Tales of Bessman–Alan Vega, Suicide and The Blind Man in the Bleachers

Alan Vega’s death on July 16, and being back in Madison, Wis at the same time, brought me back to when I first heard Suicide’s self-titeld 1977 debut album, and The Blind Man in the Bleachers.

“The Blind Man in the Bleachers” was a No. 2 country hit in 1975 for Kenny Starr, a cover of the Top 20 pop hit that year by David Geddes. It really was one of the schmaltziest country hits ever, about a blind man in a high school football stadium bleachers who longs to hear his second stringer son’s name announced, but doesn’t show up for the season final. Turns out he died, which is how he gets to “see his son [finally] get in the game” and lead the team to victory.

I was working at the State of Wisconsin at the time, a typist-receptionist in the Department of Administration Bureau of Personnel, in a federally funded program called Project Skill, which was designed to give physically and mentally disabled people job opportunities (myself included, having–get this–earlier worked as a reader-typist for a blind man in the same old downtown State Office Building in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation). One day this blind guy came in to work, but he wasn’t a client. I can’t remember what his exact staff position was, but Dennis in fact became one of my best friends—thanks largely to his wife Maddy.

Maddy, you see, was a great cook. She used to pack the best lunches for Dennis every day, and me being hungry, well, I stole them. Incredulous people would always ask, “How could you do that?” “Easy,” I’d answer. “He was blind.”

Not that Dennis didn’t try hard. He’d hide his lunch in the closet, in his desk, in places I can’t remember, but to no avail. I’d watch him fumbling around for his lunch and his eventual realization that it wasn’t where he hid it, and cover my ears for the inevitable “FUCK YOU!” that followed. Actually, “FUCK YOU!” was our mutual greeting: Every time he’d call me on the phone, either at home or in the office—and my desk wasn’t more than 20 feet from his—there’d be a pause after I answered, then a loud “FUCK YOU” (if in the office, a loud whispered “FUCK YOU”). I, of course, always responded in kind.

It wasn’t long before Maddy started packing a second lunch, and Dennis and I would walk the couple blocks from the State Office Building on 1 West Wilson Street to the State Capital Square, walking around the Square while eating—that is, when I wasn’t trying to push him into the street or he wasn’t trying to hit me with his cane. At least once a week or so he’d come over to my place a few blocks East of the Square on Hancock Street and listen to records, or I’d take the bus with him to the West Side for dinner followed by Crazy Eights, which, somehow, he invariably won amidst ceaseless gloating.

This had to be around 1977-78–the advent of punk and new wave, which is when I went back to listening to rock after having immersed myself in country music around 1970 when prog-rock and pop-rock replaced ‘60s Top 40 radio and underground rock FM stations. Hence, I knew of “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”–a hit that understandably hasn’t withstood the test of time. As for my Blind Man in the Bleachers, well, Dennis shared my love of ‘60s rock, but pretty much hated punk and new wave. To this day the only time I ever sat through an entire Saturday Night Live was the landmark one on Dec. 17, 1977, when Elvis Costello & the Attractions filled in for the just disbanded Sex Pistols, and it was over at Dennis’s with several of his and Maddy’s other friends. I think there was only one other person there who thought Elvis was incredible–let alone had any idea who he was.

But I played everything for Dennis—Elvis, The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Sex Pistols, Clash, Talking Heads. I don’t recall that he liked any of it, but he did have an assistant who was also a big punk fan, who actually saw the Pistols when they played the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas on that ill-fated U.S. tour.

And, of course, Suicide. I went back to that first Suicide album right after the death of Vega, whom I met many years later in New York when I interviewed him for Billboard. Even now the minimalist album is gripping from instrumentalist Martin Rev’s “Ghost Rider” techno-electro get-go and Vega’s “America America is killing its youth” lyric proceeding into breathless abandon.

And how about “Frankie Teardrop,” which inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”?

It had an insane electronic beat and a fundamental keyboard grind that heightened the tension in Vega’s tale about the downtrodden psycho killer/suicide Frankie Teardrop (“Let’s hear it for Frankie!”), which erupted into a frantic screech as the subject exploded.

But it was “Cheree” that really set Dennis off. He’d goof on me non-stop for Vega’s “Cheree Cheree, oh baby,” mercilessly exaggerating Vega’s already exaggerated delivery.

I began my writing career in the Project Skill office, when Steve Tatarsky, who worked in the Bureau of Personnel and had earlier worked at The Milwaukee Sentinel, complained how he had to write the Department of Administration newsletter, titled–get this–D.O.A. Today. I offered to help Steve out, even though I had no writing experience outside school–and I’d flunked out of high school.

The only article I remember writing for D.O.A. Today was a somewhat investigative piece on the remodeled men’s room down the hall. Being an old building, it had these beautiful marble walls, institutional gravel floors, and big wooden doors in the stalls–also beautiful. But for some stupid bureaucratic reason, they decided to replace the doors with some kind of hideous orange formica, and I think they covered up the marble as well. It took a long time to do, and when it was finished, the modern upgrade looked awful.

I quoted an unidentified source who used the facility regularly, but as this was all almost 40 years ago, I don’t think he’ll mind if I reveal his name now.

