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Leon Russell by Thomas Copi

My piano playing is a conglomeration of ADHD, trial-and-error and muddling through. Somebody taught me a few tricks years ago. I tried to be a music major at Los Angeles City College – but the chair of the piano department at the time, the late Dr. George Hollis, told me to my face that I had learned so many bad fingering habits that it would have been harder to try to teach me the right way.

That sucked. But at least I knew.

I run out of fingers…

Somehow, though, I believe there is still time to unlearn some of the ridiculous things I do at the keyboard. After all, I’m still alive.

But the better question is this: Will I ever do that?

That remains to be seen.

That somebody who taught me a few tricks was a guy named Gordon Mogden. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t play any better than I did as a teenager.

I am trying to find out if he’s still alive.

Mogden via Twitter

Gordon was an interesting man. My brother and I met him because we were pals with his girlfriend’s son. Eileen, aka L.E., stayed at the Magic Hotel in Hollywood with her son, Jeffrey in the late 1970s. L.E. worked at Wally Heider Recording, at that time one of the most renowned recording studios in Hollywood.

After hanging out with Jeffrey and getting to know L.E., we eventually met Gordon – a big, friendly guy whom we found out worked for Leon Russell at Russell’s recording complex, Paradise Studios.

Apparently, Gordon led a life immersed in music. I know he was an audio engineer. Perhaps he was also a roadie. His mantra was “more of everything,” – and when he said that to my brother and me, we knew what he meant. Hell, we were like 14, and were longing for entrée into the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Gordon and L.E. were kind to us – and we became fast friends with Jeffrey, who was a couple of years younger than we were. I remember a Wally Heider company trip to Disneyland on a bus with young music workers and their families – or their squeezes. That was fun, although I remember feeling a bit of social anxiety. Thank God I had Jeffrey and Chris to run around with.

The seventies, man. Think for a minute about a bus trip with music types to “The Happiest Place on Earth” at that time, and let that sink in.

But what does any of this have to do with my piano playing…?

Gordon was a monster piano player. I once heard and watched him play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and was blown away.

But this was after he changed my life…

One evening, Gordon invited us to tag along with L.E. for a visit to Paradise Studios. I must admit I had no idea at the time who the hell Leon Russell was, but a visit with the grownups to a recording studio was something we always down for. Plus, it felt cool to be included. I don’t know if Jeffrey came with us, but L.E. was a single mom, so he likely did.

Paradise Studios was a compound on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank. More than simply a recording studio, the facility also featured a sound stage and accommodations for visiting musicians – like a small motel building. There was also a remote recording rig on the grounds.

The place was rarefied air, and we knew it.

Gordon showed us around for a bit, and then invited us to play on the stage. There was a drum kit set up as well as a Yamaha CP-80, the kind that Elton John played much of the time back then.

What? It’s OK for us to play up there? Sure!

My brother and I played a couple of songs up there, with sound booming up through the metal grating that served as the stage platform. Our nascent music never sounded better. To this day, I feel like Gordon did us a huge solid by allowing us up there. It’s something that I feel bolstered our self-confidence and gave us hope. Everybody needs that.

Did I mention that we met Leon Russell and his wife that night? We did, as he was heading into another part of his compound. I knew he was important, but I didn’t realize how important he was at the time. The fact that Elton John found him intimidating was something I only recently found out – and there’s another blog post to be written about Leon’s influence on Elton and how Elton later saved Leon’s career.

The man himself was soft-spoken. When I shook his hand, it was the classic “limp fish” handshake. I’ll never forget that.

Somehow, Chris and I found ourselves sitting in the control room with Gordon, L.E., Leon, his wife and a couple of others as they listened to a playback of a song called “Back to the Island.” Why we were listening to that track I have no idea. It’s from a 1975 album called Will O’ the Wisp. Was he remastering it for some reason?

To this day, I don’t know why we were able to be there for that. Gordon must have thought a lot of us.

He must have also thought that I needed a leg-up when it came to my piano playing, which at that point was stilted and not-so-hot. It was more utilitarian than anything else – something I could sing to with my brother as we wrote songs and learned covers.

Gordon told me that he would show me a couple of things, and I arranged to meet him at Paradise for a few one-on-ones…

I remember boogie-woogie lessons at the Roger Williams Piano School in Miami when I was like 8 – you know, a walking bass in the left hand and one-four-five pattern on top – but Gordon showed me the most important thing I had learned to date: The Blues Scale, aka the Pentatonic Scale.

So – he told me that if I could learn that scale in as many keys as possible with walking bass lines he also showed me, I’d be miles above where I was at the time…

And he was right.

Over several visits, Gordon also taught me a couple of blues turnarounds.

Forty years on, I am grateful to that man, my de facto musical mentor, for taking the time to help me out.

And one more thing…

The piano Gordon taught me on was the very same piano Leon Russell used in The Concert For Bangladesh.

For more stories, check out The Yale Brothers Podcast. We’re having fun with it.

After years of hemming and hawing; after false starts and heaping helpings of procrastination, my brother and I finally launched our podcast…

Episode 22 – "Casey King: Recovery in a Virtual World" Yale Brothers Podcast

Casey King is all about changing the face of recovery. Casey's a physics professor at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in Myrtle Beach, and through his work with the Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series aims to reduce the stigma society places on those in recovery. He has been sober since 2005. In 2008, he founded and launched the series – a popular event that has included a growing “Who’s Who” of featured celebrity speakers – from actors to rock stars to medical professionals and many more. The series also features presentations and panels including college students, recovery advocates and spokespersons from local recovery groups, rounding out a lecture series that shines as a beacon of hope for those still struggling with addiction and a lamp on the path of those on their recovery journeys. The program is set to continue this year in a virtual setting on the Zoom platform, beginning on January 28 and continuing every Thursday until February 18. SHOW NOTES 0:00 – "Seeing's Believing" by Chris Yale 4:05 – About the song. From Chris' album "Well Enough Alone" 4:35 – Introducing Casey King Louis Gossett, Jr. / Mackenzie Phillips / Danny Trejo / Art Alexakis / Bob Forrest/ Dr. Drew Pinsky 8:10 – Overview of series 8:40 – About Casey 9:18 – Trajectory of series 14:21 -Jeff VanVonderen / Meredith Baxter / Candy Finnigan / Ken Seeley 18:23 – Booking Louis Gossett, Jr / The Gary Stromberg connection 20:09 – Danny Trejo's appearance was the most well-attended on-campus event in HGTC history. 22:00 – Degrees of separation 22:39 – Local recovery and advocacy groups: Lighthouse Care Center / Shoreline Behavioral Health Services / FAVOR Grand Strand – Faces and Voices of Recovery / Grand Strand Health 23:35 – COVID-19 / Series to go virtual 24:30 – Virtual recovery meetings paved the way for this year's series. 25:30 – "World Home Group" – Scotland, Australia, Berlin, Ireland, Tenerife 26:21 – Speaker reveal LINK / Casey King and Coastal Carolina University's Wes Fondren   26:50 – This year's speakers: Craig T. Nelson / Keith A. Somers / Carnie Wilson / Gary Stromberg / Paul Williams Click HERE for series details and access. It's free and you can be anonymous if you wish. 34:42 – Changing the Face of Recovery 36:00 – Casey's advice for those still struggling To reach out to Casey, call or text (843)450-6482
  1. Episode 22 – "Casey King: Recovery in a Virtual World"
  2. Episode 21 – "What's the Matter with Your Eyes, Boys?"
  3. Episode 20 – "I Was a Punk Before You"
  4. Episode 19 – "Emotional Support Chihuahuas?"
  5. Episode 18 – "Roger That?"

The first time we tried this, embarrassingly enough, was in 2008, when podcasts were still gaining steam and long before they became ubiquitous. Over a period of a years, we made several more stabs at this – and then we just stopped.

Some earlier attempts went up on SoundCloud, sort-of complete but not quite actual episodes. But we had stories to tell…

And we still do. Stories about growing up in Hollywood in the late 1970s and early 1980s – a period when the town was what my brother called “beautifully grungy” – well before a Build-A-Bear Workshop appeared across from the Chinese Theater.

We lived at the foot of the Hollywood Hills at Franklin Avenue and Orange Drive, in an apartment building wedged directly in between the fabled Magic Castle and a 40-unit hotel our father managed called The Magic Hotel. The hotel is now called The Magic Castle Hotel.

At that time, not only the names of the buildings were magic. Our young lives were as magical as could be.

This podcast will be cathartic for us, and I hope the stories of twin boomers coming of age in lotus land will strike a chord with those curious enough to have a listen.

But we’re not just about looking back. Expect to hear original music in each episode and updates on what’s going on with us now in Myrtle Beach.

Still 12

The other night, I watched a film called “Bob and the Monster.”

On the face of the title alone, you’d likely expect some sort of story about a monster that lives under Bob’s bed. Bob could be a child, and the monster could come out to introduce himself. Perhaps they become friends – or maybe the monster comes out to scare the shit out of Bob.

Not quite.

“Bob and the Monster” is a 2011 documentary by filmmaker Keirda Bahruth – a look at rocker and recovery advocate Bob Forrest, longtime frontman for punk outfit Thelonious Monster but perhaps best known to the general public as the shoot-from-the-hip counselor on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

The film is the story of Forrest’s transformation from dangerously addicted indie rock star to the respected beacon of recovery he is today.

I decided to put this film into my queue after talking to my friend Casey King, a physics professor at Horry-Georgetown Technical College here in the Grand Strand area. King is also the organizer and founder of the college’s long-running Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series – which for 12 years has featured an impressive roster of celebrity speakers, most of whom have overcome the burden of addiction.

We’re talking about folks like Louis Gossett, Jr., Mackenzie Phillips, Danny Trejo, Everclear frontman Art Alexakis and many more. This year, Forrest spoke on March 5, followed by Dr. Drew Pinsky on March 12.

For the past few years, I have had the opportunity to write about the series in The Sun News, a McClatchy paper here in Myrtle Beach. This year was no exception. CLICK HERE for the February 19 story. I was able to speak with Pinsky via telephone, and Forrest got back to me with some awesome email content – thanks to King.

King has said many times that he wants to change the face of recovery – and that change is happening as more and more professional people come forward in their recoveries and make their stories known.

“It no longer has quite the stigma that it had 15 years ago as I began my journey,” he said.

He has always been gracious enough to make sure I got seats for the recovery events I covered, but this year my gig schedule conflicted with the Thursday events – and I wasn’t able to see either man’s presentation at the college. Because I am moving toward six years of sobriety, these events are important to me – and King knows this.

I was happy when he told me about a talk Forrest was to give at the C3 Coffee Bar in Conway (right up the road from Myrtle Beach), presented by Lighthouse Behavioral Health Hospital. I’d be there with bells on.

When I arrived, I found King, and there was Forrest – unassuming and real. From what I gathered, the crowd was made up mostly by mental health professionals – and Forrest delivered a compelling talk, not only about his struggles with addiction, but also about the problem of how to reach today’s young people who are struggling with substance abuse, a decidedly entitled demographic.

What struck me was how ardently Forrest pursued the sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll thing. There was a good deal of cache attached to it, especially if you were a young rock musician in Hollywood. I daresay many of us went into that lifestyle with our eyes open. Forrest himself said in “Bob and the Monster” that it was his goal to eventually shoot heroin.

Today’s dynamic is not so straightforward but every bit as deadly.

My “inspiration” was a biography of Jim Morrison called No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman. I was a happy kid. I wonder what my life would have been now if I hadn’t decided to drink and do drugs.

After Forrest’s presentation at the coffee bar, he and many of us convened for lunch at a local Mexican restaurant called El Patio in Conway. It’s good to know that there are folks who give a damn about recovery in our neck of the woods. Methodologies and approaches may vary, but hope remains that folks can and do recover.

Forrest’s advice to those in the throes of addiction is this:

“First and foremost, don’t die. Especially nowadays, with fentanyl in almost everything and tens of thousands of people dying of overdoses every year, being safe and not dying is the absolute most important thing.”

He said he had overdosed and been revived a few times and was starting to think things were not going to end well for him.

“But of course that wasn’t true at all.  What I figured out is that as long as you don’t die, amazing things can happen.  It takes time, but life becomes this amazing adventure.  I was able to be there for my son, and I have two more small kids now. They’re my life, and they remind me what’s important.  It comes down to love – and to just being here with each other.  Life can be brutal and harsh, but it can also be such a beautiful, poetic experience.  And it doesn’t last long.  So we need to forget about all those BS trappings of ‘this car is going to make me happy’ or ‘this toy is going to make me happy.’ I think a lot of us who’ve come through recovery know that better than ‘normal’ people do. It’s relationships. It’s music. It’s nature. It’s experiences. It’s love.” 

Forrest now has his own recovery center, Alo House. It is his hope that anybody who needs help knows that they are there and that they really care. Reach out by clicking the link above.

Do You Remember?

In Disney’s “The Lion King,” the shamanistic mandrill Rafiki instructed Simba to look deeply into a pool of water, revealing his father to him. Mufasa appears in a cloud, dispensing what was to me the best advice ever: “Remember who you are.”

I would like to get through this blog post without naming the source of the global pandemic currently at play. Rather, this is an opportunity to touch on a subject that might have become muddled for many boomers over time – myself included.

“OK boomer…”

Seclusion offers a chance for reflection. In some cases, this reflection gives birth to an agonizing reappraisal – a reordering of priorities and beliefs and an existential reset.

THE EYES OF A CHILD

I knew who I was when I was a child. My favorite years were likely ten and 17.

At ten, I was already writing and submitting short stories to periodicals like Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I remember once submitting a song parody to Mad Magazine based on “Jingle Bells” that went something like this…

“Mad Does Smell / Mad does smell / Prices raised too high

First ten cents / Now fifty / Not worth it to buy

Trashing all the Mads / In a single garbage can

Might be pretty tough / ‘Cause there’s too much to stuff…”

You get the idea.

Note that I said I was writing and submitting. As far as selling – well I might still have those rejection slips in storage. I hope so. But I loved to write. I identified with it.

I was also a voracious comic book collector and budding entrepreneur. I used to place classified ads, calling for neighborhood people to sell their old comics. My “business” name was Mr. Comix, and I bought up a lot of books on the cheap. I got more interested in keeping them than selling them.

In my late twenties, the cares of the world and my own bad decisions let to my decision to sell off my comics to Golden Apple Comics on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood – for a fraction of what they were worth. I needed to make in-arrears payment on a 1988 Harley-Davidson Sportster I had no business buying in the first place. Eventually, it got repossessed. No bike. No comics.

I don’t care about the Sportster. I still wake up with a start when the comics pop into my mind.

When I was a kid – I ran around to many of the bookstores in Hollywood that offered scads of used comics at very reasonable prices. Places like Bennett’s (Collector’s Bookstore), Cherokee Books and Bond Street Books.

I was an enthusiastic ten-year-old, and the world was my oyster. I liked nothing better than writing, in no small part because my father was then a screenwriter – and he encouraged me when he saw that I had taken an interest. Dad never got the break he was looking for – but he was prolific, and I still have his screenplays.

HEADY TIMES

At 17, my twin brother Chris and I had already been playing music for several years and we teamed up with a French kid named Pascal Srabian – a great, natural guitarist – and formed a trio called Yale. We played out at places like the Bla-Bla Café in Studio City and actually won a Battle of the Bands at Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip. Our dear friend Lee Newman managed us, and we were all inseparable.

Photo: Calisphere

Lee is busy these days running his family business, Jimmy McHugh Music. McHugh was Lee’s great-grandfather and gave the world such priceless tunes as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “I’m in the Mood for Love” and so many more. Lee is the real deal. Hollywood royalty. His other great-grandfather was Eddie Cantor. Think about that for a moment.

Sadly, Pascal was gunned down one morning in 1981 as he was about to get into his Firebird. A jealous husband found out that Pascal was sleeping with his wife. The husband fled, presumably to Mexico. I don’t think there was ever any closure.

But our late teens were heady times. Chris and I believed we would be rock stars. Unfortunately, we partied like rock stars but failed to do enough work. We had several bands in Hollywood after Yale, and our failure to launch haunts us to this day. That’s almost as painful as losing my comics.

20/20 HINDSIGHT

It’s no use pining away for what might have been – and it’s never too late to correct course.

If we get in touch with our inner 10-or 17-year-old selves, we might be able to salvage some of those old hopes and dreams.

What makes you want to get up in the morning? What do you remember doing when you were a kid that lit you up like nothing else? What were you certain about? What would you be doing now if you stayed true to those nascent plans – those stirrings that urged you on?

My world centered on writing and later, music – and although I am not getting rich with either, I am happy to report that I’ve been again engaged in those things for more than a decade – and I still get lit up about it.

A byline, a show completed. There’s still a thrill attached to both.

Maybe I’ll buy a comic book.

Image result for 6255 Sunset Blvd Hollywood
6255 Sunset Blvd.

I worked for Berry Gordy in the early eighties.

If you worked at Motown Records, you worked for Gordy. Whether you actually saw him was beside the point. I never saw him, but a lot of mail passed through my hands on the way to him.

I found out about a mailroom opening from a friend while I was working at a hotel my dad managed in Hollywood, The Magic Hotel (now The Magic Castle Hotel). I was twenty and had worked at the hotel for several years – doing a little bit of everything but mainly front desk duties at that time. My twin brother Chris also worked at the hotel and, looking back, we had a sweet deal. In addition to our paychecks we lived rent-free in a wonderful old apartment on Franklin Avenue and Orange Drive – in between the fabled Magic Castle and the hotel.

But none of that seemed to matter. I was young, and this was Motown.

I spiffed up and went to fill out an application at what I thought of as the First Interstate Bank Building at 6255 Sunset. I met the HR boss, Brenda Johnson, and had a brief chat after I filled out my application. Memory is a funny thing. I’d like to think she hired me on the spot, but it would be safer to assume I got a call from her later.

Motown occupied three floors in that building and each floor seemed to have its own personality. Floor 16 was a bit sterile – things like personnel, accounts payable and receivable (finance), the tape library (run by an outstanding human being named Frances Maclin) and what I believe used to be called data processing – an ice-cold room that housed the computer systems. But Jobete Music, a Motown publishing arm, was also down there.

The mailroom was on the 17th floor, surrounded by creatives – Promotions, A&R, International, Publicity and much more, including the offices of then-president Jay Lasker, who was also president of ABC-Dunhill Records in its glory days of The Grass Roots and Three Dog Night.

When I started, songwriter Ron Miller’s office was directly across from the mailroom. I could lean on the half-door’s counter and look at him in there if his door was open. Miller wrote many songs for Motown artists in the sixties and seventies, including the lyrics to “For Once in my Life,” – of which Stevie Wonder’s version was a monster hit.

Another memory of the 17th floor was that a young Benny Medina had an office there. Medina was A&R boss at the time, and some of his real-life experiences were the basis for NBC’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Image result for benny Medina and will smith

The 18th floor was rarefied – Gordy’s executive suite, Smokey Robinson’s office and Motown Productions (MPI – headed up by Suzanne de Passe) were all there. I also remember a guy named Tony Jones, who had a management company up there, somehow connected to Motown. At that time, he represented an artist named Finis Henderson. I remember a couple of Henderson’s songs; “Skip to My Lou” and “Blame It On the Night.” Years later I saw Henderson do standup at The Comedy Store on a bill with a then-relatively unknown Dennis Miller.

I did mail runs twice a day – maybe three – on every floor with my little cart. It was also part of the job to restock the coffee stations. We were also in charge of the office supplies, which were kept in a locked storeroom inside the mailroom – and my immediate boss Reginald Dotson was over purchasing. I cross-trained in purchasing – processing purchase orders. We made a morning and an evening trip to the Hollywood post office on Wilcox. I worked with a great bunch of guys, and I will never forget them.

I was at Motown for roughly 18 months, beginning in August of 1983. Everywhere you went, it seemed like the walls breathed music. Everybody had a stereo, and most of them were in use at all times. Some examples of stuff that came out during my time there are Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” The Commodores’ “Night Shift” and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Rockwell was one of the boss’ kids, Kennedy Gordy, and I suspect a favor was called in for Michael Jackson’s appearance on that record.

Jackson was long gone from Motown by the time I got there, but Jermaine was still signed. Three months before I joined the payroll, Michael debuted his Moonwalk on NBC’s “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today Forever.”

Other snippets of memory: DeBarge’s “All This Love,” Teena Marie, and the Rick James’ album, Cold Blooded.

