Scott Kempner Official Website.
This past week I broke one of my own Facebook rules/policies, and while I didn’t think I was really doing so, mostly I just didn’t think it through as carefully as I should have. The rule/policy is simply that I will never say anything really negative about another musician in a public forum, like Facebook. Simple, right? As a musician, I feel it’s bad form to do so for a number of reasons. One is that I’m a musician and we’re all in the same boat – to varying degrees. Another is that everyone has their own tastes and passions concerning this stuff. Many people I like and respect like, or love, artists I do not. Many of these same folks dislike artists I like, or love. And the third reason, and maybe the biggest, is that it then opens up the floor to debate. And, for me, there is no debating music at that level. If a million (a very theoretical number, to be sure) smart, passionate friends were to (theoretically) jump up and down on my (theoretical) bed and scream at the top of their lungs about why I shouldn’t like, or love, artists from, say Elvis to The Beatles to Springsteen (just to pick a few of the more common ones from whom I have drawn a lifetime’s worth of inspiration) with bags full of proof positive to support their points and opinions, it wouldn’t budge me a single, solitary, itty bitty iota one way or another. In that regard, I really don’t care what anyone has to say. Hence, that would not be much of a debate. This is not to say I don’t enjoy discussing music, voicing and listening to opinions, or the like, but only when it’s with mostly like-minded friends, with whom I share a basic common ground. In fact, I LOVE talking music. It is one of my passions.
In my life, I have had some interesting revelations that have led me to where I am now, and why I try to adhere to this policy. Back in 1974, or 5, The Dictators, on one of our earliest road trips, and my second ever time in a plane, as I recall, we found ourselves in Davenport, Iowa as the opening act for REO Speedwagon. Now, this was a band I thought of as being close to polar opposites of The Dictators, in terms of style for sure, but also in terms of attitude and rock’n’roll consciousness. The revelation was that in actually meeting these guys it was really, in so many ways, just like talking to us. Their attitude about what they were doing was pretty much exactly the same as ours. Despite the musical differences, they thought of themselves, and were, a hard working rock’n’roll band, giving their all every single night, in a very unpretentious, straightforward, “we just wanna give the folks the best, hardest rocking, and fun time we possibly can. Nothing more but nothing less either. They were real nice guys, fun, generous and personable, to a man. That simple thing was, for me, a revelation. If anything, we were the ones with the chip on our shoulders, the ones who came from the Big City, with all sorts of preconceptions about a mainstream band like REO. That lesson has never left me. In fact, it was reinforced time and time again over the years with other bands we played with, and their numbers are many. Once, decades later, someone asked me to write a piece for their shitty little mag, about all the “lame” bands the Dictators opened for in our early days. I instantly thought back back to that night in Davenport, Iowa, and refused the request. In fact, the request , and its smugness was what was pretentious, mean spirited, and just plain fucking stupid.
You see, in those early days, before anyone was using the word Punk in relation to music, unless you were talking about the bands that were featured on Lenny Kaye’s awesome NUGGETS compilation, and there were less than five rock clubs in the USA, we were truly fish out of water. We spent most of our time opening up for, well, you name ‘em, in theatres, college auditoriums, and lots of huge basketball arenas. Most shows for the first two or three years were in front of audiences of at least 5,000 people. Needless to say, and I am sure this won’t come as a surprise, we almost never fared well in those situations. We still sucked, truth be told. Ross was amazing, but the rest of us were inspired amateurs, to be kind. As for myself, at that point I had probably been on stage less than ten times in my life.
I am not, never have been, and would never want to be a purist. I love all kinds of stuff. Rock’n’Roll mostly (of course) but also Blues, Country, R&B, Folk, Soul & Pure Pop are all in the mix for me. I have friends who are purists, to the point of fundamentalism, and while, as I say I do not fall into that category by a country mile, I do respect and admire their attitude, because it reflects a degree of passion that, for me, is what it is all about. And, when I say ALL, I don’t mean just music, but Life Itself. That passion is what we all do have in common.
