Issue 14. Disappearing acts

"Down, down and out brother / up, up and away"

The short story I shared in issue 13 of this newsletter was about a kid with an imaginary friend. I don't remember having an imaginary friend when I was little. I kind of wish I had. Being bashful, I could have used the company. Before writing “August Goodbye,” I had a different kind of imaginary friend in mind, but the fictional idea jumped the line and wanted to go first. Now it’s Harvey’s turn. Maybe you know him.

Mary Chase won a Pullitzer-prize for her Broadway comedy about Elwood P. Dowd and his friend Harvey, a 6 foot 3 and one half inch rabbit. The play was adapted for film in 1950, starring Jimmy Stewart. Only Elwood can see Harvey, but Elwood is not shy at introducing his pal to friends and strangers. We're not sure whether Elwood is insane or hitting the sauce too much.

His status-conscious sister Veta is embarrassed by her brother's eccentricities and seeks to have him committed. In a comic twist, Veta is committed to the sanitarium by mistake. After that snafu is cleaned up, Elwood arrives at the sanitarium looking for Harvey. His affability endears him to the sanitarium director and staff. But Elwood's behavior is unacceptable to his sister. When he is on the verge of being injected with a serum that will make him "normal," a cab driver, who frequently transports unwitting patients to the looney bin for their shot of normal, delivers the lines that melt Veta's heart.

CAB DRIVER. Oh, no. Listen lady. I've been drivin' this route fifteen years. I've brought 'em out here to get that stuff and drove 'em back after they had it. It changes 'em. 

VETA.  Well, I certainly hope so. 

CAB DRIVER. And you ain't kiddin'. On the way out here they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me. Sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets and look at the birds flyin'. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain't no birds and look at the sunsets when it's rainin'. We have a swell time and I always get a big tip. But afterward—oh—oh—(Starts to exit again)

VETA. Afterwards—oh—oh! What you mean afterwards—oh-oh?

CAB DRIVER. They crab, crab, crab. They yell at me to watch the lights, watch the brakes, watch the intersections. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith—in me or my buggy—yet it's the same cab—the same driver—and we're goin' back over the very same road. It's no fun—and no tips—(Turns to door.)

VETA. But my brother would have tipped you, anyway. He's very generous. Always has been. 

CAB DRIVER. Not after this he won't be. Lady, after this, he'll be a perfectly normal human being and you know what bastards they are! Glad I met you. I'll wait. (Exits)

Veta realizes she'd prefer to have an oddball and nice brother than a normal and crabby one. She prevents the injection just in time, and all ends happily. Mary Chase leaves the question open: is Harvey a figment or real? What does the line between those realms look like? Can you even see it anymore?

A play like this makes you wonder about the things you’ve left behind in childhood. You wonder whether they are permanently gone. Is it possible to be like Elwood and saunter through adulthood talking with your 6 foot 3 and one half inch pooka buddy and get away with it? Nowadays people walk the streets talking to themselves and no one bothers about it….well they’re not really talking to themselves…they’re on their phones with invisible friends. It only looks crazy.

***

I have a copy of Harvey on the bookshelf. It is the Dramatists Play Service Acting Edition paperback my father used when he directed it in the 1950's at Salisbury Elk Lick high school. The names of the student cast members are pencilled beside the character names. 70 years after the fact, you can discern them still.  

From time to time, Dad would reminisce about his days at Salisbury, a tiny borough a couple miles from the Mason Dixon line, down the mountain from the highest point in Pennsylvania. It was his first teaching job. Dad was a math teacher, but he also had a talent for English and helped with the school yearbook and theatrical productions. I wish I knew more about that time. He did talk about it, but I wasn’t always paying enough attention.

Dad couldn’t speak of Harvey without a boyish grin lighting up his face. He was proud of how well the kids memorized and acted the lines. He marveled at the simple theatrical device—the invisible pooka that no one and everyone could see—how well it worked on stage. Like magic, he said.

When he died in 1997 some of those high school cast members appeared at his viewing. They told me how much they loved being in that play, how much they amazed themselves at being able to pull it off. Whether it was acting in the school play or solving trigonometry problems, Dad helped them believe they were capable of things they weren't sure they could do. Forty years later, and they still remembered. The young smiles on their old faces looked familiar to me. A connection had been made, and the glow had lingered across time and space.

***

This edition of Harvey was a keeper for sentimental reasons, but I didn't save all of Dad's books. Many of the Book of the Month club titles were parted with when Mom and Dad sold the house in Broomall and moved back to Somerset county. I kept his James Thurber hardcovers, a few Modern Library editions like Ulysses and U.S.A. by Dos Passos, and some poetry anthologies. I kept the books I was interested in reading some day, and the ones I knew had special meaning for him.

When I was a kid and the black and white Jimmy Stewart film of Harvey aired on TV, he made us watch it. When VCR's came along, he taped it. The message sunk in. There were elements of his cultural past that were important to him, and he didn’t want us to forget—Harvey, Jimmy Stewart films, Jean Shepherd’s radio show, and old-time radio dramas like Mystery Theatre. Over the years I have wondered why Dad loved Harvey so much. Maybe he didn’t want to lose his inner-Elwood P. Dowd.

Most of the books I’ve preserved have his signature stamped on the flyleaf. As a child, I would play with the ink pad and stamp his name up and down the blank page. It struck me as an artful, perfect signature. I imitated his curves and angles. I also mimicked John Hancock’s giant signature from the Declaration of Independence. I had a souvenir copy on fake rolled up parchment paper. Eventually I trained my hand to pen my own signature on the dotted lines. I’ve never mastered it, however. Is it because I’m left handed? Too spastic and impatient? The first name usually goes smoothly, but when I get to the capital E, the shape falls over itself.

***  

Walking Away

A couple months ago I splurged on a Bobbie Gentry CD box set, The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters. It contains all her studio albums and buckets of bonus tracks, studio demos, B sides, and unreleased material. Not every last thing she recorded, but close.

The packaging is excellent—a handsome full color hardback book with photos, ephemera and liner notes. I call it a splurge because I don't consider myself a devoted Bobbie Gentry fan. I suppose some of the interest was fueled by the glowing reviews that kept popping up on the Steve Hoffman forums site. I needed to hear what the hullabaloo was all about. I’m glad I got it. It is a wonderful set, well mastered and lovingly compiled—eight CD's worth of musical evidence in support of the claim that Bobbie was one of the premier pop/country singers of the late 1960's.  I don't actually categorize her as a country music artist, quite. She's more of a pop singer influenced by country and blues and soul with showtune pizzazz swirling around the notes. Bobbie was equally at home in mud between the toes Memphis soul, sandy country ballads with the expansive sweep of a Hollywood soundtrack, and spicy honey-mustard flavored melodic pop. She was a versatile cover artist, and her own written material, most apparent on the first two albums Ode to Billie Joe and The Delta Sweete, and the final two albums Fancy and Patchwork, reveal a mastery of storytelling and characterization. 

The picture gets more interesting when you factor in her own life story—dirt poor Mississippi origins, a broken and home and move to Southern California, the student years as a UCLA Philosophy major, modeling and night club singing gigs, then the lightning bolt smash single "Ode to Billie Joe," the showers of awards, a short lived marriage to Bill Harrah of hotel and casino fame, a financially prescient ownership stake in the Phoenix Suns basketball team, a long running residency on the Vegas strip, a successful BBC television series, more failed marriages, the rotting relationship with Capitol (more their fault than hers), and ultimately—the kicker that adds the mystery icing to the cake—her exit from the entertainment business in the early 1980's, forever. 

Bobbie Gentry has not recorded or performed in public since, nor has she granted an interview. Last I heard, she’s out there, living in a gated community, maybe outside Memphis, maybe in L.A. No one's quite sure.  

Looking at the dates of her recording career, you realize how brief it was: seven albums in a four year whirlwind. Then it was over. Capitol had cut their roster of artists drastically in the early 1970’s and wouldn't let Bobbie option out of her contract. Although TV appearances and the Vegas act continued through the 1970’s, and a Ode to Billy Joe film soundtrack on Warner saw her signature song chart again in 1976, the recordings had dried up for good. 

I believe comparisons with J.D. Salinger are not unwarranted. Both were artists in the prime of their career who simply walked away. Why? You can hear clues in the Patchwork album if you listen closely. Here's the final track, "Lookin' In."

