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

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the chorus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.

It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.

Nick would have loved it.

I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.

J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.

There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.

Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.

Did I say “life-changing”?

At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nick was so deep.

The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.

As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.

I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.

I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.

So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.

I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.

Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.

It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.

“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.

“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.

Concert Highlights–The Fab Faux at City Winery, 12/28/15

“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.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 14

Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.

Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.

For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”

At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.

“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”

“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”

“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”

“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”

I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.

“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”

Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.

If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.

But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.

Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.

“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.

“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”

Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.

Concert Highlights–Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project featuring Valerie Simpson, Jaguar Wright & Charenee Wade at B.B. King’s Bar & Grill, 10-8-2015

It’s no secret that I’d go just about anywhere just to hear Valerie Simpson clear her throat—even if I had to walk. Luckily B.B. King’s is within walking distance, and Val was doing three songs as part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul jazz-meets-R&B show, featuring Jaguar Wright and Charenee Wade in addition to Val.

And I would have written something anyway or at the very least tweeted it up bigtime—which I did—but when I popped into the dressing room before the show to surprise her, she said, “Make sure you write something good—even if you don’t like it!” Like it somehow could have been bad, it being a program put together by Carrington (who was busy working on her laptop and not at all annoyed by my dressing room disruption) in support of her new album, a second Mosaic Project, following the first, 2011’s The Mosaic Project, which won a Grammy for best jazz vocal album.

Carrington, of course, is the jazz drummer-composer-singer extraordinaire. The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul album, she explained at the start of the B.B. show, “upped the ante” from its predecessor in employing 40 women, almost doubling the 21 on the first one. For the gig her band was made up of female players (besides herself and her guest vocalists) on alto sax, trumpet, percussion and keyboards; the guitarist, bassist, and second keyboardist (the prolific keyboardist-composer Raymond Angry) were male.

“Some of the musicians I’ve never met,” she said matter-of-factly, “so we’re really winging it.” Wish I could work so effortlessly with family members: Every number was a highlight in terms of Carrington’s confident jazz band arrangements and the individual virtuosity of the musicians. As for the singers, I’ll single out Wade for her rendition of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” from her new Offering album tribute to Heron and Brian Jackson (I always respected the lyric “Home is where the needle marks/Try to heal my broken heart/Home is where the hatred is/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never, if I never went home again.”

Coming out for her star turn Wright, an okayplayer artist, turned back to Carrington and then back to the audience. “There’s no greater peace and joy than to be about to sing and I look at this woman, because I know I never have to look in back of me. I can look forward at you.”

Yes, Carrington is that much in control—and dependable.

But I was there to see Val, of course, and even following Carrington’s awesome instrumental portion and the two preceding female vocal stars, Val could not disappoint.

She prefaced the Ashford & Simpson classic “Somebody Told a Lie,” which she sings on Love and Soul, by noting how Carrington “takes a song you’ve written and hands it back to you—and you get to hear it all over again.” Sure enough, Carrington essentially deconstructed the song and reassembled it—with Val’s full support and appreciation. Val then pulled out the stops on “God Bless the Child,” then took over a piano, and this being B.B. King’s, performed the bluesy Ashford & Simpson (with Joshie Jo Armstead) classic composition, “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”

Carrington encored with a Charlie Parker bebop, and for the record, there was an inordinate amount of hugging in the dressing room after the show. No doctor needed.

Tales of Bessman: Hands off David Letterman!

Over the years I became big friends with Paul, Will and Felicia—not to mention the wonderful warm-up comic Eddie Brill. But meeting Dave was never going to be in the cards, which was fine. But I did have one unforgettable encounter, as much as I’ve tried to forget it.

Being friends with any number of guests, I was at the show many times, though it wasn’t until the last time I went, to see Valerie Simpson perform, that I actually sat in the house. Except for then, I was always in the dressing room with the artist and then in the green room during the show. That’s’ where I was when David consented to come in after the show—an extreme rarity, I believe—to make a picture with John Fogerty.

I tried to get out, since the room was packed and it was a big production for Dave to come in and do the picture. His handlers were everywhere and I got stuck against a wall. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make myself small enough.

