One thing about this pandemic, it’s given me a lot of time to reflect.
I thought about Merle Kilgore a few weeks ago, at the height of the George Floyd protests and the ensuing removal of Confederate/racist-related flags and statuary throughout the country. And I thought of him again more recently when the Country Music Association announced that Hank Williams, Jr. was being inducted into the Counry Music Hall of Fame.
Merle Kilgore, if you don’t know, wrote, with June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He also wrote David Houston’s big 1962 country crossover hit “Wolverton Mountain,” and one of my favorites, Tommy Roe’s “The Folk Singer.” He was an inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but by now he was best-known as Hank, Jr.’s longtime manager—having famously carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar long before.
Merle, who died at 70 on February 26, 2005, was a big, cuddly bear of a man, with an oversized jovial personality to match. As Brenda Lee said at his funeral, he “brought laughter to every room he entered—we all know that—and he was friend to all within the reach of my voice. He challenged all of us to remember–and this is so important–he challenged us in the industry to remember the dream that brought us into this industry that he so passionately loved.”
One thing I passionately loved about Merle Kilgore was that whenever I saw him, he’d greet me with “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” Of course I made a point of seeing him whenever I was in Nashville, usually with another big Kilgore fan, Los Angeles-based Bob Merlis, who was then Warner Bros. Records head of publicity.
Bob and I were in Nashville in June, 1998, for our annual hang at what was then called Country Music Fan Fair, then held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds–from where it moved three years later to Downtown Nashville. Bob had just emceed the noon Warner Bros. label show at the Fairgrounds Speedway, and we’d walked up the hill to the exhibition buildings, where hundreds of country artists had meet-and-greet booths.
One of the biggest artist booths, not surprisingly, was Hank Williams, Jr.’s. It was comparatively huge, actually, stocked full of all kinds of merchandise. There holding court behind the counter was Merle Kilgore.
“Jim Bessman! America’s most-beloved music journalist!” he bellowed, then saw Bob.
“Hey! I got something for you guys—but you have to wear them!” he said, reaching down below the counter for what must have been his special stash. When his hands resurfaced, each held a bold blue garment, one of which he tossed to Bob, the other to me. We then unfolded, to our horror–and Merle’s boisterous chuckle—Confederate Flag gym shorts!
“Jim Bessman! Make sure you wear them at the gym when you get back to New York! You’ll get a big reaction!” Merle exclaimed, laughing louder. I’m sure he would have been right, had I worn them at the gym. I don’t remember what I did with them when I got back to New York, but I do know I never wore them to the gym.
But I remember one other thing about that Fan Fair stop. Merle asked if I’d heard about Jack McFadden. Jack was another bigtime manager I always visited when I was in Nashville.
I’d first met Jack when he managed Keith Whitley to country music stardom. Thanks to Jack, I’d even got to hang with Keith (whom I’d first seen at the University of Wisconsin Student Union Great Hall back in the early 1970s when he and Ricky Skaggs were in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys) and his wife Lorrie Morgan when they taped something together at a studio in New York.
Big thanks to Jack, I also became friendly with Buck Owens, whom Jack had managed forever. He also managed Billy Ray Cyrus, and I’ve always remembered what Jack said when Travis Tritt got into trouble at Fan Fair in 1992 for criticizing “Achy Breaky Heart.” In response, Jack said, “I think Travis is feeling the heat from our afterburner.”
Sadly, Jack was now in a coma, Merle told us. He wouldn’t last the day. But they were reading messages to him, so when I got to a phone I called his office and made sure they read a loving one from me.
Usually, though, Bob and I would visit Merle at his office in Music Row (he had another one in Paris, Tennessee, where Bocephus–Hank, Jr.–was based). His Music Row office was just around the bend from the Country Music Association headquarters (Merle was a longtime CMA officer), in the same building that once housed the Cash Box Nashville bureau when I worked for the long defunct trade magazine I came to New York in the early 1980s. We got there once when he was just pulling up in his immense boat of an SUV (in the same parking lot where I once spent a cold winter night in my rental car) that even then couldn’t fit his even more immense personality.
I’m laughing now recalling how another dear departed friend, Steve Popovich (founder of Cleveland International Records, Steve ran PolyGram Nashville in the 1980s, where he signed the likes of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), always referred to Merle, in conversation or in person, as “The SENATOR!,” for he was in fact an honorary Tennessee State Senator. Certainly, he was politically diplomatic.
I put Merle’s diplomacy to the test one year when Bob and I were in Nashville in October for the Country Music Awards. I have an unfortunate tendency not to conform with consensus, i.e., Bob Dylan’s the greatest songwriter ever, Aretha Franklin’s the greatest singer ever, etc., etc. Politics and big gun/big game-hunting obsessions aside, I’ve also always contended that Hank, Jr. was better than Hank, Sr.—always a good conversation-ender, if not longtime friendship.
I must have mentioned this to Bob, then said we had two country music authorities close at hand that we could trust for an expert opinion.
First we went to Tony Pipitone, who like Bob, was a top executive at Warner Bros. in L.A. (he headed the label’s “special products” division charged with catalog compilations), a big country music fan, a regular at Fan Fair and the CMA Awards, and another friend of Merle’s.
“I’d have to say Hank, Jr.,” Tony said, when we asked him to choose between Sr. and Jr. One down, we then went over to Bob and Mary Oermann’s, where I was staying, and asked Bob—arguably the most important country music journalist of our time—for his vote. He said exactly the same thing. Neither of them had given it a second thought.
My third and final expert was the guy who carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar and managed Jr.
I think it was at the PolyGram CMA Awards after-party, though it might have been at MCA’s. Whichever, he was standing at the bar when I arrived.
“Merle,” I said, “you know how much I love Bocephus. I know it’s considered sacrilege, but I’ve always maintained he’s better than his father. I’ve even asked Tony Pipitone and Bob Oermann, and they both agree. But if anyone would know, it would obviously be you.”
The SENATOR looked down at me, considered the question for a few seconds, then leaned back and said, “Junior is more versatile. But Senior was more focused.”
He could have changed it around. In fact, maybe he did. But either way, he diplomatically declared it a draw.
By the way, when I said Merle was standing at the bar, I should mention that he’d been sober then some 20 years. One day in his office he’d told me and Bob about his drinking days. Bob says he said, “I drank because it made me funny.” I remember him saying, “I drank because it made me happy.” Again, both work. Even without alcohol, Merle Kilgore was both happy and funny.
I did see him outside Nashville on a couple occasions, the first time when Hank played the Nassau Coliseum.
One thing that I loved about Merle was how much he loved Bocephus. Whenever I was at a Bo show and backstage or even on stage, Merle would be in the wings standing up and singing along the entire set like a cheerleader, just loving it. After the Nassau gig we went on Hank’s bus and while we waited for him, I asked Merle what Junior felt about Chet Flippo’s then recently-published Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams.
Another now dear departed friend, Chet Flippo was responsible for expanding Rolling Stone’s country music coverage in the mid-1970s, when I first got to know him. He later authored several books, most notably two on the Rolling Stones and his 1981 Your Cheatin’ Heart, which blended fact with fictionalized dialog and scenes, some of them intimate.
