“We’ve been doing this since 1998 and we’re still trying to get it right,” said Will Lee early in the Monday night Book of Paul show at City Winery, which followed Sunday’s opening night’s Book of John and preceded Tuesday night’s Book of Harrison, Wednesday’s Rubber Soul album in its entirety, and New Year’s Eve’s early show of The Beatles at Shea Stadium and late show of mixed Beatles favorites.
After what, 17 years of doing this?, the Fauxs constantly come up with ways to make it fresh. Then again, as anyone who was with me in streaming Beatles albums over Christmas–when they first became available for streaming, finally!—The Beatles always sound fresh, and there’s always something new to learn from listening for the millionth-plus time.
Jimmy Vivino once likened listening to The Beatles to archaeological science, saying something to the effect that there’s always more to learn, always more “information” becoming available. That explains how Fab Faux somehow keep sounding better and better—that, of course, and the fact that they’re some of the top players in the world, who have studied The Beatles catalog like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A few from a full evening of highlights from Monday’s show:
“Paperback Writer” replicated the Beatles’ great layered harmonies, and after an outstanding guitar break from Vivino in which he even threw in a guitar bit-—maybe even the backward solo from the 1966 two-sided single’s flip “Rain”–Lee asked the sold-out audience, “Don’t you just love the versatility, the dependability?”
Indeed, I was thinking the exact same thing. Every time I see Vivino–and I’ve been seeing him in differnt groupings for decades–I’m even more astounded by his versatility and dependability.
“Blackbird” had Lee and electric guitarist Frank Agnello switching to acoustic guitar, drummer Rich Pagano clicking sticks, and keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli coming out dancing and blowing into a bird whistle–with Pagano also whistling along. And when Agnello sang “We Can Work It Out,” I remembered that it really was a McCartney/Beatles song and not Valerie Simpson’s—since she’s made it her own in closing out Thursday Night’s Open Mic events at the Sugar Bar with her own touching take on it.
For “Yesterday,” Lee and Vivino both played keyboards. Petruzzelli wailed so hard on “Oh! Darling” that everyone in the room was on their feet, same with “Get Back,” so thoroughly researched by the Faux that both the lead guitar and piano parts sounded right off the record player–the only difference being vocalist Vivino’s brief cuts to “All Right Now,” “Satisfaction” and “I Can See for Miles” while Lee traipsed around the room while playing bass, returning to the stage in the nick of time for Vivino to get back to “Get Back.”
Lee, by the way, always astounds with his singing, since you never got to hear much of it when he was on Letterman. But as he related after the show (and Valerie Simpson avouched the next night at the Sugar Bar, where Lee’s Letterman band mate Felicia Collins held court), he sang on tons of jingles back in the day (as did Val), including Stroh’s Beer. And while Vivino acquitted himself very well on McCartney fare, he got the night’s biggest laugh by confessing that he always favored Lennon, who was “much closer to the Italian guys we like—Dion and Elvis Presley.”
Incidentally, though he’s not tributed with his own special night during this run, Ringo has been given the encores, Monday night’s being “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”
But really, it was the show’s opening song that renewed my appreciation for Paul McCartney, as I’ve never forgotten the thrill of opening the White Album in 1968 and putting on Side One of the first disc and hearing, for the first time, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Even now I think it’s the most revolutionary song in rock ‘n’ roll history, matched maybe by “God Save the Queen.”
When I got home I went straight to Wikipedia. Sure enough, it said how The Beatles had been “officially derided in the USSR as the ‘belch of Western culture,’” while at the same time “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was seen in the U.S. as pro-Soviet, particularly by anti-communist groups.
“It was a mystical land then,” McCartney said when he arrived in Russia to perform in 2003. “It’s nice to see the reality. I always suspected that people had big hearts. Now I know that’s true.”
Even in the darkest days of The Cold War, that’s how I figured it. Sure enough, in the mid-‘80s I met some Russian TASS correspondents based in New York who have remained lifelong friends.
And no surprise, they loved The Beatles as much as we did.
Even at the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where inductee Ringo Starr got a big laugh relating how one of the reasons The Beatles stayed friends on the road was living up to the pact that in the van, “if you fart, own up to it–because [otherwise] it will cause hell.”
I’m reminded of this now at Christmastime–and what kind of gift to get that special someone. And mainly because at Toy Fair earlier this year, farts were all the rage. One publicist in particular very much enjoyed showing me several modern variations on a classic theme, the Whoopie Cushion, at the Skyrocket Toys booth, which actually fielded a whole array of fart goods from its Prank Star line in addition to the gold standard cushion (“A Toot by Any Other Sound is Not as Profound!”)
First was the Fart Whistle: “Turn Your Whistles into Farts! Blow into the Handheld Whistle and it Sounds like a Whoopee Cushion.”
