Datsun

I’ve had some cool and weird rides. This one carried me from Virginia to NH and then once when I was traveling to a gig stage-managing a classical musical festival, the electric system went haywire–the radio freaked out, the windshield wipers started going, all the dials did a cartoony sproingy dance. I pulled off at the next exit but knew that if I let it stop, I’d never get to where I was going. By the time I got there I was going fifteen miles an hour, backfiring every ten seconds or so. I got it home somehow after that festival, but it never really ran again. 

  

  

#Blazing into the #newyear…wait… do I really have to blaze?

I’ve been slow to update my site recently. I posted nearly 160 blog entries last year–a number that surprised me. In December of 2011, however, I didn’t post much. Here’s what’s been on my mind.

My father-in-law. He’s been with us for over two years. He’s now started in-home hospice. Dying is an absorbing event. I’m grateful to have the chance to go through it now, as an adult. I doubt it will be the last time.  Although I’m not the primary care-giver, and our lives are full around Jack’s hospice life, there is a very definite pull of energy toward the back part of house where his room is. Three years ago, we renovated the final section of our house for just this purpose. It hasn’t been easy, but what about life is easy? And why should it be? Of all the two-bit planets in this two-bit galaxy, ours happens to support conscious life. The chances of that are staggeringly small. It’s a miraculous thing to ponder, but there’s no reason to believe the miraculous should be easy.

Also, on the total other side of the spectrum, my cassette adapter for my van stopped working and now I have to listen to the radio. My friends say, “Try NPR”–and that’s all well and good–but I don’t like talking on the radio. When I’m in the car, I like music. Now, down from the thousands of choices available to me on my iPod, I’m stuck with classic rock stations (unless Grace is in the car–and then it’s KISS 95’s All Hits All The Time). Not really having listened to rock radio in nearly 20 years, I was surprised to find that the songs are exactly the same. Seriously people–how many more times do you need to hear “Light My Fire” or “Break on Through” by the Doors? Me? I never, ever need to hear those songs again. And yet I’ve heard them both three times each in the last week. Give me “Peace Frog” once every ten years or so and I’m good with the Doors. Are the boomers so stuck in those old songs that they can’t bear to not hear the Doors everyday? And don’t get me started about Zeppelin. I’m in the car about twenty, thirty minutes a day tops and I’ve heard: “Stairway to Heaven” (two times), “Black Dog” (three times), “Misty Mountain Hop” (a great tune, admittedly, one time), “Fool in the Rain” (three times) and “Achilles Last Stand” (one time). Seriously? Is there some blood deficiency that requires Page/Plant infusions thrice daily? Even Robert Plant must hate how much he’s on the radio. People need to get out and find new music. Or maybe I should just bust the radio. It’s hopeless.

Also, it’s on in NH, I suppose. By “on,” I mean lots of republican volunteers calling looking for my vote. It’s ghastly. Newt the philanderer called today (his proxy, at least) and wanted to know if I could count on his vote. Not unless his name is Obama. Mitt called too. Mitt has shiny teeth and oily hair. I don’t care about his religion. His insistence that our country is the greatest in history galls me. He wants to shovel money into the military and also cut taxes. He talks about being married to his wife like it’s been a prison sentence. At least he hasn’t screwed around on his wife because he loves his country so much (Newt). I’m sure Santorum will be calling tomorrow trying to gauge my fear of gay people (the scary, scary gay agenda). Ron Paul called too. To all them, I just say no.

So, that’s the beginning of this year’s blogging for me. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather for the last couple of days and today, as I was starting to feel like myself again, I had the spark of an epiphany. Each winter break (teaching at the University of New Hampshire, I get an unbelievable break)  I go into my time off thinking of all the things I have to “do.” I always have a list of things I need to get done. I’ve been a list maker all my life. I never, ever, ever get the list finished. It’s a pointless endeavor. I’m going to try an experiment for the next three weeks: I’m not to try to get anything done at all. Just going to see what happens when I stop trying to make anything happen. I’m going to attempt to live my life fully, but I’m not going to make lists, I’m not going to try to accomplish anything per se. Just going to live and breath. And do lots of hot yoga.

