What began in 1979 for David Greenberger as a D.I.Y. newsletter for the residents at a Boston nursing home became, over the decades, an international oasis called Duplex Planet. Intelligent life on this planet includes Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, XTC, Los Lobos, Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, George Carlin, Penn & Teller, Lynda Barry and, if you’re lucky, you too.
David Greenberger has done nothing less than create his own universe. It’s called Duplex Planet. The inhabitants on that planet spawned a newsletter-magazine that Greenberger faithfully published for 30 years, as well as books, graphic novels, albums, stage productions and will soon be the subject of a documentary film by Beth Harrington, called Beyond the Duplex Planet.
Beyond the Duplex Planet by Beth Harrington-4.5-minute demo:
All the while, Greenberger was a member of a band called Men & Volts, that released five albums of idiosyncratic rock-based music that garnered comparisons to everyone from Captain Beefheart to The Band and the Grateful Dead. On top of that recorded legacy, Greenberger’s post-rock career has spawned 21 albums of what is essentially his self-invented genre, an amalgam of music, spoken word, humor, oral history, sociology, anthropology and activism.
It all began simply enough in 1979 when Greenberger, at age 25, became activities director at a Boston area facility called Duplex Nursing Home, a 45-bed, all male residence. He at first thought he would introduce the residents there to painting (Greenberger’s college degree from Massachusetts College of Art had been in fine arts). He abandoned that idea once he got to know the residents. As he has written, “I discarded the brushes and canvas, not the underlying desire to see something in the world around me and then communicate it to others.”
The nursing home itself then became his “medium.” In place of paint and brushes, he turned to words—spoken, written, recorded, printed words. That is, he began putting together newsletters, intending them for the residents and their immediate circle. But, as he said, “Friends saw them and asked if I’d make an extra copy for them. I started to see that the audience for it were people who didn’t have anything to do with nursing homes and it was kind of an exposure to this segment of the population.”
Greenberger’s initial newsletter may seem now like the equivalent of Dixie Cups-on-a-string, given the personal computer/internet/online revolution that was just around the corner. Slowly but surely, however, the newsletters, filled with the sometimes eccentric musings of the Duplex Nursing Home residents, began to attract more high-profile fans, and Duplex Planet morphed into a homemade magazine which Greenberger continued printing until 2010—in all, a total of 187 issues of rare wit, wisdom and authenticity.
Like moths to a comforting flame, some of those attracted to Duplex Planet over the years were Jonathan Demme, George Carlin, Allen Ginsberg, Penn & Teller, Norman Lear, as well as cartoonists Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, all of whom contributed visuals to accompany the words of the residents. Also attracted were musicians like Robyn Hitchcock, Wreckless Eric, XTC, Los Lobos, Dave Alvin, NRBQ, to name a few, who began to set the residents’ words to music. One resident in particular, an 82-year-old former machinist named Ernest Noyes Brookings, was inspired to write poetry by Greenberger, and his poems, on everything from bees and cheese to hats, idiots, laundry, sex, sharks, shoelaces and trouble, were adapted to original songs, on 5 CDs, by the likes of XTC, Fred Frith, Young Fresh Fellows, Morphine, and Peter Holsapple.
The key to Duplex Planet’s appeal was that the elderly residents were treated as interesting, idiosyncratic people you yourself might enjoy meeting. Readers got to know them not as nostalgic ‘old folks’ but as people living in the present day. Greenberger conveyed their individuality through the printed word, then through song and cartoons.
Even after Duplex Planet ceased publication in 2010, the idea of that wonderland spread out like an unstoppable force into other projects. In addition to the 21 albums of musical narrations he has released, Greenberger never stopped finding ways to spread the planetary gospel. One of his biggest ever projects, in fact, took place over the past year. During the earlier part of the pandemic, he began calling people he has known for many years, all of whom were, like him, housebound, resulting in a mammoth recording project called Everybody’s Home, in collaboration with musician/composer Tyson Rogers—ultimately comprising 151 short compositions (four hours of music by Rogers and narration by Greenberger).
The music, like the entire Duplex Planet genre, is an amalgam of jazz, rock, pop, polka, samba, classical, electronica, with spoken word narrations by Greenberger.
“The text of the monologues are all based on my conversations with friends and family during the first six months of relative isolation,” he explained. “That includes everyone from my mother to Robert Wyatt, Penn & Teller to my daughter, Ed Ruscha to Louie Pérez [of Los Lobos].”
Some of the pieces are stand-alone works but the entire thing flows from one to another fairly seamlessly.
