Pete's Blog

Letter to George Gerdes

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I have been corresponding in recent days with the great George Gerdes, a hero of the '70s/'80s Greenwich Village folk scene and one of my biggest influences as a songwriter. After releasing a couple of major-label albums ("Obituary" and "Son of Obituary" - where do you think I got "The Little Death Rag"?) he put together a solid career as a character actor and now lives in LA.

I knew him slightly in my New York days and must have told him at one point about the summer I spent in a high-schoolers' acting camp at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, his alma mater. Out of the blue he asked me to tell him everything I could remember about that summer 45 years ago. I hope he won't mind if I share the answer with you happy few.

"How did you know about Pittsburgh? Did I tell you once upon a time? If so your memory is laudable.

"The summer I was 16, 1968, I spent 6 weeks at Carnegie-Mellon's summer program for high school actors. The teachers whose names I remember (there are others I don't)  are Mordy Lawner, Baker Salisbury, Jewel Walker, and the redoubtable Edith Warman Skinner. I may still have 'Speak with Distinction' somewhere.

"We all lived in that double tower dormitory across the street, us arty types and an equal or greater number from the local Upward Bound program. My roommate had a habit of taking money out of my wallet while I slept until I learned to keep my valuables under the mattress at night.

"Actually, what I remember most about that summer (aside from the heat, my first reefer, and a ball game I went to at old Forbes Field - the Cubs with Ernie Banks) was making music. I was playing my C harmonica with Charlie Bendes in his room in the boys' tower and when we finished a tune we heard the sound of applause coming from the girls' tower across the way. It was symbolic in a teenaged sort of way: girls over there, boys over here, a vast and deadly gulf between us bridged momentarily. Somehow Charlie and I found a church in the Sunnyside (?) neighborhood that had a teen coffeehouse in the basement and I got written permission from my parents to stay out after curfew and play there. We made $20, the first time I'd ever been paid for performing, and that night one kid got so jealous of his girlfriend liking the music that he had to be escorted out of there. I thought, 'This is the life for me.'

Although I studied acting here and there for another couple of years that $20 was $20 more than I ever earned as an actor. I applied to the undergraduate program and auditioned that fall but was turned down. Baker Salisbury encouraged me to try again the following year and sometimes I wish I had. I assume you and Loudon were there at that time. In fact, on the first day of class that summer I saw that in a minor bit of departing-student vandalism someone had written the last verse of Dylan's "I Am the Lonesome Hobo" on the blackboard. "Kind ladies and kind gentlemen, soon I will be gone etc." I've often wondered if it could have been either of you that did it."

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