where the writers are
Last Meeting with Artie Shaw

 Last night, I went to an event sponsored by the ACLU, in San Francisco, and I happened to be talking with a gentleman who is a jazz afficionado.     The conversation reminded me of this piece I wrote in the summer of 2005 about my last meeting with the musical legend at his home in Newbury Park:

My grandfather, Moishe, a part-time cantor, on the lower east side, was bandleader Artie Shaw's uncle.   Artie credits Moishe for his musical talent. Artie was my mother's first cousin around whom ambiguous myths often grew up, but the one thing that remained clear, from the first, was that he was a writer.    In my early teens, I wrote him a letter to say that I, too, was a writer, but he never responded; not then, anyway.   

While living near Century City, a few decades later, I went out with a reporter who interviewed Artie.   He gave me his phone number which I held on to for months, waiting for just the right moment to call.  In the late 1990's, when poet, and acquaintance, Allen Ginsberg died, I heard that Artie was going to be at a tribute reading, in Westwood, so I called him not knowing what to expect.  We spoke for over an hour, thus the friendship began.  I was to visit him several times, over a period of two years, at his home in Newbury Park and, a few years later, give him a screenplay that I wrote which he read voraciously, meticulously scribbling suggestions in the margin as if it were his own.  A year or so before he passed, in December, 2004, Artie's sight was going.   He knew when he asked to see it that my screenplay would be among the last things he was able to read.

I remember calling on a Friday morning, in August, 2002, to tell him that his cousin, and my aunt, Sally Weisbord, died.  He asked when I was coming to pick up my screenplay which he was finished with.  I suggested I stop by the following day.  He said he may not be home, but not to worry – if he wasn't home, the script would be in the mailbox next to the front gate.

When I headed out to see him that Saturday morning, I didn't expect to find him home.    When I got to his house, the gate was locked.  As he suggested, I checked the mailbox, but it was empty.  I looked toward the house, and saw a light on, so I pressed the doorbell, and was buzzed in.   The front door was half-open.  I knocked, and heard someone yell out – "come in," and saw an older woman, Pat, heading out from another room.  I asked "Is Artie in?"  She pointed to the living room, and indicated that I go in.

Artie, in his usual garb – a pair of white tennis shorts, was sitting erect in his chair, staring motionless in front of him.   I thought immediately of Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," as he stared straight ahead poker faced.  He motioned for me to sit down, and pointed to the script.  "Like I said before, I think you're wasting your time with this," his voice as tired as his realization that, appropriately, his efforts to discourage me were futile.   He fumbled for a quote from Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet," the same quote he'd recited to me before how if I feel I "must write," well then go ahead.

He told me he wants his epitaph to read "Get Out," and laughed.  I felt suddenly like a worm under a microscope being gently prodded by the needle of a child during a science experiment.   Sometimes, while I told a story, he'd sit back in his chair with this grin on his face that would light up his eyes.  He'd nod his head back and forth thinking about genetics as I squirmed.

 Oddly, it seemed, at times, like Artie was an interloper in his own life, at one remove from himself, tuning his mind like a wayward instrument.   I wondered how anyone with his enormous gift could see playing the clarinet as little more than a gig, as just a way to make a living as he did.  He thought of himself first, and foremost, as a writer, which is one thing that came across loud and clear, in all our conversations; his admonition, "be judicious," about deleting this word or that, haunts me even now.

Have I heard from a friend of his who wants to hire a writer, he asks.    I shake my head.  He whispers, "I tried."   "I know," I say with the chilling, and pervasive, sense that this would be the last time we would ever see each other.  I ask if I can give him a hug, a request which surprises even me.   He looks at me quizzically, saying only, "I can't get up."  "Don't worry, I'll come to you;" I rush over to his chair, and hold him with all my might.

He hugs me back – a hug that is heartfelt, genuine, and downright riveting.   It felt as though he waited all his life to give someone a hug like that.  "I got one last thing to say to you, kid."  "What's that, Artie?"  I ask in the same tone one would expect a rookie to use on a mob boss.   "Keep on keepin' on… keep on keepin' on, kid," and he gives me a smile so wide, and big, that his eyes are absorbed by it, a smile so huge, it upstages even the hug, the wholehearted one, the one reserved for outlaws and artists, the one with his name on it.