February 26, 2020

A too long remembrance of Gary Shapiro

Cantor Gary Shapiro died April 27 at the age of 56.

When someone dies, we Jews say, “May his memory be a blessing.” We also talk about deli trays, funeral traffic, and wonder if whatever killed them is going get us. (Of course it is.) But mostly it’s the blessing stuff. I think it means: did we leave something positive behind when we are gone. Sadly, we lost Gary Shapiro this week and I thought about what he left behind with me.

[Read Cantor Gary Shapiro’s obituary here]

I met Gary through mutual friends when I was in high school. He went to glamorous Beverly High. I went to Birmingham High in the nicest part of the Van Nuys/Reseda Churro district.

Gary was a lot to take in back then. Even 1979, Gary seemed weirdly stuck in the seventies. I remember him having a huge helmet of hair, wrist sweat bands, nunchucks and speaking Spanish while showing me how Ricky Lee Jones plays her “Chuck E’s In Love” riff. Who was this guy? He was a year younger than me yet he seemed 20 years older.

Gary was full of trivia and music expertise that no other person our age knew or wanted to know. No, Gary, I didn’t know studios used “Carry On My Wayward Son” to set the levels in a mixing studio.” “No, Gary, I didn’t know the only people allowed to play guitar with their thumbs were the Brothers Johnson.” “No, Gary, I had no idea Toto’s Jeff Porcaro switched from Ludwig Musser Drums to Pearl because of an endorsement deal in the 80’s even though secretly he preferred the feel of the Ludwig.” Even then he seemed like a game show host trapped in a high school kid’s body. And if you were around him you were a permanent contestant. But it turns out Gary and I had a lot in common like friends such as Ken Daly, Richard Allen, John Travis, Ricky Powell, Jon Turteltaub and of course Michael Lawrence. We both loved movies, music, movies TV and comedy in general. We both, I believe, played Buffalo Bill in our respective temple productions of “Annie Get Your Gun”. We argued about who’s was better. In my heart I knew he was.

When we both started UCLA we’d hang out and you’d never guess Gary was a freshman. He’d walk around campus as if he’d been there for years. He acted like he was part owner of UCLA. He’d often seat me at North Campus like it was his restaurant. He invited me to join him in re-founding a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, with the hopes of being inclusive and diverse. And once it was up, it became very popular and Gary was in heaven. Fraternities were exactly what Gary craved: the formality of ritual with a freeform bacchanal chaser. The thing that stood out about Gary back then was this: I never met a guy with more potential. Gary was clearly a genius. Smart as hell. Funny. Talented singer/songwriter. He had so many gifts. It was undeniable. The big question was what would he do with all that?

So naturally, he became a cantor. What the hell?

I can’t tell you how many times people thought I was joking when I told them. Sure, he cared a lot about being a Jew but he seemed to care a lot about cartoon bears. A cantor? Wow. But that’s what he was. And it made sense when you stepped back and look at it. He wore Judaism like a second skin. I got the sense it was one of the things his family was MOST proud of which made him proud. He found beauty in the Torah, Midrash and Talmud and excitement in the examination of the questions they presented. He loved the detail of ritual observance of tradition. He certainly loved presiding over the important moments in people’s lives: weddings, births, deaths. Plus, it was a whole new trivia category in the Gary game show. He was like Siri if Siri only answered questions about Tisha B’av. He gathered fans in his congregations who followed him like groupies. I think it was a world he could have grown into and made his whole life but he had another calling that was at least just as deep. He wanted to be a secular performer.

Gary never stopped writing songs, singing them in clubs and online. And even though they were mostly comedy songs, they were great songs. People said he knew his shit, which is musician talk for “he was good.” He also hosted shows. Wrote for shows. He warmed up audiences. He did radio and internet radio. He worked stage shows like Sit & Spin as a musical guest, a supporting player, and a headliner. He loved it and he loved the world of performers. It was clear back at Beverly High that the world of performers drew him in like a pie to a face. Gary never broke big but he had devotees everywhere. I will let other detail this part of Gary’s life but I think he loved it for the most part. He loved the work and the people he worked with. I’m happy he had that in his life.

Through the years, Gary managed to cultivate friendships. He was always calling and caring. When something bad happened he would check in and see if there was anything he could do. Sometimes when something good happened but always when something bad happened he’d offer to be there. He knew that’s where he was needed most. How the hell does anyone have that kind of time? But Gary managed to do it. People felt seen and loved which is evident by the outpouring of love and loss we saw this week.

But there was another side of Gary. He wasn’t just a fountain of kindness. He was sharp and could be dark when the occasion called for it. He was also a master provocateur. If you were in a conversation, and he was in the mood, he’d find your weak spot and poke at it until he got a reaction. He was ALWAYS up for a good fight. Sometimes it was about big things like the anti-Semitic slant of the media and sometimes it was about the smallest things, like comma usage. This side of Gary shined brightly at THE STUMP, an Internet forum I started over 20 years ago. In its heyday hundreds of people, mostly writers and comics would go there to say the things they couldn’t say in more public forums. Gary was the king of THE STUMP. He wrote long hysterical drug fueled posts on what was wrong with everything. He held us all to his unachievable standard of clarity and comedy. He judged everyone’s posts, even his own. Often he’d write a page long post and then take three pages to criticized it. But truth be told, so much of what he wrote was genius, funny beyond belief. Gary along with a few others made that forum worth reading and kept it alive for all these years. One of the great treats of THE STUMP was the end of the year when Gary curated his favorite posts for a “best of.” I, like many others, wanted so badly to make his “best of” list. Finally, we’d get his approval! How did a drug addled out of work cantor become the person who we needed to prove ourselves to? I don’t know but he did it. He had that way of taking charge. Gary’s merciless candor drove some people off THE STUMP. There were feuds and apologies. And even though he never intended to hurt people, it was collateral damage to a greater cause: the ability to be completely honest. I think THE STUMP was one place where Gary could truly be free to express the dark and the light. If real life demands you temper what you say, THE STUMP only demanded a point of view.

Whatever gave Gary the ability to function, he was there for all of us. He comforted us when we lost. He praised us when we won. And joined us when we struggled. He was there for so many of us and that’s a gift that will endure along with the jokes and songs and lectures. Yes, he liked to lecture. Gary was a guy who believed in some things unshakably: there is a G-d, there’s a right and a wrong, comedy matters, Loggins was better than Messina, people were horrible, friends were wonderful, and he believed in being there when being there is the most important thing. I will treasure all of it, the good, the bad, and the strange. That boy with the nunchucks will always be my pal.

Thanks, Gary. Your memory is a blessing.