I grew up with a gourmet taste in music, having once played Mozart for Louis Armstrong. I attended many fine concerts, including Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Bette Midler Folk music appealed aplenty, because it pointed out hypocrisies to fundamental American ideals.
At first, I didn’t think of activism when I first heard the voice of Joan Baez on her debut album 60 years ago. Instead, I was thunderstruck and immediately thought of Maria Callas. Had Ms. Callas revised her repertoire?
No, the voice I heard was different, but oh so pure. It struck me like perfection. That is how Joan Baez entered my consciousness via Vanguard Records.
Over many, many years, I adored Ms. Baez from afar, admiring her short-term relationship to Bob Dylan, while reading and re-reading her inspired words to husband David Harris, “I even think I see the birth of a real revolution, if our weapon remains the power of love … and if we keep doing it one day at a time.”
There is a song with that title – and a record album to go with it – called “One Day at a Time.” I cannot sing it without my voice breaking with emotion. That’s the power she interprets into Willie Nelson’s song.
Ms. Baez now is scheduled to receive the ultimate tribute, in my opinion, an artist can receive: Kennedy Center Honoree. Other honorees for the newest cast of characters are choreographer Debbie Allen, Garth Brooks, country artist Garth Brooks, classical violinist Midori and comedy legend Dick Van Dyke. The event is currently scheduled sometime for the third week of May 2021, and for nationwide CBS broadcast June 6.
Think of the changes the pandemic has brought upon us: wearing masks almost constantly, self quarantining (in my case, without Alice) and all the associated fear. Now think of the good things: cleaner air, fewer automobiles, more people working from home and growing libraries of great entertainment including, best of all, an end to U.S. Presidents boycotting the Kennedy Center Honors.
Ms. Baez deserves to be seen and heard all across this country. Perhaps then some enterprising musical entrepreneur will at long last give her rendition (with Jeffrey Shurtleff) of “(I Live) One Day at a Time” the exposure it deserves. “Seven Bridges Road” ain’t too shabby, either.
Forty years ago, I lived in Miami, Florida, a resort city where I grew up, although born in Manhattan. Being a Miami Dolphins fan had become part and parcel of a true Miamian, although the team was experiencing a so-so year. Nevertheless, the usual mild December weather, savvy tourism officials and our usually competitive gridiron team attracted ABC Sports to reschedule the Dolphins’ intra-divisional rivalry with the New England Patriots onto Monday Night Football.
Those were the days of local pro-football TV blackouts if games didn’t sell out 72 hours before kick-off, so fans like me who couldn’t afford to squeeze into the Orange Bowl were relegated to listening to the radio broadcast on station WIOD-AM.
On December 8, 1980, through the third quarter, the game had been lackluster, each team only managing to put up 6 points on the scoreboard. I lay restless on the bed, my imagination only stirred by the vivid play-by-play narration from Rick Weaver as Hank Goldberg added color commentary. As the quarter ended, the usual two minutes of commercials filled the warm night air.
Before the perfunctory station ID could be heard, though, a stern voice announced, “We interrupt this program for a news bulletin.” About 10 seconds of “dead air” followed, until the sound of a microphone moved across a table and an out-of-breath announcer uttered, “John Lennon has been shot in New York City in front of the building he loved, the Dakota, by Central Park.” He paused only a moment to clear the emotion from his voice to add, “We have confirmed that he was shot dead, killed by an unknown assailant. We now return you to our regularly scheduled program.”
I was stunned. Apparently, so were approximately 80,000 “Dol-fans” packed inside the Orange Bowl who, like me, were listening on transistor radios. It became impossible to tell the audio feed of the game’s broadcast had returned, because all one could hear was silence. The usual buzz of the shocked crowd disappeared, and it was heart-breaking. Simon and Garfunkel had it right; “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
“The Sounds of Silence” were deafening.
Two days later, I contacted the clerk’s office of the City of Miami Commission to get myself on the next meeting’s agenda. In my grief, because I heard a move was afoot in New York to reserve a section of Central Park called “Strawberry Fields” as a remembrance for Lennon, I hoped to do the same locally. A lot of “snowbirds” from New York migrated to our city during the winter. The park downtown had been officially named Bicentennial Park in 1976, and because of the newly established “New World” theme being sought for the area, I wanted to rename the park, “John Lennon New World Park.”
I contacted Miami’s top deejay, Rick Shaw, and asked him to join me at the commission meeting to stir the community into action. I also contacted Tony Auth, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, because his stunning depiction of the “scales of justice” vividly showed how one bullet outweighed the litany of music Lennon created. Auth generously blew up his cartoon and mailed it to me, which a local artist supply shop then framed.
Rick Shaw and I were virtually ignored. We sat through two hours of interminable commission procedural nonsense, our pleas ignored until our cause was referred to an obscure committee, who refused to hear the petition. Miami is not known for its progressive ideology, and the idea of a memorial to a radical “leftist” was summarily buried along with his memory.
When I left Miami in 2003, I found a new home base in the outskirts of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where I began to make a name for myself as a photojournalist for the Bucks County Herald. I was only paid a pittance for my work, some of it making the front page, so I kept the wolves from the door by working as a limousine driver.
