Two Voices

TWO VOICES

I want to acknowledge the passing today of two unique voices. It was my synchronistic good fortune to have enjoyed encounters with both, back in the day.

I resigned my Army commission after Vietnam in 1970 and moved to New York to study acting. Sanford Meisner, a seminal teacher of ‘The Method’ (along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg) headed the acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse, located on East 54th Street in Manhattan. In addition to receiving the guidance of a man responsible for shaping so many acting careers, students benefited from artists who returned, to give back and to motivate new aspirants. During my tenure, such visitors included Maureen Stapleton, Tony Randall, Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne.

Zerbe and Browne already enjoyed important careers in film and theater, but shared a passion for the Spoken Word and for poetry. Over the years, between gigs, they toured the country, offering performances of their own work and the words of writers like Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Amiri Baraka and Richard Wright. Their visit to the Playhouse was entertaining and inspiring, especially to me. Bear in mind that in 1971, unlike today, successful actors of color were very few and far between.

Roscoe Lee Browne had a courtly presence, a mellifluous baritone voice and a mischievous twinkle. His manner was elegant, rather old school and his diction precise and dramatic. He once recounted that early in his career, a director told him that his speech sounded ‘white’.” His response was disarmingly simple: “We had a white maid.” While perhaps not best known for his poetry, the passing of Roscoe Lee Browne is a loss for all who cherish elegant expression.

Often during breaks between classes, Playhouse students would hang out on the stoops across the street, enjoying a coffee or a smoke. One afternoon, I noticed a man approaching, someone I recognized immediately from his book jacket photos. This was one of my favorite authors (along with Joseph Heller, who’d written CATCH-22) and I immediately rose and introduced myself to Kurt Vonnegut, expressing my admiration of his work. Kurt lived with his wife in a nearby brownstone and enjoyed daily walks around his Upper East Side neighborhood. He was gracious and stopped for a few minutes to chat with me.

I’d learned to read when I was three and before reaching my teens had become passionate about science fiction. I discovered we had more than a few things in common, sharing an affection for the work of Asimov and Ray Bradbury. His perceptions were informed by his experiences during WW II. He served as an Infantry scout during the Battle of the Bulge, was captured and eventually interned in Dresden as a P.O.W. Tho Dresden was hardly a military target, the Allies decided to firebomb the city, destroying countless art treasures and killing at the very least 35,000 civilians. The true total of casualties remains in historic dispute; suffice it to say, ‘payback is a mutha.’ The POW’s survived, simply because they were imprisoned in an underground meat locker, a ‘kuhlschrank’, a slaughterhouse. Kurt and others were later put to work, extracting those countless corpses from the ruins and burning them, in large funeral pyres.

I’d also served in the Infantry, commanding an advisory team in the Mekong Delta. Infantrymen, like Marines and other grunts, feel an instinctive bond, knowing that our job description generally puts us on the cutting edge of combat. The mission of the Infantry: “To close with and destroy the enemy, thru fire and maneuver”. We are accustomed to having our faces in the mud, and dealing with the enemy, up close and personal. Kurt and I were both awarded the C.I.B. (Combat Infantryman’s Badge) and the Purple Heart, which are my two most valued decorations.

We didn’t speak of war that day, but I did discover that we shared something else in common – a preference for a particular brand of unfiltered cigarettes, rather difficult to find these days. They are called Pall Mall, and their slogan: “Wherever particular people congregate.” They are the only brand I’ve ever smoked and if they’re ever discontinued, I’ll probably manage to surrender a 46 year-old habit. In recent years, with characteristic humor, Kurt considered suing the makers of Pall Mall, saying “On the package they promise to kill me… and they still haven’t done it.”

Kurt’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five (which later became a film) was released in 1969. I’d read all of his earlier work and been entranced with his combination of science fiction, social commentary, irony and whimsy, books like Mother Night, Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle…but Slaughterhouse Five was the effort to articulate his life-altering experiences during WW II. Ironically, the Vietnam War was the catalyst that freed him – not to write a story about war, but simply to tell the truth.

In his own words: “Finally to talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly.” “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is… except for the birds.”

“I have told my sons that they are not, under any circumstances to take part in massacres and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.”

We shared another cigarette and at some point, classmates reminded me that our next school period was about to begin. I shook his hand and thanked him for our conversation. Over the passing years, I continued to enjoy his prose but I never forgot those few minutes spent in the company of an artist who knew and aptly expressed the insanity that is often a consequence of war.

“So it goes….”

11 April 2007

The Blind Poet – from Edinburgh Tales

THE BLIND POET

On a southbound (homeward) walk on Monday, I passed a pub whose billboard announced ‘an open mike for musicians’ at 10 PM, Tuesday. “We provide the instruments and sound. You provide the talent!” Hey now! That sounded like fun, a good way to blow off steam after tomorrows opening nite performance. I took their flyer and kept walking south, then passed a music store, went in and spent a happy hour trying out their selection of dobros. Reasonably priced from 300-1800 pounds, but I wondered about taxes and getting them safely home. I did pick up a new capo. I’d brought my slide but had forgotten my capo, along with a dozen other intended accessories.

