Earth Day

Alan Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg – Beat Poet

When I think about Philadelphia’s Belmont Plateau on April 22, 1970, I don’t think about thousands of stoned out hippies basking in the sun, reveling in the nation’s first Earth Day. I don’t think about Ralph Nader, Dune author Frank Herbert, Nobel Prize winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald, or Senator Ed Muskie.

What I do recall is an enthusiastic set by Native American rock group, Redbone; a bizarre, almost disturbing appearance by Beat Poet legend, Allen Ginsberg; and a characteristically inflammatory performance by my father, Ian McHarg. My dad, let it be said, cut a dashing figure and was at the very zenith of his popularity at the time. Ginsberg listened to every word like a man entranced. As my father stepped away from the podium, Ginsberg leaped from his chair, wrapped him in a bear hug and planted an enthusiastic, heartfelt kiss of appreciation right on his lips.

There, before God and thousands of witnesses, my father lived his worst nightmare. On the one hand, he was receiving adulation from a bona fide legend, and my dad was impressed by celebrity in a way that is, perhaps, unique to celebrities; people who dearly believe in the idea that being known has intrinsic value. So, feigning happiness was mandatory. On the other hand, he was a fearsome individual with a passion for intimidation – war hero, bully, tough guy – homophobia was woven into his tweed. Indeed, he once admitted that, if he had to choose, he would prefer a mentally retarded child to a gay one.

It would be many years before I came to understand that we hate what we fear and we build castles of rationalization around our fears to justify the hate. I can only speculate what there was lurking deep in my father’s subconscious that nurtured this very particular dread. He was not, as a rule, given to xenophobia; in general the rich contempt he felt for all humanity was spread equally across its sub-categories. I have also learned, painfully, that such disdain is always predicated on self-hatred.

My father’s shock was, at least, not incomprehensible. Ginsberg was almost certainly tripping on LSD that day, his eyes were the size of pie plates and I did not see him blink. Never a handsome man, Mr. Beat Poet was in the full-bearded phase of his career, an entire family of red-winged blackbirds might have broken it up into condos. He resembled nothing more closely than a wretched alcoholic living beneath a bridge.

Unlike the other speakers who, for the most part, were painfully cerebral and sincere to the point of tedium – even for hippies – Ginsberg was whacked. I have never been a fan of the Beats, who damaged American poetry so badly that its battered remains went to die on the lips of rappers; but even a tepid rendition of Howl would have been preferable to twenty minutes of chanting, harmonium squeezing and staring into the audience. I don’t think there was any part of my dad’s consciousness that could find common ground with that.

At his funeral I made the observation, “Wherever he is, he’s probably still trying to wipe that kiss off.”

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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.

Manic Depression: Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix

I was just 17 on March 31, 1968, the night I saw Jimi Hendrix in a tiny, converted tire warehouse in Philadelphia. Hendrix is iconic today, so I don’t need to describe the show. But back then he was absolutely new, unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. Playing with the guitar behind his head, plucking the strings with his teeth – it was astonishing. But most of all it was loud – we’re talking air raid siren loud. It overwhelmed like an Old Testament rain of fire.

When Hendrix sang his signature hit, Manic Depression, I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, much less that it would soon come to define my life. That concert was, perhaps, my first look at mania – real mania – the kind of mania that says – “I am about to set the world on fire and if you don’t like it you better get the fuck out of my way.” It was thrilling and overwhelming. Of course none of us knew then that Hendrix was like a meteor, burning up right before our eyes, and that he would be dead just two years later.

Hendrix was certainly not the only musical genius I’ve seen perform, but the experience was unique all the same. It is difficult to explain. A year later, in the summer of 1969, I worked for the Bureau Of Land Management in Alaska, fighting forest fires. I was part of a back-burning crew, meaning I walked through burning forests carrying a flamethrower. It was like that. A few years later, in Louisville, Kentucky, I watched a tornado tear through the city like hellfire, tossing houses into the air before smashing them to splinters like a fist. It was like that.

The tragedy of Hendrix is that we get to enjoy his work but he doesn’t. He stepped onto the Bipolar Express and never got off, hitting the wall at 100 mph. The poor guy was 27 when he died, with just 4 completed albums to his name.

In the years separating 1968 and 2012 I have come to understand mania only too well, and the music of Jimi Hendrix is encoded in my DNA. One of the many, many reasons I have to be grateful is that fame and adulation did not fuel my illness as they did for Hendrix; I would certainly be dead if they had.

Manic Depression is a frustratin’ mess!

