My last two years as a member of NJ Friends Of Clearwater were some of the most tumultuous of my life. A great 10 year collaboration with a super-talented singer-songwriter came to a crashing halt in tempest of betrayal and vitriol that still chills my mind to this day. I lost two dear friends, Danny Gallagher and Helyn Chrobocinski, and the whole episode was documented in my song cycle “Road Construction”, which was my first-ever CD.
At the last festival I was to work at I gave some opening remarks which I am re-posting here. In light of my recent split with Zara (which was nowhere near as bad as what I went thru back then but still a betrayal that stung me hard) I find comfort in the thought that, endings are not really endings. Nothing “ends”. Things transition, sometimes to better things, as I was to find out in 2008 into 2009, which ended in one of the most fruitful periods in my entire career (and Zara’s music was a huge part of that success story). This is how I described it in 2008, as the festival was getting underway. – Al-Vis July 2013
Twenty years ago to this day, at the 1988 Clearwater Festival at Sandy Hook, I did my first festival performance with Helyn Chrobocinski.
For the next 20 years we played many more festivals as we enjoyed a great friendship, and we worked with the others in Clearwater to give you this festival.
Too often we speak of living in terms of beginnings and endings, but to think of a lifetime this way is to ignore the permanent effect of life’s experiences. The events and the people we love never leave us.
“There’s a rock and roll island in the sun
Where there are smiles on the faces of everyone”
Don’t Stop The Dreamin’
So Helyn is still very much with us and will always be with us, not just in the festival you see around you today but in the ways she touched all of the people who were privileged to know her.
To know the kind of impact that meeting Helyn had on me, you have to understand where I was back in the 1980s and what I was going thru.
My first marriage had just ended, and the band I was in, JP Gotrock, was just starting to get some success locally. Then Gotrock broke up, leaving me with nothing, and I ended up paying my keyboard player Dave Shearn $40 a week so that I could stay with him until I found a job and get settled.
At the time I appeared to be going thru a bad period – my band gone, my marriage gone, no career prospects in sight, and to top it all off I had just had a kidney removed. I was approaching 30, most of my friends I had grown up with had moved on, and here I was alone and, seemingly, not very good at this game of life.
But if I had known back then what the next few years would have in store for me I’m sure things wouldn’t have seemed nearly as bleak. A steady cast of characters was coming into my career and into my life, with whom I would share some of my best gigs, my best times and who would impact me forever. Damon Runyon, Mark Twain and O Henry themselves couldn’t have assembled a more varied and more colorful (and talented!) group of people. And the glue that held us all together was our love for music, and for many of us, our love for this festival.
Vini Lopez, Steve Schraeger, Don Erdeman, Johnny Lurashi, Frankie Lee, David Shearn, Big Danny, little Vinnie, Amal, John Cavallo, etc etc.
And straight into this crowd of rogues came Helyn, Mother of all Mothers and Hippy of all Hippies.
At that first festival with Helyn in 1988, I was nursing a broken foot and Helyn’s husband Rich had to cart me around in a wheelchair. But I still managed to perform a red-hot version of Gimme Shelter with Helyn, sat in with Big Danny and the Boppers and even did a children’s set with Danny!
From that year onwards thru meeting after meeting, rehearsal after rehearsal and festival after festival, Helyn and I enjoyed some of the greatest times of our lives. The 1992 festival when it poured rain and we ended up inside the chapel- the 20th annual festival when Pete Seeger performed and we ran 5 stages – The 1998 festival when Helyn and I did a special tribute set for Pete Seeger and Pete AND Bruce Springsteen showed up – the 2001 festival, which was the first one in Asbury Park, when Bruce gave us a full set of his music and stayed long afterwards for pictures and autographs. Right up until last year’s festival, when Chris Barron spoke to Helyn in her nursing home bed to tell her how much we missed her and how we all hoped she would get better.
You can’t pay money for enjoyment like this. And you can’t seek out such a fulfilling and worthy task as putting this festival on year after year. You have to earn it, thru hard work, tears, laughter and love for what you are doing, and maybe even serendipity.
And to think of it as ever being over is to ignore that even tho a new adventure begins with each waking day, the events and people we loved who have come before stay part of our lives forever.
Not that it was always fun and games. Last year was particularly upsetting for me.
But if we think of life in terms of transitions, instead of beginnings and endings, we find it easier to live in peace and acceptance instead of fear, hostility and judgment. If we have faith in ourselves and in each other, as Helyn had faith in me way back when, then we can draw on that faith to make us stronger and accept the hard times as well as the easy times we will experience, and accept our own faults even as we see them in others.
I suspect that no one knew this as well as Helyn. Helyn lived as if she feared nothing and no one and hated no one (though many did cross her in the years we knew each other). That could be why she didn’t let on how sick she really was these last few years and how lonely she really was to have to spend so much of her time away from the man who loved her and away from her family and friends, as she was shuffled from nursing home to nursing home. She had come to accept the end as something natural, something transitional, not something that would pass but something that was eternally passing. She knew that all must pass, but all passing is not an end.
In the last few years Helyn found it harder and harder to show up at the festival, but she was with us right up until the end. I remember one meeting last year when she was in and out of the nursing home and we called her to ask her advice on a couple of matters we were stuck on. Believe me and the rest of the committee when I tell you that Helyn had lost NONE of her forcefulness, her persuasiveness or her love and concern for Clearwater when she stayed on that phone for a good hour trying to get us to come to some kind of consensus. And that was that last time some of us ever spoke to her.
If Helyn were here right now she would be thanking me. She was always thanking someone. I have literally containers full of her thank you notes and cards.
But especially now I have to throw it right back at her. “No Helyn, thank you for allowing me to be so much a part of your life for so long, and to be a part of Clearwater. Thanks to Bob Killian and Pete Seeger for starting this great big party. Thanks Clearwater for making our waterways that much cleaner and for giving us local musicians something else to fight for besides a record contract or a spot at the Stone Pony. And thanks for allowing us something to feel good about.”
Danny Gallagher hit on that last point when I first got involved with Helyn. “Ya don’t do Clearwater for the money or the recognition or anything like that, you do it to get square with THE MAN upstairs.” He was so right, and I thank God for him also.
Helyn, Danny and the others who have passed aren’t gone. They’re in the air we breathe and the water we swim in. They’re in fights we fight to keep pollution under control and in the assurance we get from knowing that no matter how hard the fight is, it is always easier when we do it together. And they are in the music we sing, the love and support we give each other and the lives we help our children and loved ones to live by working for this great cause.
And thanks to all the people in and out of my music career and my life, a great ride as it was, is and always will be.
Entertainment Committee Chair
August 16 2008