Bad enough that epic ballplayers are passing. Now it’s Toots.
Our oldest, Laura, caught him two summers ago in Albany, the gateway to Almost Heaven, Adirondacks.
“Bucket list item for me,” Laura typed Sunday from Upstate, when we heard about the passing of Toots Hibbert, age 77, the lead singer of Toots and the Maytals, classic reggae group, which was around for, oh, forever.
I remember when I became aware of Toots. I was a regular listener on WNEW-FM, since it became the great pioneer rock station in 1967.
For years, Dave Herman had the morning drive-time show that ended at 10 AM. One morning he said he would have, live in the studio, the great Toots Hibbert. And kept telling us, as the final hour ticked away.
Finally, about 9:50 or so, Toots arrived in the studio. Only thing was, his mind and his voice had not yet arrived. Brother Dave tried to engage him on why he was in New York, where he was playing, plug his latest album, etc. etc., but Toots emitted only monosyllables.
About 9:58, Toots started talking…and talking….a deep-throated but lilting monologue, right up to the signoff music the universal signal that the station is about to move on to news weather, the next host.
Ultimately, click, the engineer cut Toots off, mid-sentence.
“I think I like this guy,” I said, and I went out and found his cassette (yes, it was that far back), “Funky Kingston,” with songs like “Pressure Drop” and ”Time Tough,” plus the adaptation of John Denver’s song, “Country Roads,” but in the Maytals’ version it becomes “Almost Heaven, West Jamaica.” I loved it, just as much as I love the ruined mountains of Appalachia, and I loved Toots from afar. Never saw him, but the cassette endured. Laura says she has replaced her copy two or three times.
Toots had a sound – I’ll let the pop music critics explain.
He wasn’t Bob Marley, whom I regard as musical divinity, but Toots’ earthly voice and rhythm told of joy and pain, good times and bad times. And made you want to move.
I never caught him live and never will, but Laura and Diane drove down to the Capitol Region in August of 2018 to catch Toots.
“Toots. Free concert. Diverse Albany crowd. Weather,” Laura messaged on Sunday morning as we commiserated.
The band had driven all the way from California and barely got there on time. The band played Toots in for a good 5-10 minutes before he finally walked on from the back. Then. It was ON. He was older and somewhat stiff but still totally commanding and powerful and totally adept at working the crowd.
I typed, “Got any photos?” and the cellphone quivered and hummed and buzzed.
She added: "One of the great nights out. Ever."
(The following ode to Iowa was written before all hell broke loose in the ramshackle "system" that was supposed to collate the Democratic caucus results Monday night. Even before the network failed to produce while the world was watching, visiting savants like Chris Matthews were questioning -- in front of the earnest citizens -- why Iowa got to hold the highly visible first "primary" scrimmage every four years. With these reasonable questions being raised, Iowa may lose its prominent spot. Shame. There ought to be a place for well-meaning Americana -- but maybe not with an ignorant and vicious wannabe dictator getting a free pass from his party enablers. Poor Iowa, caught up in the tumult. My original praise for Iowa and skepticism about a caucus:)
They are highly motivated, conscientious American citizens.
But what in the world are they doing?
Why don’t they just vote?
Then I remember, Iowa is different, or so they say.
I’ve been there three times and liked all three visits. (More in a bit.)
While trying to make sense of this caucus thing Monday evening, I remembered one of my favorite musicals – “The Music Man,” by Meredith Willson, that’s with two L’s, and don’t you forget it.
A con man (Robert Preston) gets off the train in River City, Iowa (Willson was from Mason City) and tries to chat up the townspeople, only to receive a bunch of double talk, some of it polite.
The result: “Iowa Stubborn.”
That charming character trait emerged Monday in snow-covered Iowa (or “I-oh-way,” as some of the denizens insist.)
“The caucus is like cricket,” I told my wife. (We once saw the great West Indies team play a tuneup in a Welsh country town.)
“Cricket is easier,” she said, meaning – bat, ball, tea.
This caucus thing determines who wins the delegates, who has the momentum, or maybe not.
It’s a portrait of Iowa. The Grant Wood painting, American Gothic.
I am affectionate about Iowa – after first noting that its populace does not at all resemble that of my home town of New York.
My first trip to Iowa was in 1973 when Charlotte Curtis, the great Family/Style editor of the Times (herself a Midwesterner), sent me out to Iowa to write about a boy, 18 or 19, who had just been elected mayor of a little town. (I cannot find the story in the electronic files.) It was such a nice visit, at this cold time of year, as I recall.
My second trip to Iowa was early in 1979 when Iowa was selected as one of the sites for the first American visit by Pope John Paul II, because of the huge farm preserve, judged a perfect site for the man from Cracow. After scouting out Des Moines, I had dinner with a couple who had met when he was posted to her town in the Altiplano of a South American country. We went to a Chinese restaurant, where they chatted with the staff in Spanish – a big Chinese contingent, emigrated via Latin America.
My third trip to Iowa was on a perfect autumn day in 1979 as the square-jawed Pope strode the plains, waving to a bunch of Lutherans. He was young and strong, looking like a former linebacker for the Iowa Hawkeyes. I edged closer to get a look – and got blind-sided by an American Secret Service guy.
When the Pope had moved on, I stood on the great plain and congratulated the nun who had facilitated the press visit. She was so happy that the day had turned out so beautifully that I could think of only one thing to do – I hugged the nun. That’s what I think about whenever I remember that day.
Oh, one other Iowa impression: Our daughter Laura decided to spend her junior year abroad and chose Iowa City. Every few weeks the phone would ring and a plaintive voice would say: "It's dark out here."
Now, every four years, the great journalists from my cable-network-of-choice wander all over that state and I thrill to every coffee klatsch and every barber shop. The journalists can explain “quid-pro-quo” and “impeachment” perfectly, but they cannot explain what those folks are doing on the first Monday in February.
(The aforementioned Laura watched caucus news from Iowa Monday night and texted us: "Nicolle and Rachel far better than Troy and Buck." Poor girl is having Super Bowl flashbacks.)
Maybe Meredith Willson could have explained the caucus, but he was more interested in the busy intersection of chicanery and romance, and bless his heart for that.
Back in the day, when sports columnists were a daily presence, my job description included having an opinion on the national college football championship.
Often, this entailed being in warm places on New Year’s Day, which is the best thing I can say about covering the loopy methods of judging teams with differing schedules playing in different bowl games. Bowl games got me to Pasadena or Miami. What can I say?
Now that I am retired, I pay no attention to any form of football. Instead, I am free to follow another highly imperfect ratings system, closer to my heart and ear – the annual vote for the best classical music, as conducted by the invaluable station emanating from my home town (and live on the Web) WQXR-FM, 105.9 on the dial.
The station has been conducting this poll since the mid-‘80s, asking listeners to rank their favorites. The results are played in the annual countdown in the last week of the year, generally reflecting the programming of the station – the old favorites, often presented one movement at a time.
During the countdown, the station also conducts a running blog (results not updated as quickly as listeners would like) including commentary from the faithful in distant states and foreign lands. Many of respondents are passionate about wanting" More variety! More medieval music! More Reich and Glass! More music by African-American composers! More music by women!
Plus, there is the rampant suspicion that some Gilbert & Sullivan supporters pack the ballot box, just like voters in some towns and states I could name.
And some listeners question whether Gilbert & Sullivan is actually classical music. I pass on that one.
My feeling is, the annual countdown reflects the tastes of people who support WQXR and live classical music in New York. More power to them.
Still: every year I make a small list of music I play at home, and I hope some of it will slip into the countdown. As my friend Vic Ziegel, who introduced me to the strange charm of the racetrack, used to say about the track announcer: “At least give my horse a call.”
In the past few couple of years, I have been trending toward chamber music at home because it is self-contained, providing a welcome alternative to the toxic earworms on the air waves.
--In an ugly time, I have become infatuated with Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” for its beauty and pace and dignity.
--I often choose “Butterworth/Parry/Bridge,” its three composers taking me back me to lazy summer days, visiting a friend in the Brecon Beacons of Wales.
-- I was rooting hard for something by Florence Price, the composer whose work is often championed by the wonderful Terrance McKnight on his evening gig, not just in Black History Month, either.
--Because we are blessed to have two good friends comprising half of the New Zealand String Quartet, we have their works by Bartok, among others.
-- But the work I was really hoping for was Sir William Walton’s Violin Concerto, performed by Kyung-Wha Chung. I still remember the first time I heard it: I was a news reporter in the late ‘70s, driving to meet some nuns in jeans and sweatshirts who did the Lord’s work in the South Bronx. But when this stunning piece appeared on my car radio, I sat and listened for the full half hour.
Alas, this beautiful piece is not easily found on vinyl or CD – and is not in the WQXR top 120, either. Not even, in racetrack parlance, a call.
The 2019 list does include many things I love, including a few pieces by Erik Satie, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and – No. 4 in the poll -- Dvorak’s “From the New World.” The older I get, the more I appreciate Dvorak, for his music and also for his love for two worlds, Bohemia and America.
I missed it live, but there on the list at No. 68 was a very modern already-classic, "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace," by Karl Jenkins, first performed in 2000, which I heard for the first time in the past year.
However, the piece that really knocked me out was No. 109, Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat, Symphony of a Thousand,” by the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, with wonderful soloists and choruses. It made me stop what I was doing and just listen.
At the end, Beethoven placed six in the top 10. I have no quarrel with the selections because the voters care about “their” music. It’s up to us to seek out the music we love, and play it, and pay for it, early and often.
Happy New Year.
* * *
The current results:
Plus, check out the blog with informed and passionate comments by listeners: .
And for comparison, the two most recent results.
The first of December was covered with snow
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
The Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go
---James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James”
Snowing again, this first of December.
This typist has little to say on this left-over Sunday. Over the holiday, I’ve been reading “Poems of New York,” selected by Elizabeth Schmidt, while my wife is reading “Underland,” by a philosopher-explorer, Robert MacFarland.
Thank goodness for writers.
Pete Hamill is writing a book from his home borough of Brooklyn. Pete is among the three great print troubadours of my home town – along with Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin. (Dan Barry would make a quartet, when he is in print.)
Hamill is not well, as documented by Alex Williams in the Sunday Times, but he is going to get his Brooklyn book done, he says.
Also gutting it out is the great film director, Michael Apted, who has just issued his latest documentary – and, he says, his last – in the seven-year cycle about English youths who grew older, the ones who were lucky.
I have a great debt to Michael Apted for putting Loretta Lynn’s story on the screen, after I helped her write her book, and Tom Rickman wrote a magnificent film script. I was afraid Hollywood would turn Loretta’s world into a segment of “Beverly Hillbillies,” but as Rickman told me about Hollywood: “Sometimes the good guys win.”
I got to thank Apted when the movie had its premiere in Nashville and then in Louisville. Invited along for the chartered bus ride up I-65, I asked Apted how he got the feel for Eastern Kentucky and he talked about his roots in England – not just London – and he said, “I am no stranger to the coal mines.”
Good luck with your new movie, sir.
Today belongs to talented people like James Taylor and Pete Hamill and Michael Apted. A friend recently gave me a couple of poetry books, one by Seamus Heaney, the other a collection about my home town.
I include a segment from Nikki Giovanni, about the sudden flashes of humanity you encounter just about anywhere in the city. This is about a blind woman, uptown.
You that Eyetalian poet ain’t you? I know yo voice.
I seen you on television
I peered closely into her eyes
You didn’t see me or you’d know I’m black.
Let me feel yo hair if you Black Hold down yo head
I did and she did
Got something for me, she laughed
You felt my hair that’s good luck
Good luck is money chile she said
Good luck is money.
-- From “The New Yorkers”
I’ll leave it there. Keep writing, Pete Hamill. I’m waiting on your Brooklyn book.
They changed their minds. A week ago, WNYC announced it was terminating its familiar "New Sounds" program with John Schaefer. On Monday, Goli Sheikholeslami, the new president and CEO of New York Public Radio, announced that "New Sounds" and Schaefer and the long-time producer, Caryn Havlik, will be remaining.
In a gracious statement, Sheikholeslami said, "A show like New Sounds can only be produced by public radio, and specifically at NYPR." She recently resigned from her arts job in Chicago to take the leadership of New York Public Radio.
Sheikholeslami's full statement on line can be read here:
The moral to the story is that sometimes new executives need to be reminded just what it is they are leading. Protesting is good, particularly in something as subjective as the arts. Donating (or not donating) also works. I am so happy for John Schaefer -- and for the eclectic audience of WNYC in the city that never sleeps.
Here is my original article last week:
I can’t remember where I was, but I definitely had the radio on, late one evening, listening to John Schaefer’s show, “New Sounds.”
You never know what you will get. Schaefer seemed to find music from cultures all over the world, and within the United States – odd instruments, string and reed and percussion, plus the human voice at all pitches, and he would bubble about them, with junior-high-school enthusiasm.
This night – he works best late in the evening – Schaefer introduced a trio performing the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim but with unique arrangements, a blend of classic and bossa nova, familiar songs, carefully crafted.
The album was “Casa,” performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto with his incisive, spare piano, and Jacques Morelenbaum, with his lush, sweeping cello, and vocalist Paula Morelenbaum, with her haunting Portuguese and charming almost lisping English. The songs were standards, from the basic Jobim playbook, but the interpretations were unique.
I think Schaefer informed us that the album was recorded on the piano of the late Tom Jobim – in Jobim’s lakeside house in Rio. From what I read, Sakamoto felt awe at his pilgrimage to the home of the master, and had to ease into touching the piano.
I was hooked, went out and bought the CD, which has become the most-played album on my iPod.
A classic. That’s what John Schaefer does. He finds new releases, some of them flirting with commercial, some of them delightfully obscure, destined for one-time hearing, but in the memory bank, somewhere.
A show like this would seem to have institutional permanence, particularly in polyglot multicultural New York. In fact, “New Sounds” lasted from 1982 until this week, when the new hatchet at WNYC announced that “New Sounds” is about to be disappeared. For what reason? They have a better replacement?
“Why would they do that?” Laurie Anderson asked Michael Cooper in the Times on Monday.
In the city that never sleeps, shouldn’t there remain a place for music you never heard before? Something that opens your mind and your ears?
“New Sounds?” What does the “NY” in WNYC stand for?
Thank you, John Schaefer, for the many years of “New Sounds” and please let your fans know about the next gig.
* * *
Bad news on the doorstep:
A review of "Casa" when it was new:
Johnny Cash and June Carter were making out on stage.
They were preparing for an awards show in Nashville, enduring the long waits that are part of any rehearsal. What better way to pass the time?
This was in the mid-‘70s, and they were already an old married couple, but they seemed like teen-agers falling in love.
My wife happened to catch the eye of Ann Murray, the great Canadian singer, who was sitting nearby in an empty row. They both raised their eyebrows – but affectionately -- as if to say, “Get a room.”
I was thinking of this Sunday night during the latest episode of “Country Music,” the ongoing series from Ken Burns. The documentary may be a bit pat about racial and class divides and too formulaic about the terrible stresses of the ‘60s, but Burns has captured some of the personal statements of hope and change.
Sunday’s two hours focused on the mid-‘60s, as a time of change, not only in country music but at lunch counters and marches in the South and campuses and towns all over America.
Country music’s changes included Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill,” banned for a while by some chicken radio stations, and Charlie Pride’s acceptance as a black star who sounded white. The series says that Loretta was the presenter for the top male award in country music, and was told to keep her distance if Pride were the winner. However, when they met on stage, she moved forward and gave him a hug and a kiss.
Part Cherokee, Loretta was not going to let people tell her what to do in matters of race and color (or anything.)
In her book, Loretta says it happened in 1972 when she won the Entertainer of the Year Award. “People warned me not to kiss Charley in case I won, because it would hurt my popularity with country fans. I heard that one girl singer got canceled out Down South after giving a little peck to a black friend on television. Well, Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music, and I got so mad that when I won I made sure I gave him a big old hug and a kiss right on camera. You know what? Nobody canceled on me. If they had, fine. I’d have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.” – “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” by Loretta Lynn, with George Vecsey.
Other examples of ‘60s change were Dolly Parton, with her songs and her brains and her looks, willing herself up from East Tennessee poverty, and Merle Haggard, with his Warren Beatty looks and Bakersfield twang, overcoming his time in prison.
The most compelling figure in Sunday’s episode was Johnny Cash, with his childhood of deprivation from money and love, discovering his talent, and his feel for injustice. In the’60s, while males in Nashville were wearing Nudie’s of Hollywood peacock outfits, Cash wore only black, to show support for the underdogs, but the color was also an expression of his moods.
The series shows Cash blowing up his marriage for his passion for June Carter, but also getting deep into drugs. One live sequence shows him fidgeting at a recording session, twisting and turning, grimacing, removing his shoes, just out of his mind.
In one live performance, Mother Maybelle Carter, singing backup, watches him warily, knowing that at any moment she and her daughters might have to scrape him up off the floor. That segment ought to be an advertisement for just about any human on legal alcohol or illegal ”recreational” or or the pain-killers doctors and big pharma push on people.
Cash was zonked. Burns did not cite the song that Nick Lowe, Cash’s son-in-law at the time, wrote about Cash, who fine-tuned it into a standard: “The Beast in Me.”
….the beast in me
That everybody knows
They've seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it's New York or New Year
God help the beast in me…
When I was working on Barbara Mandrell’s book, she told how as a precocious teen-ager she traveled with the Cash entourage, and was treated respectfully, but she also recalled Cash in a diner, nervously picking the stuffing out of a Naugahyde booth, just a bundle of nerves.
The Sunday episode stressed personal revival, finishing in Folsom Prison, where Cash recorded his epic album, cracking jokes that the inmates got. He never had a better audience. There is a touching moment at the end where he performs a song written by one of the prisoners, and shakes his hand.
I will vouch for the feeling Cash gave of a transformed – saved -- man, after he sought help for his addictions. In 1973, I interviewed him and June Carter in New York, upon the opening of a movie they had made about the life and death of Christ. He was calm, reflective, and they were deeply in love.
Johnny Cash still wore black.
Having met him a few times, I am sure he would be wearing it today.
