THE LETTERS OF TOM ADAMS

This is a version of my article that ran in the September, 2020 issue of D Magazine.

TOM ADAMS WAS ALREADY DREAMING of becoming the head baseball coach at St. Mark’s when he sent me a letter from his boyhood home of New Canaan, Connecticut in the summer of 1964. “I’m hungry for that job,” he confided, sharing his eagerness to move up to the varsity along with players he had coached on the JV team during his first three years at the school. He said he had done “considerable thinking” about this and scribbled a prospective lineup: 

  • 1) B. Kohler c 2) MacAdams cf 3) T. Kohler p
  • 4) Rozelle 3b 5) Mitchell ss 6) Nobles 2b
  • 7) Lucas 1b 8) Baldwin rf 9) Heyer lf

“If Olson pitches,” he went on, “T. Kohler goes to 1b and George bats 9th, with Baldwin and Heyer moving up to bath 7th and 8th.” All eventualities considered! He couldn’t help himself. And he had Rozelle batting ahead of me?

“Don’t show this to anybody,” he added. He was 26 and aware that the current varsity coach wasn’t stepping down.

I remember all the players in that lineup, but I don’t remember the letter from 56 years ago. It’s one of 14 that I have from him — hand-written on 6×8 manila-colored stationary — representing our correspondence over my schoolboy summers starting in 1962, artifacts from a previous era of innocence and trust between teachers and students. I stashed them in a box and hadn’t looked at them again until recently, after he died in Dallas at the age of 82.

14 letters from New Canaan

IF THEY WERE TO PUT UP a statue to anyone at St. Mark’s, it would surely be to Tom Adams, a teacher-coach with a panoply of uncommon talents and a personality that was part scholar, part play-by-play announcer, an art historian who was also a one-man Elias Sports Bureau. He arrived straight out of Princeton in my eighth grade year and stayed almost half a century, offering instructive attention, laugh-out-loud irony and friendship to thousands of students through the years, including me, back in the beginning.

As that 1964 letter suggests, he was not just a young history teacher relaxing back home over summer break but a man possessed – possessed by the organizing principle of sports and the puzzle pieces of teams, in particular the San Francisco Giants but also a school team he likely wasn’t even going to get to coach (yet).

“I’m sorry, but I’m hopelessly in despair now and am incapable of writing a decent letter,” he said before promising to write again soon and signing off with his customary “Sincerely, Mr. Adams.”

His despair had to do with a series of losses suffered by the Giants of the National League to whom he had pledged allegiance and entrusted his happiness since growing up with them as the New York Giants before they moved west in 1958. He was 13 when Bobby Thompson hit his famous home run against the Dodgers in 1951 to win the pennant, “the greatest moment in sports,” he assured me.

Mostly that’s what he wrote about in the letters: the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants, whom he followed with tireless devotion, sharing his thoughts, joys and complaints, offered sometimes with ironic hyperbole and what would later be known as trash talk. “Did you notice how the Dodgers went into an immediate tailspin as soon as their ‘invincible’ Koufax lost to Pittsburgh? He’s their leader, but he’s only second best to Marichal who could easily have 20 wins right now.”

HE ALSO PROVIDED REPORTS on the American Legion team he coached every summer in New Canaan. “The American Legion team is 6-8 with 4 games left in the next 7 days. Lack of hitting is the big problem.” And there were his experiences in softball and basketball leagues, plus the occasional golf tournament. He often shot in the 70s. He was Sports Center before there was Sports Center.

I have little recollection of what I wrote to him, but his responses indicate it was mainly about baseball, the center of my universe then. That was our connection. At the time I had not heard of Ring Lardner, but Mr. Adams was like having Ring Lardner as a pen pal. I never had him in class, yet his erudition and playful irreverence surely influenced me, a fledgling sportswriter and student athlete with the ambition to follow in his footsteps and go to Princeton, where he had earned letters in baseball and basketball. He scored 14 points in a first round NCAA Tournament game against Duke. I wondered how he missed being a Rhodes Scholar? At 6’4”, with his square jaw and long-legged build, he looked like he could be pitching for the Giants or playing for the Knicks.

In July of that first summer of 1962, as I was heading into 9th grade, he wrote, in a familiar non-cursive lettering: “As I tried to tell you this spring, Sean, this San Francisco club is now an experienced, mature club that is not going to be seriously affected by a slump or even a key injury, unless it be to Mays.”

A MONTH LATER, in August, he related how he “got killed” in a play at the plate in his softball league when “the catcher’s knee got me right in the ribs as I slid, and I could not play golf at night until Friday.” (He neglected to mention whether he was safe or out.) He closed with, “I hope everything is well with you and your parents…I certainly have enjoyed your letters this summer and any others, of course, will be appreciated.”

Coach Adams in 1962 

The next summer, 1963, with him back in Connecticut, we exchanged six letters. His included such observations as “I guess it goes without saying that the Giants have made me sick, and today’s postponed doubleheader with Pittsburgh just prolongs the agony and frustration.”

There’s nothing here about contracts or salaries, sabermetrics or Willie McCovey’s launch angle (which would have been impressive). The game was simpler and less about money, like the country itself.

 “I just had to let off a little steam, but keep one thing in mind – S.F. is going to come back yet despite their many problems, mainly their infield which has been totally inadequate both at bat and in the field – I mean, the whole infield, too.”

 The record shows they did not come back.

“As for the American League, forget it – any league that cannot begin to pick up ground on the Yanks minus M&M [Mantle and Maris] must have some feeble teams.”

I must have sent him MLB all-star picks that didn’t include a sufficient number of Giants because he responded, “I won’t bother to comment on your biased viewpoints regarding the all-star selections. When you decide to look at things objectively, I’ll consider your opinions worthwhile.” Ha. The bite of his signature sarcasm, which I had learned to enjoy and not take personally.

