Wednesday, April 07, 2010

686 Lionel Kilburg

686 Lionel Kilberg (1930-2008)

"Vote for me.
I'm no good.
But since I asked you first,
I think you should."

--Lionel Kilberg

When Lionel wrote that lyric we all thought it was pretty funny. But he pegged the essence of the politicians of that day -- mid 1950s -- and he's got 'em still. The whole thing is in his little pamphlet/song book "Songs In The Folk Artery," published eons ago. It's not easy to forget a guy like Lionel, though he never made much of a splash as either an artist or commentator. And word of his death after a long illness gets around slowly.

When we first met, Lionel was a grunt at an air freight company at Idlewild Airport in Queens. If you're old enough to remember Idlewild, you're old enough to remember Lionel. He was one of the "old guys," all of 28 back then when we were teens. Twenty eight and already balding. Living in a loft in Alphabet City, where the gas from the stove leaked.

"Lionel," asked a visitor, "how can you live in a place where the stove leaks?"

"Well," he answered, "the rest of the house leaks so badly, you hardly notice the gas before it escapes out the cracks in the walls.

Second street at Avenue A or Avenue B. Better than his previous joint, which was on Attorney Street, which is hardly a street at all.

He was on maybe the third or fourth floor. On the floor below was a Latino church, probably Puerto Rican, probably Pentecostal, given the era. Loud, at any rate. When we slept over on a Saturday night (there was a ton of room,) we didn't need an alarm clock to awaken in time for the Sunday Sing Out at Washington Square Park. The church service below was loud enough to waken even the drunks and stoners who had stayed over. (And believe it or not, Stoner-ism hadn't become the rage yet, so it was mostly winos.)

In his later years, Lionel left the air freight company to become a social worker. Had no illusions about social work, but it was a steady check and no heavy lifting. We lost touch temporarily after that.

His big claim to fame was the invention of an "improved" version of the washtub bass. It was called a "Brownie Bass," named after a dog he'd had. A galvanized steel tub (you can't find them easily these days,) a mop handle with the obligatory red dog-toy fire hydrant on top and special decal lettering. A single string made of WWII surplus parachute cord. (Accept no substitute!)

There was an offer of a business deal some couple of decades ago: "hey, let's manufacture a few of these things and see if we can sell 'em." Lionel wasn't interested. He'd moved on, or so he said. Then the formal request for permission to use the name. And that letter never was answered. Maybe it was written too late. As is this obituary.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

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