One death lost to this plague, any death, is one too many.
But it’s hitting musicians especially hard, stealing both lives and livelihoods with the hiatus on live concerts.
The list is too sad to recite here; it doesn’t stop with John Prine. Now another singular talent has gone. Frederick “Toots” Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals died Friday in Kingston, Jamaica, at 77.
While he arguably named the rock-steady Caribbean style he helped invent in the early 1960s with “Do the Reggay,” the singer also reached past his island style to Memphis soul. Raised by strict Seventh Day Adventist parents, he learned to harmonize in church and ever after packed a preacher’s moral force in a voice with the sonic kick of Otis Redding.
With fellow Maytals singers Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon and a deep-grooving band, Toots scored hit after hit in reggae’s early to mid-70s heyday: “Six and Seven Books.” “65-46 That’s My Number,” “Monkey Man,” “Pomp and Pride” and more. The trio was then reggae’s dominant format: the original Wailers, the Heptones, the Wailin’ Souls, Culture, Black Uhuru, the Mighty Diamonds, the Meditations, the Paragons, Justin Hines and the Dominos. Soon, white British musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Clash adopted Caribbean syncopation and liberation politics, spurring reggae’s popularity. However, like the earlier appropriation of rocking Chicago blues, they arguably seldom matched the joyful bounce of its beat or the fervor of its message as practiced by its founding Jamaican giants.
The loudest version of any Toots hit I ever heard was in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium where the Stones boomed Toots biggest hit, “Pressure Drop,” in its 1981 tour pre-show music. But Toots’ own performance at UAlbany’s MayFest the following June stands out as a commanding peak of exuberant mastery. The inimitable reggae DJ Sir Walford grabbed my arm before the show and tugged me aboard Toots’ tourbus for an interview that was really a reunion of old friends.
Nobody expressed or gave more joy onstage than Toots, despite challenges including a 1967 prison sentence for marijuana possession and cancelling a 2013 tour after being struck onstage by a thrown bottle.
Ellie and I played his “Sweet and Dandy” at our June 1977 wedding, a time when I seldom listened to anything but reggae for fun. Toots’ albums “Funky Kingston,” “In the Dark,” “Reggae Got Soul” and “Toots in Memphis” are still in heavy rotation, and I was just discovering his comeback album “Got to Be Tough.”
This one hits hard, like a pressure drop to the heart.
I heard it first. It woke me – a wavering high hiss with a low hum like a culmination or intensifying of the hiss.
Right on time, I thought, looking at the clock as I got up and headed to the bathroom. Hurricane Isaias was forecast to pass over Chincoteague and Assateague islands on Virginia’s eastern shore around 8 a.m. The power quit half an hour later, the hiss and the hum rose in waves of roar.
Between the balcony of our second floor rented apartment and the Assateague lighthouse a mile east, white chop scalloped three bands of water and combed two stretches of marsh; brilliant green in yesterday’s sunlight, they were vanishing under water racing right to left, south to north. A gull walked on the dock below; where we’d waved at crabbers the past two afternoons it was empty of people now. I saw the bird tense its body as gust-hiss rose, tuck its wings tighter and spread its feet to stay upright. Other gulls rode the fast-moving water; some seemed to fight it, but only by flying low on frantic wings could they move through the roar.
A brown rectangle ten or fifteen feet long zipped into view on the nearest race of water, an upside-down skiff, barnacled and bobbing, vanishing faster to the north than its motor could ever have pushed it.
Ellie told me the hum was from the metal legs of the balcony table Zak and I had inverted onto its top the night before when we brought the chairs inside and stacked them behind the sliding glass doors. When I held my camera against the glass to steady it for a shot, the tall panes throbbed with the wind, which clawed the screen loose from its frame.
The far channel nearest the lighthouse sprouted tall clouds of flying wet, like snow drifting in a blizzard. Then clouds rose over the nearest waters over waves scalloped in curves from bank to bank, as if the land were hanging onto the water, slowing it at the edges.
Waves slopped over the dock, three feet off the water at high tide, as dark brown weed-clumps drifted past, torn from the shallows. The chaotic sky lightened here and there, sometimes brightening to clear-day cloud white then switching off.
From across the table, Zak offered to scramble me some eggs. He elaborated, “I can scramble the eggs, but I can’t cook them for you.”
Lunch, and everything else, was improvised, cold; and I had to wait a day for my coffee.
We shared gratitude that Ellie’s niece Maggie had set her wedding for Friday, not that tempestuous hurricane Tuesday.
Then, more gratitude as the winds waned. They tore white, then blue, holes in the gray veil-wall of tumult overhead.
As we watched the sky clear, a hummingbird flew up from below, hovered in mid-air to and swiveled its head from me to Zak and back: was it drawn to the red in the Sundazed Records logo on my T-shirt?
The tide turned, rolling in a fast ebb north to south, left to right. Standing waves formed as remnants of surge fought the tide. A brave surfer could have ridden them, until the wind carried him to Maine. Two guys ventured onto the dock below and crossed to the edge, tugging crab traps out of the water, hand over hand on taut lines. A girl of about eight returned a little later, looked at the small sea turtle we pointed out to her and again tugged the crab trap up to study its residents.
I wondered about the crabs’ experience of all this; crammed into rectangular wire prisons as the water went wild around them. Like us, in the dark rented apartment above.
* * * * * *
The power was off all day; lunch was peanut butter and jelly, dinner a salad heaped with tuna. Downed trees lined the roads to Trish and Stacy’s house a mile and a half away; we found the power was back on there. As the world dried from battered grasses to wild skies where winds still ripped and rolled the clouds, the surfers in our crew impatiently checked the Assateague National Seashore website: Is the beach open? No, came the disappointing answer: downed electrical wires were sparking, arcing on the road. We got busy in Trish and Stacy’s yard, taking saws and long-handled clippers to a downed 30-foot cedar in Trish and Stacy’s yard. We swept pine cones and needles into fragrant heaps we toted to the woods. The cedar had considerately, fortunately fallen along Patty and Craig’s fence and pergola next door, touching neither. When Zak and Alex severed its multiple trunks, the root-ball sprang eagerly back into the ground, looking as if nothing had happened except its tree had vanished.
A shed near our apartment had collapsed in a heap of joists, cracked framing and bent walls, and tree limbs lined the roads and heaped on lawns.
Everybody learned at once when the electric lines downed on the beach road were cleared the next day. The usual parade began, compressed and intensified. Golf carts, SUV’s and motorcycles piloted by browned guys with surfboards in one hand, throttles in the other, jammed the road. Bicycles single-filed alongside, some competently ridden, but many barely in control of riders who hadn’t been on two wheels this century.
Beachgoers mostly distanced themselves, and many wore masks trudging past to where they set up tents, dropped and opened coolers and settled in for the day.
More Mennonites in long dresses and bonnets pilgrimaged in this beach parade than Black people, a reminder that Blacks were exiled from the islands in the 1950s to Horntown (formerly, openly, N*****rtown), a mainland enclave near the Wallops Island NASA base.
Up and down Chincoteague, Isaias had shredded and blown entirely away some trump signs from lawns: a message from aggrieved nature? Was she a Democrat?
Hey! Hurricane!- c’mon back and finish the job!
* * * * * *
We’ve beach-vacationed in Chincoteague since Zak, now 39, was two; thanks to the hospitality of Trish and Bill who’ve opened their homes to us even when they’re away.
We’ve attended weddings of their three children nearby, two on the island itself including Ellie’s niece Maggie earlier this month on the “beverage dock” in Little Oyster Bay behind Trish and Bill’s place.
This celebration for 30 was scaled down from a giant blow-out originally planned for 350: wedding ceremony in the Island cinema, reception in the community center where Maggie’s brother Max’s reception brought us all together two summers ago.
Ellie and Zak and I got tested for the plague before committing to the trip to Maggie’s fandango. We got virus-clean results, we packed the car.
We missed daughter Pisie and son in law Tony who joined us in Chincoteague by ZOOM, busy with full time jobs in Kentucky and preparations to move to Nashville.
At the wedding, we were masked, we were distant, we were relieved when the weather turned way nicer than the forecast. Food was from Maggie and husband Alex’s favorite Mexican food truck, bountiful as it was delicious; we took leftover guacamole, chips and relish home to Schenectady. There were touching toasts, and rope tricks by the father of the bride. Raised in Tucson and proudly cowboy-hatted, he found in recent genealogical research that his family originally landed nearby from England before moving west.
We’ve seen the island and town change over time: the fishing culture has waned, with growing boutique-izing and condo-conversion of the place – symbolized by the replacing of the town’s quaint drawbridge entry by a multi-lane high-speed causeway. Many of the tiny houses remain, though, that were barged across the channel to Chincoteague when the feds took Assateague Island for wildlife refuge and national seashore in a land grab many locals still curse.
These photos are from a week-long visit when I steered away from shooting views I’ve photographed many times, since the days of film.
I first heard of Chincoteague in the early 1970s from Schenectady friend Lee Bowden, a film-maker who grew up there but escaped into hippie-pacifism from its strictures and social hangovers. Drafted in ‘Nam time, he won conscientious objector status and did medical research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
On a steamy summer evening that his friends here still recall with awe, Lee shocked them by insisting they all leave, forthwith, for Chincoteague since its famous festival “Pony-Penning” was the next day.
They boarded what Lee delighted in describing as a “softly-sprung highway cruiser” and drove all night. On arrival, his mom made crab-cakes for everybody.
Everything is strange about Pony-Penning. Surf cowboys ride into marshy pastures on Assateague Island, round up its famed herd of wild ponies and herd them (swimming) across the channel to Chincoteague where the volunteer fire department auctions colts off to whomever. Before common sense vetting began, clueless buyers would shove ponies into station wagons and drive hundreds of miles back to wherever, blissfully ignorant of what a wild animal might need in a car or a suburb in New Jersey or Michigan.
A century ago, Chincoteague fisherfolk and merchants found secession inconvenient for business and therefore ignored it, continuing to ship oysters, clams and crabs on ice to Philadelphia and New York. Sidestepping the Civil War, they didn’t lack for strife, though. A “religious” cult, the “Sanctified Band,” took root there, outraging the more mainstream “christians” with polygamy and otherwise objectionable ways. A 1970s Playboy article praising Assateague as a nude beach brought an angry echo of this town-wide shit-fit. Back then, there was blood: gunfire complications. In fact, Lee, that same Chincoteaguer (“‘Teaguer” for short)-turned-Schenectadian lost his grandfather in the town’s religious war, shot dead while sleeping in an upstairs apartment – like Legs Diamond was, in a Dove Street Albany apartment William Kennedy owns as his in-town place.
I once went with Kennedy’s son Brendan, a work colleague on my last PR gig, to “see my parents” in Averill Park, a village above the Hudson’s east bank, after a video shoot. He shot, I directed. We found the elder Kennedy (past 90 and still a pistol of lucidity) in a funk, struggling to write a talk for 20 journalism students at the University at Albany where his MacArthur Fellowship spawned the New York State Writers Institute. Now, THAT’S a writer: somebody who can agonize over any assignment. Brendan and I cheered him up pretty easily, just by asking about the authors whose books filled floor to ceiling shelves in his study. I asked about Peter Matthiessen, an early Writers Institute speaker whom I phone interviewed before his visit and met at his reading. I pulled out Matthiessen’s novel “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” about colliding forces in a South American jungle: tribal, commercial, corrupt government and religious. It has about the best account of the psychedelic experience I’ve ever read, plus other virtues. Bill jumped quickly from the book to the film, a pretty OK adaption that includes a slow dolly shot toward the spectacular sight of Daryl Hanna nude on a riverbank, and a raffish portrayal by Tom Waits of a mercenary pilot. Waits also acted in Kennedy’s own “Ironweed” adaptation which is full of friends of mine. But I digress.
Once Lee was in Chincoteague when we also were. He showed us around and took us to the fishing harbor to meet his cousin Ernie who built his boat, the 40-foot Barbara B, in his backyard. The Barbara B replaces one that sank under him. He swam to a buoy and clung tight in a gale so strong that he – raised on the water and operator of sure sea legs – vomited nonstop for hours until rescued by the Coast Guard. One season, he did so well by selling sharks’ fins to Manhattan restaurants for soup that he bought his wife (the Barbara B) a Jaguar sedan on eBay. Lee is 6’3″ and not thin, but Ernie is 6’8″ and burly and hug-swung Lee around like a stuffed toy.
When I went back to the fishing harbor after the hurricane, I found the Barbara B winched out on shore, growing rust stains and for sale.
‘Teaguers speak a twangy drawl unlike any accent I’ve heard elsewhere, and a tweaked vocabulary. Folks who arrived after the War for States Rights (which, as noted, they ignored) are “Come-here people,” and the unit of weight for buying produce is pronounced something like “powhng.” Any water-craft is a scow and every lawn and driveway has one parked in it. Pickups outnumber all other wheeled conveyances on the island about five to one.
Chincoteague has one brew-pub but no other bars outside of restaurants, a gaudy plastic water-park, a reggae-themed food-court called Woody’s (I sent a T-shirt promoting the place to my old friend Judge Woody Smith [Ret.] in Albuquerque), two ice-cream shops. We still miss the late lamented Muller’s but still have the T-shirts; ‘Teaguers ruefully nod or hang their heads when they spot us wearing ‘em. There are three churches, a funeral home, two vegetable stands and some shops vending T-shirts and souvenirs (one’s sign read “SOUVINIERS”) to visitors.
Those who visit the sun-blasted grassy edges of the road to the beach on Assateague, bringing big beer coolers but no shade, and fish for crabs with chicken necks on strings are called “chicken-neckers.” Neckers never go to the beach.
Surfers, nudists willing to walk half-way to Maryland to doff their kits, picnickers, kite flyers, sand-diggers and molders, squinting readers, skin-bakers with insufficient sunscreen and parasailers all do.
In awarding management of the Cohoes Music Hall to Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse through an RFP process, the City seems to be punishing success while repeating missteps of the past.
We’re seeing the same bad movie, again.
Over the past several years, Holly Brown and her team operated the Hall so effectively that Times Union readers honored it as Best Small Live-Music Venue of the Capital Region in 2019.
As music reviewer for Schenectady’s Gazette Newspapers, I appreciate the Hall’s high quality programming including particularly impressive shows I saw there by Alejandro Escovedo, Rodney Crowell with Joe Robinson, John Medeski’s Mad Skillet and Terrance Simien and his Zydeco Experience. Many, many more first-class artists have played the Hall in a busy schedule with consistently high performance and production quality.
The Hall wasn’t broke: Why “fix” it?
Over time, the Hall has survived a roller-coaster ride of hopeful ambition, investment and achievement followed by depressing let-downs that eroded its momentum, energy and support.
After decades of dormancy and neglect, the Hall welcomed the Eighth Step for a time, presenting quality national and regional folk artists.
Then, the city evicted the Eighth Step in favor of a theater company, C&R Productions, which imploded and withdrew.
After another dormant period, regional promoters Greg Bell (of Guthrie Bell Productions) and Sal Prizio (then of the Massry Center at the College of St. Rose, now with Proctors Collaborative) promoted a variety of popular music events in the Hall.
But these competent, creditable promoters were soon ousted, like the Eighth Step, followed by another dormant period.
See; the same bad movie.
When the City hired Holly Brown, formerly at Albany’s Palace Theatre, a true renaissance began at the Hall.
A busy concert schedule brought in top talent, which brought in crowds and revenue, both for the venue and for neighborhood hospitality businesses through dinner-and-show promotions. Moreover, Brown and her team oversaw improvements to lighting and audio systems that enhance the audience experience.
The Hall was busy, on a roll.
Granted, I write my concerns without having reviewed the management proposals from which the city chose that of Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse. And this is not to denigrate that organization, which has for 30-plus years presented quality musical theater in Washington Park’s Lakehouse Theater and in the Hall, seemingly in effective cooperation with Brown’s management team, Similarly, impresario Mona Golub’s Second Wind Productions cooperated with Park Playhouse to present its varied musical offerings in Washington Park on nights when Park Playhouse was dark.
I question the City’s choice due to admiration for the presentation quality and quantity Brown and her team had built in the Hall.
I also doubt specifically that Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse has expertise in varied bookings and presentations equivalent to the skills she brought to the Hall.
The pending management change will likely narrow the artistic spectrum of performances in the Cohoes Music Hall, at the expense of the quality musical fare of the past several years, and fans of that fare.
The Cohoes Music Hall isn’t broken; I urge the City not to “fix” it.
The Legendary Characters Play Freedom Park Quarantune Streaming Series Tonight, July 25
From leading the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band Blues Band and Out of the Blues in the 80s and 90s, Rick Siciliano now plays what the drummer-singer cheerfully calls the “silver-haired circuit” with the Legendary Characters, a trio that entertains in nursing homes and rehab facilities.
An expended Legendary Characters crew plays the Freedom Park Quarantune Series tonight (July 25) from Scotia, though locations don’t mean much in these plague times when live music comes to us via streaming.
Siciliano hadn’t made music in public for a decade and had retired from his photography and video business, Digital Imaging Technologies; but he hesitated when a former bandmate invited him to play again.
Then he remembered his 96-year-old mother’s complaint about the entertainment in her nursing home. “Most of them stink,” he recalled her saying. He realized, “Old people, they know good stuff. They deserve good music and to have a good time.”
Delivering good times was the blueprint for the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, formed in 1982 as house band for parties of the ski club by that name. (Skiing comes back, keep reading.) Gregarious, a natural host and catalyst, Siciliano has long mixed fun with; well, everything. A leading commercial photographer, he answered the phone saying “Studio” as if there were no other; and his Albany Street workplace-residence hosted legendary Halloween parties and other gatherings.
