Alan Eric Rackin
1949 - 2007
Rick Robinson's Eulogy
Graveside, Sunday, October 28, 2007
This man was a great artist. The real thing. A natural.
We came quite a ways, a great deal of it together. And we had success. Not as much as we might have; not enough so that the world at large knows how great he was. But that's their loss.
In his song "Forces of Nature" he wrote, "We came out of the suburbs like hell on a rail; some went to school, some went directly to jail." Well, it was close, but for us, it was college.
Once we were in a history class there, taught by this very flamboyant, self-important professor by the name of Dr. Regis A Courtemanch - no kidding - in one of those big lecture halls, and he was lecturing about the various tribes in medieval Europe. I don't remember the names - I like history, but it was really Al's thing - as it is (his brother) Fred's - I used to love being there when the two of them would get into talking history; missed their callings as historians, both of them. Anyway, the professor was going on about how the Blips conquered the Blops or whoever, and were overrun in turn by the Visiblops, and suddenly Al raises his hand.
"Yes, Rackin," says Courtemanche. Al had quickly become a great favorite of his. So Al stands up - we were way in the back - and he says, "It wasn't the Blips, it was the Skips!" And Courtemanche says, "Why, you're right, Rackin! Quite so!" And he went on with the lecture. But Al was bothered by something, sitting there thinking - furrowed brow. Suddenly, he raises his hand again.
"Yes, Rackin," says the great professor.
And Al says, "You know, it wasn't the Blips OR the Skips - it was the Flipss!"
And Courtemanche booms, "My God, Rackin, you're RIGHT!! Indeed it was the Flipps!"
He gave Al an A- for the course, supposedly the highest grade he ever gave out.
We did gigs as a duo during this time, playing things like entire sides of "After the Goldrush," and the Crosby, Stills and Nash albums.
We played a joint called Alice's Restaurant - in Long Island, not Stockbridge, Massachusetts - run by this miserly ex-beatnik named Joe Beard. We got 40 bucks a night - for the two of us. Once, as he handed this princely sum to Al, he said, "40, daddy!" And Al takes it and goes, "Thanks, pop!"
And I'm sure Di will never forget our weekend trips to play the Hunter Mountaineer. Four of us, with suitcases, guitars, amps and mike stands, in my 1958 Austin Healy, a rag top with side curtains - sliding plastic windows, impossible to seal. I don't know how we did it.
Seems like it was much colder up there in those years. Once the trunk handle just snapped off in my hand. I touched the plastic back window and it cracked. But that thing got us up that mountain and down again every week.
We stayed way up on the top floor - it was a great big old inn. (To Diane:) Remember the scurrying of the mice in the walls? Breakfast by ourselves in the dining room - way later than the rest of the guests of course, cause we played till 3 in the morning. I remember Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" was a current hit, constantly playing on the jukebox. They had an old pump organ in the entrance hall. It was cold...
And then came the long, lovely period in New York City, when we wrote and recorded, and lived the life. "The Razor's Edge," and "Adrienne," and that series, are from that time.
Years later, he and I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado; and the Grand Canyon on the way to California, where it all finally came together for him with the songs that gave him his great commercial successes, and are the reason your screen will fill up if you type his name into Google.
He loved the Blues, and God knows, he loved to rock and roll. But he had a gift for melody, and that made his own songs a little more legit, as they say, than a lot of the blues and rock covers he loved to perform. This is also why he was able to write his hits, which are pop ballads. Cause his melodies were great.
But it was as a lyricist that he was truly unique. He loved poetic craftwork, and his songs are full of literate structures and internal rhymes - the latter being a major favorite of his. "There's a game goin down somewhere around Bayonne."
There are two distinct hallmarks of his style: One is to take the highest minded concept and ram it right up against the basest, street-level reality. The sacred and the profane, the sublime and the ridiculous, the light and the dark. "Your funny valentine, you say he died in the street, with a .32 clutched in his hand!" Or, with a '32 clutch in his hand! He wrote serious stuff, but nothing was immune to parody. We were like the Marx brothers for, like, a long time! Another example: "Hope Eternal was cookin' for the Colonel, with the baby home alone." Have you ever heard anything like that?
The other hallmark is that his writing is uncannily cinematic, as I always put it. In a phrase or two he transports you completely into a scene: "We were driving in the right lane; I was dreaming in the light rain." "He wrapped his secrets up in a corner of the night." "Well Saturday night is for sailors, and diplomats in top hats; me, I spend my weekends at the jailor's, thinking about this and that."
Disaffection. He was the poet of disaffection.
Back in 1969 he was like the Fagen of the disaffected! and some of us were quite happy to be his urchins. He taught us to pick the figurative pockets of the real world, and bring the goods back to our countercultural redoubt - which happened to be Marty and Shirley's house - when they were away at the lake, of course. Revolution was his element, and he was so popular - powerful, really; you had to be there to believe that scene.
But, then, the "big chill." And this phenomenological way he looked at the world - which I related to completely, and it was a big reason why we were so close - this way of seeing things slowly began to lose its lightness for him, and reveal itself as something he was actually painfully restricted by. But that's were the art came from. You have to be somewhat separated from things to see them. You gotta suffer to sing the blues. As Al wrote in the song "30th St," "The price it is high, man, you know that it's steep."
"Well he blows into town and says, Big Apple beware! He got thunder in his pocket, and a streak of lightning in his hair. With the voice of a saint in the face of a thief, he's looking for love, and maybe something to eat, on 30th St.
Well his music's still alive but he's feeling half dead, and he can't go home cause there's a price on his head; and the price it is high, man, you know that it's steep; when you're counting on luck, and maybe someplace to sleep."
So one time they came over - these are stories I love to tell - and Diane asked me if I'd heard Eric's new song. (To Diane:) How long ago was it when he first insisted that you, and everyone else, call him Eric? I respected his wishes professionally, and with strangers, but refused to do it to his face. But the fact is, whenever he called me up, he never said anything but - it's Al. Anyway, I hadn't heard the song yet, so she says, "It's called "'Calling Houdini"' - and she just waited for the reaction she knew was coming. And, I said, "Calling Houdini?!!" She laughed and said, "Yeah, I go down the basement and there he is, bent over the guitar going, '"Calling Houdini! Calling Houdini!"' I thought - that's it, he's finally flipped!"
A more recent song: "The sun continues to shine, the weather remains fine." I thought this was just an amazing, peculiar phrase, and I asked him - how the hell do you come up with this shit? So he just gave me his trademark bewildered shrug, and said, "I was driving in the car, listening to the radio, and the weather report came on - and that's what the guy said!"
See, you and I, we live in the world - even me, with my avowed appreciation for looking askance at it - I don't catch things like that. I wouldn't think twice about it. But with Al, it reached him through some kind of corridor, where he could see it coming. "The sun continues to shine, the weather remains fine." And Al says, "You got October flowers on routes 1 and 9. There's a game going down somewhere around Bayonne. I'd like to call out the dogs, but they tore out the phone."
He couldn't help it. It came to him. It drove him. Cause he was an artist. A very great artist.
Now, to be that sensitive can mean to lack - or forego - a certain essential strength. The historic examples are legion. But, like many of them, he was no coward. I saw him stand up to things that scared the hell out of me. And - here are Tina and Vincy, his amazing kids; living testament to the strength of his love.
Tina said he looks younger now. Happy. Peaceful. Well, sure. Souls, when they're released - they're done here. They move on, to their greater destiny.
But I'm bereft; alone, like I haven't been in the 38 years since we became friends. We really haven't been able to hang with each other for a while now, during this last, long, quiet period. But we spoke often, and - you know, as long as he was there.
But it seems that, in the back of my mind, I was counting on his finally getting done with his surfeit of angst. He'd just get bored with it, like I feel I have, with my own problems. I mean, my problems - who cares? Let's eat! Enough already. You know, and we'd come together again, as we always did; and again I'd get to be with this finely intelligent, deeply read, brilliantly poetic - and funny, funny guy; my kindred spirit - from the ancient Eurasian Jewish kingom of Khazaria, where he was sure both of our ancestors came from. The gentlest soul I have ever known.
Yeah, we'd be a couple of alter-cockers - alter-rockers - amusing the youngsters with descriptions of antedeluvian studio electronics. When the day finally came when Eric could give Alan a break.
Well. When I heard this had happened, I was just in denial, and I called his cell phone. Like he would answer, and - somebody'd got the story wrong. Of course, I got voice mail. But I was struck by the message. He said, "Hi. This is Alan Eric Rackin. Please leave me a message."
I'm going to take a page from his play book, and call this one like I want to see it. What a charge he'd get out of me doing that.