Wednesday, April 27, 2016

SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE... A TRIBUTE TO PRINCE

A purple flower for Prince
Prince is gone and nothing compares to him.

 His stunning musicianship and prolific songwriting, his showmanship and overt sexuality, all of it felt so electric, so alive. But I feel the loss because of his vulnerability, which seeped through his every performance. Also because all of him - the whole package - is linked in my mind to younger days and my first encounters with Prince in the 1980s.

 It all goes back to Ben and me visiting our friends Peter and Kathy in their tiny cottage in Hull, Massachusetts. It was 1982. The vegetable garden was bigger than the house itself and Peter played for us the 1999 album.  Prince, he said, was playing all the instruments. As we listened we couldn't believe it. We were immediately hooked.

We were living in New York. I was working at NBC and Ben was doing construction for our friend Frank.  A little bit later, I got a job at the New Yorker.  We'd been living in an apartment in Crown Heights - not the coolest of neighborhoods (except on Labor Day when they had a massive carnival parade). We were living in the middle of a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, which had little in terms of ambiance, but everything we wanted in terms of light and space.

Fortunately we found other kindred spirits. Our upstairs neighbors were muralists - Tim and Andrea Biggs, and soon they became our best friends.  We went everywhere together - to art galleries and parties, to gigs at the Ritz - and we sat up late into many an evening talking about life and politics and art and music and everything under the sun.

Our friend Frank was our life line - he had a loft in Chelsea, which he had renovated from scratch. We would hang out with Frank and his girlfriend Peggy along with Tim and Andrea and our friends Bronwen and Felix, and Frank's best friend Giancarlo - also a struggling actor.  And there was also our friend Rob, another struggling actor.

When Purple Rain came out, Ben and I immediately went to see it.  The film itself didn't interest me much, but I was totally bowled over by Prince's performance of Purple Rain at the end.
Meanwhile, my brother Robert's band Til Tuesday was about to have its hit single Voices Carry.  They had signed with Epic. This was our life and things seemed to be happening.

Then Ben got a job in the Foreign Service and that was the end of our New York life.  We moved to DC and then to Caracas, Venezuela and beyond.

But Prince continued to be the background music of our lives.  In Caracas we got his album Parade and played it incessantly in our enormous penthouse apartment underneath the Avila mountains. When I hear it, it brings back the terra cotta tiles, the view of the mountains, our beloved dog Stjohn, us expecting our first child and this whole new world we seemed to have created for ourselves.

When we came back to the States on home leave, along with our newborn daughter, we stayed with my parents in Brookline, Massachusetts. My sister Stephie had her hair in a punk rock style - dyed blond. My brother's band Til Tuesday was all over MTV along with Sinead o Connor singing Nothing Compares to U -another Prince song.  Having been overseas, I had never heard it.  "Oh," said my father Derek, when the song came on, "here's that lovely Irish girl..."

This is what I remember when I remember Prince.

Now of course we're all grown up. Tim passed away and Andrea still lives in New York. Our friend Rob runs a theatrical salon in Park Slope. Frank and Peggy are still together with two grown sons.  Felix lives in Park Slope as a producer and songwriter. Peter has happily remarried after many years alone, as Kathy died very young. Bronwen lives and works in Maine. And Giancarlo? Well, he became a star.

My kids (and there are three of them now)  are the ages we were then.  But somehow in my mind, Prince remains the same. In my mind, he didn't age.  To me, he was eternal.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

APPLE BLOSSOMS, CHERRY BLOSSOMS, A METAPHOR

Our cherry trees hardly blossomed this year.  I was still waiting for them to peak  when I noticed the leaves were already out. So they blossomed, kind of - but not in the spectacular pale pink mist of previous years.

Pretty yes, but not spectacular

But we also have two small apple trees down at the end of the garden and for years they haven't blossomed at all. When we first planted them, I was told by a horticulturist  at Merrifield Garden Center not to allow them to bear fruit - but instead to pick the blossoms off - until the trees grew stronger.  It wouldn't be good for them to bear fruit when they were young, he said - much like pregnancy in a teenage girl, it was too big a strain on one so young.

That was five years ago. But this year, we fertilized the trees. Lo and behold, I just walked down to the end of the garden and found that they had blossomed!  Blossoms in spring equals apples in fall.  So - finally, finally I think our apple trees are ready to bear fruit.
 
apple blossoms, a sweet promise of apples!

It might be a stretch, but here comes my metaphor.  I'm thinking of course, about writing practice.  You see, I've been working hard at a manuscript which is taking a very long time, and it's still not quite ready to bear its fruit. But yet there are other things I write - things that I have put aside, or written off the cuff, which are almost ready to go right away.

As a writer - as a creative artist of any kind - you never quite know what will work and what will not.  I just had a conversation with my son Elliot about a song he'd written. He wrote it hastily - didn't pour in his heart and soul - and yet people respond to it more than to other things he has labored  long and hard to produce.

That, I told him, is the story of my life.

"People love proficiency," Elliot said. "In the case of this particular song I knew how I could make it shitty and catchy!"

Evidently this is true for other artists too.  Augusten Burroughs, who I had the pleasure to introduce last week for a reading at Busboys and Poets - spoke about his book Sellevision - over which he'd labored long and hard.  But why didn't it sell?  So he handed his agent his journal about trying to stay sober - something he'd written only for himself. Turns out this was precisely what WOULD sell.  And it became his best seller Dry.


Check it out here Augusten Burroughs at Busboys and Poets.


I guess we've come a little way from my story about the cherry trees.  All I really mean is that you never know what will blossom. You never know what tree you plant will actually bear fruit. So keep on planting.

As I told Elliot - I have the feeling that things we work hardest at are really about how we learn the craft.  But when we do stuff quickly it's less self-conscious - we throw it away - and somebody is bound to catch it.

We are always learning our craft.  Always getting better at it. Maybe something else we produce, while we are deep in the craft of that precious manuscript -  maybe something from the heart but more off the cuff will blossom in surprising ways.