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They Blew Up the Chicken Man

If I didn’t write one more word past that title, it wouldn’t surprise me if you knew exactly which road I was driving down. Just six short words, part of a longer sentence, from the first verse of the second song on Nebraska. Recorded on a four-track Tascam 144 cassette player and never meant to be released in its stripped down format, at this very moment I believe it could be the greatest song that Bruce Springsteen has ever written. In the past month I’ve listened to dozens of covers, some that I’ll share here. But this song, and the black and white video of “Atlantic City,” still stands.

 

 

Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
And they blew up his house, too.
Down on the boardwalk they’re ready for a fight
Gonna see what them racket boys can do.
Now there’s trouble busin’ in from outta state
And the D.A. can’t get no relief.

Like a lot of kids who were born in the ‘50s and grew up in Philadelphia, I loved Atlantic City in all its splendor and decay. it was just a nickel toll to drive over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge into Jersey. Down the highway to the second traffic circle, you’d stop at a space-age looking diner for breakfast, smell the salt air as you cruised through Egg Harbor, and park the big Pontiac or Buick sedan as close to the beach that you could possibly get. You had to be there early if you wanted to pay 50 cents to rent a locker, change into your bathing suit and stash your dress-up clothes for the evening stroll. While the kids and mom staked out a spot in the sand near Convention Hall, dad would run down to Captain Starn’s to try and get dinner reservations. If he failed, it would be either Wolfie’s, Tony’s Baltimore Grill, or The White House. It was our Disneyland.

 

After just a couple of hours in the ocean, we’d eat a packed lunch from the cooler and make our way north to Steel Pier for the afternoon shows. Matinees were cheaper. First there were carnival-style games up front, and then you passed the Diving Bell, a small steel capsule that you’d get locked into and they’d drop you to the bottom of the sea. Usually saw nothing but a couple of little fish. And stretching far out over the water there were several music theaters. One day I watched a 13-year-old Little Stevie Wonder perform “Fingertips” while my folks went to see the Count Basie Orchestra. Another time I was surrounded and crushed by female teen pandemonium when Herman’s Hermits came onstage. But the real reason you came was the beautiful women with long hair who would sit on top of horses and dive from a platform from about a hundred feet in the air into a tiny wooden tub. But that was the ’50s and ’60s, and things were about to change.

 

It really was a “tale of two cities.” As kids we just knew about salt water taffy, Mr. Peanut, and the rides on Million Dollar Pier. Barkers with clip-on microphones selling knives that wouldn’t dull, cut crystal glasses from France, and gizmos that chopped your onions up into tiny little pieces. At night everybody got dressed up in their finest summer clothes, and you’d either stroll along the wooden boardwalk or, if you came from the Main Line, you’d pay someone to push you in a wicker basket cart with wheels on it. And when the kids got too tired, you’d walk a block inland and catch a Jitney on Pacific Avenue to your hotel, if you were lucky enough to spend the full weekend.

Close to midnight, when things started to get quiet along the beach, and the kids got tucked into bed, the great jazz clubs and showrooms would fill up with guys and dolls. The white folks had their clubs in the middle of the city like The 500 Club, where you’d see Sinatra or Martin and Lewis, and the black clubs were at the north end: The Harlem Club, Grace’s Little Belmont, and Wonder Gardens. Although Boardwalk Empire was a reality-based fictionalized account of the Roaring ’20s, long after Prohibition ended and probably still to this day Atlantic City was always a mob town. Booze, prostitution, gambling, loan sharking, murders … it was all there. And pretty soon, Donald Trump would take it for a spin.

 

Before they legalized gambling and started to tear down the old great hotels to put up walls of glass and steel, the city became a pre-Jersey Shore teenage wasteland. The families went south to quieter towns and the gangsters got political and started jockeying for position. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the boardwalk got ultra tacky and half the kids hung out at High Hat Joe’s while the rest were north at Playland. The common denominator was dope, sex, and music, and there was also a lot of fighting.

Freaks, geeks, and a few clean-cut kids. The greasers from South Philly and K and A, who’d knock you out for just looking at them. I got dragged under the boardwalk one night with a knife to my throat, and damn if I can remember how I got out alive. Living in a boarding house with an old man, six cats, no litter boxes, and five girls from Montreal, I worked odd jobs at probably a half-dozen hotels and was working at the front desk the night Tyrone Davis, who just had a massive hit on the radio with “Turn Back The Hands of Time,” tore up half the rooms. And I mean he outdid Keith Moon, using an axe handle and hammer on the doors and furniture. They hauled him off, leaving his tour bus in the parking lot for a couple days.

