There are a lot of people who can speak eloquently about Neal Conan, the award-winning journalist. Or Neal Conan, the host of one of NPR’s most beloved shows, Talk of the Nation. Anyone who has worked with him at all, is intimately familiar with his rapier-like wit, his unbelievable knowledge of world events, history, government, comic books, and the Yankees – but if you have had the good fortune to travel with him for thousands of miles by car (of course, he was the passenger) there may be things that you know, that others might not.
I met Neal in a hotel in Chicago in 1997. Ensemble Galilei was performing at Navy Pier for the NPR annual conference, and I was spending some quality time practicing in my hotel room. When I opened the door, Neal was standing there and said, “What in the world is that?” pointing at my instrument.
I had no idea who he was, so I did my usual spiel about the viola da gamba and its untimely exit from the world of popular musical instruments in 1750, he came in to hear it without having to listen through the door, we struck up a conversation - and that was the start of a long, beautiful, amazing partnership.
Ensemble Galilei had been doing Winter Solstice concerts at St. John’s College in Annapolis since 1990, and we had played every piece of Christmas music known to man, so I suggested to him that we could work together. He could read poetry or stories, and we would play the music that was a good fit. I don’t know why he said yes, but he did. He came out to my little house, six musicians were there ready to go and we set to work.
The first rule was that everyone had to love the writing. We sat around looking at page after page of poetry. Someone would call out, “Oh my god, you have to read this one!” We chose twelve poems out of a hundred that we were all passionate about, and then we moved on to what Neal called the goosebump test. The seven of us would sit in a circle, he would read, and we would try out a tune. And then another. And maybe another. And when we found the right music, everyone knew it. There was no question. We all felt the hair rise up on the back of our necks, or goosebumps, or that remarkable sense that this music was exactly what we needed for those words.
It was always like that. Sometimes you might have a piece of music that you thought would be perfect for ten different reasons, and then when you tried it out, it was an epic fail. And then someone would bring something that was completely counter-intuitive, and it would be just right.
Then more decisions.
Would the music start or the words? Would Neal pause for eight bars and then come back in? Was there a post that he needed to hit so that a specific phrase happened exactly as the music was soaring? Were we respecting every comma? We worked and worked and worked until the show flowed seamlessly from beginning to end, and then we tried it out for the first time in Annapolis.
Neal blew in (walking from the bus stop to the hall) a little disheveled, and definitely out of breath, we had an hour to do tops and tails, and off we went.
The thing that was completely unexpected and magical was that as soon as he started to speak, the audience went with him. His voice, familiar and reassuring, created such a sense of ease that they hung on every word – and when the words are poetry, when there isn’t a rush to impart an incredibly huge amount of information in six minutes, Neal read each phrase with tenderness, with impeccable timing, with a real love for the words themselves - and he had this extraordinary capacity to hear the music. And he became a part of us. One of us.
After that concert I polled the audience, asking if they wanted us to include the poems in the program and universally (and emphatically) they said no. They loved listening to Neal, they loved the way the words were married to the music, and they didn’t want anything to get in the way of the hearing of it.
That was the beginning. We partnered with the Hubble Space Telescope Institute to create A Universe of Dreams using Hubble pictures and poetry about the universe – although with the exception of Stanley Kunitz, almost all poems about the universe are actually about love. Go figure.
We started touring. People wanted the Winter Solstice concert, they wanted A Universe of Dreams. We went from city to city, town to town. We were only available on the weekends of course, because Talk of the Nation was on the air Monday through Thursday. So Neal could leave from DCA or BWI on Thursday night, we could do concerts on Fridays, Saturdays or Sunday afternoons, and be back in time for his first meeting on Monday morning.
Every night I sat directly across from Neal on the stage.
There were lots of things that I loved about those early days. I loved the way that when he was just listening to the music, he smiled. I loved the way we made art happen. I loved the way his fans swarmed around him at the receptions following the show. And swarm they did. Mostly fans. The occasional stalker but he was a star, and that can happen.
