Cemetery memories

Wear a white shirt, you’re going to spill coffee on it. There’s one thing I know ahout life and that’s it.

Still, I’m grateful to the checkout guy at the EVEN Hotel in Omaha for offering me a free cup from the machine at 6 a.m., Nov. 5. Lucky it had cream or something and was very light instead of black–as I generally take it–and it was an old well-worn off-white and yellowed t-shirt commemorating Ernest Tubb Record Shops’ 50th anniversary–which had to be at least 20 years ago–and the stain was unnoticeable for the most part,  mostly on “the original ET”’s jacket and maybe a bit of his guitar. I’d met him in Nashville outside his Grand Ole Opry outlet in a previous life, after his post-Opry Midnite Jamboree radio performance just before he hopped on his bus heading out with his Texas Troubadours on some gig somewhere.

I think I got on that same bus some years later, outside the Lone Star when it was on 42nd Street, when Asleep at the Wheel was using it, after their gig. In this incarnation it was thick with marijuana smoke, with Ray Benson relating how they’d been stopped by the highway patrol somewhere out West, and they brought a dope-sniffing dog on board. There was so much pot either stowed away or smoke-infused in the fixtures or both that the dog went insane and they had to let the band go. I went so insane that I got lost walking the five blocks up Broadway to my office building, then spent an hour walking around in circles in the seventh floor elevator bay.

None of this is meant to diss ET, of course, and I’m confident he’d be okay with it. Maybe there wasn’t a nicer guy in all of country music—and beyond. Hugely influenced by country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb so impressed Rodgers’ widow that she lent him her husband’s signature guitar, the back of which was emblazoned with the word “THANKS” in big block caps, such that ET’s gratitude could be expressed whenever he flipped it. He really was the coolest.

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The last time I’d been to Omaha was before I’d started writing, and I think this was the first time I’d spent the night in Omaha–but I might have stayed over that last time I was there, also the last time I was in Nebraska. Like I said, it was before I started writing, which I think was in 1977 or ’78–my memory’s too limited and I’m too lazy to figure it out. I would have still been working as a clerk/typist at the State of Wisconsin in Madison, a block South of Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down.

Otis Redding memorial plaque overlooking Lake Monona

Instead of going to hear live music every night, as I soon would, I was attending a Taekwondo school a couple blocks from where I lived, three blocks east of the State Capitol and a five-minute walk to work. In two years I’d only achieved green belt in our system–up from no belt, white and yellow. I’d been in one tournament—in Madison—and won my first fight and lost the second. I’d driven in a carload of guys from the school to participate in my second and final tournament, in Omaha, where I lost my only fight but somehow managed to place in the forms competition. We either drove back that night or stayed over at someone’s house.

Otherwise, I would have spent a little time in Omaha before visiting my mom’s cousins there on our way to or back from Lincoln, where she was born and grew up, an hour or so southwest of Omaha.

The last time I was in Lincoln had to be 1967, to bury her dad, my grandfather. Sadly, it was the day of Bobby Kennedys funeral. I loved Bobby, and was crushed by his killing. Having to drive from Madison to Lincoln–10 hours, as I recall–meant I missed all but the end of his funeral train trip from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried just up the hill from his brother.

My grandfather was a big deal to the family—the family patriarch–but I don’t remember him very well. I would have been 15 when he died, some years after his wife, my mother’s mother. All I remember from the funeral was a cousin walking over to me, and in an angry shout-whisper admonish, “You’re standing on Grandma’s head!”

And now it was Mom’s turn. She made it to 97, but her last years marked a steady decline in faculties to the point where we finally, against her will, put her in a hospice. She’d suffered from increasing dementia for years, and when I’d gone back three months earlier in July to see her, every 10 seconds she’d ask me the same question I’d just answered. She’d also kept asking when her older sister Selma would show up–Selma having died in 2007 at 89. She also once asked where my dad was, forgetting that he was in Arlington, since 1994, when he died at 85.

His burial was quite something, right out of President Kennedy’s. I, my mother, brother and sister stayed in a hotel near the cemetery in Virginia. I’d been doing some writing for USA Today at the time, so I went over to the paper’s headquarters nearby in McLean to visit the guy I worked for, then into D.C. to hang with some dear Russian journalist friends at the TASS News Service bureau. Walking back to the train to get back to the hotel I noticed that Marie Osmond was starring in the lead role of Maria in The Sound of Music at a theater a couple blocks from the station.

I was a big Marie fan, and had met her annually in Nashville at the opening Country Radio Seminar party at the Opryland Hotel, as she was signed to Curb Records there. I always said hi to her and figured she’d remember me. But I tried the box office first, and to my surprise was able to talk myself, as a Billboard correspondent, into a pair of tickets for the night’s performance. It was great, and afterwards I hung out at the backstage door and got her to sign my poster of the show.

My father was buried the next day at 9 a.m. in Arlington. It was a beautiful spring day, ironically, the same day of Nixon’s burial in California in a similar but grander ceremony. Dad had served nobly in both World War II and the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s (an early forgotten Vietnam), meriting a burial with military honors. This meant he had a horse-drawn caisson, flag-draped casket, drum-and-brass corps, and rifle party firing a three-volley salute prior to a lone bugler’s taps.

The right thing to do, I figured, was to smoke a fat one just before leaving the hotel. My sister drove the rental, and when we got to the cemetary we were instructed to follow the caisson, which was moving steadily but slowly. But she hadn’t smoked a joint, and when we reached Bradley Drive she lost it, as our father had served in WW2 with Gen. Omar Bradley. Much to my shock, Mom asked me to take the wheel.

I was wasted, but I somehow managed to stay in line behind the horses, and when they stopped near the gravesite, so did I. We got out of the car as the honor guard detail carried the remains some 50 yards up the hill to the site, where enough chairs for us and the Army representatives were set up. It was a beautiful service, but I have to admit I had to bite my tongue not to laugh hysterically over an incident that happened just as we got out of the car.

Like I said, it was a beautiful spring morning, Dad’s site was within sight of the Pentagon. It was also, fitting for a cemetery, very quiet, peaceful, still. That is, until one of the horses, I will always believe deliberately and with disdain, chose this most solemn moment to let loose with the longest, loudest piss, maybe in history, resounding among the fallen and otherwise eternally sleeping, splashing an equine “Fuck you” on the pavement. The steamy urine stream continued until we reached our seats.

To this day I humbly respect that horse.

The service itself was brief, and when the uniformed pallbearers folded the flag and the Army rep brought it over to my mom, leaned over and handed it to her with the traditional, “On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation [for your loved one’s] honorable and faithful service,” I, too, finally lost it.

And now we were returning Mom to Lincoln and her family, on the day, November 4, after the election. She’d died a week before in Madison, from where my sister and her daughter—my niece—had driven to Omaha and were to pick me up at the airport.

The Election Day result, as we know, was still far from decided. I’d put in an exhausting 17-hour day (5 a.m.-10 p.m.) working the poll a block away, this following nine days straight of grueling early voting poll work at Madison Square Garden. I was able to get in a two-hour nap before heading out at 2:30 a.m. for LaGuardia, which isn’t so easy during the pandemic—as I would find out the hard way.

As usual, the big problem was me. I thought the trains were back to running all night again. But I went down into a neighborhood subway station on Monday—the day before Election Day and the day after Early Voting ended—and asked the booth clerk, to make sure. He either assured me that they were running, or I misunderstood him, for when I went down to the station at 8th Ave. and 42nd Street a little before 3 a.m. (my flight was at 6:30), it was closed. So I went to 7th Ave.—the heart of Times Square—and as some workmen were pushing some equipment out of a door at the station between 7th and Broadway, I slipped in, only to be told by two other MTA guys at the clerk’s window that it was closed, too, until 5 a.m.

Now I was frantic. I didn’t have the money for a cab.

“How the fuck am I supposed to get to LaGuardia?” I yelled at the Brothers.

“LaGuardia?” one answered. He had no idea. Neither did the other guy, nor the woman in the booth behind the glass. Hardly comforting. But I gotta give them credit: As I approached them, they whipped out their phones and started trying to figure if I could do it by bus.

I’d come there to take the E to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and then board the Q70 bus to the airport—but obviously, that was out. My only hope was to get to 125th Street in Harlem and take the M60 to LaGuardia, but how would I get there. Luckily, the guys found that the M104 was leaving from 8th Ave. and 41st in 13 minutes, an easy walk—or so I thought: I was so disoriented when I got to 8th I crossed over to Port Authority thinking I’d catch the bus on that side of the street. After freaking out a couple minutes I realized I was on the wrong side and crossed back over—but I couldn’t find a bus stop at 41st and started walking down a couple blocks with no luck. So I turned back and realized there was a bus stop on 41st and 8th—but for a different bus.

I should say now that my Hell’s Kitchen nabe has become pretty scary since the pandemic, especially after dark. As I was out at 3 a.m., I’d normally be carrying a weapon, except I was going to the airport. I remember one summer I’d thrown on a pair of shorts without checking, and when I got to the airport and reached into my pockets to empty their contents into a tray in the metal detector, my hand came out with a knife….

Standing at the wrong bus stop and looking down 8th for approaching buses, a big, clearly unfriendly guy came over to me and asked for money. The one thing going for me now is that even though I was hindered by two shoulder bags—and because of health issues knew I wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight—with long hair, scraggly beard, missing teeth and menacing glare, I looked more like a toothless, bearded hag than easy prey, plus I was jangling the keys hanging from a subtle black C-shaped fistload like a threatened snake’s rattle. He was either drunk, drugged, mentally ill or a combination, and came close but backed off when I barked that I didn’t have anything.

But I was getting desperate. I looked around, and there was a “NOT IN SERVICE” bus parked around the corner on 41st Street. I went over and waved the driver to open the door, then asked how to get to the M60. He told me to hop in. This is where I was supposed to go to catch the #104, and in fact, this was the #104, which took me up Broadway to 106th Street, where after a 15-minute wait I transferred to the M60. I got to LaGuardia in plenty of time—even having to catch a shuttle to Terminal B when I got off at D after hearing the bus driver wrong. It was smooth flying to O’Hare and then Omaha, as I slept all the way. My sister and niece were right there when I hit the street.

