Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering a Special Friend...Billy Block



By Peter Rodman




In 1992, I moved to Santa Barbara and rented a house near Shoreline Park with my best friend John.  We were both newly single at the time, and right around 40. We each bought new cars, and started hittin’ the town in earnest. I guess you could call it a “mid life crisis.”
In short order, we both began to wonder why there were so few 'eligible females' over college age there.
Here we were--a couple of wild and crazy guys--with the means to have fun, and no one to have it with.
Everybody was either 20 or 60, but certainly not 40.
Pretty soon, someone clued us in to the town's long-standing punchline:  "Everyone in Santa Barbara is either newlywed, or nearly dead." 
 
My roomie had a job in town, but I was commuting up the coast to San Francisco almost every week, from which I’d fly to Hong Kong or Taiwan, and then return home four days later, totally exhausted.  All of this conspired to keep me indoors in SBA, while John happily jogged the beach and gave me daily ‘pulchritude’ reports. 
The irony was not lost on me:  Here I was in “paradise,” but way too beat to enjoy a minute of it.
Between business trips, I’d fly to Nashville, rent a car, and record song demos and/or play the Bluebird Cafe…often sleeping on a friend’s couch.  (At $200 a song, plus travel expenses, it wasn't long before I found myself in some serious credit card debt.)

I kept in contact with friends in Chicago, New York, Nashville, and L.A. via telephone (“long distance”... remember that?) and one of those friends happened to be Karla Bonoff.  We’d known each other since 1977, when she nervously gave her first-ever radio concert in Boulder.  Over the years there'd been many interviews and shows, so now--since 100 miles seems like less than a thousand--we'd occasionally catch up on a little gossip, exchange notes about our living situations, and/or keep up with each others’ careers on the phone

One day Karla asked me if I was aware of L.A.'s  'MUSIC CONNECTION,’ a weekly “insider” rag for aspiring musicians. (I was actually  kind of dismissive about it, having seen similar sheets growing up on Long Island.)  But Karla pointed me toward one column in particular, by a guy named “Billy Block.”
In his little nook, Billy excitedly reviewed recent shows and described new artists he had seen, as well as plugging albums and gigs for a wide variety of musicians, spanning all genres.
Not being in L.A. (Santa Barbara is 100 miles away) I couldn’t really act on any of it, but being a performer myself, I found it nourishing to eavesdrop on a scene I thought was really “too big” for me.
Lots of people think that about L.A.
Clearly, what Billy Block was doing was to break it all down into little, digestible pieces…and believe me, that made L.A.’s music scene seem far less intimidating--not just to an 'aspiring' artist like me, but even to an established one, like Karla.
  Pretty soon she mentioned 'a little Monday night thing' Billy was hosting, at a coffee place called Highland Grounds, on Sunset. 
“I know it may seem hypey at first,” she said, “but Billy’s actually creating a little ‘scene’ here, and it gives some of us a place to go without being watched, or getting all

self-conscious--casual, like a real community.  L.A.’s never really had that--or at least, not recently--and this is really special, what he’s doing. You should come check it out.”

To know Karla Bonoff is to know a very careful person.  She does not seek attention; in fact, she almost purposely avoids it.  But now, after checkin’ it out herself, she was ready

to dip her toe in the water and perhaps play a few songs at this little weekly event Billy had started, called ‘Western Beat.’
One more digression, from before I met Billy:
A year or two earlier, I’d been living in Chicago, and when Karla had a week of shows booked at the Fairmont, she asked if I’d like to come along for the gigs, because she didn’t really know anybody in the Windy City.  Needless to say, I was flattered and delighted to do it.  But as much as it felt like we were friends, I would always be just a fan, underneath it all.
After she decided to play Billy’s ‘Western Beat’ show, Karla asked if I’d be interested in coming down to see it. 
 

