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Back in the early 2000’s, I wrote for several different Central Jersey newspapers. It was never a style of writing that I loved exactly, but I learned I was pretty good at finding the formula and building what was needed. One of the best things about this kind of freelance work was discovering I could request interviews with all kinds of amazing, well-known people. Within a few days I could be in the midst of a great conversation with someone I admired all my life. I would sometimes suggest writing about shows I knew of and had a personal interest in covering, but just as often I’d pick up assignments. I felt blessed – and quite a bit nervous – when I was given the opportunity to interview B. B. King.
He was coming to The New Brunswick State Theatre, The Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, and The State Theater in Easton, PA in January 2004. We had a brief phone conversation and I captured the quotes I needed to construct a few paragraphs and let readers know he was coming to town. At the show in New Brunswick, what I remember most is how little I was able to say to him in person. I am not generally starstruck, but then again, here was a legend beyond legends. What could I really say? I remember talking to a few of his band members and being impressed by how crisply they were dressed and how they referred to him solely as Mr. King. When I got through the meet-and-greet line I shook his hand and let him know I was the one who spoke to him for the show preview. He smiled and said he’d been curious to meet me. I got a quick autograph, then realized I was without words. I slipped back into the room and just observed for a little while before leaving. I’ve come to remember this show in a way similar to how I recall seeing Ravi Shankar perform in Philadelphia. In each case it was incredibly moving and mostly beyond descriptive language to hear and witness an absolute master.
Here is some of what I wrote by way of announcing the shows in 2004:
On the cover of his latest studio CD, “Reflections,” B. B. King, with eyes closed, looks absorbed in sweet concentration, like a man offering a loving prayer, or an artist fully consumed by the music we will find therein. Yet, the 78-year-old guitar pioneer thinks of himself in simpler terms. “I’m kind of what you call a country boy. I was born and raised on the plantation,” he says of his origins in Itta Bena, Mississippi.
A simple country boy, perhaps, but with a difference: He can play the guitar like nobody’s business. He sings with deep conviction that retains that hint of hurt and grit that only authentic blues can deliver. The “King of the Blues” will rule the land Tuesday at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, and at Easton PA’s State Theater on Thursday.
“Everybody has, believe it or not, a soul, and everybody feels something… I play things that I feel and enjoy doing,” he reveals during a telephone interview before a concert in Quebec City.
Revered by rock favorites like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, his profound influence on the face of music across genres and decades continues. In 1948 he left farm work for Memphis, Tennessee, and he had his first hits, “Three O’Clock Blues” and “She’s Dynamite,” by 1951. His signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone” scored his first Grammy in 1970. King paired with Clapton on “Riding with the King” in 2000, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
King recalls the making of “Reflections,” his 32nd album. “I think we got some pretty good work on it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a perfect CD,” he says modestly.
I am even more astounded by his humility today than I was then. This quote is so startling:
“I always find faults in nearly everything I’ve done, but still people seem to give me compliments…and I accept that. I think the people’s judgment is much better than mine.”
I don’t believe it was false humility. I do hope he ultimately knew and truly experienced his own brilliance and the joyful sounds he brought the world.
Rest well, Mr. King.
(This piece was written by my “cousin-in-law,” Max Mania. In it, he mentions Dale, who is his wife/my cousin.)
…And they’re gone. With the death of original drummer Tommy, all four of the original members of the Ramones are gone. Even in death, the Ramones have done it their way, the pure way. I mean, think about it…A lot of bands have had some of their original members die (the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Beach Boys, AC/DC, Nirvana, etc.), but how many have had all of their original members die? Talk about four the hard way, y’know?
Needless to say, the Ramones meant a lot to me, and to countless other people around the world. Driven by the insistent rhythm instituted by Tommy, they embodied equal parts fun, insanity and an unequaled purity of vision. In the end, they embodied everything that makes rock and roll so compelling, boiling it down into two minute bursts of perfection that were as American and as addictive as potato chips. You can’t stop with just one.
As someone who loved the Ramones when they were still a functioning unit, it’s been fascinating to watch their stature and reputation grow in the two decades since they called it quits. When I saw them for the last time, on their last tour, they were headlining the Warfield in San Francisco, capacity around 2,000. Their final studio album, Adios Amigos, was, of course, tanking, and the talk of their impending retirement didn’t seem to be causing more than a tiny ripple in American popular culture.
The Ramones circa that last year, 1996, were remarkably similar to the Ramones of 1974, the year that Tommy, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee started the band. The Ramones often got knocked for this perceived “lack of ability to change or evolve.” I think the members of the band would have simply said they got it right the first time, so why mess with success?
And, in the end, their formula unquestionably was a success. The end of the band itself, and the beginning of their truly fatal bad luck, was, perversely, the beginning of their wider recognition and mainstream popular acknowledgement. Joey, not quite making it to his 50th birthday in 2001, also just missed the band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an honor bestowed upon them by their peers the very first year the band was eligible. By the time poor, tormented Dee Dee died the next year, you were starting to hear Ramones songs creep their way into commercials.
By 2004, when Johnny died, the Ramones tribute industry (for lack of a better term) was in full swing. The Ramones tribute album, We’re a Happy Family, featured a pretty stunning array of million-selling, superstar artists – U2, Metallica, Green Day, Eddie Vedder, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and most perfectly of all, KISS – performing covers of Ramones songs. At New York Yankees games, you would hear their fans chanting Hey Ho, Let’s Go! In Glasgow, locals tweaked it to Hey Ho, Glasgow! The band was a staple on charts and articles about The Greatest Bands Ever, The Greatest Songs Ever, The Greatest Fill-in-the-Blanks Ever. The adulation seemed to have no end.
Now, with both the regularity that you see the band evoked, hear their music everywhere (Dale has heard I Wanna Be Sedated at Safeway), and see the attention given to Ramones when they die, their transformation from outsiders to insiders is complete. The way they are respected and represented, you’d think they’d been actual Top 40 pop stars all along. In their article about Tommy’s death, here’s how People magazine sums the band up:
“The band influenced a generation of rockers, and their hit songs I Wanna Be Sedated and Blitzkrieg Bop, among others, earned them an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.”
Uh, needless to say, those songs were very much not hits when they were originally released as singles in the 1970s. But now, with some 20/20 hindsight and a pinch of revisionist history, hey, the Ramones were right all along. (Related digression: I was called away from writing this by Dale, who let me know that NPR was doing an extended piece about Tommy passing away.)
And so it is that, with a perfect piece of Ramones luck, Tommy lived just long enough to see the Ramones first album, the seminal Ramones, finally be certified as a Gold Album earlier this year – 38 years after it was released. Though the music of the Ramones was generally fast and furious, their acceptance into the mainstream of the American music business is closer to the old adage: Slow and steady wins the race. Thus, not only can you hear a Ramones song in a recent Cadillac commercial, but in that same commercial the Ramones themselves are invoked as a great, original American creation.
They were that, and so much more. In all of the thousand possible ways I can think of to describe the effect the band has had on me, and my life, I think the simplest is probably the most appropriate. No matter how many thousands and thousands of times I have heard their songs, I still find it impossible not to physically respond to them. So there I was a few minutes ago, listening to Blitzkrieg Bop on NPR, tears welling up in my eyes, my foot bouncing up and down in time to Tommy’s drumming.
As the band might have put it, the mental patients have taken over the asylum, and popular culture, for better and for worse, will never be the same again. I loved the Ramones for all of their lives, and I will love the Ramones for all of my life.
The Ramones are dead. Long live the Ramones.
It may sound a bit morbid, but at times I practice how to feel when people significant to me die. I don’t mean to do it in the sense that I set aside a time for mortality drills or something. It’s that every once in a while I realize how profoundly I idolize certain people. Somewhere in my mind I recognize that in the event such a person would pass away, I could really freak out. So I allow myself to think about it, if only for a moment. I let myself feel little bits of the emotion at a time. I’ll recognize the person’s huge contribution to my life, art, or world culture. I may even imagine something productive I might do when I hear the news.
I was on a short break from figure modeling yesterday when I saw the news on my cell phone about the sudden death of Bob Casale of Devo. I had prepared a little for such a moment. There were times when I’d find myself looking at a classic image of Devo, allowing my mind to wander through how I might feel when not all five of those guys are still with us. Then came the sad news about Alan Myers last June. It took me days before I could even speak of Alan’s passing. However, bad news is just that, and it hasn’t been a whole lot easier to wrap my brain around the loss of another member of my favorite band. Through all of the passive prep work, I never imagined having to sit for an hour and a half for a painting class before really reacting. The still contemplation time was probably exactly what was needed.
I’ve been to a lot of Devo shows and since 2004, I have had a number of great opportunities to hang backstage and elsewhere with them. Bob 2 was always cool, friendly, and even-tempered. While other band members may have been a little intense to be around, that was never the case with Bob. My favorite memory of him was the time he came to DEVOtional, the fan event held in Cleveland, in 2009. Aside from being a great musician who had his own unique way of holding together the band’s sound, he was also quite the chef. He actually prepared a menu, came to our event, and served lunch for a club full of DEVOtees. How awesome is that? At the time, I was annoyed that a miscommunication led to him not getting the word on saving aside some vegetarian fare for a few of us, so there wasn’t a lot for me to eat. But his taking time out to be with all of us was the main point. I had the pasta, and it was yummy. Last night, I cooked up some angel hair marinara and remembered a very kind guy.
2/25/14 Addendum: My friend and fellow fan Richard J. Anderson just posted a moving essay on Bob Casale @ Sanspoint.com. It is definitely worth reading.
I’ve known this for a very long time. I’ve even told a few people, but it didn’t really prompt me to take much action on it. To my credit, it’s hard to know where to start on a grieving project, which is what I feel like I have in front of me. So I suppose I put it on my Virgo to-do list, as if it is something I can tackle like organizing the basement (I’ve been notoriously slow on that, too).
Anyway, here’s the thing: I never really fully grieved when Warren Zevon died. Yes, I cried. Yes, I talked about it, and still do in comfortable contexts. I’ve written about it a little. But I also compartmentalized it – put it away in some corner of my brain where I could access it nominally and even feel sadness, without having to really walk through the fire. This has done a lot to block my movement through the other huge losses over the past decade. I believe it’s done damage to my ability and desire to write. I don’t know how deeply it’s worked to obscure my ability to be effective in life overall. I wonder what it’s done to my accessibility as an authentic, flesh and blood friend and lover and seeker of Spirit. I’ve got to write through tremendous grief build-up to get to the other side of Emotional Rehab Mountain.
It has been exactly 10 years today that I received the call from my dear friend Nancey:
Those were the only words she needed to say for me to understand immediately. I’m glad I heard it from her, one who really, really got the essence of this man & his music. Last night, she was the one to remind me of the anniversary. Earlier this year, I’d thought a lot about the looming date, but filed that away too, leaving it to wait in line with the process of grieving itself.
I had the amazing luck or karma or whatever to grow up to actually get to know this intense and brilliant man whom I idolized since I was 12. There is just as much rich life-stuff in knowing and understanding and learning from the letting go. It’s just not the easy part.
Back when I was allowing myself to remember the date, I gave some thought to what to do about this 10th anniversary. I tried to push myself to write some major article or even a book with stories of WZ as a major factor. One of the things he encouraged me to do is to journal daily. I’ve hardly lived up to that. The best way I can pay respects today is to start to remedy the reasons why. Ready or not, it’s finally happening.
I’m joking in the title. I doubt there is any real art to knowing how or when to show up to things unprepared. I generally am a fan of a good plan. Often when unpreparedness happens it pretty much sucks, but I try my best to pull things together. Once in a while, though, being unprepared leads to something profound.
For someone who was about ready to throw in the proverbial towel when it comes to music, I’ve wound up with quite a few good gigs this year. There is something to be said for not worrying too much. Ohio continues to have some kind of cosmic pull – I have connected with great, loving yoga and kirtan community there, which balances well with getting to perform with The Mutant Mountain Boys there for SubGenius and Devo happenings. I’ve been to Ohio twice this summer and wouldn’t be sad at all if I managed to schedule my way back once more this year.