A Little Torme…

Once, years ago, when I was the director of production at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH, Mel Torme came to sing. 

I joked for weeks about the upcoming show. Just another has-been, I said. Another crooner subjected to touring small theaters rather than face the indignity of not singing. A relic from a long lost era singing from an American songbook that no one cared about.

In hindsight, my myopia is surprising. I’ve always been open minded about music. About everything, I would hope, but about music in particular. I had expectations about Mel Torme that had little or no connection to anything tangible. He was just an old singer and I remember hearing about him on the TV show Night Court. Had I ever heard him sing? No. Did I even have a concrete image of the man to make fun of? Not at all. But for weeks I made jokes about the Velvet Frog. I croaked out raspy imitations of the man though I didn’t know anything about him.

On the other hand, we were professional and made the theater sparkle for him. Sold out of tickets. Took the green-room and turned it into a large, sumptuous private dressing room. Did everything we could in preparation for his arrival. It was to be the biggest show of the year, a substantial fundraising event for our perpetually underfunded theater.

And Mr. Torme surprised me. Subverted my expectations, as it were.

He arrived in his limo and it was immediately apparent that he might have been senior, but he was not old. He wore a sleek velour track suit and and walked crisply into the theater. I was there to greet him.

Welcome to our theater, Mr. Torme, I said, we’re so happy to have you here.

Thank you, Mel Torme said. Who do I see about getting paid?

Consumate professional. No funny business. Sharp as a tack. When Mel Torme spoke, people moved. I got him his check.

About a half hour later, he came out for soundcheck. I’d already undergone a shift in regards to my thinking about Mel Torme, but I became a fan during the soundcheck. He came out and picked up the microphone from the stool near the downstage lip and started singing. There was no hesitation, no reticence to sing, no tapping of the microphone to see if it was live, no test-one-two. Nothing but song. Here was a man used to having things work. He supplied the energy and the voice and expected the people around him to supply the nuts-and-bolts. He sang a song or two and said thanks to his band and to the sound crew and then went back to his dressing room. No muss, no fuss. He’d been paid and he was ready to sing.

The show confounded all of our expectations.

No one expected the rabid fans. I’d been to and worked a great deal of shows and seen just about every type of crowd imaginable, from the sedate to the out of control. Torme fans tipped toward the out of control. Here were people mostly my parents’ and grandparents’ age, but if you closed your eyes and listened to the roar of adulation and applause after each song, you’d of thought the crowd to be made up of teens swooning for the Beatles. Even Mel Torme was taken aback, visibly shocked and nearly overwhelmed by his reception.

And what in the world made me think that he was some sort of hack? Contempt prior to investigation, most likely. He’s just an old guy singing old guy songs, right?

Wrong.

It was a long time ago, and I don’t remember the set list, but he sang jazz standards. More accurately, he sang the hell out of his setlist. Seven years I helped produce shows at this theater. When people ask me who my favorite shows were, this one is at the top of the list.

The crowd was so hungry for Torme that he did not one, not two, but three encores. When he came off the stage after the second encore and the crowd was showing no signs of quieting, he turned to my stage manager and said, “Jesus, what a crowd.”

After the show, he was warm and cordial and genuinely surprised by his day. Maybe we subverted his expectations as well. A crowd of about twenty people waited outside the stage door. He didn’t rush through that crowd either. He shook hands and talked to everyone. As he was getting ready to climb into the limo, a woman, still high from the concert experience, still full of song, started singing to Mr. Torme. At any other time, I might’ve thought it a bit embarrassing–for him and her. But here was a man that had upended my thinking throughout the day and was about to do it one last time. The woman’s voice was clear, tuneful, but not especially lovely. And Mr. Torme just listened. He let her sing. There was no one else in the alley at this point, just the singer and Mr. Torme, poised by the limo door. He let her sing until she stopped, never rushing her or looking at his watch or rolling his eyes. And then he took her hand and said, “That was beautiful, darling, just beautiful.”

