Shock and Wow
I had already bought my ticket to the Pete Seeger show when I noticed on the Bearsville Theater website that what was billed as a Pete Seeger Performance and Book Signing was now "Radio Woodstock and The Smile Revolution Presents [sic] Pete Seeger with special guests Princess Wow and Roland." I was not familiar with Princess Wow, Roland, or The Smile Revolution, but the mere appearance of the words together did not inspire hope, particularly since I would be taking the bus to Bearsville roughly nine hours after I'd returned from bowling 10 (and a 1/2) games in five states. I suspected that I would be in no mood for princesses on Sunday afternoon. I did a Google search and grew no more hopeful.
But the money was already spent, so, after some 8 a.m. churching, it was back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (I'm hoping they'll name a gate for me one day) for the Trailways bus to Bearsville. I was a little bleary-eyed, but I rallied when we got to Kingston, at which point our driver told us we had a seven-minute break before we continued in. Seven minutes is about two more minutes than I need to run to Deising's Bakery, quickly get two things that look good (in this case, a cheese danish and a cherry cheese danish), and dart back to the bus. As I polished off the cheese danish back on the bus, I was feeling much better about this Princess Wow thing. Deising's cures all.
When we pulled in to Bearsville at a little after noon, there was already a long line of people waiting to get in, a product of the Bearsville Theater's excellent policy to not mail out tickets or let you print them at home (some people had physical tickets, so I'm guessing they sell tickets at the box office). So, basically, 98 percent of the people had to get their tickets at the will call window. Good thinking, hippies. Oh well, at least I got to see Pete Seeger arrive.
I finally got inside after about a half-hour, but the line behind me was still plenty long. So it seemed like the 1 p.m. start was not going to happen. I picked up my autographed copy of Where Have All The Flowers Gone (part of my special $40 admission ticket, which was a swell deal). Despite the initial billing, I figured Mr. Seeger wouldn't actually be signing the books, so I wasn't surprised to see the books presigned. And I was happy to see that he'd drawn the banjo with his signature, giving me my second banjo Pete Seeger autograph (I have two without, too...it's a fun life I have). And now that I had the book, I had something to read if/when my interest in Princess Wow dissipated.
It was getting close to 2 and the show still hadn't started yet, so there was a little tension in the air. I was getting a little tired of hearing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" for the third time. The standing-room-only people were getting a little fidgety. And a woman in the row in front of me actually asked a group whose folding-chair seats hadn't been set up to go settle the matter somewhere else because all the discussion was bothering her.
Finally, after the second, maybe third time around of Michael Jackson singing Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," Princess Wow emerged from the wings, in an outfit highlighted by a large hat, a blue wig, and tie-dyed pants. This was not a promising start. But then when she had to compose herself to tell the story of why The Smile Revolution was important to her, I started to feel bad for my poor attitude toward the Princess.
She related how her father never smiled much and so neither did she, but one of the last times she visited him before he passed on, he gave her a big smile. From that point forward, she vowed to share the power of a smile with the world, because she knew what a joy it was to see that smile on her dad's face before he died. And, so, The Smile Revolution was born.
She had the crowd now.
And that was the last time she did.
After talking about The Smile Revolution for a bit, she then introduced her husband Roland to lead his band in the theme song of The Smile Revolution, with the help of the children who were watching the show on the stage. The song was, um, not so good, and it seemed to go on just short of forever. I could feel the crowd starting to turn, but the fact that children were involved ensured some polite applause at song's end.
Princess Wow then came back on stage. I think it was at this point that she started talking more about how she became Princess Wow and her life philosophies. One major chunk of her time on stage was devoted to how we should stop using the word "old" when describing our age and replace it with "new." So, for instance, I am not 33 years old; I am 33 years new! Exciting! And then she related how she starts every day by saying, "I'm fresh and new."
At this point, I was mainly looking down at my book and occasionally the floor and thinking about heading out to the lobby until this was over. I was all the way in the back of the theater, so I could've snuck out without too much fuss, but I figured that might be rude. And I didn't want to give Jersey a bad mark in the eyes of the people of Bearsville.
But the people of Bearsville, or at least a healthy portion of the people in the Bearsville Theater, had no such aversion to rudeness. Because just about the time the good Princess started talking about why she started buying wigs, someone yelled out, "We want Pete!" And then more people joined in the vocal uprising. Soon after, people started stomping their feet on the wooden floor as the Princess persevered.
Wow, did it get awkward.
The Princess introduced local songwriter Tom Pacheco to do a song, and he avoided being booed, though his song wasn't exactly a thrill ride either. I suspect, however, that the song's message of "the world was better before these darn kids got hold of it" offered more appeal to the saltier elements in the crowd than the "everybody smile and be happy" vibe of Princess Wow.
And speaking of Ms. Wow, she came back on stage after Pacheco was done, talked a little bit more (reading quotes from index cards) as the natives grew more restless, and then called out Roland and his band for another number. And that was when I heard the loudest communal groan I've ever heard at a concert. I was torn between laughter and feelings of pity, so I combined the two by hanging my head, staring at the floor, and laughing. And, to be fair, as I was laughing, I was also smiling. So I really was doing the work of The Smile Revolution. I'm fresh and new!
To their credit, Roland (and band) and Princess Wow never let the crowd see them sweat and just kept plowing through their portion of the show. But when Roland wrapped up his second song (slightly more tolerable than the first), and Princess Wow came back out and started talking about how Roland had met Pete, the crowd had had enough. At this point, if there had been a stake, they might've tied her to it. As Princess Wow told the story of Roland hitchhiking across the country and then looking for a way to meet Pete Seeger, a voice cried out, "I want to meet Pete!"
Some people were lucky enough to be at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to hear a disgruntled folkie yell "Judas!" at Bob Dylan. I will settle for hearing a disgruntled folkie yell "I want to meet Pete!" at a woman in a blue wig named Princess Wow. And I'm OK with that.
After the Princess hurried through her intro of Mr. Seeger, the crowd finally was sated by the appearance of the 91-year-old man they had come to see. He is, naturally, not at the peak of his powers anymore, but some concerts are more about just being in the same room as the performer rather than the actual performance. Mr. Seeger spent his 90 minutes on stage going through selected songs in the book, chapter by chapter, telling stories and leading singalongs among the now relieved and fully engaged crowd. He also invited women on stage to sing one song, at which point the woman in the row in front of me who had earlier pitched a fit at people talking in her presence practically sprinted out of her seat. Her sprint came as little surprise, for she had spent most of the show laughing at everything that came out of Pete Seeger's mouth, regardless of whether it was intended to be humorous or was a simple statement of fact. She was certainly pleased to be in the same room as Mr. Seeger (and she was, to the best of my knowledge, accepting of Princess Wow and Roland) and jumped at the chance to be on the same stage as her hero (to be fair, if he had asked for dudes to come up, I might've sprinted, too). Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of the women on stage didn't translate into something musically inspiring, but, hey, they tried. And they've sung on a stage with Pete Seeger, so they've got that going for them.
Mr. Seeger also had banjo players Eric Weissberg (of "Dueling Banjos" fame) and Bill Keith come out to play two songs in the middle of his "set," which was a nice bonus. They returned, along with the Princess Wow and Roland crew, for the big finale. Afterward, a line formed by the merch table, which seemed odd to me, because I couldn't imagine Pete Seeger sitting down to sign autographs for a few hundred people after being on stage for 90 minutes. But I had my "Goofing Off Suite" record with me just in case, so I hopped on line. But Mr. Seeger headed out after blowing a kiss to the crowd, at which point a crowd surrounded him outside (while everybody on line inexplicably stayed in place as they watched him leave). Before I left, I inquired about the price of the signed event posters.
"They're a hundred dollars," the woman at the merch table told me. "The proceeds go to The Smile Revolution."
"Um, OK, thanks," I said, wondering what exactly is the overhead on something whose main goal is to have people smile more. Seems to me you don't need a lot of funds for something like that, though I guess those blue wigs and tie-dyed pants don't buy themselves.
When I made my way outside, there was a woman with a parrot on her shoulder standing next to a slightly bewildered Mr. Seeger, I guess trying to get a picture with him. I'm not sure that picture ever happened, but I snapped a few parrot-less photos before walking back to Woodstock and finishing that cherry cheese danish.
In a capper to my weekend, I completely forgot that Sunday is Drum Circle Day in Woodstock, and said drum circle, which featured roughly 50 drummers, was directly across the street from the bus stop (I thought about filming a bit of it for you, but why should you have to suffer?). So as I waited for the bus, I got a taste of what hell would be like for about a half hour. I promise to do better, God.
But eventually the wheels on the bus went round and round, I got home at a reasonable hour, and my weekend of bowling, blues, banjos, and belligerent folkies came to an end.
With a smile.