Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: Michael Koppy's local whirlwind.
Florida -- South Florida in particular -- isn't exactly emblematic of the South as a whole, and yet it seems somewhat appropriate that a musician who is from the heart of old Dixie and whose latest opus offers a narrative about the political and social transformation of those environs should embark on a tour of our fair state.
The musician - Michael Koppy, and the album, Ashmore's Store (which, by the way, comes complete with an accompanying mini book that uses the analogy of the namesake business as an analogy for that cultural shift), will be center stage at no less than half a dozen appearances between Key West and points north beginning last night. And while most comprise your standard venues (read: watering holes of various descriptions), at least one will be of the highbrow variety, specifically, a reading at the Florida State Historical Society's Annual Conference in Fort Lauderdale on May 23.
"Ya gotta love that," Koppy says. "How many guitar guys play some noisy-nobody-listens-or-gives-a-fuck toilet dive bar one night and formally addresses a conclave of 200 plus university professors and authors the next? Ha! Love it..."
By his own admission, Koppy is a no-nonsense, outspoken, highly opinionated troubadour. "I love the South with all my heart, but I wouldn't live there again if you paid me," he declares. "By that, I mean after so many years in San Francisco, L.A. and now Honolulu, which are all far from actual bastions of 'perfected enlightenment', I just don't have the patience for the virulent racism, anti-unionism, and swaggering general right-wing stupidity that is pandemic throughout the country, but particularly in the South. And I'm in awe and deference to those there who face it and fight for what's right on a daily basis. I'm their inferior."
Then again, Koppy claims to speak from an insider's perspective. Raised in the deep South, expelled from high school, by his own estimate, he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains across North America, from ocean to ocean, nine times. His was an existence seemingly plucked from a chapter in Woody Guthrie's biography; among other things, he worked as a carpenter, carnival roustabout, elevator operator, union organizer, Broadway stagehand, bike messenger, strip-show spotlight operator, newspaper editor, producer and director.
Ironically, his musical ambitions were suspended when he shifted his career and became a concert promoter and film producer in San Francisco. In fact, he purposely refrained from picking up a guitar on the advice of renowned music entrepreneur Bill Graham. "'You do too many things!,'" Koppy recalls of Graham's admonishment. "He said, 'You can't do that. People in this business don't like it if you do a lot of things well -- most of 'em can't even do the one job they have!' So the guitar was put out of sight -- even close friends didn't know I owned one, much less played and wrote the occasional song."
It was a chance encounter with an open-mic night -- and a barmaid's bemused persistence -- that got him back on the other side of the lights. He offered a humble rendition of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." While the choice of song may have seemed inconsequential at the time, his own material -- particularly that which forms the essence of Ashmore's Store -- is anything but. "The questions I always ask of a song -- mine or someone else's -- is 'Why does it exist?" Koppy comments. "What's the reason for it?' -- meaning, I demand that a song doesn't waste my time or insult people's intelligence with either rambling pseudo-poetic blather or simplistic and puerile inanities. We only have so much time; show some danged insight -- and say something substantive and coherent!"
To that end, Koppy assembled an impressive musical cast to help him spread his message, among them, John McEuen (The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Norman Hamlet (Merle Haggard & The Strangers), Woody Paul (Riders in the Sky), Richard Greene (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys), Roy Blumenfeld (the Blues Project), J.P. Fitting (Doctor Hook), and Nicole Emery (Bob Dylan, Rickie Lee Jones). Koppy himself conveys the material with a husky baritone that occasionally brings to mind Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard at their most curmudgeonly.
However, it's Dylan seems to most influence the rambling wordplay of the album's epic centerpiece "All in the Timing," which clocks in at nearly half an hour. Koppy calls it his "piece de resistance." "Whether one actually likes it, hates it and thinks it's pretentious, groovy, boring, the cat's pajamas or what, it's fuckin' daunting," he insists. "Critics have told me that it's best to listen to it while driving across town. Turn off the cell phone and cruise."
Or, go catch him at one of the upcoming gigs. No matter where you live in South Florida, there will be ample opportunity to catch him in concert. And, at the same time, allow yourself to enjoy Koppy's disarming wit. "I'm as opinionated -- one hopes intelligently opinionated -- as you're likely to encounter," the former Floridian claims. (He lived for a time in Tallahassee.) Besides, you have to admire his tenacity in spreading the word.
So what can folks expect? Naturally, we'll give Mr. Koppy the last word.
"Realizing it may sound pretentious, when I'm asked 'who is your audience?' I nutshell it by replying, 'My audience reads The New Yorker, watches PBS and goes to the theater.' But hell, there's lotsa clueless rednecks just like myself as well... I'm promoting Ashmore's Store and also my devastatingly good looks. I hope folks like the album."
Michael Koppy's Florida tour begins May 2. Here's where he'll appear in our area:
Friday, May 2, 8 p.m. at Stingers, 1201 S Ocean Blvd, Pompano Beach. Tickets cost $5. Call 954-782-2344, or visit browardfolkclub.com.
Saturday, May 3, 8 p.m. at Luna Star, 775 NE 125th Street, North Miami. Tickets cost $5. Call 305-799-7123, or visit lunastarcafe.com .
Sunday, May 4, 2 p.m. at Mandel Central Library, 411 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach. Reading and signing with music performance. Admission is free. Call 561-868-7700 or 561-906-5399, or visit wpb.org/mycitylibrary or libertybookstore.com.
Sunday, May 4, 5 p.m. at South Shores Tavern, 502 Lucerne Ave, Lake Worth. Admission is free. Call 561-547-7656, or visit southshorestavern.com.
Friday, May 23,11:30 a.m. -- 2014 Annual Conference of the Florida State Historical Society. Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Hotel, 2301 SE 17 St., Fort Lauderdale. In-session presentation and reading with music performance. Admission is free. Call 954-525-6666, or visit myfloridahistory.org/frontiers.
Saturday, May 31, 7:30 p.m. at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables. Reading and signing with music performance. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408, or visit booksandbooks.com/coralgables.