The Woman With The Strength Of 10,000 Men

Without a mentor, no young person can ever be truly aware of his or her potential. They may guess as to whether they have something truly special to offer, but the guesswork of an up-and- comer is always overshadowed by doubt and fear. I was fortunate to have several such people in my life, mentors who could foresee the seeds of what I could become, and help to nurture them during the many times I was unsure that my dreams would ever materialize. My Uncle Sonny is foremost among these mentors of mine.

Sonny, aka, Arthur Himmelman, is my dad’s younger brother. When he was born, he was a ready-made uncle to his nephew, Lucky, seven months his senior. My uncle Murray, Lucky’s father, was a street-wise hustler with a taste for the finer things and had already married, been at sea in the Navy, and had a son by the time Sonny came into the world. My dad, Sonny’s other brother, was sixteen when Sonny was born. The indisputable ‘baby of the family’, the name ‘Sonny’ stuck.

Sonny had a lot of attributes and did a lot of things that made him exceptional in my eyes –even now, and particularly as an eighth grader. He chose to evade the Vietnam War draft by moving to Canada, he was a member of the Mensa Society, he’d smoke pot with me, he once gave a copy of John Lee Hooker’s double album Endless Boogie, he turned me onto Bob Dylan, he talked frankly with me about sex, he also talked with me about God (and without forcing it upon me, shared his opinion that there is no such thing).

But more than all that, my uncle Sonny listened to me. And by listening, I don’t mean the kind of half-ass, perfunctory listening that teenagers expect from adults. He was there with me when we spoke. In some ways Sonny was, and still is, very much a kid. He’s a person who’s consistently curious about history and culture and politics –along with so many other subjects. But his ability to make me feel heard, valued, and understood, is what makes him one of the most important people in my life.

When I was in ninth grade, steps away from failing out of school, high every single day, and spending the greater percentage of my life energies either playing my guitar or looking for someone to have sex with, Sonny played the twin role of diplomat and family counselor between my parents and me. When they were at their wit’s end, not knowing what to do to help me become a more normal person, Sonny came to them with a bold suggestion. “Why not rent Peter an apartment in Uptown,” (a formerly super-seedy area of Minneapolis) “and let him use it as a kind of artist’s retreat, a get-away where he can indulge his creative ambitions.” I wasn’t in the room while this conversation was taking place, but knowing that the end result was a resounding “no,” I can only imagine looks on my parent’s faces.

Sonny was alleged to have said this simple truth to my parents as well: “You’ve gotta understand, Peter’s not your typical suburban Jewish kid. He’s not going to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant.” Like I said, this conversation did not result in my parent’s renting me an apartment in Uptown, or anywhere else for that matter, but the fact that there was someone who understood my feelings, even before I could –and certainly before I could articulate them– made my life so much better.

When a young person dreams of ideas and things larger than what they possess at the moment, the likelihood that those dreams and ideas will simply fade away is extremely great. But what Sonny did for me, and what makes him such a beloved and valued person in my life, is that he fought alongside me to ensure that those ideas didn’t fade away. Through his insights and encouragement, they not only didn’t fade, they became stronger over the years.

When I would play at clubs and coffee houses in and around the Twin Cities with the reggae and calypso group Shangoya, Sonny would make a point to be at every one of those gigs. Or when I played my grand total of two live shows in the course of six months, with the then unknown R&B great, Alexander O’Neal and the Black Market Band, Sonny was there as well, standing in the back and smiling like he was watching the Beatles perform — or in these two cases, Bob Marley or The O’Jays. After each show, he’d come backstage to tell me what he liked about the performance, what moved him most. That kind of thing is, by the way, the best way to give feedback to a fledgling artist. By telling a person what you like about their work (assuming you liked anything) you also create a less painful means of telling him or her, what you liked less well.

When Sonny presented me with the John Lee Hooker record, it was more a statement of faith, an acknowledgment in my maturing ability to fully appreciate it’s rootsy-ness, than it was just some regular gift. I believe Sonny felt the music I was making as an eight or ninth grader needed some more grit, some more rough-edged funkiness. But, rather than disparage me in any way for my focus on writers like Cat Stevens and James Taylor (two indisputably gifted artists), he simply slipped Endless Boogie out of its sleeve, put it on his turntable and sat, listening quietly to the whole thing with me.

