I’m not completely pleased with what the purchase of a Jimmy Yancey CD revealed about me.

I was looking to acquire more Yancey recordings, no doubt. During a car trip with my wife, I had played several discs from a blues anthology which included some Yancey. Every time he came up, she started tapping her foot along with the music. She responded equally well when I played a whole CD of Yancey for her. (It turns out she likes boogie woogie in general.) But I had only two Yancey CDs.

Does that matter? Yancey is a special case. I think of him as the Thelonious Monk of boogie woogie, a musician who despite an apparently limited technique managed to create compelling music. But unlike Monk, Yancey had a very limited repertoire. Many of his recordings are almost exactly the same music with different titles. One of the Yancey CDs I already had was Vol. 1 of a complete edition of his 78s, which runs to three discs. But there is so much repetition on Vol. 1 that I never felt compelled to buy the other two. (The other one I already had includes several items on which Yancey accompanies his wife in some creaky but tasty blues.)

Still, knowing I didn’t need any more Yancey, I still went looking at listings and found something I could not resist: “The Unissued 1951 Yancey Wire Recordings.” They were made at Yancey’s home, shortly before he died, at a small party. Conversation interferes with some of the music. Some of the recordings were damaged and have a lot of noise on them. And some of the music isn’t even played by Yancey. It’s played by other people who were at the party, the first four items by someone whose name nobody involved in the production could remember.

As soon as I read about this CD, though, I had to have it. I didn’t know about the limitations I’ve mentioned above until I got the disc, but I didn’t care. It was magic, Yancey that nobody had ever heard until this CD was issued. And the idea of wire recordings resonated strongly with me because when I was a kid my family had a wire recorder. I remember it as a low-fi medium, and the recordings on this CD are certainly not state-of-the-art for 1951. But they sound better than I would have expected.

So what does this CD add to my appreciation of Jimmy Yancey? Hardly anything. Actually I got more of interest from the extensive booklet than from the recordings. Yancey’s only known vocal is on one of these items (“Royal Garden Blues,” not typical Yancey repertoire), but it’s nothing special. I just had to have it, though. And having heard it and realized the limitations of its interest–I can’t even play it for my wife, who would probably find it annoying–I’m still not going to get rid of it.

That’s who I am. I’m a collector. I’ve managed to get a little more rational about this in recent years, but not enough.

While looking through my small boogie-woogie collection, though, I did revive my interest in a similar item from the same CD label, Document. It’s “Pete Johnson: The St. Louis Parties of July 30 and August 1, 1954.” Johnson is a very different musician from Yancey, an amazing virtuoso who could seeming play almost anything. On recordings he was typecast as a blues and boogie-woogie pianist, and there’s nobody better. But on these party recordings, Johnson plays a much wider range of music and shows us how good he could be with material like “Stardust” and “Perdido.” (He even plays “Yancey Special,” jokingly including references to other songs.) That’s the kind of revelatory recording that I don’t feel I need any excuses for keeping.

Recently I was watching, again, the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie “Shall We Dance?” and was surprised to find tears running down my cheeks.

The tears occurred during the amazing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” number where, after the wonderful duet singing of the wonderful Gershwin song (Ira’s lyrics as important as George’s melody, both inspired), the two do a dance on roller skates. It’s an astonishing sequence, as close to perfection as anything human can be. As usual, Astaire insisted on filming in long takes so the audience could see that he and Ginger were actually able to do the whole number, not just small segments spliced together. (Accounts I’ve read indicate that Fred insisted on endless rehearsals.)

There’s something about seeing anyone do anything that well that I find extremely powerful and moving. I have those same goosebumps and tears when I hear Fats Waller play James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” That stride piano solo was what the Harlem pianists used to call a “cutting” piece, one that the pianists used to compete against each other. Johnson’s original recording is extremely impressive, but Waller has him beat.

Having once been a low-grade amateur pianist, I can feel viscerally how difficult it is to play that “stride” bass (single notes in the bass followed by chords an octave or so higher), hitting all the skips accurately. Waller does it with perfect accuracy and such lightness of touch that he makes it seem easy.

Some of my outside knowledge probably contributes to the intensity of my reaction. I know that Waller’s recording was made on a 78 master, so that what you hear is exactly what he played in that three minutes without any editing. (Much like Astaire’s long takes in the films!) He could have done it over until he was satisfied with a “take,” but he probably didn’t have to. In fact, there is an alternate take still in existence and it’s just about as good. And when you hear Waller in a radio broadcast playing his own equally-difficult “A Handful of Keys,” it’s always perfectly accurate too. I also know that Waller wanted to play classical piano, and even studied for a time with the master pianist Leopold Godowsky. He loved to play Bach’s organ music on church organs whenever he got the chance. But there were no opportunities for black classical pianists. And the recordings Waller made of classical organ music were destroyed by the company.

