The last day of the year

The Friday before Christmas is pretty much it, at least as far as I remember of the music business. Record companies probably start shutting down a week earlier, maybe Billboard, too, which ends the year a week early with a double issue and likewise takes the last week of the year off. Or it used to, at least.

Then again, the music business seems so long ago to me, yet here I was, the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 20), being let into the PlayStation Theater and given as good a seat as they have, almost like I was still a genuine (pronounced jen-yew-WINE) music bizzer, which really, I haven’t been in some 15 years.

Three nights earlier I’d walked past the PlayStation (near the corner of Broadway on 45th Street–1515 Broadway, the tower housing MTV, and years ago, Billboard) on my way to the Impeachment Eve March, which started at 6:30 in Times Square. My pal Tony was outside doing security, as always, and I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I stopped and said hi.

I used to see Tony all the time when we were both members of the West Side YMCA, where I’d been a member since I moved to New York in 1981 or ‘82 (I can never remember which year exactly, and I’m too lazy to do the math, but it was the day after Christmas, and I was able to get a great ticket to Elvis Costello–with NRBQ opening–on New Year’s Eve at The Palladium.

(Now begins a typically pointless four-paragraph digression. You can keep reading, or scroll down to get back on track.)

I’d been a member of the Y since I was in high school in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the few habits I’d picked up from my father–and likely the only good one. I belonged to Madison’s West Side Y in high school, which was new then, and near James Madison Memorial High School, which I attended, at the city’s edge when it opened in 1968, I think. Later, when I lived downtown and worked at the State, I joined the Downtown Y that my father went to, a block up from the State Capitol building on West Washington Ave.

My father was a federal bankruptcy judge, and a lot of the Downtown Y membership was likewise lawyers and state, city and county civil servants. I lived a couple blocks on the other side of the Capitol and worked at the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson St. a couple blocks South overlooking Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down while I was still in high school.

But it was three or four years later now, maybe five, and I had very few high school friends left. One day I happened on one of them, Tory, now working at the Downtown Y, at the membership desk, handing out towels. I didn’t really have a lot of friends in high school, and while I always liked Tory–who was a bit of a character, as I recall–I didn’t know her that well, but I was soon going over to her and her husband’s place for dinner and dope. Then a year or two after moving here, I heard that she was a whole lot smarter than her job might have suggested: She somehow rose to a more powerful position of influence at the Y and got them to commit to building a new modern facility, as the current one was probably as old as the capitol itself. So they tore it down, then found out that Tory was either the ultimate scammer or totally insane and had made everything up—and understandably disappeared, leaving nothing but a deep hole in the ground where a venerable Y used to stand, not to mention that West Side Y, where I used to play paddle ball with my friend Greg, before he moved on to the newer sport of racquet ball.

Greg was quite good, by the way. Me? I went for a shot deep against the right sidewall, missed it, but in a most remarkable feat of uncoordination–and/or a very lame early suicide attempt–sliced open my left eyebrow in the follow-through and needed stitches. Greg eventually went on to hang himself (see preceding post, Three nights in L.A.).

Returning to the present, it was a great march. I took a lot of fab Instagram/Facebook/Twitter pics, and then the next day for some reason—maybe an email or Facebook notice—I saw that Samantha Fish was playing Friday night at the PlayStation, a 10-minute walk from my apartment.

I’d never seen Samantha, but I knew of her through my Madison pal Rockin’ John McDonald, who plays her now and then on his venerable I Like It Like That oldies show on listener-sponsored station WORTFM.org, since she’s one of the few contemporary artists who fits his 1950s/’60s rock ‘n’ roll format. But at this late state of my so-called career, there was no one I could call for a ticket or a pass. I mean, shit, I didn’t even know what label she was on.

Then I thought of Tony and figured he’d be happy to slide me in, and sure enough, he was. When I got to the venue we talked a bit about how bad everything is, namely the music and concert business, since there was nothing to bring me to the PlayStation in years, and Tony himself didn’t care about the music there–also the fact that the theater had been bought out and was shutting down at the end of the month, to be overhauled before reopening under new name and management and leaving him without a job.

And, of course, Trump. Tony was extremely depressed over the prospects of impeachment and the election. But he was happy to walk me in, handing me a ticket and wristband, and it was a great seat–in the best section in the house (first row, center aisle in the elevated section overlooking the floor). It was 7:10, so I had 50 minutes to kill before the opening act.

Now at my age and condition, I don’t want to waste any time, which I was about to do. But I’d come prepared, as always: two pens—one fountain, one ballpoint—and a fresh Portage Pocket Notebook (“for journalists, radio/TV reporters and law enforcement officers). The only thing I didn’t bring was any idea to write about, and my usually wandering mind was stuck on start.

But I was unusually filled with Christmas cheer. I’d had lunch earlier with two friends from the Russian News Agency TASS—Igor Borisenko, the current bureau chief, and Elya Polyakova, office manager.

Elya! Say it loud and there’s music playing….

Actually, it’s kind of a nickname for Elvira, which would be closer to “Maria” in West Side Story–the “i” pronounced “ee” as in “deer” I believe, but I’ve never heard her called that. Russian names generally have different forms according to relationships, as I’d learned after many years of friendship with New York and Moscow TASS staffers (Vladimir, for another example, can become Volodya, or Vova).

Back in the Soviet era I was actually under FBI surveillance (probably still am) but I’ve already digressed too much here to digress even further in recounting it now. I will say, though, that it had been a long time since I’d had lunch with TASS friends, let alone seen them at the end of the year, when years ago they’d have great office Christmas parties attended by the Consul General and head of New York’s Russian Orthodox Church, other Russian dignitaries and foreign press friends, not to mention Nina Khruscheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter (!), noted author and professor of international affairs here at The New School. At the party, my dearest friend Volodiya Kikilo would always ceremoniously present me with a big, gift-wrapped bottle of premium vodka (I’d bring a big box of Bisco Latte biscotti, made by my neighborhood friend and baker supreme Holly DeSantis).

I’d return to the bureau on New Year’s Eve Day afternoon to listen to the Kremlin Countdown. So it was great to reinstitute my TASS holiday tradition, and Igor came through with a big bottle of Russian Standard.

So as I sat there at PlayStation, still a bit lit from lunch, I began to write down what I remembered from it, then jumping to other meandering thoughts, switching between pens depending on the need for speed (the fountain pen flows faster, but if I slow down I’ll switch to a rollerball or ballpoint, since I can’t retract the fountain pen nib and don’t want to keep capping it to keep it from drying, and clip it to my shirt pocket).

One thought that entered my mind, though, was, When was the last time I was at PlayStation? I wasn’t even sure I was at a show when it was called the PlayStation! I bet I hadn’t been at the 2,100-seat theater since it was called the Best Buy Theater before changing ownership and name in 2015.

I did remember seeing Elvis Costello there once long ago–which was unforgettable—or maybe it was the maybe more recent big Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star–but all I remember of that show was smoking a joint backstage with star Deadhead Bill Walton, which was great, for sure.

