Sunday, November 20, 2011


It'll be seven years next month since legendary clarinetist, bandleader, and writer Artie Shaw passed on.

Artie was my second cousin, and he often said he got his musical talent from my mother's father, Moishe Strauss, who was a cantor, as well as a house painter during the lean years of the Great Depression.

From early childhood, Artie was mythologized, and became almost a cult figure to my family. He was the enfant terrible, the rebel, the one who lived life on his own terms, who gave up an immensely well-paying gig to pursue his one and only love, writing.

When I was about fourteen, I wrote a letter to be forwarded to Artie through his publisher, or his agent, (I can't remember which), that I ended simply, "We writers must stick together." I never heard back.

A few decades later, over a drink, I persuaded a music critic to give me Artie's phone number, which he did reluctantly while warning me that Artie could be surly, and he might not be doing me a favor by enabling me to contact him.

Months later, when poet Allen Ginsberg died, there was a memorial for Allen in Westwood. I heard that Artie was going to attend, so I called him up out of the blue, and on impulse, fully prepared to have him hang up on me. "I'm your second cousin," I said, "but that doesn't mean any more to me than it does to you, so let me say instead that I knew Allen, and am going to the memorial." "So, you're a poet?" he said, and we spent 45 warm and lively minutes on the phone.

I met Artie for the first time, a few weeks later, at the Allen Ginsberg memorial right before the event started. When I introduced myself, his eyes suddenly welled up with tears as if he had been slicing an onion. When he saw me, he had to see himself in me.

Even in his mid-80's, Artie Shaw was built like a brick shithous. There was not an ounce of fat on him.

He mumbled something about having to go onstage, and invited me then to visit him in Newbury Park which I was lucky enough to do a few times before he passed on December 30, 2004. The last time I saw him, Artie said he wanted to live to be 100. He didn't quite make it, but I suspect my childhood dream wasn't the only one that came true; his did, too.