People talk about what they’re cooking, about an antsy dog who can’t believe she has to be around her human family all of the time, disobedient middle schoolers, a piano teacher loving the fact that he can secretly drink beer in order to get through his online lessons, and the general sense of lives stuck on hold (“In Parentheses”, as one of the song titles puts it).
The musical mosaic is a snapshot, or a time capsule, of where we were as humans over the past year.
We spoke with David Greenberger by phone from his home in Greenwich, N.Y.:
PKM: It’s good to hear your voice in a different format. I’ve been listening to your spoken word CDs in the past two days and am so used to hearing it that way. You actually exist.
David Greenberger: Yes.
PKM: Back in the 1980s, my friend Parke Puterbaugh began sending me some of the early [Duplex Planet] newsletters.
David Greenberger: It was a chapbook-sized thing, 5 and a half by 8 and a half, 16 pages. That’s how I did it from 1979 to 2010.
PKM: How did you originally find your way to Boston, where you started Duplex Planet? You’re not from that area originally, are you?
David Greenberger: No. I grew up in Erie, PA. Boston was a city that some of my friends had gravitated to, and I had a couple of failed attempts at college.
PKM: Well, Boston would be the place to have failed attempts at college…
David Greenberger: Well, no, I actually failed elsewhere. I was playing in a band in Erie and my parents told me that if I was staying there, I had to go to college. So I went for a year. In Erie. But then the band broke up, which is inevitable, I suppose, and so I thought I gotta get out of here. I knew some people in Philadelphia and I applied to Temple [University] and got in there. I had no idea what I wanted to be doing, taking introductory courses with 300 people and hated it. I quit and moved up to Boston where I had friends, and worked at a bookstore and hung out, painted, and finally went to Mass College of Art.
I liked things that didn’t tell a story but seemed to be rich with character…those are still the things I am most interested in.
PKM: You got a fine arts degree, right?
David Greenberger: Yes, in painting.
PKM: Was that when you got the job at the nursing home? Did you answer an ad?
David Greenberger: I was painting in earnest and had things that I was doing that were my own and had done well at Mass Art, sort of had some lines of exploration that were uniquely my own and felt good about. But I had an experience when I drove across the country in 1978. My grandmother would spend her winters in Palm Springs and she’d fly one her grandchildren out there to drive her Oldsmobile back to Chicago and then she’d fly back with her sister. I thought of my grandmother as old then, but she was probably 70.
On that trip I spent a couple days with her and these friends she’d known since she was in her 20s, who lived in Palm Springs year round, and this one guy was named Herb. Herb and I hung out one day, drove out to flea markets in the towns around there, and I stayed in touch with him afterwards, we wrote letters. After the fact, I was really struck by what this experience was like, getting to know this guy Herb, who I thought of as being much older than me, but was probably in his early 70s. I mean, he WAS much older than me, but that’s all relative to me now. But I realized it was the first time I had met and befriended somebody who was significantly older than me who wasn’t a relative. My experience with elderly were with all my relatives, and there was a limited familial dynamic in place. My grandmother would be more into asking me what I was going to do with my life…and so on, so there was concern and worry, whereas with Herb it was, “So, what are you painting?” He didn’t have an investment in the moment. And it was really refreshing for me.
PKM: And for him too, no doubt.
David Greenberger: Yeah, but I was struck by how rare that was. I just wanted to know more about it. Not necessarily that it would become my voice or my art, but I wanted more of that. I thought I could teach painting to the elderly…I didn’t know what I wanted to do…
PKM: Who does, at that age?
David Greenberger: Right, yeah, I was 24, 25. I heard about a job at a nursing home that somebody else at Mass Art had been doing but was going to be leaving it. So I went and applied for it. You didn’t have to have any special degree; it was just activities director. I started that job at the beginning of 1979.
PKM: That facility was really called Duplex, wasn’t it?
David Greenberger: Yes, it was called Duplex Nursing Home, in Jamaica Plain, and it was a converted duplex, with the sort of mirror image of two sides.
PKM: That sounds smallish to me.
David Greenberger: It was. None of these were things I knew at the time, but these kinds of nursing homes were fading away. That was all put in motion by the advent of Medicare, which made larger for-profit places a more viable thing, so they started building larger facilities on the outskirts of town. Before that, they’d been converted houses. I’d worked at what was called a mom & pop. And there were three other of these kinds of nursing homes in this same area, all within walking distance of each other. They began closing these places in the 1960s so that by the end of the 1980s they were pretty much gone.
PKM: Including Duplex?