I Sing Because I’m Happy, I Sing Because I’m Free

North Philly

I felt as though the air had grown thick; I navigated it laboriously, as one walks through knee-deep water. Sweetness and flavor were gone; colors had faded into a thousand gray variations. I was 26 and thoroughly adrift. In need of employment I followed a path worn smooth by thousands of over-educated lost souls before me, complete immersion in a dead-end, service sector job.

Penn Radio Cab was a poorly managed, independently owned taxi company that prospered by transporting Philadelphia’s under-served population throughout its most distressed neighborhoods. We were not Yellow, parked in front of swish hotels, on our way to the airport, oh no. Our days and nights were spent prowling the forbidding landscapes of North and West Philadelphia where money was scarce and life was cheap.

The management at Penn Radio exploited its drivers mercilessly – 12-hour shifts, 6-days a week, weekends mandatory, no exceptions. Saturdays were okay, but Sundays were useless, no fares, no money. Rolling the desolate, trash-lined streets, awash in post-apocalyptic rubble, cars on cinderblocks, hookers, junkies, cops, and newspaper delivery trucks, we ate donuts, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes.

Early one Sunday morning in April, gritty city trees in graffiti-smeared planters bravely pushing buds out into the carbon-monoxide, I answered a radio call in North Philly. It was a slim brick row house in a block of identical dwellings distinguished by the presence of bright green Astro-turf on the front steps. Out of the house, moving with precise determination; came a distinguished, buttoned-up black nurse. She got in the cab.

Philadelphia is known for its hospitals, so when she gave me the address of a Baptist Church I was confused. In my innocence I asked her if she was attending church on her way to work. She said no, she worked at the church. More curious still I asked her why a church would need to have a nurse on hand.

She said, “You know, in case somebody gets too happy.”

Then it all came to me, like a wave. Being a choirboy at St. Martin’s in the Fields, my mom driving me and my friends to the service on Sunday, listening to the live feed on WHAT from The Cornerstone Baptist Church at 33rd & Diamond Streets and the way the entire congregation sang with a completely unqualified euphoria of jubilee shout halleluiah until we couldn’t figure out why the building was still standing and even then I ached for that kind of belief, that faith, that mad commitment and wondered how it must feel to give yourself up to the divine and surrender and then we would go to St. Martin’s in the Fields and sing and men in tweed with their women in mink would fall asleep and I thought this can’t be what religion is.

And so I drove the nurse to her church.

Nocturnal Missions And Disappearing Acts

Moonlit Tours Cover

In 1976 I returned to Philadelphia after three years in Louisville where I worked for a newspaper and got an advanced degree. (I discovered later that an M.A. in creative writing virtually assures unemployability.) My mother had died, my father had taken up with a student of his, and I was well into a prolonged clinical depression. I had no family, no job prospects, and more importantly, no will; so I got a job as a cab driver.

There was an existential purity to that job; it was sublimely meaningless, which was deeply appealing.

For 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, a river of unimportant people flowed through the back seat of my cab. I can honestly say I didn’t care about them at all. Some were beautiful, some were ugly, some were entertaining, some were annoying – it didn’t make a difference. They all had one thing in common, the only important thing; they needed to go somewhere and they were willing to give me money if I took them.

One fine spring morning I was dispatched to a Pennsylvania State Liquor Store where I was to collect a fare and proceed to The Alden Park Manor, a stately red brick apartment complex abutting Fairmount Park. I pulled up to the curb and there, holding a brown paper bag and waiting patiently, was an attractive, middle-aged black woman with a wooden leg. (She was wearing a skirt and no stockings; the device was in plain sight.) Neatly dressed and perhaps a bit too thin to be healthy, she looked road-weary and yet oddly serene.

It was a short drive and conversation was minimal. She leaned forward to pay me and whispered.

“Would you like to come upstairs?”
“I really should be going.”
“I’ll give you a drink.” She wiggled the brown paper bag.
“Thanks a lot, but, I can’t drink on the job.”
“I’ll take off my leg,” her voice danced musically, “you can have a look.”
“Um. Well. Well. Um.” I simply could not think of anything appropriate to say.
“I’ll let you touch my stump.” Her smile was warm and generous.
“Yeah, I really do have to go.”
“I’ll pay you, I’ll give you $20.”
“That’s all right, thanks all the same.”
“The other drivers like it.” This was offered with a whiff of bitterness. She opened the door and got out.

I had been living in depression for a very long time, my own pain had become alpha and omega. For that instant she had forced me out of my prison and into hers. I felt the wreckage, the doom, the longing – the strange hunger that would cause a person to abandon all shame and propriety in order to be fed.

The world is larger than you know, I thought to myself.

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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.

***

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.