Can’t seem to settle down
Maybe I’ll just hang around
But every time you pick me up
I guess I take you down
But here I am again
You’ll take me back and then
It won’t be long till I’ll be gone
Upon my way again

So I spend my days thinkin’ up new ways
To do the same old thing
Seasons come and go without a name
And I spend my nights in the bright spotlights
Wishin’ I could let the people know
Can’t win or lose unless you play the game

Sittin’ in the airport, awaitin’ on my plane
Nothin’ to do for an hour or two
So I try to find a message in a picture I drew
In the corner of a letter from a boy I knew

Off the plane and through the rain into a limousine
The traffic’s slow so I miss my show
But lookin’ out the window somehow I know
That they’re about to play my record
On the radio

So I write another song as I go along
To let you know just where I been
Don’t want to meet myself at the masquerade
You can tell in the verse if I get worse
By the chorus I may be fine
A line, my friend, can end the kind charade

Layin’ in my hotel room, wantin’ to be alone
Needin’ the time to rest my mind
But they bring in another stack of papers to sign
And L.A.’s awaitin’ on the other line

So I’m packin’ up and I’m checking out
I’m on the road again
Feeling like I’m in a pantomime
But the words ‘ll come to me in their own good time
Tumbling and stumbling over in rhyme

And the ugliest word that I ever heard
My friends, is sacrifice
It’s an easy out for all you should have been
And if there’s one thing
That I just can’t bring myself to compromise
It’s blamin’ somebody else for the state I’m in
Oh, but then again
Daddy never loved his baby girl, (didn’t) know how
Ah, what’s the difference now

Then again, this was 1971. She didn't retreat from the limelight completely till 1982. It's fair to assume she had more songs in her, and in 1978 she did record some material with producer Rick Hall for Warner, but the album was never released (this material is missing from the box set, which focuses on the Capitol years). 

Although we have evidence from eyewitnesses to confirm that J.D. Salinger, after his mid-career retreat to Cornish, New Hampshire, kept writing, as for Bobbie, there are no hints to suggest that she has been writing or recording anything in the last 38 years. It appears that she just walked away from show business for good.

***

Sometimes an artist disappears then comes back, as if from the dead. Take P.F. Sloan.  In the 1960's he penned mega hits like "Secret Agent Man" and "Eve of Destruction." He had a modest solo career, but by the early 70's Sloan had slid into obscurity, driven in part by mental issues. He would not resurface until the 2000's with a couple of new albums before he died, Sailover (2006) and My Beethoven (2014). Sloan might be more famous for the song that Jimmy Webb wrote about him. "P.F. Sloan" (1970). Here’s a recent version by Jimmy with a little help from Jackson Browne.

I have been seeking P.F. Sloan
But no one knows where he has gone
No one ever heard the song
That boy sent winging

Now you might sigh and you might moan
And you might sweat about the skin and bone
You just smiled and read the Rolling Stone
While he continued singing
Oh yes, now, listen to him singing

No, no no no, no no, no no, no, no, no, no
Don't sing this song
No, don't sing this song
No, no no no, no no, no no, no, no, no, no
Don't sing this song
It belongs to P.F. Sloan
Oh, oh, oh, from now on

My old friend Trigger up and died
Now they've got him stuffed and dried
You know they've tanned his hide, and crucified
Got him starin' glassy eyed out through the parlour door

The London bridge was finally found
They moved it to another town, and now
All the people gather 'round to watch the bridge fall down
But I don't think it will no more
Oh no, now, listen to him singin'

Chorus

Nixon came and came to stay
They've taken all the sins away
You know, I heard it on the news today
It set my ears to ringin'
'Cause the last time I saw P.F. Sloan
He was summer burned, he was winter blown
He turned the corner all alone
But he continued
Yes, he continued singing
Yeah now, listen to him singing

Chorus

The verbal irony of an audience irresistibly singing along to a catchy chorus that is enjoining you to not sing along, is quite delicious. I’m also fascinated at how the verses take unexpected turns. What are Trigger, London Bridge, and Nixon doing in there? Metaphors, no doubt. Call the English major hotline for assistance. Ultimately, this is P.F. Sloan’s party. He’s been left alone on the scrap heap of obscurity, summer burned and winter blown, down and out and forgotten and invisible, but you can still hear him singing. There’s something sad and strangely uplifting to behold in that.

