The Storytellers Tour: Once Upon a Bus...

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“We’re embarking on our tour to spread the message that indie bookstores should be the vital center of communities. Nights of storytelling and music, of book groups and talent shows, are at the heart of any living town. It’s time to break the chains of the Internet, and of addictive shallow surfing, and get back to books and deep reading and sharing evenings with living breathing people.”—George Dawes Green

The first time the bus balked—the first time it happened this year, the 2012 chapter of The Unchained Tour, because the bus broke down last year too—a mechanic stared in amazement as a new alternator burst into flames.

“That’s not possible,” he sputtered.

Next, the 1972 hand-decorated Bluebird tee-teed all its gasoline out onto an Athens parking lot in the middle of the night. Was it spite? The passengers had driven all over Georgia and to Jacksonville, Florida, so far six shows in five days, then left the vehicle outside in the cold February night in Athens while they merrily entertained a huge house at The Melting Point that included Michael Stipe and the B-52s.

Call it the Bluebird of unhappiness.

Pressed into service to replace the Bluebird, two minivans sag to the axles. One bulges with bedrolls and foodstuffs and bags and video and sound equipment. The other is humid with cramped raconteurs and filmmakers and sound geeks and trip coordinators.

These travelers have raised the roof beams in St. Simons Island, Woodbine, Jacksonville, Thomasville, Zebulon and Athens. The finish line for the 2012 tour now lies in sight. Canton this Thursday night. Savannah tomorrow night, a seven-hour march to the sea. The tour then returns to Atlanta for Saturday and Sunday evening shows at Manuel’s Tavern, the great watering hole of the Southern creator, one final haul back up the interstate for six more long hours, give or take.

The cavalcade rolls up to Canton’s Cherokee Arts Center less than an hour before show time. Stiff-jointed, sleepless, the walking wounded regard a fresh-faced Paste writer now joining the last leg of the tour with white-eyed stares, like stragglers in a caribou migration watching a wolf.

“Go ahead and kill me,” one glance says. “You’ll do me a favor.”

I have doubts about this Paste article suddenly. Why have I committed myself to three days as an embedded journalist with this band of cheerless vagabonds? I’ll be as welcome in that van as a kimchi fart.

Then, before my eyes, the sort of miracle you see with great performers takes place.

The house lights go down.

The lights in tired eyes come on.

For the next 90 minutes, The Unchained Tour’s remarkable sounds and stories possess the 50 or 60 people who have made their way from the soundless wintry Georgia hills to this auditorium, this night. The listeners hear tales well told, tales told to support independent book stores, tales told equally to separate listeners from hidebound beliefs and to bond human hearts.

Picture an ancient tribe, Cherokee maybe, transfixed, gathered around a blazing campfire. This campfire tonight is made of words, conjured and charmed by story-spinners into adventures and revelations in the oral tradition humans have enjoyed most since we first uttered words.

For a night, a Canton audience travels on the breaths of skilled raconteurs to places they have never known.

Human voices are their vans. They travel well.

Green Unbound

What is The Unchained Tour? What does it do?

That’s a good story.

In 1997, an up-and-coming writer from St. Simons Island, Georgia, and living at the time in New York City, noticed something at the public readings he attended. George Dawes Green went to a lot of readings—in 1994, he’d won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his unconventional first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine. He may not yet have been the toast of Manhattan, but fame had the flutes out, waiting to pour them full.

The events mostly bored him to death.

“I’d hear poetry readings,” Green says, “and always this horrible sing-song kind of style, this vaguely surreal string of non-sequiters in the dreaded poetry voice … (he riffs here, imitating verse) … I take … this six-pack … and this string … of highways … that my mother walked … with her dead bird …”

He says, “I noticed that when the readers stopped the poetry and then told their stories in a physical, natural style, everybody sat up and paid attention.”

Green knew a good story when he heard one. As a boy on St. Simons, he lay awake twitching in bed long after lights out—he believes he may have had an undiagnosed case of hypernychthemeral disorder, which throws off normal Circadian rhythms—and he listened for hours to adults telling stories. Later, he shared a porch many nights with a beloved friend, Wanda Bullard, as moths batted the screens, beating their brains out in search of enlightenment.

So in 1997 Green started a story-telling series, The Moth. His secret sauce remains the same today. Open the soul. Tell something important, vital, revealing. Give the whirling world a tale to hold onto.

The Moth flew. Salman Rushdie showed up with stories. Garrison Keillor swept in from Lake Wobegon. Malcolm Gladwell and Sam Shepherd and other celebrities cleared their throats onstage. Regular Moths popped up in L.A., Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston. The Moth Radio Hour beamed out to 240 public radio stations and won a 2012 Peabody Award.

