Saturday, November 14, 2015
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.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
I met Reverend W. Edward Harris in late 1970, soon after he began to serve as minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana/Champaign (UUCUC). At that time, UUCUC owned the Channing-Murray Foundation (CMF), an on-campus student foundation at the University of Illinois. That foundation housed the very popular Red Herring Coffeehouse and was run by several full- and part-time staff members. Ed Harris visited CMF several times a month and held monthly staff meetings there. That's where I first met Ed and began to talk with him.
Ed Harris was from the South, born in Florida and raised mostly in Alabama. He had an affable, Southern accent and was a mix of homespun hospitality, empathy and kindness. I believe he was raised a Southern Baptist, but after getting his masters at Tufts University, he began working at the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Boston, where he was ordained in 1968. The Arlington Street Church is one of the most prominent U-U churches in the country--liberal and community-oriented. (In 2004, it was the site of the first same-sex marriage in the United States.) Ed began working at the UUCUC immediately after his work at the Arlington Street Church.
Consistent with his Unitarian beliefs, Ed was a passionate civil rights and political activist. He served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union and had been president of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union. He pioneered voter registration campaigns, served on the Birmingham Anti-Poverty Committee and worked extensively on the campaigns of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. He also served on the Democratic National Committee.
I began to visit Ed frequently at UUCUC to have one-on-one conversations about a variety of things. I really enjoyed the work of the foundation, which not only provided many student services, but supported several community programs, such as a drug hotline, Alcoholics Anonymous, Big Brother and a farmers market. The full-time staff members were all conscientious objectors, and when I talked with them about their beliefs, I soon realized that they coincided with mine.
Ed pushed me to live by my values and take a political stance. Before I met Ed, my political views drifted back and forth between the Democratic and Republican Parties. My parents and friends had mostly been Republicans during my youth, but as I got into college I met more people who grew up as Democrats. One's party choice was up for grabs as the Vietnam War era began to unfold, as early as 1962. The first U.S. anti-war demonstrations were in 1964. By 1968, I was so much against Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam that I preferred Nixon in the 1968 election. My voting preference was completely out of sync with my personal beliefs and values.
Ed Harris began to clarify the issues for me. I soon discovered that the man voiced his opinions, and that those opinions were based on deep beliefs. I had never met anyone who was passionate about civil rights; the extent of my civil rights knowledge came from what I saw on television and read in the newspaper, plus a few lessons I had learned from my father (such as driving through the streets of Detroit and seeing the immediate aftermath of the 1967 race riots).
Ed pressed the issues much further for me and others. For the first time in my life, I began to see that civil rights are fundamental to our existence as a civilized democracy. Voting rights are a vital part of those civil rights. It is important to stress that Ed did not flaunt his political affiliations in our discussions; he spoke only about his beliefs and actions. As a Unitarian minister, he was used to hearing all sides of an issue and speaking clearly and convincingly about what he thought was right.
Ed was a storyteller par excellence. Everyone in our little community had opinions about the Vietnam War and all of the different movements taking place in the 1960's, but none of us had seen the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement first-hand, led by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, as Ed had. He helped shuttle people from the Birmingham Airport to the site of the Birmingham march. And on Sunday, September 15, 1963, Ed was one of a handful of white men who visited the homes of parents who had lost their daughters that day in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing [as told to me by his wife, Sandra]. Ed's stories could top anyone's, because they spoke of pivotal events in this country's civil rights movement.
Ed pushed me and others to live by our values and to take a political (and often moral) stance.
Ed pushed me to be aware of and act on my conscientious objector views. Ed had served in the United States Marine Corps, but he was very supportive of the nationwide Unitarian Universalist policy of providing alternate service positions to conscientious objectors. When the subject of military service (and the Vietnam War) came up between us, I readily voiced my scattered, unstructured beliefs that I was against wars and violent means of solving problems. Ed helped me place structure to those beliefs. He taught me what it was to be a conscientious objector, and questioned me extensively about what I thought and felt.
