B&W man at piano photo by ian dooley on Unsplash
by Sandy Stuart Shaller
Richard watched Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley sing his song. He was aware of being in a little dark nightclub, but his attention was fixed on the brightly lit stage and the singers who appeared on it.
Ella sang with her eyes closed. Her hands seemed to weave the air; her incredible phrasing and vocal purity catching every nuance of the melody. Then Ella was Tony Bennett and his husky, mellow baritone caressed each note. It was perfect until…Garland replaced him, legs apart, eyes looking for the rainbow and one hand reaching upward. As she hit the high note at the end of the song, Judy became Frank and the note belonged to him. It resonated through a microphone that Sinatra held tenderly in his hand, as though it was a woman. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed, and the note throbbed with a deep poignancy. The throb took on a twang, and Elvis bowed his head, swinging his right arm in a complete circle. His legs spread wide and the swinging arm ending up over his head, fingers splayed, before he dramatically lowered it again. The song was over.
Richard woke up, squinting his way out of his dream. He fumbled for the bedside lamp, scrabbled for the pad on his night table, and started to write notes. The clock on his night table said 7:00 a.m.
As the song reached its climax, the last thread of music moved through his mind like morning mist. It grew thinner by the second until it vanished, leaving only a fading echo.
“Shit!…Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!”
He threw his pad on the floor, dropped his forehead into his hand, and dug his fingers into his hair with the other.
This was the third or fourth time Richard had dreamed about the song; the song he composed in his sleep. It always played through from beginning to end, and it was unquestionably the best thing he had ever written. The composition was tight, the verse, the chorus, the bridge, all fully satisfying. But each time he woke up and tried to recapture the dream melody, it slipped away leaving him wretched and frustrated.
“You’re not getting away from me this easily,” Richard said aloud. “Not this time!” He vaulted out of bed, slid into his slippers and plowed toward the piano in his living room.
The living room, which had a small kitchen in one corner, was dominated by the Bechstein Grand piano Richard had gotten from his Grandma and Grandpa Hudson. The piano sat on a thick carpet cushioned by rubber matting. This plus the use of the soft pedal would keep neighbors with torches from his door.
The twenty-six-year-old slid onto the piano bench and listened to the percussive staccato the rain was performing on his window; it made him smile.
November rain. I love to compose in the rain.
He looked down at the piano, at the 52 white and 36 black keys.
It’s in there! Hiding! My song.
Today he didn’t bother with the exercises he’d been robotically trained to perform before playing; he didn’t have time, but his body conformed to years of training. He sat in the middle of the bench, no slouching, his legs forward, and his head and neck floating above his shoulders.
As his fingers stroked the keyboard, tiny bits of the elusive melody seemed to rise out of his piano. Tiny bits. Not the whole song.
Richard took a deep breath. He felt frustrated, focused and elated all at the same time. His hands moved and his head tipped first to one side and then the other as the music flowed, stopped, flowed, stopped and flowed again. In between stops and starts, Richard wrote notes in his composition book.
Words had started coming into his mind. They seemed to fit the melody he was slowly creating. So far, he had never needed anyone to do lyrics for him. His music suggested its own words, and once he found a melody, the story followed.
It was nearly noon when he was done. Richard called Joe Merrimack, his publisher at Schindler’s. “I’ve got a new one, Joe, and I think it’s good. Do you have any time to hear it this afternoon?”
“It’s Sunday, Richard,” came the voice across the phone. It was a voice roughened from years of cigars, his beloved pipes, and unfiltered Camel cigarettes, but it was a sweet voice to Richard Hudson. “Even God rested one day out of seven.”
“It’s good,” Richard repeated enthusiastically, “I think you’ll really like it.”
“O-kay! I’ll see you at 1:00. Come over to the house. It’s raining, and I don’t want to schlep down to the office.”
The phone went dead. That’s how it always was. Joe would grumble, agree, and then hang up. Richard had been writing and selling music to him since 1950, when he was a skinny twenty-year-old. They’d done well together.
As he got up to shave, Richard suddenly realized that he’d forgotten to ask if Kendall would be there. Darn, why didn’t I ask?
Kendall was Joe’s daughter, a graduate student at the New York School of Interior Design, and the sole owner of Richard’s heart for the past two years.
As Richard shaved, he looked at himself in the mirror. He grabbed his hairbrush, brushed his hair out of his eyes, and studied himself in the mirror for a moment. Still skinny, he told himself, but not scary-skinny any more, and definitely not hungry. He chuckled and hummed the new song over as he lathered his face. It’s good. I think it’s really good. Then he thought back to his dream and felt a hot flush of frustration. He froze for a moment with his razor limp in his hand.
