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.”

The late, great ‘Wild Man of Borneo’ Eddie Hunt

At Five Points Academy, from left: Simon Burgess, Barry Danielian, Tim Waid, Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje and Eddie Hunt.

I went back to Madison last week in what has become an annual July visit to see my mother—she won’t read this so I can say she’s 95 and still driving—and celebrate my 65th and talk about old age with the few friends I have left there who are still alive.

Speaking of which, I drove to Milwaukee last Sunday to see Elvis Costello and had lunch with dear friend Jim Liban, the legendary blues harmonica player I haven’t seen in 20, maybe 30 years since he lived briefly in Nashville playing with David Allan Coe, who, coincidentally, I’d seen Thursday night in New York before flying out Friday morning. In catching up, Jim told me that his historic Milwaukee blues-rock band Short Stuff, which I covered extensively back in the late 1970s when I started writing, was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame, and that when it came to getting together all the many musicians who’d played in the band over the years, it turned out that more of them were dead than alive.

“The fact that we survived in and of itself is quite shocking,” Jim said to me, and I needed no explanation.

Most of the people I know or like who die I find out about it on Twitter trends or Facebook posts. Earlier yesterday I saw Eddie Hunt’s name in whatever they call that column on the right of your Facebook page with a line or two encapsulating other people’s posts that I never look at and never turn on the chat function for–being surely the least social social networker. But I’d been thinking of Eddie just the other day and would probably have clicked on it eventually, except that sometime after 9 p.m. I noticed in my notifications one from Simon Burgess: “Simon Burgess shared a link: ‘View Edward Hunt’s Obituary and express….'”

Simon, among other things, is my martial arts teacher, specifically, the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Filipino martial arts. It’s a relatively esoteric art, suffice it to say it’s essentially combat-oriented, bladed weapons-based. Through Simon I met Eddie and numerous other teachers including Leo Gaje, the famed Filipino martial artist whose family originated the system and its grand master, and Tim Waid, who studied for years under Leo and heads the Pekiti organization that Simon is affiliated with at Five Points Academy in Chinatown.

Simon and Eddie were both certified Pekiti instructors under both Leo and Tim.

“Instructors and Friends, I have to sadly tell you of the death of Mataas na Guro [master instructor] Eddie Hunt,” Tim announced via Facebook, reporting that Eddie had been found dead early in the morning by his girlfriend. Speaking for all who knew him, he added: “I loved Eddie and he was my Brother. Right now I am at a loss of more words, I just wish I could have done something to prevent this way too early loss.”

Tim recalled how Eddie had actually introduced him to both Simon and Barry Danielian, another master instructor, not to mention a star jazz-pop trumpet player who’s worked extensively with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Bruce Springsteen. Barry’s was one of many personal messages rapidly filling the Facebook feeds from Pekiti-Tirsia family friends, feeds that kept filling out as the night wore on.

I messaged Barry directly immediately.

“Just gutted,” he responded. “Feel like someone punched me in the throat. Just spoke w him last week to make plans to hang next week.”

It was apparently heart failure, Barry said. Eddie was 54.

I should note here something about not only Eddie, but Barry, Simon, Tim and Leo—and all the many other martial arts masters I’ve met through them and Five Points. They’re the nicest, most caring and dedicated people in the world. What distinguished Eddie was his usual long hair and hangdog expression, though it was more of a big, weary puppy face, I’d say. Indeed, Eddie was far more likely to lick and slobber all over your face out of happiness to see you than rabidly bite your head off–which he most certainly could do just as easily.

But Tim really nailed what made Eddie the guy you counted on to be there at Tim’s seminars: “Those of you who knew him remember that he was truly the life of the party. He brought laughter like no one else, honest, fun laughter that was truly recognized when he was not with us at that moment.”

That was really it. No matter Eddie’s experience in martial arts and ability as a fighter, he was one hell of a funny guy, and to use an appropriate idiom, played it to the hilt. He’d stumble into Tim’s seminars late—he probably had a job, though I like to think he overslept—make a few frivolous comments and crack everyone up, Tim included.

