Yo-Yo Ma closes APAP virtual trade conference on multi-cultural note

Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the attraction at yesterday’s closing plenary session of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) APAP|NYC+ 2021 trade conference, which like the panels, showcases and exhibition hall set-ups that preceded it, was held virtually online due to the pandemic.

Ma’s session took the form of an informal chat with APAP board member Renae Williams Niles, who heads Renae WN Consulting. She saluted Ma for his service as a UN Messenger of Peace, and being both the first artist ever appointed to the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees and a recipient of the Fred Rogers Legacy Award.

She also noted that “most impressive,” Ma has been married to the same woman for over 40 years.

“My wife is still putting me on yearly leases!” Ma responded, noting that every year she either renews it “or I’m out!” But he acknowledged that he is usually at home only one-third of the time, the other two-thirds spent “visiting APAP presenters—and it’s like I’m married to them as well!”

Niles, citing Covid and social upheaval–and the performing arts world’s tragic “loss of family, touring, and sense of community”–asked Ma how he’s been impacted.

“My life is no different than anybody else’s right now,” said Ma, who is indeed working from home like most everybody else. In fact, he “went to emergency mode” after March 10 of last year—the last time I played live in the States.”

He then thanked Niles for mentioning Mister Rogers.

“He was a role model! He used to say that his mother used to say, ‘Whenever there’s a crisis, you can always look for the helpers.’”

“Helpers,” Ma noted, “respond to need.”

 “Helpers give hope,” he said. “Helpers give succor to those in need. In whatever way, all of us can help in one way or another.”

In Ma’s case, being a musician, he tries to “Zoom into private hospital rooms or vast tents [of Covid patients],” perform for health care workers, and “go out on a flat bed truck with my buddy [classical pianist] Emanuel Ax” and play for high school or college students and “people graduating without ceremonies that they’re aching to enjoy.”

“There is a place for music,” Ma maintained.

Niles noted that last year’s APAP conference theme was “Risk and Reslience,” and said that she’s never heard the word “resilience” more frequently than during the last nine months. Another word being frequently used now, she added, is “hope.”

Here Ma realized that being in the year 2021, in 2100—79 years from now—his youngest grandchild will be 79: “I’m suddenly thinking, my goodness, I’ll be long dead, but what world am I leaving for my grandchildren?”

Reflecting on the “authenticity” sought and demanded by young people, Ma noted that funding generally comes from older ones, idealism from the young.

“There’s so much work to be done, so much to fix and repair,” he said. “Can’t we bring those two most precious resources together and accelerate the process by giving custodial responsibility to younger people way sooner, and with us just listening–and when appropriate, helping?”

Relating that he himself is 65, Ma wondered how to best spend his remaining years.

“We need to solve some near-term, midterm and very long-term problems,” he said, conceding that he likely won’t be around to see the long-term ones through.

“But someone who is young can easily go half-a-century and work for presenting organizations,” he said, directly addressing them as “scouts for society” who can find artists “who are saying something important for us.”

“You can see over the ledge and see the dangers ahead–or beautiful things ahead,” said Ma. “What can you report back to our communities?”

Asked by Niles about “the disease of perfectionism,” Ma forwarded a lesson taught him by theater director Peter Sellars: “You don’t need to deliver the whole package signed and sealed and wrapped beautifully, but have to ask someone to complete it. It’s a big, big lesson: Don’t complete the whole thing, becuase the magic we’re all looking for is people meeting you halfway–the communal moment that we want to have and remember and hold on to and come back to later.”

“So perfection, no! Communication of something aspirational, absolutely!” He added: “I love when a string breaks at the beginning of a concert. Why? The damage is done–and everybody realizes that that happens.”

As the talk had transitioned to what Niles called “true collaborations when entities really do come together in unity and shared space to do something they don’t do independently,” she asked Ma to speak of The Bach Project, his two-year journey begun in 2018 and involving his performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world. The suites were among the first music he ever learned when starting cello at age four, and he was motivated, too, by Bach’s ability to speak to shared humanity at a time when civic conversation is often focused on division.

