Passing The Baton   Leave a comment

January 1, 2019

The start of a new year is always a demarcation line. It’s the most obvious moment—aside from our birthdays—where each of us knows another year has passed. Carl Reiner was quoted as saying “Each morning when I wake up I check the obituaries. If I don’t see my name I already feel better.” Yes we’re all a little older, but that’s how things work.

I looked at the list of all the “notables” who’ve passed and wonder how each of these famous—or infamous—people have affected, touched, or otherwise changed my life. It’s always surprising to me that I can find a personal connection to many of them. So here are my thoughts on those we lost in 2018.

What did you think about when you heard the name—nothing else, just the name—Stephen Hiillenburg? It didn’t mean anything to me. It turns out he was important to me for the simple(?) fact that he created the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. My daughter Caitie and I—Caitie was about 10 years old at the time—were driving to Indiana (from Connecticut) to visit family. After a long day on the interstates we were entertaining ourselves by watching TV in our motel room, and that was the moment SpongeBob came into our lives. We laughed for a couple of hours and both became huge fans of the underwater hero. Thanks Stephen.

Robin Leach died last year. In some ways he too was a character worth remembering. In the end, almost all of the overstuffed, vacuous, self-important wealthy people he interviewed became laughable, at least to me.

Nancy Wilson MI0001416007.jpg

     On the musical side we lost some greats, both household names and lesser-knowns. Before getting into the music business I had heard South African musician Hugh Masekela’s hit single “Grazing in the Grass”. Little more than a year later I was promoting the Friends of Distinction, an RCA act who did a vocal cover of Masekela’s hit, creating a hit of their own. Years later I met Hugh when he recorded an album with my former boss Herb Alpert. Small world indeed.

Another music icon I had the pleasure of meeting was Charles Neville. I was in New Orleans and at Tipitina’s for a performance by the Neville Brothers. It was 1988 or ’89 and that band of brothers were amazing.

Lorraine Gordon died. She kept the flame of New York’s Village Vanguard alive after the death of her husband Max. I made many stops at the club to see some of the greatest live music acts in a somewhat intimate setting.

Joe Jackson, father of, yes, those Jacksons died in June. I recall meeting Joe in the late 1980s as A&M Records had increasingly amazing success with Janet Jackson. In business meetings or casual settings Joe had the ability to smile and scare the hell out of you simultaneously. Clearly a dysfunctional family at times, but they changed the music business.

Aretha Franklin died. I could only smile when I saw the photographs and video of the line of pink Cadillacs lining up to pay tribute at her funeral in Detroit.

Bluesman Otis Rush, founding member of Jefferson Airplane Marty Balin, jazz great Sonny Fortune all died. As did Morgana King, and Nancy Wilson. I first heard Wilson’s 1964 recording of “How Glad I Am” while in high school. It’s a great record a half-century later.

And ABC’s Keith Jackson died. His voice was one of the most comfortable ways of listening to a sporting event. I noticed the passing of disc jockey Dan Ingram. He was one of those Top-40 radio voices that transcended the music. Ingram was, like Casey Kasem, Larry Lujack, the Real Don Steele, and others who came to us as if from the ether. Cousin Brucie is still with us (on Sirius XM) thank goodness.

     Hollywood gave up some significant names in 2018. Penny Marshall became a successful film director but I will always remember her as Laverne DeFazio on television’s “Laverne & Shirley”. Lyricist Norman Gimbel died. He wrote the lyrics to the “Happy Days” TV show theme music. It’s more likely he’d like us to remember another set

Clint dollarkgrhqng0e1fwr7.jpg of lyrics he wrote: “The Girl from Ipanema”.

     Burt Reynolds died. His epitaph should read something like “He did it his way”. Clint Walker died. A classic ‘bigger than life’ actor in many westerns, I remember him a little
more for two small things he did. First, he starred in a made-for-TV movie titled “Yuma”. A small screen film but he helped make it memorable. The oth

er thing was his Christmas recording of “Silver Bells”. Yes, Clint Walker sang, and I had the single on my jukebox to prove it. Margot Kidder died. I attended a John Anderson for President fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1980, and ran into a friend who was dating Margot. In typical fashion I didn’t realize who she was.

Steven Bochco gave us “Hill Street Blues”, “LA Law” and more. Taylor 5bc24ef9708ec.image.jpg

Jim Taylor died. He was one of the most formidable running backs in the NFL during the Lombardi years with the Green Bay Packers.

Stan Lee. He single-handedly changed the comic book industry. Carl Kasell died. He spent years at NPR doing the news with absolute professionalism. Then, semi-retired, he became the perfect comedic companion to Peter Sagal on radio’s news quiz “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. And Tom Wolfe died. He wrote “The Right Stuff”. That’s all I need to know.

Stephen Hawking died. He outlived and outlasted many others not so severely afflicted as he. And as Penny said to Leonard on “Big Bang Theory”, “He’s that really smart guy, right?” Right!.

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     My Friend Russ Solomon died. He only created Tower Records. I wrote a column a few years ago decrying the fact that Russ was not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He reinvented music retailing. And others followed.

There were, obviously, many more famous and near-famous deaths in 2018. To those I met, worked with, never met, and worshipped from afar, you touched my life and so many others. Let’s all raise a glass to them.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

Photos from top to bottom: Nancy Wilson; Clint Walker; Jim Taylor; Russ Solomon.

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The Legacy of Richard Monsour   Leave a comment

April 1, 2019

There are few better days than the one when parents give their 12-year-old son his first guitar. It didn’t matter the brand, or whether acoustic or electric. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if it was used. That was the Christmas I remember. I received a 6-string Harmony electric guitar. That’s the “instrument” that began my journey. In the decades that followed I acquired an Eko electric 12-string, a Martin D12-35, a Fender Precision Bass, a Louden 6-string guitar, and my dream guitar: a Fender Telecaster. I purchased the Tele’ some 35 years after that Harmony guitar, and it’s my go-to instrument when I feel like making noise today.

Like most boys my age I learned to play listening to records and figuring out just what those players were doing. Over the next 8 years I formed or was a part of 8 different bands in Milwaukee. We performed regularly, made a little money, and attained a modicum of respect. We even did a little recording in the basement. By the time I was in college my days of performing faded and playing was a hobby. No matter. I would always have the memories; and my Tele’.
The guitarists that captured my attention are names that many people today aren’t familiar with. Of course there was Chuck Berry who “taught” every kid how to play “Johnny B. Goode” just by listening to those Chess 45s. But what about the others?

There was Duane Eddy. Born in 1938, Eddy crafted a sound that we still refer to as “twang”. He performed most of his lead guitar work using just the two bass strings on his six-string guitar. Songs like “Rebel Rouser”, “Cannonball”, and “Forty Miles of Bad Road” might have suggested to our parents that every Eddy record was the same. But, of course, they weren’t as more melodic outings like “The Lonely One”, and “Because They’re Young” softened the edge a bit. With help from Lee Hazlewood—yes that Lee Hazlewood—Eddy put together a string of hits that solidified his career, and we could sit next to our record player and ‘twang along with Duane’.

Rockabilly legend Carl Perkins was one of the young artists that Sam Phillips signed to Sun Records in Memphis. The roster was amazing. In a short time, Phillips could take credit for signing, recording, and releasing Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Perkins recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” and his finger-picking style made him a hero in England before the Beatles invaded America.

Bo Diddley had a style that was blues, R&B, and African rhythm all rolled into one superb player. His style differed from some of his contemporaries with his use of the tremolo option on his amp. Forget anyone who paints Bo Diddley as a one-trick pony. The man made all of us sit around a circle and try and figure out just how the hell he did that.

I noticed the sound coming from Ricky Nelson’s lead guitarist during his regular television appearances. It was so ‘simple’ you just knew you couldn’t easily replicate James Burton’s sound. How were we to know that Burton replaced his standard electric guitar strings with four banjo strings. By the time Burton was playing lead guitar for Elvis I knew he was a guitarist with a sound so clean and simple I’d have to quit my day job just to have the time to figure it out.

I met Les Paul and saw him perform in New York in 1993. I knew of Paul from his legendary recordings with wife Mary Ford as they were favorites of my mother. Paul is known in the music industry as much for his recording innovations as for his playing; but that sound, those licks, were pure Les Paul.

Carl Wilson was a solid guitarist and with brother Brian, the two were clearly the standout musicians in the Wilson family. The Beach Boys might have eventually figured out just how to create their surf sound, but it’s doubtful it would have happened as quickly without the help of Richard Monsour. In turn, Monsour might not have had his greatest success without the influence of his Lebanese father. It was from that influence that Monsour learned to play the ukulele and the guitar. He would take the stage-name Dick Dale, find alliteration useful in naming his band The Del-Tones, and lead the creation of the soon-to-be-defined “surf sound”. The New York Times described Dale’s legacy as having defined “the sound of surf guitar as a musical expression of the elemental surge of the ocean, with its savage waves, its volatile crosscurrents and its tidal undertow. He played melodies that crisscrossed the beat with the determination of a surfer riding through choppy waves, forging a triumphant path above deep turbulence.” An elegant way of confirming Dale’s musical style.

Dick DaleFew could have predicted that this Boston-born transplant to southern California would be the person to create an entire sound based on the thunder of the waves. And just as unlikely, the song that drove his ‘creation’ was, in fact, a recreation of an Arabic song from the early twentieth century (or even earlier). “Misirlou” was that song. Perhaps no one really understood the song’s Middle-eastern origins, particularly since most of the earliest live performances faded from memory, although three recorded versions seem to have had some success between 1941 and 1953. “Misirlou” was recorded by The Beach Boys, The Ventures, The Surfaris, The Bobby Fuller Four and played by every local band looking to imitate the young California sound while playing in Cleveland, or Denver, or, say, Milwaukee. With the success of “Misirlou”, Dick Dale was anointed the King of the Surf Guitar. And why not.

Thirty years after Dale’s original recording, “Misirlou” once again caught our ears as a significant theme in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” It brought renewed fame and adulation from fans, and a renewed opportunity to tour.
Last month (March 16), Dale died in Loma Linda, California at age 81.
Learning the guitar is one thing. Learning how to play is another. And carving out a new genre of music, well, that’s something else again. Dale was a realist-philosopher. In the December 13, 2015 issue of California Rocker, Dale had a little wisdom for all of us:

“Don’t worry about yesterday and don’t worry about tomorrow,” he says. “Don’t worry about yesterday because it’s used. It’s either good or it leaves you feeling bad. And don’t waste time or energy worrying about tomorrow. I could have a stroke and be dead. That’s why they call it the present. It’s a present.”

Thanks to all of them—Chuck, Bo, Carl, James, Duane, Les, and everyone else from whom we learned by stealing licks. Tonight I’ll plug my Tele’ into my Fender amp, and play a few licks. Believe me, it won’t sound anything like them but my heart is with these (and other) guitar legends. In fact, let’s all pick up our guitars, crank our amps up to 11 and give Dick Dale and all the others a lick or two. They’ve earned it.

A Rally Sparks A Memory   Leave a comment

March 1, 2019

  I remember the Tuesday morning. As usual, I drove from my home in West Redding, Connecticut, to the Metro-North Commuter train station in Westport. It was my first day of classes as I started grad school at the New School in lower Manhattan. (I transferred to NYU the next semester, but that’s not really germane to this column.)  My Tuesday classes began at 11:00am, so my plan was to catch the 8:50 train to Grand Central Station, catch a subway to Union Square, and then walk to the campus. I parked the car at the Westport Station about 10 minutes early, and sat waiting for my train. As I sat in the car I heard a report about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. It was 8:46am. Bad, obviously. But some of us remember reading about another crash.

 

     On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber got lost in the fog over Manhattan and crashed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors. Fourteen people died, including 11 in the Empirestate540building and 3 on the plane. Significant damage, as one can imagine, was done to the building but the structural integrity was not compromised and tourists can still ride elevators to the 102nd floor observation deck. Sitting in my car on September 11, 2001, I could convince myself that just like the 1945 crash, the World Trade Center would survive this disaster.
     My train came into Westport and the conversation went through the car. The question we heard as the train left Westport was “Did you hear?” or “What do you think?”. At the next stop in Norwalk, Connecticut, more Manhattan-bound travelers got on the train, and the conversations continued. Somewhere past Norwalk we got the report that another plane had hit one of the towers. It was 9:03am. At the next stop, Stamford, Connecticut, almost everyone—me included—got off the train, crossed over to the other side to head back on the next train.
     When I arrived in Westport I got in my car and headed straight to Waterbury where our daughter Caitie was in school. She was 13 and I decided it would be good for her (and for us) to call it a day.  Classes at the university were all canceled for the week.

     The following week I, once again, caught the 8:50am train for New York, went to classes, and more or less, resumed some normality. What wasn’t normal were the impromptu memorials in Union Square.

USQ

September 11 Archive, Gift of Marisa Palmisano.jpg

Almost everywhere in this very public place there were candles and flowers on the ground, flowers and notes stuck between fenceposts; pictures taped to walls, fences, and lampposts. Union Square had become a church and home to hundreds if not thousands of very personal memorials. As I passed through the candles and alongside the tears, the magnitude of the prior-week’s horror drove even deeper into all of us.

