Friday, August 8, 2014

Bound For Glory

“Phil Shapiro came to Cornell as a graduate student in economics and started his show like many other folk-music DJs of the ‘60s, playing records from radio station WVBR’s cramped studios, then in the basement of Willard Straight Hall. He soon began to bring in performers for interviews and a few live songs, and then went on to concerts with a live audience.” (from Cornell Chronicle, September 5th, 1996).  The site of the attempted assault by the Delta Upsilon boys during the takeover of Willard Straight Hall by black activists in April 1969, the heavy oak and glass door on the south side of the building was also the door leading to the college radio station, WVBR, ironically therefore one through which I too would attempt to gain to a wider world and a wider notoriety though in a slightly different field of endeavor and with a guitar instead of locksnippers.

Phil Shapiro had graduated Brandeiss and come to Cornell to pursue his education and become a  disc jockey for the college station which ran his show “Bound For Glory” on Tuesday nights As the name suggested, was mostly focused on playing what, as Peter Schickele has pointed out, is often erroneously called, folk music. Occasionally he would have local musicians or groups perform live on his show and I fervently and rather constantly desired to be one of those lucky few.

Phil, in 1969 you have to understand, though he was about our age, looked more like a middle-aged Jewish man returning from the beach with a fraying plastic folding chair gripped under his arm. He was a prematurely balding, skinny with a bushy reddish moustache and a stubbornly inneffective comb-over that had an aymptotic relationship with his head. He wore only long sleeve rumpled white shirts over a (also like a Jewish grandfather) strapped (not with a gun but shoulder straps) ‘T’ shirt;  black horn-rim glasses that were always askew.  He was what we in Brooklyn generally and with vague sympathy would have called, a ‘schmo’. It was, however, his very unBrooklyny ‘folksiness’, that managed to save him from the ignominy to which we, his fellow Jews, would no doubt have otherwise heartlessly consigned him, and the fact was,  he was genuinely and sincerely interested in promoting the local music scene in Ithaca and local musicians even if their work didn’t conform strictly with his particular concept of innoffensive 'folkiness' which eventually gave us a chance to appear on his show.–Actually twice. 

The first time Phil had arranged for our rather raunchy acoustic trio which went under the name of “Raw Meat” ((composed of Hugh Cregg (later Huey Lewis), Chip (Gabe) Aiello and myself)) to perform live on a broadcast of his show from the coffeehouse at Anabel Taylor Hall. The following year I appeared again, this time with my own electric band called the “Greased Grapevine”, and this time direct from the cramped studio in the basement of the Straight.  Because we were the first (and last) electric band to appear on Phil’s show, it was an event which in my own mind I had inflated in importance to that of Dylan going electric at Newport, combined, for several extraneous reasons related to extra-musical substances and beverages we brought with us, with a bad supermarket accident (‘Cleanup in aisle blues’). 

We debuted on that second occasion an original song called “Peanut Butter in my Love” which at the time may have sounded shocking, but in the context of today’s sex-cum-fast-food-fetishists, underwear on the outside, Tom Jones clones appearing on just about every TV commercial for food may seem rather tame by comparison; the food and alcohol based havoc we wreaked on the studio was not.  It appears somewhat odd in retrospect that my entire early musical career was framed by some kind of food theme.  We had, for some odd reason, brought along jars of peanut butter and Boone’s Farm apple wine into the studio with us that evening, neither of which, as we learned shortly, are especially compatible with complex mechanical equipment.

I learned all this in 1995 while visiting for he 20th college reunion; that he had been honored by the Town of Ithaca for his work; “Last Sunday the show (Bound for Glory) began its 30th year, reaffirming its title as the longest-running live folk music radio show in America” and I ran into him on the street not long after that. By this time he no longer looked so much like a ‘schmo’ as a kind of, fringed-vest wearing prototypical semi-anonymous folk hero which is what Ithaca had over the years made him.

He was also by then also no longer skinny but, like me, definitively paunchy (to put it mildly) and wearing the fringed-leather vest and cowboy hat, bushy beard draped over, yep,- probably the same torn T-shirt probably purchased from Macys on Flatbush Avenue. By now, having comfortably grown into not only the larger size pants but his role as local legend, he had no real obligation to acknowledge me, (his one ‘walk on the wild side’) with anything but forgetful bemusement which is just what he did. The fact is, we had left his studio a terrible mess the second time we performed strewn with the Boone’s Farm wine, Ritz crackers, roaches and peanut butter all over the floor and the microphones and forgetfulness indeed seemed the logical choice.  He was however an infallibly good host and did not mention it,-- ever.  I therefore believe he deserves that award he got, not least for spending so much time in a place that smelled that bad but also for cleaning up the mess we had inadvertently left (and doubtless countless others after), probably having to use that stinky, metallic, acrid solution, whatever it, was and for being just ‘Phil’–no longer a schmo,–and that time I ran into him on the commons finally he had his glasses  on straight. Those of us who had got this far out ahead, those of us who weren’t dead,–well all of us found we were for lack of a better term, Bound for Glory.
Thanks in part to Woody Guthrie, from whom the title of the show (and this piece) was derived, politics and music in the sixties would remain indelibly wedded and thanks in part to the actions of a politico I call Little Red Fred which I will go into later, Phil Shapiro would to remain in every sense of the words, the ‘Master of his Domain’, not in the “Seinfeldian” sense but in that his domain that south corner of the “Straight” would remain forever inviolate,--and he and Woody Guthrie would be left to lord over it with an iron but very sympathetic and no doubt well-lubricated fist..

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