Here’s a video of the man singing Stardust:

Allen Ginsberg and Me

A few days ago, I read the illustrated version of “Howl,” the classic American poem and cornerstone of all things Beat. Although I liked the way the illustrations slowed the poem down and made me read each line more slowly than I do when I see it all tumbling out in its traditional fashion–what struck me most while reading the work was that I have my own Allen Ginsberg story and I’ve never written it down. I thought perhaps I should rectify that situation.

It’s not the happy story that I would like to relate–I met Allen Ginsberg and he changed my life!–but rather a tale, on my part, of lost opportunity and fear.

When I was attending the University of Charleston, West Virginia, Allen Ginsberg came to stay for a few days as a visiting poet. At that point, sometime in 1986, I’d never heard of him. Although I was on my way to being rather well read, I’ve always been a slow starter and was ignorant of many, many great books and poems that I’d soon recognize as classics. One of my professors brought to class a tape of Jack Kerouac reading and said that another very famous “beat” poet was coming to our school as a guest. She said that those interested would be able to meet with Mr. Ginsberg to discuss writing. I fancied myself a poet at the time, and a rather fine poet at that (no snickering from the peanut gallery…please allow me the fantasies that sustained me as a yoot) and I was eager to meet a famous poet, although I had no idea what that meant at the time.

My writing? Awful, I suspect. Ramblings of a twenty year old who’d spent too much time writing in a spiral notebook without really reading much poetry. My poets were songwriters–good songwriters (or groups) like Lou Reed, John Prine, Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Police, The Call, etc.–but songwriters nonetheless, not poets. I hadn’t yet figured out that I wasn’t a poet, but a fictioneer. I was probably fifteen years from writing a decent story, but I really liked words. I loved to read and loved to fantasize about the life I’d lead as a rich and famous poet (my delusions knew no bounds). At UC, for one class, I read: Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Augie March, and Middlemarch. Well, I sort of read Middlemarch. I didn’t fall in love with that book for a few more years. The teacher that introduced me to those great novels and brought in the scratchy recording of Kerouac also issued a warning about Ginsberg.

In my memory, she spoke directly to me, but perhaps she warned the whole class. I think I might have been the only student who was openly professing the fact that I was a writer. In any event, she told me she was glad I wanted to meet Ginsberg, but that I should be careful of him. And under no circumstances should I let him keep my work if he asked to see it. She gave no reason for this warning and I was too young to contemplate questioning the dire cautionary admonition.

So, I went to see Allen Ginsberg. I wish I could remember it better. He was staying in a nice little house on campus with two young men whom he called assistants (they also played squeeze box and guitar during his reading) and they were all very nice to me. I was nervous meeting him–I would’ve been nervous without the warning, but the warning set me on edge. I wanted him to like me and I wanted him to like my poems. I had a sheaf of wrinkled papers in my hand. He read them while I was there and we talked about other poets I liked (the only one I could think of was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lord only know how I knew him, who was Ginsberg’s publisher, but whom Ginsberg called a little derivative). And then he did exactly what my teacher told me he would do–he asked to keep some of my poems to look at and comment on.

It’s hard to believe that I said no, but I did.

Typing the words is heartbreaking to me now. He looked sort of shocked, too, by my refusal, but perhaps everyone was saying no. I imagine it must have been a little baffling for him.

What I write next is even harder to write: I had it in my head that my teacher warned me away from Ginsberg because she thought he might steal my ideas. That really hurts, my youthful stupidity.

