‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ and the Vietnam War Moratorium redux

It was perfect timing, running into Peter Yarrow a week ago Sunday unexpectedly at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). He was meeting and greeting talent buyers strolling the Hilton’s vast exhibition halls, where he was stationed at the BiCoastal Productions agency booth to assist in the promotion of Lonesome Traveler: The Concert, the acclaimed 2015 off_Broadway musical now being packaged as a concert event, that he has endorsed and can be featured in as guest star depending on his availability.

Subtitled “The Roots of American Folk Music,” the show celebrates the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Dylan and of course, Peter, Paul and Mary, in the context of folk music from the 1920s to the ’60s and beyond.

I didn’t meet them until much later, but I first saw Peter, Paul and Mary at a church on the University of Wisconsin Campus, where they performed at a Vietnam War Moratorium—but I’m not sure of the dates. According to Wikipedia, The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which was a massive demonstration/teach-in all over the country, took place Oct. 15, 1969, and was followed by a Moratorium March on Washington a month later on Nov. 15.

So it had to be the second Moratorium (the word means “a suspension of activity”), because I do remember that PP&M were leaving that night for D.C. to join the march. It’s terrible I don’t remember the church—maybe St. Paul’s?—but it had to be at the end of State Street, where the UW begins. Peter, though, remembered the church well, not to mention everything surrounding the Moratorium.

The last time I’d seen Peter was a couple years ago or so, doing pretty much the same thing, except at Toy Fair at the Javits Center. Not sure which exhibition booth he was ensconced in this time, because I think there were two toy companies that had “Puff, the Magic Dragon” toy product out, but he was probably at the one with the plush Puff toys. Wherever, he was signing Puff, the Magic Dragon illustrated children’s books, packaged with a CD of Peter singing the PP&M classic and other songs with his daughter Bethany and a cellist—and, of course, posing for pictures with starstruck baby boomer toy business people.

But at the Hilton, I was for once more than just the starstruck baby boomer kid at the Moratorium who didn’t even meet Peter Yarrow, as well as the starstruck baby boomer music journalist who had met him many times since. No, this time I approached him as an equal in that both of us had starred in the 2015 Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young.

Yes, I exaggerate! Not Peter’s role, for he had a meaty part as a leftist intellectual—hardly a stretch—whereas I was an extra–hardly a stretch–sitting at an Upper West Side coffee shop while Naomi Watts, her back to me, was meeting with Adam Driver, with Ben Stiller, playing Watts’ jealous husband, storming in after.

If you see the movie, you might recognize me by the bald spot on the top of my head—which I didn’t even know was there! Then for a second or so the camera pulls back at the end of the scene to reveal my truly recognizable receded hairline profile. Just don’t blink.

But it was so fun, and certainly arrogant, to address Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow as my co-star! That he didn’t blow me off is testament to something or other, his befuddlement, most likely. But it did lead him into some interesting observations, and an affirmation by both of us of our continued commitment to the ’60s ethos.

“It took a cultural, ethical point-of-view,” he said of While We’re Young, “and when I read the script I realized it was the antithesis of what I try to espouse in the songs I sing–as was the case with Peter, Paul and Mary all those years. And it profoundly preceded the rise of Trump.”

Here he pointed to Driver’s less-than-truthful aspiring film director character, who is “perfectly able to live without finding any sense of responsibility or guilt and can act unethically in terms of respecting the rights and creativity of Ben Stiller’s [documentary filmmaker] character. I thought that that counterpoint made it a very important film—but I didn’t expect it to become such a powerful commentary on what’s happening now in our country.”

He had attended the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg musical Finian’s Rainbow the night before, a show centering on themes of immigration, economic greed, racial reconciliation and fighting bigotry.

“At the end I sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with the cast, and spoke about why the music is so critical: It’s intention is to bring a tear to your eyes and dissolve the distance between us—and let us now unite in the face of a disuniting force.”

A disuniting force.

I told Peter Yarrow I would be marching again come Saturday, the day after the inauguration of the Disuniting Force. And Peter Yarrow of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” hugged me and called me “my Brother.”

Lesley Gore

I was on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for several years before being unceremoniously dumped, ostensibly because they were looking for people who were more knowledgeable about the 1970s (that I wrote the first book on The Ramones, apparently, was of no consequence), but I like to think that it was because every year at the nomcomm meeting I would put up Lesley Gore for nomination.

So it’s not my fault that she’s not up where she belongs, though when I started my own Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon, she was one of the first inductees.

Lesley was also one of the first stars I met when I moved to New York in 1982. It was at the Chem Bank at 57th and Broadway, where the Cash Box office was–where I worked. I’m sure I was the ultimate geek when I went up to her and introduced myself and then started slobbering all over her—as well I should: After all, “Judy’s Turn To Cry” was one of the first records I ever bought. I still remember the great B-side, “Just Let Me Cry.”

It remains one of those wonderful things in my career and in my life that I got to know her so well as the years went by. But I didn’t know she was sick. I should have figured it out when she stopped responding to phone calls and emails the last few months, but no, I just figured she was busy and gave her space.

I really should have figured it out last month at APAP—the Association of Performing Arts Presenters annual trade conference at the Hilton, where she was scheduled to showcase. I tweeted my excitement and got there early to surprise her—but she wasn’t there, and no one knew why.

I emailed her again, no response. And then I got carried off with work and whatever else gets in the way of the important things in life.

I’m thrilled to see so many wonderful tributes to her now on Facebook and Twitter. My tweets followed Mark Lindsay’s tweet announcement in the middle of the afternoon. I was at Toy Fair at the Javits Center, the annual toy trade show full of thousands of toy manufacturers and dealers, a business centering on fun and joy and happiness, and suddenly, incongrously, I was fighting back tears.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Lesley Gore in rock ‘n’ roll history. That she’s not in the Hall of Fame is true travesty,” I tweeted. When I got home I called Lou Christie, who knew Lesley since 1963, when she had “It’s My Party” and he had “The Gypsy Cried.”

“We stayed friends for all these years,” Lou said, fielding the calls we make at such times. “She was hard and tough, baby. She’d want me to tell you that, too! And she knew she was very talented and very smart and had a great sense of humor. I loved the sound of her voice, and she was a better singer than most people knew. And she went out there and put it all on the line.”

I’ll have more to say about Lelsey shortly and not so personal at examiner.com. I just wanted to get this up now quickly, and with a couple videos. But first I should say that although I knew her very well and loved her very much, I’m not at all alone in either regard. As I told a Facebook friend who offered condolences after reading my tweets, while it surely is a personal loss for me and more so for Lou, it’s personal for anyone who feels it. Lesley touched us all, and we’re all the better for it. And sadly, Lesley was hardly alone among female rock artists (Connie Francis, Nancy Sinatra, The Marvelettes, The Shangri-Las, etc., etc.) in suffering unforgivable neglect by those who should most know better—The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.

So here’s video of two legendary rock ‘n’ rollers and longtime friends and contemporaries who aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

And while there are so many Lesley Gore hits to remember her by—most obviously her proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”—here’s one to help us smile through the tears:

Finally, big thanks to Chris Matthews, who an hour or so ago on Hardball, amidst all the overblown coverage of Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special and the pseudo-singers and celebs it honored, saw fit to run an old Lesley clip and simply, succinctly state, “A loss for the world.”