Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Art & Legacy Of Harry Chapin

It is one of those nights from my childhood that I’ll never forget. Thursday, July 16, 1981. I was ten years old, enjoying the summer at a Long Island day camp. That evening, the campers were taken on a late-night trip to see a musical production of Damn Yankees at the Jones Beach amphitheater.  The big attraction: Joe Namath, the famed NY Jets Quarterback starring as Joe Hardy, the lead character.

It was approaching 10pm when the buses pulled into the camp parking lot. Some 300 kids stepped off into the dark and began looking for their ride home. I was seeking a red four-door Pontiac Bonneville, the one my Dad proudly drove in those days. The night was humid. The air-conditioning in my Dad’s car was cranked up to full blast. But when I ducked inside the back seat, I found my father in a somber mood.

“Dad, you gotta hear about the show. Joe Namath; he was so funny. He couldn’t sing. We were all laughing.”

My father – usually the life of every party – sat quietly behind the wheel. He looked up to acknowledge me in the rearview mirror and forced a smile. “Glad you had fun. It’s been a sad night. Harry Chapin died. He was driving to do a concert. Got killed in a car crash on the LIE.”

Harry Chapin: One of the regular musical voices I would hear on my Dad’s car stereo from his vast collection of 8-track tapes. Taxi. Flowers Are Red. And the unforgettable, Cats In The Cradle. Not the rangiest singer. But undeniably one of the great singer-songwriters there ever was. Also, one of music’s true humanitarians. The inspiration behind one of NY radio’s great annual traditions.

In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, the protagonist, Johnny Elias, leverages airplay on a NY radio station by performing on a radio-thon benefit. While the station in my story is fictional, the cause and the participating organization is real: World Hunger Year (now re-named WHYHunger). A foundation established by Harry Chapin and radio personality, Bill Ayers in 1975.

I have solid memories from my teenage years of the many radio-thons hosted on the old WNEW-FM around Thanksgiving time each year. So many rock stars donated items for auction to help combat world hunger. Others would pop by the studio, perform songs and chat with the DJs. These were the best broadcasts presented all year. Significant money was raised for such a basic cause. But it always came back to the man that started it all.

Ask any songwriter to compile a list of the greatest songs ever written. Cats In The Cradle is likely to appear on 90% of the lists. Harry Chapin’s lyrical story about the cycle of neglected father and son relationships is perhaps the pinnacle of the folk-rock genre. Ironically, the poignant lyrics to the song, which hit # 1 on the charts in 1974, were not penned by the great songwriter, but by his wife, Sandra. She’d written them in a poem about the awkward relationship between her ex-husband and his father. Nonetheless, credit Harry for adapting the poem as a song, and for giving it the melody, guitar playing and the voice.
Chapin was first and foremost a storyteller. His first hit, Taxi, tells the tale of a pair of ex-lovers who meet up years later by chance. Harry is the taxi-driver and “Sue” has become a Hollywood actress, successful, but unhappy. Another classic, WOLD, tells the story of an aging DJ, struggling to maintain relevance as he moves on to yet another city. The characters always so fully developed and relatable.

Chart success did not come regularly for Chapin. Aside from Cats In The Cradle, none of his singles cracked the top ten. But the success of that one chart-topper made Chapin an instant millionaire, and a popular concert attraction. Still, the singer refused to stand pat and enjoy his riches. He joined the boards of local institutions like Hofstra University and the Long Island Philharmonic. He also staged numerous benefit concerts for causes brought to his attention. Even his regular concert performances featured merchandise for sale to benefit various charities.

Harry Chapin’s tragic death on the Long Island Expressway in the summer of 1981 did not put an end to his philanthropic endeavors. WHYHunger continues to host its annual radio-thon in NY each November. This award-winning nonprofit organization now provides assistance to combat poverty and hunger in some 8,000 communities worldwide. A beautiful legacy for a remarkably talented troubadour cut down in the prime of his life.
Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE to order your copy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Meeting The Bee Gees: A Leader, A Jokester & A Mensch

Meeting your childhood heroes can be intimidating, nerve-wracking and occasionally disappointing. Sometimes it can be truly magical. During my seven years as PR/Marketing director for IGPC - the world’s largest international postal agency - I had the unique opportunity to work with dozens of my favorite entertainers from the world of film, TV, sports and music. I could write volumes on my interactions with all of them. But perhaps the most unforgettable of all my celebrity encounters was the afternoon that I spent in the company of the Bee Gees.

          It was October 21, 1999. The day of the Broadway premiere of Saturday Night Fever (the musical). Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb were in town to walk the red carpet and waive to the crowd ahead of the opening curtain.