The back story to “The Beast in Me:”
My other memory of that rehearsal at the new theme park in the mid-‘70s, after the Opry had deserted its spiritual home, the Ryman Auditorium: Mooney Lynn (Loretta’s husband and my pal) and Roy Clark, the sweet-voiced troubadour, partaking of the upscale snacks, praising the hot and flaky hors d'oeuvre, which they lustily praised as “egg pie.” Quiche, that is. (They knew that. This is why I love country.)
Just in case you missed it, there is a marvelous series on PBS this week called “Country Music.”
I watched the first two-hour installment Sunday night instead of the Mets and Dodgers, which says a lot. (Okay, I peeked at the score periodically on my cellphone.)
The educator Jacques Barzun is remembered for writing, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball….”
I would add country music to that observation. It has been there, the rhythms and words of the complicated American heart – particularly by the expanded definition and parameters submitted by Ken Burns, the producer of the 16-hour series.
“Country Music” is lavishly arranged for the next full week on PBS (two hours, repeated the next two hours, at least on New York’s Channel 13.)
Burns and Dayton Duncan, the writer, have expanded the definition of country music way beyond the sequins-and-overalls very-white image to a more inclusive version that pays homage to black/gospel/race/soul music. Burns and Duncan consciously blur the lines, showing copious footage of black churches, black performers and black fans, sometimes mingling with whites far more openly than I would have imagined.
My time as Appalachian correspondent for the Times, later helping Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell write their books, gave me marvelous access from the wings of the Grand Ol’ Opry and on the buses and concerts and other good stuff. I did not see much of a black audience, but Burns and Duncan have the footage and sound tracks to include blacks – plus, Elvis Presley, bless his dead heart, always acknowledged his overt inspirations from southern soul music.
But country music is, ultimately, built on the strains and the sentiments straight from the British Isles (and the complicated heritages there.) I have always maintained that when the brilliant Dolly Parton opens her sensual mouth and lets the thoughts and the music flow, she is in touch with hardy people who emerged from the hills of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, who had the courage to get on a boat and sail across the ocean – often to escape back into the hills of that new world. Dolly, for all her glitz, is a medium.
The women – Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the old-timey Carolina Chocolate Drops – carry the first segment.
The series opens with Mattea (you should know her work) describing her arrival in Nashville from West Virginia, at 17, too young to perform, but able to work as a guide in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Lovingly, she points at the Thomas Hart Benton painting, “The Sources of Country Music,” as compelling the best museum docent you ever heard.
The first segment, and I can only assume the entire series, has the same high level. This is serious stuff about America, about us.
What did I learn? I had no idea Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” was as widely popular as he was from 1927 to 1933, when he was cut down by equal parts hard living and tuberculosis. I thought he was more of a regional phenomenon.
Rodgers lived the music he sang, and sold tons of records (for Joe Biden’s record player, and the old Veep is not alone.) Rodgers made his last record in New York City, propped up by shots of whiskey between takes. There is a poignant photo of Rodgers on a lounge at Coney Island, enjoying the sun, a day or two before he died, at 35.
Then came the special train ride home, the old railroad hand heading back to Mississippi. The documentary should have ended with the Iris DeMent version of the Greg Brown song, “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” with DeMent’s voice a mournful train whistle cutting through the southern night. But that’s just me, an Iris groupie.
The first segment includes DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player, an early staple on the Opry, and Ralph Peer, who turned country music into a lucrative industry, and the Carter family (I got to see Mother Maybelle perform in her later years), plus commentary from Charlie Pride and Wynton Marsalis, as well as Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis, both interviewed before their deaths, in the past few years.
The second installment, Monday night, will focus on the Depression, using the Stephen Foster dirge, “Hard Times,” for its title.
The Mets will be playing in Colorado, trying to hold on, but I will be watching “Country Music.”
That about says it.
I learned something very nice today.
We were listening to NPR and heard about a young woman who has chosen innovative treatment for sickle-cell anemia.
The hopeful procedure is about to take place in Nashville, America’s new hot destination town, in the Sarah Cannon Research Institute.
Long ago, several times, I met a wise and mannered lady of Nashville named Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon.
People on the Grand Ole Opry knew her as Minnie Pearl, who bustled onto the stage with a country dress and a straw hat with a price tag always hanging from the brim, and the familiar greeting of, “How-DEEEEEEE!”
She was a novelty act – a comedienne, not a singer, not a picker, not a looker in that outfit – but also a mainstay of the Opry. Others came and went but Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff were almost always there, with a presence that spoke of the establishment.
Many of her fans knew she had a degree (a rarity for women, in her youth) from Ward Belmont College (Now Belmont University) and was one of the grand ladies of Nashville. But on Saturday evening they wanted to see and hear her bumpkin persona, lamenting how she could never attract “a feller.”
One time I met her was in 1975, at the Nashville premiere of Robert Altman’s movie, “Nashville.” A lot of the in-crowd was bad-mouthing the movie as making fun of the Opry, but a few people seemed to see the vision and art of the movie.
Dotty West, redhead and singer, told me, “It's not a put-down. It's a fine picture, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again.” And Mrs. Cannon gave me a tactful quote: “very interesting—maybe I'm too close to Nashville—this is my home, my family—I can't make a judgment now.” I thought she was letting me know that she got it.
I knew Mrs. Cannon had passed but did not know the details until today, when I looked up her connection to the hospital. It turns out she had undergone a double mastectomy in the mid ‘80’s, and had a stroke in 1991, and died in a nursing home in 1996, at the age of 83. At some point her name was on the hospital, now part of a broader chain of hospitals, most in the border-state region.
Now, at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Music City, a young woman seeks relief from a crippling and murderous condition that disproportionately affects African-Americans.
Victoria Gray, 34, from Forest, Miss., is at the Sarah Cannon institute, having volunteered for the gene-editing CRISPR technique to treat a genetic disorder.
"It's a good time to get healed," Ms. Gray told NPR in an exclusive interview, noting that she cannot move her arms.
The interview did not identify Sarah Cannon as the grand old face of the Grand Ole Opry, but I recognized her name.
I want to add that I always loved being around the Opry, and that I am delighted, in a very ugly time (and that is all I am saying; you know what I mean), Mrs. Cannon’s life is being used to bring hope to people who suffer from this horrible condition.
As Ms. Gray is being treated in Music City, may she hear a word of earthly healing: “How-DEEEEEEE!”
Sarah Cannon Research Institute:
Bio of Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon:
My article about Nashville’s reception for the Altman movie in 1975
I was poking around my iPod, listening to downloaded pop songs beginning with “M” – “Manha de Carnival” with Susannah McCorkle, “Manhata” with Caetano Veloso, The Dead’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried’– and up popped “The Man in Black,” by Johnny Cash.
I was immediately nostalgic for the man, and the mood, his all-black outfits, and the coal-black eyes piercing the soul of the audience.
Where are you, man?
This became his signature song, performed for the first time at a concert at Vanderbilt University in 1971 – a time of anti-war and pro-civil rights fervor. He addressed some students in the audience, saying that a conversation, few days earlier, had prompted him to write this song, explaining why he wore only black out in public.
I want to add that I met Johnny Cash a few times – once backstage at the Opry in the old and beloved Ryman Auditorium, just a bunch of people hanging around, a few feet away from the live performance. He was just one of the people backstage – old Ernest Tubb, young Dolly Parton, vibrant Skeeter Davis, people just hanging and chatting.
When he produced a Jesus movie in the mid ‘70s, I interviewed him and June Carter at C.W., Post College where the movie was being showcased. Again, he was the most approachable and democratic star, talking about his faith as a baby Christian, but (a gigantic “but”), not patronizing or dogmatic. They were the nicest couple.
My wife and I saw them again at a rehearsal for the country awards at the new (and sterile) Opryland in the early 80s. He and June were smooching during a break in the rehearsals; Anne Murray, sitting nearby, locked eyes with my wife, and they smiled warmly, as if to say, “Get a room.” Johnny Cash and June Carter were in love.
Not long afterward, catching a red-eye in California, I saw him coming down an empty corridor, a big man in black, his eyes a zillion miles away. I most definitely did not say hello.
Anyway, I think I can say, having been around Johnny Cash a few times, and having listened to his work (his time-growing-short album, “American Songs”), that he had a feel for his country, the poor, the imprisoned, the people trying to get clean, the marginal and the diverse.
I think I can say he hated bullies and pretenders. He came from rural Arkansas and he knew cities and campuses, could talk with students at Vanderbilt, could take their questions and make a song out of them.
I wish he were writing songs today, in the time of The Man in Orange.
* * *
(Just in case you are not into Johnny Cash’s voice, here are his lyrics.)
Man In Black
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.
Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black
Songwriters: Johnny Cash
Man In Black lyrics © BMG Rights Management
In the final hours of an ugly year, I stuck with the tried and true.
Our local classical station, WQXR-FM, was playing the top 100, as chosen by listeners. It was reassuring to hear music that stirred people and soothed people in other dark times, with other crackpots and despots flailing around, and the music survived.
Then again, we have seen votes go wacko in a democracy. When the Gilbert and Sullivan spectacle, “Pirates of Penzance,” popped up in 10th place, my reaction was, “Wait, WTF, how did that get in there?”
The WQXR–FM web site had the same reaction:
Was it was the work of Gilbert and Sullivan superfan sleeper agents? Or is everyone just really excited about the end-of-year New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production of Pirates at the Kaye Playhouse. (It turns out that it very well might be both, as the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players staged a campaign to launch the opera into the countdown — and it clearly worked.