Bryndle--from left, Wendy Waldman, Kenny Edwards,
Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold--with Peter Rodman, circa 1995.
I've never been too keen on driving long distances for just a night out, but if I was ever gonna go, this would be it.
When I arrived, I could hardly believe how small the place was! Maybe 50 or 75 people crammed in, many behind poles which blocked your sight lines entirely, in booths that resembled a cafeteria, more than a concert hall.  And the “stage,” if I recall, wasn’t more than a few inches off the floor…if it was raised at all.
With Karla were Wendy Waldman and Kenny Edwards, whom I already knew, and Andrew Gold, whom I had also interviewed, but didn’t really know yet. 
I’d vaguely heard of ‘Bryndle’ from Karla and Kenny, but never suspected they were using that night’s get together as a “reunion,” 25 years
after going their separate ways!

Each booth at Highland Grounds held only 4,  maybe 5 people, if you really squeezed in--so as Karla and the group greeted old friends, I decided I wasn’t even worthy of sitting there, takin’ up space.  (Okay, maybe the “fan” in me got a little flustered.) 
I stood leaning against one of the big, square poles that held up the place, trying not to interrupt, stare, or intrude…in short, trying to blend into the pole.
I’ve rarely ever felt so self-conscious, and I could tell by Karla’s glances that it really was getting awkward.
See, it’s like this:  You go to a party, but you really only know one person. Do you hang around (read: onto) just that person all night, or do you try not to?  

I opted for the latter...but soon realized I was still tethered to the booth, and it felt downright creepy to be nearby, trying to 'act casual' but sort of just hangin' around anyway. 
In short, I wanted to crawl under a rock.

At the height of my discomfort, well before Karla & company
played, a series of local acts were introduced by this white-haired 'Billy Block' character, with a kind of compelling ‘emcee-ness’ I hadn’t experienced since Bill Graham used to emcee his Fillmore East shows.  Each act got a nifty build-up, “…and I’m especially honored that she’s come out tonight, with no rehearsal, to play with our house band tonight! Let’s give a very special ‘Western Beat’ welcome, to ALANNAH MYLES!!!”  
He was part cool-guy, part P.T. Barnum, and all positivity.
I remembered what Karla had said, on the phone.  "I think you'll like him. He may seem over-the-top at first, but he's really got a certain knack for bringing the music community together, and we haven't seen that out here in a long, long time. I like him a lot."
Next thing I new, Alannah was singing “Black Velvet,” and Billy was bounding over to me, introducing himself--and exuding the warmth I would come to know and love for the next 23 years.
“Hey, Peter! Karla tells me you’re an old friend of hers, and you came all the way from Santa Barbara,” he began. “Welcome!  If you ever decide you want to play here, just call me and we’ll set it up.”
BAM.
All my self-consciousness went out the door.
There was a musical community here…and I was welcome!
(There still wasn’t enough room in the booth, though.)
From there things loosened up considerably, as Andrew, Wendy, Kenny, and Karla began including me in their network that night, introducing me to other folks I’d eventually know from that day to this, like the wonderfully gifted Kevin Montgomery.

Wendy Waldman first appeared on my radio show in 1975;  Karla Bonoff, 1977.  I’d done the same interview show in the ‘80s, too.  But here in Hollywood, nobody knew I'd ever hosted a show at all. 
Certainly Billy Block didn’t know a thing about me--except that I was a singer-songwriter, and knew some people whose own music he respect
Billy with Jim Lauderdale--Photo by Lawson Little
ed.
That night, Karla, Kenny, Wendy and Andrew got onstage and killed it, beginning a reunion that would last, on and off, until first Kenny and then Andrew passed away, a few years ago.
All this time, nobody knew that Billy himself had already fought skin cancer and won.

I moved to Nashville a few months later (mainly to save money on rental cars!) and re-started my long running music interview show (Sunday Night with Peter Rodman) on Radio Lightning 100, in December of 1993. 

