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.”
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.
Tara, Renee, Leslie, and Gerard at my birthday party
One of the happiest events of my life occurred in March of 1985. I was at work on my Sunday afternoon shift at WDST, trying not to let my gloominess affect what I was saying to my listeners. As a piece of music was playing, I heard the doorbell ring and found my old friend Tara at the front door. I was glad to see her.
Since I’d met Tara, about eight years earlier, she had become one of my best friends, a trusted confidante and someone I admired tremendously. Tall (six foot two) and glamorous, she was about as smart a person as I’d ever met, a prosperous full time professional writer with a wide range of artistic and intellectual interests. She was also real home folks, completely without pretension. Hell, she had taken money at the door the night my one-shot band The Pub Crawlers, with her then boyfriend playing drums, had performed.
Since I had plenty of time before the music ended, I invited her into the air studio and asked what brought her by. Nothing special, she told me, just wanting to know how her friend Leslie was doing. I told her I was not feeling very good. Since a brief but disastrous affair with a bad woman a couple of years ago, I had been recovering only slowly from that awful experience. Recently I’d been dating a woman from New York whom I’d met through the Classical Music Lovers Exchange. It hadn’t been very serious, but she had just broken it off and I was feeling very lonely.
“I don’t know who’s going to want me now,” I said. She grinned. “I do,” she said.
Well, we were both single, and we certainly knew that we enjoyed each other’s company. So we agreed to go out on a real date, unlike the friendly dinners we’d had before. Because I was about to go to England, we made the date for the day after I got back. And because that date was stamped on my passport, I know the exact day of our first date: March 25, 1985. We’ve celebrated that as our anniversary ever since–and we probably will always, even though we actually got married on October 17 of last year.
Within a few months, Tara and I had decided that we were going to be committed to each other. The relationship took a long time to evolve, though. We each had our own houses, and although we spent more and more time together, we didn’t even talk about living together. I think the scabs were still healing on both of us. Still, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was involved in the love affair of a lifetime. From our early days, Tara and I encouraged each other in positive ways. She was very stern about my tendency to be careless with money, to the extent that she once broke up with me over that issue. Our dear mutual friend Charles Elliott, up from Florida for a visit, told both of us that we were crazy to look for anyone else, so after two months we were back together for good.
Although she was far more financially successful than I was, she never made an issue of it and when she decided we should do some traveling together, she insisted on paying more than her share so we could go. At her urging, we took some wonderful trips I would never have made otherwise, to Hawaii, Peru (a magnificent Nature Conservancy tour of the Amazon and the Andes), and Belize. I didn’t like her tendency to work very late. She would often write until 2 a.m. or later (these were always “work nights,” when we stayed at our own houses), but I saw that such late work had a bad effect on her, and eventually I got her to promise she would stop by midnight. She admitted that she felt she got more work done overall that way. When I first got together with Tara, she was still smoking cigarettes. I urged her to quit, and she promised she would. But I still was finding ashes in the toilet bowl. One day when I was at her house, I was looking for something in her office and found an unopened package of cigarettes in a desk drawer. I took it out, put it on the floor, stepped on it, straightened it out, and put it back into the drawer. We never exchanged a word about it, but I never saw a sign of smoking again.
We encouraged each other’s creativity. Although I’d majored in Creative Writing in college, I was doing very little writing aside from my music criticism. Tara encouraged me to get back to it, and she shepherded me through the writing of a novel, which I wrote mostly just to prove to myself that I could get through a book-length project. When I began to write poetry–a strange result of a series of nightmares–she was extremely encouraging and helpful. I knew I could believe her when she said something was good, because when she said just “Needs work” I knew that poem was destined for the recycling bin.
Tara was writing short stories and poems just for herself, but she got involved in a local writing group and let it publish a couple of her poems and a memoir. I talked her into going to Omega Institute to take a writing workshop with Grace Paley. The night after the first session, she told me that Paley had invited the participants to bring in a piece of finished writing for the second day. She showed me a story I had never seen before and asked me if I thought it was good enough to show someone else. I read it and said, “She’s going to tell you to publish it.” “You’re just being my fan club,” she said. “No, I’m not,” I insisted, “and I’ll bet you dinner for two at New World (our favorite restaurant, still) that she says you should publish it.” She took the bet, but I won it. (Paley’s words, she told me, were “This one’s ready to go.”) I got the dinner, but she never did submit the story.
Most of Tara’s writing was for educational purposes, textbooks and teacher guides. Many of them are still in use. But early in her writing career, when she still had her original name of Agnes McCarthy, she wrote a book based on a year’s experience of teaching third grade in Wyoming, called “Room 10.” It was in print for more than 25 years. During one of our visits to Charles in Florida, I accompanied Tara to the large children’s library in St. Petersburg, where she wanted to do some research. She told one of the librarians that she was a writer and needed some help. The librarian asked if Tara had written anything she might know. Tara mentioned “Room 10.” The librarian asked her to wait for a moment, then rounded up all the children’s librarians so they could meet the author of “Room 10.”
When I think back on the good years with Tara, what I remember most is playing a lot. We would sit home and watch a movie. We would go out to see friends. We would go to concerts, movies, theater. (She insisted we go to New York to see “Angels in America,” one of the great experiences of my life.) We had tremendous amounts of fun, the most I’d had since I was raising my step-daughters only it went on a lot longer.
Nine years ago, Tara became seriously ill. A visiting friend of mine, Steve Smolian, pointed out that she seemed in particularly bad condition and urged me to get better medical care than we were getting. After some fumbling doctors dropped a few balls, we finally got a dreaded diagnosis: ovarian cancer. It turned out to be in a very early stage. This “silent killer” had apparently outraged her system, which had reacted violently and given warning. Her surgeon told us the cancer had been in Stage 1C, and that chemotherapy might not be necessary, but he strongly urged it. Then he left his post weeks later, leaving her essentially unsupervised. It took us years and hi-tech tests to discover that while her immune system was suppressed by the chemo, she had fallen victim to a brain infection.
We have both worked very hard to help Tara recover from her injury, and we have had some successes. Unfortunately they have not lasted. Today, she is incapable of living independently and I am her full-time caregiver. She still loves me deeply, and frequently tells me so. But she becomes so frustrated with her own limitations that she gets very angry sometimes, which is hard for someone who loves her as much as I do to witness. I still wouldn’t trade her for any other woman in the world. And we still have plenty of fun together. Only two days before I am writing this, we went to see the Met Live in HD broadcast of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” which lasted with intermissions nearly six hours. We both had a good time.
We still go to lots of movies and concerts, watch “The Daily Show” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” regularly, and do whatever stimulating activities I can come up with. Fortunately, poetry seems to reach her on a level that few other things do, so we go to lots of poetry readings. When I decided we needed to be legally married so that I could do the best possible job of protecting her in difficult circumstances, I was concerned that she might not like the idea or even understand it. But she became very enthusiastic, and her only reservation was, “I thought we were already married.” She was right.
The Considerate Boyfriend
My lover is a very nice lover.
He doesn’t jump on me while I am reading.
He doesn’t paw me at bedtime.
He doesn’t ask me to take my clothes off after I have just finished dressing.
My lover is very considerate and subtle.
Like, when he sees a real hot movie star in a movie,
he just goes, “Wow, look at that!” “Would I like to have a piece of that!”
Then, after the movie, he says, “I hope you didn’t take offense.”
“I mean, she is a 10 definitely,
but you are a ten and a half.”
So eat the pizza slowly, because afterwards
you have to paw him and take your clothes off slowly, just to
show both of you that you are as wonderful
as he thinks the hot movie star is.
“Wow,” he says. “I love an assertive, take-charge woman!”
So you lie there and sigh a lot as he jumps on his dream.
Meanwhile, the movie star is probably reading the script for
her next movie! which you will probably have to suffer through
–Tara McCarthy, c. 1987
At the Woodstock Library desk, a woman I didn’t know recently asked me, “Are you Leslie Gerber?” I asked how she knew. “I recognized your voice,” she said. “I used to listen to WDST.”
She had a long memory, but I’ve had this experience occasionally over the years, since I left WDST in 1991 after eleven years on the air. I actually launched the station; my weekday program, “The Concert Hall,” was the first of the station’s regular broadcasts, at noon on April 30, 1980. I still have a recording of that show, which I can use to embarrass myself whenever I need taking down. But I did get a lot better.
WDST started out as an idea of Jerry and Sasha Gillman’s. After they moved to Woodstock in the 1970s, they soon realized that there was no radio station in Woodstock, nor any nearby that reflected the cultural life of the town. Since Woodstock was already “the most famous small town in the world,” due to the festival that had not occurred here, they thought a Woodstock station might do well in the surrounding area. Eight years after their first application for a license, WDST finally went on the air. The station’s nickname was “the bulldog of the Hudson Valley.” It was chosen partly because of the tenacity required to get the station started. Also, the Gillmans had bulldogs as pets.
Jerry thought that a successful radio station didn’t have to be homogeneous. He was planning to run a commercial station and to make money with it–which he did–but he also wanted to have fun and to do things he thought were worthwhile. After deciding what kinds of music he wanted on his station, instead of looking for radio people who could handle those types of music he looked for people who knew the music. He told me he thought it would be easier to teach radio skills to people who knew music than to teach music to people with radio skills.
As it happened, one of his first hires, Jeanne Atwood, had gone to broadcast school. But most of the rest of us had little if any radio experience. I had done college radio for only a few months, and I had made many guest appearances on classical music stations, but I hadn’t run my own program for twenty years. It didn’t matter. I learned quickly. So did everyone the Gillmans hired with the sole exception of John Herald. John was a wonderful bluegrass musician and songwriter and an excellent programmer, but after months on the air he was still uncomfortable with “the board” and he gave up.
At the reunions we’ve had on the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the station’s beginnings, most of us who were on the air in the early days have assembled to share our happy memories of the place. We were a fun crowd in the early days, and we had a real sense of accomplishment. Jerry, who was very interested in news and politics, had a real news staff providing a lot of local reporting and occasional features. He interviewed many of the area’s politicians, often repeatedly. My own classical music programs reached a lot of people who caught them because they were listening for something else on the station. The promoters of one local concert series told me they could never have survived without my listeners. Betty MacDonald, herself a fine jazz singer and violinist, worked tirelessly to promote jazz performances in the area, and hosted many interviews with jazz musicians. She told me that one of the highlights of her life was interviewing Sonny Rollins. (One of mine was interviewing Aaron Copland for one of my programs.)
In the earliest days the station tried out a number of specialty programs which quickly fell out of favor. I remember a Sunday opera program, hosted by a strange woman whose name I can’t remember. One week she came in with what she said was her favorite recording of a Mozart opera, and apologized because the LPs had been “well loved.” At the beginning of the show I wondered how she was going to fit that work, which ran for three hours, into her two hour time slot, but I needn’t have worried. The records skipped so often that she finished well within her time. On her final week, she opened her program by saying she didn’t feel like listening to opera that day and she played instead some avant-garde music so weird that even I couldn’t stand it.
One rather feckless woman named Cindy did a one-hour Sunday program of Broadway show music. I happened to be engineering for her the week she interviewed the participants in an upcoming performance at the Woodstock Playhouse. One of them was a surly teenager who answered all her questions with “Yeah” or “Nah.” Instead of sticking with the other cast members, Cindy kept asking her questions.
As the station evolved, more and more of what I called the “mutant” programming fell out. But as long as the Gillmans owned the station, it remained a “mixed format” station, and a very successful one. It started making money fairly early in its run. I remember that in 1987 we saw an Arbitron survey of local radio which showed that WDST was the #1 Ulster County radio station on weekends, which was when we still had the most “mutant” programming, including lots of classical music.
After the Gillmans sold the station to a lawyer, the advertising staff began making the decisions, and the quotient of pop music started rising. I left when I was told that my Sunday afternoon classical program was being canceled. The owner asked me to stay on for Saturday and Sunday mornings. I told him that all my best programs, with interviews and even live performances, had been possible only on Sunday afternoons and that if I couldn’t do them there was no point in staying on. “But,” he protested, “right now you’re getting the highest pay of anyone on the air.” I was making $7.50 an hour.
Today, WDST is a pop music station. The only “mutant” programs left are the “Woodstock Roundtable” hosted by Doug Grunther (the only one of the original programmers still on the air, I believe) early Sunday mornings, and “Blues Break” with Big Joe Fitz on Sunday nights. I hardly ever listen to it anymore. Remembering the old days is much more fun.