     A couple of months later I ventured to ground zero. By that time a makeshift wooden walkway had been created to enable all of us to quietly walk past and look up into the now empty sky, look down into the hole, or share a glance, touch, hug, smile with the others in the quiet, non-denominational congregation.
     Almost 18 years later I was listening to an interview with comedian-turned talk show host-turned-advocate Jon Stewart. I’ve always liked Stewart, and view him as a rationale, credible voice. And I still do. He left comedy at home. Here was Stewart adding his potent voice to a rally in New York City. Who can, for a moment, rationalize just why there has not been continuous funding for all of the needs of all of the first responders who walked into hell on Tuesday, September 11, 2001? We’ve all gone on with our lives, but every year 9/11 is a potent number for many of us but perhaps it’s been completely ignored by others.
     As reported by many news outlets on February 25, 2019 “More than 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, first responders and their advocates were back at Capitol Hill urging Congress to ensure that a victims’ compensation fund does not run out of money.” Stop there for a moment. Congress had the energy to write a tax cut into law benefitting mostly the wealthy, but they couldn’t find time to secure funding for these “veterans” of that awful day. The website nj.com covered the day, the crisis, and the reality very well. On February 25,
“Members of the New York delegation, joined by first responders, survivors and family members, lamented an announcement by the Justice Department that the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is running low on money and future payments may be cut by up to 70 percent.”

Comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, called the Feb. 15 announcement by the fund’s special master “unconscionable” and said Congress has a moral obligation to step in . . . .  “This is nonsense. This is theater. You know it and I know it,” Stewart said. “If the American people in their busy lives had any sense that these shenanigans were going on, they would be outraged.”

He and other speakers urged Congress to act quickly to restore the fund and ensure it has enough money to pay benefits for the next 70 years — or as long as victims need it. Obviously we have a problem in Washington D.C. Sometimes it seems as if much of “flyover” country in America may be against money for a city like New York. Or maybe it’s just that it’s 17+ years since the attacks.

     On a personal level, what I didn’t mention earlier is the unique odor that hung over lower Manhattan in the weeks and months after the attacks. I’ve smelled any number of things during my decade in New York, but that odor, at least for me, was unique. It was memorable in the worst possible way. There were human beings helping on that Tuesday morning 17 years ago, more human beings helping and working to reclaim ground zero for years afterwards. In my opinion, if we can debate the need for a wall on our southern border, we can at least bring a debate about victim and first responder’s compensation to the forefront as well. Healthcare in America is a for-profit business. Unfortunately. If we had healthcare for all, perhaps there would be no need for a rally this week. But we did.
     At the very least let’s take care of these people. Take a moment. Let your representatives in Washington know that it is time to act. Act now.  While some of them are still alive.
David Steffen
©2019 David Steffen

Who Knew?   Leave a comment

February 1, 2019

Who knew? In early summer 1974 I stepped onto a westbound Continental Airlines flight to Los Angeles. This wasn’t a holiday, but a journey to a meeting of A&M Records staff members of which I was one. These meetings were a mix of solid discussion and an immersion into new music. Did I mention that we also found time to have some fun.

amrecordsThat visit to California would include great memories, but none more vivid than an evening at the Roxy Theatre. This venue was a partnership of 5 or 6 Hollywood movers, including Lou Adler. Although I had met Adler in Chicago at a Carole King concert at McCormick Place we clearly did not run in the same circles. Adler was a talented music industry person who helped create a long list of great music, including the legendary Tapestry album by King.

I learned quickly that one of the perks of working for a record label was to be treated to new music. Sometimes in the studio, occasionally in someone’s office, often at a performance. Some of the smaller club performances stay with me to this day. As it turned out, part of that A&M meeting included a special performance at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. Most members of the audience were A&M staffers, along with some wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and roxy program frontfriends of the label. When the lights dimmed and the music started to play, characters—which we assumed were the band—started to move from the stage into the audience. At the same time, another character came from behind us, walking toward the stage using the armrests on the seats to carefully get to the stage. This was our introduction to the Rocky Horror Show.

Lou Adler had purchased the North American rights to produce The Rocky Horror Show—the stage version, to begin. And the show we witnessed wasn’t a sample but a full production staged in the somewhat limited space inside the Roxy. Needless to say it was an unforgettable evening. For anyone unfamiliar with the storyline, The Rocky Horror Show was a campy sendup of 1930s and 1940s horror (and, to be fair, science fiction) films, not the least influenced by Frankenstein.

Written by Richard O’Brien, the history of contributors to its success is rather full, and can be found easily for those interested. The important factor was Adler getting a show built on Hollywood film imagery from London to Hollywood. The Rocky Horror Show Rocky RHPS-FrankOnThroneplayed for nine months in California, followed by a short stint (45 performances) in New York. While the show established the Roxy as a viable performance space, the real success was to come with a film adaption. A little more than a year after that late-spring 1974 performance I witnessed at the Roxy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived in movie theaters—in London in August 1975, and in the States in September. Once again the box office was somewhat weak, and the reviews clearly didn’t help. One reviewer wrote the production off as “”tasteless, plotless and pointless”. But the decision by one theater to begin showing the film on Friday night at midnight changed the fortunes and the history. Having worked in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, one couldn’t help but notice that Rocky Horror Picture Show seemed to be screening somewhere in America all the time. Audiences often dressed the part of their favorite characters. Sometimes theaters would give prizes to the best costumes, or free admission, or free Cokes and popcorn. Each little perk offered by the theater helped sustain the audiences as people flocked to each screening to see the Curry e4820620cb17d40bea3e89e9562458ced2661b63people as much as to see the film.

