The Gemini Story — Chapter Ten: A Grateful Overview
by Laszlo and Sandor Slomovits
December 28, 2023
The great Toni Morrison once wrote: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I don’t think she would mind if I broadened out her words to include, not just all artists, but all of us. And not just to speak, write and do language, but each of us in our own unique, perhaps very tiny way, contribute to the healing that is so much needed now.
San and I write and sing songs. Little songs, 3–4 minutes long. Songs for children and songs for adults. Songs that try to show respect for all races, cultures, religions, and for the myriad personal differences that each of us brings to the crazy-quilt that is humanity. Songs that endeavor to show caring for the Earth, and equally, for all her non-human creatures. We sing these songs and invite our audiences to sing them with us. We know full well that songs don’t stop bullets or bombs, nor do they feed a starving child. But it’s what we have to give — in both senses of that phrase: what we’ve been given to offer and what we feel compelled to give. Our dharma, if you like; our calling. The gift we’ve been given, with the undeniable directive to pass it on.
I have often wondered what I would have done if not music. I was certified to teach High School English, and that would have been an honorable way to live my life — I loved my High School English teachers! But there was something much more absorbing, a dream that would not be denied.
And now, amazingly, we are here 50 years later. In cosmic time that’s not even a split second on the clockface of the universe. But it’s a span of time that’s been precious to us, a microscopic slice in the pie of the universe — it’s been delicious! We are very grateful.
I once pitched a story to an editor friend of mine. I proposed writing a profile of an organization I admired that was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. While agreeing with me that they were a worthy group, my friend turned me down. He said, “Anniversaries are important to people and organizations, but they’re not necessarily news.” Of course, he was right. Merely surviving for a certain length of time is not, in and of itself, so notable an accomplishment that it deserves public fanfare. He actually put it far more elegantly, saying, “I do think anniversaries are worth noting and celebrating — just with modest expectations of the extent to which outsiders should care.”
So, with modest expectations about your interest in the following, I’ll continue to relate why, for Laz and me, our fifty years of playing music together is noteworthy (pun intended). Not because we are so proud of what we’ve accomplished, though — to misquote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, “We’re not ashamed of it either.” It’s more that, as David Yaffe writes in Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, “Sometimes history is a way of looking back and asking, how the hell did this happen?”
It’s a question we could have — and sometimes did — ask about our lives in the past fifty years.
How did it happen that after we played our first gig, we got invited to play another, and then another, and then eventually several thousand others? How did it happen that we got to make one recording, then another, and then a number more?
I’m not even slightly tempted to claim that we planned it that way, that we guided ourselves on the path from then to now deliberately, like someone consciously choosing the highways and byways that get them from home to any far-flung destination, or vice versa.
I know better. We had no such clear path or destination in mind. We were, and for the most part have remained, somewhat surprised — sometimes astonished — always delighted, that people booked us, that they came to our shows, sang along with us, bought our recordings, that we were able to do this thing we loved, making music — together — as the way we earned our living. We have felt fortunate that our vehicle, our music, has kept humming along, has kept us safely on that road.
Ann Patchett writes in her book, These Precious Days (I’ve changed the word “girl” to “boy” and added the parenthetical phrase), “The boy I was then [for surely, though I was 24 years old when we moved to Ann Arbor, I was still much more boy than man] could never have imagined what life would look like a half century later — how much would be lost and how much gained.”
Much of what has been lost, I am glad to be free of, and for much of what has been gained I am very grateful.
On November 3rd, 2023, my partner Jennifer Burd (JenniferBurd.ink) and I had a chance to play two of my musical settings of Emily Dickinson‘s poems in the very house in Amherst, Massachusetts where she wrote them. The staff of what is now the Emily Dickinson Museum, generously gave us this wonderful opportunity, and along with some visitors to the Museum that day, provided the intimate but very warm and responsive audience for our mini concert.
Jennifer played the bowed psaltery (from the same word root as “psalm”), a 25-stringed instrument related to ancient harps and zithers (except it’s played with a bow), and I played guitar and sang. We first played one of Emily’s better-known poems, “Wild Nights,” and then, perhaps her best-known poem, “Hope Is the Things with Feathers.” Like many people, I first read the latter poem in my 9th grade English class where we memorized it. A few years ago, when I wanted to set the poem to music, I went to The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson and looked in the back at the index of first lines to find the poem; I wanted to make sure I remembered it correctly after all these years. I was surprised to find that Emily had written not one but three poems that begin with “Hope is…” and I was delighted to discover that all three fit to the same melody.
In honor of Emily Dickinson's 193rd birthday (tomorrow, December 10th), here is a simple recording of that mini-performance. I hope you’ll enjoy!
In this chapter of our year-long retrospective, San and I had intended to name some of the many people to whom we are grateful for the support they’ve given us — once or many times — in our 50-year musical journey. The list may not be endless, but it’s certainly very, very long; where do we stop, who do we leave out, who might we forget? So instead, we will not name individuals but groups and categories of people who — in small or large ways — have helped bring our youthful dream into reality.
First, to our parents, for all the things all children owe an unpayable debt of gratitude, but specifically, for accepting and supporting our career choice even though they had very different dreams for us — thank you!
To our beloved wives, whose love has sustained us, who supported our dreams whole-heartedly, in so many ways, day in day out, even through the lean times — thank you!
To our children — one of whom has become a wonderful musician in her own right, and yet, to our delight, still joins us regularly at our concerts — and the other, who supports our music by being our webmaster and in a myriad other technological ways — thank you!
To my partner — since my wife passed away — who has shown such kindness and been such a support to both my son and me — thank you!
These are all understatements, (I could say so much more) as are all the ones that follow, in no particular order:
To all the musicians who gave us tips about getting gigs, who taught us tricks and licks on our instruments — sometimes without even knowing they were doing it — and who encouraged us directly, or by their example of hard work and perseverance, who pointed out — directly or by their example — what we should and shouldn’t do in our performances — who have been in bands with us and inspired us by their musicianship and their belief in the power of music — thank you!
To all the young musicians — some of whom now have very successful careers — who have come up to us and have said, “my parents took me to a bunch of your concerts,” or “I was in a children’s choir that sang with you in 1992” — thank you (we take no credit for your success — but we do wish you all the best!)
To all the concert promoters who have brought us in to their venues, festivals, and orchestra halls, once or many times, especially those who took a chance on us when we were totally unknown, often recommending us to other promoters, sometimes giving us invaluable advice that furthered our career (a few of them even told us we were charging too little and paid us more than we asked for) — thank you!
To all the recording engineers and live concert sound technicians — each of whom heard us say, “Just set the volume and EQ the same on the two vocal mics and we’ll adjust for harmonies.”
To all the principals and PTO presidents at hundreds of elementary schools who hired us for assembly concerts, sometimes every year for many years — thank you!