“Chet Flippo!” shouted Merle, who had actually spent time with Hank, Sr. “Yeah, Chet Flippo was there, all right! He was hiding in the hay with his tape recorder!”
Then there was a day in late May, 2003, when I approached the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue and saw a man who looked very much like Merle Kilgore waiting for the “Walk” sign. As I neared him it dawned on me: Ain’t no one who looks like Merle Kilgore who ain’t Merle Kilgore, and sure enough, it was Merle Kilgore.
“Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!”
Merle was on his way to Radio City, where Junior was rehearsing his performance at the ABC-TV network “upfront” showcase of its fall schedule for advertisers and media. Hank was going to sing his Monday Night Football theme remake of his 1984 hit “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight”—“All My Rowdy Friends are Here on Monday Night”—and I was thrilled when Merle invited me to the real thing later in the day.
When I got there I went straight to Hank’s dressing room, where he was already in all his stage splendor, particularly a fabulous cowboy hat with a number emblazoned on the front. I asked him about it, and he said it was the uniform number of a Black college football star who had died tragically a short while back, whom he had been very close to.
But there was another person whom both Hank and Merle had been close to who had just died—June Carter Cash, on May 15. I asked them about the funeral, and especially Rosanne Cash’s eulogy, which I’d seen or read, which was stunning in its beauty and eloquence.
Rosanne’s speech was so good, in fact, that when Merle turned to Hank right after and said, “Go up and say something,” Hank told him, “I can’t go up there after that. You go up and say something!”
Merle then said, “I can’t follow her either!” And then, in the row behind them, Kris Kristofferson leaned over and whispered, “Shit! Now I can’t go up and say anything!”
I suppose it was inappropriate, but I had to laugh out loud at these three legendary country music songwriters, who couldn’t go up and say anything in honor of their dear fellow legend after Rosanne took all of them to school!
Searching YouTube for a video or two to illustrate this tribute, I happened upon footage of Merle’s own funeral, co-hosted by a couple other friends: Travis Tritt, whom me and Bob had run into sitting in a darkened corner of a bar in Nashville the night that his Billy Ray Cyrus brouhaha erupted, and Marty Stuart, who was likewise finally going into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank, Jr. When they called up Bocephus, he wept uncontrollably.
“Well, you’ve done it this time, Brother,” Hank finally managed to mutter. “I went to the office today…and found that you weren’t there. But the more that I searched, I realized you were everywhere: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, Millenium, too–there were so many pictures, so many memories. Together, me and you. You carried Dad’s guitar in Shreveport, you were my link to him. Like a brother, like a father, and always, always, no matter what, my friend.”
Then they showed some great video of Merle telling stories, taken from a Country Family Reunion program, including a great one about how he lived with Faron Young when he was going through a divorce and after Bocephus had fallen off the mountain in 1975—and before he quit drinking.
Both Merle and Faron were raised in Shreveport, where Merle had carried Hank, Sr.’s guitar at the famed Lousiana Hayride show when Faron was a rowdy high school student in a class taught by Merle’s mom. Faron used to sing country songs in the hallways, so to get him to behave, she told him that Merle would walk him backstage at the Hayride if he calmed the class down. He did.
Years later in Nashville, Faron owned a mansion, and offered Merle a cheap rental on the bottom half. Faron was a great cook, Merle recalled, and they were like “the original Odd Couple.”
One afternoon Faron called Merle at Nashville’s Hall of Fame bar and asked when he’d be home, since he was making his favorite dinner—Shake ’N Bake pork chops. Merle said he’d be home around 6:30.
“Don’t lie to me, now!” said Faron.
Merle got another call from Faron—about midnight.
“You think I [don’t] slave over that hot stove cooking you Shake ’N Bake? Don’t even think about coming home on an empty stomach! Better stop at Waffle House because [the neighbor’s dog] Fluffo is getting your meal! Good night!”
The ast time I saw Hank, Jr., four years ago when he did a show at SiriusXM here in New York accompanied by his new manager (and another old friend) Ken Levitan, I mentioned how much I missed Merle.
“I talked to him last week!” said Hank, explaining that he’d visited Merle’s grave. “I told him I missed him, and he said he was proud of me.”
Now I can’t vouch for the veracity of the conversation, but I don’t necessarily doubt it. After all, I can still hear Merle saiying, “Jim Bessman! America’s most beloved music journalist!” I don’t even mind that I overheard him calling someone else America’s most beloved music journalist, even if to my mind, at least, he was nowhere near as belovable.
But Merle always was.
“He was more than a big man with a big heart,” Brenda Lee said at his funeral. “He was a huge man with a big, big, big heart. If riches can be counted in the legacy of the lives he touched and the hearts that will never forget you, look around this room today and it tells me Merle Kilgore indeed did just fine.”
I’d arrived in Los Angeles Monday the 19th. Had dinner at Bob Merlis and Lynda Keeler’s that night, along with some wonderful friends of theirs from Palm Springs. Tuesday night was the weekly “Old Man’s Dinner” at The Park, where 12 of us grey- and no-hairs gathered to commiserate about the state of “Our Beloved [Music] Industry”–as our pal Tom Vickers always puts it–while toasting those who had left it for good (Peter Fonda that week, for rock-rich films like Easy Rider, and Larry “The Mole” Taylor, great bassist of Canned Heat and other artists, who had died that day and with whom I had dinner in New York some years ago along with Augie Meyers and Los Lobos).
Wednesday it was dinner with Tom and Victoria Vickers, in whose “Garage Mahal” back-of-the-garage room I was staying before moving over to Bob’s on Thursday. After dinner I went with Ned Claflin to hit a big bucket of balls at Weddington Golf & Tennis in Studio City, and in a remarkable feat for an old man who hadn’t touched a club in the two years since the last time we went there, I five-ironed three balls into the barrel 50 yards out–though one was on the bounce.
It had all been leading up to Thursday night and the Rolling Stones at the Rose Bowl, as Bob was the longtime publicist for ABKCO, the management/publishing/recording company that owned the Stones’ early catalog, from which the bulk of the concert setlist came.
I did a lot of work over the years for ABKCO, too, when
founder Allen Klein was alive. I wrote several liner notes for his reissue
compilations (Herman’s Hermits and The Animals among them) and an essay for a
I loved Allen–whom a lot of people didn’t. He was incredibly kind to me and even though I was a Billboard reporter, let me hang in his famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame suite at the Waldorf Astoria during the dinner, as I didn’t have a seat that year. Besides Allen, his Girl Everyday Iris Keitel was there, along with his son (now ABKCO president) Jody, Phil Spector (another dear friend and most generous and thoughtful one), Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham–Andrew having discovered and managed the Stones before Allen took over.
A lot had been said while I sat next to Keith on a sofa across from Phil, Allen and Andrew, swigging from the bottle of Jack Daniels Keith kept passing over to me. It had helped that I’d told him I was close to Bill Carter, the ex-Secret Service agent (for Kennedy and Johnson—and no, there was no conspiracy, and yes, Oswald acted alone, and I know this from Bill, as told to me personally and as recorded in his Get Carter: Backstage in History from JFK’s Assassination to the Rolling Stones, for which I wrote the foreword) who first appears in Keith’s memoir Life on the first line of Page 2, as he had later acted as the Stones liaison with the feds–in effect being the Stones fixer and Keith’s savior.
