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The Time Has Come
First Interview with Noel
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
In less than five minutes after Noel joined Bill and me for lunch, he had put us at ease. (Much later I would see the connection between how gracious he was with Bill and me on that Saturday and how he could put at ease an audience of 10,000 in 2 minutes flat.) We were struck by his warmth, quiet confidence, attentiveness, humility, sense of humor, and energy. While I was still fumbling with my digital tape recorder, he launched into a story from his early teens about walking away from a fight. I understood his choice to tell it first as a signal that ethics would be an important theme in his life story.
After lunch, my gregarious husband left us on cue, as I had requested out of concern that he’d become the interviewer and I’d be the audience. During the next three hours Noel and I talked “of many things.” (My transcript of the interview is 39 pages long and has 38 section headings.) Here are 15 of the topics: the need for fresh religious metaphors, the integration of Noel’s faith and social concern, creativity and imagination, his Greenwich Village period in the early 60s, coincidence, Richard Rohr, composer Charles Ives, the spirituality of his parents, technology, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow, songwriting, our vision for the book, death, and Thomas Paine.
During a break, Noel saw Bill in the hall and invited him back into the conversation. As our session ended, he offered us a ride in his and Peter’s hired van to the concert hall in downtown Pittsburgh. During the soundcheck, Bill and I had time to walk to a local restaurant for dinner. Back at the theater, we discovered our complimentary seats were Row D, Center Orchestra. Nice, indeed. As we waited for the show to start, we talked to the woman in the seat behind us, Dr. Nancy Berk. I immediately recognized her as the clinical psychologist turned entertainment analyst for Parade Magazine because I’d read several of her excellent interviews with Noel.
The concert was everything I could have imagined and more—Peter and Noel’s ease of connecting with the audience, their energy and humor, exquisite guitar accompaniments, a set list of old and new songs, and signature PP&M harmonies. Backstage after the concert we chatted with Lynn Pomrenke-Mossburg, who, with her husband, had recorded an album in Noel's Blue Hill studio decades earlier. On the way back to the hotel, Bill sat beside the driver while behind them Noel and I continued our book talk. It was a wonderful ending of what felt like a momentous day. About an hour later I got an email from Noel that Bill had left his jacket in the van. Would I send him a snail mail address so he could mail it to us?
The next morning I heard from Noel again. His morning flight was delayed. Would Bill and I want to come by his hotel to get the jacket? When we arrived, he invited us to sit down for coffee. That’s when I learned that his Saturday afternoon enthusiasm about the book had cooled. He said, “Maybe the book shouldn’t be just about me. I’m not all that unique. There are other singer / songwriters who are similar—others who have an ‘on the slant’ approach.”
I agreed to live with that question of expanding the scope of the book for a while, but as Bill and I drove home, I was already composing a reply,
My take so far is that your humility was talking on Sunday. From my perspective, and perhaps to your surprise, your humility is part of the reason you, your music and its “on the slant” metaphorical qualities, and story are unique. Your powerful lyrics are made so by your emotional range, vocal interpretation, musicality, and melodies. To that list, I’d add diversity of styles, honesty, humor, theological bent, faith perspective, character, commitment to justice, and I could go on. I do think the book can be fashioned so that the spotlight is not on your celebrity or achievements in ways that make you uncomfortable, but on the Love that flows through you and even through your hands as you play guitar. Your particularity amplifies your story’s power as an example and encouragement for spiritual seekers. My hope is that the book will amplify that example. It’s not the kind of example that puts you on a pedestal and glorifies your achievements. It’s about your having opened yourself, heart, and talents to the Spirit and having discerned that your “calling was to speak in metaphor about the Spirit.”
I think he heard me. Over the next months as we began our interviews, I realized that he’d never given me a verbal “yes” to the book, but that his “yes” was in his ongoing commitment to OUR project as it grew organically, sometimes smoothly and other times in starts and fits, as we continued “to talk of many things.”
Most of the topics that emerged in that meeting were good indicators of the contents of our draft manuscript, but we are curious about what topics our future readers might be expecting. We invite you to comment on topics that would be of particular interest to you. What would you ask Noel if you were interviewing him for the book?
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Now and then each of us has found occasions in our interviews to reference Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865), and in my research I have gone down more rabbit holes than I can count. The epigram for today’s post is taken from Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), his second book about Alice.
The image is Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of “The Walrus and the Carpenter’’ (1871), via Wikimedia Commons. He illustrated both of Carroll’s children’s classics, and for over 50 years he was the main political cartoonist of Punch magazine and the first illustrator or cartoonist to be honored with knighthood.
Fun fact: Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” was part of the inspiration for John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” which was on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour EP and album.