Trolls. Bots. Hacking. Malware. Whatever they are. Sounds like a job for Super-Mueller, but Our Civic Protector is said to be otherwise occupied with his investigation into more serious shenanigans.
Other than the jolt of Gilbert and Sullivan coming in 10th in any classical music ranking, it was a joy to hear oldies soothe the dark days and nights as 2018 slunk off into history.
Beethoven had four symphonies in the top 10, including his Ninth, with the rousing “Ode to Joy,” now becoming a staple ‘round midnight on Dec. 31.
Some of the most familiar music can be considered chestnuts, but I was happy to hear them, knowing that new and adventuresome and inventive music will be presented by John Schaefer on “New Sounds” and by Terrance McKnight on his weeknight show.
Plus, as 2018 ebbed, I heard some of my favorites, Dvorak and Copland and Vaughn Williams and Smetana and Bartok and Barber and Ravel and Satie and Lenny Himself, conducting his “West Side Story: Symphonic Dances,” which always makes me feel 16 again, walking the streets of my home town, feeling, “could be, who knows?”
In the symphonic version, I could hear the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:
Could it be? Yes, it could
Something's coming, something good
If I can wait
Something's coming, I don't know what it is
But it is gonna be great.
Happy New Year.
Outside, the storms – political and meteorological – were raging. Inside there was a winter concert, by students and, later, enthusiastic alums.
How sweet it was, to find shelter from all storms, to hear young people play and sing, with considerable skill.
Our youngest grandchild was in one of the ensembles, but honestly the quality of the music and the spirit of the young people would have been an attraction by itself.
This was Thursday evening at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, Long Island, which, as much as it changes, retains its home-town feel, on a peninsula, with a train line terminating there, and a real downtown -- 45 minutes by rail from Penn Station.
The superb arts department produced one concert Wednesday and another on Thursday – an orchestra, a band, a choir, and then an ensemble for the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”
A young woman gave a haunting flute solo; a young man led one section with a strong first violin; a young man played a specialty instrument that evoked the swirling of the sea.
I was particularly captivated by the choir, having had the privilege of singing in Mrs. Gollobin’s chorus at Jamaica High School in the mid-‘50’s and admiring the choir members.
I watched the faces of these young people as they put their hearts into “Rock of Ages,” and, I will confess, I remembered our chorus harmony from 1954-56, and I softly hummed to myself.
I thought of the choir stars from Jamaica High – an alto who taught music at a university in Texas for many decades, and our two lead sopranos who came back for reunions, still beautiful and active well into their 70s.
And then there was Eddie Lewin, star soccer halfback and lead in our musicals. (Lotte Lenya came to our performance of her late husband Kurt Weill’s operetta, “Down in the Valley,” with Lewin playing the lead role.) In later years, Eddie took a pause in his medical career to fulfill his dream of touring with “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I thought about our choir and chorus while watching the young people of Port Washington as they performed so brilliantly in their own time.
At the end, the leaders honored the tradition by calling all alumni of the music department to join them in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Dozens of recent graduates filled up the sides of the auditorium.
They were asked to call out their graduation classes – 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 – and somebody said, “1976!” That was Jonathan Pickow, a well-known musician from our town, the son of Jean Ritchie, one of the great traditional folk singers and historians from her native Eastern Kentucky. (Ritchie
Jean and her husband George Pickow – now both passed – lived high on a hillside in our town. First time I heard Ritchie was at Ballard High in Louisville, when we lived there, around 1971-2. She reassured Kentuckians that the steep hill on glacial Long Island made her feel she was still in Viper, Perry County.
Jon has toured with Harry Belafonte, the Norman Luboff Choir and other choirs, has performed with Oscar Brand, Judy Collins, Theo Bikel, Odetta, Josh White, Jr., Tovah Feldsuh and my pal, Christine Lavin.
And there he was, amidst musicians more than 40 years younger than him, talking respectfully of having been part of music programs at Schreiber High in Port Washington, back in the day. Music is classical; it provides shelter in all storms.
* * *
PS: Jean Ritchie wrote the classic protest song, "Black Waters," about strip-mining, which obviously the tone-deaf Mitch McConnell from Louisville has never heard.
World Series Is Over: Redemption; Regional Sweets; Chavez Ravine; Third-Game Marathon. Now What Do I Do?
Monday Morning: My wife asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?”
La guerre est finie.
Well, I said, family, friends, chores, read a book, get to sleep earlier.
The better team won, of course. That is what experts seemed to be saying about the Red Sox weeks ago, and it was obvious throughout.
Who doesn’t like redemption? I’ve witnessed two great Dodger pitchers, Don Newcombe and Bob Welch, both of whom I got to know, not win a World Series game, and that is no fun.
It wasn’t fun trying to pick between Clayton Kershaw and David Price, two left-handers in search of redemption, but I have never met Kershaw and I did encounter Price during the 2008 post-season when he was a thoughtful kid out of Vanderbilt, coming on for the Rays. So, in a way, I was rooting. His redemption was magnificent, on the tube, Sunday night.
So was post-season baseball because it allowed me to purge more of the Mets out of my tormented system. Better baseball. One play exemplifies: In the third desperate game, the Dodgers’ versatile Cody Bellinger, son of a former Yankee, wearing my good friend Bob Welch’s old No. 35, and wearing it well, was in center field, trying to avert what would be a devastating run.
Fly ball to medium center field. Bellinger backed up with those long legs of his and took a running start inward toward the descending ball, caught it and heaved it on a fly near home, just in time to cut off a runner trying to score from third.
Just the way the game ought to be taught. But after watching the Mets (except when the brittle Juan Lagares could play center) I forgot how people like Bradley, Jr., and Betts and Bellinger and Hernández and all the rest could play center field.
So a dose of much better baseball sends us off to the winter.
Early Monday morning, I had time and brain width to read two stirring obituaries, one on the playwright Ntozake Shange and one on the contemplative monk, the Rev. Thomas Keating, both exquisitely written. (My Appalachian pal, Randolph, now occasionally commenting on this little therapy web site, had sent me the link with a comment:
“I feel a sadness. He was such a good man. He really understood that religion was secondary and he tried to bridge the gap between Christianity, Buddhism and all religions: we are all humans....” Randy
The two obits: what a start to the off-season.
And don’t forget to vote next week.
EARLIER WORLD SERIES ARTICLES:
Date shake -- or Necco wafers?
This was the cryptic note from my older daughter, a recovering newspaper columnist, just like her dad.
Knowing that she is also a poet (a good one), I knew this was a simile or allegory or symbol, one of those things.
I got it. Southern California vs. Boston. The World Series matchup. Sweet tooth and clashing baseball instincts.
This was before the first two games in chilly, quivering Fenway Park.
On a clean slate, this Met fan pondered the two delicacies -- the sweet, freeze-your-brain specialty of Southern California or the traditional New England circular treat that fits right on your tongue. (The chocolate one!)
I flashed upon the great post-season games that Laura Vecsey and I covered.
Laura would place a fresh Necco package on my press-box table -- straight from the New England factory. (The company has since gone down, but an Ohio company seems to have rescued it.)
But then I thought about being a young baseball reporter in the mid-60s, night games in Anaheim, mornings driving out to Laguna Beach, swimming with the seals, (ruining my skin for decades later) and then searching the coastal highway for a utilitarian shack producing that thick substance laced with bits of chewy dates.
The Beach Boys on the car radio.
A date shake in my hand.
No brainer. I vote for date shakes.
The World Series is a different flavor altogether. The Mets are a distant horrible memory. I watch the three Boston outfielders and the Dodger center fielders, changing by the inning, all running down shots into the alleys. Good baseball, so rich, so filling, making the masochistic Mets fillings in my teeth ache.
I have to choose? Normally, I'd be partial to the team of my childhood, Brooklyn Dodgers, and even in the 80s I was doing a book with Bob Welch and became friendly with Al Campanis and renewed my admiration for Don Newcombe, still with them.
But it's a different age. I don't like rent-a-star Manny Machado, even with that magnificent arm and all the other skills. As a guy with a formerly red beard, now trimmed tight, I think Justin Turner's beard is, well, over the top. All I'm saying is, not my team.
I have never rooted for the Red Sox (well, maybe when they played the Yankees in the 70s), and I still do not, but I love Fenway Park and I love Boston, deeply love visiting there. And David Price was such a nice young guy in 2008 with Tampa Bay, not long from Vanderbilt, smart, open. I have been happy that he finally won a post-season game and now has won a World Series game.
That isn't rooting. It's just appreciation. None of this fits my Mets, need-to-suffer, pathology.
Plus, my agent is a fervent Red Sox fan. I always want her to be happy.
But in the scenario posted by my older daughter, I would choose a date shake -- Beach Boys on the radio -- coastal highway -- anytime.
Enjoy the rest of the series.
THEN THERE'S THIS:
It took a health walk on Friday with my head-set – listening to one of my all-time top-ten CDs, Ry Cooder’s epic “Chavez Ravine” -- to make me question my knee-jerk feelings about this World Series.
The album is a highly pointed look at the “acquisition” of the land for the Dodgers’ home park since 1962. As a Brooklyn fan, I hated the Dodgers’ move (and Walter O’Malley.) But the first time I saw the transplanted Dodgers in their pastel playpen, 1964, on a gorgeous spring evening, I shook my head and thought, “Hmmm.”