Fast-forward to 1994:
SNPR had taken off. Artists, writers, session players, actors, producers, label heads, politicians, newcomers, legends, movie critics, sports figures and more populated the show, which became a sort of clearing house for anyone with something to say.
The radio station itself became pivotal to the Nashville music scene, hosting ‘Dancin’ in the District’ and other events-- which almost single-handedly revived the downtown area, and made it “the place to be.”
Around 1995, Billy Block moved to Nashville and began hosting weekly club shows here, just as he had in L.A.-- but with a decidedly more elaborate title:
"Billy Block's Western Beat Roots Revival."  

At first it was slow going, because quite frankly, most
aspiring  songwriters in Nashville thought only one place counted: The Bluebird Cafe.
Before Billy got here, there was NO significant outlet for aspiring singer-songwriters, besides the Bluebird. (In fact, Bluebird owner Amy Kurland constantly beseeched people to create more such scenes elsewhere, as her small venue had been virtually overrun by requests from out-of-towners and newbies, seeking to get a foot in the door.  There simply wasn't enough time in a week--nor enough staff--to sift through the growing mountains of cassettes, DATs, and audition requests besieging the ‘Bird.)  Still, no one seemed anxious to play anywhere else but the Bluebird, lest they be left out of the action.

B
illy began by importing some of his rootsier L.A. friends,

like Rosie Perez and James Intveld. Building slowly, he started out at The Sutler on Franklin Pike, and soon moved on to the fabled (and much bigger)  Exit/In, where nights full of music included such up-and-comers as Keith Urban, Alison Moorer, and Jim Lauderdale.
Before it even had a name, “Americana” had found a home--wherever Billy Block was hosting his ‘Western Beat’ show. 
 

“For just 5 bucks,” said the posters,“You get a 6 dollar show!”
Pretty soon there was an ‘Americana’ organization, and ‘Americana’ awards shows. 
But nothing is permanent in radio (or nightclubs), so Billy would sometimes have to pull up roots (so to speak) and switch radio stations or venues in mid-stream, just to keep the newly retitled ‘Billy Block Show’ alive. 

I have to make a personal confession, here: I only have just so much energy, before I get discouraged.  My gig has always been a similar thing--giving new artists radio exposure, making established artists comfortable, presenting another side of the music, etc.  So Billy and I felt we had a lot in common.  But whenever we got together privately, I’d always marvel at his indefatigable resilience.  “How the hell do you keep picking yourself up off the canvas, Bill?  I can’t even imagine recovering so many times, and emerging stronger, every single time!”
He’d look me in the eye, always with those sky-blue eyes and a wide smile, and say, “I wanna know how you do it!”  But the truth is, he was being kind.  Billy knew very well I wasn’t even close to that strong...but we did share the odd distinction (mission?) of having spent a lifetime "presenting" great artists, in the best light possible. 
When my Lightning 100 gig ended in 1996, I never seriously looked to place my show anywhere else.  I walked away, content with what had been accomplished over three decades in radio.

Billy Block was another breed altogether.

A lesser man (see: me, above) would have quit after just one such venue change.  
Imagine carefully building a very delicate, beautiful house out of toothpicks--only to have some  club rube (or radio station) knock it all down, in a single motion.  Could you start over, from scratch--to rebuild your entire audience, each and every time it happened? 
New club…New time slot… New station... New bosses... New rules…?
That’s not me.
But none of this deterred Billy Block--not for even a nano-second.

In fact, to read his latest interviews or promotional blurbs, you could never even tell that switching venues wasn’t in his plan, all along!  That’s how smoothly he transitioned, from one venue to another. It was always done seamlessly, and with grace.

I used to say, “Man, you exhaust me!  I thought putting together 6 or 7 interviews every week was hard…but you never stop!” 

And he didn't.

I
remember picking up his monthly newsletter for Western Beat, back when Tower Records was still open. So that's one  7-act LIVE show a week (have you ever juggled that many musical acts in a single night, let alone every week?) one self-published monthly magazine, and a weekly radio show. 

Years later, Billy would add a local American Idol-type competition for seniors, which he called ‘Silver Stars’--for those ‘of a certain age’ who still had talent and dreams but felt locked out, by our youth-oriented culture.  