Meanwhile, Green beavered away at his own storycraft, producing best-sellers The Juror (1995) and Ravens (2009). On tour for Ravens, he noticed how dramatically the number of independent book stores had dwindled, picked off by wolfish online booksellers and the assault on good old-fashioned reading time by modern gimcrackery—TV and video games and social networks and, and, and …

“The book stores that were left couldn’t get big audiences,” Green says. “The Moth is always sold out. I thought, why not just start a new group and tour around with it to promote independent book stores and draw some attention … and some crowds?”

Green floated an idea among friends. He put down earnest money. Backers laid more money on the table. He found himself with a non-profit and a board. Soon, 30 artists and carpenters and mechanics descended on a Bluebird bus, hand-painting and converting it into what the publicity calls “a rolling Greek temple” for raconteurs and musicians.

In spring 2011, the first Unchained Tour—get it? book stores not part of a chain?—lumbered through 14 communities, large and small, in Georgia. The novel idea from a novelist drew attention. By 2012, the colorful tour was selling out most of its venues and generating headlines wherever the merry yarnsters rolled in.

Run of show

In a sense, Green simply brought The Moth on tour. Five of the six raconteurs, unchained from their day jobs, have appeared with The Moth. Green cherry-picked performers with gifts. Even jouncing along in a van, they come across as larger-than-life.

A performance tells it best.

Peter Aguero first takes the stage. He’s literally larger-than-life. The Unchained Tour emcee is a big ole boy, as they say down South, a pony-tailed six-foot-something, 300-pounder going away. It’s not fat either—if Aguero weren’t into standup comedy and fronting The BTK Band in NYC, you might see him on NFL Sundays trotting off the gridiron covered with dirt and blood after a goal-line stand. In fact, during high school in Jersey, he got scholarship offers to Rutgers and other schools, before he quit football to act in plays. He caught wind of The Moth a few years after, went to storytelling classes, practiced every week for a year at open mic appearances. He blossomed into a Moth Grand Slam champion—the Grand Slam is a sort of seasonal shoot-out among weekly Moth “best of show” winners. He appears in sketches now on Conan’s show. When the tour hits Atlanta, this “unrepentant narcissist,” as he calls himself, slips away to get a new tattoo—a peach, naturally, as a souvenir of The Peach State. The soft curves of the peach make him think, he says tenderly, of “my wife’s ass.”

Before shows, as an ice-breaker, The Unchained Tour asks audience members to answer a question on a paper slip. Peter reads audience replies from stage, then riffs on them.

Question: When are you most at peace?
Audience answer: When I’m on a cruise.
Aguero: Man, I hate boats. They drive me crazy. If I went on a cruise, when they brought that boat into port, I’d be the only one left alive …

Aguero throws comic red meat to the Cantonese, then shares a surprising, personal story about a Christmas mass gone terribly wrong, a peek into his dysfunctional family life in New Jersey. (“Sometimes celebrity story-tellers will talk about the great things they did, evil they set right, George Green will tell me later. “But true raconteurs tell about their weaknesses—their follies, their losses.”)

Setting the bar for the night, Aguero next introduces musical entertainers, Shovels and Rope.

She’s Cary Ann Hearst, he’s Michael Trent. A couple privately and professionally, they’re as tight as the harmonies in their songs—live tonight, and also recorded on Michael’s, The Winner, and on his and Cary Ann’s joint self-titled Shovel & Rope.

The two talented performers coax stories from a lone guitar and a battered bass drum, a mouth harp, and a few dangling noise-makers. Red-haired, a white flower somehow staying put in the flyaway, Cary Ann channels Loretta Lynn. Michael swaps with her, from drum to six-string, and now he’s beguiling too, youthful and sincere and dark-haired, his catchy melodies mingled with Cary Ann’s sweet harmony.

Canton’s finest applaud hellaciously.

Next up: Elna Baker. She’s born and raised a Mormon, and she’s got an aura of goodness, of sweet innocence … and she’s luscious. Barely out of her 20s, a tousle of blond with pillowy lips, pillowy bosom, eyes to swim down into toward a shimmering soul, she traipses onstage in a dress covered with big red cherries.

“So I’m 28 years old,” she begins, “and I’m flying to Siberia to tell my parents I’ve lost my virginity …”

Sex out of wedlock is the second worst sin in the Mormon faith, after murder, and the transgression can leave you separated for all eternity from loved ones. Siberia might be cold—Baker’s dad ran a mine there—but it’s not as cold as estrangement. Onstage, before our very eyes, this beautiful young woman describes the exquisite pain of wrestling with faith, the courage it takes to unshackle from indoctrination and dogma, the never-ending doubt. Elna Baker wore that cherry dress, but she could not have been more naked.

