Archive for the ‘Music History’ Category

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
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Jazzed Up and Ready To Go   Leave a comment

July 1, 2018

     I began to learn a little bit about jazz in the late 1960s visiting often with my late friend, jazz DJ Ron Cuzner. He usually broadcast from midnight to 6:00am on WFMR-fm in Milwaukee. Ron clearly knew his stuff and those conversations compelled me to listen outside my comfort zone.

 

     I remember walking, in the summer of 1967, into a record store on Chicago’s near north side. I was on my way to a club called the Earl of Old Town where I was to hear a local folkie perform. Everyone had heard about the recent death of John Coltrane, and as I browsed through the bins I picked up (and bought) a vinyl copy of Coltrane’s legendary 1964 recording , A Love Supreme. It was a touchstone for me in my appreciation of jazz.  I was not yet fully aware of the impact of Coltrane’s death. That would come later.

Jazz Covers CR

 

     Meanwhile, A Love Supreme, recorded by Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet”—McCoy Tyner, piano, Jimmy Garrison, bass, Elvin Jones, drums, and Coltrane, saxophone—was the centerpiece of three vinyl albums I purchased in the late ’60s. In addition to ‘Supreme, I
bought  Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ album Swiss Movement featuring “Compared To What”, and the album  Feeling Blue by Phil Upchurch. Happily I still have all three vinyl LPs.

 

     I met Quincy Jones in 1972 while working for A&M Records. Q, as others referred to him, was in Chicago to promote a new album and I was taking him to various radio stations and press interviews. Quincy was genial, talkative and yet, one sensed he was in a hurry, on a mission, as if there was too much music in his head and he wanted to make certain it all got out of there. I stayed in the music business for 25 years, but from those early introductions to jazz, my affection for the genre never faded.

 

     In 1996 I was hired by Universal Music to turn around a failing jazz label named GRP Records. The label hadn’t always been a business basket case, but in 1996 it was. It took almost two years to turn a profit, but we did. A side benefit for me was meeting and working with the likes of legendary players, like Horace Silver, Dr. John, and George Benson. One of my most memorable moments happened while in The Netherlands for the North Sea Jazz Festival. Meeting for dinner at a restaurant in The Hague (my memory tells me it was called “Roberts”.) More important than “where” was “who”. Seven of us spent the evening socializing, but more importantly I found myself sandwiched between producer Tommy Lipuma (on my left) and Jazz great McCoy Tyner on my right. The dinner was memorable, but I have no memory of the food. I spent my time listening to the stories Tyner told, including some during his time with Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” (he left the group in 1965.) All in all it was a magical evening. In 1998 I left the jazz label, but not jazz.

 

     A few years ago I discovered a jazz station with its own iPhone app. The station goes by the name “TSF Jazz” (www.tsfjazz.com). It’s a French station in most ways: its programming comes from Paris and most of the on-air voices speak only French. But the music they play is steeped in classic American Jazz. So you’ll be listening to a set of 2 or 3 recordings, say Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, and the announcer will tell you “Que Wass Louis Armstrong avec ‘Saint James Infirmary'”. (Understand, my French is passable only in restaurants, so I offer this translation: “That was Louis Armstrong with ‘St. James Infirmary’”). I highly recommend the station and the app.

 

     Last month I had time to visit our daughter in Marina Bay (next door to Richmond in the East Bay). My second day there I realized I had been listening to KCSM radio in her home and car. She’s become a bit of a fan of this Bay-area jazz station. It’s a rarity these days to find a 24-hour jazz station but happily, San Francisco and surrounding communities seem to support this oasis for jazz lovers, and those simply wishing to escape anything else, even if only for  few hours here and there.

 

     Traveling further north into Mendocino County, the only station offering thoughtful, informed, and highly listenable jazz is KZYX. There are multiple programmers who each, happily, bring a personal (and informed) approach to the music they play. Most of the programs have alternating hosts, as on Sunday nights with Jim Heid, Fred Adler (yes, Gualala’s own), and Dave Barre sharing the two-hour time slot. Monday afternoon veteran writer and jazz lover Jerry Karp and talented musician Jon Solow alternate holding the 2:00pm time slot. Thursday morning Ron Hoffar and Toby Gleason do a similar balance of jazz ‘yin and yang’. Other programmers dabble in jazz, occasionally incorporating the genre into their music programs but the focused effort is found in those 6 hours.

