel-Schwall Band, one of the main reasons I got into writing about music in the mid’70s in the first place.

I’d first seen Jim at The People’s Fair rock festival in Iola Township some 140 miles north of Madison, which took place in late June of 1970, when Siegel-Schwall played sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend festival. As I’ve written here elsewhere*, it was life-changing. I think Andy was at the fest, but I know he’d originally turned me on to them and I instantly became a devotee, turning everyone I knew onto the band and seeing them again scores of times throughout the next decade. I wrote about them extensively when I began writing about music, and continued after moving to New York in the early ’80s, eventually positioning myself to oversea the CD reissue of their entire Vanguard catalog.

Jim’s Siegel-Schwall partner Corky Siegel became one of my closest friends, but I never knew Jim that well. After moving to New York he moved to Madison, so I missed out on getting to know him better there. So I was thrilled to get to see him and hang out a bit during the day at Waupun, where he was playing bass in Madison’s Cajun Strangers.

“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” Jim told me, by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands. I can’t remember what band Andy was playing with, but I know it wasn’t his, and that like Jim, he played in a number of local blues bands as well.

I was smarter last year in planning my trip, but that’s because I knew well in advance Elvis Costello was playing in Madison with The Imposters–their own gig during a couple days off from their tour opening for Steely Dan. I wrote about the show—and it’s significance to me and my career—here last year*; another high point of last year’s trip was getting to hang out again with Jim, at the Atwood (Avenue) Fest.

This year I was hoping maybe Jimmy Liban was playing somewhere. Jim Liban, another great blues harmonica legend, from my hometown Milwaukee.

Of all the artists—and they probably number in the hundreds if not thousands—whom I saw and loved and supported in my writing career who deserved and didn’t get the widespread mainstream recongition they deserved, none ranks higher in my estimation than Jimmy Liban. Luckily, he put out a record a couple years ago, I Say What I Mean, and I made it my Album of the Year in examiner.com. He hadn’t had a record out in God knows how long, and wouldn’t have had not a young (relatively) guitar player named Joel Paterson, who had played with Jimmy when he was cutting his own musical teeth in Madison, decided, now that he was well established in Chicago and had started his own indie label, to put out an album of Liban originals.

I Say What I Mean did get Jimmy a gig in Europe, and also took him to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. But remember: This is the blues, so there wasn’t much else. When I called him a few weeks before booking my trip, he told me that he was in the middle of a one-year hiatus from playing—though he had promised a friend that he’d play his wedding, and was honoring that commitment. When the year was up he’d decide if he’d want to play again, but for now, it just wasn’t any fun any more, essentially playing the same Milwaukee haunts for the same Milwaukee people. I shared his frustration, and added it to my own.

Mad1

That left Corky. I went to his website and sure enough, he had a gig on July 16 in Fort Atkinson, a 45-minute or so drive from Madison, at Cafe Carpe. I booked the trip, flying to Milwaukee and taking the Badger Bus to Madison. That first night, it turned out, was the start of the four-day Le Fete de Marquette festival, in of all places, Madison’s Central Park. I didn’t even know we had a Central Park in Madison, and that it was a walk from where I used to live on South Hancock Street a few blocks back of the State Capitol. I went there with my old pal Jeff Laramie, owner of the booking agency SRO Artists, who used to be second in command at Mountain Railroad Records, home of artists including Jim Post, Steve Young, a pre-Timbuk3 Pat MacDonald and Spooner–which was fronted by Doug Erikson, later to become Duke Erikson of Garbage, and had on drums Butch Vig, also of future Garbage and Nirvana production fame.

It being Madison, I smoked some pot, followed Jeff and wife Terri around and was blown away by the music (like the festival name suggests, it focused on French-related music), and the one artist I remember seeing is Cyril Neville. I only wish I remembered the conversations I had with Jeff and Terri because I know I had at least five ideas for great stories/commentaries, and I was too high to take down any notes, none of which likely would have made sense had I done so. I at least remember one thing that I think Jeff said, that echoed my thoughts on pre-Democratic Convention Bernie Sanders.

I of course supported Bernie’s positions, but I didn’t support Bernie. He lost me from the beginning on vocabulary ,three words in particular—the first being revolution. I don’t care what he meant, revolution connotes violence. If it doesn’t scare a lot of people to death outright, it puts them way the fuck off.