I didn’t feel terribly prepared for any of my gigs this last time out. At Kundalini Yoga & Wellness in New Cumberland, PA, I played music for yoga, followed by a short kirtan with my old friend JD Stillwater. That is supposed to be freeform and intuitive, so a lack of set list is fine, if not ideal. JD and I worked well together. I appreciated the practice with spontaneity and listening.
I’ve been working with a lot of changes this summer – focusing on health, having internal consciousness and intention exploration stuff – and it has been leaving me in a state of busy-brain. So much was going on in my mind that the long drive to Cleveland didn’t seem to help me solidify the house concert set for that next night. I mean, I knew essentially which tunes I would do, but I didn’t feel particularly balanced and rehearsed when I arrived and had to quickly set up the sound system (while making friends with the host’s four awesome dogs). The show turned out just fine. The people and the energy were better than fine. I was even surer about this Cleveland-area vortex that has seemed to open up in my life. Still, I’d like to find a more easeful pattern when it comes to travel and gigging. It continues to be a work in progress.
The main reason for this last trip was to make my way out to A Not … TOTALLY Dev-o Tribute Night at The Summit in Columbus. I absolutely love playing with The Mutant Mountain Boys, and when we were asked to do this show, I started working on booking gigs right away to make the unexpected travel reasonable. Well, we made it there, and we played the gig. We weren’t terribly prepared. Samantha was jet-lagged after flying in from Tucson and was running on almost no sleep. I was pretty exhausted, too, so how could Jim exactly get on a wavelength with that? We all could have played better, so… we were just ok. We had an amazing, energetic show at 16X-Day. Perfectionist that I am, I am (almost) ok with not having been 100% for this one. We talked about it later and hope to plan future shows so we have at least 24 hours in the same place together to rest, regroup, and rehearse before we hit the stage. We all had a good time anyway, Lieutenant Dance was fabulous, there are some great pics posted, and the impetus for a late August Devo fan event with friends was started again.
At one point relatively early in the evening, Thomme Chiki, the organizer of the event, asked people if they had any stories or pivotal life moments to share about Devo. There were two disco ball piñatas in the house and I stepped up to tell the story of how I’d been in the audience during the New York portion of filming for the “Disco Dancer” video and how that was an exciting time for me. I’m not sure why I didn’t think at that time to tell more of the story:
It was at a club called The World. The band played a few tunes, then prepared to record for the video. They did several takes of “Disco Dancer” and the audience gave their enthusiasm. I didn’t quite “get” this particular song or why it was the single, but I was of course ecstatic to be present for anything Devo. Afterward, the crowd started to disperse and the club turned into a regular dance space. After a while, I was dancing and turned to see Mark Mothersbaugh who had come out of the dressing room/green room area and was crossing the dance floor. I went into instant groupie mode, beelined toward him and asked, “Mark, can I have your autograph?” He said yes. I looked blankly for a split second, then said “I don’t have any paper.” Duh. I asked him to please wait, and I told him I’d find some. So there is one of my major heroes standing on the side of the dance floor kind of aimlessly while I scurry around looking for paper. Bizarrely (though maybe not so strange for 1988), the first piece of paper I found was a tri-fold AIDS info pamphlet that had fallen to the floor. It said “AIDS, Sex, and You.” I handed it to Mark and he gave me the most bemused look. I apologized and told him it was just the first thing I could find. He wrote “No sex is safe and also good.” I didn’t think that was very sound information, but hey, I had just prompted Mark Mothersbaugh to write something about sex, which I found to be pretty awesome. He wrote an “xo” and signed his name. I thanked him. Then I got even more bold and asked him if he would like to dance. He said, “No, I have to get back to Jerry.” Then he paused, looked at me, and said “You’re very beautiful,” before he disappeared back through the door. I was pretty much in heaven.