What started me thinking about all this was something I wrote on Facebook about the very first gig we ever played. We were Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ band for a night. It was back in 1982, and it was at The Peppermint Lounge (the one on 5 th & 15 th ) in NYC. This pairing, was a result of Eric, my bandmate, and Screamin’ Jay meeting, by sheer coincidence, at the office of Eric’s then lawyer, who was also Hawkins’ lawyer. Screamin’ Jay was in need of a band for his upcoming Peppermint Lounge show. Well, we were all totally broke at the time, sometimes sharing rice and one can of beans for the four of us for dinner. We were confident and determined but also, as I say, broke. Eric told Jay he had a band, and since we were all admirers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and it was music that was right down the middle for us, and what we were doing, told him we could do the job. The one catch was that Hawkins only wanted one guitar player. Well, Eric told him that was something we couldn’t do. It was an all-for-one, one-for-all situation. So, instead of it being a deal breaker for Jay, he said that would be ok, and they shook hands and we had secured our very first paying gig.
The following week, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, with his girlfriend, his “everything”, Cassie in tow, showed up at our rehearsal loft at the (in)famous Music Building on 8th Ave between 39 th & 40 th streets, in the Garment District. At first everything was cool, although Jay seemed to be wound a little tight. In fact, I noticed that he had a holster belt, with a bottle of Mylanta, where a gun might otherwise be held, and which he swigged from like it was a Coke. But, as I say, everything was cool. We were getting to play with a legend, a great artist, and we felt lucky, appreciative, and now officially cool.
As the week progressed, and over the few rehearsals, Screamin’ Jay must have said at least a dozen times how much he hated, felt trapped by, and was angry at I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, his signature song, and one of the few songs of his I knew at that point. He said, he never wanted to play shit like that, and how he thought of himself as a singer more in the mold of Sinatra or Nat King Cole. I kind of knew that those were his original musical aspirations, as I remembered the chapter on him in Nick Tosches’ great book, UNSUNG HEROES OF ROCK’N’ROLL. But, I didn’t know the career he had fallen into had caused him such bitterness, regret, resentment and anger at the song that had put him on the musical map. I felt bad for him and his, what I would characterize as, his burden. It also hurt me, and I was not quite sure why. I didn’t have enough of a relationship to his music to be shattered by this bursting of a bubble, but it still felt sad and awful to me.
The gig itself, from our perspective was a tough one, and not much fun at all. And, THAT statement right there was what i I said on Facebook. No elaboration, just that it wasn’t a fun experience for us. We had followed Jay’s one rule of performance, which was, “Everything is cool as long as we starts and ends together”. Simple sage advice from a veteran artist. During the show, it was Cassie’s job to detonate the rather mild, by the standards of the day, smoke pots, at a specifically designated point in the show. Well, poor Cassie fucked that up and set it off at the wrong time. He turned around and shot her a glare that if looks could kill, the whole place would have gone up in flames. It didn’t seem like quite that big a deal to us, but it sure was to Jay. Now, it’s his show, he’s the master showman, with the coffin, Henry, the skull on a cane, and the bone through the nose prop that was a quintessential part of his act, and had been since SPELL first hit the charts, so it was not for me to determine the severity of Cassie’s unintentional error. But, the show was not as tight as it should have been, with a lot of the songs not going the way we rehearsed them. That too, was fine because as long as we started and ended together, it was alright.
But Jay’s mood visibly darkened, and it all seemed to come to a head during the infamous CONSTIPATION BLUES. This was the one song I really could not get behind. It was as crass and as unpleasant as the title implied. And, it went on and on for an interminable length of time, with Jay pulling out all the figurative stops, with his vocal impression of a long coming, hard earned & painful, but ultimately relief inducing, case of diarrhea. Yes, you read that right. To do a little bit of armchair psychology, it was like all the frustration and anger he had internalized over the decades about his career direction was what was really coming out of him (no pun intended) for the fifteen minutes (at least) that the song lasted.
