June 14, 2001
We're at dinner in New York with a few of my friends. My father has never met any of these guys before, so he's free to begin his repertoire at the beginning, tabula rasa. Pop had quite a storied career in the music business, and an evening out with him is like buying an interactive audio tour at the Museum of Contemporary Musical History. We tend to seat the new guys (aka fresh meat) next to him.
He's quite the raconteur, and for the neophytes, there's a lot of ground to cover. So I act as a prompter of sorts: "Pop, why don't you tell them the one about the Grateful Dead show at the Fillmore?" Not that he necessarily needs my help. When a story starts with the words: "So Sinatra calls me..." he's hooked his audience.
He moves in for the kill with finesse. "So they get in the car and Durante says to the guy, 'How do you like that? I just seen a guy in the lobby I haven't seen in 20 years... he owes me $300... and I can't say nothing to him!'" Dad gets a big laugh from my friends, the oldest of whom is barely in his 40's and knows Jimmy Durante only as a caricature on a wall at La Scala.
I've taken that walk through the lobby to the punch line a dozen times, but I laugh too. I can't help it -- he's doing his act and he's killing.
I called my sister after dinner and told her Dad was "on."
"Did he do the John Wayne story?" she asked.
Once, I'd thought we'd heard all the greatest hits in his collection, and then, suddenly, out of nowhere comes this spate of reminiscences about how he danced a couple of star-struck East Coast clients past Duke's table at the Warner Bros. Commissary for a quick "howdy," plus another one about joking with Wayne and Forrest Tucker on the set of some forgotten Western.
Where had this story been hiding all these years? Is there some junkyard in his mind where memories are piled up like stacks of abandoned cars? Could they have been lost somewhere, until he finally got around to cleaning out the attic and found them hidden away in a shoe box with his old baseball cards? Has he just been saving them for a rainy day?
Maybe his mind is playing tricks on him, and this is 40 years' worth of embellishments, new-and-improved versions of otherwise insignificant brushes with greatness, polished up for another generation to enjoy, like taking a chamois to a vintage roadster. I've heard his act before, enough so that I can now correct him on small matters of fact, since most of the people he's talking about aren't around to contradict his account of the events.
Though you wouldn't know it to look at him, my father's over 70. And I have a sneaking sense that he's going to be retelling these same old stories and perhaps adding a few that have been in "recurrent" rotation until now.
The bad news is that I'm already doing more of this in my own life. My grandfather had the same running gag for at least 40 years before he passed away. Now my dad is doing it, and I suspect I'll follow in his footsteps.
The good news is that he has some fantastic material, most of which resonates, since he was in the right place at the right time to share some memorable moments with some unforgettable characters. I mean, how many others shared the elevator with Durante at the Sands in Vegas in '64, ferchrissakes!
In his stories there's a trace of nostalgia for a time gone by, a more innocent epoch we'll not likely see again, a longing for the kind of entertainer who is nearly extinct.
There is a longing to recapture the glory of his days as a young guy on the move, where the action was, his whole life still ahead of him. The stories are lucky that they have had such a faithful scribe to immortalize them. They couldn't have asked for a better historian, a chronicler who always felt lucky just to be in the middle of it all. Fortunately, for the rest of us, the endless audience, the unsuspecting dinner partners, Duke and Durante are still alive, Sinatra is ring-a-ding-ding somewhere tonight, James Taylor still has his hair, and the Dead are singing "What a long, strange trip it's been" -- as long as my father's doing his act.
Happy Father's Day, Pop.