Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Roasting Pete Seeger

Over the course of his long career, Pete Seeger, my neck of the woods’ most celebrated celebrity, has been celebrated for his moral courage, his humility, his gentleness, and for chopping his own firewood. To my knowledge, though, he’s never been known as a good sport. But at last night’s celebrity roast at Max’s on Main to benefit Poor and Underserved Beacon, he showed himself, before a sellout audience, to be exactly that. Accompanied by his diminutive but devoted wife of 82 years, Mrs. Seeger, the folk legend never once lost his composure as a star-studded group of fellow celebrities made cruel jokes at his expense.

Lisa Lampanelli, fresh from drolly suggesting at a recent Comedy Central roast of that David Hasselhoff’s singing is so awful as to have made the inmates of Auschwitz want to hurry into the notorious showers, started the evening off on a ribald note, wondering how long it had been since the Seegers had…relations. The punchline of one of her quips — “One word, Pete: Viagra” — nonetheless had people rolling in the aisles.

Arlo Guthrie, son of Pete’s one-time musical partner in crime Woody Guthrie, didn’t fare nearly as well with a series of jokes having to do with Pete’s diminishing facility on the banjo, all of them beginning with the words, “I’m not going to say you’re not much of a banjo player anymore, Pete, but…” If not for his pedigree, Arlo might well have been tossed to one of the gangs that own Main Street after sundown.

The audience generally enjoyed Liza Minnelli's jokes about what her own career might have been like if Pete, rather than Vicente Minnelli, had been her father; many of us were shocked to learn that Pete and Judy Garland had an extended affair in the early 1960s; Mrs. Seeger was palpably uncomfortable during this portion of the program, and who could blame her?

Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Pete appeared in the 1960 film Butterfield 8, then delighted us with a series of jokes about Pete’s not being much of an actor; she brought the house down by recounting the lengths director Daniel Mann had to go to keep Pete from looking into the camera. It is interesting to note that Eddie Fisher, who later left Debbie Reynolds (America’s sweetheart!) for Taylor, who in turn left him for Richard Burton, who was then mentioned in a song by Bob Dylan, who made no bones about his debt to Woody Guthrie. You're not just imagining that the foregoing sentence ended in a sort of cul-de-sac.

Lady Gaga, nearly unrecognizable in a tweed business suit and sensible shoes, spent too much of her own allotted time telling us how thrilled she was to be sharing the dais with Liza Minnelli and Liz Taylor, though in fact they’d reseated themselves well before Gaga allowed herself to be carried to it by half a dozen gay, lesbian, and transgendered steroid abusers in veal bikini briefs.

Finally, it was time for Pete’s most famous current fan, Bruce Springsteen, most of whose jokes were, as usual, at his own expense. He mumbled, for instance, of the hard time he’d had learning one of the songs on his recent Pete Seeger Songs I Sing So Passionately That the Veins in My Neck Might Explode album, and everyone tittered appreciatively.

When Bruce invited Pete up on stage to sing "This Land Is Your Land" with him, I scampered gently into that good night, for I have come to find the song far more misleading than empowering. I am wary of sharing the freeway with anyone so naïve as to imagine that this isn’t the corporations’ land.

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