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  From the Editor
      DOUG'S SONG

But we must notice- 
We are designed for the moment.
-Robert Lowell

   Before I ever heard Doug Setapen speak, I heard him sing. One evening in 1965, my good friend and fellow Norwalk High sophomore Richard Springer talked me into walking a mile to hear two guys he knew from West Rocks Junior High who were playing country blues at the Central Catholic High Talent Show.

    I have no recollection of the first two acts, except that they were good, but when Doug Setapen and John Boldt, each holding a guitar, came onstage and sat down on stools facing each other, the students in the audience cheered on a whole different level. Shouts and yells broke out, until the nuns shushed things down. During our walk to the show, Springer had filled me in on Doug, how his father invented the casing for the atom bomb and bought Doug a new Mustang for his sixteenth birthday, two facts that were connected somehow, mostly by money.  Most of the kids knew John Boldt from West Rocks Junior High, where all the kids from that part of Norwalk went to school together.  Instead of having John go on to local high school, his parents put him in a prep school up near Hartford. This is the straight scoop Springer whispered in my ear in the moments before Setapen and Boldt hunched over their guitars, sat up suddenly, and lit into “Silver City Bound.”

                           Silver City bound, Silver City bound,
                           Me and Blind Lemon, we’re gonna ride on down,
                           We’re Silver City bound.

    The kids and the nuns both liked this one. After sustained applause, the boys bore down on the plaintive ballad, “He Was a Friend of Mine.”

                          He never had no money,
                          Not even a lousy dime,
                          But he was a friend of mine.

    In the middle of this song Boldt backed off the vocal and let Setapen’s tenor, rough and silky by turns, sail out and fill up the hall. The kids loved it, loved the lusty, gutsy tone of it, but the nuns were shooting nervous glances at each other, glances that said “Where is this leading to?” They had their answer in less than a minute, and it was everything they feared, and worse. Here came a song, “I’d Rather Be the Devil,” a potent brew of raw sexuality and brazen idolatry.

                         I’d rather be the Devil,
                         Rather be the Devil,
                         Than be my woman’s man…

    Once more Boldt backed off on the vocal. Setapen’s voice was blazing, writhing and throwing off sparks like a downed power-line. The kids went wild. There was nothing the nuns could do but sit there and frown. Despite the fact that the nuns would only award Boldt and Setapen Second Place, the kids knew who really won. That was the night the Sixties caught up with Central Catholic High.

    That was the last time Doug sang in public. During the half century I was friends was him, right up to March 30, 2013, when he stepped on a rainbow and vaulted into his next life, I watched Doug become more and more private with his own music. He still would play the guitar and the mandolin, but more and more he would do it by himself. Through the years, his friends would encourage him to jam with other people, but could never bring himself to do it.  At the thought of performing in front of any group of people, something in him was the opposite of ambition.  Instead of becoming a professional musician, he lived a life of the skilled worker who is also an independent scholar and enthusiast of the arts. 
Quitting Hart School of Music at Hartford in his first semester, he ended up the year in a tiny room in a downtown Norwalk workingman’s boardinghouse.  Besides Doug and my little brother Richie, who was working construction with a fake I.D., the house was filled with young heavy equipment operators from Quebec, all of them on a job that would take another four months at least. I was a year younger than Doug, so I was still in high school and still living at home. Just about every night that fall I stopped in at the house on my way back home from my job in Westport.  As a result of the landlord/manager not being onsite, Doug was able to monopolize the nightlife of the place by blasting his big stereo set so loud no one could listen to anything else. The boys from Quebec wanted to play their Felix Leclerc albums. Leclerc was the Quebec national troubadour, a sort of combination Pete Seeger and Albert Camus. They had Jacques Brel albums they wanted to play. Doug wouldn’t let them. They were in America, Doug insisted, and they needed to be baptized in American Soul.  So every night from six until one in the morning he blasted away with the like of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and his favorite, Wilson Picket.  And the thing was, the Frenchies got into it, and they started singing along:

                  I’m gonna wait ‘till the stars come out
                  And see them twinkle in your eyes
                  I’m gonna wait ‘till the midnight hour
                  That’s when my love begins to shine
                   I’m gonna take you girl and hold you
                   And do all the things I told you in the midnight hour

    I’ve got a memory of the whole house actually shaking on its foundation  as  Doug turned his stereo up all the way on “Land of a Thousand Dances. “ The big, bearded “Frenchies,” as we called them, were very drunk and were crowding into Doug’s room and dancing like crazy. While I was starting into my second six-pack, my brother Richie was tapping at the window; he had figured out how to climb down the wall from his room in the attic. In a second, Ritchie was dancing, too, while we were all singing:

                You gotta know how to pony like Bony Maronie
                Mashed Potato, do the Alligator
                Put your hands on your hips, let your back-bone slip
                Do the Watusi, like my little Lucy

    And then Doug disappeared for seven years, long enough to be declared legally dead. He seemed to have literally dropped off the face of the earth.   One day in ’75, Peter Minnich was walking down a street in downtown Boston, and who does he see in front of him?  Could it be, at long last, that lost white whale, Moby Doug? It was. What had happened is that Doug had followed Bacchus, the god of wine and song, farther and farther out, until one night he realized he wasn’t having fun anymore. He’d realized he become an alcoholic. He told me later he felt like a man running for his life who jumped down in a river and breathed through a hollow straw until he felt that danger had passed. The worst fate imaginable by Doug was to be a disappointment to his family and friends. Three years he before turned up in Boston,Doug had found Alcoholics Anonymous. He never got drunk again in his life. At the time we found him, Doug was living in a half-way house and working in construction.  If it had been up to him, he told me, he would have waited another year to surface.

    By this time I was living in Sacramento.  As serendipity would have it again, the magazine I was editing at the time, Ecology Digest, had me making a series of trips to Boston. When the word went out through the grapevine that Doug was back, I was already scheduled to be in Boston the following month.  Doug didn’t have a phone, so we set up a meeting by mail. When the day came, I finished up my business by noon then drove my rented Oldsmobile Cutlass deep into the decrepit heart of south Boston. The address Doug gave me belonged to a house that looked like it was only waiting for a stiff breeze before deciding which way to fall.  Before I got to the door, Doug came out. He looked at me and smiled, the same old Doug, but strikingly subdued.  He had me drive to the Back Bay and park in a lot he knew, where we wouldn’t get a ticket.

    We set off on a brisk three hour ramble, with Doug leading a quick march to every little record and book store he had found. He was already starting to put together what would grow over the next twenty-five years into his massive and comprehensive collection of world music media. At the restaurant we stopped at I asked Doug if would write something for Ecology Digest.  

    Two months later, when I was back in California, I got a big envelope from Doug. Inside was the typed manuscript of a piece titled “Circles,” a semi-autobiographical slice of early-80s life. The assistant editor agreed with me that it had flair to it, and we published it in the Spring 1982 issue. Right after it came out, I was in Boston again. Doug and I were walking through Harvard Square when we saw Ecology Digest sitting on the big outdoor news stand.  We stopped and I opened the magazine to Doug’s piece.  The copy I sent him had been lost in the mail, so he was seeing it for the first time.  He sent me home with the Hank Williams Gospel Album “I Saw the Light.”

    Doug never married. He had two intense love affairs, and both of these women remained friends with him for life.

    In the mid-80s, Doug decided to move to the West Coast. His first job out here was as a maintenance manager for an apartment complex in south Sacramento.  During the year he was in Sacramento , Doug started reading everything he could get his hands on about San Francisco, all the guidebooks and histories that told of  the days of Mark Twain, the dancers, singers , writers  painters and architects of San Francisco’s Golden Age. On top of all this, he read the legendary Beats, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti and bought all the books about them he could find.

    When Doug moved to San Francisco, he insisted that the city live up to its most romantic history and ecstatic potential. He made this real for himself (and whoever happened to be with him) by dashing up and down the steep hills from gallery to classical concert in the park, to rock concert, to folk dancing that lasted until two in the morning. One Saturday morning, he introduced me to period design when he took me to a major Arts and Crafts design show.  Doug was a subscriber to American Bungalow               magazine. More than once he had pushed a copy in my face, all enthused about a particular chair or tile or lamp, but I didn’t begin to get it until he took into the show, which took three hours to see walking fast. That afternoon he took me on a killer forced march to see the murals of Diego Rivera. “That Frida Kahlo,” he said, “she was quite a dame.”  As we walked, he regaled me with stories of Diego and Frida in San Francisco.  We ate dinner at one of Doug’s hangouts, Lefty O’Doul’s, where the walls are covered with photos of baseball players from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Doug got his truck out of the garage, and we drove across the Bay Bridge to Ashkanaz, a community dance hall in Berkeley built to look like a 19th century Polish synagogue, where I spent the rest of the night watching Doug dance alone, furiously,  to a West African brass band.

    As Doug came to terms with his career as a skilled workman, he saw himself more and more an ur-citizen, a citizen-critic of the public culture.  He began to read widely, accumulating a huge, diverse library. He didn’t study books—he throttled them, shaking them down for their kernels of useful truth. Searching through the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Doug discovered the concept of the Interhuman. Not a philosophical or a religious doctrine, the Interhuman is a radical attitude adjustment, the conviction that the most important person you will ever meet is the next human being you meet. This, along with Walt Whitman and the early jazz greats, was the song that grew up in Doug’s heart, a belief he imparted to friends and co-workers one-on-one. The hammer Doug used at work was the hammer of freedom, his beeper was the bell of freedom, and the songs he heard at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin were the songs about love between his brothers and his sisters, all over this land. In The Great Gatsby, the narrator says that Gatsby had “a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” He never met Doug. If Doug knew you were interested in something musical or artistic, you got a lot of encouragement and a stream of books and CDs in the mail. About ten years ago, I developed a taste for French chanson music. Doug couldn’t stand it. When I tried to play him a CD he wouldn’t sit through a single song! He told me that the three boutique inns where he was maintenance manager played the same Edith Piaf CDs over and over and that had ruined French music for him forever. But the next time I came into the city, he took me on a tour of six music stores he had scouted out that had the best of the best from France. 

                                                                                                                                   Max H. Peters

 

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