“It looks like a Burger King!” said The Blind Man in the Bleachers.

Concert Highlights–The Graham Parker Duo Featuring Brinsley Schwarz at City Winery, 4/7/2016

I really can’t say enough in praise of Graham Parker.

I remember years ago at The Bottom Line he joked about how he’d been signed to and dropped by almost every major label and a lot of minor ones, and how he was dropped by Atlantic before they even put out an album!

After two great albums with the reunited Rumour, I don’t know if he still has a deal, but I do know that there will be more albums, and as tired of it as he said he was after his April 7 City Winery gig (he likened himself to the Energizer Bunny), more touring. Like all great ones, it’s in his blood.

He can also play in any kind of situation, in bands (besides The Rumour, he toured and recorded extensviley with the much younger Figgs, and has had bands of other musicians backing him) and solo. He’s currently touring with the Rumour’s guitarist Brinsley Schwarz as The Graham Parker Duo Featuring Brinsley Schwarz, Brinsley on gold Les Paul and G.P. on acoustic guitar and harmonica—and, of course, storytelling.

As for singing and songwriting, he remains one of the most dependable artists 40 years following the release of his landmark debut album with the Rumour, Howlin’ Wind. As evidenced at City Winery—where he returns with Schwarz tonight—his voice hasn’t changed a whit, nor has his wit, for that matter. In a typical set that spanned his entire career, he leavened his repertoire both with surprise selections and signature self-deprecation, as in “Turned Up Too Late,” from the Howlin’ Wind followup album Heat Treatment (also ’76), but here referenced by its Pointer Sisters’ 1979 Priority album version.

Priority, Parker noted, went more rock than the pop-R&B sound that established the Pointers, and also including songs by Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.

“Unfortunately, it was just past their prime,” reported Parker with customary resignation. “But [their cover] was very good. I was waiting for the swimming pools to come in!”

Here he motioned with his arms as if sweeping the swimming pools that never came in onto the vast estate he never had—but should have.

Then there was “When the Lights Go Down,” which was completely obscure even to a guy in France who calls himself Parker’s No. 1 fan and thereby attempting to usurp my position; after all, I did write the CD booklet notes for the 2001 Hip-O label Graham Parker Ultimate Collection, when G.P. himself called me and asked me to do them, since he was tired of writing them himself. But in all fairness, the French guy–Eric Naulleau—actually wrote a book, Parkeromane (Parker Maniac) about his experiences seeing Parker play in various places. Turns out he heard a Parker bootleg tape with a song he didn’t know on one of his travels—“When the Lights Go Down”—that Parker had penned at Rick Springfield’s request over dinner, for Springfield’s 1984 Hard to Hold film soundtrack, which resurfaced in 2005 on the Parker compilation The Official Art Vandelay Tapes, Volume Two.

“In those days if you coughed loudly and called it a soundtrack album, you sold a million copies,” said Parker, and he wasn’t altogether wrong.

“You’ve all seen Hard to Hold. What? No takers? It must be some kind of classic.” This time he was altogether wrong, though I’m sorely tempted to Netflix it after hearing the song, which Parker said plays in the background when the car with Springfield and Patti Hansen crashes.

Parker recently had to learn “When the Lights Go Down” in French in order to accompanying Naulleau on a novel tour where the author read from his book and the singer-songwriter-muse performed a corresponding song.

“I have no idea what he was talking about, but I don’t care—just pay me Euros!” said Parker. But he had to look up the song on YouTube, he said, and then “stick it on poor Brinsley here.”

Schwarz acquitted himself well, though, also on songs he originally played on back in the day with Parker and the Rumour (“Watch the Moon Come Down,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Stick To Me,” “White Honey,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” “Silly Thing,” “Passion is No Ordinary Word,” “You Can’t Be Too Strong”) and those Parker wrote and recorded post-Rumour (“You’re Not Where You Think You Are,” “Under the Mask of Happiness”). The duo also delved into the reunion albums with “Stop Crying’ About the Rain” from 2012’s Three Chords Good and “Flying Into London” from its 2015 followup Mystery Glue.

It being New York, it was nice they threw in “The New York Shuffle,” from Graham Parker & the Rumour’s third album Stick To Me (1977). But it was somewhat different from the near-40-year-old recording.

“We did everything in those days at breakneck speed,” said Parker, and indeed, he and the Rumour in those days played fast and hard.

“But with the word ‘shuffle’ in it, it should really sound like a shuffle.”

And so it was at City Winery, a right New York shuffle slowed down to audience clap-along time.

9-11 ruminations

Every year I feel this awful ambivalence on 9-11. I understand and appreciate the need to feel unified as a country and “NeverForget,” as the Twitter hashtag says. Then again, never forget what? The horror of that morning? Not to worry, it’s indelibly imprinted in the minds of all who were conscious that day—not to mention those of us who live in New York City. But after that it all kind of falls apart.

Never forget how great we are—as so many of today’s #NeverForget tweets demand? How resilient and unbending? How about, How nationalist and vengeful?