Ed knew I'd been in ROTC for four years (three in high school, one in college) and had even fired on a rifle team for three years, but he also knew about the transformation I'd experienced after my father's death in late 1968. During our talks, Ed was a counselor more than anyone else had been for me. After it was clear that I was, at heart, a conscientious objector, he provided counseling on how to apply for full CO status. Our discussions were the basis for my answers to the four questions each applicant must answer on their CO application. He reviewed my answers and wrote a wonderful letter to the draft board in support of my sincerity.
My CO status was approved in the late spring of 1971. I was the first person in my draft district to achieve full CO status without having to appear before the draft board. Part of the reason was that I had already begun my alternate service with Channing-Murray Foundation and had informed the draft board of that. I was sincere in my beliefs and sure that I wanted to commit to two years of alternate service, whether or not my draft number was reached for that year. (It wasn't.) But a big part of the reason was that Ed Harris pushed me to be aware of and act on my beliefs in the first place.
And Finally.... Ed Harris died on August 10, 2012, at the age of 77. After leaving Urbana Champaign in 1983, he led Unitarian Universalist congregations in Indianapolis, IN, Bethesda, MD, Evanston, IL and Manhasset, NY. We kept close contact through the 1980's and infrequent contact after that, mostly via Christmas letters. (Recently I renewed contact with Ed's wife, Sandra Harris, and it was great to speak with her again and talk about Ed.)
Ed became a wonderful writer and poet in the last third of his life. He had seven books published, including the acclaimed Miracle in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Memoir, 1954-1965. In 2000, he sent me a booklet of his American Sijo poems, called Still My Love for you Increases. His hand-written note to me said, "I am still working on my civil rights memoir - No Flame Like Birmingham [the original title?]. Got interested in sijo and put this little book together for my friends." He was a dear friend, beyond being a remarkable person in my life.
When I think of Ed, I can't help but think of the time at a CMF staff meeting, when several of us complained about the next-door sorority, whose members kept filling our parking lot spaces with cars and trash bins with garbage. He paused for effect and blurted out, "We're going to bomb that f*****g sorority." We were all stunned by his candor, considered his practical solution, and then burst out laughing. He made one phone call, and the problems were solved. Ed was a soft-spoken, humorous, humble person who knew how to get things done.
Ed did a lot of good things for a lot of people in his life. He certainly changed my life in profound ways. In our last communication, in 2001, he recommended a Unitarian minister in Dayton, Ohio, to perform the wedding ceremony for me and my wife, Suzanne. As with just about everything from Ed, that was pretty good advice.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
I met Paul Dale Anderson in early summer of 1967. Paul had opened a used bookstore on Main Street in Rockford, Illinois, and a friend told me I had to check it out. The store was called "The A," which stood for "The Arts." It was filled with old books and comic books, most (if not all) of which were originally owned by Paul. He simply didn't have enough space to store his thousands of old books, so he decided to open a bookstore and sell them.
But the store was more than just a bookstore and comic book shop. It was also a "head" shop, with black light posters, incense, pipes, beads and an assortment of things that would appeal to Love Generation youth. When you entered the front door, you left Rockford behind and entered an environment straight out of Chicago's Old Town or New York's Greenwich Village of the 1960's. There was no discernible organization to the place. Books were everywhere, posters were on the walls and ceiling, Paul's oil paintings were tucked here and there in nooks, and one or two chess boards were always set up, ready for use. Music (mostly classical and folk) played constantly on the 8-track cassette, and the smell of pipe tobacco and incense engulfed you as you entered the front door. The whole place was a challenge to all of your senses, and I loved it.
For the next couple of years, my sister and I spent a lot of time with Paul in that store. We kept the coffee fresh, waited on customers, worked the cash register, put posters on the walls and organized book shelves (to the extent they could be organized). We helped Paul set up a coffeehouse in the basement of the store, where several of the area folksingers would perform. We loved the atmosphere of the place, where there was always stimulating conversation, on-going chess games, music and books, books, books.
Paul grew up in Rockford and majored in journalism and philosophy at the University of Illinois. Five years older than I, he worked with Roger Ebert on the Daily Illini, the school's award-winning newspaper. He is the first Renaissance man I ever knew. In the years I spent with him, he was an accomplished actor, painter, writer and general bon vivant, with his habitual two-day beard, sly grin and hands that looked like he'd just cleaned and packed his pipe (which he probably had).
