The Last Honest Folk Song

praha_modrany_hotel_dum.jpgThe Last Honest Folk Song was written by Chris Beneke in Prague. Chris Beneke had a terrible crush on Stella Groves, who lived upstairs from me and down the hall in the Hotel Dům in the Modřany district of Prague.

We were very much in the outskirts of Prague. If you didn’t look at all the gray buildings, and focused on the empty roads,  instead, you could almost pretend you were in the outskirts of Topeka, Kansas, if you really wanted to do that.

Chris Beneke never knew where we lived, or, more importantly, where Stella lived, and I doubt she ever would have told him. This is because despite Chris Beneke’s honest intentions, Stella fancied Matthew Salt, who really did learn Czech and could even argue with people in pubs, which I always admired.

The first time I ever met Chris Beneke, it was at another pub, and I was pretending to have an English accent. But as I tell you this am realizing that this is a totally different story, and I should stop now and continue it later. But I saw Chris Beneke many times during my outings with the ex-pat social elite of Prague. This isn’t that impressive. It is not like we had many options. There were only a few English language bookstores, and these, plus the Beefstew Poetry Readings or English language plays or blues music were our only outlets for socialization, because anything else, gads, required learning a second language.

Stella was a Cambridge graduate who had lived in Slovakia for a six months before moving to the Hotel Dům, with the rest of us English teachers there to make a difference in the lives of people who really didn’t need our help. We were the foreigners, after all. Stella’s cheeks were rosey pink, and she wore her bobbed blond hair in a pony tail. Her clothes were trendy and hip, chordoroy even, and she wore round tortoise shelled glasses and a different colored scarf each day of the month. She sang in an a capella group called Foreign Currency, and laughed at most of my jokes.

She was practically famous. Chris Beneke was madly in love with her, but who wasn’t. But unlike us, he never disguised his infatuation. 

Unfortunately, Stella missed his performance of his tribute song to her at the Beefstew Poetry Reading, a weekly affair in the Club Radost, which was downstairs, in the basement. Upstairs, there was a vegan café where after the reading we would sit and drink beer and eat alcohol absorbant meatless foods that were actually quite palatable, and I think I recall that we also said many important things, being the ex-pats that we were in Prague. We were a part of a very important artistic movement.

I wasn’t really a part of that movement. I merely watched the movement. I never recited poetry or anything at the Beefstew Poetry Reading, but I dutifully went once a week.

What else was I going to do.

Some of it was actually very good. And some of it was what you might expect from Americans living in a former Communist country, where rent and beer is really cheap, and probably no one in the audience would ever see them again, anyway, so what the heck, why not go up there and read about one’s mystical writings composed on the train ride from Berlin, on the side of a brown paper sack, coming off of some acid trip, maybe. Prague was a place for rebirth.  Thought pregnant travelers would stop in Prague and give birth right in front of us.

As I sit
cross-legged
the grass tickles my toes
and the sun’s rays beam directly into my eyes
I think I’m going blind.

Things like that. 

Chris Beneke was a regular performer, and this particular night, he sang a song about Stella. I think he was hoping she would be there. What if she had been there, could she have handled the scandle? But  no, she wasn’t. This left Elenka and me to carry on with out her. We were shocked.

Once it was apparent just what the song was about — Stella, guitar strum strum, I really wanna guitar strum ‘ya, Elenka and I grabbed each other and shrieked. I do not know Elenka’s true sentiment at the time, but, speaking only for myself, there was nothing that made me more giddy than this tune because the lyrics were witty and the audience was laughing, but only three people in the room knew what that song was about.

It was like he was singing it just to me.

“Oh my God, what do we do?” I said, in a voice that was intended to indicate that this was possibly the most awful thing to ever happen to anyone, ever. I mean, the weight of this knowledge, that we knew this person, was too much to bear, and I could only hope that it came through in the quivering of my voice. I needed people around me to hear that I knew this person. This would make me sound interesting and popular. But no one was paying attention.

“Oh my God, we have to tell Stella. This is terrible.”

