In their post this Monday about the death of the composer and librettist Michael Friedman, Lorin and Sadie Stein mentioned their surprise that Michael had published just a single piece on the Daily. “Over the years we’d talked about his doing so many different things, on so many different subjects,” they recalled, “from a column on new music at Le Poisson Rouge to an online version of an informal seminar he held known as Michael Friedman’s Drunk Music Appreciation Class.” The reminiscence brought to mind another near miss, from just last summer.
Though I’d known Michael for several years, our editorial dealings were infrequent, and always ad hoc. An early note I wrote myself reads, in its entirety, “Ask Michael Friedman for his porn-lawyer contact.” (Dated six years ago yesterday, it seems only partially explicable by the fact that Michael was then writing songs for Pretty Filthy, a musical about the porn industry.) It never seemed quite fair to ask him to confine himself to something so limiting as silent pixels in two dimensions, especially when he was having such obvious fun—and such evident success—with a piano and a stage. Still, in June of last year, not knowing much about his previous dealings with the magazine, I asked him, “What would it take to get you to write/sing/dance for The Paris Review?”
A few days later he sent me a list of column ideas, which I reprint here verbatim:
- Poets who are lyricists for music theater: Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, TS Eliot, Shakespeare, Brecht, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Dubose Heyward. i.e. What is the difference (and also why lyrics aren’t poetry—Dylan)
- Meet Me in St. Louis: Movie, song, World’s Fair, my family’s shoe business that had child laborers in St. Louis (blind!) and tobacco and Kerry Mills who wrote the song. And Judy Garland in the movie sings “under the bamboo tree” which is by an amazing black composer who also wrote the Negro National Anthem and founded ASCAP and the NAACP. And Kerry Mills also wrote “Red Wing,” about an Indian Brave and it is directly taken from Schumann’s Happy Farmer that every kid learns in piano, and in turn Woodie Guthrie stole that tune to be “The Union Maid,” the ultimate Labor protest song! Happy Farmer, Dead Indian Brave, Union Maid.
- Maybe what the above really is is the post-lives of songs. Le Temps des Cerises, Jump Jim Crow, San Antonio Rose, The Internationale, Careless Love.
- George Washington Johnson: who did the first hit records and whistles and they are coon songs and he is amazing and nobody knows!
- Agatha Christie: I seriously think Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the great modernist novel.
- Charles Ludlam and the erasure of Gay culture.
Michael said he’d get started as soon as he finished the project that was occupying his summer, a musical chronicle of the 2016 election. Which was all to the good, but by the time he was ready to write for the Daily, I was off to another job.
I won’t pretend that these blog posts in nuce are the first things I’ll remember whenever I think of what we lost when we lost Michael. But the list captures, in its modest way, the apparently infinite horizon of his curiosity, as well as his talent for galloping insights and associations. Best of all, it reminds me what it was like to stand inside the whirlwind of his enthusiasm. Call it an amulet, a gift of a rare and exhilarating mind.
Robert P. Baird is the features director at Esquire, and a former editor-at-large for The Paris Review.