Niles noted how Ma used the Bach suites as a tool to learn from others—and other cultures, including indigenous tribes in Taiwan via a virtual visit in November. Niles herself had also experienced a cultural connection with a Taiwanese indigenous group.

“What happened with you and that indigenous group is the ultimate gift,” said Ma. “They let you in, and that is the crux of any artistic experience: Not watching through the window looking at Tiny Tim and seeing what happens next year, but being invited in–and you were invited in. I hope this is what all presenters are doing–not just presenting something but allowing the community to welcome a new member and new guest as a template for what we all do.”

Ma mentioned working with celebrated indigenous Taiwanese songstress Abao, who includes indigenous words from her tribe in her pop songs. He also recalled meeting a Hawaiian who had sailed throughout the Pacific solely via celestial navigation and was training younger people.

“They have a lot to teach us,” he said of indigenous peoples. “I met so many groups during The Bach Project, in Canada, the States, Australia, New Zealand. They hold a lot of wisdom that can help us stay resilient.”

Closing with a solo cello performance blend of the Shakers song “Simple Gifts” and Dvorak’s “Goin’ Home” theme from his New World Symphony, Ma said, “The meaning of life is actually very simple: It comes from the very simple things we do, and simple gifts, and in terms of simple kindnesses—treating the next human being the way we would like to be treated.”

And rather than “compose like me,” Ma urged plenary attendees to “listen to what’s around.”

“Let’s listen to voices of younger people and what they see ahead–and let’s do it together.”

 APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney closed the 2021 virtual APAP conference by noting that it had been an “agenda-setting conference.”

“This is not the end,” she declared. “We are not returning to business as usual. This is the beginning: to engaging more equitably in advancing the field as the richly diverse ecosystem that we are; to building forward with anti-racism as our lens; to addressing the climate crisis as the sea level rises that affects us all; to centering the voice of Blacks, indigenous and all people of color; to better visa and immigration policies; to outdoor programming; to resilience and mental health; to recovering in an altered touring landscape; to public health and reopening; to the art of going virtual–and HEPA [High-efficiency particulate air] filters!”

“We’ve got work to do, but we have imagination to uncover and promises to uphold,” Toney concluded. “We are just getting started!”

APAP|NYC+ 2021 Conference goes virtual in looking past pandemic

Normally there would be thousands of international attendees gathered at New York’s Hilton Hotel Midtown for the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals’ (APAP) trade conference—where they’d visit hundreds of exhibition hall booths and artist showcases in between participating in professional panel sessions.

But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, everything at this year’s APAP|NYC+ 2021 Conference is virtual, and with a dramatic sense of urgency.

“It’s different this year,” said Baylin Artists Management president Marc Baylin at the start of Friday’s opening plenary session. And while he joked that there would be no $7 cups of coffee in the hotel lobby or jockeying for position at the ground floor elevators, he also stated the obvious: All performing arts professionals have faced “unimaginable challenges” together.

National Endowment for the Arts chairman Mary Anne Carter likewise noted that of all the artistic disciplines, performing arts have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, “and even almost a year in we’re all still trying to figure out what we have to do to revive them.”

Carter hailed national service organizations—particularly APAP—for their increased importance. Amidst anxiety and uncertainty, she said, artists and arts organizations have found ways to continue sharing their art—mainly virtually, and globally, online.

“I’ve seen few things more moving than artists coming together in their living rooms,” she said, “so although venues have been empty, few have been idle–and there is new access to the arts as never before. People who have never seen performances in theaters are now seeing them online, or taking classes in their living rooms.”

Karen A. Fischer, president of Pasifika Artists and chair of the APAP board, observed how the Covid pandemic had “disrupted every performing and touring artist, agent, manager, presenter, venue and vendor”—but unfortunately, there were other factors that contributed to the disaster that was 2020.

