March 29, 2014
1. Beginning. Sometime early in the 70s. I am working at Grace Lutheran Church in Chicago, a liberal hotbed of a place which houses the National Hotline for Runaways, offers free meals and clothes for indigents, and has its own art gallery and a folk rock Sunday service, composed by my friend, musician Art Gorman. The activity is 24/7. I also tour with the international company of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” I play Judas. Certain old girlfriends might say I am Judas.
I write and compose “The Sun,” a rock opera. I put an ad in an underground newspaper, looking for band members for the show. A guy named Dennis calls and agrees to meet me in the church sanctuary. On the day Dennis is coming, three other guys are in the sanctuary, bargaining with me to rent the space and put on a play, Eugene O’Neil’s “Beyond the Horizon.” Their leader, Dave, smokes a long cigar. The other two, Billy and Stephen, argue about where to put the stage and how to light it. I couldn’t know it then, but Billy and I would become pals.
A man with an electric guitar walks in, skinny, squinting through wire-rimmed glasses. Cigar-smoking Dave says, “Hey, look, John Lennon is here.” The guitar man is not amused. I leave the other guys and introduce myself to Dennis, listen to him play. He’ll do. I pound out some of the tunes on the piano, and Dennis says no problem.
Weeks later, Dave, Stephen and Billy are in the audience as we debut my opera, “The Sun.” It’s trite and ho-hum—I’m not going to be the next Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the audience enjoys it, including Dennis’ wonderfully weird mother, Ma Gordon. At the cast party she asks what kind of man I am: if, while showering, I have to pee, would I pee in the shower, or get out and use the john. The shower, I tell her. She hugs me and says I’m okay. My future first wife Barbara, who, at sixteen, heard me sing in a Minneapolis folk club, now a beautiful eighteen-year-old, has flown in from New York to see the show. She will not return home. Cool. Dave, the theater guy, walks up to Dennis and says, “Well done, John Lennon.” Dennis scowls.
** Insert irony. Dave is future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet. Stephen is Stephen Schacter, the now-Broadway director/producer. Billy is William H. Macy, the film star of “Fargo,” and “The Cooler.” They have a name now, The St. Nicholas Theatre Company, and David hires me to compose a score for their next project, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in Oak Park. Dennis will play in the band. But I have to quit the gig because “Superstar” calls again, this time I’m Jesus, the money is fabulous and I’m a married man. Pianist Rocco Jans takes over, and later he composes all David’s movie scores, including the fabulous “House of Games.” When we saw what happened to Macy and Mamet, my friend Dennis said, “Good career move.”
2. Middle. I’m divorced and back in the Zeitgeist. I work at a Catholic school, getting the kids to compose and sing pop songs, and then Dennis and I and various friends go off to a studio, get high, and record the instrumental tracks. Dennis plays at least ten instruments on the albums. He doesn’t like the kids much, but they love him, the way cats love people who hate cats. Many families at Immaculate Heart of Mary School tell Dennis he looks like John Lennon. Jesus, Mary, and all the saints, how he hated that.
We record three albums of songs I wrote. Lousy, angst-filled songs, all. Dennis in the studio, laying down the instrumental tracks, mocking my lyrics. He mocked a lot. He did dead-on impressions of Randy Newman and Rick Leslie, a local folksinger who sounded like a strangling Cat Stevens.
A wedding. My friends Dave and Linda are getting married. Linda is great with child, my beloved David II. (Now D2 has children, Davey and Abbie) Dennis plays at the wedding reception. Linda says to him, “I’ve always wanted to tell you this. You look like John Lennon.” “I never heard that before,” Dennis replies.
I answer a Chicago Reader ad for a free piano. Dennis and I and another guy drive a truck to LaGrange to fetch the broken down piano. On the way back, Dennis Gordon, ala Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces,” sits in the truck bed at the piano and plays Bach music, as we cruise along Interstate 294. He doesn’t look like Jack Nicholson.
My Off Broadway play. My first play goes to New York, in 1982. I write the music, and Dennis and I record it. A character hits H-10 on a jukebox on the set (an exact replica of the Midtown Restaurant, in Alton, and out comes the song, “Going Steady.” During the mixing, Dennis says, “Not bad.” That was his highest praise: Not bad.
3. End. He didn’t looking like John Lennon in the obituary. He looked heavier, softer, even middle class, something he would have mocked in the 70s. His eyes looked kind. His smile looked bemused.
I lost track of him sometime in the 90s. I missed him. I still hear him play and sing, and I miss him. His eighth-grade students? Are thirty-three-years-old. I’ve talked to some of them since his death. They call him Mr. Gordon. “Mr. Gordon was so nice to me.” “He was my inspiration.” “He was so beautiful.” “He looked like John Lennon.”
As the real John Lennon wrote, “My eyes can see.”
I see Dennis Gordon—hell, I even see John Lennon—in my mind. The mere act of imagining is actual, quantifiable weight: memory is matter; Dennis lives inside of me. Therefore, I cannot say farewell. I will say, to my dying day, “Hey, Dennis. What up, Mr. Gordon. Thanks for everything.”
“Art is long, but life is short.” Longfellow.
“No kidding.” Dennis Gordon.
Loved it all. Dave, Stephen and Billy? How neat. I would have loved to have been there cruising along Interstate 294 with that “guy named Dennis” sitting in the truck bed at the piano playing Bach.