The last day of the year

The Friday before Christmas is pretty much it, at least as far as I remember of the music business. Record companies probably start shutting down a week earlier, maybe Billboard, too, which ends the year a week early with a double issue and likewise takes the last week of the year off. Or it used to, at least.

Then again, the music business seems so long ago to me, yet here I was, the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 20), being let into the PlayStation Theater and given as good a seat as they have, almost like I was still a genuine (pronounced jen-yew-WINE) music bizzer, which really, I haven’t been in some 15 years.

Three nights earlier I’d walked past the PlayStation (near the corner of Broadway on 45th Street–1515 Broadway, the tower housing MTV, and years ago, Billboard) on my way to the Impeachment Eve March, which started at 6:30 in Times Square. My pal Tony was outside doing security, as always, and I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I stopped and said hi.

I used to see Tony all the time when we were both members of the West Side YMCA, where I’d been a member since I moved to New York in 1981 or ‘82 (I can never remember which year exactly, and I’m too lazy to do the math, but it was the day after Christmas, and I was able to get a great ticket to Elvis Costello–with NRBQ opening–on New Year’s Eve at The Palladium.

(Now begins a typically pointless four-paragraph digression. You can keep reading, or scroll down to get back on track.)

I’d been a member of the Y since I was in high school in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the few habits I’d picked up from my father–and likely the only good one. I belonged to Madison’s West Side Y in high school, which was new then, and near James Madison Memorial High School, which I attended, at the city’s edge when it opened in 1968, I think. Later, when I lived downtown and worked at the State, I joined the Downtown Y that my father went to, a block up from the State Capitol building on West Washington Ave.

My father was a federal bankruptcy judge, and a lot of the Downtown Y membership was likewise lawyers and state, city and county civil servants. I lived a couple blocks on the other side of the Capitol and worked at the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson St. a couple blocks South overlooking Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down while I was still in high school.

But it was three or four years later now, maybe five, and I had very few high school friends left. One day I happened on one of them, Tory, now working at the Downtown Y, at the membership desk, handing out towels. I didn’t really have a lot of friends in high school, and while I always liked Tory–who was a bit of a character, as I recall–I didn’t know her that well, but I was soon going over to her and her husband’s place for dinner and dope. Then a year or two after moving here, I heard that she was a whole lot smarter than her job might have suggested: She somehow rose to a more powerful position of influence at the Y and got them to commit to building a new modern facility, as the current one was probably as old as the capitol itself. So they tore it down, then found out that Tory was either the ultimate scammer or totally insane and had made everything up—and understandably disappeared, leaving nothing but a deep hole in the ground where a venerable Y used to stand, not to mention that West Side Y, where I used to play paddle ball with my friend Greg, before he moved on to the newer sport of racquet ball.

Greg was quite good, by the way. Me? I went for a shot deep against the right sidewall, missed it, but in a most remarkable feat of uncoordination–and/or a very lame early suicide attempt–sliced open my left eyebrow in the follow-through and needed stitches. Greg eventually went on to hang himself (see preceding post, Three nights in L.A.).

Returning to the present, it was a great march. I took a lot of fab Instagram/Facebook/Twitter pics, and then the next day for some reason—maybe an email or Facebook notice—I saw that Samantha Fish was playing Friday night at the PlayStation, a 10-minute walk from my apartment.

I’d never seen Samantha, but I knew of her through my Madison pal Rockin’ John McDonald, who plays her now and then on his venerable I Like It Like That oldies show on listener-sponsored station WORTFM.org, since she’s one of the few contemporary artists who fits his 1950s/’60s rock ‘n’ roll format. But at this late state of my so-called career, there was no one I could call for a ticket or a pass. I mean, shit, I didn’t even know what label she was on.

Then I thought of Tony and figured he’d be happy to slide me in, and sure enough, he was. When I got to the venue we talked a bit about how bad everything is, namely the music and concert business, since there was nothing to bring me to the PlayStation in years, and Tony himself didn’t care about the music there–also the fact that the theater had been bought out and was shutting down at the end of the month, to be overhauled before reopening under new name and management and leaving him without a job.

And, of course, Trump. Tony was extremely depressed over the prospects of impeachment and the election. But he was happy to walk me in, handing me a ticket and wristband, and it was a great seat–in the best section in the house (first row, center aisle in the elevated section overlooking the floor). It was 7:10, so I had 50 minutes to kill before the opening act.

Now at my age and condition, I don’t want to waste any time, which I was about to do. But I’d come prepared, as always: two pens—one fountain, one ballpoint—and a fresh Portage Pocket Notebook (“for journalists, radio/TV reporters and law enforcement officers). The only thing I didn’t bring was any idea to write about, and my usually wandering mind was stuck on start.