And suddenly it was 8 o’clock. Tony said he’d seen the opening act, Nicholas David, during soundcheck, and that he was excellent. Tony was right. Nicholas David, from St. Paul, looked like a young Dr. John, played and sang like one (though I was later told he’d never heard of Dr. John when he started approximating him) while leading a crack bassist and drummer—who was from Omaha, where we used to pass through on our way from Madison to Lincoln to visit my mom’s family when I was a kid. Of course he was way too young to know the most important cultural reference to Omaha…no! Not Peyton Manning’s famous “indicator word” for calling an audible at the line of scrimmage, but Moby Grape’s classic flop single “Omaha.”

Unbeknownst to me, David had been a finalist on the third season of The Voice, and was now the second artist I’d seen in two weeks that I hadn’t heard of that blew me the fuck away, the first being Shinyribs, the ultra-hot Austin show band that opened for Robert Earl Keen’s Christmas show at Town Hall. Switching between fountain pen (a trusty Lamy black Safari with black fine nib) and ballpoint (Retro 51 Elephant & Rhino Rescue, Series I) as David did a very soulful “Joy to the World,” I thought of St. Paul’s twin sister city Minneapolis, and the three great bands I knew from there: Sussman Lawrence, which turned into the Peter Himmelman Band; The Suburbs (the band, I always say, that died so that The Replacements could live) and The Wallets. David slid from ballads (great job on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) to funky originals, and when he was done, I headed out to his merch table to meet him and maybe impress him by dropping these names.

More likely, he’d look at me like the old geezer I am, since he had to be way too young to have even heard of these bands. But the Suburbs’ keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Chan Poling is still quite active doing all kinds of things—including the occasional ‘Burbs reunion gig and album release, while Jeff Victor, Sussman Lawrence/Himmelman Band’s genius keyboardist, is famous locally as the NBA house organist for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and guest organist for the Minnesota Twins, also among other things. As for The Wallets, they only had two albums, and their most brilliant founder Steve Kramer, a wonderful painter and accordionist who composed experimental polka music, died in 2013. Their fabulous 1986 album Take It was produced by Allen Toussaint, and whenever I saw Allen I’d stop him dead in his tracks by reminding him it was my favorite album of his, and was pleased I even knew it existed.

But before I could get to David’s merch set-up I got waylaid at Samantha’s by Rounder Records’ Regina Joskow, a longtime publicist friend, though I’m so out of it now I didn’t know that Samantha was on Rounder, let alone had a new record out.

Regina was with Sam’s manager Reuben Williams, who brought us both back to say hi to her before going on. When I told him I’d got hip to her through Rockin’ John in Madison, he revealed that he was friends with my junior high school buddy and future blues harmonica ace Westside Andy Linderman.

“Let me take your name down,” I said to Reuben, wanting to have it handy next time I saw Andy during a Madison visit. Reuben laughed heartily and turned to the guy in the dressing room next to him and said, ‘Look, Howie! He’s taking my name down!” I only knew what came next would be embarrassing at the very least.

Sure enough, the guy, who looked a bit like a very young Al Wolovitch of Sussman Lawrence (bassist), started laughing, then introduced himself.

“I’m Howie Schnee! We’ve met many times—and you never remember!”

I was mightily embarrassed, indeed, and profusely apologetic.

“Then you know me!” I said. “I always forget even who I am—and I get this all the time.”

Howie kept laughing.

“It’s okay!” he said, explaining that I’d told him all this before, and had subitted the surefire “I smoke a lot of pot!” as an excuse. He even remembered meeting me at a songwriters “In Their Own Words” show at The Bottom Line, starring Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega and Victoria Williams, which I vaguely remembered myself—the show, that is, in 1994.

We said hi to Samantha, who’s from Kansas City but based in New Orleans—where she’d brought Nicholas David down to produce his own fab new album Yesterday’s Gone (on her Wild Heart Records label), then Reuben and I talked about Louisiana Cajun artists we both knew before he slipped me an “All Access” pass and I headed back to my seat by way of David’s merch table. This time he was there, and actually knew who Chan Poling was: One for three is not bad anymore, for an old man.

Speaking of old men, the only criticism I have of Samantha’s set, which was otherwise so much more than all I had hoped for, was that it was way too loud for a guy who has to have the TV on all night to drown out his tinnitus—maybe even as loud as John Fogerty, who I can never understand why he pushes it up so high. I used to always bring earplugs but I go to rock shows so rarely now, and those I go to are by artists pretty much as old and hearing-impaired as I am, so I no longer know where they are. Luckily I had an old Dunkin’ Donuts napkin decomposing in my jacket pocket—actually in better condition than the jacket—and managed to find just enough of it that was still solid enough to stuff into my ears.

“How are we doing, PlayStation Theater?” Samantha asked after “Bulletproof,” the down-and-dirty fuzz-toned lead track from her new, wonderfully titled album Kill or Be Kind. We were doing fine, I said to myself. Near-dead PlayStation Theater, not so much. But I did feel a little bad for her, since my seat was elevated just enough to look down on the floor, where I could see all the bald male heads except, fortunately, my own. I remembered the last time I saw Maria McKee in New York, at Joe’s Pub, many years ago, and she complained that her audience was always mostly middle-aged men—except it had to be worse for Samantha, because she’s only 30 and us then-middle agers were pretty much Maria’s contemporaries. And now that we’re all at least twice Sam’s age, we were all pretty sedate for such a high-energy show.

“We’re in some tough times,” said Samantha, as my balled-up Dunkin’ Donuts napkin plugs decomposed some more, though at a slower rate than me and my fellow baldies. “But live music makes it a bit better–at least for me.” As Rockin’ John always says after announcing the local club gigs in the middle of his two-hour show, “Go out and support your favorite bands. They’ll appreciate it—and you’ll feel good about it.”

Samantha was leading into an older, ironically titled song, “American Dream”:

Blood on a street, it’s another new day
Lost count of how many died, at least I’m doing it my way
You’re the liberated, you are the free
Free to cry and die disenfranchised, blessed as a country.”

After the encore I peeled off the backing of my All Access pass and went back to Samantha’s dressing room where Howie (See, Howie? I remember your name!) wondered about her name, i.e., its nationality, its ethnicity, since, he said, “a lot of Jews are named Fish,” or some variant with “Fish” in it.

“There are a lot of Fishes,” she said. But only one big one, I thought to myself–and kept it there.

I slobbered a bit and said goodbye, went home, broke open that big new bottle of Russian Standard and poured a stiff shot into my metal Robert Earl Keen “The Road Goes on Forever” shot glass and drank myself into a stupor so deep I didn’t need the TV on.

To execute for treason

I wish tv political cable pundints—and I always say “pundints” out of tribute to Sarah Palin—would ask what is for me the obvious question.

Then again, I agree that not everyone agrees with me on what is obvious, let alone a question.

Take treason, for a current example. Indeed, Trump Sunday, via his beloved Twitter, suggested that “Nervous Nancy” Pelosi is “every bit as guilty as Liddle’ Adam Schiff for High Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even Treason.” You’ll recall that Trump proclaimed on Twitter a week ago (Sept. 29) that Schiff falsely described his phone call with the president of Ukraine, then likewise advised, “Arrest for Treason?”

