Remembering Pete Seeger

In 1996, in my job of assistant editor at a weekly newspaper, I awarded myself the title of music reviewer for a single issue and attended a concert given at a local high school by Pete Seeger, who died three years ago today at age 94. (Our newspaper’s actual music reviewer was only interested in attending and writing about rock concerts. This was a stroke of luck for me.) I wrote a review, even though I knew that a review is not what one writes about a Pete Seeger concert. An appreciation. A thank-you note. But not a mere review judging aesthetic merits.

It was a great concert, by the way.
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An Actor in a Box

In his new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” Martin Amis gives us a fake fairy tale about a king and a wizard and a mirror:

Once upon a time there was a king, and the king commissioned his favorite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. It showed you your soul—it showed you who you really were.

The wizard couldn’t look at it without turning away. The king couldn’t look at it. A chestful of treasure was offered to anyone who could look at it for sixty seconds without turning away. And no one could.— “The Zone of Interest,” page 34.

The character who recounts this fairy tale, Szmul, is a Jew who is a member of the Sonderkommando, those concentration camp prisoners who kept themselves alive for another week or two by taking the worst job possible in the entire history of jobs: stripping the corpses of their valuables. He calls Auschwitz a magic mirror, but one you can not look away from. Everyone in such a harrowing, forsaken place is utterly true, to their innermost core.

If there is such a thing as a soul or souls, a place like Auschwitz would be where one might find every kind, full of love or full of evil.

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I am an enormously self-conscious actor, yet I continue to half-heartedly work at it now and again. Here is an example from 2014 (I am the secret housemate, heard third in this radio improv):

As I said, I am enormously self-conscious and even hesitant as an actor or performer—I blush easily, which makes radio the perfect venue for the experiment (and if you write for that type of character, a blushing, stuttering sort, I’m your man)—but I was utterly free as a bird as a performer exactly once.

There is no record on paper or video of the single performance of the group Venus Effluvia. I do not even know how I remember our name, especially since I only remember two of its three member’s names, and I was one of them. (Mine is one of the names I remember.) We performed two songs, neither of which I remember; we lip-synced to a tape of two songs but actually played our instruments, three ukuleles. (It was most likely inspired by Andy Kaufman’s famous “Mighty Mouse” lip-sync act and also by a fear of flop-sweat driven by the fact that none of the three of us had come up with anything until the night before. As with many of the projects I have found myself in, the publicity preceded the creativity or was itself the creativity: We were on the advertised bill but had no act.)

It was a visual joke of performance art more than anything else, or anything at all: the three of us wore identical black suits and ties and each of us wore a plain cardboard box taped around our heads. I think someone’s girlfriend drew a smiley face on each one. This was in the summer of 1990, I was 21, and our afternoon audience in a coffeehouse in Cold Spring, NY, ironically or honestly requested an encore, which we did not give. There is such a thing as an honestly ironic appreciation, and I may have met it that day.

That cardboard box was my friend. I could not see anyone’s face or reaction and thus I clearly remembered our minimal choreography and even solo’ed on my ukulele. I am certain our effort was an embarrassment of poverty, but I lost myself in that box of non-self.

We were paid $20, split three ways; to this day, that five bucks is the only money I have yet earned as a performer. But that box-mask brought out a performer in me whom I have rarely met.

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“Authenticity” is a word that is much used in contemporary life. It is most often used to compliment someone when his or her outward presentation appears to be happily close to what we think is an inner self. “He keeps it real,” is a phrase I think I have heard too many times. There is a reason I prefer writing to performing—and I even blush while writing—and that is the myth of control I am choosing to embrace; that idea that I am giving the world my authentic self when writing, with no pollution from other influences. Staring at a piece of paper or at a computer screen is like staring at the inside of a cardboard box and the self-consciousness, the self-centeredness, the self, melts away.

But that may be a fairy tale I tell myself, because I know I would not look at a magic mirror for six seconds, much less sixty.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 25 asks, “We’re less than a week away from Halloween! If you had to design a costume that channeled your true, innermost self, what would that costume look like? Would you dare to wear it?”

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