Center of the Universe (54)
I regret to inform you Dave is no longer appearing at Sorellas.
There are some who might argue that — officially — he was never appearing in the first place, that the gig in the back was Wendy’s, and Dave and his pocket trumpet, and pocket voicebox, were merely invited to jam. An open-ended invitation, for sure, but still he was a visitor, not a resident.
Others might say this scuffed-up hepcat from Chet Baker planet, who continues to fill his leathery sacs with tar, even as he tools around town breathless on a Rascal, has shed the capacity to blow in any way the auteurs of the American Songbook might have envisaged. As to his gloriously exhausted vocal instrument — Satchmo meets Goulet meets Anthony Newley — sometimes these days, they might add, all that comes out is hiss, no tone. Sometimes no words — Wendy quietly prompting him or leapfrogging to the bridge when, despite her prompting, Dave skids off the map.
But who’s to say the squibs and squeals of Dave’s playing and the leaking-tire passages of his singing aren’t music of an even higher order, at least as credible as the polished performances of his fully oxygenated youth (which, alas, never made it to wax)? Seems to me that whether viewed as avant-garde abstraction or red-raw naturalism — chronicle of our timeless grapple with the gargoyles of time — the noises Dave makes are every bit as moving as “Autumn Leaves.” Or more so. Gleb, the young Russian music writer, was mesmerized. Called his night in the back room with Wendy and Dave the best of his whole California trip.
And now, no matter your p.o.v., there’s yet another sense in which Dave is not playing Sorellas. It’s the practical (vs. metaphorical, artistic or spiritual) sense that he simply is not. Not appearing, not sitting in, not singing, not pressing his pocket trumpet to a less tender zone on his embouchure and trying again to toot. Nothing. Done. Finito.
It doesn’t much matter why.
Oh, there may have been a verbal tussle with an annoying customer or with a friend of Wendy’s, a singer who stopped by to try a tune or two and whom Dave may have accused of “stealing my gig.” And, sure, like the rest of us, the man has experienced some fuzziness over the last year — which has meant a little more hiss, a little less stamina and a slackening in sartorial and tonsorial aspirations. Though in Dave’s case, that fuzz comes with a better-than-average alibi, as it coincides with Joan, his indefatigable helpmeet, having all that immobilizing pain and then a double hip replacement. Not to mention him turning 88, fer chrissakes. Still, it was probably for the best — for Dave, for everyone — when Wendy dropped the bug in his hearing aid last fall that he might want to cut his Saturday night appearances from two hours to one. Which he did, perhaps gratefully.
Now in the fullness of Fairfax spring, Wendy Fitz found herself back on the spot. After the recent awkwardness in the back room, it was Wendy — not only band leader, but Dave’s friend — who was expected to tell him he might have to cut his one-hour Saturday cameos to zero. Wendy, who’d been so patient and gracious over the years, who long ago could have chewed out Dave for stealing her gig — and nights she went most of a set without singing, she’d have had an airtight case — but who never did, who kept on playing (and prompting) at his side in what could only be seen as an act of vision, generosity and, it occurs to me after last Monday night, love.
There’s a lot of love out there for Dave Bergman. I know because, last Monday, a lot of it was out there at our place.
It just didn’t seem right that Dave should shuffle out the back door into the Sorellas parking lot, fire up another Pall Mall and Rascal off into the Ross Valley sunset. So we decided to throw a house party, his very own headlining gig — Club Dave, we called it on the flyer. Wendy was not just relieved, but enthusiastic. She would gather the rest of the band — Steve and John, no less psyched — and put together a guest list of Dave’s nearest and dearest. Roni and I would do the rest — well, except for the slaving over a hot, smoky bbq, which we managed to fob off on Val (hereafter known as the Nicest Person in the World). Since the sisters would have to be there, the party would have to be on a Monday, the restaurant industry night-off. And since — as Wendy was quick to point out — the guest of honor was leaning a little fragile, best if the date was sooner. Though I didn’t anticipate resistance, I did ask Fitz to help make sure her buddy got the date right. But when I emailed Joan, I got a friendly reply that said she’d spoken about the party with Wendy and that Dave these days was sometimes up, sometimes down — and she was still recovering from her hip thing — so she’d see if they could make it, but thanks. Even as I steeled myself to honor Dave without Dave, I was glad to get Joan’s followup, explaining she’d just realized the event was in his honor and promised to do her damnedest.
Dave showed. Not entirely sure, after ten-thousand gigs, he knew who, what or why (and he always called me Gary anyway), but he showed. And to see him enter my house — to hold his hand so he didn’t trip on the unexpected step up into the living room or the one down into the garden — was a strange kind of thrill. Same when the Kangs showed. And the sisters. And Chalin. Not to mention John and Steve and Wendy. And Gary. And Flo. And Tim, Wendy’s ex bass player (and ex), and his girlfriend Mary. And John’s mother Rina, who’s ninety and blind and doesn’t get out much and was tapping toes in her deck chair all night long. And all night long whenever I’d look around and see familiar faces out of place, or unfamiliar faces — old friends of Dave’s or Sorellas customers I didn’t know (but Soy and Sonia did) — I’d think I must have stumbled into a dream, an idyll about community, music, small-town life and long and wildly divergent paths that, in the second millennium, in the suburbs of San Francisco, had miraculously crossed, an outrageous fantasy that the back room had landed in our backyard.
Taking his seat in front of the band, Dave began to balk, panic even. Kvetched to Wendy about valve-oil for his trumpet. How could he play without the oil for his trumpet??? I tried not to listen. Told myself the rollercoaster was part of the thrillpark. But Wendy gentled him into performing (even as Steve spotted the oil in his trumpet case), and Dave kicked it all off with several perfectly rotund notes — as if he’d been saving up breath all week — that soon dissolved into squonk. He was certainly fragile to look at. A man who didn’t have a pound to lose had lost, I was told (and, looking at his bunched-up trousers, fully believed), 25 of them. And when the song was over, Dave put away his axe and rattled around in his bag of tricks.
What he came up with was a story, a twice-told shaggy tale that had nothing to do with the moment (except perhaps as oblique reference to the circle of life), a joke-story about when the obstetrician yanked him from the comfort of his mother’s womb and spanked him on the bottom and newborn, dangling Dave shouted back at the doc: “Hey! What’d I do!?” Old seated Dave waited out the laughter — which was genuine, a sincere expression of affection, if not amusement — but finally, theatrically speaking, could wait no longer. Called for his showstopper, his signature rewrite — replete with shout-outs to Sorellas, Dominican College, Stinson Beach, China Camp and other local landmarks — of “The Lady is a Tramp.” He fumbled the opening, but with Wendy’s aid, got it back. And lost it again. But even when he found it — over and over — his tour de force seemed to lack just that. Force. Then about a third of the way through, suddenly, dangerously, forcefully, Dave launched himself out of his chair. As I leaped to steady him, he staggered forward, oblivious to my ministrations. I was expecting some heroic, farewell reenactment of the finger-pointing stroll through the crowd that was the highlight of “Tramp” in the back room. Instead he teetered across the deck toward the chair next to Joan, dropped into a fraying mesh seat and rasped to no one in particular: “I need a cigarette…”
When it was determined that Dave had not expired right in front of us, I handed him the black plastic ashtray I’d stashed for the occasion, and the band started up again — vivid, soulful chords caroming off the stone wall into the canyon. A few numbers in Wendy called up Connie Ducey, a name I recognized from the 19 Broadway marquee, who instead sidled up to Dave in his deck chair, handed him a microphone, and, unrehearsed, led him through a verse of snappy call-and-response, followed by an oozing chorus of perfect harmony, on “Mood Indigo.” And never were 55 musical seconds sweeter. But after that brief re-ignition, the show, for Dave, was over. He wasn’t going anywhere — too beat. And soon too cold. Joan asked if I had a sweater he could borrow. And if it warmed the trumpet man, it warmed me more, to have Dave Bergman on my deck in my hoodie.
Wendy’s guest list encompassed pretty much the entire upper crust of lowdown local music — mostly jazz musicians, mostly older. Garry Graham, the youngest 80-something you’ll ever meet — and, as owner of 19 Broadway for 37 years, the king, arguably, of Fairfax music — took over the keyboard next. He tried to lower expectations by saying he’d learned music from his father, a piano player in a bawdy-house (I reminded him of the bawdy history of Berry Trail) and then, of course, blew everyone away with a Creole-spiced “Java Jive (I Love Coffee I Love Tea),” complete with audience singalong. There were more vocalists, pianists, bassists, a jazz guitarist (who couldn’t handle my Steve-restored Mesa Boogie) and a lot of encomiums to the pocket trumpeter, who seemed to accept them with abashed pride. And way later than anyone would have predicted, considering the median age and actuarial tables, Dave and Joan, with the help of single-r Gary (our Gary), slipped out, as did the Kangs and Flo and double-r Garry with his charming wife Amory. Sonia escorted Rina up and down steps and, eventually, into a tall, white SUV. And somehow (I had to avert my gaze) not a single person broke (or re-broke) a hip, and the impenetrable gridlock that had spilled from our driveway into the cul-de-sac got penetrated, and the one word people said in parting more than any other was “magic.”
And they weren’t wrong.
Something wonderful and inexplicable had happened. And soon it was me and Roni alone in the blooming garden beneath Berry Trail on a clear, balmy night of a nearly full moon, with the tones of pocket trumpet and piano ringing in our ears, and I said that, to me, the one word that described a night like this was the name on the town sign.