Author Archives: John Fusco

MIDNIGHT RIDER: Remembering Gregg Allman

To say that Gregg Allman was an influence on me in younger days would be stating the obvious to those friends and family who know me well. Not just a musical influence, but a writing influence, a traveling influence, a ‘storytelling’ influence. My father, at one point, said a ‘bad influence,’ but that’s another story…

I started playing music because of Gregg; chose the organ and vocals as my storytelling base. I saw Gregg and the Bros. perform live at the New Haven Coliseum in the mid-70’s when I was 14 or 15 (my friend Joe Mitchell can probably cite the date). I will never forget when the spotlight fell on the organ and there was the man from Macon, singing ‘Midnight Rider.’ My sister will probably never forget how when the lights came up after the opening act, I thought it was a police raid, so I hurled a lit joint into the air to get rid of it — I mean I threw it like a dart — and the seeds began popping as it caught air under it. Like a burning paper airplane the thing soared over the crowd in the lower seats and they started screaming, batting it away. All heads turned around with stoned and stunned expressions. All eyes searched for the perpetrator. My sister stared at me in utter disbelief as I turned around and pretended to look farther up the bleachers for the pyro. My sister’s boyfriend gave me a “that was Acapulco Gold, you moron,” glare. I just kept looking northward…

But that was just a surreal moment (that has become family legend) in an otherwise life changing experience. That soulful voice, as authentically tortured as any old Delta bluesman called me to the music, the history, the roots. From that night on, I became obsessed with the music and narrative of Gregg Allman. And that was what led me to the music that inspired he and his late brother Duane — Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, Blind Willie McTell. Tons more. Layers deep.

After pretending that my family’s little Christmas chord organ was a Hammond B3, my Dad would buy me a Hammond T-2 with built-in Leslie speakers and there was no turning back.I devoured everything by Gregg Allman. His more obscure stuff became what I loved most: early Hour Glass, his live album with full orchestra and jams with the obscure band Cowboy; anything he ever played and sang I wanted to learn. And feel.

Gregg’s influence would lead to me leaving home at an early age and riding buses, trains, and the highways of the American South. I would even tempt the fates at the crossroads by getting into some dangerous stuff that was part of the Gregg Allman struggles/lore he sang about (fortunately, I survived that and moved past it quickly). My goal was to seek out the authentic blues roots at the source of the Allman Brothers sound. From this experience, my first movie “Crossroads” would later be born. Yes –‘Crossroads,’ as in the opening line of Gregg’s classic “Melissa.” It all starts with Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’, of course, but Gregg turned me on to all of that.

When I was 18 and back from the road, I convinced my cousin Domenic to drive us in his Volkswagen bug down to Daytona Beach just so we could see the Wreck Bar where the Allman Brothers began. And this is where something happened that has made me believe in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Gods ever since:

After driving non-stop from Connecticut to Daytona (listening to the Allmans all the way), we made our way to the Wreck Bar like pilgrims seeking Mecca. Sure enough there were black and white Allman Bros. photos on the walls commemorating the dive’s claim to fame. Saw dust on the floor, pitchers of beer, wild-eyed southern boys and dangerous, tattooed southern girls. Dominic and I were sitting at a table with the latter, drinking beer and watching a band called MAMA’S PRIDE perform some great southern rock. I remember sitting at that table, looking around the place, and saying to my cousin, “they were here. Can you feel it? Gregg and Duane were here, finding their sound.” At some point during the night, a motorcycle — so loud it actually cut like a chainsaw through the music — was heard revving outside. For a long time. Like the arrival of the Hell’s Angels or something. A moment later there was a commotion near the entrance.

Now, as the bartender would tell me as I went up for another pitcher, this NEVER happened. Well, it did, but only on a very rare occasions. “Son, it’s ya’lls lucky night,” he graveled. Because Gregg Allman had walked in. He had a body guard (his name was Tiny and he was massive) and a small entourage. Gregory was taller than most in the crowd. One couldn’t miss that silken blonde hair falling past his belt. The iconic soul patch under his bottom lip. His glassy eyes spoke of a long night of laid-back inspiration.

