They haven’t had much exposure in the U.S., but Australia’s celebrated Mystery Road neo-western crime movies and television series have formed a franchise of enormous power, thanks to their desolate “Outback noir” settings, stunning cinematography, amazing cast, and above all, gripping storylines marked by unbearable tension largely caused by cultural clash.
The creation of Indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, the series began with the 2013 release of Mystery Road, which established the template of the Indigenous loner police detective Jay Swan. Magnificently played throughout the series by Indigenous actor Aaron Pedersen, the intensely somber Swan is charged with investigating the drug-related murder of an Indigenous teen girl whose body was dumped inside a roadside drainage culvert.
Goldstone followed in 2016 and found Swan in a small mining tone, searching for a missing Asian tourist. The format was then expanded in 2018 with the first of two six-episode TV seasons: Centering on the disappearance of an Indigenous football hero and a white backpacker, it paired Pedersen with a local police sergeant played by the great Judy Davis, and was made available in the U.S. via the Acorn TV subscription video streaming service.
Acorn is now bringing to the U.S. the second Mystery Road season, which aired in Australia earlier this year, starting Monday (Oct. 12). The new season finds Swan in the coastal town of Gideon, taking on another grisly case after a headless body is discovered in a mangrove swamp. As in the preceding plots, the stark differences between the white and Indigenous Australian communities and cultures are brought to the fore, with Swan stuck in a middle where neither side trusts him.
All of the Mystery Road incarnations have been heavily decorated with awards and nominations. According to Greer Simpkin, producer and head of television for Sen’s Bunya Productions company (she produced both Mystery Road TV seasons as well as Goldstone), the latest Australian ratings for the second Mystery Road series, which aired there in April and May on ABC, shows that it remains the year’s top show for the network—or any other Down Under.
“Audiences love it in Australia,” says Simpkin, on the phone in New Zealand and crediting Sen’s “original premise of using the western movie genre in bringing audiences in–where they end up staying because Sen also has so much to say.”
But it’s also because of how Sen says it–via the words of a character that evokes the western film archetype embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, or Gary Cooper’s stoic Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, but who, because of his locale and cultural roots, is entirely original.
“Ivan created this incredible character in Jay Swan—whom so much hinges on,” continues Simpkin, also citing Pedersen’s portrayal. “He’s compelling, brooding, complicated—and doesn’t say much.”
She further credits the participation of Indigenous script writers in both TV seasons, and the remote Outback location—a character unto itself.
“It’s an enormous span of desert that takes a couple days to travel,” says Simpkin. “So there’s that, and this brilliant mixture of Black and white writers in a room, then bringing in Indigenous directors for the first series [Rachel Perkins] and second [Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair]—and that’s the key to its success: It’s very genuinely derived from that authenticity.”
Another noteworthy aspect of the series is its soundtrack, which features music by Australian musicians, many of them Indigenous and from its northwestern Kimberly location.
“We go very remote,” Simpkin says. “Very few TV series go as remote as we do: We’re up there five, six months. It’s coastal, with majestic mountains in the first series, and now coastal terrain and blue-green sea that’s spectacular. And we always involve the Indigenous community where we fit the series, using it for lots of extras.”
Regarding that community, Simpkin lauds the support from the federal government agency Screen Australia, which has an Indigenous department and facilitates a broad talent pool of Indigenous creators, actors and crew. And she stresses that the second TV series, like the first, can be enjoyed whether or not previous entries in the franchise have been seen—though viewers of the complete Mystery Road saga will appreciate elements running through the installments.
One of them, Simpkin notes, concerns firearms. The Mystery Road movie has an unbearably suspenseful shootout using rifles at long distance, which is echoed in the second film and final episode of both TV seasons.
Most fascinating, though, and intentionally educational, is that the Mystery Road series deals with past and present Indigenous injustices.
“For instance, Warwick wanted to see [lawn] sprinklers all the way through the second series,” explains Simpkin. “They’re nonsensical, and represent colonialism—sprinklers everywhere, like in England. And you see that motif through the desert, front and foremost in the shootout.”
She notes, too, that the “bucolic European world [created] in a beautiful desert” also juxtaposes ironically with the scenes of excavation of an Indigenous site by a Swedish female archaeologist.
“The second series touches upon scientists and anthropologists—people studying Indigenous artifacts, but taking them back to Europe and British museums. It also touches on the cultural repatriation movement, which is certainly happening in Australia and in Kimberly. The archaeologist character comes at everything from a scientific point-of-view, and only in the end does she touch the earth and understand the meaning of country, and that the connection to the land is really important.”
So is “the local natives’ objection to her quest to uncover Indigenous cultural artifacts to rewrite their history,” says Simpkin, noting that the character suffers a crisis of conscience when she finds an unidentified modern grave at the archaeological survey site.
“It jeopardizes her work, yet it could also solve a murder,” Simpkin adds, but the archaeological excavation subplot also significantly represents a facet of Australia’s historic exploitation of its Indigenous population that has yet to be fully reconciled.
Simpkin points to the first Mystery Road TV season, during which the Judy Davis character discovers that her own ancestors poisoned a water hole used by local natives.
“These things happened all over the country, and people here have denied they ever happened,” she says. “People who live on the coastline—in Sydney or Melbourne—aren’t even aware of the desert! But all [of the Mystery Road releases] deal with the effects of colonization.”
She relates, in fact, that Ivan Sen conceived the series because his cousin was murdered: “He felt the police never tried to find the murderer–and we carried that into the second series.”
But Simpkin cautions against assuming that all of Australia can be understood by Mystery Road—or that every dusty Outback town is like the ones attended to by Jay Swan.
“We made up the towns and created a world that does represent Australia to a degree,” she says. “It’s the frontier—an interesting place where one can disappear. But it’s an enormous continent and really quite incredible: For at least 70,000 years Aboriginal people have lived in tune with that land. We’re certainly not saying all places are interesting like that, but the relationship that the Indigenous Australians have with the land is ingrained.”
Meanwhile, Simpkin reports that Sen has already written the outline for a third Mystery Road TV season. And incidentally, his Bunya production company name comes from an Australian pine tree, which every two years brings together thousands of Indigenous people to celebrate the fallen bunya cones.
Last week’s release of NRBQ’s In • Frequencies was the climax of an extraordinarily fruitful year for the band, pandemic touring shutdown notwithstanding.
It followed the recent limited edition CD release of NRBQ at the Ardmore Music Hall 2015, a live set recorded in 2015 at the Ardmore, Pa. rock venue with current members of the venerable “Q” and guests including Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson. Q-related titles out so far this year also include the band’s early lead vocalist Frank Gadler’s first album Cause of You, and a reissue of the legendary Shaggs’ second album Shaggs Own Thing (1982), which NRBQ’s Terry Adams produced.
Still to come before the end of the year are a new album from NRBQ’s current guitarist Scott Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough’s band Flat Five; original Q guitarist Steve Ferguson’s Blue Ice of Winsted; a vinyl reissue of Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson’s 1992 album Johnnie B. Bad, and a new Sun Ra Arkestra album.
And to top it off, Spanish publisher La Produktiva Books—new literary sister company to La Produktiva Records—has issued the first-ever book about NRBQ, ¿Quiénes son NRBQ?: La banda que toca lo que le da la gana.
But the new In • Frequencies is the centerpiece of NRBQ’s remarkable run of releases, and the latest in a steady series of original and reissue Q titles on Omnivore Recordings—notably including reissues of the band’s self-titled 1969 album and 1977 fifth album All Hopped Up, and the five-disc 2016 High Noon–A 50-Year Retrospective. Setting it apart, In • Frequencies is the first-ever collection of rare NRBQ tracks and outtakes—in the words of liner notes writer M.C. Kostek, “great lost songs from a lifetime of music.”
Indeed, the 16 choice tracks on In • Frequencies provide a perfect companion piece to the High Noon set in spanning the entire 50-plus years’ existence of the singular band whose acronym stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet.
“When our friends at Omnivore asked for a ‘rarities album,’ we readily agreed,” says the venerable band’s leader, keyboardist and founding member Terry Adams—the only original member still in the band.
“There were no studios open because of the virus–but there were plenty of good-sounding NRBQ recordings on the shelves already. So when these songs surfaced on the tapes, I had to say, ‘What’s a nice song like you doing on a tape like this?’”
Nice songs, for sure, and full of the fun that has marked The Q live and on record since the beginning—and has made the band, in all its configurations, treasured by fans and peers alike. The live version of Elvis Presley’s chart-topping hit “Too Much,” which was taped at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis in 1994, even garnered astonished respect from none other than Presley’s celebrated lead guitarist Scotty Moore.
“It was a lot of fun,” recalls Adams. “It was a big Elvis Presley tribute show, and every time I settled on a song to do, they said it was already promised to another artist. I’d planned on doing ‘Mystery Train’—with some added mystery–but had to think of another song. So on the way there, just two hours outside of Memphis, I got an idea for an arrangement for ‘Too Much’: making it a duet, and honoring Scotty’s solo.”
It was an occasion where the quartet was augmented by a horn section.
“My brother Donn [a trombonist who has served The Q as part of its occasional Whole Wheat Horns section] and I always laughed like crazy for Scotty’s solo on the original [which opens with thick, rapid-fire chording]. I called saxophonist Jim Hoke and asked him to score that solo for three horns—Jim, David Gordon, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Tyrone Hill: Jim had to rush to catch a bus from Nashville and scored it on the way to Memphis. When Scotty himself heard it he came over shaking his head and laughing, and said, ‘Well, it took three of you to do it.’ It turned out that he had always been embarrassed by it, and that Elvis used to tease him about it.”
Adams also cites “We’ll Make Love,” a live NRBQ gem written by guitarist Al Anderson that somehow never made it on an album until now, via a performance recorded in 1976 at Trinity College.
“I remember having more fun than anything playing it on stage,” says Adams. “We always had a lot of fun back there while Al was singing his song.”
As for bassist Joey Spampinato’s “Love Came to Me,” which appeared as a studio recording on the 1999 album NRBQ, the track was performed that year during a live morning radio show at WDET-FM in Detroit, and as Adams rightly notes, “it’s too good of a song to only have one version of.”
Another noteworthy live performance on In • Frequencies is “It’s a Wild Weekend,” which comes from a 1987 soundcheck at the famed Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, R.I. Featuring the band’s lyrics and an original bridge to the Rockin’ Rebels’ 1963 hit instrumental “Wild Weekend,” a studio take of the modified tune became the titletrack of The Q’s 1989 Wild Weekend album.
But an especially fun recording for Adams is “Orioles,” which was suggested by an NRBQ fan who knew that the Baltimore Orioles might need a song. Both Adams and Spampinato submitted a song, with Spampinato’s, “Baseball in Baltimore,” surfacing in 2002 on the Music’s Been Good to You album.
“Recording it was fun,” recalls Adams. “When I did the vocal part of calling out names of players, Joey could hardly take it because it wasn’t literal. He wanted the names of players who were actually on the team instead of others like Willie Mays and Don Drysdale—and Frankie Gadler and Joseph Spampinato! It was fun for me though, and besides, I don’t think anyone stays on any team anymore. Baseball fans have to be careful who they’re loyal to.”
NRBQ fans, on the other hand, have been rewarded for their loyalty throughout the long and extraordinary history of a band that continues to surprise with every performance and release.
“As a member of the band, I get to hear an awful lot of stuff that other people don’t have access to,” says guitarist Ligon. “But I’m hearing most of these tracks for the first time.”