So on Sept. 30 I myself tweeted/facebooked the following: “Question I wish they’d ask #LindseyGraham, #KevinMcCarthy, etc.: Do you agree with #Trump that #AdamSchiff should be executed?”

This was based on The Los Angeles Times report that at a private breakfast in New York on Sept. 24, Trump proclaimed that whoever informed the infamous whistleblower about the phone call was “almost a spy,” then added, “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

Most everyone, most definitely including me, read “handling it a little differently than we do now” as meaning execution for the capital crime of treason, as in the Rosenbergs.

But sure enough, one of my very few Trumpster Facebook friends—and like most of my Facebook friends, I have no idea who he is—immediately called me on it.

“He never said that,” was Trumpster Friend’s response.

I quickly looked it up and no, I didn’t find where he said those words, those exact words, that is, that Schiff should be “executed.” But as noted, treason being a capital crime, I think you can naturally and correctly infer that that’s what Trump meant: After all, this is the same abomination who took out full-page ads in all of New York’s major newspapers demanding the return of the death penalty following the arrests of the African-American and Hispanic-American teens then only accused of beating and raping a jogger in what became known as the Central Park Five case–though in fairness, he never stated outright that they be executed.

I came close to arguing with my Trumpster Facebook friend with the following counter: You’re right . He never said “execute,” just as I never said, “Yes, I most certainly did say that raindrops are falling from the sky on my head after lightning and loud thunderclaps, but I did not say, ‘It is raining.'” But now I’m already wasting time–something I’m dead set against doing on Facebook–and would have to invest more time to make absolutely sure my analogy was airtight.

But I wondered, too, if maybe this guy had seen another post of mine, where I myself accused Trump and his GOP henchmen of treason (I don’t remember for what, precisely, but it could have been any number of things). And for his sake and to save time, I’ll ask myself the same question I would put to Lindsay, etc, etc.

Do I agree that Trump should be executed for treason?

My answer: No. I remain against capital punishment. But I think that life in prison, in a cell block with Mexican rapists, murderers and drug dealers, would be suitable retribution for Trump’s treason–with absolutely no access to Twitter.

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.”

‘Thank you, Citizen’: Adam West and Barack Obama

Adam West’s death hit me harder than most, and I’m glad to see I was hardly alone. Indeed, even Nick Lowe raised a glass to West halfway through his Saturday night show at City Winery, and after the show gave me a few thoughts for the appreciation piece I put up yesterday at Centerline.news.

I’m not sure why—maybe because there’s always something to do with Batman going on—but I think of West not infrequently. His Batman portrayal truly was brilliant, what with his sober, deadpanned phrasing and seriousness in the most hysterically ridiculous comic book plots imaginable. But as Conan O’Brien stated, “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television. He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”

What West accomplished with Batman could only work, though, because it was so pure: West’s Batman really did believe in the basic goodness of people—and fickle as they always were, they never let him down, even in a two-part episode from Batman‘s second season–“Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizonner the Penguin”—when he ran for mayor of Gotham City against The Penguin. As Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post just after the election last year, it had obvious parallels with the presidential campaign in that a dastardly villain used his celebrity and devious wiles to nearly steal an election from a qualified candidate, though in real life, sadly, he actually did.

But at least in the TV world of Batman, the good people of Gotham City came through in the end, justifying Batman’s faith in them. Going through old videos of Batman after West died, I came across a wonderful YouTube compilation, “The Complete Batman Guest Star Window Cameos,” in which Batman invariable addresses such celebs as Dick Clark and Sammy Davis, Jr., with utmost respect, as “Citizen.”

The citizen title was equally significant for President Barack Obama, and like West’s Batman, and in the face of unrelenting criticism if not outright hostility, he never lost his cool, and in his case, sense of humor. But Obama, also like West’s Batman, also never lost his unfailing positivism–for lack of a better word to denote his total lack of cynicism and unyielding trust in the goodness—and vital importance to society—of the average citizen.

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy, to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said in his farewell address as president. It was a return to a theme I heard him evoke several times in promising that he wasn’t going away, but proudly taking on a new office, i.e., the office of citizen.

“Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”

Record Store Days of yore


Chris Osborne’s “Robert Johnson and the Blue Terraplane,” inspired by his classic “Terraplane Blues”

It’s Record Store Day.

A couple months after I came to New York from Madison Wisconsin in 1982 I got a job at the long defunct record trade magazine Cash Box, as retail editor. Not that I knew shit about record retail, though I did spend much of my time in high school and after at record stores.

Had they been pool halls, of course, it would have been a sign of a misspent youth, as my old man used to say. But I’d done that back in junior high, sweeping the carpets of cigarette butts and cleaning transparent scoring sheets at the Hilldale Bowl in order to gain free time at the pool tables–not that I got any good.

My record store time, though, did me well when it came to the record business, not so much in preparing me for the Cash Box gig but in gaining a knowledge of musicians, songwriters and producers, all gleaned from the back cover of long-play albums, or LPs, as they were called—later to be referred to as “black vinyl albums” after cassettes and then compact discs replaced them as the leading physical music product configuration.

There were three Madison record stores I hung out at. During junior high it was Victor’s Music in the Hilldale Shopping Center, where they had listening booths for you to sample records before purchase—not uncommon in those days. I think they also had the weekly Top Singles list from Madison’s Top 40 AM station WISM (always spoken as a word to rhyme with “jism”) there, too, but those might have been stacked a few stores down at Woolworth’s, where they definitely had the weekly chart lists from Chicago’s powerhouse Top 40 station WLS.

I vividly remember going down to Victor’s the day of Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ new releases, especially the latter’s two-sided 1967 single “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend the Night Together” the day after they did it on Ed Sullivan. But whenever I went downtown to the University of Wisconsin campus I’d hang out at either Discount Records or Lake Street Station.

Discount Records, on State Street very near the university, especially stands out in my fading memory because my friend Chris Osborne worked the counter. I think she was already in New York by the time I got here, and in the ’90s she managed the Jazz & Blues department at the Tower Records Lincoln Center outlet. I don’t know if I knew in Madison that Chris was also a painter—not to mention as rabid an Ashford & Simpson fan as I was. But I took her with me to see A&S at least once at Westbury, and I know she painted a fab portrait of Nick and Val, I think alongside a classic car, as she frequently combines music legends and legendary cars in her portraits (among her awards is the Classic Car Club of America 2003 Fine Art Award of Excellence).

Lake Street Station used to be near Discount, at State and Lake, if I remember right, during the Vietnam War demonstration days, then moved a few blocks down from Discount on State Street. It was at the first location where I spent hours reading album jackets, and at the second one, after I’d begun writing for The Madcity Music Sheet, where what remains the coolest bit of merchandising by a record store that I can remember took place.

It was the release day of Elvis Costello’s second album This Year’s Model, and Elvis was a major mission for me and the Sheet. Indeed, we put out our first and only special issue in advance of his second Madcity tour stop—at the Orpheum Theater, a few more blocks down State Street near the State Capitol, with Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille, in 1978. Again, if memory serves well, Lake Street Station was mid-block, and from the corners at both ends were cut-outs of Elvis’s famous pigeon-toed portrait from the cover of first album My Aim is True, taped to the sidewalk and interspersed with red arrows pointing the way inside the store.