Like I said, a lot had been said, particularly between Keith and Allen and clearly going back to old grievances and maybe new alliances–while I sat there stoned and getting increasingly drunker wondering when Allen was going to turn to me and tell me to leave. He never did, but when it was time for everyone to go back down to the ballroom for the Hall of Fame jam (“I’m not even going to plug in,” said Keith. “They only want to see some moves anyway!”), Allen came to me and softly said, “You know, you can never repeat any of what you heard.”
“I know, Allen! Thank you for letting me stay!” I stammered,
and I do hope he wouldn’t think I’d broken his confidence by now relating any
of this, and am confident he wouldn’t.
But Allen’s been gone now many years, much as I’ve been gone from Billboard–not to mention Our Beloved Industry. While I’d seen the Stones several times under ABKCO’s auspices, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could impose upon them for more tickets. So I hadn’t seen them in at least a couple tours, if not more.
On our drive to Pasadena, I revisited the Memory Motel, to
borrow from the title of one of my favorite Stones songs. And that’s kind of
what the night became—though they didn’t do “Memory Motel.”
To evoke another Stones song they didn’t do, what could have been the last time I saw them was at Madison Square Garden, 10 years ago, maybe many more. I remember thinking they were good*, but not as good. The first time was memorable for a couple reasons. I wasn’t even writing yet back in 1975, when I saw them at Milwaukee’s County Stadium (The Eagles and Rufus opened). I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and living in Milwaukee–where I was born—and went to Milwaukee Braves games (I actually saw Sandy Koufax hit a home run there–I think he only hit two in his career), and when a friend in New York knew someone who was able to get me Stones tickets, I’m pretty sure I’d taken my high school buddy Greg, who was a Stones fanatic like me. His favorite song was their cover of Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” from their 1965 album Out of Our Heads, and we used to sing along to it over and over in his basement.
At best, everything now is bittersweet, looking back. The Memory
Motel houses good memories, and some not so good.
Greg and I did a lot of drugs together in high school, though I don’t think Greg ever graduated to needles like I did. I was a mess before I’d started on drugs, so it was self-medication as much as anything, ending up in two hospitalizations, the second lasting over a year. When I got out I was determined to stay clean, and did so until that Stones show, when I smoked a joint for the first time in a couple years, at least. I always look back at those years of staying straight as The Lost Years.
I realize I’m so old now that I think everything was at least 10 years ago, but it was the night of a Bessman Bash (to be defined later) at Bob’s many years ago now that Greg committed the most ridiculous of suicides, if a suicide can be ridiculous–and I definitely don’t mean to lighten it’s horror by calling it that. Rather, it only makes it more horrible: After all, Greg had remained one of my best friends, though I hadn’t seen him in the 25 or so years, maybe, since I was sent by Cash Box, (the long defunct music trade magazine I worked at full-time for my first two years in New York) to cover an audio tape manufacturers’ trade conference in Jacksonville, where he lived. But he would always call me on my birthday, as he had a savant-like knack of remembering birthdays, such that I used to call him “Mr. Birthday.”
As I understood it from his ex-wife—who had called me during the Bash, but whose message I didn’t play until the next morning–he got in a fight with his older sister, who blamed him for letting the cat out a basement window. Again, I don’t know if I got the story right, but his sister somehow fell through a screen/glass door, the police were called, and Greg was arrested, then at some point, for whatever reason (I heard he was afraid he wouldn’t get hired again for carpentry work in Florida, where he still lived, since he now had an arrest record), he hung himself.
Greg had returned to Madison to help care for his disabled mother, who died shortly before him. I’d been close to his parents, and friends with his sister–now his only survivor–and doubt that she’d ever see this, but she’s had enough loss in her life to see it recounted here, so I’ve left their last name out. But I thought of Greg, and County Stadium, as I entered the Rose Bowl with Bob and his middle son Ben, who works for him and lives near the stadium.
I won’t offer a review of the show—I didn’t take notes–other than to say that it was the best I’d ever seen the Stones, making me glad I always objected to those critics who’ve been asking them to give it up for decades now. My thing is two-fold: If people are willing to spend big money on seeing you, why not? And if you’re a musician who wants to keep playing for people who are willing to spend big money on seeing you, why not? As Ben Sidran told me a few summers ago when I was visiting my mom in Madison, when he acknowledged that while he was working on a new record, no one was going to buy it: “What am I supposed to do? I’m a musician.” Like I’m a writer, relegated to writing for my own sites now: What the fuck else am I gonna do? And besides the great blues guys kept playing until they dropped. Muddy Waters and B.B. King never quit. Tony Bennett still sounds great in his 90s. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are still touring in their 80s, and fans still come out in droves.
So so what Mick Jagger just had heart surgery, Charlie Watts is 78, and Keith Richards, now without his gypsy/pirate headband, now looks like a balding, dried-out prune, with his mouth open half the time like he’s about to drool, every now and then breaking into a trademark grin when looking over to bassist Darryl Jones, mostly, or his longtime guitar cohort Ron Wood.
But in no way am I suggestng that Keith, whose stage garb even seemed subdued in Pasadena, wasn’t all there. Evoking another Stones title, he was live’r than I’ll ever be–but more within the music than I’d ever seen him, his lead licks and rhythm chords being right-on at all times. For sure, he had his “moves”–the raised pick hand after a decisive strum, the low kneel worthy of an athletic Jagger prance. And when it came time for his solo segment–“You Got the Silver” and “Before They Make Me Run”–his vocals were as spot-on as Jagger’s, and he seemed to be having more fun.
Woody, though, looked to be having the most fun, running about the stage and impishly pointing his guitar at the crowd while playing. And whatever he does to his hair, I wish I had enough left to do the same. Jagger’s hair goes without saying, and while he otherwise shows the same years as we all do in the deep furrows of his face, he likewise sounded no less great than the rest and appeared none the worse for heart-valve-replacement wear.
Speaking of sound, it was great where we were sitting (great ABKCO seats, maybe a quarter of the way back from the stage, low in the stage-left lower level of the stadium seating (Ben had a great seat on the field). And the big projector screen visuals couldn’t have been better in singling out and following the musicians’ in their varied configurations.
Friday night, August 23
Friday night we went out to FivePoint Amphiteatre in Irvine–an hour out of L.A., though it took two to get there because of the Friday afternoon traffic–to see three more Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acts: ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cheap Trick. We were there for ZZ, since Bob’s worked with them since both were at Warner Bros. Records, and I’ve written liner notes on two of their releases and can’t get enough of them—especially our special guy Billy F Gibbons.
Two things of note happened on the long drive to Irvine, one of which I’ll relate now: Bob had a tape of the late New Orleans R&B legend Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”), from the radio shows he hosted on the NOLA community station WWOZ. It was unexpectedly gripping in that K-Doe talked—and talked and talked—like a preacher, but without any substance. It wasn’t word salad, but he went on and on and never went anywhere but around in circles, so I was always on the edge of my seat, wondering if there would ever be a climax—and even though there never was, it was a blast listening to him keep you hanging. Truly brilliant, in an outsider way.