Weaving in and out of consciousness during the hour or so drive to Lincoln, I drifted back and forth between the election results and long-ago memories of that interminable 10 hours from Madison to Lincoln. The worst part—driving (after crossing the Mississippi) through Iowa, which seemed to last forever, from Dubuque—then the shittiest looking town imaginable, but probably a wonderful place now—to Council Bluffs, all on undivided two-lane highways. (But I must say this about Dubuque: We stopped off at some joint to get something to eat–must have been 1967–and out of a bin full of 45 r.p.m. singles I found and bought The Troggs’ 1966 hit “I Can’t Control Myself.”) From Council Bluffs we crossed the Missouri River to Omaha, and then to Lincoln.

Momentarily awake in 2020, I looked up on the right and saw a series of blue Trump-Pence signs–reminiscent of the old sequential Burma-Shave (shaving cream) proverb signs (example: “Keep well/To the right/Of the oncoming car/Get your close shaves/From the half pound jar/Burma-Shave.”) that used to dot highways back then—and I recalled the desolation of that drive and the scenery. Nebraska is the center of the Great Plains, where the Coen Brothers shot much of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in what was a very long production in the state’s western Panhandle region. I’d emailed Ethan in the middle of it, asking if he was having any fun. “Are you insane?” he replied.

Half an hour out of Lincoln, I texted him and said that I myself was now in Nebraska, “home of Buster Scruggs.” “Canvassing?” he wondered. “Didn’t help.”

Yeah, Nebraska is a red state–though Grandpa was a socialist, and my family was always blue. I can never forget the state’s slogan “Go Big Red!” from when I was a kid, and the University of Nebraska was always one of the top college football teams, while the Wisconsin Badgers, at that time, were always one of the worst. But we did somehow manage to beat them 21-20 when they played us at home in early 1974, a slight detour on their way to a Sugar Bowl victory. I’ll never forget the disbelief and dejection of my Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty, who traveled to every Cornhuskers game as their team went down to shocking defeat. That night bonfires were lit on State Street, between the UW campus and State Capitol, as they had been in 1969 when we finally won a game after losing 23 straight.

And now I was at the cemetery where Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty were buried in the same row as Grandpa in the family plot, Mom being lowered the next row down and a few sites to the left. Leo was her brother. Her sister Ruth, who died at 34 of MS before I was born, was there, too; she played the harp in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with the likes of Buddy Rich and behind the likes of Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra—who showed great kindness to her and the family when he learned that she was sick.

Also there was my cousin Joe Hill, whom I barely knew, but liked a lot. He was an actor, went by the name of Joseph GillGoff. I remember he was good friends with fellow Nebraskan Sandy Dennis, and died at 28.

It was just me, my sister, brother and niece, and our cousin Gary, Joe’s brother, who still lives in Lincoln, also a lady who was a tour guide at the State Capitol, who met my mom when she brought people there for tours, and became good friends. And two men from the funeral home. If I didn’t step on Grandma’s head this time, I certainly stood on everyone else’s, since it was all a pretty tight fit.

Unlike the rest, I didn’t wear a black facemask, rather, a colorful but toned-down one made up of postage-stamp sized portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I figured Mom would have approved.

There was no horse. There also wasn’t a lot of time. My brother had to leave immediately to move to a new city and job. I had to get back to New York early the next day in order to avoid a two-week quarantine required of anyone returning to the city without being tested within three days of the trip–by getting back within 24 hours. As it turns out, I only had to fill out a form, and there’s been no follow-up so far.

There’s not much more to say about it, really. We’re a small family, and because of COVID, there could be no funeral in Madison, and no other relatives or friends able to make the trip to Lincoln if they had so desired. Gary made some very nice remarks, and it was over by early afternoon. But before returning to Omaha, I wanted to revisit two of the four places in Lincoln we used to go to when I was a child. As it was November, there was no point in going to the outdoor municipal MUNY Pool, though when I looked it up I found that it had closed in the ’70s.

But I also learned that some African-American boys were found wading in the unfinished pool in the 1920s, after which came calls to drain the water. According to a 2013 article in the Lincoln Journal Star about a move to declare the still existing bathhouse a historic site, the boys were then denied admission when the pool opened. According to a newspaper report, one of the fathers, Trago T. McWilliams, protested to then-Mayor Frank Zehrung that “there was an element of injustice in barring negroes who were good citizens in every respect.” The mayor agreed, “but pointed out that there were comparatively few colored people in Lincoln and that a much larger number of white people would feel that it was unjust to permit negroes to use the pool.”

But McWilliams kept at it—for decades—and finally, in the late ’50s (after a “street shower” had been installed in the city for Blacks), the policy was changed.

On the contemporary bigotry front, cousin Gary had been involved in establishing the Nebraska Holocaust Memorial, located in another cemetery nearby, so that was our first stop after the funeral. As my cousin Murray, who grew up in Lincoln and is six days older than me, said by phone the next day, “What else do you do after a funeral but go to a Holocaust memorial?”

Nebraska Holocaust Memorial

From there we went to Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens, a dug-out 1.5-acre multi-level garden that’s been a mid-town attraction since 1930 and the only Nebraska garden listed in the “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the United States and Canada” by National Geographic Guide to Public Gardens. Warm as the day was, it had snowed the week before, and the season’s annual plants had already been removed. I did run up to a higher-level garden and got a picture of the Reveille statue, and then we were off to Pioneers Park Nature Center.

Sunken Gardens

Since Mom died—and I realized it would be possible to attend her funeral after the election—I was obsessed with Pioneers Park Nature Center: 668 acres of tallgrass prairie, woodlands, wetlands, wildlife and a stream–and right next to it, a golf course! I had vague memories of visiting it (without the golf course) on more than one occasion after it opened in 1963, and as it turned out, my main memory—of there being an immense statue of Buddha—was ridiculously false (and I’ve been unable to find it anywhere online). There was however, a big statue of a Native American sending out smoke signals, which took so long for us to find that my young niece, whose supreme disinterest in her aged uncle’s ungainly need to relive his childhood was, even to him, completely understandable, brought me to the brink of giving up until I stepped out of the car in a parking lot adjoining a picnic area, turned to my left, and voila, there it was!

The other thing I remembered—and this proved to be real—was that there were wildlife exhibits in the park, and we did come upon one with a few bison. They were ‘free-range,’ for lack of a better way to put it, and looked bored as shit. Reminded me of one of the great lines from Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (which I’d just seen for at least the thousandth time), where Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) says to Josey (Clint), “I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

Bored bison

The only other site I remember of Lincoln was, of course, the 400-ft. tall State Capitol building, a National Historic Landmark and the second-tallest state capitol next to Louisiana’s. There was no need to go there since it’s visible from almost anywhere.

We were all beat when I got back to the EVEN, which brings me, next to Mom’s death, to my one regret of the trip: I didn’t make use of the hotel. Then again, I’d never even heard of the chain—which I hereby heartily endorse. When I got to my room—and figured out how to turn on the lights—I noticed an unusually large area between the bed and the bathroom, with a wooden pole of sorts against the wall with half a dozen lugs, upon one of which hung a braided, double-handled fitness tube. Neatly stored in a box on the opposite wall was a sanitized yoga mat and yoga blocks, and in the space on the floor next to the TV were two large blocks which I took to be leg rests—but I was wrong.

The blocks were also exercise equipment, as I learned when I turned on the TV and it immediately went to one of at least a score of in-room workout videos. It turns out that the all even-numbered rooms “hotel brand concept” opened its first location in 2014 with the goal of incorporating wellness and productivity into their clientele offerings; there were videos for the equipment in my room, with other paraphernalia, including Pilates, probably available in other rooms or from the front desk–and all accompanied by instructional videos.

The only problems were that the pole for the fitness tube placements was on the same wall as the TV, such that I couldn’t watch the videos while trying to do the workouts—this and the fact that I couldn’t watch them anyway, since I was stuck on MSNBC for the first night of continued ballot counting after Election Day.

When I came down the next morning to check out and the guy at the front desk gave me the cup of coffee that I spilled on Ernest Tubb, I looked up as I was about to leave and saw that the glass-walled second-level fitness room overlooking the lobby even had a heavy bag! I hadn’t been able to hit a heavy bag since the start of the pandemic, and even the gyms that have them still won’t let you use them for the time being (though I think I’ve found one that will if you bring your own gloves).

As the return flight to O’Hare took off–and just before dozing off–I thought of Larry, the Omaha airport shuttle driver, who thanked me for the conversation on the way to the airport. It helped him start his day, he said, and I thanked him for helping me start mine.

For what it’s worth, Larry is African-American, as was the EVEN front desk clerk. Both couldn’t have been nicer, same with everyone we interacted with on the trip—the funeral guys, the Sunken Garden workers, the Pioneers Parkers who gave us directions to the statue. It didn’t matter, but I wondered who they all voted for in this still-red state where we’d just buried our mother and where the Coen Brothers filmed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Maybe that has something to do with why I dreamed last night of running into Tim Blake Nelson, whom I’ve met a couple times at Coen screenings, who was so great as Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and in the title role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I breathlessly told him that he should have won an Oscar for his performance in the latter.

As for Mom, I was glad it worked out that I could be at her “farewell party,” to use the title of an old country song, a big hit in 1979 for Gene Watson, even if it was a bitter love song not lyrically applicable to Mom, whom Cousin Gary correctly lauded for her thoughtfulness and kindness. More than anything, I’m glad she got to vote, even if she didn’t get to celebrate its outcome.

I realize that this piece is nominally about my mother’s funeral–and my father’s–and that I haven’t said a whole lot about them and have made it all about me. I want you to know that I do feel guilty about this.

In all honesty, I was a rotten kid. Called into the principal’s office on the loudspeaker every morning. Hung out with the hoods. Peddled dope in the halls. One of those.

And our parents were way older than us. Too old, even, to even like The Beatles. But I’ll say this about my mom: She ended up liking one of my best friends, Don Smock, and I name him because he’s been dead quite a while, now, gone through at least three livers by my count, maybe four. Hepatitis, if I remember, from needles. I got off lucky in that respect, just thrombophlebitis at one point, and lots of missing veins.

