Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Poetry, Part 1: Phoebe Snow, 1974, and A Long-Lost Friend

How music stirs up recollections, memories, old friends...

Case in point: tonight the kids from "Glee" built a whole episode around Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" album, flashing me right back to Iowa City and the motley group of guys I knew in Mott House in Hillcrest Hall.

And a recent death returned me to a time just a few years earlier. 

In 1974, Phoebe Snow released her first and most famous single, "Poetry Man".  It is a jazzy tune rendered unforgettable by Snow's vibrato and a spare and dreamy instrumental accompaniment.

Phoebe Snow died last week.  Her career had been diminished by her choice to raise her daughter who was severely brain-damaged. Snow herself died of a brain hemorrhage.

Learning about Snow's death brought "Poetry Man" back to mind as though it were still playing fresh on the pop radio stations of my youth....the warm overcast April afternoons when the thawing soil filled the air with its humid musk...when my thoughts were obsessed with upcoming Oscars, because I loved those movies and the Oscars, and because it alleviated the crushing monotony and menace of school.

By a really odd coincidence, Walter over at the Silver Screening Room is doing a special series about the Oscar films of 1974.  So it is suddenly all so vivid.

"Poetry Man" had no special significance between me and my best friend then.  Yet hearing the song reminded me of that time, and of Frank, who was a very significant part of my life.  We were instant friends when we met in 7th grade homeroom.  We both loved movies, even all the same movies.  We were obsessed with them, and shared reviews and readings and talked about the great films out there we were still to young to see.  We shared the film-reviewing duties in the junior-high newspaper. 

We were both clumsy, making us natural allies in gym class.  We spent winter afternoons writing and recording radio programs on my Dad's cassette tape player, using the turntable for musical interludes.  We teamed up to write Spanish class skits that became outright comic plays, to the roaring approval of our classmates.  I helped him gather our friends to film a Super-8 version of "The Bald Soprano"...we managed only to film one page of Ionesco's surreal script.

We were like brothers.  I was beginning to feel stirrings of attraction for boys in my class, but I never shared that feeling with Frank. We were in some way closer than that.  Our friendship was as comfortable as any two people could have been.  We laughed a lot. We exercised our creativity with each other.  We could have been a writing or filmmaking team if we pursued that road in life.

Frank's family moved to Ohio during our Sophomore year of High School.  I was lost for a couple years, never managing to find a relationship as fun or fulfilling or creative. 

His family moved back to Chicago for a brief time, but he attended a different high school, and made friends quickly with their theater crowd.  It was great to have him near but it was never the same.

When we parted ways to college, we kept in touch for a year, but drifted as chums will, concerned with our collegiate lives, and making connections within our immediate circles.  We wrote letters, for a while.

Flash-forward 20 years. The day of our High School reunion.  Although we had not spoken for many years, I knew that Frank would not miss a chance to re-connect with old friends.  I got a phone call.  My mother, who has a weird habit of reading the daily Obituaries, informed me that Frank had passed away. On the day before our 20th reunion. 

Poetry is sometimes unsettling.

I wandered through the reunion like the years in school after he moved away.

The next day I attended the wake, and paid my respects to his parents and brother and sister who had been like my own.  I discovered that Frank, who was studying medicine but should have been a Broadway composer, died of AIDS. He never finished medical school, but worked in regional theater.  He had a partner named Jeff.

I was heavy with regret that we had never kept up with one another.  But we needed each other during a brief moment in our lives, and we helped each other laugh, and survive.

And while researching this piece, I discovered that Frank's father, Frank Sr., passed away on April 9.

Phoebe Snow's "Poetry man" was not "our" song.  But the song recalls a clear picture of an era, my era, and a friend I lost but remember still.

Coming: "Poetry", a film from Korea.


  1. It's amazing where a song from the past takes us. Thank you for sharing this, Tom, even if it is tinged with pain and sadness. And, once again, you've introduced me to a new experience: I'd never heard this song before, and it's beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Thank for the kind words, Walter. I'm glad to share this song and I am thrilled that you found the beauty in it. Guess it proved harder to look back on this era than I expected....Sometimes we need to go back and complete unfinished work. Music is a good way to bring it all back.