Monday, January 9, 2017

20 years ago

Twenty years ago yesterday I packed up my car and headed to Nashville, TN with $800 in my pocket to try and break into a new level of the music business and find something meaningful.  It was the night of Elvis’s birthday when I arrived and I had already secured a place to live after meeting and getting to know a musician from my numerous business trips to Nashville the prior year.
We lived in a dump on 29th Avenue North. Actually, to call it a dump was an insult to the city dumps we know, but you get the idea and my roommate made our affordable place a home through his fine taste in d├ęcor including the decoupage toilet that I’ll never forget.  Upon my arrival he took me to one of the hot spots for songwriters where we had a few drinks before we went home to enjoy his Italian meatloaf.
I moved to Nashville after making trips there every month during 1996 as I met with industry leaders and up and comers. Nearly everyone told me it would take years to break into the industry so I armed myself with a “who’s who decision makers” directory and started making phone calls and writing letters.
After about two months of little success I landed a job with the top film production company that produced music videos for the stars. Though the job was only 4 days I made enough money to last another month and a half and kept writing letters. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, which was a stark contrast to dealing with industry people in New York and LA. . I knew I was getting closer to something when Garth Brook’s manager called me. It wasn’t to offer me a job but to compliment me for the letters I was writing. After receiving their form letter of rejection I wrote back to tell them I “wasn’t accepting rejection letters at this time.” I was lauded for my approach and told something would give for me soon.

I finally got a job as a bonafied record promoter, promoting music of the stars to country radio stations.  This brought me closer into the fold of record executives and recording artists. In Nashville it wasn’t uncommon to see the stars of the day and label executives at the diner or anyplace on Music Row. One time I was at a songwriter’s night at an intimate room sitting next to Tom Wopat, who along with his TV cousin John Schneider was an accomplished songwriter. We sipped longnecks and kibitzed about life between the performances until finally one of the songwriters spotted him and started making jokes at his expense about the Dukes of Hazzard.

Tom didn’t say anything and being several beers into the night I got a little miffed because I thought the writers were disrespecting him. He didn’t say a word and I could not decipher if the head shaking and grin on his face was him trying to shake it off or something else. Suddenly I envisioned that Dukes of Hazzard episode when the Duke Boys got into a barroom brawl. You know, the one where Boss Hog was up to something shady? Ok . . . I know . . . it happened in every episode.  I honestly thought for a minute that he would need my help because he was outnumbered three songwriters to one, so I leaned over to him and said something like “If this turns ugly I’ll take the one on the right and you take the one on the left.” I was ready for an old fashioned Duke Boy rumble.

But at that moment one of the songwriters said “We’ve got a special guest who’s going to join us and you know who he is because we’ve been making fun at his expense all night. Ladies and gentleman please welcome our good friend Tom Wopat!  He took the stage and I breathed a sigh of relief..

I had many laughs in Nashville and many experiences with famous country singers but in the end when I lost my job as a record promoter I didn’t know it at the time but it was the best thing that could have happened to me because in truth, with the exception of very few artists I was promoting records for (Vince Gill, newcomer Leann Rimes and a couple others) the rest of them were a term a friend of mine had coined earlier; NTB. . .which stood for “no talent bum.” I almost got a job at MCA Records and working for a publishing company but they didn’t pan out. I wonder now what course my life would have taken if I had remained there but when I returned to Michigan I partnered with my friend, who has gone on to have an incredible career as a writer, performer, and cancer activist. Even Bruce Springsteen became a fan and recorded with him a few years back.
But without a doubt the greatest thing that happened to me in Nashville was working with my friend Eddie Mugavero. Folks, I kid you not, Eddie is one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. Known largely for his success with western swing, his ability to craft songs is on par with George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart and another band from Liverpool who had a few hits. I’ve always wanted to write a musical with his tunes. It would be a modern day Grease and South Pacific rolled into one
While the other black hat tippin’, belt buckle wearin’ George Straight wannabes were writing more songs that rhymed the words “love” and “thinking of,” Eddie was and still is running circles around them with clever lyrics and melodies that demonstrate his mastering of the craft along with a unique musical acumen rarely found.  Hell, I think he once wrote a song where he rhymed the word “orange” with something. He takes the best part of a bygone era and crafts songs with a 21st century flair that is beautiful, funny, catchy flowing and eloquent. 

