Show Time Is No Time For Mercy

opera house from stage

For twelve consecutive years I occupied space in an academic hothouse we’ll call Throckmorton Academy, an oasis of genteel entitlement located, improbably, in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Germantown. Germantown was very chic in the horse and carriage days, today it is known for its cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, urban decay, and crime.

All Throckmorton Academy graduates went on to name-brand colleges and universities, universally admired marquee status institutions. This tradition was accepted as law, like gravity, or the idea that everybody likes Italian food. While quality standards were high throughout, Throckmorton Academy was particularly proud of its music department which enjoyed an international reputation. Indeed, its choir would routinely embark on European tours, working rooms like York Minster, widely considered the world’s greatest Gothic cathedral.

Presiding over the music department with the subtlety Idi Amin brought to the task of governing Uganda, and standing just five feet tall, Abigail Urqhardt – Miss Urqhardt to us – was built like a fireplug. Childless and single she ate, slept, sneezed, and certainly dreamed music which was no mere career for her but a language with which one could express the ineffable, a transcendent world where miracles were always nearby. A merciless perfectionist she beat us like a rented mule inspiring resentment, fear, admiration, and fierce loyalty.

Miss Urqhardt was fanatical about punctuality and begrudgingly endured an endless succession of excuses for tardiness, often penned by doting parents keen to grease the skids for children already suffering from a surfeit of privilege and indulgence. One day during choir practice a young lady swept into the room late and demonstrated a level of contrition insufficient to satisfy Miss Urqhardt. She froze, scanned the entire room silently – chilling us in turn, and spoke at last.

“The day will come when you are on stage performing this piece with a room full of people looking right at you. You will be judged on your performance alone. You will not have the opportunity to say to the audience – I’m sorry this performance isn’t better but my mom had a flat tire and I got to rehearsal late – I’m sorry my entrances are shabby but my brother stole my sheet music – I’m sorry that what you’re about to hear isn’t as good as it could be but I had lacrosse practice. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

We looked at the floor, avoiding her eyes. “Excuses,” she said at last, “are for amateurs” – practically spitting the final word.

All Aboard The Bipolar Express!

30th Street Station

I learned how to read and perform choral music a cappella in the damp, chilly basement of St. Martin in the Fields, a swank Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Without flogging an ailing nag let’s just say that St. Martins is adjacent to the grass tennis courts of The Philadelphia Cricket Club about which, the less said…Ironically, I returned to St. Martins decades later for an AA meeting, indeed, many of “the rooms” are located in the glamourless confines of church basements. But, as ever, I am ahead of myself.

The Choir Master was an intense, closeted homosexual who lived at home with his mother and brother, a countertenor. (His brother’s solos caused us discomfort and wonder.) Mr. Wilkinson was a driven, obsessive perfectionist; he whipped us into shape mercilessly, like a man whipping a rented mule. Because this was a boy’s choir, featuring the pristine, clear sound of male voices not yet cracked by the oncoming deluge of what is laughingly referred to as adulthood, we were all roughly the same age, in the 8-12 bracket. The congregation was accustomed to getting what it wanted and it wanted high-end music. Wilkinson delivered.

We practiced 3 evenings weekly and before service on Sunday. We were paid regularly, in pay envelopes, and got perks like presents and stints at summer camp. In other words, even though we were wisenheimer punks our approach to the music was dispassionately professional – we were not merely tight, we were kettledrum tight.

In that basement I learned music, performance, and Christmas. Ever since those days, really good authentic Christmas music has been my favorite part of the season, for many years it was the only part I could stomach.

The following excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING recounts my most memorable Christmas concert ever; I played 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. While in the midst of a manic flight, I “played” 30th Street Station – which is to say – I “played” 30th Street Station.

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I felt like walking so I parked my car in the lot next to 30th Street Station. Thirtieth Street Station is an enormous Greek style train station that stands next to an elaborate yard handling freight trains, local trains, and long distance passenger trains. It’s a conduit for all North/South train travel. The station recalls a day when great power was based on rail transportation, before cars took over. But I’m not here to talk about what the station can recall, I’m talking about what I recall. It’s a massive building with a main hall as large as a football field and a ceiling that’s a hundred feet overhead. I remember as a child arriving in the station, climbing up the stairs from the train into the great hall, and feeling as though I was outside, the ceiling seemed that remote. On a whim I walked into the hall. There were early rising, upwardly mobile businesspeople swirling about, drinking coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal and licking boots just to keep in practice. Waiting for trains to New York and D.C. I looked up at the ceiling, puckered, and blew a note. It rang out in the hall, echoing off the marble, taking forever to decay.

Some things decay quite quickly, western civilization for example, but the note decayed slowly. I whistled the same note twice, two short blasts. Full bore, lots of volume, nicely amplified by the enormous hall. I drifted into a rousing rendition of “Ding, dong merrily on high.” Walked around the room and tested the acoustics from different angles. People were starting to eye me curiously but hey, was that going to bother me? I found that it actually took so long for the sound to die that I could use the echo as a base and whistle on top of it. Now I was doing the carol as a round, using the echo as a second voice. I found this highly amusing, simply droll, just too too funny, trés amusante, and tried it out with several carols. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Good King Wenceslas. Joy to the World. The music intoxicated me. People were eyeing me suspiciously, as if to say, it’s awfully early in the morning to be so cheerful, what’s wrong with this picture? I Saw Three Ships. I was wailing now.

I kept walking around the room as I performed, harder to hit a moving target. I knew that sooner or later some long-suffering lowly hod carrier, some factotum, some dolt, some running dog lackey of the petite bourgeoisie would tell me to put a lid on it. Away In A Manger. To amuse myself I tried different tones and different speeds. With turbocharged intensity I whistled as fast as I could. Then I hit on something that gassed me. Boparoopie. The speed made it possible to hang notes in the air long enough to lay another melody on top of them. So I started whistling discordant pairs of carols.

First a phrase from Joy To The World. Then, with those notes floating above the heads of my unsuspecting and defenseless audience like angels with erections, (I should point out that it was the notes that bore a resemblance to angels with erections, not my audience, my audience bore a resemblance to alien zombies just back from a shopping trip to John Wanamaker’s), a phrase from Good King Wenceslas. Back and forth. It took some puckering but I was getting such a jolt from it that I just kept going. An impromptu, improbable, Christmas happening in your face you whitebread corn pone brain dead blockhead. Something to tell your better half tonight. This guy, he was whistling two Christmas carols at the same time, it was weird. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, this is my Christmas present to you. A tribute to the immensity of your spirit. A little duty-free gift for the traveler. Roland Kirk, God rest his soul, should there be one, and if there is, fuck you pal, I’m tired of carrying water, do you hear me, was a wonderful jazz musician who, among other amazing feats too numerous to go into here, although I’m tempted, often played two saxophones at the same time.

When I hit the end of my number, lightheaded from the expenditure of breath, I headed for the door. I scanned the faces for responses. Some grins, mostly from the souls living closer to the cliffs. Some scowls. If they can’t take a joke, throw them the hell off the bus. Some good old-fashioned confusion, what does it mean? But I felt good. I knew I’d nailed it to the wall. Alistair’s extra-normal tribute to Christmas. Alistair, the man who plays flute, saxophone and train station. I hit the door without any slatch, no stationmaster’s condemnation. A perfectly executed piece of performance art. Out the door he goes.

One For The Money

Even The Greatest Paintings Are Flat

“Take no prisoners!” That’s what legendary singer Billy Paul used to tell his band right before going on stage.

I’ve been a performer all my life, singer, poet, comedian, lecturer, maniacal street celebrity. (HIDEOUS DETAILS AVAILABLE HERE).

For much of what I laughingly refer to as “my career” I regarded assassins as the apex of professionalism – heartless and methodical, all business, all technique.

Over the years my attitude about performance has transformed, closely tracking my recovery.

At first I thought of “the act” as a mask I clung onto with white knuckles, until one could not tell where it ended and my face began.

As I became more comfortable and facile in front of a crowd, moving with glib, even condescending confidence, I polished the mask until it shone so brightly even the people sitting in the very last row needed sunglasses.

Then something happened, I grew more confident still and suddenly craft and “art” became less fascinating.

I must credit a few very special people for carrying me across the river; by watching these world class artists perform I discovered that craft is only a tool.

Real art, I came to understand, lies in opening up your true self and sharing what you have, whatever it is that makes you special, whatever it is that’s unavailable anywhere else.

Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, Keith Jarrett, Sarah Vaughan, Sun Ra, and Jimi Hendrix.

When these people left the stage they didn’t take anything with them, they gave it all. All of them shared one essential quality; fearless generosity.

Craft is just something you internalize until you can forget it altogether and be yourself – cool, relaxed, smile on your face – bathing in the spotlight’s unforgiving chill.