When Jake died he took many things with him. He took a possible future where Terry and I became doting grandparents and replaced it with a future where we are that old childless couple sitting on the park bench as young lovers walk by, arm in arm, while brittle dry leaves swirl about our feet. He took the joy out of all the holidays, and replaced it with a flat listless indifference and dread. Ironic, isn’t it, that the days he most loved have become mileposts of sadness along this barren highway. He took the future whereby he became an accomplished artist/photographer/chef/entrepreneur/inventor/engineer/
father/grandfather/and replaced it with a future where he can no longer bring the light he possessed to illuminate the world and the lives of the people he loved and who loved him. Save in memory. He deprived the world of his fierce loyalty and devotion to his friends, his razor wit and intelligence and his boundless compassion.
As he brought a renewed sense of purpose and passion into our lives when he was born, he took much of that purpose and passion out of our lives when he left.
One of the most precious things that he took caught me unawares; he took the music with him.
Up until a few years ago, my life was full of music. Some of my earliest memories are listening to Pete Seeger and The Weavers on my Dad’s hi-fi. My Mom played folk music on the guitar, an old rare Martin, and would come to our elementary school classes and play for us. I played the clarinet throughout Middle school, exchanging it for the guitar when I was about 15. I discovered Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie and wanted to be them. I learned how to finger-pick and immersed myself in American folk music. In high school, I was in the obligatory garage band, played harmonica and sang in the Beverly Hills Blues Band. Talk about white boys playing the blues. We had a couple of gigs, but mostly just rehearsed and got high.
In college I built a dulcimer and taught myself how to play. My girlfriend at the time was into American Traditional music and we played and sang together. We had friends which whom we made music; gospel songs, old-timey fiddle and banjo music, murder ballads and train wrecks. Songs like Cripple Creek, Long Black Veil, Life is Like a Mountain Railway, Soldier’s Joy, and one that has come back to me recently, Farther Along. At one point, we got off onto an Irish music track and I learned how to play the pennywhistle. (All those clarinet lessons did come in handy after all.) Music was everywhere those days. We pursued our separate paths and lives, these first friends, but whenever we gathered, out came the instruments and we played long into the night.
Throughout the years, I kept playing. Sometimes one or the other style would take precedence and I would focus on this or that instrument. Sometimes the banjo would be the favorite, sometimes the guitar, sometimes the whistle. But always music.
On our honeymoon in Hawaii, the condo we stayed in had a ukulele up on one of the shelves. Terry locked me out on the lanai with it and wouldn’t open the door until I could play a song. Luckily, the uke shares much with the guitar and I managed to strum out something before it got dark. Two years later she bought me a beautiful ukulele and I learned how to play properly. It is a great story. She was hugely pregnant with Jake, and we went back to the north shore of Kauai where we had honeymooned. We went into a little music shop in Kapa’a, and looked at the ukes. There was the usual assortment of bargain plywood instruments and there, hanging amongst the dross, was a gorgeous koa wood Kamaka. Made in Honolulu. I strummed it and fell in love with its bright cheery sound. Terry told the little old Hawaiian ladies who ran the shop that it was to be a wedding present, neglecting to mention we had been married two years earlier. They stared at her belly, eyes wide, but didn’t say a word. We bought the instrument and ran out of the shop, giggling at what they must have thought.
Throughout her pregnancy I would lay my guitar on her and play, sending the musical vibrations through to Jake inside. When he was born, I played to him nearly every night. Jake loved it. As he got older he would request tunes like This Land is Your Land, Mr. Tambourine Man, If I Only Had A Brain, and our family anthem, Hanalei Moon. In 1990 a year after he was born, some of those long time musical friends and I made a record of folk music for children. We played festival gigs, sold a couple of hundred CDs and in general had a wonderful time. We would gather to play almost every weekend, filling our homes with song.
As the years wore on and Jake got older, those nighttime rituals fell by the wayside and I played less and less. Friends moved away, the ‘band’ disbanded. I still played, struggled to keep up my chops, but when you play many instruments, you have to practice for hours every day just to stay in the same place. Life intruded and more often than not, my instruments stayed in their cases, stacked in my office, or bedroom, or finally shoved under the bed. I’d pick up the uke or the banjo from time to time, leave rust streaks on the strings and vow to play more, but just somehow “couldn’t find the time”. Which is bull. When you want to play, you make the time, and finally I’d joke that my ‘muse’ was on vacation. Two years ago, I had my aging guitar revamped, the neck reshaped and refretted, some body damage repaired, new lacquer on the back, and for a while my interest rekindled.
Then came December 28th.
Since that day I haven’t been able to play, sing, or even hear some music without bursting into tears. And this is one of the reasons why.
In a speech given by the director of music at the Boston Conservatory to the parents of the entering freshman class, he explains what music really is and how it works.
“The first people to understand how music really works were the
ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks
said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin.
Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between
observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as
the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden
objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving
pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the
position of things inside us.”
Read the entire speech, it is really quite amazing.
Yes, the invisible, internal objects. Our emotions. Our dreams. Our desires. Ever notice how music has the power to stir our emotions? How a particular song or snippet can bring back overwhelming memories, cause our emotions to bubble up to the surface? Well, my emotions are perilously close to the surface, kept at bay by the thinnest of skins, and music is the pinprick that releases them.
Some of those far-flung ‘first friends’ came to town last weekend for a 40th anniversary reunion concert of a band I used to work and play with. I wasn’t in the band, but an honorary seventh member. They play an eclectic mix of nearly every style of music you can imagine: blues, jazz, rock, Cajun, American traditional, Irish tunes, Bebop, Texas swing; you name it – these guys can play it. When this group was in their heyday, they would invite me up to play the whistle for some of the Irish numbers, and they asked if I would play with them for this reunion concert. Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself even to pick up the whistle to practice. Those damn Greeks. In other circumstances, we might have gathered at my home for an evening of music. This trip it was impossible for a variety of reasons. And that made all of us sad. Loss upon loss.
I’d like to think that one day, I will be able to play again. It’ll take time for that skin to thicken. Lately, I have been waking up in the morning with random bits of music in my head. Fragments of a Prokofiev symphony, verses from camp songs, phrases from The Band or Dylan, a chorus from an old gospel. Terry says the music might be trying to come back. I don’t know. Perhaps one of these days I’ll crack open those brooding black cases gathering dust against the wall in my office, what was once Jake’s room, and see if my fingers still know where to go. I recently drove to Phoenix plugged into my iPhone’s music library and found myself singing along with Lowell George and Little Feat without breaking down. Small steps.
Here’s that chorus from Farther Along, one of those Southern Gospel songs we used to sing when we were much, much younger. As the kids say “back in the day”. I woke up with it running through my head a few weeks ago. Whether it’s true or not, we’ll have to wait and see.
Farther along we’ll know more about it.
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it, all by and by.