Frank McCourt played the harmonica. I don’t know where or how he learned – maybe as a scrawny kid running the streets of Limerick, Ireland – but he played the thing, or so he said, in stating his credentials to join a novelty band of writers of which I am a part.
Now, any band would be happy to have Frank McCourt, Beatles song or not, because he was one of those guys who made the conversation funnier, made his table the envy of all the other tables. So of course we said OK, and a few band members privately practiced the song Frank said he knew, “Love Me Do.”
And that night in Sun Valley, Idaho, we called him on stage. He clamored up, holding his harmonica, and he leaned in and started to blow.
And it was a Beatles song all right.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t “Love Me Do.” It was another Beatles song, which Frank had apparently mixed up, and while it quickly became obvious that we were not, shall we say, musically aligned – since we sounded like a harmonica playing against a train crash – Frank kept tooting away, happily oblivious, until we finally figured out what he was doing and scrambled to back him up.
The song he played that night was “I Should Have Known Better” and looking back, we should have, too, because that’s who Frank McCourt was – author, teacher, storyteller, harmonica man – he walked through life making his happy, magical melodies until the world, like our band, finally caught up. Success for seasoned soul
Frank, who died Sunday at age 78 after a tough bout with cancer, was the most impishly intelligent man I knew, a permanent twinkle of the eye, a guy who could drop obscure literary references and an Irish drinking song into the same sentence. You’d have thought he was born into the limelight, but fame and acclaim, like everything else, had to wait until Frank was ready.
And so his childhood was anonymous in impoverished Ireland, his young adulthood was odd jobs scratching a living in New York. Most of his career was spent as a cherished but uncelebrated teacher in lower Manhattan.
But things laid out that way for a reason; Frank’s life became the canvass from which he would craft three wonderful books: “Angela’s Ashes” about his childhood in Limerick, “‘Tis” about his early years in America, and “Teacher Man” about his life in the classroom. Any of those books stands on its own. Together, they make an unforgettable trilogy of a 20th Century Irish American experience.
Because he became famous as a senior citizen – he was 66 when “Angela’s Ashes” came out – there was a sense of appreciation with Frank that is missing from many who make good early. He relished the attention and was both grateful and ready for all of it, a storyteller of the highest order, sublimely clever, yet with a charming humility that made it seem as if he were stumbling into cocktail parties or band rehearsals by accident – before taking over the room. A cowboy at heart
We first got to know each other when our books came out a year apart. We shared the joys and pressures of fast success, asking each other, “So what do we do now?” Frank wasn’t much into sports, but he would quiz me about “DEE-troit,” the accent on the wrong syllable, the “tr” rolling through his Irish brogue and making our industrial town sound like something out of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
“You’re a good fellah,” he would tell me, after we did speeches or book fairs together. To sit next to him was to sit at the knee of a better storyteller than your grandfather. And when I played “Danny Boy” on the piano, he would rise as if singing a national anthem.
The last song he did with our band was the cowboy tune “Don’t Fence Me In,” an odd choice for an Irishman. But it seems sadly fitting now, because you couldn’t fence him in, not that heart, not that storyteller’s mind, he would not be bound by age, normalcy or even geography. He’s part of disappearing breed that took a boat to America and made the country richer with his arrival.
With his death there are tributes flowing and many of them are serious and literary, befitting a writer who won the Pulitzer Prize. But that night in Sun Valley best symbolizes how his fans, readers, and many, many friends felt about the precious and now dearly-missed Frank McCourt. We were lucky to catch up to him and share his tune, if only briefly, before he left the stage.