When we finally got to the venue, Cheap Trick had just started, and Ben was a big fan and wanted to hear them. Bob, I, and Bob’s other company publicst Amy Block went looking for the Toppers, but to no avail, so we joined Ben in watching the rest of Trick’s set.
I realize it was kind of odd that I wasn’t the big Cheap Trick fan everyone else was when I started writing, for The MadCity Music Sheet in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, when Cheap Trick was the area’s biggest act, and the one we covered the most. Maybe they were too power pop for me, especially since when I first saw them I was listening to country music, mostly, along with punk and new wave.
Cheap Trick was from nearby Rockford, but was managed out of Madison by Ken Adamany along with my pal Chuck Toler. Ken had been a musician—he played keyboards in bands with Steve Miller–and ran The Factory, the club near the UW campus where Otis Redding was going to play when his plane crashed into Lake Monona that day (I was in high school then, but later worked at the State Office Building overlooking the lake, and lived just a few blocks away). In the ‘70s he managed Dr. Bop & The Headliners, an enormously successful oldies show band, which I became close to in a later incarnation.
I first met Ken, I’m guessing, in 1977, probably at an album release party for their second album, In Color, though it could have been ’78, for their third, In Heaven. I remember being introduced to Ken, probably by the Sheet’s publisher Gary Sohmers, and that it was a lot like meeting Bill Carter years later, shortly after I’d moved to New York, maybe in 1982 or ’83 at a press party at Tavern on the Green for his client William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Golden’s Nashville MCA Records publicist Kay West, a brilliant writer who would become one of my favorite friends, introduced me to Bill, a good ole boy from the tiny impoverished town of Rector, Arkansas and now based in Nashville where he continued working with the Stones and was about to manage Reba McEntire to superstardom, and later my Cajun inspiration Jo-El Sonnier to his greatest commercial success.
Kay introduced me to Bill as William Lee’s manager. Being ex-Secret Service, Bill had an aura of calm competence, mixed with restrained charisma. I wanted to engage him in conversation, and led with the obvious: “Do you work with anyone else?” I said. “Oh,” Bill drawled, stretching it out. “The Rolling Stones….” I didn’t blame him for cracking up laughing when my mouth opened wider than Keith’s at the Rose Bowl. Hope I didn’t drool, but I might well have.
Ken was way cool. Too cool. He wore shades. Then again, he was the biggest music business guy in the MadCity. I extended my hand to shake his—which he pretty much kept raised at his side. But don’t get me wrong. I love Ken. He gave me one of the biggest compliments when I ran into him on Sixth Avenue outside Black Rock—the black skyscraper that then housed CBS Records, of which Cheap Trick’s label Epic Records was a part.
I’d only been in New York a couple years then at most, but
Ken told me how proud he was of me for having left Madison for New York and
“making it.” It meant a lot to me then, as it does now.
But now we’re back in the hospitality lounge behind the
stage at FivePoint, where Cheap Trick is greeting its VIPs. The band left Ken long
ago, and not in a nice way. Still, I wanted to reconnect, or more accurately, connect
with them as someone who was there way back when.
So I went up to Robin Zander, who seemed to be thoroughly
enjoying himself, with an eager Ben in tow. We both introduced ourselves, then
I boldly told him that I was close to Dr. Bop & The Headliners, not sure
how he’d react.
Actually, it went right past him—for maybe two seconds. Then it hit him, and he damn near collapsed in disbelief. He excitedly asked if I knew Ken–and was not at all put off when I said I did indeed–and was further blown away when I told him I worked for The MadCity Music Sheet. And he was happy to recognize that both of us had lasted long enough to meet again after that promo party 40-plus years ago, and that he and Cheap Trick had remained active and fresh, what with three new albums released in as many years.
Meanwhile, Billy F Gibbons was holding court a few yards away—in pajamas! I’ve only known one other star so comfortable in his stardom, not to mention sartorial splendor—Nick Ashford. We let Billy regale his VIP fans until he begged off, being that it was nap time: He would catch a few ZZs during Skynyrd’s set before regrouping with his own to close the show, part of the Toppers’ 50th anniversary tour. He wouldn’t even let Trickster Rick Nielsen waylay him when he vainly tried to chase him down prior to shutting his nap room door.
So we all went out to see Skynyrd, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years, when I took my dear, late friend Roy Horton, the Country Music Hall of Fame music publisher who worked closely with the historic likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Roy was also a musician, and with his older brother Vaughn—also a Country Music Hall of Famer—played in the country group The Pinetoppers, most notably on the 1951 classic “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” which was notably covered by the likes of Patti Page and Les Paul & Mary Ford, and was a Vaughn Horton composition.
Roy was a delightfully impish little 80-plus-year-old when I knew him, and he loved going to shows. He had been instrumental in the formation of the Country Music Association, and while he was the son of a coal mining superintendent in Broad Top City in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, he was a founder of the Country Music Association and had long promoted country music out of historic publishing company peermusic’s New York office, where he was known for his kindness–and every year sent me a much-appreciated quart of Jack Daniels for Christmas.
I’d been offered a pair of tickets to see Skynyrd at Radio
City and was honored, as always, to bring Roy as my plus-one. Turned out we had
third-row center seats, and Roy stood for the whole show, loving the attention
he got from the pretty young girls upfront.
So I thought of Roy at FivePoint during Skynyrd’s set, but I
also thought of another Madison friend who had died too young, and tragically,
a couple years ago.
Karen Knodt was a photographer at The Sheet, and took a lot of pictures that went with my stories (as did, incidentally, Debby Hastings, who was also a great bass player and went on to be Bo Diddley’s band leader for many years, up until his death). I particularly remember that Karen took great shots of Elvis Costello, but her favorite band, by far, was Cheap Trick. When I first moved to New York I lived in Hoboken, and Karen used to call every night—but it got to be too much. She might have already moved to Hawaii and would be pretty drunk and lonely and would call late and talk and talk and talk and I just couldn’t deal with it: I was working at Cash Box as the retail editor—my last real job–and had to get up every day to walk to the train to New York, then switch to a subway and be in the Midtown office by 10 a.m. The office, by the way, was a few blocks from Black Rock, so I must have been working there when I ran into Ken Adamany.
But I always did feel bad about losing contact with Karen,
so I was very happy when she friended me on Facebook a few years ago. She was
still in Hawaii and apparently doing well, playing golf—which we both loved
talking about—and working. Now and then she’d respond to a post and I’d respond
to her response–and then a few months went by with no communication, to the
point where I became cognizant of it, and went to her page, somewhat worried.
Sure enough I saw that Karen’s last post had been some months previous, leading me to fear the worst. It took a lot of doing—she hadn’t left much of a trail—but I eventually learned that she had indeed died, though the cause was unclear, but probably due to some sort of complications from paralysis, I was able to ascertain, following a fall down the stairs. Now, upon closer inspection, I realized that many of her most recent pictures, which showed her painting cheery watercolors of Hawaiian coastal scenery, had been made with her seated in what looked to be a wheelchair, in what looked to be a hospital setting.
