Sometime close to when I graduated high school, my Uncle Doug played me a tape of the final performance of Garrison Keillor’s public radio show A Prairie Home Companion, which currently broadcasts new episodes most Saturday evenings on WBEZ radio in Chicago.
Yep, you read that right. The final performance. And the show is still going strong.
How can a show that is still on the radio have a last show? And wait: wasn’t there also a movie about the “last” broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion?
Yep. I’ll explain all of that “last show” business in a minute. First, I need to tell yet another story about how much of a nerd I am.
While most of my friends were listening to Bon Jovi, Guns ‘n Roses, or the more alternative stuff like The Pixies (and eventually Nirvana and Pearl Jam), I went through a phase where I listened to that last show almost constantly. Filled with old folk and gospel tunes and goofy radio bits and Stevie Beck, the Queen of the Autoharp, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Like I said: I’m a real nerd like that.
There were other reasons I fell in love with that last show. I started listening to it less than two years after I had returned to Illinois, after living down in Florida for a few years. It was filled with this warm celebration of everything I loved about the Midwest. The dry humor, the lack of pretension, the simple directness and honesty of it. This is the last show, Keillor said, and we’re gonna spend the next two hours singing sweet sad songs about endings and goodbyes and no one can do anything about it. Heck, we’ll even go over the two hour time limit if we want!
Keillor likes endings. As do I. Endings are important, goodbyes are important. They put a proper punctuation mark onto an event. My folks got divorced around that time, and during my grief at the ending of what I knew of as family I romanticized small towns and Lutherans and tried so very, very hard to find meaning and comfort in my tape-of-a-tape copy of that last show.
I lost that copy of Uncle Doug’s tape of that final show a long time ago. but thanks to the miracle of the internet, found it on iTunes. And hearing “Brownie and Pete” after so many years just about wrecked me. (Yes, it’s sweet and sentimental, but it’s also got Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke playing on it, for crying out loud.) It’s so good to hear those songs again, and it takes me right back to the last time I was away from home, living in a foreign city, spending my days in class and my nights watching old black and white films by John Ford and Wim Wenders, wondering what I was going to do with my life.
It’s been a quiet week here in Dublin…
It got down below freezing for the first time last night here in Dublin. The roads were slick, and Linus took a bad tumble off his bike. On our last day of class, people were talking about Christmas, and our upcoming trip to London. I’ll be leaving a week from today for Prague, to see an old student and his family, and then I’ll wind my way through Europe and its many Christmas markets for one last tour until I join everyone on the Embankment sometime on the 13th.
Limelight’s getting ready to put on their yearly radio production of It’s a Wonderful Life, a show I directed and even performed in for a number of years. I’ve started listening to Vince Guaraldi and The Chieftains and The Waitresses, and that brutal version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland, with the original lyric “someday soon, we’ll all be together/ if the Fates allow/ Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”.
I’m eating yet another meal made from packaged pasta, thanks to a refrigerator that died last Saturday. I’m looking over the last of my assignments, and hoping I have the drive to write a decent research paper, when all I want to do is tell stories on this thing.
I’m looking at an empty corner of my apartment and picturing a small tree that could have gone there. And I’m starting to think about home, and the Midwest, and my family and my friends. And I’m realizing that I miss it a great deal. When I got here, I tried to not think about home too much, lest I get too homesick. And I put it out of mind, in a sense. I lived my life here, and I tried not to look back.
Like Keillor, I ended my show, and I moved far away, looking for something different and exciting. And I have seen many things and enjoyed moments I couldn’t have if I was back in Oswego. And I know those will continue, in the years to come, as I return to visit and explore and catch up with dear friends. But now it’s time to head home, and get back to doing what I do best.
Keillor ended his show in his mid-40s, when he married a former exchange student from his high school and moved to Denmark to start a new life. He lived there for three years before returning home, divorced, but back on the air with a new, New York-based radio show called “The American Radio Company of the Air.”
Three years later he renamed it “A Prairie Home Companion” and moved it back to St. Paul, Minnesota. He knew what he did best.