David Greenberger: Yes, that closed in 1987. But I only worked there a couple of years, and then I moved from Boston in 1984. But I’d go back there and visit the guys. It was a 45-bed, all-male nursing home.
PKM: So you left Boston in 1984. Were you intending to keep a foot in the door of these places elsewhere?
David Greenberger: Oh no, I stopped working at the Duplex in 1982. I feel like I didn’t make a good employee. I was interested in these people as individuals. I mean, I felt like I was a good employee, but I got cited for messy handwriting on state forms, couldn’t keep track of stuff, I wasn’t a good fit. But it was such a rich environment for me. I already had an interest in how bits of fractured conversations and fractured narratives have a potency when overheard and sort of plucked out of the air. I’d been writing down little quotes people would say since high school.
PKM: That’s a habit of a writer right there, keep a little notebook in your pocket.
David Greenberger: I liked things that didn’t tell a story but seemed to be rich with character…those are still the things I am most interested in.
PKM: That comes through very clearly in all your work. I’m curious how you continued to have connections with the older population [after leaving Boston]. Did you go from nursing home to nursing home?
David Greenberger: I stayed in Boston until 1984, and I’d stopped working there in ’82, but I’d go back over there often. After 1984. I’d still make trips back to Boston, because I was playing in a band. I’d get to Boston. I’d stop by the Duplex, see people, write stuff down. Even after Duplex closed in 1987, I’d still go see the residents in the different homes where they’d been moved. But my trips then were fewer. I had a child by then and was playing in the band…
PKM: Where did you go after you left Boston?
David Greenberger: To near where I am now. Near Saratoga Springs. And now I’m up in Greenwich. Once I got here in upstate New York, I was finding other ways to do this material, thinking at the time that I would just do the Duplex Planet forever. I firmly believed that I would just follow it along. In the mid-1980s, I was going to Schenectady to work on a project for a museum there. This meant going to a couple of nursing facilities and a Salvation Army breakfast program. Basically, I was expanding the idea of Duplex Planet. It wasn’t necessarily about aging and the old, I was talking to people who I personally was interested in who I wouldn’t normally know or see. Especially some of these people at the Salvation Army who had sort of an appearance that you would avoid, you know, talking to themselves. But it was a rich thing to get to know a few of them, see them regularly, not come up with any sort of analytical or diagnostic description of who they were but to just present them as they were, making sense or not. I felt like the idea there’s a fine line between something you’ve actually done and something that you never did and it’s just an imaginary thing and yet you believe it. At some point, having been around mostly elderly but sometimes not, that these things are exactly the same once they are in your head. You did that or you didn’t. It was sort of immaterial to me if it really happened because I wasn’t trying to make a documentary about their lives. I’m trying to be present with them as they are.
PKM: That leads to one of the questions I had about what you might call what it is that you do. You reject the notion that what you did or were doing at the time was something akin to oral history. But Studs Terkel, the very godfather of modern oral history, was a fan of Duplex Planet.
David Greenberger: I got a nice letter from him. It was great to hear.
PKM: He was also a fan of what Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil were doing with Please Kill Me, their oral history of punk. How would you see what you were doing was different from oral history?
David Greenberger: First, I would say the Studs Terkel stuff I was reading when I was in high school. I think I loved the character of the individual voice. More than coming up with a whole painting, a whole history. I liked narrowing it down in terms of any sort of narrative thematic thread. I would have thematic issues of Duplex Planet but they would be fairly ridiculous so that you wouldn’t come away with a sense of what coffee was really like…whereas you’d know something about World War II after you read Studs Terkel’s book
PKM: But that was the appeal of Duplex Planet and your approach.
David Greenberger: Thanks. I think that oral history serves an important purpose. But it’s a curious thing that I’ve found that if you write down things that people said, especially if the people are older, the assumption will be that you’re making keepsakes of their life. I think on closer examination I would think, ‘Geez, I don’t think anyone in their family would be very happy with this as a keepsake’. It’s just odd, just unique to them talking to me. It’s a conversation. And that excites us and makes us want to talk to that person again.
I was expanding the idea of Duplex Planet. It wasn’t necessarily about aging and the old, I was talking to people who I personally was interested in who I wouldn’t normally know or see.
PKM: And they enjoyed what you were doing. You would show them the newsletters?
David Greenberger: Oh yes.
PKM: In particular, there was one of your people, Ernest Noyes Brookings. Was he one of the Duplex Nursing Home crowd?