One of my long-held ambitions was finally realized in 2011 when I got to publish a two-CD set of live performances by my late friend Jacob Lateiner. During Jacob’s lifetime I had often suggested to him–even going back to the LP days of the late 1960s–that we issue live performances of his, but he always resisted. After he died in 2010, his widow Amy and I got our hands on a number of tapes of Jacob’s concerts and I selected two of them to publish.

The set simply had to include Jacob’s playing of Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.” He had recorded a technically amazing performance of the piece for Westminster in the 1950s, but in later years he had become very dissatisfied with that recording because he “found more music in the piece,” as he put it, and he was right. Listening to a recording of a performance given at the Juilliard School of Music in 1977 (for which I was in the audience,) I focused on the variation (No. 8 from Book 1) which requires even more difficult skips than “Carolina Shout.” Nobody plays it perfectly, not even the great Wilhelm Backhaus in his legendary 1927 recording (from 78 masters, so there’s no splicing there either). So I listened to find out how many of those bass notes Jacob missed in his live performance. None. And hearing that gave me the chills too.

I guess it’s artistic perfection that affects me the most. I remember, for example, walking through an ancient English estate outside of London and marveling at how poor I found the quality of the old paintings which filled the walls of the many rooms. Suddenly, I rounded a corner and saw a painting of an old woman, and I burst into tears. When I recovered, I looked at the label and saw that it was Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother.

Still, sometimes I can see other wonderful human activities that fill me with the same overwhelming awe. I still remember, when I was about 11, seeing the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cincinnati Reds at Ebbets Field. Ted Kluszewski, the Reds’ big catcher, hit a long fly ball which landed in the far right field corner. Carl Furillo, my favorite Dodger (Jackie Robinson was second), was noted for his amazing throwing arm. He picked up the ball as Kluszewski was rounding second base and threw it to Billy Cox at third. Cox held out his glove, moved it a few inches as the ball arrived, caught it and tagged out Kluszewski. So Furillo had thrown the ball the farthest distance possible inside the ball park and landed within inches of his target. It remains the most amazing action I’ve ever seen a human being perform, and still gives me the chills when I remember it.

One night in 1988, I was at my brother’s apartment on Long Island with a batch of his friends, watching Mike Tyson take on the boxer who was supposed to be his greatest challenge to date, Michael Spinks. During the preliminary bouts, one attendee had too much beer to drink. So when the Tyson fight started, he got up and went to the toilet to pee. By the time he returned, Tyson had knocked out Spinks. (One boxing writer claimed that on that night Tyson would probably have beaten any heavyweight who ever lived, and I think he may have been right.) Learning that he had missed the whole fight, the drunk said, “Aw, what a chiz! That fight was a waste of money.” I replied, “My friend, perfection is cheap at any price.”

The phone rings. It’s 2 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
A woman is on the line.
She left him three months ago.
Now he calls her all the time.
Tells her what she has to do.
One day she brought him their son
straight from the playground.
He complained the boy was dirty.
Told the mediator she was
not taking care of him.
He doesn’t want to pay. He curses.
He promises she cannot win this.
What can she do?

The phone rings. It’s 10 P.M.
It’s the answering service.
A woman is on the line.
She saw him again outside,
looking in the window.
She called the cops. She has an order.
The doors all locked. They did not come.
Her friends won’t visit. They’re afraid.
She won’t leave. It’s her fucking house!
The cops arrived two hours later.
They were sorry. Someone died.
She showed them her longest scars and
she played them some messages.
She won’t go to court again.
The judge got angry. She has no more
money for a lawyer.
What can she do?
Can I help her?

The phone rings. It’s 3 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
An emergency room call.
I meet my partner. She looks beat,
all gray, and blinking like a frog.
We go to meet our latest victim.
She is fat. Her face is wet.
She tells the cops she was asleep.
The window crashed and he was on her.
She tried to fight. He hit her hard.
The sun is rising on her cheek.
I hold her hand, then my partner’s
as they cry. I try not to.

The phone rings. It’s 2 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
Someone at the sheriff’s office.
I meet my partner. She looks angry.
She has heard part of the story.
I hear, she met him in Mobile.
He was handsome, nice clothes, suit.
He had money, took her dancing.
Didn’t even try to kiss her.
She was nineteen. Three weeks later
he sent her an airplane ticket.
Married her.
Didn’t beat her for a month.
Then, she didn’t fold the clothes right,
supper late, one night she went out,
didn’t answer when he called.
He looked at the phone bill. Who’s that?
Some old Alabama boyfriend?
Don’t make calls when I’m not here!
That night he hit her, broke her cheek, then
took her to the hospital and
went out drinking, told her she should
take a cab home.