We’ve remained in tough through email and facebook and it’s hard to believe 20 years have passed. Eddie is an amazing dude and a pretty good table hockey player. We once had a tournament that lasted seven games and went into double overtime until he finally beat me with seconds remaining. He’s also a Yankee fan, but I don’t hold that against him. If you love music you should follow him on facebook and at very least check out his web page.

Anyway, that was my “20 years ago today” time capsule. Thanks for listening. Friendship is an amazing thing. Swing ya later Mugavero!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Harvest Home

 The room did not smell like a traditional Thanksgiving morning when we arrived. Even after we started bringing in freshly prepared, aromatic food it was depressing. Instead of pumpkin pie, turkey stuffing and green bean casserole, the house smelled like poverty and hopelessness.

But somehow this family of five was all smiles as we began the small talk and introducing ourselves We identified every dish we set on the card table that was to be their meal for the day. Their kitchen had no table or chairs and what substituted for an eating station was some sort of three by three foot platform that stood only a foot off the ground.

Styrofoam KFC containers and plastic cups from Dickies BBQ sat on the end table where the husband appeared to have taken up permanent residence because of his many ailments. We instantly knew the family either had limited access to bathing or had just become so accustomed to doing without that their appearance took a second to getting food and paying their rent and utilities.

We had to leave briefly to find an open store so we could get plastic utensils, plates and napkins for them to eat their food. When we returned, the small talk continued as I learned their story, but not before I noticed they had already opened the envelope we intended to leave with them that contained a Visa gift card along with a few bags of other food, personal care items, toiletries and things none of us probably ever run out of at home.

The little girl was talking enthusiastically about how her mom said they could use the gift card to get her some new clothes; not a toy, not a trip to the movies, not a Netflix upgrade…but new clothes.
The fifty-something diabetic husband also had COPD and required a breathing machine and hadn’t worked since his stroke eleven years ago. He flat lined on the operating table and said he was beckoned back by his unborn daughter to return to earth. She was born a few days later.

One of the boys had a graduation sweatshirt on from 2013 and his brother appeared to be close in age though I didn’t know the extent of their education or if they even graduated. My first impression was that they had not but it wasn’t because they were not old enough.

Whatever the case it was it was clear that they were not in college and there was a good change they were not interested in it. The truth is they probably had no time for it and my guess is they worked some menial job to help support their family in this three bedroom house on a slab that should have been knocked down a long time ago.

Though their pending eviction was not eminent, it was something the wife had discussed with me on the phone a few days earlier when I called offering to bring this family a Thanksgiving dinner. The owner of the house they rented was trying to sell it so it could be torn down and something new rebuilt in its place. There was no question it had to be demolished. Eventually something would be rebuilt on the lot and though the shadow of the wrecking ball had not yet appeared, I wondered what this family would be doing once they were forced out. Lives are not simply rebuilt like new construction.

The father told us about the last job he had; delivering the Free Press and the Detroit News in upscale Franklin Village and the surrounding area. He spoke enthusiastically of the job and recalls it with pride. Often his boys would help him in after school, especially in the summer. The generosity of one well known family let him know they were always welcome to enter their garage anytime to sit down and take breather and help themselves to cold drinks on the sweltering summer days. It was clear the community was generous as he shared with me that during his last Christmas before his stroke he received generous Christmas tips along his route. That money, combined with the wage he made delivering newspapers was the last time he recalled that the family had, in his words “not been poor.”

As my wife and the boys retrieved food from our vehicle I asked the man if he was going to watch the Detroit Lions game and if he thought they’d win this year. As he replied no, I looked around the house and was embarrassed when I realized they didn’t have a TV set, clean clothes or any number of things 99% of the people I know had in their home.

I thumb wrestled with the little girl for a few minutes after watching her laugh as she did the same with her father. She laughed hysterically as we joked together and I wondered if that was the extent of her entertainment. One of the boys said he had completed all his Christmas shopping for the family already and only spent twenty dollars. The father told a story they’d all heard a hundred times about when he played Santa Claus at a school many years ago. I swear to you, hearing him tell it and watching the family react in laughter was like something out of an episode of the Waltons.