He singles out the lovely “Sho’ Need Love,” a 1970 song recorded by NRBQ’s offshoot band The Dickens, that was released in 1970: “It’s almost too good to be true! It’s also hard to believe that I had never heard Terry’s ‘Get Real’ [recorded in 1983 and previously unreleased] or ‘Let Me Tell You ’Bout My Girl’ [cut in 1974, during the brief time when both Anderson and the late Ferguson were in the group, and also unreleased]” until this collection came together.”
“You think you know a person!” Ligon continues, then adds, “But ‘April Showers’ is my sentimental favorite. The piano break is unreal. The singer ain’t bad either.”
The singer, of course, is Ligon, on the cover of the 1921 pop standard that The Q recorded for the soundtrack of the 2018 movie Change in the Air. One of its music directors, incidentally, was the late Hal Willner, the longtime music director for Saturday Night Live, and a beloved music producer whose eclecticism matched the band’s.
Willner enlisted NRBQ’s participation in his acclaimed That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films multiple-artist concept albums.
“NRBQ is the Mount Olympus of rock and roll,” he wrote in the At the Ardmore CD jacket, hailing the band as a national treasure and testifying that “they make me so damn happy!” In all the group’s configurations, he added, it “consistently discovers real musical light in the darkest of souls.”
“The live album should get your spirits up,” observes Adams, “but one thing I wanted to do with Omnivore and In • Frequencies was make sure it comes out before the election—in the hopes of inspiring people not to be so depressed, but get out and take action!”
“That’s not the reason why we do music, or what the music is about—but I hope there’s an undercurrent there.”
Now that some of the dust—if not nuclear fallout—has settled from last night’s so-called presidential debate, I first want to express relief that the response I’m seeing today (admittedly on MSNBC and The New York Times for the most part) are solidly in Biden’s favor.
Relieved, because for the first hour or so that I stayed with it, I thought “Sleepy Joe” was taking a beating, such a savage and merciless beating, in fact, that I had to turn away.
I also had to turn away periodically from the savage and merciless beating I took on Facebook for saying this. One Facebook “friend” responded with “FU” to my first post (also tweeted), right at the outset of Trump’s initial onslaught, “Bad start for #Biden. #debates.” I hate to use the overused word “proverbial,” but to me, Biden looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
But as so often happens in Facebook threads—especially, I’m sorry to say, my threads–I wasn’t sure if she was directing her “FU” at me or another respondent. So dusting off my best Travis Bickle, I came back with, “You saying FU to me? If so you can say goodbye.” Then I stewed for the next 40 minutes, checking back every five seconds for a response, then when none came, finally pulled the plug.
“Only lost one friend tonight, and for once I did the unfriending!” I posted before finally shutting down around 3 a.m. This got the most laughs I’ve gotten on Facebook probably since that Thanksgiving post where I said I was thankful for everyone who hadn’t unfriended me.
Then another FB “friend” picked up on it this morning and spelled it out: “FUCK YOU,” all caps. “Goodbye,” I returned, and this time UF’d him in 10 seconds. I followed it with a general post, “To whom it may concern: I can take a lot of shit, but you only get the chance to say ‘Fuck you’ to me once.”
All this because I thought Biden was getting his butt kicked and decided to say so.
But few understood that I was speaking of debate style over substance, and a style—Trump’s—that was anything but pretty. And it’s something that I saw coming, as I tweeted earlier in the day: “Expecting #DebateTuesday to be stacked in #Trump’s favor, due to the set-up and eternal network goal of providing #WWERaw entertainment value. Hope #Biden sticks to being the adult in the room, sternly showing maturity opposite Trump’s bratty incompetence and incoherence.”
Now, I do think Biden did that, but he still failed—at least for that first hour—because the debate format, as expected, was stacked in Trump’s favor. Chris Wallace couldn’t have been worse, but I don’t know that any moderator would have done better—nor would they have wanted to: Bottom line is, everyone is talking about it—no matter that most of it is brutally negative toward Wallace, and Trump–and so rightly so.
But back to Biden, and why I thought he was battered—no matter that he’s a veritable saint sitting opposite Satan. Another post, which shortly followed “Bad start for Biden,” only encouraged the pile-up on me: “#Trump in control of the #debate.”
Many found this, like its predecessor, wrong, even disgusting, to the point of white-hot anger. But they either missed the context, or took it out of context, that is, what I meant by saying Trump was in control—which was not to be taken as praise or approval, but statement of fact.
One friend, whom I’m in 100 percent agreement with on substance, was especially livid, but calmed down enough by morning to understand where I was coming from and deleted his earlier tweets—then used a good chess analogy: “If we were sitting down to play chess, and you kept knocking over my pieces rather than playing the game properly, you’re not in control. You’re just being an asshole.”
But I would say that I would be in control and an asshole, meaning, because I was an asshole and not “playing the game properly,” I controlled not so much how you played the game, but if you could play the game at all.
In the case of the debate, then, I offered a couple sports analogies of my own.
Football is relatively simple: They talk about ball control and “time of possession.” Usually, who ever controls the ball the best, and has the most time of possession (of the ball), is the winner—though not always.
I would say that Trump clearly controlled the movement (ball) of the portion of the debate that I watched, and had the most time of possession of the microphone via constant interruption and talking over Biden. I’m happy to see that so many Facebook friends and Wednesday morning media quarterbacks didn’t award him the game ball.
But comparing the debate to a boxing prize fight offers subtler analytic possibilities. Now I’ve actually judged professional Muay Thai fights, so here I know a little of what I’m speaking.
Among the things you consider when judging a fight are number of punches thrown, number of punches landed and damage of punches landed, also quality of defense, and perhaps most important, aggression—effective aggression. Of course, all of this is subjective, as is judging last night’s debate.
So what I saw at the start, and what I scored in his favor, was Trump’s effective aggression. True, it was dirty, dirty, dirty, filthy, but Wallace allowed it, maybe secretly encouraged it, and it was effective: I felt that Biden was overwhelmed, couldn’t counter, and could only flail.
I’ve seen since, of course, that Biden connected with at least two hard punches—clobbering Trump on his racism and disdain for democracy–and they get scored higher than Trump’s jabs. And that Biden withstood the barrage and that Trump ended up not winning any converts. And that the unanimous realization of Trump’s vile nature and just plain ugliness–and Biden’s uncompromising decency–was the real winner.
As Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in The New York Times, “When Biden explained in simple terms why it’s important to be kind–not just from the standpoint of individual relationships, but for the survival of liberal democracy–he hit upon something crucial. This form of government requires certain virtues and a willingness to understand things from different points of view is one of them. I would argue that willingness to understand is a form of love, and one that isn’t easily inculcated into hardened hearts. Biden didn’t say all of that, of course, and I’m not sure he would endorse it. But he did set his sights on something much more critical, in that short speech, than specific policies or elections.”
And that’s what I didn’t see in that first hour, before turning away from a lopsided performance, Biden’s goodness notwithstanding.
One thing about this pandemic, it’s given me a lot of time to reflect.
I thought about Merle Kilgore a few weeks ago, at the height of the George Floyd protests and the ensuing removal of Confederate/racist-related flags and statuary throughout the country. And I thought of him again more recently when the Country Music Association announced that Hank Williams, Jr. was being inducted into the Counry Music Hall of Fame.
Merle Kilgore, if you don’t know, wrote, with June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He also wrote David Houston’s big 1962 country crossover hit “Wolverton Mountain,” and one of my favorites, Tommy Roe’s “The Folk Singer.” He was an inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but by now he was best-known as Hank, Jr.’s longtime manager—having famously carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar long before.
Merle, who died at 70 on February 26, 2005, was a big, cuddly bear of a man, with an oversized jovial personality to match. As Brenda Lee said at his funeral, he “brought laughter to every room he entered—we all know that—and he was friend to all within the reach of my voice. He challenged all of us to remember–and this is so important–he challenged us in the industry to remember the dream that brought us into this industry that he so passionately loved.”
One thing I passionately loved about Merle Kilgore was that whenever I saw him, he’d greet me with “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” Of course I made a point of seeing him whenever I was in Nashville, usually with another big Kilgore fan, Los Angeles-based Bob Merlis, who was then Warner Bros. Records head of publicity.
Bob and I were in Nashville in June, 1998, for our annual hang at what was then called Country Music Fan Fair, then held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds–from where it moved three years later to Downtown Nashville. Bob had just emceed the noon Warner Bros. label show at the Fairgrounds Speedway, and we’d walked up the hill to the exhibition buildings, where hundreds of country artists had meet-and-greet booths.
One of the biggest artist booths, not surprisingly, was Hank Williams, Jr.’s. It was comparatively huge, actually, stocked full of all kinds of merchandise. There holding court behind the counter was Merle Kilgore.
“Jim Bessman! America’s most-beloved music journalist!” he bellowed, then saw Bob.
“Hey! I got something for you guys—but you have to wear them!” he said, reaching down below the counter for what must have been his special stash. When his hands resurfaced, each held a bold blue garment, one of which he tossed to Bob, the other to me. We then unfolded, to our horror–and Merle’s boisterous chuckle—Confederate Flag gym shorts!
“Jim Bessman! Make sure you wear them at the gym when you get back to New York! You’ll get a big reaction!” Merle exclaimed, laughing louder. I’m sure he would have been right, had I worn them at the gym. I don’t remember what I did with them when I got back to New York, but I do know I never wore them to the gym.
But I remember one other thing about that Fan Fair stop. Merle asked if I’d heard about Jack McFadden. Jack was another bigtime manager I always visited when I was in Nashville.
I’d first met Jack when he managed Keith Whitley to country music stardom. Thanks to Jack, I’d even got to hang with Keith (whom I’d first seen at the University of Wisconsin Student Union Great Hall back in the early 1970s when he and Ricky Skaggs were in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys) and his wife Lorrie Morgan when they taped something together at a studio in New York.
Big thanks to Jack, I also became friendly with Buck Owens, whom Jack had managed forever. He also managed Billy Ray Cyrus, and I’ve always remembered what Jack said when Travis Tritt got into trouble at Fan Fair in 1992 for criticizing “Achy Breaky Heart.” In response, Jack said, “I think Travis is feeling the heat from our afterburner.”
Sadly, Jack was now in a coma, Merle told us. He wouldn’t last the day. But they were reading messages to him, so when I got to a phone I called his office and made sure they read a loving one from me.
Usually, though, Bob and I would visit Merle at his office in Music Row (he had another one in Paris, Tennessee, where Bocephus–Hank, Jr.–was based). His Music Row office was just around the bend from the Country Music Association headquarters (Merle was a longtime CMA officer), in the same building that once housed the Cash Box Nashville bureau when I worked for the long defunct trade magazine I came to New York in the early 1980s. We got there once when he was just pulling up in his immense boat of an SUV (in the same parking lot where I once spent a cold winter night in my rental car) that even then couldn’t fit his even more immense personality.
I’m laughing now recalling how another dear departed friend, Steve Popovich (founder of Cleveland International Records, Steve ran PolyGram Nashville in the 1980s, where he signed the likes of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), always referred to Merle, in conversation or in person, as “The SENATOR!,” for he was in fact an honorary Tennessee State Senator. Certainly, he was politically diplomatic.
I put Merle’s diplomacy to the test one year when Bob and I were in Nashville in October for the Country Music Awards. I have an unfortunate tendency not to conform with consensus, i.e., Bob Dylan’s the greatest songwriter ever, Aretha Franklin’s the greatest singer ever, etc., etc. Politics and big gun/big game-hunting obsessions aside, I’ve also always contended that Hank, Jr. was better than Hank, Sr.—always a good conversation-ender, if not longtime friendship.