To all the directors at churches, synagogues, senior centers, daycares, parks and recs, community centers, county and state fairs, who have brought us to their communities again and again — thank you!
To the booking agents we’ve had over the years who sang our praises to promoters in such convincing ways — in ways we would have been embarrassed to do — so that we could pay our bills doing what we loved — thank you!
To all the people who generously opened their homes to us when we were on the road, fed us delicious meals, put us up in comfortable beds (or on ingeniously placed mats, pillows and blankets on the living room floor) and enriched our lives with their stories — thank you!
To all the parents who have brought their children to our shows, once or multiple times, and have come up after concerts with such sweet stories like, “My daughter goes to sleep every night to your lullaby CD” as well as comments like “If I have to listen to my son sing (fill-in-one-of-your-songs) one more time…” But even that, said with such warmth and gratitude for the enthusiasm our music has unleashed in their child — thank you!
To all the music teachers (and other educators) who’ve bought our recordings, songbooks and musical revues, who’ve taught our songs to children we’ll never meet — thank you!
To all the parents who have bought our recordings, not realizing they were in for countless repetitions of their child’s favorite song — thank you!
To all the parents who have bought instruments from us — bones, spoons, slide whistles, pennywhistles, limberjacks — sometimes ruing the day, as their child repeatedly makes what can generously be described as irritating noise, making the parents monologue be “what was I thinking?” — thank you! (And a special thank you — or is it a warning? — to grandparents who have gleefully bought these instruments, knowing full well from their own experience, what was likely to happen…and that they wouldn’t have to be the ones to suffer the consequences…)
To all the grandparents who, increasingly now, bring their grandchildren to our concerts, saying, “I brought my child to your concerts, and now here’s my grandchild” — we appreciate their confidence in us, that we did not ruin their children, and therefore their grandchildren are also safe with us — thank you!
To all the adults who have come up to us with warm smiles and said, “I heard you when I was in second grade at such and such elementary, and I still remember the (fill-in-the-blank favorite) song” — thank you!
To all the people, thankfully very few, who have said or written harsh or even rude criticisms of our music — you toughened us up and gave us important things to contemplate, some of which resulted in significant changes to what and how we performed — thank you (but go easy next time!)
To all the children — ah, the children — who come up after concerts with eyes brighter than stars, and mostly just stare at us, on occasion saying brilliant things like, “you were bigger last year” — thank you!
To all the shy children who have been dragged up by their parents to say thank you to us, who clutch and hide behind the legs of one of their well-meaning parents — don’t worry, we don’t take it personally, we probably did the same thing at your age — thank you!
I’m guessing this is not a complete list by any means — I’m sure there are still some categories of people I have not remembered and properly thanked. Please know, if you ever gave us the slightest encouragement, the smallest kindness, the tiniest helping hand, (for example, hauling gear back to our car after a concert — which is actually not that tiny a help, especially in our 50th year playing music!) we thank you and wish you all the best!
And, lastly, I believe I speak for both San and me when I say, we couldn’t have done it without each other. Thank you!
The Gemini Story — Chapter Eight: The Show Must Go On
or, how we learned to play concerts no matter what!
by Sandor & Laszlo Slomovits
October 10, 2023
Our parents set a pretty high bar. When we moved to the United States from Israel at the end of 1959, it was with the same two suitcases with which we had left our native Hungary in early 1957. In other words, my parents had few material possessions to speak of, and no savings. Our Dad was 49 years old, our Mom was 42. They went to work.
Dad got a job as Cantor of a synagogue in Kingston, NY, and quickly took on a second job in the local kosher meat processing plant, supervising that the animals were slaughtered in a humane way, and the meat processed in accordance with the laws of kashrut. This work often also involved slaughtering chickens and other small animals; I remember seeing how carefully he sharpened the ritual knives at least once a week to make sure they cut quickly and cleanly.
Seeing that two jobs were enough to buy a car, a house and to pay the bills but not enough to save for the college education our parents were intent on giving us, (and which was looming only seven years after we came to America), Dad took on a third job, driving two hours three times a week to teach Hebrew School in another community.
In the meantime, Mom got a job at a local garment factory. Before work each day, she made breakfast, packed lunches for San and me, made sure there was lunch in the fridge ready for my father to heat up, did the dishes, walked a mile to work (further than San and I walked to school) and was back in time to set out a snack for us when we got home from school at 3:30, then got supper ready, after which she did the dishes and cleaned up in the kitchen — the men of the house were not allowed into that sacred space!
She only missed one day of work in the 22 years she worked at the factory; that was the day she fell on the ice in front of our house and got a concussion — but she was back at work the next day; and I don’t remember missing any meals.
My father had a similar work ethic. The only time he missed work in the 22 years he was employed at the same synagogue was when he had a gall bladder operation — five days in the hospital and just a couple more days to recover. This was nothing new for him. After the war, when he moved up to Budapest from the small village where he had served the Jewish community (which was wiped out by the Holocaust) in every leadership capacity, he got work in one of the small synagogues in the Capitol. After the second year’s Rosh Hashonoh, when word of his beautiful voice had already spread through the Jewish community of Budapest, he was approached by the leaders of the Dohány Utca Templom, the largest synagogue in Europe, to ask if he could sing there at the Shabbos T‘shuva services (a significant Holiday, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur) in a few days. “Sure,” my father said, “but what’s wrong with the two “cannons” who are your regulars?” (Because of the size and capacity of the Dohány — seating nearly 3,000 people and employing an organist and a choir made up of members of the Budapest Opera Chorus, the Cantors at the Dohány needed to have not only beautiful, but also powerful voices — no microphones — hence, my father’s reference to them as “cannons.”) “They are both hoarse from the demands of singing on the two days of Rosh Hashonoh.” My father had sung the same liturgy during those two days at the small synagogue where he was employed and had not gone hoarse. Admittedly, he did not have as large a hall to fill and no organ or choir to sing over, but nor did he have a second Cantor to split the demands of two days of constant high-intensity singing. He replied, “Sure, I’ll do it.” and that was the beginning of his starting to sing regularly at the Dohány. (That was also how San and I got to play in the organ loft there, babysat by members of the Budapest Opera Chorus, while our father sang down below.)
When Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man consecutive games streak, there were articles in many local papers about hometown heroes who had been steadfast at their work for many years — surely our parents and their unshakeable endurance would have qualified for an entry. We learned early on from both of them that the show goes on, no matter what. So, when we started performing, we regularly did things about which now we just shake our heads. (A booking agent once told a friend of ours that he did not want to work with us because to him we seemed fragile. Well, put us in a boxing ring or on a football field and he’d have been right. But, with all due humility, whatever other limitations we may have demonstrated throughout our career — and there have been plenty — fragility has not been one of them.)
Of course, I must admit that being a musical duo has advantages denied a solo performer — one of them being that either of us can pick up the slack when the other is sick or injured, and we’ve done that for each other a number of times over the years.
