Friday, March 30, 2007

I Met Someone Who Really Knew Belushi...

My Honors English this semester, a bunch of students I love, are finding out way too much about me.Something about the dynamic of the class makes things keep leaking out. They probably don’t believe half of what I’m telling them, but actually, it’s all been true, and it’s been bringing back memories to me. Like somehow yesterday I got into talking about how I taught John Belushi about the blues.

Which I actually did. It began with my friend Aardvark, who is no longer with us. Aardvark was a very good friend, if not in every respect a completely good person. Actually, he was drug dealer, though not when I first knew him. That developed over time, and I assume that was his connection to Belushi.

An aside: Acquaintances always used to ask me what Aardvark’s real name was; and, since I knew him better, I actually knew his real name. My answer was always, “If I tell you, then you will no longer have the pleasure of knowing someone whom you know only as ‘Aardvark.’”

The exceptions to this rule were his succession of beautiful and wealthy girlfriends, who always called him “Rick.” On reflection, I could understand this. It’s hard to imagine calling out, in the heat of passion, “Oh, Aardvark…Oh, Aardvark…”

But back to Belushi. This was in my New York City days, in the late 70s. Aardvark called me in the middle of the night and said, “I’ve got John Belushi with me, and we need to teach him about the blues. Bring your records and come on over.”

I had, at the time (they’re still safe, but now with my brother) one of the world’s great collections of rhythm and blues 45’s from the 1950s. I packed them into a suitcase, and headed over to Belushi’s. I brought my girl friend at the time, who was newly arrived from the Midwest, and thrilled at the prospect (remember the Waitresses’ song of a few years later – “I know someone who really met Belushi/I fixed the toilet so it doesn't always run”?), but the occasion, for her, turned out to be less than thrilling. Belushi told her, “Here, you can sit in the living room and watch some tapes of my old shows, while we go in the back and talk about music.” I felt guilty for going along with it, and I feel guilty to this day. Carla, if you should run across this, I apologize.

But Aardvark and Belushi and I spent the next couple of hours listening to Muddy Waters, and Magic Sam, and Lightning Hopkins, and the Clovers. Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had just done the Blues Brothers sketch for the first time on Saturday Night Live, and the response to it had been phenomenal. People wanted more Blues Brothers. An album. More SNL performances. And eventually, a movie, but that would come later. But he didn’t really know anything about the blues. He’d never listened to the blues particularly, and if he was going to be doing an album…

And we spent all of the next day with Belushi in the Colony Record Store in Times Square, building him a basic blues collection.

Obviously, he was a quick study. I mentioned to a jazz musician friend that Belushi had just heard the blues for the first time last week, and now he was going to make a record. The musician said, “Well, sometimes that’s all it takes.”

Songs I know I brought to Belushi’s attention were “Rubber Biscuit,” originally by the Chips, “Flip, Flop and Fly,” originally by Joe Turner, and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” originally by the Coasters.

That’s pretty much the whole story, except that I had to call him every night for about a year before he finally got around to giving my records back.

Oh, and one other phone call -- this time from him to me, and characteristically for those days and this cast of characters, late at night. They were getting close to ready to make the record, and did I know any good blues musicians. I named a few. There was a pause at the other end of the line.

“Aren’t they all……………black?”

“Well, yeah…blues and all, you know how it is…”

“Do you know any white blues musicians? I’m a little afraid of black people…”

Well, if he was, he got over it. They had some of the greatest white blues musicians around on that first album, like Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, and some great black musicians too, like Matt “Guitar”Murphy. And some of the greatest blues people of all time in the movie. Thinking about it in later years, I wonder if maybe he just meant that when it came to the blues, he was intimidated by the black blues greats.

No need, John. You made your own strange contribution to the blues, and to American culture. And I hope your old evil spirit caught a Greyhound Bus and rode.

And to my old friend Larry the Fluff, if you’re reading this…you were one of the white musicians I recommended to John.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why You Need to Be Careful Before Embarking on an On-Air Career

On WAMC, the local NPR radio station, this afternoon, a call-in show giving advice to would-be authors from two mostly helpful and well-informed local published writers. Someone calls in with this question: "I just finished a novel, and somebody tells me something with a similar name and theme has already been published. My book is called 'On The Road,' and it's about two guys named Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty who travel around the US."

Published authors: "Wasn't that book by Jack Kerouac called something like that? Well, there are lots of books about two characters travelling around -- they're called picaresque novels. So yours should be OK. But you should probably change the title."

Jon Richards on the Edwards Family

Friday, March 23, 2007

John Prine, Fred Koller

I found myself telling this story in a couple of different places within the last few weeks, so it must be on my mind. On my first visit to Nashville, more years ago than I care to remember, I met a guy named Art Sparer, who was to become one of my closest friends in Nashville, and whose couch I regularly stayed on when I visited -- "the songwriters' couch," he called it.

Art went out of his way to introduce me around town, and in one out of the way tavern, he introduced me to John Prine, who invited me to come to recording session he was doing the next day at Cowboy Jack Clement's studio.

Naturally, I was there. The song he recorded that day was "Let's Talk Dirty In Hawaiian," which you can find on Prine's German Afternoons and Lucky 13 albums, not to mention his massive The Full Johnny collection. The song was co-written by Prine and Fred Koller, whom I was to meet within the next couple of days, and who would become my other closest friend in Nashville.

Art, a true gentleman, a wonderful musician and producer, is no longer with us, but Fred is, very much so, and he remains a close friend.

Fred is a first-class bibliophile and the co-owner of Rhino Booksellers in Nashville.

More than that, he's one of Nashville's great talents, as songwriter and performer. You can find his full discography at the link above, and it's all good. He and I have written several songs together, and I'm including one here, from his Songs From the Night Before album, which also has his version of "Let's Talk Dirty."

The Hell We Created

Thursday, March 08, 2007


I've decided to put Situations, my epic newsletter, up on the Internet. Situations was originally sent out as a weekly newsletter to about 100 subscribers, then published in 2002 by Ye Olde Font Shoppe Press, Victoria Rivas' home of exquisitely produced books.

Now I'm recreating its original format. I'll be putting it up in installments, one week at a time. Well, I've started with the first two episodes, to whet appetites. They, along with the introduction that was written for the book, are up now on my Situations web page, linked above.

I'll also post the Introduction here, tomorrow.