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Guestwords: Ghosts of Harmony

Wed, 06/01/2022 - 12:04

We enshrine the dead in cemeteries and bars, bedrooms and the mansions of our mind. I enshrined my departed dad during an all-star benefit concert in a theater he was forbidden to frequent as a youngster. I satisfied his spirit as Rosanne Cash sang about enshrining her departed dad in dreams and blood stream, grooves and galaxy.

We connected the cosmic dots at the State Theatre, a plaster palace in Easton, Pa., opened in 1926, four years after my father’s birth 10 blocks away. Then a movie/vaudeville house, it was condemned as a den of sin by his father, a fiery Mennonite minister hell bent to save his son from the corrupt “world” outside his congregation. Elder William Gehman vowed to whip Clarence, the youngest of his eight children by two sisters, if he dared commune with sexpots, gangsters, and lewd comedians. During his 19 years in Easton my dad never attended a State show; never heard Bing Crosby croon “After You’ve Gone” with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra; never watched Bert Lahr kvetch as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” a role my sister played in elementary school.

This chilly childhood was warmed by making ice cream, breeding Boston terriers, and performing for pay. My dad was an elementary schooler when he started singing hymns to his dad’s sermon listeners at Mennonite churches and missions in three states. Attractive ladies rewarded the boy’s pure, mature voice with nickels and dimes, pats and winks. Smart singing, he discovered, is basically selling by seducing. It was his first honest-to-goodness epiphany.

My grandfather’s sudden death in 1941 freed my father to be the rogue he needed to be. He joined the Navy, disqualifying himself as a religious conscientious objector. Six years later he was selling ads for a major fabric company in Manhattan, living in bohemian Greenwich Village, watching Jackie Robinson revolutionize baseball in Brooklyn. He sang saloon tunes in saloons, sea shanties with the celebrated Robert Shaw Chorale, dirty Irish ditties to my mother, an English Roman Catholic. In 1958, the year I was born, my parents joined a progressive Presbyterian church with African-American deacons and Asian-American elders, ditching their original oppressive faiths.

The same year Larry and Pat Gehman found bliss on the South Fork. The beach-and-farm paradise was delightfully different from my dad’s cramped industrial hometown — “like chalk and cheese,” to quote one of my mom’s favorite English folkisms. Over four decades Dad ran a barbershop-singing shop from Westhampton Beach to Montauk. His sure, smiling tenor graced the Whalers Chorus, directed by Don Clause, the notorious vocal coach and real-estate agent; a quartet Dad named after a hardware store in Marcus Hook, Pa., and “The Peddler’s Opera,” an operetta my ad salesman father wrote about a vain salesman’s comic comeuppance.

I loved Dad’s love of barbershop’s skin-tight harmonies and ringing chords, elastic dynamics and rhythmic gymnastics. I hated the musical boot camp he ran for my sister and me. He hammered into us the harmonies to “Silver Bells,” step by bloody step, while driving to summer errands at a Southampton department store, a Bridgehampton lumber yard, and a Water Mill nursery. At the time we desperately wanted to get back to bike riding and body surfing. In time we understood that Dad was just giving us the lifetime thrill of hitting notes that tingle the body and stir the soul. Meg gets this thrill as a singer, songwriter, and band leader; I get it as a choir tenor and music journalist.

In 1980 I graduated from Lafayette College in Easton, my dad’s alma mater. Six months later I began my newspaper career in next-door Bethlehem, home of a famous Bach festival. Over 20-plus years I covered the evolution of the State Theatre from dying movie house to thriving performing arts center. I reviewed everyone from Aretha Franklin to Jose Carreras to Ellen DeGeneres, whose then-partner, the actor Anne Heche, was filming her funny lover. The State became the fun oasis my dad never had, my shrine for entertaining redemption.

In 1995 I watched Johnny Cash and his relations turn the State into a gospel chapel on the prairie. Hearing him sing “Bird on the Wire,” Leonard Cohen’s prickly poem of penitence, I realized he could have been chiseled from my dad’s block of granite. Both men were lay preachers who made music to chase and corral their demons. Both tutored their children with their jukebox mouths. My dad had me memorize three dozen of his top tunes, everything from “One for My Baby,” the Frank Sinatra wee-hours standard, to “Honey/Little Eyes,” a standard of greased-lightning barbershop. Johnny Cash prepared his daughter Rosanne for a musical profession by compiling 100 country essentials, everything from “Motherless Children” to “Miss the Mississippi and You.” Both fatherly lists contained “Long Black Veil,” a gorgeously haunted tale narrated by a dead man visited by his best friend’s wife, whose adultery got him hanged.

My kinship with Rosanne Cash was sealed by her 2010 memoir “Composed,” a lyrical, drop-dead honest portrait of the healing beauty of music and love, forgiveness and the East End. I learned that we both mourned our dads while walking South Fork beaches — Beach Lane in Wainscott for me, Indian Wells in Amagansett for her. It was on Indian Wells that she welcomed the comforting vision of her father living on in her son, Jake, who was singing and moving “like a stuttering windmill,” merrily oblivious to a coming storm.

In January I learned that Rosanne would perform in a March gala gig at the State Theatre produced by a fellow friend. Boak Bash 2 was dreamed up by Dick Boak, the magnetic retired director of artist relations and archivist for Martin Guitar, the fabled maker of acoustic instruments in Nazareth, Pa., where my dad died in 2001, two years before Johnny Cash passed. Dick helped design and build customized, limited-edition guitars for all his headliners: Rosanne; the rock star Steve Miller, one of Rosanne’s teenage heroes; the country star Marty Stuart, a Johnny Cash confidant. All of them, including Johnny, are enshrined in the Martin factory museum that Dick co-created.

I quickly emailed Rosanne, inviting her to use the State concert to please the ghosts of both our fathers. I asked her to sing two signature numbers from her dad’s list for her: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the Hank Williams weeper, and “I Still Miss Someone,” which she convinced her sick, reluctant father to let her sing with him during his last show at Carnegie Hall. I told her I’d be listening from the front row of the State’s balcony, where my father would have sat, munching popcorn and chocolate, watching the 1937 Humphrey Bogart shoot-’em-up “San Quentin,” set at the prison where Johnny Cash premiered “A Boy Named Sue.”

Rosanne never zapped back. Her non-response didn’t bother me because her State set was a complete family affair. Accompanied by John Leventhal, her lead guitarist, producer, and husband, she sang “Long Black Veil”; “The Sunken Lands,” a tribute to her dad’s rock-solid mom, and “The World Unseen,” a panoramic view of her eternal bond with Johnny. Imagining herself as a sparrow and a rainbow, she embraced her dad’s spirit in Memphis and morphine, stars and dreams, “the rhythm of my blood stream” and “the grooves of songs we sing.”

Rosanne’s time machine whirlpooled me to Hampton Bays in 1990, when singing stopped me from giving up on my father for good. Divorced from his second wife, who cared for all his needs, Dad was living in a hovel, high on wine and low on lithium, noxiously obnoxious. We pacified ourselves by performing “My Way,” his anthem; “Helplessly Hoping,” which inspired my first original harmony (and which Crosby, Stills & Nash rehearsed in Sag Harbor for their first album), and “If With All Your Hearts” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” which he sang at the Presbyterian churches in Bridgehampton and East Hampton. We even broke out Dad’s clever lyrics to “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which the Gehmans sang while motoring to his mother’s house in Easton (“The car knows the score / It’s been there before”).

Music elevates magically, which is what happened when Rosanne and John slowed down “The World Unseen,” chiming guitars like soft bells. Their descending notes made my spirit ascend. I felt myself floating around the State’s chandelier, the wraparound friezes of heraldic shields, the Spanish-galleon boxes. Revelations jingle-jangled like doubloons. I noticed I had unknowingly booked a seat a baseball toss from the box where I saw k.d. lang with my mother. I remembered Mom’s recently discovered 1956-58 diary, a tender account of Dad distracting her with baseball games, dinners, and movies in Manhattan while she was bearing me.

And that’s when it dawned on me that my father loved to take his kids to movies in Manhattan because his father never took him to movies in Easton. Watching classics — “Young Frankenstein,” “Chinatown,” “The Exorcist” — allowed him to atone for his dad’s sin.

I wrote this essay to atone for not writing about taking my dad to the State. In 1991 he was living with me in Bethlehem, depressed and paranoid, victimized by a stroke that screwed up his speaking but not his singing. I decided to cheer him up with a duet in his once-forbidden den. Standing in the State’s balcony, we shared a lusty sea shanty set in Swansea, a Massachusetts coastal town founded in 1667, a year before Wainscott’s official birth.

In a flash Dad became his best South Fork self: chesty, zesty, tuned into pleasure. Easton blended with East Hampton, rivers with ocean, past with pastime. We proved yet again that harmony is all about fitting in, belonging, enshrining.

Geoff Gehman is a former resident of Wainscott, a journalist, and the author of “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons” (SUNY Press). He lives in Bethlehem, Pa., and can be reached at [email protected].

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