Monday, March 23, 2015

Remembering the one-of-a-kind....... Al Bunetta

By Peter Rodman

There are certain people you'll never forget as long as you live.  People whose offices you can just 'pop into' whenever you like, even if it's been a year since you saw each other.  People whose unvarnished opinions and outlandish humor make of this life a delicious layer cake.  People who know good marinara from bad.  People whom you could never picture this world being without.

Al Bunetta was such a person.
As most folks know, he guided John Prine and Steve Goodman's careers, never leaving during the lows... and always sharing the highs as a friend, not a businessman.  But a businessman he most certainly was, and anyone who ever booked one of his acts got the added treat of bantering back-and-forth on the telephone with one of the truly great storytellers in all of music.  
Al Bunetta w/John Prine and Steve Goodman
London, circa 1977

That Steve Goodman was able to continue touring well into his trials with cancer is owing in no small part to Al Bunetta's support and encouragement.  
From their earliest days in Chicago, it was Al who was the protector.  Al who listened, Al who talked, and Al who implemented the plan--and always, once he considered the options...Al had a plan. 

Very few managers would have thought it wise back in 1983, for Steve Goodman to openly refer to his deepening struggles with leukemia in song at all, let alone deliver an album heralding the situation, called Artistic Hair.
Al thought it was hilarious--and more than that, it would make Steve, whom he adored--and ached for--happy.  But even more than that, Al knew he could make all this work...which he did.  The album remains a beloved part of Goodman's legacy, to this day. 

Peter Rodman and Steve Goodman
Rodman's home; Boulder, Colorado~ circa 1979
And when Steve succumbed during the following year (1984) at age 36, Al arranged for Jimmy Buffet to sing the national anthem at Wrigley Field, in his place.  But wait...there's more:  The Cubs still play one of Steve's many songs about them ("Go Cubs Go") whenever the team wins at home.  Yup...Al did that.
In many ways, Steve Goodman's life took on even more life, after he was gone.  In large part, that was Al's doing.

Unlike a thousand slippery managers you can name throughout the history of recorded  music, Al Bunetta--underneath a very hard shell--was sensitive, kind, and loyal...but the best of these was always: "loyal."

Long after Steve Goodman passed away, Al kept his vanity label 'Red Pajamas' going, as if there was always going to be new product to market. 
Thing is, there was

Al uncovered remarkable live performances, arranged and recorded a classic "tribute album" (one of the first anyone can remember) to Steve, and continued releasing newer artists' music on his various boutique labels (including the groundbreaking Mountain Stage series) right up until his own death.  

By the time I got to Nashville, Al had established a virtual--no, an actual-- factory in the garage behind 'Oh! Boy Records' on Music Row, where John Prine's brother Billy (himself a recording artist) served as more or less the 'foreman,'
Peter Rodman and Billy Prine
at Radio Lightning in Nashville
circa 1995
for organizing and shipping all of the labels' wide-ranging products.  (Full disclosure:  Billy's a dear friend, who was my production assistant on Sunday Night with Peter Rodman during the '90s.)
That's the whole point:
To say this thing remained a 'family' operation through the years, would be an understatement.  Prine, Goodman, and Bunetta formed a bond that plowed right through career setbacks, cancer and even death, as if they were mere speed-bumps. 

John Prine became a hero of mine from the first time I ever heard "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" on New York's underground FM station, WBAI.  Needless to say,
This was the favorite bumper sticker
for Vietnam hawks, back during Nixon's reign.
It meant: "If you disagree with the war...get out."

opening your debut album with a mock-country anthem--flipping off all the pro-Nixon, pro-Vietnam hawks in America (and their  "Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers) was seriously risky business, back in 1971.  But John seemed perfectly comfortable starting off his recording career this way, and in retrospect--knowing what I now know --Al Bunetta probably had a lot to do with it.  Because if you ever wanted anyone in the foxhole with you after a ballsy move like that, you wanted it to be Al Bunetta. 
That's the thing: 

If you were his friend, Al had your back.

A lot of it was Italian bluster--no doubt, there--but Al knew when to dial down the Godfather nonsense.  That wasn't him...although he could play it as well as the next guy.  