As a Queens-Brooklyn guy, I could understand, if not forgive.
Ry Cooder’s masterpiece talks about the people who lived in the ravine, and the establishment’s “UFO” that warned them to evacuate their homes. He wrote songs about the campesinos who lived there, but also the truck drivers and urban planners and red-scare politicians who were part of it.
And after all the disruption, Cooder presents a sweet song about the ghosts who inhabit the ball park:
2nd base, right over there. I see grandma in her rocking chair
Watching linens flapping in the breeze,
And all the fellows choosing up their teams….
The man parks cars outside the ball park and he concludes, “Yes, I’m a baseball man myself.”
I love that album. Play it all the time. (check out the beautiful Costa Rican poem, “Soy Luz y Sombra” at the end.)
So my question for the day, after my health walk: is, isn’t that beautiful and enduring place, even with its brutal beginnings, a worthy bookend to Boston and Fenway?
Friday Night's Marathon: Yes, I Went the Distance
Well, with a brief excursion to watch Burt Reynolds flirt with a blonde and out-drive Ned Beatty in "White Lightning." It had to be done. These post-season games, with their commercial breaks, make me crave a moonshiner in a car chase. Action.
Plus, I find the network broadcast to be hopelessly saccharine after a season of Gary, Ron, Keith, Howie and Josh on Mets broadcasts. I'm sorry. I am reminded of Mario Cuomo's description of Walter Mondale's candidacy in 1984: "Polenta." (Look it up.) Mario laid the observation off on his mom. Nice going.
The Fox crew deserves credit for stamina, as does the umpiring crew.
The game got better and better as the hours went on, and any fan had to wonder when position players would start pitching. All the front-office-driven analytics mandating pitching changes (and locked-in power arc swings) run through entire pitching staffs in extra innings.
Then Nate Eovaldi performed one of the great World Series relief performances -- 6 innings, 3 hits, 5 strikeouts, one game-ending home run by Max Muncy. His work should be a wakeup call to managers and general managers and analytics geeks everywhere that pitchers can still go multiple innings, getting into a routine, learning as much about the hitters as the hitters are learning about them.
The game lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes, took 18 innings, and became an instant classic.
I am wondering if some of our friends in far-flung time zones like Israel, Italy, Rio, Japan, etc. were watching or following on the web.
That game will blend right into Saturday's game, with the depletion of pitching staffs -- and stresses and strains on players' bodies -- having a major impact.
Rest up, you all.
We were upstate, visiting our daughter. Laura had three tickets for a concert in the park in Saratoga Springs – a group from Chad, now living in Montréal.
It was the last night in a Monday summer series -- called On Stage, because the chairs were on the stage of the large outdoor theater, an intimate setting for a few hundred people.
Four musicians, known as H’Sao-* -- three Rimtobaye brothers, Caleb (guitar), Mossbass (bass) and Izra L (keyboard), and their childhood friend, Dono Bei Ledjebgue (percussion) -- blended in intricate harmony, went off on solo riffs.
We caught bits of French, bits of English, and a lot of their tribal language.
The longer they played, the more we realized we were hearing a cri de coeur, a call from the heart – the life of the immigrant, trying to stay alive, seeking less dangerous corners of the world.
They have been in Montreal since the turn of the century, but have never left home.
One song, “For My Family,” began with drummer Dono Bei, rapping about waiting for a bus in Montreal, at 5 in the morning, reading a postcard from home, a cousin asking him to send him a car. The audience chuckled, but Bei’s piercing voice let us know this was serious business:
“You wanna make it happen so badly for your family,
“You keep digging, you keep digging.”
“I got ten brothers left behind,
“Their scholarships are all on me.”
The music was beautiful; it came from deep. One of the brothers explained why they had left home – childhood friends were having to choose between Christianity and Islam, with apparently ominous results. Their voices blended:
“I do this prayer to whoever’s up there,
“Jehova, Jesus, Allah, we need an answer.”
At times the group reminded me of the tight, intuitive “Buena Vista Social Club” from Cuba and at times it reminded me of the plaintive voice of Bob Marley cutting through the ozone. I thought I heard some of the South African chords Paul Simon incorporated into “Graceland” and at times I heard Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But mostly I heard these four brothers from Chad and Montréal, trying to work it out.
The musicians teased us: How do you know you are alive? Somebody in the audience said, “Because we are moving.” Exactly, the musician said. Prove you are alive. Get up and dance. Many people did; Laura stood up, made eye contact with Caleb, the closest to us, letting him know she was very into their music.
They wailed, they rapped, they talked about love. They told a tale about a rite of manhood, going into the wilderness to confront a lion.
(The band used to be bigger, or so they claimed.)
They prodded us to sing a chorus, in their tribal language. One band member chided us: we didn’t know what the words meant, did we. Something not very nice, he suggested.
After 90 minutes, on this balmy upstate evening, we were part of the rhythm, part of the harmony, part of the sadness, part of the joy, the front pages of the papers and the news on the television, immigrants drowning, Rohingya being slaughtered, children being ripped from their parents on the U.S. border.
After the show, the musicians stayed around, chatting softly, giving hugs. Dono Bei said the band was heading to Montreal in the morning; my wife and I would return to New York a day later.
“Bonne retour,” he said. Good return.
We bought all three of their CDs and rocked with them all the way down the Northway.
When I got back to my laptop, I looked up their site:
The group has been discovered by the Canada Council for the Arts, has performed in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and also New Zealand with its rich cultural programs. But they have not been in New York since a visit to Lincoln Center in 2017.
I went poking around for a video: the first one that popped up showed them in choir robes, in a cathedral (see below.)
Exactly, my wife said. They are immensely spiritual.
Messieurs: quand allez-vous jouer à New York?
* -- H'Sao means the Swallow of the Sao, the people who were the ancestors of present-day Chadians. The group's origin is presented in its name: the musicians in H'Sao come from N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, a vast country located between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. -- www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com/en/artist/h’sao
It was mid-August of 2008. Charlie Competello had just taken his morning run in the toxic mass that passes for air in Beijing.
Now he was clean and dressed for business at the Olympic media center where The New York Times had rented an office for 20 people.
The first thing he spotted was a forlorn-looking writer.
“My laptop died,” the sad sack began.
That was me.
Charlie’s job was to provide technical services at big events like the Olympics and visit the bureaus all over the world, or wander around the newsroom, available to the people who write and edit the stories. He was one of us. The paper did not get done if Charlie couldn’t fix the machines and the software.
This how it was when I was working. Charlie had colleagues like Walt Baranger and Pedro Rosado and Craig Hunter, who knew our jobs better than we did.
(One night in Salt Lake City, after getting bad advice from on high, I was told to write something, at midnight, after the Russians fixed a figure-skating final, if you can imagine such a thing. After I stopped throwing furniture and Queens language around the room, I saw Craig standing next to me. He handed me printouts of wire stories, with all the information that would let me play catch-up ball with a midnight column. “I think this will help,” he said.)
The Times had our back, with technicians who were journalists. They would find bugs in our software or frayed connections in our laptops – even schmutz clogging the keyboards. Full service.
I worked with Charlie a lot -- a lean, alert guy from my home borough of Queens, who reffed basketball games in the winter, for the fun of it. We learned to rely on him the way the old Yankees would rely on Yogi Berra’s untouchable presence on a storm-tossed charter flight.
Charlie was never more indispensable than in Beijing in 2008, the first Summer Games to be fully covered 24x7 on the great emerging NYT web site. We were exactly halfway around the world, which meant Michael Phelps was swimming for medals in mid-morning in Beijing but evening in New York. Any given hour, somebody needed Charlie.
On that morning in Beijing, Charlie went to the basement where Lenovo had a store, and he purchased a new ThinkPad and then downloaded stuff from my busted laptop, a few hours of work while meeting all the other needs. After his run, I bet Charlie could have used a more quiet morning, but the way that job worked, there was no such thing.
The Times had gone into the computer age in the mid-70’s with Howard Angione, who introduced us to the massive Harris terminals in the office. Sometimes the damn things would eat up an entire story, even if you had saved it, and we (I) would pitch a massive fit. Howard’s motto was, “If I can teach Vecsey, I can teach anybody.” And he could.
For nearly four decades, I learned to rely on the Times’ techies, whatever their title was. Then I retired after 2011, and now Charlie is retiring, wisely, much younger than I was, which gives him time to relax and then find some other pursuit, or not. He’s a ref. He always makes the right call.
I’m out of it now. I just hope the paper still has the backs of the people who go to wars and conventions and Olympics, fixing machines that break down at the worst possible time.
* * *
Speaking of valued colleagues, did you see the beautiful photo of Aretha Franklin on the front page of Friday’s paper? Her dignity and soulfulness and even her sound came through. That photo was taken by Tyrone Dukes, back in the day.
Tyrone was a friend, a young brother who had served in Vietnam and was now a photographer. He could snap Aretha up close at the Apollo in 1971 and he could follow a looting rampage during the blackout of 1977. He died in 1983, at the age of 37.
When I saw the credit on the photo, my eyes misted over– not for Aretha but for Tyrone. My thanks to Charlie and Tyrone and all the others, who were part of us.
