The Golden Halls of Mirth
by rich brown and Paul Stanbery
This is the story of Rhysling, the Blind Singer of Fandom—but not the official version. You sang his words, no doubt, in some convention hall, when you were but a neofan:
Perhaps you sang it at Detention or the Chicon III; perhaps it was a Disclave or Eastercon, a Midwest- or Westercon. Or it might have been at the Loncon III, or at the Solacon II, while the banner that read “South Gate Again In 2010!” was rippling over your head.
The place doesn’t matter—it was certainly with trufen around you, whether at convention or club meeting. No one has ever translated “Golden Halls” into the machine gun jargon of Madison Avenue; no Folknik ever lisped or groaned it in the damp darkness of a Greenwich Village coffee house.
This is ours. We of fandom have known all kinds of fan, from serious science fiction publishers to socialist revolutionaries—but this belongs only to trufen, only to those who are the very breath and soul of fandom.
We have all heard many stories about Rhysling. You may have been one of the many who have sought BNFdom by scholarly evaluations of his published works—SONGS OF TRUFANDOM; THE BERKELEY TOWER, AND OTHER POEMS; HIGH AND WET and “YNGVI WAS A LOUSE!,” among others.
Nevertheless, although you have sung his songs and read his verses since you came into fandom and from that time on, it is at least an even money bet—unless you knew Rhysling yourself, as I did—that you never heard most of Rhysling’s unpublished songs; such items as SINCE THE FUGGHEAD MET MY COUSIN; THE OE IS A FATHER TO THE SAPS; KEEP YOUR PANTS ON, TRUFEMME; or A DUPER BUILT FOR TWO.
Nor can we quote them in a family magazine.
Rhysling’s reputation was protected by the happy chance that he had never gotten around to publishing his own fanzine. SONGS OF TRUFANDOM was published the week he died; when it became a fannish classic, the stories about him were pieced together from what people remembered plus the highly colored (and often downright untrue) con-reports written during his activity.
The resulting traditional picture of Rhysling is about as real as Joan Carr or Carl Brandon.
In truth, you would not have wanted him in your hotel room; he was not socially acceptable. He had a permanent case of poison ivy, which he scratched continually, adding nothing to his negligible beauty.
Gorsen’s portrait of him, for the 20th issue of AGENBITE OF OUTWIT, shows a figure of High Tragedy; a solemn mouth, sightless eyes concealed by a black silk bandage. He was never solemn! His mouth was always open, singing, grinning, drinking, or eating. The bandage was any rag, usually inky. After he lost his sight, he became less and less neat about his person.
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“Noisy” Rhysling was a confan, with eyes as good as yours, when he signed in at the Discon II. He was the most carefree of the lot and probably the meanest, All he wanted to do was sit around the convention hall and spend his time punning, card-playing, singing, drinking, catching femmefen, and maybe pubbing a oneshot for somebody else. He had the hands of a trufan on any sort of duplicator, from the lowliest of hektographs to the 1880 class multis, which were becoming more and more popular with fans of the time. Compared to him, the fansmen, the BNFs, the actifans (neos and sercons didn’t hang around much in those days) were mundane. He’d never read a word of stf, but he knew fans. Let others rave about the wonders of Gernsback and Palmer; Rhysling knew that words were useless against the raging and fitful devil that powered the turning mimeo.
Rhysling knew the convention rut well—he’d been hanging around them for a few years, New York to Detroit, to Dallas, to L.A., before he had gotten “into” fandom, He had binged at the famous Bloch-Tucker-Willis-Burbee blog-fest and come out the only one standing, to everyone’s surprise.
When I first met him at the Discon II he was downing drinks in the hotel cocktail bar. He’d just been kicked out of the Seattle party on the roof for singing a chorus and several verses of the infamous THE OE IS A FATHER TO THE SAPS, with the uproarious final verse, which he sang to me that night in righteous fannish anger:
…but like I said, we can’t quote than in a family magazine.
