Friday, September 17, 2010


When I was a kid, we had an eight-track player in the car. The car might have been a Thunderbird, something like that, I don’t remember for sure. But I remember the 8-track. The way it clicked at inconvenient moments, double-clutching to the next song on the album.

Part of the reason that I don’t remember the car for certain is that my dad liked to get a new car every two years or so. I think the cars must have been leased by then. I only remember two cars of his clearly. The first was a yellow Rambler station wagon that we had when I was a really little kid. I loved that car. I think I cried when he sold it. The second was a yellow Nissan 240Z. He got that one after he and my mom divorced.

I had a more complicated relationship to that car. On the one hand, I liked it — it was cool-looking, and fast. On the other, it was basically a two-seater, so whenever my sister and I were both passengers, one of us would have to ride in the back cargo area, basically lying down, which wasn’t very comfortable.

This was, needless to say, in a time before seatbelt laws.

Better than the cars, I remember the music, the stuff on those eight-track cassettes. My dad was partial to Blood, Sweat and Tears, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. Other stuff that a few years ago got weirdly hip, and I would kind of feel a little snug for knowing and liking it already. Lounge music. Brazilian Jazz. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

(Okay, I’m not sure if that last one is considered “hip,” but I still love it, and that was the first concert I ever attended, me, my sister and my parents).

Most of these selections make a lot of sense, given my dad. Frank “I Did It My Way” Sinatra? That fits. Johnny Cash’s hard-luck songs of prisons and frustration and temptation—very much my father. Blood Sweat And Tears existential “Spinning Wheel” and “When I Die” – yeah, those make sense.

One of my dad’s favorites was one that I didn’t think to question until very recently, and that was the soundtrack to “Hair.”

Full title: “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.”

I’m not sure why it took me so long to consider how very strange this was.

My dad was a Korean War veteran who lied about his age so he could enlist in the Air Force and get away from the slums of the Bronx. He was seventeen years old. Too young to go off to war, when you think about it. But then, a lot of soldiers are.

I heard some strange stories about that time, once when he was very drunk and I was a little bombed myself. They came out after a dinner in Ohio, where he and his wife were living during one of his corporate assignments. I’d just come back from China, and though I had been on the other side of the planet, it was my first visit to Ohio, the first time that I’d ever realized my California upbringing might be considered strange or exotic by other Americans.

We’d gone to a restaurant (and like most Ohio restaurants then, the menu was nearly all meat and potatoes, so I was already in full-on California snob mode), gotten into a good-natured argument at dinner, something about Ronald Reagan, whom I predictably loathed and my dad worshipped.

We weren’t fighting at all. We were bantering, really. Having fun.

I can’t remember what set the older guy at the next table off, something I said about Reagan’s use of cheap flag and apple pie symbolism (I was young, okay?), and this man got really pissed off. He told me, and this I do remember clearly: “You’d better shut your mouth, little girl.”

I remember that I had a beer in my hand. I remember that I wanted to dump it on his head. But instead I got up and walked out to the lobby, because if I’d stayed another moment, I would have done it.

My dad was furious at the guy. He got up, and I thought maybe they were going to have a fight. I liked that, in a way, that my dad was actually mad on my behalf, that he was standing up for my right to express myself, even though he completely disagreed with me and we’d had some massive fights about this stuff in the past (and would continue to do so after).

I can’t remember what my step-mom did during all of this. I imagine that she was appalled and tried to calm things down.

What happened was, eventually my dad came out of the restaurant and drove the three of us home.

I asked what had happened. I was hoping, I guess, that Dad had continued to defend me to this asshole. No such luck. “He lost a brother at Pearl Harbor,” my dad informed me solemnly. And I’m like, oh, and this gives him the right to threaten me?

Again, I can’t remember exactly what happened, except that somehow the two of us were drinking and yelling at each other, and eventually my dad broke down in sobs about something that had happened in Korea, something that involved an accident on the plane (a big bomber—he was a radioman) and a guy whose head got blown off.

I really don’t know what to say about that. I don’t know what actually happened, if it even really happened; I don’t know anything more than that, than what he said, and the sobbing.

But I’m telling things out of order, as usual.

My dad was a Kennedy Democrat when he was younger, even though he spent most of his working career in the aerospace and “paramilitary electronics” industries. Sometime after JFK was assassinated and Vietnam escalated, he changed, like many. My mom did not. If anything she got to be more liberal.

This created a lot of tension in the house. My mom had the “Another Mother For Peace” poster. My dad had the faux peace symbol with the B-52 bomber forming the chicken leg and the graphic, “Peace Hell. Bomb Hanoi.”