 THAT SUMMER, HEADING into my sophomore year, I was deliberating whether to continue with football, considering myself undersized for the varsity, and evidently I asked his opinion. He had been the assistant coach of our overmatched 9th grade team that finished 0-6, with me as quarterback. “You have a lot of ability in football, Sean, but your size may work against you in the long run, and you’d never feel it was really worthwhile hanging on. I hope that doesn’t discourage you if you want to play badly…I feel that you’ll be making a good decision either way.” Diplomacy, thy name was Adams. Come September I opted out of football.

 No curves, please

He reminds me in the letters that I was playing golf in the summers before high school, and he was encouraging me. I have only the faintest recall of this and also why I gave up golf until decades later. I’m pretty sure I had never played with him until the St. Mark’s alumni tournament in 2011 when he announced to our struggling Class of ‘66 contingent in his best Les Keiter voice, “OK, on every hole from here on, we’re going straight for the flags.” Which was hilarious at the time and an uncanny flashback to the weekend afternoons of our youth playing touch football, softball and tennis with him while he offered dramatic play-by-play commentary.

HE SOUNDED LIKE NO ONE ELSE, practiced in the locutions of academic authority yet captivated by the archness of old radio melodramas and the squawk of the press box. He invented an eccentric theatrical persona for himself as “The World’s Fastest Talker,” brought to life each year in the school talent show. In top hat and tails he would emit at incalculable speed a torrent of words representing the names of all 50 states and their capitals, the 66 Books of the Bible, the alphabet backwards, the 28 train stops between New York and Chicago the 32 points of the compass and more, his mouth galloping to a finish in under 1 minute, stopwatch in hand. It was both amusing and astonishing.

Tennis was not really his sport but he was often available to play doubles on the courts at school, always bringing along a transistor radio to monitor the baseball scores provided at regular intervals on WRR. If a Giants game hadn’t been updated in a while, he would frown and utter ruefully, “The Cards have been up for a long time in the sixth.” A stony stare conveyed the message: “Don’t you boys realize what’s at stake here?”

Dallas didn’t have an MLB team then, but the Astros were in their infancy and, more important, were in the National League, meaning the Giants had to visit Houston a few times each season. No way he was going to miss those opportunities, and in the spring and fall he hauled carloads of Marksmen down US 75 to see our first major league baseball.

MY SINGLE MOST VIVID MEMORY from all those games was sitting down the right field line once and seeing Felipe Alou, the Giants’ right fielder, scoop up a single and fire a long strike all the way to 3B to cut down a runner trying to advance from first. From our vantage point right behind him, the ball soared all that distance as if catapulted from a rocket launcher, straight as an arrow and almost as fast. OUT! It was an up close and personal revelation you couldn’t get on TV of the athleticism of big leaguers and what they were capable of. I can still see it. 

“Speaking of S.F.,” he wrote in one of those early letters, “they’ve been in their usual June slump of late, but don’t worry about them, Sean, they’ll bounce back on top in due time. I hope you’ll be ready to watch them clinch the pennant in Houston in late September.” I’m not sure any of us became Giants fans, but the trips with him were a blast, playing 20 questions in the car and making up athletic contests for the motel pool. Competition always.

Only one letter in 1965 and a comment about that Houston team: “I notice that the Astros are back to normal – just throwing in the towel game after game. The idea of starting Dierker and Cuellar in a doubleheader against the Phils today is absolutely ridiculous – they might as well not even bother to play the games.”

SENIOR YEAR, WHEN COACH BROWN had a meltdown during our final home game and disappeared, Mr. Adams stepped in as third base coach, travelling to Austin with us the next day for the conference tournament. I think most of the team welcomed his presence and wanted to show our feelings by winning the SPC title. That did not happen despite his best efforts: in one game he was able to read the opposing pitcher’s body language and flash a sign to the plate when a curve was coming. I still couldn’t hit it.

15 SPC championships

In the end I didn’t apply to Princeton, and in the summer of 1966, before I left for a different east coast college, we exchanged two letters. He was in graduate school at Harvard (though commuting back to New Canaan to coach his American Legion team). “Another half-assed baseball season draws to a close,” he said tellingly in his last letter, postmarked August 17. “The Giants are almost as bad as the Yanks. Herman Franks, who I thought did a good job in 1965 [as manager] has gone to pot this year. His best players sit on the bench half the time.”

MR. ADAMS WAS LEAVING ST. MARK’S for what would turn out to be a brief sojourn at Albuquerque Academy before returning to 10600 Preston Road for a run of 47 years, during which he would get that head coaching job in baseball and win 15 conference championships, plus six as head basketball coach. Before he retired in 2011 he received seven yearbook dedications, starting with our class of ‘66.

I wonder now if I ever really knew him? He was the greatest of characters who often seemed in character, more comfortable onstage than off. He once narrated an imaginary title fight between Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and Laotian prince Souvanna Phouma, but he was reluctant to talk about himself — beyond the measure of sports. In those years, in those letters about all things athletic, it didn’t matter. He was smart and funny, considerate and edifying.

 “On my way to Albuquerque,” he concluded the letter in his regular blue-penned script. “I’m going to stop in Dallas Thursday nite Aug. 31 and stay for a few days. I’ll see you on the court.

“Sincerely, Mr. Adams.”

I wouldn’t have missed it.

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About Those Two Paul Simon Songs

I’M IN A WEEKLY pandemic Zoom group with five college classmates, and the other night talk turned to the music that was on the radio when we got to College Hill in Providence, R.I. in the autumn of 1966. Doug John, whom I met during freshman week that September and discovered also knew every song on Simon & Garfunkel’s first album Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., said he could remember the first time he heard “Sound Of Silence” in the spring of his senior year in high school in Honolulu. But it wasn’t clear if he meant the Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. version or the electrified rearrangement that became a hit, almost accidentally. So I posted this follow-up:

In Robert Hilburn’s recent biography of Simon, he points out that Paul attracted the attention of Columbia producer Tom Wilson by playing him “He Was My Brother” and “Sound of Silence.” Both ended up on Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. released in Oct. 1964 (when we were juniors in HS). The LP was a disappointment, sold only a few thousand copies apparently, and no one much noticed “Sound of Silence.” Not sure how I knew about it, but I bought the album and remember taking it to school and sharing it with another guitar player, David Laney, who later became head of Amtrak under George W. Bush. But that’s another story.