I’m happy to be setting all of this down before the memories are lost to time. There will be more.

Image result for mOTOWN lOGO 1980S
The Yale Brothers

As another tourist season ends in Myrtle Beach, I am happy to report that I have been busy with my twin brother, Chris Yale, in our musical work as The Yale Brothers.  The fact that we played more shows than last year in different venues is heartening – and I want to continue that momentum. A big “thank you” to the management of these spots – and a grateful shout-out to everybody who came out to support us.

As we mention in our bio, we’re working to recapture the spark that we ignited long ago – specifically when we were just 14 – writing, recording and performing for the first time. We made a pact to start a band on par with KISS or Aerosmith with two our best friends in Miami as we were finishing up what is now considered middle school. The plan was to secure our instruments over the summer of 1977 by hook or by crook (well, at least wheedle our parents into securing them for us) and reconvene at the beginning of ninth grade.

Chris and I planned on begging our father to buy us a drum set and a keyboard while we were visiting him for the summer in Hollywood.

The good news was that dad came through. He bought Chris a Pearl drum set (of course because Kiss drummer Peter Criss used one) and for me, something called a KORG Poly Ensemble P. I wanted an Arp Odyssey, but that’s a story for another day.

Our band, with the uber-pretentious working name Iron Cross (hey, what do you want – we were 14-year-old boys), never came to fruition because of a life-changing event in our lives: We also asked our father to let us stay with him permanently, and after some intense conversations with our mother, he said yes. I plan on going more detail about those early years at a later date.

Long story short for now, Chris and I came of age in Hollywood – playing music as a duo and later in several iterations of bands there, most notably our last one there, Rogue Alley.

My brother has been on The Grand Strand since 1992, and I’ve been here since 2005. After a ten-year stint in the local classic rock cover band Sick Stooges, of which I was a founding member – I’ve been working with Chris exclusively over the past few years. The end game is to do play out even more next season and head out of town for gigs, devote some time to writing and recording – and to finally get our podcast up and running.

Our out-of-towner at Lower Left Brewing Company in Charlotte was a blast – and we plan on doing it again soon.  

We enjoyed playing at Fork’n Links on the South End and at The Hot Fish Club in Murrells Inlet. Hopefully, we’ll be at both of those great spots again soon – and the Surfside Sunday Serenades show was a hoot.

You can catch us twice a month at Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s through the end of the year and in the restaurant at House of Blues Myrtle Beach every Thursday evening from October 31 through December 5. We’re participating in the Wicked Wishes Benefit for Make-A-Wish South Carolina on October 12 at The Wicked Tuna in Murrells Inlet.

As they say down here, “Thanks for a great season, y’all!”

Two of my friends died recently. Both were excellent musicians, and both were doing what they loved right to the end. One collapsed onstage at Wild Wing Cafe in Myrtle Beach, and one died in his sleep.

They were roughly the same age, give or take – and I was closing in on them.

My dear friend Tim Hoback was also a former member of Sick Stooges, the Grand Strand-based classic rock outfit of which I was also once a part. His passing sent ripples of shock and grief across the music community here.

The other friend was Nick Walusko, a guy who was always obsessed with Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. I always found this fascination curious when we were young men in Hollywood. If there was anybody who knew all there was to know about Wilson, it was Nick. I hadn’t seen him in years, but damned if he didn’t wind up playing in Wilson’s band for many years. He was still playing guitar with Wilson when he died.

It’s tough to get my head around this – my friends dying – and the last thing I want to do here is to go off on a self-serving existential tangent or start lamenting the march of age. The idea here is to honor my friends.

Let’s start with Hoback. I called him Hoback, and many of us did. It seemed incomplete to just call him Tim.

Tim Hoback, Tim Dyer, Barry Allen, Kenneth Auerbach, Roger Yale

Hoback joined Sick Stooges after the departure of bassist Steve Panetti (yes – we called him Panetti (there is a through-line of middle school-style last-name calling), who left to work with a band called One I Open.

A left-handed bass player who was quick to laugh and smile with a gravelly voice and wicked sense of humor, Hoback was from Southwest Virginia like my girlfriend – and this was a great source of bonding between them, even down to calling each other “bitch” when they saw each other. “Hi bitch…” “Bye, bitch…” You had to be there. In their accents, it sounded almost like “beach.” Hilarious.

He was a monster bass player – just as comfortable with classic rock as he was with R&B and funk – and he knew his theory, too. Much of that was over my head, although I was a music major in junior college – like, don’t tell me about, the circle of fifths and relative minors. This was a classic rock cover band – and I wanted to party like a rock star.

Hoback did too, and so we did. Thankfully, that distracted him from explaining a turnaround to me.

I have been sober now for more than five years – but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my fun.

Hoback was a sweet soul. What confirmed it the most to me was when he was talking to one of my neighbors about a guy they both knew in Roanoke who had died. After a while, Hoback became overcome and started crying midway through a sentence. I will always remember that moment. He loved his friends. He loved me. And I loved him. And he knew it.

Nick Walusko was a sweet soul too. When we hung out with him in Hollywood, he still lived at home with his parents, who I believe were Russian immigrants. He was all about music – production, history and culture – and from what I remember was not only big on the Beach Boys, but also British Invasion bands. He too had a wicked sense of humor.

