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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016's Mantra: Bring Out Your Dead

YEAR of the freakin' Reaper, I say. Where's Batman now that we need him?
This has been a rotten, rotten year. This is a collection of what I've been compelled to write about various cherished performers we've lost throughout the course of 2016.

David Bowie

Dear David:

I am sorry that I’ve never written to you before. I’m sorry that I never took pen to paper to scribble a fan letter, and I regret that I didn’t write about you at all during the decades I spent writing about pop music. I wrote about Gary Glitter. I wrote about Toni Basil. I wrote about Stars On 45, for cryin’ out loud. How silly does that seem now?

The thing is, I always considered myself just a casual David Bowie fan. I mean no offense when I say that you were never one of my very favorite artists. Because, casual or not, I was still a fan. I heard “Changes” on the radio, and had to own the 45. I delved a bit deeper when I got to college, starting (perhaps incongruously) with a used copy of Pinups, and falling hard shortly thereafter for “Suffragette City” and your magnificent Ziggy Stardust album. I knew a couple of other disaffected teenagers who were big Bowie fans; one was a high school pal who adored the sense of alienation conveyed in the lyrics of “All The Madmen” on The Man Who Sold The World, and the other was a college acquaintance into hard rock, metal, and David Bowie. The high school pal killed himself in 1979; the college acquaintance was a kleptomaniac with a heart of gold, and I betrayed his trust in a manner I still regret, almost 40 years later. Let me collect dust. Memories....

But if I was just a casual Bowie fan, why am I so sad that you’re gone? The news was a true shock, delivered to me in an email from my friend Gretta, under the subject heading “Bowie Departs.” I have even found my eyes stinging, watering--just a little--in memory of this artist, of whom I was just a casual fan.

And I think I’m starting to understand the reasons why.

More than any other artist, performer, or public figure I can think of, you made it okay to be different. You made it okay to be weird, or strange, or left-of-center. You made it okay to be gay, or straight, or neither, or both. You made it okay for anyone to be whomever his or her inner muse wanted to be. Sometimes it was a struggle, and sometimes our efforts would fail, but you made it okay for us to try our own way. Maybe you even made it okay to be a lonely, chubby teenager from the suburbs of Syracuse. Casual fan? I loved your music more than I even knew. I still have my copies of your ‘70s LPs; they have survived every drastic purge of my record collection, over a span of many, many years. Although I stopped buying your albums after 1979’s Lodger--casual fan, that’s me!--I had a chance to see you in concert in 1983, and you were terrific. I’ve been listening to your stuff again all week, including a few things I never really played much before. You influenced so many other artists I love, and you made wonderful, timeless music that will live on and on and on.

I took you for granted. I miss you now.

Many of us believe in forever. In your new digs, I’m sure you’ve already had a chance to re-connect with Mick Ronson, with old friends like John Lennon and Klaus Nomi, maybe Freddie Mercury, Lou Reed, or Andy Warhol, perhaps Bing Crosby...because, why not? I bet you’ve chatted with Salvador Dali and Arthur Rimbaud, and with Einstein, too. I hope you’ll have a chance to meet Buddy Holly, and James Jamerson, and Elvis, maybe play with all of them. You can play with Miles Davis, and Count Basie, and Hank Williams, and Bob Marley, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Caruso, and Leonard Bernstein--that would be really, really cool, and each would consider you a peer. Lemmy’s probably got it all set. Heaven must indeed have one hell of a music scene. We wish we could hear it down here.

But now, there’s a Starman waiting in the sky. Our minds have already been blown. And we mere mortals can only gaze upward, and note that the stars look very different today. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.

There is one thing you were wrong about. Unlike the spat-upon children you mention in “Changes,” I was not quite aware of what I was going through. I know better now. And I wanted to write you, just to say thanks. Thank you, David. Thank you for everything.


Your fan

Glenn Frey, and the seeming barrage of pop culture deaths

It's pretty damn obvious that our mortality is now deliberately trying to piss us off.

