Remembering Lillian from “The Unlikely Convergence of Stories”
The next day, into New York City to finish the art for the CD. Finding P, before the trek uptown to see one of the major musical Shlomos who got into my head twenty years before and rearranged everything. This major musical Shlomo had changed everything and he was doing a rare show in the United States, in my favorite place, New York City.
I met P early to add the finishing touches to the CD, and he talked me out of homogenizing the name and retaining the ten universals that pulse and throb through all reality.
Shlomo was performing in the same place where I had been trying to land a gig. I got there a half an hour before the show so I could get a front row seat. I was accompanied by my friend Todd and his wife Izzy. I told them about Shlomo, trying to manage my enthusiasm, his influence on me so strong that I sometimes hear Shlomo when I sing.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”
“Oh ——– seven years.”
I wondered whether he was still on fire. I settled into the front row and dreamed. I was tired from a rich afternoon of conversation with Lillian, Ben-Zion’s widow, in the four story brownstone in Chelsea which is a museum to Ben-Zion, four floors full of his paintings, sculpture, collectible antiquities, books, obsessions. It had already been a delirious day.
I had brought Lillian a wonderful photograph of Turkish pottery that S, relative of Ben-Zion in my town, had given me to deliver to Lillian. S had taken the picture in Ankara and processed it through a Polaroid imaging technique that gave the picture a special cast with chemical turquoise overtones at the edges. It was beautiful and a good choice, I thought, it was just the type of image that intrigued Ben-Zion: the pottery, the shapes, the implied antiquity, the work of the hands.
Since I had written the article on Ben-Zion, Lillian and I had come to be friends.
“Jimmy, when were you here last?” Lillian asked me.
“Summer. Almost a year ago.”
I had read to her at that time an article as it was published that I had written on Ben-Zion. The article was as much about her as it was about Ben-Zion. She had corrected the three or four errors I had made in the text.
In the article, I mentioned that I open my concerts with an intention that I took from the image in Ben-Zion’s “The Psalmist.” When I stared into that piece, I saw King David clutching his instrument to his chest, not playing it, but I imagined the moment before he played it, a moment of silent intention, holding the instrument to his heart. Like David in that image, I opened my concerts by an embrace, holding my instrument silently to my chest.
After I had finished reading to her, she asked me to perform for her. “Jimmy, play for me.”
“I don’t have an instrument.”
“Here,” she went into the other room and came back with a flaccid frame drum that Ben-Zion no doubt picked up somewhere and dragged home. It was old and interesting looking and unplayable.
I beat out a little rhythm anyway, closed my eyes and began to sing. I sang three songs, my voice had opened in the dense August New York City humidity of that summer, my vocal quality in her kitchen was as good as it has ever been.
She told me that she loved my singing and songs. She described in an extra-musical way something central to the music that only the most perceptive or the best trained understand. It was one of the most insightful compliments to my musical abilities I had ever received.
She closed with this: “What’s a human being without a spirit?”