All things considered, she seemed to have been happy. But I never found anyone to corroborate, not through Facebook or Google except, finally, for a cousin, on whose page she confirmed Karen’s death, but provided little information otherwise. I messaged her and she never responded.
I think Karen departed before Cheap Trick was inducted into the RockHall. I know she would have loved the Facebook photo of me and Robin, with his arm around my shoulder, from FivePoint.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s set, by the way, was excellent. Even though only Gary Rossington is original; vocalist Johnny Van Zant—brother of original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who died in the 1977 plane crash that also killed the band’s Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, has been its frontman since 1987. All seven band members were tight as ever, and I loved that the two female backup singers—always known as The Honkettes–Dale Krantz-Rossington (Gary’s wife) and Carol Chase, were age appropriate; also worthy of respect was the recognition, via a video scroll at the end of their set, of all the many Skynyrd band and crew members since its inception.
Skynyrd had its own hospitality area backstage, so there was no interaction afterward. We did go back and grab a quick chat with Dusty Hill before he hit the stage for the ZZ set– great as ever, if a bit shortened due to the three-act package—and we did get a little quality time after with the ever-accommodating Billy and Gilly (wife Gilligan).
Saturday night, August 24
On the drive back I was able to focus on that other aforementioned momentous occurrence on the drive to Irvine: I had received a Facebook message on my phone from Lori Berk-Rolat, a dear publicist friend from New York, now living in L.A. and excited about attending Sunday’s annual Bessman Bash over at Bob’s, a tradition, like they say about The Masters, unlike any other. She wanted to know if I’d like to join her, her husband Geoffrey and a girlfriend the next night to see Kris Kristofferson at the Starlight Bowl amphitheater in Burbank. Bob and I had been talking about going to see the incredible Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl that night, but Kris takes all, so I emailed his wife Lisa when I got back to Bob’s.
I’ve been blessed to know two saints in my life: Ashford & Simpson’s Nick Ashford, and Kris Kristofferson—both also two of my favorite lyricists. Coincidentally, I’d observed the eighth anniversary of Nick’s death the night before—August 22—the night I went to the Stones. I was lucky to have seen Kris two nights in a row back in April at City Winery and hang with him and Lisa after the shows, and now, maybe I’d get lucky again.
If Kris, 83, is a saint—and he is—Lisa keeps him that way. By now everyone knows his short-term memory challenges, yet there he was on stage once again, killing it, as far as I and the audience were concerned. True, he did sound a bit tired in the beginning, maybe his gruff singing voice even gruffer. But if he was tired, he picked up steam as the show continued.
But I never did hear back from Lisa, so when I got to the venue I went directly to the merch stand and asked the gal selling t-shirts if she could let her know I was there and give her my cell number. We found our seats just as the show started, and I kept the phone out—silenced—hoping in vain for a text, reflecting on how Kris, on and off the stage, is the most unaffected singer-songwriter-actor legend imaginable.
I remembered how Bill Carter had told me years ago, after booking him on a Homecoming homevideo taping of veteran country music stars at the Opry House, that when he offered to send Kris a limo to pick him up at the airport, Kris said, “That’s all right. I’ll just take a cab.” And the time at the BMI Awards Banquet when they gave Kris the biggest honor, the BMI Icon Award, and I had to leave early to go catch John Fogerty at the Ryman Auditorium.
Kris had started eating dinner before the awards presentation, and I interrupted him in mid-bite to apologize for leaving, but that I just had to go see Fogerty for the thousandth time. Kris stopped eating, paused, and I could see what he was about to say in his gleaming eyes: “Gee. I’d like to see Fogerty!” BMI can thank me for convincing him to stay and get his award….
Back at the Starlight Bowl, he was maybe two-thirds of the way through when he paused once again, and said, “This one’s for Jim Bessman!” –and I practically went into shock, if not cardiac arrest. So did my friends, whom I had to calm down so as not to disturb everyone else in the bowl.
The song, by the way, was “The Pilgrim–Chapter 33,” and I don’t know if it was by design, but I could definitely see myself in a lot of the lyrics. Then again, I can see myself in a lot of Kris’s lyrics, as I’m sure many of us can. Especially “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Loving Her was Easier,” and on this night in particular, “Why Me Lord?” I mean, what have I ever done to deserve his recognition, let alone knowing him and Lisa in the first place? Or Nick, Billy F, Carter, Bob, and on and on?
But I also felt that maybe, with the dedication, they were
saying, “Sorry, Jim, but we have to leave right away,” and sure enough, when
the show ended and I rushed up to the stage to see if Lisa might be within
sight, his fiddler Scott Joss (along with keyboardist/bassist Doug Colosio and
drummer Jeff Ingram, the remnants of Merle Haggard’s Strangers—though when Kris
was here in April they were joined by Haggard’s sons Ben and Noel on guitars
and vocals, since Kris’s set with The Strangers includes several Hagg classics)
said that she was hurriedly rushing Kris out of the venue, as everyone was
indeed tired from a couple weeks of touring. So I told Scott who I was.
“I know who you are,” he said, to my further amazement. “We were all talking about you before the show!” I humbly told him how thrilled I was with the song send-out and asked him to convey that to Lisa and Kris, and figured that was it, until, returning from the men’s room, I regrouped with my friends and realized that we were in fact at the backstage entrance, and that a car was roped off right at the door.
Maybe Kris and Lisa are still here, I thought, and when a couple came out of the entrance, they confirmed it. Moments later Lisa herself popped out, carrying stuff that she hurriedly put in the car, then rushed back in. She didn’t give anyone an opening for conversation, let alone eye contact. When she came out a second time I sheepishly called out “Lisa!,” which she was either too focused to hear or more likely pointedly ignored. Just as she was about to re-enter the backstage I tried again, a little louder, but loud enough to at least get her to glance in my direction.
My luck continued. Not only did she see me, not only did she
recognize me (I had my haircut earlier in the week, first time since I was out
here last year, and would have looked somewhat different from when they saw me
in April), but she said, “Jim! Come here right now.” It wasn’t a command, but I
took it that way—happily so. I apologized to my friends and quickly followed
her into the backstage room where Kris was sitting with only one other person.
She asked if I’d heard my dedication and I told her how totally blown away I was, or something to that effect, then brought me over to Kris. But before I could get in even the quickest over-the-top adulatory drool—they all must have been exhausted, and she was clearly in a hurry to get them out—she this time did command me to take Kris to the car and not let him stop to sign anything or pose for photos. So I suddenly transitioned–after muttering to myself, “Why me, Lord?”–from fawning fan to sober security man.
Now I’ve been around security for 40-plus years now, so it’s not like I don’t know how to get a guy in a car. But Kris is the king of kindness—it’s ingrained in him, and sure enough, someone called out to him and he naturally stopped, wanting to accommodate, as is his second nature. But no matter how many years I’ve been around security, doing it is not my nature, period. So I was more than a little bit proud of myself that I sternly told Kris to get in the car and that whether or not I said it loud enough for him to hear, he did indeed slide into the front seat, next to Lisa, who had already buckled herself into the driver’s seat. I have no memory at all of what I said to them in thanking them both profusely, but whatever it was, I’m glad they both laughed.
