Archive for April 2019

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.

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     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 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 other thing was his Christmas recording of “Silver Bells”.

Clint dollarkgrhqng0e1fwr7.jpg 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.

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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
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