Her star is on the rise. Baker’s been on The Moth Radio Hour, This American Life, All Things Considered. Her byline graces ELLE, Glamour, Men’s Journal, O Magazine. She penned a memoir already, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, winning an award for humor writing. She’s also co-host and co-creator of The Talent Show, named vest variety show by New York magazine.

After her bow, Baker steps into the wings. She immediately lies flat on her back—she recently survived an automobile wreck, and she will visit a different doctor in a different town every day of the tour that I am embedded. An ice pack becomes her pet. In Savannah, she takes a curtain call offstage, recumbent, one hand waved in the air to acknowledge cheers.

Question: When are you most at peace?
Audience answer: When I’m reading a good book.
Aguero: Did you ever try to read in a house with parrots? Those things don’t shut up. And they smell like parrots …

Tina Brown steps up.

She’s a career writer—her book Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan came out in 2007. She made a living as a crime reporter, collecting tales from the mean streets of Atlanta, Macon, Hyannis and Asbury Park.

Downsized in the great journalistic diaspora of our age—independent book stores aren’t the only endangered species—Brown met Green in the colorful new city she chose, Savannah. Brown feels a special connection to people whose stories haven’t had happy endings—yet. She teaches writing at community centers, schools and jails.

She’s newer at storytelling than her fellow travelers, and even minutes before a show she’s training one-on-one with Green, known to be a demanding task-master. Whatever she’s doing, it works. Each night of the tour, the power of Brown’s tale-telling grows stronger.

Onstage, she’s recounting her unrequited effort to write a book about a 109-year-old man, Mr. Ben Wallace, whom she traveled several weekends to interview in South Carolina. Mr. Wallace’s obstinate silence finally yielded its secret to Brown, without a word being spoken.

“He was tired. He was old,” she confesses from the stage.

He’d moved past nostalgia, past life, though he lived on. He drew breath attended by his family … but pestered by a reporter for his most precious trove, his great secret, that he preferred to take to the grave than simply give away.

His story.

Intermission

Backstage in Canton, Green turns Edwardian. He wears a black velvet jacket, a green velvet vest. The material travels well, he explains—it’s crushable, but shakes out with no wrinkles.

One wonders if Green can say the same. There’s a sprig of gray in his beard. You feel him work with urgency, the duck-biting hours at his heels. He’s videotaping each stop on the tour and important moments between shows, directing a documentary of the tour. He’s crafting another novel, a new thriller, he says, this one partly set “in the storm drains of Savannah.” He promises, very shortly, a “big announcement, a big deal” about The Moth. A cross-examination on the subject comes to a dead end, like Brown’s interview of old Ben Wallace.

Is there a little Don Quixote in Green?

“We can’t stem the tide of electronic media,” he admits. “We can’t escape a trillion dollar industry. I don’t see how many people will be willing to stagger away from that premature burial under Facebook and TV and video games.”

Why bother, then? Why drag weary bones and unreliable buses and footsore friends into a tilt with windmills?

“Because the community of readers is so important,” he says. “This living breathing community of people is in love with artistic expression and delving into the characters that books and stories create. It’s virtual living. Anything that involves virtual living is something I celebrate.

“Books are similar to the genera of the world,” Green says. “They’re purely organic, and our relationship to them is almost sexual—we smell a book, and hold it, and we’re very aware of the shape of it as we hold it. All that is going to be lost.”

The deepest cut?

“This trillion-dollar industry wants to distract you from doing whatever is normal, whatever is healthy, whatever the human natural thing is that you’d be doing … so they’ll get rich.

“We’ll lose at Thermopylae,” he shrugs, “but we’ll celebrate along the way.”

Call and response

Green makes his stage appearance after intermission, punctuating the show with a brief appeal to support the indie bookstore owner. He introduces Canton’s Farris Yawn, of Yawn’s Books & More: “Here’s a doctor of bookology who can minister to your anguish!” Green adds that to be cured of the world-wearying sickness of screens and cursors, patients must “take the prescription religiously—you have to read physical books. They can’t be Kindles. They can’t be Nooks.”

Seussian rhyme gives way to old-time religion—call-and-response.

“No cell phones!” Green exhorts.

“No cell phones!” the audience echoes.

“No televisions!”

“No televisions!”

“No hyperlinks!”

“No hyperlinks!”

Green ends his appeal with one hand on Yawn’s shoulder. “Take a long look at him and give him a rousing cheer!”

The audience gives, yes, a rousing cheer—maybe the loudest, most honest the performing arts center ever heard.

“George kind of reminds me,” Aguero says, stepping back to the mic, “of something in that book Wild Animals I Have Known. It’s that stag that leaps from crag to crag. He lives on the mountain tops, taking these incredible risky leaps.”

Buck and Oliver

Two last performers complete this wordy Vaudeville show.

Joan Juliet Buck brings stardust. She’s on CNN with Piers Morgan the night of the Canton show, talking about an article she wrote for Vogue on Asma Al-Assad, Syria’s first lady. Buck rejoins the cast and crew for the Savannah show, emerging from a downtown Atlanta hotel surrounded by conventioneers learning the brass tacks of removing wild animals from people’s homes.

She’s recognizable from movies—Buck played Meryl Streep’s nemesis, Madame Brassart, in Julie and Julia. Around her, you feel glamour—the word comes from a Celtic term for enchantment—and her talents extend to writing, with two novels under her byline and articles everywhere. For many years, in fact, she assigned articles—she edited the French edition of Vogue, lived in Paris, enjoyed la vie en rose.

Her life is quite the story, even for a storyteller. Buck’s liberal parents fled Hollywood in the McCarthy era—Jules Buck served as cameraman for director John Huston’s war documentaries and later founded Keep Films with Peter O’Toole. The family set down in Paris; Joan Buck’s first language was French. She spent a great deal of her childhood in Ireland with her godfather, John Huston, and grew up “like a sister,” she says, with Angelica Huston.

Tonight, it’s not CNN, not Paris. She’s on a stage in Savannah. She got here because she met Green while telling stories in NYC at The Moth. They became friends. She’s on this tour for one reason—she’s a true believer in the power of words and the stories they create.

Her story this night? She tells how she fell in love.

“Women of 40 have imaginary lovers or imaginary real friends,” she confides to the audience. “It’s much rarer to have an imaginary friendship with a being of another species …”

It turns out she’s crushing on a mountain marmot. Or something close—an old boy friend who reminds her of a marmot. Her tale is smart and funny and bittersweet and honest.

The Unchained Tour will provide rich new material.

Buck, the days of this tour, kept to the strictures of a special diet. Her attempt to order a gluten-free meal at the counter of an Arby’s in Dublin, Georgia, could be turned into a sit-com pilot.

Finally, meet Edgar Oliver.

Remember the name. You’ll tell your children one day about the first time you heard Edgar Oliver tell a story.

Think of something like Boris Karloff’s voice, but with a Savannah accent. Oliver since age 12 has owned a plummy, eerie, deeply civilized baritone as arresting as a great opera singer’s.

Only Oliver tells stories.

Privately, Edgar Oliver strikes one as painfully shy, a man who shrinks into his seat, keeps his hands close. His presence onstage in front of scores of people in Canton and hundreds in other venues notwithstanding, you get the impression he’d happily fade like a chameleon into the background and leave just The Voice, if he had a choice in the matter.

His Canton story, in fact, concerns the little color-changing lizards, not unlike chameleons, that scampered his porch in Savannah as a boy. All was fine with the lizards and with the ivy that hid them. But one day, a man stopped by. He wanted a job pulling out the ivy.

You see those things coming out of the ivy? The man advised Oliver’s mother. Those are SCORPIONS! If one of those stings your children … your children will DIE!

Oliver offers stories in a curious, unexpected cadence unlike any other storytelling I’ve ever heard. He leaves thoughtful spaces between words and sentences, the way B.B. King leaves space between blues notes. The unusual void, the wait, forces the mind to anticipate every next utterance—listeners invariably lean forward in their seats as Oliver speaks. His story style somehow evokes mystery, the uncanny, every telling. The tension, the wonder, can be wracking.

Oliver brought his voice and style to a storytelling at The Moth in New York a few years ago. Green heard him, knew he had heard something rare.

“Edgar may be the finest raconteur in the English language,” Green says flatly.

The Unchained Tour audiences, each night, mesmerized, validate Green’s opinion of Oliver. So do the other storytellers, sitting rapt when the performer steps to the mic … or even when he offers the few quiet words in a minivan. Every one of the other raconteurs I spoke to remarked that they were studying the quiet, pale, actor, a picture of vulnerability and power all at once.

A raconteur, in other words.

“There was a moment in Athens,” Green tells me, “when I was listening to Edgar’s story. I felt something new. I thought … I could listen to this story every night for the rest of my life.”

It’s possible. George Dawes Green only needs one thing.

A bus that runs forever.

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