Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, Wherever You Are   Leave a comment

August 8, 2011

MUSE Concert August 7, 2011

   If you recognize the title of this piece, it’s very likely that you’re above 60-years of age (welcome to my neighborhood). There is a correlation between the age of the reader of this blog and recognizing the name “Mrs. Calabash”. If I asked my 23-year old daughter to identify Mrs. Calabash, or to tell me who signed off many a radio or television program with that little phrase she’d, understandably, come up blank.

Jimmy Durante was a venerable vaudeville, film, radio, and television performer of the 20th century with a nose and a voice that were unforgettable. He became known for his use of a signature phrase as a sign-off: “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” For years, no one knew if there really was (or had been) a Mrs. Calabash, or if it was simply a sign-off shtick, or both. It appears the phrase was both. The explanation that I like the best (there are a few differing views) is that it was an homage to his late wife Jeanne Olson, whose death in 1943 clearly left a dent, if not an outright hole, in Durante’s life. The “goodnight” was a veiled reference to her; and it fit with her reported pronunciation of the once rural southern California town where she was hospitalized: Calabasas; or as mispronounced by Olson, “Calabash”. Calabasas is now merely another wealthy western Los Angeles suburb (can you say “Kardashian”?). For Durante, in this way he often spoke to Jeanne, and one assumes that he was not expecting to bring her back or hear her voice responding to him; instead, he was reaching out as a reminder of what she meant to him.

Yesterday I achieved another first in my life. I attended a musical event that lasted a bit more than seven hours. The Concert was simply titled “A Benefit For MUSE”. MUSE is an acronym for Musicians United for Safe Energy, an organization created by Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne (among others). Thirty-two years later it is still on its mission. And the concert likely grew out of one of those amazing contradictions in our life today: to Nuke or not to Nuke. In the wake of Fukushima, the anti-nuclear voices may get renewed energy and MUSE may find that three decades after its founding it is more than relevant.

Then there was the concert itself. Performers included (in the order I recall they first appeared on stage Sunday night) Kitaro, Browne, Nash, Jonathan Wilson, John Hall, Raitt, David Crosby, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Jason Mraz, The Doobie Brothers, Tom Morello, Stephen Stills, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Eclectic, seasoned, passionate. They were born in Japan, and England, and America. Most of them, long ago, created the proof of their talent and they continue to do so. And some have achieved legendary status in the annals of American popular music.

Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, John Hall, David Crosby, Early On During The MUSE Concert, 08/07/11

I admit it: I was there, first and foremost, to see Crosby, Stills, & Nash. I’d met David Crosby when I was at A&M Records (he did an album—Oh Yes I Can— for the label in 1989.) I met Bonnie Raitt at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame dinner in New York. I was at the table behind hers, i.e., further from the stage. I walked up to her, apologized for the intrusion, and introduced myself because I wanted to tell her I’d been a fan since I heard “Too Long At The Fair” on her Give It Up album more than twenty years earlier. Neither Crosby or Raitt will remember me but I will remember the moments. For the rest of the MUSE performers, I was a fan, or not. But as often happens, yesterday those of us at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, could take pleasure in the fact that we were all connected.

Author Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) knew something about connectedness. After all, “in a 1929 short story [he] conjectured that any two people on Earth could be connected by five handshakes.”  The night I met Julian Lennon I knew I was one handshake away from the Beatles. For further reference look into Six Degrees of Separation. Following the logic (such as it is), with my Crosby and Raitt handshakes, I was as good as on stage. Therefore, no further introductions were necessary, but if offered I’d have been quick to stretch out my hand to any of the performers.

My expectation when I bought the tickets was that almost every musician singing or playing (or both) at MUSE would choose to perform some new songs along with some of the classics. Always a safe choice. The classics were, to an artist, performed well enough to warm the crowd’s memories. There were some good new things yesterday, and some new songs that were, well, let’s just say average.