Now I’m tempted to say that having a song dedicated to me by Kris Kristofferson, and then doing unexpected security for him after the gig, was the night’s highlight, if not the entire L.A. trip’s. But just getting to see Kris is as good as it gets: Like I said, I have been blessed to know two saints in my life, Kris and Nick, and like Nick, whose song lyric focus can be summed up by the title of Ashford & Simpson’s 1973 debut album Gimme Something Real, Kris’s songs—and his singing of them–cut to the core of human experience and emotion.
And like the Stones, Kris never lets age or illness stop him from doing what he does so singularly: perform what I consider some of the greatest songs ever, with the same realness and conviction that he had when writing and recording them.
Speaking of the Stones, I should note, in case anyone is hip enough to wonder, that Kris did not perform “Blame It on the Stones” (the lead track from his 1970 debut album Kristofferson), then again, I’m sure he was playing somewhere else the night of the Rose Bowl. The song is typical Kris, then in his mid-30s, defending the then young generation from perplexed parents projecting their own ignorance and irresponsibility onto the Stones.
The next night was the fabled Bessman Bash, where the likes of Phil Spector, Billy F Gibbons, Sandra Bernhard, Peter Asher, John Mellencamp, David Mamet, Jonathan Richman and Farrah Fawcett have graced us with their presence (“Farrah Fawcett?” I said, incredulously, when informed by a publicist friend that the event could make Rolling Stone, only to be told, incredulously, that she was the woman I’d just given directions to the bathroom.)
I was glad musician Tom Kenny, best-known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, happened to be at the Starlight Bowl the night before and heard my shout-out–so I’d have another witness to back up my story, since I could still barely believe it myself.
“You’ve been building up to the Old Man Dinner Band!” joked Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (whom Charlie Watts had once asked to meet after seeing Elvis open for the Stones), the Old Man Dinner Band (a.k.a. O.M.D.B.) made up of musician regulars at that weekly Old Man’s Dinner at The Park. The O.M.D.B. was one of two bands Pete (a.k.a. The One and Only Pete Thomas, as Elvis always introduces him at shows) was drumming in that night at the B.B.
Coincidentally, it was Elvis’s birthday that day, and the
next day, when I would fly back to New York, would be both Bob’s and Valerie
I would think again of Val as I flew back on Monday, as it
was immediately upon landing from the flight back in 2011 that I learned that
Nick had died—and I went immediately to their house in my shorts and t-shirt
I’d emailed Val before leaving, thinking how lucky I’d been to see Ashford & Simpson perform twice over the years at an outdoor summer street festival in L.A. And now flying back again, I had another unforgettable concert experience, three to be exact.
The hardest thing about getting old is seeing those dear to you leave.
Davin Seay’s death a week ago (July 15) was particularly hard for a lot of us, that is, everyone who knew him. The long thread of condolence posts on Bob Merlis’s Facebook announcement showed how loved Dav was, as a writer, friend, and person, and while he excelled as all three, maybe it was as the third that was most noteworthy.
“He was a guy absolutely incapable of artifice,” Bob wrote. “What you saw was always the real thing and his ‘thing’ was always heartfelt, genuine and enlightening. No two ways about it: This is a huge loss.”
Dav was Bob’s writer at Warner Bros. Records in Los Angeles for many years—and one of his closest friends. I was close enough that he gave me one of my best freelance gigs—a Bee Gees bio–when his own work schedule was too crammed to allow him to do it. It meant a trip to the Bee Gees’ compound in Miami Beach, where coincidentally, I did the first interview with them following the death of brother Andy Gibb.
In my own work, no one was more supportive than Dav, same with my eclectic music tastes. I especially appreciated that whenever I posted a polka video he was always right there to “like” it. Which reminds me of the time when we were at a black-tie Nashville BMI Awards dinner, when Davin, one of the few friends I know to have been religiously (but never insufferably) spiritual, referred to Steve Popovich, who turned me on to polka and whom Dav now joins among the handful of those dear ones I miss terribly, as the “divine afflatus”—afflatus, according to Wikipedia, being Latin for “inspiration,” and derived from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, (“The Nature of the Gods”). He also designated both accordion-based polka and Cajun music as “The Accordion Grail.”
Davin, Bob, I and four other WarnRecs execs were also part of what Tony Pippitone, then president of Warner Special Products, called “The Magnificent Seven,” being that the seven of us always attended John Fogerty events whenever we were together. One of them, a Fogerty concert at the Ryman Auditorium, took place the same night as another BMI Nashville dinner, the one that bestowed upon Kris Kristofferson BMI’s ultimate Icon Award.
The dinner prior to the awards presentations had begun, and I was torn: I desperately wanted to be there to see Kris get his due, but I had to be at the Ryman with The Magnificent Seven for Foge. So before leaving, I interrupted Kris mid-bite, and apologized profusely for having to walk out and head over to the show.
at the Ryman?” Kris queried, then paused, eyes gleaming. “I’d rather be there
myself!” When I got to my seat just as Fogerty hit the stage, I was in the same
row as six others, likewise in tuxes, likewise BMI refugees. Davin, of course,
was among them.
For no one was more of a music person than Davin Seay–and I can’t say anything better about anyone. So it is with greatest sadness that I must try to process that we are now The Magnificent Six.
It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.
No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.
Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.
We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.
No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.
[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]
Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.
This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.
Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”
It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).
Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.
I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.
But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:
One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry.
Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.
I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).
I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”
And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.
This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.
First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”
Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.
And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.
Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?
Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.
And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.
I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.
Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.
[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]
I’m not the spiritual type, though I spent a lot of time with Nick Ashford. The only other person who had that kind of spiritual depth that I knew was John Trudell. As The Indian Country Today Media Network website reported, the “noted activist, poet and Native thinker” on December 8, 2015 left Turtle Island [a name given to North America in some Native American myths] to join the spirit world. The influential Native philosopher touched many throughout Indian country and beyond.”
I didn’t know John well, like I knew Nick. I did speak with him for a Billboard story in 2002 when Bone Days came out, which is when I would have seen him the first time, at The Bottom Line. I saw him some years later at Joe’s Pub, but he was part of a group gig, if I recall. I spoke with him briefly, then, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I don’t know if he remembered me from the Bottom Line show, but he was alone, and knew a lot of other people in the audience and there wasn’t much one-on-one hang time for me.
The Bottom Line gig, though, was way different. He was there with his group Bad Dog–featuring Mark Shark on guitar, and fellow Native American Quiltman, who sang and chanted within the tradition in providing a musical and spiritual context for John’s spoken word poetry.
I guess I have an inherent reverence for Native Americans, at least the myth and legend of the Native American as gleaned rightly and wrongly as a kid from John Wayne and John Ford and Tonto and Saturday morning TV cowboys and Indians, and later The Outlaw Josey Wales and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement (John was its national chairman), AIM member Leonard Peltier and Thunderheart.
John starred in Thunderheart, largely playing himself, I’m sure.