I must have mentioned this to Bob, then said we had two country music authorities close at hand that we could trust for an expert opinion.
First we went to Tony Pipitone, who like Bob, was a top executive at Warner Bros. in L.A. (he headed the label’s “special products” division charged with catalog compilations), a big country music fan, a regular at Fan Fair and the CMA Awards, and another friend of Merle’s.
“I’d have to say Hank, Jr.,” Tony said, when we asked him to choose between Sr. and Jr. One down, we then went over to Bob and Mary Oermann’s, where I was staying, and asked Bob—arguably the most important country music journalist of our time—for his vote. He said exactly the same thing. Neither of them had given it a second thought.
My third and final expert was the guy who carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar and managed Jr.
I think it was at the PolyGram CMA Awards after-party, though it might have been at MCA’s. Whichever, he was standing at the bar when I arrived.
“Merle,” I said, “you know how much I love Bocephus. I know it’s considered sacrilege, but I’ve always maintained he’s better than his father. I’ve even asked Tony Pipitone and Bob Oermann, and they both agree. But if anyone would know, it would obviously be you.”
The SENATOR looked down at me, considered the question for a few seconds, then leaned back and said, “Junior is more versatile. But Senior was more focused.”
He could have changed it around. In fact, maybe he did. But either way, he diplomatically declared it a draw.
By the way, when I said Merle was standing at the bar, I should mention that he’d been sober then some 20 years. One day in his office he’d told me and Bob about his drinking days. Bob says he said, “I drank because it made me funny.” I remember him saying, “I drank because it made me happy.” Again, both work. Even without alcohol, Merle Kilgore was both happy and funny.
I did see him outside Nashville on a couple occasions, the first time when Hank played the Nassau Coliseum.
One thing that I loved about Merle was how much he loved Bocephus. Whenever I was at a Bo show and backstage or even on stage, Merle would be in the wings standing up and singing along the entire set like a cheerleader, just loving it. After the Nassau gig we went on Hank’s bus and while we waited for him, I asked Merle what Junior felt about Chet Flippo’s then recently-published Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams.
Another now dear departed friend, Chet Flippo was responsible for expanding Rolling Stone’s country music coverage in the mid-1970s, when I first got to know him. He later authored several books, most notably two on the Rolling Stones and his 1981 Your Cheatin’ Heart, which blended fact with fictionalized dialog and scenes, some of them intimate.
“Chet Flippo!” shouted Merle, who had actually spent time with Hank, Sr. “Yeah, Chet Flippo was there, all right! He was hiding in the hay with his tape recorder!”
Then there was a day in late May, 2003, when I approached the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue and saw a man who looked very much like Merle Kilgore waiting for the “Walk” sign. As I neared him it dawned on me: Ain’t no one who looks like Merle Kilgore who ain’t Merle Kilgore, and sure enough, it was Merle Kilgore.
“Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!”
Merle was on his way to Radio City, where Junior was rehearsing his performance at the ABC-TV network “upfront” showcase of its fall schedule for advertisers and media. Hank was going to sing his Monday Night Football theme remake of his 1984 hit “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight”—“All My Rowdy Friends are Here on Monday Night”—and I was thrilled when Merle invited me to the real thing later in the day.
When I got there I went straight to Hank’s dressing room, where he was already in all his stage splendor, particularly a fabulous cowboy hat with a number emblazoned on the front. I asked him about it, and he said it was the uniform number of a Black college football star who had died tragically a short while back, whom he had been very close to.
But there was another person whom both Hank and Merle had been close to who had just died—June Carter Cash, on May 15. I asked them about the funeral, and especially Rosanne Cash’s eulogy, which I’d seen or read, which was stunning in its beauty and eloquence.
Rosanne’s speech was so good, in fact, that when Merle turned to Hank right after and said, “Go up and say something,” Hank told him, “I can’t go up there after that. You go up and say something!”
Merle then said, “I can’t follow her either!” And then, in the row behind them, Kris Kristofferson leaned over and whispered, “Shit! Now I can’t go up and say anything!”
I suppose it was inappropriate, but I had to laugh out loud at these three legendary country music songwriters, who couldn’t go up and say anything in honor of their dear fellow legend after Rosanne took all of them to school!
Searching YouTube for a video or two to illustrate this tribute, I happened upon footage of Merle’s own funeral, co-hosted by a couple other friends: Travis Tritt, whom me and Bob had run into sitting in a darkened corner of a bar in Nashville the night that his Billy Ray Cyrus brouhaha erupted, and Marty Stuart, who was likewise finally going into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank, Jr. When they called up Bocephus, he wept uncontrollably.
“Well, you’ve done it this time, Brother,” Hank finally managed to mutter. “I went to the office today…and found that you weren’t there. But the more that I searched, I realized you were everywhere: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, Millenium, too–there were so many pictures, so many memories. Together, me and you. You carried Dad’s guitar in Shreveport, you were my link to him. Like a brother, like a father, and always, always, no matter what, my friend.”
Then they showed some great video of Merle telling stories, taken from a Country Family Reunion program, including a great one about how he lived with Faron Young when he was going through a divorce and after Bocephus had fallen off the mountain in 1975—and before he quit drinking.
Both Merle and Faron were raised in Shreveport, where Merle had carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar at the famed Lousiana Hayride show when Faron was a rowdy high school student in a class taught by Merle’s mom. Faron used to sing country songs in the hallways, so to get him to behave, she told him that Merle would walk him backstage at the Hayride if he calmed the class down. He did.
Years later in Nashville, Faron owned a mansion, and offered Merle a cheap rental on the bottom half. Faron was a great cook, Merle recalled, and they were like “the original Odd Couple.”
One afternoon Faron called Merle at Nashville’s Hall of Fame bar and asked when he’d be home, since he was making his favorite dinner—Shake ’N Bake pork chops. Merle said he’d be home around 6:30.
“Don’t lie to me, now!” said Faron.
Merle got another call from Faron—about midnight.
“You think I [don’t] slave over that hot stove cooking you Shake ’N Bake? Don’t even think about coming home on an empty stomach! Better stop at Waffle House because [the neighbor’s dog] Fluffo is getting your meal! Good night!”
The ast time I saw Hank, Jr., four years ago when he did a show at SiriusXM here in New York accompanied by his new manager (and another old friend) Ken Levitan, I mentioned how much I missed Merle.
“I talked to him last week!” said Hank, explaining that he’d visited Merle’s grave. “I told him I missed him, and he said he was proud of me.”
Now I can’t vouch for the veracity of the conversation, but I don’t necessarily doubt it. After all, I can still hear Merle saiying, “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” I don’t even mind that I overheard him calling someone else America’s most beloved music journalist, even if to my mind, at least, he was nowhere near as belovable.
But Merle always was.
“He was more than a big man with a big heart,” Brenda Lee said at his funeral. “He was a huge man with a big, big, big heart. If riches can be counted in the legacy of the lives he touched and the hearts that will never forget you, look around this room today and it tells me Merle Kilgore indeed did just fine.”
Twitter is fast, and sometimes (not often percentagewise since I tweet so much) I’m too fast for Twitter—meaning I’m too fast for my own good.
Usually it’s a matter of tweeting or retweeting before all the facts are in, like if suddenly someone is trending because of reports of his or her death and it turns out to be prior to confirmation or worse, a prank. Or the time a few weeks back when I fell for a fake report that Colin Kaepernick was getting signed to Buffalo or somewhere—because I wanted so much to believe it.
I had an itchy Twitter finger Monday, and after a retweet, unknowingly proceeded to make an unusual series of mistakes culminating in an amazing revelation that didn’t fully sink in until I’d already begun writing this piece.
It all started with my retweet of Chely Wright.
I retweet Chely all the time. I’ve known her and loved her since meeting her in Nashville in 1994, the year her debut album Woman in the Moon was released. The Academy of Country Music named her Top New Female Vocalist the following year, and she had a No. 1 hit two years later with “Single White Female.”
Then, in 2010, Chely became one of the first major country music artists to come out as lesbian, and published a moving memoir, Like Me : Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, released simultaneously with a terrific Rodney Crowell-produced album, Lifted Off the Ground.
On Twitter, she’s gay, liberal, Christian, kind, and fearless. I’m always looking at Twitter trends to see what’s going on, and when I clicked on “Monkey,” Chely’s tweet was one of the first I found:
“Let’s be clear here—@realDonaldTrump heard clearly that someone in his audience yelled out ‘MONKEY’ when he mentioned @BarackObama. Trump says, ‘Let’s be nice’ and then makes a joke about it. This is where we are. Racists are emboldened by this president. VOTE.”
Chely’s tweet was also a “quote tweet” in that it accompanied and built upon a retweet, in this case one from Ken Olin, another prolific and influential liberal tweeter.
This was Olin’s quote tweet: “After @realDonaldTrump mentions @BarackObama’s name someone yells, ‘monkey.’ A few seconds later Trump laughs and makes a joke. It’s inconceivable in 2020 that a despicable comment like this would be treated lightly. The President is sickening.”
I saw the Chely/Ken Olin combo tweet, assumed it was accurate—why wouldn’t I?–and didn’t think twice before retweeting it and copying it on Facebook.
Returning to Twitter maybe an hour or so later, I saw I’d received a notification, meaning someone had liked, retweeted, or commented on one of my tweets. Sure enough, it was a comment on the Chely/Olin tweet, from someone identified only as Byron, and with a profile picture showing a young man in camo uniform next to another guy who was casually dressed and wearing a ball cap.
Byron was replying to my retweet of Chely’s tweet/quote tweet, which may sound confusing if you’re not on Twitter, but will seem pretty clearcut compared with what’s to come.
“Yes. Let’s be clear,” Byron tweeted. “I heard him yell spygate.”
Taking Byron at face value, it did seem clear to me that his “Let’s be clear” was a sarcastic response to what Chely wrote—which wasn’t a big enough deal for me to get worked up over.
But I did get worked up enough over the next sentence—“I heard him yell spygate”—because I wrongly–no, very wrongly–didn’t realize that he was honestly commenting, that he really did hear someone yell “spygate.”
I figured, entirely mistakenly, that this was just another right-wing nutjob (RWNJ) who was mocking Chely and me by taking the opportunity to hurl the totally fake-news construct “spygate” as a means of promoting common anti-Obama RWNJ racism, much in the same manner as yelling out “Benghazi.”
So I did something I rarely do. I responded.
“As would any racist,” I tweeted back at Byron.
Like I said, I rarely respond. It only opens the floodgates for RWNJs.
I remember one time in particular, years ago. I don’t remember my tweet that started it, but I got scores of insulting RWNJ responses, the worst one being, “You look like Bozo the Clown!”
I didn’t hold back.
“What a vile, disgusting thing to say!” I tweeted back, then apologized to Bozo the Clown.
Like most RWNJs, this Bozo not only hadn’t use his real name, but put up a phony profile pic as well. I could only presume now that Byron was my new guy’s real name, and that one of the two guys in his pic was him.
Then I did something I almost never do. I blocked Byron—after clicking on his Twitter page and looking at his tweets and deciding that while I couldn’t be 100 percent sure that he was in fact a right-wing nutjob (they did seem to lean conservative enough), he still seemed to have attacked me with the bullshit “Spygate” epithet.
And that probably might have been the end of it, though I did notice for the next hour or so an increasingly bad taste in my mouth. So when I returned to Twitter and saw that “Monkey” was still trending (now joined by “Spygate”) I reopened my own personal investigation and soon realized that there was in fact a faction that was certain that it wasn’t “Monkey” that had been yelled out, but “Spygate.”