Then came the iFart Shuffle: “Who needs iTunes?!? The iFart Shuffle lets you Scroll through All of Your Favorite Farts with the Push of a Button. Additionally, it is the Ultimate High-Tech Whoopee Cushion. The Built-In Motion Sensor causes a Fart to Release when Someone Sits Down or Moves. Includes 1 AAA Battery.”
But wait! There’s more! The RC Mega Fart allows you to “Cut the Cheese at up to 20 Feet Away. Press the Button on the Remote and Trigger an Array of Farts on the Fart Box–Even Through Walls. Requires 3 AAA Batteries.”
And for the truly talented, the Fart Piano lets you “Discover your True Inner Talent. [by]Creating Musical Masterpieces with [keyboard-triggered] Gaseous Body Sounds! Cough, Sneeze, and Belch your way to the Top of the Charts. Includes 6 Different Sound Libraries and ‘Try Me’ Packaging to Play Songs in the Store. Includes 3 AAA Batteries.”
Then in May, Prank Star introduced two new Spring 2015 fart items: Fart Bubbles, “for those looking to blow out ‘lightly-scented’ fart bubbles with a unique bubble wand that features a gas mask topper,” and the motorized Fart Bubble Gun, which “blasts out a strong stream of cherry-scented fart bubbles, accompanied by real farting sounds that bring out the giggles in anyone!”
“There’s no denying that farts are always funny, for all ages,” quoth the publicist, Lindsay Edwards. “And what’s not to love about bubbles? So when you combine the two, you really get the best of both worlds–the fun of a bubble maker with the silliness of a fart. Fortunately though, these farts won’t clear a room.”
But really, I don’t give a shit about any of this (or, for that matter, Prank Star’s brown Poo-Dough take on Play-Dough (“Looks like the real thing…smells much better!”). I didn’t even ask for samples. But I was more than happy to return the “favor” in sending Lindsay something she’d never heard of, the legendary recording of The Great Crepitation Contest of 1946, more popularly known as “The Farting Contest,” since crepitation concerns a number of obscure and unpleasant medical anomalies (for example, “noise or vibration produced by rubbing bone or irregular degenerated cartilage surfaces together as in arthritis and other conditions”), in addition to the comparatively innocuous “a dry, crackling sound or sensation.” The closest we can get to our purposes would be: “‘Crunching’ of tissue caused by presence of gas, which may occur in lung disease.”
Now if you’ve never heard The Great Crepitation Contest of 1946, then, I hope this doesn’t spoil it for you. The best version I’ve found is Trillblow Records’ recording Battle at Thunderblow, Windesmear vs. Bloomer, Part 1. That would be England’s Lord Windesmear, “Champion of the British Empire,” opposite challenger Paul Boomer, a commoner from Australia (“I remember I used to make me mother and father laugh their bleeding head off when I let one go in church….”
The disc takes on the guise of a live sporting event, complete with pre-game interviews of the competitors, detailed descriptions—in all its rich pageantry—of all aspects of the competition as it unfolds, including the rules and traditions associated with the ancient sport, play-by-play reporting and analysis, and the noise of the many thousand spectators in the venue as they react to the proceedings and the the scoring announced by the field referee.
It’s as real as it gets without being real.
Back in 1946, of course, the word “fart” was no doubt shunned in commercial undertakings. That it’s pretty commonly accepted now is obvious, not just from Skyrocket and Prank Star’s catalog or Ringo Starr’s tale, but by the frequently used (though never by me) excuse, “brain fart.”
Whether or not The Great Crepitation Contest of 1946 actually originated in 1946 is one of many things about the recording open to question, as I’ve seen claims on the Internet that it was produced and played for World War II soldiers as a morale-boosting “V-Disc” (“V” for Victory) recording. One excellent source was this blog, rand’s esoteric otr, which hails it as “the granddaddy of all ‘party records’ and a recording surrounded by much rumor and misinformation.”
Rand relates that the recording was apparently produced, in the late ’40s, as an in-house joke by Canadian Broadcasting Crop. (though it may have surfaced as a V-Disc), making the purported late ’40s production a little late. The many fun-to-read comments on his post and on YouTube indicate that most people today who have heard it either did so from an old copy their fathers–or grandfathers–had, or more frequently, an uncle, or else novelty radio shows, especially the great Dr. Demento’s.
One guy noted how his dad had it on a 78 r.p.m. vinyl disc, and that he hadn’t heard it in 40 years. Another boasted of having an original aluminum acetate recording purchased in 1946, that he might sell, since it had “bothered my wife for 58 years.” For others it brought back memories of hearing it in college in the ’60s, or on family road trips when a father played it on cassette. Often it was the stuff of legend: “One of my uncles had this record when I was a child. Since he lived far away, his nieces and nephews heard him talk about it, but never actually heard it. I’m finally hearing it some 50 years after first becoming aware of it.”