When Gregg made his way to a back wall to stand and observe the band, I made my way over. When a gap opened, I approached him and told him that I had traveled from way up north to come see the bar where the Allman’s started. He smiled and said something like, “All right. That’s all right, Man.” Which, for me at that young moment, confirmed my journey as something more than crazy. My Dad said it was lunacy; Gregg Allman said it was all right. And then the Music Gods truly smiled on us. Gregg got up and sat at the B3 and played a gutsy, grits-and-gravy set with Mama’s Pride (that band was smiling, too).

The Wreck Bar. It’s gone now, I hear.

I would go on to play in some bands myself, the most important one to me, was the Travis McComb Band of which I was a founding member, singer, songwriter, keyboardist and blues harp. These guys were exceptional young musicians who completely shared my passion for this kind of music. One of them, the guitar phenom and my songwriting partner Donnie DeFala (who passed too young but joins the ‘Heaven Must be Proud’ band with Gregg), would also make a hitchhiking pilgrimage to the deep south with me, like Indiana Jones searching for lost musical treasures and the swamp shack where Lynyrd Skynyrd started. We were all brothers brought together by this kind of music. A music that Gregg pioneered.

My own music would segue into writing movies (which was my very first love) but that Gregg Allman ‘story world’ and influence — and the narrative traditions that inspired him — would be a key part of it all. Still is.

These days I’ve been woodshedding on my music again, revisiting that passion. Piano and Hammond B3, and if you look at my cover list, it’s heavily weighted to a lot of Gregg Allman material. So hearing of his passing today at 69 years old, hurts in a profound way. I’m going to sit at the keys tonight and play it all — even ‘Old Man River’ — while remembering what a treasure Gregg Allman was to the music world, what a groundbreaking pioneer and authentic American heir to the American roots music that so influenced the British rockers like the Rolling Stones. And I will remember what Gregg has meant to me on my own personal journey.

Recently, during the Superbowl, when Atlanta was winning big against the Patriots, I sent a tweet to Gregg. I simply said ‘Hot ‘Lanta’ in reference to one of his songs and as a comment about the surprising Falcons who appeared poised to upset New England. But when the Pats roared back and it was tie, Gregg tweeted back to my verified account and said ‘TOO hot, John. TOO hot.’ Little did he know that I was the same kid who shook his hand in the Wreck Bar some 40 years ago, having traveled all that way to find the roots.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Rest in peace, Gregg, and thank you for the music.

Donald Trump and the Art of Paper Chiefs

They say the past is prologue.

Yesterday, as I watched President Trump sign an executive order to nullify years of our nation’s climate-change work and Clean Power Plan, I thought back to the Lakota holy man who called me Grandson. Chief Frank Fools Crow, born at the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre, once taught me that the Lakota word ‘wasi’chu’ — which I had always thought just meant white man — actually means ‘greedy ones who take the fat.’ But the word goes beyond that, referencing a human condition based on racism and exploitation of the land, the earth.

Black Elk (Fools Crow’s uncle) once said that “the wasi’chu is driven crazy by the yellow metal (gold).” He said this in 1874 when Custer found gold in the Black Hills, sacred land that had been promised to the Lakota — in perpetuity — by way of the signed and ratified Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. As soon as gold was found, that treaty was torn up. Not exactly torn up, but withdrawn and nullified by executive orders out of Washington, D.C.

Black Elk knew this is what happens when the yellow metal drives the wasi’chu crazy. It had happened when the Spanish subjugated the Incas and the Aztecs; it happened when the French and English came hunting gold; and it happened in the 1820’s when European banks backed land speculators. Treaty after treaty was nullified by executive order, and those who resisted were killed. On land promised to the Lakota, Black Elk witnessed more than 50 million buffalo, the basis of the Plains Indian economy, slaughtered during his time — and he witnessed, at 27 years old, the massacre of his people at Wounded Knee Creek.

