A love of sports drew me closer to my parents. A love of music draws me closer to my children, who’ve inspired me to make peace – and hopefully harmony – with one of my greatest regrets.
My son and I were listening to classic rock the other day, as we usually do when he’s riding shotgun, less than his arm’s length from the radio tuner.
Only 12, he has the musical taste of much older generations. Same with his preferred mode of listening as we ride: frequency modulation over data compression. FM over iTunes.
Typically, we bounce back and forth between presets, deciding which one of two favorite stations to settle on, one song at a time. If our vote is split, his choice wins. At this moment, as we head to a nearby park to unleash our dog and walk in the woods, he stops on “Pet Sematary” by The Ramones.
I’ve never been a punk rocker (shocking, I know), much as I appreciate the music’s influence on artists more to my liking (Bruce Springsteen, for one). The number of songs I recognize by The Ramones and The Clash — two punk groups I’m most familiar with — would fill out a “Two For Tuesday” and, at most, “Three For Thursday.”
But in the few minutes of this short drive set to, as I’m about to learn, a characteristically brief song by The Ramones, I’m enlightened. My son tells me their “Pet Sematary” was written for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” Perhaps I should have known.
Then he adds a tidbit I had no reason to know: “The Ramones’ longest song lasts only about four minutes.”
It’s true, I confirm, give or take a half minute. “Bye Bye Baby,” from first to final notes, is timed at 4:35. Close enough.
The next day, he awakens and enters the kitchen as I finish school lunches while shuffling a playlist over the Bluetooth speaker on our kitchen counter. “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel comes on. As Paul and Art sing, their lie-la-lies are met by echoes of loud smashes.
Again, the boy drops knowledge on his old man.
“Did you know that drum beat was recorded with an elevator shaft?” he asks, popping a plain bagel into the toaster oven.
“No way!” I exclaim.
Yes way, I soon learn, after picking up my phone and googling: “the boxer drum elevator shaft.”
It was recorded on a Sunday in an empty building along New York’s East 52nd Street. Drummer Hal Blaine hammered away in a hallway; the percussion picked up by a microphone placed in an elevator shaft, its doors propped open. Another fun fact from a kid full of them.
My son has a photographic memory. What he reads, he retains. It’s also “phonographic.” What he hears, he records.
It showed itself in elementary school when he flipped the pages of his many DK and Smithsonian books, consumed history videos and committed minutiae to memory. At 8 or 9, he came up with one of his first fun facts, pointing out that the Hundred Years’ War is somewhat of a misnomer. Did you know it actually lasted 116 years?
Now a middle schooler, music is his jam. He plays piano, fiddles with a violin, and occasionally picks at an electric guitar. He memorizes trivia about bands, musicians, and vocalists; albums and songs; genres and sub-genres. He links singles to albums, guitarists to riffs, and drummers to solos like I used to pair shortstops with double-play partners, outfielders with great catches, and pitchers with masterpieces.
Guitar heroes are for him what sports stars were for me at the same age. And just as games brought me closer to my parents, music has made us tighter.
My late mom often sat by my side watching baseball on TV. Rusty Staub, ‘Le Grande Orange,’ was her favorite. One of mine too. When I asked to dress like other favorites, she found a pattern, bought fabric and sewed me double knits. At a time when replicas were rarely for sale, I played backyard ball decked out like Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson and Dave Cash (I already had a store-bought Tom Seaver uniform).
The subject of sports, especially talking baseball, broke the ice between my dad and me during his rare breaks from working day and night. Asking about the Yankees of his youth, then laden with Italian-American stars, always exposed a soft spot beneath the usually hard exterior he wore in my youth. I treasured those moments. So much so I couldn’t bring myself to declare Willie Mays, and not Dad’s favored Joe D, the greatest ever.
My son is much less of a sports fan. Sure, he wants the Patriots to win, and sometimes he joins me on the couch when there’s a game on at night. But music is our go-to conversation starter. In place of comparing center fielders, we contrast lead guitarists. In the car. Around the house. While trailing the dog on nature’s paths.
The same thing, though not the same songs, has also drawn me closer to my daughter.
Like her big bro, she takes piano lessons and strums a guitar, along with a ukulele. She sings and dances. She sometimes sits at the keys and composes tunes. And she ofttimes replaces lyrics of popular songs with rhymes of her own imagination. Each one is a wonder, if not a commercial hit.
Unlike her big bro, she prefers downloads over tuning in when we’re in the car. She and I used to be playlist shufflers during our half-hour commutes to school in the fall. Around December, we changed our tunes to the soundtrack from Hamilton.
Playing and replaying it, her every-morning instruction became my automatic assumption. She no longer had to ask me to hit play. It became as instinctive as shifting from park to reverse. Mile by mile, track after track, she sang along in the back seat. Sometimes, I joined in.
