28.3.15

THE GREAT ASHLEY


On February 15 I posted on Just Backdated this photograph of myself with Elton John and my old friend Ashley Pandel. I didn’t know it at the time and, indeed, didn’t know it until yesterday that Ashley passed away on December 10 last. It is no exaggeration to say that during the period I lived in New York, from the end of 1973 to the end of 1978, give or take a few months back in the UK along the way, Ashley was my best American friend. Here’s my tribute to him.

When I was in the thick of it in the seventies the music industry attracted the good, the bad and the ugly, as well as the handsome and the beautiful, the spivs and the duckers and divers and the special people, the free thinkers and the free loaders, the skilled and the incompetent, and the brilliant people who shone like the sun and had nowhere else to go. Then there were the nerds like me who simply adored the music and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, and there were those with charm in abundance who could use it to further careers and advance themselves at the same time. And then there were the girls and boys who simply wanted to see the bright lights, to have a great time, to stay up late and taste everything that the unholy world could offer, legal and otherwise, who were high on life and anything else they could find, the seekers of pleasure, of sex and drugs and rock & roll, and all these people had a twinkle in their eye and a warm glow in their hearts, and my great friend Ashley Pandel had all of this and much more besides.
It is appropriate then that we should first meet at the Speakeasy Club in London when Alice Cooper was visiting the UK in 1972. Ashley was wearing a red velvet jacket with a yellow cord trim and his hair was way long, down past his shoulders, and in the dark of the club he looked just fine and dandy to me, so we got talking. He was, he said, working for Alice Cooper, for Alive Enterprises, the company headed by Shep Gordon that managed the Coop, and he was already a friend of Roy Hollingworth, my Melody Maker colleague who was our first New York correspondent, a role I would assume myself in 1973, and it was this happenstance that sucked Ashley and I into the same wondrous whirlpool of wine, women and song.
When I arrived in New York in December of that year after a few months in LA, Ashley was the first person I called. He’d left Alice’s employ by this time and established a PR company called The Image Group with Alice, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, the New York Dolls and a few more I can’t remember as clients. IG had offices in Midtown on the East side and employed, amongst others, Roy H as copywriter, his girlfriend Iris Brown, and our friend Mandi Newall, formerly Derek Taylor’s PA at Warner Bros, and I soon found myself hanging around their offices, and sloping off to a nearby bar with the staff when the day ended. Ashley fixed up for me to do a story on Alice (see elsewhere on JB) and interview Lou, and he was angling to get John Lennon on his books too but I don’t think that ever happened, Harry Nilsson too.
Ashley lived with his spectacularly beautiful girlfriend Nancy Bianchi in a fancy apartment in a block on East 59th Street, just east of First Avenue, close to the East River and the big singles bars like Maxwell’s Plum and TGI Fridays, but we liked to go drinking at a bar called Waltzing Matilda’s further up Second Avenue, which had a dartboard and a friendly manager. Ash, Nancy, Roy and Iris and her friend Kathy, Mandi and stray rock writers like me and our girlfriends would drink the night away there, often after dinner at an Italian restaurant called Oggi that was across the Avenue. Ash and I loved clams casino, and a chicken dish cooked with ham and cheese, washed down with white wine.  
Ash christened me Chuck and told me about his past, how he’d studied catering at college and once managed a hotel in a resort town on the shores of Lake Michigan. He’d come up with the idea of only ever accepting bookings from single women, so the place soon got a reputation amongst blokes as a great place for finding them. “Bar was packed every night,” he laughed. “Guys came from miles around knowing they’d find it full of girls. Takings tripled.”
It was this background that inspired Ash to quit the PR business and open his own bar and restaurant on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, with two partners, his brother Carl and a catering professional called Ed Martin. I remember the opening night like it was yesterday. Ashleys was packed to the gills with music business types and I wrote about it in my New York news column. The next morning I woke up in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side that belonged to one of the waitresses, name of Gail, who had six kittens and a wardrobe full of antique floral print dresses, and she became my girlfriend for a while.


So Ashleys became my home from home, a place like the bar in Cheers where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. Mine host – Ashley was the front man, and brilliant at it too, a natural mixer – went from table to table, greeting and telling jokes, laughing and smiling, topping up drinks, putting quarters in the juke box, making absolutely sure everyone was having a great time, night after night, week after week for three years. He was always smartly dressed too, usually in three piece suits and a silk tie, and he had a way of ensuring that the rock stars who visited were never bothered by fans. Upstairs there was a dance floor and a DJ and it was supposed to be members only but I don’t think this was strictly adhered to, and there was an office where favoured guests could talk in private, hoover up coke on the mirrors provided and, with the door firmly locked, do what comes naturally to the birds and the bees.


