Friday, July 13, 2007

Fan Letter Campaign

The few fan letters I’ve received as a writer have meant a lot to me. I’ve always enjoyed writing letters myself. And I admire so many people for their creativity, originality, and integrity. Why have I been so reticent to send them fan letters?

Why didn’t I send Beverly Sills anything like what was in that last post? And did I ever tell Ruth Gordon what Harold & Maude did to me at age 16? No. Did I write to Marlon Brando? Peter Sellers? Frank Zappa Janis Joplin Jimi Hendrix John Lennon Dizzy Gillespie? John Ford Robert Altman Francois Truffaut? Nestor Almendros? Gordon Parks? Eugene G. Smith? Saul Steinberg? Spalding Gray? No. And now they’re gone.

I didn’t even write to Stanley Kubrick, who actually let me infiltrate a scene in “Full Metal Jacket.” I never wrote to Samuel Barber to thank him for the sublime “Adagio for Strings,” which I’ve probably listened to more often than any other single piece of music—unless it might be the entire “Kind of Blue” album, for which I never thanked Miles Davis.

I did write to William Stafford, and got a lovely letter back. See? A good fan letter gets results.

So. I think it’s time for a campaign of correspondo. Many of the people I’d write to already get scads of fan mail, so if my letters are to cut through the pile and mean something instead of simply pre-empting my own imagined regret, they need to be good. I think it’s about offering specific context and being entertaining about it.

First, I’ll write the ones who are getting on in years--if I’m going to do it, I should do it now. My starter list:

Bob Dylan: I’ll be seeing him in concert on Monday, so maybe that’ll inspire the letter.

Paul Simon

Paul Newman

Clint Eastwood: Mostly for Unforgiven

Robert Duvall: I’ll tell about channeling him when I wrote my favorite speech in Big Bad Love—which Michael Parks kind of screwed up, so I wish Duvall had been available.

Sidney Poitier: Without whom there’d be no Morgan Freeman.

Morgan Freeman: He really is God.

Bernardo Bertolucci: Stealing Beauty, for one. The Sheltering Sky for another.

Woody Allen: Almost impossible to imagine my teens and twenties without him.

Jean-Luc Godard

Sir Ridley Scott

Sir (Lord?) Richard Attenborough: He put my daughter into a scene in “Shadowlands.” It got cut. Hmmm, maybe this isn't a fan letter...

William Goldman

Tom Wolfe

Norman Mailer

Robert Bly: Not just for the poems, but for Iron John. The guy changed my life. I met him once and was too tongue-tied by hero worship to say anything coherent.

Mark Strand: His poem “The Tunnel” made me want to be a poet.

Charles Simic: He’ll be 70 next year. Still writes like a wunderkind.

Ned Rorem: In college, the choir I sang in did his amazing settings of Shakespeare, Dryden, Blake, and Edmund Waller. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Elliott Carter: Ditto, except it was Dickinson, Spenser, and Stephen Vincent Benet.

Oscar Peterson: 1977, that double album with Joe Pass. Unbelievable.

Bill Cosby: My dad used to plug a reel-to-reel into the cigarette lighter of our car and we’d laugh at Why Is There Air? and Wonderfulness all the way across the country.

James Hillman: Thanks for the greatest insights into the human psyche since Jung.

Marie Louise von Franz: Ditto. I wonder if she's dead already. Update: My God, she died in 1998, the year after I went to the Jung Institute in Switzerland.

George McGovern: My first political hero, my first political rally. I think my fan letter will mention that I felt up my girlfriend while we were standing there in the crowd at Union Station, listening to soft-spoken George denounce the Vietnam war and Nixon’s corruption. Where is today’s McGovern? I want to feel that again (the hope, not the girlfriend...well, mostly the hope...).

A rather male list. My second wave of letters will go out to slightly younger cultural heroes:

Joni Mitchell: Wait, she should be on the first list. Her lungs aren’t likely to last another decade.
Stephen Stills: Ditto his liver and heart. Maybe I’ll send him my blog write-up of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to display my keen sense of the obvious.
Sir Paul McCartney
Springsteen! (Thanks, Molly...)
Patti Smith
Laurie Anderson
Tom Waits: Thanks for writing two great songs for Big Bad Love. I’ll have to restrain myself to stay on message.
Nicolas Reyes: What do you say to the world’s most soulful singer?
Paco de Lucia: What do you say to the world’s greatest guitar player?
Mark Knopfler: Ditto?
Sting: What do you say that you didn’t already try and fail to say when you actually met the guy?
Peter Gabriel: We have a mutual friend, if he’s still friends with Rosanna A. He appeared in her music documentary, but he didn’t look happy about it. Might not be able to play that card.
Christopher Alexander: One of my top ten books is “A Pattern Language.”
Robert Redford
Katherine Ross
Warren Beatty: I won’t go on and on about his artistic integrity.
Julie Christie
Robert Downey, Jr.: Younger than me, but seems to have a good chance of not getting old.
Roberto Begnini
Robert Parker: Thanks for making a wino out of me.
Terrence Malick: He need never have made a movie besides “Days of Heaven” to be my fave writer/director of all time.
Jonathan Demme
Ang Lee
Ian McEwan: Thanks for three of my favorite novels
Mark Leyner: Thanks for "Smelling Esther Williams"
David Mitchell: Just to ask him how in the world he wrote “Cloud Atlas”
Campbell McGrath: Ditto, “Road Atlas.” I think he’s only in his forties. It can wait.
David Sedaris: Have I ever laughed harder? I don’t think so.
Camille Paglia: I did write her once, when she had that advice column in Spy magazine. It got published, but that's so impersonal. Even though it was about sex.
Annie Liebowitz
Al Gore
Bill Bradley
Steve Jobs

