Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.


Election Eve at the Beacon

Concert Highlights–Nice as F**k at Bowery Ballroom, 8/1/2016

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(Photo: Chalkie Davies)

If they were just a flash in the pan, Nice as Fuck, or Nice as F**k, or NAF was a blinding flash in an intimate pan, based on the trio’s two rapid-fire 30-minute sets Monday night at the Bowery Ballroom, following two similar ones at the Deep End Club closing party Friday night.

NAF acutally formed earlier this year at Tennessee Thomas’s East Village boutique/community center, which the former Like drummer launched three years ago. Fronted by Jenny Lewis, NAF is a girl supergroup of sorts, with Thomas on drums and Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster on bass. Sharing the shop owner’s activism on behalf of progressive causes (it grew out of her involvement in the Occupy movement and became the home for activities concerning other issues like women’s rights and fracking), the band debuted at Bern NY Bern, an April fundraiser for Bernie Sanders at New York club Flash Factory. Thomas had supported Sanders mightily in the media—even including an interview on BBC Newsnight–and at her store.

“It’s hard to sustain a business on Peace & Love alone,” Thomas wrote on her Facebook page when announcing the Deep End Club’s closing concert. “For 3 magical years we’ve used [it] to promote peace & love. [It] has been our clubhouse & birthed NICE AS FUCK! The band has taken the message on tour, & what a beautiful note to end our east village experience on!”

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Deep End Club closing concert (Photo: Jim Bessman)

Indeed, it was in the store window that NAF wrote and rehearsed the songs on their self-titled nine-song EP, which Lewis released in June on her Love’s Way label. According to Thomas’s father Pete Thomas—better recognized as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer behind Elvis Costello—the EP was cut in some guy’s bedroom in one week at a cost of $1,000.

Tennessee noted the “very sad” news of the shop closing when called upon by Lewis to explain the NAF song “Cookie Lips” during the band’s Bowery Ballroom sets.

“It’s about getting ‘crumbs of affection,’” she said, “when you get crumbs of affection—like texting—and want the whole cookie!” Such a thing is sometimes possible, she exclaimed, citing “the good news” of Forster being six months pregnant.

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(Photo: Jim Bessman)

NAF had come out following a great mix of ‘60s and ‘70s records from Alix Brown, like Tennessee a great DJ, musician, activist and Deep End Club habitue. She was stationed at the back of the Bowery Ballroom stage, hidden by a throng of attendees on stage, too, and a big balloon “tree” tying in with the closing night Deep End Club decor; NAF, then, was set up in the middle of the floor, in about as small a space as the Deep End Club window, their gear placed before a big peace sign light fixture and sealed off by velvet ropes until just before the gals came out, so that when they did, there was no separation between populist band and adoring populace.

Tennessee played what was essentially a practice kit intended for Costello tour rehearsals, Pete said—a Sanders t-shirt covering the snare. It was small enough to fit in the Deep End Club window, and featured a bass drum head painted a light blue, red and white target by handyman Pete to match the store colors.

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(Photo: Sarah Tate)

NAF wore their customary green army fatigues, black berets, and “Nice As Fuck” t-shirts–as did many of the like-age young women surrounding them, some also wearing shirts emblazoned with the NAF motto “Give A Damn,” and all knowing all the band’s lyrics and singing along. Lewis, who contributed spare phrases and effects on a little keyboard, sang to everyone circling her and the others, even embracing one while singing. Especially on “Higher,” she resembled Patti Smith–otherwise it was a minimalist drum-and-bass sound, though quite a groovy one thanks to Tennessee and Forster. Pete rightly likened the overall sensation, visually and sonically, to that of an amphitheater.

Going through the entire EP in real time, NAF reminded me of Danny Fields and how he told me that a major reason he signed The Ramones (whom Brown played during her warmup) to management was that their sets clocked in at under 20 minutes. Even at a good 10 minutes longer, I’m sure he’d have loved NAF, who closed strong with the Ramones-like “Door” and “Guns” (its “I don’t wanna be afraid/Put your guns away” couplet made for an easy, committed singalong), and the thrice-repeated “NAF Theme”: “We’re Nice…as Fuck! Wish you…good luck!”—maybe their generation’s “Fish Cheer.”

And with that they smiled, flashed two-handed peace signs, and were gone—maybe for good. Forster’s having a baby, Tennessee’s taking time off, and Lewis “is going back to being Jenny Lewis,” said Pete. Of the show—especially the second set—he commented: “very inspiring.”

But Pete’s friend Joe Blaney, whose engineering credits range from The Clash to Prince, felt that NAF could still pick up where they left off at any time, and as Tennessee wrote in her Facebook announcement of her shop’s closing, “The Deep End Club will definitely re-emerge in another form in the future.. But thedeependclub.com in the meantime! Here’s to PEACE AND LOVE!”