Howard Bingham: An appreciation

I saw Lonnie Ali’s tweet announcing the Dec. 15 death of Howard Bingham and was saddened though not surprised.

It had been several years since I’d had contact with Howard—though not for lack of trying: I’d called him and emailed him several times over the years, but the number I had no longer had
an answering machine and I never got an email response.

I called the publisher of his most recent book Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers 1968 (2010), as he’d come with Howard to my annual Bessman Bash party in Los Angeles, and he’d lost contact, too, same with the people at Taschen, which put out the immense Greatest Of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali book that was full of Howard’s photos of Ali, including, I think, the fab pic of his baby son, cradled in Ali’s left hand, his right balled up into a fist held at the baby’s face, his own delightfully contorted in clownish anger. Some 20 years later—at least—I called Howard and a serious-sounding young man answered and said he wasn’t home. Who was speaking? I asked. It was his son, he said, “The one in the picture?” I asked. He laughed and said yes.

No doubt Ali’s camp knew about Howard’s whereabouts and condition, but I’d lost touch with them, too, when Ali’s assistant Kim retired several years ago. Indeed, it was only after bringing him up to Michale Olajide, Jr., when I visited him at his Aerospace gym in Chelsea to take down his thoughts on Muhammad Ali after his passing that I learned he was indeed ill–at least that’s what Michael had heard. Then it all made sense.

I’d actually met Michael through Howard, when Howard brought me to a pre-release New York screening of Ali at the Ziegfeld. I was standing with Howard when Michael came in with Angelo Dundee, Ali’s legendary trainer, who had also trained Michael for a while. So I sat with Howard, Angelo and Michael, and became big friends with Michael. And when I called Kim when I got back home, and told her how much I enjoyed the movie—and meeting Angelo—she asked me to wait a moment, and then, sure enough, a frail yet instantly recognizable GOAT whispered into the phone, “So how did you like the movie?”

Howard’s New York Times obit said he took an estimated million photos of Ali in the 50 years of their friendship. It quoted former Times sports reporter/columnist Robert Lipsyte’s summation of Howard as “the kindest, most generous and decent human being in that whole Ali entourage,” who “really kept him on the straight and narrow. He had this beautiful innocence about him. And a very difficult stammer that made him hard to understand.”

Yes, he did have that stammer! But he was also a quiet, unassuming man, who never exploited his relationship with Ali and unlike so many others in the Ali entourage, never took any moneyh from him.

The Times also cited Howard’s “calm demeanor,” which allowed him to stay with Ali through four wives, his conversion to Islam, the stripping of his heavyweight title when he refused military service and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. It noted that while Howard photographs Ali’s fights, his complete access resulted in historically candid shots of Ali preaching or sleeping, playing with his children or with Elvis Presley, and posing with black leaders like Malcolm X and James Meredith.

“By being there, in hotel rooms and on streets with Ali, Howard saw him in unguarded moments and put together a portfolio that reveals the man Ali really was,” Newark’s longtime Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg told the Times. “His legacy, his pictures, are a necessary piece of the Ali puzzle.”

Through Howard I also had an unforgettable lunch some years ago in Downtown Nashville with the colorful John Jay Hooker, considered perhaps Music City’s most most recognizable and charismatic political figure, and definitely among its most controversial, who himself died a year ago. It was Hooker, who had been close friends with Bobby Kennedy (Hooker served as special assistant to RFK when he was attorney general in his brother’s administration), who befriended Ali shortly before the third Ali-Frazier fight (the fabled Thrilla in Mainilla), immediately after which Ali, victorious but exhausted and sitting on his stool in the ring, turned and said, “I want to say hello to my friend John Jay Hooker.”

Funny, I don’t remember how I met Howard originally, though it certainly was a long time ago. I had an in at Photo District News, a trade magazine for professional photographers that was owned by the same company that owned Billboard—for which Howard got me an Ali quote for an Ali-related story way back when, too. I asked him him if I could interview him for PDN and he said, “It would be an honor.”

It was my honor, of course.

“Howard meant so much to our family,” Lonnie tweeted. “We will miss him dearly but take comfort in knowing he’s back with his best friend.”

I retweeted it and added, “A wonderful, wonderful man. Thanks to him I got to know you….”

@Muhammad Ali tweeted: “The world has lost a great man and an even better friend. Howard Bingham will be dearly missed by all.” None more than me.

Here’s John Jay Hooker speaking about Ali and Bingham:

I am John Jay Hooker: Ali from Genuine Human Productions on Vimeo.

Congratulations, Billy Gilman!

No one is happier than me that Billy Gilman did so well on The Voice, finishing second last night.

I was there, at Billboard, for Billy’s first album, One Voice, released in 2000 when he was 12, and got to know him, his mother, and his manager at the time—not to mention Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who had discovered him at age nine. The album’s titletrack hit the Top 40, and with it he also became the youngest artist to have a Top 40 country single.

Back then Ray was confident that Billy had what it took to stay successful after his voice changed, and last night proved him right. Meanwhile, Billy courageously came out as gay two years ago, hours after fellow country artist Ty Herndon came out.

But Billy always had a pop sensibility, as evidenced by his performance in 2000 of “Dream a Dream” with then 14-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and most significantly, his 2003 album Music Through Heartsongs—Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek.

Recorded when he was 14, Heartsongs already showed a deepened voice and a more mature album content due, remarkably, to the “heartsong” lyrics of Mattie Stepanek—the then 13-year-old best-selling poet whose books stemmed from the incurable form of muscular dystrophy that would take his life just before his 14th birthday—and the stylistically varied music by top Nashville songwriters including Richard Leigh, Tom Douglas, Bruce Roberts, Randle Chowning, James Slater, and the album’s (and One Voice‘s) producer David Malloy.

Billy and Mattie had met on Larry King Live.

“He started to read his poems, and I looked over at my father and mother choking up—and it wasn’t like my father,” Billy told me upon the 2009 publication of Messenger: The Legacy Of Mattie J.T. Stepanek And Heartsongs by his mother Jeni Stepanek.

“The kid was really touching someone who wasn’t touched a lot. But they didn’t sound like ordinary poems, but like lyrics. I wondered if there was any way I could do one on a record—as a bonus cut or something—and I called everybody in Nashville who were involved with my career at that point and pitched the idea, and it ended up being the whole record.”

Billy later learned that Mattie had rejected numerous other like offers.

“Other artists couldn’t get the message of his heartsongs,” he explained. “I’m so honored they chose me, because he was one of the greatest people anyone could ever meet.”

Heartsongs‘ standout track was “I Am/Shades of Life,” which combined two of Mattie’s heartsongs.

“David Malloy wrote the melody and I thought, ‘Man! That’s not a song but an anthem!’ I still get letters about it! But it was really long so they cut the words in half for radio. Mattie and I both felt they needed to keep the whole thing because otherwise the story was lost, so the song was re-cut. It was kind of like ‘One Voice,’ and the video was awesome.”

Billy was 21 when I last spoke with him in 2009, and had just begun writing his own songs.

“I had to go home and wait for my voice to change—which gives you an awesome out for anything!” he said. “You can say, ‘Thank you, I’m done,’ and then go on to the next thing. But at the end of the day I’m a country singer, and I never had the opportunity as a kid to do what I wanted to do with my sound—and now I can.”

I believe Billy remains a celebrity ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, having served as co-host of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. As for “I Am/Shades of Life,” it remains a favorite song of mine, with a melody and vocal I find very moving, along with, of course, Mattie Stepanek’s poetry and spoken words.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 18

There’s a big head shot of Nick, black-and-white, on the wall at the end of the bar on the ground floor of the Sugar Bar, between it an the glass windows of the storefront. As I wrote in this series three years ago, there’s something about the photo–Nick’s head propped up by his hand and elbow, looking out at you with a sweet, somewhat quizzical look, his eyes seeming to follow you as you walk past.

I was on my way to the Sugar Bar on Nov. 8, hoping to celebrate the historic victory of Hillary Clinton. I’d set out from P.S. 51 Elias Howe on West 44th Street, where I served as a poll worker, getting there at 5 a.m. and getting out at 9:40 p.m. I’d been hopeful that Hillary was going to win, though I knew she’d taken a beating by the Oct. 28 announcement by FBI director James Comey that “new emails” had been “discovered” (according to my old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert of liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, in the nine days following Comey’s announcement, “email”/”emails” was mentioned more than 5,000 times on cable news programs). I’d hoped that the beating hadn’t proven fatal, but as the early returns started coming in on my phone, and after a few quick calls to my mother and a couple friends, I pretty much knew it had.

By the time I got to 57th Street and 10th Avenue I was feeling sick to my stomach–though I hadn’t had much to eat all day. I also experienced flu-like symptoms in my limbs, and almost wanted to throw up. I knew this feeling, having had it once before: Watching the second plane plow into the World Trade Center. It was the feeling of shock, of my internal systems starting to shut down. When I tweeted “Simply sickened” in response to the ominous early returns, it was true.

I found out the next night that I wasn’t alone. Having drinks with my movie producer friend Fred from L.A. and a couple of his friends, he said he’d been up all night with an upset stomach. One of the other guys said he’d had an out-of-body experience–one not at all pleasant.

After drinks I went down to the Roxy Hotel to see my friend Pete Thomas. Pete, of course, is Elvis Costello’s drummer, and had stayed in town a couple nights after Elvis’s two shows at the Beacon, along with bassist Davey Faragher, to play jazz-pop behind Jon Regen, with Pete’s daughter Tennessee, herself an esteemed drummer, DJ and political activist, DJing in between sets. I told her how 11-8 had reminded me of 9-11, and she reminded me that it was now 11-9—which I immediately tweeted, and I wasn’t alone: As Snoop Dog posted on Facebook, “9-11 worst day in America, 11-9 second worst day in America.”

Now I did give a quick second thought before tweeting, and sure enough, when I got home, I saw a tweet blasting those of us who were making the comparison and pointing out how thousands of lives had been lost on 9-11, whereas 11-9 marked “merely the death of hope.” Then again, it’s all relative, as they say: Thousands of lives on 9-11, six million Jews killed by Hitler. They’re talking now of World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant (read: Muslim) registry.

But back to 11-8. Adjusted to the shock I trudged on to the Sugar Bar, where I’d spent the best night of my life almost eight years ago to the date–Nov. 4, 2008, to be exact. Eight years ago the mix of black and white at the Sugar Bar was together in waving American flags and weeping tears of joy at the extraordinary election of our first African-Amercian president. Four years ago Miss Tee—Nick and Val’s phenomenal longtime assistant—directly faced the portrait of Nick, who had died a year earlier, and said, “We did it again, Boo-Boo” following the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected.

This day in 2016 half our nation voted for a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This night would be the worst. There would be no “we did it again, Boo-Boo.”

My old Billboard friend Eric Boehlert, now a top guy at the Media Matters liberal media watchdog group and a prominent TV talking head, didn’t see it coming.

“I definitnly underestimated the significance of the ‘charisma’ factor in new celebrity TV,” he tweeted. “Dems have 4 yrs to find camera-ready candidate.”

But Eric also pointed out how Hillary was “running against GOP, press, FBI and Russians.”

Kudos to Bruce Bartlett, former aide to Ron Paul, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who tweeted: “The lesson of this election is that when the media normalize racism, sexism, fascism, lying & stupidity, it has political consequences.”

I, too, blame the media, mostly. As Eric indicated, not only the D.C. press but the major TV and cable networks and so-called liberal flag-bearers New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times all not only went in the tank for Trump, they piled on Hillary mercilessly.

But really, if there ever was such a thing as “the liberal media,” it died after Watergate. What we have now are lazy pack journalists who aspire to be TV celebrities, sports TV celebrities, in fact. They all use sports analogies (“ground game,” “rope-a-dope,” “game-changer,” “knock-out punch,” “swagger,” etc., etc., etc.) in turning the handing off (now I’m guilty) of the nuclear codes into sports entertainment, never stopping to consider what the nuclear codes—or anything else that a president is responsible for–are capable of. And while it may be hard for many of us to consider Trump charismatic, that’s how the media played him up, giving him free reign of their exposure vehicles for the ratings–and advertising dollars–his “charisma,” “authenticity” (what a fucking bullshit word that is) or what I would call, “anti-social irresponsibility,” drove them.

And while I praise Bernie Sanders for jumping on the Hillary bandwagon—finally—he’d done her tremendous, likely mortal damage early on by essentially siding with Trump in focusing on her Wall Street speeches, thereby turning her into a symbol of greed and corruption and establishment and rigging. All Trump had to do was take the ball and run (guilty, again); indeed, my guess is that a lot of Bernie supporters felt closer to Trump than Hill, or hated Hill so much, or, whatever. It doesn’t really matter anymore, I felt, sitting next to Tee, next to the portrait of Boo-Boo.

Nick and Val’s eldest daughter Nicole, who runs the Sugar Bar, was way over at the opposite end of the bar, drinking away, always so upful and wonderful. It was high time I go over and ask her what her dad would have thought. Like me, she didn’t know.

But my guess is, and I’m sure Nicole would agree, and I know Val would, is that Nick, while duly dumbfounded, would have taken it all philosophically, no doubt leaning in the ever positive outlook of his daughter and wife.

But alas, as much as I wish, I am not Nick. True, I was blown away by Val’s duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” sung, as it became almost certain that Trump had won, with Yoann Freejay, winner of The Voice in France and the night’s featured artist for the regular Tuesday Nuttin’ But the Blues open mic shows—the song, by the way, that I wrote in Billboard the week after 9-11 that should have been embraced by Congress instead of “God Bless America.”

Rather, as I stepped out into the darkness of that early Nov. 11-9 morning and began my long and lonely trek home, I thought of the night before, at the Beacon, for Elvis Costello’s second of two consecutive nights on his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour. I remembered how he ended, as always, with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the classic song written by Nick Lowe originally as a joke, but always a serious anthem in Costello’s impassioned version. And I could feel the tears welling in my eyes, as they had the night before when he closed with it.

But it was another Costello song that ran through my mind as I made my way downtown through the dark quiet, so unlike the raucous celebration that spread throughout the city that night of eight years ago. It was the song that Elvis had surprisingly opened with the night before: “Night Rally,” the chilling neo-Nazi nightmare from his second album This Year’s Model. The chorus still runs through my mind a week later, only more fearfully.

You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny
Wait until they’ve got you running to the
Night rally, night rally, night rally.

Election Eve at the Beacon

Tales of Bessman–The Fifth Beatle

Fucked-up times, the Sixties. The Beatles, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, all intertwined. I think about my own fucked-up time growing up in the Sixties and how much Ali meant to me and helped me–and so many millions of others like me–get through it. And when the not unexpected announcement of his death came in around 12:20 AM Saturday, I rightly tweeted that a lot of people my age would be thinking back a lot over these next few days.

I was right, of course.

I’m thinking now, the day before his funeral, of the first time I saw him in person–almost. It was during his exile from the ring from Marc, 1967 to October, 1970 after he’d refused induction into the Army for not having no quarrel against them Vietcong and was stripped of his title and denied the ability to fight and thereby make a living–during his athletic prime. So he started going around and giving speeches. I and one of my two best junior high school buddies, Don, drove from Madison to Milwaukee to hear him, but by the time we got there, the venue had sold out and they were putting the overflow into a room with a TV monitor.

I don’t remember the speech very well, but it was great to be in the same building with Ali, at least. As for Don, well, we were playing around with needles a lot back then. He ended up going through at least three livers before finally croaking a few years ago. Could just as easily have been me.

Same with Greg, my other best friend in junior high and high school, who hung himself around the same time as Don died. Some insane argument with his sister about the cat getting out.

Greg was with me at the Dane County Coliseum on October 30, 1974 to see the Ali-Foreman fight on closed-circuit. Few people gave Ali much of a chance, and there weren’t more than a few hundred there. As I’ve written before—at least once–when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.

It was the culmination of my wishing, imagining every single day since he was stripped of his title that he would come back and wear the crown once again. For I was that invested in him as a role model, a man of such great courage and creativity and so fun and full of life–truly the Fifth Beatle. The counterculture as one man.

Probably some time in the mid- to late-1980s, some years after moving to New York, I finally saw him in person for the first time. It was very much like how George Vecsey in The New York Times a few days ago recalled his first sighting, “circa 1968, while Ali was suspended for refusing to enter the military draft, uttering the famous line, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.’”

For Vecsey, it was a sunny midday in Chicago, “one of his cities–heck, a lot of cities were his in those heightened times.” Perhaps the Champ was just out for a stroll, Vescey, then a young baseball writer, surmised: “I had never seen Ali in person, but geez he was beautiful, big and limber and smiling, and it didn’t look like he had much else to do but walk down State Street, collecting black people and white people and brown people and young people and old people, surely not everybody in America, for he was a draft dodger and a Muslim and whatever else you wanted to call him, but he was the champion of State Street that day, the once and future champ.”

I was somewhere on Broadway in the 50s, near my office at 57th and Broadway. I saw a crowd and was curious—then saw they were following the Champ and growing in size. In seconds they’d grown by one more—me–who wiggled his way close enough to get an autograph. He stayed with it mindlessly until it dissipated when the leader got into a car and left.

Here’s another account from a few days ago, from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg, one of the few journalists to agree to call Ali Ali when he changed to it from Cassius Clay: “I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones–Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.”

The next time I saw Ali was at Madison Square Garden, at a Roberto Duran title fight. I don’t remember the year or who he fought; all I remember is Ali’s entrance just before the ring introductions, and joining everyone in the arena in shouting “Ali! Ali!”

