By Michael Miner
My friend A.E. Eyre despairs. The unsung wordsmith, who would sell his soul to turn a phrase that lives forever, has just seen how it's done. The song that's sweeping the nation was tossed off one afternoon by a Chicago columnist who made herself immortal without trying.
"Life is just a bowl of cherries," says Eyre sadly. "But I didn't write that either."
Mary Schmich penned the words that now nourish a generation starved for wisdom. Her lyrics to "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" sprang from her brow in the spring of 1997 as a lowly Tribune column. Somehow mislabeled an MIT graduation speech delivered by Kurt Vonnegut, the text hit the Internet and shot around the world. Authorship was eventually sorted out, People magazine called, and Schmich came into "my 15 minutes of fame," plus something that to a columnist is even more precious--material for three more columns she could write off the top of her head.
"Now she's getting her 15 minutes twice," says Eyre morosely. "Which means somebody else isn't getting any."
The Schmich column made its way through cyberspace to Australia, where it landed on the desk of film director Baz Luhrmann. As chance would have it, he was just then putting together Something for Everybody, a CD of music culled from his past staged and cinematic projects. At first assuming the words were Vonnegut's, Luhrmann was inspired to hire an actor to read them over "Everybody's Free (to Feel Good)," a song from his Romeo and Juliet (the Leonardo DiCaprio-Claire Danes version). Unable to reach Vonnegut to get his permission, Luhrmann fortunately discovered he didn't need it. Schmich was agreeable, and Luhrmann added the seven-minute-long number to his CD. The result: a hit Down Under in late '97.
A year ago the Capitol disc was released in the States and went nowhere. But last summer a DJ in Portland, Oregon, cut the "Sunscreen" track to four and a half minutes (by dumping an extraneous chorus) and began playing the results. On January 31 the New York Times ran a squib on Portland's strange new blockbuster.
"I don't know if that was the triggering event. It seems to me it was," says Schmich. "Within three weeks this thing had just taken off. In the last ten days it just exploded."
Stampeded by incessant airplay in a burgeoning number of cities, the public poured into record stores that hadn't stocked Luhrmann's CD in months. By last week a new issue with a new cover boasting of "the speech song" was on the shelves. This week a program director in Austin, Texas, told Billboard, "It is the most requested song we've ever had, bar none."
Strictly--or even loosely--speaking, it's not even a song. It's homespun wisdom recited over music it doesn't go with. But Schmich's sagacity conquers all. "Wear sunscreen," she begins. "Floss....Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can....Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary." Here's my college daughter's favorite passage (it's mine too): "Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth."
"It's nothing I haven't said myself," whines Eyre.
"I must have heard from every perky morning radio host in America," says Schmich. "It starts on the coasts and then it starts moving inside. I've watched the perky morning radio hosts go from being--well, last week it was New York, San Diego, Palm Beach, and Portland, but like today it's Kansas City and Saint Louis. I heard from two morning shows in Kansas City just today, and they said, 'We started playing it yesterday.' They all talk the same way--'Hey, man, Buff and Jeff here.' And they all come in pairs. NPR called the other day and wanted to do an interview with Noah Adams. Unlike the perky morning hosts, he didn't interrupt me every five seconds."
She says she kept pausing to make it easy for Adams to butt in, but he didn't. "Then I'd try to cover up the pause."
After hearing "Sunscreen" once on the radio, my wife headed into a Virgin store in New York City two weeks ago hoping that by some miracle a clerk would know what she was talking about. The clerks not only identified the CD at once but filled her in on the Vonnegut-Schmich back story. They said the CD was flying out the door, and she saw for herself that it was.
What breaks Eyre's heart is that the people have finally located the wisdom of the age, and it isn't his. Public comment on "Sunscreen" on the amazon.com home page burbles with rapture:
"Almost zen....INSPERATIONAL to say the least for such uncertain times! There is HOPE, and this proves that NO ONE IS ALONE!... The best thing I've ever heard by Curt Vonnegut....Thanks Baz for the inspiration!!!!!!!!!!...It is far better than any graduation speech I am sure to hear when I graduate....It really puts down what the meaning of life could be all about....Baz Lehrman is a genius....One of if not the most meaningful songs I have ever heard....A modern classic....Just to enlighten some of you, Everybody's Free is actually the commencement address given to the 1998 graduating class at MIT by Kurt Vonnegut. So read more Vonnegut and listen to this cd while yer doin so cause this cd is just awesome."
"So there's still some confusion over authorship," muses Eyre. "What a shame."
Not only that, I tell him, but Schmich doesn't even hold the copyright. The Tribune does.
"Which means she's not getting rich," says Eyre, beginning to perk up.
The paper's splitting the proceeds 50-50 with Schmich, I say. Nevertheless, Capitol doesn't intend to release a single, and there are 17 cuts on the album.
"In other words, Schmich is receiving one-half of one-17th of whatever the writers get," says Eyre.
Roughly that. Joe Leonard, the Tribune editor who did the deal with Capitol Records, allows that negotiating a Tin Pan Alley pact was a brand-new experience and he might not have driven the hardest of bargains.
I ask Schmich what royalties are piling up from all that airplay.
"None that I'm aware of," she says. "That hadn't even crossed my mind."
"In other words," cackles Eyre, "she'd better keep her day job!"
Yes. For Schmich there'll be no graceful semiretirement writing Brenda Starr and dancing the funky chicken. "I really have seen this as a classic example of getting something that you want in not quite the way you wanted it," she says. "I've been a closet songwriter for years."
As the mourners of little Nicholas, Emily, and Thomas Lemak emerged from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church two weeks ago, some Naperville cops were around the corner giving a Tribune reporter the business.
"About five of them surrounded me and said, 'Give us the tape, give us the tape. You were violating the wishes of the family,'" says Flynn McRoberts. "They're pulling this gestapo interrogation right as the family and their friends were filing out of the church. It was clear they were going to make a huge scene and arrest me or cuff me, so I handed them the tape.
"That wasn't good enough for them. 'How do we know you don't have another tape?' This big plainclothes detective gets in my face and says he's going to call up the newspapers and say what a heinous crime I've committed. He was going to make sure I was embarrassed publicly. Sure enough, he called the Daily Herald."
Based in Chicago, McRoberts had been sent out to Du Page County to help cover the Lemak funeral. That morning Sergeant David Hoffman, the Naperville police department's public information officer, had issued ground rules, but McRoberts never saw them.
At the request of the church and the family, Hoffman had announced, "No active media representatives or equipment will be allowed inside the church or on the property. The Lemak family has indicated they do not wish to make statements to the media, and it is requested that these wishes be respected in this emotionally difficult and trying time."
Jeff Coen, a Tribune reporter based in Du Page County, called Hoffman and asked if reporters would be turned away on sight. No, said Hoffman, they could attend if they were unobtrusive. That's what Coen told McRoberts. He didn't specifically mention the ban on "equipment," which he supposed referred only to always-obtrusive cameras.
McRoberts sat up front and to the right in the crowded church. Looking about him, he wondered who the police were. He saw a man with grazing eyes standing by a door at the far side of the altar and assumed he was a plainclothes cop.
Dr. David Lemak, the dead children's father, stepped to the pulpit and began to speak. "As soon as he started taking his place at the microphone," says Jim Allen, a Herald reporter who was in the church, "you could see people's eyes widen and you could hear a few gasps." McRoberts says, "It was an incredibly moving eulogy. Dr. Lemak obviously has more spiritual strength than I have."
McRoberts began jotting notes on slips of paper. But this was awkward, and he felt conspicuous. "So I took my tape recorder and sort of gently placed it on my hymnal."
When the service was over McRoberts walked up the aisle and was met at the church door by the man he'd seen at the side door. "He asked me what I had in my pockets. I looked over, and ten feet away the children's coffins were being brought out. I said, 'Could we have this conversation outside the church?'"
Whatever the police might have threatened as they blustered at McRoberts, they didn't actually call the Herald, though McRoberts assumes they did. Hoffman denies it, and so does editor Jim Davis. "Everybody came back to the newsroom talking about this," says Davis. "It's not like we heard it from the cops." Allen, the Herald reporter assigned to Chicago's City Hall, made some calls and worked up a story on McRoberts, but nothing ran. "It was a huffing and puffing kind of thing," says Davis. "We had more important stuff to get in."
"It was really an emotional service," says Allen. "I was observing and committing things to memory. Everybody's singing 'Amazing Grace,' and there are three little white caskets being rolled into the church. I defy anyone to be emotionless in that setting. If the journalists are having trouble controlling their emotions, put yourself in the shoes of the cops. They got wrapped up in this from day one--some of them discovered the bodies. And it was a tough time for them too--their chief of detectives had just committed suicide."
"It was a simple misunderstanding," says Hoffman. "The reporter claimed he hadn't seen the police directions."
"I question the police's authority to act as a private security force for any private party," says Tribune counsel Paulette Dodson. But the circumstances were extraordinary, and in the end no journalistic harm was done. The Tribune and Herald both asked the funeral home for help in acquiring a copy of Dr. Lemak's ten-page text, and Lemak readily provided it. Dodson says the Tribune was prepared to chalk up the incident "to the emotions of the time."
Once the Tribune got its tape back, that is. But two and a half weeks later, Naperville police still hadn't turned it over. "I don't have an idea why, except that nobody's surprised," says Dodson. "You talk to lawyers out there and they say, 'Well, that's how Naperville is.'"
So the little flare-up at the church isn't over and forgotten. As a matter of principle, the Tribune's deciding what to do next.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Schmich photo by Dan Machnik.