“The murder of George Floyd mandated attention to social justice and racial reckoning,” Fischer said, then cited Wednesday’s violent insurrection and attempted takeover of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where APAP is headquartered.

“The shock of Wednesday forces us yet again to face hatred and inequality,” said Fischer, “but we can affirm the value of each voice, and the collective voices of our humanity.” And while many have been devastated by the loss of family, friends and colleagues because of the pandemic, as well as loss of livelihood “and daily life as we knew it,” she was heartened by the arts professionals coming together and demonstrating ingenuity in moving forward.

But a year ago, as APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney noted, 4,000 of those arts professionals at the Hilton “never imagined that in a few months going to performance venues would be off limits–but it is.” Like Fischer, she also noted “the loss of loved ones, cherished colleagues, and beacons in our fields,” along with over $15 billion in business due to cancelations by 99 percent of the trade’s presenters and producers.

Toney further seconded Fischer in referring to the violence Wednesday at the nation’s capitol, along with the accompanying hatred and racism. Here she invoked “our revered spaces”—performing arts venues that offer refuge and comfort, which are needed “now more than ever.”

“If we were together in a physical space,” Toney added, “we could grab, hug and embrace.” But the digital platform at least offers a fortunate alternative in being “always open” with live streaming and replay options for showcases, plenary and artist pitch sessions, and even virtual exhibition hall booth meetings. Such digital access, while not replacing the live APAP conference experience, “opens us up to new possibilities.”

With a focus on three “core tenets” of equity, advocacy and innovation, this year’s APAP, then, provides a “rare opportunity to strengthen from within and emerge stronger than ever,” concluded Toney.

“Getting through this requires resilience,” she stated. “We know what it means to struggle, and we also know there is a light ahead: the vaccine coming, and audiences are looking to come back–and they will. The cultural sector is a bigger economy than sports, transportation, construction or agriculture. If cities are going to rebound, they won’t do it without the arts and cultural creatives.”

“Yes, we are in need—but also deeply needed,” said Toney. “The arts are not going to go away.”

She asked: “Why hope for ‘back to normal’ when we can aim for more? There is opportunity: The arts are essential. Arts workers are essential–and we are worth it.”

Then, expressing her eagerness for “gathering in person again,” she noted, “but if our shift to digital allows you to join us today, I say, ‘Welcome!’”

Dr. Anthony Fauci inspires APAP attendees

The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) presented a major interdisciplinary star yesterday at its annual trade gathering when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health—and newly named Chief Medical Adviser for the Biden Administration—discussed the status of the global pandemic and vaccine rollout in the U.S. in an online conversation with Maurine D. Knighton, program director for the arts for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Fauci himself has a significant arts background, making him even that much more valuable in helping the performing arts community plan for the resumption of live performing arts programming and touring.

At the start of his Public Health and Re-Opening the Live Performing Arts virtual plenary session with Knighton—who observed that he was likely the only APAP participant with his own bobblehead figure—Fauci noted that his pre-med education included a grounding in humanities. This, he said, had a major impact on his career and the way he looked at challenges to global health.

In fact, Fauci had initially been a classics major, and studied Greek, Latin, and French. He later took various philosophy courses.

“I took enough science to get to med school, but I was grounded in the humanities, so I take a different look at global health,” he noted, being “as interested in human nature as physiology.”

Fauci also saw himself as a frustrated artist. Observing that his grandfather was an accomplished artist whose son was also one, and daughter’s child was a successful painter, he said that he “flirted with it as a hobby,” but the intensity of his main career prevented him from doing it “in earnest,” thereby leaving him the frustrated artist.

It certainly showed a different side to “the face of America’s fight against Coronavirus” (per the BBC).

Fauci further noted the virus’s “underappreciated impact on society” in “the lack of free access to the performing arts.” He said that the last performance he attended was Hamilton at the Kennedy Center, and that the succeeding loss of access to the performing arts has added to “the gloom” of the pandemic, although he did hail the many quality television offerings—none of which fully compensate.

