Goodbye Lake Wobegon? Art Versus the Artist

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By Ryan Hilligoss, December 17, 2017

My first introduction to talk radio was while riding with my dad from Alton to Springfield, Illinois as a young child. I was about 5 or 6 and remember riding in our tan station wagon we used at our restaurant as a catering vehicle/day care/cross-country, back jumper seat, death-defying mode of transportation. This is the same tan Chevrolet family wagon that we took to Arizona with me standing on the hump in between the first and second row seats telling the driver, on the verge of murdering me and my brothers at any given moment, “Dad, we need gas dad!!!!” The same car that my brother Sean and I sat in the back section sleeping, talking, flipping off passing families and otherwise just being a couple jerks as kids are wont to be sometimes. But I digress….

Growing up with two older brothers in our household, there weren’t many times that I got to spend much time with either my mother or father without one or the other around, but on this day, I got called up to the big leagues and got to ride with my dad. It was a hot, summer day in central Illinois, hot and humid as the summers are, and we traveled in a 4/60 manner of air conditioning, 4 windows down and crusing at 60 miles an hour up Interstate 55. As he drove, there wasn’t much conversation between the two of us and the void was filled with the wind and the radio, AM, probably 1120 KMOX, the voice of the Cardinals, which broadcast talk radio during the day. As a six-year-old, I had no idea what they were talking about, might as well have been in Sanskrit for all I knew, but what I did know was the person talking was excited and speaking loudly and quickly. This was in the late 70s so they could have been discussing the oil embargo or the Iran hostages, but whatever it was my dad was listening intently as he smoked a small, thin cigar and spit from time to time into a Styrofoam cup. As a child, all I knew was what was being said on the radio was mysterious and seemed very important, like something exciting was going to happen at any moment.

Flash forward 15 years and I’m a 21-year-old college student driving back to Eastern Illinois University after a weekend spent at home, and I’m searching  the radio for anything decent to hear after running through my limited collection of cassettes for the 100th time…Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits, Elvis’ Aloha special….I’ve heard them all so much I hear it in my sleep, so I spin the dial looking for something new…then I hear a voice coming at me….slow but persistent, a deep baritone voice talking about his town, somewhere in the lakes of Minnesota, his neighbors, his friends, the Bachelor Farmers sitting on the town square watching cars and people walk by, the local Catholic Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Obligation and Father Emil. It was the voice of Garrison Keillor and his weekly Prairie Home Companion coming from The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St.Paul, Minnesota, including his production actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell and sound effects by Tom Keith. The show was a weekly whirl wind of jokes, recurring bits, great musical guests and a superb house band. His voice was all-consuming and hooked me from the start, taking me to places in my mind I could only imagine., taking me to Lake Wobegon, ‘the little town that time forgot and the ages could not improve’. Lake Wobegon, where all the all the men are good-looking, all the women are strong and all the children are above average.

For over 40 years, his Prairie Home Companion drew millions of listeners every Saturday night. His last show was broadcast in July of 2016, performed in front of 18,000 fans at the Hollywood Bowl. I meant to write up an appreciation as a meager way of thanking him for the years of listening pleasure, but as usual, I was too busy with life and merely put PHC on my list of topics to write about when I magically had more time and energy. And now, it appears I’ve missed my chance given the fact Garrison has become one of many persons involved in the sexual harassment plague taking down one person in power after another, a wave of long buried shame and hurt and humiliation too large to be kept inside anymore by its victims. In November, Minnesota Public Radio cut all ties with Keillor due to allegations from at least one person if not more. In a statement, MPR insisted it conducted a proper review. The statement said two people formerly associated with the show alleged “multiple incidents of inappropriate behavior” by Keillor, though only one claimed the behavior was directed at her. The station said it hasn’t made additional details public because the two want privacy. Keillor didn’t provide details to the Associated Press but later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he had put his hand on a woman’s bare back as he tried to console her.

I guess the question I ask myself is where does this leave me and all the rest of his fans who experienced or heard his shows, read his books or op-ed columns, or listened to his morning poetry segment on NPR. I attended a few of the PHC shows live, twice in St.Paul and in other locations. My dad and I met him at a dinner held before one of his solo lectures held at University of Illinois Springfield. I got to shake his hand and thank him for all the pleasure he brought me over the years and sent him the above picture to get his autograph which he kindly signed and returned much to my surprise. But at this point in time, how do the allegations and his possible behavior affect me and the art he created over the years. If he is guilty and harassed one or several females, what happens to all those stories? I can’t unlisten to the shows or unread his books and columns. I can’t erase the memory of his voice lulling me into Lake Wobegon and all the characters that live there, walking the streets in my imagination. Whether it’s Keillor or Kevin Spacey or any other person, what does this mean for us, the fans, what does it mean for the victims?

David Sedaris

 

Some of my favorite authors include Larry McMurtry, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip Roth, and Sarah Vowell, but probably the funniest and the one I enjoy reading most is David Sedaris. I first became aware of him while listening to This American Life and heard him reading a story about what it was like to grow up in North Carolina. He signed up for guitar lessons and when his teacher asked him what he liked to play, he said he didn’t like to play but wanted to sing like blues legend Billie Holliday and then proceeded to break into the Oscar Meyer baloney jingle in a spot on Billie Holliday impersonation which made me almost drive off the road in fits of laughter. He has a very distinctive, easy voice that I fell in love with listening to. Over the last 15 years, I’ve read all of his collections of essays, my favorite book being Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim and my favorite essay is Rooster At The Hitching Post. I’ve been lucky to see him at several readings over the years in different settings including a small community college, a large theater in Chicago packed to the gills with 4,000 fellow eager listeners, and a beautiful older theater in downtown Aurora. I think his appeal at drawing crowds is his humor, the beauty of his writing and the cadence of his speaking voice. Watching him in action gives a keen observer the opportunity to watch a master at work. As he begins a new story yet to be published, he writes the time he starts speaking on the page, begins to read and marks on the manuscript where the crowd laughs and where it doesn’t that he was expecting a laugh, I assume so he can make revisions before submitting to his publisher. He writes the time down when he ends so he knows how long it would take to read the story as he generally tries to stay in the 10-15 minute range. Afterwards, he sets up shop in the lobby with a stash of writing utensils, water and an after show meal, and will sign and talk to fans who stand in line, each and every last one of them, no matter how tired he might be or how many.

After seeing him at the Arcada Theater in downtown St.Charles on his Let’s Talk About Diabetes With Owls tour, I was the last one in line of probably two hundred people that took an hour and half to get to the end. He is always very gracious to each and every fan, signing most things they present, making small talk, asking where you’re from, what you do for a living, etc. During that night’s lecture, he was reading about travelling around the world and observing cultural differences, large and small. He got into a list of curse words and insults in various cultures ending with the worst insult he had ever heard, in Romania which translated as “I shit in your mother’s mouth.” The crowd initially gasped and then burst into uncomfortable laughter. As I approached the table, he sized me up quickly and began small talk and I told him I enjoyed his most recent essay which has appeared in The New Yorker and we began a quick discussion on it while he quietly drew something on my CD case. He thanked me for coming, got up, nodded at his assistant who began to pack up his items for the night. As I walked away, I looked down at the inscription which was the exact worst insult he had ever heard and I laughed at his audacity. I knew from his writings that he was not insulting me, it was a wink and a nod that I was in on his jokes and dark humor.

A few days later, there was a small controversy when he wrote the same thing on a fans book at another reading. Apparently this particular fan wasn’t in on the joke, was highly insulted on her mother’s behalf, and began a campaign to shame Sedaris and seek an apology and get him fired from his publishing contract. In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he said that he had written the same thing on several fans’ books, making sure to look them overly carefully as they stood in line, to ensure they were on the same page with him. He simply misjudged this time. The offended party had contacted his publisher demanding a full apology and recourse of some sort. The fan’s demands reminded me of so many customers I’ve spoken to over my career who demanded I fire an employee for some offense like telling them something they didn’t want to hear or for simply being told no. Like a three-year old wanting their playmates toys, stamping their feet in the sandbox and turning red in the face at the indignation of not getting what they want, they make ridiculous demands and think they have power of someone else, they try their best, futilely, to bend the world to their vision of right and wrong. In the end, Sedaris did offer an apology for upsetting the reader in question, but he did not apologize for his works or words. Since then, I’ve often wondered what that fan did after that. Did she refuse to buy his new publications as they came out one by one? Did she decline friend’s invitations to go to another reading? Did she use the pages from her favorite books as toilet paper, returning the favor? Did she donate the books she had to charity, cleansing the author’s art from her mind and memory?

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Trust The Art, Not The Artist

During an interview, Bruce Springsteen was asked about his ability to write about working people and dirty jobs that he had never done himself. Apparently the interviewer was having a hard time reconciling a very wealthy recording musician writing about characters working in fields, factories and down on the docks. Springsteen has been very honest about this fact over the years, stating clearly that the only “honest job” he ever did was painting a neighbor’s house and mowing his aunt’s yard in order to earn money to buy a better electric guitar back in his teens. However, he grew up in VERY humble settings, with no running water in the family house until he was 10, his father bouncing from one job to the next as a bus driver, factory worker, jail guard, etc while his mom held a steady job as a legal secretary for many years, earning the only stead income their family saw. Pressed even further, Springsteen simply said, “When in doubt, trust the art, not the artist.” A fairly simple answer, but a profound one at that.  Just as the rest of us, no one is without faults, sins on our hands, human frailties, hypocrisy from time to time. Artists are no different, often living messy lives, filled with a never-ending list of mistakes and bad choices, bad decisions made for themselves and effecting all of those around them.

Whatever sins they are, who among us is clean? Is it fair to not appreciate art because of the human behavior of those producing it? On my desk at home, I have a small menagerie of collectibles showing my appreciation for those artists and their art that I love. If I stop and look at those totems and consider their source, I could easily start taking them all down and putting them in a box of shame.

My Chuck Berry bobble head doll, doing his patented duck walk wearing a St.Louis Cardinals jersey….gone. While being the godfather of rock and roll, his signature guitar playing being the foundation of all modern music that came after, his lyrics, song writing and arrangements still being imitated and influencing artists today, he had a sketchy past at best. Twice serving time in prison, the first more than likely influenced by his race and celebrity, but the second being for evading taxes. As owner of his Berry Park music club, he was accused and found guilty of putting a video camera in the women’s bathroom and taping women in various stages of dress. He later plead guilty to charges stemming from this and paid money in a class action settlement with the victims. Johnny B Goode and Sweet Sixteen and the two chord blues guitar rhythm sent to the trash heap? His legacy and music purged from our radios and the ether? It’s currently on a voyage in space, past Jupiter and out among the stars….that music can’t come back down.

Bruce Springsteen with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

What about my Franklin Roosevelt bobble head? Should I throw it away or place it back in its original packaging? FDR is considered by many citizens and historians as one of our best presidents ever for his handling of the country during the Great Depression, his ideas of A New Deal, his handling of the lend-lease program helping Britain fight Hitler’s encroachment on the western world, and his handling of our involvement and success in WWII. But his personal life was filled with mistakes including marrying Eleanor out of political convenience and multiple affairs including his longest lasting with Eleanor’s personal secretary Lucy, promising to break it off if she would stay and then continuing the affair until the day he died, literally with Lucy next to him as he suffered a brain hemorrhage.

What about my Woody Guthrie poster hanging on my wall next to my writing desk? After my father and I once traveled to Okemah, Oklahoma to visit the birthplace of America’s greatest troubadour and folk singer, I was talking to a family friend about Woody’s legacy and the fact he had written close to 3,000 songs in his life. “Yeah, but he was a terrible father and husband, ” my friend sneered. And in many senses, he was right. Woody was married three times and had eight children, often leaving them for months or years at a time as he wandered the country, living in labor camps, visiting the down trodden, playing music for all along the way. He often had no money, lived with friends while he was on the road, and leaving his wives and kids to fend for themselves back home. Does that diminish the power and glory of This Land and Bound For Glory, who is to say?

Prince-From-Another-cover

Prince From Another Planet

And if human behavior is to be the guide post on right and wrong, where does that leave my largest inspiration and influence, Elvis Presley. I love him for his music and legacy as well as his life story. One boy from a dirt poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, literally growing up on the wrong side of the tracks on the black side of segregated town. Eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches because his mother Gladys could get free bananas from the produce trains coming through town and getting rid of their spoiled stock by throwing it out on the passing country side, slicing those protein filled bananas in between slices of bread and peanut butter for the only nutritious meals she could prepare. This boy who grew up in dire circumstances, with a father who served time at Parchman prison for changing a check from $30 to $300, a boy who grew up living in a shot-gun shack and later public housing in Memphis. This boy gave the world everything he had, helped change modern music by blending country, hillbilly music and the blues into a new sound. That same boy grew up to be a man who committed many mistakes: affairs, almost shooting his girlfriend Linda Thompson by mistake as he attempted to shoot a tv but putting the bullet through the wall and into the toilet paper holder inches away from Linda’s knee, throwing a pool cue across his pool room in a fit of anger which struck a female friend’s breast, deforming her, and most egregious, taking thousands of prescription pills over the years, ultimately leading to his death, a victimless crime. In 1977 alone, he took close to 12,000 pills in the short 8 months he was alive. Do these add up to defenseless crimes of behavior and choices that erase those words and songs ‘That’s Alright Now Momma” and “Mystery Train” from further rolling down the tracks?

This started out as me simply trying to analyze my feelings on Garrison Keillor being expunged from NPR and MPR, his entire Prairie Home Companion website and his huge catalog of past shows being wiped off the internet in one fell swoop, and his columns no longer appearing in newspapers. I’ve listened to him talk and read his words for 20 years now and own many of his News From Lake Wobegon compilations. His voice and his stories are still rolling around in my ears and memory. His cadence and storytelling are part of who I am. If there is more to be found out about his transgressions, then I’ll have to reconsider his place on my desktop, but for now, with two persons coming forward with sketchy insinuations, I’m giving him the benefit of doubt. If you are a person of power and influence and leverage that to your benefit at the expense of another or you commit crimes of sexual harassment and multitudes of other actual offenses, you need to be removed from that position and face jail time, pay retributions and be held accountable for those sins. If those persons are creators of art, it’s up to us as the readers, listeners, and viewers, it’s up to us to decide where that art goes and the place it has in our lives. Peace.

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