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Old Folkies 

A Gathering of the Gate of Horn Crowd

Betty Montmartre--nicknamed for a long-ago nightclub she worked--offered perspective in front of the Vic at midnight.

"It's not like he didn't have a life," she said with an uncharacteristic giggle. "He had a life! He did a lot of stuff! It wasn't like he was working away all those years, saving it for retirement, when all of a sudden he got Parkinson's like my dad did."

Lucky to be alive, Bob Gibson, in his early 60s, is about to release a CD whose title, Making a Mess of Commercial Success, aphorizes his show business career.

Gibson was back in town from Oregon because the Old Town School of Folk Music and WFMT radio, home of The Midnight Special, had organized a benefit for the 12-string guitar and banjo strummer. Half a lifetime ago, he and actor Hamilton Camp were the hippest act at the Gate of Horn, the hippest night spot in town. Tonight the lineup at the Vic was stocked with "the old Gate of Horn crowd," as they called themselves--Peter, Paul and Mary, who had worked the Gate on their quick rise to stardom; Gibson and Camp, the Gate's crown princes; John Brown, a folkie who ran the Centaur, an early Old Town coffeehouse; Roger McGuinn, an early "graduate" of the Old Town School of Folk Music and founder of the Byrds; Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane of Spanky & Our Gang, but best known to Gate of Horn folks for her work with the New Wine Singers; and folksinger Josh White Jr., son of a blues and gospel musician who picked guitar with all five fingers of his right hand and so smoothly captivated the mostly white "cafe society" crowds, including the Gate of Horn's, that other black bluesmen angrily ostracized him. In 1962 you could easily have filled the Auditorium Theatre for this crew, and in '94 they still sold out the thousand-seat Vic at a stiff ticket price.

Nowadays they really are old, the Gate of Horn crowd, parading into the restored vaudeville house at Belmont and Sheffield in their suburban finery. Some of the balding men wear gray ponytails as well as beards to compensate--the women are much more willing to look their age. Some suited graybeards have come straight from the office. The surprise, however, is the guys in the slacks and synthetic sweater uniform of the retired. "Gibson & Camp's Retirement Village Hootenanny" is not what the old Gate crowd wants--they want the wild old nights at the Gate to return.

The Old Town School of Folk Music and 'FMT had pushed the right buttons, so the Vic was SRO. There were a few Gate ghosts flitting about, I believe--former Gate proprietor Albert Grossman drooling over the take (about $50,000 was raised to help Gibson, according to Jim Hirsch, who runs the Old Town School); the incomparable Lord Richard Buckley, who jazzlated literature into hipster, whether it be Willie the Shake or the New Testament "Naz"; Lenny Bruce, who embodied the Gate of Horn ethos in many ways and whose arrest closed the place; and maybe singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, whose self-destruction overshadowed an important body of work. A notable corporeal no-show was songwriter, cartoonist, and playwright Shel Silverstein, Gibson's longtime friend and sometime collaborator (he worked on the new CD) who doesn't like crowds and is shy about performing.

Josh Jr. led off and sounded nervous. Despite some adroit song choices, including "Loving You," a lilting Gibson/Tom Paxton composition, he had trouble with the crowd until he spaced out on the lyrics of a patter song. Forgetting things was home ground for these seniors--they were totally on White's side by the time he finally pulled the last two lines out his wazoo to avoid disaster. He got them clapping on the Bill Withers tune "Lean on Me," half choosing the black backbeat and half the white downbeat, the latter carrying the day toward song's end.

By the time Spanky was into her classic blues tunes, other performers were sneaking out front to size the house. Peter, Paul, and Mary are amusing because their offstage personalities seem opposed to their characters onstage. Offstage Mary is chatty, huggy, and maternal--during PP&M's glory years she had been silent and sexy. Peter, so warm and emotional onstage, seems intense, reserved, and cynical off. Paul, real name Noel, the rubbery comedian onstage, is shy, stonefaced, and aloof backstage.

Camp seemed smaller than ever. He was no less intense, however, a winged Mercury scurrying back and forth across the standing room in the rear reconnoitering the audience, a winning soul.

As Camp and Mary flitted around out front, Josh Jr. updated me on his life. "I'm still in Detroit," he told me. "I have ten grandchildren there now, so I can't imagine moving anywhere else." He has gravitated to doing more children's shows, and of all the performers seemed the least timeworn--bald and bearded, as he has been for the 30 years we've been acquainted, fit and slim--a dark, handsome man resembling his dad and his son, who was with him.

While male ponytails abounded in the crowd, Roger McGuinn's was gone. Of all the musicians on the bill he was the youngest and most instrumentally talented, and his skills have not eroded with time. The Byrds tunes worked extremely well as solo acoustic material, which didn't surprise me--I can remember him doing an acoustic guest set at It's Here coffeehouse about 30 years ago and getting lectured that he "shouldn't Elvis up perfectly good Bob Dylan songs." Lucky for him, he didn't listen. His acoustic version of "Eight Miles High," a highlight of the evening, revealed how cleverly he had absorbed Gibson's 12-string style, just as PP&M's second tune, "Sinner Man," bordered on harmonic thievery from Gibson & Camp. It was a revelation PP&M seemed to set before the crowd purposefully.

Their tremendous discipline was always what I liked best about Peter, Paul and Mary, and it has diffused over time. They talk too much between songs for my taste, and their humor has gone from gently self-deprecating to sour grapes. Yet they've retained a strong desire for social justice, their musical technique continues unabated, and audiences love them. The PP&M problem is more mine than theirs.

Before them was Camp, whom I can count on for brevity almost always. Then came Himself. Bob Gibson looks heavier than when I last saw him, and is balding in front--a plump old rogue of an Irishman as he bows stiffly to the standing ovation. Life in the fast lane started catching up with him physically some years ago; or as Edgar says in King Lear, "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us."

It is a terribly ironic moment, Gibson's entrance, this outpouring of emotion for a rascal who scandalized staid folk circles with his womanizing, drugging, flip attitude, and "commercialization" of folk music, which meant something a lot heavier than just making it marketable--it implied a lack of political correctness. The Errol Flynn of folk music was receiving kudos for chutzpah--or were we all just smiling at surviving?

"Does anybody play music anymore?" the Quiet Knight's Richard Harding had bitched earlier. He caught himself and added, "Ah, I'm just sayin' that because I'm an old fart."

McGuinn is riveted to a plastic mike box now that Gibson & Camp are singing, and the gals in the wings, including Mary, Spanky, and Rashada (Camp's wife of many years), are misty. Gibson & Camp sing "I'm Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me," and Gibson, who's sitting and singing but not picking, knocks off a Silverstein ditty called "Nothin's Real Any More."

Then they do "Well, Well, Well," a harmonizing gem that a young Simon and Garfunkel (calling themselves Tom & Jerry) tried to cover on their first album, and they nail it terrifically right up to the last note, which they blow but the crowd doesn't care. Gibson & Camp shoot each other a glance as the audience explodes, Camp's mug breaking into a swift smile, jolly Gibson beaming, and that's the moment some folks shelled out $125 for: the flash of magic between two men who have made music together for 35 years and done horrendous things to one another and overcome everything--a look of reassurance, respect, trust, and love, a two-second glimmer right out of Shakespeare's King Lear: "We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage; / When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness; so we'll live, / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh / At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues / Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too-- / Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out-- / And take upon's the mystery of things / As if we were God's spies."

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