Turning to his more intense main career and putting it in context of the APAP performing arts community, Fauci sadly saw an “extraordinary divisiveness in society” so extreme that it clouds all reasoning. The healthcare system was being overrun, he said, yet many people still deny the severity of the problem and maintain that it’s fake news, a conspiracy, or hoax.

“To me that’s total denial of reality,” Fauci said, stating that “there’s no easy answer” in getting around it other than to “continue to be very transparent” and clear in countering it, while trying to get “an overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated” amidst the craziness. Asked about the recent discoveries of coronavirus mutations, he said that people should understand that “RNA viruses continually mutate…but we have to keep an eye on it because every once in a while there’s a substantial change and effect.”

He added that the new mutations don’t appear to be more virulent or resistant to the vaccines, though the U.K. variant does seem to be more efficient in its spread.

As for spreading the virus in the APAP community, Fauci stressed that people don’t always know if they’re completely protected.

“If you’re on stage and everyone’s vaccinated, chances are very low that you’ll get it,” he said. “But when you’re in society and in a crowd you still need to wear a mask.”

“It’s no big deal walking around like this,” Fauci said as he donned a white mask. “People in Asia do it all the time. We’re getting used to it now, but maybe we should pay more attention to washing our hands more frequently.”

He spoke of the likelihood of infecting others if one unknowingly has the virus while not having symptoms—and doesn’t take the necessary steps to avoid spreading it. Recognizing that the performing arts have been particularly devastated and professionals are ready to return to work, Fauci looked to the fall of 2021 for achieving “enough herd immunity”—depending on 70-85 percent of the population having been vaccinated–for people to safely perform on stage or sit in an audience.

Assessing the relative danger between attending live performances and going to restaurants, gyms and religious gatherings, Fauci suggested that the performing arts trade take guidance from Germany in studying theater ventilation, especially the employment of industrial-sized air filters in maintaining clean air flow. But he cautioned against comparing the U.S. to other countries where infection levels are much lower: With over 4,000 coronavirus deaths a day, he said it doesn’t matter what you do since the risk is so great.

Here Fauci returned to the basics of wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and vaccinating in order to “get the level of community spread as low as we possibly can.” He foresaw wide future availability of 10-minute Covid tests that if passed, could be used in permitting theater entrance. He also touched on the implications of tour routing, such that for a New York artist, for example, touring to Tulsa (“red-hot with infection”) would be less likely than Philadelphia, where the infection rate might be really low.

Noting that revered sports heroes like Steph Curry and Magic Johnson have been enormously helpful in heightening coronavirus awareness, Fauci felt that top performing artists could likewise influence followers.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda could get vaccinated in front of everybody and show people not to be so skeptical [of vaccinations],” he said, adding that theaters could also be used as vaccination locations. And proof of vaccination could also be required for admission to theatrical events.

Questioned whether international artists should be blocked from entering the U.S., Fauci felt that it was far more likely that they’d be wary of coming here, what with 300,000 new infections daily. He also noted that outdoor venues are far safer than indoors, thanks to natural breezes blowing away deleterious respiratory particles.

“We’re suffering Covid fatigue in this country,” Fauci concluded, citing Jan. 21 as the one-year anniversary of the first Covid case recognized in America.

“Don’t give up!” he implored, promising that help is on the way in the form of vaccines while urging all to continue implementing the “public health measures we know work. We will get back to normal. It will happen!”

And when it does, Knighton told Fauci, “we’ll be looking for you in our audiences!”

Interest in Fauci’s appearance was clearly high, as seen from steady attendee questions submitted in the online screen margin. And Fauci earned a big laugh when he admitted anxiousness over being asked to make a “pronouncement,” as it inevitably turns into a soundbite.

“Everything leaks out!” he acknowledged.

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.

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.

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


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.


“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.

