Okay, I have no idea why this irritates the fuck out me, but here it goes.
1. Nobody gives a fuck.
2. Nobody gives a fuck about an ex-player in his 50s who won six championship rings because he happened to be the luckiest motherfucker on the planet who hit the draft lottery getting to play next to Michael Jordan who now thinks of himself as a drafting and personnel expert.
3. Nobody gives a fuck about an NBA executive who has given consulting advice that’s produced a .443 winning percentage for his underachieving garbage team since he was sucking in fat paychecks.
4. Nobody gives a fuck about a lucky ex-jock still trying to leech sugary paychecks, except for the hundreds of brainy nerds he shut out of jobs who actually went to school, studied hard, and lived and breathed NBA management for decades but instead had to take shit jobs because “Scottie” creamed the payroll and pretended to be calling the shots.
5. Nobody gives a fuck about a dude that retired 20 years ago unless he’s signing autographs at a sports and memorabilia show.
6. Nobody gives a fuck *you’re upset* about losing your $1.3 million-a-year “consulting gig, plus box seats at all the Bulls games. Try to live on the scraps of what you didn’t blow, asshole.
7. Nobody gives a fuck.
Go draw unemployment, jerkoff.
Over and done. I have lots more if anyone likes rants. Took me three minutes to write, but I feel much better now.
Midnight Express is a mesmerizing 1978 film based on the true story of an American college student who gets arrested and then convicted of drug charges who is summarily forced to endure the unspeakable horrors of the Turkish prison system.
After I watched the movie — its screenplay penned by Oliver Stone based in the captivating book by Billy Hayes who wrote of his experiences — like so many viewers I came away with a deep hatred for Turkey and its people. It was impossible to watch that movie and see the way Turks were portrayed and not be jaded by the cruel hyperbolic depiction.
I wasn’t sympathetic to drug use nor smuggling, mind you. However, the injustices of the Turkish legal system and the way such a relatively minor crime was punished left a lasting impression. For many who saw it, Midnight Express was the only thing we knew about Turkey.
But life does twist us in ways we cannot predict and turn us onto paths we do not foresee. Fifteen years after Midnight Express infuriated tens of millions of moviegoers, I ended up working for the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. I was an employee of the Turkish Government for seven years, between 1993 and 2000.
During my employment with the Turks, I gradually came not only to admire the fascinating history and rich culture of Turkey, and before them, the Ottomans. Working with people with very different attitudes opened my eyes to another perspective of the world — one that was not always consistent with my own perspectives, opinions, and values that I thought to be unshakable. Visiting Turkey four times during my tenure with the Embassy broadened my experiences even further. The photo (posted above) was taken during one of those visits, while in Istanbul.
However, one thing I couldn’t shake was the terrible memory of Midnight Express and the constant reminders of how Billy Hayes was treated by the system I now supported with my own labor. His book and the movie came up frequently among the Turks while I worked there. It was often the first thing Americans thought of when they were asked what they associate with Turkey. I even came to share the Turks’ resentment of the distorted portrayal. I began to posture defensively about it in conversations with Americans.
Fuck Billy Hayes. He was a drug smuggler. He did the crime, so he should have done the time! He got what he deserved!
Nonetheless, I couldn’t refute his very real story of a grave injustice at the hands of a government that was essentially run by a military dictatorship (in the 1970s). I couldn’t defend a corrupt system where an admittedly guilty man gets convicted, serves most of his sentence, and then just a few months before being released gets *retried* again for the same crime and subsequently is given life imprisonment. Imagine that for a shocker. Life imprisonment!
Sometime around 1997, while still in the employ of the Turks, it occurred to me I’d never actually read Billy Hayes’ book, Midnight Express, which was the first-person account. Reading it with an open mind seemed way overdue.
The text of Midnight Express, penned by a college graduate who once aspired to be a journalist and commanded a mastery of both language and expressing his own emotions, recalibrated every thought I had about the story, the book, and even the movie (which took extraordinary artistic liberties and even added incidents that didn’t really happen). As I closed the book following the final paragraph, guided by Billy Hayes’ narrative, I was a changed man, or at least I saw things differently than before. There was no genesis of opinion, nor even a definitive finality to that story. All of life’s experiences and the way we look upon them — good and bad — contribute to the rolling assembly line of evolutionary thought.
Billy Hayes and Midnight Express had once again affected me in ways I didn’t expect. His story made me think of things differently, and in a very tangible sense had also broadened my horizons at looking at subjects in a more existential way — that there can be contrasting even contradictory truths which depend on where we are in time and who we interact with, some by intent and others purely by chance. The truth we believe today might be the falsehood of tomorrow.
Perhaps I felt closer to Billy Hayes and his story solely because I spent all that time also influenced by Turkish people, which was a clash of perceptions. This all happened more than twenty years ago. Occasionally, I wondered what happened to Billy Hayes?
I wondered: Did he disappear? Did he try to forget about his years in Turkey? Was he even still alive?
Between 1997 and 2020, Midnight Express appeared on television sporadically and like a firefly to the flame, I felt the magnetic pull of curiosity tugging at my soul. I watched the movie a few more times, each viewing a chasm driven deeper into the divide between illusion and reality.
Then, about three weeks ago, something remarkable happened.
A local magazine was sitting on my living room table. I don’t even recall how it got there. The front cover showed a photo of Billy Hayes. Was that the same Billy Hayes who wrote Midnight Express?
It was. What was he doing on the cover of a publication about Las Vegas? He was sitting in a pose a Red Rock, seemingly at peace with himself. Wait — Billy Hayes was now in Las Vegas?
I was about to explore….and discover so much more.
On the night of October 7, 1970, an American college student named Billy Hayes duct-tapped four pounds of hashish to his torso and attempted to clear customs as he was about to depart Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He made it successfully past the initial terminal search, then boarded a transport bus that shuttled international passengers to a waiting airplane out on the tarmac. It seemed he was home free.
But just as the bus pulled up to the jetway, Hayes was confronted with a horrific sight. Turkish Army soldiers were lined up waiting to search passengers for a second time. Recent terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization put Istanbul and other airports on a heightened state of alert. Hayes had just made the biggest mistake of his life. His life was about to change in ways no one could have predicted.
Yet, Hayes later said his arrest, trial, conviction, and five-years spent inside a hellish Turkish prison turned out to be one of the very best things that could have happened. Watch the video clip here, which runs about three minutes. It’s a short, but thorough account of Billy Hayes and the factual background story of what became the incendiary 1978 movie, Midnight Express.
So — almost fifty years later — what was Billy Hayes now doing in Las Vegas?
I read the well-written expose on Billy Hayes that focused on what he’d done in the four-plus decades since his escape from imprisonment in Turkey when in 1975 he paddled 17 miles in a storm across the Marmara Sea and crossed the heavily fortified border into Greece and on to freedom back home. Turns out, Billy Hayes had moved to Las Vegas.
Now 73 (his birthday was last week), Hayes has made peace not only with himself but with his once-hostile captors — the Turks. Hayes was invited to return to Turkey as an official guest of the government, actually the TNP (Turkish National Police). He openly spoke of his experiences and even expressed love and admiration for the country and especially its people. It seemed such an unlikely, even an impossible reconciliation, but Hayes had never *hated” Turkey or the Turks despite his imprisonment and brutal treatment.
What I remember was Billy Hayes’ book and the movie destroying Turkey’s tourism industry and jading an entire generation as to how it perceived a proud culture and people. Certainly, this had not been his intent. In fact, he’s been trying to correct the record and make amends, ever since. These noble efforts speak to the remarkable qualities of a man I somehow thought of as a friend, with so many kindred interests — experiences with Turkey (indeed very different), deep love and background in writing, a free-spirited outlook on life — but who I’d never actually met.
None of us is ever likely to be locked up inside a Turkish prison, nor understand the fear and nightmare of what it’s like to face a life sentence for drug possession (later changed to drug smuggling). Nonetheless, his remarkable story resonates with all who have read it, and who can now hear it, thanks to Hayes’ doing what amounts to a one-man show of his life and experiences. He has written other books, directed a movie, and even appeared as the hired assassin in a Charles Bronson movie, Assassination.
When our lives return to normal after the CV-19 crisis, I hope to go see Billy Hayes’ show. I expect there are many more things I can learn, not just bout him and bygone days in Turkey, but about myself. His story is a rebirth and a revelation.
Last week, Billy Hayes and I became Facebook friends. This is one of the many unanticipated benefits of social distancing and isolation, which is to create of our time what we want to make of it. Hayes doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I expect he’ll read it. If so, I have some words for him:
Thank you for sharing your story and for your gifts as a writer and for your courage to self-examine through intense introspection and for being fully human and for enduring and for moving to Las Vegas and now being one with us on social media.