Funny, but as I write this, I’m looking at the Star Power On CBS Records and Tapes nail-clipping kit that the label’s college rep gave us at the press party promoting This Year’s Model‘s release along with the new albums from Eddie Money and Billy Joel. I’ll never forget telling her how excited I was that they included Elvis, though like I said, we were huge backers at the Sheet. “But a new Billy Joel album is an event,” the CBS gal said—my cue to leave.

By the way, I love Lake Street Dive, but I always have to look up their name since I’m always stuck at Lake Street Station.

Anyway, I got to New York and got the retail editor job at Cash Box and learned that Discount Records was owned by the biggest music retail chain Musicland, and was sent to cover the conventions of the next biggest chains, Record Bar and Camelot Music—each 100-plus strong at the time (Musicland had over 400). Record Bar was great because it was essentially run by hippies and based in Durham, N.C., which was beautiful and near Chapel Hill. Based in North Canton, Ohio, Camelot’s conventions were marked by major label-supplied entertainment each night: I remember seeing John Waite there, with a rhythm section of ex-Patti Smith/Iggy Pop bassist Ivan Kral and the late Frankie LaRocka, whom I had met in Madison when he was with David Johansen and who later became a dear friend, on drums; in fact, Frankie, when he was an A&R guy at Epic (where he signed Spin Doctors), let me write the liner notes to the great The David Johansen Group Live CD release of 1993 (it had been a promo-only LP when it was first released in 1978, when Frankie was in David’s band).

But Roy Clark’s show one year at Camelot was truly unforgettable. He had a terrible cold and could only croak out his songs, but it didn’t stop him from performing and having a great time—and giving his audience a show to cherish. And I still have my trophy for being on the golf team that finished second in the 1983 Maxell Camelot Tourney.

After beginning a 20-plus year stint at Billboard in the mid-’80s, I was sent one year to cover the convention for New England’s 81-store Strawberries Records & Tapes chain, which was owned by the notorious mob associate Morris Levy. But “Moishe,” who also owned Roulette Records (hit artists included Tommy James, Lou Christie and Joey Dee and the Starliters) and had owned the famed jazz club Birdland (his older brother and partner was stabbed to death there in 1959), had been charged in a highly publicized organized crime extortion case (all of this documented in the best-selling music business book expose Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business) and wasn’t at the convention.

Moishe, by the way, was convicted, but died before he could go to prison. I never met him, but I did interview him on the phone once during the trial. And I knew his son Adam, who used to hang out at Cash Box. His dad named another label after him–Adamm VIII Limited, which released an unauthorized version of John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album (theirs was titled Roots) after Levy had sued Lennon for copyright infringement over lyrics to “Come Together” that Lennon had lifted from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” Levy having owned the song’s publishing.

But back to the Strawberries convention. Not only did the most extraordinary Maria McKee perform there, but so did a girl group, the Bristols, that featured three gals who worked at the chain. I figured they’d be okay at best, but they were downright terrific—and understandably major players in Boston’s late ’80s rock scene.

As for New York’s record stores, Sam Goody’s was still big when I got here. I’ll never forget when Tower Records opened its first store in New York—its Greenwich Village flagship superstore at 4th and Broadway. I was hanging out with Ben Karol, who with partner Phil King owned the small but significant King Karol stores. I was drinking heavy and chowing down on vegetarian tamales when Ben, stunned, reverently observed, “Even old man Goody is here.”

Ben Karol was the biggest trip of all for me in record retail. I wouldn’t say he was ornery, but he was usually grumpy. He and Phil had owned a coffee shop at LaGuardia—again, if I remember right—and he was one of many old school record retailers who started out selling records out of the trunks of their cars.

I loved calling Ben regularly when researching retailer surveys, especially when the major labels raised their prices. Every retailer would moan and groan and angrily gripe over how price increases would cripple their business—except Ben. He’d always refuse to criticize the labels thusly: “I don’t know how much they need to break even.”

I used to pop in on Ben now and then on the second floor of his main store on 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. One time he had a few stacks of CDs on the floor of his office. The labels were just coming out with CDs then, and these were some of the first releases. I remember being highly excited to see them—and greatly entertained by the following story Ben laughed as he related: Many years earlier, a record company salesman had come into the store and asked Ben to play a new single that he guaranteed would be a huge hit. Ben started to play it, and halfway through, stopped it, picked it up off the turntable, opened the door and flung it across the street, turning to the stunned salesman and shouting, “Get the fuck outta my store!”

The record was David Seville’s “Witch Doctor”—the huge 1958 novelty hit that introduced Alvin and the Chipmunks.

There’s another great Ben Karol story, only this one came to me from Dave Nives. Dave was a dear friend who died unexpectedly some years ago. I like to call him “the last of the great record men”—even though Seymour Stein’s still alive—because he had such deep knowledge of vintage rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and country music, and the record companies that put it all out.

Dave was a regional salesman for Rounder Records when I met him. When he died he was A&R at Koch, and desperately wanted to sign the late, greatest polka artist Eddie Blazonczyk after I turned him on to him. “This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” Dave said of Eddie, which was absolutely true. But sharing the fate of so many great ideas in the music business, Dave was overruled from above.

Anyway, Dave was a great joke and story teller, and as he used to service the King Karol stores, he told this great one about Ben—though you’d be right to find it perfectly awful. Turns out that one of Ben’s employees came up to him one day and asked if he could have the day off to attend his father’s funeral. “We all had fathers!” Ben groused.

I used to tell this story often, one time to Holly DeSantis, another dear music friend who had also worked at King Karol. I think I was at one of her parties when George Usher, the great New York singer-songwriter, came over to me and said, “I’m the guy with the father!”

I admit I was embarrassed, but even George somehow found humor in it.

But I enjoyed covering record retail and frequently contributed retail stories to Billboard after moving over there. Two of them, in fact, are among my proudest Billboard contributions.

The first is what I always refer to as “the Snow Cone Story.”

I’d been going to Eunice, Louisiana—”the Cajun prairie capital”—every November to attend Marc and Ann Savoy’s annual boucherie, or Cajun hog kill—admittedly weird in that I’m vegetarian. I’d stay with my dear friends Todd and Debbie Ortego, who owned the Music Machine music/video store in downtown Eunice.

Todd’s the most knowledgeable Cajun/zydeco/swamp pop people there is, and is a party DJ and KBON radio station air personality—though he gave up the store a few years ago. But the first time I went there I was struck, not only by the active pool table in the middle of the store, but by the dormant snow cone machine in the corner. It being November, Todd explained that they only operated the machine during the summer months, when they sold a lot of “New Orleans shaved ice”-style snow cones. I was blown away by this brilliant, unique profit center and when I came back to New York asked Billboard‘s retail editor if I could do a story on it. He said yes, and I did—but he chose not to run it: It didn’t fit the usual record retailer profile, which, of course, was precisely the point.

Swear to God, to this day, it was one of the best stories I ever wrote. I found his rejection totally unacceptable.

