(Host) Commentator Jay Craven reflects on Spalding Gray, his recent death and his ties to Vermont.
(Craven) I reacted to the bad news of storyteller Spalding Gray’s recent disappearance and death – by looking back to Spalding’s spellbinding Vermont performances over the years, and by recalling how we figured into his monologues, especially “Travels Through New England,” where he pursues his never-ending quest for “the perfect moment,” and another piece, “Slippery Slope,” where he discovers the pleasure and terror of skiing.
In his performances, Spalding told everything. If he wasn’t snagging stories with his Venus Flytrap ears at Bennie’s Pool Hall in Hardwick or fending off hecklers at the Montgomery “Hysterical” Society, Spalding was fearlessly navigating a high-wire of hilarious self-revelation, as when he paints a picture of himself “bucking like a satyr” and galloping through a thorny swath of lakeside woods, trying desperately to either consummate or dissipate his sexual longing for Nora, the yoga teacher.
I first encountered Spalding on my office phone in May, 1984. “Hi Jay, it’s Spalding Gray. I just happen to be passing through town. I’m in a bit of a jam, down here at Dunkin Donuts. I wonder if I can come over and see your space.”
I didn’t know Spalding and I didn’t have a “space” although I told him I was trying to get one together. I invited him over and he arrived barely five minutes later. As if we’d been friends for years, Spalding launched into a play-by-play description of his day how he’d hitched a ride with a fellow whose license plate read “Go for it,” above the New Hampshire motto, “Live Free or Die.” This guy had been a shoemaker, Spalding said, but quit his job to meet more people. One day he simply decided he’d ask the next person into his shop what they did for a living, then, “Bingo” – he’d switch to whatever that person did. Next guy through the door fixed computers. So, here he was – on his way to fix bank computers in Saint J. Then, onto an AMWAY meeting in Montpelier.
Anyway, not wanting to “go for it” and join AMWAY, Spalding called me, relieved when I offered him a place to stay until his Hardwick show, two nights later.
Cruising toward Barnet down I-91, Spalding marveled at the light-streaked hills a nearly perfect moment, he said. Then he resumed his bizarre hitchhiking tale and prompted me to tell my stories. I tried.
This was Spalding’s working method to instantly process the closely-observed moments of everyday into an evolving performance. He allowed us to know him through these intimate particulars that were his life.
Spalding’s been called a WASP Woody Allen, an avant garde Dick Cavette and a kindred spirit to Bill Murray for his “gift for riding a comic riff into uncharted territory.” He’s been compared to Jonathan Swift for his satirical edge and Johnny Appleseed for traversing the continent, unpretentiously collecting stories and sharing them.
In our star-gazing popular culture, Spalding saw and helped us see the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of our lives. We’ll miss him for that.
This is Jay Craven of Peacham.
Jay Craven is a filmmaker and teaches film studies at Marlboro College.