Midnight Express, which factors in the title of Billy Hayes multiple narratives, refers to an uncharted labyrinth of escape from captivity. In a sense, we all remain captive to all of our outmoded perceptions, those old ideas, destructively archaic thoughts, and paralyzing fears. Yes, each of us remains in perpetual pursuit of truth’s liberation, of finding our own Midnight Express.
Sometime during the mid-90s, each year, I began posting odds on who would win the World Series of Poker Main Event, otherwise known as poker’s world championship.
A few gambling websites picked up on the odds and began posting them for discussion. This was back when only 300 people or so entered the $10,000 buy-in Main Event each year. And it was usually the same 300 people. So, handicapping a field of well-known players with verifiable records wasn’t too difficult. Most insiders generally agreed with who should be the favorites and the longshots.
Nevertheless, one year my betting odds managed to piss just about everybody off — especially players who thought they got shafted when I listed them as longshots. Naturally, everyone thought they should be one of the favorites to win. If the average odds of winning came to about 300-1, then those who were listed at 500-1 and 600-1 or worse felt downright insulted. Some people saw my odds and wouldn’t talk to me.
Poker legend Doyle Brunson read my odds and was incensed. He posted at one forum, “You don’t have a clue.”
When Puggy Pearson heard he was listed 600-1, he came hunting for me. That’s funny because I think 600-1 was too generous. If he knew what I really thought, Puggy might have killed me.
But no one was more furious about my WSOP odds than Stu Ungar.
One year while my WSOP odds were out, Mike Sexton and I joined Stuey for dinner. We went to the Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Charleston. That’s the same parking lot where Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was blown up in his Cadillac. Recall the opening scene from the movie Casino.
Stuey had absolutely no knowledge of the Internet. He didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. He never had an e-mail address. So, he never actually saw my WSOP odds. But he was about to learn about them and react in a way that I’d never seen anyone act before, or since.
When Mike brought up the odds, Stuey was advised that he was listed at 75-1 to win. Stuey wasn’t too upset about that, at least not until he heard the names of other players who were ranked ahead of him. That set off a tirade that would last for the rest of the evening. Stuey had a tendency to stutter when he got excited:
Who-who-who you got ranked ahead of me? Nobody can beat me when I’m playing my game! How can you not have me ranked as the favorite? Tell me!
Arguing with Stuey was pointless. But I ignored the obvious warning signs and danger zone and plunged mouth-first towards my own demise.
While the discussion continued on and Stuey became more curious to know why I’d listed him at 75-1, dinner was served. I hoped full racks of baby-back ribs laced with tangy barbecue sauce might extinguish the flames of tension, especially since it’s hard to talk when everybody’s chewing pig flesh. But a towering plate of ribs wasn’t about to interrupt Stuey’s obsession to know why he wasn’t the favorite to win that year’s WSOP.
I’ve written about this before, but watching Stuey eat a meal was a comedy act. He utterly devoured what was in front of him. It was like a wild beast devouring prey. While talking, he’d gesture with rib bones, pointing and pushing the baby backs directly into your chest when he felt particularly passionate about a certain point.
Stuey had asked me a direct question, and he wasn’t about to let this go without an answer. He kept repeating himself, and stuttering:
Seriously, who–who–who you got ranked ahead of me? Who!
Mike just looked straight ahead like a mute and continued eating his meal without saying a word. He let me swing the hangman’s loop.
“Uh, well. Uhhhhhhhh. Uhhhhhhhh. I think I had T.J. ranked number one. Then, there was Huck Seed. Johnny Chan’s up there,” I said, grappling for straws that were elusive to any common agreement.
Who else? Who-who-who else you got on that list ahead of me? Who!
“Uhhhhh, Dan Harrington was 65-1. I think Barbara Enright was 70-1…..”
Did you say Barbara Enright? Are you fucking kidding me? Please tell me you’re fucking kidding.
“Yeah, Stuey. I mean, she made the final table last year. She’s a goo………………”
Wait! You mean, you ranked a woman ahead of me?
There was particular emphasis on a woman, almost as though the words were painful for him to say.
“Yeah. I mean she…………….”
At that point, Stuey stopped eating completely. Just a few bites into the scrumptious platter, he plopped his ribs down onto the plate as if the entire meal was completely ruined. Stuey sat stoically in a state of disbelief, starring at no place in particular as though he’d been told something impossible to fathom.
You want to write about me and tell everybody my story, and you’ve got a woman ranked better than me?
“Stuey, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just some odds that I posted on a website.”