It hurts that I couldn’t see beyond it, beyond the stupid warning. It hurts to know that I might’ve had some poems (bad poems, certainly) with marginal comments by Allen Ginsberg if only I hadn’t been so afraid of…something…or if I hadn’t been guided toward that fear.

It hurts to admit that I thought Allen Ginsberg wanted my poems because he wanted my words, not because they were paying him to come and be a mentor and offer a few encouraging and perhaps constructively critical comments on my raw efforts. But that’s the truth. That’s what happened.

Later, I went to see this lovely man at his reading. This was Charleston West Virginia, not the most wild place in the world. And there was Ginsberg–he was about a decade from his death–but wild as ever, playing songs and reading poems and getting this uptight crowd (I considered myself so very not uptight, but man, I was) to chant “Legalize it” and playing the squeeze-box with wild abandon, hair loose and flying about, his young boy/men infusing the whole place with energy and a youthful sensualism–it was, to be cliche and perhaps a bit starstruck, great. It stands, even in the foggy haze of my memory, as one of the greatest readings I’ve ever been to.

In hindsight, I know my teacher wasn’t afraid that Ginsberg would steal my poems. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact of his homosexuality prompted the warning. She was an older teacher and very formal, very much a part of the establishment. Ginsberg was the antithesis of nearly everything she represented. I think she feared for my integrity. Or my soul. Maybe she thought I’d catch his gayness. Or that he’d corrupt me, invite or coerce me into his den of sins. I know she didn’t mean to rob me of something, that she issued the warning out of good intentions. Still, I’m left wondering what he might have said about my work. Maybe he would have said, “Jeez, kid, you stink. Better pack it in.” That would’ve broken me. I don’t know if I could have kept writing. Maybe my teacher recognized that I couldn’t yet handle direct negative criticism.

Or maybe he would have said, “Kid, it’s going to be harder than you know to become the writer you imagine yourself to be.” That’s the advice I now give to my students. I try to encourage, too. In fact, I think my whole teaching philosophy is based on encouragement, but I also let young writers know that the road is freakin’ hard. For me it has been anyway.

One of the hardest things to admit is that lost opportunities happen. These days, I try to let fewer opportunities pass me by. I’m twenty-four years older than I was when I refused to let Allen Ginsberg comment on my poems.

I can safely say that if another famous (or infamous) poet comes my way and wants to read and comment on my work, I’m going to say yes.

A John Prine Story

A few days ago, I published a post about Tom Waits, a story that my friend Bob told me and that had transmogrified in my head/memory/imagination to be something other than what it once was. I was thinking about it, and it struck me that I actually worked with some very cool people back in my theater days. Not famous like Bono or Danny Bonaduce, but famous enough, famous for me anyway. And then it struck me that I’ve never really written those stories down. When I was the Director of Facility and Production at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH,  it was pre-fancy cell phones and digital cameras and tweeting and blogging, so most of those stories have only been told a few times, mostly to close friends and family in one-on-one situations. Time to log some of these memories onto the intertubes.

When I was twelve years old, my friend Bob (who also told me the Tom Waits story, and who appears in many of my stories) told me about this musician that he listened to–John Prine. At Waxie Maxie’s record store, I bought Prime Prine, my first greatest hits collection. I couldn’t have predicted it, but that album had twelve songs that would become a permanent part of my musical consciousness. “Sweet Revenge,” “Grandpa was a Carpenter,” “Dear Abby,” and all the others. Bob and I used to drive around and sing those songs at the top of our lungs. I owe Bob pretty big time for turning me on to some of my most favorite musicians, but none more than Prine. His songs had that ability to yank open your heart and remain goofy at the same time. For instance, take this verse from “Grandpa was a Carpenter,”:

“Grandma was a teacher/Went to school in Bowling Green/Traded in her milking cow/For a Singer Sewing Machine/Called her husband Mister/Walked real tall with pride/Used to buy me comic books/After grandpa died.”