Confessed another, “Some kid told me about this record on the school bus over 20 years ago. I thought he was making it up. Guess not.”
So extraordinary is the broadcast, in fact, that one commenter asked the obvious: Why is this not a sporting event that we can go see at an arena?”
Another played along–as you’ll better understand shortly: “I routinely scorn the use of the farting post.” Of course I particularly related to “Someone recorded it on a cassette in the early ’70s and left it in my car, it went great with a couple joints!”
Indeed, I may well have heard it originally under similar circumstances in my teens, perhaps, but for sure, long after I and my friends, unknowingly on my part, used some of the fart terminology in it, presumably, in categorizing our own farts, especially “flutterblast.” I say presumably because with us it kind of took on an open-ended French pronunciation, I would think, flattabla, the “a” sound in all three cases more like the “eah” in yeah.
Flattabla was then reduced to just plain flatta, and further taking on the verb form of fla (“fleah”), as in, “He fla”–which worked for both present and past tense, none of us being cunning linguists. I’m sure there’s a pronunciation symbol for it somewhere.
According to Wikipedia, the “clandestine” recording was produced in the ’40s “allegedly by Canadian Broadcast Corporation staff” and “in the manner of a seemingly real radio broadcast” with narration by sportscaster Sidney S. Brown (whom I’ve seen identified elsewhere as a DJ), with “sound effects” credited to his producer Jules Lipton. The event takes place at the “Great Maple Leaf Auditorium,” and showcases the understated brilliance of the sportscaster as compared with, if I must say, the stench of today’s coverage of actual sports.
I’m thinking of the great BBC golf commentator Peter Aliss, the only one who comes to mind who’s comparable in terms of vocabulary and respect for the competition, as it were. Brown, in fact, is so good it’s like you really are there–like you can actually sense the “breeze,” so to speak, if not smell the effects, that is, of course, if you’re not laughing too hard to hear his descriptions of such unique-to-the-contest items as the removable “zephyr window” of the challenger’s trunks (“literally translated from the French”), the “simple eloquence” of the Farting Post (“about four feet high and decorated with red, white and blue bunting up to about nine inches from the top, “the bare top section worn smooth by the grip of many hands in previous contests,” and everything else–of which there is plenty–relating to this “centuries-old sport.”
Best, though, is its scoring system, and Brown’s extraordinary command-and application-of it. He makes note of the first fleeber delivered since 1750, how the challenger opened with “a beauty! a beauty…I think that was a triple flutterblast, yes, that’s what the judge signals…and another of the same, and another 25 points, followed by one, no two, I beg your pardon, three fuzzy farts in rapid succession! It’s amazing how this man can change pace in style of offering by a slight simple shifting of his buttock area.”
And then, “a flooper, a flooper, a perfectly executed flooper” and then a follow-up flooper–“a very difficult maneuver” and only “the second time in the history of this sport that a follow-up flooper has been achieved in open competition.”
Then there was “a little freep–a very hazardous fart because of the danger of flotching,” and Boomer went on to score an unprecedented 123 points, beatng Windesmear’s record by four points. Yet the great champion was “not in the least disconcerted by the brilliant performance of the challenger.” He even gave in to Boomer’s (and his seconds’) protest and removing the gold-tasseled “Zephyr Window” fringe of his bottom attire, since it might add a “whistle” or some other sound and thereby increase the value of his efforts, “and after all, in a closely fought contest like this, every little advantage must be jealously watched.”
His Lordship then proceeded to disdainfully blow a freep right in the challenger’s face, and while it was a mere two-pointer, “to throw one away is a gesture of defiance [and] demonstrates the spirit of dash and recklessness [that] has made the Englishmen the champion that he is.” And in a “final gesture of contempt,” the champion scorned the use of the farting post, the awestruck Brown reported.
Yet after opening officially with “three sislers in a row” (I’m laughing again out loud just writing this!) followed by “one, two, three—four fragrant fuzzies in rapid succession! It’s a pleasure to see the ease and comfort with which His Lordship releases his farts. Perfect technique–80 points in the first 30 seconds of the post.”
And then, “something’s wrong!” The judges signaled a plotcher—“a very bad plotcher”—and penalized Windesmear 15 points. But Windesmear recovers with “a beautiful thundersbreak…a beautiful bit of windbreaking virtuosity…a most difficult fart to perform without plotching,” and worth 30 points. A 10-point trillblow followed by a “resounding single flutterblast…a lovely change of pace” left him three points short of a tie.
“The excitement is going unbearable,” said a palpably tense Brown, before Lord Windesmear’s “final bid.” “One more fuzzy or two small freeps [and] it’s all over but the shouting.”
And for sure, His Lordship had heroically come from behind, so to speak.
“Just one more of those little two-point freeps and the contest will be over,” Brown reiterated.
And then, one of the great shocking finales in Crepitation Contest history, or that of any sport: “Oh, he shit!” a breathless Brown exclaimed. “The champion is disqualified!”