I can’t believe you have a woman ranked ahead of me. That’s fucking ridiculous. I’d like to see the rest of your odds. That’s a fucking joke.
Gee, I guess Stuey agreed with Doyle.
“Stuey, c’mon. She’s the very best woman player in the world right now. She’s won three gold bracelets. Why do you think……”
Reasoning with Stuey was to no avail:
Really, seriously — you ranked a woman ahead of me? This is a joke, right?
Stuey wouldn’t let this go. The disgust in his voice became more loathsome with each outburst. Mike saw this exchange was going nowhere and finally came to my rescue, making a futile attempt to change the subject.
“Stuey, the most important thing right now is that you get your act together and just be ready to play. I mean, no one even knows if you are going to show up — and if you do show up, what condition you’ll be in.”
Of course, Mike was absolutely right as he always is about matters like this. I didn’t have the balls to say it and Mike was much closer to Stuey than I was at that point, so he could get away with tough talk. But Stuey wouldn’t listen. Mike might as well have been whispering into a pillow out in the parking lot. There was a tinge of sadness and disgust:
He ranked me below a woman.
It didn’t matter what I did or we said and did after that–Stuey’s night was completely destroyed. He didn’t eat another bite for the rest of the evening. Later, we did some other things following dinner and even talked a bit more. But every 20 minutes or so, Stuey would interrupt the conversation completely out of nowhere and mumble to himself while shaking his head as though he’d been shamed beyond redemption.
You ranked me below a woman.
I’m ranked below a woman.
I can’t fucking believe it. He ranked me worse than a woman.
MY THOUGHTS ON LIVE POKER RETURNING IN THE SHADOW OF COVID-19
The main reason why poker will struggle in Las Vegas and elsewhere after reopening isn’t about safety. It’s because the games will suck.
1. Let’s ponder the reasons why most people play casino poker. The two primary reasons are:
(A) To make money and
(B) To socialize.
2. Now, let’s take a look at the prototype that’s been “trial ballooned” in the gambling media as just one of several possibilities for a functional poker table in the post-CV19 era. It’s a standard table with glass (or plastic) partitions. Presumably, this design will reduce the chances of contamination and/or infection spread between dealers and players and each other. Similar designs have surfaced elsewhere, and a few are reportedly being used now as some casinos begin to reopen.
3. Aside from the many questions as to whether this table design is truly safe to consumers and provides an acceptable level of protection while in the midst of a global pandemic that has infected more than a million Americans, even under a best-case scenario, how “good” will poker games be?
4. Returning to the original point raised in #1, will live poker games played in the shadow of CV19 be either (A) potentially profitable and/or (B) sociable? My conclusions are — no and no.
5. When Nevada casinos reopen, poker tables will reportedly be played with a maximum of four players. Now ask yourself this:
What kinds of poker players will play under these highly unusual, short-handed conditions? Pros and semi-pros? Yes. What about more casual players? Probably not. What about weak and inexperienced players? Absolutely not. Prediction: Standard four-handed games will be terrible. They will be virtually unbeatable, with only a few exceptions, noted later.
It will be like a pond of sharks feasting for any sign of a juicy morsel, all but impossible to find.
6. What about the social aspect of these games? Four-handed poker with dividers might be an interesting conversation piece for a few minutes but will quickly become very annoying. Partitions where players might have trouble speaking, not to mention problems with glare, will kill any prospects for fun and spirited games. Let’s face it: Live poker was already becoming unsociable, almost robotic in nature, *before *the pandemic and crisis. Smartphones and iPads had all but destroyed casual table conversation leading up to the events of early 2020. Now, remove half the players at any given table since seats are reduced from 9/10 down to 4 and set up dividers, and the social attraction of poker is obliterated.
7. So, games will be terrible in most situations. What’s the fallout of all this? Simple. Table draws/seating position will be so paramount to profit that managing the room will become far more difficult. Smart players will scout the room and try to find seats with weak players, which will be few and far between. However, a small number of players — primarily short-handed specialists — might enjoy a significant uptick in profit. But this will be only a small number. The vast majority of marginally-talented players who were grinding out modest profits before will instantly become break-even or even losing players. For virtually everyone, certainly in poker markets with tougher and more experienced players, the games will become unbeatable. With players’ portion of the rake likely to increase, as well as the occasions for tipping dealers (fewer players means higher percentages of pots won), this will only add to the stress of trying to earn a profit.