Tim, by the way, is the most serious and focused martial artist and instructor, who can make mincemeat out of you if you’re dumb enough to blink. He’s also about the sweetest human being you can imagine, and clearly loved Eddie’s irreverent disruptions as much as the rest of us. Simon and Barry, of course, had trained with Eddie forever and had willingly resigned themselves long ago.

“Eddie introduced me to Simon Burgess, and Barry Danielian, and the rest is history,” Tim concluded. “Eddie will forever be missed, and never forgotten.”

Si posted an online obit link and said simply “sad day today”–three words that needed nothing further. My response was even more minimal: “No words.”

I went to the online obit and nodded at its depiction of “a beloved son, brother, uncle & partner [who] will be greatly missed, not only for his great big loving heart, but also for his sense of humor and generosity towards all he encountered.” Then I went back to Barry’s Facebook page.

“I’ve known Eddie for close to 30 years and have shared many laughs, sweat, bruises and busted knuckles with him,” wrote Barry, one of the most spiritual people I know. “He was one of the most real people I know. And because of that he had the ability to go into many different circles and people immediately loved him. He was all heart and if you were a friend of his you were a friend for life. In many ways he was a throwback to a type of person that is sadly very rare these days.”

Eddie’s “love of martial arts, history, the warrior ethic,” Barry added, “will continue to be an inspiration to me and to all of us that knew him. I will miss him very much.”

Barry concluded: “Tell the people you love that you love them….do this often. We never know when our last breath will be. Have a peaceful return to the Divine, my brother.”

And I’ll conclude by relating that Eddie and the rest are the kind of people who give the phrase “I have your back” a whole nother meaning. For they really do have your back, and most important, show you how to have your own when they’re not there—truly one of the most important lessons in life.

And there was one other thing about Eddie that I thought of, as I reflected back at the week just concluded at home with my mother and surviving friends—for Eddie had lost his mother not so long ago–that was expressed best by another Facebook friend of the late, great Eddie Hunt.

Pekiti-Tirsia, the friend wrote, had lost its often long-haired Wild Man of Borneo.

“Well, Brother, you’ve a new haircut when you reunite with your beloved Mother. You’ll be missed. Thanks for the laughs.”

I did in fact call my mother today, Barry, and told her I love her, as I love you and all my teachers, fellow students and friends.

Tales of Bessman: The Slow Knife Draw

Martial arts, for me at least, have been particularly humbling.

I’d done a couple years of tae kwon do in my twenties and made it to green belt in the system, and then I started writing and devoted every waking minute to it. But I always wanted to get back into martial arts, just not in a formal wear-the-uniform, bow-to-the-flag-and-teacher kind of way.

Then I fell in love at first sight with a butterfly knife. The highly illegal (in New York) Filipino balisong, with the handles that swing out with the blade in truly menacing fashion. I was able to open it and close it without cutting myself, but could never do any of the fancy flips and twirls.

Probably 15 years ago now I found a teacher in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)—Pekiti Tirsia Kali, to be specific–Simon Burgess. A genius. British. As he said the other day—again—“You are the true test of my patience.”

Some people pick everything up naturally and quickly. Not me. To this day I’m uncomfortable in class. It takes me back to flunking out in high school for never understanding anything. And the perpetual frustration of having everyone start out with me showing them the basics, then a few weeks later, they’re showing me the baiscs. This has been going on for probably 15 years at least.

I think of this now looking back at Tuesday’s session at Five Points Academy—Simon’s martial arts gym, which specializes in Muay Thai kickboxing, of which he’s also a teacher–when I practiced the knife-draw techniques we started working on last week. It’s something I’ve never worked on much—a conceivably fatal mistake, and one that I came close to making a few years ago.

So I was practicing drawing a folding training knife with my right hand out of my waistband, opening it and then going into a thrusting attack mode—and cut the index finger on my left hand.

It was a small laceration, a quarter-inch or so, probably done when I was transitioning from a “No. 3” right-to-left hooking horizontal thrust into a straight-ahead rolling jab and scraped the knife—not necessarily the dulled but still potent edge—against the finger, the rolling left hand not having properly cleared the jabbing knife.

No one saw it, but it was still pretty embarrassing. I knew it would bleed—not drip or run or flow, but that in a minute or so, blood would appear in the crease of the cut and smear my shirt when I slapped the back of my left hand against my armpit whenever I jabbed or thrusted, which is what you’re trained to do, since you’re leaving your armpit exposed when you thrust or jab, and the armpit protects a major artery that presents a kill-shot opportunity for your opponent.

