By MONTE BELMONTE
For the Advocate
The 50 year anniversary edition of the Valley Advocate? Wow. I’m honored to be in it! My first recollection of picking up the Advocate was back in 2002, when this future wine columnist was only three years into his (legal) drinking age, and I was looking to move here to the Valley.
I walked into Bart’s Ice Cream in Amherst, when there was still a shop on North Pleasant Street, and the free paper beckoned to me. I was broke, just out of college with an essentially useless degree, and eager to find a job. This was the era when the Advocate not only had “help wanted” ads for job seekers, but for thrill seekers as well. I spent a great deal of time slowly sifting through the personal ads in the way back of the paper. Scintillating. Emphasis on the sin. But, given that I was about to be married, I left the fantasies at just that, while hoping to make one of the posted jobs a reality.
As someone who was trying to find employment within the lucrative world of local entertainment, I was pleasantly shocked at how many concerts were featured in the concert listings. The Iron Horse, Pearl Street, The Calvin — all packed to the gills with great shows. I hoped to find a gig in the music scene quickly, because I wasn’t going to be able to afford to go to any of the shows that were listed unless I got guest listed.
Fast forward a few months and I did find a job in the local music scene, albeit not from the Advocate’s “help wanted.” I got a job as a glorified intern at WRSI/93.9 The River, across the river, in Northampton! Fast forward even further and I am now hosting a morning show that the now uber-famous former Advocate cover star, Rachel Maddow, used to host. I convinced my bosses, the listeners, and the wine buyer at State Street to do a weekly wine tasting on the radio with me. I actually started to learn a thing or two about wine!
Six years ago, I invited an excellent journalist for the Valley Advocate, Amanda Drane, to drink wine with us for a radio segment at the bring-your-own restaurant on Main Street in Northampton, Filo’s. Perhaps with a modicum of liquid courage, I began to gently trash the syndicated wine column the Advocate has been running for years but which seemed woefully out of step with their mission of being a local weekly. I assert myself and declare to Amanda, “I should write the wine column for this paper!” Two weeks later, I’m meeting the then editor and have been lucky enough to write about wine, and other sundry, for the somewhat diminished but somehow resilient Valley Advocate ever since.
Even though my relationship with the Advocate spans more than 20 of its 50 years of history, I thought it would be fun to hear from some folks whose history with the paper goes back even further. Like my friend David Sokol, who started freelancing for the Advocate just a few years after the paper was founded in the mid-70s. I asked him to share some of his favorite Advocate memories.
Sokol: Looking back on my 18 years working for the Advocate … as production manager and music editor, I have mixed emotions. And lots of memories, mostly good. The best ones involve the many lifelong friends — including Janis, my wife of 40 years — that I made during those years spanning the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.
I got to review shows and interview countless musical artists, local and regional, during those years, in venues big and small. Lots of big names, including Don McLean in 1976 at the Tobacco Shed in Whately, just a few years after “American Pie” and already a has-been; and Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark in a cozy Holyoke Community College setting in March 1978. My final Advocate cover story, in October 1993, was on the great Aimee Mann, in the midst of record company issues at the time.
But my most-recent good Advocate memory is from May 21, 1993, when I was asked to sing with the Rock Bottom Remainders as part of their Critics Chorus at a benefit concert at Northampton’s then-pristine Pearl Street. The concept was that this band of touring literary stars would rock out with local music critics (me and a couple other guys) so we wouldn’t write negatively of this writerly garage band. So there I am on stage with an assemblage including Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Barry, and Amy Tan (as I recall, I entered the stage crawling through her legs to sing on “These Boots Are Made For Walkin”), musical director Al Kooper, and fellow critics Joel Selvin and Dave Marsh. It was glorious (and I was even given a t-shirt as part of my swag for the evening).
I will toast that night forever … with either a nice glass of Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon or some Bulleit Bourbon on the rocks.
I also asked David to share something about booze to justify this ostensibly being a wine column. David pointed me in the direction of another David who also has a long and storied history with the paper: David Simons, who was the arts & entertainment editor of the paper from 1987 to 1992 and again for 1994 to 1995.
Simons: The Advocate was my first real job in journalism, with an initial salary that should have pushed me into some other line of work. Instead, it afforded me the opportunity to cover all kinds of performing arts, including live shows and new music — and with comps for everything. When Dave Sokol assigned me a Frank Sinatra retrospective to mark the singer’s 75th birthday back in ’91, the subsequent cover story was good enough to net a pair of tickets — front-row seats, no less — when the Chairman (Sinatra) visited the Worcester Centrum later that week. At the time I didn’t know whether to be angry or honored when a roving Sinatra, with wireless mic , paused just a few feet away and sang the first half of “Angel Eyes” while looking directly at my wife. But it’s a night I’ll never forget, and I have the Advocate to thank for that.
Both Davids submitted then and now pictures of themselves. David Simons says that his “then” shot is a story unto itself. “When the Advocate debuted its ‘Person to Personals’ ad campaign in ’91, I was asked to be the back-cover model … a decision I would quickly regret, though it’s kinda funny now. Ironically the (Sinatra) story I mention … was in this same issue.”
David Simons is drinking a Paul Jaboulet Cotes du Rhone ’89 in the snifter in that handsome personal ad photo. I thought I should mention that. This is a wine column, after all.