When I was a child, my father moved from Chicago to upstate New York and bought a Pontiac Grand Prix which his carrying case for cassettes almost never left. His taste, as reflected by the tapes, seemed to run mostly to artists like James Ingram and Bruce Hornsby. I’m not sure there was much money for babysitting, and we went everywhere together. He told me stories of how I’d been a baby and he’d held me in the crook of his arm, cradling my head in his hand, and listening to me talk. “Well, actually — ” he said was the way I’d start my discourses. It was mortifying to hear, but he spoke of it fondly. I remember waiting in the car one day as he went into a building to do something, shortly after putting the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet on.
I must have been about five or six years old. I sat listening to the album, which could not have gone through more than a few songs before he returned to the car. I could not make heads or tails of it. It sounded to me like dirty, mechanical noise. I’m fairly certain that I could tell there were vocalizations, and people were shouting, but nothing sounded like language to me, and the shouts seemed entirely without purpose. I looked at the tape case, which featured a photo of a public bathroom covered in graffiti, and wondered what would possess my father to own this tape, or what logic determined why a track began or ended, or what was put into it.
Many years later, when first hearing the Stooges, the Clash, or Califone, I had the lightest approximation of that experience, but by that time I could tell what instruments were playing and the way these instruments affected the sonic space. I could hear structure. Even when I couldn’t puzzle out the lyrics, I could tell how the capacity and limitations of the human voice shaped the lyrics and how they were sung. Never again did I have the experience of totalizing confusion I’d had that first time with the Stones, an experience that turned me off to the band for nearly a decade.
In general, I don’t think I produced many memories of confusion of the level I experienced with Beggars Banquet. I’m not sure the child’s mind is set up to long remember such a sustained and complete failure to recognize anything capable of bearing meaning. Many years later, I would develop a taste for single-chord Mississippi Hill Country drone blues, including songs stripped of any notes capable of indicating modality: a long succession of roots, fourths, fifths, and octaves. I’d listen to Cedell Davis or Tom Waits play on guitars and pianos that had been left months without tuning, producing things that could be compared to standard intervals based only on the spaces between their fingers. Songs that made my father look at me and say, “Ok, I understand, but let’s listen to something else.”
It would be wrong to suggest that I was chasing that childhood experience of being mystified by my father’s rock and roll tape. I simply don’t have the mind capable of being that confused anymore. I’m not sure I would want to. It is said that Daniel Defoe, after having become an accomplished author, accurately predicted that one day he would fall into a mental state such that he would no longer understand himself or his surroundings. When it happened, it was perhaps the result of a stroke, but it’s something I sometimes fear myself. At the time I first heard Banquet, I was already able to enjoy my father’s tapes of Peter Cetera and Mariah Carey (though I had no idea what words were coming out of Cetera’s mouth). At school, I was reading Fun with Dick and Jane unaided and playing for hours with pedagogic toys. But here was this music that was completely beyond me.
It wasn’t just music in those young days. Another day, my father left Hornsby’s album Harbor Lights on while going into a building. I sat in the passenger seat of the Grand Prix, looking at the tape case and puzzling at the image on the cover. I eventually was very pleased with myself to decide that it was a low-angle image of modernist architecture seen from the outside. I spent extra time poring over the details.
Long afterward, I realized that the album art in question was Edward Hopper’s Rooms By The Sea. It remains my favorite of Hopper’s paintings, but other than an awareness of the spatial distribution of the walls, I can’t reproduce what it was that once made me think I was looking at a downtown urban scene. That part of me has gone completely. It’s something I think of from time to time even now when interacting with young children.
Not long after moving to New York, my father stopped buying new music for himself. Hornsby’s Hot House seems to have been his last new acquisition until well after I left home. He took one listen to the pianist’s prestidigitation and decided it was showing off. My father had played jazz bass, upright and electric, and remembered a bassist of Miles Davis’ whose spareness of attack revolutionized his own playing after he heard it live one night in California.
He would still buy music for me, at first mainly compact discs of the tapes from his car that I most enjoyed. I remember listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland on a Sony Walkman and thinking the track “That Was Your Mother” held a catchy key to the 1980s. From time to time, I would catch bits of the movie She’s Having A Baby when I watched cable television alone at home.
Jazz was something I never heard my father listen to when I was young. Even Joni Mitchell, who at her height of musicianship toured with a bassist from Weather Report, and to whom he’d listened to much when he was young and would listen to again when he was older, remained outside our sonic world in those years. Anita Baker, however, was a constant. It wasn’t until I was in high school that my father bought me a copy of In A Silent Way and started to give me a tour through jazz fusion. I was finally old enough, and I could listen to him talk excitedly for hours about Joe Zawinul, Eric Gravatt, Miroslav Vitous, and Ron Carter, or, more succinctly, why Keith Jarrett never did anything for him and where the border lay in the works of Herbie Hancock. In elementary school music classes, jazz had been represented entirely by the most overexposed songs from Louis Armstrong’s catalog and a brief review of three versions of Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” I’d heard my father inveigh against the Marsalises and others he said wished to make jazz a museum piece playing over the tuxedo’d backs of the denizens of Lincoln Center, and now he let me into some of the world around whose margins he’d moved well before I was born.
Not all of his jazz was in this space between us. Earl Klugh’s music played between him and his own father. We’d drive to Pittsburgh, where my father had grown up and where my grandparents still lived. The neighborhood was Point Breeze, memorialized in print by Annie Dillard and John Edgar Wideman, filled with sycamores and fronting a cemetery that backed into the unlandscaped Frick Park. Sometime after each of our arrivals, my grandfather would put on a Klugh album unannounced, like an olive branch he and my father continued to pass between them long after it was necessary, if it ever had been.
My father shared Wes and Monk Montgomery’s music with me, but I don’t think four sentences ever passed between the two of us about Klugh. Even now, when I hear Finger Painting, it’s too much like opening a door to someone else’s room. As silly as I’m sure it is, I want to switch to Moving Wes or Jaco Pastorius, something that doesn’t make me feel quite so much in a different part of the house. I turn on “Liberty City” or “Cannon Ball” and I’m back home.