But the key, of course, is to deploy your knife, that is, get it out from concealment and open it in the first place.

Compounding my problem is that I suffer from basal thumb arthritis in both hands, meaning that the cartilage is pretty much gone at the base of the thumbs, from overuse. Too many space bars.

At times it’s been quite painful, but arthritis or no, I’m just not very nimble when it comes to opening a tactical, that is, fighting folding knife that isn’t spring-assisted, like a switchblade. These knives usually have a hole or groove or lug for your thumb to fit in or on and push against in swinging the blade out and snapping it into place.

Tactical folders, and many utility pocket knives, also have a clip for attaching to your front pants pocket or waistband, in fact, Spyderco knives, famous for introducing the thumb-hole, are often called “clipits.” I probably had one clipped in such a manner as I walked down 11th Avenue around 12:30 a.m. If I’d have kept it there, there’s no telling what awful things might have happened.

I got to 47th Street and saw three guys urinating on the corner of a building undergoing reconstruction, long since the headquarters for Ogilvy & Mather. I was two blocks from home and didn’t think much of it, but enough, at least to take out the knife and have it ready, thumb in the groove.

This part of 11th Avenue was pretty dead then. Now it’s much nicer, with a fancy Japanese hotel a block or two up and across the street. But back then there was no one up to any good there that time of night.

I turned the corner at 45th. My building isn’t even halfway to 10th. Twenty feet from the door I heard footsteps behind me, getting quicker and louder. I whirled around and there were those three guys—whom I’d already forgotten about–almost on top of me. I immediately did the most important thing a trained martial artist can do.

I tried to run.

Tried, I said, because here I found out a sobering fact about myself. At my age—61 now, early-to-mid 50s then, the top half of my body is faster than the lower half. In other words, instead of running, I toppled over!

“Fuck!” I said to myself, facing the realization that I was about to be killed 20 feet from my apartment.

As I went down I tossed the keys in my left hand to the ground, same with my gym bag. I broke the fall with my left hand and elbow, scraping both. I had nothing when I got back up, nothing except the knife in my right hand—which I’d had the foresight to pull out and hang on to back on 47th and 11th, then promptly forgot about. Adrenalin pumping, I managed to get the blade out with my thumb just barely enough to flick the rest of it open.

Now there really is something about the click-sound of a folding knife blade being flicked and banged into locked position. It carries an announcement: “Hey, motherfuckers! You want me? Fucking come and get me!”

One of them yelled, “He’s got a knife!” and they all backed up. This bought me a moment, which I used to grab my gym bag and dash to my apartment door. Luckily it was unlocked. Unluckily, the vestibule door was—and in the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten to pick up my keys!

If they followed me into the vestibule I was likely dead. At least I had the presence of mind to call 911. I waited two minutes for the cops and then got real stupid: I went out to get my keys—hoping they were still there.

They were. The attackers were gone. I lucked out.

The cops got there two minutes later. They were very nice. I didn’t mind at all telling them the truth, that I had a knife and I flashed it. They understood.

I did mind that I tumbled the way I did. That I scratched a finger, elbow and knee. And to this day I have no idea what I would have done had they not backed off, pulled out their own knives—or guns—and followed me into the vestibule.

I called Simon the next day and confessed how lame I was.

“What are you talking about?” he said, so sensibly as always, ever looking at the positive. “You didn’t get hurt [by the attackers]. You didn’t hand over your money. You did fine.”

Next time at Five Points he and Steve, co-owner of the gym and another Muay Thai teacher, applauded as I walked in. I still feel stupid about it, and the story has since been handed up and down the system as a shining example.

But the reality remains: I dropped like a fucking bowling pin.

When I first started with Simon, he saw the trouble I was having in opening a folder singlehandedly. He said to just use both hands, that is, use my left hand to pull the blade away from the handle.

There’s a lesson here, an important one: If you can’t do something, do something else.

Yes, the optimal way to open a folder with a thumb hole/lug/groove is with the thumb hole/lug/groove. But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Do what you can do. As Bruce Lee said so famously, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”

Of course, this didn’t stop me from trying to do it the proper way, and once again, Simon, some 15 years later, had to tell me to use both hands.

