Saturday, March 30, 2013

Don't Believe the Media: This is NOT the 40-Year Anniversary of the End of the Vietnam War!!

Evacuating Saigon 1975
Multiple news reports are declaring this week the 40-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. But that isn't really true. While March, 1973 did mark the so-called "end of combat operations in Vietnam," it certainly wasn't the end of the war for all U.S. troops. 

The real end didn't come until nearly two years later, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the remaining American service members in country got the hell out. In addition to many prisoners of war and troops still missing in action, there were many U.S. troops still in Vietnam and still in harm's way long after the end of "combat operations."

They included a group of American Marines who bravely stayed behind at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to the very end. 

Do you remember the dramatic footage of these American Marines and South Vietnamese citizens evacuating from the embassy roof on April 30, 1975? As a kid, I watched those riveting news accounts of that evacuation and wondered who was on the very last helicopter to leave the embassy roof. Who were the very last American troops to officially leave Vietnam? 

That question lingered in my mind for two decades. And in 1994, as a correspondent for People magazine, I embarked on a journalistic mission to become the first person to identify the men on that very last chopper.

These men were a part of history, yet no journalist had ever bothered to find these guys, and thank them. And the U.S. military never compiled an official list of their names or held any ceremony in their honor. It wasn’t easy tracking them all down; it took a bit of detective work. But I was resolute. After nearly a month, I found them. 

The magazine flew every member of that crew who could make it to San Diego for a highly emotional reunion that I was honored to hostThat was the first time these Marines - most of them guards at the embassy - had been together since that horrific day on the embassy roof. 

What I did not know until I started interviewing them was that they all thought they'd been left behind and that they would likely die on that roof that night. They waited for hours for that final helicopter to come while the embassy beneath them and the city around them crumbled.

When the producers of the play Miss Saigon read my story in People, they called me and invited all these Marines, and me, to the Washington DC premiere of the play at the Kennedy Center. The play, which puts the Madame Butterfly story into a Vietnam context, has a scene at the end that poignantly depicts the helicopter escape by these American Marines.

It was, appropriately, my first visit to Washington. I could not have felt more patriotic and more proud to bring these guys together, again. We all met up before the play at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, better known as The Wall, which most of them had surprisingly not seen. There wasn't a dry eye among these tough Marines at The Wall as they read the names of buddies lost, or when they watched the final scene of Miss Saigon. 

Miss Saigon 
They were watching their own life up on that stage. Afterward, the ranking and most vociferous member of the group, Maj. Jim Kean, commented on the fact that one of his men on that helicopter, S.Sgt. Robert Frain, had reportedly killed himself in 1993 after a battle with depression. My assumption is that Frain may have had post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from his Vietnam days. But I don’t know that for certain. 

"I really miss Bobby," Kean told me that day at The Wall, his voice cracking. "I wish he was here with us."

Now here we are again, in another protracted war that many insist is not winnable. The war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, and whether you think we should stay or go, it's hard not to think about the possibility of the Taliban violently storming the country just as the North Vietnamese did when the Americans left Vietnam. 

As I've written before, our brave and confident troops think they can train the Afghans in time to restore order and keep the Taliban down by the time we leave next year. When the last American warriors do leave Afghanistan, I'll be thinking about those men in Saigon 35 years ago, the last to leave Vietnam, and what they saw as they looked out that heli's window: a city, and country, in ruins and being taken over by the bad guys. 

The hope among American military and its allies, and all of us, is that we will leave Afghanistan in a much better state than what we left behind in Vietnam. Regardless, we've been there long enough. It’s time to bring our men and women home. All of them. And, most importantly, we must support them after they come home.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Popular, Controversial Band Louis XIV Reunite

Louis XIV
Louis XIV, the popular, controversial San Diego-based rock quartet that was censored by Wal-Mart, banned in Alabama, and broke up four years ago, has reunited. After a break (and a small handful of reunion shows), the group, whose sexual lyrics and images on their early records thrilled some but offended others, just wrapped a short European tour with The Killers and will be joining that band again on some U.S. dates in May. A new record may be coming, as well.

In an exclusive phone interview with The Reno Dispatch from his home recording studio in the Hollywood Hills just before leaving for the brief Euro tour, Jason Hill, the band's charismatic and personable frontman, talked openly about the controversies, the breakup, and the long-awaited reunion.

"Getting back together for this tour just felt right," he said. "We're getting along well and thinking about recording a new album, though that still isn't cut in stone."

Hill has also been writing songs for a supergroup he's in called Vicky Cryer, which features Killers bassist Mark Stoermer and Muse drummer Dominic Howard. Vicky Cryer’s debut album, The Synthetic Love of Emotional Engineering, is set for release next month. 