In the circle of friends he hung out with, my twin brother factored in to this much more than I did – as did other friends like Steve Kobashigawa, whom I knew since my brief days at Hollywood High. He was also, briefly, a bandmate in one incarnation of an outfit we had in Hollywood with my brother. Another friend, Darian Sahanaja, formed The Wondermints with Nick.

The Wondermints were lucky enough to have contributed to the soundtrack of “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”  And they were ultimately hired on by Brian Wilson.

Darian is Wilson’s keyboardist and musical director.

Nick wasn’t a partier, preferring lofty conversation and music over such nonsense. Nonetheless, he had an almost pathological aversion to the police. I never really understood why, but usually found this vaguely entertaining. I wonder what made him feel funny about that.

But he was tolerant about the excesses of others and never judgmental. I am sure he put friends first. Well, at least second to Brian Wilson.

I hadn’t seen Nick in almost 30 years, but Chris and I got an email from him, inviting us to Raleigh to see the Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Show in 2016. We both declined because of our schedules, but Nick’s last words vie email to me were, “Let’s keep in touch, please.”

I said yes, but, to my regret, I failed to do so.

I will miss these guys.

Elton Sign Barclays

Electronic Sign Outside Barclay’s Center

The first time I saw Elton John live was at the bygone Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in 1979.

This was a big deal for me as well as for my twin brother, Chris. We were 16. At that point the only other concerts we had ever seen were Fleetwood Mac on their Rumours tour in Miami [with Kenny Loggins and Chick Corea/Return to Forever] and Kiss on their Love Gun tour at the Forum in Los Angeles – while they were taping the Alive II album. Some upstarts called Cheap Trick opened for them, and we didn’t know what to make of them…yet.

We stole our dad’s ’67 Impala one night to check out the Kinks at the Universal Amphitheater a few months before the Elton show when they were out on their “Low Budget” tour. Dad is long gone now, and we never told him about that.

Anybody who knows me is aware that Elton John has been a major part of my life since I was a child – and my number one influence as a piano player. I have seen him seven or eight times.

The 1979 show was one of two early October shows at the Hollywood Bowl – part of Elton’s Back in the USSA tour supported only by percussionist Ray Cooper. I remember tripping out that the man himself was up on that stage – living and breathing – not very far away from where I was sitting in that  open-air environment. It was almost too wonderful for words.

If you ever told me that I’d be watching Elton perform on his farewell tour at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I might not have believed it. But that’s what happened earlier this month. Call it full circle for me – forty years later. And I’ll be damned if Ray Cooper wasn’t there – this time with some of the other old guard, namely guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson.

Elton played for three hours. It was surreal. The sound was excellent, and from our perch we had a clear view of the stage. We were far away, but smack dab in the middle of the mezzanine. The fact that this was to be the last time I would see him live made me savor each moment as best as my undiagnosed ADHD would allow. But I tried to be in the moment as much as possible. What a night!

This is the first installment of a series of blog posts about my recent trip to New York. More to come.

This month, Kevin Kline won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Play for his performance in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.

My daughter took me to see Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre in New York over Memorial Day weekend.

 

As some of you know, I was captivated by Coward when I was a young man – read everything there was to read by him and about him. I had plays, records, diaries, biographies, memoirs. You name it.

Coward even inspired me to smoke cigarettes. That was a bad idea. I switched to vape three years ago.

Through July 2, Kline stars in the lead role of Garry Essendine, one that Coward – AKA “The Master” – brought to life in all his self-absorbed glory in 1942.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I spent an amazing long weekend in New York City with my equally amazing daughter, Taylor. What started out as a casual comment from Taylor – the fact that she had three days off and it would be great if I could finally come to see her – turned into an impromptu trip that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Rog and Tay NY Skyline

I’m 53, and this was the first time I had ever been there.

There isn’t a good reason why I’d never been. I had entertained romantic thoughts of driving across the country when I was 18, taking jobs along the way and ultimately winding up in the Big Apple. Who didn’t at that age. But I know myself then as I know myself now – not much, mind you – but that trip wasn’t about to happen.

The ensuing decades enabled me to build up a solid repertoire of misconceptions about New York and New Yorkers. You know the stereotypes – like, watch it or you will surely get mugged in Times Square (holdover from the seedy 1970s) – or that New Yorkers are rude, impatient and always in a hurry. I know so many New Yorkers who are not those things at all. Why would it be different on their turf?

Rog Times Square

Billy Joel bragging about walking through Bedford-Stuyvesant alone in “You May Be Right” kind of worried me because that’s exactly where my daughter lives, although she doesn’t have a motorcycle and probably wouldn’t ride it in the rain if she did.

My imagination couldn’t quite make out what “The City” would really be like – the sights and sounds glamorized in movies and television – and the music – the litany of bright lights, big city stuff – the hustle and bustle – the “if-I-can-make-it-there-I’ll-make-it-anywhere,” mantra.

And the other New York, New York (On the Town) line, “The People ride in a hole in the ground,” made me wonder what the subways were all about.