He’d ask me questions too: “How did it make you feel? “Do you think you could play in that style?” “What do you think John Lee Hooker dreams about?”

Those were important questions that no one else in my life was asking me. Those were questions that made me see beyond my narrow frame of reference. In a sense, those were the kinds of questions that underscore the essence of mentorship itself.

By the Spring of 1989, I’d put out three albums for Island Records, none of which sold particularly well, although they’d each garnered enough critical attention that the label was interested in keeping me around for a fourth. The trouble was that the label’s president, Lou Maglia, an appealingly gruff, slyboots, old-school, Italian record guy, who’d signed me, had just left the label. I was at a crossroads. If I stuck around, it was likely that the incoming president, Mike Bone, might see me as just some detritus from the old regime and give zero attention to my new record. On the other hand, if I asked to leave the label, it was equally likely that I’d have a tremendous challenge in getting a new label to pick me up.

I’ve never been sure if it’s confidence, desperation, or just an impulse to roll the dice that fuels my willingness to take chances, but a few weeks after Mike Bone took the helm of Island Records, (for what would turn out to be a very brief tenure) I gathered up all the accounting statements I’d received from the label, and went to see him. I spread the statements out on his desk and said, “You can see I’m deep in the red with your new label Mike. I’d like you to release me.” ‘You sure about that?” he asked. I walked out of his office, label-less, but also, a free agent.

I was recently married and had been flying nonstop between Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis that winter trying to figure out my next move when I got a call from Sonny. He told me there was someone he wanted me to meet. “Who is it?” I’d asked. “You’ll see when we get there,” was all the information he’d allowed. I’d flown to Minneapolis to finish some demos I’d been recording and he picked me up at my brother’s house in Minnetonka.

We drove together across the river to Saint Paul, parked outside a small house, and walked quietly into a darkened, mostly unfurnished living room, save for some chairs and a hospital gurney that was set up in the middle of the room. In the gurney, propped up on several large pillows and facing two large computer screens, was a dark-haired, extremely thin woman around my uncle’s age. Whoever she was, she was clearly faced with some kind of serious health issue. She couldn’t move or speak and it was uncomfortable not knowing exactly how, or if, I should address her, so I just watched.

Aside from my uncle and me, there were a few other people there with us; one of them was this guy in his late forties. The woman’s name I soon learned was Susan. She was in the advanced stages of ALS. Susan had been a beautiful woman before her illness and I could see traces of that beauty, even in her devastated condition. I also learned that she was also a professional dancer (how tragically ironic), and was known, and sometimes feared, for her often, acerbic wit.

In addition to a feeding tube, which ran under the white bed sheets and blankets on her gurney, there was an electrical cord of some kind patched into the computer screen on one end, with other end of the cord somehow affixed to Susan’s left eyebrow. On the screen were letters from the alphabet, constantly flashing by. Susan was able to carefully, painfully it seemed, spell out words by selecting letters with the use of her one eyebrow, which was the only muscle still unaffected by the disease. This was her sole means of communication. It was her lifeline to the outside world. She lay on her bed, answering questions from both my uncle and the others that were present. For the most part I kept quiet and stared in fascination as she carried on a thoughtful, albeit extremely slow conversation.

There was a fish tank in the living room off to one corner with fish I didn’t recognize. I finally got up the courage to ask her about it. Without making any eye contact whatsoever she began typing her answer to me, letter by letter. It took her about three minutes to type:

T H E S E A R E B R A C K I S H W A T E R F I S H.

In spite of the severe challenges she was confronted with I felt that Susan was doing her best to make me feel comfortable. I spoke with her a bit about my own experience raising Mozambique mouthbreeders as a teenager and how eventually I’d had to flush them down the toilet due to strict state laws about introducing non-indigenous fish into Minnesota waterways, not to mention that no aquarium shop wanted to take them because of their size.

“I K N O W T H A T F I S H”, she wrote. “V E R Y B I G.”