I can’t listen to that verse without feeling a swell of sadness for that dead grandfather, for all dead grandfathers and what we remember of them. Still, it’s a pretty goofy song. Lovely, goofy, sweet, and full of sorrow. That’s Prine. He mixes those things better than anyone.

When my daughter was born, I sang Prine songs to her nearly every day. They were her lullabies. I’m a terrible singer, but I can do a little justice to a Prine song. I don’t know if she’ll remember those songs, or ever appreciate them the way I do, but she heard them all about a thousand times–“Fish and Whistle,” “Please Don’t Bury Me,” “Chain of Sorrow” and dozens of others–as I paced around with her in my arms trying to get her calm down in those panicky first few months when a crying baby seemed so frightening. If she ever listens to Prine, she’ll have come by it honestly.

But this is about meeting Prine. Or it was supposed to be. Because he came to my theater in the last few months of my tenure there. I was on my way to leaving theater to become a rich and famous writer, and an outside promoter brought Prine to our stage. I’d worked with amazing musicians before–and I’m sure I’ll write about them too–but I was never much of an autograph seeker. It just wasn’t anything I felt much interest in, but I knew that I’d have to get Prine’s.

The day of the show, Prine’s stage manager and crew arrived mid-day and we spent a few hours setting up. It was pretty simple stageplot, so we had a lot of time to talk. The manager was impressed with the lengths we went to to fulfill Prine’s rider (bottle of Stoly, carton of Marlboros, two complete dinners–one for before, one for after the show, consisting of absolutely nothing but steak and potatoes, a case of Orange Crush soda, among other things) and get the theater ready for his performance. At about four, the manager dangled a set of keys and said, “Someone needs to go pick up Mr. Prine.” No one else had any time to react. I snatched those keys and was gone. Normally, as director of production, I rarely left. Responsibility for the entire show was mine, and I always liked to double and triple check things. But this was the proverbial exception. How could I not want to drive John Prine from his hotel to our theater? The manager gave me Prine’s traveling name (which I swore to never reveal), the name I had to use at the front desk, and entrusted me to the mission.

Prine was staying at the Holiday Inn and I walked to the desk and said, “I’m here to pick up Mr.________.” A few minutes later, he came shambling though the lobby, looking like he just woke up (which of course, he had). I said, “Mr. _______, I’m your driver.” And off we went. Me and John Prine. He carried a bottle of Orange Crush and he didn’t say much. Once we were in the car, I told him that I’d been a fan of his for years and he thanked me, and then we settled into a friendly silence. It was only a five minute ride, and I wish I could have had a real conversation with him, but I thought “I’m just another driver he’ll never remember, another in a long line of people that took him to and from shows.” After a few moments, he began whistling. In hindsight, I realize that it was a sweet and sublime moment, me driving a car carrying a whistling John Prine. At the time, I was just nervous. Then we pulled up to the stage doors and he got out, went inside, did his sound check, and disappeared into his dressing room.

It was the sort of show that you always hope to see. He played everything you could’ve wanted Prine to play and even some songs I’d never heard before–“Space Monkey” in particular, which he wrote in his kitchen with the songwriter Peter Case. I’d started my career in the theater by doing lighting and I discovered a knack for lighting musical acts. But I’d long since moved on from running lights during a show. For this show, however, I jumped back behind the light-board and tried to give Prine and his band that special glimmer and shine that they deserved. I hate flashy rock and roll lighting, and my design for the evening was dramatic (for the heartbreaking songs) and bright (for the rest). I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun at work.

After the show, Prine allowed access to pretty much anyone who wanted to come backstage. There were at least fifty, sixty people outside the greenroom waiting for a chance to talk with him. When the crowd finally thinned, I was able to  sneak my CD’s into the mix. Like I said, I never would’ve thought Prine would remember me five seconds after getting out of the van, but I set down Sweet Revenge for him to sign and he wrote:

“For Clark, Thanks for the ride.” And for this longtime fan, it couldn’t have been sweeter.