SAD HAPPY MUSIC
When you were younger—much younger—as old as I am now, you played tambourine in a band called Fire Extinguisher. Thinking about that always makes me laugh. Your biggest gig, supposedly, was prom night at your high school. To this day, I don't know if I should be jealous or horrified (probably both). But I know you're fiercely proud of your younger years. Not of your awkward first date, or the time you fought with your brother, or when your father died, but the years that were filled with song and rhythm, crunchy and distorted sounds clanging in a garage, the jingles of a tambourine.
I held a guitar for the first time at a local music store when I was thirteen years old.
Do you remember?
I bought it—a used Silvertone, an electric six-string painted blue — with money I had been saving. The owner of the store taught me the basic, need-to-know facts. The headstock's purpose is to hold the strings of the guitar. Here, the player can tune each string by adjusting tension, which in turn affects the pitch. When tuned correctly, each string of the guitar offers a note (in order, from lowest pitch to highest: E, A, D, G, B, and once again E).
When I brought it home you asked me to learn his favorite tune, the opening riff of the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie." I could feel your wistfulness in this request, your relationship with the nostalgia of your garage-band days.
And then came another request: "Mustang Sally."
And then I knew I was a placeholder, a deposit, as if you were cuing the band — cuing me — not with the shake of a tambourine, but with an invocation, a summons—a call to arms.
You've always been manic in sharing your musical tastes.
Our communal, the space where he most enjoyed imparting his wisdoms, was — and still is, I think — the car.
I love that.
In fact, I became so familiar with Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" always playing during our car rides (She could drag me over the rainbow, send me away) that I could still, to this day, tell you the number of seconds between each track. Down by the river, I shot my baby, down by the river, dead.
Already familiar with the trumpet, I was not a stranger to the musical instrument. Attracted to that piece of brass that, for me, holds a certain mystique, I picked up trumpeting (as mom calls it) in elementary school.
I don't think you liked that, the wail of the horn echoing through the house whenever you were trying to sleep.
But then came the guitar—something new, something foreign.
So I devoted myself to it, forgetting vocabulary such as embouchure (the facial muscles that participate in the buzzing of one's lips into the trumpet's mouthpiece), replaced now with new terminology: fret board, tremolo, bend.
Mom mourns my trumpet as it remains in its case in the corner of my bedroom, I know. But you don't.
You wanted more guitar, I could tell.
You wanted less brass. More blues. Less jazz. More rock.
I could imagine how excited you were when I told you I had joined a band. I was one of two guitarists, joining a bassist, a keyboardist, and a drummer.
But after a few shows and a slew of recording attempts, I was, in effect, kicked out. I can trace my falling out back to a debate, an argument, that wasn't so much filled with anger, but obsession. I was always pushing the others to practice, to play the same song again, again, again. One more time before we can leave this small practice room, one more time — for my father, for you — please, one more time.
I remember sitting in the garage when you went to work.
It was a methodical process: sitting on a chair, perched in front of his old, sturdy bookcases. Agents of Fortune, Born to Run, The Soft Parade. I took one album after another off the shelf, initially most interested in the cover art, the intimate portraits of musicians, the nuanced script of the title, the color. Disraeli Gears, Songs from the Wood, Excitable Boy.
There are more, hundreds more.
At the time they were only words strung together, titles and names that were familiar simply because I had heard my father talking about them or because I heard them on the radio while a passenger in your car.
But what were the albums, really?
They belonged to a history—yours. And so, in a way: mine.
Here I was, sifting through a collection of music that was made before I was born. Maybe you bought the records because you were attracted to what they promised. Or maybe you were drawn to what they provided: sounds to dance to, songs to cry with, markers of your existence.
You did not want me to examine your records. In fact, you became angry at the thought, angrier than I've ever seen you.
"I…you, you… you can't," you said one day in the kitchen, above the garage, unable to articulate the reasons for your hesitance and irritation. "Don't even think about it." You pointed downward, gesturing toward the bookcases. You locked your jaw and took a sharp breath. "Don't go near there," your hand now trembling as you pointed it at me. "Don't."
It was as if the collected vinyl would expose your core, raise the curtain of your depths, divulge a secret.
Your records are clues then, of your thoughts and emotions throughout the years, your moments of sensitivity (James Taylor's Sweet Baby James), grit (Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy), or sheer amusement (Billy Joel's Turnstiles). Even so, your concealment was not a surprise. Your life has never been crystalline, your intentions never revealed. And so I want to know. I'm finally asking: Who are you?
You always laughed when I went to play my guitar for you and right when I hit the strings you could tell: they were out of tune. This is a natural occurrence. Strings are thrown into a different and dissonant pitch by change in temperature, or humidity. Mind you, the guitar can warp over time. If you leave it standing against a wall for, say, over a week, or packed away in the attic, then chances are the instrument's tone will not be so pure. Instead it will be musty, curdled, sour.
