Sep 2 2013

Paul Williams

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Kindness

THE ELEGANCE OF KINDNESS

THE ELEGANCE OF KINDNESS

 

I’ve been doing a lot of press lately.  Most of it in support of the rerelease of “The Muppet Move’ soundtrack album.   Kenny Ascher and I wrote the songs for the movie and I produced the album.  My executive producer was Jim Henson.

It’s pretty simple.  Blocks of phone interviews with radio stations, newspapers and bloggers to hustle up some ink and airtime for the Blu Ray version of the film.   I was asked to write the liner notes to the album, which has been unavailable for decades.  In true Muppet fashion the release is to celebrate the films ‘nearly’ 35 year anniversary.  Nearly. So muppety.

The interviews are all pretty much the same with questions about what it’s like writing for felt creatures, having the big love song sung by a pig, the idea for Rainbow Connections and inevitably, ‘what was Jim Henson like?’

He was gentle.  He was funny.  He had remarkable patience and if you went to him with a really bad idea he had the ability to slide past it so gently you almost didn’t notice the rejection in his sweet, ‘Noooo, that might not work.’

He was accessible and friendly.  Inventive and completely original I think he was a genius.  I’ve said all these things about him and while they were true I think they failed to properly describe the man.  Then it occurred to me.  Jim possessed ‘the elegance of kindness’.

 

Now, in all honesty the phrase first came to me in describing the way I was greeted by fellow alcoholics when I decided to get sober.   It’s a welcoming sweet quality that I feel again and again among the recovering community. But sitting on my porch talking to WOR in New York or WJR in Detroit it came tumbling out of my mouth as the perfect description of Jim.

Jim Henson displayed ‘the elegance of kindness.’   It was framed by his actions, which never seemed hurried. His humor could be remarkably edgy considering his sweet affect!  His demeanor seemed to say ‘life is crazy and things go wrong but in the end somehow they’ll work out.  No need to worry.  And of course there’s nothing to be angry about.

The Dalai Lama has said that his religion is kindness.   Tracey’s blog about Alma the hugging Saint seemed to chronicle the life work of a woman devoted to simple kindness.  It’s a remarkable quality.

I have a favorite story about Jim.   There was an initial meeting at my house in the Hollywood hills to discuss the film, the story of how the Muppets met and the songs that were needed.  Walking Jim to his car I told him that Kenny and I would not throw any surprises at him.  We’d let him hear the songs as we worked on them.  He answered with a smile and then said “Oh, that’s all right Paul.  I’m sure they’ll be wonderful.  I’ll hear them in the studio when we record them.”

I’ve never once, before or since, experienced such freedom.  In the world of filmmaking and the costs involved it’s unheard of.  But, there in the street above tinsel town I was shown a level of trust that says more about Jim Henson than it does about Kenny Ascher and I.

Confident in the creative choices he’d made he was willing to step back, allow the process to unfold without excessive control and, energized by his caring and respect Kenny and I did our best work. His graciousness and the elegance of kindness he wore so well made knowing and working for Jim Henson a classic case of living with a master of gratitude and trust

 

Paul Williams

Paul Williams is a singer, songwriter, actor, recovery advocate and has been a fixture on the American cultural scene since the seventies. His book Gratitude and Trust is now available.

  • Steppie Royes

    Every so often, our magic clubs will get a memorable lecture, where everyone walks away better equipped to go into the world and perform our talents. Our last lecturer was a man named David Hira. He reminded us to make our tricks inspiring and to take the opportunity to do our magic everyday, even if it’s in line at the post office. His best story was at the end. It was about Jim Henson. He had the great privilege of working with the puppetry genius and to attend one of his workshops. Jim Henson would match up new muppets/puppets to the new puppeteers and tell them to spend a week finding out what can be done with the puppet. He quoted Henson saying “Don’t pay attention to what CAN’T be done; only on what CAN.” That has stuck with me for the last couple of months.
    I had planned on writing a blog about it, but other projects were on higher priority. I’m happy that you took the time to write about Henson. I love hearing the experiences that people had with him. He was way beyond his time and was taken from us way too soon. But it’s amazing that we can still learn from him by the way he lived and the way he thought. That is true magic and pure inspiration! Great blog, Paul.

    • Paul Williams

      Thanks Steppie, That’s a lovely story about Jim. A positive force on all fronts. You know the physical aspects of being a Muppet performer were really challenging too. Body contorted into the tightest little spaces, arms held over your head hour after hour … Team Tylenol if you will. And I never once heard him or really any of them complain.
      A unique and gracious man.

  • bjwanlund

    What a sweet story! I have been inspired by Jim Henson’s pure gentle genius for my entire life, even though I was only 4 years old when he passed away. Thank you for this, Paul.

