Southern Rebel Tom Petty Passes Away into the Great Wide Open

Several prominent musical legends passed away in 2017. Of note were Gregg Allman, Walter Becker, Chuck Berry, Glenn Campbell, Chris Cornell, and Fats Domino – but it was losing Tom Petty that hit closest to my heart.

Petty, the highway rocker from Gainesville, Fla., who with his band the Heartbreakers, sold some 80 million records, died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 at the age of 66. Early in the morning Petty was found unconscious at his home, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest. He was transported to the UCLA Medical Center, where he died at 8:40 PM surrounded by family and bandmates.

Petty is known for his distinctive nasally voice and chiming guitar. The vocals are Bob Dylan-esque, with a melody evocative of The Byrds, a swagger from the Rolling Stones, and his storytelling element is reminiscent of blues legend B.B. King – all overlaid with a veneer of Southern rock.

Coming up in the early 1970s, disco ruled the charts as punk rock snarled at its heels. Arena rock was also at its peak. Huge bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were all in their prime. Petty and the Heartbreakers were more of an insurgent outfit. They had a stripped-down sound, like avant-garde garage rock. It was deconstructed of pretense, brash, proud and screaming to be heard.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS – BREAKDOWN 12/30/78

Petty rode to success coming out of Gainesville, Fla., where he endured an abusive home life. Rock-n-roll was his escape. It touched him deeply, in his heart, and he never let it go. Two early incidences were particularly influential to a young Petty that helped steer him toward a life of musical success.

When he was 10, his uncle worked on the set of an Elvis Presley film in nearby Ocala, aptly titled, “Follow That Dream.” Petty was invited to come watch the shoot and met Presley. Seeing Elvis at work and how the icon interacted on set was magical. Of the meeting Petty said, “Elvis glowed.”

The other early influence on Petty was The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. These young Brits from Liverpool were exploding on the scene, and in them Petty saw a pathway for how he could make it from Gainesville to becoming a rock-n-roller.

Petty’s first band was the Sundowners. Then the Epics, which evolved into Mudcrutch, a blues-R&B-rock group that included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench III on keyboards, along with lead guitarist Tom Leadon, drummer Randall Marsh and Petty, then playing bass.

While Mudcrutch was popular around Gainesville this was not the place to try and make it big. They had a close source of inspiration in Tom Leadon’s older brother, Bernie, who left Gainesville for Los Angeles, and found success as a multi-instrumentalist in LA’s burgeoning alt-country scene. Leadon had played for the influential country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers, and in 1971 helped form the Eagles.

Petty and Leadon were of the opinion that finding a bigger pond where the scene was happening was the way to go, so Mudcrutch headed west. On the way they scored a recording contract with Shelter Records in Tulsa, Okla., but ultimately Mudcrutch was unable to survive its inability to attract a bigger record label.

From left: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch, Ron Blair and Benmont Tench.

Out of the wreckage of Mudcrutch Petty was going to start a solo career, but keyboardist Benmont Tench was putting together a band and had scored some free studio time. Without money to hire other musicians Tench invited ex-Mudcrutchers Petty (now playing guitar), Mike Campbell, and a couple other Florida musicians who’d made the cross-country trek, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair. This grew into the Heartbreakers.

They didn’t exactly enjoy instant success, but with their eponymous debut in 1976, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers established themselves as a talent to be reckoned with. They were hard to categorize. Because of their garage rock sound some tried to call them punk, which was a stretch, but they didn’t fit the gargantuan bombast of stadium rockers like Queen, Alice Cooper or AC/DC.

Still on this first disc the Heartbreakers produced what would become two of their biggest hits, Breakdown and the album closer American Girl, arguably the band’s defining song. Additionally, Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It) was an important track for its dark look at relationships gone bad. Their debut peaked at No. 55 on Billboard.

The Heartbreakers followed this with You’re Gonna Get It in 1978. Again two monster songs charted in I Need to Know and Listen to Her Heart, along with the title track, which offered an edgier side to their reputation. This follow-up landed the group in the Top 30, reaching No. 23.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS – YOU’RE GONNA GET IT

With two discs released the band was recognized for its delivery of sharp stories about fast living and the difficult relationships that come with it. Not like Van Halen with its strippers and nylons flying out car windows, but real young people, chasing dreams and facing consequences.

For the Heartbreakers’ third disc they signed with MCA’s Backstreet Records label, and met Jimmy Iovine, a mover and shaker in the entertainment industry. This introduction would prove to change the fate of this young band.

With Iovine taking over production duties for the Heartbreakers in 1979, they recorded Damn the Torpedoes at the infamous Sound City studio. This was the commercial breakthrough Petty dreamed about, as the record went multi-platinum almost instantly.

Classics like Don’t Do Me Like That, Refugee and Here Comes My Girl all poured forth, with concert staple Louisiana Rain closing out the disc. With the band’s burgeoning reputation already established, Damn the Torpedoes cemented the Heartbreakers’ status as rock royalty.

The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts, blocked from reaching the top spot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In 2003, the album was ranked No. 313 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS – HERE COMES MY GIRL

With Damn the Torpedoes and the focus Jimmy Iovine brought to the Heartbreakers, the band took a huge leap forward. They now had a signature sound. Along with Petty’s nasally drawl and gangly guitar was a lush layered echo from the Heartbreakers’ backing vocals, Benmont’s organ, crisp percussion from Lynch and Campbell’s precision guitar.

This established Petty as part of what was categorized as the heartland rock movement, that included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp.

The hits kept coming for the Heartbreakers on discs such as Hard Promises (1981); Long After Dark (1982); Southern Accents (1985); Into the Great Wide Open (1991), and finally 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Pushing their albums to even greater heights was Petty’s embrace of the music video. When MTV hit in 1981, Petty & the Heartbreakers were in the vanguard of acts that recognized the power of this communications medium to better reach its audience and grow its brand. This business savvy attitude put the Heartbreakers in elite company with Madonna and Michael Jackson.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS – YOU GOT LUCKY

Petty also had a successful solo career that really felt little different from his work with the Heartbreakers. In fact most if not all of his backing band were involved with Full Moon Fever (1989) Wildflowers (1994) and Highway Companion (2006).

Less known is that Petty enjoyed a simultaneous acting career to his musical one, appearing in television and motion pictures, with a recurring role as the voice of Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt in the animated comedy series King of the Hill.

An overarching aspect to Petty’s personality was how he remained a humble individual. Since many of the bands he looked up to were still in existence or at least key members remained active, Petty was deferential about his success, even though critics ranked the Heartbreakers in an elite echelon.

Petty playing with Bob Dylan.

His grounded honesty made Petty a musician’s musician. He just loved playing and getting involved in the non-verbal communication that took place through phrasing with instruments. It’s this modesty that led to a fruitful pursuit of collaboration with other famous musicians.

In 1981 he teamed up with Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac on the smash hit Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. The Heartbreakers were invited to join Bob Dylan on his True Confessions tour in 1986, that included the Grateful Dead. This resulted in Petty joining fellow music legends Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison in 1988 to form The Traveling Wilburys.

STEVIE NICKS & TOM PETTY – STOP DRAGGIN’ MY HEART AROUND

With all these highs came powerful lows, and Petty struggled secretly with heroin addiction in the 1990s after the collapse of his 20-year marriage and a failed album. In author Warren Zanes’ 2015 book, Petty: The Biography, the musician revealed he tried to quit cold turkey but failed. “It’s an ugly fucking thing,” said Petty.

Drug addiction was a cautionary tale the band knew well. By their fifth album, Long After Dark (1982), bass player Ron Blair had tired of the touring life and left the band. He was replaced by Howie Epstein, who ultimately developed a severe heroin addiction and was kicked out of the band in 2002. Epstein succumbed to complications related to drug abuse a year later.

Just prior to Petty’s death, the Heartbreakers finished an extensive 53-stop tour marking the band’s 40th anniversary. The tour began on April 20 in Oklahoma City and concluded Sept. 25 on the third night of a sold-out homecoming stand at the Hollywood Bowl. Petty indicated this would be the Heartbreakers’ last major tour.

For their career Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers scored some 30 singles charting on Billboard’s Hot 100 sales ranking. They won three Grammy Awards, had 18 nominations, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS – DON’T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE

“Music, as far as I have seen in the world so far, is the only real magic that I know” said Petty. “There is something really honest and clean and pure and it touches you in your heart.”

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From Affleck to Weinstein, Floodgates open in 2017 for Victims of Sexual Harassment

As 2017 has now exited let us all take a group exhale and attempt to relax as we bid farewell to this tumultuous year. Unfortunately, unlike a bad hangover, the nation can’t simply slam a bottle of Pedialyte and hope for a speedy recovery. Bizarre as it may seem, yes Donald Trump actually is still President of the United States.

Before 2018 truly gets rolling, this is an excellent moment to take an objective look back at the year’s top story, as 2017 was full of monumental events besides the toxicity of Trumpism.

The easy way out would be to cede 2017 to Trump. It’s not unfounded. His swearing-in to office was curious, like his claim about crowd sizes; there remains the historic low approval rating for a first term president; Charlottesville; the insipid tweets; the lying; the Russia investigation; Trump’s attacks on intelligence organizations and law enforcement in general; the president’s inability to make coherent sense; the record-setting staff turnover during the first year of a new presidency; the dismantling of the State Department; several criminal indictments of Trump confidants; Roy Moore; tax cuts; etc…

I will stop there. The man is just not worth the oxygen he breathes.

Natural disasters played a starring role in 2017. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated huge swaths of humanity and infrastructure from the Caribbean, to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas, causing notable loss of life. Additionally, drought conditions and high winds created the perfect conditions for massive wildfires across California.

Violence was another significant chapter in 2017. A lone gunman opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas killing 58 people, a record-setting number of deaths for a single mass shooting event (10.01.17); in Charlottesville, VA, at a “Unite the Right” rally for white supremacists and white nationalists, three died and dozens were injured (08.12.17); eight casualties were recorded when a man drove a rented pick-up truck down a crowded bike path in New York City (10.31.17); and a gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX, slaughtering 26 parishioners (11.05.17).

Trump, natural disasters and violence across America all make worthy cases to be the top entry, but it’s the victims of sexual harassment that ranks as the widest-reaching and most impactful revelation of 2017, as this epidemic continues to unfold.

This story ballooned into the public consciousness in October after the New York Times exposed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, of Miramax and The Weinstein Group fame, as a rapist and serial sexual harasser. Some 84 women have come forward to level accusations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein, who is well-known for abusive tirades and physical altercations, along with a fondness for walking around semi-nude trying to charm, bribe, cajole and force subordinates into sexual encounters.

This revelation alone is remarkable in its repudiation of an abusive gatekeeper capable of making or hindering aspiring careers, but as the number of female accusers escalated an interesting thing happened. The #MeToo hashtag spread virally on Twitter, bringing millions of women into the conversation by their retweeting of this rallying cry to signify how they too had been victims of sexual harassment.

Then the floodgates opened in boardrooms, newsrooms, concert halls and gymnasiums across the nation. Suddenly no longer were the dirty little secrets of sexual misconduct being kept for rich and powerful men. Giants of industry tumbled into embarrassing piles of disgraced rubble.

Decades of ignoring women’s claims about hostile work environments or sweeping the allegations under the carpet were met by a sea change of holding men accountable. As the particulars of these various allegations leaked out it became clear organizations knew of these perpetrators’ misdeeds and several paid women significant sums of money in return for signing non-disclosure agreements to secure their silence.

What seemed at first shocking in scope was quickly re-evaluated through the lens of thousands of #MeToo retweets, and unending revelations of grisly misdeeds committed against household names. Women were not surprised by the scope. They knew all too well about this pervasive harassment and discrimination.

Victims had been trying to get the word out, but the collective public failed to listen, remaining blind to the vile behavior that lurked beneath these successful men. Nobody wanted to believe or deal with such an inconvenient truth, but as this disturbing reality crystalized, the details in these attacks revealed darker peculiarities and depravity.

Bill Cosby was considered America’s dad. He was Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the man behind The Cosby Show, a cutting edge comic and social commentator who had a secret penchant for drugging and raping women, only to then attempt to play off the assaults like they were somehow consensual.

Comedian Louis C.K.stripped in front of two female fellow comedians invited to his hotel room after their show and started masturbating. That was not an isolated incident.

Former CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose was accused by eight women of unwanted sexual advances, including allegations of lewd phone calls, walking around in their presence naked, and groping their breasts, buttocks or genital areas.

Former Today show co-host Matt Lauer had a remote door lock button installed at his desk so he could bolt his office door without women’s knowledge, trapping them inside a confined space. Lauer then would drop his pants to female employees, exposing his penis and expect sexual acts to be performed; he sent sex toys to staffers with personal notes describing how he imagined using the devices on these women; and raped one producer in his office.

Failed Alabama Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore trolled malls and courthouses looking for vulnerable teenagers, one as young as 14, to have sexual encounters with when he served as an assistant district attorney in his 30s.

And let us not forget President Donald Trump. He has admitted that he purposely crept around private dressing room areas of his beauty pageants to ogle young contestants in varying degrees of undress and nakedness. He also finds it appropriate to grab women by the pussy because he can get away with it since he is famous, or so he espoused on the Access Hollywood video tape.

None of these behaviors are normal. These are not the actions taken by men to gain the attention of females they find attractive in hopes of taking them out on a date. Weinstein actually took the time, energy and thought to employ a goon-squad specifically dedicated to attacking and discrediting targets of his abuse, to keep them quiet or persuade their silence.

It can’t be overstated how daunting and courageous it was for all the women who came forward against these powerful men of industry before the public consciousness established a belief structure that their guilt was a possibility. Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and Salma Hayek (among others) refused to back down against Harvey Weinstein, or his supporters who also were perpetrators or silent observers.

Rachael Denhollander was not known widely, yet she walked bravely into a forum to file the initial lawsuit against Dr. Larry Nassar, the sports-medicine physician for Team USA Gymnastics, who it turns out assaulted some 150 people, earning him a 60-year prison sentence.

And this conversation cannot be had without acknowledging Anita Hill, who shouldered the spotlight in 1991, the responsibility, scorn, and disbelief of a Congress full of old white men, to stand with dignity and testify unequivocally about the harassment she suffered at the hands of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Now big name victims and A-list abusers have captured headlines, and that notoriety paved the way for thousands of women to come out and acknowledge the abuse they too suffered, but these instances remain only the tip of the iceberg.

The 2016 Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which measures rapes that are known to police, estimated that there were 90,185 rapes reported to law enforcement in 2015. The 2016 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which measures sexual assaults and rapes that may not have been reported to the police, found that there were 431,840 incidents of rape or sexual assault in 2015. While the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reported on average there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.

The great injustice remains the prolific under-reporting of rape and sexual abuse in America. Whether because the attacker is someone the victim knows, the embarrassment, or perhaps just the stigma that comes with discussing such a personal violation – thousands are left to suffer in the shadows of obscurity because they don’t feel comfortable reporting this crime.

Who stands for the women that speak little to no English that endure constant harassment in meat packing plants or other dim factory jobs, where co-workers and supervisors dangle the threat of firing and possible deportation unless these women sleep with them.

Or waitresses in any truck stop across the nation who absorb the snide remarks, pinches on their behinds and threats of dismissal from men who objectify them daily. In one of the most highly under-reported crime statistics in the country, untold thousands of high school and college-age females grapple yearly with the humiliation and wavering support structures set up to assist with reporting date rapes.

It’s about the everyday female office worker that must put up with the endless harassment and flirtations from boorish males who hold supervisory roles enabling them to derail promising careers. Oftentimes male managers will routinely pass off ideas as their own that in reality were stolen from women they supervise – refusing out of spite or fear to acknowledge female contributions. Or seeing deserving females passed over for promotion when they reject sexual advances from males, only to watch less capable men get elevated in retribution.

Immediate supervisors and internal human resources departments have habitually failed women, as harassment complaints fall on deaf ears. Cronyism or ‘The Old Boy’s Network’ is tough to break through, and once a female opens the door to a complaint she finds herself susceptible to retribution, blackballing and termination.

Simply hear the stories of women trying to break through glass ceilings in Silicon Valley and the resistance they’ve encountered in supposed enlightened environments, or female soldiers trying to report sexual harassment in the military.

*     *     *     *     *

Anyone waiting for Congress to act is sadly mistaken. There is no imminent justice from Congress because the Hill is littered with serial adulterers. Current members, former elected officials and staff are sitting on their collective hands hoping their sins don’t blow back on them. The yard marks set by super-rats like John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Strom Thurmond, Bob Backwood, and Bill Clinton to name a few are being carried forward by several new political operatives that include President Trump.

As women in Congress shared their #MeToo stories it was uncovered that Congress had its own sexual harassment slush fund. From 2008 to 2012, Congress paid out $174,000 from a U.S. Treasury fund to settle claims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination against offices of the House of Representatives.

This was a small fraction of the more than $17 million in settlements paid out over the past 20 years by the Office of Compliance, the agency responsible for handling workplace complaints in Congress.

Washington as an entity couldn’t be better set up to facilitate harassment. DC is the land of plenty. The national government, military apparatus, international embassies and legal empires are intermingled with plentiful jobs, money, clubs, restaurants, high-end strip joints, A-list hotels and a culture built on keeping secrets.

Virtually nobody that works in Washington is from there. Lacking roots to anchor one to a home-grown identity, tribes are left as the means to assign personality and a supposed moral compass to new arrivals. Similar to like when one first goes away to college and finding an identity is crucial for establishing a sense of place on campus. In DC it’s tribes – Republicans, Democrats, hired guns that are non-partisan lobbyists or political pros, think tankers, journalists, educators, watchdog groups, non-profits, and then there are the wolves – attorneys, vapid and soulless, who care only to bill fees and feast on the remains of the less prosperous.

Finding a tribe is essential for young DC staffers seeking to define a professional identity. These hard-charging 20-somethings will walk through walls for their tribal leaders. Yet things get confusing when susceptible young women are placed under the thumbs of elected officials wielding intoxicating power. These male lawmakers work far away from home and family, where married lives are too often a distant second reality.

Plenty of harmless hookups ensue amongst ambitious colleagues in this intense work hard/play hard atmosphere, but the deck is heavily stacked toward members of Congress, political appointees, and senior staff who hold sway. Expensive white tablecloth dinners in secluded restaurants or invites to private embassy affairs easily impress and can quickly turn into a negotiating quid pro quo tool to leverage sexual favors in return for professional advancement.

Simply observe the pageantry known as “intern season” that overtakes DC in the spring for a true ‘sheep being led to the slaughter’ illustration. An ambitious 22-year old Monica Lewinsky is a fine example of what frequently occurs. The arrival of “new talent” migrating into DC for the summer could be looked upon as sex trafficking.

Each year impressionable do-gooders ranging in age from late teens to 20-somethings flood DC to gain experience on the Hill, in governmental agencies, trade associations and law firms. Some hail from big cities, but a vast number are small town kids, and DC is their first visit to a major city. The pit of vipers already familiar with the game in the nation’s capital has a distinct advantage.

Members and staff that seemed fatherly back in local state districts are treated like gods in Washington, where their appetites and hubris are welcomely displayed. Favors are currency in Washington, and members hold jobs in their pockets like rare priceless jewels. With graduation near, ambitious young women desperately seek to get their tickets punched to an exotic life in DC. For some congressmen the allure proves impossible to resist of leveraging the command they hold over these young girls’ futures against their exploitation for sexual favors.

Promiscuity is no crime, but consent is essential, and not the coerced version. There can’t be a power angle at play, where a superior is expecting a female staffer to blow him in order to gain permanent employment or advancement.

*     *     *     *     *

With vast evidence of sexual abuse and harassment documented in the military, Roman Catholic Church, national and local political establishments, law enforcement agencies, the medical community, court system, entertainment industry and news organizations, where has America’s moral character gone wrong? How is it possible that a bigoted, xenophobic, race-baiting, serial sex abuser like Donald Trump was elected president?

Moral character matters, and one of the more disturbing aspects of the sexual abuse scandal in America is that many culprits are gatekeepers or supposed protectors in their respective industries. These men should have served as mentors but betrayed this responsibility to instead become roadblocks.

While these ongoing revelations of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement have changed the narrative of how victims are treated in professional and cultural settings, it would be foolish to believe the fight is won.

Harvey Weinstein remains a free man. His only punishment thus far is exile from the movie industry and a cold shoulder from Hollywood. Don’t negate the possibility that power brokers in America could look upon this transcendent moment as only a ripple in time, when a few overzealous lions went too far.

Some longtime members of ‘The Old Boys’ Network are being sacrificed as a result, but once the spotlight fades the fight remains for women. This is a precedent-setting moment for women’s rights and hopefully a game-changer in affording them more equal footing in the workplace – but watch for organizations to attempt a return to business as usual.

We are in this together, men and women. It’s up to us to pivot and make the necessary adjustments in how we conduct ourselves between one another in public and private. If society will carry through with this momentum to not tolerate ‘boys will be boys’ behavior, at the very least it narrows the avenues where men can get away with sexual harassment, and makes it more likely they will be held accountable for this criminal behavior.

There is no reason to fear the rising power of women. Instead embrace it. Women are the embodiment of God on this planet, as the giver of life. It’s crippling to our evolution as a society to look upon women as perfectly responsible to populate our planet, yet somehow inferior in terms of valuing their ideas and authority in the same manner as we do a male.

As Bob Dylan famously sang, “The Times They Are A-Changing.” It’s a never-ending circumstance, and it’s incumbent upon us as a society to recognize the light being shined upon the issues of harassment and sexual abuse for the positive nature it represents. Otherwise we all stand to fail as a result.

*     *     *     *     *

Below is a select roster of headline-catching male perpetrators accused of harassment and abuse:

Ben Affleck (Actor); Casey Affleck (Actor); Roger Ailes (Co-creator Fox News); Woody Allen; Joe Alexander (Former Chief Creative Officer at The Martin Agency); Tom Ashbrook (Journalist); Ken Baker (Author); Andre Balazs (Hotelier); Joe Barton (U.S. Rep.); Mario Batali (Chef); John Besh (Chef); David Blaine (Magician); Eric Bolling (Fox News); George H.W. Bush; Bill Clinton; Nick Carter (Backstreet Boys); Stephen Collins (Actor); John Conyers, Jr. (U.S. Rep.); Bill Cosby (Comedian); Eric Davis (Football); Johnny Depp (Actor); Andy Dick (Comedian); Richard Dreyfuss; Heath Evans (Football); Blake Farenthold (U.S. Rep.); Marshall Faulk (Football); Hamilton Fish (President/Publisher of The New Republic); Al Franken (Comedian and former senator); Trent Franks (U.S. Rep.); Mel Gibson (Actor); Mark Halperin (Journalist); Jon Heely (Director of Music Publishing/Disney); Eric Alexander Hewitt (Musician/Professor-Boston Conservatory); John Hockenberry (Host, Public Radio, The Takeaway); Dustin Hoffman; Jeff Hoover (Rep. KY State Legislature); Israel Horovitz (playwright and father of Beastie Boy Adam ); Dylan Howard (Chief Content Officer @ American Media); Cade Hudson (Agent); Johnny Iuzzini (Pastry Chef); Dan Johnson (Rep. KY State Legislature/Suicide); Ethan Kath (Musician-Crystal Castles); Garrison Keillor; R. Kelly (Musician); Ted Kennedy; Ruben Kihuen (U.S. Rep.); Robert Knepper (Actor); Alex Kozinski (U.S. Appeals Court Judge); Andrew Kreisberg (Producer – Warner Bros./The CW); Knight Landesman (Publisher); John Lasseter (Head of Pixar/Walt Disney Animation Studios); Matt Lauer (TV News Anchor); James Levine (Music Director, Metropolitan Opera); Ryan Lizza (Writer/New Yorker); Louie C.K. (Comedian); Danny Masterson (Actor); Donovan McNabb (Football); Rick Najera (Actor/Writer/Producer); Larry Nassar (USA Gymnastics); Bill O’Reilly (Fox News); Michael Oreskes (NPR’s Senior VP of New and Editorial Director); Bob Packwood; Shervin Pishevar (Co-founder of Sherpa Capital/Uber Investor); Jeremy Piven (Actor); Roman Polanski (Director); Roy Price (Amazon Studios > Worked closely with Weinsteins); Brett Ratner (Director/Producer); Terry Richardson (Photographer); Geraldo Rivera; Rich Rodriguez (Football); Charlie Rose (TV Host-CBS This Morning); Andy Rubin (Creator of Android, CEO of phone startup Essential); Chris Savino (Nickelodeon creator of The Loud House); Dan Schoen (D-MN State Senate); Robert Scoble (Former Microsoft/Tech Blogger/Tech Evangelist); Steven Seagal; Bill Shine (Co-president Fox News); Russell Simmons, Def Jam; Bryan Singer (Movie Director); Tom Sizemore; Tavis Smiley (Talk Show Host); Kevin Spacey; Morgan Spurlock; Lockhart Steele (Editorial Director/Vox Media); Lorin Stein (Editor/The Paris Review); Oliver Stone (Director); David Sweeney (NPR Chief News Editor); Ike Taylor (Football); Glenn Thrush (NY Times Reporter); Strom Thurmond; James Toback (Director/Writer); Donald Trump; Bruce Weber (Photographer); Bob Weinstein (Executive Producer); Harvey Weinstein (Miramax/The Weinstein Company); Eric Weinberger (Bill Simmons Media Group); Leon Wieseltier (Author/Literary Critic/Editor); Jann Wenner (Publisher-Rolling Stone); and Ed Westwick (Actor-Gossip Girl).

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Roll Tide is Heard Once Again Across the Land

Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

The Alabama Crimson Tide came back from a 13-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs in overtime 26-23, winning a 5th college football national championship in nine years under Coach Nick Saban.

If anything is known about a Saban-coached team, regardless of how the first half goes, corrections will take place, adjustments made and the fight rejoined in the second half with much vigor.

Nothing came easy for either school Monday night inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as both displayed stout defenses, making running yards difficult.

Many prognosticators voiced that the difference in the game might be the quarterback position, and Alabama would have the advantage with Jalen Hurts, who had delivered his team to two straight national championship games.

In fact it did come down to the Alabama quarterback, but it wasn’t Hurts that tilted the momentum. It required an inspiring performance first by Georgia freshman Jake Fromm to force Saban into changing his field general.

Georgia’s defense was too fast off the ball, eliminating the option run Hurts utilizes to free up his passing game. Meanwhile Fromm and Georgia gained composure over the immensity of the atmosphere, completing numerous passes to sustain drives, scoring 13 unanswered points going into the half.

It’s a hell of thing to pull a quarterback that’s gone 25-2, but it was clear to Saban that without a change he couldn’t beat this Georgia team that was ably coached by his longtime former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

As the second half began, off the bench came #13, Tua Tagovailoa for the Crimson Tide. It took no time to realize Hurts would not be re-entering this game. Tagovailoa’s poise and confidence was obvious as he threw for three touchdowns, including a 42-yard pass to wide receiver DeVonta Smith in overtime to win the game.

Saban talked about how he wanted to see ‘angry energy’ from his squad. At the 6:52 mark of the 3rd quarter Georgia led 20-7. That angry energy became evident as the Crimson Tide outscored the Bulldogs 19-3 going forward.

Alabama should have won the game on the last play of regulation but Andy Pappanastos badly shanked a 36-yard attempt as time expired.

The overtime period offered Georgia renewed energy. When the Bulldog’s Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal to put them up 23-20 the outcome felt questionable, but Tagovailoa took a second-and-26 snap, calmly looked off the cover-two defense, and zipped a 42-yard pass into the end zone for an improbable Alabama victory.

It’s ironic to think Alabama almost wasn’t included as part of this playoff. Some may question why the final was an all-SEC affair, but both the ACC and Big 12 had shots to prevent that and failed. Ultimately Alabama and Georgia played their way into this final, and each look to have bright futures with their young teams.

If nothing else Alabama football is one predicated upon preparation and dedication. I doubt Saban let a single day pass without considering his team’s loss last year to Clemson on the championship’s last play. The man doesn’t forget a loss like that, but Saban will prepare to not let it happen again, which made his decision to replace Hurts easier. It was a gutsy call and could have backfired in such an intense situation, but Tagovailoa rose to the opportunity and likely will be Alabama’s starter going forward.

As Hurt’s said, Tua balled out, and he certainly does have that “IT” factor.

This was Alabama’s 11th overall national championship, and sixth for Nick Saban. He has won five at Alabama, with his other title coming in 2003 at LSU. With this victory he tied Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most titles won. I got money Saban owns that record all to himself soon.

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Gumbo Ya-Ya for a Christmas Birthday

Holiday gatherings are generally neither small nor intimate affairs in my family these days. They use to be growing up. There were just the four of us in Frankfort, as our extended relations lived in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. These days I’m fortunate that a birthday party or holiday get-together will easily involve 15-20 family members. The hosting venue will be run full of kiddos, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers & sisters, boyfriends/girlfriends, and even a fiancé or two.

This places a premium upon two items, food and liquor. The food can be tricky as the chosen dishes must serve a discerning allotment of all ages. The liquor is a given, in particular around Christmas, as all must cope with the onslaught of holiday festivity.

Upon this most recent Christmas night party, a Monday, my sister-in-law and a couple of us consulted amongst the merriment on what we might pull together for my mother-in-law’s birthday that was on the coming Wednesday. Rumor was a ham might get cooked, but that raised eyebrows. Regardless, something would need to supplement that, and a vegetarian option would be required as well.

My immediate thought was gumbo.

Having lived in New Orleans for years, the holidays are a time of gathering, and in that region great pride is taken by cooking up a pot of this strange dish with an even stranger name. There are holiday gatherings, tailgating for football and neighborhood parties, and all of these will have someone in charge of bringing a mess of gumbo.

I find there is something about Louisiana’s communal atmosphere, and the sharing of love that comes with cooking fine food, that lends itself to New Orleans cuisine. That city, and the spirit that populates its inhabitants – their festive nature, refusal to give up, and open-arm welcome to visitors the world over, whether day or night, can be encapsulated in a steaming bowl of gumbo. It’s all in there, the mystery, celebration, satisfaction and camaraderie.

Odds are gumbo is the number one item most people would say they remember about their mama cooking for them as kids growing up in and around New Orleans. But truly gumbo is not a gender specific dish. It could be dad that made the gumbo. It can be a guy thing, much like barbecue or chili. That’s another mark in gumbo’s favor.

Defining gumbo, much like its contents, can be mysterious. It’s soup-like, but not something that neatly fits into that category on a menu. It can be an appetizer, but a big bowl of hearty gumbo over rice with a crust of dipping bread easily makes for a full meal. There can be seafood involved or not; chicken and Andouille sausage or just the sausage; yes to tomatoes or a resounding NO (this remains a hotly contested ingredient option); and there in lies its beauty, gumbo is many things to many people.

Generally speaking folks start with a stock or broth, add in chicken or seafood, scrape in the Holy Trinity of chopped onions, green peppers and celery, usually a bit of okra, Andouille sausage, and thicken the mixture with a dark roux.

Within those broad boundaries much adaptation is available to take place. I’ve been at this for 20-plus years and continue to tweak my recipe, but that is exactly what I love about this food. There’s latitude for change, experiments can be made and mistakes can be covered up. Gumbo may be considered lo-country fare, but when done properly it’s anything but pedestrian.

GUMBO YA-YA

Ingredients: Meat from one whole chicken, 2 to 3 pounds (chopped); 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning; 8 tablespoons unsalted butter; 1 pound Andouille sausage (diced); 1 cup vegetable oil; 1 cup all-purpose flour; 1 sweet onion (chopped); 1 large bell pepper (chopped); 4 stalks celery (chopped); 6 cloves garlic (minced); 2 cups okra (sliced); 8 cups chicken stock; 1 teaspoon dried thyme; 1 teaspoon basil; 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; 1/4 teaspoon white pepper; 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper; 1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika; 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce; salt as needed; 1 bay leaf; 1 bunch green onions, both white and green parts (chopped); 1/2 cup Italian parsley (chopped); several dashes of Louisiana-style hot sauce; and 4 cups cooked white rice.

As a disclaimer up front I will say this gumbo recipe is a two day affair. It can be cut to one day if store-bought stock is substituted over making stock from scratch, but it will not be as tasty, guaranteed. Take the time, buy the ticket and take the ride. Plan ahead, buy a whole chicken, preferably something at least 5 pounds. If a heartier gumbo is wanted purchase a 7 or 8 pound bird. Let’s make a proper chicken stock!

CHICKEN STOCK

Ingredients: 2 pounds chicken bones (or whatever is rendered after cooking a whole chicken); 6 quarts water (or 24 cups); 2 whole carrots (peeled & thickly sliced); 1 sweet onion (roughly chopped); 4 stalks celery (roughly chopped with leaves included); 6 cloves garlic (minced); 1/2 cup parsley (chopped); 1 teaspoon thyme; 1 teaspoon salt; 12 whole black peppercorns or 1 teaspoon ground black pepper; 1/2 teaspoon white pepper; 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper; 2 bay leaves; and 1 cup dry white wine.

Right, first purchase one whole chicken and cook the bird according to package instructions (basically 90 minutes at 350 degrees); allow chicken to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Now render all the meat from the bird, including wings, breast, legs and the bits underneath, discarding the skin. There should be plenty of meat. To increase the flavor, it’s best to leave a bit of critter on the bones. Take the best parts and leave any that seems reasonable.

Place the bones in a roasting pan and brown them in the oven for 20 minutes.

Bring the water to a boil over high heat in a large stock pot. Add the browned bones and remaining ingredients; reduce heat to medium and simmer for one hour, or until the liquid is reduced by half.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow the stock to cool, then refrigerate for four to five hours – overnight is even better (I placed mine on our screened-in porch considering the chilly temperatures outside and saved the refrigerator room). I find that after this entire process is complete, the last thing I want to embark upon is shifting gears toward making my gumbo.

In the morning remove any fat that has gathered at the surface of the liquid, then strain the stock through a colander into a large bowl. Discard the bones and vegetables left in the colander. If not using immediately, the stock can be safely kept refrigerated for up to a week in a sealed container, or freeze it for later use.

With making the stock a day ahead of the actual gumbo preparation, for those wishing to utilize the down time, this is a great moment to knock out some of the chopping of vegetables and such that will be needed the following day. It saves time and is nice to have ready to throw together easily when the moment arrives.

*     *     *     *     *

It’s gumbo time! About 30 minutes before starting to put ingredients together, get the chicken out and season it with Creole spice. If not done previously, first chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces and then season.

Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and brown the chicken pieces over medium-high heat; set aside in a large bowl; in same pan melt the other four tablespoons of butter and brown the Andouille sausage; this also can be set aside in the same bowl with the chicken.

Now let’s make a roux! Using the same pan the chicken and sausage were cooked in, (don’t rinse it out or wipe it clean) pour in the cup of vegetable oil and warm over medium high heat; use a wire whisk to free up any browned chicken or sausage particles from the bottom; sift in the flour, stirring constantly; continue heating over medium-high heat until a dark brown roux is achieved.

This will first turn a blond/tan color; keep stirring and the mixture will continue to darken; be patient and wait for it to start turning brown, it may take 20 minutes or more; basically get it to an almost burned state but not quite. Careful this mixture will be extremely hot and can pop at times, firing what is commonly referred to as “Creole Napalm” onto the exposed skin of hands and arms. This stuff burns, especially when making a dark roux. If the roux does accidentally burn, throw it away and start again. Burned roux will poison anything it is used in, and render it awful. Cut the losses, use it as a learning experience and simply start again.

Remove the roux from heat, and add chopped onions, bell peppers, celery, garlic and okra; stir the vegetables about in the roux mixture, as this will help cool off the roux and prevent it from further darkening. This also serves to cook the vegetables.

Transfer the roux/vegetable mixture to a large pot, like Dutch oven or stock pot; pour in the chicken stock, bringing it to a boil; lower the heat to simmer, and add the chicken and sausage.

Time to spice this puppy up! Get the measuring spoons out and pour in thyme, basil, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, Spanish smoked paprika, Worcestershire sauce, salt and bay leaf.

Continue cooking for 45 minutes over low heat; add green onions and parsley; adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and hot sauce to preference. Serve in soup bowls over white rice. It makes eight servings.

I made a double batch of this recipe for Michelle’s birthday party, and it was a good thing as the ham wasn’t so wonderful and attendees just kept coming back to steal another taste of this affable gumbo. Gil made a lovely vegetarian lasagna to go along with our other entrée items that was super yummy. I will say, don’t sleep on the rice. If that gets messed up bad enough it will impact the gumbo’s overall deliciousness. That being said, this chicken & Andouille sausage gumbo will happily feed many. YA-YA-YA!

Like anything worth eating, gumbo takes love and time, but it’s all worth it.

Happy New Year!

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Egg and Sausage Casserole for New Year’s Eve

As we are now on the umpteenth day of Christmas vacation, with kids and adults endlessly home, staying up late, and famished come morning, I wanted to pass along a breakfast creation that has proved easy and satisfying.

Nothing fancy here, simple ingredients, quick prep and a fast turnaround that will feed hungry teenagers bleary-eyed from staring at phone screens or gaming consoles most of the night.

EGG AND SAUSAGE CASSEROLE

Ingredients: 1 pound pork sausage; 1 (8 ounce) package refrigerated crescent roll dough; 8 eggs (beaten); 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese; 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese; 1 teaspoon dried oregano; 1/4 teaspoon salt; and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Remove sausage casing and pluck pieces off, tossing them into a skillet over medium heat until browned; place into bowl and set aside.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Lightly grease a 9×13 inch baking dish.

Line the bottom of the prepared baking dish with crescent roll dough by bending and melding it to fit the space; sprinkle crumbled sausage evenly across the bottom.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and scramble; add in the cheeses, oregano, salt and pepper; whisk all ingredients until blended.

Pour mixture over the sausage in the crescent roll-lined dish.

Bake 35 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. I like a nice dark brown top on this dish, where the cheese has crisped up. Right toward the end of the prescribed cooking cycle I often crank the broiler up on my oven to push the top to its desired crispness. This should only take a minute or two, as the dish is essentially finished cooking. Watch closely if this is desired, as it can burn quick.

That’s it, super easy and filled with cheesy goodness that will fuel another day of watching bowl games or playing with the goodies Santa delivered.

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Friday Night is the Right Time for Shrimp Étouffée

Baby it is cold outside. I’m ready to get in the house where it’s warm, pour a glass of wine and get my cook on. This is the perfect time of year for a hot and spicy dish. I picked up a couple pounds of large shrimp recently that was in need of a purpose. With andouille sausage already on hand and shrimp stock hanging out in my freezer, it was like a tractor beam pulling these three ingredients together. But what to make with them?

A nice gumbo or jambalaya would be tasty, but what came to mind that could warm a chilly day was a bowl of Shrimp Étouffée. This is a solid, down home New Orleans meal. It can be spiced up or kept mild. Regardless, plenty of flavor comes through from all the vegetables, shrimp and sausage. Be prepared to chop up some ingredients, but it’s therapeutic and relaxing. Put some Christmas tunes on, pour another glass of wine and this recipe will come together beautifully.

SHRIMP ÉTOUFFÉE

Ingredients: 1/2 cup unsalted butter; 1/4 cup all-purpose flour; 3 medium onions (chopped); 2 medium green bell peppers (chopped); 3 stalks celery (chopped); 3 cloves garlic (chopped); 1 pound andouille sausage (chopped); 1 tablespoon tomato paste; 2 pounds medium shrimp (peeled & deveined); 1 cup shrimp stock; 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning; 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; 1/4 teaspoon white pepper; 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper; 3/4 cup green onions (white and green parts chopped); 2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley (chopped); and 4 cups cooked white rice.

As they say in the Deep South, “first you make a roux.” This is the hardest, yet easiest thing to create and mess up at the same time. But before we go down this path, let’s take care of the shrimp stock. This is an ingredient many might have questions about. If possible, it’s best to get this out of the way the night before, plus the necessary shrimp will already be shelled.

SHRIMP STOCK

Ingredients: 2 pounds shrimp heads/shells (from 6 pounds whole shrimp); 8 cups water; 1/2 cup onion (chopped); 1/2 cup green bell pepper (chopped); 1/2 cup celery (chopped); and 3 bay leaves.

If not living in shrimp country it’s doubtful there will be head-on shrimp available. No worries. You can simply utilize the shells from the 2 pounds of shrimp being used in the Shrimp Étouffée recipe. Shell the 2 pounds of shrimp and place the shrimp into a container and put into the fridge for later use. Put the shells into a large stockpot and add water to the pot, along with the onion, bell pepper, celery, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain, reserving the liquid and discarding the shells, along with the other ingredients. Place in sealed container and refrigerate. Any stock not used in immediate recipe may be kept refrigerated for a week or frozen for later use.

*     *     *     *     *

With the stock being made the night before, or defrosted from a previous making, now we can return to making the roux.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet and stir in the flour. Turn heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly, as the blond mixture of butter and flour begins to darken. Continue cooking until mixture becomes a light brown or caramel color. It does not need to be any darker for this recipe. Proper roux resides on a fine line between getting dark and being burnt. When making a butter roux, do not stop stirring it or leave the room for a minute. It burns fast. Just keep stirring it until a blond-caramel color is reached.

Add all the onions, green peppers, celery and garlic into the roux and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.

Pour another glass of wine.

After the vegetables are softened, place the chopped sausage into the pan and sauté with contents, about another 10 minutes.

Blend in the tomato paste, stirring until incorporated entirely.

Time for the shrimp! Dump all the shelled shrimp into the pan and cook over medium heat until pink, about 5 minutes.

Pour in the shrimp stock and stir until the sauce starts to thicken. This should be dense, but have a viscous texture. If it remains too thick add additional stock a 1/4 cup at a time.

Stir in Creole seasoning, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, green onion and parsley; cover the pot and simmer for 15 minutes over low heat.

Serve in bowls over white rice. A nice Louisiana hot sauce can be added to kick up the heat. Makes eight solid servings.

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A Pioneer Breakfast Sandwich that Steals the Show

This is the sit-down version of the Pioneer, with two poached eggs on English muffin halves.

With the weekend upon us, I thought some sort of breakfast treat might come in handy. It’s customary at our house on either Saturday or Sunday, if not both, to cook up a hefty brunch once everyone is awake to fuel the day ahead. Often it consists of the usual fare, waffles, pancakes, or maybe French toast, all are favorite menu items. Pair any of those with a side of bacon or sausage, scrambled eggs, and add in hash browns if we’re feeling particularly famished.

The Big Breakfast is awesome if all we’re doing is hanging around the house for the day, but it’s not the best selection if there are items on the ‘To Do’ list needing attention. Trying to get kids to eat, eat, eat, and out the door will not go quickly when syrup is involved. It’s sticky, messy and when the sugar hits their little systems – all bets are off.

I cut a deal with my 5-year old Saturday morning that if we could get her clothes and shoes on fast, and out the door to her friend’s birthday party, I would make her something tasty for the ride. This breakfast sandwich worked famously as something satisfying, that is simple to make, fills up a hungry appetite and isn’t messy.

PIONEER BREAKFAST SANDWICH

Ingredients: 2 slices of pepper bacon; 1 extra-large egg; sprinkle of onion powder; sprinkle of garlic powder; sprinkle of chives; sprinkle of black pepper; dash of salt;  1 English muffin; 1 tablespoon of butter; 1 slice Colby-Jack cheese (kick it up a notch with pepper jack).

Cut each bacon slice in half and sauté the four pieces in a frying pan till browned.

Microwave egg poacher.

As the bacon cooks, poach an egg. I use a microwave safe single poacher. Spray the inside with non-stick cooking spray (vegetable oil or butter in the bottom will work fine).

Crack egg directly into poacher. Sprinkle raw egg with onion powder, garlic powder, chives, black pepper and salt. Microwave egg one minute at 60 percent of power level. If you are going mobile with this, it’s best to be sure the yoke is fully cooked, otherwise adjust the microwave cook time down to 50 seconds.

Slice the English muffin in half and toast till light brown. When done, brush both halves with butter. Place half slice of cheese on bottom half of English muffin. Add two pieces of pepper bacon to cheese and top with poached egg.

Add the remaining two pieces of pepper bacon to top of egg. Put the last half of Colby-Jack cheese over the pepper bacon, placing the top half of the English muffin over the entire sandwich. It’s not a bad thing to then microwave the sandwich for 20 seconds on high, just to warm it up and melt the cheese slightly.

Wrap the Pioneer Breakfast Sandwich in a paper towel and you have plenty of fuel for the adventure ahead.

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