Bernie’s second bad word was obvious—socialism. Again, even though I doubt most people can correctly defin it, socialism scares people and puts them off, especially since it still widely and wrongly connotes communism. Maybe America is ready to elect a socialist, not to mention a Jewish socialist. I just didn’t want to bet the Constitution on it.

The third word was establishment. Bernie kept railing against the establishment, much as I did when I was a teen high school radical in the late ‘60s. Except this ain’t the late ‘60s, and now I’m the establishment—and I’m not ashamed of it. I always love President Obama’s line from the 2008 campaign, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And I’m proud of who I was in the ‘60s in Madison, when there was an awful war going on and a Selective Service draft and a generation gap, and to suggest, like the Bernie or Bust people, that now Obama and Hillary Clinton and I are essentially the same as Nixon, well, I’ll have none of it.

And now I’ll add a fourth word, one that has to do with what Jeff or I did or didn’t say: rigged. Yeah, Bernie, like Trump, riled up his followers by claiming that the “system” is rigged, when he was losing a good fight fair and square. Here he only reinforced a main paranoid tenet of American culture since the JFK assassination, that everything that happens that’s bad is a conspiracy, then, with Trump, helped extend it by giving his followers free reign to believe that winners are corrupt and therefore win unfairly, hence their victories are illegitimate. This breeds cynicism, incivility, unwillingness to compromise, a belief that if you don’t get everything you want, nothing is preferable.

Now by no means an I saying that Hillary is spotless, or that I like her, though it turns out that I do, very much–having in fact hated her eight years ago when she ran against Obama, having been a Clinton hater long before then. But she earned my respect and eventual admiration for sucking it up after losing, campaigning for Obama, serving as his Secretary of State and now winning the nomination fairly and handily as the candidate far and away most supportive of the President–which Bernie was to a lesser extent, his chief supporters to a far lesser one. Again, I support Bernie’s positions, which are closer to mine than Hillary’s, and I recognize her weaknesses and shortcomings as a candidate–but in relation to Trump, they’re virtually nonexistent, and the differences between her and Bernie are likewise truly miniscule. All this said, I do hereby salute Bernie for doing the right thing at and since the convention, and am relieved that the bulk of his followers do appear to have similarly sucked it up.

I just wish I could remember the other stuff we talked about, but that old Madison Green—not to mention a new addition in the Madtown Mule—a beer infused with lime and ginger made by Capital Brewery, that I drank an entire mule team of—-made me forget everything except the sight of people as old as me who still lived in Madison and still went out to hear music, and that it was such a great setting in a park in the middle of the near East Side with the majestic State Capitol building visible in the sunset, the Capitol that you can see from miles away as you near Madison on the Badger Bus, that I used to walk through on my way to State Street and the University-area music clubs when I lived there and wrote for The Madcity Music Sheet and was a stringer for Variety before moving to New York.

Mad

I do remember one other thing, part of the Bernie discussion, that I myself came up with and gave to a girl that we were talking to, a friend of Jeff’s, that I know she never acted on, that I should have—a t-shirt slogan: “Vote conscientiously–not your conscience.” If anyone who reads this is so inclined to print up and sell some shirts, honor compels you to cut me in.

BessRockin2

I returned to the festival the next night to meet up with Rockin’ John McDonald, my friend of over 40 years—as long as he’s had his beloved I Like It Like That oldies radio show every Saturday night on Madison’s listener-sponsored WORT-FM. I thought I was cool wearing my orange New York Public Library t-shirt, but RJ topped it with his vintage blue Dr. Bop and the Headliners entry. That day, by the way, I returned for the first time since leaving my third job with the State of Wisconsin in either 1978 or ‘79 to the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson, overlooking Lake Monona, where I worked two blocks south of the Capitol.

Mad2

I needed a birth certificate, as I was suddenly thinking of fleeing to India and didn’t have a passport. I walked into the building and thought I’d stepped into The Twilight Zone: Not everything was the same—there was a security station in the lobby that wasn’t there in the ‘70s. It all looked brighter outside, too. But the institutional flooring and hallways were the same, and it was a step back in time that I recently depicted here.

