In First Concert, all kinds of folks discuss their first live music experience and the impact it might have had on their life. As we've talked to dozens of creative people, we've discovered amazing stories of unhinged live performances or forgotten B-sides.
Hal Sirowitz is the former Poet Laureate of Queens, NY, serving for three years under Borough President Helen Marshall. He's the author of five books of poetry. His first book, Mother Said was translated into nine languages and is the best selling translated poetry book in the history of Norway.
What was the first concert you ever attended? How old were you?
The first concert I ever attended was when I was twelve years old. I was sitting in the living room. My parents decided to do a duet. I was the only captive audience. They opened their windows, so the neighbors could hear. But the neighbors were free to rush inside their homes and put in earplugs.
What do you remember about the performance?
My mother sang opera and my father accompanied her with his violin. They were putting on a concert for the block to show that they had culture. My mother sang in Italian, mispronouncing words and not understanding anything she was singing. My father was trying to drown her out with his violin, playing as loudly as he could.
I remembered the Memorex commercial with Ella Fitzgerald breaking a wine glass by hitting a high note and was afraid my mother would shatter both the living room and the adjacent kitchen windows. But no such luck. Because as embarrassing as that might have been, at least that would have stopped their performance.
My mother was a stickler for safety – she’d have stopped singing to pick up the shattered glass. My father played as badly as the comedian Jack Benny. But at least Benny was playing badly on purpose. Badly was the only way my father knew how to play.
After their performance they sat on their front steps, waiting for the neighbors to praise them. Most neighbors avoided them like the plague. But one neighbor wanted to know if that was a recording or live. My parents said it was live. He thought so. Recordings could not be that bad.
They went inside, away from the barbarians who couldn’t appreciate culture even if it was thrown at their faces. I went to my room and read a Philip K. Dick science fiction novel. His novels helped me to escape reality, and I was in need of much escaping.
How do you think that experience influenced your poetry?
I realized, unlike Dick who had to set his novels in the future and on different planets, like Mars, to create unrealistic and hellish settings, I only had to set them at home, and if I was good enough, maybe I might achieve the same results.
(Sirowitz was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry. He was once the opening act for They Might Be Giants. One of his poems was selected to be posted on buses and subways in NYC. He has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Artist Colony. Jonathan Ames said, "Hal Sirowitz is the bard of the deadpan delivery." Gil Scott Heron said, "Hal Sirowitz is one funny motherfucker." He has been in anthologies edited by Billy Collins and Garrison Keillor. He now resides in Philadelphia with his wife and poodle.)
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