January 6, 2014
A DATE WITH PHIL
MONTPELIER – I first heard of Phil Everly’s death on Facebook. Then an old friend now out in Utah sent me a link to a New York Times article about Phil’s passing – of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease aggravated by a lifetime of smoking – and quoting his often-alienated brother’s reaction. Then my friend added, “Still remember one of them walking down Market St. sometime in the late 50s and all the buzz in KV.” That remark certainly brought back a flood of memories.
Most folks think of the 50s, if they ever do, as a time of calm for the ship of State. The commander of the Normandy invasion was in the White House, playing golf as often as possible; the economy was booming, in spite of high taxes on the rich; American cars were evolving from the shape of soap bars into rocket ships. But at the same time the cold war on godless Communism was in full cry. Since 1941, when Walt Disney took out a full-page ad decrying an artists’ strike against his studio as the work of Communists, our suspicions had deepened into near-paranoia.
Hollywood, considered to be the spawning ground and refuge of the Left, was a favorite target of Congressional committees because any attack was bound to garner wide publicity. Many artists were blackballed and fired; some even went to prison for refusing to testify in star chambers.
But almost hidden beneath it all, as always, popular music was stirring the pot. Not Tin Pan Alley this time, but so-called “folk music.” The Almanac Singers, champions of leftist causes and labor unions, had disbanded under pressure during the war, but their songs had lived on. We sang them ten years later in storefront coffee shops in Greenwich Village as if they’d just been written.
The Almanac Singers morphed into the much-less-political Weavers, who were blacklisted by bureaucrats with long memories. We devotees all bought cheap guitars, learned the words to hundreds of songs and a few chords in our favorite keys, and began singing: for money, for fame, to get girls. In the spring I moved to the high peaks of the Adirondacks, and one night in the corner bar heard on the juke box for the first time a pair of country boys singing in “Appalachian brother harmony” – so close together they could be standing in the same shoes, with the higher voice almost a countertenor singing a harmonizing melody of its own. They were called the Everly Brothers, and the song “Bye Bye Love.” It went to the top of the charts. A few months later the Kingston Trio did the same with “Tom Dooley,” and everything in popular music changed.
The “KV” referred to in my friend’s e-mail is Keene Valley, a small village straddling NY Route 73 about 18 miles from Lake Placid. Beautifully alpine, the whole town still has only about 1000 year-round residents, and probably three times that when the summer folks come to their “cottages” on the mountainsides. My prep school roommate was a native. He introduced me to it one weekend, and I fell in love with the place. He left to seek his fortune; I arrived in my ancient Plymouth, moved into an unused leanto a couple of miles up in the woods, and found work.
It was a Keene Valley tradition for summer girls to fall for local guys. I met a charming Bennington coed from Manhattan. We climbed mountains, swam icy brooks, and swore undying love. The fall arrived, she left, and on Friday evenings I headed for Bennington in the Plymouth.
Then one week she wrote that she was coming north for the weekend with a friend from college and her boyfriend. They arrived Friday afternoon, crammed into a rented TR3, with the top down and my girlfriend and a guitar case sticking up from the jump seat. The red Triumph was enough of a jolt in that staid village – the summer folks favored Cadillacs and old woodies – but the driver was even more spectacular: Phil Everly, still riding high from “Bye Bye Love.” He was smitten with Jackie (none other than Archie Bleyer’s stepdaughter) and obviously eager to impress her; so, because we could see knots of people looking at us and whispering, he and Jackie decided to do whatever my girlfriend and I wanted to do.
We climbed a couple mountains. We dipped in the local swimming hole, and the next day I led them to a cave up on Pitchoff Mountain. Here we finally got a little closer. You have to lie on your side to fit through a crack in the cliff, and follow it into a right-angle turn. But the turn is counterintuitive: You have to bend backwards around it because otherwise your knees can’t follow you. I could hear a little panic in Phil’s voice, and as soon as it got really dark, he scrambled back out. Something about his daddy having been a coal miner – which he had been.
That evening at my girlfriend’s family’s summer cottage, freshly showered and fed, we got out guitars and started singing. There was not a note of R&B or ”Wake Up, Little Susie.” It was all old-timey songs he and his brother had learned in the Everly Family Singers’ school bus as it traveled the South: “Little Rosewood Casket,” “Silver-Haired Daddy,” “Omie Wise.” We sang into the early hours of the next morning, and that afternoon I watched the Triumph disappear up the Ausable Valley, the guitar case sticking up and a bare feminine arm waving good by beside it.
He wrote me a couple of times after that, laboriously, asking what books he might read to “bring myself up to Jackie’s level.” I’m embarrassed at my really stupid recommendations. Years later, I went backstage after an Everly Brothers concert in Hanover. He remembered, and asked if I’d married my girlfriend. No, thank God, I answered. “Well, I did mine,” he said, “and I’ve got the canceled alimony checks to prove it.” I wouldn’t have had Phil’s life for the world, but it was fascinating to share the songs and get a quick peek into it as it flew by. Requiescat in pace.