July 2015: It was requested that I find a blog post from my old Typepad account in which I wrote about the legendary Miss Barbara Cook. I found it. I’m re-posting here complete with syntax and structure I would like to change . . . but I won’t, because it’s a re-post and hey, I’m human. Barbara Cook’s music has been a great comfort to me in my life; her voice embraces and reassures and rings with truth and light and love. I wish that I could repay her for all the times she has given me succor, support, and sustenance – because I think the depth of feeling she radiates, that gift she shares so freely, comes at great cost. Thank you, Miss Cook. I send you all the Love and Light and Joy and virtual embraces at my command. You have meant a great deal to me – and, I am sure, to many others.
I saw Barbara Cook in concert last night. I want to talk about that. But first, this, because it is all so rich in synchronicity.
Had he not died fifty years ago when I was seventeen months old, today, the day before Father’s Day, would have been the ninetieth birthday of the man who sired me. Although I don’t remember anything about him, I can’t say he didn’t have an effect on my life. When he drove into that telephone pole (and I can’t call it an accident, because he’d driven into so many things, asleep, drinking, whatever, after a while it no longer qualifies as an accident) he forever changed the shapes of the lives of my family; one brother, four sisters, my mother, my grandparents, and the brothers and especially the sister he’d left behind.
That sister was called Sissie. She was my dear aunt, the woman who taught me some of my earliest lessons about unconditional love and acceptance, the woman who taught me what it felt like to have someone in your life who only ever saw the Light and Love inside you.
It was only in the past year as I have become closer to my mother, sharing long and extremely honest, no holds barred discussions, when she shared with me the shading of the truth about Sissie’s devotion to me. She said, “She could never face your father’s death, couldn’t accept he was gone, he had always been her favorite, and so she transferred all that to you and that way she never did have to believe it.”
Sissie wasn’t the only one who couldn’t face that he was gone. The entire family dynamic was, for years, constructed around his absence and maintaining a mythology about who he had been. I learned as an infant, pre-verbally, about men disappearing and loving ghosts and images I’d imagined into being, devoting myself to someone who wasn’t there. Too, I learned to fear that at any moment those who most loved would disappear.
I managed to create those patterns over and over again in my life.
I wrote my novel, LIBERTYTOWN, in a way, to exorcise those ghosts. It is not autobiographical in any sense, but it is built around a main character who suffers that same sort of longing to understand the emptiness he feels at his core, a man who mistakes absence for love and myth for truth, and who moves through his life accumulating experiences, people and things in a self-destructive effort to assuage the ache of that void.
I use the story of my father’s willful disappearance and its echoes in my novel. I also use some adventures I’ve had. One, in particular, has to do with when I ran looking for a life in California at seventeen. I auditioned for a production of SHE LOVES ME at a theater in San Francisco and while doing so the audition panel asked me if I would be going to see Barbara Cook in concert nearby. Though I fancied myself a musical theatre (yes – “re” not “er”) expert, I had never heard of Miss Cook. Such confession finished me for the flannel-shirted, mustachioed panel of judges (it was the late 70’s in San Francisco in a theater – I think you get the visual) and I was humiliated. On my way home I bought Miss Cook’s Carnegie Hall concert album. I was forever changed. I was singing along with that album when the earthquake hit. I often dreamed of feeling the earth move, but not like that, I soon returned to the east coast, chastened, and my Barbara Cook album skipped forever after.
(ADDENDUM 7/2015: It was Vanilla Ice Cream that skipped – but not from the cast album, rather, from her concert album, which, of course, eventually, I replaced with a CD – but I kept the LP until I had to move in a quick hurry from a fallen-apart life, at which point in time all my hundreds of LPs were lost to me. But, you must listen to this song. Changed my life.)
It was years later when first I finally did what those flannelled boys had asked and saw her in concert. That night was a gift from a dear friend who wanted to do something magical and special for my birthday that spoke to my soul and my dreams. He did. It was one of the sweetest nights ever.
(ADDENDUM 7/2015: This is one of my favorite YouTubes of Miss Cook – her delivery of “He Was Too Good To Me” – good god – how can you not weep from the pain in it? At 2:22 her “He was too good to be true” and segue into “The sun comes up…” Holy holy shit – so much genius in one human – I want, so much, to be able to hold her and communicate to her how much joy, light, love she has brought to so many of us. Because, I think she has bought the ability to do so – that gift – by living through so much pain of her own. I love you Barbara Cook. I truly, truly do.)
Last night was another birthday gift from another dear friend who felt “If Barbara is singing, you should be there.” Again, it was magic. But tempered once again with reminders of mortality. Miss Cook is now 85 years old and when she came on the stage, she did so with a diamond handled cane. I began to weep immediately. Though her voice is still an awe-inspiring instrument and her delivery flawless, each song a complete three act play, she, like all of us, is aging. It struck me that there might one day be a world in which I was present and the possibility of seeing her sing was no more. It is already the case for too many people I love who have shaped me – and as silly as it may seem to someone who doesn’t understand how her voice and her genius and her will to survive and her artistry have saved me – well, I was overcome, repeatedly, and felt my aunt, Sissie, sitting with me, trying to re-assure me that it would be okay.
I suppose, yes. It will be. I survived the earthquake when I was seventeen in California with the help of Miss Cook, and I survived many other emotional earthquakes with the help of her music to soothe me, to both remind me that all humans sometimes feel pain and joy, and too, to take me away from my own and let her sing it for me.
She is part of my story, my father is part of my story, the earthquakes and the leavings and the absences and the myths, all part of my story, a story shaped by so many people I have never really known; my father, Barbara Cook; but who I have imagined into being, who I have allowed to have voices in my head and influences in my heart.
Which is what I started thinking about last night; all these ghosts I’ve let in – real and imagined – and the power I’ve given them to haunt me, to fill me with fear. These ghosts with which I’ve tried to fill the void inside me, never actually succeeding. It makes me a little sad to think that there might not be an exorcism powerful enough to free me from some of them.
So, I’m going to watch Miss Cook now on YouTube – look:
– this is how I stop thinking about the ghosts. (ADDENDUM 7/2015: Listen to her speak at 1:00; “There’s something nice about being older – it’s – there’s a kind of richness that life can take on when you’re older; it’s one of the compensations, I think . . . .” How right she is. There is compensation with age. There is the quiet peace of saying, “This day, this life is hard, but I will listen to Barbara Cook today and remember joy. Remember knowing. Remember what beauty and resilience and truth sound like – and try to live in as pure and melodic a way as Miss Cook sings.” Yes. There is that.)
Because, you can see from the picture attached of me last night on the Kennedy Center Terrace taken by my dear friend, Sue Green, I can still smile. And dammit, while I can, I will.
AUTHOR: Paul G. DATE: 06/17/2012 10:16:20 PM
I came across your blog while looking for a review of Barbara Cook’s concert this weekend in Washington. For almost thirty-five years, Ms. Cook has been my favourite singer and muse. She is an absolute inspiration. I have followed her since a concert she gave in 1980 in Vancouver, after which I picked up the recording of the 1975 Carnegie Hall concert. In the years since Mostly Sondheim, I have listened carefully as her voice changed, the whole time being reminded of her (and my own) mortality. You probably know Barbara had a sister who died when she was a child from whooping cough (I believe). Based on something her mother said, she felt responsible for the death. Are you familiar with her recording of Errol Flynn (from the Live in London album)? Without becoming maudlin, it is a touching song which may have special resonance for you, given your father’s death fifty years ago. Thanks for sharing your story. And God bless, Barbara Cook! Paul G.
COMMENT: AUTHOR: Charlie DATE: 06/17/2012 11:14:00 PM
Thank you so very much Paul G. for finding my blog, reading and sharing your story. I am quite familiar with Errol Flynn (and love it)though my favorite of her brilliant set pieces are In Buddy’s Eyes – because it has such resonance in my life, and Time Heals Everything, because when I was a singer I always included that in my cabarets – for some 25 years, and most of all, This Nearly Was Mine, because she made it into a song about a lost love in a way that lifted a song my dear aunt – who was so important to my life and formation – had always loved into a song to which I could truly relate. Thank you for bringing a warmth to my Father’s Day.
COMMENT: AUTHOR: Lmartzinek DATE: 06/18/2012 03:35:19 PM
One of the best pieces I’ve ever seen written about BC’s work.
COMMENT: AUTHOR: Charlie Smith DATE: 06/18/2012 10:23:41 PM
Thank you Lmartzinek. Much appreciated.