For many days and nights thereafter I’d send him—and other Billboard editors–nasty emails and leave brutal voicemails. I think the last one was something along the lines of “Give me the snow cone story…or give me death!” The fact that I’m here to write about this now shows that he finally caved and ran it—and in fact loved it.

But I didn’t have to threaten suicide for him to run my other great record retail story, the one about Lucy’s Record Shop in Nashville. In the ’90s I used to go to Nashville at least three times a year for the big country music industry events (the CMA Awards, Fan Fair and Country Radio Seminar) and would drive past Lucy’s every morning on my way to Music Row from the Downtown YMCA, but I managed for years not to notice it: You see, it was on Church Street, directly opposite a dairy that had a big sign congratulating its employee of the month—to whom I always yelled a hearty congratulations out the window.

Then one day, an early Sunday morning, I was walking around downtown, a Sunday New York Times under my arm. This girl comes over to me and says, “Don’t I know you?” and she actually did. It was Mary Mancini.

I’d known Mary when she was a publicist at Elektra Records in the late ’80s before progressing into A&R—and then disappearing. I liked her very much, but had forgotten about her—and suddenly here she is. She’d been intrigued that anyone in Nashville would have the Sunday Times, as at this time, probably the mid-’90s now, you could only get the Times at a couple places in town.

She caught me up on her story, which began with her move to Nashville at a time when the country music-focused town was trying to expand into rock and pop. She wanted to find another label gig, until an out-of-town DJ friend complained that there was no place there to buy vinyl and suggested that she open a record store.

So she opened Lucy’s in 1992, naming it after her Weimaraner—who was almost as big an attraction as her alternative rock record stock. But Lucy’s was more than a record store, as Mary promoted a veritable community center where young people could gather and talk politics and social issues. And then she experienced a personal transformation as she herself became politicized after learning about the struggles experienced by the alienated young Nashville rockers, many of whom were dealing with gender bias and abuse.

Lucy’s did in fact become an all-ages punk rock venue/community center in addition to being a record store, but after six years Mary wanted to settle down with her husband (the acclaimed alternative-country band Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner) and live a more normal life. So she closed it and took a full-time office manager job at Nashville’s first Internet services provider—and became ever more politicized, thanks to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, involving herself in the latter with voter registration (which she’d promoted heavily at Lucy’s).

Mary co-hosted a progressive talk radio show for Vanderbilt University station WRVU-FM for the next six years, and became more active in local and state politics. She eventually took on the job of executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a public interest/consumer rights watchdog group. Then three years later, when the state senator in her district retired, she decided to run for office, and while she lost in the 2014 Democratic primary, she was elected the following year as Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

On July 26, 2016, I watched as Mary Mancini, now one of my heroes, read Tennessee’s delegate tally at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I know I wept openly.

Crying like a baby: Women’s March NYC, 1-21-2017

I knew I’d cry, just not how soon and for the entire time—and that I’d be such a blubbering idiot about it.

I knew it because I was already so moved, conceptually, by the Women’s March on Washington—and just about everywhere else in the world where people who care about the planet and not just themselves exist, even including Antarctica! But as I walked east late Saturday morning on 42nd Street toward Grand Central Station, besides the significance of the Women’s March the day after the official consecration of evil, my thoughts ran also to the last time I marched: February 15, 2003, in opposition to the imminent Iraq War.

Jane Siberry was in town, maybe she played Joe’s Pub the night before. She met me at Grand Central, as did my friend Suri Gopalan, then maybe the top U.S. distributor of South Asian music and video. It was very cold that day as we marched up the East Side, and it was so crowded we never made it near to where the rally stage was. Indeed, Jane and Suri were long gone by the time I turned onto whatever the avenue was and caught sight of the stage many blocks down and could hear the speakers.

And then I cried. It was a cry of joy that after all these years, these decades after protesting the Vietnam War as a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin, when I’d come home from the University campus, once after being kicked out of high school for protesting Kent State, with tear gas seeped into my clothes and dripping down my hair in the shower (one time I needed to be treated at the Hillel foundation on Langdon Streeet when a can of National Guard pepper gas blew up right in front of me), that here I was, after all this time, right where I began, true to my idealistic younger self, where I was supposed to be.

I shouldn’t call any of this nostalgia, but I could feel the tears welling up once again as I crossed Sixth Avenue, and when I caught up with a girl carrying a sign and wearing a Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket, the floodgates opened and never really shut. Around 45th and Fifth a cop let me join the march from behind the sidewalk barricades, as I had neither registered for a start time at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at East 47th Street and First Avenue, nor gone there anyway. Rather, I figured on going to Grand Central, which was being used as a warming station–though it was warm enough for me to keep my medium jacket and heavy hooded sweatshirt open, thereby exposing the old red Janis Ian t-shirt I managed to dig out specially for the occasion.

The march would travel down Second Avenue and turn west on 42nd Street before turning north on Fifth and ending at Trump Tower at 56th. I was hoping to run into friends I knew would be there from tweets and Facebook posts—Rosanne Cash and Sandra Bernhard and David Johansen—but as it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I wasn’t so much crying as bawling, uncontrollably: Poor Janis Ian t-sirt! Snot noodled down upon it continuously, tears streaming down my face.

Weird thing is, I don’t usually cry much—though I do cry at movies (I’m sure they’re still cleaning up the puddle I left at last month’s Dangal screening!) and whenever I hear Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee and Jane Siberry, or watch Barack and Michelle Obama. And I’m open about it, so that when I tweeted “Weeping openly behind protest gal with Gotham Girls Roller Derby jacket,” a Facebook friend observed that I seem to cry a lot. “I’m a crybaby,” I responded.

It got so bad when I got in the middle of it that I couldn’t chime in on any of the chants, I was so overcome with emotion. Of course I wouldn’t have joined a Spanish one that I had a feeling was somewhat lewd since the gals were having so much fun with it, but when they ended with “When they go low, we go high” I was sniveling too much to form words. And I wouldn’t even attempt to add my voice to the little girls shouting out Planned Parenthood chant support.

I did try to sing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”—something I never do at sports events–when the church organ at St. Thomas Church played it, but nothing came out. Same with “We Shall Overcome”—by the way, a fantastic touch from the church. Even the signs had me boohooing (a word I’ve never used, that I picked up from Tanya Tucker’s hit “Down to My Last Teardop”–that shows I’m running out of “cry” synonyms): “Dissent is Patriotic,” “I can’t believe my daughters have to do this too,” “Hate doesn’t live here anymore” (when I got home I had to post Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), an iconic blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign that the woman holding it said was 15-years-old and used at five demonstrations, a “Keep your laws off my body” sign that an elderly lady said was 25-years-old.

A brief aside: So I was struggling to send out tweets through the tears and keep up with my Facebook and Twitter timelines, and on Facebook came word, though one of my friends and favorite singer-songwriters Maria McKee, that Maggie Roche of the most wonderful Roches had died.

“One of my favorite records of all time,” Maria wrote, in reference to the Roches’ self-titled 1979 album. “RIP Maggie Roche.”

