Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gentle on My Mind

Glen Campbell
I woke up from a strange dream this morning.  It was a Teacher Dream.  (I still have those, all the time.)  I was somehow back at Harmon Middle School, the first day of a school year.  I was my current age, returning for some sort of swan song, I suppose.  It was a  Wednesday.  (Why?)  And for some reason I had no classes that day, even though all the kids were swirling around the school, as middle school kids are wont to do.  And, as Stephen Crane wrote in "A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky," now this is the strange part: I was wearing no shirt.  (Or undershirt.)  Now this is the strange part (2): No one noticed.

Kent Stage
When I woke up, I was not at all surprised by that dream--for two reasons.  As I've said, I have Teacher Dreams all the time (some are wonderful, some horribly unpleasant--even violent), and only hours before I had sat in the auditorium of the old Kent downtown movie theater, now called the Kent Stage (website), and watched performer Glen Campbell rip open his Western shirt to show us his 76-year-old bare chest and bark into the microphone: "It's hot in here!"  (It was.)

And he did it more than once, on one occasion delighting the audience by rapidly flexing and relaxing his right, uh, breast--a boyhood talent, he told us.

So what were we doing there?  When Joyce and I were first together (beginning in the summer of 1969) and all through our years in Kent, Ohio (1969-1978), we often went to that movie theater downtown.  We saw Woodstock there--and Let It Be (which we sat through twice)--and Young Frankenstein--and all sorts of other films.  I once took a busload of seventh graders there to see the Disney film The Sword in the Stone. And--in one of the great errors of my fatherhood--I took our son to see a Death Wish film there.  (Confession is good for the soul, bad for the reputation.)  I'd also done some research recently on that old movie theater, research for a memoir I'm writing about my ten-year obsession with Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.

We had not visited the theater since its transformation into the Kent Stage, but when I saw Glen Campbell was going to be there, I, one day, wistfully said it might be fun to go hear him--and to see the space again.  (Joyce moved swiftly, buying us tickets for a surprise birthday eve event for me.)  I was not a big Glen Campbell fan back when he had legions of fans.  I liked some of the Jimmie Webb songs he did ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," etc.), and, a very amateurish guitar player myself, I admired his virtuoso playing--a lot.  (But, oh, was he horrible in the original True Grit movie, 1969, which we saw in Kent!)

I was surprised when we entered the building.  Not much had changed.  Yes, they were selling beer at the old concession stand, but the men's restroom in the lobby seemed to have been declared a historic site because not much has changed since the last time I was in it.  Nuff said.  The seats in the auditorium also seemed to be the same.  The ambiance.  Kent Stage has done--at least visibly--no major renovation at all.  You could have taken me in there blindfolded, removed the cloth, asked me where I was, and I could have told you--in seconds.

Victoria Ghost
The place was full, too (several hundred?), most of us, I would say, eligible for Medicare.  The opening (half-hour) set was a trio featuring two of Campbell's children, son (Shannon--guitar) and daughter (Ashley--5-string banjo, mandolin--she later played keyboard, too), who call themselves Victoria Ghost.  They both sang and played well--professionally, engagingly--but nothing too memorable.  Just very good country/bluegrass stuff.

Fifteen-minute break.

Then out came Glen Campbell with three of his children (Victoria Ghost + son Cal on drums) and a few others.  Cowboy boots, jeans, cowboy shirt (think Roy Rogers) that swelled a bit in the middle.  (I can relate.)  They launched immediately into "Gentle on My Mind" (tears were leaping into my eyes already)--and he forgot the words.  This happened several times throughout the evening.  Sometimes he stopped; sometimes he kept singing the words he'd just sung.  On other occasions ("Rhinestone Cowboy") he stopped everyone and started over.  On another ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown") he started playing "Dueling Banjos" again, the song they had just finished.

Glen Campbell, you see, is suffering from Alzheimer's and is on his "farewell tour."  Several times his daughter had to whisper to him where he was (so that he could thank "Kent, Ohio"); he had to be led in and out; he had to be reminded what they were playing--and in what key.  It was profoundly sad.

Because Joyce's mother suffered through the entire course of Alzheimer's, I was alert to what was going on up there.  He showed other signs of stage one, too.  Confusion.  Anger.  Throughout the evening he evinced a great unhappiness about what he was hearing around him--barking at his sidemen, his sons, his daughter.  All of whom smiled resolutely.

His nonverbal was pure disapprobation, too.  Rolling eyes.  Frowns of varied density.  He would whirl around, back to the audience, gesturing vigorously at a sideman.  He would stalk over to stage right, where his son was playing a competent guitar and say--with his face, with his body--I could play that better than you.  And, of course, he could.

What was he hearing--or not hearing--that was making him so unhappy? The ghosts of sidemen gone?  (In his day he played with some of the greatest in the world.)  The distant echoes of the perfect music in his head?  The certain knowledge that he surely has, even in his advancing disease, that he is losing it?  All of the above?  And more?

But what moved me to tears, over and over, was not just the music, the sounds of my own past reverberating around the room where I'd been so many times.  But it was the tenderness his children showed him, even when he quipped (?)--several times--that he was going to fire them all.  They smiled; they encouraged him ("C'mon, Dad.  We can do it."); they manifested their love in the face of something dreary, something ugly, something frightening and fatal.  They knew that they had learned from their father whatever magic and music exist in their own fingers and voices and souls. And they were grateful.  And compassionate.

At the end, the audience stood and applauded for a long, long time ... and remembered the words that he no longer could:

It's knowing that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch.
And it's knowing I'm not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the backroads
By the rivers of my mem'ry
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

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