His Out of Control Rhythm & Blues band became a leading cover band delivering R&B, soul and rock good times in bars and private parties. When he left that big band in 1994, he built another, the eight-piece Out of the Blues crew, a similar party juggernaut. By 2003, he disbanded it, tired of handling the band’s business including booking shows and being “band shrink.”
An avid outdoorsperson, he became a ski instructor then, a member since 2003 of the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
So was John Hall, leader, singer and main songwriter of Orleans. Hall started teaching in Catskills resorts between that pop-rock band’s hit-making days and a seat in Congress. One day during class, Orleans’ “You’re Still the One” played over the instruction-slope sound system. “That’s me,” said Hall. His class wouldn’t believe him until he sang along, as their jaws dropped. But I digress.
After Siciliano sold Digital Imaging Technologies in 2010, he became bus aide to special needs students in the Scotia-Glenville system. Then keyboardist John Dross, once Siciliano’s bandmate in Out of the Blues, asked him to play in a new small community band in libraries, nursing and rehab facilities. They sounded good to Siciliano who remembered his mom’s complaint and resolved to deliver something better than the solo acts dominating that “silver-haired circuit” where gigs might pay “15 bucks and a tuna sandwich.”
Originally a quartet of Dross playing guitar and keyboards, Siciliano singing and playing drums, keyboardist David Gerhan and accordionist Ralph Brooks, the band continued as a trio after Dross died of cancer. They’d been playing once or twice a month until “I got the fever and wanted to start playing more,” said Siciliano. He took over the bookings as the band updated its repertoire, dropping its swing-era tunes to concentrate on 50s and 60s rock, and became the Legendary Characters.
“When Elvis hit, I was 10 or 11, but the people we play for now, they’re older,” said Siciliano, now 70, sometimes the youngest person at a show. “They were out partying when Elvis came out.” He said, “We heard from the directors of these facilities that people like rock and roll, so we hop it up, we come in and get them going, we get them up and dancing.” Pointing out a spry woman who kept bringing her fellow residents to their feet at one gig, a staffer challenged Siciliano to guess her age. Late 70s, maybe 80, he guessed. The woman was 90 and a sparkplug.
“They’re old, not dead,” said Siciliano. “They appreciate good stuff” – the stuff he grew up on, the stuff his silver-haired listeners partied to, decades ago. “The people we play for, they all say to us, ‘This was part of our life, and we enjoy this.’”
The Legendary Characters play 1950s and 60s jukebox classics by Elvis and other 50s pioneers, also harmony classics by the Everly Brothers and other groups, plus vintage country fare including twangers by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ricky Nelson and Conway Twitty.
They also take their “Legendary” moniker seriously.
“We give people historical perspective,” said Siciliano. “We tell them the history, so before we play ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ we tell the history of why he wrote it and how he wrote it.” He said, “We talk about Buddy Holly dying when he was just 22, then we do a Buddy Holly song.” They reach through the songs to the stories, the legends. “We enjoy it, and they enjoy it,” said Siciliano. “It’s like being out at a club for us.”
Siciliano said return gigs allow the band to get to know the audience. “They look forward to us coming in, because we have more energy than just a solo act.”
The Legendary Characters were on target to play 100 shows this year, but cancellations began with a St. Patrick’s Day show as the pandemic shut down live music. Siciliano said he’s grateful that the facilities where they play are “staying with the guidelines to care for their people.” But he added, “We hope it opens up for outdoor things.”
Meanwhile, such virtual streaming performances as the Freedom Park Quarantune Series brought a new way to bring artists and audiences together. Like the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band and Out of the Blues, the Legendary Characters have played Freedom Park in the Scotia venue’s 43 years, explained Siciliano, a board member.
For the July 25 streaming show, the Legendary Characters added guest players and taped at Turf Tavern a few weeks ago. In addition to Siciliano, drums and vocals; Gerhan, keyboards; and Brooks, accordion; the expanded lineup includes Bob Maslyn, bass; Gary Herba, sax; and Ralph Spillenger, guitar. Maslyn and Herba played with Siciliano in previous bands while Spillenger, a longtime restaurateur (the Bijou, the Bayou Café, Jillian’s, NaNola and others) played with the Students.
The Legendary Characters recorded 14 songs in their hour-long taping (versus the 90 minutes typical of actual live shows). Their show streams tonight (Saturday, July 25) at 7 p.m. and will be available thereafter, at https://freedomparkscotia.com.
The first live music I’ve heard since early March was karaoke at a birthday party yesterday in Carolina’s yard. The barbecue smelled great, the talk sounded happy, but the best part for me was the singing.
It was all in Caribbean Espanol, it was pretty loud and it was very up and down. But, from the brash guy with the agile and on-the-money baritone to the shy woman with the pitchy alto who took a while to find herself in the song, everybody who was coaxed to the mic – or jokingly shoved away from it – sang with the same passion and total investment in the music.
That’s the thing I most value in performance, from seeing the greats in the venues we can’t go to now to a neighbor’s party.
That passion and pleasure in the singing made it great fun to hear voices in the air, voices full of personality, voices in the clear, voices in the happy here and now.
Big ups to brother Jim Hoke for his traditional jazz arrangement of Janis Ian’s “Better Times Will Come.”
Traditional jazz* was the first music Jim and I fell in love with, growing up in Guilderland. I remember that Pee Wee Hunt album he holds up in the video as a real ear-opener – first 33-1/3 rpm album we ever saw. There’s SO much to love here, from the overall feeling of sheer exuberance, with bouncy street parade momentum, to such details as the jaunty uplift in all the horn parts and the off-beats on the snare near the end. He arranged and played everything.