I can’t remember, but I think my office was on the second floor; I think my second job with the State, a file clerk at the Division of Corrections, was on seventh floor, and the first, where I was a reader/typist for a blind man at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, was also on an upper floor.

The clerk at the Bureau of Records, of course, was my age 40 years ago, modified in the passage of time and mores by arms full of tattoos. When I was done I walked out and got to the lobby and stopped, giving in to the stupid impulse to go back and tell her that I used to work in the building 40 years ago. She feigned interest.

Since I worked there, and long after I left Madison, they built a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, the Monona Terrace, behind the State Office Building, on the Monona shore. They put in a plaque on the terrace in memory of Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967. I was with my friend Beth, whose husband Tim Onosko, the renowned futurist/author, was one of my dearest friends and supporters, an older brother/mentor. Tim died of cancer a few years ago. Pancreatic. I thought he’d beaten it and will never forgive myself for not knowing he hadn’t, though Beth assures me it was okay, he didn’t want anyone to know. Except I should have known and it wasn’t okay.

Mad4

We went out on to the terrace, and I sat on one of the benches surrounding the Redding plaque and looked out onto the quiet, still waters of Lake Monona, silently wondering what might have been. What might have been had Otis lived, and Tim. Had I stayed in the Madcity.

Mad5

Saturday mid-afternoon I took my mother’s car and drove to Fort Atkinson with my 21-year-old niece Ariela to see Corky and Howard at Cafe Carpe. We got there while they were doing soundcheck. I hadn’t seen Corky since he was in New York four years ago to play Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Dr. L. Subramaniam. I don’t remember the last time I saw Howard, but it was probably at one of his gigs at the Association of performing Arts Presenters (APAP) some 10 years ago, maybe.

Mad7

Corky and Howard play together a lot, but this was the first time I’d see them—and I was bringing along my niece Ariela, 21, who’s a classical piano student at New York’s Mannes School of Music, who was also in Madison visiting her mom (my sister). After greeting Corky, his wife/manager Holly and Howard, Corky echoed my excitement over her getting to see Howard (as well as Corky), who does things on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica—i.e., play it chromatically by conceiving an “overblowing” technique–that no one else knows how to do, let alone articulate. You really don’t need to be a musician, let alone understand music, to know when you hear Howard play that he’s doing something that sounds great, but makes absolutely no sense technically speaking.

Howard tried to put it in piano terms for Ariela–but even that was ridiculous.

“I make my mouth do the stuff my fingers would do,” he said. I doubt she understood him. I certainly didn’t.

“I’m not really thinking about this,” he added, speaking, I supposed, of his harmonica. “I visualize the piano.”

He might just as well have been speaking in tongues.

It was at Café Carpe, a wonderful little café/bar/listening room—-maybe 50 seats–in a century-old brick building on the Rock River with a screened porch overlooking the water, owned and operated by regionally renowned folkie Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch. Holly raved about the pumpkin pie; the carrot cake was definitely the best I ever had.

On the wall of the music room was a bumper sticker that read, “I may be old but that’s okay…I got to see all the great bands.”

Bill introduced the show with a Hitchcock like “Good evening,” then asked how many in the SRO room were musicians. At least half raised their hands. I can’t imagine any of them understood what was going on with Howard, either, other than it was, using Bill’s words, “absolute magic.”

Comedic, too. Corky walked to the stage from the back while playing harp, Howard doing same a few paces back in a goofy processional. On stage they tried to out-footstomp each other while Corky played and sang Little Walter’s classic blues “Mellow Down Easy,” leading into a blues harmonica battle between the two.

They went on to trade solo pieces, both on piano and harmonica and sometimes both. At one point Corky laughed out loud at a Howard harmonica solo, which was entirely appropriate considering he was essentially defying all science, such that all one could do was laugh out loud. Howard said that the harmonica is the only instrument that you can pick up upside-down when you’re drunk and not know it. That sort of made sense, but really, it was like listening to Albert Einstein’s feeble attempt at relating with the village idiots.

