Podcast • July 16, 2013

Gerald Shea’s Song Without Words

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means ...

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls.

Marcel, enthralled by the chamber music, appalled at the intermission chatter, in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

Gerald Shea’s exquisite and affecting memoir of his deafness could be read as an extended riff on Proust’s fantasy. About halfway through his 70 years, Gerry Shea realized that he was severely deaf — that he’d been coping somehow, at a price, with an affliction he refused to notice. What he learned in stages was to observe how his brain works — how poetry and music, sign and spoken language and the “commerce of souls” actually work, perhaps for all of us. Shea is a word-master in his own right who comes almost to prefer the pure song — in the tradition of Mendelsohn, too, who wrote the little piano gems Songs Without Words and refused lyrics for them. But Gerry Shea got there the hard way — as a lawyer, not a musician.

Through the first half of his 70-years, Gerry Shea misheard almost everything. Example: the opening line of the Frank Loesser song, “I Believe in You,” came through as “You are the tear two ties of a keeper of incoming loot” — not “You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,” as writ. At Yale young Shea was a singing star but he didn’t belong in class. He took the star history lecturer Charles Garside to be saying that the emperor Charles V “indebited the minstrel stills of this automatic million,” when the professor was saying: “Charles inherited the administrative skills of his grandfather Maximilian…”

On such Jabberwocky in ears he didn’t know had been damaged by scarlet fever at age 5, Shea went from Yale to Columbia Law and then to a big job with the international firm of Debevoise Plimpton. He had mastered lip-reading and his own mode of translating the garbled nonsense in his ears — his “lyricals,” as he called them. But how in the world, you ask, did he avoid having his ears tested for all those years? The deeper riddle in our conversation is: why? And why, when severe deafness finally showed up unmistakably on a job test, he waited a year even to consider hearing aids or any other help. This is the point where the story became, for me, a heart-seizing meditation on afflictions imagined and denied, on identities chosen and clung to — stubbornly and with some cruel effects; and then the joy of letting go.

For me it was always a spiritual or perhaps intellectual problem. I thought everybody else heard what I heard, but that they could translate it and I couldn’t. At Yale, I felt in many ways, academically anyway, I probably didn’t belong there… I did live in a way in my own world of poetry. Lyricals are really an unconscious poetry. It was the life probably that I did love. Even though the problem of misunderstanding was there, I loved my universe and I still do… As soon as somebody tried to approach my private world of lyricals, I really didn’t want to let them in… I think probably because of insecurity, because of fear. Because of my knowledge of myself as perhaps an incomplete human being. Perhaps as someone who was at home with his own internal poetry. It was simply a world that I wanted to keep to myself. I was different from other people, and I was going to live that way and stay that way — except in the law, because I had somehow to earn my bread.

Relief came when hearing aids were virtually forced on him at age 35. The reward was hearing the rest of his music; the flutes, violins and piccolos; the wind in his willows, so to speak, with all due credit to the author Kenneth Grahame.

When I finally got the hearing aids and I realized that the external world was making a lot more sound than I’d heard, it brought me to tears. The first time I wore my glasses with hearing aids in them… suddenly out in that field I felt as if I was not alone and I heard the sound of crickets coming from every direction. It was a beautiful, beautiful sound I hadn’t heard since I was a child, a further awakening to me as to who I was and the world I was really living in. ‘There it is again,’ as Rat says to Mole in The Wind in the Willows. ‘O, Mole, the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!’ That thin clear call has really become the heart of my life. That’s what Mendelson was talking about, the definite message of music that carries you with it. The most beautiful part of my life, clearly, is music… The heart of my life. Maybe it always was.

Gerald Shea in conversation with Chris Lydon in Marblehead, Massachusetts, July 2013.

Podcast • June 27, 2008

Tony Schwartz — for the Next Generation

Tony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the ...

tony schwartzTony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the old “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of West Side Manhattan. Hunched over his turntables, wrapped in earphones and cables in a room lined on every wall with Tony’s 40 years of sound recordings, he’d remind you of the Wizard of Oz with his bumbling air of magic, but also of Orson Welles with his grasp of theatrical effects, and also his friend Marshall McLuhan with his flair for multi-media theory and his experience with how message systems really work, in and out of your body. I’d first entered this little high church of sound covering George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.


I went back in 1974 to write this Times piece, Packaging Voters for Candidates, TV-Style on Tony, the “best in the business” of media consulting. And I went back and back for ever after to absorb Tony’s coaching. He was gently instructive when I took him my first television stand-ups after leaving the Times. “You’re trying to do what Times training impels you to do — push ‘facts’ through the camera lens at the viewer. But listen to me, Chris: television is not a medium of information; it’s a medium of effects…” I learned on my own, when I came back from vacation to the TV desk with a mustache, that television viewers are looking mainly at their presenters’ hair, and not hearing much of what they say. Tony observed that television is mainly an auditory medium, and would be more effective if your picture tube was out of commission. He beleived that for many evolutionary and anatomical reasons — not least because “people are born without ear-lids” — the ear and audio deliver more of the signals that form our thinking than the eye does. And many of the trademark Tony Schwartz spots on television were commercials that deliberately slowed down the eye input with still photos, for example, or neutralized the eye with a shot of just an office clock and a second hand, while an actor’s plummy voice was asking: “Would you give me sixty seconds to tell you why Bob Abrams should be Attorney General of New York?”

tony and mike

Tony adored the babble of babies and the outdoor sounds of his block of New York. Above all he loved what Studs Terkel calls “that fabulous instrument, vox humana.” The blossoming of Tony’s reputation in the Seventies and the soundness of his books — The Responsive Chord and Media: the Second God — ran nicely parallel with the rebirth of radio at NPR. I was late taking the cue to radio myself, but I knew from Tony that radio was God’s own medium, and by the time I got there I knew from Tony why it felt like home. It is wonderful to realize, in the responses on Tony’s death two weeks ago, that the pied pipers of the rising radio generation — people like Jay Allison and Ira Glass— are devoted practitioners of Tony Schwartz’s ideas.

So maybe the next question is how many more of the podcasters and other newbies enabled by the inexpensive tools of Internet radio will get the blessing of Tony’s techniques and wise encouragement. I engage the brilliant and prolific TV documentarian David Hoffman — of “Sputnik Mania” in theaters this summer and the comprehensive film Guerrilla Media about Tony — in the conversation here not only to remember the master of sound and his signature pieces, but to introduce the wisdom of Tony Schwartz to the podcast generation. With your help, it might be just the start of our appreciation of Tony.