The true test of his patience.

A couple weeks ago I hung out with Tom Bisio. Tom’s a legend in martial arts, especially Pekiti-Tirsia, though he got out of it years ago and became an equally renowned practitioner of Chinese martial arts and medicine.

I got to know Tom, not through martial arts—he was out of Pikiti by the time I got in—but through his wife Valerie Ghent, longtime programmer/backup singer for Ashford & Simpson and now Valerie Simpson. I was at their apartment partying after a great Ghent solo show, and engaged Tom in martial arts conversation—including if he’d ever played with a butterfly.

Of course he had—we all have—but he never really used one. He explained how once he was in a training exercise and tried to deploy it and dropped it—and that’s the whole point right there: Unless you’re really adept at something that requires a technical skill, when it comes time to do it for real and the pressure’s on, you’re liable to fuck it up.

Tom knew he wasn’t good enough with a balisong to deploy it under pressure. Simon knows I’m too old and arthritic (“You’re wrists are fucked up!”) to deploy a one-hand opening folder effectively with one hand under pressure.

And of course, I know it, too.

Epilogue: I went to class yesterday and before it began, was talking with Coach Emily, a professional Muay Thai fighter who was teaching a Muay Thai class.

“I’m glad you didn’t see me cut myself the other day,” I told her. “But I’m really glad Simon didn’t see it.”

I might as well have asked her outright to tell him, Emily being nothing if not mischievous.

“Did you know Jim cut himself the other day?” she chirped gleefully as Simon approached.

“How did you do that?” he asked, sternly.

“I was practicing the knife draw we were working on last week,” I said.

“Not with a live [real] blade…,” Simon said, gobsmacked, as they say in England.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“You can’t cut yourself with a training blade!” he contended emphatically.

I assured him that you could indeed. He was neither impressed nor amused.

Coach Emily laughed.

Here’s Simon with his teacher Tim Waid:

Concert Highlights–Valerie Ghent at Joe’s Pub, 5/1/14

As longtime backup singer/keyboardist for Ashford & Simpson, I’ve been seeing and admiring Valerie Ghent for years. But her Muse CD release party last week at Joe’s Pub was something else.

The big surprise was that much of the time she got up and away from the piano, leaving the keys in the capable hands of veteran New York blues pianist Dave Keyes. She later credited Simpson, actually, for convincing her to leave the safety of the keyboard bench and move to the stand-up mic—where she was flanked by her own terrific backup singers Keith Fluitt and Dennis Collins.

Ghent seemed completely comfortable in her new role of stand-up singer moving about with ease and singing with equal authority—or so it seemed. She said after that she’d been sick for weeks and that her mid-range was weak, though her low and high ends were okay.

It all sounded fine to me. Then again, as she also pointed out later, we never really got to hear her lows and mids when she sang with A&S—or now with Simpson–since she sang only high parts.

At Joe’s Pub Ghent hit the highs on “groove” songs like the chugging A&S-inflected “Wheels On a Train” from her previous album Day to Day Dream (2012) and really let loose on the titletrack, climaxing with catlike squeals. But as it was an album release party for Muse, the centerpiece of the show came after she dismissed her hard-funk band and brought out cellist Dave Eggar and violinist Katie Kresek to accompany her on piano.

Muse, she explained, is a very different album–12 piano/vocal ballads that bring her back to her musical roots, in that she started in music playing cello at age five. The intimate piano-and-strings setting of new album songs like “You’re My Star” focused on her vocal range before she returned to the hotter groove tunes with the full band.

Ghent made special note of a couple songs co-written with her husband Tom Bisio—a renowned martial artist/Chinese medicine practitioner with whom she has also collaborated in teaching and instructional texts. I’ve actually taken one of their seminars, and applauded loudly.

At his table, Bisio smiled sheepishly and said that he had told her not to mention it.


Okay, so the Federal Trade Commission in 2009 revised its guidelines regarding, and I’m quoting from its website, “the long standing principle that ‘material connections’ (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers–connections that consumers would not expect–must be disclosed.”