The phone rings. It’s 4 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
She is at the hospital.
I meet my partner. The room’s full
of doctors, cops, and mostly nurses
because she’s one of them and they
all love her.
Second marriage, nine months old.
Threatened her before. This is
the first time he has ever hit her.
It will be the last.
Her face is purple.
She won’t have to go to court.
The cops have everything. They have him.
She never wants to see him again.

The phone rings. It’s 3 P.M.
It’s the office.
The victim that we saw last week
went home. She’s dead.
The funeral is tomorrow.

The phone rings.

I wrote this poem as a result of my experiences for 19 years as a volunteer for the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. While the program helps victims of all kinds of crime, the volunteers respond to a hot line which serves victims of rape and domestic violence. Every two months, two volunteers go on call during the hours when the office isn’t open, 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. and all weekend. We went mostly to hospitals and police stations.

The hospital calls often occurred when rape victims were brought to the S.A.N.E. (Sexual Assault Nurse Examination) Unit. The S.A.N.E. procedures were originated by a group of hospital nurses in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1991. At that time, the District Attorney of Ulster County was a man named Frank Kavanaugh. He read about S.A.N.E. in a law enforcement magazine and decided that Ulster County had to have that program as soon as possible. Nurses from Ulster County went to Tulsa for training, and the Ulster County program began soon afterwards, the second one on the U.S. The program is now very widespread and provides humane treatment for rape victims along with useful evidence for prosecutions.

Since very strict confidentiality prevails in the CVAP, I’ve never shared any of my experiences as a volunteer without thoroughly disguising any potentially identifying details. That is true of the poem, which changes some details and uses composite characters. But it’s as true to my experience as I could make it.

I wrote the poem in 2008 at the beginning of a poetry workshop run by Sharon Olds at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. It was a response to a writing prompt Olds gave, and I was thinking only of that, and of my experiences, when I wrote it. We all read our poems after a lunch break, and it was only then that I realized that the other nine people in the workshop, all women, were hanging on my words to find out who I was. I felt a perceptible relaxation go around the room as I read, and we all got along fine after that.

            The recent stories concerning the IPO of Facebook, in which huge amounts of money were lost very quickly, reminded me vividly of my own experience with an Internet start-up company. It took place well over a decade ago, but the results seem to me very similar. Arthur Brisbane, the “Public Editor” (formerly ombudsman) for the New York Times, wrote an article for the June 3 issue explaining that the Times had done a pretty good job of setting out the real situation with the Facebook IPO but that it could have done better for its readers who aren’t already financial experts. I coulda told ‘em.From 1980 until 1991, I worked as a DJ for WDST, in Woodstock, which was at the time a wonderful radio station appealing to many interests and vividly reflecting the character of its home town. I’ve written about this experience already in this series. When I left WDST, it was because my Sunday afternoon program was being eliminated and I knew that was the time when I reached the most people. (In 1987, an Arbitron survey revealed that my classical music program was reaching more listeners than the programs of any other Ulster County radio station, an unusual success.)

More than five years after I left WDST, I got a call from the program director, Richard Fusco. He was someone I had worked with, and while we weren’t exactly best buddies—he was the guy who yelled at me for playing music by Steve Reich, a few years before the owner asked me to interview Reich—I was willing to talk to him.

Richard outlined for me a grand project that the owner and staff of WDST were about to start. It was to be called Radio Woodstock, and it was going to be an Internet project with several simultaneous streams of programming coming from Woodstock and promoted to the outside world. Among the people he mentioned as having agreed to become part of the project were Richie Havens, one of the best-known musicians ever to live in Woodstock, and Randall Craig Fleischer, then and still music director of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. I was particularly impressed that Fleisher had agreed to work for them, since I have great respect for the guy. He’s a superb musician.

I had a few questions, mostly about the hours and working conditions. Then I asked what the job was going to pay. “Not very much at first,” Richard told me, “but people who start out with Radio Woodstock are going to have a stake in it and eventually they will make a lot of money.”

“That’s interesting,” I replied, “but where is the money going to come from?”

Richard told me that several large music industry companies had already committed to investing millions of dollars in Radio Woodstock to get it off the ground. I said I was impressed, but I still didn’t understand where the revenue stream was going to come from. “You can’t run advertising as part of the programming,” I said. “There are already so many Internet radio stations that as soon as ads come on people will switch to something else.”

Richard agreed. “We’ll run banner ads on the site,” he told me. That won’t raise very much, I said. He agreed with that, too, but said it was a start. “We’ll also sell the music we play,” he said. “People will be able to order CDs right on the website.” That sounded like a trivial source of income as well. When I asked where else the money was going to come from, Richard hesitated and couldn’t come up with a convincing answer.

For that reason, I decided not to get involved in Radio Woodstock. I just couldn’t understand where the money to support it was going to come from. I guess nobody else did, either. Radio Woodstock ran through most of the millions of dollars in three years, and then had to shut down most of its operations. Nobody got rich. (It still runs three audio streams, one of which is the current WDST broadcast.)

When I think back on this whole episode, I think it reflects a great deal about the difficulties of making money on Internet enterprises that don’t offer physical goods for sale. Amazon makes a fortune, but Facebook, despite its billion users, seems to be struggling. (I believe Facebook makes most of its income peddling its users’ information to advertisers, which is why I don’t use it.)

In fact, it seems to me that Radio Woodstock was a perfect set-up for a scam like the one in Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” Get a lot of investment, use only some of it, and then tell all the investors that all the money has been lost. Perhaps that was the story of Radio Woodstock. But, being an honest person myself, I prefer to believe that the money was lost through honest stupidity.

    My former girlfriend, the late Anne Dinger, was a superb cook. I used to embarrass her by calling her the best cook I’d ever eaten. She gave me one piece of bad cooking advice, though, which led to my discovery of Lodge Logic.

Anne was fond of cast iron cookware, for good reasons. So am I, now that I’ve had the experience. Anne taught me to use a cast iron skillet, and she told me that it had to be protected from rust. But her preferred method of drying her skillet was wiping it down and then putting it on the stove on high heat until any remaining water had evaporated.

One sad day, about a year ago, I used this method, as I had for years. But then I left the house on an errand and forgot to turn off the heat. By the time I got back, the skillet had oxidized beyond repair. I’m lucky I didn’t burn the house down.

I’ve seen old cast iron cookware at yard sales and flea markets many times, but usually at high prices and often in rather rusty condition. Just for the hell of it, I decided to try my usual last resort for specialty items and checked out Amazon. Sure enough, they had a 12″ cast iron skillet made by a company called Lodge Logic, offered at only $20.97. Because I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber, I didn’t even have to pay for shipping.

That’s a good thing because, when the thing arrived, it weighed eight pounds! It was thicker and heavier than the old one I had ruined. And, to my surprise, it wasn’t made in China. It was made in the U.S.!

I’ve now been using this skillet for about six months. There’s one thing about it I don’t love. It’s heavy! My right shoulder isn’t 100%, so sometimes I have to pick the thing up left-handed. And when it’s very hot, even with two hot pads it’s difficult to manipulate. If I want to pour some liquid out of it, I have a really hard time. This weight, though, is part of the skillet’s quality, so I really can’t complain about it.

In every other respect, though, it’s a dream to use. Its surface is mottled, rather than smooth like my old skillet, which results in much less sticking to it. Anything that does stick is easily scrubbed off. It cooks very, very well, thoroughly and quickly. I’ve become rather fond of a brand of frozen fish burgers (Seafood Doctor swai burgers) and another of turkey burgers (Bubba), and I make them rather often for dinner. They cook more thoroughly on the Lodge skillet than they did on my antique, and in a bit less time.

Anne to the contrary, Lodge’s instructions say that the pan should be cleaned without soap, using a stiff brush (I use a copper scrubber), then dried and re-oiled. Emeril’s cooking oil spray works great, although–regrettable waste–I rub it down with a paper towel. Just one.

I was so curious about this company that I looked it up. Lodge Cast Iron is located in the small town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, where it has been making cookware since 1896. Although the company imports enamel coated cast iron cookware from China, it makes everything else at its factory in South Pittsburg. The company even boasts about, and details, its ecological responsibility.

Recently, while visiting my house on Cape Cod, I discovered that a small non-stick frying pan had been worn bald by summer tenants. I decided to replace it with an iron pan. I went to the Cape Cod Flea Market in Wellfleet and found someone who sold antique iron cookware, and I bought a small pan from him although it needed some rehabilitation. Later the same day I was at my favorite local hardware store, Conwell Hardware in Provincetown, and I found the same size brand new Lodge pan, at the same price I’d paid for the antique. Someday I’ll do the work the old pan needs, but for that moment I thought wotthehell and I bought the Lodge pan. It’s probably better.

On the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend, Tom Pacheco gave one of his occasional performances in Woodstock, his home town. The Colony Café, as usual for his shows, was jammed. And we got more than our money’s worth.

I’ve known Tom slightly since my days in Phoencia, almost four decades ago, when I used to hear him sing at the White Water Depot in Mt. Tremper (to the left, Tom backstage at the WWD with Tiny Tim) and played pinball with him. (I was a pretty good player on the pinball machines of that era, although Tom usually beat me.) He was away living in Europe (where he still does most of his performances) for a decade. Since he returned to Woodstock, I’ve done my best to catch every show he does.

Tom is a powerful performer and a powerful songwriter. He covers the usual songwriters’ topics–love, lost love, friends, mortality–but adds a strong dose of social commitment unusual in contemporary music. When I hear contemporary “anthems,” songs about our people and the world we live in, they tend to be maudlin and embarrassing. Not Tom’s! He can write a song like “There Was a Time” without sentimentality or haranguing, but it still carries a great deal of power.