Some years later I became friendly with Ali’s longtime photographer and closest friend Howard Bingham. I did a piece on him for Photo District News, and through him got a few quotes for an Ali piece for Billboard—though I can’t remember what it was about. And at one time I was friendly with HBO and got invited to boxing press events. They had one at their office with Ali and his biographer Thomas Hauser, for which I brought along my friend, profesional Muay Thai kickboxing champ Edge Brown. As Ali walked in he spotted Edge ad held up his fists, knowing just by looking at him that he was a fighter. It was the biggest thrill ever for Edge.

There was another HBO event, a screening, I think, at the main public library. I brought my friend Rena, a photographer, and she brought a Polaroid. So I was able to get a picture with Ali and have him sign it. Then, before the “Rumble in the Jungle” documentary When We Were Kings came out, I got invited to a private dinner with Ali and his wife Lonnie and maybe a dozen or so others, at a restaurant on 57th Street near my office—neither of which still exists. The invite was either through Howard or another friend, David Sonenberg, the successful manager then of acts like Joan Osborne and The Fugees, and a producer of the film. Ali was already well into his Parkinson’s disabilities and hardly spoke, but it was here, I think, that I told him what I said here earlier, that there wasn’t a day gone by from the time he was stripped of the title to when he got it back that I didn’t dream about it happening.

They had a big screening of When We Were Kings at Radio City, which I went to with Tim White, the late Billboard editor and my dear friend. Tim had actually hung out with Ali years earlier at his training camp in Pennsylvania for a Rolling Stone feature, I think. At the after-part we got the chance to have a few moments with Ali and Lonnie, who remembered me from the dinner a short while earlier. Again, he couldn’t say much, but she was wonderful.

That was the last time I saw Ali, but incredibly, not the last time I spoke with him. Ali was about to come out, and Howard was in town for a screening at the Ziegfeld and got me in. I hooked up with him when I got to the theater, and moments later he was warmly greeted by Angelo Dundee! So I sat with Howard, Angie, and a guy who was with Angie, who turned out to be the former No. 1 middleweight boxer Michael Olajide, Jr.–a wonderful guy, who had acted as technical advisor on the film and is now a dear friend, not to mention successful gym operator (Aerospace NYC).

I had remained friendly with Ali’s assistant, Kim Forburger, and the next day I called her at Berrien Springs, Michigan, where they were based at the time. They hadn’t seen the movie yet, and she was thrilled to get my advance rave review.

She then told me to hold on for a second, and when the second was up, her voice was replaced by the soft, unmistakable voice of Muhammad Ali, whispering, “So did you like the mooovie?”

I ecstatically stammered for a few moments about how good it was, how great he was, how thrilled I was, and let him go—then thanked Kim profusely.

When the Alis moved to Arizona I lost touch with Kim, and sadly, in the last few years I lost contact with Howard. Angelo is gone, with The Beatles, Don and Greg, and now Muhammad.

The fucked-up Sixties were almost 60 years ago. That great line, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there,” is a cliché—but a valid one. I’ve forgotten plenty, much of it just as well. But I haven’t forgotten who brung me here, my friends, my idols.

Today I rail a lot about the overuse of the word “icon.” I’ve even written about it here. But Muhammad Ali, more than anyone, defines the word. Everyone else is second at best, if not trivial.

Thinking back to Don and Greg, I’m sorry they didn’t live long enough to outlive Ali, if for no other reason than we’d all still be together now in spirit watching his funeral tomorrow.

There will always be so much to think back on for those of us whom Muhammad Ali touched so deeply, who loved him back so deeply for all the love he gave us just by being. But a simple summation comes to mind, thanks to the four other Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

The Fall of the House of Bessman, Chapter 3

One thing I’m good at–real good–is burning bridges. Sometimes before they’re even built.

I burned two great ones a few weeks ago, two writing opportunities of the kind that never come my way. One of them I actually went after–something I never do, not after being turned down every single time for years and years and years.

Don’t ask me why when the reason is obvious. I’m not now nor never was considered one of the big boys in music journalism, not with a trade paper background. Music journalism is the lowest of the low to begin with, and trade music journalism is on the bottom of the bottom.

Now I’m not saying I’m as good as the guys at Rolling Stone or the other outlets where every writer wants to be and every artist wants to be written about, but I’ve certainly been around at least as long as any of them and worked as hard and deserved better than seeing one top editor get up from the subway car I happened to coincidentally enter, leave and then go into the next one to avoid me. Or another top editor cut me off in the middle of a conversation with Elvis Costello like I was invisible and inaudible, which clearly, I was. Or another top editor see me at a club and instead of at least courteously acknowledging me, practically puke and walk away.

So I never ask anyone anymore when I know what the answer’s gonna be. But a gal pal sent me a notice from Craigslist and I looked at it and it looked so appealing that against my better judgement, I applied: “Content Writer for Blog & Social Media (Virtual, Part-Time) (Flatiron).”

It was listed by a company that provides digital marketing services for small businesses. “We’re rapidly growing and we need a smart, ambitious, and detail oriented Content Writer to help with blogging and social media content (both internally and for clients),” the listing read, offering compensation per article “based on experience.” Telecommuting was fine, it continued, noting that the position was “a perfect match” for someone looking for part-time work, the opportunity to “work virtually, on your own time,” and to write articles “on a wide variety of topics.”

Having blog/social media writing experience was required, they emphasized. “You want to work virtually, on your own time, [and] enjoy writing and editing articles on a wide variety of topics.” This is all too good, I thought, and then it got better: “We will also provide training to bring you up to speed on our content requirements.”

Do not apply, it directed, “UNLESS you can prove you possess the following: Excellent, professional communication skills via email and phone.” Great! They didn’t say in person!

“Ability to learn very quickly…” This I can wing.

“Friendly, upbeat personality and a desire to help people…” Pushing it, but not breaking.

“This position is part-time, and virtual….” And I’m part-time, and virtual!

The overview then stated that the primary role of the position was “to write blog articles and social media posts for our business and our clients’ businesses,” this requiring phone calls and emails with project managers.

Still good, so far. But now came the submission factor: To be considered, you had to email your resume with the subject line of “Content Writer for [the company name],” and provide the article title of the most recent blog post on the company’s website. The blog post article was easy enough, but I haven’t had a resume in, well, closer to 40 years than 30, so I sent my most recent bio and figured that would be fine. But after a few weeks of no response, I figured maybe it wasn’t fine. So I went to the company’s website and found a phone number and called it, but the automated answer didn’t provide any directives or messaging option I felt comfortable with.

So I sent an email to the general company mailbox explaining that I had answered the Craigslist notice but never heard back, and that I was so sure I was the perfect fit that I wanted to make sure they’d received it. Another couple weeks went by, yet I still wasn’t giving up—much to my own great surprise.

I had subscribed to the CEO/founder’s promotional tip emailing, and saw that on one of them, he’d left his email address. So I went ahead and emailed him directly, reiterating how I’d applied and wanted to make sure he was aware that I was his guy. Another couple weeks went by, and then all of a sudden I got a response, apparently to my original Craigslist application.

It was from a gal at the company, who wanted to call me and discuss the position. I gave her my number, set up a time, and she called on it. It was a fairly general conversation lightly covering my exerpience and why I was interested in the position. She then said that she’d be sending a list of formal questions later in the day for me to fill out and email back.

She did.

“Below are questions we would like you to answer via email. Please draft a brand new email (do not reply or forward this email) addressed to [the founder/CEO] and write in paragraph format. The subject of the email should be ‘[Content Writer] Interview Information.’”

The email then declared that the founder/CEO was “expecting an email [reply] no later than 12pm EST Friday,” two days later.

He was going to get my email response in less than two hours, but it was highly unlikely it was what he was expecting, that being: “For your previous 3 projects, please answer the following questions: 1) On a scale from 1-10, How would your previous client rate you on each of the following: resourcefulness, attention to detail, and ability to meet deadlines? Include examples to back up your expected ratings.”

I was stumped. But I gave it a try.

“I’m not sure I can answer this satisfactorily. Most of the writing I do is self-published by way of and–for which I have no deadlines, write what I want, and as such, am fully satisfied.”

So I gave myself a “10” and sent links to my three most recent pieces at examiner: coverage on a battery manufacturer product launch, “for which the subject was greatly pleased in email response,” I reported; an appreciation piece on the late rock ‘n’ roll singer Billy Joe Royal, “who was a friend. Again, the people I spoke with or helped in terms of contacts were greatly pleased via email response”; and my piece on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations, “which, predictably, received mixed responses on Twitter and Facebook, with some agreeing with me, others taking strong opposing views.”

I also mentioned that I’d just turned in a book proposal solicited by a literary agent regarding a proposed John Mellencamp art book, and offered that he had expressed complete approval with it, though he’d be making some revisions and formatting changes. I could and did say it was extremely well-written. I said, too, that two weeks earlier I’d turned in brief bio blurbs on all the Songwriters Hall of Fame nominees—being a member of the organization and its nominating committee. “No great writing there, but totally acceptable for what it was and on time. As they haven’t been published yet I cannot provide them.”

