Wednesday, October 19, 2016

This is not an obituary


RL Haney

This is not an obituary…..

From the moment that RL’s leaving his studio at West-Park became inevitable, it was clear that he would not be coming back to Open Mic. The Open Mic which  had begun as Rhythms, Repair and Renovation.
The official poster
 (With its own '70's style poster...)Now by mid-March, the open mic had continued under the direction of the 3 D’s:  David Lyons, Dion Thompson and David Smythe. They’d kept the doors open, kept the community alive and RL’s values intact. They each have their own reasons:  the open mic brought out David Lyons as a performer, first one song, then two, then three.Then at other spots around the city "on tour." Dion found his own unique voice as a stand up comedian. And David Smythe began as part of RL's retinue and is now the church's go to handyman and sound guy. They do this at least in part to say thanks for what they've received and they've done well.  But no question:  RL was missed. 

When Victoire and Henri returned from Brazil, the first place they came was to West-Park anxious to see old friends, West-Park was Victoire's first landing place when she first arrived here from France. She now appears regularly on the city club and cabaret scene. They were wearing their Dusty Withers fan club badg
Dusty badge
es in honor of RL. It was hard on me to tell them he would not be there.  They were only two of so many more. So when word came to us (through Dion) that  RL would be making an appearance, word spread like wildfire through social media. And when word leaked that he’d asked Dion to go bring down his guitar, we knew he’d not only be appearing, but playing. 
Henri and Victoire wearing badges....

Even before he showed up, a record breaking crowd was showing up in the chapel. Many were there simply because this was a new open mic they had discovered. But many came to pay tribute to a mentor and friend to whom thanks was due. A truly eclectic crowd..worthy of what RL had created. 

David Lyons opened  the night. 
David Lyons open

Shirley reads

David Smythe played 
David Smythe
with his virtual drummer Kyle. Our new senior citizen contingent was represented by Helen Cohen . Journeyman Gene Cross, who's played with the best, backed Helen and then our young blues man Mike Handelman backed Gene.
Helen Cohen and journeyman guitar player Gene Cross 

Shirley Eitan did her acapella classics.

Harold Zoloshevsky
 did stand up and Joel Gold was back for what only he can do…his on the spot  improv that takes us back to the Village coffee shops and Beat poets. More than once I’ve seen rap artists drop their jaws in amazement at Joel’s spoken word. 
The one and only Joel Gold

Ross and Blain

Gene and Mike
Gene and Helen
Soon RL made his first appearance, doing a tribute to his friend and amiable rival, the godfather for a generation  of singer -songwriters Jack Hardy,( ) whose last circle included my friend and collaborator Jeremy Mage. I remembered how the door to the open mic had been opened by RL’s 2012 sanctuary concert which was not only a tribute to Jack (Shut up and play the song) but also the farewell concert the P&G’s crowd had missed in its untimely closing. And I recalled how I’d gone to P&G’s with Amanda and saw this amazing cast of characters including RL, Piano Dan and Mandola Joe. The first open mic I’d ever been to. 
RL speaks of Jack
RL brings the word

The young duo Beat Sticky, a nod to their use of the Chapman Stick.(,appeared next with their folk/r&b stylings reminiscent of a youngTracy Chapman. 
Beat Sticky
A young woman fresh from Australia (who has since become a regular), Aimee Watson, made her first appearance with dramatic original songs on piano and guitar.
Aimee on piano 

Aimee's first appearance
Ross Byron and Blain Nan played, Sharyn Schiller did a reading and Bernice sang Somewhere over the Rainbow.

Young Nick Lantigua played the banjo.  Now 20, he's been with us since he was 17. 
Nick on the banjo

RL took his time to play for us. To tell of the beginnings…how he was approached by someone asking him to sign a petition …something he’d never done before…to save West-Park. And how Amanda got him to play in a balcony music festival in a ruined church with no heat and no restrooms. How he was moved to get involved. Build those restrooms. Then launch his project of Rhythms, Repair and Renovation. His two loves (outside of Harvey, of course)…rebuilding  the church (the building, not the churchy part) and keeping live music alive. That is, on his terms. Where everyone always gets three songs, which gives you enough time to screw up and recover. In an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement. Where one is safe to grow to what they could become. In a feeling of community. And collaboration, not jams. For RL, jams are all about can you top this while collaboration is what can we create together. He told us  all that  again. So we'd remember. Tales about the gong player, the rappers and the tap dancer who tapped without music. 
RL Plays

And he played his most special, rarely performed  song, Rustling Winds. He wouldn’t be RL without tearing up, which he did. And so did we. He is in the end a classic romantic.

Many of us performed in special thanks. I did my Queen of the  Factory Town and Carolina Goin Home with Victoire.
Bob and Victoire
 She sang the song  she wrote about this open mic, about the old chapel and old cowboys, (RL).
Victoire sings of cowboys

Young  Jeremy and Jessie surprised RL with Full Moon on the Water, an RL song in an Ian and Sylvia style, like he’d shown them.  
Jessie and Jeremy

RL closed out the night  with Stay Awhile, as he always did. As was fitting . With probably the  largest collection of musicians we’d ever had onstage at the same time. Ever. And we all sang together. Collaboration, not  a jam.

The night was exactly the right way to say thank you RL. What it was supposed to be. 
An all-star line up for "Stay Awhile"

He came back a week later. Thought about performing. Decided not to play. That would be anticlimactic, he said. 

…..ain’t no trains at the station, seems about like to rain…..


This is not an obituary.

OK.So that’s  the story of a great night. It’s not the story of RL.  I’ve delayed way too long in writing this, partly because I don’t want to write a book and it’s hard to know what must be said and what to leave out. But more because to write this is in a sense, to admit that he has left the building, which is something I’d prefer not to do. (The why’s and wherefores of his leaving will not be dealt with here. Besides, RL has frequently stated he doesn’t do soap operas..) What can I say about RL?

RL is an American original. He is as much an expression of Americana as a Bob Dylan album. (the Michelangelo and Da Vinci of his craft, says RL... And my favorite bastard.) To truly write about RL, you would need Hemmingway and Garcia Marquez with an occasional dollop of Hunter Thompson. RL is a character of his own creation. He has a unique way of looking at and being in the world, courtly, mannered in a late 19th century way and yet a bit psychedelic. Obviously, his view of the world does not always (often?) coincide with that of others. Thing is, I found myself preferring his view.

And there is of course this Zelig-like quality to RL and the pop music culture of oh, quarter century or more. This tour with that band. Lights for another. Watering Lennon's pianos. And a few fistfights. (Won't say who won.) Those Studio 54 photos...

More than once he's quoted to me from Elwood P. Dowd, the main character of the play Harvey, (for whom RL nicknamed his wife, who was in the cast). In response to being told by a doctor to Wrestle with reality, Dodd replied:
Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it. 
And so has RL. 

He was there. From the days we reopened in a building described as somewhere between Berlin and Brooklyn (well, more like Havana, really, someone added.) From the fateful night at the end of Amanda's 2010 Balcony Music Festival when after leaving, he returned to read his  Red Ryder and the Fat Lady.When Danielle and I were the only ones on a daily basis keeping the doors open, he was there. If something needed fixing, he got it done. From big sanctuary doors to sidewalk metal grate doors to light bulbs. He’d hire a crew, call on one of the numerous skilled retinue of people he kept on retainers. Spent thousands of dollars. Just to get things done. And never kept receipts, because that’s not what it’s about. 

He was there as paternal protection and support for Danielle and for Priska when she had a studio above his. (How I miss Priska and Jeremy!) He was equally protective and proprietary on the  building as a whole, sometimes annoyingly so. He was the unofficial night watchman, “policing the building” before heading home. 

He was there for all of the intense craziness of the Occupy Wall Street Occupation of West-Park  and especially Teddy, who became our sexton.RL maintained, that Teddy was one of his fastest gets, i.e. they got each other within two days.  I sometime wonder how the last years would have been different had Teddy lived and we had been able to enjoy this adventure with him. Teddy  was the quintessential expression of what we were trying to become. Danielle, intuitively and completely  “got” my vision and would have done anything to help bring it about. He had my back in every way. 

RL  was there through out all kinds of artistic residencies  like Bread and Puppet. Warm memories of RL and B&P creator and genius Peter Schumann at the party at the end of their 50th anniversary celebration. Something about the two of them that  fit.  Two originals.

He was there to encounter and engage the many street folks who were part of the scene from Rachel and her shopping carts (who said why he danced lasciviousy at me!) to legless Sean and his electric and... acoustic?  wheel chairs. (Teddy had “saved” Sean. it just didn’t last.)

He was there during Zeljko’s shooting for his as yet unfinished docufairytale about New Yorkers and their dreams…

He was there. Especially for me. As much as he disclaimed the “churchy” part, that’s as much his overall allergy to institutions. ( I don’t do committees. I do projects, he says…) Even though he is an officially licensed shaman, when he shared with me Myles Connally’s 1928 inspirational Catholic classic Mr. Blue, about an eccentric follower of Jesus, I knew RL understood and respected my vision and would do everything he could to help it succeed. Out of care for me and more out of respect for the vision beyond me. 

He was there . During the darkest days for me, the days when I didn’t want  to go home because there was nothing there but a card table, bed, folding  chair and two weeks worth of clothing, his studio was a safe space. A place to stop by to catch my breath, or drink a cold one or catch an episode of Leverage. We'd watch other  series, like Nero Wolfe, but Leverage was my favorite. How could  I not be  attracted to a show that opened with:

The rich and powerful, they take what they want. We steal it back for you. Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys. We provide... “leverage". If the light was on in his stained glass window, (the bat signal), I knew there was welcome.

How many times would a tourist couple encounter RL at the Gate and wind up in his studio with an impromptu concert evolving for one great story to take home about the best vacation ever?

Fact: during one incredibly bad stretch of time, there are nights I would not  have eaten if it were not for RL.

The open mic gave rebirth to my music life after 30 some years. RL a great critic for songwriting. But more, he got my guitar rebuilt and got it hooked it up for electric amplification. Got me my first gig bag. Helped me to feel like I had joined the  fraternity. 

RL has added to his preferred business practices. In addition to no more partners, he has added no more working with churches ...or Christians. It’s not supposed to work out that way. As we become more …professional? uh..? we are like a gentrifying neighborhood that as it improves, runs the risk of losing  what  drew people there in the first place. We are not as rich without RL. Of the good that remains, RL was part of opening the door  for that. 

Check out the video made by Zeljko to raise funds to finish The Dream….watch as RL finishes his song Pinto, turns and slowly begins to fade…something prescient in that shot… as he turns and fades, part of my dream fades as well…


Epilogue….months later, there is this moment. RL has called for a tribal council meeting  at the Gate. The first time I heard him use that expression, six years ago, I took it literally, like there was  a secret society of musicians and others with RL at its center making important decisions about important matters. Even though I now know that wasn't quite true,  it's still cool to be included in a tribal  council…

He has brought the keys to every lock at West Park. I mean EVERY. And he wants to go over one more time with Dion and the Davids  the rules for open mic. No 2 song sets, it’s got to be 3…do whatever you want as long as you don’t offend me, which means taking  what you ae doing  seriously enough to  be prepared…and keep your clothes on…

The sun broke thorough the front windows warm and bright as he passed on the keys.

Never say never,but.... says RL. 
This is not an obituary.

Tribal council

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