Musician Mary Lorson’s youth was marked by constant motion, with her mother and sisters frequently moving from one place to another. Over the last several years she’s been working on an epic song cycle documenting her childhood. She produced this excerpt of the saga for UnFictional. It’s about her father, who has always been a bit of a mystery to Mary. He’s really just a character in her mind, created from a handful of memories of brief interactions and gifts received.
Full script below:
BOB: UnFictional is a program of true stories, personal documentaries and radio movies, and always interested to find new ways of telling stories. On this episode you can add something different…. It’s a musical documentary written by Mary Lorson
MARY: I say that I'm a writer who makes music and stories. Also, I was an English teacher for a very long time and it's an excellent job for a writer because there are so many different types of stories and ways to deliver a story. If I were given one word, I'd say I'm a writer,
BOB: Which is interesting because what I knew of you was as a musician, you were in bands that I had known.
[Madder Rose song plays]
Mary’s been recording music for a long time in bands like Madder Rose, Saint Low and the Soubrettes and under her own name.
MARY: Yeah, I was a writer long before the music thing. I loved playing music and always did, but I never thought that I could really do it professionally, that just sort of happened in my 20s. But at the same time, music is just one of the possibilities, it seems.
A NEW possibility for something Mary could try… A personal memoir set to music. It came to her mind while she was writing a screenplay
MARY: It was an historical screenplay about a famous vaudevillian named Eva Tanguay. She was incredibly famous in her day, but her fame didn't last. She was right on the cusp of electronic media. So vaudeville was her medium and she was larger than life. But she was also like a sex addict, and she was your classic over indulgent, crazy hypomanic pop star.
[Sound clip: Eva Tanguay]
MARY: She did not make the transfer into talkies very well. She made one movie, it only exists now in parts. I got interested in her because my great grandmother worked for her, turned out, and toured with her. I loved the idea that in my band I played in a lot of those old vaudeville houses. They are now on the circuit for rock bands
[Sound clip: Eva Tanguay]
MARY: I loved thinking about my great grandmother being in those places as Eva Tanguay’s employee, so I was writing that. Historical fiction is so interesting because you have to imagine the minuitest experience, the little moments, or that's the way I did with her. I was really curious about the texture of her life, the clothing that she wore, and the fabric... and what her body must have felt like after a really hard performance, as she was a crazy dancer and she basically beat her body up.
[Sound clip: Eva Tanguay]
MARY: She and I had a bunch of things in common, interestingly, Eva Tanguay. We were both the youngest of four, and we were both kind of hyperactive kids that nobody knew what to do with in a family with no father and and a pretty absent mother, and being a creative, hyperactive type. So those were the touch points for me to try to imagine her experience.
BOB: Mary wrote a musical memoir of her own life, and we’re going to hear a part of it called Rolling Thunder… it’s a section of a longer stage performance called Signals
MARY: ...Which is a full length performance memoir. It's an hour and a half long. We did it, I think three or four times in Los Angeles at small theaters and then maybe three or four times here in New York in small theaters. There are two video screens that play continuously, and the band is in the center, and I play guitar, piano or sometimes just talk.
It was such a pain in the ass for the band to learn because none of the pieces are like rock songs. They don't have a chorus in the same place every time, and they don't have the same types of patterning that rock songs or pop songs have. So my amazing band… they were game.
BOB: From KCRW I’m Bob Carlson and this is Rolling Thunder…. written by Mary Lorson and produced for UnFictional
[Rolling Thunder begins]
MARY: I wasn't a bastard but I kind of felt illegitimate. Dad and Mom had eloped three months after meeting. My sisters from Mom’s first marriage loved him like mad, but one day Dad vanished, before I could form one single memory of him.
I've always wondered why that day was the finale. How do you walk away from a beaming little two-year-old face, one that looks like you? I was there, but unaware. I want the scene.
My sisters say: Dad was great.
Mom says: All you need to know is he walked away.
Dad said: Mom kicked him out that day, that he crammed his suits and stereo into the Mustang and rushed to the city for a meeting, paying a kid twenty bucks to guard the car, which was empty anyway when he came back out.
Later, once I knew him, I asked: “Was there another woman?”
His answer: “There must have been.”
MARY AND VOCALISTS (SUNG): They blamed it all on alcohol.