He shook his head in disgust, Yeah, it’s good, but not as good as…
Richard shook his head, picked up his razor, and scraped off some of the lather. The new song is good.
* * *
Joe thought it was good too, and so did Kendall. “So glad you’re here,” he said, when she’d opened the door, a second before he pulled her close for a kiss.
After he’d played the song several times, they sat and drank mimosas in Joe’s Park Avenue apartment. Joe sat in his big yellow armchair while Kendall and Richard leaned against each other on the couch. Outside the rain continued, but inside it was warm. Although Richard lived and worked in the apartment that his parents had left him, it was Joe’s apartment that felt like home.
“I’m sending this song to Mort Green over at NBC. It’s perfect for Perry,” Joe said, lighting a cigar. “Maybe he’ll sing it on the Kraft Music Hall.” The Kraft Music Hall was Perry Como’s top-rated television show.
Richard smiled, but Kendall frowned, tossing her long red hair back. “Dad, why are you sending it to Como? Send it to Clooney. I’d much rather hear Rosemary sing it.”
She turned to Richard, “When you wrote it, did you have a particular singer in mind? You usually do, don’t you?”
He laughed, “I did have someone in mind. I was thinking…” he paused for effect, “…Garland, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and that young kid, Presley.”
Joe choked over his cigar. “Presley? He’s not a singer! He’s a contortionist!”
“Daddy! You better wake up! Elvis is here to stay.” She turned to Richard. “No, seriously, who did you have in mind?”
“I wasn’t joking,” Richard said. He told them about the dream.
“You wrote the song in a dream?” Kendall asked.
Richard plumped up a sofa cushion and then punched it flat. “No…well, not exactly. I’ve had this dream…a couple of times now. I write this incredible song. I try to get it down when I wake up, but I can’t. That,” he pointed to the sheet music on the piano, “is the closest I could come.”
Joe sucked on his cigar. “Keep on dreaming, boychick,” he said. “I like this song. Maybe it’s better than the dream.”
“It isn’t,” Richard said. “I wish it were. But it isn’t. Not even near.”
* * *
Later, Richard and Kendall got cozy huddled together under one of Joe’s outsized umbrellas and braved the rain to go to Rockefeller Plaza to have lunch at Schrafft’s. There was something pleasantly familiar about eating the mediocre food in an atmosphere of bright chandeliers reflecting off the crystalline twenty-foot oyster bar, and surrounded by the warmth of the dark oak-paneled walls.
They started off with cold fresh shrimp and tomato mayonnaise in a puff shell, and then Richard had the toasted chicken and vegetable salad sandwich that came with stuffed celery. Kendall had her favorite, the lettuce, egg and Russian dressing sandwich. For dessert they shared a slice of butterscotch ice cream cake.
While they enjoyed the cake, Kendall told Richard about a design project she was working on with another student. “It’s an interesting project,” Kendall said, “we’re doing it with Columbia University, designing interiors for classrooms with specific functions and serious space limitations. Unfortunately, I have to work with another woman…” Kendall smirked, “…and I don’t play well with others. I get definite ideas about how I want something to look, and I don’t like compromising. I get that from my dad,” Kendall said. Then she got a bit of a faraway look and added, “…and my mom was like that too.” Kendall’s mother had died when she was sixteen, but despite the loss, Kendall seemed to thrive with her hard working, hard living father. Richard had loss in common with Kendall. His parents had died when he was nineteen leaving him their apartment, enough money to finish school, and a passionate love of music.
Richard also understood Kendall’s feelings about partnering. The act of creation was intense and usually intensely private. With only the right partner could it work.
Richard liked hearing about Kendall’s projects and her course work, and he had a number of her drawings pinned to the wall near his piano, but his mind kept wandering. Kendall rubbed her ankle against Richard’s and said, “What’s the matter, Toots? It’s raining outside, not in here. How come you’ve suddenly got a cloud over your head?” She paused. “That dream?”
Richard put down his fork.
“You had to hear it, Ken. It was perfect. You know when you hear a song and it…,” he paused, “it makes your heart beat a little faster? You feel like your breathing has changed. Your lungs have opened up more. It was like that. It was that good. I wrote it, in my sleep, and now I can’t get it back.”
Kendall reached out and put her hand over Richard’s; she threaded her fingers through his.
“Honey, you know how deceptive dreams are. You think you’re making the whole thing up, but you’re really remembering…things, places you’ve been, people you’ve seen, maybe other songs you’ve heard. Dreams distort our memories.”
“I know. I know what you mean,” Richard said, “but this wasn’t like that. The song was coming out of me. I was composing it in the dream.”