A few moments of stunned crowd noise and Brown returned.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as a special service feature we have brought you direct from the ringside of the Maple Leaf Auditorium a blow-by-blow description of the first Crepitation Contest held under international auspices. This broadcast replaced midweek meditations usually heard at this time.”
But honestly, this written description, while quite good, hardly does The Great Crepitation Contest of 1946 recording justice. Simply put, it’s the best piece of sports broadcast journalism ever, real nor not, and it gets better every time you hear it.
There’s nothing like seeing anything with Danny Fields, but especially something that he was intimately involved in—which doesn’t much narrow it down.
Case in point: Judy Collins. Danny was so much a part of her career when he was working at Elektra in the 1960s and she was a roster artist that she’s in the forthcoming Danny documentary Danny Says. When I found out on Dec 30 from her concert opener Ari Hest—in the Fab Faux’s dressing room at City Winery following the band’s dead-on performance of Danny’s favorite Beatles’ album Rubber Soul in its entirety—I brought him with me to see her Jan. 2 at City Winery.
Due to hot saki and two electronic pot hits, I’m afraid I took worse notes than usual. Hence, this account will likely be especially incoherent and meandering. About all I can say with certainty is that Judy Collins remains a national treasure, along with Linda Ronstadt one of our two broadest interpreters of popular song. That said, I can also say that she opened with “Open the Door,” one of her most beautiful original songs and sentiments (“I’d like to be as good a friend to you as you are to me”).
We sat at a table with a couple in town from Chicago. The wife had first seen Judy in 1969. Judy, meanwhile, looked out at Varick Street from the City Winery stage facing it, and recalled coming to New York herself from Denver and playing Gerdes Folk City in 1961—and wondered if anyone in the audiience was even alive then, besides, that is, me and Danny.
“Everybody was there–Joan [Baez] and Mimi [Farina, Baez’s sister]. Even Cisco Houston, who had only a couple months to live. Peter, Paul and Mary, before they were Peter, Paul and Mary. And a guy at the bar who was so pathetic, singing old Woody Guthrie songs—and not the best ones. I thought he was sad, that he didn’t have any repertoire. That was Bob Dylan. And I thought it was wonderful that they all came to see me and then I found out that my opener was a 13 year old named Arlo.”
Judy sang something that had to have been so beautiful, because the Chicago wife was weeping openly afterwards and saying something to Danny. I really wanted to let her know who Danny is—or at least direct her to this fab piece I wrote a few months ago!—but I knew Danny would modestly shrug it off.
Judy was now noting that Marcia, her grade school friend from Denver whom she’d known for 63 years, was in the audience, that they’d been in a group in the ‘50s called The Little Reds, assuring the audience that in those days, “[Little Reds] meant nothing political.” She mentioned meeting up with Leonard Cohen’s singer-songwriter son Adam while touring Australia. “You’d be proud of me for not telling him I put him through school,” she said, and indeed, Leonard Cohen was one of many budding or otherwise then unknown songwriters she championed throughout her career.
Me? I was unusually jumpy, maybe because of the weed, maybe because Danny had explained to the Chicagoans that we hadn’t paid for the seat at our table that we let the wife have because we were VIPs. Whatever, something went to my head, and when it became clear that the waitress had forgotten my second whiskey, I pointedly, perhaps arrogantly, gestured at her from across the room. She rushed over with it and apologized. I waved her off and downed it like the VIP Danny said we were.
Judy was talking about her early music influences—the old folk song ballad “Barbara Allen,” via Jo Stafford (me and Danny nodded at each other and made referece to Stafford’s hit “Shrimp Boats”), and of course, The Highwaymen’s “Gypsy Rover.”
I’ve heard her sing “Gypsy Rover” many times. But I also got to hear The Highwaymen sing it, a few years ago when the four then-surviving members of the original quintet regrouped and performed at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton.
I couldn’t believe it when I saw the listing and read the blurb. I didn’t think it was possible that The Highwaymen—the early ‘60s folk group who arguably recorded the definitive baby boomer versions of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)” (which actually topped the pop charts in 1960), “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Cotton Fields” and “The Gypsy Rover”—were still together, let alone still alive. Yet there they were, doing 20-minute sets for talent buyers in little showcase rooms at the hotel.
I was blown away. I was eight when “Michael” came out, and here I was speaking with lead singer Steve Fisher, who had formed the group with four other Wesleyan freshmen in 1958. I told him how I always loved to hear Judy Collins sing it in concert, and he said that they’d never met her, but were about to open a show for her and that they were so excited about it they didn’t know what to say. I also told him how I often found myself (and still do) singing the plaintive “Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-do-dah-day/Ah-dee-do, ah-dee-day-dee” chorus on the street, even in the shower at the gym (not recommended). He laughed.
