Three nights in L.A.

Thursday night, August 22

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 Stones songbook.

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 Simpson’s.

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 and carry-ons.

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.

Our Beloved Industry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Ray Stevens and Shakespeare

I got called out—rightly—for my examiner.com piece yesterday on Ray Stevens’ new comedy box set Encyclopedia Of Recorded Comedy Music.

“Sadly,” commented maybe the one Facebook friend who actually saw the piece (sadly!), “Stevens has become a voice for the Tea Party with a focus on virulent anti-Obama songs.”

“That’s true,” I responded, meekly, embarrassed. “I felt guilty writing the piece but did it for everything else in the set.”

To continue the rationalization, the set is quite extraordinary. Without reprinting the entire Examiner piece, I’ll just say it’s got 108 songs on nine discs and includes comedy song classics ranging from the likes of The Coasters (“Poison Ivy,” “Yakety-Yak”), Bobby “Boris” Pickett (“Monster Mash”) and Allan Sherman (“Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”), to Stevens’ own signature hits including “Ahab The Arab,” “Gitarzan” and “The Streak.”

But the ninth disc is actually a bonus disc of new and recent originals including the scornful “Obama Budget Plan”—which I had heard, but let it slide. I also knew Stevens was likely appearing on Fox News while he was in town, but a lot of other country stars whom I’m fans of go there, so I let that go as well.

But then I started researching and found an essay Stevens wrote for FoxNews.com last summer, “The Blamer-in-Chief.” Find it yourself if you care to read the usual right-wing tripe. I’ll just quote from the middle:

“I try to find the humor in everything but there is nothing funny about what the president, his policies and his associates are doing to this country with the help of a political party that obviously cares more about elections than the great nation they have sworn to protect and defend.

“I’m tired of it. I’ve heard it all before and don’t want to hear it anymore.

“I’m tired of hearing how we have lost a war and how our troops terrorize and kill innocent people in the dead of night.

“I’m tired of hearing good, honest, caring people like the Tea Party folks being referred to as ‘terrorists’ by people who won’t even call a real terrorist a terrorist.”

Tiresome? Yes. Should I have given Stevens any coverage? Arguable.

Regular readers will know I’ve written about right-wing artists before, and may have correctly surmised that some of them I’m friendly with, if not very friendly with–and for many years.

Most recently, of course, I chose to cut Hank Williams, Jr. some slack—a whole lot of slack, admittedly—for his infamous Obama-Hitler analogy.

“That’s just Hank being Hank,” I felt. Not the smartest guy politically, way too gun-crazy, but still such a great artist–and he showed guts as well as class in going to The View to take his lumps, as well as Fox to get his sugar.

I gave the Bellamy Brothers a Brother Pass, too, after satisfying myself that their 2010 hit video for “Jalapeno” was not gratuitous Obama bashing. Here I figured that the guys who gave us “Get Into Reggae Cowboy” and “Old Hippie” deserved the benefit of some doubt.

Larry Gatlin? I wrote the liner notes for the 1996 Galtin restrospective Best Of The Gatlins: All The Gold In California. Known him since he opened for someone at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis., in the mid-’70s when we were both starting out (I want to say Conway Twitty, with or without Loretta, maybe). Great artist. Great guy. Did one of those Broadway AIDS benefit shows a few years ago at B.B. King’s (I saw him play the lead in The Will Rogers Follies on Browadway, brilliantly).

He’s in town a lot now doing Fox News right-wing commentary. I went with him to do Huckabee a few years ago and much to my embarrassment, was spotted in the studio audience by a couple dubious Facebook friends. I also met Huck, and told him I was pals with his former campaign manager Ed Rollins. “I’m sorry for you!” Huck joked—at least I think he was joking.

But I do love Larry, and Ed. And Wagner, as in Richard.

I have a Jewish friend, an intense right-wing Zionist, who loves the opera but won’t go to any Wagner. I don’t’ know how he feels about Shakespeare and Shylock, Dickens and Fagin. I’m not going to ask.

I love the Stones, but always felt a tinge of guilt for loving “Midnight Rambler” so much: “I’m a hit-and-run raper, in anger….stick my knife right down your throat, and it hurts.” Remember the billboard campaign for Black And Blue, the one with the girl tied up and beaten, yet chirping, “I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones—and I love it!”? Feminists hated the album. I still love it.

I’ve defended with pride Phil Spector here and elsewhere as one of the kindest, most generous and thoughtful people I’ve ever known. I’ve never met him, but anyone I’ve met who’s ever worked with Mel Gibson says pretty much the same thing. I still love his films, still love Phil’s records.

I don’t know that I’m making a point or that I have one to make, other than that I will continue to enjoy Ray Stevens, and not listen to the bonus disc of Encyclopedia.

And I will continue to repudiate his politics, and suggest he just take a good long nap.