THE ONLY AIRPLAY the original, un-amplified “Sound of Silence” got was in Boston on one station and later in Florida during spring break 1965, but that was enough encouragement for Tom Wilson, who heard the world changing in the Byrds’ rendition of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and thought maybe “Sound of Silence” could use some of that. Wilson, a Harvard-educated African-American from Waco who was into jazz, had produced Dylan’s rock breakthrough “Like a Rolling Stone” and was leaving Columbia. But as a last act, he hired session players to overdub the original 1964 acoustic tracks of “Sound of Silence” from Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. S&G were not even there. Paul had moved to England. Columbia released the reworked version as a single in January of 1966 and the rest is history. As it rose on the charts, Columbia rushed Paul and Artie back into the studio to record a new folk-rock album with “Sound of Silence” as the banner, the album title making the phrase plural, SOUNDS of Silence.

I hadn’t heard Sounds of Silence in a while, got it out and listened this morning. (The original album cover shows the two of them in winter coats and scarves heading up a dark, brush-lined trail that I assumed to be Central Park but in fact was in a rustic area near the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A.) Produced by Bob Johnston, the Texan who was working with Dylan at Columbia, it’s a little noisy and rock aspirational, though it includes the elegant “April Come She Will” that almost seems out of place. “Richard Cory” is a harsh rebuke of egotistical American affluence and ends with Richard Cory “putting a bullet through his head.” And there’s a second song about suicide, “A Most Peculiar Man.” Had forgotten those details. Pop music was moving on from Be-Bob-a-Lula, and Simon & Garfunkel were a thing.

Footnote: Tom Wilson died of a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 47, but what a legacy: In addition to working with major jazz innovators like Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, he produced “Sound of Silence” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Good grief.

I DON’T RECALL the first time I heard “Sound of Silence” (either version), but I do remember the first time I heard Simon’s other anthem, “Bridge over Troubled Water.” The album with “Bridge” as the title song was released in January of 1970, but S&G previewed the song during a TV special on CBS in November, 1969, called The Songs of America. I watched it in the TV room of my fraternity (in black and white) and will never forget it.

S&G had decided not to do a typical TV special but to illustrate the rough patch America was going through. “Bridge” played over footage of the slain Martin Luther King and the funeral train of Bobby Kennedy. To this day when I hear the line “Sail on, silver girl…” I think of the emotional sight of that long train moving forward (when in fact Simon reportedly had added that verse in the studio, and “silver girl” referred to his wife Peggy’s first gray hairs). The power of the song was instant for me but apparently many Americans were unmoved, found the show too downbeat and changed channels, according to this account from the BBC:

Songs of America was screened on the eve of the country’s first draft lottery since World War Two, amid the years of the My Lai massacre, the Manson murders, the Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago and the anti-Vietnam War March Against Death in Washington DC. But the average CBS viewer didn’t want to see the world crumbling. The heaviest sequence was a dark twist on the film’s travelogue theme, juxtaposing clips of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King on the campaign trail with footage of mourners watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train go by. The musical accompaniment was unfamiliar: a kind of white gospel song, stately and hymn-like, building to a shattering climax as the long black train sped through America’s broken heart. One million viewers responded by turning the dial and watching the figure skating on NBC instead. Some sent hate mail. Songs of America wouldn’t be seen again for over 40 years. This was the US public’s inauspicious introduction to what would become one of the defining songs of the 1970s and beyond: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Footnote 2: Simon composed the song with Garfunkel’s high register in mind, but was not happy when in concert Garfunkel would bow and bathe in the adulation at the conclusion without signaling that Paul had written it, allowing the audience to believe it was co-authored.

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Jack Mathews Set the Standard

I’VE KNOWN and worked with my share of talented journalists; Jack Mathews was at the top of the heap. He died in May of pancreatic cancer, foregoing life-extending treatments after he got the diagnosis a month before. “Now that the shock has subsided,” he wrote to me, “I feel okay with this. I lived in relative good health (measured by my ability to play golf) to 80, and so far past my expiration date (as measured by family history), I feel I’ve stolen time. I don’t intend to borrow more time through chemo and radiation.” And there it was.

I once wrote in the introduction to a book that Jack set the standard, certainly in the arts and culture corner of the newspaper universe. Before I met him, when I was at the Herald Examiner, I read and admired his film industry column in the Los Angeles Times. When I wrote “Why the News from Hollywood Always Wears a Tan” for the Washington Journalism Review, examining the power of publicists in Hollywood and the learned obeisance of most reporters under their thumbs, I singled him out as an exception. He was habitually resistant to major studio spin, smart and irreverent without being mean. He had a nose for a story and didn’t just regurgitate the official versions of the truth or kowtow to celebrity, an occupational hazard in L.A.

A FIVE TOOL JOURNALIST

A COUPLE YEARS LATER, when I began to write for the Times, I got to know him and found him to be very much like his copy, an unapologetic everyman in a city of masks and poses. He had a considerable knowledge of movies and their history – much greater than mine – but he was a journalist first, with wide-ranging interests and a Hemingway bullshit detector. He could have written about anything, including sports and current events. I sensed in him a kindred spirit and we became friends. For a short period he was my editor, and though circumstances soon sent us both elsewhere, we remained close for 30 years.

Jack’s sport was golf, but I thought of him in baseball terms as a “five tool player.” He was a gifted writer with an economy of style I envied; he was a reliable and entertaining critic; he could go long with ease in magazine pieces; he was fast (I really envied that); and he was an able and judicious editor. He was a no-doubt-about-it journalism all-star and should have won a Pulitzer somewhere along the way. He wasn’t given to self-promotion (another reason I liked him), and that might explain the oversight, but in truth there was no Pulitzer category wide enough for him and his skills. There’s not a paper in America that would not have wanted him on its team.