Here’s a tiny example. We were on our way to an elementary school, San driving, when I turned around to get a book bag from the back seat, and in the process. managed to drag its strap across my left eye. Quite painful and worrisome. But no worries — we always leave plenty of time when going to gigs to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Usually these (thankfully rare events) take the form of unexpected traffic delays / detours, or technical glitches with our PA system. In any case, when we arrived at the school, San asked where the nearest Urgent Care facility was, dropped me off there, went back to the school, unloaded and set up our equipment, drove back to pick me up, and we were ready to play the concert five minutes before the scheduled starting time. I had a big eye-patch taped to my face and we joked with the kids that we’d gotten in a fight on the way to the concert.
Interestingly, on most occasions when one of us was sick with a cold or even the flu, or injured in a way not as obvious as in the above example, no one in the audience seems to have noticed or cared.
A few other examples: Near the end of a long tour across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin in 1984, we arrived in Chicago late one Friday night. Laz had had a toothache for days and it was getting progressively worse. It’d be a few more days before we’d be home, so Saturday morning we found an emergency dental clinic. Turned out he needed a root canal, but because the clinic was busy, it would take a while. I was worried. It was early April and the Tigers were in town to play the White Sox. I had my heart set on going. Would Laz feel like going after his procedure? He was finally finished early in the afternoon. The game had already started. Was he up for it? He was still all numbed up. He’s a gamer. Sure.
We got to the game in the third inning, only goose eggs on the scoreboard. Dave Bergman at first base made a couple of spectacular defensive plays. There was also a long fly to right and I heard someone say behind me, “I wouldn’t want my no-hitter riding on Kirk Gibson’s glove.” No-hitter? Really? Gibby made the catch, and the Chicago fans started cheering every out that Jack Morris got in the eighth and ninth innings and gave him a long standing ovation when his final pitch clinched the no-hitter.
And then we played a concert that night.
Remember the old YMCA in Ann Arbor on Fifth Avenue? The weight room was in the basement and, in addition to the usual barbells and weight machines it also featured a punching bag that hung from the ceiling. One afternoon, momentarily forgetting that I was not Muhammad Ali, I gave that bag what for for a few minutes. Then Laz and I headed off to a gig in Detroit. I drove and began noticing that my right hand and arm hurt. By the time we got to the gig my wrist was noticeably swollen and it was painful to carry my guitar. Part way through the concert I began to just sort of wave at my guitar strings rather than strum them. Even the brush of the pick against the strings was painful. I switched to fingerpicking. As Laz mentioned, nobody in the audience seemed to notice or care. I went to the ER when we got home and after X-rays was told that I had a sprained wrist. They taped it and put my right arm in a sling. At our next few concerts, I didn’t play guitar or bones, just sang. Nobody, including people who’d seen and heard us before, said anything.
One time on tour I ate something questionable at lunch and later, as we began that evening’s concert, I started feeling queasy. By the time we were near the end of the concert I realized I needed to get off the stage — immediately! Whispering a quick, “I’ll be back,” to Laz, I left with all due haste, barely made it to the bathroom and… um… lightened the load — from both ends. Laz sang a solo song as if that had been the plan. Then I walked back on stage, and we sang one more song to finish the show. Again, not a word from anyone. On the drive to the hotel afterward Laz was pulled over for speeding. When he explained to the trooper that I was sick, the officer gave him a long, “I’ve heard-that-one-before” look, but came around the car, looked me over, (I was very pale and sweating) and then said to Laz, “I can see that, but I still have to give you a ticket.” And he did.
One evening I took out some food scraps to our compost pile and was stung on the back of my right hand by a yellowjacket. I woke in the middle of the night, my arm hurt and felt very hot. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light. There was a red streak from the site of the sting going up my arm. I drove myself to the ER where I was informed I had blood poisoning and the doc said, “We’re admitting you.” “No, you’re not,” I replied. “I’ve got a gig at noon in Plymouth.” After a brief discussion, during which he explained that this was serious, that they’d give me antibiotics and observe me, I promised to return to the hospital if my symptoms worsened. The doc looked at me carefully and finally said, “OK, I guess you look smart enough to do that.” He ordered an antibiotic via IV and I was home before my wife woke up that morning. And played the gig.
But my favorite the-show-must-go-on memory is from our first time in Saskatchewan Province in Canada in the early 1990s. It was late October, the beginning of a three week tour, and the first night we arrived it began snowing. We knew we had a long drive the next morning, so we decided to leave early. It had snowed all night and for the first hour of our morning drive, it was still dark. Some of the time I was not sure if we were on the road or driving across some of Saskatchewan’s famous wheat fields. Once it got light we could see that there was a lot of snow on the ground, it was still hard to tell where the road shoulder ended and where the wheat fields began. We also noticed two other things. It was still snowing — hard — and we didn’t see another car on the road. We went from narrow two lanes to a divided four lane, and still didn’t see any other cars. It went like this for hours — still snowing, still no other cars — till we arrived at our destination, a tiny community about an hour from Saskatoon. We found the hall, where an elderly man greeted us with, “I don’t know whether to call you brave, or stupid.” And proceeded to inform us that all the highways in the area had been closed by police earlier in the day.
In the past fifty years we’ve only cancelled gigs in the days leading up to and following my daughter Emily’s birth, and after our parents’ deaths. (When Emily was born, our friend, and master harmonica player, Madcat took over for me and played a few of our gigs with Laz, including some in Syracuse, NY, and would not accept payment! And Daniel was born, very considerately, one early September, during some previously planned vacation time.)
Every performer has war stories, ours are by no means unique or exceptional. There is a time-honored tradition in the performing arts that the show goes on regardless — Covid excepted. I remember seeing Danny Kay in the 60s in a Broadway production of “Two by Two.” He’d broken his leg earlier in the run and played the rest of the shows in a hip-to-ankle cast and joked about the multiple meanings of the word throughout the play.
Our resoluteness regarding gigs pales beside our parents’ dedication, and has been due as much to luck, good genes, and as Laz said, to working as a duo, as it is to any special quality of perseverance we have exhibited. Nevertheless, I’m very glad and grateful that we’ve mostly been able to show up these past fifty years.
The Gemini Story — Chapter Seven: Gigs from Heaven
by Sandor & Laszlo Slomovits
August 17, 2023
Last month we wrote about our gigs from hell (see Chapter 6), but of course those comprise a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of shows — we’re estimating between six and seven thousand — that we’ve played in the past fifty years. Far more common have been “typical” gigs, the ones where nothing extraordinarily memorable happens — that we’re aware of, anyway. (Although when I reflect that at our “typical” gigs we get to play music, people applaud our songs, and we even get paid, I am reminded how unusual our work is, and how fortunate we have been to be able to do this. There are not many other jobs I can think of where people clap when you walk out in front of them, and then applaud every few minutes for an hour or two, and maybe even stand up at the end and ask you to play one more.)