Sadly, Dave died in 2010, and was followed in 2011 by Bob Burnett and Gil Robbins (Tim Robbins’ father, who had joined the group in 1962). That leaves only Steve Trott and Steve Butts of the original five, Chan Daniels having died in 1975. I relate all this here because meeting them and hearing them was like meeting Odetta, many of whose songs they also popularized. And when Judy sang the “Gypsy Rover” chorus a cappella at City Winery, I chimed in with everyone else, this time without embarrassment.
And then it was back to Bob Dylan. She joked about hearing the forthcoming Dylan Shadows in the Night album of Sinatra songs, which she’s apparently not too impressed with. But acknowledging that “he changed our lives forever,” she said, before leading the SRO crowd in “Tambourine Man” (which she recorded after being present when he wrote it): “He can sing Rogers and Hammerstein if he wants. He can do anything he wants.”
Yeah, well he can’t do Sondheim. Judy can and did: three Sondheims ending with “Send in the Clowns” (the other two are lost to incapacitation). And she could have done any number of other writers—Webb, Weill and Robin Williamson, to start with “W.”
Not to mention Ari Hest! He came up to sing his excellent song “The Fire Plays,” with Judy accompanying him beautifully–after a gushing intro thanking him for joining her on a trip to perform at some castle in Ireland (like anyone wouldn’t? Shit, I’d have carried her guitar!).
Just remembered! She kicked off her shoes for an encore at the piano after starting it and then discovering she could get “a better grip on the pedal” without them. Otherwise her longtime piano/vocal accompanist Russell Walden was wonderful as ever. They did a stunning version of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” and it made me wish she’d do a whole album with Richard Thompson
Danny was thrilled that she encored with “In My Life” from Rubber Soul (also the titletrack of her 1966 breakthrough album) and then she finished traditionally with “Amazing Grace.” Now I had tears in my eyes, which, when closed, melted the decades back to that night at Gerdes in 1961.
I get majorly annoyed whenever people turn their collective nose up on the Swingle Sisters.
Maybe they think it’s the dreaded Hollyridge Strings, the studio orchestra that recorded all those God-awful easy-listening instrumental albums in the 1960s and ‘70s of music by The Beatles, Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, etc. I’m only afraid that if I heard one of them today, at my advanced age and declining discretion, I might actually like them.
Thank God there’s no such problem in discerning the eternal greatness of the Swingle Singers, perhaps the most intricate and exquisite a cappella group ever. They formed in Paris in 1962 under American vocalist/jazz musician Ward Swingle, who brought the scat singing concept from his previous group Les Double Six. Christiane Legrand, sister of composer Michel Legrand, was the Swingles’ lead soprano through 1972.
A version of the Single Singers still survives, but come Christmas I always dust off their 1968 album Christmastime.
Two big things have happened of late for the great Jill Sobule.
“Last week I started getting hate mail again from Katy Perry fans wanting to kill me!” she told a doting City Winery crowd at the end of her Thursday night show. “So I’m bringing back ‘I Kissed a Girl.’”
Turning to her Dinah Shore Junior band guitarist Alex Nolan, she asked how old she was when she heard the 1995 hit, which preceded Perry’s same-titled but different hit by 13 years.
“I would have been 11,” said young Nolan, innocently.
“Fuck you!” responded Sobule, innocently. “Did you know what it was about?”
“Yeah,” said young Nolan.
The other big thing for Sobule is a new album, Dottie’s Charms, and the big interest it’s already generating. A concept album, Dottie’s Charms takes its name from an old charm bracelet given Sobule as a birthday present—that she never wore.
“I’m generally fine with wearing dead people’s things: vintage clothes, shoes, but there is something odd and slightly ghoulish about having a stranger’s life story dangling from one’s wrist,” Sobule explains on her website. “And that’s what a charm bracelet is–an archive of places, things, people, and events in another human being’s life. It’s kind of personal.”
So she put it in her “drawer of forgotten and misfit gifts,” then checked it out again last year after the cowboy hat charm caught her eye and encouraged a closer examination. Discovering from a round charm with the name “Dorothy” and a birthdate etched in the back, she began putting Dottie’s life together out of other charms including a jet plane, Statue of Liberty, Mackinac Island, Kentucky, a swiveling office chair, horses, piano, ballet slippers, and a tiny Jewish mezuzah.
She mentioned the bracelet to cultural historian David Hajdu, whom she had once suggested a music collaboration with, along with other favorite authors. Hajdu took home a photo of the Mackinac Island cham and a few days later gave her a “wonderfully heartbreaking and funny lyric,” which became the album track “I Swear I Saw Christopher Reeve.” She then approached the likes of Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Mary Jo Salter, Luc Sante, and Sam Lipsyte, each with a different charm from which to flesh out the story of Dorothy/Dottie.