    • Paul Williams

      And I’d be willing to bet he’ll be inspiring young artists and creators for generations to come. Thanks for being a part of G I& T

  • Gordon Yarley

    Thank you for the lovely post about Jim. He truly was a wonderful man. Your music fits the Muppets so well.

    • Paul Williams

      Thanks Gordon. It was truly a labor of love working with Jim and the people around him. The entire Henson family and especially the Muppet performers had that same sweet mix of humor and spirit.

  • Paul Williams

    Kevin,
    You and LIn captured the true feelings of millions of Muppet, Kermit and Jim Henson fans with your amazing photo. Thanks for being so gracious about it’s use here.
    I just tweeted a link to your blog. It’s a wonderful story and I think a great metaphor for how Jim’s spirit lives on in our own creative lives.
    If I can ever be of service to you or Lin sing out.
    Blessings, Paul

    • Many thanks to you, Paul, for all you’ve done for so many all these years. Your work has been ‘instrumental’ in inspiring me to create, and my appreciation for you can’t be summed up in words. Maybe one day I can be lucky enough to work alongside you in a project. ‘Til then, we’ll have that Rainbow Connection and keep Movin’ Right Along! 🙂

  • Paul Williams

    Karen,
    It was a life lesson for me. The rewards of ‘gratitude and trust’ are less worry, more freedom and the sweet element of surprise. It was a courageous act on Jim’s part. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about him.

  • Mary Fran Bontempo

    What a lovely post. It made me think that kindness is indeed a form of trust, as those offering that gift often put themselves in a place of vulnerability. Treating others with kindness, to me, represents a way of acknowledging God in the other, and trusting that they will respond to that in themselves and in you. Thank you for sharing this story.

    And I must add that I can’t WAIT to pick up the re-release of “The Muppet Movie” soundtrack! I adore the Muppets, and “Rainbow Connection”–well, it just doesn’t get any better. One of the sweetest songs ever written, and thank you for that as well.

    • Paul Williams

      Thanks Mary. I think you’re right. The presence of kindness would seem to imply the absence of fear .. Of course we can trust while experiencing anxiety and worry but I think the evolved soul can best be spotted when they’re actions are as loving as Jim’s always were. That quiet strength. I’ll take all of that I can get!

  • Jim Hedrick

    Thanks for telling us about Jim. Recovering the the elegance of kindness is a good challenge.

    • Paul Williams

      It is. It’s a daily goal to the open heart I think.

  • Margaret Garone

    Thanks for the inspiring post. God help us to be the change we want to see in the world.

    • Paul Williams

      Thanks Margaret. Always glad to hear from you. As you can tell Jim was one a remarkable human being.

    • Paul Williams

      PS: Margaret. I love that quote too. 🙂

  • Lovisa Loiselle

    Lovely post. Every time I have been asked in my lifetime who my personal hero is my answer has always been “Jim Henson”. The response is typically “but you’re not a puppeteer”, which makes me chuckle. I then go on to say that as an artist myself, it is important for me to know that to be one does not mean you must come from a place of darkness or anguish to be able to express. That “real” art must disturb and/or provoke in some way. Art can come from a place of imagination and a place of good, and move millions. So, Jim is my favorite artist and much missed, and posts like these make my day. 🙂

    • Paul Williams

      Lovisa,
      For years I always ended letters with the expression “Love & Light” .. You remind me that they’re divine elements we can always use more of. Thanks for the comment. Very much appreciated. Blessings, Paul

  • Susanna Sharp-Schwacke

    Your memories of Mr. Henson brought my own memories of the many times I’ve watched and been touched to the core by “The Muppet Movie.” I first saw it when I was a kid and it was first released. The wonder of what he did with the Muppets was only furthered by the beautiful music that you and your partner wrote for the film. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for making a part of my childhood magical. (Between “The Muppet Movie” and your Old Fashioned Love Song, I had a bit of a crush on you in my youth. Hearing from you after so long–for me–has made my day.)

    • Paul Williams

      Very kind .. Your comment made mine! And Kenny Ascher’s brilliance is a huge part of the films success. It’s been an honor to write songs with him too.

  • Timmah Ganske

    I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog just a little while ago. The Muppet Movie has always been in my top 10 of all-time favorite movies. I’m now 34 and made darn sure my daughters are fans of the Muppets and the lessons they teach. It’s not just “kid stuff”. There are deep lessons about love, compassion, and friendship that are embedded into each interaction that the Muppets have with each other. The music that you wrote for The Muppet Movie truly show the love of all things good that the Muppets represent. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing. At Carnegie Hall last year, I heard you tell your story about how Jim just let you write your music for the movie without looking over your shoulder the entire time. He was such a good man and a trusting soul. I was actually sitting one row behind where you were sitting before the show started. Believe it or not I was star-struck by you because of my respect for the music you have written. Being a musician myself I know how it can be a labor of love. One of my few regrets in my life is that I never got up to say hello to you, get your autograph, and/or get a picture with you. So now you know that your music means more than what it means to most. So I can rest a little easier from now on knowing I FINALLY got to tell you this 🙂 Thank you, Paul Williams, for doing what you do and sharing your stories about Jim.