Somehow, riding the London Underground and for that matter, the Los Angeles subway (Metro Red Line) made me think the subway experience in New York couldn’t be much different. How about the touring companies performing the myriad Broadway shows I caught at the now-defunct Shubert Theatre or the Music Center, or the Pantages Theatre in L.A. – could the Broadway experience really be much different?

Roger NY Library

And could a simple slice of pizza really be any better there?

And how was everything connected – the boroughs, the layout? The reality had to be different from my imagined version.

The thought of setting foot where the unspeakable tragedy of 911 happened was also a bit surreal, chilling, and profoundly sad.

 

And, finally, I was about to take it all in.

From the moment I got off the plane at JFK, I could feel the energy.

Over the next three days, Taylor and I relied on the trains and walked our asses of – and I am surprised at the sheer amount of ground we covered. Taylor gave me truly immersive experience, and with the exception of an excellent leisurely breakfast at place where she used to work, an outstanding French-American restaurant and café in Brooklyn called French Louie (where she reconnected with her friends and coworkers and I could feel the love), we relied on lighter, faster fare in the form of tuna melts from a bodega on her block in Bed-Stuy, a couple of slices of pizza on her block, bagels and an interesting culinary oddity from a place called Sushirrito – and more.

I am still a bit overwhelmed by the trip – and I wanted to get something down in this blog to get started, but I think this deserves multiple posts.

I think it’s fair to say that I will never be quite the same after this trip – and now, in the limited time I was there – I have been there, done that.

But I am struck with how well my daughter is doing up there, putting that College of Charleston communication degree to work, currently at an awesome advertising agency called SpotCo – specializing in theatre, and more specifically the branding of many leading productions.

Taylor has really gotten to know the lay of the land, has awesome roommates, and doesn’t appear to take any shit from anyone.

Thanks for the advice, kid – but I can’t help saying hello to strangers.

I will always remember our long weekend in “The City,” but spending time with Taylor was priceless!

roger-with-casey-king-and-danny-trejo

(With Casey King and Danny Trejo. Photo: Gene Ho)

On Sunday, February 12, The Sun News published my profile of professor Casey King, founder of the Horry-Georgetown Technical College Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series, which kicked off last Thursday and will continue for three more weekly installments.

King teaches physics at both HGTC and Coastal Carolina University, and has been organizing this series since 2008. He will be the first to tell you that the series has very little to do with him and that it has taken on a life of its own.

I am grateful to King for his candor during the process of putting together the story, as well as for contributions from Dr. Victor Archambeau, local chapter chairman of Faces and Voices of Recovery – or FAVOR – as well as the heartbreaking input from a young man by the name of Dylan Parker, an HGTC student who lost his brother to the heroin epidemic in 2013 – and for a couple of to-the-point quotes from actor Danny Trejo.

Danny Trejo? “Machete?”

Yup.

Trejo was the series headliner, slated to kick off the event on Thursday night at the Burroughs & Chapin Auditorium on HGTC’s Conway campus.

I was bummed out that I was not going to be able to attend that event because of a weekly gig I play at House of Blues with my brother – but as fate would have it, I got a message from King. It turns out that Trejo was also set to speak in a classroom setting at HGTC’s Myrtle Beach campus Thursday morning, and King offered to save me a seat.

roger-and-trejo

(Photo: Gene Ho)

Thankful to have been included, it did my heart good to hear Trejo speak. For an idea of what he was talking about, go here.

And here is my Sun News article:

‘Machete’ star to make appearance as HGTC’s Addiction and Recovery Lecture series headliner

On Thursday, February 16, actor Danny Trejo will kick off the 10th annual Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, bringing his story of personal transformation to the Grand Strand.

Trejo’s iconic rugged demeanor has served him well over the years, and he has appeared in dozens of films from “Desperado,” “From Dusk till Dawn” and “Con Air” to the “Spy Kids” trilogy, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and of course “Machete” and “Machete Kills.”

Trejo, now 72, struggled with addiction early on and has been sober for a jaw-dropping 48 years.

The HGTC Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series has been going strong since 2008, bringing with it a veritable Who’s Who of well-known people who have struggled with addiction: Louis Gossett, Jr., Meredith Baxter, Steve Ford [son of former President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford], three stars of A&E’s “Intervention” and more.

The series continues for three consecutive Thursdays following Trejo’s event and will include featured speakers and community panel events.

Longtime HGTC physics and natural sciences professor Casey King is the organizer and the de facto face of the series, even though he will be the first to tell you that it has a life of its own.

King has been living and teaching on the Grand Strand for more than 20 years, following a stint in nuclear energy. After finishing graduate school at the University of Virginia, his first job was as a radiation specialist for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] in Chicago.

“That lasted about a year, and I last worked in a nuclear power plant. I was there for about four years until about 1994,” he said.

He said he was miserable.

“I worked in the control room and it was either incredibly boring or intensely manic,” he said. “The job was bipolar.”

King made the switch to academia when a job came open at Coker College in Hartsville and he was accepted to teach.

He went on to other teaching jobs at Francis Marion University and Florence-Darlington Technical College before transferring to HGTC in 1996. He also began teaching math and physics at Coastal Carolina University in 2003.

“It was like a breath of fresh air, and incredibly refreshing to begin to teach. That’s why I have been in the teaching field for 23 years. I love it, and look forward every day to going to work,” he said.