Bucks County is regarded as a playground for bored Manhattanites, boasting residents best described as well-heeled who commute to the Big Apple, only 80 road miles away. That’s how I became a regular driver for a prominent public relations partner on Madison Avenue firm who owned an apartment at 1 W. 72nd Street, better known as the Dakota building, where Lennon was assassinated.
Although I drove the six-passenger limo shown above on “nights on the town,” I regularly negotiated the Hudson River’s crossings in a Lincoln Towncar, my heart leaping into the throat each time I pulled into the building’s secure alcove, avoiding the stare of camera-toting tourists looking to impose upon the building’s apartment owners.
One night while awaiting my passengers to arrive, a well-dressed, dark-haired woman with exotic features spoke to me:
“Hello there,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”
I looked around; my passengers had yet to arrive. “No, I don’t think so,” I stammered.
She answered her own question, saying, “I’m Lauren Bacall.”
My mouth dropped open. Lauren Bacall? Out of the blue? Humphrey Bogart’s heart-throb?
Before I had a chance to find my voice, my passengers arrived, and I was summarily engaged to load their bags for my humble position as a chauffeur in Bucks County. As I carefully backed out of the Dakota’s alcove, I looked around at the cameras clicking as tourists were drawn into the macabre circus-like sidewalk where Lennon was killed.
What a coincidence, though. I never bragged about my attempt to honor John Lennon back in Miami. I doubt my passengers would have cared; they lived in a world far different than me. But I will never forget the hallowed ground on which I walked, because John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s artistic expressions made a difference in this war-weary world in which we live. And their activism caused me to recognize my Quaker identity.
All they were saying – 40 years ago – was, “Give Peace a Chance.”
I am supposed to be knee-deep in my memoir, but the last two weeks were too much. Through the miracle of television, the same medium my grandmother and I watched the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions together, I fell prey to the frenzy of America’s 2020 election.
If I would have been old enough to vote 64 years ago, “I liked Ike.” He would have protected us.
As I grew older, my mother told me about David Rhys. He was a distant Welsh ancestor to our Johnston family, who after immigrating to America, changed the spelling of his surname to Reese. That was noteworthy because in 1775, David Reese signed the Declaration of Independence in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, one year before the USA declared its version. No wonder I was able to validate for myself that I was a Quaker – and a patriot.
I cry for my country.
The last time I felt so much hope for America – 1963 – JFK was assassinated. I was on my way to a history class at the University of Florida when a fellow student asked me if I knew what just happened. I gave him a querulous look, so he replied, “Jack Kennedy just was shot.”
“That can’t happen,” I reasoned, but my disbelief was shattered when I saw a fellow classmate break down in tears. I cried too when Walter Cronkite’s voice broke while reading the hurriedly scripted report that Kennedy succumbed to his injuries.
I cry for my country.
What I thought was a worthwhile way to live became a nightmare again – and again – and again. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave birth to a dream, but his physical being was terminated in 1968. Next was Robert Kennedy, and I was shell-shocked.
Football was no escape for me. While listening to a radio broadcast of the Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game in 1980, a breathless announcer told America that John Lennon had been summarily executed. Why? For preaching peace?
I cry for my country.
Joe Biden was elected president in a bitterly contested election and is due to govern on January 20. I’ve seen this celebration before. Already, the current occupant calls the contest “corrupt” and is asking Republicans to destroy the outcome. As a first offensive he filed numerous lawsuits, particularly in Pennsylvania.
I want to believe again, I want to stand up and praise the U-S-of-A, and rail against terrorism because of 9/11, but what does America stand for? Is it our territory or a transitory idea? To watch a so-called president attack the nation’s most fundamental function – a fair election in the birthplace of our country – makes my Quaker blood boil.
#45 sets the stage for a fundamental evil that pervades this “land of the free.” He is guilty of treason, an enabler for future terrorist attacks on everything I hold near and dear. How can he continue to spout his poison? Is this free speech?
I cry for my country.
Postscript: On January 6, 2021, my worst fears came true, as the news media chronicled a failed attack on our Democracy and its Capitol.
How it was planned, who was involved, need to be uncovered, examined and dealt with in such a way as to hasten our late emergence into the 2000 Millennium. Few of us will survive in a new Civil War where mass destruction is possible.
When I was 5 years old, my mother, Thelma, took me to a Billy Graham “rally” in a Hialeah, Fla. auditorium that turned into a commitment to faith. Attendees were urged to respond to the words of Jesus Christ and be “born again.”
I stood up as tall as I could, and in that packed auditorium where Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows held sway, I pledged to live my life as a Christian.
Today, I read the words that Graham’s granddaughter, Jerushah Duford, set forth earlier this week in USA Today, and they resonate in my soul. Considering I’m 50 miles north of the epicenter of last night’s killing of a so-called “Patriot’s Prayer” counter-protester, it’s appropriate that I reaffirm what she wrote.
“Our president continues to perpetuate an us-versus-them narrative, yet almost all of our church leaders say nothing,” Duford writes.
“Trump has gone so far as to brag about his plans, accomplishments and unholy actions toward the marginalized communities I saw my grandfather love and serve.
“He held a Bible, something so sacred to all of us, yet he treated that Bible with a callousness that would offend anyone intimately familiar with the words inside it. … The entire world has watched the term ‘evangelical’ become synonymous with hypocrisy and disingenuousness.”
Signaling a prospective religious war, this is a shot across the bow. Pray for America.