When you sign onto his website, you get him singing “Big Muddy River,” a song reminiscent of Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” except that it really is about flooding and also about politics. (Seeger played banjo on two tracks of Tom’s album “There Was a Time.”) You can hear right away how powerfully Tom performs, and how urgent his communication is. (I once complimented him on his diction, and he told me he works at it a lot.) His guitar playing is strongly rhythmic and compelling. And he even manages to play occasional harmonica without sounding klutzy.

Reading a profile of Tom in last week’s Woodstock Times, I was unsurprised to see that he is a very prolific songwriter. There are always a few old favorites in his shows–“Blue Montana Sky,” “There Was a Time,” “The Hills of Woodstock,” “Solidarity”–but most of the material is new or recent. Sometimes the songs have some rough edges, a line or two that doesn’t work quite right, an image that doesn’t quite fit. He must have gone on to the next song. It doesn’t matter. They still work.

One of the newer songs in Tom’s performance was a tribute to Woody Guthrie. It was completely appropriate. Tom is, in my opinion, the closest thing to Woody Guthrie I know on the current music scene, except that he plays guitar a lot better than Woody did.

Being so prolific, Tom has recorded many albums. The two “Secret Hits” compilations are good places to start getting acquainted with his songs, and of the two I’d try Vol. 2 first. But in any Tom Pacheco recording, as in any performance, the guy’s passion and commitment always come through vividly. He’s one of my favorites, and maybe even one of my heroes.

It was back in the early 1980s. I saw a few small posters–just 8 ½ X 11 sheets–advertising a piano recital in Woodstock by somebody I had never heard of named Morey Hall. He was playing at the Kleinert Gallery, the most prestigious year-round concert venue in Woodstock. But I saw so little publicity for this concert that I suspected he had just hired the place.

I was already writing classical music reviews for the Woodstock Times, and I could have tried to get in touch with someone to get free tickets. But I had an uncertain feeling about this event. So I decided to go and buy my ticket, and if Hall was surprisingly good, I would write about him. My girlfriend Anne and her son Greg, both musicians, went with me.

When we got there, about 15 minutes before concert time, we found two people who had obviously come with Hall, taking money. Nobody else was there. By concert time, two more people had drifted in. So the concert started with seven people in the audience.

The program begin with a baroque suite by the obscure composer Domenico Zipoli. Within seconds it became apparent that Hall couldn’t play worth a damn. The music was quite simple, but even at his cautious tempos he halted and fumbled and made a mess out of everything. The rest of the first half of the program was Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12, music written for a virtuoso pianist. Hall played through the more difficult pieces at around half their proper tempo, but still continued to fumble. It was really painful.

At intermission, Greg and Anne and I went outside so Anne could have a cigarette. As she smoked, I asked the dreaded question: “Are we going back in there?”

“We can’t leave now,” said Anne. “We’re almost half his audience!”

“I know,” I said, “but do we want to hear what he is going to do to Schubert?”

“Right,” said Greg. We left.

This performance was a “tryout” for a recital Hall was about to give at the Albany Institute of History and Art, an institution I have regarded with the greatest suspicion since I heard Hall. My friend Rich Capparela was working at a radio station in Schenectady and living nearby, so I did my best to trick him into going to the concert. He couldn’t make it, but he did some investigation and learned that Hall was studying with Findlay Cockrell, one of the best pianists in the area. He heard that Cockrell had once told Hall not to come for any more lessons, and that Hall had camped out on Cockrell’s front lawn until Cockrell relented.

That was my last thought of Morey Hall until about ten years ago, when I met Cockrell at a recital. A mutual friend introduced us. “Oh, yes,” I said, “the teacher of Morey Hall.” Cockrell looked daggers at me until I started to laugh.

After I explained that I had heard Hall and that he had my full sympathy, Cockrell told me a story about Hall. Through Christian Science circles, Hall arranged an invitation to play for the great pianist Malcolm Frager, who lived less than an hour away from him. Frager listened to Hall play his entire concert, and then said, “Good. Now go home and don’t ever play the piano again.”

There are two aspects of this story that interested me greatly. One was that I had met Frager and found him a very kind man. The other was that Cockrell knew of the incident. There was no way he could have learned it unless Hall had told him.

Hall was a horrible musician, but the worst classical music performer I ever heard was William F. Buckley, Jr. Yes, that William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley studied the harpsichord for years with the great harpsichordist Fernando Valenti, and he wrote an article about his studies which I read somewhere, probably in the New York Times Magazine. Buckley had become acquainted with Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, and had invited Botstein to be a guest on his TV show “Firing Line.” Botstein, in return, invited Buckley to perform with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, which he had created and of which he was music director.

Buckley’s participation in the program was curious indeed. He was scheduled to play Bach’s solo “Chromatic Fantasy” (but not the difficult fugue which follows it), then the second and first (of three) movements of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, in that order. This, I thought, is someone very much aware of his own limitations.

But I was wrong. Buckley couldn’t come close to playing even the easier music he had selected. During the “Chromatic Fantasy,” there were long stretches of the piece in which he played more wrong notes than correct ones. In the Concerto, the orchestra covered some of the musical transgressions–especially since Botstein, highly inept himself at this early stage of his conducting career, had no idea of how to balance an orchestra with the quiet harpsichord. But you could still hear enough to tell it was a disaster. I was amused to see Buckley moving his head closer to the music and squinting as if somehow seeing the notes more clearly would help him play them. It’s a gesture I’d often seen in children’s piano recitals.

Whenever I hear a musical performance I’m not fond of, I think back on these events and sigh.

I’m not a great maker of practical jokes, although I appreciate a good one (my definition: maximum surprise, minimal harm). Recently, I heard from my old friend Amy Hazelrigg, which reminded me of one of my two best practical jokes ever.

Imagine the scene: it was a balmy summer evening in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was attending summer school. I was having a picnic with Amy in the yard outside the house I was renting with my violinist uncle Lenny and two of his friends. They were all doing graduate studies. I was picking up a few extra credits before going home to Brooklyn College. Amy and her family lived right around the corner from us. They were very musical people and had become friends of my uncle’s.

Earlier that week, I had managed to get hold of a very obscure 78 rpm recording of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony, made in Germany in the late 1920s by the composer-conductor Hans Pfitzner and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. (It’s now on CD.) My friend Harry Warner had wanted to hear this recording, so I had transferred it to open reel tape for him. I hadn’t sent the tape off yet, and the music seemed ideal for a summer picnic, so I had brought the tape recorder and an extension cord outside and was playing the tape as Amy and I ate sandwiches.

“It’s so clear this evening,” Amy said, “and it’s so quiet here. I wonder if you could hear this music up at Prof. White’s house. He’d probably be able to recognize the recording!” The house was two blocks up our street.

John Reeves White, whose contemporary music class I was auditing, was indeed a formidable musicologist. But there was nothing stiff or formal about him. One day, in his class, he gave us a talk about the Soviet musical system with particular emphasis on “Socialist Realism,” that vague term which the Soviet musical establishment used to contrast with the decadent “formalism” of the West. About 2/3 of the class members were nuns, in habits, all accumulating credits to renew their teaching licenses around the state. White told us he would play for us the winner of the 1951 Stalin Prize in Music, the “Heroic Ballad” by Arno Babajanian. It was a ludicrously poor, splashy piece of movie music, one of those “so bad it’s good” things. He let it play until finally one of the nuns started laughing, which released the rest of the class to collapse in laughter. That was typical of him. (Incidentally, the piece was apparently written as a cynical attempt to get in good favor with the Soviet authorities. The other works of Babajanian I’ve heard are much better music.)

I waited about ten minutes. Then I excused myself to go to the bathroom, went into the house, and called White. He didn’t know me well but “I’m Lenny Felberg’s nephew” identified me quickly. He also knew the Hazelriggs. I told him what Amy had said. He laughed and said he’d be right over.

I went back outside and sat down. About five minutes later, we heard a booming, “Boy, that’s really old!” It was Prof. White, sticking his head over the fence. Amy was startled. White played it like a professional comedian, pretending to figure out each detail as he was listening. “Listen to those horns. They have to be German. But the strings don’t sound good enough to be the Berlin Philharmonic. Must be the State Opera Orchestra.” Then he “figured out” the age of the recording, and finally, from interpretive details, the conductor. Amy was properly amazed. I didn’t confess to the setup until about a week later.

White, incidentally, left Indiana U. to become the successor to Noah Greenberg as music director of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua. He stayed in New York, taught at Hunter College, and died regrettably young, at 60, from a heart attack.

My other best practical joke is more quickly summarized. It was an April Fool’s joke, only last year (2011). I had gone to a poetry reading at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, where one of the two featured readers was a fine poet named Barbara Adams. I had heard Barbara read several times before, and I had one of her books of poems. At this Calling All Poets Series, the featured poets read first, with the open mic following. When my turn came, I got up and told the audience that I had a brand new poem I had just written and I thought it was the best one I’d ever written. Then I read one of Barbara’s poems, from a copy I had typed out. When I finished, I heard Barbara’s stricken voice saying, “Leslie!” At that point, of course, I had to confess. “April Fool’s, everyone. That was one of Barbara’s poems, not mine.” She’s still talking about it. And, obviously, so am I.


I was looking through the credits for some Roy Eldridge recordings made in Paris in 1950. One name popped out at me: Barney Spieler, bass. I immediately called my Uncle Lenny in Albuquerque and asked if that could be his friend Bernie. Yes, he said, it was.

