DROPPING NAMES Chapter five
The T-shirts read: “I survived the Blizzard of 77”. Mine should have read: “I Escaped the Blizzard of 77”. The monster storm hit with no warning and trapped everyone right where they were that hour. Kind of like in 79AD in Italy when Mount Vesuvius blew up and buried everyone in Pompeii in hot molten lava. So on second thought, by comparison the blizzard wasn’t so bad. I was locked in my little flat right in Buffalo with some food. I couldn’t get out the door for the snow. The high winds had blown it into drifts as high as houses. But chipping away at it from inside, after a couple days I could get out, but so what? There was no traffic allowed; only one gully for police and fire to slip down the normal four lane just out my door. No buses. No human faces.
As soon as the buses did start rolling again I packed a bag, took a local to the depot and got on the first Greyhound leaving town, with a serious case of ‘cabin fever’. Fortunately the bus was destined for Toronto, two hours north. Met some street mimes by playing tug-of-war even though there was no rope and they let me stay at their place which, with more good fortune in my life, had real walls. Looked around the town, semi commuted for a couple months and then eventually rented a one room basement apartment in the Beaches section, a block from Lake Ontario. Met jazz musicians at jam sessions. Got some gigs.
As usual there was that kinship among musicians and they were kind enough to let me hear and tell gig stories. I did, after all, know all the correct lingo. I didn’t feel a lot of sexism from the Toronto guys. Maybe it was because I could actually play somewhat okay or maybe it was because they were Canadians.
The clubs closed very early up there – 1:00am compared to the 4:00am closing in Buffalo. So if you knew somebody, you could find an after hours place, kind of like a speakeasy. I was taken to Betty’s where most of heavy hitters from the Toronto jazz scene showed up at one time or another. As any musician knows you NEVER leave your axe in the car outside of a speakeasy in the middle of the night. You take it with you. And what do you think a bunch of jazz musicians do in the middle of the night with their instruments beside them and no where to go? They jam. Because no one was paying them, because they didn’t have to keep it polite and because Betty had posted a sign that said “A hard man is good to find” the musical cowboys were let loose on the trail. There were still rules of course, or maybe call it etiquette. One didn’t (usually)go all crazy and solo for an hour or play “free” forever. If so they weren’t let back in or weren’t given the nod to solo again. These were professionals with great chops and deference was made to those who could get down to business; those who could find the magic notes to stir whatever it was that broke the barriers of thought and soared into previously unexplored territory. Those were good times.
So between touring and playing behind some very talented, sometimes Juno (Canadian Grammy) Award winning singer song writers who one might categorize as folk musicians who were equally committed artists that spoke a different language, I began to poke around to see what else the city had to offer.
One event that stands out and that allowed me to meet a famous person whose name I might drop, was the World Symposium on Humanity in April of 1979, taking place over seven days on the University of Toronto campus. We really need to set this in a chronological reference. The best way for people to communicate with one another then, if they weren’t right there in the room with you was to use the telephone. (Historical reference: a device with two parts – the bottom part with a dial or these new fangled push buttons. The device sat in one place on a table or was stuck on the wall, and the other part connect ed by a wire which you held up to your ear to listen and this piece extended down to your mouth so you could answer important questions put to you. This second part could also be held upside down over the top of your head if you decided you wanted to look like Mickey Mouse) This device, although revolutionary in it’s day, had little flexibility because, of course, it was limited to the six foot radius of the wire. Some people had 20′ or 30′ extension chords so they could go into another room while talking. Why would anyone want to do that? Ridiculous. Besides the telephone, you could also send someone a letter. (Sorry I have no information on that technology)
So get the picture? No computers, laptops, no cell phones, no FAXes, Blackberries, Facebook or Twitter. Nothing digital. Nada. Yes, there were wireless communication devices on Star Trek, but as I’m sure you are aware, takes place in stardate 3045. They were well into reruns by this time, if you could even find them on the 3 or 4 TV stations available in stardate 1979.
But we all knew there was technology being invented by the CIA or some other secret Military Industrial Complex Trilateral Commission machine. Ten years earlier we watched on TV awhile a man landed and walked on the moon live. So some forward thinking person, (probably a Trekkie but I’m only giving an educated guess) had the wonderful idea of having large, simultaneous gatherings at different locations around the world – London, LA and Toronto for sure; maybe more. Each of these gatherings would have several venues including concerts, discussion panels and lectures from people looking a little deeper into the purpose and meaning of life and perhaps jump start some thinking on solutions to hunger, poverty, greed and war; pretty lofty. The big deal about the World Symposium on Humanity was that at certain designated times there would be cameras set up at each location and somehow, through magic or voodoo or something, we would be able to see and hear people in other locations in real time. A world wide conference of alternative thinkers and artists! We could report to one another on ideas, organizations, movements.
