The Music We Danced To
On New Year’s Day in 1986, I woke up to the news that Ricky Nelson’s plane had gone down the night before after a New Year’s Eve show and killed him and his entire band. The tenor of the story and obituary was that he was a has-been and former teenage idol. The LA Times’ curt dismissal of the singer whose 1959 hits Travelin’ Man and Hello Mary Lou were the first songs I ever sang in public so outraged me I sat down and wrote a song for him, called Yours Was the Music We Danced To. It was my first new song since returning to Los Angeles in 1980 with a major case of writer’s block and going into psychotherapy to deal with it.
I started writing songs on November 1, 1975, soon after my girlfriend Judy Laska asked me a pointed question about my poetry, which I had proudly showed to her expecting some praise. At the time I was working on my PhD in English at the State University of New York in Binghamton. She was an undergraduate in English whom I had fallen in love with, who admired Samuel Beckett and whose opinion on literary matters I held in high regard. She surveyed my small sheaf of collected poems (in my mind like Ezra Pound looking at T.S. Eliot’s early poems or Ralph Waldo Emerson looking at Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass and said, “Ross, with all the first-rate poetry in the world, do we really need any more second-rate poetry?”
Wham! I crashed to earth like the U-2, never to be heard from again in that regard. But then she asked a follow-up question: “Have you ever thought of writing songs?” I told her I never had, though I knew a thousand, and had been singing and performing for twenty years. “Why don’t you?” She persisted—“Maybe that’s where your real talent lies.”
Long story short, I gave up the dream of being a poet, and when I did—and fully accepted the fact that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an artist, but could still enjoy teaching the poetry I loved—suddenly I felt so unburdened that a huge weight of self-imposed expectations had been lifted from my back, that I picked up a volume of Whitman’s poems and starting reciting them in a way I never had before. It was almost as if I had become Whitman; his long flowing lines lifted me to the skies. And then I went to Edgar Allan Poe and embraced the sheer musicality of his poems The Bells and The Raven; it was almost like singing just to recite them. From Poe I went to Emily Dickinson and fell in love all over again with her ballad-meter and off-rhymes until I began to sing her poems. Then I started laughing albutnotquitemost (as e.e. cummings wrote) hysterically and took a shower, during which I sat down in the shower and kept on laughing with sheer joy and freedom from having to be poet anymore. Finally, almost absent-mindedly, without even being aware of what was happening, I got out of the shower, put on some clothes, picked up my guitar, and before I knew it, had written my first song.
Then I wrote another; and another. And for three weeks straight I did little else. I couldn’t stop writing songs, and it was effortless. They weren’t particularly good—most of them—but they were all real—they were in my own voice—not cummings’, or Eliot’s, or William Carlos Williams’, or Dylan Thomas’. By letting go of the idea that I had to be an artist to count for anything in this world, I willy nilly became an artist—in spite of myself. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thanks to a truth-telling girlfriend who didn’t try to spare my feelings in order to support my delusions of grandeur I found my true calling. From a failed poet I became a born-again songwriter.
And then, five years later, whatever small gift I had simply vanished and I couldn’t write anymore. I had what seemed like a terminal case of writer’s block. During this time I finished my PhD in Modern Literature (with a dissertation on Kenneth Burke) and started teaching both college English and Speech, in Lincoln, Illinois and then high school English and Speech in Chicago. While living and teaching in Chicago in 1978-9 I was commuting on weekends to Davenport, Iowa, where my girlfriend Judy was immersed in a graduate program in Chiropractic.
I moved to Chicago in order to be able to teach during the day and go out to folk clubs at night—Somebody Else’s Troubles, the Old Town School of Folk Music, and the Earl of Old Town, the same places where Steve Goodman and John Prine had been discovered and launched their careers. There was still an active folk scene there and I went to all the open mics I could with what little energy I had after long days of teaching, attending faculty meetings and conferences with students. Let’s just say I didn’t set the world on fire. I kept wishing I had more time to devote to my songwriting craft, to improve on my instrument, to find real bookings, and to hone my skills as a performer before a live audience.