When we were younger, the only things that killed rock stars were plane crashes and drug overdoses.  Sure, there was the occasional violent death (like Sam Cooke, or Bobby Fuller), and Cass Elliot, Bobby Darin, and King Elvis I were indeed betrayed by their own failing bodies. But rock stars generally didn't die from natural causes. Natural causes only killed old people. And rock stars would die before they got old.

Except that they didn't die before they got old, and neither did we. We've lived long enough to regret the stupid notion of ever hoping to die before we got old. Live fast? Die young? Screw that.  If we weren't just dumbass kids, we would have realized that a lot sooner.

So, we aged. Our rock stars got old, too. With each passing year, we lose more and more of our musical heroes, whether from the results of decades of hard livin', or just from the built-in obsolescence of us fragile little human beings. We break pretty easily. Our shelf life is finite.

We have been reminded of that fact a lot lately.

The first such reminder to really hit me was the death of Joey Ramone, way back in 2001. The Ramones were so important to me, and losing a Ramone to cancer was a tough thing to accept. We also lost George Harrison that same year. As years go by, the list of beloved pop icons taken by the Grim Reaper, and dead by means other than a bullet, a needle, or a plummeting aircraft, has grown numbingly, devastatingly vast: Ray Charles. Johnny Cash. Wilson Pickett. Alex Chilton. Michael Jackson. Solomon Burke. Lou Reed. Lesley Gore. ALL of the original Ramones. LemmyDavid Bowie. Glenn Frey.

Music and art play such vital roles in our everyday lives. When a performer we love dies, we feel a personal loss, even though it's just the death of a famous person we never actually met. Those who ridicule us for feeling the loss are...what's the word? Oh yeah:  they're assholes. Because these artists and performers were a very real part of our lives. Their lives and their work mattered to us; of course we feel bad when they're gone.

Why do we mourn David Bowie, or Glenn Frey? I guess part of it does relate to the hardening certainty of our own sand slipping to the bottom of the hourglass, but it's too facile and glib to conclude that's the whole of it. The largest part of it, I think, is just the knowledge that another cherished part of our lives has been taken away from us. Once again, we've been unable to hold on. We will fall, we will all fall, we will fall.

That hurts. Every time. 2016 has already warned us that we had damned well better get used to it.

Sir George Martin

Forget about the performer for a second. Forget the lead singer, and the guitarists and the bass player, the drummer, the keyboard noodler, the tambourine stylist and the lead glockenspieler. Forget anyone who's a full-time member of the band. For a just a moment, think of the magic created behind the scenes.

Beyond the famous names above the title, beyond the photogenic faces on the 45 sleeve and the slick magazine cover, beyond even the accolades legitimately earned by artists whose vision and craft and heart and soul transcend our expectations and set free our inner angels, there are those behind the curtain who helped to make it so. In the history of this music we love, a few legends in the shadows stand just as tall as the legends they directed into the limelight: Alan FreedLeonard Chess. Ahmet Ertegun. Leiber and Stoller. Sam Phillips. Phil Spector. Berry Gordy.

None stood taller than Sir George Martin.

The Beatles' producer, The Fifth Beatle, the man who said "Yes" when every record label in the UK said "NO, guitar groups are on the way out!," Sir George was far more than a guy in the right place at the right time. The Beatles do not happen without George Martin. Not just because he signed them to a record contract; that's a minor point in the long run. No, The Beatles AS WE KNOW THEM do not happen without George Martin. He helped make their music a real thing, something we could all hear; without George Martin, the genius of The Beatles would be unheard, unrealized. His genius ensured that would not happen. Because of Sir George Martin, this world is different. This world is better. And this world will sing these songs forever and ever. And you know that can't be bad.

Norm Mattice

This is the story of a homeless man in Syracuse. We don't know what circumstances led him to a life with no fixed address; we only know that he had been staying at a Catholic Charities homeless shelter since December. Later on, we know he was reported to have had an altercation of some kind, and that he has been unseen, missing, since the beginning of April. This weekend brought news that a body had been discovered at Onondaga Lake Park. And this morning, authorities confirmed that the deceased was indeed our missing homeless man.

