Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

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.

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 . . . .

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

Standing By   Leave a comment

June 1, 2018

Personal beliefs for some, we often see as biases for others; likes and dislikes all become apparent when we reflect on the things that are important to us. Over time we may adjust those beliefs, temper those biases, or embrace something we earlier eschewed. Consider our memories. Growing up, my great aunt Violet was as important to me as my parents. Easily 40-50 years my senior, Aunt Vi was a truly good human being whose affection and wisdom were never missing. I found myself thinking of her this week for a somewhat unexpected reason.

Vi was an unassuming woman who worked as a coatcheck girl at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Her husband Ed was a bus driver for the city’s public transit system.  She wasn’t a musician, and not necessarily fond of pop music, but a genuine expression of support is not unimportant to a 12-year old boy. When I began playing the guitar at 12,  contrary to many adults her age, there was no strange reaction. Rather, it was encouragement.

She was visiting our home in the spring of 1961. I don’t recall the occasion, but it was probably for my sister’s May birthday. Our family was like that in those days, particularly in the first couple of years after my parents divorced. The radio was on and one of the songs played had become so familiar, so well-liked, so universally acclaimed a pop hit, that no one could say a bad word about it. My mother was in the habit of taking us to Sears as she went shopping on a Saturday, and a big treat—at least for me—was going to the record department where she proceeded to buy two or three singles for me. At age 12, records were more important to me than ice cream (although that would change with time.)

Beyond popular music there were many things I should remember about 1961. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. The Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie won a Tony. West Side Story won an Oscar. It was the year of the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviets began construction of the Berlin Wall. Mini-skirts were beginning to turn up at couture houses. Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna. Vietnam was becoming a real war. Television was described as a “vast wasteland”. Bobby Fischer won his 4th consecutive U.S. chess championship (at age 17), and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, but earned an asterisk for his efforts. The New York Giants were beaten (soundly) by the Green Bay Packers, 37-0 in the original ‘ice bowl’.

Popular music in this pre-Beatles age was feeling positive, fun, and evolving. And songwriting was a craft that could, with perspective, be compared to paintings, architecture, dance . . . it was becoming a respectable art and writing pop hits was profitable.

Reading the minds of pre-teens and teenagers was a gift, and two of the greatest songwriters of their age were Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  Their amazing collaboration would write “Poison Ivy” (recorded by the Coasters;) “Jailhouse Rock” was recorded by Elvis; “Ruby Baby” by The Drifters (and later covered by Dion). Lieber and Stoller might have retired in 1961, with a string of hits songs, including 11 recorded by Elvis Presley. But they didn’t.

Through their association with The Drifters, Lieber and Stoller met a young man with a distinctive voice. He stood out to most ears as the defining voice of the group, singing the lead vocal on “There Goes My baby” (1959), “Dance With Me” (1959), “This Magic Moment” (1960), “Save The Last Dance For Me” (1960), and six other singles. Benjamin Earl Nelson left the Drifters and almost immediately had a hit single for Atlantic Records: “Spanish Harlem”. As a kid from Milwaukee, I knew nothing about Spanish Harlem (the place,) but that recording—a song written by Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector—fit the New York-flavored imagery of other teenage urban love songs like “Uptown”, and “He’s A Rebel”. Top-40 radio loved these mini (2-2 1/2 minute) romance novels and they loved “Spanish Harlem”. It debuted on Billboard’s chart in December 1960, reached #10, and spent 16 weeks on the charts. By May 1961 his follow-up single was out, destined to reach the top five. Mr. Nelson co-wrote that song with Lieber and Stoller, but by that time the singer had long since adopted a new stage name, and the world fell in love with “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King.

A couple of weeks ago millions around the world watched as a young man from Britain married an attractive young American. While the pageantry, the town, the chapel, the honored guests, the flowers, the carriage ride, the fame, fortune, dresses, hats, suits and tuxedos all vouched for the exclusivity of Harry and Meghan’s day, nothing could surpass the moment. I’m speaking of course of the ‘opening act, the Most Reverend Michael Curry (Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church of the United States, if you must know), who spoke passionately about love. The magazine Bazaar headlined “Reverend Michael Curry Electrified the Royal Wedding With a Moving Sermon”. No question. His sermon was a hit.

But the home run of the day was the choice of “Stand By Me”, performed by Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir. It was nothing less than inspired. Watching pieces of the royal wedding on TV I couldn’t help but think that the happy couple with, perhaps, extra credit to Meghan Markle, could not have done better in their choice of music.

“When the night, has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see. No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand by me.”

As the music ended, I thought back to my youth, singing along with “Stand By Me” on the radio, clumsily playing it on my first guitar, and hearing the whispered encouragement of my Great Aunt Vi. A half-century later, music doesn’t get much better than “Stand By Me”.

NOTE: This column was also published in the June issue of The Lighthouse Peddler, our monthly newspaper on the Mendocino Coast.

 

David Steffen

 

Hail, Farewell   Leave a comment

January 1, 2018

    I’ve been writing for the Lighthouse Peddler for years now, yet each month I wonder what idea, event, or emotion will surface as the stimulus for an essay. Without fail my mind’s journey almost always touches on the arts in general, or some specific musician or filmmaker or event. Most months I’m as surprised as anyone by the topic that becomes central to my column. And then, like a gift from the mysterious muse, the keys of my MacBook begin to make noise and a few hours later I read what I’ve written.