I have a wonderfully compact Fernandez, a guitar with built-in amplifier, yet small enough to fit in an airplane overhead compartment. I’d thought to bring it with me to Edinburgh, reasoning it would support our busking (the process of going out into the festival streets and persuading people to attend your show, rather than the dozens of others – by any means necessary!) My playing could generate a crowd and my mates could then pass out flyers.

But there were potential problems. I was traveling alone and bringing my golf clubs. My guitar looks more like a gun case than instrument. It’s internal electronics might freak some security guard and end up being confiscated. And tho a few of the cast noticed I played, none had suggested “You should bring that, man, it could really help us!”
So in the end, I decided to let discretion be the better part of valor and travel light.

Once upon a time, I was seriously good. No brag, just fact. The music I’d gravitated to in the late 70’s was delta blues and pattern picking, the music of Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House and others from the 1920’s and 30’s. The music is somehow timeless. It seems to speak to all people and players of guitars…tho few can really play it. While filming the pilot for The Sarah Silverman Show last year (I portrayed God) I’d whiled away down time by sitting on my trailer steps and noodling on my Fernandez. The producers noticed and when they called me back this year to shoot an episode for their new season, they’d written a scene of God, sitting in the park, playing his guitar and Sarah walks up.

The exec producer, Dan was a musician himself, proficient on both banjo and guitar and I told him of my admiration for the music of Keb Mo, a wonderful contemporary blues artist. Dan knew of Keb but lacked the confidence to try some of his arrangements, saying, “Hey, I’m just a white kid, a Jewish kid.” (Well, hardly a kid, Dan ; )

I told him that my comfort and familiarity with these ancient patterns and progressions was entirely due to young white, Jewish kids. Black people seemed not drawn to the delta blues when I was growing up, perhaps it was a reminder of oppressed times, it was raw and unsophisticated…and in any case, we were then about achieving equality and civil rights for ourselves. But white kids like Bob Zaidman (“Now this is a Robert Johnson turnaround…”) Eddie Simon (Paul’s brother), who created the Guitar Study Center in NYC and many others came into my life in the late 70’s and early 80’s to give me a grounding in the early music of my people. It was the music of poor, itinerant musicians but nuanced and passionate. I’m grateful that I’m now able to share it with others.

So on Tuesday evening, after having shared a pint with my cast, following our first performance, I slipped away to book a slot in The Blind Poets venue. I hadn’t been particularly nervous during our first performance of Choke Point. It went well enough and we all knew we had more and better outings ahead…but I did now feel that good tingle in the belly, that fear generated by “Stand in the door!” just before a parachute jump. I like that fear. I like confronting it. I like the immediacy it brings to my being. I didn’t know if any of my cast would join me but I’d left directions and figured, “Sera, sera…”

I got to The Blind Poet about 9:45, asked about a sign in and was told the host would arrive around 10. They had a deal – three pints for 5 pounds. I wasn’t sure I could drink three pints at this point but I do love a bargain and decided I’d better get started. There was football on the flatscreen, scoreless (naturally) after 88 minutes and as 10 PM approached, the Brit team scored a goal! I cheered along with everyone else, reasoning maybe now they’ll turn this shit off and we can have some music.

They did turn it off after the game but only to their version of Sports Center and I went outside for a smoke. I passed a guy with a guitar case, sitting at a table and asked if he knew the deal, would there be a list? He was also here for the first time and we shared a smile of anticipation and tension. Let’s face it, you play in public, in front of strangers, there’s always the possibility of stepping on your dick and being hooted off the stage. Not that I expected such a result. I’ve played at the Palamino in LA, in Australia’s Voodoo Lounge, in Romania, in India… Pretty much anywhere I travel, a guitar will turn up and I’ll have the opportunity to sit in…or sit back and listen, which is also cool.

Not much gets me anxious these days. I’ve been around the block a time or two…but there is something about stepping in front of a group of strangers (no matter the country) getting their attention and drawing them into the blues. That’s about as good as it gets. “A strangers just a friend you ain’t met yet.” And blues are beloved around the world.

Sooo… it’s about 10:15, I’m on my second pint and a dude walks in with a guitar case and a mike stand. He returns with an amp and a couple of speakers. After giving him time to set up, I approached and asked about the possibility of participating. He offered me a sign-up sheet, beginning at 10:30, fifteen minute sets and I chose 10:45, figuring I could play, not too late and then roll on home. I looked up to notice Bill, entering with a smile, which pleased me no end. I was cool with doing this solo, but it would be nice to share it with a cast member. Bill told me that the others were enroute, left to get a beer and whiskey and I stepped outside for a calming smoke and to consider just what the hell I might play.