And I related how I’d been hired in July to write a press release for Billy Gibbons’ new solo album, and that while I didn’t have a copy of that, either, it was a rush job, and the company was so happy with it they’d just hired me to do another one.

Next question: “If we asked your previous client what is your biggest weakness, what would he/she say? Include example(s).”

I was already sensing a pattern, and one not particularly propitious.

“I’m sorry but I really have no idea how to answer this question. I most certainly do not have any examples.”

The third question showed that there was a pattern, indeed definitely not propitious.

“If we asked your previous client what is your biggest strength, what would he/she say? Include example(s).”

I was honest: “I’m afraid it’s looking more and more like I’m going to be striking out on this interview. I can only assume that any previous client would express approval with my work on all counts. If you read my bio, you’ll see I’ve been doing this for 40 years in all kinds of writing outlets.”

But I kept going—right into a brick wall.

“Please describe your biggest success and biggest failure since graduating college.”

This should pretty much have killed it. I tried to be as lighthearted as I could: “If this doesn’t finish me off, nothing will! I flunked out of high school. My biggest success is that I’ve built and maintained a solid reputation as a self-taught and self-made journalist. My biggest failure is having been stereotyped primarily as a music journalist, and worse a trade music journalist. Hence, I had a difficult time breaking into bigger and better paying consumer venues, though in all fairness, I could just as easily have been regarded, rightly or wrongly, as not up to par elsewhere. This is why I thought [company name] might be an excellent opportunity.”

Last question: “Will you be able to schedule personal reference calls with previous clients as a final step in the hiring process?”

“Of course,” I said. It seemed better than “Fuck you.” Either way, I didn’t expect to hear back.

On to the second opportunity, which somehow turned out even worse.

It started with a most unexpected—and much appreciated—solicitation.

“After checking out your work, the editors and I would love to invite you to start writing on [a new online media outlet].” So read an email from the site’s “editorial director.”

I was shocked, needless to say. I didn’t think anyone “checked out my work,” let alone knew who I was.

The rest of the email looked to be boilerplate, explaining how to log in to “our easy-to-use creator tool and begin writing.” What made it so attractive was that it also said you get paid 70% of the revenue from advertising—not that I have much idea what that means. I only know I get maybe 20 cents a story at, nothing at And unlike examiner, they also promised to “share your story as widely as possible on social media and via email, and we help it get traction by featuring and promoting it on our site.”

“Happy to discuss further…,” I replied. She thanked me for the response, then wrote, “Do you have questions that I could answer over email? Otherwise, I’d be happy to jump on the phone to discuss further. If you want to grab a time when we’re both free using the tool in my email signature, we can connect as soon as possible. Looking forward to it….”

I must have felt a twinge of discomfort. I had plenty of questions, and she didn’t seem to want to talk to me so much as email. And the bit about “the tool” in her email signature only added to my queasiness.

“The tool in your email signature?” I wrote. I hadn’t noticed the “Book an appointment” link.

“Sorry. I’m stupid. Now you know,” I wrote back after she re-sent the link. I then clicked on it and booked an appointment for later in the day. That’s right: I “booked an appointment” and called her at the appointed time.

Now I had noticed in her previous email that once you submit an article, “your story gets professionally edited and packaged to succeed online by one of our top-tier digital editors.” I told her that I was a bit concerned by having an editor, since I haven’t really had one since my Billboard days 10 years ago now—-and most of the work I did there until the bitter end was as the music publishing editor, so I pretty much edited my own stuff even then. But I also told her that I was surprised that she knew who I was and grateful that she thought enough of me to want me to write for the new site–and that I was excited about the prospect of being paid more than 20 cents a story.

“I enjoyed talking with you and again, very much appreciate your interest,” I emailed her maybe two hours later. “I reworked a music piece I put up on my site earlier today and submitted it, mainly to get a quick idea of how it works.”

Not only would it be not quick at all, but not pleasant at all, either.

Now, the site said that re-submissions were okay. But my writing on is generally more personal if not first-person, which would have been okay, too, but I didn’t feel like being so casual anywhere else–let alone just put up an exact same piece from my site as a first submission here.

I did add, “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of questions down the line,” not knowing that there would be only one question: “What the fuck happened to my copy?”

Now one other thing from the boilerplate that comes into play: “We’re on a special mission to put power back into the hands of those like you who create amazing content online. We believe that if your ideas are valuable, 1. you deserve a talented editor, and 2. you should never give them away for free.”

So I’d rewritten an okay concert story/review about a Terri Lyne Carrington show at B.B. King’s that I’d posted on my site, short but sweet. I made it even shorter, no more than five graphs, and went with the format of the site, including the asked-for hyperlinks and “visual media.”

“Thanks Jim, looking forward to seeing how it turns out!” she had closed. So did I, and I did the following day after receiving an “A Story needs your attention” email from the site’s “workinprogress” address gently telling me it needed more work: “Thank you for submitting the story ‘Terri Lyne Carrington brings “Love and Soul” to B.B. King’s, with help from Valerie Simpson.’ This is a great start, but we noticed a couple of elements in your piece that need work before we can publish it. Here are our comments and ideas on how you can make your story even better.”

Under “Editor Comments,” it said, “Would you mind adding an opening paragraph for more clarity please?”

I cringed. My first piece for a new outlet—one that solicited me! How could I have submitted something that needed “more clarity”?

I looked for the piece on the site. Failing, I replied, “First, I can’t find my article that needs work.”

No response. I kept looking and found it—though it wasn’t remotely what I had sent.

“I found the article and over half of it is missing.”

I had copied the piece from my site, pasted it into the new site’s template, edited and modified it and inserted all the links and artwork. Didn’t think of saving it anywhere—big mistake, since they appeared to have chopped off the opening graph (and accompanying video embed), and a couple other graphs in the body.

Didn’t hear back and sent another email, then advised the original editor who had approached me to begin with, who was “looking forward to seeing how it turns out.”

“They rejected it,” I emailed, “and when I went to see why I found two-thirds of it missing—arbitrarily cut up. Of course I didn’t save it.”

She responded: “Hi Jim, unfortunately this is a technical bug. We should be able to retrieve the story–apologies for the glitch in the system, we’ll have it fixed ASAP.”

I was reassured. “Thanks,” I emailed back. “They said they wanted a new opening graph, but I had no idea what they meant.” Then I added, in a following email, “And you should know that before contacting you, I sent three emails to “Don’t hesitate to contact us on ‘workinprogress’” and no response to any of them.”

Finally, I did hear back from them, with the dreaded, “Hey Jim, I hope all is well”–something people always say when they know full well it’s all for shit. I didn’t immediately respond with, “Hey, asshole. If all was well you wouldn’t be emailing me!”

He identified himself as “the editor who edited your piece. We apologize for the technical error. If you have your copy saved, would you mind resubmitting your work? We’ll get it up on site with speed.”

Thanks, pal, but “I don’t have it saved. No idea what you did to it.” I forwarded this exchange to the first editor along with “This guy edited it. Now asks me to resubmit and he’ll put it up with speed. No mention about changes. Makes absolutely no sense.”

He came back with, “My mistake. Here’s your restored text below that was saved prior to the glitch. Please resubmit and we apologize again for the technical error.”

What he had sent me was the shite that I’d already seen on the site–my mangled copy, that is, not the original. Essentially, it was three paragrapsh taken from somewhere in the middle of the piece, such that no one was identified by full name, let alone anything else. There was no beginning, though they might have kept the end. And there were two video clips, when I’d embedded at least three.

“This is not at all what I submitted and of course it makes no fucking sense. Neither does what I was originally sent by [you],” which was the bit about “the great start” but the need for “an opening paragraph for more clarity.”

“What I submitted,” I continued, “and what I did not save, was at least three times what you have sent me here, along with another video. I still have no idea what your problem was with the original piece that I submitted and did not save, never imagining this could happen.”

“If you do not have the original piece that I submitted, let me know and I will rewrite now, a week after the fact. But it would be great if you would let me know what was wrong with it to begin with, though I can’t imagine what that might have been.”

Now, am I out of line here? Am I not being clear? Apparently not.

“Jim. It appears we have a bug on our end. What I just sent was all the available text from your latest draft that you resubmitted. If you have the time to rewrite, we’d appreciate it and we’ll get it up.”

By now I was preparing to hang myself. This guy is not paying attention, and we’re going around in circles. If I wasn’t yet dizzy, I was still damn near throwing up.

I addressed him by his first name, then wrote: “This was NOT my latest draft. I only sent ONE finished piece [two days ago]. It was perfect as best I recall. Is this ALL that you have seen of the piece? Are you saying you did NOT receive the original piece with three videos and six or so paragraphs? Like I said, if all you got was what you just sent me, of course there was a problem. If you do in fact have my original submission, you will save me a lot of time other than that I’ve already wasted.”