Getting thrown out didn’t bother Rhysling. It had happened before and would probably happen again. He won a guitar from Bob Tucker by cheating at FanTan—he stole the Queen of Clubs with earmuffs, some say—and made his whiskey by singing in the bar until someone was willing to pay for his drink to get him to shut up. When the SAPS started coming into the bar, we left and went upstairs to our rooms. We talked the night through; he told me the tales of how he had helped LASFS maintain its feuding reputation, strolled along the excavation site for the Berkeley Tower when Carl Brandon was still active, and won the costume ball at the ’67 worldcon.
Things moved fast in those days, and fans were more pragmatic and more forgiving, if the need called for it, than they are today. The Seattle people were putting out a convention daily (on one of the new 1880s) and sober, steady, competent hands like Rhysling’s were always welcome. He wandered into the Seattle suite the next morning, knowing they’d be eager to give him another chance; he was known as one of the finest operators in fandom, so jobs were always open to him during the golden days of convention newszines. He crossed and recrossed the hallways, singing the doggerel that boiled up in his head and plunking it out on the guitar.
The head of the Seattle party knew him; F.M. Busby had been the first fan Rhysling had ever met, at his first convention. “Welcome home, Noisy,” Busby had greeted him. “Are you sober, or shall I sign the guest book for you?”
“You can’t get drunk on the ditto fluid they sell here, Buz.” He signed and went into the room where the multi was, lugging his guitar and a jug.
Ten minutes later he was back. “Busby,” he stated darkly, “that foodamned machine ain’t fit. The rollers are warped; too much water.”
“Why tell me? Tell Jim or Mike.”
“I did, but they said they’ll do. They’re wrong.”
The Seattle fan gestured at the guest book. “Scratch out your name and cut out. That zine’s got to be out in time for the banquet.”
Rhysling looked at him, shrugged, and went back into the room.
Convention dailies ran to quite a few copies and got pretty long in those days: an 1880 class clunker had to run to three inkings and drank repellex and platex like fans drank bheer. Rhysling was on the second inking. The infernal machine spit ink like crazy, catching suddenly to unwatered portions of the master, and they had to be blotted with a cotton pad by hand. When the master ripped and caught the cotton pad, sending it into the gears, he tried to keep it together—no luck.
Fan pubbers don’t wait; that’s why they’re fan pubbers. He slapped off the paper feed and disengaged the rollers. It was spitting ink like mad, and bits of cotton pad came flying out at tremendous speed, fast enough to rip up paper backed up in the paper-feed tray. The lights went off; he went right ahead. A fan pubber has to know his multi the way your tongue knows the inside of your mouth. He fumbled around to find the main ink valve to shut off the flow, and sneaked a quick look under the rollers to see what the hell that cotton pad was doing. The blue sparks from the motor didn’t help him any; he jerked his head back, turned the water completely off, and finally slapped the motor valve off.
When he was done he called back over his shoulder, “The foodamned multi’s on the blitz; for CRYsake, get me some light in here!”
There was light—a flashlight—but not for him. His sight had been blotted out when a splotch of multilith ink had indelibly penetrated both corneas, permanently blackening his vision.
The Seattle crowd took Rhysling west with them; the gang passed the hat and Buz kicked in a complete set of CRY, which Rhysling was eventually able to sell. That was all—finish—just another old fan who couldn’t make it anymore and now had to hit the cold road to Fafia. He stayed on with the Seattleites for some time, and probably could have stayed forever in exchange for his songs and guitar playing; but trufans rot if they stay in the same clique—or so Rhysling felt—so he hooked a ride with some LASFS people back to L.A. and thence to a slan-shack in Berkeley in Northern California.
Fabulous Berkeley Fandom was well into its decline; Carr and Graham were in New York, Ellik in L.A., Rike gafia, the Brandon hoax exposed; the Pacificon squabble had caused so many hard feelings that the trufen were moving away and neos lined the Bay on both sides with stagnant conversations and sercon debate. This was before the SFcon Manifesto forbade the destruction of fannish relics—half the shiny, massive Tower To The Moon had been torn down by neos, who thought having a beercan collection of their own was more fannish than the Tower itself.