One of the most heinous things about living around New York City is crossing the George Washington Bridge onto the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Abandon all hope, as Dante warned.
It’s even bad when Chris Christie’s little pals are not monkeying with the traffic lanes.
On Saturday evening, we encountered a cloudburst and a breakdown in the center lane, right around Webster Ave. in the Bronx. Thousands of assassins and cut-throats were doing evil things at the wheel, hacking their way toward Long Island or New England.
But I did get by.
My wife worked the FM tuner and somehow found a Grateful Dead hour on wonderful WFUV from Fordham University.
In short order, David Gans played one of the most ethereal of all Dead songs, “Attics of My Mind,” sung not by Jerry and company but by children from the Barton Hills Choir of Austin, Tex.
Apparently, the children perform Dead songs as well as other familiar pop tunes Their harmonies are amazing. They enunciated the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter lyrics so sweetly. They mellowed me right out to where I could withstand the assassins and cut-throats of the Cross-Bronx.
When I got home I downloaded the video of the Barton Hills Choir (above.)
I don’t know much about them or their repertoire but their faces and voices are so sweet.
Can’t see them covering “Mexicali Blues” or “Pride of Cucamonga” or “Me and My Uncle.”
But late Saturday night, in a cloudburst, with a middle-lane breakdown, surrounded by thousands of cut-throats and assassins right out of a Dead classic, these children got us through. We did survive. .
Nothing is sillier than naming a state bird or a state tree – unless it is naming a state sport.
The legislators of California --bless their hearts -- are currently debating the proper official state sport for the fifth largest economy in the world.
The favorite in the polling makes me happy, makes me warm, makes me want to sing harmony.
I could say they should nominate all the sports Jackie Robinson played for UCLA – that is to say, all four of them. (Have you ever seen a video of Jackie Robinson sweeping around the end? He was Bo Jackson and Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, wrapped into one. Baseball was his fourth best sport, everybody agreed.)
However, California legislators are leaning toward surfing. I heard this on NPR the other night, and they included just a bar or two by the Beach Boys, which made me realize that surfing is exactly right as the state sport.
All those land sports are wonderful, but surfing is the sport, the recreation, the life style, that made California the state that makes me wonder why everybody, I mean everybody, didn’t just move there.
(To be sure, in the old days, thousands of frozen Americans would begin packing for the Golden State on Jan. 2, after watching the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day.)
Nobody had to go in the water, dig their toes into a surfboard. I have never touched a surfboard, even on land, butI have watched men and women, a different breed, agile and lithe sea creatures, performing acrobatics off the beaches from San Diego to the Bay Area (where they wisely wear wet suits.)
Surfing is what you could do -- or watch -- if you reached the western fringe of mainland America. It was waiting out there. I came of age, well, with the election of John F. Kennedy and hopes for the New York Mets, and on the radio there were the Beach Boys, with those high harmonies, singing about the beach and first love and Little Deuce Coupes.
On my first business trip to LA in 1962, I went to Chavez Ravine to cover baseball, but I saw cars bearing surfboards, heading west. The Beach Boys were on the car radio. California was being invented or discovered.
Later, on mornings before night games in LA or Anaheim, I went body-surfing (with seals) at Laguna Beach, stopped for date shakes on the Pacific Highway, and one time watched a fellow sportswriter frolic in the cold surf off Dana Point.
And one night in Chicago in 1966, I went with another colleague to see the classic, very un-Chicago documentary, “The Endless Summer” by Bruce Brown.
Surfing was the culture of California, even with all kinds of good and bad and momentous things happening in People’s Park in Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Watts in LA, with Sandy Koufax and Kareem and Magic Johnson and Joe Montana and Landon Donovan and all the rest, playing those ball sports. Surfing was the backdrop for the promised land.
(Some people are proposing skateboarding as the state sport; my rebuttal is, no, skateboarding is merely surfing on hard surfaces.)
Surfing still echoes on the beaches and strangled freeways and hills and valleys. Brian Wilson, who somehow survived, brought the sound of the Beach Boys and the sport of surfing forward by half a century with his 2008 album, the symphony/poem called “That Lucky Old Sun.”
At 25 I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my
But now I’m back, drawing shades of kind
(From “Going Home,” By Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett, from the album, That Lucky Old Sun)
With all due respect to Jackie Robinson, the legislators ought to vote for surfing -- and get on with the business of the fifth largest economy in the world.
The Passover/Easter weekend ended well, or at least entertainingly.
I enjoyed the latest version of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” live on NBC, even with all the commercials.
The music took me back nearly five decades and the production was modern and energetic, with great, careful harmonies from the large cast – performing on the move in an armory in Brooklyn.
John Legend played the title role, transported at the end into the heavens, or at least the rafters, and to my relief he emerged in one piece for the curtain call.
To my hearing in the year 2018, this version emphasized the doubts of Judas Priest – or maybe I was sensitized by Jon Meacham’s thoughtful take on Easter in Sunday’s NYT Book Review.
Mainly, this version of “Superstar” was entertainment – and I was entertained. Legend was, in a way, out-rocked by Brandon Victor Dixon (best known for his friendly little salutation to Vice President Pence after a performance of “Hamilton.”)
Bouncing his way cynically and energetically through the melee of Jerusalem, Dixon owned the stage.
Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene? Let me just say that I am a few decades past it for pop music (most of it sounds like calisthenics)-- but that strong, lush voice and gorgeous Levantine nose on Sara Bareilles? Where has she been all my life?
Then there was the mincing presence of Alice Cooper, performing the song he was born to sing -- that Vegas-English-music-hall mixture, “King Herod’s Song.” He said he was channeling Elvis; I thought of the late, great Tiny Tim on speed.
(I read in the Times that Alice Cooper got religion when he sobered up. So we had a born-againer playing a mad king. That’s show biz.)
The performance came after news that, on Easter morning, the great white hope of the Evangelicals could not even fake “the spirit of Holy Week,” as Laura Ingraham said in perhaps her final days as a creature of the cable. (It has come to my attention that Ingraham and Ann Coulter are actually two different people. How long has this been going on?)
Last week Ingraham trashed one of the young people who survived automatic weapon fire in Florida and then, watching her sponsors vanish, she cited religious impulses to take it all back, sort of.)
From his tropical Berchtesgarten, Trump tweeted out that he was going to enact new horrible penalties on Mexico and Mexicans. When questioned outside the church, Trump brayed affirmations of his intent on a weekend when Jews and Christians were honoring survival, celebrating outsiders, the others, in our world.
The Four Questions had been asked at Seders, the extra place set for Elijah; the agony of the “carpenter king” noted in sacred and profane ways in church and on the stage of the armory in Brooklyn.
And at my wife’s lovely Easter dinner, somebody at the table recalled a recent holiday when most stores were closed -- but a Latino bodega in our town was selling coffee and pasteles and more.
The outsiders are now part of us. God bless them. And the President wants to expel them.
That bad actor is still performing a role for which he never rehearsed -- not channeling Elvis or Alice Cooper but something more camp, and at the same time more vile, more ominous.
* * *
(A friend sent this in the Jesuit magazine, America:)
(In case you missed Alice Cooper: )
Echo Helmstrom Casey died in California last week at 75. She was said to be the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s haunting song, "Girl From the North Country" – and for the wonderful covers that live to this day.
The song will be a classic as long as people have drifting thoughts of the first girl/first boy they loved.
I didn’t know anything about Echo Helmstrom until Laura Vecsey, my eldest, sent me a link from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Of course, there had to be an Echo Helmstrom.
Echo. Not even Bob Dylan could make that up.
She echoes in the soul.
It’s a winter song. Winter in New York, early 60’s, and the former Bobby Zimmerman is thinking how cold it must be in Hibbing, so he writes:
Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see for me if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
What kinder thoughts could anyone have for a girl back home in the north country?
According to the very nice article by Matt Steichen in the Star Tribune, Echo Helmstrom was a seeker, much like young Bob Zimmerman; they met in high school and then parted. Later, he must have known – Bob knows everything – that she also got away from the howlin’ winds, and moved to California, and lived her life, often complicated by the Dylanologists. (One of them even went through Dylan’s garbage in Greenwich Village but that’s another story.)
There’s no sense that Bob and Echo ever met again, or kept in touch. Then again, Dante met Beatrice only twice, fleetingly. But Dylan thought enough of Echo and her piercing eyes and blonde hair that he wrote the song about her, and really, what else is there?
The music and the lyrics live on – in Dylan’s original, and in the covers which can be tricky, ranging from the ridiculous to the masterful: Levon Helm and The Band acing Springsteen’s “Atlantic City;” and KD Lang owning Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in my opinion.)
I came to Bob Dylan via my kid brother Chris, who sang and played guitar and harmonica in coffee shops in the mid-60’s.
In 1969, Dylan made the immortal album “Nashville Skyline” in the city that had long resonated with me. Johnny Cash, who admired the brash kid, welcomed him to town and came into the studio, clearly not having totally mastered the lyrics to “North Country,” and he fluffed some entries, but Dylan let it flow because it was Johnny Cash and because it was real.
(NB: the version above is from Dylan’s respectful visit to Cash’s TV show later. Cash had long since mastered the lyrics and the beat of the song.)