Way outnumbering the gigs from hell, have been the gigs that are memorable, joyful and uplifting for us, and perhaps for our audiences. There is no predicting what settings and conditions are conducive to these experiences. You’d think that playing with the Detroit Symphony for a full house at Orchestra Hall would be more memorable and enjoyable than playing for 200 elementary schoolkids in a small, rural town in northern Michigan, or for fifty people in an old log cabin at Hollerfest. You’d be wrong. Sure, the former sounds more prestigious, but the feeling in that school gym, or in that cabin, is often just as, or even more exhilarating and sweet. As I said, no predicting. While I certainly get a thrill out of playing for a full house, and while I revel in the beauty and wonderful acoustics of some of the halls we've been able to play, I find that the pleasure I take in the concerts comes from the interactions I have with Laz, Emily and the other musicians we play with, and with our audiences, our making the music together.
Sometimes the memorable moment is not on stage at all, but happens in the audience, and I don’t find out about it till afterwards. In 1994 we were playing a family concert at the Power Center, here in Ann Arbor. We had a full house, our longtime friend and colleague, Brian Brill was at the concert grand, and we were accompanied by a children’s choir, about a hundred strong, all kids from local elementary schools, rehearsed and conducted by Wendy Bloom, a brilliant soprano and music teacher. All that was special enough, and the show went well, but my mind was partly somewhere else. My wife, Brenda gave birth to our daughter a month before and Emily, who was born quite prematurely, was still in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Mott Children’s Hospital a few blocks away. I’d invited the doctor who delivered her to be our guest at the show. For Brenda and me he was — still is — equal parts miracle worker and saint. He, his wife and their two young children sat in the row directly behind Brenda and her parents, about halfway up the middle section of seats.
Partway through the show, I sang a brand new lullabye I’d written a week earlier. “Emily Rose, I know that it shows / the way I feel about you, Emily Rose.” Brenda told me after the show that she started crying partway through the song and her doc leaned over, tapped her on the shoulder and handed her a Kleenex. Turns out, there was a doctor in the house.
Early in our career, we were invited to play at a small folk festival in Green Bay. It was in a small auditorium, capacity about 500, and all the performers were from Wisconsin. We’d never toured there before and knew none of them, or they us. The audience greeted our first song with such a loud and sustained applause that it completely startled us. And then they kept it up throughout our set. We were used to a certain length of applause, knew how much time we had to get a sip of water, put on a capo, or switch from fingerpicks to flat picks, before starting to introduce our next song. But these ovations were so much longer than usual that they completely threw off our timing. It felt like we’d plugged into a new type of power source and didn’t yet know how to deal with the extra voltage. When we finally got off stage, we looked at each other and said, “What happened out there?”
It was perhaps the first time that we felt like we were onto something and might really be able to make a go of this music business.
It was 1976, very early in our career: we were totally unknown outside Michigan and far from a household name even in our hometown of Ann Arbor. (Not that we are now!) But we had made a home-recorded four-song demo and sent it out to some folk festivals, and one of them — the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in upstate, New York — responded with an invitation. Evelyn Beers-Bernstein, co-founder of the festival, had been moved by my song “The Waltz of the Old Lovers” and on the basis of that one song, sent to her on a scratchy cassette, accompanied by a hand-written letter, which included our meager “credentials,” took a chance on a couple of singers she’d never heard of.
There was a tradition at Fox Hollow that on Sunday night, to close the festival, one of the songs that Evelyn had found most moving that weekend would be led by its singer, with all the other performers on stage joining in. One of the songs we’d sung that weekend was an old Irish air I’d adapted and set words to. The chorus is:
But who will love if we don’t love
And who will light the way?
And who will love if we don’t love
And who will carry on?
Sunday afternoon, Evelyn asked us to close the festival with that song. Though I felt honored, I also became terrified at the thought of leading all the much-better-known musicians and the whole audience in that song. My body responded by developing an instant sore throat and sniffles! Came time for the finale, I had nearly full-blown cold symptoms and laryngitis. There was some coffee backstage for the performers and I filled a cup, thinking the warm liquid would help sooth my throat. I took a big gulp — it was scalding hot! But by some miracle of grace, it instantly and completely eradicated my symptoms. (By the way, I don’t recommend this as a cure for anything! Please don’t try this at home! I’ve never done it again, though I’ve had many colds. I chalk it up to grace and that I was destined to sing that song at that time.)
San and I started singing the song, everybody on stage and in the audience stood up and started holding hands and swaying, some people lit candles, and we sang that chorus for what was probably three minutes but felt like forever.
The MC at the Fox Hollow Festival was Robert J. Lurtsema, a beloved radio host of a classical music program (Morning Pro Musica) on Boston’s WGBH. Even though we didn’t play classical music, he took a liking to our songs and brought us onto his show a number of times. Usually, it was just him and us in the studio, but one time there was a very special live audience.
There was a religious sect in the area that forbade listening to or playing music. One of the teachers (not a member of the sect) at the school attended by children from these families, somehow managed to get permission for her class to listen to Robert J.’s show for an hour once a week. Then she convinced the leaders of the sect to allow her to bring her class to the radio station so they could see and hear music played live. The day they chose to come happened to be one of the days when we were on the show.
I don’t remember what songs we played, whether the children applauded or not (had they been prepped about how an audience responds if they liked something?) or whether or not we had a chance to interact with the children afterwards. What I do remember is the look on the faces of these elementary school age children seeing and hearing, for the first time in their lives, people playing instruments and singing. (I hope they didn’t think that music was always made by two or more people who looked as much alike as San and I did!)
Imagine what it was like when a locomotive first went through a rural area where people had not yet seen a train. Or when an airplane flew over an area that had not heard about metal birds flying through the air. Or when people, used to seeing silent movies, first heard Al Jolson say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” part way through the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. That’s what the faces of those children looked like when we started to sing and play.
Though we’ve had some other remarkable performance situations like this, I can honestly say, there is no such thing as an “ordinary” concert. Every performance is, at least, an opportunity for simple fun to happen, which often rises to the level of the delightful and joyful, even the magical. Sometimes a concert seems to be going along in an “ordinary” way but then comes a moment or a scene which I remember vividly and fondly years later.
We’re playing a family concert at a church in Grand Rapids on a Sunday afternoon. It’s been raining on and off all day and the forecast calls for cloudy into the night. Partway through the first set we start singing one of my songs, “The sun’s gonna shine, shine on me, I can feel it in my bones…” when the stained-glass windows on the west side of the church light up with bright sunshine. The audience lets out a collective cheer and starts applauding. As soon as we finish the song the clouds close again, and the windows remain dark for the rest of the concert. Of course, we all know that not we nor the song had parted the clouds, but still…
Recently, at an outdoor children’s concert in Bay City. I’m singing the traditional “This old man, he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb…” and five pre-schoolers jump to their feet and start dancing near the stage. By the time I reach “he played three…” they’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. Other children join them, the circle keeps getting bigger. As I start “he played seven…” a Black child approaches the circle tentatively. There is no hesitation — the White ring opens and welcomes her in. I keep singing, “he played knick-knack up to heaven…” though I have to work a bit to keep from getting choked up, having just witnessed a moment of heaven on earth.