We came from very different backgrounds, and he was a bit older than me, but we shared a general world view and often similar opinions about politics, writers and people inside the trade and out. We both longed to write things other than newspaper and magazine articles and we encouraged each other’s efforts, sharing manuscripts and ideas. Hearing his praise of something I was working on was like getting a Vitamin B shot, in part because, as mentioned, he was no bullshitter. It was easy enough for me to return the compliment because his prose was something I always looked forward to reading, and he had much more to say than he could get into a newspaper column.

HE DID PUBLISH a nonfiction book, The Battle of Brazil, about Monty Python alumnus turned movie director Terry Gilliam’s war with Universal over the release of that satirical 1985 film, but I thought he had at least one novel in him and that it might be drawn from his unlikely personal knowledge of auto racing. Being a regular at Cannes for two decades obscured the biographical detail that Jack was a graduate of the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, something he had done to better equip him for his job in public relations at the Riverside International Raceway earlier in his life. He loved racing, and it gave him something to talk about with Paul Newman, another Bondurant graduate.

He hoped to publish a memoir about his experiences as a reporter visiting movie sets all over the world, observing such marquee names as Newman, Clint Eastwood, Rod Steiger, Darryl Hannah and others at work and play. “I know, many not-so-famous people have stories to tell about encounters with really famous people,” he wrote in a pitch to an agent. “Mine are unique as a movie critic, because I was more interested in how movies were made than in how they turned out and I traveled the world learning that.”

It was a good read and then some. But the “not-so-famous” thing was a problem. Though he had been a leading critic and reporter at the Los Angeles TimesNewsday, USA Today and The New York Daily News, Jack didn’t have a Q-rating high enough to get him a second chance in the celebrity-heavy book business.

HE GREW UP in a working-class neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles, far from the exalted realm of Hollywood he would later visit as a reporter. A few years ago I was writing a piece about stopping a bar fight, and I asked half a dozen male friends if they had ever been in a fist fight. Jack was the only one to raise his hand. He’d been in several — as a young man, with guys from his old neighborhood. 

He often lamented that his childhood buddies, as they aged, became arch conservatives, to the extent he could not discuss politics with them at all when they gathered for reunions. He and I exchanged countless emails about the presidential primaries in 2016 and again in 2020. We both saw the appeal of Bernie Sanders in a nation riven by inequality and gasping for breath under the weight of Capitol Hill-endorsed oligarchy. And we shared our dismay at watching the establishment-aligned DNC block him out twice. In between was the 24/7 outrage of the hideous bully in the Oval Office, a Constitution-shredding mob boss who soon became too awful for words. But Jack found some: “Trump is that rarest of capitalist creatures, a billionaire lowlife.”

When, last spring, the deceiver-in-chief began his daily briefings to camouflage his inept response to the Covid-19 virus, Jack wrote to me, “Every time he gets in front of the camera, I get the sinking feeling of seeing a bride’s drunk uncle rise at her reception to tell the crowd how he used to pinch her bottom and make her squeal. The looks on the other guests’ faces would match those behind Trump when he assures America that this will all be over by Easter.”

AFTER LEAVING his last job as movie critic for the Daily News in New York, Jack retired to a small town on the coast of Oregon with his wife, Cindy, and son, Darren. I visited him there once in 2011, on a trip with my son, Devin, who was scouting Oregon colleges. That’s the last time I saw him. I had hoped not only to see him again, but to finally get to play golf together. We had talked about it. He was an accomplished golfer and had played his whole life; I was a late-arriving neophyte who shared my frustrations with him over the phone and depended on him for tips and insights into the PGA Tour and its history.

In our last conversation, when he told me he had come to terms with his diagnosis and was not going to prolong the inevitable, he was appreciating that he had “lived a good life.” He only wished he could hang around long enough to see Trump voted out of office. The Orange Man would not make a good bookend. “I hate the thought of dying with him in the White House,” he said. “Because when I was born, F.D.R. was president.”

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Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

When my 50th college reunion at Brown was cancelled in May due to the pandemic, a virtual symposium was held on Zoom addressing the topic “Did Our Generation Fail?” I think the answer was Yes, but under the circumstances the verdict was rendered indirectly and diplomatically by the five panel members. I wish I had submitted as evidence the following excerpt from a late chapter in All People Are Famous, the 1974 autobiography by the eminent theater director and critic Harold Clurman, discussing “the younger generation” (us) and quoting from a letter of Anton Chekhov’s: “As long as our boys and girls are still students, they are still honest and good, they’re our hope, our future; but as soon as those students have to stand on their own and grow up, our future goes up in smoke, and all that’s left of the future are cottage-owning doctors, rapacious public officials, and thieving engineers.”

Clurman: “It would surely prove historically disastrous if the generation with a will to change society were to cool off into a neurotic complacency or into the quiet desperation Thoreau spoke of. I ask my students to bank their fires and to clean their weapons of language and thought and use them for something more than a parade.”

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George W.S. Trow

For Jeff Unger:

I was sort of startled by tripping my way yesterday to the unexpected subject of George W.S. Trow, who turns out to be a figure of interest to me now. As they say, Who knew? I suspect I might not have liked him if I knew him personally (just a hunch) but from a distance he looks significant, however thoroughly his intellectual remains have been swept off the beach. The description of his big book about television, In the Context of No Context, or something to that effect, makes me want to read it or at least look at it. I found a long article about him in The Nationhttps://www.thenation.com/article/archive/george-trow-context-no-context-book-harpers-reviewing-social-media/, published just last year, so I guess he’s not entirely forgotten. The article posited that he wasn’t so much trumpeting his own pre-Tina Brown/Roseanne Barr literary aesthetic as superior so much as conceding it was inevitably being supplanted by the inescapable sensibility of TV. (Which itself would be supplanted or subsumed by social media.) It’s all a process, he was merely observing. Which is probably true but depressing all the same. 