But there was so much more. We did a lot of outreach. He spent hours with journalism students. He did station visits. He did receptions with donors. One time, we were in western Maryland and we were doing outreach with incarcerated teenage boys. We did the usual thing. We played a piece of music three or four times while they wrote a poem or paragraph, then we would have them read it out loud while we played – but in this case, the young man had trouble reading. Neal came in from the hallway, transcribed the poem, and then read it so deeply, so honestly. He read the deep truth of it. He changed that young man’s life that day, and the lives of everyone else in that sacred space.
Neal knew Greg Magruder at the National Geographic and we reached out to him about working together. The answer was yes. He loved the idea of creating a show using photos from their library, first person accounts of exploration and discovery, poetry and, of course, music. Their researcher sent us hundreds of pages of texts, we hired a director to sort through tens of thousands of photographs, and off we went – to Everest, to the North Pole with dogs and sledges and Matthew Henson, to Greenland with Gretel Ehrlich, into the deep with Jacque Cousteau. We went around the Cape in a storm and lost a sailor. The poet Jim Harrison led us on an internal journey, all the while the music and words and pictures carried us away.
I started working as his weekend driver. I would pick him up at NPR on Massachusetts Avenue in DC at 3:30 on Thursday afternoon and we could be at his condo in Bethany Beach, Delaware by 6:00 – unless there was a tie-up on Route 50, or traffic at the Bay Bridge. Sometimes we’d have dinner and then I would head back. I think he paid me $75 for the trip over Thursday and back on Sunday but it really didn’t matter. We had hours in the car. We talked about everything and nothing, the way you do. Then in the summers, my daughter Julia and I would go over and spend the night, with a glorious day at the beach.
He moved to Annapolis and we had lots of dinners together, and Sushi on Tuesday nights. We were family. The red Le Creuset casserole that he gave me sits on my stove. When I broke my wrist, he jumped waves with Julia at the beach and lost his new, Transitions sunglasses. These are the things I remember.
In 2010 Gretel Ehrlich came to dinner at the house in Cora, WY when we were preparing for the first performance of our new collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, First Person: Seeing America. We were previewing it in Pinedale WY, far from the bright lights of the Big Apple
It was easy to see that they belonged together. Not in the “wow, that couple is so meant for each other” kind of way. More in the sparks flying, brilliant minds meeting, adventurers sharing, bad-ass-journalists-telling-stories-of-being-captured kind of way. That was a first night of another new life. And a few years later when we were in Fremont, California and he told me that he didn’t want to tour anymore because he missed having more time with her, I understood.
But there isn’t anything like touring with someone. It’s not like having dinner. Or going for a hike. Or a birthday party.
Touring with someone is being with them at their best and at their worst. It’s getting into the van after a night of too many double Stolys. It’s going for an early morning run in a cemetery in South Bend, IN, seeing the headstones for the Edsel family and then just because, going into the caretakers tiny building where there is the original layout which shows the graves set out in the pattern of a paisley, hanging on the wall. It’s making fun of the lady with ridiculous hair at the post-concert reception the night before. It’s the day you are so sick, and alone in your hotel room, that you think you might die, and someone brings you a ginger ale. It’s being there when the phone call comes that your child is in the emergency room two thousand miles away and there’s absolutely nothing you can do.
We toured this country for a long time. And when we put our last show together with Neal and Anne Garrels, and they wrote about their time as war correspondents, and they stood together on stage, shoulder to shoulder – we all lived it.
We finished our last tour in November of 2019 and a week later it was Neal who was in the emergency room. I flew to the Mayo Clinic on the day after Christmas, the day after his second surgery. Then COVID. No more flying.
I think Neal is admired by many people, but he is deeply loved by a few of us. Gretel, of course. Annie Garrels. Sue Goodwin. Me. Chris Hedges. Please take note. That’s four women and one man. Just saying.
Most of the time I think that being an important person is not as important as being a good friend. But for me, both of those things are equally held when I think of Neal. Yes, I’ve loved that guy for a long, long time. Yes, creating a piece of art that is meaningful and powerful, and then touring it, does change the world in its own way.
But I remember 9/11. I remember being in my car and hearing his voice and trusting that there was someone who was going to tell me the truth, regardless of how hard that might be – and that we would be okay.
I guess I just feel incredibly blessed to have had both my collaborator Neal Conan, and the other Neal Conan, the brilliant journalist, in my life for so many years. I think that makes me one of the luckiest people on the planet. I know it does.
-Carolyn Anderson Surrick