It became immediately clear to me all this family had was each other. Not once did they complain about slow internet speeds because they didn’t have a computer. The mother never complained about rush hour because they didn’t have a car. I honestly believe this is the only family I know who has never complained about anything. They were dirt poor in material things but appeared quite rich in spirit.

The conversation shifted to the coming winter and the kids all told us about the fun they had in the past, sliding down a small hill at the side of their house in the snow. The little girl didn’t complain but in a cheerful way said she said she looked forward to winter because the chain kept falling off the old bike she had and nobody could repair it. She loved school and though I don’t know how her grades were, it was obvious she liked being there. Maybe it was because she had friends at school or maybe being in a warm building with a free lunch was a welcome break from the tiny house she lived in with her two brothers who were named after people in the bible.

The friend of mine who led us to this family sent me a message today asking how things went. She told me someone at her church said they were the poorest family they had ever met. After being in their cold, dark house with the absence of any luxuries, I had no reason to doubt him

Time went on. . .it flew and when it came time to eat I asked them if we could pray together we all joined hands. I pray every day but this time I was filled with a reluctance. After hearing their story and seeing how they lived ,what did they have to give thanks for other than the warm meal we had just brought? I wanted to just say “It was nice meeting you, good luck and I hope things get better.”

This was a family who had their immediate needs met (food) but I knew they had a mountain of struggles waiting them at the bottom of the plastic bowl. Out of nowhere, I was reminded of a bible verse (can’t recall the book or verse but think it is in the book of James) and it says something like “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food and you tell them to depart in peace and hoped they’d be warmed and comforted but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, how does that help? Suddenly I was living the lesson of faith and good works first hand and I felt moved.

We all joined hands and I didn’t know what I going to pray for. How can a family facing hardships at every turn want to bow their heads and give thanks for the squalor and the seemingly dead end life ahead of them? This was making me uncomfortable. What I really wanted to do was leave. I wanted to go home and cry.

We joined hands and words began to flow. . .my lips--- Gods words and with each sentence whatever it was I was saying seemed to be full of wisdom and created a hope even I believed. They must have believed it too because when I was done, my wife and I were fighting back tears but the family seemed uplifted and happy.

As we walked out the door we all hugged. There was laughter and cheer.

The little girl, picked up a pie that took two hands to hold and flashed a big toothy grin at me. She put it down and hugged me again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why I will never set foot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and why I will never set foot in it.

Last week there was another round of inductees of the Rand Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF.) Among the list were some artists who really deserved to be there. Also among the list (as with years past) there were some entertainers who made me shake my head by their inclusion---and not in a good way.
Mitch Ryder is not in the RRHOF.

Face it, the RRHOF is an organization run like an exclusive country club by some good ole boys of the industry. I don’t believe any of them were musicians in their career but they wrote extensively and in many cases wonderfully about rock music. Contrary to what most people think, being a rock critic is difficult and requires talent and creativity. Those guys did it well and that's where it should have stopped---at the by line. Because quickly it became obvious that the good ole boys were playing favorites. But it wasn’t so much that they were bringing all the crappy bands in; it’s that they were leaving too many great artists out.

A full disclosure: I hate rap and loathe hip hop with dance music a close third.

Kansas is not in the RRHOF.

Steve Miller’s tirade went viral last week as he described the terrible experience of his induction. Some people criticized him while I backed his sentiments 1000%. It wasn’t the people in the induction class he had a beef with, but rather, the entire process. The entertainers “the Black Keys” now regret inducting Miller into the RRHOF. Fuck You Black Keys. Come back when you grow up and write something relevant like Steve Miller has done for 40 years.

Electric Light Orchestra is not in the RRHOF.

After Miller’s complaints became widespread, the responses from the RRHOL representatives were arrogant and offensive, downplaying Miller’s beefs rather than responding by saying “Sorry you had a bad time Steve, we agree with you that this process that we’ve been running has some major flaws and we know it really sucks, but we’ve only been doing it 30+ years., so give us a break. . .oh, a new Green Day record is coming out? Excuse us while we start a circle jerk.

The Moody Blue and Yes are not in the RRHOF. Getting mad yet?