    • Paul Williams

      That was an amazing collection of muppet perfumers and I think to a man and woman we were all fans. I probably was having the same reaction to seeing Gonzo and Dave as you were. There’s brilliance behind, beneath and below that felt! Glad you stopped by. I hope you’ll visit G & T often and some day we’ll get a chance to say hello …

  • thanks for sharing your experiences with Jim Henson in this post… I’m a lifelong huge fan of Mr. Henson and his work. His creativity and imagination impacted me at an early age and is likely the reason I’m an artist today. Hearing that on top of his creative genius he was a genuinely kind and nice guy is something that makes my day. I love hearing that a man at the top of his game, as well as the head of an entertainment empire in Hollywood, was also able to do all that being a respectful and kind man.

    Thank you sir, for your insight into one of my heroes.

    • Paul Williams

      Happy to pass that message along to the world. I think it was evident in his work and very image. I’ve never seen even a photo of Jim that didn’t have a kind of air of .. well, kindness. Thanks for checking in. I like your ‘owl’ too. 🙂

  • I’m so glad someone shared this article with me. Thanks for the story Paul, and thanks for all your amazing work over the years.

    • Paul Williams

      Glad to have you visit us Tommy. Come again .. and tell your friends. “Pass it on” .. as they say.

  • Nancy

    That was a moving tribute to a man who certainly was something special. What a legacy of love he left to the world. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of that, and how it’s stronger than the bad. I myself have not been such a beacon of kindness, mostly stemming from my inability to forgive. I keep working on it, because I know that’s the key. Reading examples like the one you so eloquently made will certainly help me, so thanks.

    When I was 11 my father died. My mom was a housewife with no education or experience who suddenly had to become the sole parent and breadwinner. She figured it out, but looking back I realize how terrified she was. She used to sing this one song over and over to me until, I’m afraid truth forces me to admit it, I’d roll my eyes at her, like mooooom, not agaiiin. (My children do the same thing to me. Payback.)

    It was “You and Me Against the World.” That song gave her such strength, I now see! She sang it whenever she needed it, which was a lot.

    I hadn’t listened to it in a long time, until I just read your post and remembered it. My mom died a year and a half ago and I think the grieving process has been delayed. We had a less than perfect relationship.

    Anyhow, I just listened to your song and it made me love my mom more, for her strength, and getting us through. She sent me to college and everything. She wasn’t the perfect parent, but she did a lot of good things. Thanks for reminding me. And for giving her that song to help her, because it REALLY DID. Hugs and kisses to you, Paul Williams.

    • Paul Williams

      Nancy,
      I don’t think there’s anything in this world you could have written that would touch me more than ‘hearing the song made me love my mom more, for her strength and getting us through. I call that a ‘heart payment’ but it deserves more than a rubber stamp thanks. A very special message. Bless you … I’ll see to it that my co-writer Kenny Ascher reads your wonderful words.

      • Nancy

        Well I’m glad I could give back. I feel like I stumbled into a little nest of kindness here on your site and think you are all swell peeps. 🙂 I’ve been wandering around the house cleaning my floors and singing your beautiful song over and over and crying, which was something I hadn’t really done yet. Good tears. Thanks again for what you did for my mom. Just shows you never know what you’re going to accomplish or who you’ll touch when you make art.

  • Rich Wexler

    Thank you for sharing this story. Jim is a hero of mine. I was lucky enough to meet Frank Oz once and he seemed to share a similar quality of grace. I showed him a tattoo I have of Kermit and he took me aside and thanked me for being a fan. I run a samm theater company with teens and always try to treat them the same way you mention Jim did to you. And speaking of the Muppet Movie, I saw it when I was 8 in the theater and I am pretty sure it changed my life. The songs in that film spoke to me in a way that still feels embedded in who I am. Thank you for what you share with the world.

    • Paul Williams

      Rich,
      indeed, Frank Oz has a gentle spirit as well. And a great creative mind. It’s wonderful to read of your affection for the work. Enjoy your teens and continued success. Glad to see you here at G & T.

  • Wonderful story. Kindness and goodness matter every bit as much as genius to enrich the world, and Jim Henson had both. He is a worthy inspiration for people in any walk of life; it goes way beyond art.

    • Paul Williams

      You’re right Sekino .. Jim was a walking life lesson. I felt it at the time we worked together but don’t think I really thought about it until he was gone. I’m trying to be more appreciative in the moment these days. Thanks for the comment.