Paul Anderson pushed me to appreciate the arts. Paul was the first person to shove a book into my hands and say, "You have to read this." His tastes in art and literature defined "eclectic." He turned me on to the stories of Wolfe and Hemingway and Vonnegut and Salinger, the poems of T.S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw. He was the first to introduce me to fine art, especially the paintings of Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer.
On any given day we might be sitting in his shop, sipping coffee and awaiting the presence of customers, and he would grab some book off a shelf and read a passage aloud to whomever was there. You might get a poem by Emily Dickinson or a few pages from Kerouac or Heinlein.
That was one thing that was so great about knowing Paul: you never knew what you'd hear next from him, but it was likely to push you in a direction you hadn't expected. The sheer volume and breadth of his knowledge was astounding, and he shared it, kindly and thoughtfully, with others. His generosity changed the course of my life.
Paul Anderson pushed me to be a critical thinker. Paul was also the first person to highly encourage me to think critically about a subject. He started a series of drop-in discussions in his bookstore, and an evening's topic could be on anything--a work of art, a movie, politics, a person, a philosophy of life. It was called the Penny University. If you paid a penny to partake in the discussion, you could sit in and say as much or as little as you wished over the course of a couple hours.
It was typical for the Penny University to attract a number of bright people who were not shy in voicing their opinions and thoughts. Paul always encouraged me to jump into the conversations, although I was initially shy and unsure of myself in front of such an intellectual group. His respect for my opinions really pushed me to think critically about art, events and issues for the first time in my life. It is a habit and facility that I carry with me to this day.
And Finally.... Paul Dale Anderson has become a very well-known writer in the "horror, fantasy, science fiction, and suspense-thriller genres," as his website states. He's written, as of the website's last update, 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He's taught creative writing and been an editor for several publications, a hotel manager, a librarian and a board-certified hypnotist. That's just the beginning of what Paul has accomplished in his lifetime, but we'll err on the side of modesty here.
More than anyone else, Paul helped me and my family when my father was gravely ill and after he died. (Ironically, his father died only three weeks after my father died, in December of 1968.) He was there for us throughout that ordeal, and I will always be grateful to him for his love and guidance during that time.
Periodically, I reread a short story of Paul's called "The Understanding." In it, he describes the two bronze lions outside the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the first I knew of those lions, guarding the gateway to some of the greatest art in the world. Paul, you opened the gates to all of art for me. Thank you, my friend.
I met Thom Bishop in the fall of 1970. Our paths crossed at The Red Herring Coffeehouse on the University of Illinois campus, where we each performed frequently. Thom would either perform solo or with his friend, Fred Rubin, and I always tried to catch their one-hour sets, because they were two of the best in the endless array of musical talent on campus. To me, Thom had a stage presence that was somewhere between Buddy Holly and John Lennon. The Buddy Holly comparison wasn't hard to make, because Thom did several Buddy Holly songs (like "That'll Be The Day" and "Peggy Sue") and just nailed them. But with his leather jacket and quick, penetrating wit, Thom reminded me of a young John Lennon.
Early in our friendship, Thom and I passed each other on the Herring steps one night and he asked where I was headed. I told him I was going to drop in and see a play at the nearby Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I remember him saying, "You go to a lot of things there, don't you?" We chatted for a few minutes about our mutual love of theater, and in his modest, off-handed way, he suggested that I go to see Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot the next week. It turned out that Thom was starring in the play as one of the two main characters. It was then that I found out he was a theater major.
Although our friendship began to grow, the first pivotal night of conversation occurred a few months later, after I had moved into the building that housed The Red Herring. I was working at the coffeehouse almost every night and would see Thom quite often. At some point, the subject of Janis Ian's music came up, and I said that I was a big fan of hers. Thom said he'd never really listened to her music, so I invited him into my little room to listen to one of her songs. We sat and listened to two full albums, and we talked about music into the night.