Impromptu or rehearsed, what a duet – Dylan’s cutting brilliance, Cash’s throbbing pain, singing about a girl from back home.
See for me that her hair's hanging down
That's the way I remember her best
The song is perfect today, nearly half a century later. Rosanne Cash included it in her 2009 CD. “The List,” springing from the 100 songs her father deemed vital to the American soul. There is a very sweet guitar riff by her husband John Leventhal, and backup by three other musicians.
“The Girl From the North Country” lives, whether by Bob Dylan, or Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, or Rosanne Cash, back-to-back-to-back, on my iPod.
Now Laura Vecsey has an idea, which she has posted on Twitter: Rosanne Cash and Bob Dylan should record a duet, to complete the circle, to honor the girl from the north country.
For she once was a true love of mine.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was 39 when he was assassinated. That fact shocked me when I was reminded Monday night. I knew he was young, but I might have said 49 or 59. That’s young, too.
But Dr. King was 39, and he had done so much, by April 3, 1968, when, not feeling well and speaking without notes, he delivered what would be his final speech, in Memphis, when he said he had been to the mountaintop and he was not afraid. He was killed the next day.
Dr. King could be alive today, like John Lewis, the national treasure, still on the front line, about to turn 78, or he could have matched Harriet Tubman, born in slavery, date unknown, but around 90 when she passed.
I was reminded of this Monday night, on what would have been Dr. King’s 89th birthday. I did not go golfing but then again I did not perform any symbolic service on the national holiday, the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama did as president.
I just hunkered down inside and at 9 PM I made a point to listen to the annual King celebration from Terrance McKnight on WQXR-FM.
McKnight is a civic asset here in New York – beautiful speaking voice and matching knowledge, reminds me of where-have-you-gone, No. 44. McKnight is a Morehouse grad, like Spike Lee, like the Olympian Edwin Moses, like Donn Clendenon, the 1969 Miracle Met, who was mentored by a Morehouse grad – why didn’t I know this? -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every year McKnight stresses the influence of music on Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King, who trained to be another Marian Anderson. Dr. King played classical music in his car as he drove north to grad school at Boston University.
McKnight played some Mahalia Jackson and he played some Sam Cooke and he played some classical, too. He did not play Dion DiMucci, but I found myself thinking of the singer from the Belmont section of the Bronx who wrote “Abraham, Martin and John,” which ends with a coda to Robert F. Kennedy.
One key line, you know it, goes: “The good they die young.”
McKnight told the story of the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” in Atlanta and how Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen were excluded, and how the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir sang, directed by Alberta King, wife of the pastor, mother of 6-year-old Martin, Jr.
Listen for yourself: https://www.wqxr.org/story/11702-beautiful-symphony-brotherhood-musical-journey-life-martin-luther-king-jr
Toward the end of the chronological journey McKnight noted that Dr. King was 39 when he gave his extemporaneous speech in Memphis. Thirty-nine.
The speech ended:
“I'm not worried about anything.
“I'm not fearing any man!
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Somebody on WINS news radio asked people on Monday what Dr. King would be doing if he were alive today. One woman said, "He'd stand up to them, the way he stood up to Bull Connors" -- a reference to the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, who unleashed the dogs, tolerated the bombers.
Dr. King studied Gandhi. Stood up to Bull Connor. The good they die young.
One of the highlights of most weeks is the arrival of the New Yorker – usually on Tuesday.
That’s the day the Postal Service decides to give up the print copy. (I think somebody in the dreaded Flushing transfer point takes it home and reads it on Monday.)
But the New Yorker in print is worth the wait – and now it also arrives via the web. Hope you have seen Paul Rudnick's recent insight into America's most dangerous dilettantes -- Jared & Ivanka's Guide to Mindful Marriage.
Not only that: the New Yorker is on the radio as well as the web. Editor David Remnick, a former sportswriter who went straight, introduces the show on the local public station (WNYC-FM).
On July 8 (and already on the web site), Ariel Levy interviews Lucinda Williams and Adam Gopnik interviews James Taylor and does a star turn with guitar and voice with “Something in the Way She Moves,” in front of the master himself. Who knew?
Gopnik lived in Paris, writes about cool stuff, and has been performing JT at night to put his children to sleep. They are teen-agers now? They still indulge him in the sweet ritual? (I used to read “Ulysses” to our son, particular the part when Bloom is falling asleep, making puns on the name “Sinbad-the-Sailor.”)
Taylor and Williams – retaining their North Carolina and Deep South accents and roots – remind me we are one country, despite the red-blue stuff.
Not on this interview, but Sweet Baby James takes us to a childhood visit to a moonshine still in his song “Copperline.” He has also recorded songs about Civil War survivors – North or South? Doesn’t matter. Us.
Not on Ariel Levy's interview of Williams, in a song called “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” the singer takes us to a dirty little juke joint (“sorry, no credit, don’t ask”) in Rosedale Miss. That’s part of my country, too.
In the interviews, Gopnik and Levy allow Taylor and Williams to explore the creative roots of their songs.
When Gopnik reveals that he plays at the guitar, JT hands him one of his gamers (a ball player word for game-worthy glove) and calls up his wife Jill from the audience to sing harmony with the writer from the New Yorker. It goes very well.
For the rest of this afternoon, JT and Lucinda seem to be singing in my head -- thanks to the New Yorker.
* * *
Father’s Day is here; a good book is always in order.
I just read a lovely book, not exactly a greeting-card image of a father or a mother, but better yet, Richard Ford’s “Between Them: Remembering My Parents,” exploring what he can remember and what he can only surmise about Parker and Edna Ford.
Any book by this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author is always welcome.
He came to them late, a surprise only child after more than a decade of marriage. He tries to reconstruct what it must have been like for them to become parents. “Between Them” refers to what their life was like before him; and also how his needs, as infant and boy, inevitably placed him in the middle.
They accepted the responsibility like adults -- two people from the rural south with modest schooling and an ethic of doing their best. His father was a traveling salesman, out Monday morning, home Friday evening.
The son cannot remember much conversation with his father, just his earnest presence; he has no complaints.
His mother was more lively, more layered, with more family support. After the father died, Richard Ford was able to say “I love you” to his mother, ask about her life as a widow. She grew, found a job she loved, remained independent virtually to the end; he salutes her.
The backdrop – maybe even the real subject of the book -- is the back part of America that suffered terribly in the Depression. Yet his father always had work. Ford says he never heard his parents talk of the racial divide that must have been obvious in their geographically-central chosen home of Jackson, Miss. They lived in a country that had two – then three – citizens. The family.
He remembers, he reconstructs, he imagines, the hopes and dreams of two people who did not complain; he notes the family stresses both brought to the marriage.
The book includes several snapshots of a salesman and his wife with a car, hats and suits and dresses, their final suburban home, their post-war dream, fulfilled by a salesman with a failing heart.
The dead-serious faces of these Americans – long before the plague of selfies, everybody a star of their own reality show -- reminds me of the collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” They caught the bravery and dignity of rural America, and so does Richard Ford.
Near the end, Ford notes that he and his wife do not have children. He admits he can only guess what it is like to be a father, a parent.
His parents did their best. What a lovely thing to be able to say.
* * *
Richard Ford’s book reminds me of Samuel Barber's haunting "Knoxville 1915,” based on Agee's memories of a hot evening at home, when he was a boy.
As with Ford, death lurks over the slow, sweet gathering as Agee recalls who is present. It ends: “One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.”
The older I get, the more I realize how my father and mother, in their own ways, were good to me.
Set to Barber’s music, Agee’s words never fail to make me mist up. Richard Ford’s memories touched me the same way. His mother and his father were good to him.
* * *
(As a companion to Richard Ford’s touching new book, may I suggest listening to the Eleanor Steber 1948 Carnegie Hall performance of “Knoxville 1915,” including the piano accompaniment by Edwin Biltcliffe.)
Aaron Copland died on Dec. 2, 1990.
We were driving north from Florida to New York on one of those all-nighters we used to pull.
As we drove through coastal Georgia and South Carolina, we listened to works by the great American composer, plus critiques of his career.
Past Brunswick, past Savannah, past Charleston, the radio played ballet scores like "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring" as well as concert pieces like "El Salón Mexico" and "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait."
When one station crackled out, just a slight adjustment produced another station, somewhere from 88 to 91 on the FM dial. All that evening, we scarcely missed a note of Copland’s musical references to cowboys and immigrants and martyred heroes.
We were connected to the culture of our entire country, not just Big Town but all the places where classical music touches the heart, the brain, the soul.
I count 17 NPR stations in Georgia and eight in South Carolina.
We know this country well enough to realize that it’s not all political bombast and preachers and country music and rock. As we drove north, in the regional cities and small towns and way out in the counties, people were driving or reading or even falling asleep to the work of the master from Boys High in Brooklyn, who never attended college but instead composed music.
This synchronized symphony along Interstate 95 was no accident. It came through a chain of National Public Radio stations, bringing classical music and news and features to all the people and subsidized in part by tax money, via public officials who have recognized, over the years, that pipers (and composers) must be paid.
Now National Public Radio is under siege, its subsidies threatened. The new regime seems to regard enlightened talk and classical music to be frivolous, even seditious.
In New York, we read that subsidies by wealthy and middle class patrons may keep our two radio stations going.
