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David Greenberger: The Museum of Moments 


Look at me, I’m a king! I have a red shirt, I live in Milwaukee!” come the words of octogenarian Tom Suminski over a playful background of organ, saxophones, percussion, and electric guitar. “I drink beer in Milwaukee, too. In heaven there is no beer—the angels, drinking all the beer. We can always drink beer. And men. Men like the Three Stooges. They’re crazy.”

Disoriented? Understandable. But, hey, no reason to worry. Sometimes it’s okay to be confused, if you’re in a safe a place. And right now you are. It’s called the Duplex Planet. So let those utterances hang in the air and just enjoy them for what they are. The lines are Suminski’s, but the voice delivering them belongs to David Greenberger, who has been chronicling his conversations with the elderly for 31 years in his zine The Duplex Planet, which over the decades has bloomed into a likewise-named multimedia cottage industry that encompasses regular appearances on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” a documentary film, books and graphic novels, lectures, live theatrical performances, and nine CDs thus far of his bite-sized, music-backed monologues. To gather his material, Greenberger travels around the country, visiting homes for the elderly and day centers and asking the residents thought-provoking questions like “Did the future turn out the way you thought it would?” (Sample answer: “No, I thought I’d be younger for a longer time.”) Or, “What can you tell me about snakes?” (Answer: “I don’t care for ’em at all! I’m glad I live on the fifth floor!”)

The above-quoted “A King in Milwaukee, Part 1” is one of the 38 short tracks that make up Greenberger’s newest album, Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time (2009, Pel Pel Recordings), a collaboration with Milwaukee guitarist Paul Cebar. Image-rich, heart-tugging, and frequently funny—though never at the expense of his subjects—Greenberger’s charming vignettes appear and then dissolve like scrapbook snapshots, giving us fleeting glimpses of the lives of the sources while simultaneously revealing the emotionally redeeming nuggets hidden within the always difficult end-of-life phase. But the Duplex Planet is not built on nostalgia, he insists.
“A lot of people describe what I do as oral history, like Studs Terkel or something. But that’s not what it is,” Greenberger explains. “When I talk to these people who are nearing the ends of their lives—and dealing with
Alzheimer’s, memory loss, all that—I’m trying to get to know them for who they are now. Not who they were way back when, or what life was like for them then. If they decide to start talking about that stuff, that’s fine, but I’m more interested in the thoughts and observations they have and the things they say in the moment. Since the elderly are already thought of by what they have in common—that they’re all old—I try to recast them as individuals. My ‘art,’ I guess you could call it that, is in what questions I ask, what things the people say that jump out for me, and in how I arrange, edit, and present those things to the reader or listener. So it’s not really about the past. When I was growing up and some relative would show me some old photograph of an ancestor of mine, my eyes would just glaze over and I’d think, ‘This is just some guy in a hat that I never met. What does he have to do with me now?’ So I’ve never been that drawn to genealogy or whatever.”

Greenberger did his growing up and family-photo gazing in the rust-belt town of Erie, Pennsylvania, where he also discovered Captain Beefheart records and played bass in garage bands with names like Happy Scab and Scotland Yard Fantasy. After studying painting at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art, he joined the cult band Men & Volts and took what would become a pivotal job: as activities director at the all-male Duplex Nursing Home, in the city’s low-income Jamaica Plain section. “Right away, I felt at home for some reason,” he recalls. “These were mostly guys that would be called losers by a lot of outside people—recovering alcoholics, guys with no family to speak of. But in talking to them there was an honesty of exchange there, even if a lot of what they were saying didn’t make a lot of sense because their minds were starting to decline. But I began to notice that there was a real poetry to it, and the urge to start writing it all down was incredible.”

