Nina Simone

ninasimone2011The nearly breathless phone was from my High School friend Jerry Blatt, Bette Midler’s manager. Nina Simone was in town and would be playing one night only at the Village Vanguard. It was by invitation only and I should tell Art D’Lugoff or whoever was at the door that I was Bette’s guest. Simone, that great singer/pianist/composer, had been battling the I.R.S. and had fled to the Caribbean in 1973 and then taken up residence in France. This trip to New York as well as this one night only concert was totally hush-hush.

The Vanguard was packed and excitement filled the air. Looking only a bit older then when I’d last seen her at the Newport Jazz Festival, almost twenty years before, Simone entered the room, dressed head to toe in brilliantly patterned colors, clad like an African priestess.
“Hello friends,” she said. She was alone, without her famous band. She sat at the piano which had defined her life from when she’d been a child prodigy in North Carolina through her years as a classical pianist at the Julliard School to this day.

In the midst of one of her jazz/soul concerts Simone had been known to toss off a perfect minute-long Bach Gigue or Debussy Etude. But then when Nina Simone was on stage, it wasn’t just a concert, it was a happening, a visitation, a revelation, a political lesson, and a communion. This night would be no different.

She began her concert with standards: "Someone to Watch over Me," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and “My Funny Valentine,” mentioning other Jazz musicians. Then she stopped, as though receiving a communication from Beyond, and began caressing the piano keys in what I knew was the intro to her cover of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”

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You Killed Whitney Houston and I Know How

By now, the entire media apparatus set up to honor/degrade the death of a show business personality of unquestionable talent but somewhat doubtful life choices is set firmly in place. Two years ago, it was just getting started when Michael Jackson took that final dose and found the peace he’d been searching for since he was beaten at age eight for not singing ABC to his father’s taste.

Looking back on that amazing circus, it now seems sheer amateur-ville, all just getting off the ground a la the Wright Bros. in their skimpy biplane. And even though it lasted for months and tried to involve every single person who had ever met the singer/showman on this earth, it looks by comparison like mere sketch-work compared to the media take-over of the Houston story. This is full blown media frenzy and there’s a good reason why it’s happening.

In case you lived in a cave, here’s a few facts: a good singer emerged from a family of good singers. Her youth, charm, good looks, and amazing purity of tone netted her one of the best music producers in the business. Because of him she made astoundingly successful hit records which you had to be hearing-impaired to have missed in that decade, and one blockbuster movie still worth seeing which helped a bit to break down black-white relationship taboos long in place. .

After that, she decided to go her own way. She met a rap artist the family disapproved of and like any other girl finding her freedom from gospel, intense church going and Big Mama, she rebelled. This is not a new story by any means. What happened after that is not new either. But despite Oprah Winfrey moaning “If there was only something we could have all done?” the truth is, Whitney was a grown woman by then, an empowered woman, and she did what she wanted.

She never did not take responsibility for her own life and her own choices. And I honor her for that. Did it ruin her voice? No doubt. But hey it was her voice. Did it screw up her looks and social life? Somewhat. But again, they were her looks and her social life. And, actually, none of your beeswax.

Despite all the mealy-mouthed paeans, she was not our little princess, she was not our heavenly angel, she was a real person who I’m guessing took some kind of personal journey using whatever combo of desire and intelligence she possessed: a journey that unfortunately ended with a bad mix of pharmaceuticals and alcohol in a bathtub in hotel not a mile away from where I am writing this.

As Bill Murray used to say, “That’s the facts, Jack.” And all the rest is media crap. But the real question is, why is there so much media crap around this minor event?

Quite simply: it’s a diversion! Because the media no longer can summon up the will to do its real job anymore. And that’s the true story here, not how much Floxinol that poor woman took to calm her nerves before a big party where she knew everyone would be checking her every move. .

Let’s face it: with a very few exceptions--the Huffington Post, the Economist, a few other posts and online political sites—the American media has now turned 180 degrees from what it was doing and doing so well during what now must in retrospect seem to be its apex, its age of gold, the 1960’s and 1970’s. At that time, it covered an illegal war in Asia that killed over a million innocent people including a quarter million mostly poor sucker U.S. soldiers, and it covered the gross overreaction of politicians and police used to getting their way for years in response to some teenagers questioning their power and protesting that war.