Today is the 11th anniversary of Helen’s passing. I find eleven to be symbolically a very significant number. Ten is a fully embodied number — we have ten fingers, ten toes, which is likely why our most commonly used mathematical system is base ten. Eleven enters into a new dimension and opens a portal on the infinite — we start going beyond what we can easily count on our body parts, and go into a realm (some call it a spirit world) beyond our very temporary, ephemeral bodies.
In these eleven years, I’ve learned many things, but death has become ever more mysterious the farther I get from hers and the closer I get to mine. I am now more able to accept that the form in which I loved her is gone forever, and at the same time I continue to have undeniable experiences of the presence of her essence. Some of these visitations are tiny and fleeting, but some are quite dramatic and even have tangible results. Let me share one of those with you.
On October 26th, 2020, which would have been Helen’s 70th birthday, I went for a walk and was talking to her in my heart — though softly out loud also — telling her I was listening to her, and if she had something to tell me, to please do so in any form she liked, whether in images, words, or melody. I walked quietly for a while, and then a song spontaneously started up. As soon as it did, I started crying; I knew it was a gift from Helen. The chant-like melody was totally in a style she loved and in which she wrote several of her songs, and the theme of the song was completely in line with her cherished beliefs and hopes.
I’ve worked on recording this song off and on for nearly three years, but I’ve not been able to complete it or to be satisfied with the versions I’ve tried. I’m guessing this is an expression of the difficulty in letting go of her. Recently, I’ve started to record it once again and I hope to complete it by Helen’s next birthday. In the meantime, here are her words.
We are here to learn.
We are here to love.
We are here to learn to love
ourselves and one another.
There is only One
who’s taken many forms.
We are here to learn to love
the One in everyone.
Almost every musician has had a few — gigs from hell. And when I say “gigs from hell” I don’t mean the ones where you forget words to songs, or play the wrong chords, or where you have trouble focusing and connecting to the audience, or where you have major technical difficulties and equipment malfunction. Those are gigs from purgatory. You suffer through them and perhaps, if there were sins of under-preparation or carelessness with equipment or instruments, you expiate them. Or, if there is no obvious lesson to be learned, then, as Iris DeMent sings, you “let the mystery be.” No, when I say gigs from hell, I mean the ones where there is a great mismatch between what is expected from the musicians hired for that event, and the impossibility for those musicians to provide what the promoter thought was a good idea.
At the time they feel like hell. Later, sometimes much later, they make for fun stories!
Here are some examples.
In this series of chapters from the Gemini Story we’ve been saying that we started performing 50 years ago when we moved to Ann Arbor. But actually, a few months before that, we had two gigs at the University of Rochester, from where we had graduated the year before. Hopefully, everyone in attendance has forgotten those concerts. In our first gig we were woefully unprepared — still looking at our hands while playing our guitars because we didn’t really know where our fingers should be going for each chord. So, there were noticeable gaps between chords, while our fingers figured out their temporary location, before awkwardly moving on to their next destination. That was just on the musically technical side. On the performance side we had no idea how one connects to an audience or reads one for pacing clues. So, that was a gig from purgatory. We resolved to practice harder, and when attending concerts by master musicians, to try to learn from them about the magic of performing.
The other was a performance (perhaps debacle is a better word) at a frat party that a friend of ours arranged purely based on our friendship, and not on any knowledge of our ability to play music, or what kind of music might be appropriate at such an event. When we got there, we realized what was expected and needed was loud rock ‘n roll. We had hardly any such songs in our repertoire. We were a folk duo who had no drummer or bass player (rock ‘n roll without bass and drums?) and our feeble PA system consisted of two small guitar amplifiers into which we plugged our guitars as well as a couple of cheap vocal mics. But we thought we could get away with it because by the time we started, all the attendees were drunk, and they only grumbled mildly when we couldn’t play any of the songs they staggered up to us to request. The end of every one of our songs was greeted with silence — well, no, there was non-stop loud talking — but by silence I mean that there was no clapping. Well, that’s not quite right either; following each of the first few songs was the sound of one pair of hands clapping. The hands belonged to Helen, my wife-to-be, and she tried to stir up crowd enthusiasm valiantly but gave up in vain well before the end of the first set.
In the early Seventies, we were once booked to play at Alma College, a small school in central Michigan. It was in early September and we had been hired to entertain at an event welcoming the new freshmen. The plan for the evening was an ice cream eating contest, followed by a short talent contest, and then ending with our concert. In reality, the evening was essentially over when one of the students, in full view of all his classmates, after attempting to win the ice cream eating contest by stuffing, cramming and inhaling a vast quantity of Borden’s, threw up all over the stage. We played our concert well in front of the stage for the handful of people who stayed.
Then there was the nightmare of our one and only appearance at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Pontiac, Michigan. The Palace, at the time the home of the Detroit Pistons basketball team, was also the site of many huge rock and pop concerts. In 1990 we were invited there to be the entertainment for the opening ceremonies of the Junior Maccabee Games. We were a logical choice — in some ways. We play music for kids and families, have usually included some Israeli and Jewish music in our concerts, and have a strong following in Detroit area Jewish communities. However, for this audience we definitely were the wrong choice. The Palace held more than 21,000 people and on this, by us never-to-be-forgotten-day, it was about half full of teenage athletes who had come from all over the country and abroad. Although we occasionally sing for teenagers, our music appeals mostly to younger kids and their parents. Our repertoire, appearance, manner on stage and acoustic sound is not exactly teens’ cup of Coke. But that’s not the only explanation for the disaster that ensued. The opening ceremonies consisted of the customary lengthy parade of athletes, followed by an hour of excruciatingly boring speeches. (We’d been assured that there would be just a few brief comments before our performance.) By the time it was our turn to sing, the kids were as restless as a herd of Holsteins under a threatening sky.
The storm hit as soon as we took the stage.
