East of NORMAL
Leopards, old dogs, and Telecasters
To say my father and I had our moments of contention would be like calling Hitler a rascal. It doesn’t go far enough. Dad was a preacher. On Sunday mornings, he was the funniest, knee-slapping, socially outgoing guy you ever saw. Then he came home, loosened his tie, sat back in his recliner, and barely said a word for the next six days. It was actually better in the house when he wasn’t talking, because that meant he wasn’t yelling.
On his birthday, when I was 12 or 13 years old, Dad was in his usual state in the living room, watching a football game on TV, pushed back in the recliner with his interlocked fingers behind his head. I was a little old to be cute but when you’re the baby in the family, you push it. For some reason, we had cupcakes in the house. I found a birthday cake candle and stuck it in a cupcake, lit it with a kitchen match and went into the living room, carrying it in two hands, approaching within 4 feet of Dad while standing just to the side of the television. (You didn’t get between the TV and Dad if the house was on fire.) I don’t remember if I started singing “Happy Birthday” or if I just heard it in my mind. He turned his head from the television to me for a second, maybe two, and then he turned his gaze back at the TV. My next memory is the candle snuffing out in the kitchen wastebasket, a little string of smoke rising up from its resting place among the coffee grounds and egg shells. That one moment made me.
And by the age of 16, I’d been yelled at and frozen out by this potted plant of a father for too long and too often. I was angry and depressed that we weren’t the Brady Bunch, weren’t the Waltons, weren’t much of a family at all. One night I was 16 and screaming my head off — a suicidal gesture in that home — and I don’t even remember what it was about. I was in my bedroom, and I threw a chair at my closet door, putting a well-sized hole in the door and not doing the chair any favors either. That got Dad out of the recliner. He came down the hall to my room and said one thing: “Shut it up.” For the first time in my life, I stood up to him. Fists clenched, I hissed, “Why don’t you just try and stop me?” He brusquely retorted, “Son, I’ll take you on even if it puts me in the grave.” (He had a bad heart.) I didn’t hit him. I could have kicked his butt eight ways to Sunday, but I could see the headlines: “Young Healthy Teenager Whips Heart Patient’s Ass.” That wouldn’t have reflected well on me.
Years went by with Dad and me doing a dance of détente. And my depression problems got worse instead of better. Girls had a lot to do with it. Christmas college break my junior year was as low as I had ever gotten. I’d been dumped (again) and it had pushed me over the edge for the last time. I pretty much decided that, if this was life, then fuck it — I want out! I’d drive around my hometown endlessly, come home, slouch through the front door and back to my room, put on records and just stand there, in front of the turntable, listening to records. For hours.
The night before Christmas Eve, my parents came to my room. I was scaring them, and they didn’t know what to do. I told them this. “Mom, Dad, I’m really sorry, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I really don’t want to live anymore. If this is what life is, I don’t want to go through any more of it.”
There was silence. And then Dad spoke. Not Mom, Dad. He put his arm on my shoulder. (Which had never happened before.) “Son,” he said, “would you mind seeing a psychiatrist if we can find one?” “Uh … sure,” I think I said.
They left the room for a little while, I flipped over the Elvis album on the turntable to play the other side, and here came Dad back into my room. He put his hand on my shoulder again, and said, “Son, you know we love you, and we’re here for you; whatever we need to do to help you, we’ll do it.” “Thanks,” I said, thinking, “Who are you and what have you done with Dad?
One day soon after, I was on the side of my bed, playing some morose dirge on my guitar with a harmonica holder around my neck, which was a routine thing, trying to be Bob Dylan. Dad came in and said, “Son, I found something you might could use.” Then he sat down on my bed a paper shopping bag from Don’s House of Music. He pulled out five harmonicas, all in different keys. Harmonicas aren’t cheap, and here was the potted plant buying me five.
Winter became spring became summer, and the affirmations kept coming. I would hose out the garbage can. Dad would say, “Son, that can hasn’t looked that good in years!” I’d mow the yard and he’d say, “Son, that’s a really good mowin’ job you done there.” They say a leopard can’t change its spots; but here I was, watching it happen.
I had a super cheap Kalamazoo electric guitar. The action was awful. I couldn’t play leads on it. One day I came home from Don’s, and sat down in the living room. Dad and Mom were both sitting there watching television. Where you been, son? “I was just down at Don’s. You know the guitar intro to ‘Time is on My Side’?” (Of course they didn’t.) “Well, the electric guitar I have isn’t good enough for me to be able to play it well; but I was just down at Don’s, playing a Telecaster off the rack and played it perfectly. Oh well.” That’s all I said. And then I went back to my room. I wasn’t hinting. I know it sounds like that, but we didn’t have that kind of money. That guitar was just a dream. I thought, maybe I’ll be able to get one someday.
I was sitting on my bed reading a Creem magazine, and Dad came in and sat down at the foot of my bed. We small-talked a little bit, which at one point of my life would have been unthinkable. Then he said, “Son, you like that guitar at Don’s?” “Yes,” I said, “I do.” And he said, “What if you had that guitar?” I don’t remember my response. I might not have had one. The next day, Dad took me to Don’s and asked me to pick up the guitar I wanted. I went straight to the wall where hung the cream-colored Telecaster I’d played the day before. We took it up front, and Dad wrote a check for the whole amount. Dad never made more than $200 a week as a preacher, ever, and here he was writing a check for $450 plus tax. I don’t know where or how he got the money, but there he was, writing a check for the full amount.
If you ever come to hear me play and spy a beat up cream-colored Telecaster on stage, that’s the guitar, the Telecaster I’ve been playing for 33 years. I once said, ‘Dad, there’s no way to thank you, except to play the heck out of this guitar.’ And I have, from New York to LA to Italy to Texas to dozens of recording studios. And like I’ve alluded to, leopards can change their spots, old dogs can learn new tricks, and I can play the heck out of “Time is on My Side.”