 

The only time I went back down to Atlantic City in the ‘80s was to visit Russ Meyer’s Record Shop on Atlantic Avenue. They had a huge collection of oldies and also dealt to the jukebox guys, and I worked for a distributor that owned about 30 percent of the market. It looked like war-torn Beirut: blocks and blocks of housing were bought up by developers and knocked down, left empty for the next casino to be put up. Everywhere you looked they were building these grotesque monoliths and Trump’s damn name was everywhere. The state tried to muscle out the mob, but they were smarter. Who ran the unions, owned the construction companies, supplied the liquor, food, and entertainment? There were more ways to take money off the table.

The first casino opened in 1978. The Press of Atlantic City writes that when Gov. Brendan Byrne stood on the Boardwalk and warned organized crime bosses to “keep [their] filthy hands out of Atlantic City,” two men – Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, the now-former boss of the Philadelphia crime family, and his nephew and second-in-command, Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti – were watching the speech live from just a few blocks away. “Doesn’t he know we’re already here?” Scarfo asked his nephew.

In March 1980 the boss of the Philadelphia crime family, Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno, was killed by a shotgun blast in the back of the head as he sat in his car in front of his home. It is believed that the killing was ordered by Antonio Caponigro (aka Tony Bananas), Bruno’s consigliere. A few weeks later, Caponigro’s body was found stuffed in a body bag in the trunk of a car in New York City. About $300 in bills were jammed in his mouth and anus (to be interpreted as signs of greed). After Caponigro’s murder, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa led the family for one year until he was killed by a nail bomb at his home. (Wikipedia)

Donald Trump spent 25 years owning a number of properties in Atlantic City, all of which now stand empty. He filed bankruptcy four times. “Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he said. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.” The town still looks like hell, and maybe there’s a song in that story too.

Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

 

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at the No Depression; The Journal of Roots Music website.

AJ Lee: A Flower Blooms in the California Bluegrass

Photo by Snap Jackson

When I reached out to Betsy Riger-Lee and asked her to give me a rough idea of how many views her daughter AJ Lee has had on YouTube, she came back to me in three hours and wrote: “As of this moment, it’s 3,358,333.” That right there tells you she’s one proud mama. It’s a simple fact that there are many musicians who have been working on the road and putting out albums for decades who have yet to hit that particular milestone, so a few months ago when I came across this young woman from Northern California singing the Gram Parson classic “Hickory Wind” with The Tuttles, a family of stellar musicians, I took notice.

 

That clip, which accounts for about ten percent of that huge number mentioned above, was uploaded six years ago, when AJ was only 13. She gives credit to Jack Tuttle, who wisely invited her to join up with him and his kids in their band, for introducing her to that song and many others. And when they uploaded that song, AJ had already been performing in front of audiences for nine years. Not a misprint.

“The initial event to my introduction to bluegrass happened one night at an open mic at a pizzeria. I was 4 years old, my mom held me up to the mic, and I sang the song ‘Angel Band.’ There was a man named Frank Solivan in the audience who happened to be the director of a program called Kids On Bluegrass for the California Bluegrass Association (CBA). I stuck with the program every year for several years after that. That’s also how I got into other bluegrass events — through the CBA. Throughout this whole process, I was never forced to play music, but always encouraged and inspired. It helped immensely being around kids my own age, and to this day I am great friends with a lot of the kids who came out of the CBA kids programs. Having a sense of community and belonging through music is something greater than anything I could have asked for.”

Want to know what this 9-year-old girl sounded like onstage in Nashville back in 2007?

 

I’m going to let mom tell this part of AJ’s story:

“AJ was invited to be part of the first Kids on Bluegrass Fanfest in Nashville, where International Bluegrass Music Association’s ‘World of Bluegrass’ was taking place annually at that time. It was a pilot program that originally began in California, that has now become the standard for talented bluegrass children to meet up each year. AJ shared that stage with Molly Cherryholmes, Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Angelica Grim Doerfel, and a host of many other gifted young female artists. She did that for several more years, and during that run, she was asked to be part of the revision of the ‘Discover Bluegrass’ video that the IBMA created for educational purposes, their intent being to spread the word of this genre of music.”

Author’s prerogative and detour: When Angelica Grim married TJ Doerfel in June of 2008, AJ and Betsy sang a duet of this Richard Thompson song y’all probably know at the wedding. It’s just basically a home video, but one that’s been watched watched over 65,000 times. And while I’m not exactly sure why, I keep coming back to this one over and over. Here’s a secret … somewhere about two minutes into it I can’t keep from crying.

 

AJ grew up in Tracy, an agricultural town that is being suburbanized as the Bay Area population looks for affordable housing in an area with a “Mediterranean climate.” AJ describes herself as preferring the rural lifestyle: “I grew up with horses, chickens, dogs, cats, rats, opossums, lizards, birds, snakes, frogs, quails, sheep … and a turkey. I’ve taken many trips to cities, but the country is where my heart will always stay.”