I haven’t been able to find any biographical information on Bernard Spieler, except for what Lenny remembered. Spieler was born in Brooklyn, studies bass, and played with Benny Goodman before World War II. He was drafted into the Army. After the War, he rejoined Goodman for at least one 1945 78. Then he used funds from the G.I. Bill to further his bass studies in Paris, which he selected because he preferred the French style of bass playing to the German style. While in Paris, during the half-decade after the War, Spieler played and recorded with numerous touring American musicians. Aside from Eldridge, I have found listings for sessions with Miles Davis (included in a gargantuan set of Davis live recordings), Django Reinhardt (with whom he played second guitar!), and someone named Sam Donahue. Lenny doesn’t know why Spieler used “Barney” as his first name for jazz, except perhaps that it sounded more hip than “Bernie.”

He also met a Dutch woman in Paris and married her. In 1951, while still in Paris, Spieler auditioned for a bass position in the mighty Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. He won the job and relocated permanently to Amsterdam.

My Uncle Lenny is Leonard Felberg, now retired from his position as Professor of Violin at the University of New Mexico. Lenny studied violin at Yale University, where his main teacher was the legendary Joseph Fuchs. After he graduated from Yale, he was drafted by the Army. I remember our family visiting Lenny at Fort Dix, where he was going through basic training. He looked at his torn-up hands and said, only half-kidding, “I’ll never be able to play the violin again.”

But the Army had other ideas, At the time, it was supporting a professional quality symphony orchestra, the Seventh Army Symphony, based in Stuttgart, which toured Europe as some kind of prestige item for the Army. It was in existence from 1952 to 1962, founded as a propaganda tool for the U.S. by conductor and composer Samuel Adler. Many of its members went on to successful professional careers, and conductor John Canarina has written a history of the orchestra. Lenny was auditioned for the orchestra and was accepted. During his last tour with the orchestra, in 1956, he played as a soloist, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The conductor was Henry Lewis, who later went on to fame and notoriety as the conductor of the New Jersey Symphony who was dismissed after he was seen hanging out in a gay bar. We still have a tape of one of those performances, recorded in stereo! And Lenny played in 55th anniversary reunion concert of the orchestra. The late Kenneth Schermerhorn, long time music director of the Nashville Symphony; its new hall is named for him

Near the end of Lenny’s tenure with the Seventh Army Symphony, one of the members of the orchestra spotted an announcement that the Concertgebouw Orchestra was auditioning for a new violinist. Several of the members urged Lenny to go to Amsterdam for the audition but he thought it would be fruitless. So friends of his got together and bought him a round-trip ticket to Amsterdam. Much to his surprise, he won the audition–beating out, among others, the music director’s son–and he took the job as soon as he left the Army.

An American in the Concertgebouw Orchestra was a bit unusual, but Lenny met a fellow Brooklynite, Spieler. They became fast friends. Lenny remembers his friend Bernie as a “Falstaffian” figure, about 6’4″ tall and weighing about 300 pounds. Among their fellow orchestra members, Lenny and Bernie became known as the “Laugh Club” because they were always exchanging jokes.

Spieler loved the summer holidays the orchestra offered (as did all orchestras in those days, before summer festivals became so common). He took every opportunity to go on holiday with his wife. They would get on his motor scooter and drive to campgrounds in France and Spain for weeks.

Lenny left the Concertgebouw after three years, and returned to the U.S. He and Spieler vowed to remain in touch forever. But they never saw each other again. Spieler won another audition and became principal bass of the Concertgebouw. He used his raise in pay to buy his first car, a small Citroen. The following year, he was killed in an auto accident. His wife was also injured but survived.

There is a legend in the Concertgebouw Orchestra that, when the conductor first programmed Mahler’s First Symphony, the principal bass player became unnerved. The third movement of that symphony opens with a bass solo, a minor key version of “Frere Jacques.” It’s so simple that any second year student could play it, but the story goes that the man said, “I’ve never played a solo. I can’t do it.” He got through the rehearsals OK, but at the first performance, when the conductor gave the downbeat to begin the third movement, the bassist fainted and toppled off his high school with the bass on top of him. It may be true or an urban legend, but one thing is for certain: Bernard Spieler was not that player. A solo would never have fazed him.

In fact, Spieler recorded a solo, although not with the Concertgebouw. He played the bass part in a Symphonia Concertante for Viola and Bass by Dittersdorf, recorded for the Telefunken label (issued as SAWT 9429 and 6.41344) with the Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andre Rieu, now best known as a waltz conductor.

It’s not all that unusual for jazz bass players to have classical music background and experience. Even the great Charles Mingus studied with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Bernie Spieler went the other way, from jazz to the classics, and never turned back. What a pity he didn’t live to share his memories with us. They would have been fascinating.