MARY: They blamed it all on alcohol.
Mom said: infidelity wasn't the only problem; unofficial-seeming “bill collectors” were showing up at the house.
My sisters said: Dad made life fun, played the piano, adored Mom. But skillets and invectives would fly in the night… and then Dad went missing, with hundreds of thousands of some investor’s dollars. By the time my sisters were eight, ten and eleven, they had lost two fathers.
Mom hadn’t worked since modeling before her first marriage. She borrowed tuition for a full-time secretarial course and sent me to stay with her brother, another charming alcoholic with money problems and a fed-up wife. Mom and the girls stayed behind, in the lovely house on Manor Lane.
I rejoined them fifteen months and few blocks but a world away, in a garden apartment behind the Country Club. Mom kept the crystal chandelier and her gown from the Kennedy Inaugural, and a suite of heavy furniture that wasn’t made for small rooms.
Sometime later, Dad called Mom for a friendly chat. He was glad to hear she was in love and admitted that he and his girlfriend had a baby. He asked her to sign some papers for a Tijuana divorce. Sure, Mom said, and I’ll take the trip to Mexico too. She came back with castanets and a tan. I remember understanding then that my parents would never get back together.
I had Dad's nose and hair and musicality, but couldn’t remember a thing about him. Mom said I was lucky I didn't know what I was missing. The older girls talked about their happy chapter with my dad all the time, but I’d wait alone out front for the Mustang that didn't come. One day, though, he showed, and this was my own first memory of Dad: Christmastime, Chinatown, and three wrapped presents: a Dancerina doll, a Polaroid Swinger, and a camel hair coat from Saks. The surviving Polaroids show a serious dad and a manically happy me.
Dad promised that now he was going to bring all his kids together regularly. He'd repeat this song on our scattershot dates over the years, but that visit was the beginning of our intermittent, fond, indulgent, dishonest bond. After that, I lived in obsessive anticipation of the next visit, never knowing when it would be.
A Dancerina doll, a Polaroid Swinger, and a camel hair coat from Saks. Dad gave me these, and went back to wherever he went.
During Kindergarten, I roomed with Mom, but she was out most nights.The big girls had the other bedroom. I wasn’t allowed in, but from the other side of the door I’d smell and listen attentively. Incense, patchouli, cigarettes, maybe pot? Talking, laughing, singing Joni Mitchell, CSNY...yelling, hitting, screaming, cursing. I swear I could hear the brushing of their long beautiful hair, the swinging of their unhindered double-D breasts...meanwhile people kept mistaking me for a boy.
“You have your father’s thin hair,” Mom complained, so she took me to the barber on the corner, who gave me a buzz cut... and rationalized it this way: “It don't matta if she looks bad now; it mattas what she looks like when she's 18.” Mom thought this was a riot. There was none of this “you're beautiful because you're you” bullshit with Mom. You either looked good, or you didn't.
MARY AND VOCALISTS (SUNG)
There in the cathode light, nobody beamed up bright
Enough for her to like noone to walk beside
Yeah, you hardly knew us
That was just our life/that was just our life
MARY: Then, In first grade, I almost had another sister! Jeanne!
MARY AND VOCALISTS (SUNG): Jeanne! Jeanne! Jeanne! Jeanne!....Jeanne!
MARY: We had a great time together.
MARY (SUNG): Mom met her father at the giant step, a piano bar in New Rochelle. She’d got my deadbeat dad the gig, and he showed up. Went down so she could grab the tips, and let the admirers buy her drinks led by the very handsome Ed Desonne.
MARY (SPOKEN): Mom was passionate and needed a rescue; Ed DeSonne was a prosperous investment banker. Both were raising broods of four alone. He wasn’t divorced yet, but soon he and Mom got engaged, and we were going to be like the Brady Bunch, with martinis.
SINGERS: Yeah, it’s never simple, but we’ll give it a try; maybe be alright
MARY: In the meantime, he was paying the rent on our roomy townhouse on Carol Avenue...
MARY: Jeanne too was the youngest of four. She was fearless and funny, and once the parents were married, she would be my roommate. But until then, I had to spend a few more nights with one or another of my unwilling sisters. One such Saturday, Knockout Diane was supposed to watch me while Shy Karen went to a party for once, but Diane sneaked out. Karen wailed, but Mom had plans with Ed, who arrived in a cloud of aftershave and tapped his shiny toe in the foyer. Mom appeared in glamorous good cheer and ordered me to kiss him. I didn't wanna.
“Go ahead: give him a little kiss,” Mom said, and Ed reached out gamely, but I wound back and fired a fierce little first-grade kick right into his suited shin.
Today we'd say I was “acting out.” But back then, everybody just yelled. Then the grownups... went out. And the television...went on. And then: Ed DeSonne disappeared, changing the channel on a whole other level.
MARY AND VOCALISTS: Ed, we hardly knew ye…
MARY: In first grade you learn to add two plus two. I overheard the word “funeral” and didn’t see Jeanne’s dad for a week; these factors equalled --to me-- that he was dead. When Mom announced it, the big girls wailed like the world was ending. But I just said: “I know.”
I wasn't glad Ed was dead, but I wasn't sad, either. I didn't know how much we lost.
Mom told everyone the aneurysm happened while Ed was driving; years later she told me the rest of the story. She also told me that, in her grief, she'd called my dad, as a friend, and that he'd sneaked away to be there with her at Ed's funeral.
In the instant it takes for a blood vessel to pop, Mom became bereft, unemployed, and homeless, and our family dispersed like seeds in the wind. Diane went to live with her father in the city. Joni went to live with her best friend. The rest of us were taken in by another divorcee with a sun-porch we shared for the nervous, chilly months it took Mom to save up a security deposit. Karen cried, Mom cooing in her ear and breaking Valiums in half. But worst of all, Jeanne was sent into foster care.
I only saw her once again after that, but we’re Facebook friends now.
MARY: While we were staying with the other family, Dad got tickets for the TV show "Wonderama", for me and our host's daughter, and she won the big prize! The moms picked us up, tipsy on high heels, and loaded the prizes in the back of a Checker, ignoring candy-starved Moonies in white shirts and dark blazers who tried to sell us carnations.
Mom found an apartment. It was in Tuckahoe, so we switched schools. I was in Second grade; Joni, Seventh; Karen, Ninth. I got sent to the principal's office for wearing pants; he showed me a paddle, said next time he'd use it. But maybe it wasn't just the trousers.
Men landed on the moon, “Evil Ways” was in heavy rotation, and “Spinning Wheel.” Our apartment sat at a dead end by a highway. At night the passing cars projected an abstract slideshow on our bedroom wall. In the living room, Mom would light a candle and drink wine. The apartment often smelled of the burned bottom of a saucepan.That Christmas Eve, Mom fell asleep and the candles burned all the way down, through the tablecloth, and into the nice oak table. I woke up when the fire department arrived.
MARY AND VOCALISTS SUNG: Yeah, we hardly knew you/ that was just our life/ that was just our life
MARY: Karen was 15 and wanted privacy; I was seven and wanted company. One day these opposing desires clashed at a bedroom door, both sides pushing until the big kid won, my middle finger slammed in the door jamb.
The top was hacked completely off. Mom raced me to New Rochelle Hospital, where the surgeon told her to retrieve the tip of my finger or I'd have a stump for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Karen tried to flush my finger, along with her shame and horror, down the toilet.
Thanks to low-rent plumbing, my fingertip didn't disappear, and the toilet water even kept it alive. Mom carried it in a baggie back to the surgeon, who successfully reattached it. Now, there’s a parent's errand. They kept me in the hospital for a week, because I was hyperactive and the doctor feared I'd bang the stitches open.
It's possible I was on painkillers, because when Dad appeared he was like a dream, swinging down the hall with his great suit and his smiling blue eyes. He'd stopped at the gift shop, and gotten me a dozen long stemmed American Beauty roses and a music box. When you opened it, a ballerina pirouetted to this song:
ALL VOCALISTS: “Oklahoma” break:
Oh, what a beautiful morning
Oh, what a beautiful day
I’ve got a beautiful feeling
Everything’s going my way
[Rest, then instrumental break]
MARY: The roses died, of course. I kept that box, though, long after the ballerina broke off and the inside felt was smutty with lipgloss and melted Jolly Ranchers. I didn’t see Dad again for another four years.