This exchange I forwarded, too, to the original editor, who, by the way, had told me from the outset that she had come to this new gig from Huffington Post. So I told her how Arianna had once asked me to write for her, and how I’d submitted a great piece, only—you guessed it—to never hear back from anyone there. And so I never heard back from this person, either. No one thought to call me–perish the thought–nor did I want to “book an appointment” again. So I gave up.

Now in fairness I should say that a month or so later I saw an email from the guy that I never noticed after he sent it, probably the next morning.

“Hey good morning, Jim,” it read. “Yes this is all of what I’ve seen of your piece in any capacity. So there’s an error on our end with submissions that may have cut off your original text. Please let me know if you’d be willing to resubmit and we’ll take care of it ASAP.”

It was sent from his iPhone.

I’m not one to cut off my nose to spite my face. I’d just as soon slit my throat than scratch my neck. I didn’t respond. By then that ship had not only sailed, but sunk. I’d gone down with it.

About this time I received an unexpected email from the girl from that first gig, that I’d filled out that application for.

“After further review, we have decided to not move you forward in the interview process,” she wrote. “This was a tough decision and I want to thank you for your interest and for sending all of the requested information.”

I wrote her back saying I was surprised that she even let me know, and that I appreciated it. And there ends the good news.

For it was also around this time that I realized just how dead and buried I really am.

It started with an invite to cover the latest in a series of All for the Hall benefit concerts in New York for the Country Music Hall of Fame. When I was at Billboard, I was given a seat at a dinner table. Then when they had one three years ago I wasn’t even invited.

I did get invited this time. At least I thought so. It was an email with the particulars, and I responded, saying that I’d be there, in a return email to the publicist named at the bottom, whom I didn’t know, whereas I once knew everybody there. I never heard back, and as it got closer to the date, I started getting nervous.

I emailed the publicist again, then called her and left a voicemail. No response. Called her again, then the gal whose name was below her on the email. No response from either.

Day of the event and I figured I could go and not be let in, or I could stay home and have to answer for not showing up. I went with the former, and sure enough, the gal at the gate didn’t see my name on the press list. I asked for the head publicist on the email notice, who hadn’t returned calls or emails. I was not happy and I let the first gal know it.

She called the head publicist on her cell, and she came up and explained that I was for sure not on the list, that the press allotment was full, and that she had responded to me by email. I told her if she had I hadn’t received it, then told her to give my regards to Kyle Young, the head of the Hall of Fame, whom I’ve known probably 30 years. I knew she wouldn’t, and I knew he wouldn’t have cared anyway.

I left, saying my final goodbye to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I felt like my career, which began in country music, had now ended in country music–and said goodbye to that, too.

Then again, within days I was confronted with something that both began and ended shortly after I was let go at Billboard some 10 years earlier.

After my friend and editor-in-chief Tim White died (he took me with him, I always say), they brought in Keith Girard, from nowhere in terms of the music business, but with reportorial experience at The Washington Post, as well as editorial roles at Washingtonian magazine and business publications. I liked Keith, but as in the case of Tim, I was the only one who did. He was out within the year, as I recall, settling for a lot of money, no doubt, in a settlement following a $29 million dollar suit, filed with his female senior editor, over “gender and race-based discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliatory firings, intra-office sabotage, and other wrongdoing.”


As I’d befriended Keith, he was nice enough to offer me a very good position at his next venture, a Long Island news and entertainment paper called The Improper. As usual, the position never materialized in the manner it was presented (weekly salary, health insurance), and I did maybe three or four pieces for it before realizing I’d been had.

The Improper
still exists online, but I only know this because with everything else going on, I got an email “to bring your attention to [some-artist-I-never-heard-of’s] upcoming solo show in New York. I thought that a preview of review of this exhibition would be an excellent fit for The Improper Magazine. Please let me know if you’d be interested in featuring this exhibit.”

Now I still get calls and emails and social network messages asking me to cover things at Billboard, so I can’t be that surprised that The Improper popped up suddenly out of nowhere. But for this one, at least, I didn’t bother responding.

But here’s one where I did respond, much to my regret and humiliation. It was to interview Dave Stewart about his forthcoming “groundbreaking musician and producer shares never-before-told stories of his life in music” memoir—or review the book or otherwise feature Stewart.

No, the foreword “from longtime friend and collaborator Mick Jagger” didn’t hook me, and I wasn’t much of a Eurythmics fan—and didn’t really agree with the email subject claim that he was “Eurythmics Frontman.” But Stewart had worked with my dear friend Boris Grebenshikov, Russia’s hugely popular Soviet era answer to Bob Dylan, and I figured talking with him about Boris would be fun and different for both of us.

“Def interview,” I emailed the New York book company publicist who approached me. She came back with, “Just wanted to let you know that the Dave Stewart manuscript should be ready this Friday; I’ll send along a copy then. Do you want to nail down a date for the interview? All best….”

I must have missed this for my next response was, “Sorry didn’t get back earlier–had to knock off two book proposals myself this week and didn’t see until now. Any time is good…thanks!”

Which brings us to the fun part.

“Hi Jim, do you have time the afternoon of the 28th or the 29th?”

Innocent enough, but even then, I should have seen this next one coming, at least 10 years away.

“Does Billboard have a run date in mind? We’re asking that all interviews be run on or closely surrounding the publication date of 2/9/16.”

Fuck me.

I went with the first part first.

“Either is good,” I said, then lowered the boom–onto my own head: “Wouldn’t know about Billboard. They fired me over 10 years ago.”

“Hi Jim,” she responded. “so sorry about that.” Maybe she was. “I’ll make sure our database is updated.” Maybe she did.

“Who are you writing for these days?”

I’m sure she loved this one: “,”

Or maybe she didn’t.

I waited to hear back from her, and when there was no immediate reply, I thought, no way she won’t respond. And as soon as I thought that, I felt that twinge again, somewhere deep in the back of what’s left of my brain.

It was, “the curse.” My best friend in high school who beat me to the rope a few years ago always got on me whenever I said something like “This can’t possibly happen,” or any statement prefaced by “never” and any variation thereof. It’s the curse, he said, effectively guaranteeing that whatever can’t possibly happen will indeed come to pass, usually with no wait.

And so it did here, though I did have to wait a few days for verification.

For the Dave Stewart book that was being sent to me that Friday never arrived. The book publicist never followed up on setting a time that 28th or 29th for my interview. No explanation given, no “sorry, we just don’t care about or”

I wasn’t even worth the absolute most minimal professional courtesy. Still, it would only get worse.

The first missile came from LinkedIn, of all places.

“Hi Jim! Thanks for accepting my invite!” acknowledged another publicist, this one from L.A..

“Would love to further network with you. Are you currently writing for any magazines? Either way though, always a pleasure to meet!”

Either way, I wondered, just how much of a pleasure?

“No magazines,” I answered. “Just websites that don’t pay, including my own. I’m afraid I’m about the most anti-social networker in the world.”

Somehow this only encouraged her.

“You replied to my message–that’s far from being anti-social :).”

Social networking graces over, time for the kicker.

“May I share something with you? We’re hoping to get an exclusive at Billboard –do you still write columns for their site? We are working with a new and innovative record label (with a partnership with INgrooves/UMGD for distribution) that’s releasing a track on the 23rd of October (and video being released Nov 6th)–showcasing two popular social media artists (with a combine reach of over 2 millions followers). Ideally, we’d love to discuss a feature on Oct 23rd highlighting the new song and artists, connecting it to the new record label, and then another feature for the video release on the 6th of November–but obviously, whatever would make sense. May I send additional information–including the track link for you to take a listen?”

Of course, I’d stopped reading after “an exclusive at Billboard.” I came back with my stock answer: “Fired over 10 years ago.”

“Oh wow. Thats a while ago. My apologies.” The she Linked me Out. This was followed in very short order by a pitch I actually caught.

“On Saturday December 5th, the public television series MY MUSIC will present Close To You: Remembering The Carpenters, airing on PBS and Public Television stations nationwide,” the pitch began, and being a huge Carpenters fan forever, I was hooked right away. And besides the PBS special, there was a companion DVD and three-CD box set with all the Carps’ U.S. singles and B-sides.

“Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams is available for a limited number of interviews,” the pitch continued. Now Paulie, whose Carpenters catalog includes “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” is an old pal, as I quickly informed: “Def want to talk to Paul! He’s an old pal! Shouldn’t be a problem….”

And I’m sure it wouldn’t have been, nor would fulfilling my desire for the CDs.

I should have said “never” out loud.

“Hey Jim, do you think there’s a chance of getting a feature on the front page of Examiner or the A&E section? Since this is a nationwide broadcast event about a group beloved by so many, I’m wondering if what kind of placement I can tell Paul to expect. I don’t mean to create an obstacle here, I just know that that’s a question that will come up.”

