I was standing in line for the bathroom and the sixtysomething guy in front of me told me to turn my Blackberry off, to leave my work at the office.
I was at Carnegie Hall for the teacher awards for the foundation Felice runs.
Before the event there was a dinner at the Trattoria across the street. After the main course, the six honorees were called upon to tell their stories. When they arose you saw no haute couture. But each of them radiated something from the inside, an electricity, a dedication to their work. Not a job, but a calling.
After crossing the street to the Hall, after getting my ticket ripped, I walked down to the stage. Not to look at the instruments there, but to gain perspective. To be able to look up to the upper deck, where I’d sat to see Elton John in June 1971.
It’s probably unfathomable to the younger generation that in the seventies you just had to put the tickets on sale, everything went clean almost instantly. Not that Elton John was quite the star he is today. That was another year off, with his "comeback" track, "Rocket Man". Oh, "Your Song" had been ubiquitous. But for the next eighteen months, Elton was an album rocker. His singles didn’t dominate the AM airwaves. He was the personal favorite of those who’d rather spend their money on records than food. And, how great those albums were. Not only the American debut, with the hit and "Take Me To The Pilot" and "Sixty Years On" and "The King Must Die", but "Tumbleweed Connection". And the soundtrack to the movie "Friends". And the live album "11/17/70". Four records in LESS than a year. A track record I can’t remember ANYBODY else having. And I bought them all. I was a major fan, I was addicted. I had to see him.
So I sent away for my tickets mail order. And ended up in the upper reaches of Carnegie Hall. Elton played "Indian Sunset", the opening track of the second side of "Madman Across The Water", which hadn’t been released yet, which wouldn’t hit stores until Christmas. And, of course, he finished the show with "Burn Down The Mission". Which we knew from the live record could go on for the better part of twenty minutes. And deep into the instrumental workout, Elton threw in a figure, unmistakable to those of us who bought every record, who knew everything. The riff from "Jesus Christ Superstar". Oh now that double album is a joke. But this was before the play, when the record was still cool. And it WAS cool, just see who sang on it. But, what makes the insertion of the riff so memorable is that ELTON knew it. This was before you had to synchronize your performance with machines, when you could throw in extraneous elements, when you could IMPROVISE! When you could make every show SPECIAL!
And I hadn’t been to Carnegie Hall since. Oh, I went a bunch as a kid, my parents educating me to music, but then I was a rocker, and very little rock ever showed up on 57th Street, and then I moved to L.A. But when I saw that spot in the balcony where I jumped up and exclaimed when Elton made that musical reference, my body tingled. It was thirty five years ago, but the memory was still crystal clear. I envied the boy who was so EXCITED!
So this man in the queue at the bathroom haughtily says I must be a lawyer. I told him I was once. But that was long ago. And now that I was a writer. And I lived for the responses. It wasn’t a chore to check my Blackberry, but often a key to excitement.
Then this gentleman confessed that he was an attorney. In Teaneck. Doing small town practice. Real estate, wills. And it was clear, he didn’t enjoy it much more than I had.
And we ended up in adjacent urinals. And as we did our business, this man continued the conversation. And turning to answer, it was then that I noticed his deformity. His left arm. It ended above the elbow joint. At its end was attached a seemingly unusable hand. I slowly averted my eyes. Not wanting to appear to stare. His life, with this substandard appendage, how hard had it been? But he was married, his daughter now worked with him, he was loved. Not that he was extremely lovable. But I felt good about society. That someone could overlook his imperfection, and accept the human being inside.
And with a newfound perspective, I turned to wash my hands and noticed this wasn’t a pretty crowd. This was not a Hollywood crowd. The clothes were oftentimes out of date. The grooming was not perfect. It wasn’t quite a motley crew, but it wasn’t that far away from it. You could tell everybody’s life had not been easy. But they’d showed up tonight to let the music set them free.
And that’s what music does. It takes you away from the mundane. It relaxes you, and as it continues your mind starts to drift. To a better place. Where you’re pretty. Where you’re in control of life. Where everything works out.
And back in my seat, I contemplated how no other art form provided such a service. Television never embraces you. And even movies are something you watch, in front of you. Whereas music SURROUNDS you, and then penetrates you.
And then Jane Pauley took the stage. And after recounting her own musical experiences, she revealed the names of the six award winners, and as they walked out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, there was rapturous applause. From an audience that cheered when Jane reminded them of a day when a requirement to teach was the ability to play the piano. And as I’m sitting there, tears are coming to my eyes.
You see they’re living the dream. From their outposts in San Francisco, New Orleans, Ohio, Georgia, they’d been called to the temple. The preeminent music venue in America. They’d practiced for decades, and here they were, on stage at Carnegie Hall. It was just a moment, but a story that would be told for the rest of their lives. An inner light they could rely on, as they continued to do their work unheralded.