But I was unusually filled with Christmas cheer. I’d had lunch earlier with two friends from the Russian News Agency TASS—Igor Borisenko, the current bureau chief, and Elya Polyakova, office manager.

Elya! Say it loud and there’s music playing….

Actually, it’s kind of a nickname for Elvira, which would be closer to “Maria” in West Side Story–the “i” pronounced “ee” as in “deer” I believe, but I’ve never heard her called that. Russian names generally have different forms according to relationships, as I’d learned after many years of friendship with New York and Moscow TASS staffers (Vladimir, for another example, can become Volodya, or Vova).

Back in the Soviet era I was actually under FBI surveillance (probably still am) but I’ve already digressed too much here to digress even further in recounting it now. I will say, though, that it had been a long time since I’d had lunch with TASS friends, let alone seen them at the end of the year, when years ago they’d have great office Christmas parties attended by the Consul General and head of New York’s Russian Orthodox Church, other Russian dignitaries and foreign press friends, not to mention Nina Khruscheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter (!), noted author and professor of international affairs here at The New School. At the party, my dearest friend Volodiya Kikilo would always ceremoniously present me with a big, gift-wrapped bottle of premium vodka (I’d bring a big box of Bisco Latte biscotti, made by my neighborhood friend and baker supreme Holly DeSantis).

I’d return to the bureau on New Year’s Eve Day afternoon to listen to the Kremlin Countdown. So it was great to reinstitute my TASS holiday tradition, and Igor came through with a big bottle of Russian Standard.

So as I sat there at PlayStation, still a bit lit from lunch, I began to write down what I remembered from it, then jumping to other meandering thoughts, switching between pens depending on the need for speed (the fountain pen flows faster, but if I slow down I’ll switch to a rollerball or ballpoint, since I can’t retract the fountain pen nib and don’t want to keep capping it to keep it from drying, and clip it to my shirt pocket).

One thought that entered my mind, though, was, When was the last time I was at PlayStation? I wasn’t even sure I was at a show when it was called the PlayStation! I bet I hadn’t been at the 2,100-seat theater since it was called the Best Buy Theater before changing ownership and name in 2015.

I did remember seeing Elvis Costello there once long ago–which was unforgettable—or maybe it was the maybe more recent big Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star–but all I remember of that show was smoking a joint backstage with star Deadhead Bill Walton, which was great, for sure.

And suddenly it was 8 o’clock. Tony said he’d seen the opening act, Nicholas David, during soundcheck, and that he was excellent. Tony was right. Nicholas David, from St. Paul, looked like a young Dr. John, played and sang like one (though I was later told he’d never heard of Dr. John when he started approximating him) while leading a crack bassist and drummer—who was from Omaha, where we used to pass through on our way from Madison to Lincoln to visit my mom’s family when I was a kid. Of course he was way too young to know the most important cultural reference to Omaha…no! Not Peyton Manning’s famous “indicator word” for calling an audible at the line of scrimmage, but Moby Grape’s classic flop single “Omaha.”

Unbeknownst to me, David had been a finalist on the third season of The Voice, and was now the second artist I’d seen in two weeks that I hadn’t heard of that blew me the fuck away, the first being Shinyribs, the ultra-hot Austin show band that opened for Robert Earl Keen’s Christmas show at Town Hall. Switching between fountain pen (a trusty Lamy black Safari with black fine nib) and ballpoint (Retro 51 Elephant & Rhino Rescue, Series I) as David did a very soulful “Joy to the World,” I thought of St. Paul’s twin sister city Minneapolis, and the three great bands I knew from there: Sussman Lawrence, which turned into the Peter Himmelman Band; The Suburbs (the band, I always say, that died so that The Replacements could live) and The Wallets. David slid from ballads (great job on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) to funky originals, and when he was done, I headed out to his merch table to meet him and maybe impress him by dropping these names.

More likely, he’d look at me like the old geezer I am, since he had to be way too young to have even heard of these bands. But the Suburbs’ keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Chan Poling is still quite active doing all kinds of things—including the occasional ‘Burbs reunion gig and album release, while Jeff Victor, Sussman Lawrence/Himmelman Band’s genius keyboardist, is famous locally as the NBA house organist for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and guest organist for the Minnesota Twins, also among other things. As for The Wallets, they only had two albums, and their most brilliant founder Steve Kramer, a wonderful painter and accordionist who composed experimental polka music, died in 2013. Their fabulous 1986 album Take It was produced by Allen Toussaint, and whenever I saw Allen I’d stop him dead in his tracks by reminding him it was my favorite album of his, and was pleased I even knew it existed.

But before I could get to David’s merch set-up I got waylaid at Samantha’s by Rounder Records’ Regina Joskow, a longtime publicist friend, though I’m so out of it now I didn’t know that Samantha was on Rounder, let alone had a new record out.

Regina was with Sam’s manager Reuben Williams, who brought us both back to say hi to her before going on. When I told him I’d got hip to her through Rockin’ John in Madison, he revealed that he was friends with my junior high school buddy and future blues harmonica ace Westside Andy Linderman.

“Let me take your name down,” I said to Reuben, wanting to have it handy next time I saw Andy during a Madison visit. Reuben laughed heartily and turned to the guy in the dressing room next to him and said, ‘Look, Howie! He’s taking my name down!” I only knew what came next would be embarrassing at the very least.

Sure enough, the guy, who looked a bit like a very young Al Wolovitch of Sussman Lawrence (bassist), started laughing, then introduced himself.

“I’m Howie Schnee! We’ve met many times—and you never remember!”

I was mightily embarrassed, indeed, and profusely apologetic.

“Then you know me!” I said. “I always forget even who I am—and I get this all the time.”

Howie kept laughing.

“It’s okay!” he said, explaining that I’d told him all this before, and had subitted the surefire “I smoke a lot of pot!” as an excuse. He even remembered meeting me at a songwriters “In Their Own Words” show at The Bottom Line, starring Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega and Victoria Williams, which I vaguely remembered myself—the show, that is, in 1994.

We said hi to Samantha, who’s from Kansas City but based in New Orleans—where she’d brought Nicholas David down to produce his own fab new album Yesterday’s Gone (on her Wild Heart Records label), then Reuben and I talked about Louisiana Cajun artists we both knew before he slipped me an “All Access” pass and I headed back to my seat by way of David’s merch table. This time he was there, and actually knew who Chan Poling was: One for three is not bad anymore, for an old man.

Speaking of old men, the only criticism I have of Samantha’s set, which was otherwise so much more than all I had hoped for, was that it was way too loud for a guy who has to have the TV on all night to drown out his tinnitus—maybe even as loud as John Fogerty, who I can never understand why he pushes it up so high. I used to always bring earplugs but I go to rock shows so rarely now, and those I go to are by artists pretty much as old and hearing-impaired as I am, so I no longer know where they are. Luckily I had an old Dunkin’ Donuts napkin decomposing in my jacket pocket—actually in better condition than the jacket—and managed to find just enough of it that was still solid enough to stuff into my ears.

“How are we doing, PlayStation Theater?” Samantha asked after “Bulletproof,” the down-and-dirty fuzz-toned lead track from her new, wonderfully titled album Kill or Be Kind. We were doing fine, I said to myself. Near-dead PlayStation Theater, not so much. But I did feel a little bad for her, since my seat was elevated just enough to look down on the floor, where I could see all the bald male heads except, fortunately, my own. I remembered the last time I saw Maria McKee in New York, at Joe’s Pub, many years ago, and she complained that her audience was always mostly middle-aged men—except it had to be worse for Samantha, because she’s only 30 and us then-middle agers were pretty much Maria’s contemporaries. And now that we’re all at least twice Sam’s age, we were all pretty sedate for such a high-energy show.

“We’re in some tough times,” said Samantha, as my balled-up Dunkin’ Donuts napkin plugs decomposed some more, though at a slower rate than me and my fellow baldies. “But live music makes it a bit better–at least for me.” As Rockin’ John always says after announcing the local club gigs in the middle of his two-hour show, “Go out and support your favorite bands. They’ll appreciate it—and you’ll feel good about it.”

Samantha was leading into an older, ironically titled song, “American Dream”:

Blood on a street, it’s another new day
Lost count of how many died, at least I’m doing it my way
You’re the liberated, you are the free
Free to cry and die disenfranchised, blessed as a country.”

After the encore I peeled off the backing of my All Access pass and went back to Samantha’s dressing room where Howie (See, Howie? I remember your name!) wondered about her name, i.e., its nationality, its ethnicity, since, he said, “a lot of Jews are named Fish,” or some variant with “Fish” in it.

“There are a lot of Fishes,” she said. But only one big one, I thought to myself–and kept it there.

I slobbered a bit and said goodbye, went home, broke open that big new bottle of Russian Standard and poured a stiff shot into my metal Robert Earl Keen “The Road Goes on Forever” shot glass and drank myself into a stupor so deep I didn’t need the TV on.