Ashleys was party central, and a list of those who visited reads like the inductees at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Elsewhere on JB you’ll find an account of a night there with John Lennon that ended up at a waitress’ apartment downtown. They flocked to Ashleys like they flocked to Jay Gatsby’s house, and there was something about Ash that reminded me of Fitzgerald's greatest character as he welcomed Beatles, Stones, Whos, Led Zeps, Pink Floyds, Faces, Elton, Aerosmiths, Dolls, you name them, into his tavern. One of the guys from Kiss often came in, without his make-up of course, and always ducked under a table if a photographer was snapping away. Lou Reed was a regular, along with Johnny Podell, the booking agent whose father Jules had famously run the Copacabana for mobster Frank Costello, and Johnny’s petite girl Monica; the lovely models Lisa Stolley and Babette, wife of Neal Smith, Alice’s drummer; Bleecker Bob who ran the best record shop in the village; a friend of Ash’s called Martin who spoke nine languages and worked at an embassy; a girl called Joy who beat me at chess, again and again, even after we'd reversed the board so she could take my losing position; and a golf pro called Sam Anziano who ran an indoor golf course and took Ash and I golfing to a club with five courses on Long Island. All these and many more came to Ashleys, to drink and have fun, and at the centre of it all, grinning from ear to ear, shining like a diamond, radiating a special kind of magic, was Ashley Pandel, one of the best friends I ever had.


I became a charter member of Ashleys and as a reward for my custom Ashley made me member 001. I signed my bar checks and always paid up when the bills arrived, and Ashley told me no one paid up more promptly than me. So I ate beef Wellington and, sometimes, drank Don Perignon on the house. When in the summer of 1975 I was relieved of my post for a few months I pined for Ashleys and when I returned to NY that September I told the cabbie to take me straight there, straight from JFK to the Long Island Expressway and across the Queensboro Bridge, down Fifth to 13th. I can still remember the thrill of seeing the lights of Manhattan's skyline again that night as we approached the city, and when I walked into the bar and put down my suitcase Ash ran over and hugged me like a long lost child.
Somewhere along the line Ashley acquired a dog, a beagle he named Barnaby, which one heartrending day got lost in the streets by the club, so the staff put up ‘Lost Dog’ notices on all the neighbourhood signs, and a few days later Barnaby turned up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ashley looking happier than he did that day. Or maybe he was happiest the day he married his first wife, Terri Donaldson, Nancy having departed to pastures new. Terri was a fiery Irish girl from a rich Midwestern family, chic as hell, beautiful too, with long black wavy hair, who worked in fashion but the marriage didn’t last, a victim of a lifestyle that wasn't conducive to long term stable relationships.
In the meantime Ashley had opened Ashley’s West, a hotel in Palm Springs. I visited once, on the back of a trip to LA with Bad Company I think, renting a car and driving out into the desert until I came upon this strange settlement where rich types hide away and get up to no good. Ash and I played golf there on some snazzy course, and in the evening I thought I was in with a chance with a South African guest but then we got to talking about apartheid and her views turned my desire stone cold. “Shoulda stuck to rock’n’roll Chuck,” laughed Ash.  



Joints like Ashleys have a finite life and so it was that a combination of too much fun, tax issues and a visit from the mob brought it to a close. It was like a comet, the brightest in the sky, and it burned itself out within three years. Carl opened another bar called Hopper’s – after the painter – and Ashley mooched around with a wad of money he’d made and not much to do. What to do next? By this time I’d left MM, worked briefly at Penthouse for Bob Guccione Jnr, another Ashleys regular, then worked for Peter Rudge at Sir Productions which went tits up after the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. So I was in the same boat.
So Ashley and I decided to manage a rock group, name of Teezer, but it didn’t work out. I think we expected too much too soon, and a fancy showcase we laid on at Studio Instrument Rentals for A&R men didn’t go the way we had hoped. We both lost a bit of money on that and I could see my time in NY was turning bad, so I came back to the UK and never saw Ash again, ever.
Oh, we stayed in touch, the odd phone call, the odd card, the odd e-mail. I followed his adventures as he fled to Florida and managed the catering at a hotel in Ft Lauderdale and, I think, ran the catering for some big sports team down there. I always thought I’d see him again one day for one last drink, one last toke, one last laugh, but it never happened and now it never will. Like me he eventually got married again and raised a family, and a few years ago he sent me a book he’d written about his life. Unfortunately it was unpublishable – chock full of libels that would have given a lawyer a nervous breakdown. I had to explain this to him and he was disappointed, and that was the last conversation we ever had. Then, yesterday, surfing the net I came across his Facebook page and found out that he was no more. I ought to have known earlier because I later discovered that someone had posted a comment to that effect here on Just Backdated, on a post about Alice, but I’d missed seeing it. Thanks whoever did that.
And thanks Ash for all the fun we had back when we were naughty boys. Sorry this is a bite late. RIP my dear old friend. 


(All photographs courtesy Bob Gruen.)

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