There are still many of us too naive to know what a fucked up, dysfunctional place the music industry is and believe bands should be inducted upon merit. If that were to be true, then what merit are we talking about? Record sales? Records made? Pffft. The group Chicago has created arguably what is one of the most versatile and compelling catalogues of music by anyone. They’ve melded jazz, fusion, big band, pop and rock and roll all into a well-traveled and well received revue. But up until last year when they were inducted, their career was ignored --- and you can thank the good ole boys for that.

The Doobie Brothers, Bad Company, the Guess Who and Journey are not in the RRHOF.

On the other hand bands like Green Day and. . .well, let’s just use them as an example for now, as they are probably the biggest offender of terrible music there known to exist on the planet. Chicago already had 18 albums under their belt by the time Green Day was formed and rode some novelty act wave of success while delivering such memorable tunes as---wait, there aren’t any. Like the world really needed a punk rock opera. Green Day is and was nothing more than an exploited brand of God awful noise who somehow rose to success shouting incoherent drivel, you guessed it, thanks in part to some of the good ole boys.

America, Jethro Tull and Dire Straits are not in the RRHOF.

In the meantime, Chicago’s early work driven by Terry Kath went unnoticed (they've been eligible for almost 30 years.) Don’t believe me? Go to youtube and watch Chicago, live at Tanglewood from 1970 and come back once you’ve been schooled in rock and roll. The omission of Chicago and so many other bands is a crying shame and injustice of magnitude proportions. Meanwhile. . .Joan Jet? NWA? Guns and Roses? Who’s next Bjork? The Dixie Chicks? Miley Cirus or will it be the Gogos for that amazing body of work (3 albums) that totaled just over 94 minutes of music?

King Crimson, Roxy Music and ELP are not in the RRHOF.

Ever hear of Bert Berns before last Sunday? Didn’t think so. As if Van Morrison and Neil Diamond wouldn’t have been discovered by someone else. But at least I was glad to his his work acknowledged.
Yes, I understand they have different categories in the RRHOF to broaden the spectrum of what acts are inducted. This year the pissing wars were between Gene Simmons and NWA. Simmons didn’t think the “music” that rappers and hip hoppers make would be around in ten years. God, I hope he is right.

The inimitable and scarcely elegant Ice Cube said this in response to Gene Simmons, citing how Simmons predicted (or hoped) the novelty or rap and how it will be gone and how music is cyclical.

“The question is, 'Are we rock 'n' roll?' And I say — you goddamn right we rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is not an instrument. It's not even a style of music. It's a spirit that's been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock 'n' roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.”

Thank you Mr. Cube. It that’s the criteria, by that logic shouldn’t Pavarotti, Domingo and Maria Callas in the RRHOF too?

Gram Parsons, Dan Fogelberg, Joni Mitchell and Glen Campbell are not in the RRHOF. Neither is Ted Nugent, the MC5, Todd Rundgren, Warren Zevon, The Spinners, Boston, Three Dog Night, The Guess Who, J Geils band, Joe Cocker and Peter Frampton.

I am not alone in thinking NWA (and other entertainers of that wretched ilk) should not be included in the RRHOF. While I am not a huge fan of Simmons I agree with him 1000% about what he hopes will be the death of rap and hip hop. Hip Hop and Rap “artists” and I use that term lightly should not be in the RRHOF anymore than Madonna or the Beastie Boys. I know at least one friend who will call me a racist, close minded old white guy for saying that, but my response is let Hip Hoppers and Rappers start their own Hall of Fame hopefully in a place as far away from me as possible, like Florida. It can be funded by the gangs, thugs and drug pushers and pimps it is made up of.

I am still hoping the next big trend in the music industry is talent. I’m glad a few of the 2016 inductees are finally there. At least the good ole boys club gets it right once in a while.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Franklin Elementary School, Royal Oak, MI

I still dream about Franklin Elementary School in Royal Oak. It was where I learned to read, write, play kickball and occasionally build up enough courage to jump off the swing to see what it was like to fly.

We lived at 821 Mohawk, about 12 houses away from Franklin and though it was an easy walk, sometimes I’d catch a ride with our Twin Pines delivery man or our neighbor, Mr. George, who drove a cab. I don’t know why I did, then again, who remembers these things from their youth?
My mother went to Franklin, as did my brother and sister. I absolutely loved that school and remember almost every inch of it in great detail, from the marks on the gym floor and smell of the gym to the tiny room we used for band practice.

I remember the Campbell’s Soup label drives, the Scholastic book orders, Dynamite Magazine, hot dog lunches, fluoride treatments, the area near the fallout shelter where they kept the used erasers, the multi lined chalk holders, Mr. Penrod’s goalie equipment that he kept in his office, the Sesame Street record being played by Miss Meyers, the magic square across the street, the square someone painted on the side of the school that we used for a strike zone, the barrels, Ms. Hooker, the lunch monitor who meticulously went through the milk money to separate the wheat pennies from the others, Saturday morning basketball in the winter as the smoke chugged from the tall stack on the building and how Mr. Judd, the music teacher, picked me twice to dance during the special concerts. One was a waltz and the other was a square dance. Pfft.

In kindergarten I could not skip, as was often required, so I’d ditch into the bathroom/coat room until Miss Meyers came and dragged me back out. I remember my friend Freddy giving her grief one day when she did not perfectly fill in her drawing when she was teaching us to color. She promptly and defensively gave the excuse that it was “much harder to color on an easel.”

Like most of the schools south of 11 mile road in Royal Oak, Franklin is gone and newer homes now occupy the sacred space where we learned, played and reminisced.

The first photo is a classroom as it appeared in the 1930s when my mother attended. The second photo is my mother’s “class photo.” She is in the first row, second from the right.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Remembering Mike Kudreiko

I remember the first time I saw my friend Mike Kudreiko naked.

I’ll bet you’re thinking, did he really just say that? Yep. And when you examine that statement you may wonder what is more shocking---that I saw him naked or that I saw him naked more than once.
Like all of you I was upset with the sad news we received last week. Mike and I had not seen each other or spoken in several years. It was simply a common drift that happens with a lot of friendships over time with kids, careers, family and life. And when I think about Mike’s life I truly believe the world was cheated when he left us.

If you knew him, you know he wasn’t shy about mincing words or telling you what he thought about things. Though we were polar opposites in politics in the last meaningful message I had with him (when we agreed to stop talking about politics) was that friendship is more important than partisanship. He agreed.

So back to the naked part.
Actually, no, not just yet.

For reasons unknown, March has always been Robb Roy month in my house for at least the last ten or more years. I don’t know why and can only guess that one March I was obsessing on one of the CDs and from that point forward I always associated that time of the year with the band. I was fortunate enough to work a bit with the band back in the late 90s, helping them get their records out etc.

When “Heroes and Cocktails” came out I was blown away. When “Happy” came out, I was like “fuck, these guys are awesome.” When “Days of Pride and Hunger” came out I was like, shit, I’ve know that for ten years! I continued to beyond blown away and marvel at how those tall dudes could make such great records, with high production values and songwriting that was as good as anybody’s.

 Truth used to be forever, in the days of pride and hunger.
It’s sweeter when the task is harder
In the days of pride and hunger.

Since you were a fan of Mike’s you know their music was not of the ephemeral. The title track Days of Pride and Hunger is a tune that has always stuck with me for its simple complexity and poignancy. Like a majority of their songs it will always remain lyrically relevant.
Euphoria never tasted better, in the days of pride and hunger

Days…became my mantra for a while as I struggled and worked hard on my own path while becoming a writer. It is not an exaggeration to say that some days that song made me see through the very obstacles that made me want to give up, or helped me work around them.

All of us know the struggles of musicians and creative types. We have this bullshit music industry that gets worse by the day and those most deserving continue to suffer for their art.
Hold on just a little longer, to the days of pride and hunger.

So back to our friend Mike and being naked. It happened not because of a “bromance” but because we played hockey together and shared a locker room. He was a great player and always stuck up for his teammates. In fact, he excelled in everything he did from music to film to hockey. He was a unique talent, with the Pete Townsend nose, rock and roll guitar moves and the chops to back them up. Those are just a few of the things that I will miss about Mike.

I was always hoping for a Rob Roy reunion, but I will continue to cherish the CDs I have and the memories tucked away in my Robb Roy rock and roll reservoir. Thankfully there are plenty of them--- far more those those that took place when we were naked.

Don’t lose yourself to the past.
Cherish the road and don’t look back.
It’s not the end but how you arrive.