More on Robert Palmer (Mary Katherine Aldin)

Mary Katherine Aldin writes:

I was sent the link to your site by a fellow music writer who knew that Bob and I had been friends for the last 15 years of his life.

I’d been thinking about Bob a lot the past few days, as the anniversary of his death rolled around and yet another year went by without him. Nobody will ever know how lucky I was to have this incredibly special person as a friend. He had the most open ears of anyone I’ve ever known, and did his best to pry mine loose (without, I’m sorry to say, ever really succeeding). “What the HELL is that noise?” I’d ask as he played some foreign-sounding stuff in a language I didn’t recognize. “Oh, Mary Katherine, it’s pygmy rain chants,” he’d reply, evidently expecting me to react as if it was the Holy Grail, which maybe to him it was. I’m a four-four person, and he was way out there in the land of seven-nine where I knew I was never going to be able to follow. Fortunately, he spoke my language even though I couldn’t speak his, so we communicated in what was probably the musical equivalent of baby-talk to him, although he was always too kind to say so.

Bob was a good friend, and I cared a great deal about him, although his addictions scared me. I was single-parenting two small children, and was dead set against them coming into contact with drugs; during the many times he came west to stay for weeks at a time at my apartment in Hollywood, he drank cough syrup by the pint to ease the uncontrollable pain without violating my rules. When that didn’t cut it he went out to score, never bringing anything back with him beyond the glazed look in his eyes that told me that at least for the moment he didn’t hurt any more.

And drugs or no drugs, he could write; words came pouring out of him like water out of the Grand Coulee Dam. He wrote record reviews, live concert reviews, chapters on whatever the current book in progress was and then found time to write me four, five, or six-page single-spaced typed letters, all of which I still have, talking about whatever wonderful music he was listening to, shows he was seeing and people he was meeting along the way.

His enthusiasm was contagious and his unlimited love of music was profound. He also had the most amazing ability to write in his head without benefit of (in those days) a typewriter. We went to the first night of Bob Dylan’s Saved tour, up in San Francisco, and after we got back to our hotel room he said, “Okay, now I have to turn in the review.” Neither of us had taken notes during the show, and we had driven up from L.A. with no typewriter, so I expected to see at least a notebook come out and the process begin. Nope. He picked up the phone and called a number at the New York Times, spoke for a moment to someone he knew, and then was connected to a tape recorder, into which he began dictating, cold, with no notes. “Bob Dylan D-y-l-a-n comma whose current concert tour opened last night at the Warfield W-a-r-f-i-e-l-d Theater in San Francisco comma displayed an unusual sense of…” and on it went, a long, at least ten-paragraph review into which without pause or hesitation he inserted punctuation cues, paragraph breaks and created a little literary masterpiece. I was frozen into silence, afraid to break the flow, but as soon as he put the phone down he casually resumed the conversation we’d been having before he made the call. I was floored, and humbled. If that’s what being a real writer meant, I knew I’d never get there.

I got particularly lucky when, as he was working on Deep Blues, he came to stay with me during a dry spell and I offered to arrange the discography that would accompany the book, to take that laundry-list chore off his hands. He lit up like a Christmas tree, and we sat on my living room floor pulling albums off my shelves and sorting them into piles of “yes” and “no.” But then things went really dry, and he went back to New York with no sign that the book would ever be finished. A few phone calls later, I was getting really worried; the publisher, unreasonably enough, was demanding the finished manuscript, which was already months late. I went to New York and stayed with Bob and his ginger cat Snooky, who were, for the moment, living like two crusty old bachelors in an apartment that looked like it had been through the blitz.

The manuscript was in chaos. Two lately-finished chapters which he had sent to me for proofreading I had brought to New York with me and were sitting in plain view on the coffee table, but where was the rest of it? Ah. Part of it was on top of the refrigerator. Of course. And another chapter in the bedroom, having evidently been thrown against a wall, because the pages were all over the room. My role was clear; den mother, nanny, whatever you want to call it, he needed to finish the damn book, and I simply refused to leave New York until he did. And then, a miracle. A week later it was done, all was in perfect order, and I typed the final pages of the discography on his machine, trying to pretend I didn’t see the hypodermic needles in the trash can.

Then I got really lucky; I got to work with him. When asked by MCA Records’ Andy McKaie to compile and annotate a box set of the Chess Recordings of Muddy Waters, I agreed, but suggested Bob for the notes because he had done so much research during Deep Blues that I figured he could write them in his sleep. I sent him a list of the tracks I had chosen, and he made a couple of excellent suggestions for changes. Then we waited for the notes. And we waited, and waited. In desperation I started to write them myself, figuring that when his finally arrived we could dump mine.

What kind of mojo he used I don’t know, but when his notes finally showed up they were an absolutely perfect segue from what I had already written; not a thought duplicated, not a redundant sentence in the lot. Andy simply used mine and his, side by side, a perfect fit. The resulting Grammy Award nomination for Best Liner Notes was, he assured me, for both of us, but I knew better. The award certificate on my wall has both our names on it, but it was his words that made mine shine.

When he was in L.A. he often guest-hosted my blues radio show. Since his own collection was three thousand miles away, he’d go through my shelves, pulling out albums I’d forgotten I owned and choosing tracks that I had no idea were on them, always bringing something fresh and insightful to the studio, revitalizing my own programming style for weeks after each visit. If I was working on liner notes while he was here he’d make helpful suggestions, untangle sentences, offer comments, but never condescendingly, from the New York Times/Rolling Stone critic to the neophyte. He did me the honor of always treating me as a colleague, and sometimes made me believe I deserved it.

When, five or so years before his death, he moved to my favorite city in the world, New Orleans, we saw each other more regularly. I’d make the cross-country train journey a couple of times a year; we’d meet for lunch or dinner, and I’d fuss at him for not taking better care of his health as we walked, ever slowly, through the French Quarter. I knew he had abused his body pretty seriously for many years but had no idea, until quite near the end, that he was so seriously ill. He brushed aside my concerns and insisted that I tell him what shows I had seen, what new records I’d gotten for review, and what reissues I was working on.

And then one day he simply told me the truth. We were sitting on a park bench in Jackson Square in the pale winter sunlight, and he looked me in the eye and said that he wanted me to know how much my friendship had always meant to him, and my heart stopped. I knew, but I didn’t want to know. He was very reassuring; I was not to worry, Yoko Ono had offered financial assistance, and he was going back to New York to have a liver transplant. Everything would be fine.

Two days before he died I spoke to him for the last time. He had recently married JoBeth Britton, an amazing woman who had somehow managed to get him to clean up his act, eat healthier food and take better care of himself, but she couldn’t work miracles. His body was disintegrating before her eyes, and they wouldn’t do a transplant until his health stabilized.

From his hospital bed he told me that he loved her and that she was aware of his end of life wishes and would see that they were carried out. We said all the things that old friends say to each other when they know it’s for the last time and are given the chance. I somehow kept my voice steady as I agreed with him that it was probably not necessary, and yes, he was probably going to be fine, but that it was good, nonetheless, to say them. I was surprised to find, as I hung up, that tears were pouring down my face.

And then I got the phone call that he was gone, and a call asking me for a quote. Then another, and another, and I took the phone off the hook and sat down to work on some liner notes. It seemed somehow the right way to remember him. Still does.


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