Ken Burns, the Memorial 101, and the other Alison Krauss

I met Ken Burns in Central Park at a kickoff event for his 2009 The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, which included performances from Jose Feliciano, whom I was so excited to meet, and my friends Alison Krauss & Union Station. Peter Coyote, the series narrator, was there, too, and it was great to meet him: I was a huge fan of A Grande Arte (US title: Exposure), a 1991 Brazilian film directed by Walter Salles Jr. in which he learned knife-fighting; I was training in Filipino martial arts, and knew that its knife fight-training and fighting scenes were unusually realistic.

Peter was impressed that I knew the film, which to my knowledge never came out on DVD—despite my efforts to convince Criterion and other companies to do so. He said it was one of his favorites, too.

But Peter is also the voice of Ken’s 18-hour The Vietnam War series, which concluded it’s two-week premiere run two weeks ago on PBS. I watched it with a dread shared probably by everyone of my generation, knowing that if I hadn’t lost it by the time it got to Kent State, I surely would then. Sure enough, my eyes moistened and dripped during the eighth of the 10 episodes when the indelible scenes of the May 4, 1970 Kent State killings were replayed. It brought back the never-forgotten memories of my moist and dripping eyes after being smothered by clouds of tear gas on the University of Wisconsin campus during the Vietnam War protest years.

I’ll never forget running up the parking ramp next to the McDonald’s at State and Lake Streets just a couple blocks from State and Park at the foot of Bascom Hill after a canister of gas was tossed or fired in my direction by the National Guard. I ran all the way up to the top of the ramp, only to realize, to my breathless horror, that there was no stairway*, and that I had to run back down, now into the clouds of gas that were billowing upwards and out into the ramp.

But I had it worse one night when a can of pepper gas exploded right in front of me and into my eyes. I was a bit lower on State Street, and I knew that the Hillel Foundation a block north on Langdon was a treatment center. I got there somehow and they flushed it out of my eyes and I was back out on the street. Like every other night of the many nights of Vietnam War protests on campus, I’d get home after and shower the gas out of my long hair and back into my eyes before rinsing it all out.

Once the gas came, the massive demonstrations, which would start in twilight and center at State and Park, would break up in all directions.

One time I was in a big group walking up Bascom Hill into the heart of the university. It got dark and there were police everywhere, and a National Guard helicopter overhead with a searchlight beaming down on small groups of demonstrators and lighting the way for arrests and/or police brutality. I hid in the bushes on the shores of Lake Mendota hoping to not get spotted. We called it “bringing the War back home.”

The Vietnam War brought it all back home, all right, including, of course, the music. Much of the soundtrack was ‘60s anthems, many of them war-related, like famous Dylan, Baez and Beatles songs. The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was used, and it was one of the songs that blared out of dormitory windows as we marched by—even though the words are really about the lack of street-fighting men in “sleepy London town.”

The other song I remember blasting out of the dorms made perfect sense, and should have been in The Vietnam War: Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America”:

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul.

Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.

Many years later, downstairs at Radio City at a reception after a Jefferson Starship show, I told this to Grace Slick. She laughed and said she’d heard that from a lot of people.

Over the years I got to meet and sometimes know a lot of the artists whose songs were part of the Vietnam War soundtrack, most notably including Dylan, Baez, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. CSN&Y, of course, consecrated Kent State with their hit “Ohio.”

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Add songs from the aforementioned artists and talk about “the soundtrack of our lives.”

I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, for protesting the Kent State killings, along with 100 others. An underground paper called us “The Memorial 101.” I celebrated by getting tear gassed again downtown on campus that night.

There are four images indelible in my mind from Vietnam and I knew I’d see all of them in The Vietnam War.

First was the South Vietnames officer holding the pistol to the head of the Vietcong guy in Saigon and blowing his brains out.

Second was the little naked girl with her back burned off running down the road.

Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.

Fourth was the teenage girl, 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of the student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, crying out in shock and anguish.

The dead boy was Jeffrey Miller. Killed, too, were Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause. Like I always say, “the other Alison Krauss.”

Four dead in Ohio.

