Saturday, November 14, 2015
Article 4: Daniel Grayling Fogelberg
I first met Dan Fogelberg in the fall of 1969 at the Red Herring Coffeehouse in Urbana, Illinois, although it was not until March or April of 1970 that we spent any significant time together. I had seen Dan perform several times at the coffeehouse, and, like everyone else who saw him, was overwhelmed by his talent as a singer/songwriter. His vocals and guitar playing were extraordinary, and he was beginning to write songs that were better than anyone else's songs. His guitar work reminded me of a young Stephen Stills, who Dan idolized, and his vocals brought Jackson Browne or Neil Young to mind.
But Dan was more than an unusually good singer/songwriter; his presence on stage was magical. What set Dan apart from every other performer was his willingness to show his emotions and vulnerability on stage. He sang of and from the heart. That's what stunned everyone into adulation.
For several months I tried to figure out a way to approach Dan. I wanted to talk with him about music--and his music in particular. I wanted to find out what drove him, why he had written his songs. He lived on the north side of the University of Illinois campus, in a small basement apartment, so I showed up one night and knocked on his door. When the door opened, he looked at me and I asked, "Can we talk?" He said only, "Come on in." I first noticed a copy of James Joyce's Dubliners lying open on the linoleum floor of the entryway; maybe he had been reading. But when he invited me to sit down with him on the living room floor, I noticed his guitar out of the case. He'd been working on a song.
We talked for four hours straight--about music and love and life. We talked about our shared love of Gordon Lightfoot's music. I told him I'd just written my first song, "Morning Gray," and hadn't even learned the words or chords to it. At the end of four hours, when we were both exhausted, Dan said, "We haven't finished yet. Why don't you come back tomorrow night and bring your guitar." I returned the next night with my 12-string, and that session lasted another four hours, during which Dan played several of his songs, including a couple of new ones, and I played my one song. By the end of that song, Dan was playing lead guitar and singing a harmony on it.
During the next couple of years, we talked a lot about songwriting, and I was often the first person to hear a new song of his. He played the beautiful "Wysteria" for me the afternoon he wrote it. He didn't have a piano at his apartment, so I sometimes came upon him in Smith Music Hall (across the street from the Red Herring) working on a new song at an available piano. I sat next to him on the piano bench as he finished up his epic song, "The River." At one point I made a list of all of his songs that I'd heard. There were 85 of them, many of which he never performed on stage. (I remember titles like "The Subtract Blues" and "Malted Milk Blues" from a time when he was listening to Stephen Stills a lot.)
We had an interesting friendship. By the spring semester of 1971, I was living in a small room at Channing-Murray Foundation, which housed the Red Herring. Dan would knock on my door frequently, and we would put on a record or go out to McDonald's for a burger. We developed a "sixth sense" about each other, where we could feel the presence of the other person in a crowd of people. Maybe Dan had that with others, but he remarked matter-of-factly that we had it. I remember walking through the very crowded basement cafeteria of the student union one day, and as I came around a corner, he was sitting there, smiling, expecting me. He said, "I've been waiting for you; what took you so long?"
Dan pushed me to be a songwriter. Dan was the first to hear my early songwriting efforts, and he greatly encouraged me to keep writing. By sharing his songwriting ideas, I developed my own voice and style, and some of that style was borrowed directly from him. Two of those techniques jump to mind--the use of "internal" rhymes and alliteration. Dan liked rhyming two words that did not come at the end of successive lines, but were in the middle of those lines, so that at least two sets of rhymes resulted from two lines of lyrics. He also employed alliteration more often than most songwriters did. Here's an example of two lines I wrote but never used in a song:
Know how you're feeling, stealing the stars above
I'm staring at the ceiling, reeling from how I love you so
The internal rhymes of "feeling," "stealing," "ceiling" and "reeling" are obvious, but notice the alliteration with "stealing," "stars" and "staring." Those lines are a good example of the influence in craft I got from Dan's writing.
Of course, Dan's biggest influence on my songwriting was to urge me to not be afraid of writing from personal experiences and from the heart. As a tribute to him, I used the word "heart" in many of my early songs. It amazed me how he could translate a real event in his life into a song lyric that appealed and applied to all, without making it sound contrived or sentimental. That was the real beauty in his writing, and many of us aspired to that.
I would probably have stopped songwriting early in my "career" had it not been for Dan's pushing me. I was in full songwriting mode by December, 1970, when Albert Melshenker (then known as Steve Melshenker) asked me to join him in writing a folk opera, called The Ship. Albert was already an accomplished and prolific songwriter, and he liked my songs. When we asked Dan Fogelberg to join us in writing the folk opera, he initially agreed, but he soon bowed out to pursue his own career, which turned out to be a pretty good move.
The last of my songs that Dan heard was one that I wrote for him and his best friend, Elliott Delman, a month before both of them left Urbana for greater things. They were the only two people to ever hear the song, called Leave Easy. I misplaced the lyrics many years ago, but I still remember writing the song to tell him and Elliott what they meant to me.
Dan pushed me to perform in front of other people. I performed in front of coffeehouse audiences for the first time in the fall of 1970. Dan just told me that I'd be fine and he'd be there. He often played lead guitar for me after hearing my songs (at most) once. In the Red Herring 1970 Fall Folk Festival, I teamed up with Nancy and Judy Spratlin to play a bunch of original songs, and Dan sat in to play lead guitar and sing harmonies. Before going on stage, Dan told us that we were all good and deserved to be there in front of those 200 people. That meant the world to us.
I played solo many times after Dan left to pursue his career. Whenever stage fright would threaten to creep in, I thought of how Dan handled it--just try to play your best and let your heart show through. If you made a mistake, it was no big deal; the song was what mattered.
Feeling comfortable in front of an audience has stayed with me all of my life, whether it be leading a class in something like ballroom dancing or performing a new song at a friend's wedding. Dan was the first one to push me to enjoy performing.
And Finally.... By the early 1990's Dan and I had drifted apart, but I always picked up his new CD's and was amazed by his songs. I once asked him if, due to his prolific output, he was afraid of running out of ideas for songs, and he told me it was the opposite--the more he wrote, the more ideas he had.
One of my fondest memories of Dan is when I went to see him open the show for The Eagles at a large venue in Chicago, some time in the mid-1970's. I talked my way backstage near the end of his set and was standing with a group of about 20 people, including all of the guys from The Eagles, when Dan came off-stage after his last song. He handed his guitar to someone and then noticed me standing about 15 feet away. Without a word, he ran over and threw his arms around me. As we walked off together, I heard someone say, "Who is that guy?"
Dan Fogelberg died of prostate cancer on December 16, 2007. He and his wife, Jean, publicized his advanced disease with the sole goals of increasing prostate cancer awareness and raising money for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Once again, Dan's influence greatly impacted my life, for I have had four prostate biopsies and one minor surgery. I have been fortunate to avoid cancer and take every opportunity to urge my male friends to monitor their prostate health. Jean continues to contribute her time and beautiful art to PCF.