And in recent years, he had even more spin-offs:  ‘Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang Blues Band,’ jokingly called “An Explosion of Pedigreed Bunk!” --a self-effacing reference to his ubiquitous hype machine, as “Mr. Nashville.”   He tirelessly promoted son Rocky Block’s band (very good, by the way!) and hooked him up with some dang good sidemen…including, on at least one occasion, E Street Band bassist and Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famer (and close Block family friend) Garry Tallent.  
Not bad, for a teenager!




At the risk of sounding immodest,
about ten years ago, Billy took me aside and said, “Peter, I want you to know something…I was inspired to do this in Nashville by listening to your radio show.  When I got to town, I heard your show and said, ‘Man…that’s what I want to do!  I wanna be like him!’”

He repeated that compliment often over the years, probably because he knew it made me feel pretty darn good. 
It stands as one of the highest compliments anybody's ever paid me--because I always had such respect for his self-starting mindset.  That's what it takes, to create something truly original:  
Invent your job.
Obviously, Billy’s accomplishments touched countless more people than my little show ever could, but like I say...it sure felt good to hear such a thing, coming from someone I so loved and admired.   


At the end of each live 'Billy Block Show'--and believe me, they loooong...sometimes over four or five hours--no matter how many (or how few) people remained in the audience, Billy would jump onstage, sweaty but exhilarated, and plug about a month’s worth of upcoming shows, right off the top of his head!
And at the very end of the night, he would close with this:
“Remember: If you see someone without a smile, give ‘em one of yours!”

It wasn't about slogans; it was about messages.
“No Fear; All Faith” was his main cancer motto--typically not bitter…and it fit him to a ‘T.’ 
When he got sick a couple years back, I suggested he throw a benefit; little did I know he'd already planned dozens of 'em.


Billy plowed through the past few years like there were fifty years of livin’ to squeeze in.  He was right there for son Michael’s football conquests and state championships, at Hillsboro High.  Right there for Grady, Rocky, and Shandon, too--and the amazing Jill…always.
Life was like one big juggling act he loved, and Billy never dropped a single ball.  He kept it all in the air, always looking up, always with his eyes on everything that mattered.

In January, I got to see him one last time, at St. Thomas Hospital.  His face was ravaged with the scars of cancer, his lungs struggled to breath, and there was a distance to the sound he made, but his smile never let up, as he discussed his next round of treatments.

 


“It’s okay, Billy,” I said softly as we held hands...two grown men!  “You don’t have to expend any extra energy, telling me everything…just relax.”
“No, no!  I want to!” He insisted, unleashing a litany of plans and back-up plans they (he and his doctors) had assembled for the battle ahead. 
I walked into that room thinking he was in decline, and I needed to lift him up. 
But Billy knew better. He also insisted on taking this 'selfie' of us, and as he spoke I was on the edge of tears, realizing that my friend was wheezing and struggling just to make me feel better about everything! 
 St. Thomas Hospital~ January, 2015 
Photo by Billy Block
He knew that deep down, it was his friends who were hurting, and needed reassurance.
 

That was Billy Block. 
A true gift, and y
et another ‘object lesson,’ from a life so full of them, you can't even add 'em all up.

 

Ultimately, I realize there are no words. 
Certainly no slogan or catchy title will ever describe the ‘whiz-bang’ life force that was--no, is--our friend, Billy Block.

Literally thousands of posts will be written by those he touched, near and far.  They are the real testament, to how one little guy can change the world. So is Billy’s family, with two sons and two adopted sons, all brought to blossom under the amazing greenhouse of Billy and Jill’s love.  Perhaps it’s a clich√© to say this, but knowing Billy I believe he approached his passage exactly as he did all those little ‘venue changes’ I spoke of, earlier. 

A lesser man would have quit after just one such change.  In fact, you could hardly tell that ‘switching venues’ wasn’t in his plan all along.  That’s how smoothly he transitioned, from one venue to another. It was always done seamlessly, and with grace. 


...especially this time.






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