“These Indians are like children,” the government had said. They do not know how to properly use all of this land they think they must protect in the name of their Great Spirit — or for their next seven generations of unborn. They’re just savages and don’t understand ‘God’s will.’ Trump kind of said the same thing about those of us who care yesterday, when he called the existing climate change laws “pixie dust and hope.” Stephen Hawking, a fairly smart fellow, does not see it as pixie dust, and he certainly doesn’t see climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. What he does see is “a global revolt against the climate experts.” And he views Trump as ‘a demagogue who appeals to the lowest common denominator.” Or to those who will actually believe that an environmental protection ethos is pixie dust.

I once heard it said that imperialistic cultures find it necessary, in defense of their economy, to demean their victims. But, wait, says my Uncle Louie, what about the coal miners? Trump is going to make America great again by sending our coal miners back to work. No, Uncle Louie (who also calls me ‘Ugh, Kemo Sabe’ because of my support of Native Americans and the environment), take a look at the very top photo in this post. See those down-dressed West Virginians, clapping with the head of the EPA? They’ve been bamboozled with the promise of jobs that likely don’t exist anymore; most of those jobs are now filled by self-driving technology and robotics (see today’s NYTimes). Removing regulations would put very few back to work in the mines. It’s the Art of the Steal.

But back to some hardcore history — here’s how these things got done in Washington in those times: The government, being civilized enough to know that one must honor signed treaty agreements, would selectively appoint leaders of tribes and departments whom they knew they could manipulate. They sought out the corruptible, the “friendlies”, empowered them with titles. They were known to those like Black Elk as ‘paper chiefs.’

If we look at the pantheon of Trump’s cabinet it is a brazen line-up of Paper Chiefs. From Bannon to Pruitt and across the board, the president has empowered his paper chiefs to represent us and our land as he sets out to exploit it in a crass, short-sighted way. Demeaning victims and hitting the Twitter triggers of hatred and frustration. With respect, this is not the work of a business genius billionaire; a six year-old with a Sharpie could spike the economy by slashing and deregulating everything. As I watched him shake hands with EPA head Scott Pruitt, a church deacon from Oklahoma, I saw Fort Laramie 1874 all over again; from the Dakota Access Pipeline to global warming. “Do you know what this means?” the President said, smiling, to the paper chiefs and bamboozled coal miners gathered at his shoulders. “Do you know what this means?”

Yes, we know what it means. He said it himself the day before. “We must end the theft of prosperity.” How ironic as the violation of the American land — with global repercussions — begins all over again, by way of executive orders and paper chiefs.

I never thought I’d live to see the day when EPA came to mean Environmental Prostitution Agency. But that’s what happens when the yellow metal drives the wasi’cu crazy.

SEVEN GENERATIONS: An open letter to Scott Pruitt, EPA

Dear Mr. Pruitt,

Yesterday, on CNBC, you stated that you do not agree with the world consensus that human activity is a primary contributor to global warming. This came as no surprise given that in your first speech as head of our Environmental Protection Agency, you chose not to even mention the subject.

Instead, you spoke about civility, our founding fathers, and baseball.

This is not a criticism; I share your love for baseball and I admire and applaud your respect for our founding fathers. In fact, if we were ever to have a beer, I’d be happy to keep the conversation on the Red Sox and Ben Franklin.

Before we get to baseball, can we talk about Ben Franklin? In the mid-18th century, when Franklin was advocating a federal union of colonies, no European model was found to be workable for the new country. Franklin, and our other founders, saw greater wisdom in the true owners and stewards of the new land — the Native Americans. In fact, Franklin and his friends were blown away by the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy and advocated many of their ideas, such as equality, natural rights, freedom of religion, property rights — and especially one of the Iroquois laws that resonated to Franklin as not only wise but critical:

‘In all our deliberations, let us first consider the impact on the next seven generations.’ Please take one moment and think about that. Franklin was impressed by the way his elder friend Canasstego, speaker for the Great Council at Onondaga, addressed stewardship of the earth, spoke of how hunting and fishing and burning areas were carefully regulated so as not to over-impact the land. Environmental regulations were the cornerstone of the Iroquois democracy that Franklin campaigned to adopt. Why force a failed model on the new land, one that the founding fathers were trying to escape, when the true keepers of the new land had it down to a science. An earth science that was also their spirituality (and still is).