Another surefire way to throw the guitar's sound into disarray is to leave it near a window, where any mist or morning dew will trickle through the pane, wrap itself around the guitar's strings, and deform the shape of the neck.
Do memories go out of tune?
I hold on to what I know about you as tightly as I can, yet I do not know much. There is so much room for speculation. I cling to your music collection as if it is actually you speaking to me, telling me a story, informing me of your psyche and past.
I do not know if I am constructing the right shape, or if I am building a portrayal with the right pieces.
I do not know why you stopped collecting records (the last album you have, as far as I can tell, is from some time in the 90s).
Maybe you stopped collecting when I was born, when you became a father, when it was time for you to pass on your history.
But what happens now? What can I do with this history? It is one I do not know, do not realize, and cannot understand.
One night I walked into the house after work at the restaurant. It was late, the early morning hours, but you were still awake. You sat there, not to greet me, but because you could not find sleep.
Or perhaps you did not want to sleep.
Sleep would have ushered in the day, obliterated consciousness.
It might have induced unwanted dreams.
So there you were, sitting silently on the couch, in the dark, cupping your face in your hands.
I knew what you were thinking of, why you couldn't put your thoughts to rest. Your mother was going to die from cancer in the coming hours; the nurse was certain. She lived only fifteen minutes away, but we only saw her a few times each year.
It was rare for you to even speak with her on the phone.
If it was not one of our birthdays, or if it was not a major holiday, you didn't pick up the receiver if it rang. Instead, you allowed her voice to play over the message machine.
I don't think you returned her calls.
You once told me that your mother was prone to make up stories, fabricate, even point-blank lie to her neighbors to garner sympathy. Often, these lies implicated you; they cast you in a bleak light, fashioned you a villain, neglecting my grandmother's needs or ignoring her cries for help.
Of course, these were lies.
For example, you never left your mother alone on Christmas.
You never left her to say grace over an empty table.
While your relationship was tenuous, you never disregarded you mother. You never balked—entirely—at your role as her son.
I think you are still, at this moment, accepting your own father's death. While he was at work, he was gardening in his front yard, you said. He fell to the ground and suffered from a heart attack.
Your mother, from inside the house, did not notice.
If your father had lived, would your relationship with your mother be different?
This, I think, is what you think about.
That is why you spent your time searching for forgiveness, looking for words to absolve your mother from blame, trying to forgive yourself.
That is why you go to her now-empty house and weep.
That is why you sat on the couch, in the dark, and reconciled with your own mind, your reasons for withholding a strong relationship from your mother. That is why you kissed her casket as it rolled out into the hearse, as it was prayed over, as it was lowered into the sweet, soft ground. And still, I looked at you on the couch and I didn't know what to say. I walked past you, to the stairs, and started toward my bedroom. I looked back and searched for words.
But there was only silence.
One of my favorite memories of us: how Mom was disgusted when you taught me how to dance.
One time she walked in on us as we tripped through a Talking Heads album, Remain in Light.
One move entailed the swiveling of the neck, a whiplash-motion. Another required extending the left arm and slapping it. And yet another involved the retraction and extension of the right hand, as if it were a claw.
I don't think you were playing a practical joke in teaching me these steps. Rather, you were trying to imitate the band's lead singer and showman, David Byrne. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, Byrne preached as you cracked his neck. You may find yourself in a beautiful house — the claw — with a beautiful wife; and you may ask yourself —lip-syncing: Well, how did I get here?
I could never break it to you I was kicked out of the band. It would have broken your heart, I think, if I had told you straight-out.
More than it broke mine.
It would signal the end of a remembrance, your own memories no longer relived or revived, but finally dormant and still.
Fire Extinguisher disbanded because one member was drafted into the military, you said. Another moved on to graduate school, and you started working at a grocery store in town.
And here I was—kicked out, dismissed, exile a departure far less noble than the dissolution of a band called Fire Extinguisher.
I haven't revisited the trumpet, either.
I think of it often, though: when I listen to Miles, when I look to his picture on my wall, the words printed beneath his silhouette: "Birth of Cool."
But this—this letter—is the opposite of birth.
It's knowing a piece of myself has been lost, knowing it could be recovered, while simultaneously wanting it to remain missing.
While I still play the guitar, there is emptiness in the reverberation, as if the sound hole of my acoustic represents a bigger rift, a blank space, a yearning.
I ask how often you visit your record collection, or if I am the only one to pick them up, dust them off, inspect. I sit in the garage and thumb through your stack of albums (Heartbeat City, Blow by Blow, Enlightened Rogues), wondering which ones you listened to when you were sad, when you were lost, when you felt abandoned, imagining the sound of your sorrow.
David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing has appeared in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, Thought Catalog, PANK, elimae, Dark Sky, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. You can find him at his website, www.davidcotrone.com.