However resigned he was to this cultural transformation in print, it sounds like he had a nervous breakdown and really just couldn’t find his way forward after leaving The New Yorker at a fairly young age. And who knows what else was going on in his personal life. But such a dramatic, even extreme retreat from the zeitgeist stands out as something hard to ignore, like a neon sign. How good was his prose? I’d have to revisit it, but safe to say he was no slouch. 

It occurs to me that if you were in Dallas, as you once were, we could convene a book group or one-off salon with a few others to discuss the meaning and influence of George W.S. Trow — or other topics. Exactly the sort of thing he was pointing out has been replaced by the surrogate intimacy of television. My own stab at irony for the day. Anyway, we’d have to wait til the coast is clear, which, despite the insane rantings of the salesman we call POTUS, is much further down the road.

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My Mother, Lu Mitchell (1923-2019)

Lu Mitchell, my mother and satirical songwriter, died March 25 at the age of 95. A memorial service was held May 5, 2019, at Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum. This is the eulogy I delivered.

“MOM” – the word might sound odd when attached to the name of the woman who wrote “The Night John Bobbitt Lost His Weeny.” I was reminded of this when one of her musician friends said to me, “I keep forgetting that when you refer to ‘Mom,’ you mean Lu.” True enough.

At KNON studios in 2013

It’s hard to remember when Lu – that is, Mom – was not a performer and something of a public person. We presume she was born a performer, though her working class parents, Irish and Hungarian, were not musical or theatrical. She found her voice singing in Girl Scouts, and in her early 20s discovered acting at the Bethlehem Civic Theater in Pennsylvania, where she met and married my dad, Gene, a director and playwright. They both had day jobs at the Bethlehem Steel Company – not a place that encouraged creative types. They needed something different and in 1949 took off for Texas after seeing an article in Holiday Magazine promoting the new Southwest. They didn’t know a soul here. Dad originally wanted to go to Vancouver or San Francisco, but Mom hated the Pennsylvania winters and insisted on someplace warm.

THOSE FIRST years in Dallas – South Oak Cliff, in fact – were not just warm but a scramble to make ends meet, with no time left for self-expression beyond the occasional charades party. The turning point came when she met Hermes Nye, a lawyer and writer who played the guitar and sang old English ballads and cowboy songs. Mom wanted in on that right away and started taking guitar lessons. She and Hermes and a couple others founded the Dallas Folk Music Society and helped bring Pete Seeger to town when he was still blacklisted.

Something was in the air, the times were a changin’, and because of Mom, I was surrounded by it – albums by the Weavers and Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, plus the hootenannies, where she and other grownups strummed these big, beautiful Martins and Gibsons, transmitting songs that settled in my soul. The music seemed important and different from what was on the radio. It was full of history and the blues, storytelling and poetry – and righteous. Songs about the struggles of the common man, the Civil Rights movement and against the War. Lu and Gene had left the Catholic Church, and the three of us happily became Unitarians. If someone had asked me then what kind of music was played in the Unitarian Church, I would have said Woody Guthrie and Odetta. Folk music and Unitarians seemed to go together.

AT THE TIME, I took all this for granted, as a kid does. Only later did I come to appreciate what a gift it had been. She also taught me to play the guitar and banjo and even allowed me to back her up on occasion. If that’s not love…

She didn’t want me to play football – evidence that she was not a native Texan. “It hurts me to see you lying on the ground like that,” she said after watching me get crumpled as an undersized quarterback on the 9thgrade team at St. Mark’s. To spare her further angst – and there might have been other reasons – I gave up football after that season. She worried a year earlier that my being at an all-boys school was stunting my social development. The red flag? Unlike her, I didn’t know how to do the Twist, let alone the Foxtrot and Waltz. Nor, at age 14, did I seem to care. She enrolled me in Dick Chaplin’s dance studio at Preston Center – tough love – and drove me there faithfully from Farmers Branch every Tuesday night, at least once in an ice storm.

She played Uncle Calvin’s 51 times

SHE BELIEVED in education. She wanted to go to college after high school and certainly had the ability, but her father, a crane operator at the Steel Company, did not support that ambition. No one in her family had gone to college at that point, and if anyone did, it wasn’t going to be a woman, her father said. She never forgave him for that. She later earned a two-year associate degree at Richland College, going to classes after work. She helped make it possible for me to go to Brown and later for her two grandchildren, my son and daughter, to attend top colleges. She was generous. She was generous toward her band, too, and shared her appearance fees equally with all who played with her, not typical of someone whose name is on the marquee.

She had talents apart from music. She could sew, really sew. When my dad joined the staff at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (as it was then known) and was expected to attend the beaux arts ball and other classy events, she couldn’t afford to buy a gown from Neiman’s so she made her own – from sheets! You look at photos of those dresses, and they don’t look cheap. They look like they were designed by somebody. Which, of course they were.

Whenever I moved, which was often, the first thing she wanted to know about my new apartment was the dimensions of the windows so she could make curtains. She was always concerned about my living quarters and how she could help improve them. She could have been an interior designer. She had an eye. Which is not to say we always saw eye to eye in this regard. There came a point where I had to say, “Mom, enough with the decorating help. I’m 42 years old.” I moved to New York from L.A. about that time, and I was not yet married. She wanted to come along. “Mom, really? This is not a good look for a grown man, moving to New York with his mother.”

But she was stubborn, harking back to her childhood during the Depression when, as she said, “families helped each other with everything.” Right, well, eventually I gave in because she had been taking care of my dad, who was ill, and I thought she could use a break. I had rented a truck and so on we went to Manhattan in an Isuzu cabover, mom riding shotgun. I think she composed “The Great K-Mart Singalong” somewhere in Tennessee, and I might have contributed a line or two. Families helping each other with everything.

