Today’s post comes from Alexandra Barone of From Farm to Turntable, and is part of a special day of shenanigans from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my post over on Red Pen Mama, where I explore the idea of ‘creation’ and how the doing of the thing IS the thing.. more eloquently quoted by Amy Poehler. I hope you enjoy this blog swap!
When I first began to think of what importance songwriting held in my life, I immediately thought of the only song I ever wrote. One night, I sat down with my best friend who is a brilliant musician today, and we began to sing. She had never written a song before, either. It was our first time, and we were determined.
Our muse was my cat, Lambchop. In our song, he played the oh-so-noble Peanut Toes, the Great Canadian. He’s not Canadian to my knowledge, but that’s the beauty of song-writing. It’s a place to make up stories, to breathe new life into ordinary people, places, things or cats. In a few hours, we had something we were sort of proud of, even if we couldn’t stop laughing at the total absurdity of what we were saying. I mean, we worked pretty hard on this song. We had it all: a whistling breakdown, harmonies, and a spoken word verse. Peanut Toes was one hell of a guy. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Hey Mr. Peanut Toes, shimmy up the totem pole
Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy, shimmy into the unknown
Where do you go, Mr. Peanut Toes?
Where do you go? I go to Mexico…
The true standout line?
Karate chop my ass all the way to Guantanamo
I never wrote a song again. I don’t necessarily consider it one of my primary talents, but who knows? It could be hiding out deep within.
When I was a kid, my dad would play me the song ‘Return to Pooh Corner’ by Kenny Loggins. I learned every Beatles song without knowing it was ever a Beatles song. Until I started to hear those familiar tunes elsewhere, I was under the impression that my dad may as well have written every song in the world. It was even a little disappointing when I unearthed this harsh truth.
While we stuck to kid-friendly acoustics during the day, every night, I’d fall asleep to the not-so-faint sound of a rock band rehearsing diligently in my garage. As soon as you thought it was over, the music would start up again. This would go on until the day I packed up my childhood bedroom and flew the nest just a couple of years ago. In the end, the ruckus became the bane of my existence.
As much as I grew to prefer a good night’s rest to electric guitars blaring past midnight, I slowly but surely began to understand what songwriting meant to my father. His desk is surrounded by sticky notes, half of which are miscellaneous phone numbers because he never figured out how to use a cell phone properly. The other half are lines that would eventually end up in those songs he wrote when he sat down on the couch every night with one of his fifteen or so guitars.
When I moved out, he turned my old bedroom into a studio. It was his safe haven, his solace. He recorded an album last year, and I’ve never seen someone take so much pride in anything. Every time he saw me, the first words out of his mouth were regarding the progress he was making. It was like watching a little kid talk as his eyes would light up. The excitement was only stifled by my own lack of enthusiasm.
Without going into much detail, my father and I had a strained relationship. I can’t say that I showed my own pride in his work at the time, but I hope he knows that I am (almost) as proud as he is of the hours he put in. He spilled his heart on that record, and the man I thought so un-brave was suddenly a hero again.
The thing about just listening to music is that we don’t know the people behind those words. When I listened to my dad’s music, I knew all too well what he was talking about. It was initially quite alarming to me because I realized how foreign he had become to me. His vulnerability made him feel less estranged. In his lyrics, he became human again.
Shortly after Christmas last year, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what the next few weeks would bring on, but he deteriorated rapidly. When I went over to visit my family, the house was no longer filled with music. My dad didn’t have anything to say about the songs he was writing. He could hardly speak at all.
I felt afraid to say much of anything to him for some reason. I just hoped that he knew how I felt, that all was forgiven, that I only had room in my heart for love. I kept having this lingering thought that I couldn’t shake, though: I had never sang a song with my dad. Sure, maybe we casually sat down when I was a kid. The angsty teenage version of me was far too cool to hang out with my parents though. And after that, forget it.
Now, I wish I had simply asked.
Every time I stepped through the front door, I was hopeful that I’d discover him with his guitar in his lap. The sacred legal pads scribbled with lyrics on the coffee table were slowly replaced with prescriptions and hospice paperwork. The tenderness in my father’s dying voice were much like his voice was to me on paper; raw, afraid, and overwhelmingly human. This was his song now.
My mother called me one day and I knew I had to go. This time, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving. My dad’s chair was now a hospital bed. When I went over that day, I would never hear him speak again. We were surrounded by people who loved him, who wanted to be there for us and for him. His former band mates, tough and mighty, sat by his side unashamedly sobbing. Men I’d known since childhood who stood on stage with him for the past thirty years came one by one to grieve the loss of his voice.
His friend and fellow songwriter Max spent those days by my family’s side, helping us to both laugh and cry. As defeat slowly filled the room over the course of three long days, Max played guitar by his side.
Even if my dad couldn’t hear us, we heard Max. He offered my family the only comfort we could find. The music reverberating through my childhood home was the only light that could pierce the total darkness that had taken over. The music made those moments just a little bit longer and a little bit brighter.
The night before, Max did ask my dad to sing with him. Max did what I couldn’t do. He hadn’t sung since he had been diagnosed. It was the last time he would be able to speak, and he did it in song. Somehow, these moments that we never want to let go of are always perfectly captured.
There wasn’t a day I saw my dad and he didn’t encourage me to go write a song. I would defiantly explain to him, “But I can’t write songs!” He never accepted that as a valid response. My dad is no longer with me, and I will never get my chance to sing with him. I’ll never be able to take back what I said, and more importantly, say what I didn’t say. But his album – his pride and joy – lives on. One day, I’ll write that song.