But loved this one: “#NeverForget that 1.57 billion people were forced to accept blame for the actions of the few,” this accompanied by a pie chart estimating Al-Qaeda with less than 10,000 members, the Taliban with 36,000 out of all 1.57 billion Muslims.

Or better yet, “#NeverForget God is in the business of disarming violence, not escalating it,” with a link to the Patheos Progressive Christian Newsletter entry “Things to #NeverForget on 9/11” by Episcopalian priest David R. Henson. An excerpt:

“But on this day, as a Christian, there are some other things I want us to never forget about 9/11 and the retaliatory War on Terror that happened in response.

On 9/11, 2,977 innocent Americans were killed by terrorists.

In the 14-year war on terror, 5,280 American soldiers were killed because of our country’s response to the 9/11 attacks.

Conservatively, reports estimate the War on Terror claimed 1.3 million lives in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our war killed 5 percent of the Iraqi population, people who had zero ties to what actually happened on 9/11.

Our war killed at least 465 people for every person who died on 9/11. Some estimate we killed 670 or more per person.

Our war displaced 3 million Iraqi people.

Our war created 2.5 million Afghan refugees.

I posted a couple songs. Here’s the first–Alan Jackson’s No. 1 country hit, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning):

I always thought this was the best of the 9-11 song lot, far and away. Nothing vengeful or nationalist about it, unlike so many other country artists who would pull a trigger with little regard as to what gets hit. No, Alan’s just a simple man, asking simple yet profound questions:

Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on I Love Lucy reruns?

To me the chorus was so beautiful:

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell
You the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.

Elvis Costello took me to task for favoring Alan over Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” which for me was so overwrought and symbolic. But I could understand his reasoning, that Alan, like so many Americans, should be knowledgeable and responsible enough to at least know the difference between Iraq and Iran.

I was at Billboard on 9-11, the music publishing editor then. Besides the predictable dusting off of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic chestnut “God Bless the USA,” the big song of the moment was “God Bless America.” I wrote a column about it, in which I suggested that as we returned to “the semblance of normal,” we also move “beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare.”

Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive “This Land is Your Land” made sense, but Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” made the most–then and now.

Reach out and touch somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place, if you can.

And the greatest is love.

Tales of Bessman: Steve Popovich and the Dream of the Fan Fair Gherm

Today’s the last day of CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which used to be called Fan Fair for many years before the Country Music Association completely co-opted it. I used to go there every year, starting from when it was held at the downtown Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s to the many years it was at the dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the ’80s and ’90s.

Unable to afford much of anything anymore, I haven’t gone in years. But I have recurring nightmares over missing it. Last night’s was a doozy.

Actually, they’re all pretty much the same: I’ve been in Nashville a few days and it’s either my last day or I’m heading back tomorrow. Yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone I need to see–particularly the people I always stay with, have lunch with, hang out with, etc. So I’m completely freaking out.

Making it all worse last night was that I remember parking my car, but don’t remember where I parked it. In fact, I don’t even remember what kind of car it is, color, model, identifying characteristics. I’m frantically searching all over for it when I wake up.

So two days ago I thought I’d take a rare “selfie”–God, I hate that word!–and put it up on Instagram and Twitter, as a tribute to Fan Fairs of old. I tried to look like the biggest Fan Fair gherm–something that still comes natural.

“Gherm,” if you don’t know, is a dismissive label used by Nashville music business folk for the fans who flood the city for Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival–or any other time of year, really–and meet and greet their heroes, which is pretty much what Fan Fair was originally set up to do. They’d wear their favorite artists’ t-shirts and badges and caps, much as I did in my selfie (there, I said it again).

But no one was ever a bigger gherm than me, and I say that with great pride. Yes, I had business being with the stars, but I never kidded myself: I was just a big kid from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, meeting and greeting my country music heroes, just like everyone else.

So even though I couldn’t make it again this year, I decided to put on my best gherm t-shirt and cap and take a Fan Fair tribute selfie (I still hate the word). I put on my Ronnie Milsap cap–in honor of Ronnie’s finally getting into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lasting friendship that began back at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison back in the late ’80s–and my orange Cleveland International Records t-shirt, with the caricature of the accordion player who looks kind of like Steve Popovich.

Steve was the founder of Cleveland International Records. He was the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He gave me the Cleveland International shirt. One Fan Fair he made up these hysterical “Your brain on Country Music!” t-shirts and gave me one of those, too. I wish I could find it if I still have it. Either way, I wish I could remember it, like I wish I could remember where I parked my car.

It played on those stupid “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercials, where they cut to the eggs frying in a pan. Being on drugs they only made me hungry.

I think it had a cartoon of the eggs in the pan wearing cowboy boots and hats and having a big old time, or something like that. It was really great, I remember, for sure.

And I remember Steve, of course, who died three years ago tomorrow.

No one cared more about music than Steve, who had a huge hand in the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, and put out the Meat Loaf record on Cleveland International and then spent the rest of his life trying to get fairly paid for it.

No one cared more about the little guy, either, or the little guy’s music. He showed me what polka really is, for which I’m eternally grateful.

He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and after years of working hard and eating bad, his big heart finally gave out.

I forgot a lot of things, but I can never forget Steve Popovich. No one can.