After the show, backstage, Jay was on fire. He was livid, screaming into Cassie’s face how she had, “fucked up the whole show”. Over and over, with her in tears, and Jay swigging from the Mylanta, it was painful and embarrassing for us to be in proximity of. And then, it was our turn. He screamed at us, while pointing at me, how we had ripped him off, how he didn’t need no two goddamn guitar players, and this too went on for what seemed like an eternity. And then, as always back to that fucking I PUT A SPELL ON YOU song, the fucked-up career he had to endure because it was such a big hit, and how that fucking Creedence Clearwater band had reinforced it by proxy by putting on their own multi-million selling first album!! It was all coming out. Again. And again. To top it all off, he had some smart ass Jewish (yes, I am one, too) NYU student named Seth as his manager. We had not met Seth until this point. How Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wound up with this clown one can only guess. My guess would be he was a music fan, and loved Screamin’ Jay, and somehow had talked his way into the position of manager, which Jay felt he was in need of. So, Seth was the final victim of Screamin’s rage that night. After the fire went out, Jay started chatting with us, about R&B artists, Blues artists, and suddenly, in a seemingly benign statement, this jerk Seth says something about “colored” people. We were aghast, as it was about 40 years since anyone of any intelligence and sensitivity was using that word –especially in NYC. This wasn’t Mississippi, fer chrissakes! Well, let me tell you, THAT got Jay’s attention. I thought for sure the former boxer that Jay was was gonna knock him all the way to Central Park! Jay was incredulous, as we all were. I remember Jay telling Seth he was gonna strip him naked and tar and feather him with $20 bills and drop him in the middle of 125 th St. Finally, after much hesitation that had us thinking Jay wasn’t gonna pay us, or at least deduct the extra money for the second goddamn guitar player he DID NOT NEED, we got paid in full, and got the hell out of there.
Afterwards, and in the ensuing years, the whole episode did seem sorta funny, and we can laugh about it now. But, sometimes I would think about how sad it was that this super talented artist could not fully enjoy what he had accomplished. I mean, every Rock fan knows at least one version of I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, and even if he got ripped off for the publishing, which I do not know one way or another, it still must have earned him a nice chunk of change, and it made him famous, and despite the over the top theatrics of his act, he is always acknowledged as a talented and original singer. But, it all went south for him somewhere and the end result was a belt holster with a bottle of Mylanta.
In conclusion, some years later, Eric Ambel got the gig of producing a Nils Lofgren record. Nils had not done anything exceptionally successful in a while, as it was before his 25 years, and counting run with the E Street Band, and after his affiliations with Neil Young had run its course. Eric did a great job, and the record CROOKED LINE is one of Nils’ best, if not his best, thanx in large part to Eric’s great vision and talent, as well as Nils’ extreme talent. But, during the recording they were looking for a song that might have a good shot at getting on the radio. They settled on covering the great JUST A LITTLE, a song that was a huge hit by the great BEAU BRUMMELS, and produced by Sylvester Stewart, soon to revolutionize Soul and Pop as Sly Stone. It was a perfect fit for Nils. But, Nils began to fret that if this song should become a hit he would then have to perform it at every gig for the rest of his life. It would perhaps define him, and box him into some imaginary corner, and well, then what. Now, I don’t know if Eric was thinking back to that gig and that week with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or not, but he simply said to Nils, “Why don’t you think of it that if it does become a hit it will insure you have a gig every night for the rest of your life?” Nils thought about it for at least two seconds, and JUST A LITTLE ended up on the album.
Oh god, i feel like i was there…. You brought it to life, and the mylanta holster is the detail that threads it together. You covered a lot of ground here. The yoke/blessing of the career-defining song is a perfect spot to reflect on musicians’ accomplishments and the freight they carry. Everybody (almost) wants the hit; nobody wants to be stuck repeating it for decades…
Good talking, love the stories. You covered so much that is important and insightful. Rarely does anyone talk about these things. Thank you for sharing.
Hi Scott, I loved this column and story! Well written, articulate, and a great read!
this story was a real fascinating read and reaffirms to me what i have always thought and that is if a song has made you famous you should never be ashamed of it in fact you should embrace it after all you can always arrange it differently to suit how you would like it to sound if not happy with original as a songwriter i have done 50 odd songs and though i have my faves all of them mean alot to me always will and that is the lesson here surely music is such a powerful thing that it should be always made to be enjoyed and treasured at the same time so scott total respect to you keep rockin man peter.
Excellent story. I used to be a big Del Lords fan and heard you on Little Steven’s Underground Garage yesterday. Two seconds of your voice and I said, “That’s the guy from the Del Lords.” Turned on the “Title” function and there you were. I’m so glad you’re still getting it done. You can bet your last money I’m off to the store today to try to pick up the reissueof Tenement Angels. It was so good to read this and know that you are as cool as your songs always led me to believe you were. Best of luck to you.
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