Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Love Note for Aram Saroyan, Artie Shaw, and my father

In 1967, my father brought home three LPs: Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, an Artie Shaw record, and an oddball disc by the Japan Self-Defense Force Marching Band (which he played for giggles, though he wasn't a big giggler). I remember being surprised at this mellow turn in his musical tastes, which had previously included The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and other reasonably hip (for his generation) stuff; when he was chipper, his aural pleasures included the Clancy Brothers, Theodore Bikel, Allan Sherman, Mickey Katz, and Gilbert & Sullivan. I was deeply impressed that my dad bought an Elektra sampler, "What's Shakin'?", that had the likes of Eric Clapton, the Lovin' Spoonful, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Tom Rush, on it. (My older brother, by contrast, listened to the Tijuana Brass, aka The Square Beatles, and Enoch Light; when a friend of his brought the recently-released Revolver over for a spin, it had the effect of alienating my bro forever from rock music.)

My dad was not only of the folk music generation, but of the one that - in order to hear music - built its own audio equipment. This was not an audiophile activity; on the contrary, it was probably because he didn't have any money. One of my earliest memories was of the months my mom and dad spent building a Heathkit amplifier, to which was connected, eventually a huge black Gerrard record changer. What fascinated me about this rig was the speaker. Everybody listened to mono in those days - stereo was exotic, and audiophile - and so my dad somehow obtained an enormous metal speaker. It had to be mounted in something, so out of nails and wood he built a gigantic box. His friend Clarence came over and we all marvelled as the connections were soldered and completed, and he was at long last able to fire the whole thing up. The speaker bounded and bounced and it was the biggest, richest sound I heard until years later, in a Memphis recording studio, I heard playbacks of the master tape of a Jeff Beck album being produced there (the so-called "Orange" album, produced by Steve Cropper, for those who care).

Anyway, one day I faked being sick in order to stay home from school. My parents both worked, so I had the house pretty much to myself. I did two things. First, I took down a box of Betty Crocker cake mix from the pantry and tried to bake a cake. This was a disaster, and I had a lot of cleaning and disposing to do before my mom came home from work at lunch to check on me. Second, I put the S&G album on the record player (by now a newly-purchased KLH... stereo!). I hated the rewrite of "Scarborough Fair" - such was the folk more-or-less purist in me - but the weird sad pastiche of "Silent Night/The Seven O'Clock News" grabbed me, particularly the part about Lenny Bruce, whom I was secretly discovering, and what sixties kid could resist fluff like "Cloudy" or "The 59th Street Bridge Song?" The clumsy rock/Dylan satires I skipped completely. Oddly enough, today I really like PSR&T, but on that morning I thought the whole proceedings dire and fey. So, I put on the Artie Shaw. And my mind was, as everybody liked to say back then, blown!

The intricate arrangements, Shaw's heroic soloing, and (on some tracks) Buddy Rich's out-of-control drumming, complete with shouting, astounded me. We actually already had someplace an old 45 of Shaw's milestone (and, he would later complain, millstone) hit, "Begin the Beguine," a classic, still played on the radio all the time. But hearing track after track of Artie Shaw made me understand music in, let's say, three dimensions. All my life from that day onward, I adored the music of Artie Shaw, and when I read about him - war hero, celebrity who renounced all his fame at its very peak, philosopher, ladies' man, and a kid who rose from a poor Jewish slum (he was born Avraham Ben-Yitzhak Arshawsky) - I found even more to admire. Not only that: he was a writer, penning several spirited, frank, and rueful memoirs. There's a new bio of him, as hit happens, about which there's a swell write-up at the New York Times. (A digression within a digression: according to the Times piece, and this is salutary stuff for poets, "A musician he identified only as 'a well-known clarinet player' once asked if he was ever afraid he’d miss that fiendish altissimo high C that ended his showpiece 'Concerto for Clarinet,' always the climax of his live sets. 'I said, "Put your hand on the table." He did, and I said, "Raise your index finger." He did. I said, "Were you afraid you’d miss?" "Well, no," he said, and then, "You mean, it’s like that?" "If it isn’t," I said, "don’t mess with it.”'")

Well, in this day and age you don't, I guess, go around blathering about Artie Shaw to be cool, so I never do. I built my own musical tastes on my dad's enormous record collection and moved into my own direction - playing Memphis power pop in half-baked bands was the culmination and end of it all - seldom looking back. My father wasn't the most attentive father one could wish for, but he gave me a roof over my head and a love of music; we didn't much get along, I'm sorry to say. Sorry because not long ago he suffered a pretty catastrophic health problem; visiting him in the ICU, I had to go through some classic Iron John emotional acrobatics to get straight in my mind and heart what I felt and thought about our long estrangement. Unable to speak, drifting in and out of consciousness, he was spared such belated self-reflectiveness - but time passes slow at someone's hospital bedside, so I had plenty to contemplate, believe me.

You've read all this goop so far and you're asking: what's this got to do with poetry, or Aram Saroyan, right?

Well, two things happened back on April 1st. One was I got a call at work to come home fast to say goodbye to my father: it didn't look like he was going to make it, though as of this writing, he's hanging onto his life. And the other was that, having been in a brief but very gratifying email correspondence with Aram Saroyan about various things - including Artie Shaw! - I received a lovely inscribed copy of his fabulous book, Artie Shaw Talking. As I tossed things frantically together for my flight, I took it with me - the only reading material I had the presence of mind to gather. And as I sat in the airport, I read it with joy and admiration.

Of this little book, Saroyan recently wrote:

"It recently dawned on me that the volumes of collected poems popular these days in trade publishing are often a literary auto-da-fe. Are there a dozen people who have read The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara or The Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg from cover to cover? On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Lunch Poems and Howl, first and still published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, have been prized and pored over by throngs of happy readers for decades.

For more than ten years I’ve had a small manuscript in my files called ‘Artie Shaw Talking’ – stories I transcribed from recordings of conversations with Shaw made two decades ago when we were neighbours in Southern California. The other night I decided to publish it. I uploaded everything to lulu.com, checked over the formatting and clicked ‘publish’. I then ordered three copies of the 64-page paperback. The price, including shipping and handling, came to less than thirty dollars. It took about an hour, all told.

A month earlier I’d done the same thing with a chapter from an unpublished memoir, and sent it out instead of a Christmas card. I received an unusually high number of thank-you notes surprisingly quickly. And a prime reason for that response, I’m certain, is that the piece could be read in under an hour, making it a comfortable fit between a blog entry or news story on the one hand and a normal-length book on the other."

To which he added, quoting Jack Kerouac: A book should be good companionship.

My trip home was very, very sad. But Saroyan's book afforded me the best possible companionship there could be, under the circumstances. I've written this blog post as a love letter to Aram Saroyan - whose gentle humanity and whose poems buoyed me up at this important moment of my life - and to Artie Shaw - and, of course, to my father; I hope my dad and I might someday be able to talk, for the first time, about the music we had in common all these years, about how music led me to poetry - but maybe that's just a fantasy. For now, and for my dad, for Aram (one poet helping the soul of another), and for you, my reader.... here's some Artie Shaw:

And here's a preview of Aram's book:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful peregrinating post, Don.

BTW, Should any of your readers want to have a copy of Artie Shaw Talking or download a pdf, they can find both options at lulu.com.