All of this would be sad enough, as is. But it's even worse to know that this was not some anonymous statistic. The man's name was Norm Mattice, and he was--is--one of our own. Norm was a musician, a singer, a guitarist; he was in some great rock 'n' roll groups in the '80s and '90s--Dress Code, 1.4.5., The Richards--and no one can understand how any of this awful stuff could have happened. One of our own. The Syracuse music community is shaking its collective head. Like a warped jigsaw puzzle, we can't force the pieces to fit. This is wrong. This makes no sense. This just can't be.

Dress Code began at the end of the '70s, a scrappy quartet of teen titans, comprised of cousins Norm, Elliot, and Eric Mattice, plus Steve Martell. They were part of a vital Syracuse new wave/power pop scene, inspired by local heroes The Flashcubes, and avowedly influenced by a litany of all the right people:  The Who.  The Kinks.  The Easybeats.  The Monkees.  The Jam.  The Beatles. If you never saw Dress Code play live, I bet you're wishing right now that you did. Can't blame you. Dress Code rocked. The group released just one four-song EP, Alone In A Crowd, in 1981, and it remains a stirring example of low-budget, high-heart rockin' pop, culminating in a haunting ballad,"Something's Really Wrong," written in the aftermath of John Lennon's murder.

After Dress Code's demise, Norm Mattice eventually became the new lead singer for 1.4.5., a rock 'n' roll combo of varying line-ups, always piloted by guitarist Paul Armstrong of The Flashcubes. This edition of 1.4.5. released a simply splendid album called Rhythm n' Booze in 1988; the group later changed its name to The Richards, released the 1995 album Over The Top, and also recorded a song called "Five Personalities." "Five Personalities" is one of my all-time favorite tracks by anyone, and the group allowed us to use it on our own 2013 compilation CD, This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 3.

That's Norm Mattice's musical c.v. as I know it. I didn't really know Norm at all--I don't think we ever had a conversation, over the course of decades spent in the same Central New York nightclubs. No one believes me when I say this, but I tend to be shy in public, and I rarely initiate contact. But this loss hits hard. One of our own. God damn it, one of our own.

Broken hearts are the price we pay for survival. Sometimes that price seems all too steep. I guess we'd best appreciate--and declare our appreciation--as much as we can along the way. We offer our condolences to the friends and family; we share our kinship with the fans; we really, really hope for brighter days ahead.


2016 is fired.

Muhammed Ali

Muhammed Ali was larger than life. I can think of no other athlete, no other celebrity, no other entertainer in my lifetime whose stature transcended sports, fame, or pop culture with the precise impact of Ali's rope-a-dope style and sheer, self-assured accomplishment. Only Elvis could compare--but even the King couldn't quite match the Champ. Ali was just a boxer like Steinbeck was just a writer, like The Beatles were just a rock group, like Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a reverend.  Muhammed Ali was still flesh and blood, flawed like each of us, but also so much more; his bluster and bravado were given weight by the strength of his convictions, the solidity of his soul, the bedrock of his character, and--above all else--his courage and activism on behalf of a broader understanding of the cause he and his friend Superman always fought for:  truth, justice, and the American way. Ali's notoriety, his fame, was substantive in ways a Kardashian will never comprehend, and which our current celebrity obsessions will never, ever equal. Muhammed Ali was simply what he said he was: Muhammed Ali was The Greatest. He still is.

Norm Mattice [Part 2]


On July 3rd, 2016, Dana and I had the great honor and privilege of hosting BRIGHT LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion, an incredible night of live rock 'n' roll celebrating the late '70s/early '80s Syracuse punk/new wave/power pop scene.  Within the next few days, I will be attempting to collect my thoughts for an afterword on my impressions of that wonderful, wonderful night.