Lots of my high school and post-HS friends have been dead a long time. O.D.’s, suicides, at least one murder and a few naturals. Many were bigtime drug dealers and did prison time. Don got a tattoo when we were in junior high, “J.D.,” for juvenile delinquent. Mom always pointedly pronounced his name “Shmock,” but he was a loyal friend, kinda turned his life around to where he became a private investigator, and was so considerate about my mom that she eventually grew to like him: When his body gave up and he was hospitalized in a coma, she actually went to visit him, and when he died, she asked me if she should go to his funeral. I assured her it wasn’t necessary, that after 30-plus years I had no idea who–if anyone–would be there, and if anyone were, they’d likely be fellow former, if not present, dopers and dealers.

And now, a brief aside, but first, a musical interlude!

I first saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in Madison at the Great Hall of the Student Union in 1972, I think, five or six years before I started writing about music. Pictured second from the left next to him is Keith Whitley, who was with him then, and would later become a huge country star, whom I got to know, before drinking himself to death. I knew Ralph, too, and have always been grateful that he did a radio commercial for Obama’s first presidential campaign–extraordinary, in that he came from and represented deeply conservative political and musical territory–and let me interview him about it.

But that’s not the aside I pointed to. It’s this: Unlike most of my articles, which I post links to on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, I’m giving this a “soft open”; you’ll only see it if you stumble upon it, or if one of my hundred or so subscribers sends it to you (and yes, I know it says 2,000-something, but that’s total horseshit, some kind of technical error or bots attack that I’d have to spend a lot of money to correct). It’s just way too personal, and I don’t know what my siblings would think. And last time I posted parental passings on Facebook, it brought me unimaginable grief: First came last June when I cut-and-pasted Rob Reiner’s tweet in quotes announcing his father Carl’s death and attributing it Rob, and over a hundred Facebook friends read it to mean I was somehow announcing my own father’s death and expressed their sincere but misdirected condolences. Same thing happened in September when I did the same thing with Diana Rigg’s daughter’s announcement of her mom’s death. Everyone somehow thought I was sharing my mom’s death! Total, unbearable fucking fiasco.

And besides, as Murray said to an emotional friend of his mother (Aunt Selma) when she called to console him when Selma died at 89: “Lady! She was 89!”

Anyway, I thought of all this on the plane, and I thought of the scene at the beginning of The Chinese Connection, where Bruce Lee, overcome with grief, jumps into the grave of his teacher at his funeral. And had to laugh at my brother’s offer–tongue in cheek, presumably, yet with due reverence–should I have decided to follow suit in Lincoln, that he’d do the shoveling. I had considered it for a moment, maybe, then decided against it. Maybe, if I’d been reverently wearing my Ernest Tubb t-shirt, even with a coffee stain. I’m confident he’d be okay with it.

One last photo:

Awaiting extinction at Pioneers Park

And in honor of “the original E.T.,” Ernest Tubb:

And here’s a rare glimpse of Aunt Ruth with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra!:

Oh happy days

Photo: Ethan Coen

The happiest day of my life was November 4, 2008—the day Obama was elected.

I was at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar that night, sitting with Nick and Val and Miss Tee, their do-everything assistant, who wasn’t sitting so much as scurrying around the room excitedly, waving a small American Flag in each hand.

I could only stay an hour or so after California put Obama over the top at 11 p.m. our time, since I had to fly out early the next morning for Louisiana. I took the subway from 72nd and Broadway to Times Square, then hung out for a few minutes with hundreds of other joyful celebrants behind the police barricades as cars honked past, tears streaming down my face. I got home in time to watch Obama’s wonderful acceptance speech before packing and heading out to the airport.

I was a poll worker when Obama was reelected in 2012, but was done in time to go to the Sugar Bar and watch the returns. It wasn’t as crowded this time, and more subdued. Nick had died in 2011 (Obama sent Val a condolence note), and I sat with Val and Tee at the foot of the bar, next to the huge black-and-white photo of an adorable, somewhat pensive Nick. We didn’t stay late, and when Tee went upstairs to pack up, she turned to the photo and said to it, “We did it again, Boo Boo. We did it again.” I kissed my fingers and touched his cheek.

I wrote a long piece on this site after Trump won in 2016. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life, but when I got off poll work and had walked halfway to the Sugar Bar—around 57th Street and 10th Ave.—I knew it was going bad, and suddenly felt my body going into physical shock. It was only the second time that happened: The first was 9/11.

The Sugar Bar’s been closed during the pandemic, and I’d been called out of town the day after Tuesday’s election–which followed 10 days straight of eight-hour-plus early voting poll days and 17 hours on Tuesday. I got back Thursday and I was exhausted, if not in shock again over the undecided election. From that point on, the TV was stuck on MSNBC day and night until Pennsylvania finally put Biden over.

Unlike Obama’s elections that were both decided quickly the night of the election, it was a beautiful sunny and warm autumn Saturday, with the election call late in the morning meaning everyone was up and awake and ready to party. No sooner had the announcement been made than the joyous shouts and banging on pots and pans and horn honks began, all reminiscent of the five minutes of noise that erupted every evening in the first weeks of the pandemic, a weird way then to honor first-responders, I thought, but totally understandable now. It was like this huge weight had been lifted off our backs, or to borrow a timely metaphor, deadly knee off our necks.

Then commenced hours of intermittent weeping, first at home while I watched the early celebrants begin to fill the streets of New York and everywhere else, then when I joined many of them at Columbus Circle—having been notified by email the night before that the Working Families Party was gathering there in support of the by-then obvious winner Biden.

I took a call from my sister in Wisconsin before I left, and my friend Bob Merlis in Palm Springs, where he’d just run up the flagpole an American Flag that he’d refused to fly the last four years. I put on my yellowed 23-year-old Ernest Tubb Record Shop 50th Anniversary t-shirt (its fresh coffee stain barely discernible), a Ruth Bader Ginsburg face mask, and a blue flannel long-sleeve shirt and headed north on 10th Ave., Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday” playing in my head (even thought it was Saturday) and alternating with the Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning.”

The cars were honking constantly when I got over to 9th and 59th, and saw an out-of-practice, pandemic-rusty/weary bunch awkwardly wondering if they should hug each other, then trying to remember how exactly to do it. The tears restarted.

The weird thing is, I really don’t cry that much: when I’m moved by movies, sometimes, like To Kill a Mockingbird, or some songs, like Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” And always during opera curtain calls—and marches, when I’m overwhelmed by the goodness of people standing up against unmitigated evil.

By now Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was playing in my head, as I hung out a bit on the pedestrian island with the subway station entrance in the middle of Broadway, in between the Time Warner Center and the Trump Hotel tower. Traffic was now slowed to a trickle, cars honking, passengers sticking their heads out of windows and sunroofs and waving or taking pictures of us waving or taking pictures of them. It was the perfect time to cross over to the Southwest corner of Central Park, where I was surprised that a guy my age asked if he could take my picture.

Columbus Circle

“Ernest Tubb and RBG! Two of my favorites!” he explained. I really was with my people.

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

I took a few more pics, including one of Sing Out, Louise!—a group of Gays Against Guns who’ve been writing Trump-related song parodies (“in the key of F-You”) since his election. I stuck around long enough to hear “Everyone Knows It’s Rudy” (to the tune of The Association’s “Windy”) and 3 Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” (“Dirty Donny was an asshole!”) before splitting with my filmmaker friend Ethan, both of us concerned about the “covidity.”

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

We walked over to 5th Ave, which was entirely shut down to cars, and Ethan posed me for a pic with the cursed Trump Tower—or, as I prefer calling it, the Devil’s Building—in the background. I then returned to the site of my final 2008 celebration—Times Square—and more revelers. Even Trump supporter Naked Cowboy got in the act, as did a Trump Baby balloon sent skyward into exile. A guy sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk was blasting Diana Ross’s Ashford & Simpson-penned and produced “The Boss.”

Times Square

Times Square

Times Square

“Joy to the World”—the Dog version—was in my head as I walked home, where I turned on the TV to watch more celebrations from around the world. The wonderful victory speeches that night from Biden and Harris jerked more tears—proving that my supply was inexhaustible, so long as I stayed hydrated. But I was somewhat anxious through the whole thing: It didn’t look to me like they were behind a bulletproof barrier (if there really is such a thing anymore). I always remember my Kennedy-Johnson Secret Service agent friend Bill Carter telling me how easy it is to kill the president….

And then the popping sound of the confetti bombs. Biden seemed a bit startled, and I read later that Harris’s husband definitely was. The big Secret Service man who left the stage with Biden at the end didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t supposed to.

I tweeted my fears and found that I hadn’t been alone. I was always amazed that Obama survived his presidency, but it’s a different country now—more guns, and people who have been allowed, if not encouraged, to think they have the right to use them with neither care nor consequence.

I woke up Sunday pinching myself. It wasn’t a dream after all–the second-happiest day of my life. I started with “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, remembering how thrilled I was to meet the late Hawkins one night at the Sugar Bar. And of course I thought of Nick—and Tee, who had joined Nick upstairs in August.

“We did it again, Boo Boo,” I said to the photo of me and Tee on the shelf above my computer, clicking on Ashford & Simpson’s version of their Diana Ross hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” on YouTube.

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

Me and Miss Tee

Such a weird day of broken traditions.

For maybe the first Thanksgiving Day in almost 40 years in New York, I didn’t have brunch with my friend Karen’s big family at the Silver Star on the upper East Side, after fighting my way across 6th Ave. just ahead of the Macy’s Parade. And I didn’t go over to another friend’s house for dinner in the afternoon.

And I didn’t call Mom, who died last month. And I didn’t call Miss Tee Alston, Ashford & Simpson’s “assistant,” for lack of a better word for someone who did everything for them and everyone who knew and loved her, who died in August.

I really didn’t do much of anything, so it wasn’t a whole lot different than any other day since March and the start of the coronavirus shutdown, though I did get together for brunch at the Flame on 58th and 9th Ave. with J.B. Carmicle. My old friend Jabes was the one who hired me at Cash Box a month or so after I came to New York in 1981. I used to have Thanksgiving dinner with him for the first couple years or so, until he moved to L.A. and became a school teacher for 27 years at Hollywood High, then came back to NYC a couple years ago where he now tutors at movie/TV productions while conceiving any number of side gigs. We went over the many people we knew way back when, most of whom are long gone.

The big thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, of course, is that at least we–you and me–are still alive after so much death this year, and then think back at those we’ve lost. For me, there is Tee and Mom, and before them, another dear friend, the beloved producer and Saturday Night Live music director Hal Willner, one of the quarter-million Americans who died of “the Rona.” And Ol’ Ned.