If this were true, of course, it changed everything, and put me in a hot spot should I have cared–and I did care.
I scrolled down a ways until I found video evidence, i.e., tweeted tape of the moment in question. I gave it repeated listenings, and sure enough, I could hear it both ways. But I surely would have ruled in favor of “Spygate.”
If it was “Spygate,” obviously, Trump was no less racist. But just as obviously, Byron could not be called racist at all, and I was absolutely wrong in my response to him. I immediately dug into my Twitter settings and unblocked him. What I should have done was apologized outright then and there, and that probably might have been the end of it.
So I just let it go, though I felt bad enough that I decided that I was going to write this piece. Just a few graphs. I didn’t know then how far and long it would take me.
Now I haven’t mentioned that when I went to Byron’s Twitter page the first time I found that he was following me. I get unfollowed and unfriended all the time—always a likelihood when you’re honest and outspoken. But I really hate pressing that button myself, especially when it’s a Twitter follower—though I had no idea why, based on my meager understanding/misunderstanding of his politics, Byron would want to follow me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke up yesterday, checked Facebook, and found a direct message from one Byron Lee Bess…, a profile pic beneath his cut-off surname in the small lower right-hand corner message box showing a handsome young man holding up an adorable baby.
“Call me a racist?” the message from Byron Lee Bess… read. “You know nothing about me. I hope you figure out one day how judgmental you are.”
This had to be before coffee. It took me a moment to realize it was Twitter Byron. And I’m not sure I clicked on his name to go to his page to learn anything further about Byron Lee Bess…—though I would later.
“My bad,” I quickly messaged back.
“No grudges held,” Byron Lee Bess… came back just as quickly. “Debates lead to results sometimes.”
Pretty decent, I thought, especially since I’d clearly struck a nerve.
Technically, of course, I didn’t call him a racist, not directly. But he certainly could have interpreted it that way, and I certainly suggested it.
Again, that probably might have been the end of it. But a few hours later I got another Twitter notification.
This time it was from someone who liked a tweet I was mentioned in–a tweet from Byron that I somehow hadn’t seen.
“Its all good,” he had tweeted, presumably as part of a response and thread.
“We have to stand up to it. @JimBessman blocked me and called me racist. Happens all the time. They just can’t see past their own hate, to be able to see what’s real and what isn’t.”
I was just about to start writing this roundabout mea culpa, and now I had this new notification to consider. I was going to take off the gloves and defend myself thusly: “Since I’ve been called out publicly now, I admit to being hateful—as it relates to bigotry, injustice, white supremacy, nationalism, religionism, militarism, inequality, desecration of the planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants…and I do not love any who support and promote such behavior.”
But I caught hold of myself this time, knowing that if I had posted, there probably might have been no end to it.
I did, however, post this: “As I told you elsewhere [meaning Facebook], I was wrong–though it was an honest mistake. As you told me elsewhere, you don’t hold grudges. I made an incorrect assumption based on your tweet. Now you’re doing the same. I also unblocked you. I’m not the only one with a problem.”
I did have another problem, though, in that I without any doubt owed Byron an apology.
But now came the shocker.
I went back to Byron’s Twitter profile pic—the thumbnail of the young man in camo next to the guy with the ball cap. This time I clicked on it, bringing me to his Twitter page—and a slightly enlarged pic. I clicked on it once more, and voila!, the guy with the cap was now recognizable as Gary Sinise, a fine actor, big veterans supporter, and a Reagan/McCain/Romney conservative Republican who refused to support Trump in 2016—by today’s standards, a RINO, and one I can respect.
But it was the guy standing next to him in uniform—U.S. Army combat uniform, urban camo, its nameplate all caps, now enlarged enough to read: BESSMAN.
Stunned, I clicked over to Facebook, and Byron Lee Bess…’s message from early morning. This time I clicked on his profile pic in the little box, which took me to his page…and there he was, Byron Lee Bessman, Jr. Dallas, Georgia. Born September, 1984. Lovely wife and kid.
I guess seeing “Byron Lee Bess…” in the little box that morning before the coffee kicked in had gone right past me. Or maybe I thought it was some Facebook trick to get through to me, though I have seen the “Bessman” name pop up on Facebook now and then, that was neither mine nor my sister’s. I even saw another Jim Bessman on Facebook some years ago, though this was an impersonator using my name and profile picture.
Coincidentally, I discovered all this last night while watching New York’s Metropolitan Opera stream of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the historic 2015 production featuring the late Siberian legend Dmitri Hvorostovsky in his triumphant return to the Met, in the role of the villainous Count di Luna, following treatment for the brain cancer that would shortly take his life. The plot revolves around the abduction of the Count’s brother by a gypsy when both were babies, and I switched between it and a modern tragedy, the Republican Convention.
I didn’t mistakenly kill my brother as in Il Trovatore, though I symbolically offed my Facebook impersonator by informing Facebook authorities. Recalling this, I suddenly remembered I did also once find a James Bessman–who wasn’t me–from somewhere down South, maybe a relative of Byron’s, who was deceased.
Bessman isn’t a common name, but I doubt I’m any relation to Byron, for I think I would have known. He’s a religious person, which I’m not, but he might like my Facebook page photo with my Southern gospel luminary friend Bill Gaither, also the one with Kris Kristofferson, a Christian and true living saint.
I’m not a militarist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and support the military. Byron might also appreciate that my father was a retired Army officer who earned the Distinguished Service Cross in World War II and also served as a Marine in the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s, when the U.S. occupied the country while fighting the revolutionary guerilla leader Augusto C. Sandino. (Sandino was assassinated in 1934, thereby paving the way for decades of ruthless dictatorship—his name living on in the Sandinista movement that eventually ousted the dictatorship in the late ’70s.)
I was well into writing this piece last night when I had one final Twitter exchange with Byron Lee Bessman, Jr.
“No grudge held,” he wrote, replying to my preceding post, which in all honesty, now seems rather petty. But this is all about being honest.
“That was right after you blocked me,” Byron continued. “So more of a reaction, than a grudge. I’ll delete it if you’d like.”
“No, man, you’re good. I figured that,” I replied. “You may not know that I’m a writer and I’m writing this whole thing up, part explanation, part apology–which I definitely owe you. The weirdest thing is, I got started on it, but had to go back and look everything up…and only then discovered your last name! Hope you’ll enjoy it, but it definitely is apologetic. An honest mistake, but definitely my mistake.”
“Much appreciated,” Byron responded. “I’ll definitely read it. You’re as much entitled to your opinion on everything as the next person, and I respect that. Keep doing what you do. Thank you for following back up.”
I thought he was being too good about it.
“As are you, of course,” I said. “It really stems from my innocent misunderstanding. All best!”
Yes, it was my innocent misunderstanding, and not one of my better Twitter moments. I wish I could promise it won’t happen again, but I know myself better.
I’m glad Byron is so gracious. There are a lot of people on social media who wouldn’t be.
Having begun this with my friend Chely Wright, I’ll end with another friend and a classic song he wrote and performed during a contentious time much like this one.
Here’s the great Jim Post, and the song he wrote and performed in Friend & Lover.
“There are people who are so much a part of you that when they leave they take a huge chunk of you with them. In the case of ‘Miss Tee’ Alston, Ashford & Simpson’s longtime assistant, all the love she gave us filled that hole many times over. You remain with me always, dearest Tee.”
So I tweeted Thursday, August 6, a day after Valerie Simpson called me to let me know that Tee had died. I could immediately tell by the tone of her voice when I picked up the phone that something bad had happened, so I was ready for the worst when it came seconds later.
Val was very strong—“one of the strongest people I have ever known,” Liz Rosenberg told Val in a condolence email–having gone through these saddest calls many times now. I’ve been on the other end of some of these calls. Still I blubbered like a beached whale.
For what it’s worth, Tee’s first name was Altamese. I did know this, but I’m not even sure I’m now spelling it right–though I did see it written that way on a website that had her listed in the credits as coordinator of Ashford & Simpson’s 1984 Solid album. That album, of course, yielded their biggest charting pop record in the titletrack single. It was before I really knew them: I remember they showed up at some function then, and I told them how thrilled I was that they had such a major hit: Nick, amazed and ever humble, said, “So are we!”
I somehow doubt Tee was.
Altamese Alston passed away at 82—but it’s a safe bet that if anyone knew her first name (let alone her age) no one ever used it. For everyone knew her as Tee Alston, “Miss Tee,” really, or just—lovingly—Tee. For she had been Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s assistant throughout their career, even extending back before Ashford & Simpson. She was a little older than Nick and Val–who were so young even at Motown and prior to that–yet she always had more youthful energy than any of us.
But to say she was Nick and Val’s assistant doesn’t do her justice. “Coordinator,” as in Solid, was far better.
Karen Sherry, who worked closely with Nick and Val for years while vice president at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), put it best.
“It’s hard to think of Ashford & Simpson without thinking of Tee Alston,” she said. “She was like the third member of the team—always fiercely dependable and upbeat with her warm smile and gentle ways. For more years than I can remember, she was the silent but strong partner, working tirelessly in handling every detail to hold it all together for Nick and Val, and while she wasn’t on stage, she made it all possible.”
For sure, Tee did everything for A&S, from running their office and business operations to event planning and wardrobe maintenance. She was so efficient, as Nick once observed, that if he should spill something on his shirt, she’d have it cleaned before he could notice it—while he was wearing it.
Indeed, sitting at one end of the Sugar Bar’s upstairs Cat Lounge, Tee was once seen ordering a Heineken for Nick, then asking the friend sitting with her to hand deliver it to him.
Nick was dumbstruck. “I was just about to order another one!” he said.
“I know,” Tee told her friend when he relayed Nick’s reaction. “I timed it.”
But Tee’s service to others didn’t stop there. One night Nick and Val hosted a small get-together among close friends solely to honor Tee, where Val noted another trusty Tee trait. Spotting a pal in the group, Val extolled Tee’s ability to keep comments made in confidence confidential.
“Barbara,” she said. “If you ever told Tee something you didn’t want me to know, don’t worry. I don’t know it!”
The love and respect went both ways: Tee once told me how a pop superstar had once tried to steal her away, no doubt offering her untold riches—all deserved. But she knew that all the money in the world couldn’t buy her Nick & Val.
All this isn’t to say that Tee couldn’t let out a little steam now and then. More often than not, this is where I came in.
You see, Tee, was brilliant. Not in any scholarly sense, but in an uncommonly practical one. I, on the other hand, didn’t even know about black-eyed peas!
It had to be a good 10 years ago. I called Tee after Christmas to wish her a happy new year. She was in the office, of course, busy as ever, and about to rush out to deliver packages of black-eyed peas to friends.
Now I’m from Wisconsin, so I guess I could be forgiven for not knowing about the custom among Southerners of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck. It’s a tradition dating back to the Civil War (according to Wikipedia and the tripsavvy website). Apparently, black-eyed peas were frowned upon by Union troops, who considered them to be food suitable for animals and not humans–and took everything except them (and salted pork) when raiding Confederate Army food supplies. As for the Confederates, they were grateful to be left anything, and the peas have since symbolized luck: They’re traditionally served with mustard greens, which symbolize money; pork, which symbolizes “positive motion” (pigs root forward when searching for food); and cornbread, representing gold.
As the peas themselves swell when cooked, they suggest prosperity. But they were also given to the slaves, and were later regarded as soul food. Moreover, they were said to be all that the slaves had to celebrate with on January 1, 1863—the day when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Hence, they are always eaten on New Year’s Day.