Now Rhysling had never seen the new faces in Berkeley and no one described the destruction of the Tower to him; when he “saw” Berkeley again, he visualized it as it had been, before it had been SerConized for the betterment of stf. His memory was good. He stood in the dingy pads where the ancient greats of the University of California had spent their hours in fansmanship and saw its beauty spreading out before his blinded eyes—the ghoodminton greens, the deep blue water of the sparkling bay, Alkatraz standing like a stately sentinel in the water, and the Oakland and Golden Gate bridges spanning the water from peninsula to peninsula, island to island; and towering over them all the narrow, shiny fountain of steel stabbing fiercely into the sky—the Tower of Bheer Cans to the Moon.
The result was “The Berkeley Towers.”
The subtle change in his orientation which enabled him to see beauty in Berkeley where beauty was not now began to affect his whole fannish existence. All women became fannish to him. He knew them by their voices and fitted their interests to the sounds. It is a mean spirit indeed who will speak to a blind man other than in gentle interests; shrews who had no interest in their husband’s life work gave their companionship to him.
It populated his world with beautiful femmefans and dashing trufen, FAPA MAILING PASSING, DIAN’S HAIR, DEATH SONG OF A BNF and his other sad songs of fandoms past and the fans who lived on, were the direct result of the fact that his conceptions were unsullied, for the most part, by tawdry truths. It mellowed his approach, changed his doggerel to verse, and sometimes to poetry.
He had plenty of time to think now, time to get all the lovely words just so, and to worry a verse until it rang true in his head. The monotonous beat of PRESS SONG—
—came to him not while he was a fanpubber, but later while he was hitch-hiking from L.A. to Chicago and sitting in the back seat with an old drinking partner.
At the Norcon he sang his new songs and some of the old, in the lobby. Someone would start a hat around for him and it would come back with more than enough to cover his expenses at the con, in recognition of the great fannish spirit behind the bandaged eyes.
It was an easy life. Any convention hall was his home and any car caravan his private carriage. No trufan cared to refuse to carry the extra weight of blind Rhysling and his guitar; he moved with the conventions, back and forth across the U.S. and even once to London, as the spirit moved him.
He never got closer to publishing a fanzine than the handle of a duplicator; he could not type and writing was difficult. Even when publication of his songs was suggested, he never followed it up. Finally Ted and Robin White heard Rhysling singing at a Phillycon. That was enough. White knew BNF‑making material when he heard it—even if, as he often said, he didn’t particularly care for filksongs himself—so the entire contents of SONGS OF TRUFANDOM were sung directly into Harry Warner’s tape recorder in the Baltimore suite before Ted let Rhysling out of his sight. The next three volumes were squeezed out of Rhysling in L.A., Berkeley and New York; the first two by friends of White’s on the West Coast, the last again by White himself.
YNGVI WAS A LOUSE is certainly not authentic Rhysling throughout. Much of it is Rhysling’s, no doubt, and PRESS SONG is unquestionably his, but most of the verses were collected after his death, from people who had known him during his fanning days.
THE GOLDEN HALLS OF MIRTH grew through 53 world conventions, and Rhysling made almost everyone of them, The earliest form we know about composed before Rhysling was blinded, at some drinking bout, and the verses concerned what he would do at the SoLaCon I—if he could find enough blog, a mimeo, and a few willing femmefans. Some of the stanzas are vulgar; some were not. But the chorus was recognizably that of GOLDEN HALLS.
What did Rhysling mean by “Golden Halls?” A host of scholarly fen have asked that question. It seems, at different times, it meant different things. At first it meant only the Alexandria, where the SoLaCon was to be held, then it meant anyplace—whether clubhouse or convention hall—where trufen met; finally it meant the SoLaCon II, where the trufen would return “home.”
We know exactly where the final form of GOLDEN HALLS came from, and when, and what it meant.
There was a fannish caravan in New York that would soon be heading back to the next Midwescon and thence to the SoLaCon II. It was the first caravan to be sponsored by New York Fandom, and the first caravan that made strict rules about carrying non-paying freight.
Rhysling decided to ride back with them to the SoLaCon II. Perhaps his own song had gotten under his skin—or perhaps it was just one more in a long series of conventions for him.
New New York Fandom no longer permitted deadheads; Rhysling knew this, but it never occurred to him that the ruling might apply to him. He was getting old, for a fan, and just a little matter-of-fact about his privileges. Not senile—he simply knew that he was one of the landmarks of fandom, along with Courtney’s boat, South Gate in ’58, and the Tower of Bheer Cans To The Moon. He just stood around until everyone was ready to leave and then stepped into one of the cars.
Dearth Andrews, who was heading the caravan, found him while making a last-minute check. “What are you doing here,” he asked.
“I’m going back to the Gate,” Rhysling answered.
“Well, you can’t come with us; you know the rules. Shake a leg and get out of here; we’re leaving right now.” Andrews was young; he’d come up after Rhysling’s time, but Rhysling knew the type—three years of publishing a crudzine, with no real fannish experience, and he was ready to take over fandom, run it, help it keep on the Right, i.e…Serious Path…an Organization Man. The two men did not touch in spirit or background.
“You wouldn’t begrudge an old fan a trip to the Convention of the Century, now, would you? You wouldn’t make an old fan break down…and cry…or beg… would you?”
Andrews hesitated; several fans had gathered from other cars. “I can’t do it. Rules are not made to be broken. Up you get and out you go.”
Rhysling lolled back, his arms under his head. “If I’ve got to go, damned if I’ll walk. Carry me.”
Andrews bit his lip and looked at Simon Brown, who’d been sergeant-at-arms at the previous NYCon, “Simon! Have this fan removed’
Brown fixed his eyes on a street lamp. “Can’t rightly do it, Derth, I…I think I’ve sprained my shoulder.” The other fans, present a moment before, had somehow drifted into their cars.
Rhysling spoke again. “Let’s not have any hard feelings about this, Derth. You’ve got an out in your rules to carry me, if you want to—the distressed fans clause.”
“Distressed fan my eye! That clause is to cover a fan who’s at a convention and doesn’t have the money to return home.”
“Well, now,” said Rhysling, “I was just at the regional conclave, here— you still call ’em Lunacons, don’tcha?—and I didn’t have the money to return. I just came from California, and that’s as much home to me as any other place.”
Rhysling could feel the man’s glare before he turned and left. Rhysling knew that he had used his blindness to place Andrews in an impossible situation, but this did not bother Rhysling—he rather enjoyed it.
They arrived at the MidWesCon a few days later. Rhysling was immediately drawn to the sound of a whirling multilith drum. He walked into the room and closed the door. It locked automatically, having been set to do so, from the inside.
Trouble started on the first run. Rhysling was lounging in a chair, strumming the strings of his guitar and trying out a new version of GOLDEN HALLS.
And something, something, something; “And the Golden Halls of Mirth.” It wouldn’t come out right. He tried again:
That was better, he thought. “How do you like that, Archie?” he asked over the muted roar.
“Pretty good. Here, have a drink. And give out with the whole thing.” Archie McDavids, an expert behind the drum, was an old friend, both in conventions and out; he had been an apprentice under Rhysling many years and thousands of reams back.
Rhysling obliged with both drink and song, then said, “You youngsters got it soft. Back when I was over a drum, you really had to stay alive.”
“You still do.” They fell to discussing fandom and then to talking shop, and McDavids showed him the new direct response relay, which took the place of the old turn-off valve and was slightly more complicated. Rhysling felt out the controls. It was his conceit that he was still a multilithographer and that his present situation as a troubador was simply an expedient during one of the fusses with fandom that any fan could get into.