The video knocks me out, too, filmed at Jim’s Nashville place where I visited in January, before The Plague. Check the zoom-in on the neck of the D-18 our nephew Jared decorated with Jim’s name, on his gig making guitars at Martin in Nazareth, PA; and a jazz portrait of Louis Armstrong – betcha he’s grinning at THIS one! – with Jim’s face cleverly inserted by his wonderfully talented wife Lisa Haddad and her friend Eva Sochorova.
Hit this, and be delighted:
This music is ”Dixieland” everywhere but in New Orleans whose musical geniuses invented it; there, it’s “traditional jazz” – Hunt’s album title notwithstanding.
When friend and fellow Mountain Music Club member Dan from coastal Massachusetts recently sent a link to The Guardian newspaper’s Patti Smith profile, the powerful poet-singer came into sharper focus than that background awareness her 1970s work earned.It’s a good overview, in the U.K. paper’s ongoing series recommending entry points into recording artists’ work.
I came late to that party, but the admiration of others, particularly musician friends brought me back to her like the Guardian story. Link, below.
One musician fan, New Yorker City kid Tom Dimopoulos, led a highly theatrical 1980s punk band here called bx721, after its post office box. He told me about seeing her early on, in lower Manhattan. Coming up out of the subway into the light of daybreak on his way home, uplifted by her show, he felt inspired to believe more strongly in himself and his possibilities than he ever imagined. That feeling has powered his art ever since. bx721 was a hoot, fronted by Jack Nemier who wore an electric suit – conventional office garb glittering with hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights. Dimopoulos now lives in Saratoga Springs, works mainly as a scribe and shows up often at the same concerts I do.
Another musician/Patti Smith fan is Michael Eck, sometime music writer, former publicist and now marketing writer for the Oregon musical instrument crafters Two Old Hippies. He revered her and once got to play a show with her. More than the late great Greg Haymes, more than I, Eck was a tough crowd when writing about music for the Times Union. After seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in his “Achy-Breaky Heart Days,” Eck wrote, “I bet Billy Ray Cyrus voted for the fat Elvis stamp” – best lead I ever saw on a concert review. He said Patti’s close-up presence empowered him in much the way Tom D. describes.
Michael Stipe (ex-R.E.M.) is another fan. He turned up, surprising the audience, at her show last year in New York’s Webster Hall. Stipe told Ethan Kaplan of a Smith fan site that he discovered Smith at 15 when her “Horses” album hit him hard. The album, he said, “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order. I was like ‘Shit, yeah, oh my god!’ then I threw up.”
Now, that’s a fan.
As Rolling Stone reported in January, Stipe also has objected to trump using R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as his rallies and that he once told trump off for talking during Smith’s set at a late-90s benefit at Joe’s Pub in New York. Stipe told him to “shut up” and trump left instead. But I digress.
I’ve seen a handful of Smith shows, most notably at MASSMoCA in N. Adams, Mass., early in that venue’s history; and at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. MASSMoCA was really lucky, or discerning, setting the stage for Wilco’s Solid Sound and FreshGrass festivals. Their first-ever show was by Los Lobos. I wrote in the Gazette that, “Los Lobos played the first-ever concert at MASS MoCA on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, masterfully christening a performance space that shouldn’t work half as well as it does. They played in a (13-sided) courtyard surrounded by brick and glass walls that I expected to echo the music in all directions, a cacophonous blur.”
Smith’s show there a year later confirmed the place worked for music. Her setlist:
Beneath the Southern Cross
Boy Cried Wolf
Lo and Beholden
Don’t Say Nothing
Because the Night
Pissing in a River
Be My Baby
Glitter in Their Eyes
Pissing in a River
Be My Baby
As for Patti Smith at Jazz Fest, I love seeing stuff happen there that’s outside the New Orleans tradition or sound, and watching it work anyway; including Richard Thompson and, surprisingly, Tower of Power. Both debuted there in 2008, my first Jazz Fest; I saw Smith play there in 2013.
However, I missed a mid-70s Smith concert at Union College Memorial Chapel. Michael Patnode (class of 1977), reported in a college mag, “Another concert we booked was Patti Smith, whose appeal we thought was more confined to the New York City area. A large number of black-clad audience members appeared on campus, showing us there was a hunger in the area for a diverse range of programming.”
I like the moral force of Smith’s shows. I’ve always liked the band, too. Maybe the most New York ensemble this side of the Ramones, Willie Nile borrowed some of her guys for his first albums and tours. She has that thing I admire most. When she steps onstage, you know in your soul that she means it. And she somehow gives other artists (Stipe, Dimopoulos, Eck) permission to mean it, too.
In this, I see her as a sort of lesser Bob Dylan – professional poet, amateur rocker, masterly persona, towering inspiration – until they welded those parts together so tightly we can’t see the seams any more. Dylan may be better – or, was – at the creative component of myth-making, but she became his equal in self-promotion.
I haven’t kept up with her records since the earliest ones. When I get them in the mail, I put them on the listen-shelf for later and sometimes take years to retrieve and listen to them. Maybe she deserves more immediate attention, as Stephen, host of the Mountain Music Club, has suggested.
Though I’ve enjoyed her books “Just Kids” and “M Train” maybe more than her later albums, when I grabbed some recently she opened my ears again.
I started at the beginning and leaped forward with “Patti Smith Horses/Horses – Legacy Edition.” This two-CD set stands her original 1975 album alongside a 2005 live show of the whole album in London’s Royal Festival Hall – to thrilling effect.
The original has the home-made fervor that made punk so exhilarating, inspired amateurs blowing past rules of composition, arranging and performance they hadn’t taken time to learn yet.
The live versions, 30 years later, retain all that adrenaline, plus assurance. We hear obvious differences in craft. Her voice has thickened some but still soars and she whips it just as hard. The band plays better but respects the original arrangements.
Both versions of her first songs stand tall with undiminished conviction, a now-weathered but still defiant optimism. The originals rise from the lower Manhattan CBGBs funk-frantic fog on the effortless faith and impatience of youth. The later live ones carry something harder and smoother, polished by effort and endurance, stoic and earned over time.