For many of us, Kent State, Watergate, and the Pentagon Papers were all news stories that meant something. They meant that there were people, journalists, reporters, interviewers, who were hell-bent on not only reporting but also helping to shape current events. It was awesome, it was very much needed, and looking back, it and those people were part of a heroic age.

But it had a really important result: the powers-that-be came to understand how hated they were, and how scrutinized they might always become -- and they did the only thing they could do in response. They quietly, but methodically bought up the media, lock, stock and anything resembling smoking guns.

In the UK, no stranger to the corrupt reportage and the yellowest of journalism, someone recently had the sense to go after the worst offenders and as a result that slime under your shoe named Rupert Murdoch has egg all over his face, his proposed British TV empire is in shambles, his son James is out on his ass and out of England, and their biggest paper (read offender of common decency) is shut down, and the Parliamentary arrests keep on coming.

Can you see someone like Karl Rove or the Koch Brothers in a MidWestern courtroom being accused of having bought a state house or a governor? Don’t hold your breath. Who haven’t they all paid off yet? Who is left unbought in any media field to go after them the way they deserve? Not you.

So yes, you are the cause of still ongoing spectacle of Whitney Houston’s death detailing the color of her daughter’s first lipstick and the flavor of her cousin’s vaginal deodorant, and the reason for her doing away with herself probably too. Because my friend, my reader, my semblant, as Baudelaire put it, you are too lazy and stupid to read anymore, never mind to demand what’s really needed to know in the world. You are too satisfied with “infotainment” to care about what’s really happening, never mind to get off your butt and protest it. And as a result your nation has been thoroughly bought and sold by greedy people whose politics are that of Louis IV without even his heavy handed sense of style and whose own morals and ethics render them so low they are not worthy of kissing your . . . shoes.

You’re to blame. You! I blame you.

© 2012, 2015 --Felice Picano


I was walking out of the West Hollywood Library a few blocks away from home, when I suddenly noticed a half dozen men hunched over and running between parked cars, Most of them wore hooded sweatshirts and all of them had cameras thrust out, with foot-long telephoto lens attachments. Naturally I wondered what was going on.

A minute later, I passed a woman sitting on a bench in the adjoining park watching her little blond-haired boy on a slide. It’s a children’s playground, always busy at midday. I thought, she looks familiar. Ordinarily I’d walk by—there are celebrities all over my neighborhood: in supermarkets, walking dogs, at pharmacy and take out windows. But something about her stopped me.

“Excuse me. I’m really embarrassed,” I said to her, “But I know you’re a celebrity and I just passed a bunch of paparazzi.”

I thought she would ignore me.

Instead, she leapt up. “My son!”

She ran to her child and all but covered him while she pulled out a phone and speed dialed. “Where were they?” she asked.

I pointed out the direction, off San Vicente Blvd.

“Take Robertson!” she said into the phone urgently. “Come now!” To me, she asked, “Help us?”

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My Problem With Jury Duty

I was recently called to jury duty at a Federal Court in Los Angeles. Because it is a Federal Court for the Southern California District, I would have had to go to downtown Los Angeles to serve -- a distance of over ten miles. As I was without a car at the time, that would have required me getting up very early – I was expected to report at 7.45 am—and traveling in the dark by two busses and a subway. I’ve attended jury selection before in my area, and because there is a State Court in downtown Beverly Hills, a short distance from where I live, easily walked to from where I live, this had never been a problem before. However that would not be a solution this time.

As the weeks toward my proposed service neared, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed. I could, if needed, solve that car problem. I could even bear to take that public transportation and since I’m a senior, complain about the four hour travel time if I was selected and see what happened.

So no, that wasn’t the problem. That wasn’t what was getting me riled up. But something was, and every time I thought about it, I became angrier and angrier. This was very much unlike me: I’m an easy going guy; perhaps too much so for my own good. So what was going on?

Then I happened to read an op-ed piece in the LA. Times. It was about Global Warming, but it began with the writer speaking about her stint at jury duty and how simple that had been because, unlike the many complexities of Global Warming, she and the other jurors had been given a clear cut rule on what the law was they would have to apply to their case by a judge.

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