Then Howard did a Beatles medley including “In My Life” and “Michelle,” his chording so complex that melodies were sometimes barely decipherable, as if he were somehow blowing into a kaleidoscope. “America the Beautiful,” with harp in right hand and left playing piano, segued into “This Land is Your Land,” then he shifted to both hands playing piano and Corky returning, playing harmonica before they sat together at the piano bench duetting—or more accurately, practically crawling over each other while changing hand position, Corky’s at first in between the taller, lankier Howard as he wrapped around him from behind, then the two with their hands alternating before Corky picked up a harmonica, then Howard did the same, each now playing harmonicas with one hand, piano with the other, in left-right-right-left hand mirror image. They also handed off solos on harp and piano and back and forth to where it became dizzying to follow the dazzle.

But that wasn’t all: Howard also played a bass harmonica, penny whistle and on an encore, an angklung set of tuned shakers. But when he doubled the melody on harp and piano simultaneously, well, mouths were agape, and at least in my case, still is. He and Corky walked off together to Siegel-Schwall’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” each finishing the other’s phrases.

The first half of the trip now done, the rest would focus on the few friends in Madison I have left who are still alive, our conversations invariably concerning our respective cancer treatments, except that in Robin’s case he added a new wrinkle to the medical history in having dropped dead at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago—luckily within short distance from a defibrillator. Of course I asked the expected question, i.e., Did you see anything on the other side? Rob’s answer, of course, was no.

Tom, whom I worked with at the State Office Building (same with Rob), seemed to be coming along great after intensive treatment for throat cancer. He was skeletal two years ago, and now he’s playing soccer and drumming in a band.

I had lunch with Chuck Toler, who was partners with Ken Adamany back when I first started writing. The money they made managing Dr. Bop & the Headliners went into developing Cheap Trick. We called Ken, who sounded great. Ken owned The Factory, the nightclub Otis was going to play the day his plane went down in Lake Monona.

Next day was my last—Tuesday, July 19–and I’d end it with some old-time club hopping starting at Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, near my mom’s, where Westside Andy and the Glenn Davis Duo are playing every Tuesday evening during the summer outside on the deck/patio at 5:30 p.m. I’d checked Andy’s schedule before flying out and saw that he was playing every night I was there, all out of town gigs except for this one. He recognized me immediately in his side view mirror when I snuck up on his car after he parked.

It was the second week in a row that an old friend had surprised him, the first being a gal we knew from high school whom he hadn’t seen forever—whom I haven’t seen since—who looked great, who had married the brother of another high school friend, but the husband had died—death being more and more the operative word in these kinds of conversations. Back from a recent Stockholm swing if I heard right–alwasy a 50-50 proposition at best–Andy was still playing with any number of local blues groupings, this one being with Davis, who plays guitar and kick drum and sings. Like Corky and Howard, they turned to Little Walter with “Just Your Fool” while I was there, which was about an hour or so before heading downtown, Andy’s latest album Blues Just Happen in hand, to the Cardinal Bar. I used to hang out there a lot 40 years ago, when it was my corner bar and a straight-friendly gay disco with the best dance music in town.

Tuesday summer early evenings at the Cardinal now are turned over to Ben Sidran’s “Salons for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Free Thinkers,” in which my old friend Ben, Madison’s renowned jazz pianist/author/composer who cut his teeth in The Ardells, a Madison band made up of UW students in 1961 that also included Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—and Jos Davidson, who would go on to play bass in an early Siegel-Schwall configuration. Ben also played in the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s.

He was on break when I got there and ran into Stu Levitan, president of WORT-FM’s board of directors and head of the Madison Landmarks Commission, whom I’d hung out with at the Marquette fest when I met up with Rockin’ John. He told me that Ben was at the front of the bar. Sure enough, Ben was sitting by the window, engrossed in a conversation. So I stood nearby waiting for him to look at me, though I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me, it had been so long since I’d seen him in New York. I know the last time I saw him in Madison was at a Dr. Bop gig, since we both would be called up to sit–and drink–at the ultimate oldies show band’s famous onstage Celebrity Bar.

So I stood there waiting, then noticed a familiar looking woman looking at me like she’d seen a ghost—which would have made sense had she recognized me. Except who’s going to recognize me here now? I thought, and usually people who think they recognize me are soon disappointed when they find out I’m not who they hope I am.

