Friday, July 23, 2010

Don’t Need No Ticket, You Just Thank the Lord

“All great music is soul music. No matter what genre of music it is, it has to contain a little bit of soul. And God knows, nobody ever had more soul than my man, Curtis Mayfield.”

Amen brother! Well said. I clapped and looked around. Here I was at the Waldorf-Astoria, watching Puff Daddy make a speech about Curtis. Puff Daddy! Doesn’t that just beat all. At the next table was Paul McCartney, at another Bruce Springsteen. And me, a 42 year old veteran at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. I looked at Curtis, part of the class of 1999, and couldn’t help but think back on how we met and the part I played in his being here.

It started way back in ’72. My folks didn’t have much money, and there wasn’t much luxury where I grew up, in a two room apartment on 149th Street. I used to sneak into the movies as much as I could to escape our rundown building and stay off the streets. They were too dangerous, man, a lot of drugs, a lot of guns. I loved those black flicks like Shaft and Slaughter. But Superfly was number one for me.

Superfly was the real deal. Those were my streets, the gritty, dirty neighborhood that I lived in every day. On every corner a dealer pushing his product, the smooth kingpins sitting in diners, watching their empires through pane glass windows, tugging their fedoras over their eyes if they didn’t want to be seen.

That was the first time I heard Curtis Mayfield. The movie was great, but Curtis’ songs, hey, they were better than the movie itself. I really dug his music, it really got to me. He was talking about some serious shit, really telling it like it was in the ghetto. “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “Superfly” – I knew those guys. I don’t know; it was like Curtis knew me. That was my life. I was 15, with no future, surrounded by bad men.

I ripped off a copy of the album and listened to it over and over again. It spoke to me, made me sad. But there was something in Curtis’ voice, that high crystalline tone, so beautiful, that gave me hope. I felt connected to this man and, even though I didn’t write well, I found a scrap of paper and wrote him a letter, telling him how much his songs meant to me. I sent it off to Curtom, the record label Curtis owned, and that was it.

A few months later Curtis wrote me back. I was knocked out. I never thought he’d have time for me, but he did. I remember it word for word, even now.

Young brother, thank you for your thoughtful letter. Maybe we can meet someday. I always have time for a fan, and, maybe the next time I’m in New York, you can come see me. Keep up the faith. All is possible. Your friend, Curtis.

Wow. That was something, man. For a little child, running wild in the streets, a message from Curtis Mayfield meant something. I taped it on the cracked plaster wall next to my bed and read it every night before I went to sleep. I checked out his older stuff with The Impressions. Those early records were great, though not as funky. I loved the covers, little Curtis with a big ol’ toothy grin, or the three of them pushing a fine sports car.

When I was 18 I joined the Marines and, with a real future ahead of me, I felt the need to write Curtis again, just to tell him what was happening with me and how he was my inspiration. He wrote back again, telling me how proud he was and asked me to stay in touch. I did and we’d write each other every few months, even as his career faded with the rise of disco and MTV. I bought all his new records and, when The Impressions toured in ’83, I was in Lebanon, seeing the heaviest stuff I’d seen since my days living in Harlem.

When Curtis moved to Atlanta he dropped me a note with his new address. We kept writing, but still never met. I left the military, settled back in New York, Brooklyn this time, and by 1990, was pretty settled. Curtis wrote me that he was playing an outdoor show in Wingate Field, over in East Flatbush, on August 13. He asked if I could come, now that I was nearby, and invited me backstage as his guest.

It started off as a nice day, but the sky was getting pretty dark when I arrived around 5:30. I told the guard who I was, that I was a guest of Curtis Mayfield’s and, after checking his pad, he waved me in. I wandered around and spotted Curtis talking to a group of guys that, it turned out, were Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes. They were on before Curtis.

“Umm, excuse me, Curtis, I’m…” I didn’t have a chance to say another word before he grabbed me and squeezed me in a big bear hug. He was tinier than I pictured, but he was a giant to me. His tight afro was flecked with grey and he wore some funky tinted glasses.

“Oh man, it’s so good to meet you at last. Hey Harold, I gotta tell you, this dude wrote me a letter when he was 15 years old, and we’ve been pen pals ever since! Can you beat that!” I couldn’t believe how excited Curtis was to see me. “He went into the Marines, did us all proud and, here he is!” He was bragging on me like he I was his son.

His voice was deeper than his singing voice. That surprised me. He was soft, gentle, caring, everything I hoped he’d be. The show began and the two of us stayed backstage, talking through the whole set.