As for the music, I look back on the Roxy show and the film and concluded that the individual songs were perfect for the production, but individually few would be listened to outside of the show or the film. Of course there are at least two exceptions: “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite”. These days, whenever I hear “Sweet Transvestite” as a memory recording, it is always in the voice of Tim Curry. I met Curry a few years later while promoting and marketing his 1979 Fearless album (and the singles “Paradise Garage” and “I Do The Rock”.) I still enjoy hearing those tracks. And I’ve seen him on the screen in other films, including The Hunt For Red October. But I will always remember seeing him at the Roxy. And I will always appreciate having been an early visitor to the launch of Adler’s Roxy club, the character Frank N. Furter, and the Rocky Horror Show. It’s easy to log on to Netflicks and watch almost any film we can think of. But if and when I see The Rocky Horror Picture Show again, it will have to be at midnight, at a local theater. With all of us dressed for the event. Mmmmm. Which character will I be? Wait. I know! I’ll be . . . .

A Favorite Christmas Memory   Leave a comment

December 1, 2018

I got the travel bug early in life. It may have been my parents, taking the family vacation each summer to visit some part of the extended family. One year we’d drive from Milwaukee to New York to see my father’s side of the family, the next year to Texas to see my mother’s family. Occasionally there was a trip to Florida to see Uncle Bob, a family member without any clear explanation as to which branch of the family he could be found.

I remember our last family vacation, the one before my parents separated, and before my older brother graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. For a variety of reasons I recall some aspects of the trip very clearly. There was the 1958 Chevy wagon. I now think back to that steel and aluminum dash board and wonder why none of us were killed as a result of a sudden stop while riding in this pre-seatbelt car. I can’t forget my first stay at a Holiday Inn. This was in Pryor, Oklahoma, on our way to Dallas. It had a swimming pool. And I recall that Chevy wagon pulling into the Parkmoor Drive-in Restaurant in St. Louis for lunch. The Parkmoor could have been the inspiration for Al’s drive-in on television’s Happy Days.

I might add that 1958 was also the year my brother closed my grandfather’s garage door with a complete lack of concern about the force, weight, and speed of the hand-lift door. He managed to break his own foot that day when the door landed on it. In any case, traveling—for a 10-year old boy—was an adventure. Years later I began traveling for business and found myself on a plane at least once or twice each week. For the next thirty years. I could list the airlines I flew and the cities I visited but [a] that would boring and [b] there’d be little space left.

amtrakThere was the Thanksgiving my wife and I decided to take the train from L.A. to Chicago. Inspired, predictably, by seeing Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in the film Silver Streak. Spoiler alert: Amtrak wasn’t at all like Hollywood. When it came time for dinner we walked to the dining car. After a glass of wine we were handed menus and told we had a choice of soup or salad. We asked the server what was today’s soup. He didn’t know so he casually walked back to the staging area in the middle of the dining car and yeIled down the dumbwaiter to the kitchen: “What’s the soup tonight?”. A voice came thundering back: “Macaroni and cheese soup.” We both had the salad. It took us three days to get to Chicago, and I don’t think either of us slept. But a cross-country train trip in America was scratched off our list of great ideas never to be repeated.

kenya passp img_0008 (1)We saved money for a few years to afford a dream trip: we went to Kenya for Christmas. Unlike Amtrak this was one of those dream trips as almost everything went right. After the train trip to Chicago I guess we had earned some good luck.

It was 1986 and legendary airline Pan Am was still an option. We flew to New York, changed planes and got a direct 747 flight to Kenya. Direct doesn’t mean non-stop. We made “visits” to Dakar (Senegal), Monrovia (Liberia), Lagos (Nigeria) and then eastbound across Africa to Nairobi. An almost 25 hour journey. After a couple

kenya ball dolly img

Dolly watching the balloon get inflated.

of nights at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi (supposedly a Hemingway hangout) we began our safari/bush trip around Kenya traveling South, north, west, and south again. One night we camped at the base of Kilimanjaro, a week (and a couple of camps later) we were near Mt. Kenya. Our last 4-5 days there included Christmas, staying on the Masai Mara, near the Rift Valley, not too far from the border with Tanzania. We asked our guide if there was a local church that would be having Christmas services, to which he replied “yes, about 3-4 miles from here.” Christmas Eve morning we drove to a spot where we watched a crew get three hot air balloons ready for flight, and before we knew it we were drifting toward the Tanzanian border.