Thus was born The Duplex Planet, which would eventually count among its fans Lou Reed, Matt Groening, Michael Stipe, Jonathan Demme, Robyn Hitchcock, George Carlin, and Allen Ginsberg—though the journal’s initial stars themselves were less than impressed. “[The elderly residents] all thought I was crazy,” recalls Greenberger. “They couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in them or the little things they said. Looking back now, I can see why; it was all just mundane, day-to-day stuff to them. But at the time, in my naïveté, it sort of shocked me, that they didn’t get more of kick out it.” But thankfully, however, many others did. And Greenberger, reassured as The Duplex Planet became a hit on the underground publishing scene and began to build a devoted following, knew he’d found his real calling, and traded in his paintbrushes for the rapidly filling notebooks he kept in his pockets (although he has since worked as a graphic artist, designing album covers and websites for Richard Thompson, Henry Kaiser, Marshall Crenshaw, and others).

Given his background as a musician and music connoisseur, it was inevitable that Greenberger would hit on the idea of combining music with his Duplex Planet prose. Although he’d already begun a series of compilations that feature artists like Morphine, Yo La Tengo, XTC, and Michael Hurley setting the poems of Duplex Nursing Home resident Ernest Noyes Brookings to their original songs, it wasn’t until 1993 that he himself collaborated with longtime fan and NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams on The Duplex Planet Hour (Carrot Top Records). “That record is a little different than the later ones because it’s spoken-word pieces with music in between the tracks, not as accompaniment to the words,” says Greenberger, who moved with his wife and daughter to the Capital Region in 1984 and now lives in Greenwich. “I didn’t want to have it come off like some kind of faux-beatnik thing, so I had to figure out how to work with musicians to come up with stuff that complements what I’m reading.” Although he’s released one disc utilizing the recorded dialogue of his subjects, 2006’s Growing Old in East L.A. (Public Radio Exchange), which features music by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, Greenberger’s other collaborative albums, with Men & Volts’s Phil Kaplan, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and 3 Leg Torso, all pair his inviting, matter-of-fact voice with incidental music that adroitly evokes both the topics at hand and the colorful personalities of his storied interviewees.

“[Recording Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time] was a grand adventure, a real labor of love—and humor,” says Paul Cebar, who in addition to organizing the album studio sessions co-led a six-piece band through a live performance of the project, which was funded by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, at his hometown’s 1895-built Pabst Theater. “David visited several local senior facilities to do his interviews for the material, and then when we were in the studio or rehearsing he’d give some loose direction. Either we’d try to come up with music that suggested the text, or we might be jamming on something and he’d say, ‘Wait, hold on to that idea!’ and then dig up some passage from his notebooks that he thought would fit well with what the musicians were doing. So it was very kinetic, there was a real sense of discovery about everything. It was all very much ‘of the moment,’ this record.”

Although Greenberger, now 55, shows no sign of slowing down in his work—indeed, at the time of this writing he’s preparing a staggering four albums of unheard material for release later this year—he maintains that when he ultimately does go, the Duplex Planet will go with him. “What I do and how I do it is unique to me. If someone else did something similar, it would be their thing,” says Greenberger, who has also worked as a script consultant to producer Norman Lear and the Cartoon Network. “It’s inherent to the process, the way I myself act as the filter for the words. Also, part of how the whole thing moves along, the only constant, is that it shows me getting closer to the point in my own life that’s equivalent to where the people I’ve interviewed are now or have been.”

“And one thing I’ve learned from being around elderly people,” Greenberger continues, “is that even though as you get older and can’t do as much, the things you can do take the place of what you can no longer do, in terms of their importance. So maybe one slightly younger guy can ride a bike around the block, and the most an older guy can do is turn his head and talk to someone. But so what? For that older guy, just being able to turn his head and talk to someone is the most that he can do—and for him that’s no less an achievement than riding a bike, running a marathon, whatever, is to someone else. For that older guy it’s where he is now that’s important. So there’s something in that for everybody, I hope. [The Duplex Planet] is about the people I interview, but it’s also about all of us. Our own minds. Our own memories. Our own life spans.”
Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time is out now on Pel Pel Recordings.
www.duplexplanet.com.

click to enlarge David Greenberger of Duplex Planet.
  • David Greenberger of Duplex Planet.

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