I'm sure the list will grow. A lot. I'll try to post a few photos to make all this text less tedious. Meanwhile, who do you truly admire? If you came home and found a letter in your mailbox from somebody you'd written a fan letter to, who's the person you'd most like it to be?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beverly Sills, Higher Than Ever.

Beverly Sills died last night. She was 78, and besides Tony and Carmela, the only soprano who ever really moved me. I’m vowing today to stop letting chances go by to tell people I admire how much their work has meant to me.

I had nearly 30 years to tell Beverly Sills how she blew my mind one night, back when I was a 21-year-old college dropout whose favorite singer was Tom Waits and who mostly listened to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and The Beatles. And I never sent her that letter. I wonder what it would have said? Before I played the aria for a group of Hallmark word people at our annual coffeehouse last year, with a backdrop of a huge outer space photo--stars, galaxies, nebulae--this is part of what I read:

This song you’re going to hear is a silver arrow that hit me, pierced me, left me slain, in the rain of my own tears, in my bachelor pad, in a towel, just out of the shower, which was just a bathtub where I dumped water from a plastic bucket over my head — and now this music pouring down on me like light. Was it an arrow, or was it light? Or was I just so young and vulnerable, an open groove for the needle to slip into, record turning, world turning, needle of diamond, stars of dust wheeling above me, who will love me, 21, in a towel on the third floor of a big red house, dumbstruck, starstruck, gooseflesh rising, eyes blurring, everything I had ever lost returned to me, everything I would ever love already leaving, all that was impossible made suddenly real by this unreal voice.

How does a human voice become a willow tree and the bird in it by day, the stars in it by night? Both dark and light, particle and ray, longing and longed-for, everything and void. How can a voice waver on either side of a note but hold the note so true? And isn’t light that same vibration, too? How does music do this to you? What place inside does the bird find to light, the star to flutter and flicker its way to us? I don’t have a clue.

I confess that for years I used this piece of music as a litmus test of soul. If I played it and it didn’t move you, you were dead inside. It was alright if at first you laughed or fidgeted, because almost all of us come armored against the full-throated blast of old-time art-as-religion that is opera. But if by the end the music had not broken through your defenses, broken you down, opened you up at least a little, you were less than human.

I was young and stupid. I didn’t yet know that there are no litmus tests, no absolutes, no one true faith or song or voice or love. Coleman Barks had yet to translate Rumi, so I hadn’t heard of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I adored Tom Waits, but had yet to hear his anecdote about the first time someone played him the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. He said, “It was like giving a cigar to a five-year-old. I turned blue and I cried.” I hadn't heard much of anything, really. I certainly hadn't heard anything like this, a song debuted ten days before the day that I was born. It had been there, my whole life, and I had not known. I wept like a willow in my bachelor pad, the first place I called my own.

So that scene is set.

The scene for the aria is this: Leadville, Colorado. 1880. Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, “the miner’s sweetheart,” first woman ever to work in a U.S. silver mine, has her eye on silver magnate Horace Tabor. Both married to other people. Can't end well. Doesn’t matter. It’s destiny, and when she picks her moment, sits at a piano and sings where she knows he will overhear her, the song does to him pretty much what it did to me. If he’d been wearing a towel, it would have dropped right there. Or maybe she’d have torn it off him after his beautiful baritone reply. Anyway, it’s love at first song for Horace Tabor. And so it was for me.

Ladies and gentlemen, the “Willow” aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore and John Latouche, sung by the stratospheric Beverly Sills...

Then there was a little coda I'd written to wrap up with, but after I played the music, there was no point in reading it.

If I knew how to load the iTune on here so you could just listen, I would. That old footage isn't great. But who can deny the power of that big D (I think it's a D) she hits shortly after the video does that skippy little flutter? It still takes the top of my head off. I could tell that a few Hallmark people were knocked out, too, when I forced them to listen to it. But it's opera, man. Hardly anybody wants to kneel at that altar.

Why did I never send her a thank-you note for cracking me open enough to let a little light in? I still don't care for most operatic voices (can't stand Wagnerian opera, which seems preposterously self-important and repetitive to me), but every so often, I’ll hear something that gets through, thanks to Douglas Moore, John Latouche, and this amazing woman who put the color in coloratura.

She had a deaf daughter, an autistic son, and she finally saw her husband through the last stages of Alzheimer's last year. Through it all, she radiated joy, served her art, and took humanity higher, literally.

I just listened to the final aria, sung right before Baby Doe dies. Beverly Sills holds a note at the end that seems impossible. It’s still going. It will never stop.

Getting a little misty here. I'm just glad I got through that without calling her "Bubbles."

Next post: a list of people who are going to get gushy, big-ass fan letters from yours truly...