David Greenberger: Yeah, he was at the Duplex. Actually, Ernie’s stuff took on a life outside of the newsletter. And Ken Eglin was another Duplex resident whose stuff took on a separate life. He would do music reviews in other publications. Ken’s Korner ran in Op Magazine. They were all based on conversations with me. But I wasn’t trying to be funny, to get old people to say crazy things. It was really that Ken was interested in what’s going on now, he wanted to know current stuff. What’s going on out the window? I would take [Ken] to clubs to hear new music.
With Ernie, I wasn’t trying to get old people to write poems, but Ernie was copying poems out of magazines and giving them to the nurses. And nobody could read his writing. I asked him if he’d ever written a poem of his own. He said, “I will.” He would then give me a poem the next day. He’d ask me what to write about next and I’d tell him something and he’d write it.
PKM: Wow. And then 400 poems later and several published books…
David Greenberger: Yes, a book came out couple years ago in England. They collected everything in one volume.
PKM: What about these albums and CDs that people like Robyn Hitchcock and XTC would set to music, set Ernie’s words to music. There were a number of them, right? Were these multiple artists doing songs based on his words?
David Greenberger: They were songs that they were doing completely at my request, that I got them to do. Five volumes, 100-plus songs, XTC, Peter Holsapple, Morphine, Peter Stampfel, many others.
Brave Combo-“Polka”-Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings:
PKM: Yes, it was such an incredible assortment of great musicians. But when I’d see their names attached to one of the Duplex Planet songs, it would all make sense to me because they were such kindred spirits to the vibe of the project. I could see Robyn Hitchcock and NRBQ and some of these others getting it.
David Greenberger: That really came out of the band that I was in, Men & Volts. At some point, we got the idea of taking a poem of Ernie’s called “Dinosaurs” and making it into a song. And I liked it. And I told a friend in the Incredible Casuals and they wanted to do one. So I just started asking around and everybody wanted to do one. I always stressed that they include ‘lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings’, so people wouldn’t think it was a poem being recited. I wanted the very kind of peculiar poems. Peculiar only in so far as his understanding of a poem was a strict AB-AB and he’d do anything he could to get it to rhyme.
PKM: Right. I was reading one where he was trying to rhyme ‘consolation’ but couldn’t think of a word to rhyme so he just put, ‘I couldn’t think of a rhyme for consolation’ as the last line in the poem. That’s classic. That makes that a great poem, as far as I’m concerned.
David Greenberger: There’s a peculiar meter to them too. Eight beats in one and not that in the next. They were an interesting challenge for people to make songs out of.
PKM: Tell me about Men & Volts. It was going on simultaneously with the Duplex Planet and multiple CDs were released.
David Greenberger: Actually, a boxed set came out a few years ago, of our third album, with three additional discs. Byron Coley put out some of our archival material. Yes, it was concurrent [with Duplex Planet]. It was just that time of life, really, in your 20s with no major responsibilities. I had a desire to be in a band again after not doing it for six years, and I saw an ad in the Boston Phoenix for a bass player for a tribute concert playing the music of Captain Beefheart. I thought that was perfect.
“One Holiday Too Many”-Men & Volts:
PKM: I was thinking when I looked at some of the titles of Men & Volts’ songs, ‘Captain Beefheart is in here somewhere…’
David Greenberger: Men & Volts wasn’t really a Captain Beefheart tribute band, especially not after that first album. There were about eight people in it at first because we had to play something from every phase of Beefheart’s career. It took such hard work for about a year. But then, four of us decided just to keep going because we were used to the hard work and we then tried to figure out who we were, started writing our own material. Perhaps the first album was under the spell of Beefheart, but by the third album it was closer to Television or Richard Thompson. Good guitar-based music.
“She Likes Flowers”-Men & Volts-Words taken from a poem by e.e. cummings:
PKM: It’s fascinating, really good stuff, but I didn’t put two and two together until Parke said something to me about it. ‘Really, David Greenberger was in that band?’
David Greenberger: Actually, the third album Tramps in Bloom, the title song was my homage to the guys at the Duplex, without it being overt. What they meant to me.
“Tramps in Bloom”-Men & Volts:
PKM: Duplex Planet seems to be an umbrella or an oasis for all these other creative endeavors. What fascinated me in revisiting this material was the Who’s Who of cartoonists who found their way to you. All of them are among my favorites, like Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry…of course Lynda Barry would find her way to Duplex Planet! It makes perfect sense! How did they approach you, or did you approach them?
David Greenberger: Men & Volts were on the same label as Rubber Rodeo, a band from Providence. In the band Gary Leib—who, sadly, died two months ago—was well known as an animator. He was a friend, and so was Doug Allen, another cartoonist. I was brought out to Chicago to give readings and do talks a number of times, so that’s where I met Lynda [Barry] and Dan [Clowes]. Chris Ware and Terry LaBan were there too. I had a book out, in the 1990s. I met them at some of the readings I’d do. The Chicago contingent put that on the map. They were all doing stuff with Fantagraphics [Publisher of comics and graphic novels]
PKM: I bought one of the Fantagraphics Duplex Planet titles, an anthology.
David Greenberger: They published a thing called No More Shaves. It had some stuff from the back issues of Duplex Planet and then some stuff that was never published before. It gave me a chance to organize the material based around characters. Each chapter was based on a character in No More Shaves, whereas in the magazine it was just one story after another.
PKM: I love Fantagraphics, that imprint is one of my favorites.
David Greenberger: That was an era when everybody was saying yes to project ideas. When I pitched the idea, Fantagraphics was already doing Real Stuff, and would later do Harvey Pekar. So there was a precedent for this idea that somebody who was writing it and different people would illustrate it.
PKM: I think Peter Bagge had an anthology for years, before Hate, that Fantagraphics published.
David Greenberger: Dan Clowes, who I’d become friends with, was doing a comic called Lloyd Llewelyn. When he started Eightball, the first three issues, the back cover would be a Duplex Planet thing. That made me think that Fantagraphics might be interested. Gary [Leib] and others said they wanted to be a part of it, and it ran for about three years.
PKM: You stopped Duplex Planet publishing in 2010. Was that because you’d run out of material?
David Greenberger: No. I’d already been doing a lot of these monologues with music by then. The other thing I’ll say when I started doing Duplex Planet I came to think of it as my voice, and so I stopped painting. I needed this to be my only outlet to fully know who I was. In the early 1990s I started doing monologues with music. The first album was with Terry Adams of NRBQ, and other projects followed, sometimes artist residencies for museums and universities in different cities. I was finding it to be more artistically satisfying to create something that didn’t necessarily make it clear what it was and would hopefully cause people to wonder about it and look inward, which I think is the nature of what an art experience can be. For a long time I was glad about the printed page, and with people getting to know Herbie Caldwell or Arthur Wallace, or whoever, and they’d actually feel bad when they died, but it was external. I felt a lot of their response to it was that they liked it, were touched by it, but by removing a picture and a name, it can be floating in the air and cause people to have some kind of emotional response to it. I felt like that was more artistically resonant, even if not commercially sensible.
PKM: I was reminded of that when I was listening to these tracks on the Everybody’s Home project that you did during the pandemic. It’s the same feeling I get with the spoken-word monologue CDs with the music. I personally like the quieter pieces on both of these. On Everybody’s Home, for example, there’s “The Lovely Thing About Being Human” and “In Parentheses”.
“The Lovely Thing about Being Human”-Track 33; “In Parentheses”
I think that’s how the power of what you do comes through. You get a sense of both joy and a little bit of sadness. I found to be the key to all of your work. The joy of meeting these people and then the sadness of knowing they are near the end of their mortal rides. You know?
David Greenberger: Yeah.
PKM: Did you feel like that while you were doing these projects?
David Greenberger: There’s a public and a private part to what I do. The public part is obviously the thing that I made, but then I’ve got this private experience. I think at the end of the day, we’re mostly the private person that we are. But we tend to know people from their public work. We think, “Why didn’t so-and-so do another movie?” or “Why did they do this lame movie?” Well, it’s a job and they’ve got a private life. They’re not here to constantly entertain, amuse, or enlighten us, they work and have their own life to live. What I carry with me is that I have these private experiences with the people I meet and carry with me. And they’re people who I don’t necessarily see again. I’m brought to some city and there’s something really wonderful in investing in the moment with somebody who you aren’t going to see again. The only corollary I can think of is when you have a really good conversation with somebody on an airplane. There’s usually no investment in getting together again sometime. You’re just completely invested in that moment. We don’t often get a chance to do that.
I was finding it to be more artistically satisfying to create something that didn’t necessarily make it clear what it was and would hopefully cause people to wonder about it and look inward, which I think is kind of the nature for what an art experience it.
PKM: I was struck by the talent of this Tyson Rogers, with whom you’ve collaborated on recent projects. A musician and composer. How did you find him?
David Greenberger: I’d been doing a number of projects in Chattanooga. It started about 20 years ago, with an ensemble called Shaking Ray Levis. They brought me down there to do something called “Mayor of the Tennessee River,” built on conversations I had with elderly in Chattanooga.
We did it at a theater for a couple of weeks, 2001, or 2002. Then they brought me back down there about ten years ago for a festival. And it was fun to work with these guys. It was just a duo by then. We did another album, called Tramps That Go Thinking at Night.
The synthesizer player, part of the duo, Dennis Palmer, had had a history of heart troubles, and he died. So, there was a two-night tribute concert. I flew down for that. Two different nights with two different ensembles, with the drummer of that original duo for both. Dennis was the one who originally brought me down there, but he was not there anymore. I thought we should keep going, so we started this ensemble, at the encouragement of Ashley Capp at the Big Ears Festival. He was a big fan of Dennis’s. He heard that we were doing this thing and so he booked us for the 2014 festival. That’s when we really had to become an ensemble. We debuted as David Greenberger and Prime Lens. Spell out ‘and’, never an ampersand, because it was an anagram of Dennis Palmer.
“Knocked Out”-David Greenberger and Prime Lens:
Up until then I’d work with different ensembles in different places, like Paul Cebar in Wisconsin, or 3 Leg Torso out in Portland. By then I knew how to work with a lot of different musicians and get results, but I just wanted to have one ensemble. I got a project in Santa Ana, California. Tyson Rogers was the primary composer. I met him when we did these tribute concerts and we were completely in sync. When he was a teenager, he lived in Chattanooga, but moved to Boston, where he found out about The Duplex Planet. He was a classical pianist as a kid, then got into free jazz, then went to the New England Conservatory and studied with Paul Bley, had an ensemble, played with Han Bennik, moved to Nashville to do session work, toured and recorded with Tony Joe White.
PKM: “Polk Salad Annie”?
Tony Joe White – “Polk Salad Annie” [Live from Austin, TX]
David Greenberger: Yeah. Tyson was doing session work in Nashville but he got to where he couldn’t stand it. And the reasons he couldn’t stand it are why he makes a perfect collaborator for me. He always wanted to know what each song was about, he wanted to know as much as possible. He’d be in sessions where people would say, ‘just tell me where you want me to come in…keep those descriptions for your press release, I don’t want to know that”. Tyson thought, “I don’t agree with that at all. I’ve had enough of this.”
PKM: That seems to have always been a thing with Nashville, it’s like a cookie cutter assembly line. It’s why the best country music seems to have been made elsewhere, you know, like Merle Haggard in Bakersfield, and so forth. Waylon Jennings.
David Greenberger: Right. The ones that don’t have six songwriters for each tune.
In doing that Santa Ana project, we did most of it in advance of the other two, the rhythm section. He’d send me a musical part and I’d respond to it in texts. We got that all worked out and went in the studio in Chattanooga. By the time we did the Good Perspective album, the rhythm section guys weren’t available, so it came down to just Tyson and me. And we realized that an audience didn’t care about a rhythm section for what we were doing.
PKM: The part that you would do…the monologue part…what was that based on?
David Greenberger: The Chattanooga one, Good Perspective, I spent three weeks in conversations. I find that three weeks is the right amount of time to get what I need. To come up with 65-70 minutes of material.
PKM: Where? Was it in assisted living facilities? Nursing homes?
David Greenberger: No, it was a center for adults with disabilities of all ages. They didn’t live there; they’d just come in for the day. Learning disabilities. Before this people would be sent off to institutions. Parents would worry about what Billy would do now that he was 21…and these centers have met that need. All over the country, these day centers. Very few of the people I met there were elderly.
there’s something really wonderful in investing in the moment with somebody who you aren’t going to see again. The only corollary I can think of is when you have a really good conversation with somebody on an airplane. … You’re just completely invested in that moment. We don’t often get a chance to do that.
They had a second facility for blind people. That was especially interesting for me, to talk with people who have never had sight. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around, but if you never knew sight, you’re not missing sight. But there were people there who had once had sight or were in the process of losing their sight. That was something different too. I was curious if they were losing visual memory. Were they dreaming visually? People who never had sight told me, “Of course, I dream…” We can’t picture that. That opened the door for me. So, when the pandemic hit, Tyson and I were used to working from afar.
PKM: Did you just dial up Robert Wyatt or Ed Ruscha, and start talking to them? They’re both featured on Everybody’s Home, which you and Tyson created over the past year.
David Greenberger: Robert and I became friends in the 1990s through corresponding and when I was in England about 15 years ago…that gave me a chance to take a train out to spend time with Robert and Alfie. When I was there they said that they wanted to dedicate a song to me on album that was in the works, and would that be okay?
PKM: That’s great. “Would that be okay?”
David Greenberger: I thought, “What? Where am I?” I’ve met a lot of people but the Robert Wyatt thing still resonates. Those first three Soft Machine albums.
PKM: Are you kidding? I’ve probably listened to Soft Machine Third more times than just about any other album over the years.
“A.W.O.L.”-Robert Wyatt from Comicopera (dedicated to David Greenberger):
David Greenberger: That was like a portal for me into knowing that the world was bigger than suburban Erie, Pennsylvania.
PKM: It reminds me, since you brought up Atlanta, about a similar band that was my portal around the same age. The Hampton Grease Band. It was the psychedelic hippie era and they stood out.
David Greenberger: Oh yes. I know them. Bruce Hampton and I know Glenn Phillips.
PKM: Glenn is such a wonderful guy and such a guitar talent. But the Everybody’s Home project reminded me of something Bruce Hampton might have gotten involved with. Did you ever meet him?
David Greenberger: No, but I know he knew about Duplex Planet.
PKM: Bruce was tuned in, no doubt about it.
David Greenberger: I saw him in the 1970s with a conga player in some small venue.
PKM: He had so many groups after the Hampton Grease Band. I just read Jerry Grillo’s biography of Bruce. He was such a self-mythologizer that it was hard to really know who he was even after reading the book.
David Greenberger: Bruce’s ending was kind of sad but also an inevitability. I often thought there’d be a good book about people who died on stage.
PKM: Well, there is such a book. Burt Kearns, who writes regularly for PKM, co-authored The Show Won’t Go On, with Jeff Abraham. It’s not meant to poke fun, it’s a collection of stories about people who have died on stage. It’s their contention that as Boomers age we’re going to see this more and more. Mick Jagger dying on stage is a real possibility.
David Greenberger: I think that most people would say ‘if given my druthers, I’d rather die in my sleep’. And up there would be dying while having sex, which would certainly be upsetting for the other party. Or on stage or doing something that you love doing.
PKM: There’s something to that. But, of course, that’s always what the person left behind would say. The person who died would say, ‘If it’s all the same to you, I’d have like to continue living…”
David Greenberger: The Atlanta thing. When I went off to Philadelphia, after Erie, one of the reasons I wanted to get out of there was that my father’s job, as an engineer at GE, wanted to move him from Erie. That was fine by my parents. They didn’t like the winters; they were from Chicago, where I was born, but they glad to move to Atlanta, and my younger siblings, all finished high school there. My mother’s still alive and still lives in Atlanta. So I’d go down there to visit, before Covid, and ended up with some really good friends there, involved with some art stuff down there. Walton Harris and Darryl Vance and King Thackston [gay activist and artist] who has since died.
PKM: Atlanta sounds way more interesting now than when I was a teenager. I couldn’t WAIT to get out of there.
David Greenberger: When I wanted to play in a band again and looked in the Boston Phoenix and saw that ad for a bass player, it’s because I’d been in Atlanta. Walton and Darryl told me that I had to go see this band that they loved. They were opening for Glenn Phillips. They were called the Swimming Pool Q’s.
PKM: Oh yes. With Jeff Calder, who’s now a close collaborator with Glenn Phillips.
David Greenberger: Yes, right. They have that band the Supreme Court. When they would tour, they would always stay with us in Boston.
David Greenberger: Yes, right. They have that band the Supreme Court. When they would tour, they would always stay with us in Boston. Glenn always says really kind things about the stuff that I do. I was wondering if we’d ever be able to do something together. But he doesn’t have a way to record at home, really. Glenn used to do a regular Thanksgiving show in Atlanta. I went to one of those shows in 2019.
PKM: I went to one of the Thanksgiving shows many years ago when Glenn assembled all of the original members of Hampton Grease Band except for Bruce Hampton, who didn’t want to take part. So Jeff Calder did all of the Bruce parts and did them superbly. They reenacted the entire double album. It was perfect.
David Greenberger: Jeff was involved with a label that got that reissued.
PKM: Shotput Records. Glenn just wanted to do something for his 50th birthday. He wanted to celebrate his father, who had died at 50.
David Greenberger: I would see Glenn when he came to Boston to perform. I only met him after I got to be friends with Swimming Pool Qs. I’ve got every ticket of every show I’ve been to, going back to the Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1967. Bruce Hampton is on the list. Sopwith Camel, every show.
PKM: I can’t believe you are able to carry around all that stuff. You must have a huge archive that you have hopefully designated to go to some worthy institution. It’s priceless.
David Greenberger: Now that I’m a grandfather, I’m acutely aware of the temporal nature of things. Plus, Beth Harrington, documentary filmmaker, who did The Winding Stream, about the Carter Family, is working on a documentary about me.
The Winding Stream by Beth Harrington-trailer
I didn’t realize I had an interesting archive until she pointed it out to me. I have all my answering machine tapes. I’ll never play them. But they’re all labeled. My father is on it, Norman Lear and whoever else called and Beth is going through them and using pieces as a kind of motif for the film. A portrait of my life.
PKM: Does she have an ETA for when the film will be completed?
David Greenberger: I think she’s shooting for July to have a rough cut to show at festivals and the like. Longer than a trailer, something that helps get the next funding to complete the film
PKM: Does she have a working title?
David Greenberger: Beyond the Duplex Planet. She’s got a brief thing on her website, a five-minute thing.
PKM: It hasn’t escaped you that you are nearing the age of some of the original residents you met back in 1979 at the Duplex Nursing Home.
David Greenberger: Yes, it all hit me when I was doing that project in Santa Ana. It was a rich thing for me. The museum director there knew my work. Santa Ana is in Orange County, which is pretty conservative, but it’s not just that. They’ve got a huge immigrant population – Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican. It was good just seeing the makeup of this area. They were elderly people I was working with. There was one guy in particular who I met who Happened to Me sang, really cool guy. Some of this stories ended up on the album It Happened to Me. I said something to him about how I was turning 65 and he said ‘me too” and I discovered that I’m actually older than him, and here he is in a senior center. You can be younger than me and go to those places.
PKM: Shocking! This happens to me every day!
David Greenberger: The cover to It Happened to Me was done by Ed Ruscha. He’s in Beth’s documentary talking about me. I can’t believe it. The Duplex Planet and the whole urge to make a publication and make multiples was not born of the fanzine world but of the artist’s book world, and Printed Matter. It was all around the world of artist activities. I found out about it in my 20s when I was sending away for all these books. I got all these Ed Ruscha books, one of the first to do self-published artist’s books.
PKM: It’s nice to have someone of his stature in your corner!
David Greenberger: When my daughter turned 18, I took her to L.A. We went to see how shows were taped in the studios and met up with some friends out there, including Geoff Muldaur, who said I had to meet Mary, his partner. I said, “That’s great. What does Mary do?” “She’s Ed Ruscha’s assistant”. I said, “you’re kidding, he was pivotal for me.” Geoff called me the next day and said, “Ed knows about Duplex Planet and wants you to come to his studio.”
PKM: That’s a great story. It reminds me of a story Bill Griffith, the Zippy cartoonist, told me about being in art school in New York and ending up in an elevator with Marcel Duchamp, his hero. He finally screwed up his courage to speak with Duchamp and told him he was an artist, and so forth, and Duchamp tried to talk him out of that, told him he should go into medicine, that he’d be much happier.
David Greenberger: Having a non-positive thing like that would have the opposite effect. It’s like being insulted by Don Rickles.
PKM: Right. “I’m honored, sir, that you would insult me like this.”
David Greenberger: Ed Ruscha. One of the last pieces that we did in Everybody’s Home was based on my conversation with Ed Ruscha, “Garden Grove”.
PKM: How many CDs have you done? I have 4 or 5 of them, and you keep mentioning titles I’ve never heard of.
David Greenberger: There’s 20 or 21. Some on a label I started, Pell Pell. A couple on another label. The final ten on Everybody’s Home deal with stuff up to October. It would have been an even 150. Ed Ruscha finally got me his, so I made it 151. But we wondered how to end it. The final ten I wanted to make it more quiet. How do you end this?
PKM: It’s like a time capsule, a snapshot. What’s interesting is that what seemed so horrifying about the pandemic, besides the massive deaths, of course, was the sense that you were paralyzed, held hostage sort of, then you realize that some good stuff happened, more cognizant of things about yourself and your life that you wouldn’t have noticed if you’d just been running around like normal. That comes through on Everybody’s Home.
David Greenberger: One of the cuts “Artists Adapt” has that idea. Thematic things keep showing up. To really wind it down I needed to make it slower, it’s got to close in around me. Little by little, I removed the outside the world, so that the final piece was just having Tyson just do a piano piece that echoes the first piece. Naps Part 4, based on my daughter talking about my granddaughter. Things happen and we don’t know how they turn out. Mortality.
PKM: It comes through. Thank you, David.
David Greenberger: You’re welcome.