8. A very small number of locations, games, and players will benefit from the new conditions. Some markets do have broader skill disparities between skilled and unskilled players, and the better players will win more money faster. However, this could also be dangerous for losing players who might go broke faster and not be able to replenish funds. If they bust, who will take their places? So, even the winning players in the short term could end up suffering in the longer-term, especially if short-handed play is the norm for a while.
9. As for attracting new players to the game, forget it. Casino poker was already intimidating before. However, full games will up to 10 players often allowed novice players to blend in and not be forced into as many decisions. Short-handed games with blinds racing around and faster action will fail to attract new players who are essential to the prosperity of any poker room.
10. Thus far, I have not touched upon health and safety. I’ll leave it up to medical professionals to offer their assessments. Nonetheless, no other casino game typically includes as much personal interaction with others and touching common items as poker. While video poker and slot machines can be sanitized frequently, one must wonder how healthy it will be to play poker for many hours in a session, which is typical behavior for most players. It seems poker is far riskier than other casino games and activities.
Hence, I conclude the games will mostly be unbeatable. Poker games will be less sociable. And games might even be unsafe.
Is there any upside or positives? Well, online poker should fare well where it is now legal and/or quasi-legal. I strongly suggest players gravitate to trusted sites where consumers enjoy some protections. Too bad that so many “poker professionals” did so little to advance online poker years ago when they had the chance. Now, the game will struggle, at least for a while.
Personally, I have no interest in playing live casino poker until there’s a vaccine or the threat of infection almost entirely disappears. And I certainly have no interest in playing ina four-handed game boxed into a cubicle that resembles a jail visit.
I’m neutral on the question of poker’s greater future. I just don’t know and can’t offer any projections, and this is from someone who spent a few years on all sides of the game. How might our recreational and gaming habits change if these social distancing guidelines continue much longer?
I’ll offer one more assessment soon in a future column on the prospects for dealers and staff, who I genuinely have concern for in the months and years ahead. As for poker pros, it’s probably time to go out and get a real job, provided you can find one.
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 12
DAY 78: Funny Van Morrison Stories
Today, here’s something a bit different.
The very last thing Van Morrison is known for is his sense of humor. He’s one of music’s biggest crabs. But given his introverted nature, his notoriously inconsistent live performances, and a deep distaste for fame or any of the trappings associated with being a rock legend, over the years many great Van stories have been told which are quite amusing.
To get the full effect of these stories you have to understand a few things about Van:
1. He does enjoy the occasional drink. Van has been through periods of self-imposed sobriety, but his love of liquid spirits won’t exactly diminish any old Irish stereotypes.
2. Second, Van is known for some astounding moments of rudeness, even to his own fans and audiences. This crabbiness bothers many would-be fans. It has certainly contributed to Van’s reputation as a curmudgeon. The way he treats fans, media, and even members of his own bad used to annoy me, but eventually, I came to realize he’s just on his own planet, sometimes and so I’ll forgive and instead try to relish the music.
That said, here are a couple of amusing Van tales of many I’ve come across: I’ll try to tell more as the series continues.
VAN STORY #1: Credit Gregory Runfeldt for his funny Van story….
“A friend of mine managed a bar in a hotel. One quiet evening Van walks in, sits at the bar and orders a whiskey, my friend makes a suggestion and Van excepts. My mate pours the drink and passes the glass across the bar. At this point my friend tried to describe the incredulous look on Van’s face (which my friend said didn’t really do it justice) as Van pushes the glass back across the bar, looks him in the eye and says….. “the bottle.”
VAN STORY #2: Credit John Norvell Greene….
“My brother went to see Van in concert in the mid-80s. Van was in poor humor, so bad that he sang his songs with his back to the audience most of the show. Between songs, a fan shouted, “Van–show us your face!” Van’s reply was classic: “You came to see me, I didn’t come to see you.” From that moment on, he was hooked onto his music.”
DAY 79: “Only a Dream” (Soloman Burke Cover Version from 2002)
There are so many outstanding cover versions of Van Morrison compositions that it’s become impossible to cut them down to only a few.
Certainly, one of the most memorable renditions is by the prolific performer, pioneer, and legend Solomon Burke who was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His bluesy rendition of Van’s “Only a Dream” is the ultimate payback to the Northern Irish icon who was so deeply influenced by classic 50s and 60s R&B.
“Only a Dream” sounds very much like it could have been written 50 years earlier. But it’s actually a relatively modern track off Van’s Down the Road double album. Much of the rich collection is a throwback to the songs and sounds of his childhood, albeit with Van’s own soulful twist. As is typical, Van appears to be doing music for himself here, with virtually no regard for commercial prospects of success.