 

     If radio and recordings are not your thing, you’ll be happy to learn that during the past 4-5 years, live jazz has found an increasing fan base in Mendocino County. My neighbor and friend Harrison Goldberg is an amazing musician, usually embracing his favored instrument, the alto sax. By seeing Harrison perform, I’ve also met musicians Chris Doering, Dave Jordan, Tim Mueller, Dorian May, Dorothea May, Charlie Vally, Gabe Yanez, and the fusion ensemble BAKU:  Harrison Goldberg, saxophones and percussion, Chris Doering, 7-string guitar and guitar synthesizer, Tim Mueller, 6-string guitar and guitar synthesizer, David French, upright bass and percussion, and Nancy Feehan, cajon and percussion.

 

     Mendocino has attracted all sorts of creative people. Perhaps there’s some faintly heard siren call luring them all here. Maybe it’s simply serendipity. Whatever the reason, a solid group of musicians and a group of fans have been drawn here. From the Russian River to Point Arena—and beyond, live music and ready listeners have embraced each other.

 

     Music can be heard regularly at the Timber Cove Inn, the Sea Ranch Lodge, Annapolis Winery, Mendoviné, 215 Main, St. Orres, and Arena Theater. It’s no accident that the annual Gualala Arts Whale & Jazz Festival keeps the talent coming as well, as they’ve helped develop a space for more than art and sculpture, but also for terrific music. And if you’re traveling even further north, there’s the Sequoia Room at North Coast Brewing’s Tap Room Restaurant in Fort Bragg. The Sequoia Room is a 60-seat venue, offered as a gift to music lovers from the founders of North Coast Brewing. Most weekends the Sequoia Room features some of the best players traveling the club circuit, and their website boasts a couple of hundred names, all of whom have performed there.

 

     Whether you want to travel a few miles or 60 to hear some great music, why not do it while you’re here? Look through this issue of the Lighthouse Peddler; you’ll find some of the players cited above performing this month, and what better place or time to hear live music than here and now.

 

David Steffen, Published in the July Lighthouse Peddler
©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

 

Desert Island Files   Leave a comment

March 1, 2018

Many of us have taken a vacation camping in a redwood forest or along one of California’s great coastal parks; perhaps you’ve been to a riverfront, lakefront, or oceanfront hotel or inn. Maybe there was an island vacation you never forgot or dreamed of exploring. Sitting in a remote location under the influence of amazing scenery can lead us to think about the ultimate getaway, or at least my idea of the ultimate getaway: a desert island. A vacation for a week or two is one thing. The idea of a permanent island getaway isn’t for everyone but the imagery is alluring to many. I recall sitting at a bar overlooking the Caribbean in 1975 thinking I could live here. I had the same feeling a few years later in Hawaii. Great idea. Then reality smacked me along side the head and I got back to thinking about earning a living.

Over the years the idea was refreshed when I started reading about people who had compiled their list of desert island discs. In the glory days of vinyl singles and LP records the idea of hauling a collection of 500, 2000 or more vinyl records of any size became IMG_0443obviously impractical. At one or two LP records per pound, we were charged with thinking about just the records we couldn’t live without. This was no abstract stream of consciousness. Even the idea of 100 albums or singles or both was a bit daunting when you had to think about the turntable, speakers, amplifier, needle and cartridge, cables, electricity, and the shipping weight. As I said, daunting. Nevertheless I thought about a list, my list, which brings me to a somewhat (I hope) interactive idea. From time to time I’ll be writing about tracks or complete albums or both that will be on my Desert Island Disc list (or perhaps Desert Island “digital file” list). I’ll keep adding to my list and, I encourage you to email a track, or an album, or both and I’ll publish them, as appropriate. Yes, you must tell me why, but be brief. And when I publish yours, I’ll only use your initials and town, as in “DS/Gualala”. So here goes.

• 1950s: Marty Robbins was born in Arizona but staked his claim in Nashville. One of his biggest hits was “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”, which spent 26 weeks on the charts, peaking at #2. Many of his songs were often stories, like “Big Iron” and “Ballad of the Alamo”. A third story/song was a 1959 single titled “El Paso”, about a cowboy—presumably white—who falls in love with a Mexican girl, Felina. He gets in a gunfight over Felina and, to get to the point, the gunfight ends badly. If it sounds corny, it is. And wonderfully so. El Paso spent 22 weeks on the charts and peaked at #1.