This means we can count on Brian Lehrer switching intellectual gears every weekday morning on WNYC-FM; we can expect Terrance McKnight to keep on playing his eclectic swath of classical music on WQXR-FM.
We’ll be all right. But in so many other places, the high end of talk and music is threatened.
There are worse things, more dangerous things, worth hectoring your local member of Congress. But In the midst of all the other causes, people need to stand up for National Public Radio, all over this land.
I always thought Chaim Tannenbaum was from Quebec. He was the lanky male presence behind the beloved Kate and Anna McGarrigle, instrumentals and passionate tenor – particularly singing the lead on “Dig My Grave.”
Talk about soul: Chaim Tannenbaum, singing gospel.
One night the sisters decamped in Symphony Space or Town Hall or somewhere, and Chaim was nowhere to be seen. The sisters sang a song or two before a fan shouted lustily, “Where’s Chaim?” The ladies shrugged as if to say, deal with it.
Maybe Chaim had a philosophy class to teach at Dawson College in Montreal. That was his day job.
Kate passed in 2010 and the torch is carried by Loudon, by Martha, by Rufus, in their ways. And at the age of 68, Chaim released his first solo CD, “Chaim Tannenbaum,” last year. Never too late.
One of his songs is “Brooklyn 1955,” about, you know, Next Year.
Turns out, Chaim is from Brownsville. Who knew?
We fans thought Next Year would never come, but the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the dreaded Yankees in that World Series and bells rang all over the Borough of Churches. (I can attest; I was in a soccer match in Brooklyn that afternoon.)
In this tribute, Chaim strums and sings about the hallowed Dodgers long before pre-hipster Brooklyn, catching the mood of a borough finally having its moment.
He’s been in Montreal for decades, and his Brooklyn history is a bit vague: people were already committing white flight in the early ‘50s, and Brownsville is not the total hellhole he describes. But he is right. Brooklyn, 1955, was a time and a place.
Stick with the video because at the end the great Red Barber recites the defensive lineup from the 1952 World Series -- my eventual friend George Shuba in left, plus Billy Cox, “The Hands,” at third base. And Barber promises that sometime that afternoon the fans would be “tearing up the pea-patch” in Ebbets Field, one of his signature phrases -- a southerner talking about a pea-patch. In Brooklyn.
(Below: Young Chaim Tannenbaum sings “Dig My Grave,” a cappella, 1984, Red Creek Inn in Rochester N.Y. with Anna McGarrigle, Kate McGarrigle and Dane Lanken, bass vocal.)
We always remember the first time. Somehow or other, I had never witnessed the live pre-game ritual of Liverpool fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” -- until last Tuesday.
Real soccer fans have witnessed it dozens of times, but I must be slow. Bummed by winter, a nasty bug, and the toxic new regime in my country, I tried to lose myself in a match -- starting with two minutes of Anfield stadium performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” with perfect timing, perfect enunciation.
(I’d seen it and heard it, of course, but never live, right before a match.)
This beautiful song is from “Carousel,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945, at the end of a war that almost took the world down. I still get teary when I see the Gordon Macrae-Shirley Jones movie, set in coastal Maine.
From what I read, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” became an anthem in Liverpool in 1963 when fans poured their hearts into a pre-game pop song on the loudspeaker – and immediately elevated it into the team’s greatest tradition. You can read about it here:
Soccer once again served as a diversion this week. And who doesn’t need at least a momentary diversion in these scary times? After the group singalong – red and white scarves waving -- I watched powerful Chelsea hold off the home team in a 1-1 draw.
Rory Smith, the very knowledgeable Brit who is covering Euro football for the New York Times, was underwhelmed by the match, but I was intrigued by the mischievous free kick goal by David Luiz of Chelsea when he spotted the Liverpool keeper dawdling and stepped past his teammate Willian to let one fly.
(The keeper’s cock-up, from “Howler:”)
Mediocre the game may have been – but at the extremely high level that Americans can only dream about for our stadiums.
Soccer continued Wednesday with a desperate Hull, facing relegation, gritting out a 0-0 draw with underperforming Manchester United – at Old Trafford. As a fan with no dog in the Premiership, I admit I enjoy seeing Man U humbled at home.
Speaking of big dogs, the United States is in big trouble for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia – no points in the first two qualifiers. The federation recently brought back Bruce Arena to try to rescue the four-year effort, before a pair of two “friendly” matches, but the first match was a thoroughly humiliating 0-0 draw with a third-string team from Serbia.
In the break between the two friendlies, Captain Michael Bradley – a hard competitor who usually keeps his thoughts to himself -- gave a typically neutral response to a question about Trump’s willy-nilly attempted ban on travel by people from seven mostly Muslim countries. But after deliberating, Bradley sent out an Instagram of depth and thought, including:
“The part I left out is how sad and embarrassed I am. When Trump was elected, I only hoped that ... President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That the xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong. And the Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”
Bradley seemed to represent athletes who compete against opponents of all races and religions – far different from the white citizens’ council assembled in DC.
After taking his stand, Bradley was rested for most of the tepid 1-0 victory over a reconstituted Jamaica squad Friday night. Most of the American regulars were otherwise engaged in European leagues, so the game served as a tryout for a few spots on the 2018 squad – if it gets to Russia.
The match also served as diversion, even while a Washington judge reminded the office-temp President that this remains a nation of laws -- and acceptance.
Earlier in the week, I got to hear a live rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I can only hope this erratic new “government” does not force the U.S. to walk alone.
The first time I heard The Band, late Sixties, I had known them all my life.
They were the music of Canada and the States – the guitars and basses, the drums and organ, the wails and whistles, the trains passing through, the wind in the pines.
I knew that music, even though they were just inventing it, four Canadians and a guy from Arkansas. The Band.
Now Robbie Robertson, who wrote many of the songs and played the guitar so beautifully, has lived to tell his tale, in “Testimony” -- his new book about the nuclear fusion that produced The Band.
I love shop talk from cops and miners and athletes and musicians and I learned a lot about how the Band came together – and broke apart.
For all that, I found myself profoundly saddened by the unsurprising lowest common denominators of these five people – the music and the drugs.
Richard Manuel hung himself at 40 and Rick Danko died in his sleep at 56 and Levon Helm lived to 71 when he succumbed to cancer, leaving Garth Hudson, now 79, and Robbie Robertson, now 73, in their very separate orbits.
Robertson wrote such haunting lyrics but cannot summon up one primal scream about the impending doom of his mates. (The book ends before all that comes down.) And then I wrote. And then I played. Lots of girls around. And then we broke out the white powder that fueled the rages and the withdrawals, the car wrecks and the illnesses.
I come at this, having only once held a joint and taken a few puffs, but I also inhaled enough second-hand smoke at the Fillmore and other places to know that the stuff works. I covered the Dylan-Band tour in New York in 1974; I briefly met all of them except Hudson, at other times.
Hardly naïve, I nevertheless felt saddened at Robertson’s book. Did all those drugs produce that glorious music, summon the pain and the insight and the chords? Or did those drugs, so casually discussed in his book -- a shopping list of wanton self-destruction -- keep some of them from enjoying middle age, to say nothing of old age? Depends on how you define “enjoy.”
It was the age. Robertson lists four or five geniuses he knew who died at 24. Twenty-four. People whose music still stirs me. They died for our pleasure?
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the most thoughtful, most generous person is, get this, Bob Dylan – who was close to Robertson, often there with a mature observation, a generous gesture. Dylan was a survivor, whose backup band caught fire only to crash and burn. He has lived long enough to show his butt long distance to the Nobel Prize people.
Thanksgiving was the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz, their farewell concert (and catered dinner) in San Francisco and the classic Scorsese documentary. We took our son when he was, what, nine? Last month, three generations filtered into a family den to watch segments of it. Oh, my God, how good they were.
I didn’t know much about Robertson, who tells about learning as a teen-ager that he was really the son of a Jewish gambler who died young, with exotic relatives in Toronto including a goniff-uncle right out of some Band songs, who later did time. Robbie’s striking mom, Rose Marie, earth mother to The Band, was of Mohawk descent, from the Six Nations Reservation near Toronto.
Robertson was drawn to write songs about characters and flim-flam artists and restless souls, like the Cajun wanderers who leave Louisiana, to sail home to Acadia:
“Set my compass north/ I got winter in my blood.” (I quote it all the time about why I winter on Long Island and not in Florida.)
Having helped a few folks write their books, I had this urge to pull more reflection, out of Robertson. “Talk about your own voice; why were you not a soloist?” “Slow down and tell us more about how you wrote some of those lyrics?” “Do you think rehab might have helped some of you?”
Am I asking too much of Robertson? This is, after all, the guy who wrote and played some of the most beautiful songs I know.
Imagine trying to get Mad Vincent to slow down, put down the palette, tell us what you were feeling when you painted the orchards and the stars?
So I don’t know how Robertson came to write “Rocking Chair,” about an old sailor who decides it’s time to stay home on the front porch. But I sing it when I am giving thanks I am puttering around the house with my headset on, not at some ball park.
It's for sure, I've spent my whole life at sea/
And I'm pushin' age seventy-three;
Now there's only one place that was meant for me:
Robbie Robertson just got there. I can’t help feeling badly that some of The Band didn’t get to those shores. But listen to what they left behind….
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: