In rock ’n’ roll, it was possible to live in Harvard Square, be a musician — a local musician — and be able to pay your rent and find restaurants where you could eat and buy food and survive, and feel that there was a sense of . . . future, with hope and opportunity.
That’s Peter Wolf, rock icon, Boston legend, and former lead singer of the J. Geils Band. He’s talking about Cambridge in the 1960s. We’re in his Back Bay apartment, and he’s just fixed me a dinner of poached salmon, an array of cheeses, and a good French wine. The elegant food, his rangy, poetic eloquence (there’s very little of the DJ patois people associate with him), and his humane ability to see issues from more than one side both surprise me and confirm my idea of him as a Renaissance man. He never removes his trademark black fedora.
Shelves of books (lots of the same poetry as on mine) and LPs (including classical) cover the walls. A dizzying array of tchotchkes and photos. A classic Rega turntable. And a small easel with a nearly finished portrait of a woman. Guitars crowd a corner of the living room, including his treasured ’50s Gibson Southern Jumbo. We reminisce about Cambridge and talk about classical music (his father played under Arturo Toscanini), painting (he started when he was three, came to Boston to study at the Museum School, knew Hopper and Rockwell, and was Edwin Dickinson’s assistant), and poetry (especially Frank O’Hara and Wallace Stevens, about whom he had his doubts). He plays me some of his favorites — Gene Chandler, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Willy DeVille — and a recording he made of a very drunk Tennessee Williams reading his own poems.
We’re both transplanted New Yorkers who’ve lived in Boston for more than four decades, and though our lives rarely intersected, they intersected with a lot of the same people. One of Wolf’s closest friends was the late playwright and Harvard professor William Alfred, whose clock sits on Wolf’s mantel — Wolf is the executor of his estate; Alfred was my advisor for my PhD thesis on Elizabeth Bishop. In 1997, Wolf and I actually appeared together at the Lansdowne Street club Mama Kin, part of a group reading Ginsberg’s “Howl” for a WFNX broadcast intended to challenge the FCC obscenity ruling.
Wolf’s new CD, Midnight Souvenirs — bookended by duets with country-music stars, leading off with Shelby Lynne (“Tragedy”) and closing with Merle Haggard (“It’s Too Late for Me”) — is his first new album since his 2002 Sleepless (the one with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — Rolling Stone called it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time). Dinner, Wolf’s idea, seemed a relaxed way to talk about his work, the state of the arts, and Boston’s artistic past.
I knew that Wolf knew Robert Lowell (“Cal”), but was curious if he’d ever met Bishop, Lowell’s dear friend who replaced him at Harvard. He had — through another, more surprising mutual acquaintance of ours: Ed Hood, the notoriously fired Harvard instructor, Harvard Square habitué, and star of Andy Warhol’s My Hustler.