The brothers Doobie surprised me the most. The double-drummer foundation of the rhythm section pushed the music along. Tom Johnston’s enthusiasm and vocals were infectious. It was a short set that had the 10,000+ (my estimate, not official) on their feet through the Doobie’s mini-ensemble closer “Listen To The Music”. And the band confirmed my own hypothesis by performing “good new” and “forgettable new” during their set. And the musicianship was way beyond expectations for these musicians who were as old as, well, me. We were all on our feet and the audience was pretty much unanimous that the classic, familiar material was exhilarating for each of us, with or without our own doobie.

Beyond the aforementioned surprise, strong performances were everywhere yesterday. Browne’s reading of his own material was a reminder of his place in the history of songwriting, at least since the release of his 1972 debut album titled Los Angeles, California; or was the title Saturate Before Using. Photographer Henry Diltz told me that Browne was concerned about the package design for his debut album. Browne was worried that some buyers might see the “Saturate Before Using” instruction at the top of the stylized burlap bag design on the vinyl album cover and would, in fact, “saturate” the record in water before opening the 12” x 12” sleeve to listen to the album. One has to admit that it was a plausible outcome, as the Diltz story, and a generally accepted diversity in the IQ of record-buyers wouldn’t suggest Browne’s music attracted only smart fans.

Raitt’s presence was an instant crowd-pleaser. She’s almost impossible to miss when she enters the stage, head covered with her still flaming-red hair and signature grey streak. A feast for the eyes and ears. The voice, the slide guitar and, did I mention the hair?

I could go on at length about the sets by Sweet Honey In The Rock and Kitaro, but you get the picture. They were both fabulous sets. As for the others: Mraz? Interesting but not sufficiently captivating; Wilson? Perhaps he just needs time to become a must listen; Hall? A good presence on stage but songs that didn’t suck anyone in; and Morello? He’s still raging after all these years. If any of that seems a little harsh, the fact is, as I said, I was there to hear CS&N.

Unidentified Fan at MUSE Benefit, 08/07/11

As the day progressed we saw glimpses of Graham Nash, then David Crosby, and finally Stephen Stills. We all enjoyed the six-plus hours leading to the closing set as the three individuals became Crosby, Stills & Nash. After a half-hour equipment changeover, they did not disappoint. Song choice? Most were familiar, some a little hazy, but all worth performing. Their half-hour set ended with one more ensemble, this time made up of everyone who had ventured onto the stage Sunday afternoon. The chorus was complete once the audience began singing along to “Teach Your Children”. It may have started at 3:00 in the afternoon, but it turned into a long but absolutely wonderful day in the Northern California sun.

Leaving Shoreline after 10:00pm I wasn’t certain the crowd would go out and do wonderful anti-nuclear things and make the world a better place, or just go home. Part of my lack of confidence that the world had been moved a notch in the right direction was age. So many of the people there, myself included, were senior citizens or nearing the milestone; and although their, our, my, spirit was strong, the reality of age was upon many in attendance. It’s not defeatist to admit that the calendar is not our friend.

My mind became focused as I heard Graham Nash talk to the audience about the cause; it was about an hour or so before the end of the concert. This Englishman-turned-American citizen addressed the crowd, encouraging them to make activism their way. And he pointedly told them he was speaking as someone nearly “70 years of age.” There he was, trying to pass the torch and hoping that someone decades younger would hear the longing in his voice and extend a hand. There was no regret, no sadness in Nash’s voice. Rather, acknowledging his reality, he seemed confident that with just a little more encouragement someone would rise up and accept the challenge. I left Mountain View with a slightly more optimistic feeling that some group of people in the audience, probably on the younger side of 50 will pick up the mantle and make the necessary difference.  I realize now that we all became friends last night. When 10,000 people sang the chorus of the evening’s last song, it had the feel of angels calling us, and all of us, one more time, calling each other to action through a spectacularly simple lyric: “Teach Your Children Well”, followed a few seconds later by “Teach Your Parents Well”.

Finally, I’d like to say something to my close friend Graham Nash, whom I have never met. You reminded me that we need to respect and honor those who came before us as they attempted positive change, each in their own way. Let me always remember the transcendent moment on an evening in August 2011, when you looked around at the 10,000 faces, searching for those who will be carrying the torch in your place. And in my place. Good Luck Graham. And with deference to Mr. Durante, may I add, “Good night Mr. Nash, wherever you are.”

David Steffen 

© David Steffen 2011

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