Duplex Planet

July 1st, 2006 | by David Greenberger
Ed Rogers and David Greenberger 1992

Ed Rogers and David Greenberger 1992

About “Duplex Planet”

David GreenbergerIn 1979, a year after graduating from art school in Boston, I took a job at the Duplex Nursing Home, where I worked for a couple of years as an activities director.  On the day I first met the residents I abandoned painting. That is to say, I discarded the brushes and canvas, not the underlying desire to see something in the world around me and then communicate it to others. This was a turning point for me. Though the home closed almost twenty years ago, the bonds I made with residents who lived there have informed all of my subsequent work. As with any of my friendships, with the passing of time many of them show up in my dreams (especially if they’re no longer living).

The forty-five men who lived at the Duplex Nursing Home continue to nurture and surprise me as I reflect on them from the changing vantage point of my own aging. I continue to meet new people on a regular basis, and meaningful exchanges abound. What’s been the most remarkable to me is how much those original relationships continue to yield as time goes by.

From the start, I felt that oral history was unsuitable to my needs. When newcomers hear that I have regular conversations and interviews with elderly people, they assume I collect oral history. What that assumption implies is that when one grows old we become solely a repository of our past. From the start, my mission has been to offer a range of characters who are already old, so that we can get to know them as they are in the present, without celebrating or mourning the loss of who they were before. Since the elderly are already thought of by what they have in common – that they’re all old – I try to recast them as individuals. I quote and write about them in order to address the larger world. The audience meets them and comes to feel the characters are familiar, people they want to spend time with. The men and women are not extraordinary. They are typical in their unique humanness.

Humor has always played a key role in my work, and this is for a most simple reason: humor is a step by which we get to know another person. Humor is the first socially acceptable level of emotional exchange. Assessing someone else’s sense of humor is a determining factor in whether or not a friendship is built. A great deal of information is being evaluated in those early stages of relating to another.

Duplex Planet Hour CD CoverSince my quest is to show the vast variety of people in decline, I also need to include those who have lost the ability to maintain linear thought and orderly discourse. They’re not going to return to reality, so I need to follow wherever they may go. We’re most afraid of losing the clarity of our minds. No matter what the nature of their decline, I meet people as they are in the moment.

Oral history has a valuable place in our culture, but that isn’t what I’m looking for. No matter how much I’m told about events that predate my life, I’ll never be able to go there. On the other hand I do hope to grow old. I don’t see old people as merely windows on their past. Through friendship we come to recognize someone’s particular take on the world. It is revealed though the rich language of personal poetics, accidental utterances, and exuberant expressions that are the result of the brain working faster than the mouth. We already know the obvious things that old people have in common with each other; I want to know what makes them individuals.

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About David Greenberger

David GreenbergerDavid Greenberger graduated from Massachusetts College of Art with a BFA, and not certain what to do next, he took a job as an activities director at the Duplex Nursing Home, in Jamaica Plain, MA. In this unexpected setting he found a new medium. He started The Duplex Planet as a self-published magazine in 1979, which continues to this day. It has subsequently found larger audiences in other forms all of which are all derived from the original template.

There have been book collections, spoken-word recordings and several series of performances. Duplex Planet: Everybody’s Asking Who I Was, was published by Faber & Faber in 1994, which brought David’s work to a wider audience through a national book tour, and radio and television appearances. Arts at St. Ann’s presented a concert series with music composed by NRBQ’s Terry Adams, recorded for New York Public Radio broadcast as The Duplex Planet Radio Hour. There have been two documentary films made about the David’s work: Your Own True Self and Lighthearted Nation. A series of personal commentaries drawn from his experiences with this body of work have been aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

A series of CD’s, featuring the poems of octogenarian poet and Duplex Nursing Home resident Ernest Brookings titled, Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, continue to be issued, featuring a wide variety of notable musical acts (XTC, Brave Combo, Morphine, Ben Vaughn, Young Fresh Fellows, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, and over a hundred others) performing songs they wrote using the words to Ernie’s poems. Duplex Planet Illustrated is a comic book adaptation drawn by a variety of artists (including Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Dan Clowes, Jim Woodring, Chris Ware and James Kochalka) published by Fantagraphics Books which also published Greenberger’s book No More Shaves. An exhibit of drawings and sculptures by a few of the subjects in the magazine titled “An Exact Spectacular” has traveled to museums and colleges.

David continues to create new monologues for communities around the country. His latest works are the radio projects Growing Old In East LA and Voices From the Cape. 1001 Real Apes is his latest CD of monologues with music by Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, featuring stories from the Duplex Nursing Home.


9 Comments on “Duplex Planet”

  • Jay Allison says:
    Duplex Planet by David Greenberger

    At Transom, we sometimes work to bring artists into radio.

    For more than 25 years, David Greenberger has been talking to old people in nursing homes and senior centers. He takes those conversations, transcribes them and renders them to music, so the words seem like found poems. We asked David to come to Cape Cod and the Islands where we live, and do his work here. We also helped him on a project called Growing Old in East LA, collaborating with musicians from Los Lobos. Samples of this work are now here at Transom.

