Saturday, November 01, 2008

Take It Easy . . . But Take It

Studs Terkel - 1912-2008

At 2:40 P.M., Friday afternoon, the heart of Chicago stopped beating. Disk jockey, rabble-rouser, raconteur, actor, interviewer, historian, mensch, Louis "Studs" Terkel managed to be a cast of thousands while somehow always remaining true to himself. I'm sure he found no small irony in the fact that the cavalcade of his life stretched from one Great Depression to another. He had seen it all, but he never lost his sense of wonder. He knew where he stood, but he never demonized his enemies.

Early in his career, Studs spun records for a show he called The Wax Museum. I doubt many young people today would get the joke, but it's funny how things turn on themselves. We've gone from the era of 78 rpm records that held 3 minutes of music - great for songs, but requiring a stack the size of a Great Dane for a complete opera - to the era of the iPod, where you buy an opera an aria at a time.

Studs was the ultimate elitist-egalitarian. His tastes ranged from pop, to jazz, to blues, to opera. He believed what Arnold Schoenberg told a George Gershwin suffering from an inferiority complex over his tin pan alley origins. "There are only two kinds of music," said Schoenberg, "bad music and good music."

As I write this, the usual mixmaster traversal of my iPod library is playing through my headphones, so I thought I'd pay tribute to Studs with a selection from my own mini Waxless (other than ear wax, of course) Museum.

Four Songs for Studs

I. The beginning of Prokoviev's Lt. Kije, a sleepy, plaintiff morning song on a trumpet, then a snare drum, revving up, a piccolo chirping, then a flute, horns giving the parade an oomph, more woodwinds, then the strings setting the horns speeding up, chased by trombones, and finally a huge bass drum gleefully being whacked hard enough to set a building shaking, an entire village waking up and bursting with the sheer physical joy of being alive.

2. Io so che alle sue penne non ci sono conforti! sings Pinkerton, I know there is no consolation for her grief. He has come back to Japan, after three years absence, with Kate, his American bride, to reclaim the child he fathered with Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton, the American Consul Sharpless, and Butterfly's servant Suzuki - they all know that the situation is cruel and unjust, but as Jean Renoir once noted, "Everyone has their reasons" and in a trio of heartbreaking beauty they pour out their pain even as they blindly push the story forward to Butterfly's tragic end.

3. At the conclusion of an all-star memorial concert featuring Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others, as the voice of Odetta rises above the ensemble singing This Land is Your Land, another voice, that of actor Will Geer - another incorrigible, unrepentant, blacklisted lefty - comes in, defiantly declaiming Woody Guthrie's credo:
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose, bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to FIGHT those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is YOUR world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
4. You could say there's a born-to-lose element in the last symphony Gustav Mahler would live to complete, his Ninth, whose four movements Leonard Bernstein heard as a series of farewells. At the end, the music breaks up into melodic fragments that finally just die away. That's how it's usually heard. That's how I always heard it, until a performance, a few years ago, by Seiji Ozawa conducting the Saito Kinen orchestra, a good, maybe not great performance, until those final pages, when something extraordinary happened.

At some point, I began to hear what was in the hall between those diminishing phrases, not as silence, but as something palpable, like the way a perfume keeps the presence of a woman in a room she has just left.

As the music ended, you could feel the audience, as one, holding its breath, not stirring, not moving, not doing anything that would break the stillness that somehow allowed to us share a profound presence, beyond words or sound, that the normal commerce of our lives kept us from sensing. 2,600 people. No one wanted to let it go. Then, after a time, someone started to applaud, and, in an instant, it vanished. Except, indelibly, in our memories.

So long, Studs, it's been good to know ya . . .


Anonymous said...

Your Terkel comments are magnificently appropriate, if such a description is even a conceptual possibility (it is to me).


Michael said...

One of my clients in advertising years ago was Talman Savings & Loan, who sponsored the overnight classical music programming on WFMT-- because a lot of their customers worked the late shift and would want Mozart when they got off. Or SHOULD want it. There was a wonderful idea then that that sort of thing should be available to Joe Lunchbucketski, too.

I always thought of Studs as belonging to that same democratic ideal-- that the common man would want to listen to him talking about Rosa Ponselle with Garry Wills, say.

The last time I saw him in public was at Tre Kronor during their Julbord dinners at Christmastime, probably two or three years ago. All I can say is, don't get between Studs and a tray of herring.