At The Summit last Friday night, the MMB were getting ready to leave and something gave me the idea to seek another autograph. I picked up a black and white flyer for the event from one of the tables and thought it would be cool to have Thomme Chiki sign it, since he’d done so much to put the night together. I didn’t know him so well, but always thought of him as a cool and dedicated spud with encyclopedic knowledge of Devo and probably lots of other things. I asked him half seriously if he’d sign the flyer, and when he said yes, I thought that would be a really great souvenir. The next question was, “Do you have a pen?” I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think I did. I started to dig through my bag. The first thing I came up with was a tube of red lipstick. I said, “You could sign it in lipstick.” He made a funny kissy face, but then took the lipstick for real and went to the other side of the club where there was either a mirror or a mirrored section of the wall. I could see he was putting on the lipstick. When it started to take kind of a long time, I realized he was doing this quite seriously. I had assumed that if he did it at all, it would be taken as a big, goofy joke (interesting bit of gender stereotyping I did there).
I was stunned by the image I saw walking back toward me. It was a simple, sweet and graceful androgynous beauty. I was basically rendered momentarily speechless. He returned the lipstick and said quietly, “Thanks for sharing.” He kissed the flyer. I rather awkwardly vied for a lip print on the cheek. I had not at all been prepared for this aspect, this physical manifestation of the beautiful in-between to show up in that moment. I was engrossed – It was moving and exciting to be so taken off-guard. Reflecting on it now, I see a gorgeous, encouraging reminder that this place/non-place where I live and love and write is absolutely real – and here is another soul, perhaps gliding through a similar journey.
I suppose I would do well to try my best to be prepared for most things. Virgos prefer order, they say. But at least when it comes to autograph-seeking in Devo-related contexts, being a bit out of sync has so far worked quite well.
I am so happy that the good folks at Biff Bam Pop! invited me to write a piece on Canadian music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors.
“Biff Bam Pop! is a website devoted to the world of pop culture, from comic books and video games, to movies, books, and music.” I like it a lot.
Check out my article: “A South of the Border Salute to Stompin’ Tom“
then stick around the site to see what else they’ve got brewing.
I was a bit startled to realize on my birthday this past Monday, August 27th, that it was indeed the 10th anniversary of the release of my second solo CD, All Six Senses. I had what still feels like an idyllic, dreamlike time recording those songs out in Marin County, CA with producer Scott Mathews at his Tiki Town Studios. Over the past few days, I’ve spent some time listening to those tracks with my friend Amy, who played them, intermingled with other tunes, from her iPod in her car. It is sometimes annoying to listen to old recordings, but this time I really dug hearing some songs that have mostly fallen away from the set list (“Cling To You,” “I Skate Alone”) and others that have become standard fare (“Holy River,” “First Sight”). It is a very rewarding feeling to listen and feel that All Six Senses, for the most part, really does sound like the songs that I had in my head. It does a decent job of expressing snapshots of the spiritual growth spurt I was in when I wrote these songs (there is the one cover – a slow, jazzy take on “Cruel to be Kind”). I hope it might still manage to inspire anyone listening to examine their own lives and take their own journeys.
I remembered how much I enjoy these tunes and the recordings of them, and then I remembered another anniversary. It would take more than a short blog entry to tell the many stories and make even an attempt at the impact, but the super-short version is that I was (and still am) blessed in life to have met and gotten to know one of my greatest musical/lyrical/cultural heroes, Warren Zevon. Since meeting him at The Stone Pony (his show [opening for The Band!] was August 26, 1994 – his after-midnight autograph says August 27th – now this story is even stranger), we kept in touch. The day after my official, yet totally indie release of All Six Senses, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from WZ in a while. I happily tapped out a long e-mail asking him what was going on, telling him about my life, the new recording, everything. The response I got back was very brief:
He was ill.
“My lungs and liver are shot” he wrote.
I didn’t know, and couldn’t have comprehended on that day the seriousness of what he was saying. If it wasn’t that very day that he’d gotten the diagnosis of inoperable mesothelioma, it was within a day or so at the very most. I don’t have words for what I felt, or really know what I did the rest of that shocking day.
He asked me to send a copy along to him, so even in the midst of coping with finality he took the time to listen to All Six Senses. He said he enjoyed it, was glad I was continuing to work on the music, and advised me to “keep chanting.” I’ve definitely managed to do that.
I could say more – try to create some storyline about the impact of cosmic crossroads or the mystical fusion of wonderful-horrible anniversaries. I won’t. I will just try to sit with it all as it happened, and with my own uncomfortable twinge at having been moved to share this ball of entwined emotions with you tonight.