Two Thursdays ago, we finally saw Hamilton in person at the Citizens Bank Opera House. All evening, my eyes shifted from my daughter to the actors on stage; her face aglow as she lip-synced what they were singing.
All of it was unforgettable. Those songs now play themselves inside my head. Any hour. Any order. And any time the music starts up again, my mind is filled with images of that night.
Neither child is a musical prodigy destined for Berklee, the New England Conservatory or “American Idol.” Getting them to practice piano sometimes requires a gentle nudge, if not a push. If not, the fail-safe ultimatum of “No screen time!” But when they do, the house comes alive again with the sound of their music. To these ears, it’s always fabulous.
Hopefully, they’ll keep playing. The importance of creative outlets is unquestioned. So is the realization of what’s lost when the music stops. I know because I gave it up.
As a little kid, I had a different outfit for every day of the week. One, as relatives reminded me well into my adolescence, was a country-music getup: cowboy hat, vest, boots and toy six-string. While my father was partial to Eddy Arnold and Chet Atkins, I paraded around the house, pretending to be Johnny Cash or Glenn Campbell.
I outgrew that costume but held onto the guitar. My parents signed me up for Saturday morning lessons with a longtime teacher in town. He taught me some notes to cover hits like “On Top of Old Smokey.” But, regrettably, I didn’t stick with it long enough to learn “Smoke on the Water.” Games got in the way of lessons. Baseball practices took precedence over practicing chords. Then one day, the music died.
Decades later, if given one do-over in life, I’d never put that guitar down. And if offered a second mulligan, I’d pick up a second instrument. Probably piano.
The sports-obsessed child I was had no idea the adult I became listens in envy every time I take in a live performance. A stadium concert. A soloist at a neighborhood pub. A subway busker. Or a loved one beside a bonfire.
Several years ago, my wife and her father, once a collector of acoustic guitars, picked at the strings on Maine’s Hills Beach, accompanied by the crackling of logs aflame under a summer sky. On a more recent vacation, my daughter did what I’ve long thought to be the coolest: she sat down at a grand piano in a hotel lobby and started playing. If only I could do either.
Some of my friends have called World Series and Stanley Cup Finals. That’s great and all. But more impressive to me is they’ve also entertained on stage. At a Manhattan piano bar. And just off the Vegas strip. Me, I’ve never done karaoke.
Occasionally, however, I have grabbed my father-in-law’s old Jose Ramirez model and opened my Yousician app or tried YouTube tutorials. More than once, I vowed to learn the basics at least. It never happened.
But this winter, our mutual interest in music led me to search for documentaries to watch with my son. With each, I became further fascinated with the styles and stories of artists who make strings sing.
Following one of the docs, “Guitar Stories,” featuring old Dire Straits mates John Illsley and Mark Knopfler, my wife and I decided to sort through her dad’s collection. His guitars were weathered. Some had no strings attached. Some had cracks in their wood. But thankfully, some were still playable.
I took two of them to a tech at the local Guitar Center. He noticed one’s heel starting to separate and the other’s neck warping slightly. Knowing I couldn’t hear the difference anyway, I had them cleaned up and restrung. They’d be great to keep around our home, I reasoned, in case, you know, anyone wanted to play.
That same week, I was in the Park Street T station after teaching a class at Emerson College. An older gentleman sat nearby on the Red Line’s southbound platform. He was on a tiny folding chair, caressing his acoustic guitar, between a dolly used to cart his gear and a case opened to collect his tips. I complimented his playing — Latin music — dropped a fin in the case and struck up a short conversation.
Waiting on the Braintree train, I mentioned my musical regret and offered an inkling of my growing desire to make that ‘do-over’ a reality.
“Take lessons,” he advised, looking up from under the bill of his Red Sox cap while pausing between songs. “That way, you won’t develop bad habits.”
I heeded his words. Two weeks ago, I had my first lesson. Four chords in a half hour. Last week in my second, I got seven more chords to learn. It’s a start, and as much as I need practice, I love to practice.
Making up for all the lost time is impossible. Finger-picking like Knopfler or playing as well for as long as Johnny Ramone is beyond my wildest dreams. Becoming good enough to one day take a stage somewhere, especially someplace like Manhattan or Vegas, is highly improbable. It’s likely, I’ll always be in the audience.
I’m cool with all that. Just playing what I can already makes me feel a little less unhip. But there are a few goals I believe to be within my reach. Provided I stop the buzzing when my short fingers try to hold the C7 chord.
One, I’d like to master a song — and not ‘Old Smokey’ — well enough to play it by the fire this summer. A huge bonus if it goes for at least 4 1/2 minutes. More importantly, I want to motivate the kids who helped inspire me to pick up the guitar again to never put their instruments down.
And ultimately, I hope I’ll be good enough to be included with their favorite guitarists.