If the deluxe two-CD decades-apart “Horses” testifies to her enduring relevance; so do “Trampin’” (2004) and “Twelve” (2007) – in effect another two-fer. “Trampin’” is originals, “Twelve” is covers; both made with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with her from the first; plus bassist Tony Shanahan. (Original bassist Ivan Kral [1975-78; “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and “Wave”] died in February. Guitarist Tom Verlaine [Television] and bassist Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] guest on the live “Horses” 2005 tracks. Guitarist Oliver Ray joined the Patti Smith Group on “Trampin’”. But we digress.)
Here, let me yield to Robert Christgau – greatest record reviewer in print.
Trampin’ “No, she hasn’t regained her sense of humor, but aren’t you fast losing yours? ‘I’m no Sufi but I’ll give it a whirl’ makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like ‘Trespasses’ or over-generalize like ‘Jubilee,’ the boho reminisce of ‘In My Blakean Year’ represents where she’s coming from, the sweet solemnity of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of ‘Radio Baghdad’ speaks poetry to power. It won’t prevail. But it’s a comfort. B+”
The stand out “Trampin’” songs for me have a lighter touch than the machine-shop rockers: the guitar chiming “Cartwheels,” the relaxed stroll of “Gandhi” and “Trespasses,” the cozy atmospherics of “Peaceable Kingdom.” “Radio Baghdad” gives both, a Cowboy Junkies intro to a punchy build echoing “The Other One,” down to a recited lament, then a re-rant, then back to Cowboy Junkies’ tree-lined Toronto. The title track maps a pilgrimage to hard-won peace.
Twelve “Three decades after Smith made the transition from poet to rock & roller, we still don’t think of her as a singer, exactly — more a reciter who can carry a tune, kind of. So a covers album showcasing her interpretive gifts is a questionable vehicle. And like most such albums — there are dozens by now — it’s somewhat hit-or-miss. But when Smith hits, it isn’t just a bull’s-eye — the arrow splits the apple and then brings down the bad guy hiding behind the tree. It takes a poet to extract the lyricism of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ from its guitaristics and an avant-gardist to validate a middlebrow tour de force like Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ And though other winners are more obvious, you’ll be convinced that this woman felt ‘Gimme Shelter’ very deeply — and many years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ too.”
OK, these are can’t-miss tunes, time-tested by a billion radio plays; but that doesn’t mean every cover will work. These do, for the same reason the 2005 live “Horses” tunes are good as the 1975 originals. She means it, in an act-her-age way. That’s more important and powerful than how she pans her voice left to right in the same cheap-trick-but-it-works way that Hendrix does in “Are You Experienced?” – great guitar noise, too – оr sings a mix of pinched pop staccato and poet’s flow in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” against Kaye’s Jerry Garcia-like curls and swirls. We might quibble with her mannered, too-on-the-nose Neil-isms on “Helpless,” but she can do Mick all day long on “Gimme Shelter” and even gets the soul bounce of “Pastime Paradise” – love Shanahan’s James Jamerson bass-isms there, too.
She knows just what to do with these songs she loves as much as those who made them, and those of us who wore out our vinyl originals.
We’ve talked mostly about the sound of her music, but what about the sense of it, the message and meaning?
Four words: “Power to the people!”
Patti Smith is still a punk, a poet, a provocateur. She still feels like coming into the sunlight from the subway – or up from troubles, from confusion, from doubt.
I hope all dads in this circle enjoyed as fine a Father’s Day as my family gave me.
It went like this
1. A sweat-hog Nordic Trak session. Heat reduced my time aboard but increased perspiration and heightened a sense of righteous virtue. Even with a full-cold shower, I think I continued sweating throughout and thereafter.
2, A mystery venture began with “Pops, slip on your flip-flops and get in the car” and took us to Jumpin’ Jacks. Non-locals: It’s a revered fast-food mecca on the Mohawk River where orders reach the grill crew in jargon/shorthand: “Whale fry!” = clam roll; “Indian” (this may have to change) = onion rings. When a customer drops a tip at the register, the cashier hollers “Subway!” and the whole staff yells back “THANK YOU!” But I digress, because we were headed to the adjacent ice-cream parlor – first such outing and first ice cream since The Plague hit.
3. My siblings – sister Annie in Bethlehem, PA and brother Jim in Nashville – sent warm-fun texts and photos, greetings of the day.
4. Dinner was maybe my favorite recipe: roasted potatoes with feta, tomatoes and olives, from the “Turkish Cooking” book; and green salad picked from the Newville farmstead garden. Damn good! Dessert was strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. Ellie expertly cooked all the above.
5. Then Zak and Ellie – hosts/facilitators for the whole fine day – staged what they called an “after-party” on the front porch: Romeo y Julieta Corona cigars for Zak and me, Talisker single-malt scotch for us and (gentler) Balvenie for Ellie, and – best of all! – a Zoom chat with Pisie and husband Tony “Apple-Jacks” Oswald (no relation) who are hyperactive in Kentucky electoral politics and activism. They’re producing videos of street demonstrations and in support of Charles Booker for moscow-mitch’s Senate seat. Bless ’em; so damn proud. We discussed current events and the issues of the day, particularly racism.
6. Then Ellie, Zak and I continued talking about race – we’re having the BEST conversations these days!
When I first picked up this new megaphone to yell about music, I promised – teased, really – some particular episodes and anecdotes. I teased, “What veteran soul singer answered my impulse-driven phone call having just signed his first record deal in years?“
It was one of those “where are they now” musings, of the wistful sort that seldom leads anywhere. And it happened on a slow day in the teletype office – the “wire room” – at the old Gazette building on State Street in downtown Schenectady.
This was actually the second wire room for me, a windowless room on the back of the building, noisy with machine clacking, where the news from outside first came into the newspaper. My job was simple. For 13 hours a day, three days a week, I cut apart the stories printed on long rolls of thin paper and delivered them to editors in the newsroom who edited them. I rolled type-setting tape corresponding to those stories and placed them on a pegboard, waiting for delivery to the composing room for typesetting. The 17 machines around me ran smoothly in good weather, less so when the air grew humid.
