Requiem No. 7: In Memory of Pete and Lenny

Requiem: A Guide for Perplexed Pilgrims

Published by Kevin D. Annett

Vol. 1, No. 7: January 25, 2016

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Two good friends of mine departed our Veil of Tears awhile back. Here’s my long delayed paean to them.

Remembering Pete Seeger, and Della and Sam

The fat cats’ media never reported it, naturally. I heard about Pete’s passing from another folk singer. And that’s as it should be.

Pete had known 94 years when he died, but I first met him when I was barely thirteen.

I was sunning myself one afternoon in our back yard to avoid doing my homework when a banjo-plucked tune began wafting my way from my brother’s open bedroom window. The sound was pure magic. But it was the words of that first of many Pete Seeger songs that went straight through my heart and lodged in there somewhere, setting the tone of my subsequent half century.

The song was called “Which Side are You On?”, and it wasn’t even written by Pete, but by a West Virginia coal miner’s wife named Della Reese whose husband Sam, a union organizer, was being hunted down by company goons carrying shotguns. After the thugs tore apart the Reese home one evening searching for Sam, reducing the man’s children to horrified tears, Della in her fury ripped off the back of a calendar and wrote these words, and more:

They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there;

You’ll either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair, so tell me:

Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?

Pete Seeger had that way of imparting a poor woman’s pride​ and fire​ with the firm assuredness of the righteous without soft peddling anything. I noticed that about him the one time I ever saw him in the flesh, thirty years ago, at a benefit for the homeless in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Pete was already ​pretty old by then, but his crackling voice grew solid when he spoke to the lounging and mostly yuppie crowd about how poverty should be unimaginable in a land of such plenty as ours. Something is basically wrong, he sang, striking the common note.

My Daddy was a miner, and I’m a miner’s son;

He’ll be with his fellow workers until this battle’s won, so tell me,

Which side are you on, boys?

Which side are you on?

After my first taste of Pete Seeger, I remember getting all fired up about the guy and our vast, unknown history that he began to make known to me. I tried sharing his music with my family but most of them feared the guy, who had after all being called a Commie by Joe McCarthy and was banned from the music industry for a time. And so I was told to fear him, too.

​The Domesticators do their damnedest to make us think that taking sides is wrong and somehow destructive to our basically ​healthy body politic. All of us get intoxicated by that noxious and numbing creed, maybe because we’re just plain afraid of stepping up to the battle line. But Pete’s songs and the spirit of those like Della Reese always snapped me out of that spell.

Oh workers can you stand it?

Tell me how you can?

Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man? So tell me,

Which side are you on, boys?

Which side are you on?

The good words worked on me over the years, and kept me alive with Della and Sam and all the other beaten down yet steadfast heroes who’ve kept us going. And I always thanked Providence for how easily Pete Seeger brought such purpose and the bigger picture back to me whenever domestication tried to suck me dry and make me an accomplice to all the bullshit.

All that saga has granted me the same kind of restless joy that I always heard in Pete Seeger’s voice, along with the endurance that grows out of our very guts and fiber after our many long nights of Paying the Price for Doing the Job. I sometimes say that’s the only thing left to we warriors of the heart when the end comes. And that seems to be enough.

Come all you fellow workers, good news to you I’ll tell:

Of how the good old union has come in here to dwell, but tell me,

Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?

Struggle and survive, ye singers, ye fighters.

Lenny and me: An Obituary

While he lived in this dimension, Leonard Nimoy spent some evenings in a comfortable west end Vancouver penthouse suite that overlooks the same water that I gazed out on during breaks from Star Trek episodes at my teenage buddy Dan Schwarzfeld’s house, some forty years ago.

I couldn’t have imagined back then that the Vulcan and I would ever share such intimacy, any more than Nimoy could have foreseen where he would end up one day.

He was a visibly old man at the end, even more aged than during the show where he and Kirk and McCoy contracted some weird alien virus that turned them into octogenarians in a few days. Lenny didn’t look too bad as a geriatric back then, despite the absurd makeup job done on him and his colleagues. But of course they all got younger and became their good old selves again. And yet back here in this dimension of shadows, no such rejuvenation was in store for Len, who crumbled just like the rest of us. I guess it was his human half that was to blame.

​Nimoy must not have been married, since everyone knows that Vulcans only mate every seven years to a chosen partner, and Spock’s beloved Ti Pring got grabbed by some other guy somewhere during the third season, making our hero shit out of luck. So I often imagined the aging Vulcan spending his nights alone, watching the stars from his balcony when west coast clouds and his own tired bones allowed it.

Oddly, even though he’s gone now, I still see Lenny there ​​on his west end perch, looking upwards and seeking out the distant places he once knew as a strong young man, where no one had gone before​. And ​there again I feel our bond, since in my youth I planned to study astronomy and find those distant worlds as well. But like Lenny, I remained both earth bound and type-cast.

All the make-up and careful directing and the long preparation for scenes that came and went never did make any difference for either of us. For it all turned out to be a mystery as vast as when we first opened our eyes, even now, at the end of the road, whether you’re a tottering Vulcan or a graying revolutionary. So, while I can’t speak for Leonard Nimoy, I’m able to deal with the angst of knowing that this man in the mirror who the world loves and hates and pretends to know may not be the real me at all, it quite possibly being one big illusion.

How thoroughly illogical.

But phantoms aside, our public performances did eventually become who we were, the Vulcan and me. And that real but learned persona remained with us the longer we indulged it, whether from the demands of the crowds and our conscience or our own weak and all too human need to be known and​ remembered. And thus did Mr. Spock look out through Leonard Nimoy’s eyes, as does the earth shaking firebrand and Cromwellian heir who reposes in me, and each of our characters wonders how and why things could have turned out this way, for us of all people.

I’m looking at Lenny tonight from where memory drifts high above the Vancouver skyline where both my teenage home and his former abode stand silhouetted in the dying Pacific’s sunset. And I know the Vulcan is still somewhere around even as I write this, that odd and quiet man who inspired me to stand apart from my own species and raise an eyebrow at its absolute illogic, and cast about for some other planet to inhabit.

And while Vulcans can never know the plunges and flights of emotion, making them quite immune to the long ennui of the night, I know that somehow, Leonard Nimoy is no more content with the verdict of the universe than am I. And that wherever he is, his eyes still cast upwards and outwards as do mine, forever searching.

Living long and prospering is hardly the point.