The wind was kicking up a bit, rain was clearly coming. We talked about life, about music. I couldn’t believe Curtis liked rap, especially Public Enemy. He explained to me his views of music, using it to spread the truth. “Everything’s changed, but ain’t nothin’ changed too much.” He laughed; so did I.

The weather was getting worse and, though Curtis had some time before his set, the promoters were nervously circling around us, hoping to get a word with him.

“Curtis, can you go on early? We’re worried about this rain cancelling the show.”

“No, man, I’m talking to my friend here.” His friend, he called me his friend. I had to smile over that.

They wouldn’t let up. Every minute or two they would ask Curtis if he would go on and Curtis kept telling them no.

I asked him if he thought the weather would be a problem. He wasn’t worried, the show would go on. We kept on talking, when, suddenly, a thunderous crash, a blast from the heavens, jolted us out of our conversation. I figured it was the beginning of the storm, the wind was fierce, but Curtis turned quickly to the stage and said “What the fuck was that?”

He made a step forward and I followed. There, where he would have been standing had he gone on instead of talking, was a 500 pound lighting scaffold which had been blown off its tower and onto the stage. We looked at each other in disbelief.

As Curtis walked onto the stage after Puffy’s speech and began to speak, I thought back on the day we finally met, the day I saved Curtis Mayfield’s life.

On August 13, 1990, a freakish onstage accident left Curtis Mayfield paralyzed from the neck down. Under pressure from promoters to start early to avoid the rain, Mayfield was walking on stage as the band played the intro to “Superfly.” As 10,000 watched, a lighting scaffold was blown off its tower and crushed the singer.

On March 15, 1999, Curtis Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Del Shannon, Dusty Springfield and Bruce Springsteen. Befitting his positive post- accident attitude, Curtis planned to attend the ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan. It was only his steadily deteriorating health that prevented him from appearing. Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia, at the age of 57.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Even Hate My Rock and Roll

When John got the call Friday afternoon inviting him to perform on the same bill with his heroes, he fought back all nervousness and dove in. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and John Lennon? At first, when the promoter, some kid named John Brower that Lennon had never heard of, rang up the Apple office to ask if John and Yoko would come watch the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival as members of the audience, John was put off. “We don’t want to be the fucking King and Queen, we want to play. Just give me time to get a band together.” Now, three days later, he was thinking he must’ve been out of his head. Perform live for the first time in years with some friends and Yoko? Would it work? Could he do it alone, without The Beatles? He’d been thinking lately about leaving the band, his band, the band that he started, and diving headfirst into a world of Yoko only.

In the motorcade to Varsity Stadium, sitting in the back seat of a black limo escorted by scores of leather clad bikers called The Vagabonds, John had second thoughts. They’d rehearsed a bit on the plane to Canada, he and Eric working out a few tunes they knew, classic rockers like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” their unplugged electric guitars sounding tinny and weak. Last year, Lennon, Clapton and Keith Richards had done “Yer Blues” together on the Stones’ television show, so they hashed that out as well. Yoko sat close by, silently, and John was a bit uncomfortable with her presence. His shaky confidence was made worse by her clinginess. It would have been nice if George had come as well, but he wanted nothing to do with an avant-garde band, the very thought of Yoko’s piercing shrieks as harmony, or worse yet, some endless jam of screeches and howls, gave Harrison the shivers. It would have provided great comfort to John had one of his band mates stood with him.

Back in the Cavern days, when The Beatles would cover the songs of their favorite rockers, John would never have believed that in a few years he would be topping the bill. Now, in 1969, he was the key attraction of the one day festival. Well, alright, The Doors were actually the headliners, but the makeshift Plastic Ono Band were on right before them. It was just as well, John thought, as he threw up backstage. I’m not ready to be the star by myself.

John watched Bo Diddley work the crowd, Jerry Lee drive them to a cliff, and Richard push them over. It worried him. Man, these guys can deliver, he thought, and here I am with a band that hasn’t even played together before. He felt a wave of nausea roll up to his throat, but he clamped down on the feeling, keeping it deep inside. Yoko stuck to him, her very existence adding more heat to an already warm September day. His stomach revolted.

To a sea of lit matches and butane lighters, the band strode onstage, terrified and shaking. John immediately cautioned the crowd, 20,000 strong.