“I’m serious, just she’s going to die when she finds out.”

“This is, like, the worst thing that could ever happen,” said Elenka.

“What are you talking about,” said Ian McGonagle. I must have bumped into him. He was from Scotland, and I am actually translating for you what he said from the Scottish to English. What he really said was unintelligable. I had a horrible crush on him. He had long hair, leather jacket, and I rarely truly understood what he said. I loved him. He was so mysterious to me. I wanted him to hear our drama. Then he’d recognize how important we were, that we knew personally the subject of that song. Then our love would be mutual.

“That song! It’s about Stella!”

“I’d do her,” said Ian.

That is not really what he said, but the Scottish equivalent. There is no direct translation. And it is unpronouncable and unspellable, but that is generally what he meant.

Elenka and I rushed the stage. She bought Chris Beneke’s cassette, available for sale for only 270 korun.

We took it home to Elenka’s house, where she lived with her grandparents. The next morning, we loaded the cassette into the player on the table. Chris Beneke’s guitar strumming filled the kitchen, while Elenka’s grandfather prepared the brussel sprouts. It must have been late morning to be preparing brussel sprouts.

Oh, no, not brussel sprouts. Please, don’t make me eat brussel sprouts. Those were my thoughts during the introductory guitar strums.

“This one’s called The Last Honest Folk Song,” I told Elenka. Stella wasn’t listed. That was a one-night stand, I guess. Just for us.

Chris sang:

Underneath your sweater
Life’s choices couldn’t be better.
I like your nipples, I ain’t lyin’.
I don’t care who’s dyin’.

“That has a nice melody,” said Elenka’s grandfather who did not speak English. He tapped his fingers to the beat. We never saw Chris Beneke again.

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About katiekelly

I grew up in a parking lot.
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11 Responses to The Last Honest Folk Song

  1. scott says:

    And i saw Stella in london a few years after the aforementioned DUM days, and she STILL was the most lovely human being on the planet, but katie, you’re not so bad yourself. i googled your name or something and found this wonderful bloggy thing. It is the only blog i have ever, ever been able to actually read, so very good work! “Thought pregnant travelers would stop in Prague and give birth right in front of us” is a beautiful and simultaneously funny metaphor. Expect me to drop a comment now and again if i can figure out how this internets works.

  2. katiekelly says:

    Oh, Scott. I am SO GLAD you wrote in. I’ve been wondering where you’ve been. Where are you? The last time I saw you, we were babies.

  3. chrisbeneke says:

    several facts wrong here:
    the song’s title is The First Honest Protest Song.

    and the song wasn’t about Stella.

    it had been written and performed in Prague long before Stella showed up.
    it was actually about an oblivious do-goodin’ American (from Colorado) with an odd (Clymenstropida?) name from Greek mythology or something. she interrupted expat gatherings with pleas about the war in Yugoslavia. she was more or less flat-chested but had perpetually hard nipples that would poke through the thickest sweaters.

    years later, i shared a community table at NYC’s Angelica’s Kitchen with this woman, who was still a political irritant, still oblivious of her song (that would have been the moment to tell her of it, though she may have never heard it), and, even more coincidentally, just passing through NYC. i think she claimed to be a waitress in Woodstock at the time.

    i hadn’t thought of Stella in some time. there are many beauties in this world, including my wife of two years, Sasha.

    i actually wonder more often about Matthew Salt, who apparently lost his right to enter the U.S. somehow and got stranded in Europe. (i wouldn’t mind being stranded in Europe right now.) Matthew turned out to be an intimate of friends of friends in San Francisco. and they had much to reveal about his tragic life before Prague.

    otherwise,
    a fun read, with details that i did not know.
    i do recall your squeals at my performance of the song.

    i think i intended to scandalize.

    chris beneke

  4. katiekelly says:

    I should have known it was the first honest protest song. That goes without saying. Did I get the lyrics right, at least? It’s been fourteen years, and I have not heard the song since.