Now I was beginning to understand that I was in the presence of someone very special, someone with a worldview that through incomprehensibly tragic circumstances was fundamentally different from my own –and likely most everyone else’s on the planet. This had to have been why Sonny was so adamant that I meet her. Suddenly, the forty-year old guy sitting on the chair next to mine started in on an annoying religious-tinted rant. I knew immediately where it was going and I shuddered when he got to his insanely cruel punch line. In the strident tone that only a myopic, insensitive zealot can muster he coughed up this old chestnut: “You know, Susan… God doesn’t give you more than you can handle…”

I didn’t know whether to punch this guy in the nose or say, “What the hell do you know about God you asshole”. Of course, I did neither. Susan had already begun typing away at her response. We were all silent, waiting for whatever it was that Susan could possibly have to say on the subject. It wasn’t long before we’d all gotten a dose of her wonderfully caustic sense of humor. She typed out two words, which couldn’t have been a kinder, more direct way of saying, ‘get the fuck outta here.’ She simply wrote:

“O Y V E Y”

If you’re not Jewish, or haven’t heard the expression oy vey, you should know that it’s not an easy one to interpret. I’ll give it a go. Oy vey is used to indicate incredulity about something one has heard or experienced. It is a groan and a sigh. It is a lament about the state of the world. It is, perhaps most of all, a most succinct way to express profound displeasure. We all sat there looking up at the screen at what Susan had written. There was some nervous laughter, because after all, in spite of her horrible condition, it was really funny. And oy vey was also her brilliant, super-Jewish way of saying, ‘I’m tired, let’s wrap this up.’ The zealot was escorted out of the house first, and we soon followed.

I’ve often felt that the songwriting process –or anything that involves creative work–is very much connected to the birth process. There is a moment of conception, like the one I had at the very moment Susan wrote her short, powerful message to the zealot. It was then that I had been blessed with a highly condensed, highly compressed emotional insight. That insight, though it was completely unknown to me at the time, was implanted somewhere in my memory and imagination. To call it a seminal moment would not be far off.

To take in something, like the sight of a woman with ALS typing a humorous and discreet message for example, one that carried with it, both humanity and the whole paradox embodied in the classic question of “Why do the righteous suffer,” is very much akin to the implantation of the sperm inside the ovum. It is where, like the fetus grows, an idea itself, begins to take form as well; not yet sensed or realized, but growing silently and steadily at any rate.

Then, a certain amount of time passes and the idea comes to maturity, just as the fetus, does. This is akin to the gestation period, that mysterious time of waiting and unceasing cell division, which all human and animal fetuses go through. It is even more mysterious perhaps for intangible ideas, which grow at their own strange and uncategorizable rate.

Seeing Susan type on her computer was just such an idea. It grew and grew, until, like a child, it came time for it to be born. And when the pangs of birth begin, the emotional idea too, which has had ample time to gestate and reveal its burgeoning power, must also burst forth. And so, the things I saw and felt in that room, during that short but intense duration with Susan Margolis was born as well. Instead of a womb, it came out of my mind and into the world in the form of a song called “The Woman With The Strength Of Ten Thousand Men.”

Shortly after I received my release from Island Records I made the rounds at several other labels in New York and received a only a smattering of interest. The one label that was most interested in me just happened to be the one that I was most interested in, Epic Records, which had just been sold to Sony. As an artist with a middling sales track record, an A&R man named Michael Caplan took a very brave chance on me in the summer 1990. I socked away the advance money I’d gotten from Epic and, instead of renting time in a professional recording studio, as was almost always done at the time, I bought an entire studio worth of recording equipment, equipment that would soon comprise my own studio. This was extremely unorthodox at the time and Michael Caplan was assailed with questions from Epic’s legal affairs people as to whether or not this was even permissible. Apparently it was, because I was recording on the new gear, the music was sounding good, and no further discussion on the topic ensued.

Among the songs that became must-haves with the executives for my Epic debut was Woman With The Strength. I’d already recorded the track, mixed it, and mastered it. Even the finished album artwork had been approved. And then, sometime in the middle of the night, while I should have been sound asleep, I awoke with a start. “Oh shit. I never approved the song with Susan Margolis!”