The first wire room was on the third floor at the front of the building, a floor above the newsroom, so I dropped news stories down a chute to land behind its horse-shoe shaped desk. It was a pleasant enough space, apart from the clatter, with wall-to-wall windows offering a view of Baum’s Newsroom (Harry Leva, proprietor) across the street. There, bookies awaited the racetrack results to see which bets they’d have to pay*. Next door, radiating class, was the Imperial, a fancy women’s fashion mecca. Both are gone now, the Imperial converted into a restaurant called Mexican Radio, Baum’s leveled for its patio. Passenger and freight trains rattled on elevated tracks over State Street to the left, just past the Press Box – an adjunct staff office, with booze. Reporters and editors went out the Gazette door after their shifts – after the paper was put to bed – and into the Press Box just steps away. One woman, a comprehensively Gazette person, worked in the Gazette composing room, then at the Press Box and dated several editors in succession.
To the right from the Gazette and the Press Box, State Street passes with straight-line efficiency through a block of retail and restaurant energy; then, between two churches, it curves up hill past the Plaza, an ornate cinema still showing first run fare when we moved to town. It still housed goldfish in its lobby fountain, but stood defunct that day in 1978 when I picked up the wire room phone.
One summer night around then, State Street was filled with yelling, marching men. An early wave of layoffs hit GE, among the first salvos of cost-cutting that “Neutron Jack” Welch aimed at the workforce. Like a neutron bomb, he “killed” people with layoffs, leaving buildings intact. Our longtime car mechanic Belechew Emaelaf then worked at GE; he escaped being laid off since his supervisors considered him so essential they hid him for nearly two years.
Thousands of hourly union workers paraded down State past the Gazette that noisy night, having fun, not angry yet. Protesting but mostly playing, they laughed and joked around, like very big little boys headed into a bowling alley or baseball stadium. If they’d known how doomed they were, they might not have hunched in mock-clandestine crouches to peel off from the demonstration-march and pour into the Press Box.
Above that straight block where I saw that oblivious throng sat Veteran’s Park where, in the ‘Nam years, demonstrators stood stoic behind signs. Drivers honked in support or spat in derision. Steep enough to sled down, the park widens around a fountain. One surprising night, when I was too briefly home on leave from the Navy, years before, I waded there with the first woman I ever loved, both of us blissfully drunk.
That first wire room, speaking of love or the search for it, was on the same floor as Classified Advertising, a room of phone-bound young women. Some career types worked the day shift, others came in after high school. One afternoon, one of those high school girls, from a longtime Gazette family, brought in a thermos of whiskey sours to share. I had to pass Classified, then through the Sports Department – quiet by day when its editor took the longest lunches in journalism history, bustling and full of cigarette smoke by night – to get to the wire room. Those newspaper people were my social life until I met the dozens of working class hippies at Stereo Sound on Jay Street a block east.
State Street in the late 1970s was busy; there was lots to watch; so I did, between reading science fiction books borrowed from the library a ten minute walk away. To see directly below to the sidewalk, I had to perch on the desk. I was on all fours once when a touring school group – a handful of high school kids and two nuns – came in behind me, so silent under the complex treble roar of 17 teletype machines that I never heard them and was startled to turn around and find them silently gawking at my ass.
No such fun in the second wire room; no spectacle of State Street flowing cars and walkers in fluid parades, no demonstrations, no whiskey sours, no chance to watch the loitering eccentrics of the sort Schenectady indulged then.
That second wire room was all brick echo and isolation. So, I was bored one uneventful day; when the machines were all running in cooperative smoothness and I didn’t have to phone the Associated Press and United Press International offices in Albany to request repeats or repairs.
I wondered: “Where is Wilson Pickett now?”
Once a big deal, he’d charted radio hits since 1963, my junior year at Bishop Gibbons High School. But his best years were behind him, that day I wondered about him in the wire room. From 1965 through 1968, “In the Midnight Hour,” “634- 5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.),” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “I’m In Love,” “Stagger Lee,” both “Hey Jude” and “Hey Joe” climbed both Hot 100 and R&B charts.
Born in Alabama, raised in Detroit, and first heard in Gospel groups, he made most of his music in Memphis. Southern soul-style, Pickett’s records layered wild Gospel-y shouts on funk grooves that hit hardest on the two-beat after Jerry Wexler suggested this rhythmic shift. Pickett sang raw, the studio band – Booker T’s MGs, without Booker T – cooked hot. As MGs guitarist Steve Cropper recalled for Kevin Phinney’s liner notes for a Pickett compilation album, “Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”
Hits put Pickett on the radio and on the road. He played here as the Union College Concert Committee, linked to the school’s radio station WRUC, brought top pop, rock and jazz groups to campus. The girl-group Shangri-Las and British Invaders Eric Burdon and the Animals once played here on the same show; jazz genius Louis Armstrong played on campus the next night. Shows on campus were for students only then, so I only heard about them years, decades, later. As I reported in the October 22, 2018 Gazette, when Little Richard played on campus, WRUC DJ Jeff Hedquist recalled their in-studio interview was wild as the stage show. Also in Union’s 60s hit-parade, as Hedquist and his Concert Committee colleague Bob Saltzman told me: the Kingston Trio; the Beach Boys; the Buckinghams; the Blues Project (featuring Schenectady guitarist Steve Katz); Otis Redding (seven months to the day before his fatal plane crash); B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix in an all-star revue. Saltzman said they paired Wilson Pickett with comic Flip Wilson as “Wilson Weekend,” April 27, 1968, in the Memorial Fieldhouse, which then had a dirt floor. Pickett’s single “She’s Lookin’ Good” was no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that week.
Pickett made a big noise, then left a big hole.
Where was he now? Why no hits in more than a decade? Was he alive? Had he lost that exuberant claxon of a voice?
In 1978, years before Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, years before the internet, finding out such things took more work than now.