Indeed, this time it was one of the legends covering a Van song, instead of vice versa. Van’s music had been done earlier by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles. So, Solomon Burke certainly fits within that wheelhouse of musical giants. Van may have penned the melody and lyric, but Burke masters this tune and makes it all his own.
The cover appeared on the 2002 album Don’t Give Up on Me, released on Fat Possum Records. Not only Van, but Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, and Bob Dylan provided material for Burke’s sessions. But really it’s the standout quality of the songs and Burke himself, one of the most versatile and charismatic singers around, that make this album so special.
That album, considered the swan song of his lengthy career, won the MOJO Award for Album of the Year, as well as the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. So, once again — even though Van has never recorded a Top Ten hit, his work continued to reach new audiences by virtue of reinterpretation by other artists.
Addendum: Burke passed away in 2010. In one of his final interviews, he admitted serial infidelity during his four marriages:
“I was young. Girls were coming from every angle. I couldn’t love them all. But I tried.”
DAY 80: More Van Morrison — The Crabby Curmudgeon
This series attempts to be a comprehensive overview of the music and career of Van Morrison. But there will be no sugar coating.
Over the past several weeks I’ve posted some awful live performances, outtakes, embarrassing moments, and baffling misses. To be fair, no musician in the public eye over 56 prolific years can possibly go without some blemishes (Van’s first hit was in 1964). However, Van has twisted obtuseness and made it his own art form.
Ask any rock critic or interviewer who has covered the music scene any length of time, and the worst interview on the planet is usually Van Morrison. He resents being questioned. He doesn’t like talking about music, opting to let the sound speak for itself and be left open to interpretation. He doesn’t like his lyrics deciphered, brushing away serious scholarly reflection as a waste of time. Most songwriters would foam at the mouth for such attention and to be taken so seriously. Van doesn’t care.
In an odd way, this makes him both cringeworthy and endearing, at least to his loyal fans.
Consider this 2-minute sit-down interview from 1987 when he was promoting the Poetic Champions Compose album and tour. Imagine for a moment, you are the unfortunate journalist forced to sit there and ask these questions and then try and spin Van’s dismissal of the entire songwriting process in a matter of seconds. Indeed, you’ve just landed one of the rarest interviews in the music business, and this is the torturous dregs you’re left to work with.
Rarely have I witnessed something so painful to watch, yet so genuinely hysterical.
“You gotta pretend that you are searching for something, so you have something to write about, otherwise you end up with a blank piece of paper.”
Just brutal. This interview is obviously the last place on earth Van wants to be, and it shows!
DAY 81: “Crazy Love” (Van Morrison with Ray Charles)
Ray Charles had as profound an influence on Van Morrison’s music and songwriting as anyone. Van grew up listening to Charles’ soulful recordings in the 1950s. He took an important lesson from the singer-pianist who had shocked audiences in 1962 when he temporarily detoured away from his R&B roots opting to record a country and western album, which shattered barriers on race, culture, and music. Such a thing wasn’t done in those days, but Charles was a pioneer. That willingness to depart comfort zones and take new chances in new musical arenas later became a defining trademark of Van’s career, which has covered nearly every musical genre. But it really began with Van’s mentor, Ray Charles.
Continuing with our series on the greatest cover versions of Van’s songs, let’s examine the 2004 classic, “Crazy Love.” The song originally appeared on Van’s 1970 album Moondance. Charles heard it and played it so often that it became widely misunderstood as an original composition. But Van wrote it as an acoustic guitar track. When he discovered his icon Ray Charles decided to perform it (and later record the song), he was uncharacteristically thrilled, perhaps as emotionally-satisfied as from any career peak.
In 1993, Van was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. True to his crusty reputation, he didn’t even bother to show up for the induction. “It meant nothing to me,” Van recalled later in an interview so typical of his distaste for fame and ceremony. But a decade later things would be very different.
Sometime in 2003, Van was informed he’d be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Unlike being etched into the rock pantheon, this honor really meant something to Van. So, he was inclined to attend and accept the trappings of the induction. When Van learned Ray Charles would be present to perform, well, that was the deciding factor. “Yeah, I went because Ray being there really meant something,” Van stated in an expose on that aired on CBS Sunday Morning.
So, in this short clip, Charles begins singing the song Van wrote, and then Van comes out and performs a duet. It’s the only public appearance of the two legends together.
