We lost two musicians of very different stripes within the last two weeks. Both were known for their astounding technique.
The first, you have heard about. Van Cliburn single-handedly -- perhaps two-handedly -- reawakened classical music in the United States with his stunning performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958. In Moscow – at the height of the Cold War – he received an eight-minute standing ovation.
This put the Russian judges in a terrible quandary. Could they award the first prize in this inaugural quadrennial competition to an American? The call went out, all the way to Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was the Great Satan of my childhood, but the years since have been somewhat kinder to him as we have tasted the brutality of his successors and learned the crimes of his predecessor Stalin, a murderer of civilians of Hitlerian proportions. And when the judges’ tremulous inquiry reached him, Khrushchev is reported to have asked: “Is he the best?” When told that he was, Khrushchev answered: “Then give him the prize!” And they did.
In 1962, I was ten years old and had little awareness of Van Cliburn other than thinking that it may have been the coolest name ever. Then one day my sainted Aunt Geneva came to visit. A lovely woman, and the kindest soul ever, who loved her niece Susan and nephew Steve. She was a piano teacher in Wichita at the time, and worked for a company called Underground Vaults and Storage, which sold storage space in the abandoned Carey salt mines in Kansas. Those deep caverns were dry, tornado-proof, and perfect for preserving stuff like the original prints of the movie “Gone With the Wind” and many other important things, but none more important to Aunt Geneva than the childhood scribblings of Sue and me. The storage space was said to be able withstand a nuclear blast, an important consideration in those more jittery times. I have since wondered if archaeologists who survived Armageddon would ever encounter Aunt Geneva’s treasures down there and wonder whether Steve Lawson’s first grade poem “The Sun” was an exemplar of pre-apocalyptic literature.
During her visit, she gave me a program from a concert she had recently attended in Wichita:
She opened it to an inside page, and there was Van Cliburn's autograph. I didn't have any autographs of anyone; I don't know what my reaction was, but I hope for Aunt Geneva's tender sake I at least feigned excitement. I saved it, of course, and on the occasion of Cliburn's death I hit the Steve attic archives to track it down. As an Internet search revealed, Van Cliburn was very generous with autographs, and they may be had on eBay fairly cheaply.
But I wonder how many people have Van Cliburn’s and his mother’s autograph on the same page?
The autographs appear to be in pencil – apparently a rather hard graphite, since they are faint. Cliburn’s signature is the vertical one on the right-hand page. Also appearing is the signature of the conductor, James P. Robertson, and, at the top right: “With best of wishes, Rildia Bee Cliburn.” Cliburn lived with her, his first piano teacher (she was trained by a student of Franz Liszt and was very accomplished in her own right) in Fort Worth until she died in 1994 at 97.
In this way I came to know better who Van Cliburn was.
The years passed. Then one day when I was in high school, something possessed me to get interested in classical music. What should I start with? Well, sure, Van Cliburn. I bought a cassette of his massive best-seller “My Favorite Chopin.” I would play it over and over, along with “The Best of Peter Nero,”while tending the miniature golf shack at Bronco’s in Bellevue. I was taking piano lessons at the time, and I could not understand how a human being’s fingers could move so quickly and so accurately across the keyboard and actually have to play the black keys sometimes while doing so. That album also opened my eyes to Chopin, who sounded quite modern to me, and still does. In later years, I learned the Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1. (Three sharps! It was surely someone else playing that, and it should have been because I played it badly. I had better luck with the Prelude in E Minor, much more my speed.)
He retired from performing in 1978 at 44, but in 1994 he went on a 16-city tour with the Moscow Symphony, and I was fortunate to see him in San Diego. He performed the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos. It was thrilling, but I thought his performance was just a bit off. I heard some missed notes, not that I was intimately familiar with the scores, and in some passages he hit two notes intending to hit one. But his charisma and charm flowed over the footlights and he could have been playing “Heart and Soul” for all anyone cared.
* * *
I never lost my interest in classical music, but like all males of college age, and as my tinnitus now attests, my attention turned to rock-and-roll. Thanks to Yale roommate Alan Ringel, I received a fine education in that most invigorating of art forms, and I was especially drawn to the technicians of the guitar.
In those days, before any of us had developed any real taste in music, the question was – who was fastest? My first guitar-hero crush was Johnny Winter, the albino guitar slinger from Beaumont, Texas. His beautiful and scorching solos on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” off of “Johnny Winter And – Live” blazed out of the JBL speakers every room seemed to have. We would listen to it during our bridge sessions after dinner almost every night, and I can still whistle passages of his incredible fretwork from that song.
But no one was faster than Alvin Lee.
These days speedy guitar players are all over the place. Many quickly learned the two-hand hammer-tap popularized by Edward Van Halen, and there are many amazing guitarists out there these days who spent their afternoons up in their bedrooms with their Stratocasters dreaming of the chicks they were going to get after they dazzled the crowd with their jaw-dropping fretwork. (Edward himself married Valerie Bertinelli.)
But Alvin Lee, the front man for Ten Years After who died last week at 68, did it all the old-fashioned way, firing away on his signature red hollow-body Gibson 335. He and the band vaulted to stardom with their performance at Woodstock. They sold a lot of records but their dedication to British blues, in turn based on good-old-red-blooded Chicago blues, instead of hummable pop, kept them from breaking through to the really big time. The first time I heard “Spider in My Web” off of "Undead" I could not believe what I was hearing. Here it is, a slow blues, it does go on a bit -- but about six minutes in, hold on to your chapeau: "Spider in My Web" -- Ten Years After, Live
Now, as I learned over the years, velocity like Lee’s was not unknown to jazz fans. Players like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin were also incredibly fast players. McLaughlin in particular stunned rock fans when he crossed over to space-rock-jazz-fusion with The Mahavishnu Orchestra (saw them in New York on a bill with my all-time guitar hero Jeff Beck), and I still love “The Inner Mounting Flame” and "Birds of Fire."
But there is something about those old blues-influenced players – Lee, Winter, Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Roy Buchanan, many others – that make those Gibsons and Fenders stand on their hind legs and bite.
But the only thing I was ever fast on was a typewriter. A skill not of much interest to chicks.
Van, Alvin – RIP.