It added “new examples [addressing] what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other ‘word-of-mouth’ marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

Now I come from the record business. Free records, free concert tickets, free lunches, free drinks, free trips. Nice Christmas presents, back in the day.

Conflicts? I wish! And I only wish I got the big bucks that the big political journos get for secretly helping out candidates, or starring in movies or whatever. Especially now that the record business is dead and so is so much of the journalism/reporting that went with it.

But even when it was alive I wrote bios and press releases and liner notes for companies that I was also writing about for publications. I can’t say every other music writer did the same, but I don’t know any who didn’t. It’s low pay to begin with, and now that we get paid by the click—not even half a cent per click on the main site I write for—we’re supposed to disclose who we have business relationships with, being so-called “endorsers” when we write about the businesses.

I’ve been pretty good about this at, in that whenever I write about someone or something I’ve had or have business with, I’ll note it parenthetically, that is, if my name’s attached to it, i.e., CD liner notes or contributions to websites or newsletters. I’m not sure how I’ll handle it here if and when, but I love the way Teri Tom did it on her blog.

I don’t know Teri personally, but she’s renowned for being an authority on Bruce Lee’s martial art Jeet Kune Do, having studied it extensively with his late student Ted Wong. She’s also a dietitian whose clients have included the likes of Manny Pacquiao.

She writes on her blog that according to the FTC, if she interviews someone and they pay for lunch, she needs to disclose it. Same if she’s given a t-shirt with a logo and wears it in a photo.

“Disclaimers all over the place,” Teri says. “This would be tedious for me and a continual eyesore for readers. But rules is rules.”

To get around it, or as she puts it, “to cover my ass and preserve your reading experience,” she instructs her readers that for every recommendation, link, and product she uses, assume all of the following: She got fed. She got some sweet gadgets. She got busy w/member of story. She received mad scrilla. She got a helluva schwag bag. She got stock options.

She really is brilliant. So I’m going to admittedly rip her off but reduce it by saying that you can assume for everything I write on this site, I’m paid off big-time in one way or another. And I most certainly hope that your assumption is right! Like the bounty hunter says to Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, “A man’s got to do something for a living these days”–and this is what I do for a living.

Then again, if you know the movie, Clint responds with, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy,” and blows him away.

So in order to help me avoid a similar fate, please consider tipping your waiter.

A man’s got to do something for a living these days.

I’ve started writing regularly for, covering music.

My first feature is about Barry Danielian, one of my martial arts teachers at Five Points Academy in Soho. Barry is also a top trumpet player, and the piece, “A Manhattan maestro’s mix of music and martial arts,” is about the similarities between teaching and playing jazz and martial arts.

Barry teaches the esoteric, weapons-oriented arts of Filipino kali and Indonesian silat. He took a great picture for the story, which can be found at

I’ll be writing for Examiner two or three times a week.

It Won’t Rain All the Time

Issa sent me a youtube link to “the song from ‘The Crow’ that I did” a week or so before her April 23 show at City Winery, “the song,” of course, being “It Can’t Rain All the Time.”

“There is a video for it that was never released,” she said, then added, almost as an afterthought, “you might like it.”

Might like it? She knew full well I would love it! I vividly remember seeing “The Crow” at a screening and being surprised by the song during the end credits and saying to myself, “My God! That’s Jane!”

Jane Siberry, that is—or was. She changed her name to Issa–pronounced eeee-sah–in 2006.

So I clicked on the link and watched the video—and asked her how it came to be.

“I’m not sure who did it, but I flew out to Los Angeles to do it—and they never released it,” she said. “I found it in my boxes when I divested myself of most of my things and saved it for exactly this.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“It’s more like an offering than a promotional thing,” she explained, and that’s for sure, since there’s little for her to capitalize from anyone viewing a clip for a song from a movie that came out 15 years ago.

The song itself is one of many she recorded for films and other outside projects–that you probably only know if you’ve seen the film. Remixed and re-edited for the video, it intercuts scenes from the extraordinary and tragic comic book-based action thriller starring Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son, who died in a freak prop gun accident during the filming) with Issa’s stunning blend of spoken word and singing—her setting surreal surrounded by candles.