“Crushed,” I responded, then tweeted, “Overcome now by sadness at news that Maggie Roche has died.” And I cried some more.

But Maria also posted “I’M SO PROUD TO BE A WOMAN TODAY! WARRIORS I LOVE YOU ALL! #RESIST.” I tweeted, “Cue Lee Greenwood: ‘And I’m proud to be an American….'” and passed a couple old ladies with blue ball caps embroidered with “We’re still here.” “Talkin’ ’bout my generation,” I tweeted.

The Devil’s Tower was now looming large as we neared 56th and Fifth. And suddenly there was a new, softer chant: “Bubble!”

Actually it wasn’t so much a chant as it was an expression of wonderment. Sure enough, the most perfect five-inch soap bubble rose over the sea of people filling Fifth Avenue, evoking my thoughts of The Red Balloon and the plastic bag of American Beauty.

“Bubble!”

And we had reached the northernmost part of the march, police barricades preventing us from getting any closer to the Tower of Doom. I followed those marchers directly in front of as they turned off to the right and headed east, passing the cutest quartet of little girls holding up a “Girl Power” sign on the south side of 56th, halfway to Madison Avenue. I turned south at the corner and there were still marchers with signs everywhere, coming or going or just hanging out. Best one: “Girls just wanna have FUNdamental human rights.”

I looked at my phone and saw that Barb Jungr, England’s great pop/cabaret singer whom I’d seen just two weeks before at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference at the Hilton, had tweeted me, “In London doing same and fave sign I’m Quite Cross. It’s so English.”

I got to 42nd Street, turned right and rejoined the march, now with those who had started a couple hours after me. Here it was so packed that it took probably 40 minutes to get from Madison to Fifth. The best sign brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I used to work a block from Oscar Mayer headquarters, as it parodied the company’s jingle: “My vagina has a first name: It’s don’t fu%#king grab my pussy/My vagina has a second name, it’s seriously don’t fucking grab my pussy.”

Finally reaching Fifth Avenue, where the marchers turned right for the final leg, I kept going and headed home, thought not before finally finding at least a small part of my voice and uttering the old protest warhorse “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and the Obama battle cry “Yes we can!” And I thought of this passage toward the end of his final speech in Chicago two weeks ago: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans–especially so many young people out there–to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”

“Guess what? We didn’t lose!” I tweeted. “We are not alone!”

When I got home I saw that 25,000 were marching in Madison–the total since reported as between 75,000 to 100,000. That night I tuned into my old friend Rockin’ John McDonald’s I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison’s listener-sponsored station WORT-FM and heard him play in succession the Beach Boys’ “Student Demonstration Time,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ and the Vietnam War Moratorium redux

It was perfect timing, running into Peter Yarrow a week ago Sunday unexpectedly at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). He was meeting and greeting talent buyers strolling the Hilton’s vast exhibition halls, where he was stationed at the BiCoastal Productions agency booth to assist in the promotion of Lonesome Traveler: The Concert, the acclaimed 2015 off_Broadway musical now being packaged as a concert event, that he has endorsed and can be featured in as guest star depending on his availability.

Subtitled “The Roots of American Folk Music,” the show celebrates the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Dylan and of course, Peter, Paul and Mary, in the context of folk music from the 1920s to the ’60s and beyond.

I didn’t meet them until much later, but I first saw Peter, Paul and Mary at a church on the University of Wisconsin Campus, where they performed at a Vietnam War Moratorium—but I’m not sure of the dates. According to Wikipedia, The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which was a massive demonstration/teach-in all over the country, took place Oct. 15, 1969, and was followed by a Moratorium March on Washington a month later on Nov. 15.

So it had to be the second Moratorium (the word means “a suspension of activity”), because I do remember that PP&M were leaving that night for D.C. to join the march. It’s terrible I don’t remember the church—maybe St. Paul’s?—but it had to be at the end of State Street, where the UW begins. Peter, though, remembered the church well, not to mention everything surrounding the Moratorium.

The last time I’d seen Peter was a couple years ago or so, doing pretty much the same thing, except at Toy Fair at the Javits Center. Not sure which exhibition booth he was ensconced in this time, because I think there were two toy companies that had “Puff, the Magic Dragon” toy product out, but he was probably at the one with the plush Puff toys. Wherever, he was signing Puff, the Magic Dragon illustrated children’s books, packaged with a CD of Peter singing the PP&M classic and other songs with his daughter Bethany and a cellist—and, of course, posing for pictures with starstruck baby boomer toy business people.

But at the Hilton, I was for once more than just the starstruck baby boomer kid at the Moratorium who didn’t even meet Peter Yarrow, as well as the starstruck baby boomer music journalist who had met him many times since. No, this time I approached him as an equal in that both of us had starred in the 2015 Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young.

Yes, I exaggerate! Not Peter’s role, for he had a meaty part as a leftist intellectual—hardly a stretch—whereas I was an extra–hardly a stretch–sitting at an Upper West Side coffee shop while Naomi Watts, her back to me, was meeting with Adam Driver, with Ben Stiller, playing Watts’ jealous husband, storming in after.

If you see the movie, you might recognize me by the bald spot on the top of my head—which I didn’t even know was there! Then for a second or so the camera pulls back at the end of the scene to reveal my truly recognizable receded hairline profile. Just don’t blink.

But it was so fun, and certainly arrogant, to address Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow as my co-star! That he didn’t blow me off is testament to something or other, his befuddlement, most likely. But it did lead him into some interesting observations, and an affirmation by both of us of our continued commitment to the ’60s ethos.

“It took a cultural, ethical point-of-view,” he said of While We’re Young, “and when I read the script I realized it was the antithesis of what I try to espouse in the songs I sing–as was the case with Peter, Paul and Mary all those years. And it profoundly preceded the rise of Trump.”

Here he pointed to Driver’s less-than-truthful aspiring film director character, who is “perfectly able to live without finding any sense of responsibility or guilt and can act unethically in terms of respecting the rights and creativity of Ben Stiller’s [documentary filmmaker] character. I thought that that counterpoint made it a very important film—but I didn’t expect it to become such a powerful commentary on what’s happening now in our country.”

He had attended the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg musical Finian’s Rainbow the night before, a show centering on themes of immigration, economic greed, racial reconciliation and fighting bigotry.

“At the end I sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with the cast, and spoke about why the music is so critical: It’s intention is to bring a tear to your eyes and dissolve the distance between us—and let us now unite in the face of a disuniting force.”

A disuniting force.

I told Peter Yarrow I would be marching again come Saturday, the day after the inauguration of the Disuniting Force. And Peter Yarrow of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” hugged me and called me “my Brother.”

11/20/2014 Legendary music event producer Bill Carter advises GW pre-law students

Bill Carter, the legendary former Secret Service agent for President John F. Kennedy whose later music business experience includes managing artists like Reba McEntire and legal representation for the Rolling Stones, recently recounted his remarkable career before the George Washington University Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity at the Marvin Center Amphiteater in Washington, D.C.

But Carter also addressed the anxiety that students naturally feel as they near the end of their college studies.

