Memory can be fickle, and time throws an obscuring haze over the past--one that gets thicker when you pass 60. This is what I remember, and how I remember it.
The year was 1981. A couple years before a grassroots organization called Save the River had come together to fight winter navigation on the St. Lawrence River. One of the movers and shakers behind this group was a man known as Barry Freed, who came out of hiding in 1980 and revealed that he'd been Abbie Hoffman all along.
It was the summer of 1981, mid-July, and Save the River was holding a benefit concert in Watertown NY. The headliner was to be the one and only Pete Seeger.
But just a few days before that concert something terrible happened. Friend, fellow singer and activist Harry Chapin--who had also played Watertown--was killed in a car accident. Because of this there was considerable worry that Pete would have to cancel the concert. Even as the time the concert was supposed to start arrived, no one was sure he would be able to make it.
Pete did make it, just barely, and the word going around was that he had more or less come straight from Harry Chapin's funeral. This might have been an exaggeration, it might not. I am fairly certain that this was the first concert he did after the death of his friend.
Pete Seeger knew more about grabbing hold of an audience and pulling them into his orbit than most. He was not flashy--you never saw him in a sequined jacket, crusted with bling--he was a man who had performed his whole life, had even performed for his life. He could make his worst enemies sing along.
The concert was good--it was excellent. But there was a moment during it, one so bright, so blinding it washed out all that had come before it, and that still dazzles when I look back on it.
I think it was near the end of the concert. Forgive me if I am remembering that part wrong, but it was almost 33 years ago. Any Pete Seeger concert was by definition a greatest hits concert, and we'd clapped and stomped and sung along with quite a lot of them. Again, memory fails; he might have said something more about Harry before singing the next song, he might not.
Pete launched into Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), and there was no clapping, no singing along. Pete, who was over sixty then, tore into that song with a raw energy that would have broken a man half his age. He poured all of the things he was feeling in the wake of his friend's death into it: there was anger, and anguish, despair, and denial. And recurring, and in the end carrying through, soaring notes of triumph, celebration of a life well lived, and determination to carry on; though a bright torch had been doused, the light would not be extinguished. His performance poured out like an emotional hurricane; it nailed us in our chairs, awed and hearts stumbling, ears ringing as he exorcised his pain and doubt on a hot stage in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
I don't remember how the concert ended. I was too shaken, too touched, too moved and overwhelmed to slide back into normal reality. But I can look back on that incandescent moment, and know I was part of something special and singular.
Rest in peace, Pete. The Lion still sings tonight.