high viewWe followed the wind and saw virtually every animal you go to Africa to see. Hippos. Plenty of hippos. Lions. Plenty of them too. Giraffe, elephants, buffalo. After a couple of ho

urs in the air—an amazing experience—we finished our trip about mile from the Tanzanian border, and had brunch at a make-shift camp. A crew drove us to do a little cross bor

der shopping and that afternoon we were back at our camp. Big rains that night and when we awoke the next morning we were told that Christmas service at the church was out of the question. The roads were washed out.

Our last day in the bush we packed and got ready for our flight back to Nairobi. That balloon stoppedplane was a 40-50 year-old twin engine DC-3, which was a whole other experience. One night in Nairobi and we were back on a Pan Am 747 and a slightly longer trip home. Of all the Christmases before and since, I always remember Christmas 1986.

People talk about life as a journey, and so it is. In 40 years of traveling we’ve been to many cities, and many countries on four continents. We have, as another film title suggested, taken planes , trains, and automobiles. Family reunions, visiting friends. But in all of our holiday journeys, one stays with me to this day. We never got to church but it was still Christmas in Africa. Maybe we’ll go back.

David Steffen

 

© 2018 David Steffen

Posted December 1, 2018 by Jazzdavid in Travel, Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,

Our Need For Music   Leave a comment

October 1, 2018

     Listening and hearing are two different things. Hearing is more about perception, as in some driver’s car horn asserting a right of way in traffic, or a dog barking in the distance; the crowd at a football game or a food vendor hawking the best sandwich this side of anywhere. Listening is entirely different. It’s the idea that you give your awareness to the sound, taking notice, turning your head, paying attention; you begin a journey with comprehension and (hopefully) arrive at enjoyment. The difference between hearing and listening is why I ended up working in the music business for so many years.

     Once heard, a great song, a great recording is not forgotten. It isn’t the ear-worm of a bad (and likely annoying) advertising jingle, but rather an emotional connection to something that connects with and within us. Twenty years ago a group of neuroscientists (in Nature Neuroscience, 1999) posited that

“Music has an extraordinary ability to evoke powerful emotions. This ability is particularly intriguing because, unlike most other stimuli that evoke emotion, such as smell, taste or facial expression, music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.”

     All that being said, I don’t need a neuroscientist to tell me when a great record is playing. My brain (and heart) tell me that in seconds, or even fractions of seconds.

     Art is personal. Accept, for the moment, that radio is always playing to an audience of one. Radio programmers are often taught to think and perform that way: talk on the radio as if you’re speaking to just one person. Whether the station has thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of listeners, the audience is always an audience of one: you, me, her, him. Even when two or three of us are trapped together in a car on California’s roads or highways, most of the time if one member of the group says “did you hear that”, the likely response from the other passengers is “huh? Hear what?” That’s why I love radio. It’s personal.

     Some six weeks ago I was returning to the Mendocino Coast from the San Francisco Bay area. As I got somewhere north of Marin County I pushed the button on my car radio for KRSH, The Krush. It’s a predominantly Americana station situated in the middle of one of the most famous wine-regions in the world: Napa and Sonoma counties. (Hence, KRSH crush, as in grapes.) The midday host was about to begin interviewing a recording artist, singer/songwriter, and as she introduced her guest I wasn’t certain I heard the name, but the interview was worth the listen. At some point she told her audience she wanted to play a cut from the new album by Stan, or Steve, or Stu. I wasn’t certain just what his name was, but when the music started I really didn’t care about his name. The track was “Forgiveness” and for the next 3 1/2 minutes I was all about this amazing song with haunting lyrics.

I got voices in my head
Get me up and out of bed
I’ve been busted and I’ve been burned
My heart is beating but you know it hurts
And I can tell you every name
But that will never change anything
I ain’t saying I’ll forget it
Or their wrongs will ever be right
We’re just talking about forgiveness
And how it gives you back your life.

     So simple. Whatever the hurt, forgive, and that forgiveness will give back to you, perhaps even your life. The bridge in the song reminds us (particularly those of us who’ve been married for more than a few years) that

I know it’s never easy
Being torn apart
Forgive to be forgiven,
It will open up your heart.

     As happens to many of us—I assume, because I know it happens to me—I couldn’t get enough of this song, this recording.  Arriving home in Mendocino County I immediately tried to figure out just who was this guy on the radio. StallSome internet surfing, including a look at the KRSH website and, voila!, I had his name: Stoll Vaughan. Like any music lover bordering-on-groupie, a couple of weeks later I had a phone conversation with Stoll.

     First, it’s pronounced “stall”, not “stole”. (Stoll is a family name.) He’s from Kentucky and now calls Los Angeles home. “Forgiveness” is not his first song, and The Conversation is not his first album. As the saying goes, this project was not his first rodeo. Stoll’s Kentucky origin didn’t surprise me, as all those years having traveled to and through Nashville (not to mention the film project I did with the Bluegrass Music Association some 20+ years ago) immersed me in conversations with the sounds of a rural and cosmopolitan mid-south gentleness. He’s had education at Michigan’s Interlochen Boarding High School—one of the single best possible schools for an arts-oriented teenager. The Conversation was recorded back near Stoll’s home turf, using studios in Indiana and Nashville, with help from players like Duane Betts (son of Allman Brothers alum Dickey Betts), and Devon Allman (son of the late Gregg Allman), producer Carl Broemel and others.

     Stoll’s album has more than one cut, by the way. There are 13 tracks offering a listening experience just under an hour. “Bear Witness” “Weatherman”, “Meet You In The Middle” confirm his authenticity as a solid songwriter. And happily, like I experienced in my days in the music industry, it only takes one track to get someone’s attention, and then, like a good deed done to you, you’re duty-bound to pass it on. We no longer have hundreds of Top-40 radio stations, helping break an artist. Today we have to help music along, by passing the knowledge in conversation, in email, and through social media. If you frequent a bar with live music, let the owner know about your discovery.  I’m passing “Forgiveness” on to you so that you can discover Stoll Vaughan for yourself. While you’re at it, take credit for his success too. Stoll won’t mind and neither will I.

     Before I let you go, I wanted to mention one other artist and album worth listening to. KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my Elise Title CRbrain. The song was “You Never Can Tell”, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s. You may recall that in the storyline, Monsieur and Madame end up getting married, because “you know you never can tell”. The tempo for this version was brought way back, and my friend Fred told us that the vocalist was Elise Legrow.  Who? I hadn’t heard of her either. Pity. Her new album, Playing Chess has nothing to do with the game of chess, but everything to do with the Chess Brothers, as in Leonard and Phil Chess and Chicago-based Chess Records. Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including “Over The Mountain”, “Rescue Me”, “Who Do You Love”, and more.

     Beyond the Playing Chess album (and in particular “You Never Can Tell”) there’s another Legrow track I found; a much older track of hers—2012?—titled “No Good Woman”.

     Remember those neuroscientists I quoted earlier? While I understand their scientific foundation, I have to disagree with one of their conclusions: “. . . music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.” Any rational human being with a pulse knows there is a biological need for music. At the very least, did these geniuses never hear about setting the mood?  And as for survival, the concept of “desert island discs” was created for specific treasured recordings, i.e. music. Those brainiacs may not believe music is necessary for our survival, but I wouldn’t want to get stranded somewhere without my iPod and its 10,000 of my favorite songs.  Besides, if I’m not alone on the island, how will I set the mood?

David Steffen

© 2018 David Steffen

Exploring Renewal   Leave a comment

September 1, 2018

   I remember my first trip to California. The year was 1972, I flew in from Chicago, as I was about to begin a new career. The fabled terminal at LAX was a fraction of the size it is today. The horseshoe design of the access road was already in place, but the terminals were one level in those days (vs. today’s two and three-story buildings swallowing up departing passengers and spitting out the arrivals.) Over the dozen years I lived in Los Angeles, I occasionally drove south from Los Angeles to San Diego or north to Santa  Barbara. But any other in-state travel was of the “fly-over” variety.

A few years ago (2014) I actually drove to Los Angeles from Mendocino County (mostly on I-5) to attend a memorial service for a dear friend. That Friday night I stayed with friends in the Hollywood hills. Saturday morning we all went to the memorial—in typical L.A. fashion—in numerous separate cars. As quickly as I arrived, Saturday afternoon I found myself back in my car and headed north on I-5. Neither the drive south on Friday or the return on Saturday motivated me to consider the beauty of this state’s “agricultural engine”, that enormous food-producing region covering the central part of the Golden State.

For some reason, as summer 2018 began I felt the urge to make contact. I reached out to one of my friends from that October 2014 visit. Harold Childs has been more than a friend. Hell, we worked together for a couple of decades. The call felt good and after a couple of months of trying to find the perfect moment we finally found a weekend that would work for us both.

