Friday, February 10, 2017

The Meet & Greet -- Not Really What You Think

With The Tempations on 26 January 2017 at Kalamazoo State Theatre
The Meet & Greet

Ever since I started buying concert tickets, I have noticed that there is a special category that exists for some shows called the Meet & Greet or the VIP Meet & Greet.  The only concert last year that I toyed with the idea of paying the extra fee to attend a Meet & Greet was The Steve Miller Band concert (), but there was no such category of ticket.  I did buy VIP seats to the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert last July, but we all know how that concert turned out.

This year, I opted to buy Meet & Greets for two shows, The Temptations at Kalamazoo State Theatre and the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at 20 Monroe Live!   

Otis Williams
My choice of those two particular shows was easy, The Temptations are legends and of American music an Lynyrd Skynyrd has been my favorite band -- forever.  Using those for the basis of how Meet & Greets are conducted, because there was so much in common with both experiences, I thought I would share with you what I thought was good and bad about it.  Bottom line up front:  The Meet & Greet is not what you think; it is a brief drive-by which includes a photo op and may or may not include a handshake.  Do not expect any real interaction or discussion.  You will never get a chance to ask that question you had about that one lyric from your favorite song.

In the case of The Temptations, the Meet & Greet was held for about two dozen people 30 minutes prior to the show starting -- from what I can tell this is pretty much standard. However, all this allows is 50 seconds per person with the artist. Whereas you might call this a Meet it definitely isn't a Greet.  All of the participants are lined up, and then shoved through one at a time to have a picture taken with the artist. In the case of The Temptations, someone from the theater operated your camera to catch a picture of you with the group.  The Good: You didn't have to worry about taking the picture because someone else was taking care of that for you, The Bad: You have no idea if the once in a lifetime picture is good or bad until much later – – a bad picture and you're stuck with it having paid for it in advance.  Luckily, the person who used my camera took three pictures. As a result, when I was looking at the pictures the next day I was able to use Photoshop to come out with one good image – – because in each one of the three pictures at least one of the band members had their eyes closed, or a strange expression on their face.  

I went last in the line of people, and as a result I was able to get an autograph of everyone in the group. This was a big plus in my book, and made the extra charge worthwhile, but this is far from the norm. I was also able to have a brief discussion with a few of the group members (Larry Braggs and Otis Williams) as I walked with them from the Meet & Greet room to the stage, that also made the extra fee worthwhile because I shared a brief moment with some music legends.   

With Lynyrd Skynyrd on 3 February 2017 at 20 Monroe Live!
For the Lynyrd Skynyrd Meet & Greet, I had brought a brand-new guitar with me to have them sign. I did contact the band’s agent and the venue to get permission for this prior to the show.  Getting the guitar into the venue was no problem, getting it into the room for the Meet & Greet was impossible.  This time there were 21 people lined up for the Meet & Greet to have one of their Road Managers take the photo of you with the band. The Good: I did not even have to take out my phone and the camera being used was on a tripod with extra lighting.  The Bad:  The photo was horrible, because it looked like Johnny Van Zant was about to sneeze. This time, since I only had one photo with me in it, I ended up downloading several different photos that were taken that night in order to Photoshop a decent image together. Again, for what I paid I would've been really pissed off if I had not been able to get that image fixed.

Johnny Van Zant Out Take
The purpose of Road Managers is to be the Asshole for the band.  No band or celebrity would ever turn down a fan request for an autograph, it would make them look like jerks if they wouldn't take a minute to sign their name for a fan. However, there is a Road Manager who has no problem telling you No; that is his job and that is what he is supposed to do in order to have some control over the band’s time. My issue with this system, is that the Asshole Road Manager is disconnected from the fans and therefore has no appreciation what one goes through or pays just to get that opportunity for an autograph. 

I will not go into detail as to what happened between myself and the Road Manager or how I eventually got my guitar signed by the three members of the group whose autographs I sought (Johnny Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Mickey Medlocke).  I will say you can’t asshole a Road Manager, but being firm and reasonable does help.  What matters to me is that in the end, I walked away with the most prized piece of memorabilia in my entire

My Favorite Souvenir - Ever
I am very happy with it and feel the price paid was worthwhile because I was able to get it signed. I am not sure how I would've felt about paying as much as I did for a bad picture and no autograph -- but I guarantee you I would've been a total asshole about it.  For what it's worth I do understand their need to safeguard the autograph because it does have value and many people seek autographs just to resell them. I would gladly have signed an affidavit that I would never sell the autograph that I obtained.

In Summary

Meet & Greet opportunities are great for those groups that you truly count as your favorite, if the performer is not --- it is simply setting fire to money. Most of the Meet & Greet opportunities I have seen include a special T-shirt, a limited-edition lithograph, exclusive merchandise, or a poster -- so there are some concrete things you end up with after the show; but for the true fan those items are really no big deal. What most fans want is that opportunity to actually shake hands with somebody they greatly admire and perhaps get an autograph or a quick question answered. Unfortunately, there is always a Road Manager who standing there shaking his head and they will do it without concern for the fan. You are almost much better off standing outside the theater and waiting for the band to come in prior to the performance or leave at the end of the night in order to get an autograph.

As for me, the only other band that I would seriously consider paying to attend a Meet & Greet opportunity for is one that doesn't even exist anymore:  The Beatles.

Post Script: As I mentioned above, I walked into the venue with the guitar in a backpack case to have it ready for the Meet & Greet.  I had seen people do this many times before, once actually presenting guitar to the artist in the middle of a song to have them sign it from the stage. As you can imagine, I did get questions from a lot of different people as to why I was walking around with guitar on my back  Here are a few of the answers I gave, with an absolutely straight face:  "I am the opening act" (actually said this while the opening act was on stage), "I play back up rhythm guitar for Skynyrd" (was asked for an autograph), "I am the luthier for the band, working on a new guitar for Rossington" (begged to see it), and "What guitar?  Are you making fun of my guitar shaped mole?" (the girl apologized for asking).  When I was getting a drink, a gentleman (that I found out later was the owner of the property) asked me if I was aware I was being attacked by a guitar. Apparently, I am not the only one with an offbeat sense of humor.


Friday, February 3, 2017

At Last --- Lynyrd Skynyrd!

Laith Al-Saadi

Photo by Anthony Norkus Photography
A few weeks prior to the concert, I happened to catch an interview with Laith on NPR. He was talking about how not winning on The Voice but as a result got a lot of publicity and attention that he never would've gotten if he had. During that interview, they played a lot of the music that Laith had performed during the season he was on The Voice – – just snippets here and there and all of it covers. Tonight, I had a chance to hear some of his original work instead of just covers.

Laith is one of the best bluesman I've ever heard live. He has dark flowing hair and a large beard, and a name that doesn't match anything that you would expect of a bluesman but he is outstanding to listen to. His voice is clear and strong adding so much to every single song because his backing lead guitar is so on point. Not a single wasted note, and every note played for effect.

I hated that I had to miss part of his performance to go to the Meet & Greet with the headliner, but I took a few moments the next day to locate several of his albums and download them from various vendors. I can't wait to hear more of his music, both covers and originals, and I have added him to my search routine for performers that are performing locally. Would love to see him as the headliner.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

My attendance at this concert was almost 40 years in the making.  I related my story of prior attempts to go to see Lynyrd Skynyrd in my entry about My Summer of Live Rock & Roll.  As part of my plans for last summer, I bought VIP seats for July’s Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at DTE, but as a result of Gary Rossington requiring emergency heart surgery that concert was canceled.  The only reason that I even found out about this concert was a small blurb on line about a new venue opening in Grand Rapids (more on that later).  Lynyrd Skynyrd was the official Grand Opening concert for the 20 Monroe Live!

Details about my experience for the Meet & Greet is covered in another entry, so I will talk about their performance only here -- and it was awesome. Someone had told me last year that the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert they saw was all done with the band seated, just playing their songs.  If that was true, things changed after Gary's recent heart surgery. These guys were all over the stage, giving a great performance with great music and vocals.

For a Skynyrd fan such as myself, the performance was a gold mine of the greatest hits of the band. They did not bother with stuff off their last album or things from the period of time when they were the Rossington-Collins Band -- everything was pure classic Lynyrd Skynyrd.

They opened with Workin' for the MCA and then went right into What's Your Name and You Got That Right.  The audience was totally fired up, on their feet, and singing along. I once heard Ronnie Van Zant explain the lyrics of That Smell in an interview and I have to say that it is undoubtedly the best song about the downside of drug addiction I have ever heard.  

