Column: Songwriter Paul Ash was a pearl of great price


Paul Michael Ash made me cry.

This was way before he died last week, back when I barely knew the man. It was during a Spoken Word event he and I regularly attended.

I loved Paul’s music at Spoken Word. One night I handed him lyrics I wrote 30 years prior, hoping he would put music to it. I didn’t expect Paul to reciprocate. Paul Ash only did Paul Ash songs, of which there are likely hundreds. Let’s just say my hope-lights were on low beam. Two months later, Paul — the last to perform at Spoken Word, as usual — began playing a lovely melody on his 12-string guitar. Then he sang, “There’s a fog out on the water, spotlight shining through the haze…”

It was my song, “The River.”

For the following four minutes, I listened, stunned, as Paul cloaked my seemingly ancient, bare, stark words with his 12 strings and heartfelt voice, the magical merger of our creative minds meeting for the first time. It was a packed house and there was an elongated hush at the end of the song before the applause. I nodded at him, my hands in prayer form, my eyes wet, my breath gone. He knew he hit the mark and had made a new friend for life.

Has there ever been a greater gift given to me?

Not long after, I talked to Paul at a gathering for some type of astronomical phenomenon happening in the evening sky. It was the first time he and I really talked — well, he did most of the talking. The topic was cancer, his. He said he was winning the battle. He billed himself as an oncologic marvel. He looked well. He seemed well.

Paul was a positive man. The meteors did whatever they were supposed to do that night over our heads — they flashed, they fell — but it was all lost on me because of the mortal things being shared with me on Earth. Paul was brilliant. He spoke over my head that night. He got philosophical and metaphysical, losing me completely. The meteors flashed, they fell. Observers around us shouted an occasional, “There… There… Way up over there.” Paul spoke, he flashed. He stood on solid ground. He was beating his cancer. He was not a man at his dreadful end. He spoke as a man at the beginning of something good. He was meteoric.

When I formed Will Read (and sing) For Food, he was my first choice as full-time guitarist. I heard, though, he had hit another rough patch healthwise, so I sought others for the role. I didn’t bring it up to him, didn’t want to bother him. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to follow through on the commitment to these benefit shows I was engineering. He got better and joined us as a guest singer-songwriter, instantly becoming a full-timer. Again, he outpaced his disease. Paul brought a much needed musical energy to our show. He hit those six acoustic guitar strings three times louder than anyone else. Finally, our audience had reason to tap their feet. He carried his voice to greater distances than other singers. He was our flash of brilliance.

Paul’s appearances in Will Read For Food became spotty — but not the quality of his performances. There was always a spot for him if he had the energy, even for one song.

Paul secretly wrote a note and left it in my bathroom sink during his last rehearsal: “In the last six months, I can count on one hand the times that were joyous and happy events with music. The majority of the times were around your kitchen table. We may be gathered together to help the less fortunate, but what I get is — to steal a damn good phrase — a pearl of great price. The wit, charm, intelligence and humor is a banquet that I could not resist, will not resist, and I shall be a part of this as long as I can crawl through your door and put earworms into your brain. When the time comes that you see that I take more away from this group than I give, please kick me out, for the goal is more than one person — it’s feeding families.”

We liked to believe Paul when he said he was getting better, though his appearance at times made it easy to doubt. During his second-to-last rehearsal with us, Paul arrived at my house, assisted by his wife, Miriam, and a walker. He was in a wheelchair for his final rehearsal and show. While he waited for his turn to play, he seemed a million medicated miles away, but when the guitar was placed in his arms, he lit up, sang his songs loud and proud, a man on fire flashing through our lives. His final words to me after that final show: “Savor this one.” He flashed a pained smile. We wheeled him into the venue’s elevator; the door closed; the arrow pointed downward. We watched him fall to earth.

Scott Saalman and the Will Read (and Sing) For Food Players will perform a Community Food Bank benefit at the Old Town Hall in Huntingburg at 6 p.m. on April 14.

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