King has four adult children, three of which he raised as a single parent. He has been in a relationship with partner Jennifer Neafsey for nearly eight years.

King also struggled with addiction. He said he thought he had a lot of people fooled along the way, and that an active addict by his very nature has a way of covering things up.

“When my career with substance [abuse] appeared to be at its end, I knew I had no other choice but to seek some kind of help. It had been suggested to me by some friends that 12-Step programs worked – and I knew enough to do something before it was too late,” he said.

King got sober in 2005.

At that time, he was involved in organizing a general series of lectures on assorted topics at HGTC, but this changed in 2008.

“After we had done this for a few years, my partner dropped out and it was just me. I chose to include the topic of addiction and recovery because It because it was near and dear to my heart,” he said. “It was something that I had decades of experience with.”

King knew plenty of people in recovery and was already in the position to reserve the auditorium.

“I don’t think I have any special ability, but it just seemed like I was in the right place at the right time to do this lecture series.”

But he had no funds to work with, and relied for the first few years on local counselors and doctors to speak – sometimes more than once.

Eventually, HGTC got behind the series with the funding he needed to ramp things up.

The series has always been free and open to the public.

“There has never been a charge for any of this over 10 years. No money has ever been involved from the attendees,” he said.

The first Hollywood-connected speaker came in the form of screenwriter William G. Borchert, who lived in Little River at the time and wrote the 1989 film, “My Name Is Bill W.,” based on the true story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and starring James Woods and James Garner.

King’s networking efforts paid off next when he secured cast members from A&E’s “Intervention” for speaking slots in the lecture series – and his relationship with them has grown into a valuable resource to the point where he calls them whenever he needs to.

“There are people that come to me for interventions, and I will farm it out to one of them. It’s networking at its best,” he said.

Locals might remember the billboard on U.S. 501 touting the arrival of academy award winner Louis Gossett, Jr. last year. His speaking engagement was so full that some attendees had to use an overflow area.

This is shaping up to be the same scenario with Trejo.

“We’re making plans to accommodate a large crowd. There will be closed-circuit television in five rooms,” said King.

King just got word that a film crew will be on hand to grab footage from this event for a Trejo biopic currently in production.

“I want people to see that there are multiple paths to recovery – and when Danny Trejo comes, he will tell his story and how he did it. On the second night [February 23], there will be six to eight students – all local and in recovery – who are going to tell you their stories.”

On Thursday, March 2, William C. Moyers will tell his story.

Moyers is VP of public affairs for community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and son of journalist Bill Moyers. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption.”

The final installment of the Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series on March 9 is sponsored by the local advocacy group Faces and Voices of Recovery – or FAVOR – and will include the showing of a film called “Generation Found,” which focuses on youth addiction and recovery in Houston.

Local FAVOR chapter chairman Dr. Victor Archambeau said he met King in more than three years ago, when FAVOR was being formed on the Grand Strand. The group has been involved with the lecture series since then.

“Casey joined FAVOR and asked how we could help,” he said. “He offered to extend the conference to four nights and let us have the fourth night for a program of our choosing.”

Archambeau is a family practitioner who said he has been in recovery for 23 years.

In addition to sponsoring the showing of “Generation Found,” Archambeau said FAVOR members will help with the dinner service for all four nights.

archambeau-and-shirley

(FAVOR Chairman Dr. Victor Archambeau and FAVOR Secretary Susan Shirley. Photo: Matt Silfer for The Sun News]

King’s efforts in the name of recovery are not lost on Archambeau.

“Casey is passionate about what he does and really wants others to get the message about recovery. This program is a labor of love for him and requires a huge commitment of time and effort to make it work,” he said.

HGTC student Dylan Parker is not in recovery, but he will be telling his story on February 23.

Parker lost his brother to a heroin overdose in 2013, when Parker was 15.

“My brother Clay was someone I always looked up to dearly and loved,” he said. “He was my best friend, and we connected on so many things that we were almost twins. I don’t remember exactly when Clay first admitted his addiction. After his death, a lot of things went blurry on me.”

Parker said his brother’s problem started with the abuse of pills – first taking them orally and then injecting them – ultimately moving on to heroin and the black tar that ended his life.

“Clay’s death showed me that drugs are a disease,” he said. “It’s one that people don’t want to realize or acknowledge. I was once one of those people. Drugs not only took my brother. They’ve taken away a part of my mom and dad. When Clay passed away I didn’t want to keep quiet about his addiction. I wanted people to know that drugs are a real problem and they show no discrimination.”

Parker said his brother’s death gave him the ability to share this story with The Sun News and to speak at the lecture series.

“If this could help or save someone then by all means I know my brother is proud of me. It’s time to speak up and help those that are in need,” he said.

Although King is the founder and organizer of the lecture series, he strives to keep himself out of the picture as much as possible.

“I am not an expert. I am a physics professor and just happen to be in recovery. It’s not about me. It’s about the series,” he said.

In a statement, Trejo told The Sun News that he has never been to Myrtle Beach before.

The focus of his message is to the point:

“Never give up on someone.,” he said.

And for those thinking about getting help, Trejo had this to say:

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it is not a train.”

For more information about the HGTC Addiction and Recovery Lecture Series, email Casey King at casey.king@hgtc.edu or call 843-477-2154.