Haunting on so many levels, it starts with a solemn recitation on faith, then gives way to a depiction of despair that builds into intensity before love prevails with the chorus:

It won’t rain all the time.
The sky won’t fall forever.
And though the night seems long,
your tears won’t fall forever.

See if you don’t cry at the beauty of the uplifting song, the singing and the sentiment–and the dual fictional/actual context of love transcendent. “Without this song, ‘The Crow’ couldn´t be the great artwork that it is,” wrote one youtube viewer. Said another: “I heard this in the theaters during the closing credits back in 94. Fifteen years later it still gives me goosebumps.” The most poignant response: “I chose this song for my mother’s funeral service. She died of cancer on February 4, 2009. Her friends and family miss her more than words can express.”

“I co-wrote the song for the soundtrack with Graeme Revell in Los Angeles,” Issa recalled (the prolific Revell wrote the original music for “The Crow” with Trent Reznor; he had previously scored Wim Wenders’ 1991 film “Until the End of the World,” which included Jane Siberry’s best-known song, “Calling All Angels”). “He added a keyboard after I sang it that made me sound out of tune. It was re-sung and remixed for the video.”

I remembered that at the time she had made a spiritual connection with Lee.

“I had been very moved at the circumstances around Brandon’s death,” she continued. “When I worked on the lyrics, I sent him a message that this was a good time to say anything he felt he’d left unsaid. I felt the tingle that I feel when I have been ‘heard’ and felt his presence when I was writing the words.”

Revell wrote the chorus, but she changed a key word.

“The line ‘It can’t rain all the time’ is from the movie. But I sang ‘It won’t rain all the time’ as it made more sense to me. They weren’t too pleased but I couldn’t seem to get the other words out of my mouth. ‘Can’t’ implies the heavens do not have the ability. ‘Won’t’ implies that there is a greater power with a will.”

Brandon Lee’s heritage and stature as a martial artist in his own right naturally brought him a following in the martial arts community, and many martial artists were thereby turned on to Issa through “The Crow.”

“I am amazed at the underground stream of Brandon Lee lovers,” she said. “It’s so neat. And every now and then a ‘Crow’ fan–usually someone interested in the martial arts–comes to a show of mine. What adventurers they are! And it’s a wild ride for them–expecting something else. But they seem to enjoy them. They’re very sweet people.”

She could very well have been talking about my martial arts/life-in-general teacher Simon Burgess. I first brought him to see Issa 10 years ago, maybe, and I brought him to City Winery as well.

But I made a point of not looking at him the whole time. First of all, while all Issa shows are different, this one was even more different: She brought along two guests—Amy Ziff, of New York female rock trio (like Issa, they have a substantial cult following) and a longtime Issa friend and music associate, and Peter Jöback, a multi-platinum Swedish singer and friend of Amy’s—and gave them pretty much equal time rather than just serving her material. And even Issa’s solo shows vary so much that Simon might have liked all of it, part of it, or none of it.

So I didn’t want to see him looking bored, irritated, or otherwise annoyed at me—all of which I’m too used to. Plus I didn’t want him to feel obligated to act like he was enjoying it to make me feel better, which he might have done—being a very sweet person–and might not have, being a painfully honest one as well.

Issa figured Si didn’t like it from his lack of obvious reaction (we were sitting very close to the stage so she could see us), but I was delighted—and surprised, in that it was such a different kind of Issa show–that he loved it. He was especially moved by her song “You Don’t Need,” a stark observation about a lover’s independence—or is it her own?

“Who knows, mate,” said Simon (he’s English), not responding to my confusion but to my wondering why he was so affected by that song in particular. “It was a shock to me, I can tell you. If you want some b.s. I’m sure I could make some up.”

He could have done so easily and I actually asked him to, but I didn’t hold him to it. How could I ask him to explain anything relating to Issa, when I’ve been trying to do it nearly 25 years (I’ve written liner notes on several of her albums and can be heard briefly on “A Day In The Life,” her novel 1997 29-minute sound collage of a day in New York City made up of voice mail messages, cab conversations, arguments with hairdressers, moments from yoga classes and excerpts of studio adventures with the likes of Joe Jackson and k.d. lang–that she put out herself to raise money for future recording projects) and still can’t get it right?