So, you would think that I might have questioned why my dad loved “Hair” so much.

You know, the Broadway musical about a bunch of hippies dropping acid, making love, and protesting Vietnam.

Rather than questioning, because, hey, I actually was a little kid at the time, I was more interested in the songs my parents would attempt to censor when they clicked around on the eight-track.

One of them was a song sung by the African American cast members, about Abraham Lincoln. The parents would let us listen to most of this and then there was one part they would always turn down. The song that came after that, they’d let us listen to, in which the woman sings of her disgust about how the ideals of the Declaration of Independence are so much empty rhetoric, and at the end she laughs at Lincoln’s assassination, and says, “Shit, I ain’t dying for no white man.”

This upset me a lot when I was nine years old. I didn’t like that the America in this song wasn’t the America I’d been brought up to believe in. More importantly, I didn’t like the idea that people hated me for things I couldn’t change about myself. I’m selfish that way.

But they let us listen to the song where the black guy sings about all the horrible names he’s called. They let us listen to the song about LBJ and “the youth of America on LSD.” They let us listen to, well, everything on that album, about kids tripping and people being torn up by shrapnel and bombs in Vietnam, about “peace, love, freedom, flowers, happiness,” – everything except for one line in the first Abraham Lincoln song.

And one other song, which they would blank out in its entirety.

It’s hard to catch one line though, all the time. So, one time, we were driving someplace, my folks were chatting, and the Abraham Lincoln song came on, and they just spaced out. And I remember the comic lunge of both of them trying to turn down the volume in time for the offensive line.

They lunged. And missed. And we heard it: “Emancin-mother-fuckin-pater of the slaves, yeah yeah yeah! Emancin-mother-fuckin-pater…”

After that, they pretty much gave up on censoring that song. What was the point? We’d heard the forbidden words.

But the one song, the one that was entirely forbidden, they managed to turn that one down.

Every. Time.

This piqued my curiosity.

I think it was one of my best elementary school pals, Anne McDonald, who enlightened me. Her parents had the actual LP. So one afternoon, after school, she got out the album and we put it on the turntable, and we listened until we got to the Forbidden Song.

Before, I’d always heard the organ chord that began it, and that was the signal for my parents to lower the volume. This time, I got to listen:

“Sodomy….fellatio…cunnilingus…pederasty….Father, why do these words sound so nasty? Masturbation….can be fun…join the Holy-orgy Kama Sutra…everyone…”

Sigh. I guess it’s pretty predictable that it all came down to sex.

Of course at the time, neither Anne nor I knew what some of those words even meant. I remember we very studiously put the needle down on the track over and over and over until we thought we’d gotten all the words sounded out correctly, and then we looked them up in the dictionary.

But as usual, I digress.

My dad died at the end of December. It was both a shock and not surprising, and I guess there’s a lot that I might want to say about that, some day, but not now.

I have a really terrible memory in many ways, and I always have. But one thing I remember very well is music. Songs. Words and tunes. Orchestrations, even. Like an eight-track playing in my head.

At some point, shortly after my dad died, I was thinking about songs that he liked. And my sister came down to my place with her boyfriend, and some other friends came over, and we drank a lot of wine, and I did, “the Dad Mix.” All kinds of tunes that I had that I knew he loved. Brazil 66. “Spinning Wheel.” “Come Fly With Me.” “Folsom Prison.”

And that might have been when I remembered “Hair,” which at the time I didn’t have.

A couple days later, I bought the CD. I’ve listened to it a bunch of times since then, mostly while on long car trips, in the dark. I listen to the songs about hippies, and drugs, and “long beautiful hair,” and “two-hundred and fifty-six Vietcong captured.”

“Ripped open by metal explosions.”

I listen to the Sodomy song, all the way through.

And I wonder, what the fuck does this say about my father, the hawk, the Reagan Republican, the guy who worked in the defense industry, whose corporate nickname was “the Hatchet-man.” Who one time called me up, drunk and in despair, because he’d had to fire a couple hundred or thousand people, I don’t remember how many.

Who retired early, rode horses, built wooden camp cupboards modeled after the ones carried on covered wagons: a cowboy from the Bronx. Who certified as an EMT (which I used to kid him about, because I’d done that first), and even said once that helping people made up for a lot of other things in his life. I’m pretty sure he actually said that to me, and that I’m not just making it up, reading between the lines.

I can only guess, because I’ll never get to ask him. But I think I can guess right, guess some of it, at least.