• 1960s: Ral Donner’s career was probably doomed from the start. He sounded way too much like Elvis and recorded for a small label (Gone Records). Donner did achieve a measure of success getting five singles to chart on Billboard’s Hot-100 chart. His biggest hit was “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” which peaked at #4. However, my favorite was 1961’s “She’s Everything”. The session was easily described as modest. Best guess is guitar, organ, bass, drums, and a couple of male background singers. The lyrics have the singer telling his first love that his current love is “everything I wanted you to be”, hence the title.

• 1970s: B.W. Stevenson had a total of four singles make the Hot-100. Two of them got my attention. “Shambala” and “My Maria” in 1973. The first single was covered by Three Dog Night and essentially killed the Stevenson version which peaked at #66. However, “My Maria”, release about two months later, rose all the way to #9, spending nine weeks on the charts. “My Maria” was catchy from the opening riff, and then nails it with a falsetto as he sings “Maria” during the bridge.

• 1980s: My 1980s pick is an unusual recording. It combines a hit act—The Pet Shop Boys—with a pop music legend, Dusty Springfield. Pet Shop Boys had launched their chart success with “West End Girls” in 1986. But it was the decision, two years later, to bring Springfield in to sing the bridge that I absolutely loved. The “boy’s” lament is sung by the band:

You always wanted a lover
I only wanted a job
I’ve always worked for a living
How am I gonna get through?
How am I gonna get through?
To which Springfield responds,
Since you went away
I’ve been hanging around
I’ve been wondering why I’m feeling down
You went away, it should make me feel better but I don’t know
How I’m gonna get through?
(What have I, what have I,
what have I done to deserve this?)
How I’m gonna get through?

It’s absolutely great 80s pop music, but these two artists working together create a fabulous (and memorable) track. “What Have I Done To Deserve This” peaked at #2 in 1987.

1990s: I can easily select “Good Riddance” (Time Of Your Life), a 1997 release by Green Day. Their success on the charts, on tour, and even on Broadway is well documented. But this one song—which was heard on the final episode of Seinfeld (and I believe it also found its way onto a final-season episode of Murphy Brown) is great pop-music songwriting, and a brilliant sad and yet hopeful boy-to-girl song. The lyrics are simple, poignant, emotional, and complete:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right,
I hope you had the time of your life.
So take the photographs, and still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right,
I hope you had the time of your life.

The song and recording are about moving on and it’s become a staple of proms across the country. Rolling Stone declared “Good Riddance” one of the “20 Best Graduation Songs of the Last 20 Years”.

So there you go. Five tracks that are on my Desert Island list. Give them a listen. One or more may end up on your list as well. After all, whether dreamily looking out over the Mendocino Coast, or on your own desert island, music is a part of our lives, and I highly recommend that any of these tracks be placed in your luggage.

David Steffen

©2018 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”.

The Farmers Market   Leave a comment

Fresh Food. Mmmmmmm.

October 1, 2017

     I don’t really recall my first visit to a farmers’ market. It was probably a local outdoor summer market when we lived in Wonder Lake, Illinois. (Yes, the town is actually called Wonder Lake, and there really is a lake.) In those days McHenry County was one of those postcard-esque pastoral places oozing with charm, farms, lakes, streams, and people (like us) who worked in Chicago but wanted to enjoy living in the country. Our home was an 800 square foot A-frame situated between the Lake and Nippersink Creek. We lived there for two years, and thought about whether we’d find something as charming in Los Angeles. (A&M Records was moving me to California to work out of the ‘home office’ in Hollywood. But that’s another story.)

In a way, we were hearing the distant voice of newspaperman Horace Greely who encouraged one and all to “Go west.” In part his thoughts were wrapped up in an idea of what to do with an abundance of veterans of the American Civil War, finding themselves all too often displaced. The publisher of the New York Tribune may have had another motivation for encouraging westward movement: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

With our own move west, we were ready to see what change would bring, but were nevertheless apprehensive. Once we began looking for a home, we learned that Greely was at least part right. Housing prices were high and headed higher still. The food wasn’t bad but there was plenty of dust in the Santa Clarita Valley, about an hour north of my office in Hollywood. As for the morals, most of my extended family who today live in the midwest would probably chime in that Hollywood’s morals are still deplorable.