So I let Simon off the hook. The show, the songs were wonderful. We both knew that much, at least, whether or not we could explain it to anyone else. Me? I favored Ziff’s hysterical Issa imitation, which involved poking fun at “Mimi On the Beach” (the incredibly complex yet captivating early Siberry classic mood-shifts from tranquility to lightheartedness to imminent danger and back around again as its internal one-way dialog proceeds), “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog” (Ziff added in her own dog barks), “Bound By the Beauty” and “Love is Everything,” and the group’s encore of “Calling All Angels.”

It was entirely different from the last time she performed in New York, at Joe’s Pub last year. Then she was trying out a lot of newly recorded material–her first since her name change.

The new name had come to her in “a pure, positive way,” she said then. “It felt so good, and then I found out afterwards that it means many things: It’s the name of a Japanese haiku poet, and lots of Muslim boys are named Issa! It’s also the name that the Indians called Jesus in accounts of ‘the lost years’ when he was said to have traveled in India and Tibet. And it’s the name of a cleaning industry association!”

The Toronto native changed her name, then sold her house and most of her belongings–again in order to fund future recording projects while keeping living costs at a minimum and being free to travel.

“I set up my life to devote myself to creativity, and started writing,” she noted. “In two years I had 33 songs and stopped writing and started finishing them.”

Refining them during a three-month tour, she decided to release the new songs in three CDs (“a story told in three parts”), starting with “Dragon Dreams,” her first album recorded as Issa, which has just been released to stores via CD Baby/Ryko following its prior availability directly through her Sheeba Music label. But she wasn’t looking to make a physical CD, as she had decided to distribute her music in MP3 format solely via her web site.

“I decided that CDs still need to be made because people continually request them,” she explained, “and from my viewpoint, lazy as I am, I felt it would be careless just to release everything as just downloads: It didn’t seem that would properly honor all the work that went into it—which I hadn’t taken into consideration.”

“Dragon Dreams”’ initial release, Issa added, was sold according to her revolutionary concept of “self-determined pricing” whereby her fans were given four choices in obtaining her music online: They could pay their own “self-determined” amount immediately at time-of-transaction—or pay later after giving it some more thought. They could also pay the “standard” industry price of 99 cents per single song download, or $15 for the physical CD.

But the fourth option—and the one she openly encouraged–was the most radical: just download freely as a “gift from Issa.” This, by the way, was all well before Radiohead did essentially the same thing with “In Rainbows.” But Issa went another step further with “Dragon Dreams,” giving away a second “ambassador” CD with her request that the buyer pass it on to someone who might not have heard of her or couldn’t afford one—or a favorite café or radio station.

“From the letters I received, people took this very seriously and considered the recipient of their ambassador CDs with care,” she continued, adding, “most people paid the standard CD price, though a fair number chose higher, and a few chose lower.”

Self-determined pricing, she noted, was the product of “a long process of thinking how to operate from a place of trust. Everyone’s struggling with the same things, so I tried to rethink the whole music release process with my goal being to have it available to whomever might enjoy it without going the standard media promotional route. While I wanted the media to let people know the release existed, I wanted to use my fans primarily for promotion and either offer them the free CD to give to someone else, or ask them to burn CDs or send MP3s to three people they thought might enjoy it. It seemed to me that the peer route was the best way to go.”

Issa now is finishing production of the second of the three-part story begun with “Dragon Dreams,” for expected release in early autumn.

“There are lots of threads going back and forth across the three CDs, so at the end you will see the ‘whole story,’ so to speak,” she said. “And while I was moving toward selling single song downloads, I guess I’m going in the other direction now, and think people will want to hear the song sequences and the three CDs because there is purpose and direction to it. That is the kind of thing I like, anyway. As much as I don’t want the extra work, I can’t forgo the good storytelling aspect of stringing it out.”

And she also can’t forgo touring, though her touring focus now is less on clubs than on her “Issa Music Salons” concept. These have evolved out of the three-part, weekend-long Siberry Salons, which she began in the late 1990s and consisted of two performances, a science/poetry workshop (she began her career in music while earning science and microbiology degrees at the University of Guelph, Ontario), and dinner at intimate, non-typical venues such as art galleries and loft apartments or homes.