“Life is not always going to go as you think it will, so expect the unexpected,” he said, then illustrated with examples from his own unexpected experiences following high school graduation in his tiny hometown of Rector, Ark. College not being an option, he joined the Air Force in 1953, then attended Arkansas State University on the GI Bill. Higher education, he said, prepared him for and provided the opportunities that would guide his future.

Deciding to go to law school at the University of Arkansas, Carter first accompanied is brother, who went to Dallas to take a civil service exam. Rather than just sit there, he took it, too.

Broke following 18 months of law school, he was about to take a job as an insurance adjuster (“It paid $450 per month and they furnished you a car. Sounded like heaven to me.”) when he was contacted by the U.S. Secret Service, which had found him through the Civil Service roster in Dallas.

“I wonder what direction my life might have taken had I not taken that test,” Bill told the students. “Now the 26-year-old kid from Rector was in training school in Washington, which included the White House. Never in my wildest imagination growing up in Rector, did I think this kid would ever make it to Washington, much less meet the president of the United States.”

Carter was in Washington on that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, and was sent to the White House immediately following the assassination.

“Those four days still haunt me and will until I die,” said Carter, who was assigned to the Warren Commission investigation in Dallas, and brought Marina Oswald to the commission’s hearings in Washington in March, 1964.

“JFK inspired my generation with new ideas, hope, and vision,” Carter told the students. “He touched and remolded lives, and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history.”

Devastated by the death of Kennedy—“the most magnetic personality I have ever met, and I have met several”—he left the Secret Service in 1966 and returned to law school and graduated in 1967. But his time in the Secret Service led to future opportunities.

While practicing law in Little Rock in 1969, he was hired, because of his Washington contacts, to represent a young man who was trying to establish a cargo airline. After three years of legal work to change Civil Aeronautics Board regulations, Federal Express was born.

Then in 1973, Bill’s friend Wilbur Mills, the powerful Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked him to help another friend whose clients were in trouble. And thus began Carter’s work for the Rolling Stones, who had been barred by the State Department from returning to the U.S. because of open drug use and riots by fans at American concerts in 1972.

Carter’s exploits with the Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life and Bill’s own memoir, Get Carter.

“Needless to say, I spent a lot of time getting various members of the Rolling Stones out of legal troubles so they could perform in the United States,” he related. “And while I was busy doing that, I also established friendships with some of the most colorful characters that ever walked the planet. Me, a kid from little Rector, Arkansas.”

Bill also shared other adventures stemming from his new entertainment business involvement, most notably his friendship with actor Steve McQueen and the retrieval of his body following his death in Mexico. But besides representing the likes of the Stones, David Bowie, the Bee Gees, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings and Bill Gaither—to name a few—Bill represented Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1974, bringing him into a confrontation with President Nixon in his White House office.

“None of these opportunities would have come my way had I not been prepared to take on the challenge,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be fearless, and you’ve got to be ready to do what it takes—even if you think the job is beyond your skill.”

Always remember, he instructed, that “hard work creates opportunity.” You never know who you will meet at a job, he explained, and the opportunities that flow from those fortuitous meetings.

But even the best education, he suggested, “is not always enough to be a good and effective lawyer.” While he himself was “never a brilliant lawyer,” he allowed, “I had common sense and knew how to deal with people. That kind of knowledge is a valuable commodity, but you’re not going to learn it in a classroom.”

It’s vital, then, to “get to know your future clients–the ones who will be counting on you to help them. The better you know the big variety of life’s circumstances, the better prepared you will be to relate, and help.”

So “believe in yourself, hold strong to your faith, and know there is a world out there waiting for you to make a positive impact,” Carter concluded. “One person can change the course of history. Be that person. You can do it.”

Noted fraternity president Will Jennings, “Most of the speakers we bring in to discuss what they have done with their careers in law focus on how necessary it is to get into the best law school and work for the best law firm as quickly as possible. With the recent economic recession, those who are interested in law in my generation are always worried about the next several years and are under a lot of strain from mentors and peers who constantly tell us we will be unemployed or underpaid if we don’t follow a career center’s clearly defined plan better than anyone else.”

“But Bill offered the students a different story—one of hope,” added Jennings.

[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]

3/3/2016 Music legend Bill Carter inspires students with tales from rich life experiences

He’s already excelled in several careers, from Secret Service agent for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, to tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, to artist management for the likes of Reba McEntire and Shenandoah.

But all of Bill Carter’s achievements now come into play in his latest incarnation—inspirational speaker at colleges.

In fact, Carter’s most recent speech last month at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) may well lead not only to more such engagements at colleges in America, but corporate appearances here and overseas as well.

“I’ve had inquiries from Berlin, after meeting a guy from a music school in old East Berlin at a One Spark [crowdfunding] event here in Jacksonville,” says Jacksonville’s Drew Armstrong, who represents Nashville-based Carter for personal appearances.

“We were talking about Bill and his connection with music and the Stones, and he was more interested in Kennedy,” Armstrong continues. “He’s in his early 20s, and was fascinated because of Kennedy’s famous ‘I am a Berliner’ speech. But it only reinforced what I felt could be an excellent opportunity for Bill: He could just as easily speak at a corporate business meeting about crisis management and strategic negotiations because of his experiences outside of music—and all the things he’s done in life.”

Carter’s exploits with the Rolling Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life (Carter first appears in the first line of Page Two) and Carter’s own memoir, Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones. But he was involved in numerous other significant events, including, besides Kennedy’s and Johnson’s presidencies, notorious Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, whom he represented and brought before President Richard Nixon in the White House; the founding of FedEx, which required federal bureaucratic changes; and smuggling the body of Steve McQueen out of Mexico.

“The Rolling Stones were banned from the U.S. and all the expensive lawyers in New York couldn’t do anything, but Bill did because he knew how to talk to people,” says Armstrong. “He knew how bright Mick Jagger was and brought him to the State Department to meet people and show them he was a smart young business man. This and so many of Bill’s other stories can apply in any business setting, because they illustrate the principles of working with people to iron out issues and accomplish goals—especially now in our country, when people on opposite sides of the table can’t work anything out and shut things down.”

Armstrong has seen how well Carter’s “amazing stories” work in the college setting.

“Young people eat them up, but his life lessons are more important,” he says, specifically, “Nobody can tell you what to do or guide you—those decisions are in your heart.”

He reports that over one-third of the 60 or so MTSU students stayed for way over an hour to speak with Carter personally after his talk with the school’s Department of Recording Industry chair Beverly Keel.

“Bill’s talk was one of the most moving and memorable events on campus in my 20 years at MTSU,” says Keel. “The students hung onto his every word, whether he was talking about successfully working with the State Department to allow the Rolling Stones to tour in the U.S. or working in the White House the week of the Kennedy assassination. As Professor Amy Macy commented afterwards, you could hear a pin drop.”

Remarkably, “I didn’t see one student glance at his or her phone the entire time!” adds Keel. “What was so beneficial was that he offered advice to our students and shared what he learned along each chapter of his life. They were inspired by the fact that he came from poverty, made his own way since age 17, as well as the fact that each job in his life somehow prepared him for the next.”
Indeed, Carter related his “very poor background” in the tiny rural Arkansas town of Rector. “I told them of my own situation and that stimulated them somewhat, I think,” he says. “I didn’t have any self-confidence, but had to learn to survive on my own, and they needed to hear that–to keep the faith and work hard and let opportunities come along.”