I remember their names like I remember James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—the three civl rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964, and Viola Liuzzo, whose son I met in July in Milwauke at an Elvis Costello concert, she being the civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan in Alabama in 1965. And now Heather Heyer.

A year earlier—the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1969—I was at St. Paul’s University Catholic Church, on State near Park and Bascom Hill, for a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom I would later get to know. In fact, it was at Mary Travers’ memorial in 2009 where I met George McGovern, as great a man who ever served his country.

I had gone to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where McGovern was nominated, disastrously. Can’t remember the name of the park where all us demonstrators gathered and crashed, though one night I wound up in some cool place in Coconut Grove. At the park I hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Abbie Hoffman and Germaine Greer. And I went to a screening of the documentary F.T.A. starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who were there) and the musicians and performers who accompanied them on their touring satirical revue staged at coffeehouse and parks near U.S. Army bases where soldiers against the war congregated–F.T.A. generally understood to mean “Fuck the Army,” or as was also stated in the film, “Free the Army.”

It was a wonderful film that was apparently yanked out of distribution immediately because Jane infamously went to Hanoi the same week it opened. I saw it again a few years ago when it came out on DVD and it really was great. It also starred folksinger Holly Near—whom I later got to know—and Len Chandler, the historic African-American folk/protest singer-songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene who influenced Dylan–and who I wish I’d gotten to know. He did an antiwar song in the film that I’ve searched all over for and can’t find, called “My Ass is Mine.” It went, as musicians often say, something like this:

First they draft your ass
Then they train your ass
Then they kick your ass
And then they kill your ass
Well they can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass.

I got drafted in 1971. They were using a lottery system and my birthday drew a low number, 100, I think, or maybe it was 90. I’d originally been given a 1-Y classification, meaning I was qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But I still had to get on a bus one morning with other draftees and ride to Milwaukee and take a physical exam. About all I remember is the shit box lunch they gave us and stooping down around in our underwear and doing the “duck walk.”

I was pretty confident of being disqualified for good, due to very real mental illness–not to mention bad asthma and feet flatter than a Vietnamese rice paddy. Sure enough, I was given the coveted 4-F classification–not acceptable for military service. Years later I was burning a big one with Ray Benson, the great frontman of the great western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He suggested someone write a book about how famous people got out of going to Vietnam. I don’t remember how Ray got out, but I did have a high school friend who put a bullet in his foot claiming it was a hunting accident—which was epidemic at the time among draftees—and another who passed his physical, then told the draft board that he was gay, which he wasn’t. They punched him hard in the jaw and told him to get the fuck out of there.

Had I not got my 4-F I would have applied for conscientious objector status, though if I told the truth that I was atheist I might have been denied. So I would have gone to Canada, or jail, or Australia: I’d actually researched Australia at one time as they advertised for migrants in the classified ad section of The New Republic, then a genuinely liberal magazine, and I had a fondness for kangaroos and The Easybeats.

But I can’t remember if it was after all this or before, when I either saw Jane Fonda again or for the first time. But either way, it was pretty pathetic.

She was speaking on campus at some big, packed lecture hall just off State Street. At the end she took questions, and I desperately wanted to ask her something, just to have a personal exchange. I meekly raised my hand, stood up and started asking, and halfway forgot who I was and where I was and what I was doing, let alone whatever it was I was trying to ask. She was so beautiful, still in the Klute gamin haircut, and I was so starstruck. But she was so good: She knew what I was trying to ask, finished my question and answered it.

But it only got worse. I couldn’t control myself, and trailed her and a handful of other activists all the way down State Street to the State Capitol, where they met with a representative or two who were also antiwar. I don’t think I said a word the whole time.

So I had to laugh out loud when John Musgrave, a Marine and maybe the most eloquent and thoughtful Vietnam veteran appearing in The Vietnam War, acknowledged how Jane Fonda was everyone’s fantasy, so much so that he hated her when she went to Hanoi and became “Hanoi Jane.” But after stating this, Musgrave, who eventually turned against the war himself after returning to the States, paused and smiled, in spite of himself: “She was our fantasy,” he said, and even now, 50 years later, she still is.