Our home purchase budget was limited as we entered the red-hot southern California real estate market of the 1970s. It was not unusual to look at a $60-70,000 tract house on Actor-William-S.-Hart-as--007Saturday, think about it for a few days, and find out five days later that the price had gone up by $2000. So we jumped in. As lovely as it was, Wonder Lake had no real claim to fame. Our new hometown, Newhall, was probably best known as the home of the William S. Hart estate, now a park. Hart was an early silent film star, making many movies and making lots of money between 1915 and 1925.

While working in Hollywood, one of my good friends from Chicago was now also in Hollywood and also working for A&M. Jayne Neches (later Neches-Simon) and I were going to have lunch, and as to “where”, she had a suggestion to make.  We drove south from the A&M offices at Sunset and LaBrea to the general area of 3rd & Fairfax, the location of L.A.’s Farmers Market. Ignore Amish men and women selling produce in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, or any other example of an “original farmers market”. In Hollywood, history is created anew all of the time. And the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax was (and is still) touted as the “original”. When we got there, Jayne looked for a parking space on Fairfax and then opted to have the valet park her car. Yes. Although there was street parking in the area, Jayne found the one (?) lot that had valet parking. As Randy Newman sang, “I Love L. A.” Today that Farmers Market has somewhere close to 100 merchants, offering cell phones, stickers, and keys, and restaurants ranging from Moishe’s Restaurant to Mr. Marcel Pain Vin Et Fromage. It’s like the Galleria Mall from Sherman Oaks was picked up, moved, and re-branded as a farmers market.

Back on earth in Mendocino County, we have numerous farmers markets, and guess what? Almost every stand—produce, bread, coffee, meats, plants, jams, and more—is owned by a local person selling local food or local products. Go figure.

IMG_0313     Last week’s Saturday market was one of those fantastic coastal days. (By the way, we get a lot of those days here on the Mendocino coast, but don’t tell anyone.) The sun was shining, and all of the usual people had set up their tables. Donna had her jams, vegetables, and seaweed products; Allan was offering grapes, green apples, leafy goodies, and micro-greens while Astrid was selling tarts and waffles cooked fresh at the market. A young couple (sorry, didn’t get their names) were selling fresh bread, and I do mean fresh. The plant lady was there selling house and small garden plants perfect for our climate, which means they don’t require an excessive amount of water. Tom was selling his Little Green Bean coffee. A musician was playing his battery-powered electric keyboard, the handmade jewelry stand was open. Wing and Zoe of Westside Farm  had set up their tables (above, right), and Abby and Sammy from Oz Farm (left, below) were getting their IMG_0316goods ready. Both Westside and Oz displayed their beautiful food as if there was a competition to see who could make their produce for a photo shoot. On this Saturday, it was a tie.

The market officially opens at 9:30am, and we reluctantly recognize the official start time. That doesn’t hold back the ‘drool factor’  as the regular shoppers begin to gather near  the tables, all the while voicing varying levels of desire. “I want her heirloom tomatoes.” “I want those bell peppers.” “Did you see those raspberries?” “The apples look amazing.” At 9:15am the early shoppers—me included—hover like sharks waiting for the right moment to strike. Then all at once, at exactly 9:30am, there’s a mild frenzy, almost always good natured. Having spent my $40 budget for the week on large garlic, fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, green beans, rainbow chard, winesap apples, basil, and Russian kale (holy shit, I actually bought kale. My mother would be so proud and also probably dumbfounded). As always I get a cup of Tom’s coffee to go. By 10:30 the second wave of sleepier shoppers show up, but the early shoppers have already headed home. We got the good stuff.

The glitz of the stores at 3rd and Fairfax belie the reality of just what constitutes a farmers market. As corporate farms continue to pump out tons of red this, green that, and yellow somethin’ else, they’re often just selling ‘stuff’ that may look good as in, for example, tasteless rock-hard tomatoes from Florida. Here on the coast we continue to lament the last day of the farmers market around November 1, and start counting the days until our fresh local food returns in April or May. To Allan, and Astrid, and Donna, and Abby and Sammi, and Wing, and Zoe, Tom, and everyone else, thank you.

David Steffen

©2017 David Steffen

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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