    By the way, a much larger selection of pieces has recently been prepped for broadcast and is available to stations on the Public Radio Exchange:
    http://www.prx.org/series/11826
    http://www.prx.org/pieces/10544

    As it happens, our latest edition of The Transom Radio hour features David on his philosophy and practice of talking to our elders and finding new ways to listen. It’s on the PRX:
    http://www.prx.org/pieces/12419

  • Jay Allison says:
    Problem with Discussion Boards!

    We just found out that these boards have been hidden to visitors since this piece premiered. Bummer. They should be okay now. So sorry! We hope you’ll still post your questions and comments for David.

  • allegra Bianchini says:
    test

    this is a test just like David’s work was a test for me and my sensibilities. maybe this has been another metaphor
    more in a minute

  • Transom T-shirt Fairy says:
    hello?

    Hello David! It looks like we have our forums up and running and can start having the rich conversations that your pieces deserve. I have a lot of thoughts and questions but I’m just going to start out with one.
    In "Growing old in east LA" you have the subjects themselves narrating their own stories while in your other pieces you take on their voices.
    What do you think is gained and lost when you take on the voice and words of the people you interview?
    It reminds me a little bit of Anna Deveare Smith’s book and play "Fires in the Mirror." (For those of you who haven’t read it run out and get it right now!) She interviewed a bunch of people on both sides of a race riot in crown heights brooklyn and she performs all of the different characters, taking on their voices and gestures and characteristics. She says inhabiting people’s language (their pauses and breaths) creates a new kind of empathy and understanding. do you think that’s true? By breaking down people’s language do you get in touch with a truth underneath their words?

    —-Sarah

  • David Greenberger says:
    they talk vs I talk

    Growing Old in East LA was a departure for me for the main reason you point out – it has the voices of the people I spoke with rather than all being done in mine. In the case of this piece, the variety and sound of their voices seemed an essential aspect. As I’m not an actor or a mimic, it seemed like their voices – and in particular their accents, needed to be included. It helped to also give a sense of community.

    Most of the rest of my work is about indivuals. The pieces I’ve done in my voice for the past fifteen years or so have been like a form of portraiture, or sketches. I’m able to draw from different parts of a conversation. I also feel that we’re accustomed to hearing the voice of the elderly and assigning it to the part of our consciousness where documentaries go. Some people listen hearing just an old person’s voice – a voice that’s different from them if they’re young. By me telling these stories it removes it from its source and allows the text to take precedence. At least, that’s my aim. Also, because of the conversational intimacy it subtly underscores that these people I spoke with were engaged with someone outside of themselves – with me.

    With the addition of music in the pieces I tell I seek to create a setting that captures what the people I spoke with feel like in my memory. Of course, I’m the only one who’d know when that clicks into place, but when it does I trust that it imbues the experience emotionally for a listener.

  • Melissa Allison says:
    If he wanted eggs, he would act like a chicken.

    Hey David,
    I am a huge fan of your singular talent for capturing the essense of a conversation, a person.

    This is a wonderful collection of voices. But I’m wondering if I could press you a bit more on Sarah’s question– was this harder to make than your other pieces? Were you unable to use good material because the meaning of a moment wasn’t carried in the speaker’s voice? Did you find it frustrating/useful as an excercise, to be so much more limited in control of the sound? If you were to do this again, would you approach the interviews with any new insights?

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    vocal chords

    Hola David,
    I, too, am curious to hear the answer to Melissa’s question. Did this piece resonate as strongly for/in you as when you’ve absorbed words through your ears and eyes and reflected them back through your own vocal cords?

    I love straight out oral history, but find something magical about your interpretations, and your use of music adds a lovely layer. Would you talk a little about the way the music came to this piece?

  • David Greenberger says:

    I wouldn’t say it was necessarily harder, but it was a very different way to work. The similarities for me were in having the time with each of the people I recorded. I’d have moments in my head that were the "keepers" but, as with all of my work, was surprised by what I found later when going throuhg it all. In this case the issues had another overlay: fidelity and sound quality. There were rooms that were noisier than i’d realized, or people who spoke of subjects that resonated on the page, but were flattened out in their own voices. I do look forward to drawing further from this material for printed pieces. there’s a wealth of stuff that will work beautifully on the page.

  • David Greenberger says:

    I’m used to positioning music a bit differently in the other pieces I’ve done – which are shorter pieces with music running right throuhg them. Here again though, music was used to heighten or continue an emotional mood. The project was conceived with David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos doing the music. Their sensibilities mirror my view of the elderly whom I interact with in that they draw from deep traditions but are also unabashedly modern at the same time. In all of my work I like the music to underscore the sense that these are people alive right now, rather than framing them in a nostalgic way. An example of the latter would be programs which use the sound of a scratchy 78 to accompany an old person’s voice or story. I like the music to anchor the person in time – now.

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