Saturday, January 31, 2009

Paul LeMay, RIP

Right about now, Hartford could use a guy like Paul LeMay, but it's too late, because he's gone.

Paul died early Saturday morning.

LeMay, the outsized thinker, the forever optimist, the lover of life, music and artists, has died after a lingering set of illnesses that had rendered him bedridden for months.

LeMay started the Peace Train Foundation in Hartford and brought tens of thousands of hippies and rednecks and music lovers and corporate geeks into Bushnell Park each May for an old-fashioned fiddle festival that was one of the biggest events in the city, until the city said it was tired of this big event.

I didn't know Paul then. I knew who he was. Watched him from the distance as one of the horde who would descend on Bushnell Park. I met him many years later, under the Calder Stegausaurus where he hosted noontime concerts as part of a summertime arts grant. We became friends. I helped him resettle some Bulgarian musicians, and he helped me book Billy Bragg into Hartford for a show that had to be cancelled when Bragg got the opportunity to tour with the Smiths.

Paul had a giant heart, and a larger creative spirit. He was part huckster, part genius, part minister to the downtrodden. He could be kind and he could be tyrannical. He was headstrong and heartfelt. He cared about people, and music and life. He respected artists, befriended politicians, poked fun at stuffshirts, hobnobbed with corporate leaders and traded beers with Hartford's most outrageous lowlife.

Paul had his demons, and he had trouble keeping them at bay. He lived life like every greasy hamburger, every unfiltered cigarette, every pint of beer had his name on it. His joie de vivre is likely what brought him down. His joie de vivre was the key to his charisma.

When a friend needed five bucks, he give him ten, but he wasn't afraid to ask for fifty if he himself needed twenty.

Paul brought people together. He introduced me to Lucy. He invited thousands to join him for a party every year in the concrete-dull insurance capitol of the world. He filled silence with music, recognized talent and genius, and knew how to make and spend a buck.

He found joy in simple things, but he was forever complex and inscrutable.

In the past several years, his companion and friend of many years, Cheryl Daniels, cared for him and listened as he continued to dream in his sickbed.

I've never met another man like Paul LeMay. I doubt I ever will. I'll miss him, as a lot of others will. He changed Hartford, and he changed the world around him, and that's the best anyone can expect to do in the short time we're here.


Anonymous said...

Paul LeMay’s brain was always working overtime, more often than not spitting-out one idea after another. At times his thoughts seemed crazy to those who didn’t know Paul. At times he would indeed come up with a crazy idea. Other times he was crazy as a fox.

I first met Paul in 1973. I think it was at a fiddle contest in Newfane, VT? Next time I saw him he was busy driving the Peace Train caboose handing out clothing & food to the less fortunate and organizing the first (now legendary) New England Fiddle Contest in Hartford.

Forever scheming to win grants and secure public funding, LeMay walked a seemingly fine line between success, persecution and even prosecution! Perhaps the time was right (the mid-70s) for him to get away with stunts like busting into corporate offices with his big voice, big beard, long hair, harmonica or accordion …then hit them up for a donation to The Peace Train or the Fiddle Contest and get it! Right or wrong it worked, several times, and paid dividends for years.

Paul raised a lot of money for countless arts events throughout his career as Hartford’s self-appointed friend to the arts. We needed the likes of a Paul LeMay to bring some life to the Cement City. Let’s face it, for decades Hartford did not exactly make it easy to present free and educational events to the public. Paul managed to consistently put on his boots and trod his way through the obstacles at City Hall. Lives were made all the better for it, too.

Literally thousands of people’s lives were enriched by those events Paul produced or co-produced. Thousands attended concerts in the park. Tens of thousands made the fiddle contest an annual family weekend in its heyday. I’ve met fans of that event all over the world. It’s known and missed more than one might imagine.

When friend and former Peace Train organizer Pam Ring died in 1998, Paul decided that life was too short and it was time for him to revive the N.E. Fiddle Contest. Truth is he missed his “family” and the musicians.

He told me more than once that he missed “the people” and spending time with old friends. Two truths: 1) According to Paul he had no special love for the fiddle itself. To him the music came second. 2) What drove Paul to produce all those music events in and around Bushnell Park came primarily from his joy of “watching kids playing with their grandparents” and rekindling old friendships. He also loved the musician.

In his Caterwauled column Ed was right-on when he wrote that Hartford could use another Paul LeMay. But I doubt anyone in town these days is as “crazy” and as passionate as he could be. Nor would they likely be willing to make the commitment, or even have the balls it takes to do some of the things Paul did in his lifetime in order to see any given dream come to fruition.

Ed also wrote, “He could be kind and he could be tyrannical…He cared about people, and music and life.” I witnessed all those traits at one time or another.

I have many a favorite ‘Paul LeMay’ moment. Several such moments in our recent history was attending board meetings, sitting next to him while he alternated between his oxygen hose and inhaler…then take a break to go out and have a cigarette. Paul could sure make life exciting.

I wish I could attend his Life Celebration, but I cannot. I’d like to play a tune or two for him. I owe him at least that much for the support he gave me in the early days as a local musician new on the circuit. I think I’ll do just that from wherever I am that day.

I’m guessing whomever coined the phrase ‘thinking outside-the-box’ must have been inspired by a similar character as Paul. For better or worse -- a little of both I guess -- I’ve never known anyone who lived so ‘outside-the-box’ as did Paul LeMay.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, my heart just broke a little. Where is the H(e)artford I once knew?

The Peace Train was a staple of my childhood, as was the Fiddle Fest.

I hope Paul's red Peace Train is pulling into a celestial station, a mighty fine, mighty sweet final destination.

Anonymous said...

Paul LeMay was a great friend of mine for years. During a time when he was being ostracized from the fiddle fest and I was struggling to find a job after being laid off, we decided to drive down to Key West, Fl. in his Mercedes making pit stops at various friends along the way while also creating a photo gallery of out trip. It was during this 10 day getaway that I got to know the depth of this man's compassion, the wisdom of his truths and the burden's of his illness. He was not always the easiest person to get along with due to these complexities and his strong will. However, if you could break through the layers of thick skin and rigid composure caked on by years of struggle, you will see what a fragile, wise and earnest person he really was. He had a very eclectic group of friends on the east coast, every one a heart of gold and stories to share. Every one from model train engineers outside Orlando to animal lovers in Georgia to artists and musicians all over the Keys. He was a very special person in my life and always made an impression on everyone he met and I wish I got to speak to him before his passing.
I just want him to know what an inspiration he was to me and the direction my life has turned. No one will forget the positivity you spread and we will miss you very very much!! Peace, Love and Joy, your friend always, ~Anissa

Anonymous said...

I was sorry to hear of Paul LeMay's passing. Before I was a participant, I was a fan of the fiddlefest. People like Paul and events like the fest just don't seem to have a place in Hartford these days. The powers that be are too busy with big-dollar projects and saving their butts from prosecution to realize that it's people and gatherings and music and art that give a city a heart & soul. Goodbye Paul. Wish I had chatted a little more with you.

Anonymous said...

From Tim Wolf:

I've been filtering through numerous memories and reflections about Paul. They are all steeped in gratitude. Like so many, I was lousy about expressing that gratitude while Paul was alive. So the least I can do is share a handful of recollections and history from the early days of Peace Train. Excuse any mistakes (this is from memory).

Paul was originally from Windsor I believe (perhaps more specifically Poquonock). He married and had two sons, Paul Michael and Jimmy, then divorced. Early on he worked as a shoe salesman, then was employed in the office at the Plimptons office supply warehouse. It was while working there I believe that Peace Train was hatched as a concept.

After buying the infamous school bus, Paul found a patron in Jack Dollard, an architect hired by the Knox Foundation to help it spend its money to revitalize Hartford. Jack granted Paul a modest sum to help convert the bus into a caboose. Jack may have even sketched out a blueprint for the "conversion". (Was this perhaps around 1973 or 1974?)

Paul's girlfriend/partner/collaborator through the 1970s was Pam Ring. Pam was cooking at Picnic, the Union Place vegetarian restaurant run by Judith Elliot. Picnic, and Union Place, was a hub of creative, groovy, hippie commerce and energy. Paul did much of his honey selling and acordian playing in front of Picnic to raise money for Peace Train and the first Fiddle Contest. Some of the early musicians associated with Peace Train may well have been connections made on Union Place, where Shanti School (a public alternative high school located inside the train station) had faculty and students such as Nick Duke, Dan Schultz, and others who played Bluegrass. There was also a Trinity College contingent, many of whom lived on Kenyon Street that became Peace Train regulars: Bill Ferns, Peter Garnick, Joe Cohen. Additionally there was Will Welling and Bill Wallach.

In 1975, I was a sixteen-year-old from West Hartford into the art of kite-making and flying. I had an idea for having a kite festival in Bushnell Park, and like Paul received funds from the Knox Foundation (thanks to Jack Dollard and Tim Keating) to produce my first public event, Kite Day, on May 5 of that year. Paul was there with the Peace Train and a few musicians, Judith Elliot carried over a pot of soup from Picnic to feed the kite flyers. A good time was had by all, and Paul and I made our connection.

Over the next four years or more, Paul was my mentor. That spring and summer I became part of the Peace Train family, hanging out regularly with Paul and Pam (and dog Zenobia) at their little house on Skitchewaug Street in Wilson. Despite my young age, or perhaps because of it, Paul was always running his unstoppable litany of ideas by me. I always gave him my honest opinion, "bad idea," "won't work," "maybe," "that sounds workable," "give me a break". He always respected my opinion and often took my advice. This played no small part in a sixteen-year-old's ability to develop self-confidence.

I tagged along to the numerous parades (everyone wanted that caboose in their parade), fiddle contests and concerts as helper/crew-member on the "Train". That summer ('75) during the West Indian Day Parade Paul was getting a little tipsy while driving the Train through the streets of the North End blasting Calypso from the loud speakers when he turned the driving over to me. I had never driven a standard, and certainly never a school bus/caboose, but he put it in neutral and coasted at a slow speed--in the parade--as I took the driver's seat. Paul said, "I'll put it in second gear, that's all you need." From that day on I became a backup driver. I drove that bus until 1984, well past it's retirement and replacement.

The Plimtptons warehouse formed one base of the recruitment center for the technical production of Peace Train's activity. U. of H. graduate David Budries worked there and had started Mantra Sound with Stephen Washburn from Glastonbury. Mantra provided all the sound for the first several Fiddle Contests as well as neighborhood and park concerts for years. Two other Plimptons guys, Doug Eldridge and Floyd (can't remember his last name) had a lighting company and provided the illumination for all manner of after-dark events that Peace Train produced. Much of the sound and lighting equipment was eventually bought by Peace Train as it became bigger and began to sell its services as a concert production company to other presenters, such as the annual fiddle festival at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Katonah, NY, the Hartford's San Juan Festival, the West Indian Celebration and more. There is a lineage of sound and lighting equipment and sound engineers and lightning technicians that still provide those services to Hartford concerts and events that can trace their roots to Paul and Peace Train.

The bus Paul built was the Peace Train mascot and it turned heads everywhere it went. Once we moved our friend Elliot Porter in the Train from Hartford down to an apartment on Bleeker Street in Manhattan. After unloading Elliot's furniture we drove uptown so I could try to do some kite flying in Central Park. Instead, we were ushered into the Puerto Rican Day Parade that happened to be taking place that day. The NYPD thought we were late to the parade and opened up the barricades to let us in. Paul got on the mic (attached to a gooseneck that swiveled in front of the driver's seat) and invited flag-waving parade watchers on board. Someone provided a cassette of Salsa music and Paul popped it into the tape player and belted it out of roof-mounted loudspeakers. That was some party.

From the first few Fiddle Contests in the early/mid-seventies through Paul being ousted by the Peace Train board over the hot-air balloon debacle in 1981, Paul had built Peace Train into a nationally-recognized non-profit performing arts presenting organization. In it's hey-day Peace Train had a couple dozen employees (thanks to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, or CETA) and was producing well over 100 free concerts, large and small, in a season. To many people Paul's legacy was the New England Fiddle Contest, but his legacy is much deeper than that. Peace Train employed hundreds of local musicians to play free concerts in nursing homes, senior centers, block parties, virtually every housing project and public park in Hartford, as well as New Haven and other cities and towns in Connecticut and beyond. I said "employed", he paid artists to play free concerts accesable to all. It wasn't just fiddle and folk music, but Gospel, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, country, funk and much more. Does anyone remember Hubert Powel & the Gospel Truth, Wood Brass and Steel, Last Fair Deal, Blues Train, the Hartford Morris Men, Jacob's Reunion, Spiral, to name a few?

Paul also brought nationally-known artists to the city for free concerts: Taj Mahal, Leone Redbone, Maria Muldaur, Pat Metheney, The Paul Winter Consort, Elizabeth Cotton and more. He started Hartford's first free outdoor dance series, Summerdance, presenting Pilobolus, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Company, Hartford Ballet, Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble and more.

After Paul's ouster from Peace Train, I was hired to be its technical director, then served as co-director (with Jack McNair) and finally held the position of interim director, not wanting the permanent position of director. I left Peace Train in 1984 and it folded as the diverse presenting organization it had become a couple years later. During that period Paul and I remained friends. I may have been to only person still involved with Peace Train still on good terms with him in the year or two following his firing.

Playing off Paul's tradition of taking all types of performing art into all communities, for free, Jack and I developed programs on the other end of the spectrum from the Fiddle Contest, including a series of breakdancing contests across the state that developed into a traveling school program introducing Hip Hop culture to suburban and rural audiences. This was 1982 and 1983! We still ran the Fiddle Contest, but it was no longer the big money maker it had become for Peace Train after the city forced us out of Bushnell Park. Yes, for a time the Contest was able to largely pay for itself and turn a profit through t-shirt sales and rental of vendor space.

After Peace Train, Paul ran a competing fiddle contest in Massachusetts for one or two years, got into the hot air balloon thing (briefly), and even ran his own competing arts-presenting organization for a couple of years. The Downtown Council was so keen not to take sides in the Peace Train vs. Paul aftermath that it divided up the contract for a series of summer street music programs between Peace Train, Paul's group, and another presenter, TAPCO.

After I left Peace Train Paul let me apply for some grants through his new organization to present a one-day world music festival in Bushnell Park in 1984. The event was rained out of Bushnell Park and Paul invited us to put on the program at Mad Murphy's on Union Place where he was then booking the bands. It was all last minute, chaotic, hot and crazy, but truly unforgettable when the headliner, Sun Ra and his Arkestra took the tiny stage at Murphy's. Paul helped me make that happen. That event was the seed of another nonprofit I started with my wife, Linda Pagani, in 1990. The International Performing Arts Festival had a nice run of four years in the free concert tradition of Peace Train before the funding climate and shrinking audiences forced us to shut down.

I dealt with Paul professionally a little more in the eighties when he would book my band, The Hibachi Brothers, into Mad Murphy's. In the nineties, Paul tried to recruit me on numerous occasions to get involved in the reincarnated Peace Train and Fiddle Contest. I politely declined each time having decided to focus my energies in other areas after the demise of my own organization. At that time Paul had been making a living as a spreadsheet master, working as a contractor for CIGNA in Bloomfield. Paul was a gadget guy, so it was never a surprise to me that he totally embraced some aspect of the personal computer boom. I recall he was also was quite good at accounting.

In the last decade or so, I could expect an annual phone call from Paul to either try again to recruit me or simply to run another idea by me, like Bob Dylan in Bushnell Park. Once I declined or wished him luck on the latest unhatched plan, we would talk about his two sons and catch each other up on old acquaintances. I enjoyed getting to know his son Paul as an adult after he returned from India with our mutual interests as fellow Buddhists. The last e-mail I think I got from Paul Sr., several years ago, was a photo of his then new grandson, Paul Jr.'s son Henry.

Paul didn't single handedly set me on my life's course, but he was a really important and large influence. The job I have today, and have had for the past 21 years, I can trace back to Paul.

This has been a long and indulgent reminiscence, but these are memories that deserve to be shared. We never know when our time will come, and so I put these thoughts down at this time for those who knew, appreciated and loved Paul.

Anonymous said...

I remember the breaking contests.Any chance on you guys posting any pictures or the filming of the breaking events? I bet that a lot of people would love to see them!! I came in 4th place in 1983, at the bushnell park contest. Also my crew won first place as a group and became part of the peace train allstars that did performances all over.....Thank you for those times! B-boy Jamar BBLOVE!!