Sunday, November 14, 2010

Remembering John Prine's Brother at Garbo's

Chicago Sun Times columnist and movie critic, Roger Ebert, wrote "John Prine is the poet of my life. People say he's great, but he's a lot better than that." I recommend reading Roger Ebert's Journal, a column he originally wrote in 1970, "John Prine: American Legend—A Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words."

(Ebert's also updated the original story by posting some great John Prine YouTube links. The " Angel From Montgomery" backstory is worth the price of admission.) Bob Dylan once said "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism." I concur.

I have an interesting John Prine segue too via his brother. Circa 1980, John Prine's brother played John's songs for drinks at our Russian River Writers' Guild Monday Nite Poetry & Prose Reading series at Garbo's bar in Guernewood Park, CA. That's how I first learned to really listen to the words of John Prine's songs as poetry.

Ironically, it was songs—Irish ballads that first led me to writing. But that's another story. Prine always had such good angst-riddled lines: "You've broken the speed of the sound of loneliness...How can you ask about tomorrow?" My kind of lines. I was living in a perpetually warped möbius strip time.

(In the 1980s, we were living under a dark cloud: many of the gay club owners who housed our poetry venues were succumbing to a mysterious disease. Nobody knew what it was. Or its name. But we personally knew the names of the fallen: Peter Pender, the pianist/gold medal figure skater, bridge/chess champ who owned Fife's Resort with partner Hugh Ross, Stumptown Annie's owner, decorated Vietnam Purple Heart veteran, Leonard Matlovich, the first gay man to "come out" while in the military—was no longer looking like Kevin Spacey. It was too much to bear.

There was also my neighbor, handsome Bill Dutra, the original Marlboro Man, his beautiful face ravaged... Note Bene: I can't find info on Bill on the internet but he may have been Christian Haren. The info on Christian (or Chuck) fits—he owned The Chocolate Factory in Guerneville. But I can't find a photo.

Bill showed me an old tear sheet photo of him as the Marlboro Man—which I recognized. Bill told us amazing stories of being an actor, working with John Wayne—how I found out Dr. Kildare was gay—and stories of Key West. So all the pieces fit—just not the name of the Castro Street Cowboy.

I could have confabulated the name—but I've an uncanny memory for details. Whoa! Now I've segued so far from my story, I'm even scaring myself. So sorry. Another story, another time. (The Russian River basin attracted many Hollywood types, Fred MacMurray, Raymond Burr, Irene Dailey all lived in its watershed.)

My personal John Prine favorites were the songs that had recently made the charts. I loved "Paradise," but we all called it " Daddy Won'tcha Take me Back to Muhlenberg County," a song Prine says he wrote for his father. There's some good backstory video on the song here.

When I was a senior in high school in 1969, the town of Paradise, in Muhlenburg County, was drowned by the floodwaters of the Green River when a dam was erected, so barges could get to the Peabody coal fields. All about progress.

For some reason, it was a story that stuck to my psyche like laden flypaper to the forehead in deep summer. Prine sang so beautifully about such horror. It reminded me of the backstory of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the dams displaced 15,000 families—hardscrabble farmers who were forcibly resettled.

I especially loved that John Prine song with the chorus that went: "...from the jungles of East St. Paul." I Googled it and found that it was called: "Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone" —a title about as cumbersome as an elephant in an elevator, I never could remember it, not in a million years—only the chorus line. The video link is from 1999 after John's voice was ravaged by chemo therapy in '98, but he still sings a good gravel road.

Probably the first John Prine song I ever learned was, "Hello in There," not from the lips of John Prine—but from Joan Baez. I was working for Joan's sister, Mimi Fariña back then—cleaning the Bread & Roses office in Mill Valley. The music was good, the pay was poor, but I adored Mimi. So I wound up donating a lot of time at the big Bread & Roses concerts she'd put on at The Greek Theater in Berkeley.

I met a lot of fine musicians in those days, but I never met John Prine. Yeah, yeah. Another story, another time. But my friend Luanne ran into him at a bar after a concert up in Oregon one night and—in polite terms—well, she dated him. Only she uses a stronger Anglo-Saxon term for it. So I'm one degree of separation for John Prine on at least three counts.

During the early 1980s, the West County poets and writers gathered at Garbo's Nightclub & Bar beneath towering redwoods. Just two miles outside of town (Guerneville), the pub was nestled on a thin sliver of land between a misbehavin' creek, the road and the raging beast of a river.

Once an old roadhouse, and a former bowling alley, Garbo's was a massive log lodge with hand-hewn beams, and a riverock fireplace crackling away. The stale odor of cigarette smoke, sweat and puke from the weekend traffic hitched a ride on the woodsmoke haze mellowed with an angel's portion of whisky. But the sound system was sweetness and light.

What I remember are the winter nights, the rain falling in torrents, the Russian River rising ominously in the dark. The river kept us preoccupied during flood season: would it leap its banks? Would we make it home if it did? Would the water-laden cliffs at Korbel's Winery hold as we drove down River Road?

Seems like the hundred-year flood plain was being inundated on a yearly basis—or it was just seriously math-challenged. With that as catastrophic background music, we'd tuck in for an evening of poetry and line up for Open Mike.

We were pretty much the only Monday entertainment on the River. Most places were closed—dark. So, after the poetry reading, songwriter-musicians would drop by to test their wares. Sometimes we'd stay after hours, we'd buy up several rounds of drinks at closing to last us through the night, Sam would lock the doors, and the folksingers would play.

John's brother always obliged me my requests. He'd play other John Prine songs–perhaps even a few of his own—I don't remember. They didn't stick. Perhaps he also sang "Angel From Montgomery." One of my all time favorite songs of John Prine's. John's brother would tune up his Martin guitar, step up to the mike and Sam the bartender would set up another round of liquid amber when I made my request.


The movie wasn't really doing so hot
said the new producer to the old big shot.
It's dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look Ma, here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south towards Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

His manager sat in the office alone 
staring at the numbers on the telephone
wondering how a man could send a child actor
to visit in the land of the wind chill factor.


Sabu was sad the whole tour stunk
the airlines lost the elephant's trunk
the roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
they was low on morale but they was high on…


           —John Prine

I'm not sure why I was so enamored of this particular song, perhaps because because of its sheer quirkiness or because I was having a run of luck getting poems and essays published in St. Paul when no one else would publish my work.

I don't recall John's brother's name. It could have been Bill, not David (the song goes: "We lost Davy in the Korean war..." Younger brother riding on coattails seems to ring a bell. I'm hoping someone from the good old days will remember him and Sam the Bartender's last name—Russian, or Polish, I think.

The venue of Garbo's Niteclub was pretty amazing—one owner Margery Summerfield was a novelist with a new novel, "Compression Tested,"about existential life on the Russian River. She (and her partner Allen) were our literary angels, she let us have the space for free on Monday nights. Clubs were traditionally closed on Monday nights—called Blue Mondays because the lights were out (sort of).

I was asked to join the Russian River Writers' Guild (RRWG) by a lover, Lee Perron—that's how I met the RRWG coordinators Marianne Ware, Donna Champion, Pat Nolan & Gail King. Andrei Codrescu of NPR fame had moved onto the Big Easy by then.

I was fresh fodder. Newly arrived to poetry, I was snagged by open mike and and then reeled in for booking poets and emceeing, and before I knew it, I was doing much of the publicity/newsletter. How did that happen? Then everybody dropped out. Leaving me as the bagman, or the doorwoman.

When Garbo's closed, we bounced up & down the River into any joint that would have us, then we moved to several venues in Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol (Johnny Otis's Niteclub was one of the last ones)—with many co-coordinators along the way: Glenn Ingersoll, Joe Pahls, Jim Montrose, Craig ____?, Ann Erickson —even David Bromige & Steve Tills did a stint—but I was the longest running co-coordinator.

I met a lot of poets, good and bad. Some went on to worldwide fame: Michael Oandatje and Jane Hirshfield come to mind. We also booked local and traveling musicians: U. Utah Phillips, Rosalee Sorrells, Ed Balchowsky, Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, Nina Gerber, and the Beat poets: Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Joanne Kyger, Diane DiPrima

I'm sure I'll remember many other names—now that I've disturbed the relative harmony of age, distance and forgetfulness—and expand this piece as I go. (Or write another blogeen). This is merely a placeholder. But I'm wandering far from John Prine.

After her mother's funeral, Donna was cleaning house and offered to give me all the old RRWG newsletters and memorabilia. I said "No, not yet," not wanting to open that particular Pandora's box. It swallowed me whole then, and threatens to engulf me now from across the suspension bridge of time. When I look at the proof sheets, I am overwhelmed. (It really launched me into a lifetime passion of taking photos of poets, as I felt an overwhelming need to document our ephemera).

It took me almost 20 years to let go of that stick. I hardly ever go out much to poetry readings anymore. Can't seem to bear it. What can I say? Hello in there. You can't get much better than that.
For more video links, see also Roger Ebert's Journal, John Prine: A concert in Ireland


Golden Plantation said...

Yes, Garbo's I remember it well and was a regular there. Sam & Gee Boy were both friends of mine. I've never expierenced another place like that in all my travels and smile every time I drive ny there. Thanks for the flash back.

alan watt said...

I was the soundman at Garbo's from early 1981 until it closed. Gee and I are still in contact. I have so many good memories. was just looking over some pics from when I played there and made me go to the 'Net to see if I could find anything. this all I could find. keep the faith.
don't remember John's brother there...there were so many that came thru, I do remember playing with Country Joe McDonald, Doug Kershaw the night we closed, etc. yeah, never really another place like it. Majorie and Allen were great. I remember Rosalie Sorrels singing me a song in the back to soothe my then-broken heart. yeah, those were good, if wild and wooly, days.

Golden Plantation said...

Alan,I remember you, I too was a regular there with my late friend Danny.
I too searched the net to see if I could find anything and came up zilch. Believe it or not I did find a couple of really cool photos shot inside on the Sorentios band website and I was in it!

Many of the bands that played there were some of the best around, loved the Sheik, in fact I lived two doors down from him in Rio.

Maybe someone could start a "Garbo's" blog if enough people were interested, hmmmmm. I have no pictures myself but would love to see any you or Gee may have or even some of the monthly calenders.
Your correct in saying that there was never another place like it.

When you talk to Gee-Boy tell him I said "Hi"

Maureen Hurley said...

Thank you Alan and Lou. feel free to post your memories here as well. I've B& W photos of the poets reading at Garbos, but not the bands, or Sam or Atilla—

Atilla Nagy is the only one I can remember doing the soundboard. I was emcee for the Russian River Writers' Guild series.

I did the hand calligraphed flyers and a lot of the booking. Alan, Rosalee Sorrells was one of my connections through Ed Balchowsky and Utah Philips. What a great night that was. Bobbie Louise Hawkins was reading there too.

What was Marjorie's last name? The name of her novel?


Maureen Hurley said...

Lou, are you referring to Danny Propper?

Margery Summerfield said...

Maureen! Margery Summerfield here, yes "Compression Tested". Who knew I was bi-polar? Garbos' was great gift of love and money. The writers group was a life boat. Now I live in U.P. of Michigan, latest novel "The Psalm of Psaint Mabel" (under name Emma Mackin). Alan Lipson is still alive and hanging on by the river. Miss Gary Barton, Crow and Laura del Feugo. My crazy novel was Compression Tested. Thanks for remembering.

Ursula Duebel said...

I too remember Garbo's fondly. The Monday night readings were wonderful, as were the evenings when I came to hear great some really great musicians play. I have been trying unsuccessfully to track down Sam Gulbransen.I would love to see him again. Last I heard,he was moving to Mill Valley after Garbo's closed. Anyone know of his whereabouts?

FinnishMasseuse said...

Sam Gulbransen is alive and on FB. It means alot to me to read kind comments about Garbo's. The writers group was enlivening. There was a flood and I left my dog Bluie at the bar, some thing I never did. But that night I went to pick up Samand sank my car in 16' feet of fast moving cold water. I got out the window but would have drowned trying to get Blue out. I swam until the road rose again and then ran to Sam's place. It was so frightening and yet...that I did not bring my dog let us both live.
The best people worked at the club, it was a great effort.

I miss so many people from that time.

Golden Plantation said...

I'd like to contact Sam but couldn't find him on FB. Haven't seen him since the 80s. Can you help me out?