‘Easy with those tomatoes’ Archive

Green Acres

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

It might have been a warm spring night, the sort of night where the moon seems to glow and promise drips from every budding tree. It was a party, a community dance, maybe, on the second floor, perhaps, of a grand old hotel in a small town in the center of  Massachusetts. It might have been in 1965-era Technicolor, the colors garish and brilliant, like new toys.

Who knows what the occasion was – veteran’s benefit, May Day, a municipal election. But there he was at the piano: play a song, toss off a witty remark, play another song. He loved being the center of attention – the town librarian, Tony Randall on the set of Green Acres, married to the sharp-tongued, take-no-prisoners town clerk; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, opening about as far off Broadway as you can get.

I was not at this party – it was long before I met Jim Sullivan. But I can see it – just like all the folks at his funeral could see it, vividly, knowing Jim and his love of the stage. He was an artist, an actor, a raging egotist, a generous mentor, and one of the most maddening men I’ve ever met. And he was my father-in-law, until the middle of October, when one morning he wasn’t feeling too well, and the next evening he was dead.

In many ways, life and the limelight were not particularly kind to Jim Sullivan. He aspired to be a great poet – he even nominated himself (there’s that ego, there) for the Pulitzer Prize – but recognition studiously escaped him. His wife died far too young. Parkinson’s eventually robbed him of his hands, and his ability to drive, and thus his spotlight. But in many other ways, he was as successful as any of us could ever dream. The town of Barre was his canvas – everybody, but everybody, knew him; he was omnipresent in town government, veteran’s affairs, social and intellectual life. He wrote a poem for the Barre Gazette every single week, just about, for thirty years or so – the last one appeared the day after he died. Life gave him a small pond, and he was as big a fish as they’d ever have.

Artists beget artists. His son is a newspaperman and a novelist; his daughter is a writer. His daughter hates the limelight, she says – yes, she bristled at her father’s egotism, and doesn’t want to be like that, but man, I’ve seen her work a room. It’s in her blood – she can’t fight it. And I – well, it seems that there’s this gesture that Jim made with his finger when he was holding forth that I can reproduce, almost eerily, as if I inherited it from him. He was a ham; I’m a ham.

Live performance is an ephemeral thing. Most performances aren’t recorded, in any way, except in our memories. They happen, and they’re gone. But the impact they have on people can last for decades. They’re fragile, weightless, but yet, at times, as substantial for the witnesses (and participants) as a rock.

My wife misses her father terribly, in good ways and in bad. In his illness, he was the center of her attention for almost a year. But the town of Barre has the luxury of missing him in those ways that recall the beauty and the impact of that night on the second floor of the grand hotel. Each of us, as an artist, has a chance to have that sort of effect on an audience; and each of you, the audience, has a chance at that memory, if you put down your book, put on your coat, and join the party.

You Can’t Learn Performance In Your Living Room

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

The other night, I was channel surfing – no, it’s not practicing, but my thumb does get a workout, so maybe it counts – and I happened across a half-hour Comedy Central presentation featuring a comedian named Myq Kaplan. This, frankly, astonished me, because the last time I saw Myq Kaplan in person – and I concede that this was several years ago – he was telling jokes at the Club Passim open mike, and, well, he was not, um, funny.

Now, one of the lovely, if slightly demented, things about the folk acoustic open mike scene is that, as my old pal Ken Batts liked to point out, everyone’s good – in other words, we’re too polite not to applaud. It’s like cosmic background radiation – there’s a level below which the applause never goes. That’s nice, and supportive, and welcoming, but it’s also planned. You can plan applause. You can think to yourself, “Well, I’ll give him an A for effort, even though it’s clear that he only took up the glockenspiel yesterday afternoon, perhaps on a dare”, and you’ll calibrate your applause appropriately, but it’ll still be applause.

Not funny, however, can’t hide behind a smattering of polite laughter. You can’t plan laughter. It doesn’t happen. And my primary memory of Myq Kaplan is watching him for five minutes, dying, as they say, in a room occupied mostly by his voice and the occasional cough (followed at the end, of course, by polite applause). Which is why I was kind of astonished to discover that, several years later, Myq Kaplan is a riot. His timing is splendid, his facial expressions are scrumptious, his stage persona is well-crafted, and his jokes made me laugh fairly hard.

How in the world did this happen? Well, it happened because Myq Kaplan stood on stage at Club Passim and died, among other things. There ain’t no substitute for learning in public – none. A few years ago, I wrote a song called “The Band That Never Was” – good song, no room for it in the rotation, don’t perform it much. But it pretty much captured the essence of the “hell, I could do that if I tried” school of performance:

I got blisters on my fingers from the pull tabs on the soda cans
I got carpal tunnel syndrome from waving at my imaginary fans
The pressure’s more than you can know
That’s why we’re mostly incognito
We have parts to learn and songs to write
Maybe we’ll do it tomorrow

I’ve been performing solo since 1997. And in the beginning, I’m absolutely certain I sucked. (Back then, of course, I was convinced I was a genius, but, well, you live and learn.) But I kept getting on stage, over and over, until I became the epic master of stagecraft you see before you today. And sure, it’s had a lot to do with great advice I’ve gotten along the way, but all of it – all of it – happened because it happened in public. After a while, you learn what works and what doesn’t; which rules to follow and which rules to break; when the audience is right and when you are (and yes, sometimes the audience is wrong). But you can’t learn that in your living room (unless your living room is regularly occupied by random strangers).

So the next time you’re at an open mike, or you’re at a coffeehouse and an open mike erupts around you: yes, you’ll hear the glockenspiel guy. And you may be tempted to provide nothing more than a cosmic background radiation level of applause. But for all you know, you may be listening to somebody who will turn into me, or Myq Kaplan, or Lori McKenna. So be generous.