Oh, I see. You don’t mean “to create an obstacle.” Funny, you didn’t mention any of this in your pitch, asshole. Ye olde bait-and-switch.

But wait! There was more!

“CD’s are unfortunately in short supply. Since our goal is to raise awareness about the 12/5 broadcast, would you be open to reviewing the documentary instead? I can see about DVD availability, but can for sure send you a digital link.”

Short supply, you say? I only want one! I really am out of the business!

“No longer interested,” I wrote back on my Samsung. It was either that or “Fuck off.”

But it was kind of a good one, this dip-shit trying to negotiate “front page of Examiner” with a measly independent contractor who would have nothing to do with placement. Then again, rare is the PR person I deal with who has any understanding that is merely a template for any writer who can arrange words into a sentence.

So now, I figured, it’s impossible to be insulted any worse, let alone any more, at least until 2016.

But I had invoked the curse.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to touch base,” began the pitch, “but I wanted to extend an invite to attend an exclusive Sony Hi-Res Audio event in New York City on November 12 at 4:00 pm at the Columbus Circle Best Buy.”

I might well have gone, except that this was addressed, “Hi Alyssa.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “My name is Jim.”

Tales of Bessman: Jeff Walker, Fan Fair, Bob Merlis, Phil Spector and Bahnee’s Beaneruh

This one really woke me up this morning: “Industry Executive Jeff Walker Passes.” It was a tweet from

Jeff was everywhere whenever I was in Nashville, either as an artist or event publicist, or general industry hang-out guy. Two memories stand out.

The first came during my second trip to Nashville, 1976 or 1977 or thereabouts, a year or so after my first trip to Nashville. I’d met my hero Jo-El Sonnier then (when he was still Joel), and started writing about him—and music in general—a few weeks after returning. Sometime within the following year I met his manager Earl Poole Ball (he didn’t use the Poole then) at a Johnny Cash show at the Dane County Coliseum, as Earl was John’s keyboard player. I knew Earl’s name from Jo-El’s publicity stills, and Earl knew who I was from the first Sonnier piece I’d written in The Madcity Music Sheet and forwarded to Jo-El.

My first trip to Nashville was with a high school buddy and his girlfriend (now wife), during a vacation from my job as a typist/secretary at the State of Wisconsin. This time I took the Greyhound to Nashville. Earl and Jo-El picked me up at the station and I stayed in Earl’s Wall-to-Wall music publishing company office in Music Row on 16th Avenue South. Jo-el slept on the fold-out couch and I slept on the floor.

It was the first week of June, and scorching. The office had no air conditioning; worse, it had no shower, so it was pretty much bird baths in the bathroom sink for a week. About as grubby as I’ve ever lived, and that’s saying a lot. And as usual, I had no money.

And it was Fan Fair Week. Now the humongous CMA Music Festival held all over downtown Nashville and Nissan Stadium and drawing upwards of 75,000 fans, Fan Fair had begun in 1972, when it brought 5,000 fans to Municipal Auditorium, where Roy Acuff, Tom T. Hall, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and others performed. It moved to the Tennessee Fairgrounds in 1982, by which time I was living in New York and working for the music trade Cash Box—and had become a Fan Fair regular. I made the move with it to downtown in 2001, but it was nothing like that first one, when I survived for three days on popcorn pilfered from the Con Brio Records booth when no one was looking.

Con Brio was active in the late ‘70s and was founded by Jeff and his father Bill Walker, an Australian-born American composer and conductor who had worked with such country stars as Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins and Eddy Arnold, and was musical director for TV’s The Johnny Cash Show. Con Brio’s biggest name artist was Jan Howard, who had sung on Cash tours with the Carter Family. But their priority artist at Fan Fair was Terri Hollowell, who charted five singles during her brief tenure at Con Brio, then retired to focus on family.

I remember meeting Terri, but more memorable, aside from having desperately needed a hot meal and a shower, was seeing “Ragin’ Cajun” Doug Kershaw—the reason I became a writer in the first place. He had recorded Jo-El’s “Cajun Born,” and I went to see him–and interview him–at an outdoor rock show in Oshkosh opening for Chilliwack, Muddy Waters and headliners J. Geils. At Fan Fair, I saw him sing his signature hit “Louisiana Man” at the auditorium with brother Rusty, the first time in years that the two performed together, and maybe the last time; he originally recorded “Louisiana Man” with Rusty–who died in 2001–as Rusty & Doug.

I also met my lifelong pal Bob Merlis during Fan Fair Week. Maybe a month or so earlier—or a year, but in the spring—Warner Bros. Nashville had provided two then baby acts, Con Hunley and Margo Smith, for a free outdoor fan appreciation day show near Madison put on by the local country station WTSO. I met the WB/Nashville publicist Bonnie Rasmussen, who was just wonderful, by the way, and asked her if she knew Doug Kershaw, who at the time was signed to Warner Bros. She immediately informed me in no uncertain terms that I had to get in touch with Bob Merlis, since he was also a huge Cajun music fan.

Bob ran national Warner Bros. Records publicity out of L.A., and when I got home I mailed him a few clippings as an intro. He put me on the mailing list—which at the time I didn’t know existed—and I started receiving WB album releases. Then when I showed up at the label’s Nashville office one morning during Fan Fair, I surprised Bonnie, who like everyone else had a Bloody Mary in her hand, much as I did a moment later. After all, it was Fan Fair, and everyone was celebrating. But I wasn’t the only out-of-towner, and when I asked Bonnie if Bob might have been there as well, she said that indeed he was, as a number of top WB/L.A. execs always came in for Fan Fair.

She brought me to him and there he was, middle of June in a lightweight sport coat and bow tie. He knew who I was from our correspondence and we talked a bit about Cajun music, all the while holding up a cassette tape recorder which was clearly recording our conversation. After a few minutes I gave in to curiosity and asked if he was recording us. Yes, he said, he was recording all his conversations while he was in Nashville. Why, I asked. “Because when I get back to L.A. I’m going to edit them!” Bob Merlis replied.

I thought about this for a second or two, then decided I would be his disciple for the rest of my life.

Many years later I was talking with Jeff and somehow Con Brio came up and I mentioned how I’d eaten all its popcorn that long ago Fan Fair. Jeff laughed, and when I asked whatever happened to Terri Hollowell, he laughed again and reintroduced me to Terri, who was now his wife—and the reason she retired to spend time with her family.

Many years later, too, I took my first trip to L.A. I was now a contributor to Billboard, which paid my air fare, since I was there to help cover their annual music video conference. I rented a car and stayed with a friend living on the beach in Playa del Rey. Bob hosted the first of what would become the annual Bessman Bash at his house; last Saturday night there were maybe 100 or so partiers in attendance for Bessman Bash 2015.

The first Bash, however, had at most a dozen guests. Bob was close with Phil Spector,and I had met Phil myself toward the end of the preceding year when he showed up in Nashville during CMA Week to pick up a BMI Award for the country chart-topping 1987 cover of his 1958 Teddy Bears pop hit “To Know Him is to Love Him” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, from their Trio album.

Through Bob I knew some people in Phil’s entourage, and as he was leaving with them via the underground entrance to the parking lot, he walked by me and I was introduced. He didn’t even look at me and just walked by, with his people, until he reached the doorway, then abruptly turned around—as did everyone else—and sauntered back over to me and Art Fein, host of L.A.’s longtime cable rock’n’ roll talk show Art Fein’s Poker Party, who was also close to Phil and part of his crew.

“So who’s the guy with the beard?” Phil asked Art, upon which I practically jumped onto him to shake hands and identify myself. When we were planning that first Bessman Bash, I asked Bob to invite Phil, and a couple hours into the party, the doorbell rang. Our friend Tom Vickers went to get it, and came back to me, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. “There’s someone at the door for you,” he said.

It was Phil. He was all alone. I effusively thanked him for coming and ushered him into the vestibule, where he stood for two hours. Didn’t even remove his coat. It was just him and me for the first half hour or so. I offered him a drink and he accepted water, but that was it. No food, no alcohol. Never left his spot. Eventually everyone came over to him and shy and uncomfortable as he was, he couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. He would come to many Bessman Bashes over the following years, often bringing his lovely daughter Nicole. We’ll never forget his many kindnesses.

Jeff Walker was the major promoter of country music videos back then, and I ran into him at the video conference. A few of us went out do dinner that night, including Billboard’s then managing editor Ken Schlager. We went to some trendy place that was a big celebrity hang, expensive and with a fancy menu. Jeff was not impressed.

“Don’t they have any buguhs, like at Bahnee’s Beaneruh?” he asked impishly, his Aussie accent distorting both “burgers” and “Barney’s Beanery.”

Barney’s Beanery? I said, clearly indicating that I’d never been there, if in fact I knew what it was—which I didn’t, until I was reminded it was illustrated on the classic album cover of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s classic 1968 album Cheap Thrills. Schlager’s eyes suddenly lit up as his lips formed a mischievous grin. Without a word he closed his menu, set it down, and stood up. The rest of us did the same and followed him out of the eatery as all the beautiful people looked at us in disgust.

