Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Still Crazy After All These Years (With Apologies To John Gary, Ray Bolger and P. Simon)

I met Fred for a cup of coffee the other day.

You'd like Fred.

He's a gentle soul. Loves music and plays a little guitar. He's not a bad musician and has written a few songs.

Fred is a little younger then me but he is close enough in age to share memories and song lyrics, something I have always prided myself on.

He is a touch better in that category but he never gets in my face about it.

John Gary. A handsome man and a truly
gifted singer
This particular morning I noticed he was somewhat reserved. Even a little down. Which is somewhat unusual.

Fred is always positive when we get together. Sometimes he will listen to my moaning and groaning (he's a great listener) and, always with a smile, Fred will nudge me, through his patient questions and a comment or two and my shallow problems sort of melt away.But for some reason this morning the poof had gone out of his sail. He looked a little paler then usual and the smile fell flat.

"What up?"  I said, mimicking Andy Dicks' odd encounter with a hypnotist and a chicken on an old episode of "News Radio".

"John Gary." he replied, without a flicker of humor.

I paused.

"John Gary?"  I took another sip of my coffee. "You mean the singer?"

He nodded an affirmation.

John Gary, born John Gary Strader in Watertown NY in 1932, was very talented with amazing breath control  and a range of three and a-half octaves. He could easily go from a robust baritone to a sweet tenor, sometimes within a single song. The world lost an electrifying balladeer when he passed awayin 1995 at the too-early age of 65.

As a former MOR (middle of the road) disc jockey during the 60's I was very aware of Gary and had slipped an LP (with the ubiquitous orange RCA label) on the turntables many a time. He was soothing if anything.
Gary always appeared to me as a pleasant soul who, many critics contend, was the most talented of the popular singers at that time with an intimate style that fit many of the songs written around then.

He rose to stardom in the early to late 60's recording 23 albums for RCA Victor and appearing on numerous television programs (The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson) and other venues including numerous community concerts throughout Canada and the US each year. He also had his
own CBS network show as a summer replacement for The Danny Kaye Show.

Fred was looking off at the distance, a pained look creasing a normally happy face.

"What?"  I raised my hands; palms upward from the table top. "So you don't like the guy? Is he a bad person? Did you find something horrible in his past that has recently come to life?"

Fred shook his head,

"No. In fact I think a great performer and a good person." He paused."  Did you ever hear the song, "Once Upon A Time"?

Now it was my turn to crease my pan. He sang a few bars in his pleasant voice.

"Once upon a time, a girl with moonlight in her eyes.
Put her hand in mine and said she loved me so. But that was once upon a time, very long ago,"

Bolger before "All American"
He struggled  to keep his voice level.

"Yeah. I know that tune." And I rummaged through my brain overcrowded with ridiculously too much....never used... trivial information.

Charles Strause and Lee Adams wrote it for a moderately successful  musical produced in the mid-twentieth century,  "All American" starring the ubiquitous scarecrow (He of "The Wizard of Oz" fame) Ray Bolger who talked/sang his way through it as only this wonderfully talented, iconic man can.

It was released as a single by Tony Bennett in 1962 and then later by many others including Frank and Gary.

Fred looked at me with those mournful eyes and tears were actually pooling in the corners

"Its John Gary's version that gets me every time." And he sang a few more lines.

"Once upon a hill we sat beneath a willow tree.
Ray Bolger and Eileen Hurley from All American

Counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn.
But that was once upon a time now the tree is gone."

I was shaking my head now and asked the obvious.

"Who was she Fred?"

He grinned a wry grin, looking like a person caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Barbara." At which point I managed to splutter a mouthful of tepid coffee all over the table top and myself.

"Your first wife?"  He nodded.

That was another thing that drew me to Fred. We both had seen the elephant,  marriage wise, twice. The first time was somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least. But the second woman we let into our lives had transformed us into believers that love is lovelier the second time around. The second wife had been the best thing that had ever happened to us.

"Fred, that was over 20 years ago. I thought you said you had left the love you felt and her memory behind and was happier then you ever been?"

He shrugged and paused as the waitress come over and refilled our cups with the steamy black goodness that oils our mental gears.

Fred waited till she left and then leaded forward.

"It's not the physical part of Barbara I miss." He thought a second. "It's the sadness of our divorce." He looked up. "Do you understand?" I thought I did.

"I had hopes and dreams. I thought marriage was the best thing I could rise to,  and I was young enough at the time to think that the world was my oyster. I had children, a house, a life that I thought was perfect." He sipped his coffee. "That song so beautifully interpreted by John Gary flung me into the pits the first time I hear him sing it after Barbara and I broke up."

He shook his head.

"I remember the time I was home and alone and I had John Gary's album, "The Very Best Of".  I was putzing about trying to get a few things done before I moved out. And that song came on. I just fell apart and started weeping."  He looked at me.

I squinted sideways at him.

"So you play this song every chance you get? Especially the John Gary version just to torture yourself?" I was being somewhere cavalier with my friends emotions but I was worried that he was bringing up something that I might be forced to face myself.

"Like I say, I thought I was alone in our house.... the house Barbara and I had worked so hard to secure after years of bouncing from one rental to the next, always being forced to find another place to live because we had fallen behind on the rent. That morning, I was trying desperately to fix things by washing a few dishes or vacuuming the carpet, or dusting the furniture anything except realizing I was out of work for the 2nd time in a month. I just broke down and sobbed like a baby. It was over and I was just overwhelmed.

Fred swallowed. "I had been fooling myself for months that everything was going to be all right. But it wasn't, nor would it ever be." He smiled. "And it took me a while, years perhaps, to realize that this was for the best."

"Unbeknownst to me, one of my children had stayed home from school that day and hidden in a closet because he wanted to be with me for a little while."

I raised my eyebrows. "Really?"

"Yeah. It was just after I broke down and was sobbing saying her name that he stepped out with a grin. I think he heard me wallowing in misery." Fred planted a seed of a smile.

"Was the song still playing?" I wondered aloud.

Fred roused himself from his boo-hoo torpor and shook his head.

"No. but it really didn't matter." He blew out his cheeks and shook his head as one does to clear the cob webs and muck we can no longer bear. The waitress brought more coffee and we both waved her off and asked for our checks.

"You know, that song kept me a captive of my heart, a prisoner of my homemade grief for so many years." He looked around as though rousing himself from sleep. "But I refuse to own it anymore." He smiled. "'Beause I've got Joanie. (His second wife) And the nightmare is over."

Fred let out a great breath of air that he seemed to have stored only to release for just this moment.
And then he grinned and it was like a storm cloud just whisked its way out the door of the restaurant.

"Thank you for listening." He looked at his watch and the pity party was breaking up.
 He clapped me on the shoulder as we got up.

"I have a great CD." He smiled in that deep personal way of his. "You can have it for free."