SHE WORKED 29 years as a secretary for the Dallas office of Eastman Kodak, a company that also did not encourage creative types – or women. The political climate there was such that the day John Kennedy was shot, she noticed her office manager was not at work and thought he probably did it. She wrote a song about wanting to stuff her boss in the paper shredder, but she never gave up that day job until she qualified for a pension.

Still performing at 92

She and my dad had both known real financial hardship as children. They were tough in ways that my own generation did not have to be. She had an iron will and determination that I wish I had inherited. My dad brooded – not her. Therapy? What was that? The whole notion was foreign to her, like anxiety itself. That is, until her last years, when she started having some episodes, and I found a therapist for her. I took her to see him four or five times, but it didn’t seem to be helping. I asked her, “Do you want to continue to see Dr. Fogle?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “He’s a nice man, but he asks me questions, and I don’t want to give the wrong answer.”

 “What kind of questions?” I said.

“Like, ‘What’s bothering you?’”

I MOVED to Los Angeles about the time she took the Kodak buyout that allowed her to go full speed into songwriting and performing. So I missed a lot. But she called regularly to keep me informed and report on the latest show she had done with Catch-23, the name she gave to the group backing her up. Catch-23 had different members through the years, but they were all good. Some of them are here tonight. (Would all members of Catch-23 past and present please stand and be recognized?) She attracted fine musicians – including the many who played only on her albums – and you can hear that for yourselves on the compilation CD we’ve put together and are giving out for everyone to take home.

Looking back, she was smart about making a place for herself in the herd of talented pickers and singers who filled the stages of coffee houses and folk clubs in the wake of The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and Dylan. She did her own thing, writing new lyrics, usually humorous, to the tunes of traditional ballads, in the folk tradition. And though she recorded 11 albums, her best work was in front of an audience.

SHE DREAMED of being on The Tonight Show, and, yeah, that could have happened, but it didn’t. I have no doubt that had the opportunity presented itself, she would have killed, as we say today. She had no fear onstage. She probably should have been on Prairie Home Companion, but that never happened either, for whatever reason. Doesn’t matter now. I want to think she achieved just the right level of acclaim and success, somewhere safely this side of the “big time” in the music business – where she would have needed therapy. She played Uncle Calvin’s 51 times and made it to Musikfest back in her hometown of Bethlehem maybe 10 times. Not counting the hours spent behind an IBM Selectric, helping one boss or another reach his sales quota, she did what she wanted to do and heard a lot of applause.

The Sixties in the DMFA courtyard

On a trip to New York for the Dallas Times Herald in the 1970s, I went to a club to hear a great blues singer and piano player named Alberta Hunter, who was 80 at the time. The notion that Alberta Hunter was, my God, 80, and still performing, was newsworthy. I could not have imagined then that I would one day witness my mother take the stage at age 90, during a birthday concert at Poor David’s Pub.

I had moved back to Dallas by then to help care for her as she became more frail and battled nerve pain in her back and legs. I arrived with the apprehension that any son might have contemplating moving back in with his mother in his 60s – even one who had taught him to play the guitar. And the apprehension was justified. It was not easy. I watched her trademark good cheer being eroded by pain and old age. We argued over many things, including the temperature setting in the house. Sauna level was her default.

SHE PREFERRED donuts and coffee cake to anything nutritious, and my attempts to cook healthy meals for her were mostly in vain. “I’m not a big eater,” she would say as she pushed a bowl of pasta or an omelet aside that she had barely touched. Ten minutes later, after the table was cleared, I would spot her in the kitchen spooning out some ice cream or chocolate pudding. A role reversal had taken place, with me now the parent admonishing the child to eat her vegetables. Which, by the way, she never did. Her defense was always, “Well, I lived to be this age.” What could I say?

When her eyesight got worse, and I said it wasn’t safe for her to be driving anymore, she agreed. But often when she agreed to things, she had her fingers crossed behind her back. One morning a few weeks later, before I was up, I heard a car pull into the driveway. I bolted out of bed and went out to confront her. She had driven just a few blocks to Walmart to get milk, but it had been raining, and I could see muddy tire marks on the lawn.

“Mom, you drove over the lawn,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “I’m out of practice.”

There were unexpected pleasures and challenges in this unplanned reunion of mother and son at this stage of our lives. And I should mention that I got a lot of help from Elizabeth Van Vleck, a former dancer whose artistic sensibilities and compassion Mom could sense the moment they met.

SINCE SHE COULD no longer read, I read to her, something we had never done before and, it occurred to me, represented another role reversal. Both at home and after she moved into assisted living, we read almost every night, a chapter or two at a time, biographies of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, folk producer Jim Rooney’s memoir, Maureen Corrigan’s wonderful book about the The Great Gatsby (her favorite novel) and others.

She loved crossword puzzles but needed a partner to read the clues. Despite her memory loss, she was amazing at coming up with correct answers — truly. She figured out words before I did.

We also watched television, though she would have to sit close. Some of her favorites might surprise you. She liked Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under and House of Cards, in addition to historical dramas from the BBC in which sexual relations were portrayed more candidly than in the days of Alistair Cooke.

Mother and son, Oak Cliff, 1951

 “Did they sleep together?” she asked me one night. We were watching an episode of Poldark, and Ross, the series’ attractive hero (“He’s so good looking!”), after months of virtuous resistance, had finally taken the comely maid, Demelda, to bed. Unlike the racier Tudors,which she loved, the mechanics were not clear, and with her failing eyes she could not be sure if the romance had been consummated.

AT A YOUNGER AGE, my mother would not have asked me such a question. In fact I would not have been watching shows and movies like this with her. She sang in public about mammograms and the tawdry motel hook-ups of Jimmy Swaggart, but frank talk about sex had never been part of dinner table conversation. Now, in her last years those inhibitions were suspended, and I was hearing pronouncements like, “I don’t think I’d kick him out of bed.” What does a son say to that?

And the news about all her boyfriends! After my return to the family homestead on Eric Lane, she shared with me, for the first time, photos of all the suitors she had before marrying Dad at age 23. Where these photos had been all these years, I have no idea, but now she had them organized in an album, which she reviewed with me on several occasions. “He proposed to me,” she would say, staring at the headshot of a nice-looking guy in uniform. Next page, different guy. “He asked me to marry him.” And next page, “I almost married him,” a guy she said was headed to Harvard after the war – that being World War II. Hmmm. Wonder how that would have turned out? Would she have come to folk music from another direction, in another place – or found a different outlet for her irreverence? Obviously, I would not be standing here if she had picked one of those other guys. But she didn’t. She and my dad had a marriage that lasted 50 years, until his death in 1996.

I’ve told you a lot about her and the many gifts she gave me, including the gift of herself. But the greatest gift was that she was supportive of anything and everything I did. I know not everyone gets that. I’m sure it’s going to take a while for me to get used to her not being here and asking me how my day went and could I bring her some sugar cookies? (The right kind, Pepperidge Farm.)

“Just didn’t want to see that obit,” Tom Adams said – Tom Adams, the Dallas cultural pioneer and a founder of the Texas International Theatrical Arts Society, known as TITAS. I’m sure he echoed the thoughts of many. “She was uncommon,” he said in his email, “You can’t copy that. She fed herself life. She was part of the great family of theater. She was made for the theater — theatrical hair, those oversize glasses. She will be missed.”

“She was, in many ways, ahead of her time,” Mike Granberry wrote in the admiring obit he did for The Morning News. I think he was right, and the proof of that to me is in the number of young women who recognized her in recent years when Elizabeth and I took her out in public — to a play or a concert. They would come over to her wheelchair and say, “Are you Lu Mitchell? I saw you at such and such place in such and such year…” And invariably they would add what an inspiration she had been to them and thank her. That would make her day. And mine, as well.

I ONLY WISH some of those encounters could have been shared across time and space with the nun at Bethlehem Catholic High School who once said to her…“Miss Reiser, we’ll never make a lady out of you.” That nun knew what she was talking about. But she didn’t know the rest.


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Joan Baez Says Farewell

THE 60s LIVED ON a little longer last night watching and listening to Joan Baez onstage at Strauss Square, presumably the last time she’ll play Dallas. This is her “Fare Thee Well Tour.” She is 78. Never the chummiest of performers (maybe she and Dylan made a pact not to charm audiences back in 1965), she seemed at first as chilly as the unseasonable April breeze. No “Big D, how ya doin’?” show biz from her. She gets right to the music and remains a folk singer with issues and justice on her mind and in her voice. With only 2 sidemen (one of them her son, Gabriel, a drummer) and a backup singer who appeared mid-show, she stood center stage for more than 90 minutes, picking and strumming a few acoustic guitars with a singular skill and conviction, reminding the thousand or so faithful at the outdoor venue of her history of marching for peace and civil rights. I wondered what number show this would be in a career that started in the late 1950s at Club 47 in Boston and the Newport Folk Festival?

She opened with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and did two more by Bob, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the protest era standard “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.” She sang them without the sharp edges of the originals, more laments than confrontations. Not known primarily as a songwriter, she did deliver a stellar “Diamonds and Rust,” her killer song about Dylan and herself when they were young together. Other numbers included Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune,” Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” tagged to a plea for respect for the migrant workers who pick our fruits and vegetables. (A reminder that some things haven’t changed much since Guthrie wrote that song in 1948.) She did lesser knowns by Tom Waits, a song about coming to terms with mortality, the ironic Chilean protest anthem “Gracias a la Vida,” Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” “House of the Rising Sun” and the Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” she performed at Woodstock in 1969. She introduced it with a story of how she once sang it for a slumbering Martin Luther King in Alabama during the freedom march days in order to rouse him in time to give a speech. Close to charming, that one. I did miss “Amsterdam” and maybe one or two more from her Newport days, but the set list was solid. Does she still sing “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down?” Possibly not.

AFTER A COUPLE encores, she closed with a distinctive take on “Dink’s Song,” the public domain classic about having wings like Nora’s Dove in order to fly away to one you love. Oscar Isaac sang it in Inside Llewen Davis. “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well” goes the refrain. Which took on additional meaning now for her audience last night. Who wants to think about that?

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Live from Here Was Here


MUCH AS I ADMIRED Chris Thile during his time in Nickel Creek, I’ve been slow to accept him as the worthy successor to Garrison Keillor. He hosts Live from Here Saturday afternoons on your local NPR station, and Saturday the show was live from the Winspear Opera House here in Dallas. I went, curious, and also eager to hear The Head and the Heart, one of the featured bands. Seeing the show in person completely won me over to Thile, who is surely the Eric Clapton of the mandolin, covering Bach to the Pixies with a dexterity that seems impossible. Winning stage presence, too. Charming, warm, humble, funny.

I was introduced to Thile and Nickel Creek back in 2000 during Prairie Home Companion’s visit to the Pasadena Civic. Loved him and his modern bluegrass band instantly — put them on the annual family mix tape (“Reasons Why”). Hard to believe that was 19 years ago.

Let me connect more dots: I learned about The Head and the Heart from my son, Devin, circa 2012, and put “Down in the Valley” on another mix tape. It could have been the theme song for my drive back to Dallas after 28 years in Los Angeles (“I am on my way back to where I started…”). The band did not disappoint at the Winspear, and their last song, a new one, “People Need a Melody,” shouted “keeper.” The lyrics, about musical touchstones in the mind and memory pack a punch (“People need a melody to open their eyes / Like a key to a memory frozen in time…Boy, when you gonna learn that the world moves fast”).

IT’S DIFFICULT AND PROBABLY futile to try to explain why a song can have such meaning and power because of one’s own history and references. But the Head and the Heart clobbered me with that one, onstage with Thile, not long after my musical mom left us, she being my introduction to all this kind of music going back to when I was 10 years old. Well, there you have it. An extraordinary show that seemed more than the sum of its parts, and I haven’t mentioned the half of it. Esperanza Spalding? Who knew? I guess Thile knew. I hate to use the word “magic,” and maybe it was just me, but I felt something transcendent took place in Arts District Saturday. And I am newly grateful that the forces of darkness did not succeed in defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and public broadcasting. KERA. Go public!

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Rickie Fowler Untucks the PGA

AS SOMEONE WHO came to golf later in life, there’s a lot about the game I still don’t understand – like some of the inscrutable rules and the rigid and senseless dress code in force on the pro tour. Just how rigid and senseless was underscored last week when Rickie Fowler made headlines at Torrey Pines by daring to wear a shirt not tucked into his slacks, bucking the custom that has been in place for golfers since at least the First World War. The daring part is overstated; he had to ask permission first from the Lords of the PGA, who for some reason (Fowler has been ranked as high as #4 in the world) granted his request. Oh, let’s take a flyer on this one, guys. It’s California.

Predictably, golf’s hidebound clan immediately took to Twitter to decry this violation of country club tradition, dissing Fowler’s full-buttoned and collared Hawaiian-style shirt (from Puma) as “unprofessional.” Some said he “looked like a bum.” “I thought he had manners?” “What’s next, shorts?” Please. What’s “professional” about John Daly’s fashion-crushing outfits? Or the unsightly bulk of Trump stuffed into standard links attire. I guess by PGA standards ugly doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got all the extra yards of fabric tucked into pants cinched with a white patent leather belt that could have belonged to Pat Boone or the guys on “The Love Boat.” By the way, who made that the modern golfer’s uniform? Not Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfinger.

I THOUGHT FOWLER looked great, but then I’ve been waiting and waiting for someone on the tour to bust this move. It’s long overdue and likely here to stay because untucked shirts can not only be flattering but are cooler and more practical if you’re walking 18 in the Sahara summers of Texas. And who wants to keep tucking in a wet shirt every other hole?

It defies logic and common sense that businessmen in the great Southwest still adhere to the obligatory coat and tie in July, when temps soar into the sweat-soaking 100s, but at least they spend most of their days indoors. Golfers get no such shelter and, with enough sunscreen, could play naked. At least let them wear loose shirts that allow more air flow to the upper body.

ON PUBLIC COURSES around here some amateurs already wear their shirts outside their pants in the summer (not to mention shorts) but they occasionally get the evil eye from purists who view such behavior as disrespectful of “the royal and ancient game.” By the way, the royal and ancient game had its beginnings in Scotland, where too much clothing was never a problem in any season.

Tennis gave up its archaic all-white dress code at the 1972 U.S. Open. Forty-seven years later, Rickie Fowler is giving the untucked among us the encouragement of a top-ranked player to be cool on the golf course. I’ll take it.

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Who Is Jackson C. Frank?

WATCHING THE NEW Robert Redford movie, The Old Man & the Gun, a song popped up onscreen that sounded familiar. It recalled Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy: solo acoustic guitar, 2-finger picking, restless male vocal, spare arrangement. Eric Andersen? “Wherever I have played, the blues have run the game…” I liked it immediately and gave the director (David Lowery) points for picking a forgotten song that deftly underlined the story of a romantic outlier robbing banks (nonviolently) for the thrill of it, in Texas and other places, in the 1970s and ’80s. A tamer, older Sundance perhaps, with Redford, now past 80, looking comfortably crusty and dusty in the role, a mysterious drifter whose compulsive illegality is complicated by a chance encounter with a winsome ranch widow (Sissy Spacek).

But what was that song? The end credits rolled by too fast to I.D. it, and the movie’s official website and IMDB listing do not include the songs in the soundtrack. (What’s up with that, by the way?) Finally I found a website, filmmusicreporter.com, that showed the movie’s song list, followed by a reader comment, “At last, someone else has discovered Jackson Frank. Beautiful song from an underrated and tragic singer/songwriter.” That had to be it, and a trip to i-Tunes confirmed as much, along with discovering it’s used in one of the film’s trailers.

“Blues Run the Game” is the title, but who is Jackson C. Frank? Turns out I’d heard of him but forgotten. Born in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he was a singer-songwriter who in his early 20s found his way to England about the same time as Paul Simon — both drawn to the rich folk scene there as the Beatles were conquering America. They became friends. (Robert Hilburn mentions him in his recent biography of Simon.) Frank recorded his only album there in 1965, which Simon produced, and it included “Blues Run the Game,” the cut that is heard in The Old Man & the Gun.

SIMON & GARFUNKEL recorded a version and almost put it on their Sounds of Silence album. (It’s included on a later collection, Old Friends.) Eric Andersen, as best I can determine, did not record the song, but many others did, including English folk icon Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, who dated Frank for a time. Many others have covered it — John Renbourn, Nick Drake, John Mayer and Counting Crows. The song was also used in a 2016 episode of the TV show This is Us.

So, yeah, I knew I’d heard it somewhere. Frank, sadly, is not around to enjoy his newfound fame as he died in obscurity in Massachusetts in 1999, at the age of 56 of pneumonia and cardiac arrest after years of schizophrenia, ill-health and a period of homelessness. This, according to Wikipedia. He seems to have led a hard life that could be traced back to surviving a furnace explosion in grade school that killed 15 of his classmates and left him with lasting injuries. You figure he could not have imagined his words and voice — and a song he wrote and recorded in England in 1965 — one day matched to the big screen face of the actor who played the Sundance Kid, Bob Woodward and so many other memorable roles.

It occurs to me that underappreciated ’60s folksinger Dave Van Ronk is someone who could have relished Frank’s posthumous recognition, but then he, too, died before witnessing his own cinematic redemption, as the model for the title character in the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewen Davis.

One o’ dese days, an’ it won’t be long,
Call my name an’ I’ll be gone.
Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.

 

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