The band did a great shout-out in honor of veterans, those on active duty, and those related to folks currently serving in the military and then performed Simple Man as a tribute to them. Excellent. Among the other favorites of mine they played were Gimme Back My Bullets, Tuesday's Gone, and Call Me the Breeze.  The band was having a good time, the audience was right there with them.

During the entire concert, Gary Rossington ended almost every song by playing the distinctive first three or four notes of Sweet Home Alabama right as the applause trailed off.  It felt like he was teasing the audience with it, because a natural assumption was that it was going to be the next song played. You could almost hear everyone in the audience hold their breath when those notes were played, waiting for the next bit of song to confirm that it was indeed the one that they thought it was.  It was not until the last song of the concert set list that they actually played a dynamite take on Sweet Home Alabama.

I have never been to a single concert ever were at least once someone didn’t yell “Free Bird!” at the band until tonight. I am sure that everyone in the crowd knew that Free Bird was going to be the encore so no one bothered to call it out. Sure enough, after several minutes of applause that followed their last song, a single spotlight appeared and shone upon a full-sized grand piano that had Lynyrd Skynyrd murals painted on it.  A large silver eagle was sitting on top of the piano having mysteriously appeared after the band left the stage. After a few more minutes of applause Peter Keys came out and sat down and started playing those familiar notes.  Awesome way to end the show.

I really enjoyed the band's performance, and this is one of those groups where substitute musicians have taken the place of some of the primaries over the years without affecting the spirit of the band.

Lynyrd Skynyrd lives!

The Venue

As I mentioned before, this was the first official concert at 20 Monroe Live! in Grand Rapids; as such, there was some confusion by employees as they were dealing with the first crowd but I have to say that they didn't excellent job. Everybody who worked there was friendly, polite, and helpful.

The venue is a horseshoe shape with multiple levels. The bottom level was standing room only Electric Light Orchestra in Frankfurt, Germany. The problem then, as now, is that if you want to see well you have to get there early and stand directly in front of the stage while people behind push you forward into the barriers. If you are further back than 5 or 6 folks, you cannot see over the top of people's heads. It is kind of a frustrating setup if the reason why your attending is to actually see the band.
directly in front of the stage. The last time I went to a concert that was laid out like that was in the 1980s; when I saw the
Ringing the upper floors was a walkway where you could stand and watch the band, as well as several rows of seats on one side and the back of the house. Those seats in the back of the house were probably the best in the house as they had a direct view of the stage and were above the crowd below. Also, the seats were tiered like stadium seats so you didn't have to worry about someone in front of you blocking your view, and less they stood up.

The sound, hit a few rough spots during the first number but then smoothed out and delivered for the rest of the performance. Likewise, the lights  at 20 Monroe Live! were well handled and you could see everything perfectly.  There were bars on both the upper and lower levels, as well as a VIP room on the upper level. There were adequate bathrooms, which were well maintained during the show. As far as getting the crowd in and out, I don't recall seeing any issues there, and even though the doors opened a bit after the scheduled time there was no issue getting everybody in before the music started.

Will I be back at 20 Monroe Live! again? Maybe, if the band is a good one as the venue is closer than the ones in Detroit. However, there was a lot of confusion about the tickets that people had bought.  My package was labeled as VIP Meet & Greet tickets; to me this meant I should've had seats somewhere near the front but instead I was told that they were General Admission and I could stand anywhere that it was okay to stand. For the price paid, I should've gotten a damn seat; especially when the seats on the upper deck along the back wall were mostly empty until people started seat jumping into them after the main act began.

I am sure they will eventually work those issues out, but I just hope that unlike many shows that are booked through Ticketmaster you will have some control over where your seat actually is rather than the random lottery system that seems to place you all over the theater rather than where you actually want to sit.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I Am I Said

Any regular reader of my blog is probably wondering if the it has been undergoing some kind of identity crisis over the past two months.  When started, the blog was written under the author name Traveler from 2009 to January 2017, then under the name Sheldon Charles from then until now.  Now it is under my name, but perhaps an explanation is in order.

When I started writing this missive, I was also starting to relearn how to ride a motorcycle.  As a result of that event and my 50th birthday, I decided it was time to start writing down things I was thinking and events that were happening to me – so I started the blog and used the single name Traveler, my riding nickname. 

For several years, I wrote about my love of riding and the various adventures I was having.  Then my job took me to Kuwait.  So, the focus of the blog shifted, from riding to the day to day experiences I was having living and traveling through the Middle East.  I also started a more disciplined approach to writing by making an entry every week versus my prior when I feel like it schedule. The author name remained the same because for operations security reasons tying it to my real identity might jeopardize my safety.   It was during this time I wrote and published my first novella (Three Paperclips & A Grey Scarf ); also released under the name Traveler. 

Life went on and I returned to the United States with many stories still flying around my brain.  When the time came to transition from my service to America to something I wanted to do, I spoke to several people about my future as a writer.  One piece of advice I got was:  Unless I was already famous and using a single name as a nom de plume (i.e. Cher, Sting, etc.) or unless I was planning on writing low end erotic fiction – I needed to use a two-name pen name.  Since Lemony Snickett was already taken, Sheldon B. Charles was born.

At the time, I thought it made sense to use that name for everything I was writing, including this blog, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that was not really what I trying to do by using a pen name.   I thought about an author who I deeply admired and who also used a nom de plume – Samuel Langhorne Clemons.  When he wrote books, he did so under the moniker Mark Twain but when he wrote opinion pieces or for the newspaper he wrote under his own name.  Ben Franklin was another who used a pen name for some writing (in fact he used several); but when he was expressing his own thoughts he wrote under the name Benjamin Franklin.  While I would never compare myself to either man as an author, I do know how to follow a good example when I see one.

Starting today I am changing the author name and link to this blog ( to my own; as my blog is about me – my thoughts, remembrances, experiences, random ramblings, and images.   However, Sheldon Charles is my story teller/raconteur alter ego and he creates characters, writes dialog and creates a fictional world of adventure.  Since the two of us do get along well, you may see the occasional cross post or link from one to the other.




Saturday, January 28, 2017

My Musik Trifecta at Kalamazoo State Theatre – Part III: Blackberry Smoke & The Steel Woods

This concert was affected by the notorious weather of Michigan. It was originally scheduled to start at 8 PM with The Steel Woods leading off followed by Blackberry Smoke. However Blackberry Smoke was delayed on the road and the venue opted to have The Steel Woods perform as scheduled and the delayed Blackberry Smoke go on stage at 10:30 PM. This left the audience with an approximate two hour intermission between the two acts. Which means, the warm up band really wasn't a warm-up it actually became an act all its own. To give the credit where it is due, the theater did arrange for discounts to be given by the bars and restaurants right in the vicinity so if you wanted to you could leave the theater and enjoy a quick bite to eat or drink between the two performances.

The Steel Woods

I had never heard of The Steel Woods before this evening, but I am satisfied that all of us will be hearing more from them in the future. They did a dynamite performance that had Not only covers but also some of their original material. The cover they did of The Allman Brother's Whipping Post was everything that it could possibly be. They downplayed the keyboard replacing it with strong guitar riffs, the vocals were dynamite, the solos and breaks were awesome and the drums were excellent. Even though their original songs were unfamiliar, they were instantly likable with great hooks. I have often found that Southern Rock is really hard to define because it is somewhere betwixt and between Country, Blues, and Hard Rock, but these guys were dead on that genre. When the intermission occurred, rather than going to grab a bite to eat or a drink, I chose to hang out in the lobby of the theater and had a chance to meet the band, and have my photo taken with them. Really nice guys who appear to be dedicated to their music. I even opted to buy a copy of their CD so that I could enjoy their music again later.

I was only peripherally aware of Blackberry Smoke until a few months ago. My frustration at the cancellation of the July Lynyrd Skynyrd concert convinced me that I might need to look for other bands that perform the same style of Southern Rock.  A search of the Internet led me to several different bands who were considered to be heirs apparent to Lynyrd Skynyrd's legacy,  the one that always topped the lists  was Blackberry Smoke. I was unaware of it until later but I had already heard the group before on the One More For the Fans CD performing Workin' For the MCA. I was in the process of checking out their albums when it was announced that they were coming in concert to the Kalamazoo State Theatre, .So I decided to give him a chance to impress me in person and I grabbed some tickets.

They actually went on stage about 10:15 PM, not wanting to hold off any longer than necessary I guess. They performed six songs before they took the first break to say a word other than a quick Thank You for the applause at the end of each song. They were  excellent and the band worked well together,  I don't recall hearing a cover song all evening, but their style of play and the way that their original songs were arranged could easily be called Skynyrdesque. If they are reading this, I hope they take that is the complement that I mean it to be. 

It is bold to open a show with a song that is a cover,  the only way to do it is to make it so much your own that people see it as belonging to you in spite of the prior version.  The way Smoke played Little Richard’s Southern Child was a lesson in how to open with a cover.  They owned it – I didn’t even think of the Little Richard version until midway through the song.  The only covers they did was midway through the show when they did some Led Zeppelin covers (Sleeping Dogs / Your Time Is Gonna Come-Black Dog) and during the encore.  My feelings about d with doing in encore with a cover is the same as opening with one – they owned that too.

High points to me during the show were Six Ways to Sunday, Waiting for the Thunder, Ain't Got the Blues, and Payback's a Bitch.  Every song they played was good in its own right, but those stood out and stayed with me.  Most of the songs were off their recently released Like an Arrow album.  Overall, the the show, was very tight. They had little dead air between tunes and they moved from one song straight to the next without taking long stretches to talk. 

After their last song, they performed an additional three tunes as an encore; including a Little Feat cover of Fat Man In The Bathtub and The Allman Brothers Band tune Southbound. The concert wrapped up at about a quarter past midnight -- which means they performed a solid two hour show.


Friday, January 27, 2017

My Musik Trifecta at Kalamazoo State Theatre – Part II: America & Steve Forseman

Steve Forseman

This warm up act was a good choice.  He played folk/folk-rock which matched America’s genre.   Steve had a great voice and filled the theatre with music even as a sole musician.  My only complaint was that his performance was just too short, only about 30 minutes.  I would like to have heard more and I am sure that just like Jonny 2 Bags   we will hear from Steve again.  

It was a brave and unusual choice to finish with a David Bowie song as an acoustic performer, but he did it well.


I have often marveled that many of the groups from my teenage years still sound so great. This surprise is true of the vocals in particular, which are effected more by age than playing an instrument.  Of the concerts I have seen in the past two years,  only Heart’s show last year could be called a disappointment. 

When America crossed the stage, and started to play Tin Man I was hopeful that the standard I was used to would again be met -- but that did not last long.  When Gerry Beckley started to sing solo, I realized things were definitely not as they should be.  

For the first 5 or 6 songs, any song that called upon Gerry to sing solo or to sing with background vocals and not as part of a harmony was disappointing.    His vocals were either flat or he strained to reach the higher notes and often fell short.  Daisy Jane was bad.  I looked around me and I was not the only one who noticed that this was not good.   A few songs into the show, when America was performing Driving it improved was slightly, but he was still not hitting the upper range. 

Without a definitive reason, I am left to wonder about the cause:  was he having problems hearingown voice and could only stay on key when he had someone else match pitch with or did he just fail to warm up properly?  In contrast, Dewey Bunnell’s vocals were consistently good through the whole concert.  Ventura Highway and the cover of California Dreamin’ were both great.  

The sole saving grace was that overall the music played during the concert was superb.  

To give credit where it is due, Gerry did play well.  His guitar (6 and 12 string/acoustic and electric) was very good and enjoyable to listen to.  He also gave a good performance on keyboard and harmonica.  Dewey’s playing was likewise on target.  I was unaware that he only played guitar until this concert, but he supplied steady rhythm guitar throughout.

Richard Campbell gave a solid performance playing bass and providing the harmonizing vocals that had been historically provided by the late Dan Peek.  I did get the feeling that he wanted to do more but was prevented from really busting loose by the front-men.

Ryland Steen is a great drummer.  He was more than just a rhythm keeper, elevating the drums and making them a vital part of every song.  America performed a cover of The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby and the drums, which were almost non-existent in the original recording, were brought out by Ryland giving the song a truly new interpretation.  He was entertaining to watch as well and seemed to be having a great time contributing to every number.  Ryland is truly the best drummer I have ever seen live and he is now in my list of the top 3 drummers of all time.

Andy Barr showed great versatility playing guitars, banjo (Don't Cross the River), keyboards, and providing backing and (in one case) lead vocals.  His solos were crisp and accurate.  He also proved himself to be a superior musician by making his performance about the music and not his own on stage antics.  

I am not sure of the point of America’s set list.  At first, they seemed to be going chronologically, but then threw in random songs that weren’t in order.  The benefit of a chronological performance is that you can actually listen to the band’s music maturing -- I even like sets that seem to follow a fast and slow pattern.  This set list appeared to be almost random.  In particular, I think they would have been better served to make A Horse With No Name the last song with Sister Golden Hair as the encore, rather than the way they did it, the other way around. Looking strictly at building up to a climactic end, and not the relative sales of either song or the ability of both songs to get the audience on their feet,  A Horse With No Name is just a better build up to a Sister Golden Hair finish.

America has been around for almost 50 years which is a testament to both their music and the memories it left in people.  To give anything less than a worthy performance is just wrong.  I cannot recommend seeing them live to anyone on any level based on the amount paid and the performance received.  It actually hurt my memory of the band and their music.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

My Musik Trifecta at Kalamazoo State Theatre – Part I: The Temptations with The Soul Experience

The Trifecta

It wasn't anything formal that Kalamazoo State Theatre did, I just ended up with concert tickets for three performances over three consecutive nights.  They are booking some great acts this year!

The Soul Experience

Good opening act, played a set of what I knew as soul music growing up.  Both vocalists had strong voices and connected well with the audience.  Very enjoyable, but I regrettably missed part of the performance when I went to the Meet & Greet.

The Temptations

The Temptations have been a part of my musical life since birth.  Most of their biggest hits that are my personal favorites were released before I was 10; yet those songs still have a massive audience.  They are one of the few groups that I consider to be Legends.  Getting to see them live was a gift to me that I will always be thankful for.

First, I saw the band as they are today.  It would be unfair to compare who I saw with the Temptations that included David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks (like comparing Journey today to the Journey with Steve Perry).  The lineup I saw did include Otis Williams who is the only original Temptation still in the band; he was singing tenor for the group since they were The Elgins.  The rest of the lineup was Ron Tyson (tenor/falsetto), Terry Weeks (tenor), Larry Braggs (lead vocals – used to be with Tower of Power) and Willie Green (bass)

I did get to meet the group prior to the performance and I was able to get a rushed photo and autographs.  Since I was the last to leave the Meet & Greet room, I had a chance to talk with them as they walked to the stage.  Overall, they were personable and joked around.  It was my first Meet & Greet ever, but these guys are legends so it was worth it.  One note to promoters & venues:  If you delay the start of the Meet & Greet, you need to expect a slight delay in the show starting – simple solution: start on time.  Also, when doing a Meet & Greet be fair to everyone.  Since I was towards the end of the line, a lot of the available time was gone due to the folks at the front of the line taking more time.  As a result something I paid extra for was just a blur.  

Larry Braggs
The performance was spot on.  The vocals, music, choreography, and audience connect were on par with what you would expect for a group of this caliber and history.  They did not hold anything back and Larry Braggs was awesome to watch and hear as was Ron Tyson.  They all worked well off of each other and showed what polished showmen can do with a stage.  

I heard every song I wanted to hear from them including Ain't Too Proud To Beg, Treat Her Like a Lady and what they called the Temptation’s anthem:  My Girl.  I will admit to not only singing along, but also doing the hand gestures along with the group.  If you get a chance to see them  -- do.

A comment on their matching outfits.  I do not know if it was special material or what, but when one of them started a solo and the spot light hit them and their outfit, the rest of the band seemed to fade into the background like their clothes were a different color.  Even though I was in the front row, it added depth to the stage and made the performance more intimate.

Post Script:  On the way out, a black gentleman who had been sitting next to me during the show told me that his wife looked around at the crowd during the concert and said “Look at these folks all enjoying the show.  We could get rid of a lot of race issues if we would all just listen to more music.”  I smiled and nodded – that thought was spot on.  Music is a wonderful thing that everyone can share together, it does tear down walls and brings peace.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Age Is Showing but I Ain't Kicked Me Out of Bed Yet

I was watching an episode of The Crown recently when the subject of personal vanity came up. By the way, great series that I highly recommend.  The episode that brought the subject up had to do with an aging Sir Winston Churchill who was having his portrait done by Graham Sutherland. Churchill was about to turn 80 and Parliament had taken up a collection to have the portrait done as a gift.  Churchill was openly concerned that the artist treat him with kindness versus having a portrait that was “too truthful”.  In other words, Churchill was hoping to have his age softened and covered up by the artist’s brush.  Sutherland was a modern artist and as such was seeking to paint not only the visible but something deeper.

The Sutherland portrait
When the portrait was unveiled on Churchill’s birthday (live on the BBC) he was visibly appalled and later in private, argued that the artist has publicly insulted and humiliated him.  The artist countered that the portrait was an homage to wear of the man after spending a lifetime in service to his nation through some very harrowing times.  A testament to the accuracy of the portrait came from his wife who had said during the process that the likeness looked "really quite alarmingly like him".  Churchill had the painting at first hidden and then later it was burned (rumors abound as to who directed it, did it, and how).

What you could see in the dramatization was that it was Churchill’s own vanity that had lurched forward regarding the portrait.  The vision he had of himself as the strong, lion of the British Empire had been shown to be in the winter of his life.  Tired, showing his age defects, slightly slumped and imperfect.  Even though many likened his pose in the portrait to that of the Lincoln Memorial, where the artist tried to make it seem as if Lincoln was about to rise to action, it is easy to see Churchill’s pose as almost lolling in the chair, exhausted.

After seeing that portrait, I was reminded of a portrait I saw of President George Washington that was
Washington Masonic Portrait by Williams
on display in the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.  It was done in 1794, five years before his death, and he sat for it as a gift to his Masonic brethren.  The portrait was done in pastels by William Joseph Williams.  According to the tour guide, when the artist offered to smooth out his wrinkles, remove scars and imperfections, to include the mole near his left ear, Washington told Williams to do a true rendering of the man seated before him and not someone imaginary.  If you look at the picture, you can see his slouched shoulders, 5 o'clock shadow, scar on left cheek, smallpox scars on his nose and cheeks, and a mole under his right ear.  Washington accepted his fallacies and did not expect them to be hidden.  

I spent time reflecting and comparing Churchill and Washington’s vanity to my own as I grew older.  I will admit that I avoided changing out the lights over the bathroom sink form incandescent to LED because LED has a tendency to be a little too revealing.  I am used to seeing me at 28 or so me in the mirror versus me at my true age.  So, I braced by myself, put on my reading glasses – if I was going to do this, I did want a good clear image -- and then confronted the mirror’s image of me as I am today.

There are lines around my eyes and mouth I did not think I had, but I am glad to say that more are caused by smiling and laughing than from frowning or the grimace of suffering.  Gravity has caused a bit of sagging here and there.  There are a two chicken pox marks from when I was 8, I guess I shouldn’t have scratched.  I still have scars from car wreck when I was 19 and from being hit by a brick when I was 8. My forehead and between my eyes also have lines – thinking too hard or worrying too much?  Who knows.  My facial hair and eyebrows both contain a smattering gray, even though I start dying it a year or so ago.

Yep, the guy in the mirror is not 28, but he is not beat down or used up either.  The lines I carry are from the life I have lived with scars from various events that shaped me in their own way.  My eyes are clear and bright and even while performing this brutal inventory I managed to keep a smile on my lips.

Way back in 1985, I took a self-portrait with my 35mm Pentax, using a 

pile of books as a tripod and shooting my refection in a wall mirror.  It was an ultimate selfie because not only did I take the picture, I also developed the film and printed the photo myself.  A year or so ago, I captured the same image again, this time using a digital Nikon and a real tripod, but still using a mirror.  There are changes between the images, no doubt. But I like to think the same inner spirit within still shows through.  Maybe I will make this portrait exercise an annual event.

Sir Winston Churchill is worthy of admiration for many great talents but is also admirable for at least one vice.  It is good that by becoming aware of his vice, I could make an assessment of myself before the changes of age were so drastic that I shocked myself – as the Sutherland Portrait did him; but it is also that I can guard against seeing it as a degradation of my life rather than a representation of the good things I have experienced.

I have never considered myself handsome in any kind of a Hollywood way, but I always thought I was attractive in my own way. I think I still am, even after a good honest look at myself. So, no need to burn the current portrait or to kick myself out of bed either.