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Rita’s Story

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

It’s still a thrill to hear Rory’s songs on the radio, even after all these years.  I used to listen to the car radio on my way back from Oak Hill in the morning, and if one of his songs came on, I’d calculate if I had time to get home so I could run in the house and tell him to come quick and listen. One measure of the success of a driving trip is whether we hear any of his songs while we’re traveling.

I still remember some of the folk songs he used to sing at the Purple Onion when we were in college. The Joes girls used to flock there to hear him sing and play his guitar. Fifty cents and all the coffee he could drink: that was his pay for performing.

The songs he sang in that dark little coffee shop were his first efforts, and honestly, I thought they were wonderful. Songs like “Jump Up My Honey” seemed every bit as good as what we were hearing on the radio. It just seemed like a matter of getting the songs to the right people. Much of the first part of our marriage was spent trying to figure out how to do that, and how to protect the songs. We discovered early on that some nice Catholic boys from Darien, Connecticut, Danny and Phil, had copyrighted several of the songs in their names. Supposedly they had connections in the music business. It was a good lesson in a way. It meant that someone thought the songs had potential, and it alerted us to the necessity of protecting the songs. We bought a piano and I learned to do lead sheets. We sent out demo tapes. One day a producer named Frank Slay heard one of Rory’s songs and wrote him that he had potential. Frank Slay was a very successful independent producer; this was the kind of affirmation that meant the world to him.

Yet these were hugely frustrating times. I remember those yellow slips of paper he brought home in his shirt pocket every day; they contained bits of lyric he’d written down when he was supposed to be tracing lost railroad cars. I remember how he would beat his fists on the metal kitchen cupboards and how the glasses inside would tinkle.

Leslie reminds me that when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he said I was the first person to tell him that I believed in him. Honestly, if anyone had taken the time to get to know him, how could they doubt that he would one day be a great songwriter? I’ve often said that he reminded me of Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead.” It wasn’t hard to believe in him: how could you not believe when he was willing to stand alone against everyone we knew and fight for what he wanted and never give up?

I’ve never quite gotten used to the effect his music has on people. It constantly amazes me that so many people from all walks of life have been touched by his music. One of Charlie Black’s claims to fame in Port St. Joe is that he’s the co-writer of “Shadows in the Moonlight.”

One story that always touched me was something Cynthia Hackett told me.  We were at a soccer game at Oak Hill, and someone mentioned that Rory had written the Jennifer Warnes hit, “I Know a Heartache When I See One.” Cynthia was so impressed, and she told a story about her niece who lived in California.  The girls’ parents had divorced, and the lyrics of the song perfectly described her father, who had walked out on them. The girl learned the song and used to sing it to her father when he came around.

Look at through the winds blowin’ up the road
Shining like a northern star
Actin’ like the answers to all my prayers
But, baby, I know what you really are

It’s amazing to think that something Rory wrote would give a voice to a child, a voice she might not otherwise have found. She let his lyrics tell her father how she felt about him. That’s really pretty spectacular, when you think about it. I give Rory credit for teaching me most of what I know about writing.  The same principles apply whether you’re writing a song or a story. Even people in my Tuesday writing group listen when he speaks. Martha worries that she’s turned down too many invitations to the table (the writing table). If you turn down too many invitations, he told her, one day they won’t come anymore. Writing is re-writing. Writing is a muscle; if you don’t use it, it will atrophy. Rejection comes with the territory. If someone asks you to rewrite, it’s generally because they would have written it differently, and you won’t ever be able to satisfy them. Show up at the appointed times.

He still amazes me with his wisdom, his insight, his talent, even after all these years. Maybe especially after all these years.

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