It seems so simple to say that the first time I heard "Suzanne" I was at "The Earl Of Old Town" in Chicago in the Fall of 1966. Fred Holstein sang it, and his baritone voice set a standard for the song, in my mind, that no one else has ever touched. Not even Leonard. And Leonard wrote it.
Anyway. The thing is, I was living in Old Town, working in a hippie store selling Spin Art to the tourists and performing at Encore Theater, where we did a different Musical every month. I was spinning, not going anywhere, just home from Vietnam and trying to get my head on straight.
Fred used to call me "The General" because I used to pester him all the time to put my lyrics to music and sing them - and once he did.
I remember the night he first sang "Suzanne". It became a point of focus for me - it got into my mind and stuck there and became, for me, like a lifeline. It gave me a chance to slow down and contemplate where I was, what I was doing, and it helped me find my way through a very confusing time.
Fred never got the recognition that others did, who performed at Earl's. Bonnie Koloc, Steve Goodman, John Prine and others all went on to bigger, brighter futures and, somehow, Fred got left behind. He was every bit as good as any of them - there are those who would say that Fred Holstein was the heart of the Chicago Folk scene in the late 60's. He and his brother owned a couple of different places - and Fred would always sing. But he never 'made it'. He should have.
I always felt I owed Fred. He died in 2004. I never had a chance to tell him what he'd done for me.
I wish I had.