I understand he wrote the “Freedom Speech” in the pivotal scene where he’s captured and beaten by FBI agents on the South Dakota Sioux reservation where the movie, loosely based on the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, is set.
Some 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM followers had occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation–site of the 1890 massacre by the U.S Cavalry of over 300 men, women and children being relocated to the reservation. The occupiers sought the removal of an allegedly corrupt and abusive tribal president, and protested the U.S. government’s failure to live up to treaty obligations.
During a 71-day standoff, a Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were shot to death, and a civil rights activist disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered. In Thunderheart, John’s character Jimmy Looks Twice, an Indian activist who is suspected of murder, was also inspired by Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who remains famously imprisoned for life following a controversial trial and conviction of murdering two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975–after being acquitted of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee cop.
Peltier’s story, incidentally, was the subject of a 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala, directed by Thunderheart director Michael Apted and including an interview with John, who was himself the subject of the 2005 documentary Trudell.
In Thunderheart (also 1992), Jimmy Looks Twice tells sympathetic FBI agent Ray Levoi, himself part Indian (well-played by Val Kilmer), “Sometimes they have to kill us. They have to kill us, because they can’t break our spirit. We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It’s about power, Ray.”
The lines–and John’s portrayal–deeply affected me, as did the rest of his history. According to the Los Angeles Times obit, he had a 17,000-page FBI dossier: “He’s extremely eloquent,” one FBI memo read, “therefore extremely dangerous.”
In 1979, while John was demonstrating in Washington, D.C., his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law perished in a fire at her parents’ home on Nevada’s Duck Valley Indian Reservation–hours after John burned an American flag at the FBI building. The cause of the fire was never determined, but John and others suspected the government.
“One world ended abruptly and completely and could not be resurrected or re-put together,” he later told the Times. It was then that he began to write, and his poetry was promoted by the likes of Kilmer, Bob Dylan, Robert Redford (who compared him to the Dalai Lama), Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. The Times said that he considered poetry to be first among the arts, and quoted him thusly: “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.”
Brown produced John’s 1992 remake of his acclaimed 1986 album AKA Graffitti Man with late Kiowa guitarist/songwriter Jesse Ed Davis, having previously help him record the 1983 album Tribal Voice with Quiltman.
“I started with Quiltman to put spoken word with the oldest musical form–Native American music–and he was willing to go for it, though we had no experience,” John told me when I interviewed him. “Then I wanted to put it with the newest musical form–electric guitar–and I met Jesse Ed Davis and he was the only one who knew what I was talking about.”
After Davis died in 1988, “Mark [Shark] picked up his guitar, so to speak, and carried on. Then Quiltman came in [again] and it was quite an evolution, adjusting traditional Native American songs to where he just makes his own harmonies to go with contemporary songs.”
Naturally, I had jumped at the chance to speak with him when the opportunity arose with Bone Days. As I wrote in Billboard, his intensely delivered recitations, backed by Shark’s ethereal guitars, were given heightened otherworldly power by Quiltman’s chants, giving the album its own extraordinary power.
“Because the whole point,” he told me, “is to take from our native culture and from contemporary culture without using one artform to mimic the other so that our native identity remains the native identity, the contemporary identity remains the contemporary identity, and the mixing of these two musical identities creates a third musical identity.”
Then he laughed.
“In my mind, at least, that’s how it plays,” he said. “But I don’t know about the rest of the world.”
When I walked into the dressing room before the Bottom Line show, though, it wasn’t like Joe’s Pub.
Unlike our phone conversation, John was stone sober in demeanor, intimidating behind his sunglasses.
I don’t recall much of what was said. I’m sure I introduced myself as the guy from Billboard who interviewed him, which he would have remembered. I’m sure I mentioned Thunderheart during the phoner, and if I hadn’t brought up his small role in Steven Seagall’s 1994 Alaskan environmental action film On Daedly Ground, I did then. And we most certainly talked Native American and White American politics.
I presume it was a pipe, for I distinctly remember the words “peace pipe” being uttered, but I can’t imagine by me. But someone proffered a pipe or joint and everything loosened up and by the time I went to my seat I was in proper mind to experience live the poetic visions of which John spoke, that he related with his music. By the way, in 2012, John and Willie Nelson co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which calls for the legal cultivation of hemp for clothing, biofuel and food.
About the only other contact I had with John was indirect, through another modern day saint, Kris Kristofferson. Kris wrote “Johnny Lobo” about John, about “a warrior fighting for his people and his soul” who like John had served during Vietnam (John was in the Navy, on a destroyer off Vietnam):
Loaded down with lessons that he carried
Home from Viet Nam to Wounded Knee
Johnny Lobo burned a flag he knew had been dishonored
Paid the price for thinking he was free
Someone set his house on fire, burned it to the ground
With his wife and children locked inside
Later when the bitter tears were falling to the ashes
Something good in Johnny Lobo died.
But something good in John Trudell also lived. And even though I never spent a lot of time with him, I remained so moved by him that I was stunned and broken by his death. And I was hardly alone.
I called his longtime assistant Faye Brown a few days after, and she still could barely talk. John’s family released this statement: “We know all the people who love John want to know about plans and how to pay their respects. John left clear instructions for his passage and for what he wanted to happen after he crossed over. He did not want a funeral or any kind of single gathering. He also did not want his family to write a standard style obituary or ‘toot his horn.’ He didn’t want to tell people how to remember him. His wishes are for people to celebrate life and love, pray and remember him in their own ways in their own communities.”
“With love for all,” the family closed.
His close friend Kevin Marsh, who held him in his arms lovingly as he “passed through to the other side,” related John’s final moments.
“John was extremely ill,” wrote Marsh. “Cancer is the worst, plain and simple. But he was good with what was happening to him, the transitioning from this world to the next.”
He continued: “John was at peace, such a total, calming peace befitting a warrior of his caliber. It was stunning is what it was. The sparkle in his eyes never left him–it never went away ever. No glazing over like most folks when they leave. Not John. The sparkle never left his eyes.”
After his eldest daughter came in and said, “Hey, Trudell! How ya doing?,” John looked up and said, “I’m good.” And that was it.
And then Marsh added, “We do not stop because John is not on this earth because we still are and the work is not even close to complete. The next generation of Trudell’s are primed to take up where their father left off. All the non-profits that would always table at John’s gigs still need a place to go to get the word out and plans are in the works to keep the work very very much alive and moving forward–together.”
He concluded: “And remember, ‘John’s good.’ He said so.”
Here’s John’s “Stone People,” from his last album, “Wazi’s Dream”:
Death is a ghost where there is no death
Death is a death where life forgets to live.
Carlene Carter sang “Me and the Wildwood Rose” midway through her set at the Cutting Room last night. It’s a song from her 1990 album I Fell in Love, which she wrote about traveling as a child with her grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter, her mother June Carter Cash and aunts Helen and Anita Carter—then billed as Mother Maybelle & the Singing Carter Sisters—and her own little sister, Rosie.
