What better way to launch this diary than with a little detour, en route to meet some friends, along the street of pianos? I love the Sunday morning silence of this short stretch of West 58th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue: all those Steinways, Bechsteins, and Bosendorfers asleep inside their showrooms. Outside there’s only the light jingle of the collar on a small but imperious terrier, its owner dragging sleepily behind. The terrier—preferably Fox or Welsh—is my ideal virtual dog. I can admire one in passing; then someone else can take it home. The canine’s playful condescension always calls to mind my favorite couplet, Alexander Pope’s epigram, which the poet had engraved on the collar of a puppy he once gave the Prince of Wales: “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew/ Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?”
My Piano Street Strut concludes a musical weekend. Let’s start in reverse order: Lucinda Williams, Webster Hall, Saturday night. Webster Hall has its own time zone: doors open at 6; show starts at 7; or maybe 7:45, as they inform you at the door; or, in fact, a little after 8, when Lucinda Williams steps onto the stage saying, “Sorry.” The hall is packed, and the crowd can’t get enough. Many are obvious veterans of her shows; they keep screaming, “Lu!” and lifting their beers in tribute. My favorite Williams recordings are bundles of bitterness, but I’m just not hearing it this night.
But what chance did anyone really have after Ann Hampton Callaway at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Friday? I raced home from a late night at work to meet friends in from D.C. for the show, which was delayed a bit because of some water problems at the club. Never underestimate the cosmic force of a diva: Callaway can conjure the elements. Water flowed again. And then Tony Bennett appeared. Yes, he did. Callaway improvised a song of tribute to him. It’s that capacity for improvisation, that singing on the precipice, I so admire about Callaway’s artistry. She often speaks of the importance of “live music,” and then she lives it right there in front of you.
The first time I saw her she improvised a song using whatever unlovely, unmusical words the audience happened to suggest. I attended that show in the company of Callaway’s father, the great Chicago journalist John Callaway, who died in 2009. He interviewed me once and quickly became a friend. John was the most delightful correspondent: we wrote to each other about politics, sports, and books. (He was a fan of Henning Mankell mysteries.) And when he came to New York, I looked forward to dinner and stories of the old City News Bureau in Chicago. How is it that we can feel so deeply the loss of people we’ve known but a short while? Maybe it’s because there are so many stories left to tell.