He contrasts his appearance at MTSU with a previous one at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“Those kids seemed to come from well-to-do families, but the Middle Tennessee kids are struggling financially. But they all had one thing in common: insecurity about facing the world—and I realized that my generation experience little, if any, stress: You get out of school and find a job! But there seems to be a lot of stress on this generation–and a lot of expectations. Everybody expects them to do well, but there are less opportunities than in the past, and they’re scared to death and insecure about the future. We put all that stress on young people!”
So Carter stayed after his MTSU talk as long as there were students who needed him.

“There were several inspirational moments,” says Keel, “but the one I recall most vividly was when a student from Africa approached him and said, ‘I understand about hardship,’ and beat his fist over his heart. That powerful connection moved me to tears.”

Recording Industry Department professor Amy Macy, who had worked with Carter when she was a staffer at RCA Records and he managed label acts Shenandoah, Lari White and Lonestar, particularly lauds Carter’s ability to “spin a story—and sell a concept.”

“In class, I encouraged the students to practice this concept, especially if they are not comfortable at talking,” adds Macy. “We all have ideas that we must present and get others to believe in, and now is the time to deepen our selling skills and strengthen our ‘gut’ and step out of our comfort zones. Bill showed them how easy it can be to share what he knows.”

Carter’s life “also reflects the idea of taking advantage of moments presented,” notes Macy, singling out his story about accompanying his brother to a civil service exam in Dallas, then taking it himself on a whim. His score eventually resulted in his job with the Secret Service.

“Bill encouraged the students to find their God-given path that was embedded in them from the beginning,” says Macy.

But Carter cautions that today’s college kids “need to find more than just a job, but meet the expectations of success—and understand that success is not measured by dollars and cents but by happiness.”

“After I spoke at George Washington,” he says, “I told the president of another college, ‘You ought to offer a course in life. You teach everything but what to do once you graduate–how to deal with society and the world. Hell, when I graduated, I was a survivor and knew I’d find some kind of job—and it didn’t matter what it was as long as I got paid! But I never had goals, and today, maybe, kids have too high goals set for them by parents and peers and whoever.”

Armstrong, who’s known Carter since the early 1970s, echoes Macy in quoting Reba McEntire.

“She said, ‘Nobody can tell a story like Bill can!’ But in all the time I’ve known him, he never, ever talked about Kennedy,” states Armstrong, who shot video of Carter’s MTSU talk for promotional use. “It was too emotional for him. But when his [2005 memoir] Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones came out, there were things about Kennedy that I never heard, and when we shot the video at MTSU, he talked about the assassination and there was even more things I’d never heard, and he was very emotional: He talked about how nice Kennedy was to everyone and spoke to everyone on their level, from maintenance people in the White House to Charles de Gaulle. And how he went to the White House the night they brought his body back—that stuff is emotional, and to hear it from someone who was actually there, first-hand!”

Carter also shared his conclusion regarding the assassination.

“It comes up every time, of course,” says Armstrong. “He’s very respectful of everyone’s opinion, but says, ‘This is what I know, and I interviewed everybody.’”

Having been sent to Dallas to interview everyone from Lee Harvey Oswald’s family and friends to his landlady, members of the Russian community, Jack Ruby, and witnesses at the Texas School Book Depository, Carter has always maintained that Oswald acted alone.

“It’s so powerful,” says Armstrong. “All of that—and such a great inspirational message of how a guy from Rector, Arkansas, whose parents were hard-working and with no wealth whatsoever, could get to the White House and the Rolling Stones. If we get him one or two corporate bookings, he’ll be on the preferred speaker circuit.”

As for more college bookings, Keel concludes, “We are already brainstorming on how we can bring him back to campus as often as possible!”

[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]

The Dixie Chicks, Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump

I’m happy to be in L.A. today, but I’d love to be in Nashville tonight when the Dixie Chicks return to the sold-out Bridgestone Arena 13 years after they were unceremoniously–or maybe in fact with great ceremony–blacklisted by country radio following Natalie Maines’ impromptu and instantly infamous comment of March 10,2002.

On that day–as recounted in today’s Tennessean–the DixChix, then one of the biggest acts in the country, period, watched news coverage of the buildup to war with Iraq while preparing to perform a concert in London. Their then current hit “Travelin’ Soldier,” about a young Vietnam soldier who didn’t make it back, was the top entry on the country radio airplay charts, and they didn’t want to have to play with a war on the horizon that they didn’t support.

Maines acknowledged this in introducing the song: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the London crowd. “We do not want this war, this violence,” she said, then sealed the group’s fate: “And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

In short order “Travelin’ Soldier” was pulled from radio and disappeared from the charts. Stations quit playing the Chicks entirely, some inciting ex-fan gatherings where their records were destroyed. They never had another country radio hit.

“The real tragedy is all the great music we will never hear because their momentum was stopped,” Beverly Keel, chair of the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University, said in The Tennesean . “It was the perfect storm of the time and the place and what she said.”

Indeed, the only thing I can liken it to was Muhammad Ali’s historic refusal to be inducted into the Army in 1967, costing him the best three and a-half years of his life as an athlete, not to mention all the money he would have made during them–not to mention cementing his status then in much of the country as a hated, ungrateful traitor. The difference, of course, is that Ali knew going in what it would likely cost him, whereas Maines spoke spontaneously and probably didn’t know what hit her–though it didn’t affect her, either. She and bandmates Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire never once attempted to “walk back” her comments, to use the now popular way of denoting a politician’s softening of a comment that proves intolerably damaging.

Even now during their sold-out 55-city tour they’ve been performing before a large picture of Donald Trump as Satan.

“I get banned for not liking Bush and now Trump can practically put a hit out on Hillary and he’s still all over country radio!” Maines tweeted last week. “Hypocrites!”

Within days of the Chicks’ banishment I was approached by a radio station to discuss the situation, clearly with the understanding that I would follow what we now call “the narrative,” that being that the Chicks were finished. The war had begun, and in the early goings, seemed to be going great from the Texas president’s perspective.

But I refused to go with the script.

I had two points: One, that it was way too early to predict the Chicks’ future based on a war that only started. “Who knows what it will be like in a month or two?” I said, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the gist.

Two, I noted that whether or not they ever again received any country radio support, the Dixie Chicks had already amassed an immense fan base, who likely would not turn en masse against them, and could conceivably continue to buy their records–depending, of course, on quality. Sure enough, their last studio album, Taking the Long Way (2006), sold well over double-platinum and won Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, and for its unapologetic single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

“Nashville loved these women, Nashville signed these women, and Nashville made these women stars,” author and country music historian Robert K. Oermann told The Tennessean. “It was a shameful chapter that we allowed to happen, and you couldn’t blame the Chicks if they did feel betrayed.”

But you can sure stand up and cheer them tonight at the Bridgestone for returning to Nashville in triumph, outspoken political stances intact.