Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tom & Pete & Stardust

"I've always liked the concept that we're reconstituted stardust. A human life is just an eye-blink in the universe, man, if even that." -Tom Nattell

"He looks like your grandfather, if your grandfather could kick your ass."  -Bruce Springsteen, on Pete Seeger

On Monday night, Jan. 27, I attended the 9th annual Tom Nattell Memorial Beret Toss in Albany, NY. It's held each year on the final Monday night of January, as part of the Poets Speak Loud open mic series now held at McGeary's. Tom was a force in the Albany poetry scene from the '80s on, and our paths crossed frequently as I became more involved in reading out. We were not close, but I admired Tom for his energy, the thousand and one announcements he could squeeze in between readers at the old QE2 also held on the last Monday of each month. Tom was to have been the host of this new series, but became ill, and passed the hook to Mary Panza, a force in her own right in Albany and beyond. It was hoped he would be at least the first featured reader, but he died earlier that day. The reading became an impromptu memorial, with Nicole Peyrafitte leading a group to Washington Park afterwards to scramble up the statue of Robert Burns and plant Tom's old green beret on the Scots' head. The tradition has continued.

On January 28th, Pete Seeger's death was announced. It's not a stretch to imagine these two men were cut from the same recycled cloth. Each was an activist. Each spent the better part of their energies in promoting sustainable lifestyles. Tom began Artists' Action Against AIDs and Readings Against the End of the World. His Poets in the Park series has been continued by fellow poet Dan Wilcox, still held each July in front of the Burns statue. Pete was instrumental (pun intended) in cleaning up the Hudson River and founded the Clearwater Festival to raise awareness of environmental issues. He was banned from public media for many years, before the Smothers Brothers took a chance on booking him, in their brief heyday, on their CBS show.

 Both were quirky, grizzly creatures. Both wore caps, sported grey beards, dressed practically. Pete almost made it to 95, and up until a few weeks ago could still be spotted at local events in his beloved Beacon, NY, holding a sign, strumming his ancient banjo. Sadly, Tom died at 52, the same age I will be in just a few weeks. Without a doubt Tom would have continued to raise awareness, had not this evil disease silenced him. It was about the only thing that could.

Tom's poetry was as radical as his politics. One of my first encounters with Tom was at the Day of the Poet competition in Stone Ridge, NY, where he and his son Noah performed an eloquent dittie inspired by their summer vacation, "We Mooned Mount Rushmore." Along with Dan and Charlie Rossiter, he toured the country as 1/3 of Three Guys From Albany. Pete spread the word as one of the Weavers, but is mainly remembered as a solo performer. In later years, when his voice failed him, Pete grew skilled at leading audiences in song, involving everyone in the performance.

Tom's legacy is his attitude as well as his poems. It's comforting as I start the second half of my life. I think more sometimes, I do more sometimes, because I remember Tom and how much he did in such a relatively short time. There is no guarantee I will have the luxury of 94+ years to do the world any good. It is nice to think that somehow we'll all always be a part of it, sparkling, perhaps a few twinkles above the heads of poets a century from now, wondering who the heck Robert Burns and Tom Nattell were, anyway.

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