A number of other Vietnam War vets, family members and other functionaries participated in The Vietnam War, and while most of them likewise looked back with some degree of regret if not shame, a few also stood out. These included Carol Crocker, who also turned against the war after losing her older brother Denton W. Crocker, Jr., known now forever to me and probably everyone who watched as “Mogie.”

While Mogie and John Musgrave were fighting the War in Vietnam, I and so many others in Madison and the rest of the country were fighting against it. But it was marred in Madison by the Aug. 24, 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing, which was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center that was housed in the UW building, but unintentionally took the life of university physics researcher Robert Fassnacht—whose name I still remember.

I still remember the names of the four bombers, too—Karleton Armstrong and younger brother Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. I met the Armstrongs after they were caught and released from prison, and met David Fine after he was caught and sentenced, and trained briefly at the taekwondo school I attended before beginning his prison term. Leo Burt was never apprehended.

I was surprised, many years later, that Ethan Coen knew the names of all the bombers, who called themselves “the New Year’s Gang,” having failed in an attempt to destroy the huge Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk County by means of dropping homemade explosives from a stolen small plane on New Year’s Eve, 1969. But the Coens were from Minneapolis and no doubt went through the same shit as I did growing up, and had also lived briefly in Madison when their dad taught a semester at the UW. Their lesser-known 2009 movie masterpiece A Serious Man, while not concerning Vietnam specifically, delivers much of the flavor of being a kid growing up in the ’60s in the Midwest, using Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I knew by heart, for much of the soundtrack.

As for growing up with the War, this was documented in The War at Home, a documentary film of the Vietnam War years in Madison. And it all came back home to me while watching The Vietnam War. Then again, it never really left.

As Phil Gioia, U.S. Army, put it so well in The Vietnam War: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had probably never been polarized since before The Civil War and unfortunately we’ve never really moved far away from that and we never recovered.”

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines, the last line, in fact, of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in reference to The Civil War, which had destroyed his family and turned him into an understandably vengeful but not unjust outlaw: “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

Newly RockHall-nominated Zombies to tour ‘Odessey and Oracle’ next year

Turns out The Zombiesnomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t the only news relating to the historic British Invasion group to be announced this week.

Now comes word of a North American Zombies tour next spring–to continue to England and Europe later in the year–to include the final full-album performances of Odessey and Oracle reuniting all four surviving members of the group: lead vocalist Colin Blunstone, keyboardist/vocalist Rod Argent, bassist/vocalist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy (original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004).

Also next year—in March—comes publication of a lavish, LP-sized coffee-table book, featuring lyrics for the Odessey and Oracle songs and many of their other classics, all handwritten by the songwriters and accompanied by original artwork from Terry Quirk, creator of the famous Odessey and Oracle album cover, and Vivienne Boucherat, who has conceived individual illustrations for each of its songs. Text will additionally include Zombies’ anecdotes behind the songs and their recording.

Released in 1968–ironically after the group had disbanded—Odessey and Oracle yielded The Zombies’ landmark hit, “Time of the Season,” the following year. It’s been widely acknowledged since then as a pop album masterpiece, with “Time of the Season” being used in numerous films and TV shows.

Blunstone and Argent, who enjoyed successful solo careers following the original Zombies demise, reunited in 1998 and then revived The Zombies name in 2004. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle, the four surviving original Zombies performed three concerts at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in March, 2008.

Last year White and Grundy again joined their former bandmates for select performances of the album in the U.S., in which The Zombies current lineup–bassist Jim Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey and Steve Rodford (Jim’s son) on drums–also played. Those shows furthered the band’s remarkable resurgence as a major concert draw more than 50 years after they first hit big with “She’s Not There”—their 1964 single inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame just last year.

As many reviewers have noted, The Zombies today have somehow never sounded better.