“It is a great thing in that it opens up the possibility of bringing your favorite artist to your community even if you are not anywhere near a normal touring route,” she said of the 90-minute events (not including CD signings and artist reception), which can be public or private depending on the wishes of the hosting saloniere. “People can create a ‘sacred space’ for something they value and want to share with the community.”

But these salons wouldn’t be possible had not Issa built her own committed community/fan base.

“My email list is so resourceful and creative—it’s like gold to me,” she said. She stays in touch with her list regularly via her email “Museletter,” which announces her activities and whereabouts: A recent one directed fans to her website for musings, concert announcements, poems and for-sale paintings, as Issa is now selling paintings online as another means of supporting her independent artistic endeavors (her site also promises to soon provide a template of her online store so that others can make use of her self-determined pricing system).

Her Museletter also sent them over to youtube to see the “It Can’t Rain All the Time” video. There are tons of other Issa/Siberry clips up there, by the way, including several from City Winery (you can even see Ziff’s brilliant Issa spoof). But I strayed over to the video that accompanied “One More Colour,” that was directed in 1985 by Devo’s Jerry Casale, and shows Issa walking a cow through the Canadian countryside. I was so mesmerized by this clip when I chanced upon it on MTV that I made sure to see her shortly after when she played the Bottom Line. That show was with a full band, including two female musician/backup vocalists. Issa wore one of those microphones that were strapped around her head to free up her hands, and she did all those expressive gesturings that you can see sometimes in the videos, except that she was also able to move about the stage.

Suffice it to say, that show changed my life.

“I did a video for ‘One More Colour’ in Canada but it was too literal and spoiled the song,” she said when I told her that I ended up spending at least an hour watching it and “The Crow” clip over and over. “It also had a scene in it where the director had drawn eyes on my eyelids, and then I open my eyes. It would have scared little kids.”

Luckily Reprise—her U.S. record label at the time–wanted to do a new one.

“I wanted to just sing the song walking a cow so the song would come alive in people’s imaginations–rather than die in their imaginations from being too literal,” she said. “Jerry added a lot of the bells and whistles. The bridge of the song was inspired by a friend who is ‘simple,’ and very sweet. His joy about small things affected me and I put it in the song. That is what the scene with the child-like people is about–though it is slightly reminiscent of ‘Night of the Zombies.’”

She offered more necessary information about the cow: “I was in the make-up trailer when they brought the news that the truck with the cow had arrived, but the cow was missing. I was really upset. They eventually found the cow grazing beside the highway, but brought in another one. This was a more experienced cow, having been ‘Door No. 3’ in a TV game show.”

Filmed in Los Angeles, the clip cost over $100,000. “Everyone’s third cousin was in the crew,” she continued, “but the budget for editing was miniscule and i had to fight hard to get the time to do it right. The next video I did with them, I made them guarantee a proper post-production budget. But it was fun to do this video.”

I looked again at some of the youtube comments and found two that hit home:

“It’s hard to pick a ‘favourite song’ but if I had to…this would be it. It makes me feel as if my soul is connected to something glorious that I can’t comprehend.”

“I loved this song since I was a kid…. I always remember her walking the cow and finding that quite strange…but hey, it worked. Twenty years later and thats all I remember.”

Yes, it was Issa walking the cow that grabbed my attention visually, but if I had to, maybe I’d pick “One More Colour” as my favorite song, too, and I also can’t comprehend exactly what it is, but that it is indeed something glorious that my soul is connected to.

Notice the typically poetic Issa lyrics about the beauty of nature (“the goatless ledge `neath the honkless geese in the speckless sky”) and her singular sensibility in envisioning a dotted line that to follow “you must make a jump each time,” or a carefree vendor who sings loudly and says only “it suits me fine, that`s the way I am.”

But what on earth is “this thing you won’t believe” that she has seen, that is so big (“well, at least as big as me”)? And does it matter? And her wonderful directive “speak a little softer,  work a little harder, shoot less with more care”: Shoot less with more care. Would that we would all shoot less with more care.

But it is the chorus “Here, all we have here is sky/All the sky is, is blue/All that blue is, is one more colour now” that tells all—whatever it all may mean. And it’s the final repetition, when she sings “one more colour” three times, each increasing in splendor and magnificence, that never fails to make me cry.

And I really don’t know why that is, either.