In our phone conversation, Hill, who is engaged now and "in a very good place, a really good head space," said the band parted ways four years ago amid lots of turmoil. "I was breaking up with my girlfriend at the time, and the other guys in the band were also going through breakups in and around that time, too," he said. "Everything was kind of crumbling, we just stopped after we ended a tour in April 2009. It just kind of ended."

Hill said he and bandmate Brian Karscig have since repaired their lifelong friendship. "Brian and I have known each other since we were kids growing up in Poway (near San Diego)," Hill said. "We started talking again and it felt really good. It wasn't really about the band at first, it was just about our friendship. The conversations about getting the band back together came later."

Louis VIV's music has always been tricky to categorize. An inspired amalgam of glam, punk, garage, hard rock and pop, the group touched a nerve in young fans right out of the box with its racy lyrics and raucous live shows. 

The band got a lot of attention for its explicit lyrics and sexual artwork on its raunchy 2005 record The Best Little Secrets Are Kept. From there the guys kept expanding their sound and taking it in new and surprising directions, as evidenced by the melancholy and simply beautiful 2008 song Hopesick. 

The tune addresses unrequited love ("I love her, she loves me / but in my mind") and drug use ("I need hope / I need help / I need dope"), among other serious subjects. With its ethereal orchestral string line and surreal fade, Hopesick even evokes the Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper.

But despite making some really memorable music, the group, for better or worse, will always be considered controversial because of those early sexed up songs. Hill is philosophical but not apologetic about the group's image.

"The songs that some people said were sexist were just playful flirtations with my girlfriend. It's all just what came out of my mouth when they were written," he said. "On the other hand, when you're in the heat of the moment, when you're feeling all this sexual tension, it's amazing what you think when you listen later. It's like after having sex. Those songs are like the buildup. Maybe the subsequent records were more like the morning after the big party."

Hill said the songs that caught all the heat, such as Paper Doll and Pledge of Allegiance, were written in a week's period. 

"To this day those are some of my favorite tracks," he said. "It was just to see if I could get a reaction out of my girlfriend, make her smile or turn her on, just the way I would talk with her. To get all that flak was surprising. So many women like those songs even more than men do. Men like the more rocking ones, the sexual ones that women tend to like."

Hill insisted he never meant to be chauvinistic. "I thought it was kind of funny that people took it so seriously," he said. "The best part was when we got banned in Alabama."

Yes, Louis XIV was banned in Hoover, Alabama, where they were scheduled to play the day after Hurricane Katrina reached land.

"We didn't really want to play there because the high school doubled as theater in the town, and that's where we were booked," Hill recalls. "But we were getting paid, and we knew this would help finance the tour, so we decided to go. Then we found out we were on CNN because the Hoover Board of Education had held an emergency meeting and banned us because. I guess they heard some of our songs and felt we were male chauvinists and were not fit for their town."

Hill says the assumption among the lawmakers in Hoover was that the band was coming to town to have sex with their daughters.

"I guess they thought we would bring drugs to Hoover," he says. "We got banned, but we still got paid, and we were jazzed that we didn't have to go. But the kicker, the best part, is they hired Snoop Dogg to play the show instead. Snoop Dogg! I wonder if they'd ever listened to any of his records. It was the most ironic thing ever."

As for the reunion, Hill says the group always thought there'd be one, but didn't want to do it unless it was for the right reasons.

"I am too happy these days to screw that all up," he says. "I don't have this aching need any more to have people say, 'Yes, you're amazing.' But the guys in The Killers pestered us about getting back together, and asked us to do some new years shows. We played a couple times, and it was kind of a disaster, but the thing is it felt good to do it. I played guitar better than I ever played it."

On the night of the first show with The Killers, Hill said members of that band asked Hill and his bandmates to join them in Europe. "After I had a few drinks in me," Hill said, "I said 'ok'."

Hill's individuality always shines through, on record, in the live shows, and even in phone conversations. He doesn't want to sound like anyone else, and he doesn't want to be anyone else. Music writers have tried to categorize Hill, and Louis XIV, but that's just not possible. 

"People don't mean to, but they want to put you in a box," he said. "It's human nature. But I always try to make music from the heart. My step brother growing up was an incredible classical violinist, he was amazing, but the thing that struck me when I first started playing music was that he couldn't make something up. How can you play an instrument and not want to make something up? Just to play someone else's material, so many people do that. I never wanted to be like that, so I didn't take lessons. I wanted to do my own thing. Everyone is different. But for me, the pont is, music is not 3 plus 3 equals 6. It could be 6. Or not." 

Hill, a music historian of sorts who can talk intelligently about virtually any music genre, said he's never tried to cop a certain sound or genre when he writes or performs. 

"Music got me through life as a kid, I remember going to record stores buying records for a buck apiece in the dollar bin," he said. "I soaked up everything. Music is about self expression. We've been called glam, but I never said 'We're gonna do glam.' It's a weird term. Look at Bowie, he's all over the place. He never made the same record twice. That would be incredibly dull. Is Young Americans glam? No. Ziggy Stardust? Maybe. I'm always fighting against people that want to try to mold you into something not as unique. You have to believe that what you are doing is worth something."

While he may take issue with being called 'glam,' Hill says one of the highlights of being in Louis XIV was when the band opened for David Bowie at some high-profile benefits for Africans with AIDS. Hill was nervous before those gigs because the sexual nature of some of the band's songs didn't seem appropriate for an AIDS benefit. But as it turned out, he felt that playing those songs sent a positive message.

"We were playing these powerful, star-studded AIDS events, with people like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes staring at us," he recalled. "Beforehand, I thought, 'This is ridiculous. I don't feel right about singing some of these songs.' But in hindsight it was a cool thing. There was something great about it in that, in the fight against AIDS, the message really should be that sex can still be fun, it's just about being responsible."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

One Thing Our Government is Doing Right For Veterans

My guest blogger today is Anthony Hardie, a service-disabled veteran whose seven years active duty military service included deployments to the Gulf War and Somalia. Anthony serves on the Congressionally chartered Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC) in the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the integration panel of the Gulf War Illness Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). Anthony is the author of  91 outcomes, a popular health news website for Gulf War veterans and those who care for them. On Friday, he was on National Public Radio's Science Friday show talking about current Gulf War Illness treatment issues affecting more than one-third of veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. Anthony, who's testified before Congress many times and is often interviewed by reporters in the national media, me included, is a dedicated advocate for America's veterans. Exclusively for The Reno Dispatch, he writes below about one thing the government is actually doing right for veterans. Yes, apparently there is at least one thing that ain't broke...   

-- Jamie Reno

When I learned today that Congress had finally sent President Obama a final spending bill for this year, I felt both satisfaction and relief – not only because the bill averts yet another potential government shutdown, but because of what it stands to do for Gulf War and other veterans.

Tucked away in seemingly obscure report language accompanying the bill are explicit instructions to the Department of Defense to provide $20 million for the Gulf War Illness Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). This is double the previous funding level of this program - and in this extraordinarily tough budget year!

Gulf War Illness has been in the national media again quite a bit lately. Last week, it was a whistleblower, who Jamie Reno interviewed for The Daily Beast, blowing the lid off shocking VA research staff misconduct at a Congressional investigative hearing at which I also testified. This week, it’s been the news that Gulf War Illness pain symptoms can be seen objectively with functional brain scans, essentially a specialized MRI called fMRI. 

And all of that ties into today’s surprising but welcome budget news. 

At last week’s investigative hearing, I testified that funding should be taken from improperly performing works units like those identified by the VA whistleblower. I also included in my testimony several detailed recommendations related to increasing funding for the treatment-focused Gulf War Illness CDMRP, a government program that is actually working.  

As luck would have it, the latter is exactly what happened today, not because of my recommendations, but because of a lot of hard work by a very small number of Gulf War veterans and advocates working quietly behind the scenes, and because of support by a growing number of vocal Gulf War veterans who reached out and contact members of Congress at key junctures. 

In the final spending bill sent to the President today, Congress doubles that funding, to $20 million.

Though still a drop in the bucket of overall federal spending, this tiny (by federal standards) program is already making headway.  

As I noted in my written testimony for last week’s hearing, one of the earliest successes of the CDMRP is the discovery that a particular antioxidant can help reduce some Gulf War Illness symptoms. 

Another, studying the sarin nerve agent to which hundreds of thousands of Gulf War troops were exposed, may have important implications for future military or civilian populations in a homeland security situation since the research findings suggest low-dose, non-symptomatic exposure to sarin may result in long-lasting cardiac and neurological dysfunction.  

Another is that chronic inflammation may underlie many Gulf War Illness symptoms, and if so, effective treatments may already exist. 

Still another is taking an animal model of Gulf War Illness chemical exposures, which has effectively reproduced GWI symptoms, and testing an already available drug to treat pain and memory deficits common in GWI.  

It's also clear that many researchers are making great strides towards unraveling and treating Gulf War Illness without the need to know the specific substance(s) of causation! Unraveling the specifics of what is happening now in the brains and bodies of ill Gulf War veterans appears to be at least as relevant to the identification and development of effective treatments. 

The 2010 Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee wrote that effective treatments for Gulf War Illness can likely be found, and suggested a path forward “to speed the development of effective treatments, cures, and, it is hoped, preventions.” To date, only the  CDMRP has been fully engaged in this effort, though still inadequately funded. Most importantly, these CDMRP efforts are producing real results. 

Meanwhile, VA staff have wasted more precious years, squandered myriad experts’ time, energy, and hard work, and further alienated not just their most engaged advisors but also the very Gulf War veterans they are supposed to be helping. 

And though VA research staff have told us they are now funding treatment studies, the RAC on which I serve has not been provided specific information on these new efforts. 

And, the findings by James Baraniuk, a professor of medicine at Georgetown, which shows that Gulf War illness is caused by damage to the brain, were made possible, not through funding of the intransigent VA, but through this unique Congressionally directed Gulf War Illness treatment research program. 

And so, the news behind today’s “averting a government shutdown” is of profound importance to the more than 250,000 of the 697,000 (one in three) veterans of the 1991 Gulf War that are still debilitated by chronic multi-symptom illness issues we call Gulf War Illness.

For those of us Gulf War veterans suffering from this all-too-real illness, this doubling of treatment research funding signals real, tangible Congressional recognition of a program that is finally aimed at improving our health and lives. Yes, this is  one government program for veterans that is refreshingly devoid of the lies and obfuscation at VA. Because of that, this program is seeing tangible results.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

U.S. Plays Checkers While Karzai Plays Chess

The following guest blog was written exclusively for The Reno Dispatch by retired Lt. Col John L. Cook, the fascinating and reliably controversial former Army intelligence officer and senior adviser to the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan who for five years oversaw the development of the force structure of the Afghan National Police. In his compelling new book Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure, Cook - who earned the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart during his military career - divulges secrets of America’s longest war and suggests that all the major objectives in Afghanistan have not worked. Cook, as I have said before on this blog, is a no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip guy who can anger both liberals and conservatives - so he must be doing something right. He's been both praised and criticized for helping run the Phoenix Program, the counterinsurgency plan employed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. I don't always agree with John, but I respect him and enjoy his writing. Below, he once again pulls no punches in his commentary about the latest outrageous allegations from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. and the Taliban are conspiring to keep troops in Afghanistan.

- Jamie Reno


When it comes to public strategy, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is a chess master. As for the U.S., well, we're still learning how to play checkers. This has been demonstrated repeatedly during this rocky 12-year marriage, but we have yet to figure out how to play the game. Each time Karzai makes a strategic, controversial move we feign shock, quickly try to spin the story, and desperately seek to limit the damage with flaccid statements from the State Department or the senior commander on the ground in Kabul at the time of the dust up.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai
The latest eruption occurred a week ago when the newly minted Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, made his maiden flight to Afghanistan to kiss Karzai’s ring. Of course, no one could anticipate that the Taliban would try to steal the spotlight during this trip by blowing up the Ministry of Defense, but they did. That’s another thing we have failed at, the information war. 

Karzai subsequently stunned the Western world by saying the attack was the result of a conspiracy between the U.S. and the Taliban in order to justify the American presence there past the 2014 deadline for withdrawal. That announcement put the diplomatic corps in a tizzy because this breach of protocol would be hard to paper over. Pundits here and around the world tried to make sense of it because, on its face, the charge made absolutely no sense. All seemed to agree it was insane.

While I would agree with this assessment if everyone that claims to be saving Afghanistan were playing checkers, the truth is, not everyone is. The key player is this drama, Hamid Karzai, has been playing chess from the beginning, and he's always been at least three moves ahead of the coalition. 

Karzai came to power during the Bonn Conference way back in 2001 and is still in control of the board.  During this period, the coalition has replaced ambassadors, military commanders, entire governments and presidents. Even different strategies have been used as we tried several courses.  The only constant has been Hamid Karzai. When we overlook this fact, or fail to give it the weight it deserves, we do so at great peril. 

When he formed the Provisional Government back in 2002, Karzai he had to create something that looked like a central government, but wasn’t. He had to reach out to both former Warlords who fought the Soviets and former loyalists who supported the communist president, and cobble together an uneasy alliance. Otherwise, Afghanistan would have quickly self-destructed once the Taliban were displaced.  How was this possible? Simple.  He promised them a piece of the pie the coalition was about to offer.  All they had to do was pretend they wanted to save Afghanistan and that they were all working together.  

In truth, they hated each other, and still do, because each side kept score during the Soviet occupation and, make no mistake, everyone in Afghanistan lost someone close to them  between 1979 and 1989.  Today, these two groups make up the Afghan government. And we think they are united but they are not.

In 2004, we handed Karzai a constitution that looks a lot like ours. It has three branches of government, just like ours, with an executive, judicial and legislative branch, each designed to be co-equal. The problem is, it isn’t.  While it is a beautifully written document, only the executive branch has any power. The parliament is an odd assortment of former Warlords, Taliban and illiterate straphangers who have no idea what their duties are but they know they are important and their votes, when needed, are always for sale to the highest bidder.  

True, Afghanistan does have a Supreme Count and there are several courts located throughout the country. Who appoints the judges? Hamid Karzai. In Afghanistan, there is an old saying, “Everyone is entitled to as much justice as they can afford.”   

As a result, there are no wealthy Afghans in the overcrowded prisons. If an average Afghan wants justice, he takes his case to an area controlled by the Taliban, where justice is often swift and somewhat brutal, but it is never for sale.

Unfortunately, we never wanted to examine any of this because we were on a mission to rebuild Afghanistan and Karzai was our guy, our Golden Boy. We had gone in the tank for him, early on, and now we’re stuck with him. Each new ambassador and military commander was warmly welcomed to the Presidential Palace and Karzai charmed them. He made them feel important, that they were saving his nation and, with a little more aid and support, they could all win.  

Of course, each of these officials knew their tour was limited and Karzai milked them for all he could get. The truth is, he never really wanted to defeat the Taliban because they were his reason to exist.  Without the Taliban he would have no reason to exist as a war time president on the world’s stage. If he was serious, Afghanistan would have a national draft, where the best and the brightest are conscripted into the Army and National Police. 

But that is not going to happen, which explains why these units have an illiteracy rate of 90 percent.  Another fact we overlooked is that Karzai is from the Pastun tribe. Over 95 percent of the Taliban are Pastun.

And Karzai managed to seduce all these officials. While the Bush administration seemed to pose a threat to the booming opium trade, Karzai managed to slow-roll him until the Obama administration took power. Opium was a major part of Karzai’s interlocking criminal enterprise and he was determined not to lose it.  When Obama sent Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan in 2009 as his special representative, Karzai quickly convinced Holbrooke that poppy farmers needed to make a living and Holbrooke quickly agreed.  

Finally, any threat from the coalition to the drug trade was now officially over. Holbrooke made sure of that. At this point, Karzai knew Obama was overmatched at chess. So he simply raised the stakes and demanded more American troops. He never expected them to actually defeat the Taliban but what they brought was more money into the country. When Obama tried to start the withdrawal in 2011, Karzai countered by changing the date  to 2014. 

Now we have come full circle. With Karzai in complete control of the board, he knows what our next move will be and he is ready for it. We have convinced him that Afghanistan is more important to us than it is to him. 

By showing him our game plan, we gave away our leverage, and he took full advantage. In short, he knows us better than we know ourselves. Now, he can play to the crowd, the Afghan population, and throw them a bone. He has stood up to the foreign invaders and the people love that. 

Now, he can wrap himself in the flag and claim he is a nationalist after all. Will it work? That’s the wrong question and if that’s what we ask, he has already won. The reality is, it makes no difference what we do at this point. If we insist on staying, we stay on his terms. If we decide to leave, he still wins because he has defeated the last remaining Super Power in the world, on his terms.  

Over the years, he has acquired enormous wealth at our expense and it is safely squirreled away in various countries. When viewed through this lens, Karzai’s latest rant makes perfect sense and is perfectly consistent with his behavior over the past decade. All the recent hype about Karzai being unbalanced is just that, hype. In reality, he is at the top of his game and has been from the beginning. 

The fatal mistake we made early on in Afghanistan was believing that we were all on the same team. We never were. This, in the end, is what separates a chess master from a mere checkers player. I suspect he would be a great poker player as well, playing against us, because we never learned when to hold them and when to fold them. Meanwhile, Americans keep dying there. Check and checkmate.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Almost Famous - Peter Frampton & Me

While surfing YouTube recently, I discovered a video of Peter Frampton in his golden prime, performing his classic Do You Feel Like We Do in 1975 on The Midnight Special, the NBC Friday late-night music show. I remember seeing that TV performance when I was a kid. It was the first time I had seen Peter perform, and it knocked me out. I became an instant fan.

Mind you, this came a year before the release of Frampton Comes Alive!, the legendary double album that catapulted Peter into the stratosphere. But when you watch the video, you can just tell that this amiable, charismatic, crowd-pleasing and impossibly gifted British guitar master was on the brink of superstardom.

In the second half of the 70's, Peter was the biggest rock star in the world. But largely because of his looks, and the fact that his toothy smile and constant barrage of shirtless photos melted girls' hearts, he was lumped in with the teen idols of that era and never got the respect he deserves.

Peter Frampton today...
Let's set the record straight once and for all: there's never been a better rock guitarist than Peter. Ever. He's also a tremendous songwriter and underrated singer. And he's a true performer who connects with and loves his audience. 

I was 15 when Frampton Comes Alive! came out, and it quickly became the soundtrack to my life. Like a lot of other 15-year-old boys in 1976, I wanted to be Peter Frampton. Who doesn't want to be a guitar God? Girls loved him, but guys also thought he was cool. 

Cameron Crowe, my favorite rock music writer and one my my favorite filmmakers, was one scribe who recognized Peter's greatness. He wrote the liner notes to Frampton Comes Alive! Nearly 25 years later Peter returned the favor by serving as a technical advisor for Crowe's poignant, autobiographical film Almost Famous. Peter co-wrote several songs for the film and appears briefly in the movie as 'Reg', a road manager for Humble Pie, the real-life band Peter co-founded. 

Meanwhile, back in the 70's - the super summer of '76, to be more specific. Remember all those Bicentennial Minutes? Anyway, there 
I was, just a skinny blonde kid who loved two things - sports and music - standing alone in my room rocking out on my guitar to Peter's Show Me the Way, the ultimate summer radio song. At that moment, how could I have even imagined that one day Peter Frampton would play lead guitar on a song that I sang and wrote?

If you would have told me this in high school, I would have told you that you'd had too many beers or too many bong hits. Or both.

Well, fast forward about 30 years to when I was recording my Survivors' Songs album. When I entered the studio to start cutting the rhythm tracks, I decided to try to recruit some of my musical heroes to play with me on these new songs.

It was an album whose purpose was to inspire my fellow cancer patients and survivors around the world to keep fighting, and I wanted to get some big music stars on board to salute all cancer patients and their loved ones.

So I reached out to Peter's management, who then relayed the message to Peter. And to my shock and joy, he agreed to listen to the track. Evidently he liked it, because he agreed to play lead guitar on the song, which is the album's title track and is my rocking anthem for survivors of all kinds. 

Peter even employed his classic wah-wah pedal sound on the song, which was a nice touch. I had a big smile on my face as I sat in the music studio of my buddy and co-producer Josquin Des Pres as we listened together to Peter's guitar tracks. He nailed it. As always.

Peter even sent me a very kind letter afterward in which he said, "Jamie, I hope this is OK. I thought the wah-wah lent itself to the vibe perfectly." It did, Peter. It did. I have that letter framed and hanging here on my office wall.

I'm proud to say that tens of thousands of cancer patients, survivors and their loved ones have heard that song. We were able to send out thousands of copies of the record to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, every chapter. All thanks to Peter, who is without question the nicest person I have ever met in the music business. A true English gentleman.

And here's the best news: Peter is still wowing audiences all over the world. Lately he's been knocking fans' socks off with a three-hour show that includes a performance of Framptom Comes Alive! in its entirety, along with cuts from his Grammy Award-winning 2006 instrumental album Fingerprints. He also recently appeared on The Voice singing another of his classics, Baby, I Love Your Way, as a duet with Terry McDermott.

Recording a song with Peter was one of the highlights of my foray into the music business. Because of Peter, I guess you could say I'm almost famous. Thanks, Peter, for making one grown-up kid very happy.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: The Dark But Inspirational Story of the Cowsills, the "Real-Life" Partridge Family

The Cowsills in the late 1960s
Arguably no song better encapsulated the sunny, innocent side of the 1960's than The Rain, The Park, and Other Things by The Cowsills. Released in 1967, a year identified by both the flowery Summer of Love and fiery protests against the Vietnam War, the song combined ethereal, organ-infused psychedelia with stunning harmonies and an unapologetically sweet, pure-pop innocence that you just don't hear in music now. It may be my favorite a.m. radio hit from that music-rich decade.

The Rain, The Park, and Other Things sold more than three million copies and brought quick and deserved fame to the Cowsills, a family band from Newport, Rhode Island that would later become the real-life inspiration for TV's The Partridge Family. When as a kid I first saw the clean-cut, all-American Cowsills on The Ed Sullivan Show, I remember thinking how lucky they were to be playing music together as a family, on national television. 

But the pure joy in their songs (HairLove American StyleIndian Lakebelied the Cowsills' private pain. The group, composed of siblings Billy, Bob, Paul, Barry, John, and Susan, plus their mom Barbara, was managed by father William "Bud" Cowsill, a domineering and abusive ex-Navy officer who beat, bullied, and alienated his children and tore the band apart.

The Cowsills today - Paul, Susan and Bob
"Our dad was a tough guy. If you didn't say 'yes sir,' you'd get smacked, simple as that," says Bob Cowsill, 63, one of the surviving members of the family and narrator of a new documentary on the Cowsills debuting tonight on Showtime. 

In an exclusive interview with The Reno Dispatch, Bob Cowsill told me that neither he nor any of his siblings ever patched things up with their father. "He ruined the band, and destroyed many of our lives," Bob says. "He wouldn't even let my twin brother Richard in the band. He and my dad had it in for each other. It was terrible that he wouldn't let Richard join in, I know it broke his heart."

The documentary, Family Band: The Cowsills Storywhich was made over a seven-year period in which brothers Bill and Barry died, tells the real story of the Cowsills for the first time. Skillfully directed by Louise Palankar, a lifelong fan of the band, the film chronicles the family's raging patriarch as well as the substance abuse and other issues that have plagued the siblings over the years. 

But thankfully it isn't all gloom and doom. The documentary also includes a nice dose of redemption, plenty of fun 60's nostalgia, and some truly great music. 

The Cowsills are an eternally underrated band. They were skilled musicians who wrote many of their own songs, and their four- and five-part harmonies at times rivaled The Beach Boys. Billed as "America's First Family of Music," the Cowsills were among the most popular pop bands in America in the late 60's. They were all over television, with appearances on Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, American Bandstand and much more. They hosted their own NBC-TV special and even became spokespersons for the American Dairy Association, appearing in milk commercials and print ads. They also recorded the popular theme to the ABC-TV comedy anthology Love American Style.

The band even challenged their own wholesome image, and their dictatorial father, by recording the title song from the acclaimed hippie counterculture musical Hair (check out this 60s-era video of the band hamming it up in hippie wigs). The song shot to the top of the singles charts in 1969 at the same time as three other classic interpretations from that musical: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In by the Fifth Dimension, Good Morning Starshine by Oliver, and Easy to be Hard by Three Dog Night.

"I met the members of The Fifth Dimension at the time, and we shared a laugh over the fact that both of our songs from Hair, as well as the Three Dog Night song and the Oliver song, were all in the top ten at that moment," Bob recalls. "It was pretty amazing. We were honored to be part of that. We were excited about the success of the song and hoping it would be the beginning of a more mature direction for the band." 

Despite that hope, Bob says everyone in the group knew it was only a matter of time before it would all come crashing down.

"The public never knew what was really going on in our family," says Bob. "For example, my dad and my brother Bill had a huge fight in a restaurant in Vegas in 1969 that involved police, and it was all kept out of the papers, never a word. Just before dad tossed Bill from the band, they just had it out. We were all victims of his abuse, mental and physical."

Bud was the one who pulled the plug on signing the Cowsill kids up for the "Partridge" TV show when it was learned that Barbara Cowsill's role would be played by someone else (Shirley Jones). 

"Yeah, dad nixed that," Bob says. "But contrary to popular belief, it wasn't bad news to us. We had just had a huge hit with Hair, and we knew that a TV show would take up all of our time. We were happy recording and touring. We wanted to do the music."

As it turned out, Hair was the family's last hit single. The band self destructed as resentment toward Bud Cowsill grew. Dropped by their record label, the group permanently disbanded in 1971. Barry and Bill went off to do solo work while Susan and three of the brothers, Bob (on guitar and organ), John (on drums) and Paul occasionally reunited on tour. The band - Bob, Susan and Paul - still tours to this day. And they can all still sing, very nicely. John Cowsill has been the drummer for The Beach Boys for years.

Barbara died of cancer in 1985 at age 56 and father Bud passed away in 1992 at age 67. Son Barry, the bassist and reported Danny Bonaduce-like prototype who battled severe depression and substance abuse, was a 2005 victim of Hurricane Katrina. Lead singer/guitarist Billy, also an alcohol and drug abuser, died from chronic health problems in 2006. Both brothers were in their 50s.

The Cowsills story is chillingly similar to that of two other musical families from that era: The Beach Boy brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson and their sadistic, megalomaniacal father Murry Wilson, and the Jackson Five and their abusive father Joe Jackson

Bob is grateful the band had so much success, but he believes that had it not been for his father, "We would have had 20 more hits. We were just getting started." Bob regrets that there was never a reconciliation with any of the Cowsill siblings and their father. And he's still angry that his dad never saved any of the money the band made, and never set up any trust funds or bank accounts for any of his children.

"That would be illegal to do that today," he says. "We never get a dime from anything, and our songs are still out there. The Rain, The Park, and Other Things, our original recording, was featured in the movie Dumb and Dumber and we weren't even told about it, let alone paid for it."

Bob says he and the other surviving members have come to terms with their difficult past, and with themselves. And he notes that his dad did pay one final, unexpected visit to each of the Cowsill siblings not long before he died.

"He was living in Mexico, but he came to visit me one last time," Bob recalls. "It had been a long time since I had seen him. I didn't get to see my mother much, either, because she stayed with him. But one time he just got in his his Volkswagen bus, with his white hair and white beard like Ernest Hemingway, and showed up at my door. He said he just wanted to stop by. I didn't even know what to say."

Bud went with Bob that day to see his son play baseball, and then went with him to his wife's tennis lesson. "He didn't say much," Bob says. "But there was one thing he said that I will never forget. He asked me, 'Are you prejudiced?' I said, 'Of course not, dad.' And he said, 'At least I did something right.' Then he left."

Bob says he never saw his father again. But his father left $1,000 on Bob's table that day. "He visited all of us like that, every one of us," Bob says. "And he asked all of us the same question."

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fart Jokes, Anyone? The Best Book Ever Written About Comedy

And now for something completely different: a Reno Dispatch exclusive on a terrific new book on comedy. But how best to kick off such a story? How about with something like this: A funny thing happened to me on the way to the book store. No? OK, how's this: Take my book... pleaseStill no good? Alright, alright, put that tomato down! Here's one that's sure to grab you: I never forget a book, but in your case I'll make an exception! Don't like that one, either? Sheesh. You're a tough room. 

All seriousness aside, ladies and germs, I've just finished reading this delightful new book titled Funny: The Book / Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comedy, by David Misch, and I can die happy now. 

Of course, I don't really wanna die or anything. It's just a joke. And so is this book. That is, it made me laugh, sometimes so hard that I scared the cat. But it also made me think. I thought I was a student of comedy, but I learned a lot from Misch's tome - and not just the great fart jokes. This is easily the best book on comedy I've ever read.

It's always a danger to try to analyze humor. As soon as you do it can become, uh, humorless. Like when you try to explain a joke to your accountant. But this book, which covers everything from comedy's ancient origins to Mark Twain to vaudeville to the modern worlds of movies, TV and stand-up, is the happy exception. Like Monty Python, Misch's book is that rare combination of silly and smart. 

If anyone is qualified to write such a book, it's Misch, a former comic folk singer and stand-up comedian who has taught comedy at USC and UCLA. He's best known for his impressive writing credits, which include Saturday Night LiveMork and MindyDuckman, Police Squad!, and The Muppets Take Manhattan

A personable, unpretentious guy who refreshingly lacks the self-loathing angst and insecurity that curiously afflicts so many great comic minds, Misch lives, eats and breathes comedy. Instead of hearing voices in his head, he undoubtedly hears rim shots and slide whistles
Misch tells me he wrote the book because of an "insatiable thirst for knowledge" and the belief that "a first-time book on an unlikely subject by an unknown writer would be a slam-dunk best-seller. Lucky I had that insatiable thirst stuff."

Misch notes that like all artistic forms, comedy depends on the principles of tension-and-resolution, pattern recognition, misdirection, and surprise. 

"As a joke’s being told, you expect something to surprise you but, if it’s a good joke, you don’t know what or how or even exactly when," he says. "Sometimes, to let out the tension, you even start laughing before the end, a phenomenon known as premature ejokeulation."

Misch goes on to say that one of comedy’s more distinguished performers was a Frenchman named Joseph Pujol, who a century ago "presented a program of musical odorless farts which, according to contemporary accounts, caused women to swoon - although historians disagree about whether that was due to the beauty of his farting or the deadly combination of helpless laughter and tight corsets."

Misch, who shares my passion for Monty PythonGeorge Carlin, Lauren & Hardy, Woody Allen, Buster Keaton, Robert Benchley, the Marx Brothers and Richard Pryor, among other comic icons, says a 1992 study of humor and health found that adults have around 15 or 20 laughs a day, while children have almost 300. "This explains why young people live so much longer than old people," he quips.

This Wednesday, you'll have an opportunity to hear Misch talk in person about all things comedy when he invades the appropriately stuffy confines of the San Diego County Library (Encinitas branch). Misch’s whirlwind San Diego tour schedule Wednesday takes him to the following stops: “Good Morning San Diego” (KUSI News/ABC), 6-7 a.m., “San Diego Living” (San Diego 6-The CW), 9-10 a.m., and the library gig, 5-6 p.m.

Meantime, check out Funny: The Book (you can purchase it here). After all, where else can you find both rare tidbits of ancient history... and fart jokes?!