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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Concert Highlights: Dwight Yoakam and Cactus Blossoms at Damrosch Park, 8/7/2016

(Photo: Jim Bessman)

I hadn’t seen Dwight Yoakam in concert in a long time, but at his Americanafest NYC show August 7 at Damrosch Park/Lincoln Center Out of Doors, he hadn’t changed much from when I first saw him here in the early 1980s. He looked to have on the same hat, and it’s not impossible he had the same jean jacket, jeans, shirt and guitar.

And he sounded the same, with that trademark hiccup at the end of his traditional country phrasing on classics like “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Sister,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” “Little Ways,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and Buck Owens’ 1973 hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” which became Dwight’s first country chart-topper in 1988 after he cut it with Buck as a duet.

But as big an influence as Buck was on Dwight, Dwight’s current tour pays tribute to “someone who played Americana before there was the name”: the other Bakersfield great—also now deceased—Merle Haggard.

“I learned a lot about songwriting listening to Merle songs,” Dwight said, noting that this applied to his entire generation of songwriters—and “not just country” ones. Among the Hagg hits he performed were “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” and “Okie from Muskogee,” which he followed with the other side of “the same coin”: Little Feat’s “Willin’.”

Dwight encored with a couple other tributes to recently departed greats in Glenn Frey (The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and George Martin (The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” complete with a Beatles bow by Dwight and the band at the end).

Opening band Cactus Blossoms need be noted for an excellent set, kind of a cross between Everly Brothers and cowboy songs. And Dwight, by the way, has a bluegrass album coming out Sept. 23 on Sugar Hill Records, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, featuring bluegrass takes on choice compositions from his catalog.

YouTube Discoveries: P.P. Arnold and Bonnie Owens

Thanks to my pal Chalkie Davies–the legendary photographer of 1970s/’80s U.K. rock musicians–for posting a video of The Faces’ hit “Tin Soldier” last week as a memorial tribute to keyboardist Ian McLagan.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” rightly testified Chalkie, whose comments on Mac made my appreciation piece for read so well.

I’m posting the clip here, not just for Mac and the Small Faces—the band that became more famous in America as The Faces when Rod Stewart replaced Small Faces lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott–but for P.P. Arnold, a former Ike & Tina Turner Ikette who was most successful in England in the 1960s, when she backed artists like the Small Faces and also had her own hits.

As incredibly charismatic as Marriott was, it’s hard to keep your eyes off Arnold in “Tin Soldier.” Restrained next to Marriott’s unbridled passion, Arnold is nevertheless mesmerizing: the way she gently smiles and dances off to the side and away from her mic, then comes in when it’s time to sing the chorus, reminds me of maybe the best backup singer I ever saw, Bonnie Owens.

Bonnie, who was married to Buck Owens and then Merle Haggard, stayed with Merle onstage after she divorced him and likewise stood behind him dancing and smiling—until it was time for her to sing harmony parts, “blurt harmonies,” as she called them when I told her how much I loved them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a great example on YouTube that wasn’t part of a long concert tape. But here she is, late in the game, singing a classic Hagg hit next to him.

And here’s an example of Arnold’s solo work, on the original hit version of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest”:

Tales of Bessman: Fan Fair, Country Music, and Loudilla Johnson

Less than a month away from the 2014 CMA Music Festival, and I’m prompted, by the passing of Loudilla Johnson, to think back to when it was called Fan Fair and held at the dirty, dusty, magical Tennessee State Fairgrounds, for those of us who love country music and cover it, the best days of our lives.

It was a lot smaller, then, but still big, and each of the main Fairgrounds buildings was packed with country stars of every rank, from A-List to F, in their custom-designed  booths signing autographs and selling trinkets. I still have, somewhere, a little makeup mirror with a plastic case emblazoned with “For a Fan of Tammy Wynette,” though as much as I love him, I think I got rid of my glow-in-the-dark Confederate Flag Hank Williams, Jr. gym shorts even before returning to New York.

“Wear those at the gym when you get home!” bellowed Merle Kilgore, Hank’’s manager (not to mention writer of such classic country songs as “Wolverton Mountain,” and with June Carter, “Ring of Fire”), who thrust a pair into my hands—and those of my pal Bob Merlis. We both loved Merle dearly, but neither of us had the chutzpah to bring them home.

Fan Fair left the Fairgrounds for Downtown Nashville in 2001 and gave up the name in 2004. Dear Merle’s long gone—even if I can still hear him laughing loudly at us–and now so is Loudilla Johnson, 75, who with her late sister Loretta and surviving sister Kay, co-founded the International Fan Club Organization, or IFCO.

If one thing symbolized Fan Fair, and maybe by extension country music iself, it would likely be IFCO. It was the Johnson’s offshoot of the Loretta Lynn Fan Club, which they started in 1963 after Loretta Johnson, living at the family ranch in Wild Horse, Colo., began corresponding with Loretta Lynn.

Much of this last sentence, by the way, was lifted near verbatim from Peter Cooper’s obituary in The Tennessean. He’s such a good writer I couldn’t improve on it and didn’t bother trying.

“Them girls was my first official fans, the ones who started my fan club and stuck with me for years,” Lynn wrote in her memoir—and Cooper quoted. “Shoot, we started the whole week’s long event called Fan Fair together, even though none of us got the credit for it.”

Also quoted in Cooper’s piece, author/historian (and host of Fan Fair’s star-studded IFCO shows) Robert K. Oermann said, “The other stars saw how successful they were with Loretta’s club. Buck Owens’ sister, Dorothy, came to the girls and said, ‘You ought to form a fan club organization, because the other clubs could learn from you.’”

This was in 1965, when the Johnson Sisters formed IFCO. It consisted of 75 fan clubs working together in uniting country stars and their fans.

Four years before the first Fan Fair in 1972, IFCO staged its first multi-artist concert, during Nashville’s annual DJ Convention (long since known as Country Radio Seminar).

“The Johnsons were supporting the fans long before there was a Fan Fair,” Oermann told Cooper. “And from the beginning of what became the CMA Music Festival, they were intimately involved. Loretta, the sister who died in 2009, was sort of the spark plug that started the whole thing, but it was Loudilla who was the most business-minded of the three sisters. All three of them were zany and fun. They were devoted to country music. They were nothing but love.”

Nothing but love.

IFCO eventually worked with over 375 fan club groups, and showcased everyone from legends like Johnny Cash and Charley Pride to such stars of today as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival. I don’t know if that fabled bond between country music star and fan still exists, and if it does, to the degree it did that year, 1996, when Garth Brooks came unannounced to Fan Fair and stayed 23 hours and 10 minutes straight, signing autographs without taking a break. Or when fans from all over the world lined up at the booth of Australia’s LeGarde Twins—also know as Australia’s Yodeling Stockmen–as happy  to pose for pictures with them as with Trisha Yearwood in her fantastic recording studio booth, where her fans could actually sing along with her and come out with a tape recording of it.

But if the love affair between country stars and fans continues, give thanks to the Johnsons, who formalized it. Not for nothing were they presented with the Ernest Tubb Humanitarian Award at the 2002 R.O.P.E. (Reunion of Professional Entertainers) banquet, in that their IFCO Show concert proceeds always went to charities: The original E.T. would flip his guitar over at the end of his performances to show the word “thanks” in big block capitals on the back.

Unlike so many classic country songs, for Loudilla, Loretta and Kay Johnson, who were so devoted to country music, their love was indeed requited.

A performance by Lynn Anderson at a special 2009 CMA Music Festival show in memory of IFCO co-founder Loretta Johnson: