New York Times Friday March 5, 1993
By Ann Powers

When he was a boy, the Conceptual artist David Greenberger started filling a notebook with rescued comments, small things people said that nobody else would have remembered. "I was interested in the way overheard things took on a particular poignancy and power, " he said.

Back then, word-scavenging was just one aspect of Mr. Greenberger's creative vision. Little did he know that after art school the preservation of the quotidian would become a central activity in his life. But then, he hadn't expected to meet the folks at the Duplex.

The Duplex was a nursing home in suburban Boston where Mr. Greenberger worked as activities director from the late 1970s until the mid-80s. Not convinced that their typical recreational routine offered by many nursing homes provided any real stimulation, he began a newsletter;, called The Duplex Planet, filled with residents' responses to his own sometimes outrageous, sometimes mundane, questions.

Their answers eventually became the basis for a series of artistic endeavors beyond the Duplex Planet: several records, monologues and even a comic book, all of which Mr. Greenberger oversees. He and the pianist and composer Terry Adams will bring one such offshoot, "The Duplex Planet Hour," to the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights in a performance on Sunday afternoon.

Although residents occasionally responded to Mr. Greenberger's questions with reminiscences, he was determined not to gather oral history. He preferred to stimulate his subjects' imaginations, not leave them in the past.

"Old age is too often viewed as the time when you sit back and relive your glory years,: said Mr. Greenberger, who is 39. "Old people get viewed as repositories of oral history. But if that's the only way in which you view them, you're cutting short your own ability to age in a healthy way."

Looking for the Whimsical

Instead of talking to his subjects about what they once were and did, Mr. Greenberger concentrated on uncovering who they were in the moment, to show these older people still possessed inquisitive and sometimes whimsical personalities.

I'm sketching in these characters for an audience who normally is no tin touch with them," he said. "You get to know a person through his or her sense of humor, pathos, outrage and surprise: those qualities, not historical facts, establish an emotional range."

Mr. Greenberger soon discovered that his artist friends were much more interested in the Duplex Planet than were the Duplex residents themselves, who usually threw it away after a brief glance. He began to take subscriptions, and after 13 years and 125 issues, Duplex Planet still arrives at the homes of about 500 readers. The skewed poetry of one Duplex resident, Ernest Noyes Brookings, who began writing at Mr. Greenberger's instigation, has received musical settings by XTC, Fred Frith, Yo La Tengo, Hal Willner, and the Young Fresh Fellows, on what will eventually be a five-CD series.

Duplex Planet Illustrated, a comic book series recently begun by Fantagraphics Press, in Seattle, features illustrations by noted artists like Dan Clowes, Terry LaBan and Roberta Gregory. And Mr. Greenberger himself has collaborated on an album, soon n to be released on the ESD label, featuring music by Mr. Adams, who plays keyboard, the former Lovin' Spoonful leader, John Sebastian (who plays banjo) and the Sun Ra Arkestra horn players David Gordon and Tyrone Hill. Mr. Greenberger and Mr. Adams (whose main affiliation is with the much-loved rock band N.R.B.Q.) will bring music from this album to St. Ann's on Sunday.

The music sustains the mood; it lets the stories sink in," Mr. Greenberger said. "The structure doesn't resemble anything else I know. Sometimes there'll just be a chord or a glissando, and then a story; sometimes there'll be a whole little piece of music in between monologues."

Great Thematic Freedom

Mr. Adams said the unusual construction of "The Duplex Planet Hour" allowed its creators to transcend the narrow thematic range that often plagues pairings of pop music and spoken word. "We wanted to avoid the poetry and jazz things we've heard in the past, in which the musicians are often insensitive to what the speakers are saying," he said. "There's so many moods within David's material, and those jazz projects just seem to capture one mood. This is more severe . It doesn't just chug along."

Mr. Greenberger and Mr. Adams are longtime friends, and the Duplex scribe has illustrated several of NRBQ's album covers. After seeing the theatrical version of Mr. Greenberger's material in Chicago, Mr. Adams was eager to write music to match the verbal and imaginative acrobatics of the nursing home residents. "It was quadraphonic technicolor, just wonderful," Mr. Adams said. "It's like writing music for life. It just covers everything."

The tales of the Duplex, and those Mr. Greenberger has continued to gather at what he calls "elderly meal sites" since the home's closure in 1987, are modern-day versions of Chaucer's reports from the road to Canterbury; they can seem nonsensical, but sometimes resonate with wry humor and startling insight. "If you are an old man and you go into a bar in pajamas, people will buy you drinks," a Duplex resident, Francis McElroy, once told Mr. Greenberger, and his simple sentiment, pulled out of context, offers a glimpse inside the world of a clever man whose age makes everyone suspect him of infirmity.

Mental Vitality,Physical Decline

The Duplex stories often possess this unsettling combination of wisdom and disconnectedness, representing the mix of vitality and decline that is the daily experience of their tellers. Mr. Greenberger hopes that the stories he has gathered will remind people that growing older isn't the same as dying. "There's such a premium on youth; it's come to mean that aging is a negative thing," he said. "It seems like an incredible waste of energy for people to go, 'Oh God, I'm turning 30.' There's so much else to consider, stuff you might be able to do something about."

Besides, he points out, age may change the body, but the essential person remains. "I'm fascinated by the fact that you can grow older and feel like the same person you were when you were younger," he said. "There's something that carries forward, no matter what. That's an amazing thing."

"The Duplex Planet Hour" featuring David Greenberger and Terry Adams, takes place at the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, 157 Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $15 for reserved seating; $13 for unreserved. Also on the bill, Bob Neuwirth will improvise a "diary of the future," and Jeff Buckley will present a "passion story in song." The program begins at 4 P.M. Information: (718)858-2424