“Well maybe you’ll get it back. Maybe you’ll dream about it again and remember it when you wake up.” She paused and studied him for a moment. “Do you still feel like going to the show at the Roxy tonight, or do you need to work?” Her mouth twisted to one side as she waited for his response; she had been looking forward to their theater night.
Happily, he shook his head. “No! We’re going! After lunch, I’ll drop you back home, and then I’ll work like a Spartan until six.”
He smiled and leaned across the table to kiss her. He knocked over the little bud vase, but there wasn’t any water in it and, besides, neither of them would have cared if there was.
* * *
Richard and Kendall stood in line to see skating star Sonja Henie’s review, which would be her final New York appearance. Miss Henie was planning a return to Norway with her “Holiday on Ice” show.”
In 1952 the Roxy Theater had been rebuilt to add an ice surface for skating shows. The stage was extended over the orchestra pit and had colored neon embedded in the ice. The lights added Technicolor drama to the skating shows.
The 6,000-seat auditorium was packed, and Richard and Kendall found themselves in the first row of the third-tier balcony. It gave them a spectacular view of the ice with its shifting neon lights. The orchestra rose up from its pit, and the Kimball pipe organ, located on the second mezzanine, began to play.
Richard poked Kendall. “That’s it,” he said.
“Just for a moment, I heard it.”
“The song! I heard the song! Just a tiny piece, a hint of it! Ssh! Wait!”
Kendall slipped her arm into Richard’s and waited quietly, but when the music ended, he was disappointed.
“No, it wasn’t the song. But just for a moment, I caught a whiff.”
“Well, that’s good. Maybe it’s coming back a little bit at a time.”
Richard smiled at her and leaned back in his seat. He was uncharacteristically quiet during the rest of the show. When the whole audience leaned forward to watch Sonja Henie tuck in for her famous spin, he continued to sit back, and Kendall could tell that she was watching the show alone.
* * *
“You didn’t even see that show, did you?” she asked, as they followed the crowd moving down the Roxy’s gold-carpeted stairway toward the lobby.
“I saw it,” he said.
She hugged his arm. “But…?”
Richard freed his arm and wrapped it around her. “Why don’t you just throw me down these stairs,” he said smiling. “Maybe I’ll find that damn melody while I bounce my way to the lobby.”
“Maybe I will,” Kendall said, kissing him as the crowd continued its descent.
* * *
They had dinner at Longchamps and then went back to his apartment where they could mess around without worrying about Joe walking in on them.
Kendall had allowed Richard to unbutton her blouse and his head was between her breasts, kissing them.
“Why can’t we get engaged now?” he asked between kisses.
Kendall gripped his hair. “I told you,” she breathed. “As soon as I finish school and have a job.” She lifted his head. “You’re not going to be the only member of the family with a career. Besides your music deserves beautifully designed surroundings to be heard in.”
She boxed his left ear lightly, “Courtesy of the person who’s going to make you forget all about music.”
Kendall slid down and Richard was swept up in her music.
When they finally lay quietly in each other’s arms, Richard said, “Don’t laugh, but just a few moment ago, when we were creating our symphony, I almost had that song for a moment.”
Kendall’s eyes opened wide and she pursed her lips. “I’m so glad to know that you regard me as a musical instrument.”
He kissed her. “You’re almost better than that song.”
“Almost!” Richard was very ticklish, and Kendall had her revenge until they fell into a second round of lovemaking.
* * *
The dream didn’t come that night, and Richard was both disappointed and relieved. When he sat down at the piano the next day, he started working without the pressure of trying to remember the song.
His fingers moved over the keys, as he waited for the click he experienced when a combination of notes triggered a response. If he’d been asked to describe his process, he would have had a difficult time doing so. Of course, he would say, technique is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to be a composer. But technique by itself didn’t begin to describe the process. Richard thought that synergy would be the best word for what happened when a string of notes and chords suddenly combined to be greater than their parts, when they worked together to produce a feeling of intense satisfaction, and a sound that was almost inexplicable…right. But finding that synergy seldom happened in a flash of inspiration. It generally demanded hours of intense work and concentration, of trial and error.
On the wall, just over his piano, was a photograph of Richard’s idol, Mr. Jacob Gershowitz, famously known as George Gershwin. It was one of the great regrets of his young life that the legendary Mr. Gershwin had died nineteen years earlier, when Richard was still a little boy and just starting to know about the man’s musical importance. Like so many others, the first Gershwin masterpiece that he had experienced was the Rhapsody in Blue.
Looking at the picture, Richard remembered one of Gershwin’s many famous quotables about writing music; “Writing music is not so much inspiration as hard work.”
How right you are, George.
It was no longer raining, and looking outside the window, Richard paused to listen to the sound of the city. He heard nothing. Gershwin had once said, “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.” He understood what Gershwin meant. Yesterday, the rain had been part of his composition. Now there was silence.
Richard played an arpeggio and then stared at the keys for a moment. He started playing again, and he heard it. Just a trace, but he heard it…a piece of his song. It was in the last few notes he’d played. He played them again. They were quiet notes, and in the dream they had been part of the beginning of the song. It had been a ballad, that much he remembered, and had carried the Sinatra/Garland/Bennett/Fitzgerald and Presley singers through a quiet opening into the verse, chorus, bridge and finally the climax of the song.
He played it again hoping that those quiet opening notes would somehow unleash his memory of the rest.
It’s in my head somewhere…somewhere.
It didn’t work, but he heard something else. Slowly, and with many stops and restarts, Richard heard the music in the silence, the silence that felt like the sunlight outside his window.
Richard eyes went to the window. The sun made no sound but it was not quiet; it flashed against the windows of the tall buildings just across the street. His fingers moved over the keys trying to find the sound that the sun made when, like cymbals crashing or a herald of trumpets, it blazed on the glass with a percussive glory.
Richard played and then looked out the window again. He had forgotten about the song as he was caught up in this new creative pulse. He looked up at the clouds over the city; they moved like a pod of white and gray whales. The stratocumulus clouds rippled with little pops of energy, piccolos interspersed with flutes, and then the occasional pull of strings as stratus clouds wafted in-between. Then came the big cumulus whales with their percussive movements as they passed ponderously overhead.
An hourglass could have been turned twice before Richard finally emerged from his reverie and shook out his hands. He looked at the composition book on his music rack and experienced a surge of adrenaline. What had he just written? It wasn’t a song; it didn’t even have a name. He picked up the book and turned through the pages he had labored over. Then, he looked out of the window again.
He was surprised to see that the day had changed. The sun was in a different part of the sky; it was now mid-afternoon. He picked up his pencil and wrote “Morning to Noon” on the first page of the new piece. Then he reached for the telephone and called Joe.
“Joe. It’s Richard. Can I come over? I’ve written something different…it’s not a song.” He paused. “I think…I’ve written a rhapsody.”
* * *
Richard insisted that the rhapsody was far from finished, but both Joe and Kendall loved it.
“It’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” Joe said, clipping a cigar. “Don’t putz around with it too much; I think it’s perfect.”
“Richard, it’s wonderful,” Kendall said. “It’s like something that George Gershwin might have written.”
Richard’s face fell. “Not too much like a Gershwin piece, is it? It’s not derivative, is it? I didn’t think…”
“No! No! Take it easy; it’s your own,” Joe said.
Kendall put an arm around his shoulder. “I just meant that the feeling of it is very American, like Rhapsody in Blue, and you’ve accomplished that delicious fusing of something classical with something completely modern. I’m so excited.” She kissed him, and he blushed like a teenager.
Joe lit his cigar and fell back in his chair puffing. He looked like a slightly swollen bullfrog.
“It’s too bad Paul Whiteman disbanded his orchestra, but he’s still music director for ABC Radio and does guest conducting. I wonder if we could interest Paul in conducting the first performance of “Morning to Noon?” Joe scowled and waved Richard and Kendall away. “Get lost, you two. Take her to lunch or something Richard. I want to call Paul and get things in motion. Scram! And don’t come back for at least three hours. And when you do,” he called after them, “bring me a pastrami sandwich…with an extra pickle…and a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda!”
Riding down in the elevator, Kendall grabbed Richard’s arm and tugged at it. “You’ve got to feel wonderful about this,” she said.
Richard bit a corner of his lower lip. “I don’t know why it is, but after I’ve written something that I think is good, I feel like a burst balloon.”
“You know what that feeling is, honey. It’s what all performers feel when the curtain falls…what artists feel when they’ve finally finished a painting they’ve labored over. I get the feeling when I’ve finished a design project, especially one that’s I’ve really worked hard on. It’s the let down.”
Richard knew about the let down. It was something all creative people had to deal with. If an artist lost the battle against the let down it sometimes had tragic results. Richard knew contemporary composers who habitually took drugs or drank too much to cope.
“It’s not just that,” Richard said. He shook his head, annoyed with himself and his feelings.
Kendall studied Richard for a moment. “It’s not that song, is it?” Kendall asked.
Richard moaned. “You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to hear this perfect song in your sleep and then not be able to remember it when you wake up.”
“I’m going to shake you, Richard Hudson. Forget that song! Forget it! If one day you wake up and you get it, that will be great! But don’t let it put a damper on your work! I’m sure all composers go through something like this. I dream about the most incredible creations and then desperately try to sketch them. Of course the results are never the same. Maybe Picasso saw paintings in his dreams.”
Richard chuckled, “I think he actually managed to paint those.”