But once my songwriting dried up I couldn’t help but feel that I had reached a dead-end. I went to Judy again, the same woman who had suggested I write songs in the first place; the same woman who had killed my dream of being a poet. And I had considerable trepidation in even bringing up the question of where I should go from here; I fully expected her to tell me it was time to quit being a part-time artist and focus on my job as a teacher. I was ready to have my dreams smashed a second time and pick up the pieces as best as I could.
Then she reminded me of Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken—which we both knew and loved—and told me I should take the road less traveled by. “Ross,” she said, “It’s time for you to quit your job and devote all your time to becoming an artist, a folk singer, because that’s what you were meant to do. Whatever it takes, you have to put all your eggs in one basket.” It was the last thing I expected her to say, and frankly I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect, especially since for all intents and purposes I had stopped writing songs. But Judith (the version of her name I used whenever she was being hard on me) was fierce and insistent—I had to give my music a real shot or I would always regret it. She had made the same argument five years earlier when I was ready to give up my PhD dissertation and leave graduate school with an “ABD” (all-but-dissertation) to devote full time to music: “Ross,” she had told me then, “if you don’t finish your dissertation and complete your PhD you will regret it the rest of your life. You have invested five years in this graduate program and did it for the purest of reasons—you love literature and teaching—you can’t quit now.” So I completed my doctorate and then took my first teaching job at Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois.
Again, long story short, my contract wasn’t renewed after two years. I had organized a campus-wide protest on behalf of an art exhibit our art professor and museum curator had brought in. It had aroused some local complaints of pornography for having portrayed love in terms of warfare (as in the war between the sexes). I made the fateful decision to back her up to the hilt. My sixties call to arms so far from Berkeley met little support beyond the students themselves, who started parading around campus with protest signs that were redolent of Telegraph Ave in 1964 during the Free Speech Movement. The story leaked off campus and finally made its way to the front page of the Springfield Register, then to the front page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, where our administrators (who had closed the exhibit) were made to look like the Philistines they were. Just two months after receiving the Teacher-of-the-Year award from the student body I was unceremoniously terminated by the Dean. I packed up my guitar and shipped my books to Chicago, where miraculously I landed at a Catholic girls’ high school teaching English and Speech—the only Jew on a faculty of priests and nuns. We got along famously, the sisters always making their points in front of me by quoting from the Old Testament, and I in turn making my points by quoting from the New Testament.
It was this job which Judy now told me I had to leave to become a full-time folk singer. The muse is a harsh mistress, Jimmy Webb once said. So I walked into Mother Superior’s office and told her I had no choice but to obey a higher power—my girlfriend. It wasn’t easy leaving a regular paycheck and students I enjoyed teaching during the middle of a particularly severe Chicago winter (having been homeless there for three weeks while searching for my teaching job). What would Woody Guthrie do, I asked myself; and knew the answer as soon as I asked the question. I started out on the highway heading west, like Tom Joad on Route 66.
California, here I come.
End of Part 1
To be continued…
On Friday, February 14; Ross presents Valentine’s Day for Literary Lovers at Beyond Baroque 8:00pm --$10—CD release concert for Music I Heard by Ross Altman; Beyond Baroque 681 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291; 310-822-3006
On Saturday, February 22 at 2:00pm at the Silver Lake Library Ross Altman and Len Chandler will present a program on Broadside Ballads—their history and continuing significance; 2411 Glendale Blvd, L.A., CA 90039; 323-913-7451; free and open to the public.
On Saturday, March 8; Ross Altman is interviewed by Gerry Fialka on stage at the UnUrban Coffee House—4:00 to 6:00pm; talking and singing about his work, folk music and the creative process; 3301 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405 310-315-0056; free and open to the public, with the following description by interviewer Gerry Fialka: THE UNURBAN is proud to host MESS (Media Ecology Soul Salon) The public is invited to these engaging interviews by Gerry Fialka with the following modern thinkers who'll address the metaphysics of their callings and the nitty-gritty of their crafts. www.laughtears.com/mess.html and www.laughtears.com