In 1994, Al arranged for me to come to Oh! Boy to interview John Prine, for my radio program.  I'd gotten to
Joe Ely, John Prine, Peter Rodman at the Bluebird Cafe's
kitchen pick-up window, circa 1992.
Photograph by Townes Van Zandt
know John a bit by then, hangin' around at the Bluebird Cafe's kitchen window, where all the good writers always commiserated, only occasionally glancing at the shows through a specially-angled mirror.
Anyway, what resulted was a two-hour interview session, covering anything and everything I ever wanted to ask John Prine.  Al later said he thought it was the best interview John ever gave.  (We briefly thought about issuing it as a national radio promotion, but sound problems at the studio kept it firmly on a local level.)  

In it, John related for the first time in detail, stories he has since told ad the one where Steve Goodman virtually kidnapped Paul Anka into seeing John play at Chicago's Earl of Olde Town, long after the club had closed up for the night, and the chairs were upside down on all the tables.  (That event ultimately led to both acts getting record deals.)  

Back in the mid '90s, after John Prine had won 'Americana Artist of the Year' I was in Al's office the next morning, and happened to congratulate him. 
Prine, Goodman and Bunetta
London, 1977
"Yeah," said Bunetta with his usual backstage candor, "but what's it mean?  I mean, I 'get' the whole genre...we've been doin' this forever! --but what the hell good is it? Will it sell another record, or more tickets to the next show? So, John's #1 on 'Americana'...I mean, it's nice...but what's that mean?" 
With that, he began to giggle...and whenever Al laughed, it made you laugh. 
Now he was on a roll.
"Oh, look, I won 'Americana Artist of the Year!'" he said to an imaginary person. 

Then the imaginary person spoke: "Who gives a fuck!"
To know him, you'd have to realize this was all in jest. 
John Prine--April 19, 2014--at the Country Music Hall of Fame
Photograph Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman.
Nobody was prouder of John's award  than Al...but this was just his silly, odd way of expressing (believe it or not)


Though we shared many such laughs (and a few heart-to-heart talks) through the years, there was that one time...when I seriously fucked up. 
A relationship with Al Bunetta was something like one of your favorite street-kid friends, when you were an 'occasional misunderstanding' or skirmish might occur.  And it did for me, in a most surprising way.

After years of trading jibes and not-so-gentle rank-outs (with me, mostly, on the receiving end) one night Al walked into the Sunset Grill with a few mutual friends. He put his arm around me, and I could see he'd been out in the sun all day, at least. But as I looked down I saw he still had on either swimming trunks or shorts, and I instantly blurted out, "Hey...nice shorts, Al!  Those are comin' back, for sure!" 
Unfortunately for me, this got a big laugh, at the bar.

Al was not amused. 
What ensued was a tantrum that made Joe Pesci in Goodfellas look tame. Worse still, Al was so incensed he couldn't let it go, and eventually--even after several giggly apologies, which admittedly only made things worse--he was politely asked to leave.
Though I knew I'd meant no harm, I felt really bad about it.
It was just "wrong place, wrong time" for him--and I understood that. He was too tired, I was too blunt--whatever. 
I knew what I had to do. 

The next time I saw him was a few months later. We were seated around a tiny, tall table across the street at Faison's, around six of us, including some 'names' you might know... all very good, mutual friends.  Soon after we exchanged greetings and cordialities...I suddenly realized, "It's time."  
I couldn't stand the cold any longer.
"I don't mean to bring everybody down here," I began. Suddenly (and quite annoyingly) tears welled up in my eyes.  "But I have something to say to this man, whom I love...and who I embarrassed one night--something I never wanted to do.  I'm sorry, Al.  I was wrong. I love you, and you deserve a public apology for my thoughtless remarks.  I mocked you, and I never meant to mock you.  I hope you'll forgive me.  I was wrong, and it hurts me, that it hurt you.  And to the rest of you I'm also sorry, to have had to do this...I know you'll understand...if you love this man as I do, I had to do this this way."
The rest of the table (we were all together) didn't seem to mind at all...but now all eyes were on Al--who was slightly taken aback at first, but soon gave me a look of love I'll never forget--since it was definitely in his 'code,' to forgive (if not forget) when someone apologized mano a mano.  

I'd watched him searching my face for sincerity as I spoke, and lucky for me...he found it.  He truly seemed touched by the fact that I meant it, and my guess was right:  He'd still been mad, right up until that moment.
His arm reached toward my shoulder, and he rested his hand there for a few seconds until he had my full attention, saying simply, "I appreciate that." 
He had felt hurt and insulted by my comment, but once he said I was forgiven...I was forgiven.
That was all I could have hoped for. 
The festivities resumed--and believe it or not, nobody seem fazed by it at all.  We all had a grand old time. 
From that day to this, we continued our friendship--both realizing it was a miscommunication, and a matter of respect (Al was, after all, 9 years older than I) that would never be breached again.  

One night well after that, leaving a concert at the Ryman, I noticed Al and his lovely wife Dawn and waved, as I got in my car.  Al asked if I'd mind driving them up the hill to another lot, to
Al and Dawn Bunetta
find their car.  (Maybe at TPAC?) 

Anyway, as we looked around for it, Dawn asked who that was, singin' on the CD player ...and I said, "Oh, that's Roberta Flack--my favorite track ever by her...but it's never been released."
"I thought so!" she said of the singer. "But I've never heard this before..."
It was Cole Porter's
"Someone to Watch Over Me," which I'd taped right off the end credits of a VHS copy of the movie of the same name.*
Even though we'd by now found (and pulled up next to) their car, the Bunettas decided to sit and listen to the song a second time, before heading home in the night towards Gallatin. 

" really beautiful," said Al.  I'll always remember how innocent and absorbed he was by the music, at that moment in time.  We all were--and if I'm not mistaken, that night was their anniversary.
Soon after that, I delivered a custom-made copy of the still-unreleased track to Al's office, for he and Dawn.

There would be untold ups and down in his life (Goodman's death and Prine's own bouts with cancer among them) but none quite like losing his son Juri, a few years back, to a car accident.  After that, it seemed Al needed to spend more time away from the office. 
"I'm slowin' down now," he told me a few months ago, shuffling a few papers on his desk. "You could almost say I've  retired from all the commotion--lunches, and what-not. It's not for me, anymore. I stay home a lot. Got good people here; the place almost runs itself now."
Then, in a trademark indication that you were talking to a human being, and not just some self-absorbed 'manager,' he looked up at me.
"How about you?" he said.
"How're you doin'?  Are y'okay? ...ya healthy?" 

I don't know whether by that time Al had any symptoms yet or what.  If he did, he wouldn't have told me anyway.
                        Why bellyache? Take it like a man.   
It was a standard he held himself to, but when it came to others...not so much.  Al's 'TLC' was lavished on the same few people throughout almost his entire adult life, and they know who they are, each and every one. 
Tonight it must feel, to those few people, like they are missing not just a person, but one of their own limbs. Al Bunetta was always the "someone" who watched over them.

All I know is, I'll never forget him.  And although I've mentioned the one bad incident we had here, it never came up again for us.  In fact, he might wish I hadn't written about it--but to me, it stands as a great example of his capacity to move on, and always remain 'a lifer.' 
It's sad to think of a world without Al Bunetta.  
Characters (and souls) like that rarely come along, and when they do, you just know you're onto something special.
So right now, I don't exactly know what to do. 
I've written this blog, but there's an emptiness in my heart today.  I'm gonna miss him. 

I dunno...
I might just go over to Savarino's Cucina in the Village, and order myself an "Al Bunetta." (That'd be the chicken cutlet with roasted peppers and balsamic vinaigrette, on Italian bread.)
I figure it would make him feel good to know his friends got some extra business, because of all this.   

Yeah, that's what I'll do.

*And for any who might doubt that love and romance were a huge part of the man, here's a (temporary) link to that unissued Roberta Flack performance, in his honor.  The memory of this one will forever be Al & Dawn's, in my mind.  Listen: Roberta Flack's never released version of "Someone to Watch Over Me" 

We're gonna miss you, Al.

This column is Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.  All Rights Reserved.

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