Angela and I have long been devotees of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor’s live public broadcasting radio show about life in general and in particular Lutheran life in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. We love Dusty and Lefty, who amble through “The Lives of the Cowboys”, and the Mickey Spillane-style gumshoe Guy Noir of “Guy Noir, Private Eye” (“her dress had less cotton than the top of an aspirin bottle”), the musical guests, the “advertisements” for Powdermilk Biscuits and Catchup, and of course the weekly monologue “News from Lake Wobegon”, when the band and the voice actors leave Garrison Keillor on the stage alone and the audience quiesces, and he begins a yarn that always starts out, “Well it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…”.
I don’t recall when I first heard the show, but I first started paying attention to it when a housemate of mine, Dave Smith (I call him “Walkin” Dave Smith because he once jokingly said that if he ever became a famous guitar player that’s what he’d call himself) insisted I borrow his cassette tapes of Garrison Keillor’s monologues from the show. Dave was a young man I grew to admire much, who lived lightly and without many attachments. He owned few possessions beyond his acoustic and electric guitars and some books by Emerson, so the fact that he had a set of Prairie Home Companion monologue tapes really said something about their value to him.
I remember that “Hog Slaughter” was one of the monologues on Dave’s tapes. Like all of the best of Garrison Keillor’s monologues, it sneaks up on you. It starts out being about a simple pastoral tradition, a feast of some kind involving a lot of ham, and about some kids teasing pigs by throwing rocks at them, but it turns into something much more profound when the boys are discovered mistreating the hogs by one of the old men who will be killing all of the pigs in a day or two. The hogman’s speech to the young boys, who are terrified and caught off guard by his wrath, illumines for them a subtle warp in the world that they have not until then imagined, that a creature that you are going to kill and eat is worthy still of your respect, and maybe the more worthy precisely because you are going to kill and eat it. The old man was cautioning them against becoming monsters who kill and eat and never think about what that means. One gets the sense that this actually may have happened in Garrison Keillor’s childhood and that he never forgot it.
One of the reasons I like A Prairie Home Companion so much is that it is about “place”, about what happens when people live together in a place, enough people to make a culture of their own but few enough too that they know and love and dislike each other. The beauty is that while the show is about a particular place and a fictional one at that, people from all over the continent tune in every week and relate to the show through their own place, through their own family and friends and neighbors. We recognize the general in the particular in order to bring it home to ourselves.
Last week Angela and I were able to bring it even closer. My birthday was Friday. I turned 48. (I am now so old that my age is cleanly divisible by 24. I could say to a 24-year-old, who I might otherwise view as my peer, “I’ve lived the equivalent of two of your lives.” Of course I would never say that to anyone. It’s not all just a matter of time. In fact, I believe time is the least of things.) Angela surprised me with tickets to the show (did she ever!), which I had not known was coming to town. The show’s home base is the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, but it travels throughout the year. Last Saturday the show came to (and again this Saturday it will be at) the Paramount Theater on Ninth and Pine, and we were there in row O, seats 4 and 5 on the Main Floor.
The show was broadcast live. A little light at the edge of the stage came on that said “ON AIR”. Seeing the show, seeing the show instead of just hearing it, and seeing it performed in a venerable old showhouse in my home city; seeing the Royal Academy of Radio Actors (Sue Scott and Tim Russell and sound effects man Fred Newman) broadcasting so many voices and noises; seeing them move backward or forward at the mic to give the impression of voices distant or close; seeing guest artist Brandi Carlile as she belted out the songs that are making people sit up and take notice in this early stage of her career; seeing guest artists the Wailin’ Jennies as they spun their haunting harmonies; seeing what the guys in The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band look like, piano player Richard Dworsky with his jacket and tie and running shoes and baseball cap and his flying fingers, the blinding metal of Pat Donahue’s guitar jabbing reflections of the stage lights into the audience; seeing Garrison Keillor begin his monologue even before he sat down on his stool, seeing him pull the stool forward while already talking and adjust its position among the wires and cables lying across the stage floor, then sitting down so that his bright red shoes and socks caught the light, seeing all of it right in front of us, was wonderful.
I felt pampered. I felt really lucky, too, and not just because I have the best wife in the world. Garrison Keillor won’t live forever (may he live forever). This is not the kind of show that someone picks up and takes over from the original host. Aside from Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe, I’m not even aware of anyone doing anything remotely like this. So A Prairie Home Companion has a life for a time and that time is now. It’s something I hadn’t been thinking of at all, but now I’m so grateful to have been a part of such a singular, historic and worthwhile tradition.
It made me wonder where my old friend Walkin’ Dave Smith has got to, and whether or not he’s still got his old cassettes, or anything to play them on. He’d have been thrilled to know I got to see the show live. He swoops in suddenly into our life once in a while, unannounced (possibly because he can get in and away easier that way), and otherwise moves around a lot. Last we heard from him, years ago, he had finished a year-long intensive training in the craft of piano tuning and was starting out in his new career. I always loved that about him. When he took to something, he let it take over his life. But that’s another story.