As was my own rather unfortunate tradition with Tee, I naturally asked her why she was delivering black-eyed peas to her friends. My question was met with stone-cold silence on the other end of the line.
“Jim Bessman!” she finally barked, her tone of utter disbelief bordering on deep dismay. “All the time you’ve spent hanging around black people and you don’t know about black-eyed peas?”
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more embarrassed–no, make that ashamed: To think that I, Jim Bessman, from the Hill Farms of Madison, Wisconsin, was somehow not black enough to know about the New Year’s Day tradition of black-eyed peas!
I think Tee said goodbye before she hung up on me. But within three hours, there she was, at my door, with a customary look of supreme annoyance—and a monster bowl of black-eyed peas.
Tee had first met Nick and Val “before there was a Nick and Val,” Val told Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman the day after she died. “I was playing piano for a gospel group in Harlem. Tee and her friends were walking by and they stopped in because they heard the music. I told her she had great shoes. And that was it.”
I would have met Tee shortly after I came to New York—the day after Christmas, 1981—and a month later got a job at the record business trade magazine Cash Box. I first saw Ashford & Simpson perform at Radio City, and even though it was their High-Rise show and that album came out in 1983, I think the titletrack hit came out in 1982. I do remember I didn’t know Liz Rosenberg then, or even kn0w who she was. But I was so blown away by the show that I called one of the few record company publicity people whom I then knew well—Eliot Hubbard at Epic Records—to rave about the show. He said I should just call Liz cold and introduce myself, since she had done publicity for them at Warner Bros. (High-Rise was their first album for Capitol) and continued to do so informally ever after.
I did call Liz, and 25 years later—2008, I think—Val wrote in the CD booklet for Ashford & Simpson’s The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities that Liz and I should just go out and do their show for them, since we’d seen them together so many times that we knew it better than they did.
But also since the High-Rise show I started seeing A&S every chance I got: New York, Westbury, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I wrote about them in Cash Box and Billboard, and got to know them—and Tee. Everyone touched by them wanted to spend as much time with and among them as possible, and I certainly was no exception.
At every A&S show and event, Tee would be there to usher me and Liz and other members of what came to be known as “The Sugar Bar Family” to our choice seats and the dressing room before and after. She always treated us like royalty—for she herself was The Queen.
“She was as much a part of our industry as anyone I know,” Karen Sherry recalled. “Although the public never knew her, anyone who worked with A&S was accustomed to Miss Tee and her absolute devotion to Val, Nick and daughters Nicole and Asia. It will be hard now to enter the Sugar Bar and not see her running about doing whatever needed to get done—or greeting Valerie backstage and not seeing Tee by her side.”
Whenever I went to Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar restaurant/music club for its famed Thursday night Open Mic show, instead of entering the downstairs dining/listening room, I went straight up the stairs to Tee’s office, and if she wasn’t still working (rare), dumped my jacket and shoulder bag and headed directly to the second floor Cat Lounge, where everyone watched the show on big TV monitors and Tee sat at her prime spot at the end of the bar. When Nick was alive he’d be at the center table, so I rarely bothered going downstairs at all.
I’d sit with Nick or at the bar with Tee, or if Liz was there we’d sit at one of the other tables and keep nagging at Tee to join us. Of course, if there was business to be done—and there always was—Tee would move about between the bar, her office, and downstairs, where she could always be found cutting the giant birthday cakes she’d order for anyone who was celebrating their birthday at the Sugar Bar—often as many as three or four at a time.
There were at a few occasions when one of them was mine. One was in 2012, and I got there relatively late—close to midnight—since I was downtown at Terra Blues on Bleecker seeing my pal Rick Estrin and his band The Nightcats. Tee had called me earlier in the day to see if I was going to be there, and I figured that she must have gotten wind somehow that it was my birthday, since I’m pretty quiet about it and don’t want to be bothered over something I can’t claim any real credit for.
I think I got to the Sugar Bar around 11:30 and immediately got chewed out by Tee for being so late, then was hastily called to the stage by Val, who serenaded me with the unique Sugar Bar Open Mic version of “Happy Birthday to You” (a mix of the traditional tune with Stevie Wonder’s) after a beautiful intro thanking me for all I’d done for her and Nick and the Sugar Bar, rightly embarrassing me since I should have been thanking them for all they’d done for me. If Nick had been alive he would have come down from the Cat Lounge–something he never did–to sing along, too.
“How many birthday cakes did she buy, cut up and serve?” Liz wondered. “A thousand by my calculation. Was there a day that she didn’t spend making everyone else happy? Unlikely.”
My birthday fell on a Thursday again a couple years ago. Of course I had to go to the Sugar Bar, but I didn’t want a fuss made about it. I just wanted to be with my Sugar Bar Family, and wasn’t going to tell anyone.
Then I started overthinking.
What if Tee should again find out it was my birthday. She was so full of great sayings, especially when one of us—me—got on her “last nerve.” Here’s a favorite, that suddenly gave me pause: First thing she’d say whenever I saw her or spoke with her is “How’s my sister [Liz]?,” then complain if Liz hadn’t called her back. “Tell her if she doesn’t call me, I’m going to come over and shoot her!” I well knew that whenever she told me to do anything, I better do it right away, and you can be sure that when I forwarded this message to Liz the next day, she called her immediately.
So I called Tee to tell her I’d be at the Sugar Bar that night, then gingerly told her it was my birthday (as I most certainly didn’t want her threatening to come over and shoot me for not telling her), but that I didn’t want her to feel she had to do anything about it.
“Don’t you start with me!” she bellowed, and I knew it was futile: Of course there was another big cake and presentation, and I felt stupid as ever. I mean, I had to be told about black-eyed peas, for God’s sake! I wasn’t worthy to be standing on stage with Valerie Simpson singing “Happy Birthday” to me–while Tee was busy cutting my cake!
But speaking of birthdays, the most memorable one celebrated at the Sugar Bar, for me, was Miss Tee’s own. I was there for at least a couple of them, and it was simply stunning.
At Open Mic Thursdays, Val is always downstairs sitting at the front table across from the stage, singing backup for everyone along with other singers at her table. Again, Nick and Tee (and me) would be upstairs in the Cat Lounge, but they were always singing along to the monitors. So I knew that Tee could sing. I just didn’t know that she could sang.
I might have known, though, just as I might have known about the peas. You see, Tee, like Nick and Val, came out of the church. In fact, I always used to say that Ashford & Simpson’s songs stood out in that they essentially secularized gospel music, with its swelling sense of uplift. I always remember interviewing them at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) for Billboard, and hearing Nick suitably characterize their music as “the big A&S sound”–a sound deeply rooted in gospel.
So it being her birthday, Tee went down to the stage and sang “Mary Don’t You Weep,” the gospel classic by The Caravans with the great Inez Andrews singing lead. Never having seen her do this, I couldn’t believe it. She was so good, in fact, that I told her she should record it and the Sugar Bar should sell it as a single. She didn’t want to hear about it, of course, but I so wish I could hear it now.
Another similar thing about Tee was that she didn’t like having her picture taken. But one of the last times that she and Liz and I were together at the Sugar Bar (November, 2018), Liz did manage to coax her into making one with the three of us.
As you see in the pic, Tee was unquestionably the most fun person to be around, especially at the Sugar Bar.
“I loved watching her cheer on every performer at the Sugar Bar and quietly sing along,” Liz said in one of our many memorial phone calls, during which we traded our favorite Tee lines over the years, much as we did the next day after a Sugar Bar or A&S show hang. Like Nick and Val, Tee loved music—which is why Nick started the Sugar Bar to begin with: to give people a place to perform, and everyone else a place to enjoy. No one enjoyed watching others perform more than Nick, Val and Tee.
I’m thinking now of Ron Grant, the incomparable Ron Grant, whom Tee especially loved, as did I, as did everyone. The incomparable Ron Grant, who could have been and should have been up there with the greats, and I never did understand why he wasn’t when he died two years ago. We all used to cheer on the incomparable Ron Grant, though Tee cheered everyone on, that is, everyone who was good enough to take the Sugar Bar Open Mic stage and do it justice. If they didn’t, well, that was a different story!
Maybe that’s where I come in, I who was always on Tee’s last nerve. As extraordinary as Nick and Val were and are, in her own way, so was Tee. Talk about not being worthy!
Not that I let that stop me. I’d stay ’til the drunken end, well past the typical 1:30 a.m.—and often later—finish of the live music portion of Open Mic, followed by another hour or so of hanging out with Tee and the endless partiers to the piped music upstairs in the Cat Lounge.
“I loved when at 1:45 in the morning, when I told her I had to leave because I had to go to work the next day, she refused to allow me to exit with feigned outrage–and made me sit back down for one more drink!” Liz recalled. “I wish I could have one more conversation with her about Manolo Blahniks….”
Great music and great shoes—and holding her own court in the Cat Lounge. And a work ethic that never quit. She was always working, even when she wasn’t—and looking fabulous doing it. That was Miss Tee.
Even when the Cat Lounge finally emptied, she’d stay in her office working, at least until 2 a.m. and usually closer to 3 and even 4. She’d then take home as many as four heavy bags full of paperwork (and shoes) home with her. Friends knew they could call her until 3 a.m.—and that they’d best not call her again before 11 a.m.
I’d stay with Tee on Thursday nights—er, Friday mornings—until the bitter end. This was my quality time with her, though I can’t vouch for the quality of the time I brought her—not so much because I’d had so much to drink by this time (though I most certainly had) but because I’m so hard of hearing that I often had to ask her to repeat herself ad nauseum—and still got it wrong. Inevitably I’d end up just nodding my head in agreement and carry those four heavy bags down the stairs and place them in her cab or livery car—for which she always generously tipped me, when it was I who should have tipped her for letting me do it.
The tip, of course, was a reflection of Tee’s work ethic, and respect for workers. She’d been a tireless worker her whole life, as far as I could tell, and felt a kinship with workers of all kinds, always tipping the Sugar Bar wait staff and bartenders and and many times explaining to me that if you were sitting at a bar and not paying for your seat, you had no business sitting in it.
I know she’d worked bars before in her past life in Florida (Tee was from Tampa), and in New York pre-A&S, she was a door-to-door salesperson, for Fuller Brush Company, I think. Lois, one of her dearest friends, long ago told me the wonderful story of how they met—which I’m laughing out loud now recalling: Lois answered the doorbell to find a pushy saleswoman peddling her wares, and Lois, not interested in the slightest, tried to shut the door on her. But Tee had her foot in the door—literally—and wouldn’t budge. They both would laugh heartily when recounting it.
Then again, I couldn’t say no to Tee, either, and can’t imagine how anyone else could—or why they would want to.
Around the turn of the millennium, I joined Lois and a few other friends of Tee in bar-hopping in Harlem—where Tee lived. It was such a blast. We’d always end up at the legendary Showmans Jazz Club on 1-2-5 Street, the club, in a prior location, having been home to the likes of Duke Ellington, Sara Vaughan and Pearl Bailey.
We were there to see another one of Tee’s faves, Jimmy “Preacher” Robbins, a great 1960s R&B singer and ace Hammond B3 organist, considered by fans to be the King of Harlem Soul and the nabe’s honorary mayor. Looking back on it now, it was as close as I ever got to what Harlem must once have been like, and it was a distinct honor and privilege being part of Tee’s entourage.
“I forgot to thank her for all the pina coladas she made for us at Nick and Val’s white parties in Connecticut,” Liz said, recalling how we made a beeline for Tee when we arrived at those legendary summer parties at their Connecticut retreat, attended by first names like Oprah and Maya and Luther and Teddy, everyone dressed in white.
“I forgot to tell her the joy I felt every time I walked into the Sugar Bar and saw her smiling face at the end of the bar or behind her desk–always a whirl of energy with files flying about, keeping it all together but always welcoming me with a kiss and hug and making me feel like I was a visiting dignitary or rock star. She did that for everybody, of course, but it still made me feel special.”
Liz was speaking for me, too.
“I forgot to tell her how much I loved her,” she added. “I did tell her–but definitely not enough times–what an extraordinary friend she was to me for all these years. I loved and deeply respected her devotion to Nick and Val, her girls–and all of us who surrounded them and worshipped at the altar of A&S. She was a treasure to all of us. The loss of her to my world is so much more than she would ever imagine.”
Karen Sherry noted how when Nick died, Tee was inconsolable, “but she was there for Val and her girls and helped them get through it.”
This time around, however, it was Val who helped me get through the loss to my world.
Like I said, her tone was strong and even when she broke the news to me, philosophical in her admitted shock.
“There’s nothing you can say. Nothing that can be said.”
She was right. I couldn’t say anything, other than that I couldn’t say anything—and I couldn’t even say that without my voice—and heart—breaking. I was stunned, so bad I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, which wasn’t long–there being nothing to say. It ended with “We were lucky to have her as long as we did.”
The next day was Thursday, and what is now Virtual Open Mic. I fumbled around on Facebook Live trying to find it and somehow lucked out in time to catch what I knew would be a heartening couple hours of words, photos and music dedicated to Miss Tee.
“This is really a hard time for me,” Val said from her home at the start. “Yesterday rocked my world and my family’s world: We lost the beloved Miss Tee.”
“Anybody who knows Ashford & Simpson knows what Miss Tee meant to me and my family,” she continued, noting that her phone hadn’t stopped ringing with condolence calls from friends including Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack, Nile Rodgers and Gayle King.
“I’m here because her spirit is here. This is the night she looked forward to: She’d always call me at the end of Virtual Open Mic and tell me who really rocked it.”
Then Val went deep, as only she can.
“We all think we’re going to be here forever, but it isn’t so,” Val said. “When I think of Tee, I think of a life well-lived. All I could ask for is more time—and that’s what everybody I spoke to today was asking for: more time with Miss Tee. But let me just say, How could she do us like this?”
People, “if they’re going to make an exit, they get sick, or give you a signal so you can prepare,” Val explained. “I told this to a friend, and she said, ‘No. Miss Tee did it right. She put on her high heels and exited.’ All of us have to make our exit, but she made the grand exit: She didn’t want to worry anybody!”
And that was it.
“I can’t talk anymore tonight!” Val concluded, and I knew exactly what she meant. So did Liz.
“I knew my loss was insignificant to what a profound tragedy it was for Val,” Liz said “What they meant to one another and the part they played in each other’s lives can’t be defined. But I’m so glad they had each other for so many years.”
Like Sugar Bar house band drummer Bernard Davis had testified on Facebook, Tee had been “Mom to so many of us.” For music attorney Judy Tint, she was “a force of nature, with the sharpest mind and biggest heart.”
“That she will be sorely missed seems an inadequate statement,” said Karen Sherry. “She was an angelic presence, a tonic for whatever ailed you, and I know that I, along with many, will never forget her.”
Liz even surmised that Tee was now “serving birthday cakes to her fellow angels in heaven–but here on earth she the brightest of lives and very, very loved.”
Echoing Val, she added: “I’m so, so grateful that she was with us for a while.”
True, we were lucky to have her as long as we did. She was bigger than life.
And, yes, she was 82, which is hard for me to fathom. Then again, I’m 68, and I can’t fathom that, either. Nick was 70 when he died on August 22, 2011, four days before Val’s 65th birthday. We were all so young once, and Tee kept it going as long as she could.
I think back to another night at Radio City, when Nick, dripping sweat and stripping down to his famous chain mail top, related how he was often asked why he sweat so much. “Because I’m giving you all I got!” he said, to loud audience acknowledgement.
“Wait a minute!” Val interrupted. “I’m giving you all I got, too!” And so she was and so they were, every single time, everywhere they went in everything they did, as Val does to this day, as Nick did until the end, and as Tee followed form.
“I can’t wrap myself around it,” Val told me on the phone. “She was fine yesterday….”
I’m sure Tee was working up until the very last second—giving it all she got. The only mystery, for Liz at least, was how she was “still able to walk in those shoes years after I could only wear sensible shoes! That’s always been a wonder to me.”
The shoes, of course, I couldn’t understand anyway. But really, everything about Miss Tee was a wonder to me. I used to tell people to go to the Sugar Bar, that it was a magic place that would change their life the way it changed mine, and by all means, to seek Tee out, because, I said, she was the greatest person they would ever meet.
In no way was I overstating.
And now I can no longer see the greatest person I will ever meet. As big a heart as she had, not even Tee, with all her drive and resourcefulness, could keep it beating forever.
The greatest night of my life was Nov. 4, 2008. Where else could I be but the Sugar Bar, sitting with Nick and Val, and sometimes Tee, who was scurrying around excitedly, waving a little American flag in each hand. I think it was during the Virtual Open Mic tribute that someone remembered her joyously exclaiming “In my lifetime! In my lifetime!” when California came through and put Obama over the top. I’m glad we all lived to see it. I just wish I had a picture.
I mentioned how she hated having her picture taken, and how she could be coaxed into it—at least by Liz. Then again, on the desk shelf above my computer monitor, next to my framed Washington, D.C. Metro farecard celebrating Obama’s first inauguration (I was there, with Liz), I have a little picture of me and Tee, at the Sugar Bar. I don’t know when it was taken, but Tee had it framed and gave it to me. So I know she’s watching over me as I write this.
She would say, in one of her cherished Tee-isms, that it was “cute with a ‘K’—maybe even “cute with two ‘Ks.’” I’d go so far as to give it an unprecedented cute with three Ks. Maybe even four.
Yesterday marked the ninth anniversary of Nick’s passing—August 22, 2011.
If I’m in town on that day I always head over to Bryant Park to sit on the bench with the shiny metal plaque that says “Nick Ashford Slept Here.” Val purchased it some years ago, to commemorate the fact that Nick did in fact sleep in Bryant Park when he first arrived in New York City from Michigan, as he was broke and homeless.
The last couple years I’ve been in Los Angeles on Aug. 22, but COVID got in the way this year. I checked in with Val Friday to see if she’d be there, as she usually is, with daughters Nicole and Asia–and of course, their longtime assistant Tee Alston. But Miss Tee had unexpectedly joined Nick upstairs two weeks earlier, and Val was still shell-shocked and understandably staying home.
So I decided to re-enact history—Nick’s and mine—and called my friend Hae Won Han to document it on her iPhone.
Nick’s history I’ve already cited. Mine is one of the funnest things I ever did.
I don’t know the date, but judging from its YouTube post in 2008, CBS Sunday Morning profiled Nick and Val at least 12 years ago, interviewing them at their home, the Sugar Bar, the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem where they met, and at Nick’s Bench in Bryant Park. I learned from Tee what time they were scheduled to do the Bryant Park taping and got there a good half-hour early.
Luckily, no one was already sitting on the bench. I promptly took over and lay down on the bench as if I were sleeping. Every few seconds I’d surreptitiously stick my head up to see if anyone was coming, and maybe 10 minutes or so later, Nick, Val and Tee, along with the camera crew, approached the bench—which is on the southern end of the lawn near the merry-go-round—from the northeast corner.
Nick was talking to the producer when he saw what had to appear to be a homeless hobo stretched out on his bench, dead asleep. Just as they were about to rustle me awake, I popped up on my own. To say I surprised the shit out of Nick would be a great understatement.
I must have looked really pathetic, because when Nick finally stopped laughing he said he felt so sorry for me that he was about to give me $50 to move off the bench for a few minutes! If only I’d waited…
I had Hae Won take a pic of me re-enacting my faked snooze on Nick’s Bench, itself a re-enactment of his real ones. She also took one of me wearing a Cleveland International Records ball cap, in tribute to another dear departed friend, the label’s founder Steve Popovich; a t-shirt honoring the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, and a “Good Trouble” mask in memory of John Lewis. I posted the pictures, along with one of me and Hae Won, on Facebook, where an old friend from Billboard, Paul Verna, kindly expressed his certainty that Nick was up there watching.
And, no doubt, “wanting to wake me up!” I replied.
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
“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
I was mightily embarrassed, indeed, and profusely
“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.
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.
I’d arrived in Los Angeles Monday the 19th. Had dinner at Bob Merlis and Lynda Keeler’s that night, along with some wonderful friends of theirs from Palm Springs. Tuesday night was the weekly “Old Man’s Dinner” at The Park, where 12 of us grey- and no-hairs gathered to commiserate about the state of “Our Beloved [Music] Industry”–as our pal Tom Vickers always puts it–while toasting those who had left it for good (Peter Fonda that week, for rock-rich films like Easy Rider, and Larry “The Mole” Taylor, great bassist of Canned Heat and other artists, who had died that day and with whom I had dinner in New York some years ago along with Augie Meyers and Los Lobos).
Wednesday it was dinner with Tom and Victoria Vickers, in whose “Garage Mahal” back-of-the-garage room I was staying before moving over to Bob’s on Thursday. After dinner I went with Ned Claflin to hit a big bucket of balls at Weddington Golf & Tennis in Studio City, and in a remarkable feat for an old man who hadn’t touched a club in the two years since the last time we went there, I five-ironed three balls into the barrel 50 yards out–though one was on the bounce.
It had all been leading up to Thursday night and the Rolling Stones at the Rose Bowl, as Bob was the longtime publicist for ABKCO, the management/publishing/recording company that owned the Stones’ early catalog, from which the bulk of the concert setlist came.
I did a lot of work over the years for ABKCO, too, when
founder Allen Klein was alive. I wrote several liner notes for his reissue
compilations (Herman’s Hermits and The Animals among them) and an essay for a
I loved Allen–whom a lot of people didn’t. He was incredibly kind to me and even though I was a Billboard reporter, let me hang in his famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame suite at the Waldorf Astoria during the dinner, as I didn’t have a seat that year. Besides Allen, his Girl Everyday Iris Keitel was there, along with his son (now ABKCO president) Jody, Phil Spector (another dear friend and most generous and thoughtful one), Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham–Andrew having discovered and managed the Stones before Allen took over.
A lot had been said while I sat next to Keith on a sofa across from Phil, Allen and Andrew, swigging from the bottle of Jack Daniels Keith kept passing over to me. It had helped that I’d told him I was close to Bill Carter, the ex-Secret Service agent (for Kennedy and Johnson—and no, there was no conspiracy, and yes, Oswald acted alone, and I know this from Bill, as told to me personally and as recorded in his Get Carter: Backstage in History from JFK’s Assassination to the Rolling Stones, for which I wrote the foreword) who first appears in Keith’s memoir Life on the first line of Page 2, as he had later acted as the Stones liaison with the feds–in effect being the Stones fixer and Keith’s savior.
Like I said, a lot had been said, particularly between Keith and Allen and clearly going back to old grievances and maybe new alliances–while I sat there stoned and getting increasingly drunker wondering when Allen was going to turn to me and tell me to leave. He never did, but when it was time for everyone to go back down to the ballroom for the Hall of Fame jam (“I’m not even going to plug in,” said Keith. “They only want to see some moves anyway!”), Allen came to me and softly said, “You know, you can never repeat any of what you heard.”
“I know, Allen! Thank you for letting me stay!” I stammered,
and I do hope he wouldn’t think I’d broken his confidence by now relating any
of this, and am confident he wouldn’t.
But Allen’s been gone now many years, much as I’ve been gone from Billboard–not to mention Our Beloved Industry. While I’d seen the Stones several times under ABKCO’s auspices, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could impose upon them for more tickets. So I hadn’t seen them in at least a couple tours, if not more.
On our drive to Pasadena, I revisited the Memory Motel, to
borrow from the title of one of my favorite Stones songs. And that’s kind of
what the night became—though they didn’t do “Memory Motel.”
To evoke another Stones song they didn’t do, what could have been the last time I saw them was at Madison Square Garden, 10 years ago, maybe many more. I remember thinking they were good*, but not as good. The first time was memorable for a couple reasons. I wasn’t even writing yet back in 1975, when I saw them at Milwaukee’s County Stadium (The Eagles and Rufus opened). I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and living in Milwaukee–where I was born—and went to Milwaukee Braves games (I actually saw Sandy Koufax hit a home run there–I think he only hit two in his career), and when a friend in New York knew someone who was able to get me Stones tickets, I’m pretty sure I’d taken my high school buddy Greg, who was a Stones fanatic like me. His favorite song was their cover of Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” from their 1965 album Out of Our Heads, and we used to sing along to it over and over in his basement.
At best, everything now is bittersweet, looking back. The Memory
Motel houses good memories, and some not so good.
Greg and I did a lot of drugs together in high school, though I don’t think Greg ever graduated to needles like I did. I was a mess before I’d started on drugs, so it was self-medication as much as anything, ending up in two hospitalizations, the second lasting over a year. When I got out I was determined to stay clean, and did so until that Stones show, when I smoked a joint for the first time in a couple years, at least. I always look back at those years of staying straight as The Lost Years.
I realize I’m so old now that I think everything was at least 10 years ago, but it was the night of a Bessman Bash (to be defined later) at Bob’s many years ago now that Greg committed the most ridiculous of suicides, if a suicide can be ridiculous–and I definitely don’t mean to lighten it’s horror by calling it that. Rather, it only makes it more horrible: After all, Greg had remained one of my best friends, though I hadn’t seen him in the 25 or so years, maybe, since I was sent by Cash Box, (the long defunct music trade magazine I worked at full-time for my first two years in New York) to cover an audio tape manufacturers’ trade conference in Jacksonville, where he lived. But he would always call me on my birthday, as he had a savant-like knack of remembering birthdays, such that I used to call him “Mr. Birthday.”
As I understood it from his ex-wife—who had called me during the Bash, but whose message I didn’t play until the next morning–he got in a fight with his older sister, who blamed him for letting the cat out a basement window. Again, I don’t know if I got the story right, but his sister somehow fell through a screen/glass door, the police were called, and Greg was arrested, then at some point, for whatever reason (I heard he was afraid he wouldn’t get hired again for carpentry work in Florida, where he still lived, since he now had an arrest record), he hung himself.
Greg had returned to Madison to help care for his disabled mother, who died shortly before him. I’d been close to his parents, and friends with his sister–now his only survivor–and doubt that she’d ever see this, but she’s had enough loss in her life to see it recounted here, so I’ve left their last name out. But I thought of Greg, and County Stadium, as I entered the Rose Bowl with Bob and his middle son Ben, who works for him and lives near the stadium.
I won’t offer a review of the show—I didn’t take notes–other than to say that it was the best I’d ever seen the Stones, making me glad I always objected to those critics who’ve been asking them to give it up for decades now. My thing is two-fold: If people are willing to spend big money on seeing you, why not? And if you’re a musician who wants to keep playing for people who are willing to spend big money on seeing you, why not? As Ben Sidran told me a few summers ago when I was visiting my mom in Madison, when he acknowledged that while he was working on a new record, no one was going to buy it: “What am I supposed to do? I’m a musician.” Like I’m a writer, relegated to writing for my own sites now: What the fuck else am I gonna do? And besides the great blues guys kept playing until they dropped. Muddy Waters and B.B. King never quit. Tony Bennett still sounds great in his 90s. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are still touring in their 80s, and fans still come out in droves.
So so what Mick Jagger just had heart surgery, Charlie Watts is 78, and Keith Richards, now without his gypsy/pirate headband, now looks like a balding, dried-out prune, with his mouth open half the time like he’s about to drool, every now and then breaking into a trademark grin when looking over to bassist Darryl Jones, mostly, or his longtime guitar cohort Ron Wood.
But in no way am I suggestng that Keith, whose stage garb even seemed subdued in Pasadena, wasn’t all there. Evoking another Stones title, he was live’r than I’ll ever be–but more within the music than I’d ever seen him, his lead licks and rhythm chords being right-on at all times. For sure, he had his “moves”–the raised pick hand after a decisive strum, the low kneel worthy of an athletic Jagger prance. And when it came time for his solo segment–“You Got the Silver” and “Before They Make Me Run”–his vocals were as spot-on as Jagger’s, and he seemed to be having more fun.
Woody, though, looked to be having the most fun, running about the stage and impishly pointing his guitar at the crowd while playing. And whatever he does to his hair, I wish I had enough left to do the same. Jagger’s hair goes without saying, and while he otherwise shows the same years as we all do in the deep furrows of his face, he likewise sounded no less great than the rest and appeared none the worse for heart-valve-replacement wear.
Speaking of sound, it was great where we were sitting (great ABKCO seats, maybe a quarter of the way back from the stage, low in the stage-left lower level of the stadium seating (Ben had a great seat on the field). And the big projector screen visuals couldn’t have been better in singling out and following the musicians’ in their varied configurations.
Friday night, August 23
Friday night we went out to FivePoint Amphiteatre in Irvine–an hour out of L.A., though it took two to get there because of the Friday afternoon traffic–to see three more Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acts: ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cheap Trick. We were there for ZZ, since Bob’s worked with them since both were at Warner Bros. Records, and I’ve written liner notes on two of their releases and can’t get enough of them—especially our special guy Billy F Gibbons.
Two things of note happened on the long drive to Irvine, one of which I’ll relate now: Bob had a tape of the late New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”), from the radio shows he hosted on the NOLA community station WWOZ. It was unexpectedly gripping in that K-Doe talked—and talked and talked—like a preacher, but without any substance. It wasn’t word salad, but he went on and on and never went anywhere but around in circles, so I was always on the edge of my seat, wondering if there would ever be a climax—and even though there never was, it was a blast listening to him keep you hanging. Truly brilliant, in an outsider way.
When we finally got to the venue, Cheap Trick had just started, and Ben was a big fan and wanted to hear them. Bob, I, and Bob’s other company publicst Amy Block went looking for the Toppers, but to no avail, so we joined Ben in watching the rest of Trick’s set.
I realize it was kind of odd that I wasn’t the big Cheap Trick fan everyone else was when I started writing, for The MadCity Music Sheet in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, when Cheap Trick was the area’s biggest act, and the one we covered the most. Maybe they were too power pop for me, especially since when I first saw them I was listening to country music, mostly, along with punk and new wave.
Cheap Trick was from nearby Rockford, but was managed out of Madison by Ken Adamany along with my pal Chuck Toler. Ken had been a musician—he played keyboards in bands with Steve Miller–and ran The Factory, the club near the UW campus where Otis Redding was going to play when his plane crashed into Lake Monona that day (I was in high school then, but later worked at the State Office Building overlooking the lake, and lived just a few blocks away). In the ‘70s he managed Dr. Bop & The Headliners, an enormously successful oldies show band, which I became close to in a later incarnation.
I first met Ken, I’m guessing, in 1977, probably at an album release party for their second album, In Color, though it could have been ’78, for their third, In Heaven. I remember being introduced to Ken, probably by the Sheet’s publisher Gary Sohmers, and that it was a lot like meeting Bill Carter years later, shortly after I’d moved to New York, maybe in 1982 or ’83 at a press party at Tavern on the Green for his client William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Golden’s Nashville MCA Records publicist Kay West, a brilliant writer who would become one of my favorite friends, introduced me to Bill, a good ole boy from the tiny impoverished town of Rector, Arkansas and now based in Nashville where he continued working with the Stones and was about to manage Reba McEntire to superstardom, and later my Cajun inspiration Jo-El Sonnier to his greatest commercial success.
Kay introduced me to Bill as William Lee’s manager. Being ex-Secret Service, Bill had an aura of calm competence, mixed with restrained charisma. I wanted to engage him in conversation, and led with the obvious: “Do you work with anyone else?” I said. “Oh,” Bill drawled, stretching it out. “The Rolling Stones….” I didn’t blame him for cracking up laughing when my mouth opened wider than Keith’s at the Rose Bowl. Hope I didn’t drool, but I might well have.
Ken was way cool. Too cool. He wore shades. Then again, he was the biggest music business guy in the MadCity. I extended my hand to shake his—which he pretty much kept raised at his side. But don’t get me wrong. I love Ken. He gave me one of the biggest compliments when I ran into him on Sixth Avenue outside Black Rock—the black skyscraper that then housed CBS Records, of which Cheap Trick’s label Epic Records was a part.
I’d only been in New York a couple years then at most, but
Ken told me how proud he was of me for having left Madison for New York and
“making it.” It meant a lot to me then, as it does now.
But now we’re back in the hospitality lounge behind the
stage at FivePoint, where Cheap Trick is greeting its VIPs. The band left Ken long
ago, and not in a nice way. Still, I wanted to reconnect, or more accurately, connect
with them as someone who was there way back when.
So I went up to Robin Zander, who seemed to be thoroughly
enjoying himself, with an eager Ben in tow. We both introduced ourselves, then
I boldly told him that I was close to Dr. Bop & The Headliners, not sure
how he’d react.
Actually, it went right past him—for maybe two seconds. Then it hit him, and he damn near collapsed in disbelief. He excitedly asked if I knew Ken–and was not at all put off when I said I did indeed–and was further blown away when I told him I worked for The MadCity Music Sheet. And he was happy to recognize that both of us had lasted long enough to meet again after that promo party 40-plus years ago, and that he and Cheap Trick had remained active and fresh, what with three new albums released in as many years.
Meanwhile, Billy F Gibbons was holding court a few yards away—in pajamas! I’ve only known one other star so comfortable in his stardom, not to mention sartorial splendor—Nick Ashford. We let Billy regale his VIP fans until he begged off, being that it was nap time: He would catch a few ZZs during Skynyrd’s set before regrouping with his own to close the show, part of the Toppers’ 50th anniversary tour. He wouldn’t even let Trickster Rick Nielsen waylay him when he vainly tried to chase him down prior to shutting his nap room door.
So we all went out to see Skynyrd, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years, when I took my dear, late friend Roy Horton, the Country Music Hall of Fame music publisher who worked closely with the historic likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Roy was also a musician, and with his older brother Vaughn—also a Country Music Hall of Famer—played in the country group The Pinetoppers, most notably on the 1951 classic “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” which was notably covered by the likes of Patti Page and Les Paul & Mary Ford, and was a Vaughn Horton composition.
Roy was a delightfully impish little 80-plus-year-old when I knew him, and he loved going to shows. He had been instrumental in the formation of the Country Music Association, and while he was the son of a coal mining superintendent in Broad Top City in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, he was a founder of the Country Music Association and had long promoted country music out of historic publishing company peermusic’s New York office, where he was known for his kindness–and every year sent me a much-appreciated quart of Jack Daniels for Christmas.
I’d been offered a pair of tickets to see Skynyrd at Radio
City and was honored, as always, to bring Roy as my plus-one. Turned out we had
third-row center seats, and Roy stood for the whole show, loving the attention
he got from the pretty young girls upfront.