The next morning I made a few calls to Minnesota to track her down. My uncle Sonny helped as well, and we found out that Susan’s condition had worsened and that she had been transferred to a hospital. Within a day or two, I was speaking with a nurse who had been in Susan’s room attending to her needs. I explained who I was and why I was calling and asked if I could speak with Susan. The nurse put the phone up to Susan’s ear.

“Susan, ah… this is Peter Himmelman. You might not remember me, but I was the guy who came to visit you with Arthur Himmelman. I asked you about your brakish-water fish.”

There was no response of course, and so I kept on speaking.

“I’m a songwriter and I wrote a song about you that’s going to come out on an album this fall. I just wanted to know if I had your permission to release it.”

The nurse got on the line and told me that Susan was typing. After about three or four minutes the nurse got back on the line. “Susan says she wants you to come to Minnesota and play her the song.”

This was going to be difficult; I had an infant son, and a spate of touring that wouldn’t be taking me to Minnesota at the time. But far more than the inconvenience, it was a frightening proposition to come and play my song for her live.

As I prepared for the trip it began to dawn on me, just how presumptuous and insensitive it was to have assumed that Susan would just go along with having this very personal song about her out in the public. Nevertheless, I soon headed for LAX, guitar case in hand. My uncle Sonny was with me when I arrived and we walked as slowly as possible together down the hallway to Susan’s hospital room, trying to forestall the inevitable. We knocked on the door and the same nurse I spoke with on the phone lead us inside. This was going to be the most nerve-wracking audition I would ever be called upon to do.

Susan’s condition had worsened. She had grown even more gaunt and her skin was sallow and crepey. I said a timid, “hello” and unpacked my guitar. It was still detuned from the flight and as I tuned it, I struggled to say something to break the ice. Since I hadn’t memorized the lyrics, I spread them out on at the foot of Susan’s bed and began a slow, quiet rendition of the song.

When I finished there was only silence, no applause, no comments of any kind of course. After about thirty seconds, Susan began typing out her verdict. I knew then, that I had overstepped my bounds. I had been my typical egotistical, impetuous, thoughtless self in even writing the song –and mostly, in assuming that putting it on my new record was a good idea. The first word Susan typed out was plain for everyone to see. She paused, from fatigue it seemed, not quite finishing her thought, although she hadn’t needed to.

“B E A .” she wrote.

I hadn’t forgotten her swift, razor-like dismemberment of the religious zealot. Now it was my turn. In my mind at least, there was no more to know: “beat it,” is what I’d read. “Get the f*&k out of here you prick”. Susan was right; I had it coming.

But then, the typing started again, and we waited –the nurse Sonny, and I. When Susan finished typing I was completely taken aback. She’d written the most gratifying words I’ve ever received about any of my work, before or since:

“B E A U T F U L I S I G H T I N T O H O W I F E E L.”

The record came out that fall as planned. “Woman With The Strength Of Ten Thousand Men: was its first single and Susan died not long after. I received an article from the Minneapolis Tribune in the mail, which made mention of the fact that the song had been played at her funeral.

From the moment I saw your face
I knew I could never take living for granted
I froze right in my place, as I became aware
of the ground on which my feet were planted 

And as your eyes were focused on the alphabet
in your video screen
I stood there and stared in disbelief 

I was speaking to you with my voice
You were speaking to me
by choosing letters with your eyebrow
You didn’t have no choice
And yet you had an attitude like
that’s just the way that it goes now 

I started talking to you about the fish
swimming in your aquarium
But all the while I wanted to take away your pain 

Susan I owe you an apology
Susan I owe you an apology
For all the days I just let slide right through my hands
You are the woman with the strength of 10, 00 men 

From the moment I saw your face
I knew all my so-called troubles were nothing
You put me in my place
I knew right then I better start living for something 

There ain’t nobody alive that can keep your spirit down
No one can keep you from changing what just ain’t fair 

Susan I owe you an apology
Susan I owe you an apology
For all the days I just let slide right through my hands
You are the woman with the strength of 10, 000 men 

And the words come ticking out
and the words bring us together
And the words come ticking out
and the words must keep you sane 

Susan I owe you an apology
Susan I owe you an apology
For all the days I just let slide right through my hands
You are the woman with the strength of 10, 000 men


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