Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Celebrity City

For the sake of those who, like my cousin Bonnie Kay, have never gotten over the excitement of celebrity sightings, I’ll list a few more. When I was still little, I found out how truly glamorous living in California could be, because you could run into famous people almost anyplace. My first sighting occurred on the way to the Hollywood Bowl, when our car happened to come alongside another on the freeway and I spotted the actor who played the bumbling fat Mexican officer on the TV show Zorro. How exciting!

Someone decided to throw the Pepperdine faculty and staff children a big Christmas show, and for the emcee they got the actor who played Robbie from My Three Sons. That was almost more thrill than my little heart could bear. I was still new to the California culture and not jaded about star spotting.

There was the night we were at the airport and we saw John Wayne picking up his son there. I was touched by the warmth of the hug they gave each other, and it helped me bring balance to my image of Mr. Wayne as a WWII hero and a tough-guy Green Beret.

When we started living in Malibu in 1972, of course the sightings dramatically increased. The Malibu Beach Colony was across the lagoon from the beach house that the Youngs were living in, and “stars of stage and screen” along with music people and other artists had been living in the Malibu for decades. Their nearest neighbor across the lagoon was Tab Hunter, a movie star heartthrob for millions of screaming girls in the early ‘Sixties.

One morning we were eating breakfast in the Malibu Inn (which is no longer there) and Rod Steiger sat with a small entourage in the next booth. (He starred with Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night.) Another morning I went with Marilyn to the Malibu Coffee Shop, which she loved to patronize, to have one of her favorite cheese omelets. Around the curve of the counter sat Art Garfunkle, appearing very depressed and eating alone. Marilyn said he was in there a lot. Bonnie Kay
told me that Mr. Garfunkle had an unhappy marriage with the daughter of our Nashville grandmother’s oncologist, Dr. Grossman.

Another night we were having dinner in my favorite Malibu restaurant, Moonshadows, when Andy Williams and his then wife, Claudine Longet, walked in and sat a couple of tables down from us. It must have been a special occasion, because he presented her with a gift during dinner. Sara was fascinated, since this was a glamorous couple, and she reported (I couldn’t turn around and look discretely) that the gift was a gorgeous silver and turquoise belt. “Oh, Andeeee!” Claudine cried in her adorable, breathy French-accented voice, and got up to go to him across the table and give him a thank you hug. (This was prior to the over-publicized occasion on which Claudine supposedly murdered her ski instructor lover in a bathtub.)

At Pepperdine Malibu, we were often introduced to famous people. Momma had a book signing for Will and Ariel Durant, whose series on Western Civilization had finally been completed. Adela Rodgers St. John was a speaker at a luncheon, and I served her coffee. Helen explained that I should be very impressed to meet her, because she had been the first woman reporter to work for William Randolph Hearst on his newspapers. Later when her wrinkled brown face showed up as a “witness” in Reds (one of my favorite movies, produced, directed and starred in by Warren Beatty), I was duly impressed.

Bob Hope was the speaker for the first Malibu graduation, and Loretta Young attended that one. I met her in a back room. Mr. Hope said something in his speech that I recall for its irony. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate, and he remarked, “I appreciate your sincerity, but I question your judgment.” In actual fact, I knew that most institutions bestow an Honorary Doctorate upon guest speakers so they’ll give them a large donation, so the truth was the opposite, as Mr. Hope well knew. Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan both spoke at Pepperdine a lot, because they were on the conservative Republican speakers circuit.

In 1976, Marty McCall and I drove forty hours straight from Nashville for a three-day Christmas visit. His only star sighting on that trip happened in the shops down by the Malibu movie theater. “Radar” O’Reilly from M.A.S.H. (Gary Burghoff in real life) was buying a pair of tennis shorts. Once I was on a visit home and ran to the grocery store to get some things for my mother. I nearly crashed into someone else’s grocery cart, not paying attention, and looked up to see that it was a severely tanned George Hamilton (the actor, not the country singer). And there was the time I was driving down Pacific Coast Highway toward Santa Monica and to my right, driving an SUV, was Robbie Robertson of The Band. I tried to keep up with him as long as I could, but he never looked over so I could tell him, in sign language, what a giant fan of his I was.

Years later in 1993, when Marilyn got married, I wondered why on earth Ralph Edwards (This Is Your Life’s emcee) would attend the ceremony, but he did. There was just no telling who Norvel was going to make friends with next. Everyone loved him and Helen for their comparative innocence, their generous natures and their endless affability and kindness.

And the Music Just Keeps On Coming

My senior year in high school, our choir was invited to participate in the “Myron Floren Extravaganza” at the Forum. (I think they may call the Forum the Staples Center these days.) (Note to reader: Myron Floren died this week, at the age of 85. It was announced on Sunday Morning, July 24, 2005.) It was a shame that Daddy had died the summer before we performed with Mr. Floren, because Daddy always loved Lawrence Welk’s TV show, on which Myron Floren played the accordion. He would have been thrilled by this concert.

Nothing could have been much further from the kind of music I now wanted to make. It was the late ‘Sixties, yet there we were, forced to sing background vocals for the music of the ‘Fifties, Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Music Makers. We had to rehearse more than thirty arrangements. My mom brought a friend to the performance, but I don’t recall their particularly loving it. I certainly felt I was being musically tortured as I endured it.

When I became a freshman and moved into the Pepperdine dorm, a wonderful opportunity availed itself. Here were people who played the guitar! With my love of music and the explosion of singer/songwriters, it was sort of unbelievable that I was seventeen and had never learned a chord on the guitar. So a young red-headed lady whose name I don’t recall showed me how to play “April, Come She Will,” a song I knew from the second Simon & Garfunkle album. I seemed to have a feel for finger-picking right away, and could feel the simpler chord changes. This was a whole different experience from trying to play the piano by reading music. I was able to move from my left brain to my right brain, and I loved it!

A terrible couple of classic embarrassing – no, nightmare quality – moments happened to me while at Pepperdine, in addition to all the good times. We did Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance the summer after my freshman year, and at the dress rehearsal, we were singing along and suddenly there was dead silence. Everything came to a complete stop, and we were all waiting. The conductor, Hansel Rayner, called MY name. I had one line in the whole production, and didn’t even recall it being assigned to me. Everyone was waiting on ME. That was a heart-stopping, nervous system-frying moment.

I also took voice lessons from a woman named Violet McMahon, who threatened to fail me if I didn’t sing out more. As part of the course requirement, we were supposed to sing two or three pieces in a vocal recital before the faculty. I did okay with the first one, but when the next piece came I completely, entirely went blank. I was forced to simply sit down in shame. Another flood of neuronic distress cascaded through my body.

In my sophomore year of college, I finally knew the joy of “making” a musical group that was excellent, special, better than average. I became a part of the Madrigal group, a few voices selected from the larger choir. The glory of that success was greatly diminished by the fact that Norman Hatch allowed everyone who tried out to be in the group that year, so we had sixteen members.

The following year, when our Madrigal group gave its concert, Mrs. McMahon came to me afterward and commented on the solo I had done, “I’m going to feed my father’s flock, his young and tender lambs that over hill and over dale lie waiting for their dams.” She cried, “What happened to you? I could really hear you! Why didn’t you ever sing for me like that?”

I had always pleased Mrs. McMahon with my pitch accuracy, but I couldn’t release my body to sing the way I wanted to. Mrs. McMahon gave me articles to read about Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, the opera singers, and they described singing properly as feeling like throwing up. I thought, “That’s why I can’t do it, I hate to throw up!” but it was much more than that. I was afraid of all strong emotions, afraid of loudness, afraid to express myself…afraid to be seen, and judged, and rejected. Seated in the midst of the Madrigals doing my solo, I had felt much less exposed, so I could sing with more confidence.

The Madrigals not only gave concert performances, we were also called upon to add our musical sparkle to Republican fund raising events. This included one dinner where, as we processed down to our seats after singing our (icky) “Red, White & Blue” medley, Frank Sinatra winked directly at me and mouthed the words, “Good job, kid.” Unbelievable.

Nothing glamorous sweetened the worst night of all, when we sang the same hideous patriotic medley to a gathering half the size of our singing group, seated in the Youngs’ living room. It was unseemly; it was embarrassing. The dinner party included Mrs. Blanche Seaver, who later donated the majority of the money for the Malibu undergraduate campus, Seaver College. I felt morally compromised. I felt like a musical prostitute.

As a political statement of conscience, I had sat through the Pledge of Allegiance in my high school pep rallies. I saw myself as a citizen of the world, but most of all I identified as a citizen of heaven, and didn’t feel that I owed a special allegiance to the U.S. of A. Although I enjoyed my life of comforts and freedom, and appreciated how much easier life was here than almost anywhere else, I no more felt I owed “allegiance” to it (whatever allegiance was supposed to mean) than I felt that it was my birthright to have all those privileges. I didn’t hold to either of those American tenets.

I knew that God loved and blessed people in all kinds of cultures with all different measures of freedom, and I didn’t believe that He loved or blessed America in a unique way. This is how I interpreted Hebrews 11:13b,14,16: “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own…Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

I was raised to be a pacifist. My dad and uncles were Conscientious Objectors during World War II, when it was incredibly unpopular to be so, and my brother was a C.O. while we were still in Viet Nam. I couldn’t conceive that I was standing there singing songs I didn’t believe in for people who were probably donors to the John Birch Society. My heart couldn’t have been less in it. So my long-awaited joy in performing in an elite musical group really ended up costing me too much.

Performers I Have Loved

I didn’t get to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, although Janice Hahn did. (For years, Chip thought I had been there for that historic moment. He has been telling that story wrong for years, and I finally found out about it and set him straight.) My first live concert was indeed at the Hollywood Bowl, though, with our neighbors the Kinney boys as escorts. Opening for Simon & Garfunkle was The Lovin’ Spoonful, with John Sebastian playing his autoharp. So it was an autoharp! I was thrilled to finally find out how they were making that wonderful fresh sound I’d been hearing on the radio. Hal Freshley (my last college-boy crush before I actually got to college myself) had turned me on to Simon & Garfunkle, and I had loved them from their first album on, so this concert was special for me.

The next live music event was when Stephen Bennett took Sara, Marilyn and me to see the Supremes at the Forum. We prepared for the evening by buying the Supremes’ Greatest Hits and I of course memorized almost the entire two albums of Motown hits. When we arrived at the Forum we realized we were practically the only white people in the audience, but we loved it. Everyone was dressed like I’d never witnessed before, in their finest finery. The stage went black, a spotlight shone and the most amazing harmonica rendition of “Danny Boy” came pouring out of “Little” Stevie Wonder. After his set, the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band did “Grazing in the Grass” (Hugh Masakela’s hit) and a bunch of other unfamiliar but exciting street music. But we were now chomping at the bit for the ladies we had come to see. When Mary, Flo and Diana finally crossed the stage in their electric blue spangled sheaths, the crowd went wild. We were on our feet singing for the rest of the concert.

Later on around 1974, my Nashville cousin Bonnie Kay was visiting us in Malibu, and she was thrilled (She’s still thrilled, to this day!) to spot Diana Ross in the checkout line ahead of us at the grocery store out in Point Dume. Of course we scoped out what she was buying, and were stunned at the massive number of pink foam hair rollers she had in her shopping cart. For her many wigs, of course.

I was a senior in high school when I attended a concert featuring Dionne Warwick, again at the Forum. I went that night with Evelyn Ono, a friend from school, and at one point we went to the restroom during part of the boring opening act. There, all alone loitering in the lobby, stood Burt Bacharach and his then wife, Angie Dickenson. What else could we do but walk up to them and ask for their autographs? It was the only time I’ve ever done that. It was that night that I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to become a Burt Bacharach background singer.

Oddly enough, that’s sort of what I did. Though I never did get to sing for Mr. Bacharach himself, I did spend ten years doing background vocals in the studios of Nashville. I would never in a million years have guessed that my dream could ever come true. And in actual fact, I was only one degree of separation away from Burt himself, since I sang backgrounds on two albums by B. J. Thomas, the artist who performed Burt’s hit, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” for the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And I got to meet Mac David, the brother of Burt’s collaborator Hal, and also a successful songwriter.

Matt Young was my musical guide through high school. He was, in the words of Bob Dylan, a “musical expeditionary.” Though not a musician himself, he was a researcher. He would take us record shopping, and we would troll the aisles together looking for new material to fall in love with. We would go driving and he would tune in the new FM stations that played whole albums, long cuts and the more obscure music that the AM station programmers weren’t allowed to play. The most memorable of the DJs was B. Mitchell Reid, who worked at KMET-FM. He would actually play a new release in its entirety, which was incredibly exciting.

Matt brought my attention to one writer in particular. There was a standout song on an album by Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters, entitled “Clouds”. We loved it, and Matt started watching the music scene for the appearance of its composer, Joni Mitchell. Her first album arrived just a little bit later, and soon we went to the Hollywood Bowl to see her. That happened to be a night when people around us got a little rowdy and uncooperative, and Matt got angry at them, and I thought, “Wait a minute. We’re all singing, ‘Come on people now, smile on your brother, Everybody get together, try and love one another right now’ and you guys are arguing and about to start a fight! Cognitive dissonance!”

The second time we saw Joni, she was at the Greek Theater, and there was an odd opening act. Three guys came out on stage with two guitars, stood around a mike and sang amazing three-part harmonies. After several songs, the curtains opened, and the crowd cheered and yelped because the rock ‘n roll background of these “new” artists was being revealed.

There were banks of electric guitars, amplifiers, two drum kits, etc., and Neil Young joined them on stage. It was the third live gig of Crosby, Stills and Nash. I later found out their second gig had been at Woodstock. I had lucked into an historic moment. I was familiar with David Crosby from the Byrds, and Graham Nash from the Hollies, and Stills and Young had been in the Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) which Matt had already turned me on to. Later we also loved Poco together, another offshoot of Buffalo Springfield. As the critics wrote, the Southern California music scene was downright incestuous. CSN’s first self-titled album was released in June, 1969.

The funny thing about that concert was the audience. We were sitting in a steep natural outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by trees. This was the late ‘Sixties, and there were a lot of young people who loved this music but couldn’t or wouldn’t pay to hear it. They hiked up the Hollywood hills and climbed the trees. The only problem was, some of them were too loaded to remain in those trees, and occasionally we would hear a crashing of bushes and ivy as someone fell out of a tree and rolled down the hill.

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

In the summer of 1970, between high school and college for me, Daddy had been dead for a year, and Momma felt ready to take a major vacation. She thought it would be a good idea to go on a tour of New England, and see her daughter-in-law Sharyn’s parents, the Harmons, in New York while we were at it. Well, my friend Sam was spending a year in New York working with Camp Shiloh. Shiloh had a summer camp in Mendham, New Jersey, where kids from inner city New York were able to come to the country, hear about Jesus, and get a different view of the world.

Sam Jackson had met Sara in 1966, when we were thirteen and he was eighteen. He and Stephen, Sara and Marilyn and I had formed that “prayer group” which was really an opportunity for Stephen and Marilyn to spend more time together and for Sara and Sam to get to know each other. Sam was a freshman in college when they met, and though Sara was five years younger, she was at least eighteen in her own mind. They dated, on and off, even though he was so much older. The Youngs trusted him – somewhat – because he was the younger brother of Matt’s best friend, Danny Jackson.

Now it was four years later, and I was going to be in New York, if ever so briefly. Why not try to hook up with Sam? He told me to meet him at the Port Authority bus station, and we would have an evening together. Then he would put me on the train to White Plains, and Mom and the Harmons could meet me there. How many parents would go for that when their daughter was just sixteen? But somehow, Mom was willing to accommodate me. Our family had always been loose on issues of child safety.

What a wonderful feeling of freedom, to be on the town in New York with Sam and his friend, a sweet, tall Texan named Joe B. Williams. My relationship with my mom had never been easy, and it was a relief to get a break from her and feel like myself again. And what an incredible night to show up in New York. Lazarus, that group I had first heard in Dallas with Campus Evangelism, was playing that very night in Greenwich Village at the Gaslight.

So we three walked along the hot city streets. At one point I was singing Joni Mitchell’s bluesy song, “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”. I didn’t know it wasn’t okay to look people in the eye on the streets of New York, and one black guy going the other way made eye contact with me. He heard what I was singing, and called out, “Lighten up!” I loved that.

So we arrived at the Gaslight, a music club I had read about as part of the folk scene. There were the same guys I had heard in Dallas, and later met at a Bible study in L.A., on the little stage of a famous, genuine Greenwich Village coffee house. They were terrific. And I was with Sam and Joe B. The romance of it made me almost breathless with happiness. After the show, it was later than it was supposed to be, but we hurried on the subway to the train station, and they put me on the train to White Plains, where the Harmons lived outside IBM headquarters in Armonk. And George Harmon was there to meet me at the station.

Lazarus never really hit it big, but they hoped to because of a connection with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. One night in Texas, they were able to get a demo tape to Peter after a concert, and instead of just taking it with him to listen to later, he got a wild notion to go with them to their apartment and listen to them play live. He was so impressed with their talent and their passion that he made a personal commitment to try and help them.

A couple of years after the Gaslight performance, Sam told me that Lazarus was coming to L.A. Peter was traveling with them, and they were all playing at the Troubadour. It was meant to be their “last try” tour, to promote their second album. If nothing happened this time, they would come off the road and quit trying as a band. Of course we had to be there at the Troubadour. It was April 19, 1972 – I wrote it in a journal. Of course they were great, playing some music from their second album, which Sam assured them afterwards was their best work yet.

As we waited in line to get in, Sam and Sara and I were standing around passing time when Sam turned to me and seriously asked, “So when are you going professional?” At first it struck me as a joke, but he was so earnest. The awareness washed over me that someone was actually acknowledging my talent, encouraging me to dream, and believing that it wasn’t a totally ridiculous notion. His comment didn’t have enough power to set me really dreaming, but it did make a solid impact on my heart.

One postscript about Lazarus. In later years I worked in music for advertising, and I learned that Bill Hughes, the lead singer and writer for Lazarus, was the composer of that lovely little ditty, “Lifesavers…a part of living” which was their campaign theme for several years. I was pleased to learn that he had made some income off the music business, but also sad that he probably felt like a commercial sell-out.

When the internet became widespread, and a kajillion people were on AOL, I decided to write to all the men named “Bill Hughes” with AOL email addresses (there were six or seven) and ask them if they were he. I had a desire to reconnect with him and tell him that I was still listening to their albums and still loving their work. I never did connect with him, though I did hear back from some nice men named Bill Hughes. Then one day I happened to thumb through an issue of ASCAP’s publication Playback, and there in small print in the back of that issue was his death notice. So strange that he had been on my heart. Maybe there was some manner of spiritual encouragement flowing between us because I carried him there for awhile.

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

We were always looking for God in the music, and James Taylor came through for us with “Fire and Rain”: “Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, you’ve got to help me make a stand. You’ve just got to see me through another day.” (He claimed later that it was just a useful metaphor, that he didn’t mean it literally.) There was “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum on the radio, and Judy Collins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace”. A huge black church choir, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, had a hit with “O Happy Day.” Cat Stevens did not disappoint, with his “Morning Has Broken” and “Peace Train”.

So it didn’t surprise me much when Arlo Guthrie had a spiritual experience while writing a song for his album, Washington Country. He was performing at the Hollywood Bowl, and he told the story before he sang that song. He said, “I was writing a song in Woodstock, man, and it was snowing outside. Every time I came to this line, ‘Jesus gonna make you well,’ man, the snow would stop and the sun would come through the window and hit the paper where I was writing. It was weird, man.

“And then when I started performing it, one time it was raining and the rain stopped whenever I got to those words. So I’m just warning you, man. I never know what’s gonna happen when I sing this song.” Well, it’s a cynical crowd in Hollywood, and I was wondering what kind of supernatural touch the Lord would bring to his Jesus song for us. Whenever Arlo got to that line, a dog in the crowd starting yelping and howling. The crowd kind of chuckled when they realized it was becoming a pattern.

o ~ o ~ o ~ o ~ o

I now had established a personal tradition of going to every Joni Mitchell concert that came to town, so when it was 1972 and she was performing at the Music Center, I called for tickets. On the first day that they were available, they were all sold out in the first few hours. What was I to do? I wasn’t giving up. I found another intrepid fan, Barbara Henderson, and we decided to show up about 4:00 pm and stand in the cancellation line.

The hours passed, the line moved slowly, and it was almost curtain time. We were the very last ones to get tickets before the line closed, and we hurried to our seats as the opening act began to sing. It was a guy we had never heard of, but we loved him, and found out his name was Jackson Browne. He was a new discovery, an addition to my list of heart-broken singer/songwriter poets who provided the soundtrack for my life.

Just a few months later, that same summer, I was in Heidelberg, Germany as a student (in the same Year in Europe program my parents had initiated in 1963). I was now eighteen and a sophomore in college. Somebody in our small group of American students found out that Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne were coming to Frankfurt, and a bunch of us decided to go. We hopped a train, found something to eat, found the auditorium (“Wo ist Jahrhundertshalle, bitte?”) bought the tickets for 20 DM, and had a magical evening with Joni and Jackson.

Joni had just composed her homage to Beethoven after she arrived in Germany, and she performed it for the very first time for us, on an awesome black grand piano. She had a vase of roses and a Persian carpet on stage with her, and I thought, “This is who I want to be when I grow up.” Later on, I would choose to stop following her lead. Her path got too rocky and dangerous for me. (Historical note: Joni Mitchell turned 62 yesterday, November 7. She says she quit writing when she was reunited with the child she gave up so long ago for adoption. She wrote the song "Little Green" about her. She says she was trying to help make the world a better place for the child she had been separated from, and now they're finally a family, she doesn't feel that compulsion any more.)

I had a postcard with a picture of the Heidelberg castle, and I wrote on the back, “So much said in listening.” (a line from her first album) and laid it on the stage at her feet. I wrote Pepperdine’s address and invited her and Jackson to stop by Heidelberg and see us, if they had time. Apparently, Jackson was an Army brat and his family had actually been stationed in Mannheim, right next to Heidelberg, so Joni mentioned that they were coming there the next day. The idea wasn’t all that far-fetched, I thought, and I waited around the Moore Haus all that next day in hopes that they would show up.

On our way home on the train, everyone was talking about the performance, and it was my first experience getting to critique a show with other aesthetes. I was moved to hear Russ DiNapoli declare, “She’s so generous with her audience.” Being an actor, he thought in those terms, and I was grateful he could put words to what I had been feeling.

Another chapter in my personal Joni Mitchell saga happened in Malibu. Sara and I always watched for when a new album would come out, and this time it was Court and Spark. Joni had really branched out. No longer was she “Acoustic Hippie Girl,” the queen of Topanga Canyon. Now she was dressed up and made up, and backed up by an entire band, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, with jazz influences and woodwinds. We sat in Marilyn’s bedroom where the stereo was, and listened hard, trying to absorb the new sound and seeing whether we could get our ears around it. We both succeeded and decided to embrace the change.

So when she played a hall near enough to drive to, Sara and Sam and Danny and I went to the concert. It was so strange, seeing her transformed from Topanga princess into sexy city woman. I wasn’t ready to make that emotional shift, and yet I loved the lyrics of the album and related to them all, especially “Didn’t it feel good? We were sittin’ there talkin’, or lying there not talkin’ – didn’t it feel good?” and “Trouble child, breaking like the waves at Malibu.”