The City Winery gig, then, celebrated the release of Dottie’s Charms. With Nolan, keyboardist Joe McGinty, bassist Amanda Ruzza and drummer Ben Perowsky, Sobule and Dinah Shore Junior played songs from the album and crowd faves, most notably including encore “When They Say ‘We Want Our America Back,’ What The F#@k Do They Mean?”–a perfect concert companion to the previously played “Statue of Liberty” from Dottie’s Charms.
Lyrics by novelist/essayist Lethem, “Statue of Liberty” is a melancholy piano tune transposing a sighting of the Statue of Liberty into a failed relationship. “They Say They Want Our America Back” references the Statue in its topical lyrics involving the complaints of those who want to go back to when “life had a paler shade of white…before there was Ellis Island and that statue we got from the French”:
“When they say, ‘We want our America back’ Our America back Our America back When they say, ‘We want our America back’ Well, what the fuckdo they mean?”
Two other big things from the show: Sobule’s mom was in from Denver (“She made the mistake of eating a whole pot Gummy Bear when I told her to eat one-quarter!”), and rapped her rebuttal to her daughter’s “Big Shoes” song-complaint about being born severely pigeon-toed and having to wear “really really ugly big corrective shoes” through sixth grade.
“If not for me she’d have crinkly toes, and still be wearing Dr. Scholl’s,” Ma Sobule inserted.
And in addition to her little signature Vagabond Travel Guitar–affectionately known as “The Jillster”—Sobule rocked out intermittently on a big electric, and on her apocalyptic final encore “A Good Life,” banjo.
“All I ever really wanted was to play guitar!” she said after the show. “George was my favorite Beatle. What more can I say?”
Jill Sobule’s “When They Say ‘We Want Our America Back’, What The F#@k Do They Mean?”
I’m ashamed I haven’t written a Reflection On Nick Ashford in so long, especially as I started two of them that remain, for the moment, unfinished. “More pressing matters got in the way,” and I put that in quotes to indicate how ingenuine it sounds—and that I recognize it as such.
But a few nights ago I had dinner with Beefy.
Beefy, as his old friends call Bob Kenison—Robert Kenison, as he used to intone on his bank voicemail when he worked for a bank as a computer guy of some sort. He’d always answer, “Systems,” when you got him live on the phone, and no one I know ever knew what that meant, Systems: I asked Beefy about it once and he just started laughing.
Beefy was a huge Beatles freak, which is pertinent on a number of levels, but for our purposes here, it relates first of all to laughing. At dinner I reminded Beefy, who brought along his lovely daughter Emily, how I took him years ago to a Ringo Starr record store CD signing, and had his publicist introduce us.
To put Beefy’s Beatles idolatry into greater perspective, let me back up to several years earlier, when McCartney did a press-only afternoon Q&A/gig at some Times Square theater, before doing a promo gig there a few hours later. I brought Beefy along, and after we both got ourselves soused at a bar across the street, we went to the event. I left afterward, but Beefy tried to hide out in the men’s room so he could stay for the second show. He climbed up on a toilet when they came in to make sure no one was there—but they found him anyway and kicked him the fuck out.
Besides his real name Bob Kenison, Beefy is also known to legions of Dr. Bop & The Headliners fans as Troy Sharmel, guitarist of the legendary Midwestern oldies show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners. Much has been written about Beefy and the band—most, if not all, by me—including the story of that Ringo in-store.
Like I said, Beefy and I were introduced to Ringo, upon which Ringo cracked up over something Beefy said. Just what it was that Beefy said that made Ringo laugh, however, neither of us can remember, in fact, Beefy and I had both forgotten what Beefy said probably within 10 seconds of him saying it.
Beefy blames me, not without reason, as I am a reporter, sort of, in a manner of speaking. I do remember the night I took Beefy to this hot party Madonna threw for k.d. lang at some outdoor space near Radio City, where k.d. was playing. Hot because it was a scorching mid-summer night.
“Who’s the blond?” Beefy asked, as paparazzi flashes popped away at the blond.
“That would be Madonna, Beefy,” I answered. Then Tony Bennett came in, pushing a wheelchair upon which regally sat Peggy Lee.
“That would be Peggy Lee, Beefy,” I said, cutting him off at the pass.
Beefy dutifully leaned over to Miss Lee and blurted, “Love your music!,” one superstar to another.
I wasn’t much better.
“Uh, uh, I’m a friend of Barbara Pepe!” I myself blurted, to a terribly unimpressed Martina Navratilova. Barbara was a wonderful former publicist for RCA Records who had introduced me years earlier to Billie Jean King. I was a little high here, but wouldn’t have done much better straight.
But Beefy is one of the greatest music minds I know, as Dr. Bop & The Headliners was one of the greatest bands. As Emily is now in college, we started talking about Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar as a place she should go, now that she was living in the Village.
Beefy remembered the night that he was at the Sugar Bar with me and Liz Rosenberg, and Nick took us upstairs to a studio apartment used for small gatherings.
Me and Liz had been up there with Nick countless times, partaking in the sacrament. We would sit there, at Nick’s feet, essentially, mouths agape, eyes open wide, looking up in reverence as the great saint spoke down to us.
Luckily, this time, Beefy was there, to remember, sort of, what he said.
But just as Beefy is one of the greatest music minds I know, Nick was probably the greatest. Easily up there with Paul Simon, whom I spent an illuminating afternoon with in the studio years ago as he mixed Rhythm Of The Saints—his 1990 Latin American follow-up to Graceland, for which I was brought in to write the bio.
Easily up there, too, with Elvis Costello, every word from whom is loaded with musical genius. And right up there with Ned Engelhart, the Ferret de Monte Christo of Dr. Bop & The Headliners, who is right up there with Beefy.
But Nick—and Val—lived music. I first noticed this a million years ago when they had Twenty-Twenty, their first restaurant/nightclub, at 20 West 20th. They would sit together at a center table upstairs overlooking the stage and sing along and dance in their seats to whomever was performing. No one enjoyed music more, no one enjoyed other performers more. Surely no one was more supportive.
At the Sugar Bar, Nick would sit at the center table—his table—upstairs in the Cat Lounge, reveling in the music while watching it on the wall monitor. If it was good—and it usually was—he would wave his arms to the rhythm, as would Val when she joined him (when she wasn’t downstairs singing backup).
It was just so wonderful.
I sat with Nick a lot. I talked with Nick a lot. If I had only written down everything he said. Or better, taped it.
He talked about life. He talked about music.
“He was just talking music and songwriting, and he started talking about arranging voices,” said Beefy. He had that special glow in his eyes that everyone gets when they talk about Nick.
“He started talking in general, and then he started talking about background voices and when you harmonize background voices and make them into chords depending on the chords of the song.”
My eyes were probably glazing over at this point, as I had downed two margaritas in relatively short order to catch up with Beefy and Emily, who had started drinking without me. And I wasn’t about to pretend that I understood what Beefy was talking about, let alone Nick. But I was glad Beefy apparently did.
“Alto, soprano, tenor—whatever,” Beefy continued. “His point was that the high voice on those chord harmonies should always be a little flat. I never heard that before—never. But for some reason, to his ears, it works. We were talking about male background voices, and I’m pretty sure he was saying the high voice.”
To be sure, I didn’t understand any of this. I wondered if Beefy did.
“I knew what he was saying, but not exactly why that would work in making it sound better,” Beefy said, then ruminated while gulping down another margarita. “But sometimes when you’re playing 12-string guitar…you have two notes on a 12-string that are basically the same note, but they tune one a little out of tune.”
I’m not a musician—though I know what a 12-string guitar is. But Beefy was still good enough to dummy it down.
“You have six pairs of strings,” he explained. “It’s not so much on the lower ones, but on the upper three strings—pairs–one will be in tune and the other slightly out of tune, because it gives a thicker sound. So maybe there’s something going on there in getting a similar thickness in background vocals from doing that—though that probably has nothing to do with anything that Nick was saying!”
But Beefy the Beatles Freak then put it in a Beatles context:
“Even Lennon used to de-tune his D-string on his guitar a little. He’d say to his Aunt Mimi, ‘When you hear Beatles songs, you know which guitar is mine because I always de-tune my D-string a bit.’ I guess he wanted his own sound.”
In all the years I knew Nick, which was close to 30, I never got over my awe of him—much, I know, to his amusement. Beefy had met him before at the Sugar Bar, but was no less overwhelmed.
“He took the time to talk to someone he really didn’t know from Adam, who for no reason could be considered in his league, about music,” Beefy recalled. “But he reached out to me as if it was just two guys talking, not as an equal, maybe, but including me without any sense of pontificating—one-on-one. He was a very inclusive guy.”
He sure was, Beefy.
“And he was so modest. Not at all full of himself. The fact that he would just sit there and talk to some local yokel! And he was into it, too! He wasn’t talking down to me! There was no pretension, not even for a such a super writer, musician, singer. He was just a regular, warm fellow.”
If we’re lucky, there are people in our lives who influence us in a big way, in a good way, in the best kind of way.
Maybe it’s a parent, older sibling, another family member or family friend. A teacher, social worker, therapist, member of the clergy.
I had Mrs. Schmidt, a junior high school guidance counselor, who meant a lot to me. Some social workers, psychiatric nurses, nurses’ aides and hospital orderlies afterwards. An occupational therapist. A physical therapist.
I remember a teacher or two, certainly Miss Nottested–and I know I’m misspelling her name–for teaching me how to type (not spell) in high school and taking an interest, too, in what I typed, which was mostly high school alienation ramblings.
But for me it was mostly musicians.