The Palace featured huge video screens suspended from the middle of the ceiling. All aspects of the opening ceremonies were televised and when we finally began playing, we too appeared on those screens. Some of the athletes began dancing to our music near the stage, and the cameras picked them up on wide shots. Part way through our second song a few of the dancers got the bright idea that if they were closer to us, they’d be more visible on the overhead screens. So, several of them jumped on the stage to dance. They began bumping into us, our microphone stands, and the table that held our instruments. While continuing to perform, I tried to get them off the stage. We had just started our “Deli” song, an ode to Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. I sang into my mic, “Let’s go get a sandwich at the deli,” and then, during the instrumental phrase that followed those words, I turned to the dancers and growled, “Get off the stage!” Then I turned back to my mic and sang the next line, “I’m sick and tired of peanut butter ‘n jelly.” Whirling around, I again hissed, “Don’t bump the table!” Nothing doing. Laz, playing the fiddle and, like me, still trying to go on with the show, could not move from his mic. Our instruments were in danger of being trampled. We were about to be shoved teeth first into our mics. I looked at the half-dozen security guards standing around the stage and motioned to them to take charge. Blank faced, they stood frozen. One shrugged helplessly. The dignitaries on the stage, the ones who had delivered the interminable speeches, also sat as though paralyzed. Things got worse. Other kids in the audience, seeing their teammates on the screens, felt inspired and emboldened to join them. They stampeded from the stands and rushed the stage. We finished the “Deli” tune, only our second song, picked up our instruments and, pushing our way through the crowd, walked off. The kids continued dancing for the cameras.
You know how teachers say that they remember the kids who gave them the most trouble? Of course, they also remember the kids who showed extraordinary talent or initiative. It’s like that with gigs. Among the thousands of concerts we’ve had the good fortune to be able to play in the past fifty years, I remember a handful of gigs from hell, and a much greater number of ones that were delightful and joyous. I’m grateful for all of them: the “ordinary” ones where everything goes smoothly and we leave satisfied and happy, (and hopefully so does the audience); the “special” ones, where something magical happens on or off stage; and yes, even the especially awful ones — they’ve all made for good stories, and a life for which I am thankful.
We felt very encouraged by the success of our first Pendleton Room concert (see Chapter Three). We also felt very lucky. The great winter storm of 1978, one of the worst in Michigan history, hit four days after our concert. It was the first time since its founding that the U of M closed. In the days that followed, as we dug ourselves out, I breathed a number of sighs of relief. Had our concert been scheduled for one of the days of the storm, the Michigan Union would not have even been open! Nevertheless, undeterred by our near miss, in the following year we produced several more Pendleton Room shows in addition to playing at the Ark.
A few days after our June 22, 1979 show at the Ark, I was walking downtown, near the corner of Main and Williams, and ran into our friend Rob Martens. We’d met Rob several years earlier when he sold us some microphones when he was working at Music Mart on State Street. Rob said he’d been planning to call us, that he and Willard Spencer, who played banjo in the RFD Boys bluegrass band, had recently finished building Solid Sound, their state of the art recording studio, and that they wanted to make a record with us. I told him we had no money to do that. He said he’d guessed as much but proposed that he would pay for all the recording and pressing costs up front, and we could pay him back out of record sales.
Laz and I were flabbergasted by this offer, and very touched by Rob and Willard’s generosity and their trust in our music.
We recorded Songs from the Heartland on September 14, 1979 in East Quad Auditorium, at the time my favorite small hall in town. We played the concert without a PA system and Rob and Will put just two microphones on one stand between us and recorded from the balcony. The place was jam packed, the crowd was loving, loud and very enthusiastic. We had to bring the applause volume way down when we mixed the recording later.
We pressed one thousand copies of the album (remember vinyl albums? big CDs? oversize black frisbees?) sold them at our concerts — don’t forget, those were pre-internet days — and paid Rob back in a year. When we gave him the last check he told us that when he’d originally proposed advancing the money to make the album his accountant had said, “You’re out of your mind.” We never signed a contract, just shook hands — by far my favorite way to do business. We are still friends with Rob and Willard; in the past 44 years we’ve recorded nearly twenty albums with them. (More about that later.)
By 1982 we’d begun playing children’s concerts in elementary schools and family concerts at the Ark and at other venues. We were developing a repertoire of songs for children and families. It was time to make another album. All of us were happy with how our financial agreement had worked out on Songs from the Heartland but, for a variety of reasons, we mutually agreed that Laz and I would finance this next recording ourselves.
As the unofficial CFO of our enterprise, I began to make the rounds of local banks to get a loan. I went to six banks and was denied at each.
“You have no credit history.”
We’d never even had a car loan.
“You have no collateral.”
“Well, you’d have the recordings.” I replied.
“And what would we do with them, open a record store?”
I was in the lobby of the sixth bank, TrustCorp on Main Street, about to walk out the door, having been rejected by yet another loan officer, when a man approached me, introduced himself as Ray Philp, and said he was a fan of our music. He added that he worked at the bank, and that if he could ever be of any help to us…
I interrupted to tell him that his loan department had just turned us down.
He replied, “Come on up to my office.” After a brief discussion which ended with him saying, “I know you’ll pay us back,” he said, in effect, that he just needed to figure out a way to structure the loan so the bank would be OK with it. The plan he came up with was to have our wives (both of whom worked at real jobs, with regular paychecks!) co-sign the loan.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
We recorded side one of Good Mischief, our first album for children and families, live at the Ark in September 1982. Peter Madcat Ruth, Paul Shapiro and Willard Spencer of the RFD Boys joined us on stage, while Rob ran the mixing board. We had a blast! These guys were — are — terrific musicians and even better human beings.
Speaking of people who supported our music back in the day, Shirley Smith, then one of the hosts at WUOM, was very enthusiastic about our songs and interviewed us a number of times. One of those times, she off-handedly said something like, “We’ll have you back when your new recording is out, and we’ll cook up some more good mischief.” When we left the radio station, Laz took out the little notebook and pen he always carries around and scribbled down the phrase — and later suggested it as the name for our recording. In fact, to this day, when we perform with back-up musicians, we call them, “The Good Mischief Band.”
My wife, Brenda, created the cover of Good Mischief, basing her design on some of the drawings children regularly sent us after seeing us in concerts. Still my favorite cover of all our recordings.
The last cut on side one, “Aiken Drum,” a traditional Scottish song, features one of my cherished moments from our recordings. In the song we, along with the kids in the audience, create an imaginary man in the moon, with the kids calling out a variety of foods to form his body. I called on a little boy for a food suggestion and he froze and couldn’t come up with an answer. So, I prompted him, “What did you have for breakfast?” He came back with, “Tofu.” The audience dissolved in laughter and I said, “Only in Ann Arbor!”
About thirty-five years later I was eating supper at a picnic table on top of the hill overlooking the main stage at Hollerfest, when a woman sat down across from me and asked if I remembered that moment. When I said, “Of course,” she replied, “That was my son.”
We’ve been hearing various versions of that story more and more over the years. Kindergarten teachers at some of our school shows introduce us to their students with, “I heard them when I was your age.” We regularly get CD orders from around the country, and even from overseas, from people who write that they grew up on our music in Ann Arbor, and now want to share it with their children. Perhaps sweetest of all are the smiling faces of grandparents, some younger than we are, who come to our concerts with their adult children holding babies or toddlers. Some clutch well-worn copies of Songs from the Heartland or Good Mischief.
But the most unusual (and humbling) story came recently from a man who wrote us that, way back in 1981, he was walking past his neighbor’s home and saw Songs from the Heartland in his garbage pail! (Shockingly, not everyone loves our music!) The happy ending to his story was that he picked it out of the garbage, brought it home, and he did love it. He was writing now to say that he’d found us online and was delighted to see that we were still making music. We are delighted too!
Some things we learn through repeated practice and trial and error — peppered with plenty of errors — over a long period of time. As the aphorism goes, “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.” We’ve mentioned in previous chapters how San and I learned a tremendous amount from our weekly performances, over a number of years, at Mr. Flood’s Party and at the Ark’s Hootenannies.
But some things we learn from a single experience that is so intense that a lesson is fully imbibed all at once, once and for all.
Early on in our career we were booked to play a concert in a hall that seated about 200 people. 35-40 people showed up. As I peeked out from the wings before the show, I felt a great and painful disappointment. I was young and inexperienced — I took it very personally, as a statement about our worth and about our prospects for the future. But when I walked out on stage to start the show, something shifted in me. I looked out over the audience and saw people who had simply come to hear us and to enjoy themselves. It struck me that it was not their fault that there weren’t more of them. I suddenly found myself on the verge of a stark choice; I could either continue to wallow in self-pity and disappointment, or I could focus on giving the people in the audience the very best music that I could. It ended up being a delightful, intimate concert, in which I completely forgot the empty seats and enjoyed the warm response from the full ones.
I’ve never forgotten: to play to the people who are there, and not to the ones who aren’t.
Another teaching that sank in early on was from a fan who came up after a show to thank me. She expressed her gratitude in a few words, and I responded by telling her in great detail everything that had gone wrong during the show. She walked away and I forgot about the exchange. A few weeks later I recognized her on the street and said hello and she stopped me.
She told me how hurt she had been when I had dismissed her gratitude and denied her experience. It was clear from the way she spoke that she still felt the pain of it. I felt truly humbled and thanked her for being so vulnerable and open even after the way I had spoken to her previously. She responded by saying that her father was on the board of directors at a coffeehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts that brought in national touring performers. She’d talk to him about booking us to open for some of these musicians. Over the next few years, we ended up opening multiple shows for Odetta, Rosalie Sorrels, and Dave Mallett, continuing to learn from master musicians about the craft of performing — and the responsibility that a performer owes to their audience.
It was another lesson I’ve never forgotten; to honor the experience and comments of audience members — positive or negative (because there have been a few of those also!) and to respond with a sincere “thank you.”
One more incident that taught me an invaluable lesson. San and I were booked, along with a number of other performers, at a weekend conference for early childhood teachers. At each session — morning, afternoon, and evening — there were to be various speakers and presentations, followed by two performing acts, each playing for 20 minutes. We were scheduled to be the second such act one night. The musician performing ahead of us played his 20 minutes, and then kept going — for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15… I was getting quite angry, to put it mildly, but the organizer of the conference sat in the front row smiling and clearly had no intention of stopping the show. After 45 minutes the other musician finally ended, and San and I were introduced. I was furious. No, I was outraged. No, I was livid! But when I stepped up on stage and looked out over the audience, I remembered what I was there for — to give my best to the teachers. I found myself channeling the energy of the fury I felt into the music. It was one of the most dynamic performances I’d ever experienced! The music flowed out of me as if something / someone else was performing, and I could just listen and watch in amazement as my voice and fingers did these magical things. And from their response, I could tell that the audience was experiencing something similar.
That lesson transferred to many other concerts. I learned either to let go of whatever emotion I happened to be feeling before a show, or to channel its energy into the music. The music has never failed to transform it into something positive.
With 20/20 hindsight, I can now see that when we began playing music in public, I was suffering from the misapprehension that I was God’s gift to any audience fortunate enough to hear me. It took several years before I fully outgrew that delusion.
Exhibit A: One evening at the Depot House Restaurant in Ann Arbor, our steady Saturday night gig for a number of years in the Seventies, I became not bewitched, but instead bothered and bewildered when several plainly benighted diners didn't turn their chairs to face the stage but sat with their backs to us and, rather that gaze upon us with fittingly rapt attention, dared to continue talking with each other while we played. Mystified, offended and affronted, I retaliated by mangling the melodies of songs, distorting the pronunciation of words and generally singing in as obnoxious a manner as I could contrive. It worked. Shooting me several looks of disbelief during the course of a few songs, they soon left.
Meanwhile, I'd forgotten all about the rest of our audience. Also, about Laz, who was furious with me.
I gradually worked attitudes and actions like that out of my system. I learned my final lesson one night in the early 1980s when we opened for an internationally known folk singer (who shall remain nameless) in a large and beautiful concert hall. After we finished our set, we went out into the audience to listen to his show. We were aware that he’d arrived too late to do a sound check before the concert began, but instead of acknowledging his responsibility for being tardy, he repeatedly and disdainfully expressed to the audience his dissatisfaction with the audio crew. He also groused, between perfunctory renditions of his hits, about the smallish audience and complained that his records sold better in England than they did in the US — and how that was a reflection on, and an indictment of, Americans and our lack of culture and good taste. He was not joking.
That night I learned exactly how an audience feels when a performer does not respect them, or his art.
We were very fortunate in having some different models too. The one that stands out among many others is Odetta. In Cambridge, in 1982, Laz and I opened seven shows for Odetta at Passim's Coffeehouse. She was in her early fifties then, long a legendary singer and civil rights activist, dignity personified, her voice still powerful enough to make microphones irrelevant. If she was upset about the relatively small crowds that week, she didn't complain to her audience — or to anyone else that I heard. If she had any resentment about the folk boom of the Sixties that had, in large part, passed her by, while elevating a number of paler, and arguably less talented performers to much greater popularity, she didn't take it out on any of the people around her. Music seemed a powerful source of healing and joy for her, and she appeared intent on passing that along to her audiences.
Passim's only had one dressing room, perhaps more accurately described as a dressing closet. Yet every night Odetta graciously invited us to share that cramped space with her, rather than allow us to warm up in the only other available spot, the hallway next to the kitchen. Before we went on stage for each show, she sent us off with a heartfelt, "Give 'em heaven!"
She closed all her evenings with "Amazing Grace." Each night, in a characteristically generous gesture, she invited us up on stage to sing it with her. She sang the chorus differently than I'd ever heard before. Instead of, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," she substituted, "a soul" for “a wretch” and said, during the musical rest that follows the phrase, "No wretches here." She obviously believed that and treated people accordingly — on and off stage.
The lesson sank in deep. I still think of her often.
Our father did not approve — to put it mildly — of my brother’s and my choice of career. Multiple reasons for that, and no need to get into the nitty gritty here. Let’s just say that I can count on the fingers of one hand, and still have enough digits left to play an e minor chord, the number of our concerts he attended in thirty years — nor was he all that complimentary when he did come. But, when in 1989, we told our parents that we’d been invited to sing the national anthem before a baseball game at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, our father seemed genuinely excited. He wanted to know how many people would be in the stands, how much money we’d make, (and didn’t even seem too disappointed when we said it’s an honorary function, not a paying one) and asked whether we’d sing alone or with organ accompaniment.
He knew the Star Spangled Banner. It was the first song he learned in English after we moved to the US in late 1959. He needed to know it for his job as a cantor in synagogues, where most social events began with the singing of our national anthem and the Hatikvah, the Israeli anthem. It was very difficult for him to memorize the English words by rote, and even more problematic to pronounce them correctly. He relied on my brother and me to help him, but his accent still mangled the lyrics pretty thoroughly. However, the sheer beauty and power of his voice lent the anthem great dignity and majesty, and there was no denying the reverence with which he sang. Over the years it remained the only song in English that the three of us all had in our repertoires.
So, in 1993, when our parents came to visit us in Michigan for the first time, Laz and I arranged to sing the anthem before a ball game during their stay.
On the drive to Tiger Stadium our father asked nervously if it would be okay for him to wear his hat at the game. As an Orthodox Jew, he always wore a hat or a yarmulke, but still seemed uneasy, the way he must have often felt in our native Hungary, about identifying himself so conspicuously as being Jewish. I reassured him that other than during the anthem it would be fine to wear his hat. I also told him that I’ve even seen people wearing yarmulkes at the ballpark and added that nothing he could possibly wear would look out of place at Tiger Stadium.
We parked on a side street, a few blocks from the stadium. Downtown Detroit was filled with sights my parents didn’t often see in the sleepy little town where they lived in Florida and may have even brought up for them some bad memories of post WWII Budapest. I could feel their nervousness about the litter-filled streets, the boarded-up houses, the panhandlers and street people, the scalpers aggressively offering to sell us tickets, and the vendors loudly hawking everything from peanuts to T-shirts.
We picked up the tickets held for us at the will-call window and headed into the tunnel underneath the stands of the stadium. It was an hour and a half before game time, but the dingy tunnel was already crowded and noisy with people buying food, baseball hats, pennants and miniature bats at the concession stands. Occasionally a small group of children came running through the crowd — probably spurred on by a rumor, or a glimpse, of a player signing autographs in another part of the stadium.
We spotted our section and turned, heading up the ramp, into the ballpark. That first glimpse of the field never failed to delight and refresh me. I glanced at my parents and saw them also visibly relax at the sight of the lush green of the outfield, the beautifully raked red clay of the infield, the bright white uniforms of the players. The ballpark was a small, emerald isle of beauty in the sea of gray despair that surrounded Tiger Stadium.
The ushers remembered Laz and me from our previous visits and welcomed us warmly. They led us to our row and wiped the dust off the blue stadium seats. My wife, Brenda, her parents, Bill and Norma, Laz's wife, Helen holding their baby Daniel, were all with us. We watched batting practice and tried to explain baseball to our parents.
In all his years of living in the U.S., our father never developed a taste for the game. “Nothing happens. Not like football.“ (He was referring to soccer, calling it by the name it is known all over the world, except in the U.S.) “Now that’s a real game.”
I told my parents that the pitcher tries to throw the ball in such a way that the batter can’t hit it. And that the batter tries to hit the ball where the fielders can’t catch it. My father looked bewildered and I remembered a story he told me about the first, and only time, his father, Shaya, came to see him play soccer. After the game, Shaya said, “What a stupid game! You were trying to kick the ball in the net and that guy wasn’t letting you. And then there was that idiot blowing a whistle all the time — what was he doing?”
I explained about the home run. Everyone else chimed in with the intricacies of the double play, the sacrifice fly, the intentional walk. I could see that my parents were not following any of this. I marveled at how hard it was to describe a game you’ve learned simply by watching and playing. Like explaining the colloquialisms of your mother tongue to a foreigner.
Laz and I left the baseball tutorial to go warm up our voices. We found a deserted corner under the stands and began to sing. My voice was tight and my breathing uneven. Laz also sounded tense. We always got more nervous for this two- minute appearance than for almost any concert. Our parents being there added still more tension. But, after about fifteen minutes of singing and walking around in the stadium tunnels, we finally began to loosen up.
We headed back to our seats. My father-in-law was regaling my father about seeing Denny McLain start a triple play in a game in 1968. And how his wife missed the whole thing because she had leaned over to wipe mustard off their nephew’s chin.
A few minutes before game time, Jim Brylewski from the Tigers marketing department came to our seats and accompanied us down from the stands, through the little gate near home plate, and out onto the field. We stood on the cinder track surrounding the diamond and made small talk with Jim, with a member of the grounds crew who set up the microphone for us, and with the man who was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch that day.
Every few minutes Laz nervously blew into the small pitch pipe we use to get our starting note and we hummed it to ourselves, trying to memorize it. Because of the crowd noise we feared we might not be able to hear it when it was time to start. (The Star Spangled Banner is notoriously difficult to sing. It has a big range, an octave and a fifth, so it’s crucial to not start it too high or too low.)
The managers and umpires finished their meeting at home plate and Jim gave us the signal. Carefully stepping over the chalk line that connects home plate and first base, we walked to the microphone near the pitcher’s mound. We faced the flag in deep center field, about 450 feet away, with our backs to the crowded part of the stadium. Laz leaned away from the microphone and sounded the pitch pipe one last time as the PA announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please stand for the singing of our national anthem by Sandor and Laszlo Slomovits.” I knew from hundreds of hours of listening to games on the radio that up in the WJR booth Ernie Harwell and Paul Cary just finished announcing the lineups and were now telling the radio audience, "Let's go down to the field now for the singing of our national anthem."
A video image of us, taken from the back, was projected on the screen above the bleachers in center field. It was not a view I often had of myself. I noticed how bald we were — just like our dad. The words to the anthem were also projected line by line onto the screen. I looked away from them and focused on the flag instead. I worried that if the lines were flashed too fast or too slow, I'd get confused.
As on every previous visit to the stadium, I was struck by the sound of our voices, enormously amplified, echoing, coming from everywhere. The crowd began to roar as we held the last note on the word “brave” and nearly drowned out our ending. But the little cantorial cry in the voice that we’ve inherited from our father was clearly audible as we sang the word “home” in the last phrase.
We waved to the crowd and ran off the field. Our path took us near the visiting team’s dugout. Phil Garner, the mustachioed manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, had a big smile on his face and reached out to shake our hands. “Great job. Much better than what we usually hear.”
We made our way up to our seats a few rows behind home plate. Our father was visibly moved. He said with genuine warmth, “Was beautiful. It’s wonderful, people cheer like that for you.”
Here is a recording, made by Rob Martens, our longtime friend and musical colleague, of a WJR radio broadcast of us singing the anthem before a Detroit Tigers game. The recording also features the immortal voices of Paul Carey and Ernie Harwell. Go Tigers!