I think I reached out to somebody with more show-biz industry savvy than I and found “The Billboard Guide” was the go-to source for information on music stars. A fat compendium, published annually, it listed performers by their agents and managers.
So, I phoned Billboard, in Manhattan, and asked. I doubt I knew enough to request contact information on Wilson Pickett as a free sample, pending possible purchase; but I did manage to persuade a kind young guy on the other end of the phone at the magazine to tell me Wilson Pickett was represented by one Jimmy Evans, in mid-town. I don’t recall the street or the number, but I do remember I dialed it right away.
A laid-back sort of guy answered, a southern black man from his drawly, molassess speech cadence. I asked for Jimmy Evans, the guy on the phone acknowledged he was the man, Wilson Pickett’s manager; and he told me he was with Wilson Pickett at that very moment.
Evans reported that they had just walked into the office, five minutes before, and that they were happily toasting, with a good champagne, their elation at having just signed a new record deal. This was Pickett’s first chance to record in about two years, with Big Tree, an Atlantic Records affiliate. “Hold on,” said Evans amiably. Then, way too soon for me to collect myself and in any sense get ready, that astounding voice boomed through the telephone: “Hel-LO!”
I was so astonished by THAT Voice – the voice that launched 1,000 dances, that energized many a “Midnight Hour” – that I stood right up. I stayed on my feet throughout the conversation, and I addressed him as Mr. Pickett, which still seems only proper. He was in the best possible mood and talked at length about his career and his life. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember very clearly a strong feeling of awe. When I told him where I was, he told me he used to come up there, to hunt and fish.
He told me about his new album and claimed – convincingly – that his voice was just fine and all there. He’d recorded it in Alabama, with cats who’d rocked his earlier records, and he felt comfortable making it and proud of the result.
Later that year, Pickett’s A Funky Situation album came out, exploded out, really. It erupted with the best-ever version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’” – as good as his Beatles cover, “Hey Jude.” “Lay Me Like You Hate Me” packed a similar R&B punch. In my “Electric Music” Gazette column in February 1979, I wrote “’A Funky Situation’ finds Pickett growling, howling and crooning with his old irresistible gusto – backed by super-funky instrumentals.”
When he sang those songs, he sounded as he had on the phone with me, confident, strong, having fun with it – just as he looked in the album photos. On the front, he’s in full force-of-nature sing-down-the-house glee; on the back, he’s more contained, gloating a little, maybe. “I’m back, deal with it – or, not.” In addition to the foghorn strength of his voice, Pickett always sounded happy to be singing, and that feeling came through the music.
The rest of the “A Funky Situation” album was OK, but it was clearly designed to hitchhike on the disco wave. It didn’t sell much; I think there was a follow up album that I never got my hands on.
Next thing I heard, he was getting busted for a drunkenly destructive drive across the lawn of some small-town Jersey mayor. In another mishap behind the wheel, a man died. I heard there were problems with drugs and drink.
Best thing I heard about his later years: in 1991, he was – quite properly, belatedly – inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. For some, that’s a green light to renewed career momentum, a fame transfusion that energizes them, often as some younger star takes up the cause of an elder hero and sponsors a new album. Bruce Hornsby brought back Leon Russell, who expressed gratitude for being rescued from “the rest area.” Tom Petty produced Del Shannon’s last album, his first in eight years; while Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen recharged Darlene Love’s battery before David Letterman and Paul Shaffer made her combustible “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” an over the top holiday tradition.
But that comeback train didn’t stop for Wilson Pickett, Mr. Over-the-Top, himself. He died in 2006 at just 64, before he could complete a Gospel album he’d worked on for years in a return to his church-shout roots.
Little Richard preached at the funeral. In an interview around the same time, Little Richard told me he was proud that Pickett dubbed him the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” a title he cherished.
Now, Little Richard is gone, too – two matchless voices wielded by thrilling wild men giving us intoxicating musical fun. Thinking about them and mourning them both – Little Richard recently and Wilson Pickett more than a decade ago – I realized they both sang happy; Pickett with a raucous but engaging growl, Little Richard in an anarchic spirit, spiced with danger.
How grateful I felt that I got to see them sing, and to hear those voices over the phone.
We’ll take up some other teases later:
What hard-rock singer asked about the size of my unit?
What pre-show bet with my wife Ellie turned into a backstage mini-concert for her alone?
*Race results from the “New York track” – the horse-racing facilities operated by the New York Racing Association, Saratoga, Belmont, Hialeah – produced the “number” – a three-digit calculation that multitudes bet daily before the NYS Lottery began. Betting the right number paid 600 to one, though the odds were 1,000 to one. It worked this way: dropping all the zeroes, adding the digits of the win, place and show results of last three races in order yielded a three digit result. Payoffs for the 7thrace produced the first digit; the sum of 8thrace results yielded the second digit; the 9thrace calculation provided the third and last digit. Gambling lore legend has it that the wire-room staffer would drop the race results out the window to gamblers below who’d dash across to Baum’s and place a bet they knew had won. I never saw this happen, but loved the idea.
Ben Lomio’s Broadway News, half a block from Baum’s and the Gazette, was numbers-betting headquarters. Daily cash pickups required a two-car convoy an hour after the last race. The money car came first, carrying the collectors; then came the gun car, carrying protection. When I told my dangerously witty friend Henry Hunter about this, he immediately hatched a robbery plan. Henry had one arm, and his plan involved wearing two artificial arms. He figured the gun guys would first canvass the area for three-armed stick-up specialists. This wouldn’t take long, but bracing all the two-armed robbers would, before going after the one-armed miscreants. Relating this over lunch to the late, great cartoonist John Caldwell, I concluded my account of Henry’s plan this way: “The key to the caper was his ingenious disguise.” Caldwell lost it, laughing. He sprayed a mouthful of diet Coke across the table and all over Ellie, next to me in the diner booth. To this day, when somebody laugh-sprays a mouthful over their table-mates, THAT’s a “Caldwell.”