Shortly after the induction, it was obvious that Charles was in poor health. In the Spring of 2004, he went into the studio one last time for what would be his final few sessions. He recorded one final farewell album, what was titled Genius Loves Company. Fittingly, “Crazy Love” was the 12th and final song on the very last album.
Ray Charles died in June of 2004. The album was released posthumously. The swansong collection cracked the Top Ten, Charles first such feat in 40 years. In fact, Genius Loves Company became the best-selling album of Charles’ career.
Let’s have a look and a listen at this classic moment, an unrehearsed duet with the two masters, performed live at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
DAY 82: The Real Story Behind “Brown-Eyed Girl” (1967)
It’s the song we all know the words to and can sing along with. Word for word. Note for note. It’s a staple on classic rock radio and karaoke bars. Even those who don’t know the name “Van Morrison,” know his most famous hit song, “Brown Eyed Girl.” It’s his signature song.
But do they know the real story about how the catchy melody became Van’s first solo hit single?
Writer Tom Maxwell recounted much of the background story in a marvelously researched article, portions which were also relayed in Ryan H. Walsh’s joyous read of a book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. Here’s my take and interpretation, melding the best details from each author along with my own insight.
In the spring of 1967, right after splitting from the Northern Irish band Them, solo Van Morrison flew to New York for the first time. He was rushed into a Manhattan studio and recorded more than 40 original songs. The three-day musical onslaught became known as the “Bang Sessions.”
Despite known for being difficult to work with and highly temperamental, record producer Bert Berns offered Van a recording contract. It was a fateful decision. Morrison signed the deal, which he later said he didn’t even bother to read nor did he consult with an agent, in exchange for the sum of $2,500.
By the time the Bang sessions were underway, Van was already on edge. He didn’t like the studio musicians assigned to the recordings. He argued with sound engineers. He got into spats with Berns and just about anyone who would subject themselves to his rants. Nonetheless, Berns and those who witnessed the musical carnage knew something spectacular was happening in the cramped cubicle of sound that was the sub-leased studio at A&R Records. Beneath the excruciating difficulties lay the heart, the soul, and the voice of a songwriting guru. Indeed, even his shitty songs were pretty good.
One of those shitty songs came together much better than the rest. Van, with no eye nor ear for commercial tastes, had written a song he titled “Brown-Skinned Girl.” Berns would have none of the scandalous trappings with racy lyrics about an interracial love affair. So, he is alleged to have altered the title to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Van disputes some of this but does agree “Brown-Skinned Girl” was the working title and genesis.
Wait, the story gets more bizarre.
Once the initial recording sessions were finished, and more than 30 original compositions were in the vault at Bang, Van returned to his native Belfast. Then, about six weeks later, a friend telephoned Van with some jolting news. The friend told Van he’d just bought a copy of his first solo album, Blowin’ Your Mind!
“But I don’t have a solo album,” Van reportedly shot back on the transatlantic call.
“Well, you do now!”
The gaudy album cover was a total travesty. It showed a colorized cartoonish picture of a pensive Van Morrison is on its cover, surrounded by psychedelic art and puffy lettering.
“I got a call saying it was an album coming out and this is the cover,” Van said years later. “And I saw the cover and I almost threw up, you know.”
Van Morrison was completely unaware of the album, or even that such a thing was possible. How could his record company and producer release an album with his name on it, and not even inform him?
Wait, now the story really kicks in.
“Brown-Eyed Girl” shot up the charts and reached #10 on Billboard. However, due to a badly-written contract, Van didn’t get paid. As DJs across America were spinning the catchy tune, Van flew back to the states and was in Bern’s New York office screaming at him for rushing out an album. Money might have softened the humiliation, but there was no money waiting for Van. The duo fought over royalties. Then, on December 30, 1967, the unthinkable happened. Bert Berns, the owner of Bang Records and the pillar in control of Van’s recording contract suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 38. Berns’s widow blamed Van for his death.
Incredibly, Van still owed Bang another round of songs. And so, Van delivered. He penned 31 throw-away songs. One of the song titles was “Ringworm.” In Van’s mind, none were ever intended for release. It was a farce.
What became known as Morrison’s “revenge sessions” was nothing more than trying to satisfy a contractual obligation. He had to make songs for the label, which had been taken over by powers that saw music as soda pop, something to be sold to the masses. “The album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label F-you’s,” wrote Maxwell. “Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently, that was the whole point of it: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers….Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.”
Van was only 23 at the time. But he’d already established himself as a terror to work with and deal with, some of the unpredictable bouts of rage entirely justified.