Yeah, I do this…but I hadn’t done this in some time. Let’s see, when was the last time I’d played in public? Damn, that’s a tough call. Australia had been ten years ago! Suffice it say, not recently. But I knew my hands were coming along, having worked off the rust on Sarah’s shoot. And I’d taken my Fernandez to Virginia last year on Evan Almighty and to Atlanta for Tyler Perry’s shoot…but I hadn’t sung in front of an audience in some time.

I’m a bit like the dancing horse. It ain’t about how well he dances, it’s about the fact that he dances at all. I’m hardly a Broadway baritone. Yet I’ve sung on Broadway. Reviewers before Vietnam described my voice as “a resonant shout.” It was powerful, untutored and curiously compelling. But that was then… I’ve smoked for 40 years, I drink, and I was shot thru the throat on an unhappy Sunday in Vietnam. Paralyzed vocal chord. Compensation. Learn to cope. Drive on.
Husky, resonant, smoky and underplayed works for blues.
So my facility as a singer is enabled by my ability to phrase, my actor’s commitment to story and my willingness to assume that persona who enjoys smoke and whiskey and evil hearted wimins.

As 10:30 approached and the first performer was mounting the stage, my cohorts appeared, full of brio and high spirits – Adam, LeeLee, Miranda (Miranda smiles like I act, she commits to it fully!) Colm, Eileen and Frederick! Goddamn, the gangs all here! Seeing them all was a rush, it felt really nice, that they would come out in support. They took seats at tables near the bar and I slipped out for one final smoke and consideration of my set. It wasn’t my guitar, I couldn’t know if the host might allow me to adjust his guitar for different songs in open tunings but…I knew I could start with Monday Mornin Blues and then assess the vibe of the room.

I gave Marina my camera, asked that she take a few shots, and told them to become the Robert Palmer girls during my appearance. I would engage the house and they could then go about, distributing flyers and talking up our show. Sounded like a plan to me. I was announced, my claque applauded and I moved to the stage, pulling along a bar stool, for I sit when I play. Like Mississippi Fred McDowell said, “I do not play no rock and roll, yaw’l…I play the straight nacheral blues”

The guitar felt comfortable in my hands. I put my capo on the second fret, dropped the low E string down two frets and began to pattern pick. This is something all guitar players recognize but not many can do. It’s like push ups on a guitar for me, a way to maintain chops and timing and touch, but in the process, deliver some pretty compelling rhythms and melodies. I got a sense of the neck and amplification, felt comfortable and slid into Monday Mornin’ Blues.

It went well, the house liked it and expressed their approval. Other musicians were giving me their attention and affirmation; I had made the space safe and my own. I decided to try Kind Hearted Woman, a Robert Johnson standard. Knew I could play it but struggled to sing it, the key not really to my liking and I couldn’t support the octave falsettos so integral to that piece. I fought my way thru, took it home and the audience was kindly appreciative. I called out to Bill to look in my knapsack for my slide and vamped while he quickly found and brought it forward to me.

I tuned down to open G, tried my slide and loved the richness and ease of playing this guitar! I decided to play Walkin’ Blues and began the nasty comp in G, checking within to see if this key would allow me to support the melody and its variations. Fuck it, here we go. I love Walkin Blues, it’s the only song I ever recorded on a real LP (a compilation of artists on Fast Folk Records.) I took it home, enjoying it as much as the house had… and somehow realized this is something I’d done for many years – performing in public – and something I’d stopped doing, many years ago. Not because I couldn’t. Not because audiences didn’t enjoy it. But somewhere, somehow, I lost my joy. Perhaps I realized I could never be as good as I wanted to be, as good as others I admired. Perhaps I came to believe I no longer deserved such pleasure. I’m better today, and the therapy and Lexopro helps. I noticed in my photos that the guitar I played that night was a Martin. I once owned a beautiful Martin 000-28. I sold it when I bought my home, fearful of deserving both. These days, I’m thinking it’s about time I bought a new guitar…

The host called time, for it was about 11, but my claque clamored for ‘one more’…and the patrons supported their request. I decided to close with “From Four til Late” a Robert Johnson song I’d arranged on my album, the melody taken from another Delta bluesman whose name just now escapes me (but I will correct this, in time to come)
It’s a longing song, gentle and ironic (“A woman is like a dresser, some man’s always rambling thru its drawers”) and it’s remained one of my favorites, over the years.

I finished, they applauded. I was full, they were happy…But waaaait a minute. What happened to my “Robert Palmer girls” and giving out flyers?!!! Miranda and Leelee copped a plea, they’d gotten too involved and had forgotten to work the room. I was forgiving. Colm spoke briefly about Choke Point. The host was gracious in his praise and I left the stage, basking…

Reminded of so many appearances in years long past.
Remembering that I still enjoy that feeling.
Realizing that I might still have something to offer to others, musically.

Now…let’s look into that new guitar…