As you can imagine this took incredible planning, maybe a year or two in advance. Each team in each city needed to create itself, rent stages, auditoriums, equipment, food, speakers, bands, publicize it, take in money (remember no on-line payments) and most importantly, rent time on the satellite orbiting the earth so that signals could bounce off it and we could all hook up (that phrase meant something different back then). This technology was the big draw. And all this organizing had to be done without internet or cell phones, an almost impossible task to imagine today. But somehow they did it. Hundreds of people signed up at each location and paid several hundred bucks BY CHECK to attend. It may have been the first independent event of its kind.
I did not know who was organizing this event. I had nothing to do with it. I simply saw a flier with a number to call to volunteer there in Toronto. I thought I could hang out backstage and serve as a gofer (go fer this, go fer that) for the speakers listed on the flier, especially Buckminster Fuller, a very challenging figure to try and define. If you have ever heard of him it is probably because he patented and developed the geodesic dome. (Example of one is the big silver ball at Disney EBCOT). He worked a lot with inventing sustainable, affordable housing and alternatives to oil based fuels. I knew of him because of a philosophy that resonated with me. “Selfishness,” he declared, “is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable…. War is obsolete.” In his 1970 book I Seem To Be a Verb, which I still have in my bookcase, he wrote: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” I declare him definitely worthy of being a famous person, even though his fame was based on his ideas and original thinking rather than how much publicity he had received. At this point he was well into his 80s. I was told, yes, I could serve Buckminster Fuller tea backstage. I was asked to report to Convocation Hall on the University campus, a beautiful auditorium I had been to several times (including the World Parliament of Religions where I was summoned up to the balcony to a quiet man with long white hair and beard and who people sort of tip toed around and the nice man gave me cashews, but we won’t even go there right now) The round room with a capacity for 2000 was sheltered under a leaded glass dome. It felt warm and grand at the same time and provided great acoustics.
I show up bright and chipper on the first morning, ready to serve the tea and hang out with Mr. Fuller and find out the meaning of life. When I arrived I couldn’t find the person whose name I’d been given. I couldn’t find anyone in charge of anything. The stage at Convocation Hall did have a sound system set up on stage. The light board was accessible. But no stage manager. Hmm. Curious. I waited a good hour and then a band showed up for their concert. Since no one else was around and since I had spent my hour of waiting poking around the stage noticing outlets, checking out the sound and lights, I started pointing to things. Warning: Never start pointing to things if you do not want more questions. Pretty soon we were all working together and figured out all the technical stuff. People were filtering into the house (the audience seats). According to the band’s contract, of which they did not not have a copy, they had a 45 minute set to play. They told me who they were and where they were from, I introduced them to the audience of maybe three hundred and it was great.
I don’t remember who they were and I have a very good reason. This scenario I just related repeated itself all day long. I waited for someone to come and tell me where Buckminster Fuller’s teacup was but meanwhile bands kept showing up. I pointed and help set up, introduce them off they would go. I had no idea who was scheduled or at what time. About midday someone with a clipboard walked in. Hurray! The cavalry had arrived. She was rushed and frustrated. I asked where Buckminster Fuller was. She had no idea. I asked where the stage manager was. Well, there was a problem.
The satellite time they had booked had been taken away by the government. There would be no video hookup between cities. A major component of the staff had freaked about it and walked out, including the stage manager for Convocation Hall. But someone would be there very soon to do the job. I asked if there was a list of who was scheduled to perform. Well, actually no, there wasn’t because the staff members, when they walked off, had their clipboards with them. All the paperwork was gone. But someone would be there soon.
Hour after hour, day after day I welcomed in the performers, got them set up, introduced them, schmoozed a little before they left and another act came in. The attendees to the conference, which I heard were a couple thousand scattered about the campus, had different reactions to the new circumstances. Some demanded and received refunds and some dove into trilateral commission conspiracy theories about who was plotting against the free exchange of information among citizens of the world. So basically one could get angry, one could keep trying to make it be the way it was supposed to be or one could see the situation as it unfolded and work with that. I chose door number 3. Far out.
On one occasion I figured out that during the time the video hook up was scheduled, there were no bands coming in to set up. I ventured out of Convocation Hall toward one of the other buildings, sort of like carefully exiting a bomb shelter into the sun. There were lots of people dressed creatively, vendors selling crystals, jewelry and a few pyramids. Some peace activists and ecology groups were set up at tables. The Hari Krishnas were singing, blissed out in orange togas. Eyes were open. People were awake, talking to one another, listening and of course, many looking for permanent or temporary mates.
I wandered into a big building just in time to hear a speaker being introduced. The best I can recall his name was Chief Rolling Thunder. I never heard of him again. He does not google up today. I tried. He was obviously a Native person older middle aged, with long black hair tied back, tall with a gaunt face and a deep, sincere voice. He spoke only a short time but what he said changed my life. I can’t impart his elegance but the main idea was this. Every time we breath in, some of those molecules of oxygen were once part of the dinosaurs. With every breath there may be a molecule of oxygen breathed in by Buddha. There may be one breathed in by Jesus, by our ancestors, breathed in by every creature that has lived. Surely we are One.
Is that what the government doesn’t want us talking about? Does each country need to remain separate because it is so good for the defense business? I returned to Convocation Hall with a renewed sense of purpose. If I had questioned why I was still there, working for free under crazy conditions, I could now see a bigger purpose. Everyday a clipboard bearer came by to tell me that someone would be there soon to do the job, but of course no one did. Well, actually someone did show up – me. I just never got my own clipboard.
The people who had deserted their positions were followers of Rajneesh, an Indian “guru” who discounted Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and whose eventual commune in Oregon used the first documented case of bioterrorism and used armed force to protect the 93 Rolls Royces he owned, was swooshed out of the US and denied entry into over twenty other countries. Hmmm. Should have seen that coming.
The people who quietly stepped into managerial positions to help transform the event into a meaningful one, were for the most part from the North American based Sufi Order who had made individual decisions to lend a hand. They continue to teach without scandal or fanfare.
The last group (I hoped) of the week came in and a man introduced himself as Schlomo Carlebach. He wore a full salt and pepper beard cut close, something on his head and carried a guitar case. My emotional memory of his music is that he played with a sixty piece orchestra and full tabernacle choir. Of course that didn’t happen but what he presented was that strong and powerful. People streamed in the doors as he played, enjoining everyone to sing together. If you didn’t know his tunes beforehand, you could pick them up quickly. Sometimes he strummed while sing-songing words of compassion and brother hood with such conviction you knew he had to be right.
For the last half hour he invited everyone to come and join him in a circle, Schlomo at the top of the gently rising steps that led to the stage and the other couple hundred dancing and swaying as they sang. This was totally mystical and transformational for for everyone except the unofficial stage manager with no clipboard, who spent the blissful event on her knees and belly tucking wires safely away from naked feet and they danced and skipped up and down the stairs.
It was a perfectly beautiful end to a groundbreaking event and I couldn’t believe it was over. Dazed, I sat in a seat in the front row of the almost empty hall. Someone sat two seats down and with peripheral vision I saw a developmentally disabled woman obviously upset at something. She was banging herself in the head and pulling out her hair. With a Leave it to Beaver type psychological approach, I turned my head and said to her, “You know, you’re only hurting yourself.” This seemed to make sense to her. She stopped. I relaxed. A mistake. Very soon MY hair was being pulled and MY head was being banged on.
I must have screamed and tried to push her away. Someone may have pulled her off. I wound up sitting on the bottom step leading toward the stage where only moments before blissfully released happy dancing feet had joyfully been placed. My punched face felt swollen. I didn’t even want to feel my head to discover if she’d gotten any of my long beautiful hair. I whimpered. All of that work and I never got a clipboard and where the hell was Buckminster Fuller.
Then magically I was gently and fully encompassed by arms that held me and rocked me perfectly. Schlomo was sitting beside me saying nothing in words, eventually humming. Like a Florida rainstorm, I cried and then cried harder, then yielded to the warm sun love being passed to me. Never before or since had I felt that in the moment committed love. We swayed together on the step and I let myself be comforted, choosing not to stay in the drama. I was not watching myself experience this. I was there being held by firm arms in a white shirt and there were no problems anywhere in the world.
Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach was known to Jews and gentiles around the world as the “Singing Rabbi” and some consider him a most significant composer, bringing back sacred texts into services because of the beautiful melodies he created. There is a musical being produced in New Orleans about him called, “Soul Doctor Music”. He led many back to their roots of Judaism who were disenchanted with rules but still longed to celebrate their heritage. I spent that summer attending his classes in people’s homes. Once he invited me to sing, and not knowing any better I broke into “Amazing Grace”. When people complained that it was not a Jewish song, he said it was a holy song, good for all to hear. He was a person who inspired universal love through the lense of Judaism. It seemed easy and natural to become a better person while singing with him.
In the years since, I heard rumors about improper conduct on his part toward women. At first I dismissed it. But then I met a reputable woman who said she was one. Never ever did I get even a hint of anything improper toward me. I have considered maybe not including him in this piece. What would you do? I continue to feel that I received something very wonderful from him. But at least one sister that I know of was compromised. I grew because of the relationship and that really happened. But was there an alternate motive involved? I cannot say. I only know that inside of each of us there is the potential for many human behaviors. Perhaps I was lucky that I was one of the many who only knew the good part of him.
I died for beauty but was scarce Adjusted in the tomb, When one who died for truth was lain In an adjoining room. He questioned softly why I failed? "For beauty," I replied. "And I for truth,--the two are one; We brethren are," he said. And so, as kinsmen met a night, We talked between the rooms, Until the moss had reached our lips, And covered up our names. Emily Dickinson