Over the next two and a half years, we spent a lot of time together. We would play our new songs for each other when we finished them and attend each other's coffeehouse sets. For some reason (whether Thom asked me or I asked him), I sat in one night for one of Thom's sets, playing a second guitar and adding harmony to the songs I knew. It was completely unrehearsed. Midway through the set, he announced that he was going to do a song he'd just completed that week--one that I hadn't heard yet. I sat quietly next to him while he played the amazing "Mr. Arthur's Place," one of the greatest pieces of songwriting I've ever heard. What a treat to be sitting on stage next to someone performing an instant classic! (The song was later recorded by Michael Johnson and Mandy Patinkin.) When he finished, he looked over at me and grinned, just knowing he'd blown me away.
That is the nature of our friendship--subtle surprises and a closeness that is usually accompanied by an inexplicable magic. More than once, while walking alone on campus, I'd glance over to find him walking next to me, and we would continue a conversation from days past, without even saying hello. One of our favorite pastimes was to hop in his car late at night and drive on the country roads outside Urbana, either talking or listening to the night's sounds. I remember two particular episodes from those nocturnal rides.
One night as we were driving adjacent to a large cemetery, I saw a set of headlights keeping up with us from inside the cemetery. Near the end of 200-yard stretch, the headlights suddenly disappeared. Thom asked, "Did you see that?" I said something brilliant, like, "Yeah, headlights, what...?" We both knew there was no road in the cemetery, nor was it a reflection of our headlights, and then we both came to the same conclusion: some kid was still racing his car, long after he'd been killed doing it. It was our James Dean moment.
And then there was the time that Thom decided to stop along a country road in front of a dark, deserted farmhouse one warm summer night. Neither of us had been there before. There were high cornfields on all sides, and without a word we walked around the property to the back side of the barn, which was brightly lit by the shining moon. We stood there in silence for a minute, and then I had this stark impression that we had walked into an Andrew Wyeth painting. The light and air were eerily reminiscent of Wyeth, and we were the subject of his work. Thom knew exactly what I was saying. It did not seem so unusual for us to experience.
Thom pushed me to create. Thom may be the most creative person I've ever known. What's so impressive is that he's applied that creativity in so many ways--songwriting, acting, musical scores, and the writing of plays, short stories and novels. He's made several excellent albums, and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan and Richie Havens, among others. I also highly recommend his debut novel, "Something Gorgeous," in which he has created a parallel, yet divergent, universe to "The Great Gatsby."
In his constant, unrelenting pursuit of art, he has always pushed me to create. The "push" has been subtle, more like a constant reminder. One of his favorite questions for me is not, "What are you doing these days," but "What are you creating these days?" Creating something is Thom's lifeblood, and, as trite as it may sound, his creativity has inspired me to create in my lifetime. He made me realize that I am not really at peace and satisfied with life unless I am creating something. I have produced songs, essays, stories, poems, blogs, works in glass and ceramics. All of those have given me great joy and a degree of accomplishment, but only one thing has given me complete fulfillment and pleasure--writing computer programs.
Stanford Professor Donald Knuth once said, "Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty." Over my 42 years of creating computer programs, in 13 languages and almost 50 business markets, I have always approached the process as I would approach writing a novel--with inspired ideas, a deep and organized structure, work discipline, clarity of purpose, a good plot and a flair for words. I remember talking with a friend in the early 1980's about "elegant solutions" in computer programming, and what we were really discussing was one's desire to create beautiful, useful things with computers.
I associate that unabashed urge in me to create with the example Thom has set and encouraged as long as I have known him.
And Finally.... Thom lives in Boulder, Colorado, and teaches at both Naropa University and the University of Colorado. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which is a program co-founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He is also a lecturer for the U. of C.'s Film Studies Department.
Whenever we talk (and we both feel it is not nearly often enough), it is like walking side-by-side again and having our chats about music and literature and life and what we're creating. It is a place of real comfort for me.
I remember getting a call from Thom some time in the early 1980's, when he was in Nashville or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles working on a project. He told me that a mutual friend of ours, songwriter Fred Koller, was getting married the following Saturday on a beach in Santa Cruz, and would I please show up and take a bottle of Champagne from both of us? It was just the type of thing he knew I'd do, and Fred was delighted when I walked up to him on the beach and told him Thom sent his regrets for not attending but wished him well.
Thom showed up in my life unexpectedly, just at the right time.