***

My friend, the Pooka

Harvey was a pooka. Mary Chase didn't invent this creature from thin air. There's a back story. The Celts called them púca, and they were known as bringers of fortune, good or bad. They were shape shifters of the furry mammal type, sometimes assuming human form with animal features like ears or tails. They had a reputation for mischief. Often they would coax a person to ride on their back and give them a wild and terrifying trip they'd never forget. Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and gatherer of Irish folk tales, unearthed stories of benevolent púca, too. They could play the role of guardian fairy spirits and appear just in time to prevent a tragic accident or run interference before you encountered an evil spirit. In other stories, they seem more like vampires. As is the case with humans, there's always going to be a range of personality types.

The púca is associated with the festive harvest season Samhein (Halloween). Farmers would designate a share of the unharvested crops as the púca's share—an offering to keep the creatures happy and the mischief at bay.

Púca-like characters crop up in literature from time to time. There is the mischievous Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the 20th century, Irish author Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds includes a character called Pooka MacPhellimey, who can change his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe. And of course, Mary Chase gave us the white rabbit pooka Harvey.  

I feel some affinity to Harvey the pooka. Both of us happen to be 6 foot 3 and a half inches tall from ground to skull. Like Harvey, I too often feel invisible. See Issue 11 for details. Probably my recent preoccupation with this theme has something to do with Covid19, which has induced more obscurity and invisibility than we normally expect. Stuck inside my house waiting out the pandemic, I pace the rooms, trip and tumble into a past where memories have gone unheeded like friends you haven’t called in years. Recovering these old stories and faces gives me plenty to chop at, like splitting and stacking logs to stay warm through a long and icy winter. But the work all takes place between the ears, invisibly.  

***

Gettin' Smaller

Jimmy Webb wrote another tune that fits our theme. Waylon Jennings had a hit with it. It’s about a musician who has burned through the glory years and finds himself on the downslide. At least he has his buddy Willie to keep him company, and a four piece band and chartered bus to carry him into the long fade out. I love how he drops in a reference to the Main Point in Bryn Mawr. God bless, old Philadelphia, indeed. When I listen to the song, I visualize myself standing in line outside the Main Point, a part of that wet and lonely train, faithful to the artist, even when his best years are behind him.

Willie we've been constant companions
In all the light and shade
We have spent a million dollars
To find out what we made
We have made the maidens marvel
At the things we do and say
Down down and out brother
Up up and away

If you see me gettin' smaller I'm leavin'
Don't be grieving
Just got to get away from here
If you see me gettin' smaller don't worry
I'm in no hurry
I've got the right to disappear

God bless old Philadelphia
They were standing in the rain
Out in front of the Main Point,
A wet and lonely train
Who knows who they came to see
A mad man full of beer
A four piece band and a charter bus
My border-line career
If you see me gettin' smaller...

No doubt, the singer has a right to disappear. I keep wondering whether it takes strength or cowardice to walk away. Does it take fortitude to capitulate, to say, I give in, that’s it, I’ve had enough, you can loosen the chokehold, now? When the game is up and you walk off the field, can there be any dignity left? Or is it something more like bathos? The answers will waver from day to day like weather patterns. Either way, the decision must be taken, to preserve a vestige of sanity or self respect.

***

When not wading hip deep into the past, I do try to stay in touch with people over email and zoom in the here and now. These engagements with others have value. I don’t want to minimize that. But uncomfortable facts must be faced. Screen engagement isn’t quite real. That’s why they call it virtual reality. The interactions are two-dimensional. We face one another across flat surfaces, boxed in like game show contestants. After I leave the screen, I turn around to a mostly empty house, my memory banks, and the dormant fictional characters waiting to have some life breathed into them. In other words, back to invisible world.

In some respects this time is precious and different, an introvert’s paradise. But too much of anything isn’t good for you. I’m tempted to pull out Pink Floyd and wallow in puddles of solitary confinement behind my wall.

I recently interviewed a clinical psychologist for the Podula Rasa podcast, and I asked what he is seeing from his patients since Covid19 hit. He said without hesitation, across the board, anxieties and depressions have gotten worse. People are really struggling with the imposed obscurity.

Luckily I’m not completely alone, though. I have a wife to keep me from going crazy and getting drunk every night. The cat and dog are godsends too. It is impossible to be depressed for too long when you have a Boston Terrier in the house.

***

More of a fadeout than a conclusion

I don’t know if Elwood P. Dowd was a loon or a drunk (maybe he was both). I don’t know whether Bobbie Gentry really stopped writing songs. If she did, so what? She left behind legacy enough. Who knows if Salinger wrote anything meaningful in retirement. Maybe he typed a hot mess of word slop that’s making New York editors writhe. I don’t even know if P.F. Sloan kept singing his song. I wasn’t there to confirm it. Sometimes reality is as phantasmagoric as fiction can be. I would like to think Jimmy Webb got the essence of it right. In the Waylon song about the diminishing singer, there are no comebacks in the offing. The thing is, what you can’t see or touch could still be there. Like a pooka. Just because you can’t hear him singing, doesn’t mean he isn’t.

Writing songs and stories is a little bit like pouring words into the darkness. You hope it might catch a spark like a firefly and light up someone’s night. The odds aren’t very good, but we gamble anyway. Every session in the writing chair can feel like wagering the last piaster you could borrow. Does any of this matter? Why should anyone bother to write into the darkness?

Over at Podula Rasa, Dave and I have been podcasting a series of fragmentary shows about the life and influence of our high school creative writing teacher Thom Williams. Thom’s widow kindly sent me two of his chapbooks, which I’d never seen before. I wonder how many people have held these books in their hands, or how few. How many readers were there? Why did he write these books in relative obscurity? Why did he make CD’s and sell them on CDbaby.com in limited numbers? Why do any of us even try to do anything? The return on investment can seem so miniscule. An outsider might look at the things artists do and say (to quote former Eagle running back Ricky Waters) “for who, for what?” None of this matters! Maybe not. Permit me to hand off the peroration duties to our cheesy 1980’s camp counselor, Bill Murray.

Thanks for the motivation, Bill.

Here’s an irony I believe he would also appreciate: It doesn’t matter if none of it matters! No one is keeping score. So do it anyway! Seek to do it at a level that suits who and where you are. No need to cower in the corner like the wreck that is Franny Glass in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. She’s so balled up in egocentric neurosis and religious navel gazing that she’s seized up, artistically. Paralysis has set in. The very thing she’s good at (acting) is crucifying her. The book ends with her brother Zooey (a neurotic in his own right) finally breaking through to her. I’d love to hear Bill Murray do the speech, by the way:

“You can say the Jesus prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you’ll ever even move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessation from all hankerings.’ It’s this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddam truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why’re you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line—in one damn incarnation or another, if you like—you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. ‘Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do is act.”

Notice the “walking away” theme rearing its head at the end of the passage. Be mindful of what he means. You can’t or shouldn’t walk out on your calling, but you can walk out on the terms of the engagement. Later in his speech, Zooey says this:

“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”

I find that sentence revealing; it’s probably the secret to why Salinger walked away. He did it so he could write what he wanted and needed to write, on his own terms. The terms of dealing with editors and publishers and fame and creepy fans became unacceptable to him, so he walked off and did his own thing in private. He claimed his right to disappear, but it didn’t stop him from writing. As for Bobbie, maybe she said all that needed to be said and was ready to turn the page. That’s OK, too.

Any act of creativity—flop or hit, shared with an audience of one or a cast of invisible listeners like Seymour Glass’s “fat lady”—is like a javelin launched into the void. If that throw is never ventured on any terms, then it most certainly will be sucked into the black hole from which no light escapes. But if you do it now, see that the time is right to take a stab at it, somewhere the javelin will trace an arc and leave a mark. Maybe you’ll be the only one to see it. Who cares. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter. So yes, Zooey, you’re right. Act. Write. Put things down on the page. Go on singing your songs. They belong to you. From now on.


I hope you enjoyed this issue. Feel free to leave a comment or send your reactions by email.

Leave a comment

To receive future issues in your inbox, subscribe by email right here:

As always, thanks for sharing your time and attention. Until next time, be well.