“I see you have one of the new electrical counter-rotary motors attached,” he remarked, his agile fingers flitting over the equipment.
“All except the hand-crank. I took it off because its weight seems to lob ink a bit too heavily on that side.”
“Should have left it on and turned your ink down on that side; with all the electricity this baby takes, you might need it.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think —” Rhysling never did find out what McDavids thought, because at that moment the trouble tore loose. Something sizzled from the innards of the machine, gears groaned, and McDavids caught it square—a blast of electrical amperage burned him down where he stood.
Rhysling sensed what had happened. Automatic reflexes of old habit came out. He slapped off the paper feed and ink valve and disengaged the rollers. Then he remembered the hand-crank. He had to grope until he found it, keeping low—he did not know what the exact trouble was, but something had to be loose to have allowed that much electricity to strike Archy down. A wire, possibly. Except for the location of the hand-crank, which he was trying to find, and the wire, which he was trying to avoid, nothing bothered him as to location. The place was as light to him as any place could be; he knew every button, every control, the way he knew the strings of his guitar.
There was a rattling at the door, but it was locked, “Hello in there! Hello! Is there any trouble?” Some one had undoubtedly heard McDavids cry out.
“Don’t come in!” Rhysling shouted, “There’s junk flyin’ all around.” He could hear the crackles of electricity, some close to him, some further away, and the sound of paper being ground into the gears. The machine was spitting wads of paper and gobs of ink and possibly a few nuts, bolts, and washers. Somehow he managed to get the stationary crank into the rotating motor without getting shocked, being knocked over or wrenching his arm. He tried to slow the drum by hand, but the motor was too powerful.
On a smaller machine, Rhysling could have just pulled out the plug, but this was a larger model which required a special cable for extra high voltage; it had to be put in, and taken out, with special tools.
He bent to the side of the machine and turned the dial which at least slowed the motor down; he got it down to what felt and sounded like a “3” and then, tugging with all his might, he was able to knock the motor off its mount. That would have been it, but at that moment he was hit on the head with a flying bolt. It stunned him; he put out a hand to catch his balance…
He knew what had happened, but the shock of it kept him, at first, from feeling any pain. He had thrown out his arm and had hardly felt it as the drum came around for the last time and tore off his hand. Rhysling sat down besides the multi and tied one of his extra handkerchiefs around his mangled arm as a tourniquet.
“You still out there?” Rhysling asked of the door.
“Then borrow a taper, quick, and stand by to record.”
There was no answer—dumbfounded as the person might have been by the request, there was nothing else he could do, so he did as he was told.
“I’ve got the recorder,” the voice outside the door said. That person must have been even more dumbfounded by what Rhysling sent to record. It was:
Rhysling went on cataloging Fandom as he knew it: “—the harsh bright fen of yesteryear—,” “—Fandom’s rainbowed wit—,” “—the frozen nights in convention halls—,” all the while feeling the blood running from his shattered veins. He sang, sitting helplessly, not knowing where the door was or the key, too weak to get up and try to look for them, as the life blood flowed literally out of him, He finished with an alternate chorus:
—Then, absentmindedly almost, he remembered to tack on his revised first verse:
The multi was safe and, with a minimum of tinkering, could get the convention daily out on time. As for Rhysling, he was not so sure. It was, of course, a matter of how he would die, not whether—from shock, from gangrene, from loss of blood. His only sadness was that he would not actually get to the SoLaCon II—back to the rebirth of his rebirth in fandom, back to the Golden Halls he was singing about. He felt that his eyes weren’t covered and fumbled around on the floor until he found his rag which, with only one hand, he tied as neatly as he could over his eyes. When he did this he sang one more chorus, the last bit of authentic Rhysling that could ever be:
And so he died, singing of the home he never reached.
— by rich brown and Paul Stanbery, 1960
Last revised: 19 July, 2006
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