In the months prior to this occasion, I had been hard at work at organizing a postal tribute to the brother’s Gibb from their birth nation, the Isle Of Man. For those unfamiliar, Isle Of Man is a small island nation, located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Their innovative postal administration had already issued stamps of a handful of pop-culture subjects to that point (including Thomas the Tank Engine and Lord of the Rings). The Bee Gees, however, were their most famous sons. A special event seemed in order, provided that the three brothers could coordinate their busy schedules to participate in a formal ceremony.

By 1999, I had organized and hosted numerous, high-profile extravaganzas where living legends from Kirk Douglas to Jackie Chan had unveiled their own postage stamps in tribute to their life and careers. All of these events were public spectacles. They were staged in front of a large audience with a heavy media presence and flashbulbs popping. The Bee Gees were delighted by their hometown postal honor, but wanted none of the fanfare that our previous honorees received.

Careful negotiations resulted in a proposed 90 minute photo session behind closed doors. We were required to rent out a penthouse suite at the Rihga Royal Hotel on West 54th Street in Manhattan (where the three brothers and their families would be staying). The only individuals allowed to attend this private event were me, our photographer, her assistant and two women executives from the Isle of Man post office (who flew trans-Atlantic the night before to be present).

Our party of five arrived at the luxury hotel around noontime. We were escorted to the top-floor suite via a private elevator and led inside by a concierge. The room was spectacular. It featured a panoramic view of the city from the 54th floor. There was also a pair of outdoor balconies, three private bedrooms, a fireplace and a formal dining area. Sheer opulence.

Our photographer, Harriet, and I immediately began scouting the ideal location to set up our easel and the giant poster-board featuring a reproduction of the Bee Gees stamps. We ultimately settled on the entrance-way -- a dramatic pair of mahogany double-doors. We covered the poster with an oversized Isle Of Man flag brought over by the Postmaster, Dot Tillbury.

Just prior to the Bee Gees scheduled arrival, a young publicist popped into the suite. She sought me out and began complaining about the climate. “It’s too damn hot in here. Barry’s hair is going to wilt! Until this room is down to 68 degrees the boys won’t be coming in.” 

Barry and Maurice Gibb review their stamps
I recall having to phone the main desk to locate the thermostat (which was inside a coat closet). It took 20 minutes for the room temperature to drop. And soon thereafter, our guests-of-honor casually waltzed in. All three were dressed in black from head-to-toe. Barry Gibb wore a polo shirt, black slacks and a pair of dark shades. The twins, Maurice and Robin were identically dressed in black t-shirts, black jeans and black leather jackets. Maurice also wore his trademark fedora hat which made him stand out from his brothers. What a thrill it was to suddenly be in the presence of these all-time prolific hit-makers. 

          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, my protagonist, Johnny Elias evolves from a young music fan to an overnight megastar. However, his meteoric rise to fame is only self-validated after meeting one of his musical heroes (Ray Manzarek of the Doors) and discovering how approachable he turns out to be. For me, the validation of months of detailed preparation for a celebrity tribute project was the reception I received from the honoree. Or in this case, getting to know these three iconic musicians on a personal level, if just for an afternoon.

          Barry Gibb was the big brother of the trio, and acted very much like the group-leader. He took charge upon entering the suite, re-positioning our easel, while offering genial instructions to our photographer about lighting.

          Robin Gibb entered with a playful smirk on his face. After greeting the women from the IOM post office, he began cracking jokes about his birth-nation’s flag, which features three legs in the center. His blue framed circular glasses hid his mischievous eyes, though he periodically lowered them down the bridge of his nose to flash a glimpse of his playfulness. He began singing an improvised song which repeatedly featured the words “the three legs of man.”

          Maurice Gibb was utterly delightful. The bearded keyboard player approached me straight away and began asking about other musicians who had previously appeared on stamps. I came equipped that day with the stamps of Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan, which I shared with him in a folder. We chatted for a few minutes about our favorite music by these artists. He then quizzed me on which of the Bee Gees songs had been written by which of the three brothers. We could have conversed for hours had he not been summoned away by Barry to commence the photo shoot.


Unlike our formal public stamp unveilings, there was no script to this event. No introductions or speeches. Instead, the brothers stood huddled around the flag-covered poster, then slowly unveiled it and began posing with the stamp enlargement. At one point, Barry and Robin removed the poster from the easel and held it up from either side. Maurice slid behind the board, resting his chin at the top, then ducked down until only his hat was showing. The photos from that session wonderfully capture how much fun the Gibbs were having with this unique postal honor.

          Soon after the first round of photos, Barry motioned for the women from Isle of Man Post to pose with him and his brothers. Next, they asked for me to join them for a few shots. I had come prepared with a specially framed collection of the stamps sheets, which I presented to them. This led to another series of smiles and poses. The brothers were even gracious enough to ask our photographer and her assistant to jump in to be photographed with the trio.

          The shoot lasted about 20 minutes. The brothers then sat down on the sofas in the room and began signing autographs on the handful of stamp sheets that the postal reps had brought along. They also signed posters, Isle of Man tourist brochures, and whatever else the women could stuff into a pair of shopping bags. All throughout, the Bee Gees entertained us with stories of their childhood in their native country. Robin shared an insight of how a sound made by their father’s car driving over a particular bridge inspired the opening rhythm to their hit, Jive Talkin. Maurice sang us a few lines from Night Fever in an exaggerated German accent in response to a question about international premiers of Saturday Night Fever. And Barry spoke excitedly about an upcoming New Year’s Eve millennium concert that they were going to play in Miami.

The Bee Gees arrive on Broadway
          A delightful hour passed in an eye-blink. Then it was time to bid our farewell to our honorees. Robin snuck out quietly with his framed set of stamps. Barry shook my hand graciously, then hugged each of the women in our group before exiting. Maurice was the last to depart. But before leaving the suite, he walked around the room, handing each of us a small white envelope. Contained inside was a pair of tickets to that night’s Broadway premiere. “I hope to see you guys tonight at the theater,” he remarked. And later he made good on this promise, visiting us in the balcony during intermission that evening. A true rock n roll mensch if ever I met one.

          A sad postscript to this memory is that Maurice Gibb died most unexpectedly just three years after our encounter.  He was only 53 years old. And his twin, Robin left us far too young just nine years later.
Maurice Gibb
The premature loss of these supremely talented and likable musicians leaves me to appreciate all the more my incredibly good fortune to have spent a moment in time with all three of them together in the same room. Equally endearing as they were talented. 

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

You Never Forget Your First Concert

“So what was the first concert you attended?” It’s a question I’ve been asked, and posed to others many times as a conversation starter. It has helped to ease awkward first dates, lunch gatherings in new communities, and extended car trips with strangers. It even once came up as an icebreaker on a job interview.

          If you are fortunate enough to have seen a “brand-name” for your first show, well, the answer should roll right off your tongue with the greatest of pride. For others, the occasional, long forgotten flash-in-the-pan performer can provoke big laughs, or at least help others to pinpoint your approximate age. And then there is that third category: Those who were brought to their first show by their parents, or older siblings, long before they knew who their favorite artists would be.
          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, my protagonist, Johnny Elias emerges on the pop music scene as an overnight superstar. He quickly finds himself performing concerts across America. On the long bus-rides between cities, he and his bandmates fill the hours by recounting their first concert-going experiences and favorite musical memories of yesteryear.
For just about everyone, the details of your first concert probably stick in your memory like it was yesterday. Where was the show? Who did you go with? Where were your seats? What songs were played? How late did you get home?
          My wife remembers going with her parents to see Roberta Flack at Ontario Place theme park in Toronto as a teenager. My friend, Rachel, proudly describes seeing Rick Springfield with a group of screeching girlfriends back in 1983. My mom recalls seeing Tommy James and the Shondells play a few hits at her high-school prom in New Brunswick, NJ in 1967. For my friend, Harriet, it was Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees (and being booed off stage) at Forrest Hills Tennis Center. And my college radio co-host, Ron Rudaitis vaguely remembers being taken to Nassau Coliseum by his parents back in 1975. He was four at the time, but he has fuzzy recollections of a man in a white jumpsuit adorned with glittery rhinestones singing Jailhouse Rock and Love Me Tender. Elvis Aaron Presley!
          For me, I happen to have two answers to the first-concert question. Thankfully, both artists are all-time legends.
          I separate my first concert experiences into two categories because of the circumstances. There are concerts that you pay to see with assigned seating. And then there are bonus events, where a star performer just happens to be playing in an unlikely venue that you stumble upon. The latter is my first concert memory – and it is a doozy!
It was August of 1982. I was eleven. My parents had taken my brothers and me to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ. This was in the week after summer camp had ended, just before the start of the school year. We had spent a superlative day riding roller coasters, log flumes and bumper cars under scorching sunshine. Then nightfall arrived. We were all looking forward to the grand finale -- the fireworks extravaganza. But there was still time between our dinner break and the shimmering sendoff.
I am certain that my parents were entirely unaware as to what performance would be taking place that evening on the stage by the lake. There was no particular hype or anticipation. We simply found an empty row in the metal bleachers of the half-round theater awaiting a musical performance. I distinctly remember the relief of resting my tired feet after a day of standing in long lines.
And then it happened. The overhead lights dimmed. A center spotlight shone upon the stage. And a group of musicians emerged from behind a backdrop. That’s when the loud cheering began. I can’t recall if the artist was introduced over the PA system. But at age 11, I very much doubt that I would have known Roy Orbison by name.
I have vivid childhood memories of sitting in the backseat of my father’s car, listening to his 8-track tapes, and whatever songs he had playing on the radio. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was truly blessed to have been exposed to the best pop music ever made – that of the 1950s and 60s - over the airwaves of New York’s oldies station, WCBS-FM.

Roy Orbison dressed in black and wore his trademark dark sunglasses. It wasn’t a full-length concert, but rather a mini-show in which he performed about ten of his classic hits. His uncanny operatic voice was in fine form. He belted out the high-notes on Running Scared, Only The Lonely and Crying. I knew most of these tunes from the radio, which made this experience all the more satisfying. The roar of the crowd after each song only further validated my appreciation for Mr. Orbison’s massive talent.

I can’t recall any details of the fireworks show that night, or whether I fell asleep on the long car ride home. But I will never forget the thrill of being in the audience of perhaps the greatest male vocalist of the pop music era for what turned out to be my initial concert experience.
          Fast forward to October of 1988. I was a senior in high school. My independence had evolved, as had my musical tastes. Friends of mine were getting their driver’s licenses, earning money with summer jobs… and saving up to attend concerts. These were the days when buying tickets required you to visit the arena box office, or to call in an order by phone with Ticketmaster.
          I had wanted to attend a variety of shows over the prior months. U2’s concert at Giant Stadium in ‘87 sold out in minutes. An REM show at Madison Square Garden had only single scattered seats by the time I got through on constant re-dial to a Ticketmaster operator. Going alone was hardly an option. I’d even attempted to buy tickets from a scalper to a sold-out concert by The Cars at MSG, only to realize that scalping required far more cash than I had to my name.
           Elton John had long been a favorite of mine. His string of radio hits stretched back to 1970, the year I was born. It was hard to recall any year to that point in which there wasn’t an Elton John tune somewhere in the top-40.
          I’d long heard about Elton’s flamboyant performances that accompanied his catalog of hits. There was his rendition of Crocodile Rock on the Muppet Show that first caught my eye. He was covered in colorful feathers, wearing a pair of orange glasses and a rhinestone studded shower cap. Then came his 1980 concert in Central Park – the one in which he played piano in a full Donald Duck costume.
A handful of my high school classmates were hard-core fans of the British hit maker. Kenny, Robert and Scott had twice been to see him at the old Spectrum arena in Philadelphia. They spoke of his shows as the pinnacle of musical entertainment. My curiosity was piqued.
I remember the night I stood in line on 8th Avenue, outside Madison Square Garden with my schoolmates, hoping for a shot at a ticket. It was hours before we reached the box office window. Most unfortunately, the show we were aiming for was sold out by the time we got to the front of the line. However, to our great satisfaction, a second and a third show had just been added. We were in! Just $25 for a seat in the 300-level, facing directly at the center of the stage for the Thursday night show. A massive bargain by today’s inflated standards.
October of ’88 was something of a comeback for Elton John. He’d recently sold off most of his old costumes, and overcome a recent throat surgery. His then-recent concert album Live In Australia was a return to playing his earlier, classic material. In fact, the first eight songs he sung at the Garden that night were straight from that track-list.
There weren’t many outrageous wardrobe changes that I can recall. But from the moment he hit the stage, until the final encore, it was his remarkable showmanship and virtuoso piano playing that had the crowd howling for more. Altogether, twenty four hits were performed, of which we and some 18,000 others all seemed to know the words to. So much energy in the building that night. Our throats were sore from screaming and our hands from constant high-fives. It was absolute magic.
These days I’m the dad of two daughters, one a teenager and the other a 4th grader. Eventually, I knew the day would arrive when I’d be asked to bring them to their first live show. Given my first-concert pedigree, well, I knew I’d have to make it a good one. For Amber, our older daughter, we picked the biggest living legend of all. Paul McCartney. 2009 at Boston’s Fenway Park. Her second live show was the first for our younger daughter, Casey. They dragged us to Jones Beach last September for a teenage shriek-fest by an Aussie boy-band called Five Seconds Of Summer. A flash in the pan? Only time will tell. But no matter the performer, one thing is for certain: For my girls, just like for me, the memories of that first show will never fade. In fact, they only get more legendary with time and perspective.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.