So, when Van is obligated to make his first national television appearance and sing his first solo hit on ABC’s widely-influential program, American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark, for the first time we see someone angry and rebellious, prone to fits of anger, pissed at the music industry, utterly broke despite having a hit single on the sharts, and his career in smithereens with no management and his music prospects null and void. Add the indignity of having to lip-synch a song Van didn’t even like due to the show’s technical limitations at the time, and we see Van utterly disinterested to the point of near revulsion.
That’s the real story of “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Sorta’ changes things and obliterates the joyful innocence, doesn’t it?
[Postscript: Right after Bang dropped Van, he rushed into the studio with Warner, and recorded his masterpiece — Astral Weeks.]
DAY 83: “Ringworm” (1968)
Following up on the previous article on “Brown-Eyed Girl”……
Imagine you’re the record company, and Van is obligated to provide X number of new tracks, and *THIS* acetate arrives in the office plopped down on the desk. The reaction for music company executives when they heard this must have been priceless.
It’s the greatest FUCK YOU! to a record label ever. Especially after the company put out an album without consulting Van or asking for his input.
[People ask me how VM has such a cult following. Well, it’s stories like this.]
DAY 84: “Big Time Operators” (1993)
Yesterday, we examined some of the root causes of Van Morrison’s bitterness at the music industry and hard-nosed reputation as being difficult to work with.
That resentment has inspired several vicious songs that weren’t commercially successful but certainly gave Van some deep-seated satisfaction with lashing out at those he’s perceived to have crossed him over the years. Fellow “Vanatics” have come to accept and even embrace this odd obsession with getting back at his enemies through his music. It’s become so frequent and so harsh that the lyrics from the famed curmudgeon are almost camp hysterical.
Take Van’s blistering attack on music producers, record companies, and agents in “Big Time Operators,” from the outstanding 1993 album, Too Long in Exile. Rooted in blues, jazz, and soul, Too Long in Exile is clearly one of Van’s most personal projects. He worked with his own musicians, most lifelong associates. He was also signed to a new record label which knew the combustible, yet unpredictable force of nature they were signing. One presumes they just turned Van loose inside the studio and let him roll. Accordingly, the album would be expected to be wildly undisciplined. However, the collection is remarkable even and consistently enjoyable from start to finish.
“Big Time Operators” is one of 15 tracks on the album. If you read the previous two segments of this series, you will better understand the song, which is entirely autobiographical. From the first lyric, “Well, they told me to come on over…..I made my way to New York,” we know what’s about to come. Indeed, one of the most interesting stanzas is Van saying they (the music execs) thought he was “on drugs” due to his introverted and often surly nature, but insists, “I was clean,” which was entirely true since Van had little or no experience with drug use, even though it was rampant in rock music at the time. Every lyric seems to come with a story to unpack.
After a string of pop-infused albums in the late 80s and early 90s, Van returns to his roots here in top form. Several tracks include him on saxophone. Interesting fact about the title is — Van was never in exile, apart from a nearly 3-year hiatus from recording and performing during the mid-1970s. This marks one of his most prolific periods. Perhaps Van was having some imaginary fun with lyrics. A more grounded speculation might be that after write several pop hits, “Days Like This,” “Have I Told You Lately,” “Someone Like You,” and others he felt exiled from his musical roots, which is old blues and jazz.
Special thanks to Jack Ward for today’s recommendation. Now, have a listen to Van rip apart the music industry, he claims is ruined by “Big Time Operators.”
[ h/T Jack Ward ]
WEEK 1: (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
WEEK 2: (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
WEEK 3: (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
Week 4: (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
WEEK 5: (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
WEEK 6: (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
WEEK 7: (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
WEEK 8: (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
WEEK 9 (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
WEEK 10 (Caravan Live; David Letterman-with Sinead O’Connor; I’ll Be Your Lover Too; Hungry For Your Love; Irish Heartbeat; Sean Cullen Comedy Impersonation; Jimmy Fallon Comedy Impersonation)
WEEK 11 (Tell Me-unreleased; Take Me Back; Gloria by Patti Smith; Into the Mystic by Joe Cocker; Have I Told You Lately by Rod Stewart; Wild Night by John Cougar Mellencamp; Madame George by Marianne Faithful)
WEEK 12 (Funny Van Stories; Only a Dream cover by Soloman Burke; Disastroud Van Interview; Crazy Love duet with Ray Charles; The Real Story Behind Brown-Eyed Girl; Ringworm-unreleased; Big Time Operators)