Kendall laughed, “I think you’re right. You know what else I think. I think the song is your personal wish-fulfillment dream. We all have them. You know what I dream sometimes, besides being the greatest designer in New York? I dream that I can fly.” She smiled and hugged his arm, until his arms closed around her.
* * *
Fall turned into winter, and Richard spent a good deal of time promoting “Morning to Noon.” It was exhilarating and gave Richard a whole new way to think about his music. Along with Gershwin, the popular singers and composers of the forties and early fifties had inspired Richard, but things were changing. Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train,” had paved the way for singers like Little Richard, Johnny Ray and Elvis Presley, and Richard felt like he was changing too.
Paul Whiteman conducted the premiere of “Morning to Noon” on ABC radio. It created an immediate sensation, and Columbia Masterworks recorded it with Duke Ellington at the piano. Richard stood in the Columbia viewing room with Joe and Kendall and couldn’t keep from crying, as he watched the Duke playing his music.
One of Richard’s most prized possessions was Duke Ellington’s 1942 recording of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with the Bob Russell lyrics. Now here was the immortal Mr. Ellington sitting at a piano, radiating his legendary personality, and playing Richard’s music. It was the happiest moment of his life.
The Columbia recording was a huge hit; thanks, in no small part, to Ellington’s name on the label. Ellington was persuaded to return to the piano when “Morning to Noon” premiered at Carnegie Hall as part of a program that-as fate would have it-included Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Richard was ecstatic with excitement; something he wrote was on the same program as his idol’s masterpiece.
After Carnegie Hall, “Morning to Noon” took on its own life. Joe took care of booking performances both on stage and on television, and Richard began to distance himself from the piece. It was time to create something new. The excitement of Duke Ellington and Carnegie Hall faded, and Richard experienced the feeling of letdown again.
* * *
January snow replaced November rain. It wasn’t a wonderful White Christmas type of snowfall, the kind that fell at the climax of the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie. It was bitterly cold outside and the snow fell like white rain freezing everything it touched. The treetops glistened, just as Mr. Berlin had written, but they glistened with heavy icicles that threatened unwary pedestrians. Richard sat at his piano in his pajamas touching the keys as though they were fragile butterflies but applying no pressure; he gazed listlessly out of the window.
He looked up at the oppressively gray sky and gave himself a mental shake, Wake up, idiot! He forced his eyes back to the keyboard. He had jotted down a number of sketchy ideas, but he couldn’t seem to make himself focus on any of them.
Richard played a few bars of “Morning to Noon” just to feel better, but it had the opposite effect. He tinkered with just the black keys and then did the same with the white. Nothing happened.
A mental picture of Sinatra at the microphone singing the last note of the song came of its own accord. Richard could clearly see Old Blue Eyes with his telltale grip on the mike, his head tilted sideways and his eyes seeing inward. Sinatra’s mouth was open, but Richard could not conjure up even the last note.
What does it matter, he thought, scattering the vision. All big last notes are alike; it’s what comes before that matters. And why am I thinking about that damn song again?
Kendall’s words returned to him.
“Wish fulfillment dreams, honey. We all have them. You know what I dream sometimes? I dream that I can fly.”
Richard got up from the piano and walked to the window. He looked down and saw people crouched under umbrellas walking very slowly, being careful not to slip on the icy sidewalk. He looked up at the hunkering sky again. Then he looked at the frozen leafless trees.
He returned to the piano and started playing. He thought about the entire city outlined in ice and heard the sound of chimes.
For a few moments, Richard felt excited and inspired. His right hand performed a glissando over the white keys and then his left hand moved to the black keys for a low chord that felt like the winter sky.
“The City in Ice,” Richard thought and smiled. He worked for over two hours and when he was done he stopped, looked over what he had written and almost slammed the fallboard.
“It’s shit! All of it! Shit!” he said aloud. He picked up the sheet music he had written on as he’d tried to compose. He looked from one measure to the next. “This piece sounds like Berlin’s ‘White Christmas,’…and this is a rip-off of ‘Silver Bells,’ by Jay Livingston.”
He opened the piano and played another section.
“’I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ Buck Ram.”
In his misery Richard laughed, “God damn! I’m stealing from all the Jewish
composers who made Christmas popular.”
The laughter turned to acid in his throat.
He went to the phone and started to call Kendall; then he remembered that she was in school and put the phone down. He wondered if she was working on that project with the other woman, or if she’d managed to go single. He made a mental note to ask her. He turned his back on his piano and went into the bedroom and got dressed.
Time to get outside and walk.
* * *
Even with three layers of clothing, Richard felt the dampness seep into his bones. Huddled under a black umbrella, Richard walked two blocks and then hailed a cab.
“McSorley’s, 15 East 7th Street, please.”
Occasionally, Richard and Joe met at McSorley’s for beer and lunch and to talk business. It was the oldest bar in New York and felt like it. The atmosphere in McSorley’s was priceless. History dripped down from the heavy wood walls and rose up from the sawdust-covered floor. The service was lousy, the food fair, and the customers, mostly Irish and tough. If you made the mistake of ordering a fancy drink, someone just might slug you. Richard always ordered Guinness and avoided getting the evil eye.
He got a seat at a table for two and ordered a Guinness and a burger, two things you couldn’t go wrong with at McSorley’s.
When the Guinness arrived, Richard took a swallow and studied the aged artwork, newspaper articles and memorabilia covering the walls.
Ashcan artist John French Sloan, best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in New York, had painted McSorley’s. The painting hung over the bar.
Richard could see the painting from his table. He studied the figures at the bar and the use of light and shadow. As he stared at the painting, notes and instruments dropped like splashes of color into his mind. The music began with some soft, mellow clarinets and then segued to piccolos as Richard imagined the spirited conversation going on over the bar. Then a bassoon broke in as the grumpy bartender told off a customer.
Richard drank his Guinness and ate his hamburger and jotted down notes on the pad he always carried.
When he got home later that afternoon, he sat down at the piano and began to play. At first the music flowed, and Richard felt exhilarated. He worked for over an hour then stopped.
He looked down at the piano and frowned. Its white and black keys were silent, but they seemed to vibrate with the music he had been playing. He looked at his composition book, at the notes he had jotted down so fervently.
He played part of his composition over. Of course it had come easily; it wasn’t his own work. Without realizing it, he had lifted bits of Michael William Balfe’s “Bohemian Girl” and blended it with snatches of the “Concerto for piano and orchestra in C major op. 5” by Philip Cogan. He had added a bit of jazz to the piece, as if that would stamp it as original…as his. But it wasn’t.
What the hell is going on with me?
He got up and paced the room. He wasn’t a smoker, but at that moment he wished he were. Gershwin would have lit a cigar or packed a pipe. He would have puffed out a musical pipe dream and started working on it. And that’s what he should do…start working on it again. Unconsciously creating music that turned out to be a recollection of someone else’s work was a ravine that all composers tumbled into at some point in their work. It was so common it even had a name, cryptomnesia. He needed to shake it off and start over.
He sat at the piano and shut his eyes, trying to bring back the image of McSorley’s. He saw the bar, half in light and half in shadow as it was in John French Sloan’s painting. He saw that the bartender was now Frank Sinatra, and seated at the bar were Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley. Richard smiled. To the left of the bar a piano appeared.
He could see who was playing the piano. It was Duke Ellington and although he couldn’t hear it, he knew what Duke was playing. It wasn’t “Morning to Noon,”…it was the song.
Richard opened his eyes and started to play. He saw Elvis swinging his arm and tried to find the notes that went with that motion. He saw Garland in her familiar legs apart stance, and then Sinatra with his head tilted and that faraway look in his eye. He played, but it didn’t come. The song wouldn’t emerge from the piano.
Richard left the instrument and picked up the phone.
“Joe? Hi, it’s Richard. I need to talk to you. I need some advice, or some counseling or something. Can I come over this evening?”
Kendall had school that evening, but Richard had already spoken to Kendall, and now he wanted to hear what Joe had to say.
Maybe…just maybe, he’ll say something…that will make a difference.
* * *
Richard arrived after dinner. Joe was sitting in the living room that Kendall had decorated. Part of Richard’s earliest infatuation with Kendall had come from her artistic vision; he deeply admired the clean modern look of the room. It wasn’t hard or cold as some modern designs could be; it was warm and comfortable and the fireplace made it more so.
“Sit down,” Joe said. He was holding a pipe in one hand and a large decanter of brandy in the other. He poured Richard a healthy snifter full.
“Take a big swallow,” Joe instructed, lighting his pipe, “and then tell me what’s wrong.”
Richard obediently swallowed some of the brandy and watched Joe light his pipe.
“Aren’t you afraid of lung rot?” Richard said, half-joking/half-serious.
“Yeah! But so what? I’m also afraid of getting run over, or finding a cobra in my hamper, but I’m not going to stop crossing the street or doing my laundry.”
Joe got the pipe going and after puffing at it for a bit, took a big swallow of brandy himself.
“So, now, tell me what’s eating your guts out.”
“How do you know something’s eating my guts out?”
“Because they’re all over my carpet and your face looks like silly putty.”
Richard reminded Joe about the dream and the song. He told him about the episodes of cryptomnesia.
Joe listened intently, alternating between puffs on his pipe and sips from his snifter.
“I used to dream that I was driving a train,” Joe said, when Richard was done. “I was a kid, and I had that dream…oh, Jesus, maybe a thousand times. It was my favorite dream. When I woke up, I used to beg my mother to take me on the Third Avenue El. Occasionally she did. More often, she told me to go out and play.
I was crazy about trains. I used to go down to Grand Central Station and sit there for hours watching them come in. Once, one of the conductors gave me a box full of punched tickets. You would’ve thought that the man gave me a million bucks; I kept them for ten years.”
Joe sucked at his pipe, blew a cloud of blue smoke up to the high ceiling, and said quietly, “Goddammit, I wanted to drive a train…”
There was a longing in Joe’s voice that made Richard sad, “But you became a successful music publisher.”
Joe was silent.
“You like what you do…don’t you, Joe?”
“Yeah! Yeah, I like it.” He gestured around the room. “It gave me this Park Avenue joint. I get to work with talented people…like you, kid. I get to send Kendall to the schools she wants. Yeah. I like it. I love it. But…I always wanted to drive a train.”
“Why didn’t you do it?” Richard asked. “Drive a train, I mean. Why didn’t you go on and do it?”
Joe shrugged and took a swallow of brandy. “There were obstacles…I didn’t overcome them. What can I tell you?”
He paused again.
“You’re lucky, Richard. I think you’re lucky to have that dream.”
“Lucky?! But it’s driving me crazy, Joe! It’s affecting my composing. It’s ruining everything…”
Joe frowned, “Take another swallow of that brandy.”
Joe leaned forward, his pipe in hand, “Maybe you’re looking at this thing a little cock-eyed, kid. Maybe you’re looking at it through the wrong side of the lens.”
* * *
When Richard got home later that night, he couldn’t remember everything that he and Joe had talked about before they heard the sound of Kendall’s key in the lock. There was, however, one thing he remembered clearly; Joe didn’t agree that the dream was ruining everything.
“We’re always in the driver’s seat, kid. Whether we drive a train or don’t drive a train. Whether we write music or plaster a wall. Remember that, Rich. You’re in the driver’s seat.”
Richard didn’t feel that Joe’s words had taken care of his problem, although after Joe had gone to sleep, Kendall had helped him forget about it for a while…and that had been sweet.
Richard poured himself a glass of grapefruit juice and sat down at his piano. The piece he had composed about McSorley’s was still displayed on the music stand. The piece I swiped, he thought. He looked up at his picture of George Gershwin. “I bet you never suffered from cryptomnesia.”
Richard frowned. He still wanted to compose something about McSorley’s; maybe he’d try again tomorrow.
He drained the grapefruit juice and washed out the glass thinking about McSorley’s; he imagined himself as the bartender as he dried the glass and put it away.
Generally, after a day with too much tension in it, Richard found it difficult to settle into that peaceful place where sleep finds you, but it wasn’t like that tonight. The bed felt good. The pillows were at a perfect angle, and the quilt was soft and pluffy. Pluffy was a childhood word for a warm and well-padded quilt. Richard smiled as he got comfortable under the pluffiness. Although he had made up the word as a little boy, he still thought it worked.
Thinking about it, Richard fell asleep.
* * *
It was a beautiful nightclub. The floor was so highly polished that the overhead chandeliers and palm trees were clearly reflected in it. The white clothed tables surrounded a raised stage and Richard could just glimpse a band at one end of the stage.
At one table, Richard saw Marilyn Monroe smiling and talking with Ella Fitzgerald. Haitian singer, Josephine Premice stood at a microphone in front of a band, singing “You Ugly Son of An Animal.”
Richard was distracted from Miss Premice by a woman’s laughter at another table. He looked over and saw Milton Berle sitting with Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz. Lucille was laughing hard at something that Milton had said.
“I’m sorry that I missed out on seeing Uncle Miltie on television,” a man’s voice said.
Richard discovered a man sitting directly across from him at his table. The man had a big crooked nose that looked as though it had been broken several times. He held a large cigar, and his hair was slicked straight back.
“Look over there,” Gershwin said. He gestured with his cigar.
Richard looked and saw Edward G. Robinson at a table with Mrs. Robinson and Bogart.
“Hey, Eddie!” George called out. Robinson took his cigar out of his mouth and waved across the stage at George.
“Hey, you big crook!” Robinson said, winking.
Richard was dumbfounded. He was sitting opposite his idol, and he couldn’t speak, not a word.
“We went to grammar school together,” Gershwin said, pulling at his cigar. “P.S. 20.” He laughed. “At least Eddie went. I went as infrequently as possible. My brother Ira tried to get me to go, but I hated school. I used to play hooky and hang out at the Yiddish Theater on Second Avenue. They all knew me after a while; they even let me be an extra in some shows. That’s when I first got the bug.”
George looked at Richard, “I like that piece you wrote, ‘Morning to Noon.’ Very good.” Gershwin’s fingers moved on the white tablecloth as though he were playing a piano. A few bars of “Morning to Noon” rose up from the table. Somehow, Richard wasn’t surprised.
“I had some of the best teachers show me technique: Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger and Arnold Schoenberg. After that I taught myself. When I wrote “Rhapsody in Blue,” and it was a big success, Walter Damrosch asked me to write a concerto. I said, “Sure, I’ll write you a concerto.’”
Gershwin laughed and puffed at his cigar. He leaned over the table. “I knew nothing about writing a concerto. I got a bunch of books and found out how to do it. Then I wrote ‘Concerto in F’.” Gershwin shrugged, “They liked it. Not like “Rhapsody,” but they liked it. Paul Whiteman made the first recording.”
Gershwin played a few more bars of “Morning to Noon” on the table.
“Yeah,” he said, “very nice. I like some of your other songs too. You’re pretty good, kid. Classy.”
Richard felt impossibly happy; he wanted to thank Gershwin. He wanted to tell him how much he loved everything he’d written, how he had his picture over his piano, but he still couldn’t speak.
The unforgettable sound of Doris Day filled the room and Richard turned to the stage. Doris had taken the microphone from Josephine Premise, and she was singing the song. Richard looked back at Gershwin and, like magic, found his voice.
“That song,” he said. “It’s my song, but I can’t write it. It’s ruining my writing…affecting everything.”
George Gershwin smiled and nodded. “I once had lunch at Sardi’s with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerry Kern, and Al Jolson. Irving, Cole and I had salads, but Jerry and Al were cannibals, they had the steak tartare.” Gershwin laughed.
“We talked about the song. Not your song, Richard. Our song, the song we all heard in our dreams. Even Al had a song. It was the song he sang like no other. He said he could see himself on the runway at the Winter Garden, and the audience was on its feet screaming.” Gershwin shrugged, “Like they didn’t scream every time Al took over the runway. Irving used to smack the shit out of his forehead when he talked about the great American anthem he dreamed about, ‘Is macht myr meshuggah!’ Irving said. You know what that means?”
Richard nodded. Joe said it all the time. “It’s making me crazy,” he said.
“It made us all crazy, so you know what we did about it?”
Richard strained to hear. Something was happening. Doris Day’s voice was getting indistinct. The glistening floor was harder to see. He had stopped trying to hear the song. He was much more focused on what Gershwin was saying to him.
“What did you do about it?” Richard said, his own voice sounding strange and far off.
“We spent our whole lives trying to find it.”
Gershwin smiled at Richard. He took a cigar from his pocket and stuffed it in Richard’s pocket. “That’s your job. Now go and do it, boychick. Gershwin hummed a few bars of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
“Big hit. I wrote it for Fred and Ginger…but it wasn’t the song.”
George disappeared taking Doris, Josephine, Marilyn, Ella, Edward, Bogart, the palm trees, the stage and the nightclub with him.
Richard found that he was crying into his pillow. I just spoke to George Gershwin, he thought and cried a little more.
* * *
He got up early the next morning, washed, shaved, and called Kendall.
“Did you have breakfast yet? No? Great! Get dressed and meet me at Chock Full o’ Nuts on Broadway.”
Richard got dressed and headed out. He walked a half-mile up the avenue and a half-mile back, giving Kendall time to get ready. Then he headed for the Chock Full o’ Nuts. She was waiting at the counter.
Richard grabbed her and gave her a kiss that produced enthusiastic applause from some of their neighbors at the counter. Blushing, they sat down and had coffee and cream cheese sandwiches on date nut bread for breakfast.
“Are you sure you didn’t already have Wheaties before you came,” Kendall said, still pink-cheeked and looking around to see if they were being watched.
“I don’t need Wheaties. I sat at a table with George Gershwin last night…and I’m at a Chock Full ‘O Nuts counter with you this morning.”
They ate their date-nut sandwiches and drank two cups of coffee while Richard shared his dream.
After breakfast, they agreed to meet for dinner.
“Ask your dad if he wants to join us,” Richard said. “We’ll have Italian.”
Kendall looked pleased, “Okay,” she said. “Joe loves a good Italian meal. What are you going to do now?”
Richard theatrically cracked his knuckles. “I’m going to look for my song.”
Kendall opened her mouth to say something, but Richard closed it by kissing her again. “It’s okay,” he said reassuringly.
They left Chock Full o’ Nuts together and then Richard turned west heading back home. Kendall watched him walking down the street whistling something.