Except that now this woman was smiling broadly and seemed certain it was me, and suddenly it dawned on me that she was right! It was Lynette Margulies, frontwoman pianist/vocalist of jazz-pop group Four Chairs No Waiting back in the day, whom I hadn’t seen since back in the day. I have no idea how she recognized me, but really, I should have recognized her right off.

Lynette immediately interrupted Ben and told him who I was, and he practically fell on the floor. “It’s old home week!” he said when he regained his blance and composure, and sure enough, he’d been locked in conversation with another old Madison journo friend who also lived in New York and was in town visiting. As for Lynette, she remembered when I reviewed Four Chairs when I was stringing with Variety just before splitting for New York—and will never let me off now for not recognizing her right away.

BessLynetteBen
(Photo: Lynette Margulies)

As for Ben’s second set, it really was fabulous—almost all new music by him and and his guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Todd Hammes. Loved the song “College,” especially the line “that’s the place…where I went wrong”–that is, if I read my notes correctly—always a 50-50 proposition at best.

“Who didn’t go wrong in college?” Ben asked when it was over. “And if you didn’t go wrong in college, you missed a huge opportunity!”

“Too Much, Too Late,” he said, was “in the spirit” of his “guru” Mose Allison, which made me think of how I always look at Corky as my guru, though I should add that Simon Burgess is my actual guro, or teacher, in Filipino martial arts.

“It’s the ‘singles’ show!” Ben joked, “just the hits tonight!”

Again struggling to decipher my notes, I can’t tell if someone asked about Steve Miller, or if Ben brought it up on his own. He did say how everybody asks him about Miller, and observed how Miller’s been playing “the same 12 songs for 40 years,” no doubt because of the big bucks he gets paid to do them.

Here Stu, who later explained that he was just quoting Ben from one of Ben’s books, called out something on the order of how those big bucks also paid for Ben’s graduate education so he should shut his mouth, and for sure, Ben’s stint with Miller included his lyrics to “Space Cowboy.”

“At least write a song!” Ben continued, speaking directly to the absent Miller. “It seems like such a waste.”

At least Ben sure made it seem that way from his end, considering the quality of his new songs. I’d been sitting with Patenaude’s proud mom, and he sat with us for a few minutes after the show.

It’s like learning,” said Patenaude, a youngish cat who’s played with Ben since the mid-2000s. “It’s really loose and fun. He tries something out and sees if we feel it and if it works.”

Ben then told me that he rarely makes it out to Manhattan any more.

“There’s no reason to come to the city any more,” he said, though he does get to Brooklyn, where his son Leo, also an esteemed musician/composer who co-produced the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” for the soundtrack to the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, lives. And while he’s working on a new album—and Stu said that the whole first set was new songs that were also great—Ben said that he realized there was no point to it, at least in terms of today’s record companies, airplay and traditional music business marketing.

But what are you going to do? I asked. You’re a musician, and a musician makes music. I’m a writer, and a writer writes—even though I just lost examiner.com, my main outlet, that barely paid. I still have this site, that I have to pay for. But what am I going to do?

Stu, meanwhile, is working a on a book about Madison in the ‘60s, and I again ask you, Stu, to mention that I was one of the Memorial 101 who were suspended from James Madison Memorial High School for protesting Kent State. Before closing out the night—and trip—down the street at the Essen Haus to catch a little of jazz concertina player Brian Erickson, I walked over to where the cigarette machine used to be next to the front door, where I picked up a copy of The Madcity Music Sheet the night I got back from a week’s vacation in Nashville on Memorial Day in 1977-—my first time there—when I dropoped by the Cardinal to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine and I picked one up and paged through it—then just a single sheet of newsprint folded over twice–saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (with guest Ronnie Spector) appearing in town at the Stone Hearth, and went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from musically.

I met Gary Sohmers, the Sheet’s publisher at the Southside gig, and not knowing anything about me other than that I’d come to the show after seeing it highlighted in his paper, he asked me to write for it. I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter. The only difference is that there was no cigarette machine now at the Cardinal.

I told Stu and his girlfriend how great this night had been, indeed, the entire trip–in terms of seeing so much fantastic music. She said maybe I should move back to Madison–the perfect setup for one of my favorite Sandra Bernhard lines, Sandy, of course, being from Flint, Michigan.