So I thought of Roy at FivePoint during Skynyrd’s set, but I
also thought of another Madison friend who had died too young, and tragically,
a couple years ago.
Karen Knodt was a photographer at The Sheet, and took a lot of pictures that went with my stories (as did, incidentally, Debby Hastings, who was also a great bass player and went on to be Bo Diddley’s band leader for many years, up until his death). I particularly remember that Karen took great shots of Elvis Costello, but her favorite band, by far, was Cheap Trick. When I first moved to New York I lived in Hoboken, and Karen used to call every night—but it got to be too much. She might have already moved to Hawaii and would be pretty drunk and lonely and would call late and talk and talk and talk and I just couldn’t deal with it: I was working at Cash Box as the retail editor—my last real job–and had to get up every day to walk to the train to New York, then switch to a subway and be in the Midtown office by 10 a.m. The office, by the way, was a few blocks from Black Rock, so I must have been working there when I ran into Ken Adamany.
But I always did feel bad about losing contact with Karen,
so I was very happy when she friended me on Facebook a few years ago. She was
still in Hawaii and apparently doing well, playing golf—which we both loved
talking about—and working. Now and then she’d respond to a post and I’d respond
to her response–and then a few months went by with no communication, to the
point where I became cognizant of it, and went to her page, somewhat worried.
Sure enough I saw that Karen’s last post had been some months previous, leading me to fear the worst. It took a lot of doing—she hadn’t left much of a trail—but I eventually learned that she had indeed died, though the cause was unclear, but probably due to some sort of complications from paralysis, I was able to ascertain, following a fall down the stairs. Now, upon closer inspection, I realized that many of her most recent pictures, which showed her painting cheery watercolors of Hawaiian coastal scenery, had been made with her seated in what looked to be a wheelchair, in what looked to be a hospital setting.
All things considered, she seemed to have been happy. But I never found anyone to corroborate, not through Facebook or Google except, finally, for a cousin, on whose page she confirmed Karen’s death, but provided little information otherwise. I messaged her and she never responded.
I think Karen departed before Cheap Trick was inducted into the RockHall. I know she would have loved the Facebook photo of me and Robin, with his arm around my shoulder, from FivePoint.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s set, by the way, was excellent. Even though only Gary Rossington is original; vocalist Johnny Van Zant—brother of original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who died in the 1977 plane crash that also killed the band’s Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, has been its frontman since 1987. All seven band members were tight as ever, and I loved that the two female backup singers—always known as The Honkettes–Dale Krantz-Rossington (Gary’s wife) and Carol Chase, were age appropriate; also worthy of respect was the recognition, via a video scroll at the end of their set, of all the many Skynyrd band and crew members since its inception.
Skynyrd had its own hospitality area backstage, so there was no interaction afterward. We did go back and grab a quick chat with Dusty Hill before he hit the stage for the ZZ set– great as ever, if a bit shortened due to the three-act package—and we did get a little quality time after with the ever-accommodating Billy and Gilly (wife Gilligan).
Saturday night, August 24
On the drive back I was able to focus on that other aforementioned momentous occurrence on the drive to Irvine: I had received a Facebook message on my phone from Lori Berk-Rolat, a dear publicist friend from New York, now living in L.A. and excited about attending Sunday’s annual Bessman Bash over at Bob’s, a tradition, like they say about The Masters, unlike any other. She wanted to know if I’d like to join her, her husband Geoffrey and a girlfriend the next night to see Kris Kristofferson at the Starlight Bowl amphitheater in Burbank. Bob and I had been talking about going to see the incredible Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl that night, but Kris takes all, so I emailed his wife Lisa when I got back to Bob’s.
I’ve been blessed to know two saints in my life: Ashford & Simpson’s Nick Ashford, and Kris Kristofferson—both also two of my favorite lyricists. Coincidentally, I’d observed the eighth anniversary of Nick’s death the night before—August 22—the night I went to the Stones. I was lucky to have seen Kris two nights in a row back in April at City Winery and hang with him and Lisa after the shows, and now, maybe I’d get lucky again.
If Kris, 83, is a saint—and he is—Lisa keeps him that way. By now everyone knows his short-term memory challenges, yet there he was on stage once again, killing it, as far as I and the audience were concerned. True, he did sound a bit tired in the beginning, maybe his gruff singing voice even gruffer. But if he was tired, he picked up steam as the show continued.
But I never did hear back from Lisa, so when I got to the venue I went directly to the merch stand and asked the gal selling t-shirts if she could let her know I was there and give her my cell number. We found our seats just as the show started, and I kept the phone out—silenced—hoping in vain for a text, reflecting on how Kris, on and off the stage, is the most unaffected singer-songwriter-actor legend imaginable.
I remembered how Bill Carter had told me years ago, after booking him on a Homecoming homevideo taping of veteran country music stars at the Opry House, that when he offered to send Kris a limo to pick him up at the airport, Kris said, “That’s all right. I’ll just take a cab.” And the time at the BMI Awards Banquet when they gave Kris the biggest honor, the BMI Icon Award, and I had to leave early to go catch John Fogerty at the Ryman Auditorium.
Kris had started eating dinner before the awards presentation, and I interrupted him in mid-bite to apologize for leaving, but that I just had to go see Fogerty for the thousandth time. Kris stopped eating, paused, and I could see what he was about to say in his gleaming eyes: “Gee. I’d like to see Fogerty!” BMI can thank me for convincing him to stay and get his award….
Back at the Starlight Bowl, he was maybe two-thirds of the way through when he paused once again, and said, “This one’s for Jim Bessman!” –and I practically went into shock, if not cardiac arrest. So did my friends, whom I had to calm down so as not to disturb everyone else in the bowl.
The song, by the way, was “The Pilgrim–Chapter 33,” and I don’t know if it was by design, but I could definitely see myself in a lot of the lyrics. Then again, I can see myself in a lot of Kris’s lyrics, as I’m sure many of us can. Especially “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Loving Her was Easier,” and on this night in particular, “Why Me Lord?” I mean, what have I ever done to deserve his recognition, let alone knowing him and Lisa in the first place? Or Nick, Billy F, Carter, Bob, and on and on?
But I also felt that maybe, with the dedication, they were
saying, “Sorry, Jim, but we have to leave right away,” and sure enough, when
the show ended and I rushed up to the stage to see if Lisa might be within
sight, his fiddler Scott Joss (along with keyboardist/bassist Doug Colosio and
drummer Jeff Ingram, the remnants of Merle Haggard’s Strangers—though when Kris
was here in April they were joined by Haggard’s sons Ben and Noel on guitars
and vocals, since Kris’s set with The Strangers includes several Hagg classics)
said that she was hurriedly rushing Kris out of the venue, as everyone was
indeed tired from a couple weeks of touring. So I told Scott who I was.
“I know who you are,” he said, to my further amazement. “We were all talking about you before the show!” I humbly told him how thrilled I was with the song send-out and asked him to convey that to Lisa and Kris, and figured that was it, until, returning from the men’s room, I regrouped with my friends and realized that we were in fact at the backstage entrance, and that a car was roped off right at the door.
Maybe Kris and Lisa are still here, I thought, and when a couple came out of the entrance, they confirmed it. Moments later Lisa herself popped out, carrying stuff that she hurriedly put in the car, then rushed back in. She didn’t give anyone an opening for conversation, let alone eye contact. When she came out a second time I sheepishly called out “Lisa!,” which she was either too focused to hear or more likely pointedly ignored. Just as she was about to re-enter the backstage I tried again, a little louder, but loud enough to at least get her to glance in my direction.
My luck continued. Not only did she see me, not only did she
recognize me (I had my haircut earlier in the week, first time since I was out
here last year, and would have looked somewhat different from when they saw me
in April), but she said, “Jim! Come here right now.” It wasn’t a command, but I
took it that way—happily so. I apologized to my friends and quickly followed
her into the backstage room where Kris was sitting with only one other person.
She asked if I’d heard my dedication and I told her how totally blown away I was, or something to that effect, then brought me over to Kris. But before I could get in even the quickest over-the-top adulatory drool—they all must have been exhausted, and she was clearly in a hurry to get them out—she this time did command me to take Kris to the car and not let him stop to sign anything or pose for photos. So I suddenly transitioned–after muttering to myself, “Why me, Lord?”–from fawning fan to sober security man.
Now I’ve been around security for 40-plus years now, so it’s not like I don’t know how to get a guy in a car. But Kris is the king of kindness—it’s ingrained in him, and sure enough, someone called out to him and he naturally stopped, wanting to accommodate, as is his second nature. But no matter how many years I’ve been around security, doing it is not my nature, period. So I was more than a little bit proud of myself that I sternly told Kris to get in the car and that whether or not I said it loud enough for him to hear, he did indeed slide into the front seat, next to Lisa, who had already buckled herself into the driver’s seat. I have no memory at all of what I said to them in thanking them both profusely, but whatever it was, I’m glad they both laughed.
Now I’m tempted to say that having a song dedicated to me by Kris Kristofferson, and then doing unexpected security for him after the gig, was the night’s highlight, if not the entire L.A. trip’s. But just getting to see Kris is as good as it gets: Like I said, I have been blessed to know two saints in my life, Kris and Nick, and like Nick, whose song lyric focus can be summed up by the title of Ashford & Simpson’s 1973 debut album Gimme Something Real, Kris’s songs—and his singing of them–cut to the core of human experience and emotion.
And like the Stones, Kris never lets age or illness stop him from doing what he does so singularly: perform what I consider some of the greatest songs ever, with the same realness and conviction that he had when writing and recording them.
Speaking of the Stones, I should note, in case anyone is hip enough to wonder, that Kris did not perform “Blame It on the Stones” (the lead track from his 1970 debut album Kristofferson), then again, I’m sure he was playing somewhere else the night of the Rose Bowl. The song is typical Kris, then in his mid-30s, defending the then young generation from perplexed parents projecting their own ignorance and irresponsibility onto the Stones.
The next night was the fabled Bessman Bash, where the likes of Phil Spector, Billy F Gibbons, Sandra Bernhard, Peter Asher, John Mellencamp, David Mamet, Jonathan Richman and Farrah Fawcett have graced us with their presence (“Farrah Fawcett?” I said, incredulously, when informed by a publicist friend that the event could make Rolling Stone, only to be told, incredulously, that she was the woman I’d just given directions to the bathroom.)
I was glad musician Tom Kenny, best-known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, happened to be at the Starlight Bowl the night before and heard my shout-out–so I’d have another witness to back up my story, since I could still barely believe it myself.
“You’ve been building up to the Old Man Dinner Band!” joked Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (whom Charlie Watts had once asked to meet after seeing Elvis open for the Stones), the Old Man Dinner Band (a.k.a. O.M.D.B.) made up of musician regulars at that weekly Old Man’s Dinner at The Park. The O.M.D.B. was one of two bands Pete (a.k.a. The One and Only Pete Thomas, as Elvis always introduces him at shows) was drumming in that night at the B.B.
Coincidentally, it was Elvis’s birthday that day, and the
next day, when I would fly back to New York, would be both Bob’s and Valerie
I would think again of Val as I flew back on Monday, as it
was immediately upon landing from the flight back in 2011 that I learned that
Nick had died—and I went immediately to their house in my shorts and t-shirt
I’d emailed Val before leaving, thinking how lucky I’d been to see Ashford & Simpson perform twice over the years at an outdoor summer street festival in L.A. And now flying back again, I had another unforgettable concert experience, three to be exact.