“Good evening!” he shouted, and, after a blast from his guitar, “We’re just gonna do numbers that we know, because we’ve never played together before.” The warning made, the group began to slog through “Blue Suede Shoes.” In mid-song, Yoko disappeared briefly and returned with a white bag, which she entered. Lennon looked down, his face a stone mask, but his voice gained an added ferocity.

They plodded through the set list. “Money” rolled out at a tempo slightly faster than a full stop, and John was embarrassed. He reached down after the song was over and ruffled through the bag to grab the lyric sheets that Yoko had held and kept with her when she hid. He needed the words. It’d been so long since he played these numbers that he had hastily scribbled the words on scattered white paper that Yoko clutched. At least she would be good for something, but, in his moment of need, she was gone.

“Bloody hell,” John thought. “This is awful. And what the fuck is she doing. Standing too close, out of the bag, inside the bag, back outside.”

When the band launched into the one song they did know, “Yer Blues,” Yoko let out a nasty squawk and kept at it throughout the tune. John was mortified and sheepishly turned to face Clapton, not wanting to meet his gaze. Clapton shot a piercing look at John, clearly disgusted by what was happening on stage. John tried to shake it off, wobbling his knees in a silly dance as a way to keep his sanity, but the weight of shame wasn’t so easily shaken off.

As John sang “Cold Turkey,” Yoko went into full animal howl, causing Lennon to clench his teeth as he sung. He needed to glance at the lyric sheets she was holding, but it was getting harder and harder to face her. Every time he turned he would see Clapton glaring at him. “Maybe Eric’s looking to me for cues,” John mused, but it was obvious the Clapton was irate. John felt a wave of humiliation and, when the song finished and there was no reaction from the audience, he lashed out. “Come on, wake up,” he sneered, but he knew he wasn’t mad at them, but at the crazy lady who hung on him so tightly, his wife.

He counted in “Give Peace a Chance” with a vicious German accent, “Eins Zwei, Eins Zwei Drei Vier.” With Yoko caterwauling and clapping a rhythm that was uniquely her own and in no way connected to the song, John erupted. He leaned over to Yoko. “If you’re gonna clap, try to be on the beat. You’re messing me up.”

He’d had it. Still, Yoko had her number to do and John introduced her with more than a bit of venom.

“Yoko’s gonna do her thing all over you,” he declared to the crowd.

While Clapton played violently, Yoko sang “Don’t worry” over and over again, before she launched into an endless stream of violent screaming. The cacophony was too much. John wondered how he got to this point, playing on stage with an insane Japanese woman. The so-called “song” was excruciating, seemingly endless. Eric stared daggers at John. The band exited, their guitars spewing feedback as Yoko remained standing, "waaahing" alone at center stage. A tsunami of boos surged toward her.

John nervously walked behind the stage, wishing he could disappear, when Eric charged him. Grabbing John by the shoulders he shook him violently.

“What do you see in her John, really? She’s your old lady, I dig that, but she’s not a musician, she has no right being on that stage. She made a right fool of us all.”

There was no point in fighting it. John hung his head. He knew Eric was right.

“You’re right, man, absolutely right. I can’t go through that again, she’s mad as a hatter.”

Realizing that John was hurt by the truth, Eric pushed on, gently.

“Let’s all go back to London and, when we get there, meet with the boys and tell them how much the band means to you, how much you love them and that you need them.”

John nodded his head. His future, musically, was with The Beatles, not with Yoko Ono.

“And you have to tell her where you stand. Now.”

“Do I?” asked John, wide-eyed, afraid of a confrontation. Eric gave him a pat on the back for encouragement and a soft push to send him on his way.

Nervously, John walked to the opposite side of the stage where Yoko had just emerged after 20 minutes of screeching yodels. She was still holding the lyric pages. To do what was necessary, he needed to be nasty John, cutting John, the John that spared no one’s feelings.

“You make a great music stand, luv, but I’m not going to be humiliated again. I was nervous as hell out there and I didn’t need to be embarrassed,” he started.

From where he stood, Eric Clapton could see John shouting, his head down, staring at his guitar to avoid looking at Yoko as she wiped away a tear.

Before arriving in Toronto, John Lennon confided to Eric Clapton and bassist Klaus Voorman that he was leaving The Beatles. Having never heard the boos after Yoko’s performance of “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” Lennon was flush with self-confidence as he returned to meet the Beatles at the Apple offices in Savile Row. During a business discussion, John announced he was leaving the group. While George Harrison and Ringo Starr had each quit previously, Lennon’s announcement was the end. Paul McCartney would be the first to go public with the breakup, publicizing his own departure in April 1970.