The show itself was dedicated to the memory of Norm Mattice.  Norm was an amazing talent, whom I first saw when he was still playing with his first band, Dress Code.  Norm subsequently served as frontman for 1.4.5. and The Richards, and he should have become a household name.  Norm could sing--oh man, could he ever sing!--and play guitar, and he had magazine-cover good looks.  His friend and Dress Code bandmate Steve Martell called him a rock star; Gary Frenay of The Flashcubes remembered him as one of us.  Norm was a terrific guy with a problem:  booze.  Stardom never materialized.  His dreams of rock 'n' roll success faded away.  He lost his job.  He lost his house.  His marriage ended.  His parents passed away. Periods of sobriety gave way to the problem that never stopped being a problem.  

And there was nothing anyone could do.

Though an only child, Norm had friends and family who tried to help, tried desperately to help.  But accepting help is a choice; Norm did not accept that choice.  Homeless, penniless, he died of exposure earlier this year, sleeping unsheltered in Onondaga Lake Park.  And a community wept.

At the first BRIGHT LIGHTS! show in 2014, singer-songwriter Maura Kennedy formed a Central New York supergroup called Maura & the Bright Lights, featuring her husband Pete Kennedy, Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin of The Flashcubes, and the inimitable Cathy LaManna.  Maura & the Bright Light's raison d'etre was to open our live celebrations with a set of songs associated with bands from Syracuse's original new wave scene. Maura & the Bright Lights' 2014 set included a medley of two Dress Code tunes, "Never Let Me Go" and "Something's Really Wrong," both from that group's 1981 EP Alone In The Crowd.  For this year's show, Maura wanted to open BRIGHT LIGHTS! with "Something's Really Wrong" as a dedication to Norm; the original record included a climactic collage of bad news and horrors of the world as delivered by voices on the radio, particularly news accounts of the then-recent murder of John Lennon.  To make the song a more specific tribute to Norm, Maura asked me to write a new script for that section, focusing on the plight of the homeless, and asked Dana and I to recite the section during the Bright Lights' performance of the song.  The following are Elliott Mattice's original lyrics for "Something's Really Wrong" (copyright Elliott Mattice), with our new section added for posterity.  

People in today's world seem to want to fight

I just can't understand
It's not right
What's the use of heroes?
Try to play your own song
Show them who you are
(Who you are!)
Acceptance is a way of life
How can I fit in?
Just keep yourself in your place and you'll be loved by all
Television is a habit truly loved by all
It's the American Way
(The U.S.!)
I know it must be true
Because that's what was said by the TV today
(You don't say!)
Acceptance is a way of life
How can I fit in?
Just keep yourself in your place and you'll be loved by all
Something's really wrong with the way things are going
Something should be done, or we won't last too long
Something's really wrong
Something should be done
Something's really wrong
What's the use of heroes?
Try to play your own song
Show them who you are
(Who you are!)
Acceptance is a way of life
How can I fit in?
Just keep myself in my place and I'll be loved by all

DANA:  In the news tonight, Reuters reports there are over 500,000 homeless Americans in this land of opportunity. About a quarter of the homeless are children.
CARL:  The figure, taken from a November report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is described as a snapshot of the number of homeless on a single night. 
DANA:  The actual number is likely higher.
CARL:  You can't keep track of who is sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges.
DANA:  Out of sight.  Out of mind. Discarded.
CARL:  Who can measure the faceless and the nameless?
DANA:  But sometimes even a number has a face.
CARL:  Sometimes a number has a name we know.
DANA:  One of us.
CARL:  A bright light.
DANA:  A rock star. 
CARL:  One of us.  
DANA:  Alone in the crowd.  
CARL:  Something's really wrong.  
DANA:  And that's the news on this Independence Day weekend.  
CARL:  Good night, and good luck. 

People in today's world seem to want to fight 
I just can't understand 
It's not right  

No.  No, it ain't right at all.  Rest in peace, Norm.
For all of these departed, and others, from Alan Rickman through Van Williams and Greg Lake:

As time goes by, no one will ever utter this phrase: "Remember 2016? What a great year that was. Yeah, those were the days!"

Screw you, 2016.

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