Dave entered, and as bad luck would have it, he brushed against me. He turned around and said, “You grabbed my ass!” I nearly threw up all the chocolate chip cookies and Diet Cokes I’d gobbled up and swilled there during the show. If I said anything, it was a garbled stammer.

Maybe it’s just as well. If I had been able to speak clearly, I could only have said, “I did NOT grab your ass!”

Some things, for sure, are better left unsaid. This most certainly was one.

Maya Angelou: An Appreciation

I didn’t know Maya Angelou that well, but even those who did most always referred to her as Dr. Angelou, out of the respect that she didn’t so much demand as command. Mostly, of course, I knew her from Ashford & Simpson-related events.

What stands out in my memory was Dr. Angelou’s immense presence. She had an appropriately regal bearing and gait, and every word she uttered, stated softly but with full conviction, had weight and purpose.

Not to say that she was always austere. At Nick and Val’s famed Fourth of July “white parties” at their Connecticut residence, where everyone had to wear all white, she was the emcee for the pre-dinner poolside entertainment, culminating always with Nick’s hysterical entrance (he was once carried out on a throne, like an Egyptian pharaoh). She was always very funny herself, if no less measured in her speech.

Being a poet, she also spoke musically. Then again, she was also a musician, having started out as a dancer and calypso singer: Her 1957 album Miss Calypso—released on Scamp Records—was reissued in 1996, the same year as Been Found, the extraordinary album mix of her spoken word and Ashford & Simpson music.

She’d met Nick and Val through their great choreographer George Faison, and had invited them down to her annual Thanksgiving celebrations at her home in North Carolina.

For Billboard, Nick told me how at one point he had decided to go downstairs to “mess around” with a piano in the basement. But he felt lonely after a while and shouted for people to come down and join him.

“I told Val to play piano and Maya to add something,” he said. “We started singing, and something started to happen—and they didn’t know I had a tape recorder going underneath the piano. But me and Val are always spontaneous. It was a new experience for Maya, but she loved the idea of instant feedback.”

The tape contained the foundation for the Been Found track “I Remember All.” Nick said that they initially envisioned Dr. Angelou as a guest artist on one song for what they intended to be an Ashford & Simpson album, but that she was so excited about it that they continued the collaboration—though with a slight adaptation to the A&S songwriting process.

“She taught us not to go into a room and close the door and be afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “When you write in a spontaneous way, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, because whatever comes out of your mouth a lot of times is stupid. But she’d have people come in and sit around like an audience while we worked, and it became like a seminar.”

Dr. Angelou especially loved being part of the intensely romantic quality of Ashford & Simpson’s songs.

“So many people have decided that sexuality goes out by the time you’re 55,” she told me (at the time she was 68). “I don’t believe it, and I’m trying to keep romance alive well past 65. By doing [the album], I’m refuting that much-bantered-about idea that ‘old’ means ‘cold!’”

Dr. Angelou performed on seven of the 11 songs on Been Found–essentially her highbrow hip-hop to the trademark A&S secular gospel music and chorus, its titletrack finding glorious salvation in love. It certainly made all the sense in the world that these two spiritually creative forces would find each other.

“What I like about this album is that it gives us a fresh feeling,” Nick said. “We’ve been a duet so long, it’s a shot of adrenaline to work with a genius like Maya Angelou.”

“As much as people love you, everybody’s so jaded,” Val added. “A new A&S [album] comes out, and people say, ‘Okay.’ But this gives them more interest to put it on instead of putting it aside and getting to it later.”

Dr. Angelou gave Ashford & Simpson a shot of adrenaline in concert staging, too. The New York concert they did together featured the kind of artfully spectacular sets Nick and Val used to have back when I first saw them in the early ‘80s, i.e., a skyscraper from which a ramp folded out for them to descend down onto the stage at the beginning of their High-Rise show.

But my lasting image of Dr. Angelou is in the house in Connecticut, after the fireworks, after nearly everyone but family had left. She was sitting in a room, surrounded by a dozen or so children, enrapt at her feet.

I felt too old to sit down with them, so I don’t know what she was saying. But I watched from the next room, enrapt, too, and in my own way, childlike in her presence.

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: