Stop me if I told you this one already, dad. It starts with my love for soul music, which I got from you. It’s impossible to overestimate the value, to me, of those flat Sam Goody bags you’d bring home from downtown Brooklyn with the latest Sam Cooke record inside.
“Mister Soul,” said the skeleton of my father.
You’d put that new disc on the turntable in the living room and I’d groove to each new track, before I even had the words to describe a groove, the feel, the voice, the thrilling freedom of a guy playing with time the way Sam Cooke did.
“Yeah, and of course, he had to be shot for that, for good old American values,” said the skeleton.
Like Patrice Lumumba.
“Lumumba died for freedom,” said the skeleton, raising a bony fist.
We’d listen to those Sam Cooke records in the living room and they would transport us. Mom would play Johnny Mathis, and I dug that music too, and the way his voice was drenched with reverb, a thing I also couldn’t identify, but loved from the start. Love of music is no small thing.
“Well, your mother and I both loved music. Somebody, maybe Nietzsche, said without music life would be a mistake,” said the skeleton.
It would certainly be as mistaken as a life without sex, something many millions don’t need to imagine.
“True enough,” said the skeleton. “But I know all about your love for Sam Cooke and how big a favor I did to your musical taste by marinating you in Sam Cooke when you were but a tadpole. What’s the story you said you may have told me already?”
Oh, yeah. One afternoon, as mom was getting close to her first and last trip to Hospice By The Sea, which was a lovely place but actually miles from the nearest sea, I heard her groaning from her bed and went in with my guitar. I don’t know if she was asleep or awake. She might have been in pain or having a bad dream about death, an eventuality she was determined not to talk about.
I sat by the bed and played a gentle samba-like vamp with my fingertips. It was the most soothing thing I’d come up with in my life and I thought it would calm her. She became quiet and I figured I’d lulled her back to sleep.
She opened her eyes, lifted her head off the pillow and said irritably “what IS that? It sounds terrible. It always sounds like you’re tuning your guitar.”
I never understood that. Here was a woman who loved music, pop music, opera, show tunes, country music, every kind of music. What was this “it always sounds like you’re tuning your guitar” shit? We finally had a conversation about it.
It turned out, much to my surprise, that she was no fan of instrumental music, had never liked it. When she listened to music she listened to the singers, their passion, the stories their songs told. That’s why, once she discovered it late in life, she loved country music: the big personalities of the singers and the great stories apparently told in many of the songs. “I never liked jazz, I love the melodies, I don’t care for improvisation. I listen to music like I read books: for a good story told in a great voice.”
I remember thinking, damn! I always assumed she was just being a dick, out of unhappiness with her own life, crapping on something I loved to do– play the guitar. I never sang, I wanted to play well enough to be an instrumentalist– a thing my mother, weeks before she died, told me she had no understanding of. In fact, she told me explicitly that she often had a hard time recognizing a song just by hearing the melody played on a guitar.
“Damn…” said the skeleton.
A year earlier mom began crying at the thought that she’d never hear my singer friend Joe sing again. I had Joe over to my apartment, opened garageband — a program that allowed me to accompany and record Joe and overdub other instruments afterwards– and accompanied him on a dozen or so songs from the Great American songbook. After he left I recorded a few more instrumental parts, but left the accompaniments spare, his voice front and center, with a nice dollop of reverb.
I brought the CD down to Florida, popped it into the computer and played it for her. She was painfully polite about it, how sweet of us it had been to try to make some music for her, but the music had clearly not done anything for her.
About a month later I was talking to her on the phone and she reported “the most amazing thing!” She’d been lying in bed listening to her iPod and suddenly Joe was singing and it was so beautiful she couldn’t believe it, she had no idea how the song had even got on her iPod. It sounded like he was singing in a big hall. It was gorgeous!
“Which she pronounced ‘gawgiss’,” said the skeleton.
Yeah. I explained to her that I’d put the tunes on her iPod from the CD, and if she found a playlist called Joe DiSalle Trio she could hear all dozen or so tunes we’d recorded for her. I coyly asked her what she thought of the trio (which was me on guitar, keyboard and bass) and she said they were good. I explained that the big hall sound was a kind of reverb, called “big hall”, that I’d added to Joe’s voice to give him that Johnny Mathis sound. I told her I wasn’t surprised it sounded so much better on the iPod, as it was mixed to be heard in stereo through headphones and not over the crappy speakers of the computer in the den.
“Nice story,” said the skeleton.
Yeah, but that’s not the story. So a couple of days after cracking up a room full of hospice women in her bedroom in your apartment, she’s suddenly feeling like shit. She often said “I don’t know why I feel so goddamned shitty all the time!” in the months before she finally died. I knew not to make any linkage to her approaching death from a painful and wasting cancer that had spread to her whole body.
“Which was kind of you,” said the skeleton.
Anyway, they finally took her, on a gurney, down to an ambulance to take her to Hospice by the Sea. One of the magpies that used to sit with Ed Pulley and his dim girlfriend on those benches in the parking lot, a woman mom always hated, a nosy ignoramus and a racist, called out “they’re taking another one to die!” In that case she was right, but what the fuck?
At the hospice mom lingered for a few days. I brought my ukulele and I was working on a solo version of I’ll See You in My Dreams, which I played many times while I sat in the room there. Not long before the end, as I continued to play it, mom turned to me with a big smile and said “I’ll See You in My Dreams!”