The family enjoyed the camping lifestyle, especially around the regional bluegrass festivals. It seems that it was the Riger side of the family from whose tree the music fell: AJ’s siblings and other relatives are accomplished players of various degrees and styles. Betsy is an excellent singer, guitarist, and dancer, and taught AJ how to find pitch and use basic techniques for singing. Rodney Lee doesn’t share in this talent pool … or, as AJ puts it: ‘My dad is NOT musical… haha. I’ve been trying to teach him how to play one song on the mandolin for years. I’m sure when pigs fly, my dad will learn how to play ‘Angelina Baker.’”

In 2011, when she was 13, Mother Jones published an interview with AJ titled “Could This Kid Be The Next Alison Krauss?” In addition to the mandolin as her main instrument, AJ plays fiddle, guitar, ukulele, and banjo, and her incredible vocals have earned her the Female Vocalist award for six years from the Northern California Bluegrass Society (NCBS). As the years rolled by she attended a number of music camps through the CBA and NCBS — “great organizations that are very supportive regarding kids and music,’…” she says — and she was playing in a number of band configurations, including The Tuttles with AJ Lee.

 

In the world of California bluegrass, Jack Tuttle is a legend. For over 30 years he’s taught fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar, developed a solid curriculum, written a dozen instruction books, and put a band together with his daughter Molly and sons Sully and Michael. AJ joined the group in 2008, when she was about 10, and they released their first album two years later. I should note that Molly is making a lot of noise down in Nashville now, where she settled after attending Berklee College of Music, having won the first Hazel Dickens Memorial Scholarship from the Foundation For Bluegrass Music.

 

By the time AJ was 16, which is when the above clip was shot, you can see how she had developed not only strong musical skillsets, but was poised and polished onstage. She also began writing her own music and released her first EP, titled A Song for Noah, and was invited into the studio for The Prava Sessions, a series where “there are no overdubs, there is no Auto-Tune, the sounds aren’t pitch or time corrected with a computer. It’s all real, it’s all live and it only happens once.” As you’ll see, she began to drift away from the traditional bluegrass format.

 

The past couple of years, AJ has been playing locally throughout the Bay Area, and since graduating high school she’s taken some college classes, and is “off and running, away from home, working in the real world of service and people, busking and gigging to help pay rent, as honest and real living goes,” according to Betsy. “If she can handle all that life throws at her, she will probably stay the course with music as a career.”

AJ speaks about following the route Molly Tuttle is taking down in Nashville, but with the logic and reasoning of someone much older than their years, she’s quick to add that “those thoughts are still developing and I’m still trying to figure out what the best path for me to take is. At least in this time in my life.”

 

That’s AJ’s latest band, Blue Summit, with Molly joining in on banjo. The lineup includes Sam Kemiji on fiddle, Jesse Fichman and Sully Tuttle on guitar, and Isaac Cornelius on the standup bass. I’ve been told that AJ has helped engineer some tracks and is in the process of having it mixed and mastered.

Which brings me to the recently released self-titled EP, where AJ plays her smokin’ mandolin and a 1954 Martin acoustic guitar, handed down through the years from the Riger family, and she does covers from Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Herb Pedersen, and another updated version of “Hickory Wind.” This is the second time around with producer Jon Abrams, and the Shady Mountain Band features the pedal steel of Dave Zirbel (Phil Lesh, Dave Alvin), Hammond organ from Marc Doten (Stew, Shelby Lynne), and the Telecaster and drums of the cosmic country brothers Paul and Anthony Lacques (I See Hawks in L.A.). Here’s a sampler, and you’ll find the complete set on her own site, Spotify, and Apple Music.

 

There’s a reason I’ve become fascinated with AJ’s musical journey, especially at this particular time in America. She grew up with the opportunity to learn and play music in the world of bluegrass, one that has always worked hard to pass the baton down from generation to generation. In this particular political climate we have a new administration that doesn’t seem to give a damn not only about music, but any of the arts. Last April in an open letter to Donald Trump and Congress, the IBMA spoke directly to that point:

“The United States of America cannot afford to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (“NEA”) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (“NEH”). These two government agencies carry out three highly beneficial missions across our country: preserving and promoting the arts, educating and inspiring children, and expanding commerce through the grants provided by these public endowments.

An important principle of our nation has been to protect and promote our rich artistic and cultural heritage. Bluegrass music, as a core genre of American roots music, was created on American soil as an extension of our country’s working class communities. It is this cultural history, along with exceptional musicianship, that makes this music loved throughout our country today. This is not simply entertainment; it is a vital part of our nation’s identity.”

Amen.

 

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music website.