Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is he really singing Bukowski?

In a damp warehouse lit by single, bare lightbulbs, I watched with two dozen people as a humble tenor from the Metropolitan Opera sang some poetry by Charles Bukowski.

The performance began at 9pm on a Tuesday evening. Parking proved difficult in the middle of the week in the blue-collar neighborhood.

We sat on rented metal folding chairs in a semi-circle around a bleak scene: a frumpy, haggard male slouched in a simple wooden chair. Near a grimy mattress and end table the man sighed and whimpered of loneliness, obscurity, and being forgotten.

Whimpers turned into song echoing and lapping over itself  across the long, wide, and empty space.

His voice, soft and deep, expanded as the performance unravelled and filled the warehouse. He sang of great personal grief and having no one or anything to turn to except his music. The tenor trembled, wept, and choked. Twenty people shrank; I felt like a child in an oversized chair; the fact that I was out on a work night and would probably wake up sleepy or cranky became insignificant; no one looked at their watches; no one shifted in their seats. For fifteen minutes we sat transfixed--isolated--and blown away.

At the end, the performer circulated around the space and shook the hand of every person in attendance. He looked every single person in the eye and thanked them with sincerity. His body and affect changed before us--previously small and broken, this man now stood tall and life radiated in his eyes. His body's wrinkles and folds undid themselves and smoothed out--he was younger and more fit than I saw during the performance. His color changed. Everything about him changed.

This was my first experience with the Philadelphia Fringe Festival almost ten years this fall. I've been back, but nothing beat the shock of the raw honesty of that beautiful little poetry sung by someone who seemed to understand the place in which it was born...and took an unsuspecting audience along with him into that cold, isolated, terrible place.

In honor of this experience, I asked PAWLP Fellow, the talented Ben Smith, to share his talent by singing a little of Charles Bukowski's poetry: