How I got to this point, part II: Christy’s letter, the groom’s toast and farewell to Slovenia

As I wrote in my preceding post (which you should read before this one), Kirsty’s death sent me into a downspiraling period of prolonged and somewhat inexplicable grief in the first weeks of 2001, quite out of proportion to my connection to her (never met her, never spoke with or wrote to her; I was a fan who saw her in concert once and had a few of her records). Perhaps the best way I can explain my reaction is that it seemed to me, at the time, to be a personal insult; here was someone whose taste and craft I admired, who had something to say to the world in general and to me in particular, and what does the world do with her? Have her killed by a speedboat owned by someone who never even had the grace to admit guilt or even apologize, instead framing a hapless boathand to take the rap. Agh.
Of course, I didn’t know Kirsty, and it wasn’t my tragedy. Not really. But still I felt as if I was connected to it in some way, and wanted the world to notice as far as I could. Writing about it for the Boston weekly seemed a good excuse to pay my respects; I was far from the only person who felt going to St. Martin in the Fields was something he had to do.
The day after Kirsty’s memorial service was a classic gray, cold and rainy day in London. Looking for something with which to occupy myself, I visited the colorful Indian neighborhood around Brick Lane in the East End. After lunch and a bit of walking around, I boarded a double-decker bus for the ride back to my hotel, and climbed to the upper deck, which held no other passengers except for me.
I stared out of the windows at the gray and the rain, listening on my Walkman to a cassette tape of an ’80s band from Boston, music I knew very well. I began to cry, for Kirsty and myself and the world and for the hopelessness of it all, for all the shattered dreams of lost childhoods, for vanished youth and wasted potential, for the finality of death, for anything and everything. For its own sake.
Something cracked inside of me, huge sobs arose from deep inside and I began heaving and bucking around the bus, and I cried like I hadn’t since the death of my mother over a decade before.
Something had to change; that I knew. Something had opened up inside, and I knew it was important that I investigate what was going on.
But for now, it was time to return to Slovenia.
*****
As noted, I had taken to singing in the days and weeks following Kirsty’s death. I didn’t sing in public, but I would grab lyrics off the Internet for songs I liked, everything from the Johnny Mercer classic “Laura” to “I’m Talking To You” (a single released in 1979 by a Boston band called the Maps), print them up, memorize them, and sing them out loud, by myself, in my kitchen. Was I trying to get closer to the source of music? Assuage my grief with self-therapy in this way? Whatever it was, it helped.
I also dug through the collection of CDs I’d brought with me from the US, looking for sounds I hadn’t heard in awhile. One of them was a record by the alt-country Seattle band the Picketts, featuring Christy McWilson. I’d never paid particular attention to the Picketts before; I’d first encountered them back in the rockcrit days of 1990 when I came across a single of theirs, a cutesy country cover of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” The CD, Euphonium, came out in ’96, the same year I’d left Framingham for Ljubljana (anyone stuck in Framingham should move to Ljubljana, by the way; no contest there).
I played Euphonium again, and yet again. The world-weary wisdom in the songs — most of which McWilson had written — and her experienced yet tender voice spoke to me, and gave me comfort, especially these lines in a song called “Night Fell”:
Night fell as if retrieving
all hopes and boundaries from my sight
please tell me that the darkness is deceiving
and somewhere down this tunnel there is light
Sometimes when you need help you receive it from where you least expect it, such as from a CD you’ve had for five years and never paid too much attention to before.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t even given Kirsty a thought for years before her death, before everything changed.
It was painful, slow and difficult, but I gradually succeeded in knitting myself back a little more into the fabric of humanity. I felt it was about time I took some serious steps in that direction.
Donna and I continued e-mailing each other.
*****
On my previous Web site, I’d written about meeting Christy McWilson in person at a folk festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on the first day of September, 2001 (this was a few days after I’d first met Donna in New York). However, I didn’t tell the whole story behind it.
As a side effect of the Kirsty grief, I’d gone on a limited mission to Appreciate Artists While They Still Lived! and Tell Them How Much They Mean To You! which in real life can get kind of awkward — it meant I was a man in his early 40s writing fan letters (or, more usually, e-mails) to musicians I knew slightly if at all, something that should have gotten me drummed out of the Rock Critic club (as if I even cared to belong to that little band any longer). But I did write an actual letter to Christy McWilson, who had recently released a solo album, The Lucky One, which I ordered directly from her label stateside. I told her about how she’d helped me through Kirsty’s death, and thanked her for putting her own songs out there, and some other things which are none of your business.
Some time later — two or three months, perhaps, it was July — I received in the mail a large padded envelope from Seattle, containing a homemade CD and a two-page handwritten letter from Christy McWilson.
The CD — which she had her then-husband Scott McCaughey, of the Young Fresh Fellows, burn for me — contained the Picketts’ cover of Kirsty’s “Chip Shop” and the YFF’s cover of “They Don’t Know,” neither of which I’d heard before. (I was a YFF fan too, and I’d actually met and interviewed McCaughey back in 1991 when I traveled to Seattle in service of a piece on that city’s burgeoning music scene for the Boston Phoenix; this was about five minutes before Nirvana broke, and although Scott made a passing reference to them, I didn’t mention Cobain and Co. in the article at all; who knew? If you’ve never heard of Scott McCaughey, he’s a noted indie rocker with a great sense of humor who also plays with R.E.M., Minus 5, and various other side projects.)
I don’t make a habit of putting letters people have written privately to me on the Web, and I apologize if I’m offending anyone, but this stone is just too pertinent to be left unturned:
Christy told me that she, too, had been affected by what happened to Kirsty. Death and transition are at the bottom of all of this, somehow (she said).
“I’m a huge Kirsty MacColl fan,” Christy wrote. “Her death looms large.
“I’m not sure what I believe — or what is proven — I just know what I know — and I’ve come to know that there are no coincidences (finding-refinding Picketts etc.).
“I think music, and maybe my kind of music in particular, acts like a dog whistle. Some people hear it — or the dog whistle tones of it – and most people don’t.” To her, it suggested an image out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of all sorts of people gathering to meet at the foot of Devil’s Tower.
*****
Dog whistle or not, I did travel to the Johnstown FolkFest, in an area of rural western Pennsylvania whose green rolling hills reminded me strongly of Slovenia.
I found Christy sitting at a portable table set up outdoors near a stage, and after I ascertained that it was her, I told her I was Wes. (Oh, yeah: I hadn’t told her I was coming.)
“You’re Wes,” she said. “You’re Wes.”
She then stood up and gave me a hug.
We talked a bit between her sets, and I made a point of telling her my life was on an upswing, and she said she was intuitive and could tell that. We made our goodbyes, and I went off to find my car in the vast parking lot. (We haven’t had any contact since and I don’t want to bother her, but I’m glad she’s still out there recording and if she ever plays Austin again, I’ll be there. )
*****
Donna, the future Mrs. Pogoer, who grew up on a tree-shaded suburban street in the Vailsburg section of Newark, had an interesting past — in addition to a successful career as a corporate writer, she was a skilled musician proficient on several instruments. Her principal instrument was double bass, which she had played with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and other classical ensembles, and with which she had also made something of a name for herself on the small, but very happening, lower Manhattan cabaret circuit. Donna’s natural habitat was a piano bar. She had worked closely with, among others, the singing ringmaster of the Barnum & Bailey Circus as well as this guy, and was an excellent and dedicated cook, a Reiki practitioner, and a very entertaining raconteuse (without even trying, she had had encounters with a large number of celebrities, from Kathleen Turner and Liza Minnelli to Jackie Mason, Harvey Fierstein and Jonathan Richman, the latter of whom she had even helped inspire to write the song “You Can’t Talk To The Dude”). Clearly, this was someone worth getting to know.
After I returned from Pennsylvania, on our second rendezvous in early September, the future Mrs. Pogoer and I wound our way through midtown Manhattan from Bryant Park to Central Park, where, sitting on a bench near a lake, I gathered my nerve, said some things I’ve totally forgotten, and kissed her for real-no-mistake, startling her but not in a bad way, and we nearly ended up doing indecent things in public.
I returned to Ljubljana a few days before 9/11 — Donna had had a dream about the towers’ fall a few hours before it occurred, yes, she really did — and we stayed in touch and agreed to meet in October in London, where the Kirsty fans would be meeting to celebrate her birthday by playing her songs in a pub (a tradition that’s continued every year since; Kirsty’s family and friends often stop by, and now there’s a memorial bench in Soho Square where the event commences).
We indeed met up in London, and decided to move in together back in the States, and after a while, after considering various other cities, we decided to set up shop in Austin, Texas because it seemed like a good enough place to make a new start, and Donna wanted to leave the New York/New Jersey area and I didn’t want to go back there myself.
And so I went on a “farewell tour” of Central Europe, stopping in Budapest, Bratislava and Brno, and put my things in storage and flew home to New York on the day after Christmas of 2001. After a few weeks staying with a friend in Brooklyn, we winged our way to the Lone Star State.
The rabbi at our wedding, who knew our story, remarked at the ceremony that it took the death of a poet to bring us together, and that out of tragedy new beginnings and good things can come.
And here we are, nearly five years since that day, and we have three-year-old twin boys walkin’ around here and everything, and there have been challenges and struggles along the way, and still are. (That’s life, that’s what the people say.)
But I still think that if Donna agreed to marry me, I can’t be all bad as a human being.
And you know, that’s good.
And even if Kirsty died so senselessly, yet our lives are utterly changed because of this tragedy, and there are two new people beginning to unfold their own stories in this sad yet sometimes beautiful world.
As Matthew Fox wrote in his book Creation Spirituality:
Compassion is a kind of fire…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears, and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

And I think of what Christy wrote on the CD I gave her to sign back on the first day of September in 2001:

To Wes–

Here’s to them mysterious mysteries.

Christy Sue

One response to “How I got to this point, part II: Christy’s letter, the groom’s toast and farewell to Slovenia

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