In a big shiny car we’d head down the road To sing for the miners who brought out the coal Many a time I slept on the floorboard cold On a quilt with my little sister The Wildwood Rose
“It has a lot more meaning for me now that they’ve all passed on,” she said. But with her great new album Carter Girl (I should know. I wrote the liner notes.) she’s taken on the honor and responsibility of continuing the historic Carter Family tradition while adding to it.
She’s focusing on Carter Girl, of course, on her current tour. Accompanied by her longtime guitarist Sean Allen on guitars and lap steel, and on the album’s duets, husband Joe Breen, Carlene played acoustic guitar, autoharp and piano, standout songs from the album including first single “Little Black Train,” “Blackjack David” (Kris Kristofferson sings on the album version), “Troublesome Waters” (Willie Nelson) and her adaptation of the Carter Family’s “Lonesome Valley” (“Lonesome Valley 2003,” with Vince Gill, evoking the passing of her mother and stepfather Johnny Cash).
The Carter Family was further represented by Carlene’s version of “My Dixie Darlin’,” which she had also included in I Fell In Love, and she encored with her own big country hit from that period, “Every Little Thing.”
Speaking of which, she acknowledged that she had “tried all kinds of different things in her career—and I mean that: all kinds of different things!” and hinted at some of them at the start when she announced, “Don’t be scared. I’ve got underwear on tonight! Things do change.”
But her unchanged talent notwithstanding, the laughter turned to tears when she said, also of “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” how she thinks of her departed Carter girls everyday.
“I’m so lucky to still be here and play and be with friends,” she said. “I’m going to start to cry,” she added, and did—then finished, most appropriately and effectively, with the family’s signature hymn “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By).”
If we’re lucky, there are people in our lives who influence us in a big way, in a good way, in the best kind of way.
Maybe it’s a parent, older sibling, another family member or family friend. A teacher, social worker, therapist, member of the clergy.
I had Mrs. Schmidt, a junior high school guidance counselor, who meant a lot to me. Some social workers, psychiatric nurses, nurses’ aides and hospital orderlies afterwards. An occupational therapist. A physical therapist.
I remember a teacher or two, certainly Miss Nottested–and I know I’m misspelling her name–for teaching me how to type (not spell) in high school and taking an interest, too, in what I typed, which was mostly high school alienation ramblings.
But for me it was mostly musicians.
The Beatles first, foremost and forever. Dylan, of course, though his influence post-high school and Blonde On Blonde has long since faded. Corky Siegel and The Siegel-Schwall Band. Laura Nyro, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Johansen, Tony Bennett. Most of them I got to know and was further inspired personally.
John Mellencamp, too. He agreed with me that people respond to the music, at least first, not the words. For me it’s melody, rhythm, voice, instruments and then the words—and usually I can’t make them out anyway, and if I can I don’t have the attention span to stay with them so I have to have them in the CD booklet in front of me to make any kind of sense out of.
So I don’t care so much about the words–except for a few songwriters. I actually have a book of Hal David lyrics, which really are poems without Burt Bacharach’s music, glorious as it is. Likewise, there’s way more to the words of Kris Kristofferson than “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
And then there’s Nick Ashford.
It’s hard to top The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or even better, “All You Need Is Love.” But Nick equaled them at the very least on “Reach Out and Touch.”
“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was Diana Ross’s debut solo single after leaving The Supremes. It was released in April 1970, and only made it to No. 20 on the pop charts (No. 7, R&B). But it was a centerpiece of her concerts, where people used to reach out and touch the hands of those near them.
Like so many Ashford & Simpson Motown era songs—“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love”—it has achieved immortality.
The much-covered call for caring and kindness made for an unforgettable moment at the 1985 Live Aid show in Philadelphia, when Ashford & Simpson—the only r&b act in the line-up–brought out Teddy Pendergrass for his first public appearance since his near-fatal car accident in 1982. Paralyzed, Pendergrass pointedly directed the stadium crowd to focus on the song’s inspirational words and message.
In 2005, Ross closed Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope with it, and it was her finale, too, at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Concert held in Oslo, Norway.
It was also the climax of Ashford & Simpson shows. Nick had this great bit where he’d announce that he was “departing from the program” and then ask bandleader Ray Chew to slow down the tempo in leading into it. Then he’d feign irritation at Ray for not slowing it down enough.
After many years of seeing the show many times each year, I finally went up to Ray after a show and said, “Ray. I’ve seen this show a lot of times, and I can never understand why you can never get the ‘Reach Out And Touch’ tempo right!” I’ll never forget the anguished look on his face and how he started to stammer that it was all a shtick until I busted up laughing.
Reach out and touch
Make this world a better place
If you can
Me and Liz Rosenberg used to go to see them all the time. In fact, I became friends with Liz after it was suggested I contact her, by another record company publicist at the time, after I’d called him in 1983 after seeing Asford & Simpson the first time, at Radio City, and couldn’t stop talking about them. They were at Capitol Records, then, with the High-Rise album out. Liz had worked with them when they were at Warner Bros., long before she became synonymous with Madonna. We used to see them together all the time from that point on.
One time at Westbury, I had an aisle seat and Liz was next to me. Or maybe I was one in from the aisle and she was two in. Or maybe I was two in and she was three…. Anyway, Westbury Theater, or whatever corporate name it has now, is an in-the-round theater. So when they got to “Reach Out And Touch,” Nick went up one aisle and Val went up another, shaking or slapping hands with aisle-seaters as they sang. Nick was coming up our aisle, and when he got within two rows, Liz could no longer contain herself.
“Nick!” she shrieked, then got up and vaulted over me and anyone else who might have been between me and Nick as he reached out his free hand to touch hers. Of course, she landed, not too gracefully but appropriately, at his feet.
Take a little time out of your busy day
To give encouragement
To someone who’s lost the way
Nick would also preface “Reach Out And Touch” in concert with the story of how he had fallen asleep one night while Val was watching the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but woke up when she suddenly started screaming: “Reach Out and Touch” was being used as an Olympics theme! Before an estimated TV audience of 2.5 billion people! He wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming….
Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own
We really blew it, we Americans, in taking the easy, nationalist music route after 9-11. We essentially permitted Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to lead us into two wars, not to mention forever pervert Major League Baseball by supplanting “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the Seventh Inning Stretch theme.
As I wrote in Billboard, two weeks later (September 24, 2011): “But as we return to the semblance of normal, I suggest moving beyond understandably knee-jerk, ego/ethno centric fare. How about Woody Guthrie’s all-inclusive ‘This Land is Your Land,’ or better yet, Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’? As the next line of the compassionate latter title implores, Make this world a better place, if you can.”
If you see an old friend on the street
And he’s down
Remember his shoes could fit your feet
Try a little kindness you’ll see
It’s something that comes very naturally
We can change things if we start giving
Ashford & Simpson songs covered other topics and themes, of course, but they all come back, essentially, to giving, something that for Nick came so very naturally. In person, and in song.
I went even further in my appreciation of Nick, written for examiner.com, the day after he died: “Then again, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ goes beyond anything Ashford & Simpson–or any other writer–has accomplished. In simply instructing everyone to ‘reach out and touch somebody’s hand’ and ‘make this world a better place if you can,’ Ashford essentially set to music what he in fact practiced throughout his entire life.”