Half an hour later Jeff, who was a great guy and a great friend and a major figure in the Nashville music community until his sudden death yesterday, was biting into his buhguh at the famous Bahnee’s Beaneruh.

The truth behind my Top 10

I first heard Rosanne Cash’s magnificent The River & The Thread over a year ago, and if I remember correctly, immediately tweeted that even though 2014 was still a ways away, I already had my No. 1 Album of the Year. That it didn’t turn out that way says less about The River & The Thread than it does about my admittedly bogus methodology in choosing Top 10 Albums of the Year.

But really, what does it mean, Album of the Year? The best album of the year? Who’s to say? By what criteria? Or put it this way: Does the Grammy Award for Album of the Year mean that the award winner actually was the best album of the year?

I’ll let you answer that. As for me, and probably others who put these inane lists together, they’re a combination of favorite albums and those by artists that need a break to get heard in the morass of commercially-released and corporate-supported music. In my case, in general, both are the same, with Cash’s being one of the few that has major distribution.

Back when I was at Billboard, we actually included singles, videos, concerts and events in our Top 10 lists, and often went with ties to squeeze in more than 10. Purists would surely call it a cop-out, but I think my late pal, Billboard editor-in-chief Tim White, once crammed in 12 or 13 titles one year.

This year I was tempted to go the tie route more than once, especially because of Rosanne, and particularly because of Carlene Carter.

How ironic that Carlene, who grew up with Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash after he married her mother June Carter, would come out with her own career album just a few months after Rosanne—with Carter Girl kind of being her The List. This presented a huge problem for me in that I wrote the Carter Girl liner notes for my old and dear friend Carlene—but my old and dear friend Rosanne had thanked me a few years ago on a CD compilation. I’m sure they’d both hate me if I copped out and tied them at No. 1, and I was tempted to go the alphabetical route and put Carlene ahead of Rosanne, except that Rosanne’s album was entirely original, while Carlene’s had several beautifully done covers.

Luckily, NRBQ’s Brass Tacks came out, offering me my own plausible out of the sticky situation. Here’s where the wanting to give deserving artists a break part comes in: NRBQ remains perhaps the greatest under-appreciated band in rock ‘n’ roll history. Founded in the late 1960s, it’s still led by Terry Adams, who’s overcome throat cancer and band personnel changes and needs and deserves the recognition that Rosanne and Carlene already have.

But then came Jimmy Liban. A dear friend from Milwaukee, Jimmy is one of the all-time great blues harmonica players/singers/songwriters, but you probably only know that if you’re a blues fan. He was one of the artists I wrote about the most when I started writing in Madison, Wis. in the late ’70s; that he never achieved household name status remains one of my biggest career regrets. When I listened to I Say What I Mean, his first album in decades, produced and recorded by his former guitarist Joel Paterson, it was clear that this had to be my No. 1.

But it could easily have been Cajun country star Jo-El Sonnier’s The Legacy, or Doug Kershaw & Steve Riley’s Face to Face, both magnificent returns to traditional Cajun music form by two of the most important artists in the genre–and my career: I actually became a writer in order to meet Doug at a rock festival in Oshkosh, Wis., having just met Jo-El on my first trip to Nashville. Doug’s then latest album featured Jo-El’s “Cajun Born.” I was a huge fan of both.

That leaves Maura Moynihan’s Bombay Superstar—a Bollywood inspired pop/dance/techno delight; Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits, which was even better than its auspicious 2010 self-titled debut; and Thompson’s Family, Teddy Thompson’s perfectly realized compilation of new songs and performances by his esteemed family members. Any and all of these Top Nine albums could just as credibly been No. 1 in any other year.

My No. 10, AC/DC’s Rock or Bust, would seem to be the only filler title here, though it’s a most excellent album. But I probably would have replaced it with one of several albums I discovered after making this list originally for the Village Voice, then making another of strictly country/Americana/folk/bluegrass titles for Nashville Scene.

I really hadn’t received or listened to a lot of country-related albums this year, due to having fallen off so many lists in the time since I was with Billboard. Thankfully, the Scene sends along several lists of relevant titles that are eligible for consideration, and I was able to stream Laura Cantrell’s No Way From Here, The Isaacs’ The Living Years, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line, Jim Lauderdale’s Patchwork River and Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ Saturday Night/Sunday Morning—all superb.

At least Joel Paterson was pleased by Rock or Bust.

“Thanks so much, Jim,” he messaged. “And an honor to be on a list with AC/DC!”

The Bessman Sideshow: ‘Billboard.’ How Could You?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all averse to bad-mouthing Billboard. Not only for the way they unceremoniously dumped me after over 22 years of being on the masthead as a contributor, editor and Special Correspondent, but for the changes since my time there in the way they cover the business.

But except for a few angry tweets—my protest for their disgusting, belittling, inconsequential headline for the monumental world music pioneer Ravi Shankar’s obit, “Ravi Shankar–Idol of George Harrison, Estranged Father of Norah Jones–Dead at 92,” comes to mind—I haven’t said much in writing about my experiences there and feelings about it, except hinting at it in the first entry in this series.

So now another headline causes me to castigate the magazine I devoted most of my career to. From yesterday’s “Dorothy Carvello Shares: Ahmet Ertegun ‘Felt Me Up,’ Wu-Tang Scares Germans and More”—this followed by a link to a Billboard story with the same title.

I don’t want to further dignify this other than to say I’d never heard of the person making the accusation, who’s doing so in an effort to “shop around” a memoir. I will say it should be no business of Billboard’s to help shop it, and especially to help smear the memory of one of the most important—and I can’t think of anyone more important—people in the history of the music business, who is no longer living and can’t defend himself, not that he should have to defend himself, to Billboard or any other magazine, for that matter.

I can’t say I knew Ahmet well, but I did know him, and for a long time. In addition to his talent, in public he was always the classiest of men, and I always felt humbled to be in his presence, as well I should have.

I’ll never forget—how could I?– sitting at a banquet table in between Ahmet and Tony Bennett. Ahmet was presenting the New York Recording Academy chapter’s “Hero Award” to Tom Silverman, sitting on his other side, Tony was presenting to the late music publishing legend Frank Military, on his other side.

During the dinner, Tony was glancing frequently at Ahmet, then looking down and drawing in his sketchbook. After dinner he tore out the page, handed it to me and asked me to pass it to Ahmet. It was a pencil drawing of Ahmet, who was thrilled, of course. Such are giants.

Tim White, then Billboard’s editor, was given a “Hero’s Award,” too, that night, and deservedly so. No one was closer to Tim at Billboard than me.

But Tim made mistakes. One of his biggest was his decision to axe “Inside Tracks,” the back-page column written forever by John Sippel. It reported rumors and gossip concerning music business executives—nothing ever personal or really damaging, mainly who was said or thought to be going wherever. It was easily the most popular editorial feature of the book, the back page that everyone turned to first.

Billboard is not about rumors and gossip!” I remember Tim barking to me, as he was prone to do in explaining something that he deeply believed in. At such times there was no reasoning with him. I’m sure it cost the magazine dearly, and they brought it back after he died, but by then it was too late: The Internet had taken hold, and readers had learned that they could get the inside track elsewhere.

But Tim would never have stood for “Ahmet Ertegun ‘Felt Me Up,’” which is a sleazy Page Six New York Post item at best. I don’t know that it’s slander, but it’s a most ugly smear on the memory of the type of man without whom there would be no music industry, let alone trade magazine to report and support it.

Bessman Sideshow: J.Lo’s ‘Billboard Icon Award’

I could never understand the Billboard Music Awards.

I mean, it’s all sales, airplay and downloads chart performance-related, right? So if you’re already No. 1, why are you getting an award for being No. 1?

And if there’s more to it, I never even watched the show, and I sure never paid any attention to the charts—which now that I think of it, kind of begs the question, Why did Billboard keep me there well over 20 years as a contributor to begin with?

I’ll answer that in another section on this site at some point. For now I want to note that the Billboard Music Awards has gone off-the-charts in inanity, what with the announcement that Jennifer Lopez will be honored with what Billboard calls “the prestigious Icon Award” May 18 at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards in—where else?—the world’s music capital of Las Vegas.

Say what? Icon Award? Prestigious?

Like I said, I never liked the BMAs—rhymes with VMAs and CMAs, by the way—to begin with. That includes the Billboard Century Award—“the magazine’s highest honor for creative achievement,” according to Wikipedia, and named for Billboard‘s centennial in 1994. Yes, I had to look it up on Wikipedia, but it sounds like something Timothy White said, and I’m pretty sure that Tim came up with it.

Tim, of course, was the acclaimed rock journalist/author, famed for his Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, who became Billboard editor in 1991 and pretty much gave me free reign. He appointed me to the posts of Special Correspondent–the first in the trade magazine’s history–and Music Publishing Editor.

I always say that when Tim died in 2002, he took me with him. I was gradually stripped of my titles and unceremoniously dumped. At the end I couldn’t even get the album review editor to return an email. In the immortal words of Red Buttons, I never got a dinner.

But no, this isn’t sour grapes. I never liked the Billboard Music Awards to begin with. It seemed like such a blatant ruse to exploit the Billboard brand, not so much in support of the trade, which would have been legitimate, but at the expense of it.

As for the Century Award, it was a nice enough gesture, but again, designed to elevate the brand with a self-important title tying in with superstars who, while certainly credible, were also entirely predictable. During Tim’s lifetime they naturally reflected his tastes: George Harrison came first, in 1992, and was followed by Buddy Guy, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Chet Atkins, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman and John Mellencamp. Like them or not, it’s hard to argue with their merits, same with those who came after Tim–Annie Lennox, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and Tony Bennett, up through 2006.

No Century Award was given from 2007 to 2010. The award was renamed the Icon Award in 2011—says Wikipedia—and according to a May 5 Billboard story on its website, is the Billboard Music Awards’ (they expand the acronym to BBMAs)—“ultimate honor.”

“The accolade recognizes lifetime achievement and an artist’s remarkable and enduring contribution to popular music,” the story said. “Lopez becomes just the fourth artist and the first woman, joining past winners include [sic] Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Prince.”

I’m sorry BBMAs, but grammar aside, that last line reads like a word relationship question on an aptitude test: “Which of these names doesn’t belong with the other three?”

“Jennifer Lopez is one of the most iconic performers of her generation,” commented Larry Klein, producer of the Billboard Music Awards, in the piece. “We are thrilled to honor her historic career with the 2014 Icon Award and will be on the edge of our seats lik [sic] everyone else when she takes the stage.”

Okay, we haven’t met, Larry—if I may call you Larry—and I’m sure you have no idea who I am—make that, was. But I contributed to Billboard every week for well over 20 years and I’m telling you now that I, for one, will not be on the edge of my seat “lik everyone else” when J.Lo takes the stage. I ain’t even gonna be watchin’! And I say this knowing full well—having read the article—that she’ll “grace the stage to perform with one of the night’s finalists Pitbull to premiere the official anthem of this year’s FIFA World Cup, ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’ [and] give another debut performance on [sic] the night with a rendition of ‘First Love,’ a single lifted from her new studio album A.K.A., which is set for release on June 17.”

Please, people! I understand that these shows are all about ratings, and in the case of music awards shows, promotion. But like I always say about the Grammys, there’s plenty of other artists out there that are equally as good, if not better than, the ones they promote.

And no, this isn’t sour grapes, and I don’t mean to discount J.Lo’s huge commercial success–the elephant in the room–and maybe I’d still be at Billboard had  I cared more about that sort of thing. But iconic? On par with Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Prince? Please, Billboard!

The Great (Al) Goldstein

I’m not much for wishing anyone “RIP.”

Rest in peace? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? That no one robs your grave like some Egyptian pharaoh?

But I’m close to wishing a peaceful rest for my dear, dear friend Al Goldstein. Maybe the most restless mess of a man I ever knew, and surely, in spite of himself, high up among the most lovable.

You could easily shrug him off as one big id, but there was so much more to him than his voracious appetites for sex and food and maybe above all, freedom of expression.

I loved the quote in The New York Times obit, from “the manifesto” in Screw’s debut issue in 1968. “We will apologize for nothing.” And it rightly pointed out how he ‘lived to shock and offend.” But to my mind, at least, those he sought to shock and offend had it coming, way more often than not—on two occasions, myself included.

But really Al, am I so bad because I’m such a huge Burt Bacharach-Hal David fan that I told you how much I loved the 2003 Broadway production of their musical revue The Look of Love, which was so soundly thrashed by the critics that it closed after only 48 performances—one of which you went to, on my recommendation, and hated, so much so that you did the first of two golden Al Goldstein Midnight Blue “Fuck You”’s to me?

Obviously, yes.

But was I really so bad that in the middle of another “Fuck You” the following week, you lost your train of thought, then reverted back a week and went after me again?

“Jim Bessman. You visited me in two hospitals. You took me to concerts. You got me CDs. This is the thanks you get: FUCK YOU!”

If you never watched Midnight Blue, Al’s legendary cable access program that came on Friday nights at midnight and mixed hardcore porn footage with Al’s fever-pitched rants against ex-wives, lawyers, restaurants, movies, the government and good friends, well, you missed out on the LOL genius of Al Goldstein.

One year I turned him onto Tammy Faye Starlite. Real name Tammy Lang, Tammy Faye most recently has won acclaim for her portrayals of the late German rock chanteuse Nico, of 1967’s legendary Velvet Underground & Nico “Banana Album” fame. But the former yeshiva student first found her own fame—make that infamy—in her Tammy Faye Starlite guise as an overwhelmingly obscene and biased evangelical Christian country rock ‘n’ roll act that is either blasphemous or hysterically blasphemous depending on your sense of humor.

In other words, she was right up Al’s alley. Sight unseen, he asked her on the show, and asked me to sit there while he interviewed her, in character, going back and forth between asking her questions and hurling insults my way. And he liked her so much that he kept there long, so her segment would appear in two parts.

I had to leave after the first part, unfortunately before Penn Jillette showed up. An atheist saint for standing up for and caring for Al in his final years of dire need, an uncomfortably put-off Penn sat in on the second part of Al’s Tammy Faye interview, not realizing it was all brilliant born-again shtick. He challenged her religiosity at all turns, yet failed to dent Tammy Faye’s facsimile of impenetrable piety. Al just lapped it up until nearing the end of the interview, Penn finally got the joke.

Of course not even Tammy Faye Starlite could be as utterly repellant Al Goldstein, but there was always something somehow adorable about Al, even cuddly. And most of Midnight Blue was his producers making fun of him: I still crack up thinking of the bit where they liften the scene in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen’s Willard is being instructed to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Brando’s Kurtz.

“He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” Willard is told.

“Al Goldstein?” he asks, thanks to the magic of Midnight Blue voiceover. Cut to footage of Al sitting at his desk, gleefully thumbing his nose at the camera.

That was Al.

And then there were the “Fuck You”’s.

I was there on several occasions when they’d set up a video camera to tape the segments. Al would have a sheet of paper with half a dozen or so topics, then go through them extemporaneously and rapid-fire, climaxing at the end of each one with both hands outstretched, middle fingers angrily thrusting upwards along with the most disdainful “Fuck you!” deliverable. It was truly breathtaking to behold.

When he died yesterday after spending the last few years in hospitals and nursing homes and deteriorating from numerous physical ailments, Penn Jillette tweeted, “My friend, and hero, Al Goldstein is dead. I will miss him and the world will be a little less free and honest.”

He was my hero, too, and in 1999 I somehow managed to squeeze in an article in Billboard about how record companies were advertising on both The Howard Stern Radio Show and Midnight Blue—though I can’t for the life of me remember which label used the latter. But Al was thrilled to get noticed by such a respected publication, and from that point on I was invited to every Screw/Midnight Blue staff meeting, which always was well stocked with pizza.

He’d invite me to his frequent dinner parties, too, where he’d pick up the tab for 10-20 friends at his favorite delis, Korean or Chinese joints. Gilbert Gottfried was a regular, so was “Uncle” Al Lewis and author Larry Ratso Sloman—another deeply caring friend of Al’s.

His kindness and generosity knew no bounds: I brought a couple girlfriends over the years, and he told them how beautiful they were–though he did question their soundness of mind for being with me. And I took him everywhere: to Joey Reynolds’ radio show, to see Sandra Bernhard and the Oak Ridge Boys; Al loved country music, and the Oaks were thrilled to meet him.

Then again, everyone was thrilled to meet Al Goldstein. His outgoing personality was as big as his obese girth, and even after he had his stomach stapled, lost a ton of weight, and actually looked great, that personality was no less big.

And big as he was, Al always stood up for the little guy and those, like him, who were maligned and misunderstood. Like Phil Spector. He loved Phil, and was ecstatic when I had Phil send me an autographed Spector box set to give him. They had a lot of good in common, unbeknownst to the general public.

“Yes, Al. You are missed. So missed,” tweeted Penn, calling him “one of the greatest proponents of free speech of my generation.” Yes, he was that, and so much more.

My biggest regret is that I was unable to make his voice heard again after he went bankrupt. I failed in attempts to interest people in putting new “Fuck You”’s up on their websites, and could never figure out how to do it myself. With his passing, a thunderous voice shouting out in the wilderness has been silenced.

I’m just lucky to have known him, and glad that he made it to 77—when he could have given up long before. Besides all that weight, he’d lost his home and all his possessions (what I wouldn’t give for DVD copies of Midnight Blue!)—but never his fighting spirit and sense of humor.

Bedridden and deathly ill, Al Goldstein was still a joy to be around. He went out the giant that he was.