The recent death of Levon Helm brought back to mind the two decades I spent at the house he and his Bandmates made famous:  Big Pink. I had some of the best times, and years, of my life there. And I even got to meet Levon.
In 1976, I moved to Woodstock to live with my girlfriend Anne Dinger. She had finally left her abusive husband the year before and was living in a small cottage on Orchard Lane. All the materials of my business, my stock of LPs for sale and all my office equipment, were still in a small trailer in Phoenicia, next to the larger trailer I had occupied with my ex-wife, and I had to commute every day.

The house on Orchard Lane was for sale, and Anne cooperated graciously with the realtor who was handling the property in arranging showings. When it finally sold, the realtor promised to find us a good place to rent, one with good living quarters and enough space to run my business. The first time she took us up to Stoll Road, in Saugerties, I was intimidated by the curvy, uphill road, which I thought would be hard to drive in snow. It was, and eventually I became accustomed to the two or three days every winter when I was stuck in the house.

But the house itself was ideal. It was roomy enough for both Anne’s and my grand pianos (she put hers in the upstairs apartment). And the basement, the famous basement where the “Basement Tapes” were recorded, had more than enough space for my business needs. Lots more. Also, I learned that after the Band members had left the house, it had been rented by a guitar maker, who had used the basement as his workshop. (I used his worktable as a packing table for years.) This house wants to have music in it, I thought.

The availability of all that space encouraged me to expand my LP stock greatly, and eventually it even filled the garage. I had wonderful times there, the first few years. There were frequent parties with music. I once hosted a house concert of Indian music. I got a lot of work done and met friendly neighbors, among whom I remember most the loony Marion Gold and his caviar and the tall, beautiful cellist Ann Sheldon who played electric music with rock groups and died in a puzzling car crash. My neighbor and friend David turned sour and became impossible, but his wife Geraldine Barton, now remarried, remains one of my closest friends.

People often came to see the house. Whenever it was possible I always let them in and took them around. I knew it meant a lot to some of them. I remember one stoner who showed up one Sunday afternoon when I was standing outside. “Hey, man,” he said, “is Dylan here? Is The Band here?” I explained to him that they had departed years earlier. “Oh, wow,” he replied. “I came here to get inspiration for my music.” One Israeli came to look at the house and asked if I knew where to find the leader of the band Chrysalis, Spider Barbour. He was astonished when I told him that Spider was a friend. We called Spider and he invited the guy over; it turned out he had come from Israel largely in hopes of meeting Spider.
One tourist from Japan disappeared into the basement. After an hour or so I realized he hadn’t said goodbye so I went downstairs to see if he was still there. He was lying on the floor, on his back, taking pictures of the ceiling.After Anne and I separated, I went through three years of loneliness and craziness, including a brief relationship with a toxic alcoholic.
It was at Big Pink, though, that I began my long love with Tara McCarthy, a woman so splendid that I often wondered why she had picked me for her companion.
I lived at Big Pink through the decade I spent doing radio programs for WDST, back in the day when it welcomed enough diversity to broadcast my successful classical music series.
On various occasions, I met all the surviving members of The Band. Richard Manuel, who committed suicide, had never come to the house while I was there, although I did get his autograph on my copy of “Music from Big Pink” when I went to hear The Band in Poughkeepsie. Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm all came to the house to take photographs, Rick several times, and I had friendly conversations with all of them. Since I was still writing songs then, I joked with Rick that I was going to record an album called “More Music from Big Pink,” and I invited him to play on it. “Sure,” he said. (I did issue a CD on my own label by Spider Barbour and the Curmudgeons, with a cover photo shot outside the house.) Robbie Robertson was estranged from the other members of the group, but shortly before I moved he came by with a camera crew to shoot a segment for “CBS Sunday Morning.” CBS’s reporter, who was trying out arts reporting, was the great jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. She signed a laserdisc of hers for me.

My relationship with my landlord at Big Pink wasn’t comfortable. Michael, a bass player, was one of the most unpleasant people I’ve met, and many of my phone conversations with him ended with one of us hanging up on the other. (His wife Elizabeth was usually more reasonable.)

Living in the house for 21 years, I was able to see how little maintenance Michael was willing to do on it. When something needed painting, Michael told me he would pay for the paint. Only. So when he decided to sell the house, although I was in a position to buy it, I decided not to. (He first offered it at a high premium price because it was Big Pink, but got no takers. Apparently nobody wants a house as a souvenir.) It would have taken at least $10,000 in repairs. So I bought another house three miles away, and said goodbye to Big Pink with some regret. I’ve never been back.

Ironic postscript:  The night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I attended a big party at New World Home Cooking. In some kind of drawing, I won a pair of tickets to one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, concerts he held in the recording studio next to his house. It was a considerable prize, since tickets to those concerts cost $100 each. But I forgot all about it until I heard that Levon had died.