Ned Engelhart, the Ferret de Monte Christo of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, a.k.a. Mister Elegance. Ferret and Mister Elegance were both handles bestowed upon Ned by Mike Riegel, a.k.a., Dr. Newt Bop, the Madison-originated nonpareil show band’s leader and co-founder, who died in 2005.

Vintage Dr. Bop & the Headliners

Both Newt and the Ferret (presumably a made-up title belonging to upper crust French nobility, here attached to either the Italian island or premium Cuban cigar or both) were geniuses, Ned particularly being one of the most astute musical minds I’ve ever known. And he was such a great friend: He’d call every few weeks or so to see how I was doing, and tell me how he was handling the downturn in his business—and how he struggled to adapt to it. Ever since I met him, he was always coming up with ideas–much like Jabes–on how to go with the flow and had always somehow managed to do it, that is, until Larry “Third Degree” Byrne, a.k.a. late-period Dr. Bop keyboardist/guitarist Cleveland St. James, found him dead one August morning at home in Northern Wisconsin.

And while researching, I only learned yesterday of the passing, also in August, of the great guitarist/bandleader Bryan Lee, a.k.a. The Blind Giant of the Blues and Your Braille Blues Daddy, who, like Cleveland, hailed from Two Rivers, Wis.

I used to see Bryan when he played Madison regularly, with my pal West Side Andy Linderman playing harmonica for him. The last time I saw him was maybe 15 years ago, when he ruled the Old Absinthe House roost in the New Orleans French Quarter, and Cleveland was his keyboardist.

Ferret playing sax, Cleveland on keys

Someday I hope to do Ned and Dr. Bop justice here. I really need to. We spoke about the band—me and my old Madison pal Chuck Toler—when he called me Wednesday night. Chuck, who now lives in Milwaukee and works with the renowned record producer/engineer/photographer Terry Manning, and like Ned, is remarkably resilient, managed Dr. Bop along with Ken Adamany, their artist roster notably also including Cheap Trick. After the conversation Chuck sent over some photos of a 1971 performance by Chuck Berry at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, with Ken playing keyboards in Berry’s traditionally local backup band—and Dr. Bop opening!

Like brunch with Jabes, Chuck and I talked about Ned and the many others we knew and are likewise long gone—and how grateful we are to have known them. Ned did so much for me (he had me write a column in Dr. Bop’s monthly newsletter, called “Bez Sez”), and as long as my heart continues to beat, he’ll have a special place in it. This puts him up there with the likes of Nick Ashford, who also did so much for me—and so many others.

I also spoke with Nick’s youngest daughter Asia Wednesday night—and it really hit home then what a loss this year has been. Not just Tee, who was a second mother to Asia, but the darkest realization that a whole year has gone by and I haven’t even seen Asia, her sister Nicole, and mother Valerie at all this year! In fact, the only time I’ve even spoken with Val was when she called me to tell me Tee died.

As you can imagine, this was an emotional call. I’ve written on this site many, many times about the immense influence on me of Ashford & Simpson, Nick and Val. But I’d never really spoken about it with Asia. I told her how I first saw her that night at Radio City, when I’d flown back from Nashville in time for an Ashford & Simpson show, and during the encore, someone—it had to be Tee—came up to the front carrying maybe a two-year-old Asia, lifted her to the stage, and then, with her mom and dad watching lovingly but intently, she looked at them, then the SRO audience, then smiled and started dancing!

Summing up the rest of the conversation, it mostly centered on our mutual love for her family, both blood and extended–and the sharing of our mutual sense of immeasurable loss.

But I left out something that Nick once said to me, sitting on the steps leading to the third floor outside Tee’s second-floor office at the Sugar Bar.

“You know,” Nick said, softly but profoundly. “I thought that when I got to be this old, things would get easier.”

And then yesterday, Thanksgiving, came a tweet from the account of one of my other dear departed heroes, Muhammad Ali: “I am grateful for all my victories, but I am especially grateful for my losses, because they only made me work harder.”

Ali’s ‘hype man’ Drew Bundini Brown finally gets his due

Hamilcar Publications

If you’re a big fan of Muhammad Ali, you’re likely also a fan of his entourage, the core being trainer Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco, a.k.a. the Fight Doctor, both of whom wrote two of the scores if not hundreds of books recounting the Ali experience and era.

But there was a third and far more colorful member of Ali’s in-ring trio, who never wrote a book, and about whom one was never written—until now: assistant trainer and cornerman/confidante Drew “Bundini” Brown. Thanks to Todd D. Snyder, author of BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype (Hamilcar Publications), this noticeable gap in the Ali library has been filled.

The charismatic Brown, as BUNDINI’s publisher Kyle Sarofeen has written, was “the greatest hype man in boxing history”—a “hype man” being the onstage hip-hop cohort/motivator/emcee of a rapper who cheerleads for him and eggs him on.

“I can watch the end of the [historic Ali-George Foreman] Rumble in the Jungle 20 times more and still get chills, in particular because of Bundini, wrestling his way to Ali, hailing him through tears of joy,” said Sarofeen.

As Ali has been hailed by Public Enemy’s Chuck D for his influence on hip-hop (Chuck D hosted an ESPN production, Ali Rap), Brown can be seen as the prototype for the likes of that group’s clock-sporting hype man Flavor Flav. Best known as “Bundini,” he got the moniker when he was in the Navy and stationed in India, where as his ship pulled out, some women yelled out the word, which means “lover.”

The Florida native settled in Harlem afterwards, where he worked the counter at a restaurant near Sugar Ray Robinson’s bar Sugar Ray’s and became known in the 1950s as “Fast Black.” Also a captivating street poet/philosopher, Bundini married a white woman from an Orthodox Jewish family and converted to Judaism (he always referred to God as “Shorty”); this, along with his taste for alcohol, were among the traits that put him at odds with Ali’s Nation of Islam, but except for a brief exile, not out of Ali’s orbit. He also later acted in films including Shaft.

After meeting Robinson, he worked with him for seven years, then teamed up with Ali (then Cassius Clay) before his 1963 fight with Doug Jones. Both he and Ali pronounced “Bundini” as “Bodini,” and as Bodini, he came up with Ali’s most famous war cry, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble! Aahh!” Ali was out of the country when Brown died in 1987 at 59, but sent flowers along with a card saying, “You made me the Greatest.”

“Bundini gave Ali his entire heart,” Larry Holmes has said. “He was Ali’s right-hand man [and] was the one guy who could really get him up to train and get him ready to fight.” Boxing News lauds BUNDINI for unveiling “an exceptionally complicated man and the orchestrator of exceptionally complicated relationships” and succeeding in “resurrecting what was one of the most enduring and important relationships of Ali’s entire career.”

Certainly, Dr. Todd D. Snyder brings a unique perspective to Brown. The son of a West Virginia boxing trainer, he is an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at Siena College in Albany, N.Y. His writing reflects his life experience, with a focus on working class masculinity, having previously authored The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. He currently teaches a course at Siena in hip-hop studies, and has contributed a chapter to The Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Studies.

“It’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit,” says Sports Book Reviews.

Snyder recently spoke with jimbessman.com about BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype:

Bundini’s background was remarkable, and so is yours.

I grew up in a small coal mining  town—Cowen, West Virginia–in a really remote, secluded mountain part. It was originally a coal mining camp, and all the men in the family were miners and in the industry.

How did boxing fit in?

It got me out of the region! My dad had a gym that I wrote a memoir about–The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. I grew up around boxing, and boxed in high school. But I never wanted to pursue it as a profession: You grow up around the sport and see a lot of good people get hurt—“Even the greatest—Muhammad Ali,” my dad said.

So what did you do?

I wanted to be like my dad, but when I turned 18, he wanted me to give college a try—and I was the first in my family to go. The ironic part was that I’ve never stopped going: Now I’m a PhD and a professor!

And you say in the book that you wrote it at Starbucks!

My sister moved to New York and her home was next to Starbucks, and they had all these nice tables and I found that it was a nice place to write. The day I got the book contract I went there and plotted the timeline of Bundini’s life, and no one bothered me. I guess I’m a bit superstitious: Things were going really well, so I kept going back and by the end all the baristas knew what I was doing from my stack of Muhammad Ali books! Angelo Dundee’s son called me, and I had to go out on the patio and thank him for his help.

You talked to a lot of people in researching it.

Yes. This book required an extensive amount of interviews. I spoke with Bundini’s son [author and motivational speaker Drew Bundini Brown III] 58 times, and went to Atlanta and read the  whole book to him word for word. I spoke with George Foreman, Larry Holmes, [Ali sparring partner and former heavyweight champion] Tim Witherspoon, [Ali’s business manager] Gene Kilroy–hundreds of interviews.

What gave you the idea to write the book?

One of the courses I teach is The History of Hip-Hop Culture, and Chuck D was on campus for a hip-hop celebration. He’s an Ali fan, and playfully places him as the original rapper. The students were all asking him Ali questions like, “Do you really think that?” And he said, “Why, sure. Why not? ‘Float like a butterfly…’” So I said, “That makes Bundini the original hype man! He built Ali up and served him in a metaphysical role as his motivator.” And Chuck D looked at me and said, “Someone should write that book [about Bundini].” It put the idea in my head: Here’s an undermined research gap in the Ali story and boxing history–since Bundini worked with Sugar Ray and [Ali sparring partner and former heavyweight champion] Jimmy Ellis, too. Usually Bundini gets only one or two paragraphs.

How did you get the book deal?

My publisher Hamilcar is boxing-based, and posted a blog about Bundini that received a lot of traffic. They were looking for a writer who knew a bit about hip-hop and boxing, because they wanted a book with hip-hop flair. I was the first one who came up because I write about both areas, and they linked me up with Bundini’s son. I went to see him in Atlanta in order to really know Bundini, and he opened up bar mitzvah books and poetry and postcards, and I got to know the man as a person–and it was really cool. Forty-five of the pictures in the book came from Drew, and they’d never been published before.

So what was Bundini like?

His story is so multi-layered: A black man who marries a white Jewish woman from Brighton Beach—which was extremely taboo! He marched to the beat of his own drummer, and was a true original thinker.

What about his marriage?

It was fun writing about that relationship. It was not a traditional marriage. But from the very start the book was, “This is Bundini Brown. I can’t give him a boring bio. If it were [1940s featherweight champion] Willie Pep, maybe. But this has to have flavor. I have to make it more action-packed and funkier than if it were for someone else.”

It’s anything but a traditional third-person bio.

I went to Atlanta and Bundini’s son picked me up in a Rolls-Royce—and it starts from there. I wanted you, the reader, to experience it all with me—to take the readers with me on my journey. You can pretend that biographies are infallible, but the reality is that they’re giving someone’s truth. So in BUNDINI, we see him through the eyes of his son: We usually only look at him as this wild, crazy sidekick of Muhammad Ali, but I give him the story from his son’s perspective.

You say at the end that part of what we loved about Muhammad Ali belonged to Drew Bundini Brown–regardless of whether we knew it or not.

I’ve never forgotten how one time in a literature course, we were watching a video of Maya Angelou, and she mentioned her friendship with Ali, and “Float like a bee….” She said, “That rhyme is just as good as any poem I’ve ever written,” and I knew it was Bundini’s line. Watching it, part of me felt a little hurt: As great as Ali was, it was Bundini’s line, and it personified him—and he should get the credit. So much of what I loved about Ali was stoked by him, because he was a natural born motivator and knew what made him tick. He brought out that side of him and accentuated it before the training camp for the first Sonny Liston fight—and it all might have been different otherwise. It’s like you can’t be a Tom Sawyer fan and not a Huck Finn fan, just as you can’t love Ali without Bundini Brown. It makes me sad when my students don’t know who Bundini is.

And you don’t shy away from his failings.

No one wants to write a biography that shows only the good side. Bundini’s son was open with me about his father’s alcoholism and how he’d blow money, and I showed that part of him, too. He was a very complex man: He could certainly frustrate you, and let you down, too.

You talk about not wanting to “redeem” Bundini’s reputation, nor “vilify him for the benefit of Ali’s legacy” as others have done.

Look at some of the films, like Ali [2001, with Will Smith], and there’s a scene where he steals a belt for heroin money—which wasn’t true. Or Don King: Only in America [1997, with Ving Rhames], where Bernie Mac plays him as sort of disloyal to Ali in teaming with Don King—which certainly was not the case. Filmmakers and documentarians refashion Ali with Bundini being a bad influence–a wild drug addict or court jester or class clown, even though he was funny. But he wasn’t a fickle turncoat, though he certainly did battle alcoholism. In filmic recreations of Ali history, he’s more of a cheerleader than motivator and more of a flunky or leach. He certainly was not a yes man: They’d argue about religion and some very serious stuff, and they had their tiffs. I didn’t want to make him into Superman or portray him unfairly, as he has been in films.

How, then, would you characterize him?

Think about it this way: Not a single person turned me down for an interview! They didn’t love just Ali, but also Bundini. I’d go to an interview and say to myself, “This will be the first one to say something negative,” but I could just hear in their voices how much they cared for him and missed him, and how much fun he was to be around. He made an indelible impact on the people he was close to, and while he wasn’t a perfect man–and I don’t make him out to be one—he was one of a kind. Tim Witherspoon said there’s never been a Bundini before, and there never will be one after—and that’s 100 percent on point.

The last chapter, which documents Bundini’s grim final years and death at 59, includes his last meeting with Ali in the hospital. It is incredibly moving and very sad. But you finish it on an upbeat note, focusing, like you did in the beginning, on Bundini’s son.

It’s one of the tricks I pull in the book. I knew it ended in a sad way: Most of us who know about Ali know that Bundini died after suffering injuries in a car accident and a fall at home, without much money–and that Ali helped take care of him. But I wanted to go “From the Root to the Fruit” [the title of the chapter] and also show how successful his son and grandchildren were—how he had such a big impact on his family, and that they went on do great things and rectify, in their way, some of the demons he couldn’t overcome.

So how would you sum Bundini up?

He was something out of a Shakespeare tragedy, or Dickens, maybe. A poor black boy who grew up in Sanford, Florida, with no expectations–and had a wild, unbelievable life, ranging from presidents and dictators to the most famous athletes, musicians and poets, spanning the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement to the Shaft era and the bubbling of hip-hop.

And BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype?

It was an unbelievable journey to shed light on Bundini’s legacy, on boxing and life. It was a wonderful book to get to write.

Zip Top showcased its reusable zippered baggies at NY NOW

Zip Top Reusable Containers

The recent NY NOW Digital Market home/lifestyle/handmade/gift market trade show, as with its years of preceding physical ones at Manhattan’s Javits Center, brought together hundreds of retailers, brands, and product makers together virtually via an intuitive search-and-discovery website engine.

Standing out among the more innovative items on display, in its first NY NOW appearance, was the Zip Top container, designed to move food storage away from the single-use disposable plastic boxes and zippered baggies filling kitchen drawers and landfill sites with harmful plastic waste.

Launched in 2017 by NY NOW first-timer and company CEO Rebecca Finell, Zip Top’s alternative is made entirely from platinum silicone, with no BPA, plastic, lead, PVC, fillers or other harmful chemicals. Its one-piece construction is extremely durable, and safe in microwave, dishwasher and freezer.

“You pre-make a meal and put it in a Zip Top, freeze it, cook it, eat it, and throw it in the dishwasher—so it goes full circle,” said Finell. “Being made of pure silicon, it doesn’t leach plastic chemicals, and when you heat or freeze it, it doesn’t get brittle, crack or expand, but stays flexible.”

They also “stand up, stay open, and zip shut,” continues Finell, and, she notes, “no more lids!”

“Every house has a drawer full of lids that don’t match,” she adds. “That’s plastic waste, too.”

Further distinguishing her Zip Tops is that they’re single-piece construction, designed for easy cleaning, by hand or machine.

“They’re designed to open wide and stay open, so you can clean them upright in the dishwasher, like a cup,” says Finell. “The sides flare out, and the bottoms are flat and round, with no crack or crevice for food to stick to.”

Zip Tops come in several sizes, colors, and styles (Dishes, Bags, Cups, and Baby) for containing everything from full meal plates to drinks, sandwiches, snacks, and nonfood items. The designs have earned the Austin-based company numerous international honors, including a Good Housekeeping Editor’s Pick at the 2019 International Home + Housewares Show.

Meanwhile, Zip Top extended its product line this year, introducing a reusable silicone breast milk storage bag. Finell had previously founded the Boon baby product line, and knew there were better options for nursing mothers than single-use plastic disposable milk bags. 

Harmonicas become sculpture in Stetson U.’s ‘Harmonitrees’ virtual exhibit

“Harmonitrees”

As all harmonica players and fans know, the 10-hole diatonic harmonica is the simplest instrument to get music out of, while offering limitless possibilities for professional virtuosity.

And now, at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, that harmonica is at the center of the virtual Harmonitrees exhibit at the university’s Hand Art Center gallery.

The latest in composer/installation artist/oboist Sky Macklay’s “sound sculpture” art installations, Harmonitrees involves eight sonic, kinetic and inflatable sculptures that resemble pine trees and employ the artist’s “deconstructed” harmonicas in producing musical sounds. The exhibit runs tomorrow (Oct. 17) through Oct. 23 at the Hand Art Center website.

Macklay earned a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in composition from Columbia University, and began creating her sound sculptures six years ago after seeing an inflatable, dancing tube person in front of a car dealership. Each of the sculptures at her Stetson set-up includes suspended harmonicas (Hohner Blues Band models) with their cover plates and draw (inhale) reeds removed, exposing the metal reed plates and blow (exhale) reeds, and plastic combs (into which a player blows or draws air in vibrating the reeds and producing sound).

The deconstructed harmonicas are then affixed to the transparent plastic “walls” of the Harmonitrees structures.

As diatonic harmonicas come in different keys, the sculpture on display in the Hand Art Center’s foyer will have harmonicas in G and D keys. The seven sculptures displayed in the gallery will have the tonic major chord of each key: F, G, A, B-flat, C, D and E.

Macklay spends at least three days constructing each sculpture, which is formed by the transparent plastic sheets and between eight and 12 harmonicas. Other materials include zip ties, wire, a high-powered fan in a wooden box, and foot-button with power chords and smart plug.

The height of each Harmonitree is between five and 10 feet, making for visual variety as well as varied “sonic envelope,” or sound as it changes over time from beginning to end.

When the fan is turned on, it fills the structure with air and creates pressure that pushes air through the harmonicas and vibrates the reeds to create a drone sound—essentially mimicking the effect of a harmonica player blowing into the instrument. Virtual viewers are then able to observe how the sound and vibrations are created, as the air blown upwards by the fan escapes through the deconstructed harmonicas, which have been intentionally affixed to the plastic at air-escape points.

Macklay selected the harmonica after considering nonhuman ways to play wind instruments. Harmonicas belong to the free reed instrument family, which means they freely vibrate with only air and don’t require a specific embouchure, or lip-shaping, in order to generate sound. Hence, a very simple robot, or fan-generated air current, can play them. 

She also loved the harmonica’s timbre after experimenting with many harmonicas that were playing together. The experiment led to her first installation, Harmonibots—a sonic and kinetic construct of inflatable harmonica-playing robots–at the Waseca Art Center in Waseca, Minnesota, in 2015. The sound sculpture won the Ruth Anderson Prize from The International Alliance for Women in Music.

“Harmonibots”

“The Harmonitrees exhibit is unique and innovative because of the inclusion of motion into a three-dimensional sculpture, and the incorporation of the viewer and their role in the sculpture’s performance,” says Hand Art Center director James Pearson. Adds Macklay: “I hope my installation creates a joyful experience for everyone. It is tempting to be nihilistic during a global pandemic, so I want to counter that by making people smile, and perhaps inspire them to think more broadly about sound, music and art–along with being more creative in their own lives.”

Stetson’s assistant professor of digital arts Chaz Underriner secured funding for a one-week residency for Macklay as a visiting artist and composer.

“Sky Macklay is an excellent composer and interdisciplinary artist who creates whimsical and interesting work,” says Underriner. “Her exhibit will provide virtual viewers with a fun installation that combines bright, musical sounds with inflatable sculptures. The installation is a breath of fresh air that I think we can all use right now.”

Underriner will moderate a free livestreamed artist talk with Macklay via Zoom on Oct. 20. An improvised concert featuring the inflatable sculptures (also including seven beach ball-shaped inflatables filled with air by Stetson’s Sculpture II students), to be performed by Stetson School of Music faculty and students, will be recorded and made available at Hard Art Center’s website at a later date, with Macklay playing oboe and Underriner on electric guitar.

Acclaimed second season of Australia’s ‘Mystery Road’ TV series premieres in the U.S. Monday

Mystery Road Season 2 trailer

They haven’t had much exposure in the U.S., but Australia’s celebrated Mystery Road neo-western crime movies and television series have formed a franchise of enormous power, thanks to their desolate “Outback noir” settings, stunning cinematography, amazing cast, and above all, gripping storylines marked by unbearable tension largely caused by cultural clash.

The creation of Indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, the series began with the 2013 release of Mystery Road, which established the template of the Indigenous loner police detective Jay Swan. Magnificently played throughout the series by Indigenous actor Aaron Pedersen, the intensely somber Swan is charged with investigating the drug-related murder of an Indigenous teen girl whose body was dumped inside a roadside drainage culvert.

Goldstone followed in 2016 and found Swan in a small mining tone, searching for a missing Asian tourist. The format was then expanded in 2018 with the first of two six-episode TV seasons: Centering on the disappearance of an Indigenous football hero and a white backpacker, it paired Pedersen with a local police sergeant played by the great Judy Davis, and was made available in the U.S. via the Acorn TV subscription video streaming service.

Acorn is now bringing to the U.S. the second Mystery Road season, which aired in Australia earlier this year, starting Monday (Oct. 12). The new season finds Swan in the coastal town of Gideon, taking on another grisly case after a headless body is discovered in a mangrove swamp. As in the preceding plots, the stark differences between the white and Indigenous Australian communities and cultures are brought to the fore, with Swan stuck in a middle where neither side trusts him.

All of the Mystery Road incarnations have been heavily decorated with awards and nominations. According to Greer Simpkin, producer and head of television for Sen’s Bunya Productions company (she produced both Mystery Road TV seasons as well as Goldstone), the latest Australian ratings for the second Mystery Road series, which aired there in April and May on ABC, shows that it remains the year’s top show for the network—or any other Down Under.

“Audiences love it in Australia,” says Simpkin, on the phone in New Zealand and crediting Sen’s “original premise of using the western movie genre in bringing audiences in–where they end up staying because Sen also has so much to say.”

But it’s also because of how Sen says it–via the words of a character that evokes the western film archetype embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, or Gary Cooper’s stoic Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, but who, because of his locale and cultural roots, is entirely original.

“Ivan created this incredible character in Jay Swan—whom so much hinges on,” continues Simpkin, also citing Pedersen’s portrayal. “He’s compelling, brooding, complicated—and doesn’t say much.”

She further credits the participation of Indigenous script writers in both TV seasons, and the remote Outback location—a character unto itself.

“It’s an enormous span of desert that takes a couple days to travel,” says Simpkin. “So there’s that, and this brilliant mixture of Black and white writers in a room, then bringing in Indigenous directors for the first series [Rachel Perkins] and second  [Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair]—and that’s the key to its success: It’s very genuinely derived from that authenticity.”

Another noteworthy aspect of the series is its soundtrack, which features music by Australian musicians, many of them Indigenous and from its northwestern Kimberly location.

“We go very remote,” Simpkin says. “Very few TV series go as remote as we do: We’re up there five, six months. It’s coastal, with majestic mountains in the first series, and now coastal terrain and blue-green sea that’s spectacular. And we always involve the Indigenous community where we fit the series, using it for lots of extras.”

Regarding that community, Simpkin lauds the support from the federal government agency Screen Australia, which has an Indigenous department and facilitates a broad talent pool of Indigenous creators, actors and crew. And she stresses that the second TV series, like the first, can be enjoyed whether or not previous entries in the franchise have been seen—though viewers of the complete Mystery Road saga will appreciate elements running through the installments.

One of them, Simpkin notes, concerns firearms. The Mystery Road movie has an unbearably suspenseful shootout using rifles at long distance, which is echoed in the second film and final episode of both TV seasons.

Most fascinating, though, and intentionally educational, is that the Mystery Road series deals with past and present Indigenous injustices.

“For instance, Warwick wanted to see [lawn] sprinklers all the way through the second series,” explains Simpkin. “They’re nonsensical, and represent colonialism—sprinklers everywhere, like in England. And you see that motif through the desert, front and foremost in the shootout.”

She notes, too, that the “bucolic European world [created] in a beautiful desert” also juxtaposes ironically with the scenes of excavation of an Indigenous site by a Swedish female archaeologist.

“The second series touches upon scientists and anthropologists—people studying Indigenous artifacts, but taking them back to Europe and British museums. It also touches on the cultural repatriation movement, which is certainly happening in Australia and in Kimberly. The archaeologist character comes at everything from a scientific point-of-view, and only in the end does she touch the earth and understand the meaning of country, and that the connection to the land is really important.”

So is “the local natives’ objection to her quest to uncover Indigenous cultural artifacts to rewrite their history,” says Simpkin, noting that the character suffers a crisis of conscience when she finds an unidentified modern grave at the archaeological survey site.

“It jeopardizes her work, yet it could also solve a murder,” Simpkin adds, but the archaeological excavation subplot also significantly represents a facet of Australia’s historic exploitation of its Indigenous population that has yet to be fully reconciled.

Simpkin points to the first Mystery Road TV season, during which the Judy Davis character discovers that her own ancestors poisoned a water hole used by local natives.

“These things happened all over the country, and people here have denied they ever happened,” she says. “People who live on the coastline—in Sydney or Melbourne—aren’t even aware of the desert! But all [of the Mystery Road releases] deal with the effects of colonization.”

She relates, in fact, that Ivan Sen conceived the series because his cousin was murdered: “He felt the police never tried to find the murderer–and we carried that into the second series.”

But Simpkin cautions against assuming that all of Australia can be understood by Mystery Road—or that every dusty Outback town is like the ones attended to by Jay Swan.

“We made up the towns and created a world that does represent Australia to a degree,” she says. “It’s the frontier—an interesting place where one can disappear. But it’s an enormous continent and really quite incredible: For at least 70,000 years Aboriginal people have lived in tune with that land. We’re certainly not saying all places are interesting like that, but the relationship that the Indigenous Australians have with the land is ingrained.”

Meanwhile, Simpkin reports that Sen has already written the outline for a third Mystery Road TV season. And incidentally, his Bunya production company name comes from an Australian pine tree, which every two years brings together thousands of Indigenous people to celebrate the fallen bunya cones.

Venerable NRBQ caps big year of releases with ‘In • Frequencies’ rarities album

In • Frequencies trailer

Last week’s release of NRBQ’s In • Frequencies was the climax of an extraordinarily fruitful year for the band, pandemic touring shutdown notwithstanding.

It followed the recent limited edition CD release of NRBQ at the Ardmore Music Hall 2015, a live set recorded in 2015 at the Ardmore, Pa. rock venue with current members of the venerable “Q” and guests including Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson. Q-related titles out so far this year also include the band’s early lead vocalist Frank Gadler’s first album Cause of You, and a reissue of the legendary Shaggs’ second album Shaggs Own Thing (1982), which NRBQ’s Terry Adams produced.

Still to come before the end of the year are a new album from NRBQ’s current guitarist Scott Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough’s band Flat Five; original Q guitarist Steve Ferguson’s Blue Ice of Winsted; a vinyl reissue of Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson’s 1992 album Johnnie B. Bad, and a new Sun Ra Arkestra album.

And to top it off, Spanish publisher La Produktiva Books—new literary sister company to La Produktiva Records—has issued the first-ever book about NRBQ, ¿Quiénes son NRBQ?: La banda que toca lo que le da la gana.

But the new In • Frequencies is the centerpiece of NRBQ’s remarkable run of releases, and the latest in a steady series of original and reissue Q titles on Omnivore Recordings—notably including reissues of the band’s self-titled 1969 album and 1977 fifth album All Hopped Up, and the five-disc 2016 High Noon–A 50-Year Retrospective. Setting it apart, In • Frequencies is the first-ever collection of rare NRBQ tracks and outtakes—in the words of liner notes writer M.C. Kostek, “great lost songs from a lifetime of music.”

Indeed, the 16 choice tracks on In • Frequencies provide a perfect companion piece to the High Noon set in spanning the entire 50-plus years’ existence of the singular band whose acronym stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet.

“When our friends at Omnivore asked for a ‘rarities album,’ we readily agreed,” says the venerable band’s leader, keyboardist and founding member Terry Adams—the only original member still in the band.

“There were no studios open because of the virus–but there were plenty of good-sounding NRBQ recordings on the shelves already. So when these songs surfaced on the tapes, I had to say, ‘What’s a nice song like you doing on a tape like this?’”

Nice songs, for sure, and full of the fun that has marked The Q live and on record since the beginning—and has made the band, in all its configurations, treasured by fans and peers alike. The live version of Elvis Presley’s chart-topping hit “Too Much,” which was taped at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis in 1994, even garnered astonished respect from none other than Presley’s celebrated lead guitarist Scotty Moore.

“It was a lot of fun,” recalls Adams. “It was a big Elvis Presley tribute show, and every time I settled on a song to do, they said it was already promised to another artist. I’d planned on doing ‘Mystery Train’—with some added mystery–but had to think of another song. So on the way there, just two hours outside of Memphis, I got an idea for an arrangement for ‘Too Much’: making it a duet, and honoring Scotty’s solo.”

It was an occasion where the quartet was augmented by a horn section.

“My brother Donn [a trombonist who has served The Q as part of its occasional Whole Wheat Horns section] and I always laughed like crazy for Scotty’s solo on the original [which opens with thick, rapid-fire chording]. I called saxophonist Jim Hoke and asked him to score that solo for three horns—Jim, David Gordon, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Tyrone Hill: Jim had to rush to catch a bus from Nashville and scored it on the way to Memphis. When Scotty himself heard it he came over shaking his head and laughing, and said, ‘Well, it took three of you to do it.’ It turned out that he had always been embarrassed by it, and that Elvis used to tease him about it.”

Adams also cites “We’ll Make Love,” a live NRBQ gem written by guitarist Al Anderson that somehow never made it on an album until now, via a performance recorded in 1976 at Trinity College.

“I remember having more fun than anything playing it on stage,” says Adams. “We always had a lot of fun back there while Al was singing his song.”

As for bassist Joey Spampinato’s “Love Came to Me,” which appeared as a studio recording on the 1999 album NRBQ, the track was performed that year during a live morning radio show at WDET-FM in Detroit, and as Adams rightly notes, “it’s too good of a song to only have one version of.”

Another noteworthy live performance on In • Frequencies is “It’s a Wild Weekend,” which comes from a 1987 soundcheck at the famed Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, R.I. Featuring the band’s lyrics and an original bridge to the Rockin’ Rebels’ 1963 hit instrumental “Wild Weekend,” a studio take of the modified tune became the titletrack of The Q’s 1989 Wild Weekend album.

But an especially fun recording for Adams is “Orioles,” which was suggested by an NRBQ fan who knew that the Baltimore Orioles might need a song. Both Adams and Spampinato submitted a song, with Spampinato’s, “Baseball in Baltimore,” surfacing in 2002 on the Music’s Been Good to You album.

“Recording it was fun,” recalls Adams. “When I did the vocal part of calling out names of players, Joey could hardly take it because it wasn’t literal. He wanted the names of players who were actually on the team instead of others like Willie Mays and Don Drysdale—and Frankie Gadler and Joseph Spampinato! It was fun for me though, and besides, I don’t think anyone stays on any team anymore. Baseball fans have to be careful who they’re loyal to.”

NRBQ fans, on the other hand, have been rewarded for their loyalty throughout the long and extraordinary history of a band that continues to surprise with every performance and release.

“As a member of the band, I get to hear an awful lot of stuff that other people don’t have access to,” says guitarist Ligon. “But I’m hearing most of these tracks for the first time.”

He singles out the lovely “Sho’ Need Love,” a 1970 song recorded by NRBQ’s offshoot band The Dickens, that was released in 1970: “It’s almost too good to be true! It’s also hard to believe that I had never heard Terry’s ‘Get Real’ [recorded in 1983 and previously unreleased] or ‘Let Me Tell You ’Bout My Girl’ [cut in 1974, during the brief time when both Anderson and the late Ferguson were in the group, and also unreleased]” until this collection came together.”

“You think you know a person!” Ligon continues, then adds, “But ‘April Showers’ is my sentimental favorite. The piano break is unreal. The singer ain’t bad either.”

The singer, of course, is Ligon, on the cover of the 1921 pop standard that The Q recorded for the soundtrack of the 2018 movie Change in the Air. One of its music directors, incidentally, was the late Hal Willner, the longtime music director for Saturday Night Live, and a beloved music producer whose eclecticism matched the band’s.

Willner enlisted NRBQ’s participation in his acclaimed That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films multiple-artist concept albums.

“NRBQ is the Mount Olympus of rock and roll,” he wrote in the At the Ardmore CD jacket, hailing the band as a national treasure and testifying that “they make me so damn happy!” In all the group’s configurations, he added, it “consistently discovers real musical light in the darkest of souls.”

“The live album should get your spirits up,” observes Adams, “but one thing I wanted to do with Omnivore and In • Frequencies was make sure it comes out before the election—in the hopes of inspiring people not to be so depressed, but get out and take action!”

“That’s not the reason why we do music, or what the music is about—but I hope there’s an undercurrent there.”

What I saw–and didn’t see–of the debate

Now that some of the dust—if not nuclear fallout—has settled from last night’s so-called presidential debate, I first want to express relief that the response I’m seeing today (admittedly on MSNBC and The New York Times for the most part) are solidly in Biden’s favor.

Relieved, because for the first hour or so that I stayed with it, I thought “Sleepy Joe” was taking a beating, such a savage and merciless beating, in fact, that I had to turn away.

I also had to turn away periodically from the savage and merciless beating I took on Facebook for saying this. One Facebook “friend” responded with “FU” to my first post (also tweeted), right at the outset of Trump’s initial onslaught, “Bad start for #Biden. #debates.” I hate to use the overused word “proverbial,” but to me, Biden looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

But as so often happens in Facebook threads—especially, I’m sorry to say, my threads–I wasn’t sure if she was directing her “FU” at me or another respondent. So dusting off my best Travis Bickle, I came back with, “You saying FU to me? If so you can say goodbye.” Then I stewed for the next 40 minutes, checking back every five seconds for a response, then when none came, finally pulled the plug.

“Only lost one friend tonight, and for once I did the unfriending!” I posted before finally shutting down around 3 a.m. This got the most laughs I’ve gotten on Facebook probably since that Thanksgiving post where I said I was thankful for everyone who hadn’t unfriended me.

Then another FB “friend” picked up on it this morning and spelled it out: “FUCK YOU,” all caps. “Goodbye,” I returned, and this time UF’d him in 10 seconds. I followed it with a general post, “To whom it may concern: I can take a lot of shit, but you only get the chance to say ‘Fuck you’ to me once.”

All this because I thought Biden was getting his butt kicked and decided to say so.

But few understood that I was speaking of debate style over substance, and a style—Trump’s—that was anything but pretty. And it’s something that I saw coming, as I tweeted earlier in the day: “Expecting #DebateTuesday to be stacked in #Trump’s favor, due to the set-up and eternal network goal of providing #WWERaw entertainment value. Hope #Biden sticks to being the adult in the room, sternly showing maturity opposite Trump’s bratty incompetence and incoherence.”

Now, I do think Biden did that, but he still failed—at least for that first hour—because the debate format, as expected, was stacked in Trump’s favor. Chris Wallace couldn’t have been worse, but I don’t know that any moderator would have done better—nor would they have wanted to: Bottom line is, everyone is talking about it—no matter that most of it is brutally negative toward Wallace, and Trump–and so rightly so.

But back to Biden, and why I thought he was battered—no matter that he’s a veritable saint sitting opposite Satan. Another post, which shortly followed “Bad start for Biden,” only encouraged the pile-up on me: “#Trump in control of the #debate.”

Many found this, like its predecessor, wrong, even disgusting, to the point of white-hot anger. But they either missed the context, or took it out of context, that is, what I meant by saying Trump was in control—which was not to be taken as praise or approval, but statement of fact.

One friend, whom I’m in 100 percent agreement with on substance, was especially livid, but calmed down enough by morning to understand where I was coming from and deleted his earlier tweets—then used a good chess analogy: “If we were sitting down to play chess, and you kept knocking over my pieces rather than playing the game properly, you’re not in control. You’re just being an asshole.”

But I would say that I would be in control and an asshole, meaning, because I was an asshole and not “playing the game properly,” I controlled not so much how you played the game, but if you could play the game at all.

In the case of the debate, then, I offered a couple sports analogies of my own.

Football is relatively simple: They talk about ball control and “time of possession.” Usually, who ever controls the ball the best, and has the most time of possession (of the ball), is the winner—though not always.

I would say that Trump clearly controlled the movement (ball) of the portion of the debate that I watched, and had the most time of possession of the microphone via constant interruption and talking over Biden. I’m happy to see that so many Facebook friends and Wednesday morning media quarterbacks didn’t award him the game ball.

But comparing the debate to a boxing prize fight offers subtler analytic possibilities. Now I’ve actually judged professional Muay Thai fights, so here I know a little of what I’m speaking.

Among the things you consider when judging a fight are number of punches thrown, number of punches landed and damage of punches landed, also quality of defense, and perhaps most important, aggression—effective aggression. Of course, all of this is subjective, as is judging last night’s debate.

So what I saw at the start, and what I scored in his favor, was Trump’s effective aggression. True, it was dirty, dirty, dirty, filthy, but Wallace allowed it, maybe secretly encouraged it, and it was effective: I felt that Biden was overwhelmed, couldn’t counter, and could only flail.

I’ve seen since, of course, that Biden connected with at least two hard punches—clobbering Trump on his racism and disdain for democracy–and they get scored higher than Trump’s jabs. And that Biden withstood the barrage and that Trump ended up not winning any converts. And that the unanimous realization of Trump’s vile nature and just plain ugliness–and Biden’s uncompromising decency–was the real winner.

As Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in The New York Times, “When Biden explained in simple terms why it’s important to be kind–not just from the standpoint of individual relationships, but for the survival of liberal democracy–he hit upon something crucial. This form of government requires certain virtues and a willingness to understand things from different points of view is one of them. I would argue that willingness to understand is a form of love, and one that isn’t easily inculcated into hardened hearts. Biden didn’t say all of that, of course, and I’m not sure he would endorse it. But he did set his sights on something much more critical, in that short speech, than specific policies or elections.”

And that’s what I didn’t see in that first hour, before turning away from a lopsided performance, Biden’s goodness notwithstanding.

I remember Merle Kilgore

One thing about this pandemic, it’s given me a lot of time to reflect.

I thought about Merle Kilgore a few weeks ago, at the height of the George Floyd protests and the ensuing removal of Confederate/racist-related flags and statuary throughout the country. And I thought of him again more recently when the Country Music Association announced that Hank Williams, Jr. was being inducted into the Counry Music Hall of Fame.

Merle Kilgore, if you don’t know, wrote, with June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He also wrote David Houston’s big 1962 country crossover hit “Wolverton Mountain,” and one of my favorites, Tommy Roe’s “The Folk Singer.” He was an inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but by now he was best-known as Hank, Jr.’s longtime manager—having famously carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar long before.

Merle, who died at 70 on February 26, 2005, was a big, cuddly bear of a man, with an oversized jovial personality to match. As Brenda Lee said at his funeral, he “brought laughter to every room he entered—we all know that—and he was friend to all within the reach of my voice. He challenged all of us to remember–and this is so important–he challenged us in the industry to remember the dream that brought us into this industry that he so passionately loved.”

One thing I passionately loved about Merle Kilgore was that whenever I saw him, he’d greet me with “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” Of course I made a point of seeing him whenever I was in Nashville, usually with another big Kilgore fan, Los Angeles-based Bob Merlis, who was then Warner Bros. Records head of publicity.

Bob Merlis and Merle Kilgore

Bob and I were in Nashville in June, 1998, for our annual hang at what was then called Country Music Fan Fair, then held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds–from where it moved three years later to Downtown Nashville. Bob had just emceed the noon Warner Bros. label show at the Fairgrounds Speedway, and we’d walked up the hill to the exhibition buildings, where hundreds of country artists had meet-and-greet booths.

One of the biggest artist booths, not surprisingly, was Hank Williams, Jr.’s. It was comparatively huge, actually, stocked full of all kinds of merchandise. There holding court behind the counter was Merle Kilgore.

“Jim Bessman! America’s most-beloved music journalist!” he bellowed, then saw Bob.

“Hey! I got something for you guys—but you have to wear them!” he said, reaching down below the counter for what must have been his special stash. When his hands resurfaced, each held a bold blue garment, one of which he tossed to Bob, the other to me. We then unfolded, to our horror–and Merle’s boisterous chuckle—Confederate Flag gym shorts!

“Jim Bessman! Make sure you wear them at the gym when you get back to New York! You’ll get a big reaction!” Merle exclaimed, laughing louder. I’m sure he would have been right, had I worn them at the gym. I don’t remember what I did with them when I got back to New York, but I do know I never wore them to the gym.

But I remember one other thing about that Fan Fair stop. Merle asked if I’d heard about Jack McFadden. Jack was another bigtime manager I always visited when I was in Nashville.

I’d first met Jack when he managed Keith Whitley to country music stardom. Thanks to Jack, I’d even got to hang with Keith (whom I’d first seen at the University of Wisconsin Student Union Great Hall back in the early 1970s when he and Ricky Skaggs were in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys) and his wife Lorrie Morgan when they taped something together at a studio in New York.

Big thanks to Jack, I also became friendly with Buck Owens, whom Jack had managed forever. He also managed Billy Ray Cyrus, and I’ve always remembered what Jack said when Travis Tritt got into trouble at Fan Fair in 1992 for criticizing “Achy Breaky Heart.” In response, Jack said, “I think Travis is feeling the heat from our afterburner.”

Sadly, Jack was now in a coma, Merle told us. He wouldn’t last the day. But they were reading messages to him, so when I got to a phone I called his office and made sure they read a loving one from me.

Usually, though, Bob and I would visit Merle at his office in Music Row (he had another one in Paris, Tennessee, where Bocephus–Hank, Jr.–was based). His Music Row office was just around the bend from the Country Music Association headquarters (Merle was a longtime CMA officer), in the same building that once housed the Cash Box Nashville bureau when I worked for the long defunct trade magazine I came to New York in the early 1980s. We got there once when he was just pulling up in his immense boat of an SUV (in the same parking lot where I once spent a cold winter night in my rental car) that even then couldn’t fit his even more immense personality.

I’m laughing now recalling how another dear departed friend, Steve Popovich (founder of Cleveland International Records, Steve ran PolyGram Nashville in the 1980s, where he signed the likes of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), always referred to Merle, in conversation or in person, as “The SENATOR!,” for he was in fact an honorary Tennessee State Senator. Certainly, he was politically diplomatic.

I put Merle’s diplomacy to the test one year when Bob and I were in Nashville in October for the Country Music Awards. I have an unfortunate tendency not to conform with consensus, i.e., Bob Dylan’s the greatest songwriter ever, Aretha Franklin’s the greatest singer ever, etc., etc. Politics and big gun/big game-hunting obsessions aside, I’ve also always contended that Hank, Jr. was better than Hank, Sr.—always a good conversation-ender, if not longtime friendship.

I must have mentioned this to Bob, then said we had two country music authorities close at hand that we could trust for an expert opinion.

First we went to Tony Pipitone, who like Bob, was a top executive at Warner Bros. in L.A. (he headed the label’s “special products” division charged with catalog compilations), a big country music fan, a regular at Fan Fair and the CMA Awards, and another friend of Merle’s.

“I’d have to say Hank, Jr.,” Tony said, when we asked him to choose between Sr. and Jr. One down, we then went over to Bob and Mary Oermann’s, where I was staying, and asked Bob—arguably the most important country music journalist of our time—for his vote. He said exactly the same thing. Neither of them had given it a second thought.

My third and final expert was the guy who carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar and managed Jr.

I think it was at the PolyGram CMA Awards after-party, though it might have been at MCA’s. Whichever, he was standing at the bar when I arrived.

“Merle,” I said, “you know how much I love Bocephus. I know it’s considered sacrilege, but I’ve always maintained he’s better than his father. I’ve even asked Tony Pipitone and Bob Oermann, and they both agree. But if anyone would know, it would obviously be you.”

The SENATOR looked down at me, considered the question for a few seconds, then leaned back and said, “Junior is more versatile. But Senior was more focused.”

He could have changed it around. In fact, maybe he did. But either way, he diplomatically declared it a draw.

By the way, when I said Merle was standing at the bar, I should mention that he’d been sober then some 20 years. One day in his office he’d told me and Bob about his drinking days. Bob says he said, “I drank because it made me funny.” I remember him saying, “I drank because it made me happy.” Again, both work. Even without alcohol, Merle Kilgore was both happy and funny.

I did see him outside Nashville on a couple occasions, the first time when Hank played the Nassau Coliseum.

One thing that I loved about Merle was how much he loved Bocephus. Whenever I was at a Bo show and backstage or even on stage, Merle would be in the wings standing up and singing along the entire set like a cheerleader, just loving it. After the Nassau gig we went on Hank’s bus and while we waited for him, I asked Merle what Junior felt about Chet Flippo’s then recently-published Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams.

Another now dear departed friend, Chet Flippo was responsible for expanding Rolling Stone’s country music coverage in the mid-1970s, when I first got to know him. He later authored several books, most notably two on the Rolling Stones and his 1981 Your Cheatin’ Heart, which blended fact with fictionalized dialog and scenes, some of them intimate.

“Chet Flippo!” shouted Merle, who had actually spent time with Hank, Sr. “Yeah, Chet Flippo was there, all right! He was hiding in the hay with his tape recorder!”

Then there was a day in late May, 2003, when I approached the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue and saw a man who looked very much like Merle Kilgore waiting for the “Walk” sign. As I neared him it dawned on me: Ain’t no one who looks like Merle Kilgore who ain’t Merle Kilgore, and sure enough, it was Merle Kilgore.

“Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!”

Merle was on his way to Radio City, where Junior was rehearsing his performance at the ABC-TV network “upfront” showcase of its fall schedule for advertisers and media. Hank was going to sing his Monday Night Football theme remake of his 1984 hit “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight”—“All My Rowdy Friends are Here on Monday Night”—and I was thrilled when Merle invited me to the real thing later in the day.

When I got there I went straight to Hank’s dressing room, where he was already in all his stage splendor, particularly a fabulous cowboy hat with a number emblazoned on the front. I asked him about it, and he said it was the uniform number of a Black college football star who had died tragically a short while back, whom he had been very close to.

But there was another person whom both Hank and Merle had been close to who had just died—June Carter Cash, on May 15. I asked them about the funeral, and especially Rosanne Cash’s eulogy, which I’d seen or read, which was stunning in its beauty and eloquence.

Rosanne’s speech was so good, in fact, that when Merle turned to Hank right after and said, “Go up and say something,” Hank told him, “I can’t go up there after that. You go up and say something!”

Merle then said, “I can’t follow her either!” And then, in the row behind them, Kris Kristofferson leaned over and whispered, “Shit! Now I can’t go up and say anything!”

I suppose it was inappropriate, but I had to laugh out loud at these three legendary country music songwriters, who couldn’t go up and say anything in honor of their dear fellow legend after Rosanne took all of them to school!

Searching YouTube for a video or two to illustrate this tribute, I happened upon footage of Merle’s own funeral, co-hosted by a couple other friends: Travis Tritt, whom me and Bob had run into sitting in a darkened corner of a bar in Nashville the night that his Billy Ray Cyrus brouhaha erupted, and Marty Stuart, who was likewise finally going into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank, Jr. When they called up Bocephus, he wept uncontrollably.

“Well, you’ve done it this time, Brother,” Hank finally managed to mutter. “I went to the office today…and found that you weren’t there. But the more that I searched, I realized you were everywhere: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, Millenium, too–there were so many pictures, so many memories. Together, me and you. You carried Dad’s guitar in Shreveport, you were my link to him. Like a brother, like a father, and always, always, no matter what, my friend.”

Then they showed some great video of Merle telling stories, taken from a Country Family Reunion program, including a great one about how he lived with Faron Young when he was going through a divorce and after Bocephus had fallen off the mountain in 1975—and before he quit drinking.

Both Merle and Faron were raised in Shreveport, where Merle had carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar at the famed Lousiana Hayride show when Faron was a rowdy high school student in a class taught by Merle’s mom. Faron used to sing country songs in the hallways, so to get him to behave, she told him that Merle would walk him backstage at the Hayride if he calmed the class down. He did.

Years later in Nashville, Faron owned a mansion, and offered Merle a cheap rental on the bottom half. Faron was a great cook, Merle recalled, and they were like “the original Odd Couple.”

One afternoon Faron called Merle at Nashville’s Hall of Fame bar and asked when he’d be home, since he was making his favorite dinner—Shake ’N Bake pork chops. Merle said he’d be home around 6:30.

“Don’t lie to me, now!” said Faron.

Merle got another call from Faron—about midnight.

“You think I [don’t] slave over that hot stove cooking you Shake ’N Bake? Don’t even think about coming home on an empty stomach! Better stop at Waffle House because [the neighbor’s dog] Fluffo is getting your meal! Good night!”

The ast time I saw Hank, Jr., four years ago when he did a show at SiriusXM here in New York accompanied by his new manager (and another old friend) Ken Levitan, I mentioned how much I missed Merle.

(Photo credit: Jeremy Tepper)

“I talked to him last week!” said Hank, explaining that he’d visited Merle’s grave. “I told him I missed him, and he said he was proud of me.”

Now I can’t vouch for the veracity of the conversation, but I don’t necessarily doubt it. After all, I can still hear Merle saiying, “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” I don’t even mind that I overheard him calling someone else America’s most beloved music journalist, even if to my mind, at least, he was nowhere near as belovable.

But Merle always was.

“He was more than a big man with a big heart,” Brenda Lee said at his funeral. “He was a huge man with a big, big, big heart. If riches can be counted in the legacy of the lives he touched and the hearts that will never forget you, look around this room today and it tells me Merle Kilgore indeed did just fine.”