If you can make it in New York, says Sandy, you’ll be a failure everywhere else.

Tales of Bessman: The Slow Knife Draw

Martial arts, for me at least, have been particularly humbling.

I’d done a couple years of tae kwon do in my twenties and made it to green belt in the system, and then I started writing and devoted every waking minute to it. But I always wanted to get back into martial arts, just not in a formal wear-the-uniform, bow-to-the-flag-and-teacher kind of way.

Then I fell in love at first sight with a butterfly knife. The highly illegal (in New York) Filipino balisong, with the handles that swing out with the blade in truly menacing fashion. I was able to open it and close it without cutting myself, but could never do any of the fancy flips and twirls.

Probably 15 years ago now I found a teacher in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)—Pekiti Tirsia Kali, to be specific–Simon Burgess. A genius. British. As he said the other day—again—“You are the true test of my patience.”

Some people pick everything up naturally and quickly. Not me. To this day I’m uncomfortable in class. It takes me back to flunking out in high school for never understanding anything. And the perpetual frustration of having everyone start out with me showing them the basics, then a few weeks later, they’re showing me the baiscs. This has been going on for probably 15 years at least.

I think of this now looking back at Tuesday’s session at Five Points Academy—Simon’s martial arts gym, which specializes in Muay Thai kickboxing, of which he’s also a teacher–when I practiced the knife-draw techniques we started working on last week. It’s something I’ve never worked on much—a conceivably fatal mistake, and one that I came close to making a few years ago.

So I was practicing drawing a folding training knife with my right hand out of my waistband, opening it and then going into a thrusting attack mode—and cut the index finger on my left hand.

It was a small laceration, a quarter-inch or so, probably done when I was transitioning from a “No. 3” right-to-left hooking horizontal thrust into a straight-ahead rolling jab and scraped the knife—not necessarily the dulled but still potent edge—against the finger, the rolling left hand not having properly cleared the jabbing knife.

No one saw it, but it was still pretty embarrassing. I knew it would bleed—not drip or run or flow, but that in a minute or so, blood would appear in the crease of the cut and smear my shirt when I slapped the back of my left hand against my armpit whenever I jabbed or thrusted, which is what you’re trained to do, since you’re leaving your armpit exposed when you thrust or jab, and the armpit protects a major artery that presents a kill-shot opportunity for your opponent.

But the key, of course, is to deploy your knife, that is, get it out from concealment and open it in the first place.

Compounding my problem is that I suffer from basal thumb arthritis in both hands, meaning that the cartilage is pretty much gone at the base of the thumbs, from overuse. Too many space bars.

At times it’s been quite painful, but arthritis or no, I’m just not very nimble when it comes to opening a tactical, that is, fighting folding knife that isn’t spring-assisted, like a switchblade. These knives usually have a hole or groove or lug for your thumb to fit in or on and push against in swinging the blade out and snapping it into place.

Tactical folders, and many utility pocket knives, also have a clip for attaching to your front pants pocket or waistband, in fact, Spyderco knives, famous for introducing the thumb-hole, are often called “clipits.” I probably had one clipped in such a manner as I walked down 11th Avenue around 12:30 a.m. If I’d have kept it there, there’s no telling what awful things might have happened.

I got to 47th Street and saw three guys urinating on the corner of a building undergoing reconstruction, long since the headquarters for Ogilvy & Mather. I was two blocks from home and didn’t think much of it, but enough, at least to take out the knife and have it ready, thumb in the groove.

This part of 11th Avenue was pretty dead then. Now it’s much nicer, with a fancy Japanese hotel a block or two up and across the street. But back then there was no one up to any good there that time of night.

I turned the corner at 45th. My building isn’t even halfway to 10th. Twenty feet from the door I heard footsteps behind me, getting quicker and louder. I whirled around and there were those three guys—whom I’d already forgotten about–almost on top of me. I immediately did the most important thing a trained martial artist can do.

I tried to run.

Tried, I said, because here I found out a sobering fact about myself. At my age—61 now, early-to-mid 50s then, the top half of my body is faster than the lower half. In other words, instead of running, I toppled over!

“Fuck!” I said to myself, facing the realization that I was about to be killed 20 feet from my apartment.

As I went down I tossed the keys in my left hand to the ground, same with my gym bag. I broke the fall with my left hand and elbow, scraping both. I had nothing when I got back up, nothing except the knife in my right hand—which I’d had the foresight to pull out and hang on to back on 47th and 11th, then promptly forgot about. Adrenalin pumping, I managed to get the blade out with my thumb just barely enough to flick the rest of it open.

Now there really is something about the click-sound of a folding knife blade being flicked and banged into locked position. It carries an announcement: “Hey, motherfuckers! You want me? Fucking come and get me!”

One of them yelled, “He’s got a knife!” and they all backed up. This bought me a moment, which I used to grab my gym bag and dash to my apartment door. Luckily it was unlocked. Unluckily, the vestibule door was—and in the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten to pick up my keys!

If they followed me into the vestibule I was likely dead. At least I had the presence of mind to call 911. I waited two minutes for the cops and then got real stupid: I went out to get my keys—hoping they were still there.

They were. The attackers were gone. I lucked out.

The cops got there two minutes later. They were very nice. I didn’t mind at all telling them the truth, that I had a knife and I flashed it. They understood.

I did mind that I tumbled the way I did. That I scratched a finger, elbow and knee. And to this day I have no idea what I would have done had they not backed off, pulled out their own knives—or guns—and followed me into the vestibule.

I called Simon the next day and confessed how lame I was.

“What are you talking about?” he said, so sensibly as always, ever looking at the positive. “You didn’t get hurt [by the attackers]. You didn’t hand over your money. You did fine.”

Next time at Five Points he and Steve, co-owner of the gym and another Muay Thai teacher, applauded as I walked in. I still feel stupid about it, and the story has since been handed up and down the system as a shining example.

But the reality remains: I dropped like a fucking bowling pin.

When I first started with Simon, he saw the trouble I was having in opening a folder singlehandedly. He said to just use both hands, that is, use my left hand to pull the blade away from the handle.

There’s a lesson here, an important one: If you can’t do something, do something else.

Yes, the optimal way to open a folder with a thumb hole/lug/groove is with the thumb hole/lug/groove. But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Do what you can do. As Bruce Lee said so famously, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”

Of course, this didn’t stop me from trying to do it the proper way, and once again, Simon, some 15 years later, had to tell me to use both hands.

The true test of his patience.

A couple weeks ago I hung out with Tom Bisio. Tom’s a legend in martial arts, especially Pekiti-Tirsia, though he got out of it years ago and became an equally renowned practitioner of Chinese martial arts and medicine.

I got to know Tom, not through martial arts—he was out of Pikiti by the time I got in—but through his wife Valerie Ghent, longtime programmer/backup singer for Ashford & Simpson and now Valerie Simpson. I was at their apartment partying after a great Ghent solo show, and engaged Tom in martial arts conversation—including if he’d ever played with a butterfly.

Of course he had—we all have—but he never really used one. He explained how once he was in a training exercise and tried to deploy it and dropped it—and that’s the whole point right there: Unless you’re really adept at something that requires a technical skill, when it comes time to do it for real and the pressure’s on, you’re liable to fuck it up.

Tom knew he wasn’t good enough with a balisong to deploy it under pressure. Simon knows I’m too old and arthritic (“You’re wrists are fucked up!”) to deploy a one-hand opening folder effectively with one hand under pressure.

And of course, I know it, too.

Epilogue: I went to class yesterday and before it began, was talking with Coach Emily, a professional Muay Thai fighter who was teaching a Muay Thai class.

“I’m glad you didn’t see me cut myself the other day,” I told her. “But I’m really glad Simon didn’t see it.”

I might as well have asked her outright to tell him, Emily being nothing if not mischievous.

“Did you know Jim cut himself the other day?” she chirped gleefully as Simon approached.

“How did you do that?” he asked, sternly.

“I was practicing the knife draw we were working on last week,” I said.

“Not with a live [real] blade…,” Simon said, gobsmacked, as they say in England.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“You can’t cut yourself with a training blade!” he contended emphatically.

I assured him that you could indeed. He was neither impressed nor amused.

Coach Emily laughed.

Here’s Simon with his teacher Tim Waid: