First memories are the strongest.
Your first kiss, your first dawn glimpse of the oh so green and dew dappled grass, your first heartbreak; these memories hold sway over all that comes after. Your second kiss may well have been, technically, by whatever standards you adjudge these things, a much better kiss, arousing you in ways the first kiss didn’t even hint at. Yet that first kiss, years, even decades later, is the one you remember the clearest.
Some writers chase these first memories, lovingly detailing them as the linchpin of the long arc of their days. Proust comes immediately to mind, of course. So does Garrison Keillor.
One also casts Keillor as the epitome of the baby boomers. Raised in Anoka, Minnesota, he has since college magically conjured from that upbringing the quintessential Midwestern allegory, America’s own mystical Albion, Lake Wobegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Saturday, perhaps playing Starlight for the very last time, Keillor wove his spell around a willing audience; he has announced his retirement for next year and the current America the Beautiful Tour is to be his personal farewell.
“I feel like I’m 36,” Garrison said as he strolled through the Starlight audience to open the show, “but I’m 73.” A minute later he added, “I have no regrets … because of memory loss.”
And for the better part of the next 3 hours Keillor continued the story he’s spent the last 40 years telling.
This was not a live broadcast of Prairie Home Companion, though the evening was structured as such. When Keillor remounted the stage the Radio Rhubarb Band, led by Rich Dworsky, along with guest musician Sarah Jarosz, started off the show with a series of songs that Keillor steadily mixed with favorites bits of PHC: Guy Noir, Private Eye; Fred Newman sound-effecting his own life; and The Lives of the Cowboys.
During intermission, while the rest of the cast and crew repaired to backstage, Keillor walked out into the audience and led them in song, American standards – America the Beautiful, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, you name it.
“The News From Lake Wobegone” is the heart of PHC, the most powerful enchantment in Keillor’s grimoire, and it was no different Saturday evening. As he slowly strolled among them again Keillor beguiled the mostly AARP-aged audience with an unlikely tale of Lake Wobegone’s statue of The Unknown Norwegian (with an even more unlikely ear issue), baseball, embezzlement, parasailing, loss and inheritance.
The tale well told finished, the evening’s magic nearly exhausted, Keillor meandered back stage left to a white bench placed just out of the lights and sat down, eyes closed and his head nodding along with the music, perhaps mining a few more memories for another in a diminishing number of shows.
That image of a tired old man dozing on a park bench as the band played on, with the joyous and youthful face of Jarosz beaming out at the audience, said more about Keillor’s impending retirement and PHC’s future than all the long meditations I’ve read on the subject. Throw in this morning’s live Yo Lo Tengo’s accompaniment of NPR’s All Things Considered, and you can see the future from here.
Or even from a white park bench partially obscured by shadows.