20 years after Franklin’s argument was defeated at the Albany Congress, Thomas Jefferson still looked to the Iroquois Nations for wisdom in blueprinting our American system of government. He stopped just short of including the rightful inheritance of the seventh generation in the Bill of Rights, but if Ben Franklin had his way, it would have been there — and we would not still be debating (although, Sir, the world’s greatest scientists strongly believe that debate reached a conclusion long before your new position).

I ask that in all our deliberations, let us first consider the impact on your children and mine, and their children. Because with a scorched earth there’s no baseball. When you find yourself in the bottom of the ninth inning and you still have a chance to pull out a win, there’s no more time for debate. No more time for placing a priority on selling merchandise in the stands. We’re all one team, one tribe.

With respect and civility,

John Fusco

2017, YEAR OF THE ROOSTER: Keep it Simple

“2016 can suck it!”

I keep hearing this along with posted images of the grim reaper. “When we ring 2016 out, make sure to put a bullet in its head.”

Without a doubt it’s been a rabid, laughing hyena of a year. Maybe not the worst year in history. Maybe not as bad as 72,000 B.C. when a volcanic super-eruption on the island of Sumatra exploded and an apocalyptic winter reduced human populations to 3,000 survivors. And then there was the Black Death. I can well imagine folks saying “1348 can suck it!”

More recently, 2003 has been flagged as a really bad year and, believe it or not, 2006 had more celebrity deaths than 2016. But there’s no denying it: 2016 does not have a huge fan base. I’m not at all surprised.

At this time last year I wrote a blog piece about the Year of the Fire Monkey “its wild and mischievous energy that could rock the world if wisely channeled,” but also “if it burns too hot, flame out of control.” Donald Trump is the perfect president-elect for a Monkey year. I haven’t checked this yet, but I would not at all be surprised if he was born in the year of the Monkey. If you follow this at all — or if you remember my new year’s 2016 blog — Monkey cannot stop chattering (tweeting?). He is reckless, dangerous, and the biggest fool in the zodiac. Yet, it’s that energy that can often shake things up, create a necessary correction when things have maybe gone too far the other way (and only then might we find the middle ground). In the ancient stories Monkey often shocks us with his crude antics just to show us where we do not want to go. He even raised havoc in Heaven until Buddha got a hold of him.

The good news, Boys and Girls, is that we are now headed into a Rooster Year. 2017 will set the world stage for the Year of the Red Fire Rooster. Don’t let the fire element scare you; the Monkey’s fire is yang energy; Rooster’s flames are yin. Phew.

The Old Sifu once told me, while first teaching me Golden Rooster stance in kung fu, that the Rooster is associated with the Sun Coming Up. Rooster crows at dawn, welcomes a fresh, new day (thank you, God). Rooster is also about being cool, calm, and confident, he’s a kingly bird, his mannerisms are proud and graceful. Rooster is a leader with big goals but keeps a wise and enlightened approach to those goals. Although I’ve heard it said that Rooster likes to crow about his achievements, what Old Sifu advised me about this Rooster Year is “say less, do less, but do it better.” I brought up Bruce Lee’s oft-quoted “fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

“That’s what I said,” said the Old Sifu.

Feels to me like Rooster is a good year for simplifying. Reduction. Those who follow Tao are spare in what they do; they seek quality. Call it Tao jazz if you will: It’s often the notes we DON’T play that make the music swing. It’s when the Rooster kicks ass in the barnyard but doesn’t crow that he’s truly the cock of the walk.

One thing that the Old Sifu said that did concern me was: “In the Year of the Rooster, the new leader must not flaunt his authority — a negative Rooster trait that needs to be checked — and must not underestimate his world opponents.” Yeah, it’s time to move past the Monkey business.

The wise Taoist Deng Ming-Dao, had this to say today:

“We’re at the end of a year. What’s done is done. For all of us, there was some good and some bad. Some joys and some disappointment. Some elation and some grief. Thus is human life not a pure metal, but one that is alloyed, tempered, and forged….We all recognize that we did what we could, and while we are ready to try again, we must have the faith, the honesty, and the optimism to declare that events are done.”

Wishing everyone a peaceful, simple, productive, and healthy new year. Looking forward to your great works and friendship.

And, hey, 2016: Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.