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In Memoriam

Rusty Magee

A Celebration of our Beloved Friend

Riverside Memorial Chapel
New York City

Sunday, March 2, 2003

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Cindy Kaplan

Fellow Comedian

There are some terrible covers out there. Madonna singing American Pie, for example. A few years ago someone tortured Harry Nilsson's classic Can't Live. There's even a sort of techno-pop cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart floating around, if anyone besides me cares. But I can only name two artists who could sing a song and make you forget that anyone else ever had. They were, of course, Joe Cocker and Rusty Magee.

One of Rusty's great gifts was to take a song we all knew, and even loved, a song often by an artist of particular distinction, like Cat Stevens or Van Morrison, the kind of artist whose sound you never mistake when you hear it, and wrest it from that artist, steal it, filch it, and make it so his own that you will never be able to hear it again in it's original form without thinking: Hey, that's Rusty's song.

Of course some songs were Rusty's songs. He was an accomplished songwriter. But the reason why, for the rest of my life, whenever I mention that I knew Rusty Magee, thirty total strangers within earshot will flock to me all whispering in awe "You knew Rusty Magee? I love Rusty Magee", is that, among his many achievements, he took a few songs off the radio, or off record albums, and handed them out to his audience, like cookies. Nobody didn't sing along. Nobody.

When Rusty was in the hospital this last time I almost expected to find hoards of fans lurking about his room. What I found though, instead, were hoards of friends and acquaintances, more than a lifetime's worth, (at least more than mine) coming and going at all hours, waiting to see if Rusty would awaken and give them a smile. It was truly a pilgrimage. Rusty had the same effect on his friends that he did on his audiences. And if he made his fans feel like friends, imagine how he made is friends feel. His generous spirit, his humor, his shit-eating grin brought us enormous joy. And that's a very hard thing to give up. So no one was willing to. Friends sat with Rusty as long as Alison would allow, savoring the last minutes, incredulous, despairing, but unwavering.

On one of his last days Rusty, tripping a little, I guess, imagined himself traveling on a bus. Alison asked him who was on the bus with him, and Rusty said, Joe Jackson. At first I'm thinking, Joe Jackson, is he dead? But then it became clear that Rusty was thinking of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the anti-hero of his baseball musical. And there were other baseball players, on the bus, too, and I like to think of them all, now, sitting around Rusty, who is at the piano, making fun of Jim Steinman. Or lamenting the demise of the LP, or performing highlights of Rusty in Orchestraville, or wearing his popcorn hat as Rasta Magee.

But more than anything else, I imagine them all singing to the great covers, as I did. On each of the many, many nights Rusty and I gigged together, after I came off stage, I scrambled for a seat in the audience in time to be part the sing-along. Father and Son, whatever he found in that book he had of greatest pop songs, and of course, Brown Eyed Girl. Which I will never hear again without thinking that Van Morrison stole it from Rusty Magee.

So I say to you all, as you all must be thinking. Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da. La te da.

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