My name is Penny Evans and I’ve just gone 21
I am a young widow in the war that’s being fought in Vietnam
I have two infant daughters and I do the best I can
Now, they say the war is over, but I think it’s just begun.
((c) Steve Goodman)
Nervous? You damn well better believe I was nervous. When I decided I’d sing something at this year’s LawLaw Palooza (the annual fundraiser for the 11th District Bar Association’s Volunteer Attorney Program) I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, I sing a passable tune in the shower and I can sing adequate harmony to Eagles’ or CSNY classics while driving my blue Pacficia. But climb up on a stage in front of 250 folks, including childhood friends, family, judicial colleagues, and brother and sister lawyers, and carry a tune?
What the hell was I thinking?
I haven’t sang in front of a microphone since 1973, my senior year in high school, when my Episcopal church youth group put on a youth service and I sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar to a congregation of maybe fifty folks. I was fairly certain, as I considered whether to try my chops forty-one years later, that my voice hadn’t gotten sweeter with age. But I had watched the previous year’s event at the Mitchell Auditorium at St. Scholastica from the cheap seats and had thought, Those folks are having a lot of fun. I had even emailed my pal, guitarist and singer, Mark Rubin, right after the show and proposed that we collaborate on something the next time ’round. A year passed and I was asked, along with Sally Tarnowski (a sister judge with a great sense of humor) to MC this year’s show. My email to Rubin came back to me.
Maybe Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”…
I’d seen the Wallflowers do the song with Jordan Zevon, the dead musician’s kid, on Letterman. Their version blew me away. The wheels started turning. I said “yes” to the MC gig. I pondered the song.
In the end, I decided to stick with something familiar, something I knew by heart. Steve Goodman’s “The Ballad of Penny Evans”, the most beautiful protest song ever written, came to mind. I first heard the song when my 19 year old wife-to-be and I sat wide-eyed and in awe, along with a hundred or so other UMD students, in the Kirby Student Center and listened to Goodman himself perform the ballad a Capella. Just Stevie standing, his guitar hanging from his back, in front of a mic stand, alone, one man and his music against the tragedy of war. Brilliant. Poetic. The song was, and is, everything I love about folk music and folk musicians.
I can do “Penny Evans”.
Without much thought, I emailed Amy, the young lawyer who recruited me to MC, and let her in on my plan to “do something” during the show. Now, folks who know me know that statement could mean any number of things, including things that might not be suitable for a benefit concert. But Amy didn’t pry. She just said, “You’ll be great.”
Then I heard a cut of “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”, a Warren Zevon ballad that recalls, in its essence and vibe, the great Irish laments. Jill Sobule covered the song on the Zevon tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich and hit the song out of the park. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEWmkHc3zGk.) I didn’t know the lyrics but, as the tune only has two verses, I thought it was something I could learn in a few months’ time.
I’ll do them both.
I kept my little secret from everyone. I practiced the tunes, driving to and from work, a Capella, at the top of my lungs, until I was literally sick of the words.
I think I can do this.
Like many authors (Amy Tan, Steve King, Dave Barry), I’m a frustrated rock star. Or folkie. Or bluesman. Lacking the talent to learn an instrument (elementary school piano lessons aside) and a very limited second tenor range to my voice, never having sang true four part harmony in public, I turned to putting words down on paper to feed my creative muse. I haven’t hit a home run with my writing either but at least I’ve kept myself productive enough to satisfy whatever demons are lurking in the depths of my artist’s soul. Thinking it through, doing two songs, just before intermission, a Capella, wasn’t brave, as some have said who witnessed the attempt: it was downright foolish. That said, I wanted to keep my practice sessions wholly private and undiscovered. Even my wife, Sally-my co-MC, and my staff at work, all of whom attended the event, remained in the dark. The only one who knew I was “up to something” was Amy. On the printed program for the event, my time to shine or fail was simply noted as “TBA”. To be announced? To be avoided? Whatever.
As the week of LawLaw Palooza crept towards the fateful evening, my stomach churned. My voice creaked and groaned. I began to worry that I’d spit into the mic, that I’d forget the words to one or both of the songs, that I’d simply look out into the crowd and decide, “No way in hell.” And then I was there, with Sally, doing our routine in tuxedos, bantering with musicians, all the while realizing the dreaded time was but moments away.
They say that when you become a judge, lawyers will laugh at your jokes and revel in your stories no matter how stupid, insipid, or convoluted they might be. Maybe that’s what folks did after I stood in the spotlights, my tux jacket off, my hair streaked with sweat, my shirt sleeves rolled up, and belted out my two songs, claiming my ten minutes of fame. Or maybe I actually did Steve and Warren and my departed friend Collin (a musician and human being of the first rate to whom I dedicated my efforts) proud. I’ll never really know. But despite the time spent in the john, the anxiety, and the trepidation, I had a whale of a good time singing the Penny Evans.
Here’s to next year…
PS To see Stevie do the Penny Evans justice, go here and marvel at a wondrous song and singer.