    You sang a different song about Stella at the Beefstew Poetry Reading, not available on tape. It wasn’t the first honest protest song; I think it was the first honest lust song. It was beautiful.

    I am elated that you found this and left a comment.

  5. Elenka Jarolimek says:

    AaAHH! The memories of those days recaptured.

    I actually still have that tape in my collection, which I keep in my car. My friends always ask me, “Elenka, Why do you still have casesettes? Shouldn’t you be by now updating to CDs?” I always kindly point out the uniqueness of my collection.

    Minor correction on my grandfather’s cuisine. It wasn’t brussel sprouts that he was making that day, but a form of lard-saturated mash potatoe dish layered with poppy seeds called “Skubanky.”

    Remember we ate it before we rushed over to Podeli to train with the Bohemka swim team. Unfortunately our excellent atheltic condition that day was hampered by the concrete that formed in our stomaches.

  6. katiekelly says:

    You know, there’s nothing like a good bowl-full of skubanky to top off my glycogen tanks in the morning, and my porcelain tank 72 hours later. Of course.

    Ah, the memories. All good.

    Your grandfather made brussel sprouts another day. I do not think he knew or could ever appreciate how I had been tortured by brussel sprouts in my youth. Besides, it would only reinforce the ever growing notion of American imperialism. Only a spoiled American would be tortured by sustinance. He had never met my mother, nor had dinner at our house.

    Chris Beneke, if you read this, is your music available on CD? Your fans want to know!

  7. Ken says:

    I remember that girl Chris was singing about, the “do-goodin’ American (from Colorado)” I think she went by the name of Eurydice. Does that sound right, Chris? Ten points or anyone who knows the name of the Hunka Hunka song written about Chris Beneke.

  8. katiekelly says:

    There were a lot of do-goodin’ Americans in Prague.

    I can’t believe Chris Beneke AND Ken Nash left comments on my blog.

  9. Jeff Herzbach says:

    Talk about synchronicity…

    While moving back to San Francisco last October, I found a battered cassette tape with a cracked cover. Big Splash In A Dry Pond. (“You adjust the volume, we didn’t.” ) Sent me right back to that night after Beefstew when Chris sang Aunt Betty for Ken and I on an otherwise-empty Metro platform.

    But who can play cassette tapes these days? My drummer, for one, and he digitized it for me. Two large files, one for each side. I finally listened to them about two weeks ago.

    After all these years, it still holds up. Guitar out of tune, voice in a key all its own, but the songs are still heartfelt, hummable and carry a hook. Within minutes, I’m emailing Ken, telling him my idea for a tribute band called Big Splash dedicated to selected hits from that one album. (I sent a recruiting pitch to my old band which described it thus: “Think early Elvis Costello, only more depressed, more longing, and way more sincere.” )

    Which is when Ken steers me toward Katie’s blog where the Big Splash Phenom has broken out from a completely different angle, scant weeks earlier. As if the music was hovering all this time, wafting across continents, waiting for its time to come around again.

    The first side is now separated into individual songs and posted on a private music site. Anyone who wants them, email me at: bigsplash@jeffherz.com and I’ll send the download info. The second side will be up shortly.

    Response to Ken’s post – No, I don’t know which Hunka Hunka song was dedicated to Chris, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Aphrodisiac Stew, which was the only one that I recall. And, for some reason, have all the lyrics archived.

    And, now that I think about it, I once wrote a song for a certain someone and played it for her at Beefstew, as well. Ye gods, those days…

    ‘I can’t spill my guts without a knife, but I try.’ [Hariscarime, Side 1, Song 4] And there it is.

  10. katiekelly says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I am thrilled that there is a Chris Beneke Fan Club and tribute album in the works.

    Did you read my follow up to this post? It’s not directly linked.

    http://caitoceallaigh.com/2008/02/23/chris-beneke-is-a-real-person/

    I wander around my apartment singing his songs. I would love to hear more. I’m haunted by the fragments I remember.

  11. Exidy says:

    MY. AUNT. BETTY!!!!!

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