Leaving Mendocino County on a Friday morning (again) I headed south, this time down the coast through Jenner, across the Russian River, over to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed), past Point Reyes Station, which I once described to someone (as a good thing) as a “coastal town that time sorta forgot”. I continued south through Olema and on to the Golden Gate Bridge. From there I drove past Golden Gate Park to Highway 92 and headed toward Half Moon Bay. Finally I was going to once again be enjoying the ocean views.

    Part of my motivation for this route was the wonderful news that a beautiful stretch of Highway One near Big Sur had been repaired, reopened, and ready for traffic. I should have expected that with the highway reopened, a few thousand of my closest friends would also be headed to Half Moon Bay, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, and other points south.

     Somewhere just north of Monterey my iPhone’s GPS suggested—I guess most of these devices have learned to make suggestions to we puny humans—that I move over to Highway 101. It would be faster, and as it was now past noon, and I had hundreds of miles to go, I should get a move on.

In short order I found myself speeding down a wide-open 101, glancing left and right to take notice of the vast agricultural land I heretofore had only sped past at night or high above in a Boeing jet. It was sunny and beautiful (albeit  90+ degrees outside) and as I passed Watsonville I thought about the green vegetables and fruit often labeled as having come from this particular part of the state. When I read the highway sign that said “Soledad, 10 miles” I decided I’d had enough of the hot and dry ag-land and would head back to the coast. Once you’re past Soledad, Gonzales, Greenfield or dozens of other towns you realize there is no quick and easy route back to the coast from 101. Never mind. I still had my iPhone and even if this was miles from the coast, the drive might be worth it.

As I turned west from Greenfield, I navigated my way along a series of two-lane blacktop highways with names like Elm Road (no elms to be seen), Arroyo Seco (a dry creek it was), and Carmel Valley Road, which gave me some confidence that my general direction was west. Observing so many hard-working men in the fields, orchards, and vineyards, I was reminded (once again) how lucky I’ve been.

Some twists and turns (and perhaps 2 hours  after leaving 101) I suddenly found myself in the charming town of Carmel Valley. It’s about 15 miles from the coast and the parts of it I saw were just plain lovely. I quickly began reorienting myself from the dry roads, valleys, and hills and focused on this oasis. Clearly the real estate was well out of my league, but I had no interest in moving here anyway; and a stop after so many hours of driving seemed like a very good idea.

I turned right into the parking lot of the Corskscrew Cafe, with a sign telling me that lunch was served until 4:00pm. Glancing at my watch and seeing it was 3:30pm, the decision was easy. A glass of wine, a salad, and at 4:30pm I was back on Pacific Coast Highway. Sightseeing was becoming less and less of a motivation, as I knew I had many miles to go to get to Oxnard before midnight.

PCH became Cabrillo Highway, and I observed names and places that, had I not been so tardy driving this far, I would be stopping to take them all in. I looked up to see (in the distance) the great American cabin in the woods known colloquially as Hearst Castle at San Simeon. I waved to the ghosts and continued south traveling through towns like Harmony, Cayucos, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, and Pismo Beach. By the time I reached the outskirts of Santa Barbara I was tired but feeling like I was actually going to make it to Oxnard.

Arriving at my Air B&B I can only say that it was better than the Alkistis Hotel in Athens but not by much. (The Alkistis was $10 bucks a night in 1976 and way overpriced then). Never mind. I won’t bore you with my whiny accommodations story; perhaps another day.

    Saturday morning my friend Harold picked me up and we started our day at a local coffee spot. We then spent the next ten hours catching up. Some wine, some food, a personally guided private tour of Oxnard—did you know it was founded by Henry Oxnard, or that the Navy not only maintains a base in Oxnard (Port Hueneme, actually) but there is a museum dedicated to the amazing work of the Sea Bees. If you don’t know, it’s the name given to the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions). ox photo (1)We had dinner at a local favorite (in Ventura, as I recall), and then another Lyft car to get us back safely. Oxnard is a nice place to live and I can see why Harold likes it. Close enough to greater Los Angeles to stay in touch with friends and family but better air, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

     Sunday Morning we had more coffee, said our good-byes and I was on the road again. I drove straight back to Mendocino County, taking 101 most of the way. When I got home I didn’t need anyone to remind me how much I like living up here. But I will say, reaching out was a great idea. Most importantly I renewed a friendship that I’ve treasured for 40 years. And I was reminded, along the way, what a great state California truly is. There is so much here to explore and discover, and none of us will live long enough to see it all or even half. But while you’re busy making plans, take a turn. Stop in a small town. explore a museum. Gaze at the ocean. And visit with an old friend. It’ll make you feel young again. Really.

Posted September 15, 2018 by Jazzdavid in Food, Media, Technology, Travel, Uncategorized

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