The Beatles first, foremost and forever. Dylan, of course, though his influence post-high school and Blonde On Blonde has long since faded. Corky Siegel and The Siegel-Schwall Band. Laura Nyro, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Johansen, Tony Bennett. Most of them I got to know and was further inspired personally.
John Mellencamp, too. He agreed with me that people respond to the music, at least first, not the words. For me it’s melody, rhythm, voice, instruments and then the words—and usually I can’t make them out anyway, and if I can I don’t have the attention span to stay with them so I have to have them in the CD booklet in front of me to make any kind of sense out of.
So I don’t care so much about the words–except for a few songwriters. I actually have a book of Hal David lyrics, which really are poems without Burt Bacharach’s music, glorious as it is. Likewise, there’s way more to the words of Kris Kristofferson than “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
And then there’s Nick Ashford.
It’s hard to top The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or even better, “All You Need Is Love.” But Nick equaled them at the very least on “Reach Out and Touch.”
“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was Diana Ross’s debut solo single after leaving The Supremes. It was released in April 1970, and only made it to No. 20 on the pop charts (No. 7, R&B). But it was a centerpiece of her concerts, where people used to reach out and touch the hands of those near them.
Like so many Ashford & Simpson Motown era songs—“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love”—it has achieved immortality.
The much-covered call for caring and kindness made for an unforgettable moment at the 1985 Live Aid show in Philadelphia, when Ashford & Simpson—the only r&b act in the line-up–brought out Teddy Pendergrass for his first public appearance since his near-fatal car accident in 1982. Paralyzed, Pendergrass pointedly directed the stadium crowd to focus on the song’s inspirational words and message.
In 2005, Ross closed Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope with it, and it was her finale, too, at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Concert held in Oslo, Norway.
It was also the climax of Ashford & Simpson shows. Nick had this great bit where he’d announce that he was “departing from the program” and then ask bandleader Ray Chew to slow down the tempo in leading into it. Then he’d feign irritation at Ray for not slowing it down enough.
After many years of seeing the show many times each year, I finally went up to Ray after a show and said, “Ray. I’ve seen this show a lot of times, and I can never understand why you can never get the ‘Reach Out And Touch’ tempo right!” I’ll never forget the anguished look on his face and how he started to stammer that it was all a shtick until I busted up laughing.
Reach out and touch
Make this world a better place
If you can
Me and Liz Rosenberg used to go to see them all the time. In fact, I became friends with Liz after it was suggested I contact her, by another record company publicist at the time, after I’d called him in 1983 after seeing Asford & Simpson the first time, at Radio City, and couldn’t stop talking about them. They were at Capitol Records, then, with the High-Rise album out. Liz had worked with them when they were at Warner Bros., long before she became synonymous with Madonna. We used to see them together all the time from that point on.
One time at Westbury, I had an aisle seat and Liz was next to me. Or maybe I was one in from the aisle and she was two in. Or maybe I was two in and she was three…. Anyway, Westbury Theater, or whatever corporate name it has now, is an in-the-round theater. So when they got to “Reach Out And Touch,” Nick went up one aisle and Val went up another, shaking or slapping hands with aisle-seaters as they sang. Nick was coming up our aisle, and when he got within two rows, Liz could no longer contain herself.
“Nick!” she shrieked, then got up and vaulted over me and anyone else who might have been between me and Nick as he reached out his free hand to touch hers. Of course, she landed, not too gracefully but appropriately, at his feet.
Take a little time out of your busy day
To give encouragement
To someone who’s lost the way
Nick would also preface “Reach Out And Touch” in concert with the story of how he had fallen asleep one night while Val was watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but woke up when she suddenly started screaming: “Reach Out and Touch” was being used as an Olympics theme! Before an estimated TV audience of 2.5 billion people! He wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming….
Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own
We really blew it, we Americans, in taking the easy, nationalist music route after 9-11. We essentially permitted Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to lead us into two wars, not to mention forever pervert Major League Baseball by supplanting “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the Seventh Inning Stretch theme.
As I wrote in Billboard, two weeks later (September 24, 2011): “But as we return to the semblance of normal, I suggest moving beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare. How about Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive ‘This Land is Your Land,’ or better yet, Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’? As the next line of the compassionate latter title implores, Make this world a better place, if you can.”
If you see an old friend on the street
And he’s down
Remember his shoes could fit your feet
Try a little kindness you’ll see
It’s something that comes very naturally
We can change things if we start giving
Ashford & Simpson songs covered other topics and themes, of course, but they all come back, essentially, to giving, something that for Nick came so very naturally. In person, and in song.
I went even further in my appreciation of Nick, written for examiner.com, the day after he died: “Then again, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ goes beyond anything Ashford & Simpson–or any other writer–has accomplished. In simply instructing everyone to ‘reach out and touch somebody’s hand’ and ‘make this world a better place if you can,’ Ashford essentially set to music what he in fact practiced throughout his entire life.”