     In January we may be pleased that the old year is over (this year’s old year in particular) and we’re ready to focus on the year ahead. However, whatever we thought of the year just ended, we invariably find ourselves looking in the rear view mirror. Satchel Paige became almost as famous for one of his quotes as for his baseball career. He cautioned, “Don’t look back: Something may be gaining on you.”

     Ignoring Paige’s advice, we’re once again publishing a list of 60 notable people who died in 2017 and are worth remembering. Our list could easily have been 200, and paring the names was no easy task. (The ’60′ are on page 4 of this issue.) What follows are thoughts on some of those who made our short list.

     Writer Frank Deford is gone. I loved Deford. He hit my radar when he created the short-lived National Sports Daily. After the Daily folded a year and a half later, Deford continued as a commentator for NPR, and became a prolific writer, including 18 books. About 15 years ago, a dear friend in Connecticut (where we all then lived) arranged for a meeting where she graciously introduced me to her friend Frank; I was like a teenager meeting his favorite rock star backstage. Composure regained, we talked a bit about his writing style, his books, and the state of sports in America. It’s a wonderful memory. Others from the literary world we lost in 2017 include William Peter Blatty, who introduced us to the fictional MacNeil family in The Exorcist. Daughter Regan became possessed by Satan and Blatty later, along with director William Friedkin, scared the living daylights out of us with the film.

   And then there was Jimmy Breslin, the poster-child for writers in New York’s newspaper world. In his obit, the New York Times said “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers.”

     Actor John Hurt left us, and I thought about his career and the wide range of characters he portrayed. He was supremely impactful in his central role as John Merrick, the Elephant Man; and he was also credible in the film Contact, in a semi-cameo role as the billionaire S. R. Hadden, the character who articulated the obvious (and painfully true) first rule in government spending: “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?”.    Mary Tyler Moore got her TV start as wife Laura Petrie Mary 7659660192_56085e863f_zon the Dick Van Dyke Show. However, she became everyone’s best friend, or the friend everyone wished they had, as Mary Richards, her character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Set in the Twin Cities, the show was so successful that today there’s a statue of Moore in downtown Minneapolis.    And we lost Sam Shepard, whose rugged good looks and believability on screen made him credible whether he was in front of the camera, behind the camera, or delivering a newly-authored play. Shepard’s brief on-screen appearance early in the film The Pelican Brief is a testimonial to his ability to imbue his character into the moment, and then stay with us through the balance of the film.

     Comedians we lost in 2017 include Bill Dana, whose alter-ego was the highly politically incorrect ‘astronaut’ Jose Jimenez. Pointing to his space helmet, Milton Berle once asked Dana (in character as Jimenez) “What is this called, a crash helmet?” Jimenez replied in his unusual accent, “Oh, I hope not”.

     We also lost the  World’s Foremost Authority, Professor Irwin Corey. To understand his authority, one really should look for a YouTube video clip. Shelley Berman died this year. He was often referred to as a bit of a tortured soul. He probably was but he was brilliant. We’ll not see his equal anytime soon. Don Rickles was the delightfully savage comedian whose mission was to regularly insult almost anyone and everyone. And yet unlike some who casually brandish insults today, almost no one was offended by Rickles.

      John Anderson was my congressman when we lived outside Chicago. Although a member of the GOP, Anderson was refreshing, interesting, and intelligent. He ran for president in 1980 first as a republican, and then as an independent. It was the latter candidacy that led me to support him. When we had a chance conversation at a campaign event in Los Angeles that year, it reaffirmed my belief that Anderson was a good choice. He received 6.6% of the popular vote, including mine.    And let’s say goodbye to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee who became an accidental mayor by virtue of the seat left open by the departing Gavin Newsome. No one really disliked Lee. And surprisingly (to me, anyway), in the City of San Francisco, he was the first Asian-American to hold that office.

     Musicians who’ve left us include the great singer Al Jarreau, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, southern icon Gregg Allman, jazz drummer Grady Tate, diva Roberta Peters, Jon Hendricks of the famed Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and Americana legend Rosalie Sorrels. Tate, for the record, was one of those unusual drummers who put his instrument aside, to become a vocalist. His baritone was a genuine gift to the genre. He even delivered on the theme song from M*A*S*H, “Suicide Is Painless”.  In addition Glen Campbell died after a long career that found him starting as a studio side-musician (guitarist for hire), before rising to stardom (including television) with the songs of John Hartford (“Gentle On My Mind”) and Jimmy Webb (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”). chuck-berry-duck-walking-7 CR (1)And the icon of Rock ’n’ Roll, Chuck Berry finally proved he was mortal in 2017, although his music will continue for decades and generations to come. My older brother bought a copy of “School Day” in 1957 and I’m sure it’s somewhere in my collection to this day. I saw Berry twice. First in 1972, when he was in Chicago for a concert date built on the success of a quirky #1 hit titled “My Ding-A-Ling”. The second time was a Connecticut casino show in the late 1990s. He was already showing his age but he could still take a moment to play his guitar while doing his patented ‘duckwalk. Don’t know what that is? YouTube it.

     I trust I’m not alone in suggesting that we’ll miss these people. We may not hold them all in the same regard, but I’ll guarantee that someone on this list was a favorite of yours too. To all of them I can only quote from Chuck Berry: “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

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