Music is life. If there is a mantra one could associate with me, that would be the one. OK, there are maybe a few others, but let’s not be assholes about things shall we?
Anyway, the title of this piece is also the title of a song Dan Fogelberg released as a single in 1981. My tastes in music have always been eclectic and even though I was rocking to proto-hair bands like KISS, AC/DC, and Van Halen back then, I still loved a good ballad. Not “Beth” though. I never understood the hatred for that song, but I also never liked it. I get it, and I empathize. I’m a military man, after all. I just didn’t want KISS doing unplugged ballads.
I was 18 years old when “Leader of the Band” was released. It became a hit on the FM radio dial. That is how we got our music back in those dark days, kids. FM was overtaking AM as the over-air format of choice. I can explain those terms to you if you’re really bored. Or you could #AskAlex. Her Google Fu is next level.
I had been working at a popular local mom-and-pop restaurant for a couple years and an exotic-looking woman was hired as a hostess. She was five years my senior and I was… well, I was 18 and she was gorgeous. Anyway, while I was spending every minute trying to figure out how to get her to sleep with me (by which I mean ‘not sleep at all’ but instead have sex with me because I was 18 and can we just not talk about this right now?)...
Whew. I’m back. Apologies. Sometimes I get taken back in time.
This is the point where “Leader of the Band” enters stage right. It came out during the few months this woman and I were dating. I loved it because I love ballads and so I focused on learning the song. It’s a quirk I’ve always had; if a song hits me just right, I become obsessed with learning the lyrics and how to sing it. It just so happens that the release of that song, my dating this woman, and my learning the lyrics coincided just enough that she was impressed that I knew the words so quickly after she first heard of the song. I am not actually certain if I learned it with such speed because of her instead of just the fact that I loved the song, but I cannot discount the possibility. Have I mentioned she was smoking hot? Music is life.
In the years that followed, life went on as normal. Wars, divorce, natural disasters on multiple continents… life. And then, in early 2001, my dad died. We buried him on his 65th birthday. I am thankful that I was stationed the closest I ever was to home and was able to attend the funeral. I had missed my grandfather’s because I was in the Philippines and there was simply no time to make it work. Militarying ain’t easy.
I have written before about dad (actually, my stepfather and possibly the best man I ever knew personally) being a musician and the owner / showrunner / chief cook and bottle washer of a popular regional event band based in Mobile, Alabama. The first couple paragraphs here provide the most salient example:
My mother got divorced from David (my biological father) when I was 4 years old. That would have been 1968, I reckon. I cannot make my memory tell me when she started dating the only man I ever called “Dad,” but it couldn’t have been later than about 1971. Mom was a singer, and a damn good one. And dad’s band was a natural fit for a blonde songbird such as she. It really was a great way to grow up. Smoke-filled living rooms or garages with drum kits crammed into corners and a guy sitting on a tool box playing a dobro was like Disneyland for me. Mom actually took the three of us to Disney World in the early 1970s when she was still single (or divorced, depending on your religion and how you look at things). I never understood the draw, even as a pre-teen. But bands? This was my place and these were my people.
The band, called The Reservations, was really good. I know this because they were popular. Dad had a boat and we used to take it out in the Gulf and catch fish and just bask and eat sandwiches… a near-perfect day for a boy. And sometimes I’d wake up early for a planned trip down to the Island to go get some white trout or Spanish mackerel or whatever and be informed that a gig had popped up and going out in the Gulf was off. And money matters more than catching a fish, at least to grownups. It was a good way to learn about life.
And until that winter day in 2001 when we commemorated my dad returning to his Maker, it had never occurred to me that he was the leader of the band.
But he was. He was also the most honest person I can ever remember knowing. He joked and shucked and jived and danced and did all the things salesmen and bandleaders and show people have to do to get gigs. But he would never lie. I have spent my life trying to follow his example on that. I remember him first as the guy who took over my spot as the man of the house (I’m the eldest of three) and being irritated that I couldn’t work him like I could my mom. There was no hate that I recall, but as a teenager who was the alpha while mom was at one of her three jobs or doing a gig late at night, it got under my skin some. My domain had been irreversibly encroached. I was deposed without so much as a ‘by your leave!’
And then a bunch of stuff happened within a brief period of time (there was a life-changing hurricane and a… let’s call it a disagreement with my mother). And then some other stuff happened and I was married with a pregnant wife and in the Air Force.
I was in Germany in late 1993 or early 1994. In those days, speaking on a landline was still the most reliable and common method of communicating with family back home. I had been thinking about life and how things had played out to that point. Realizing how lucky I was to be living in Germany with a lovely wife and two lovely children and having a job and getting the mission done. And I was talking to Dad one night (day for him) and I just blurted ‘I’d like to call you “Dad” from now on, if that’s alright with you.”
I only ever saw dad cry in person one time. He was a lovely fellow, had many friends and was jovial and fair to all he encountered. What he was not was soft. The time I saw him cry was at his father’s funeral. He was a hard man.
And when I said that to him, unbeknownst to me at the time, he cried. He stopped talking and a minute later mom came on the line and asked me ‘What did you say to him? I’ve never seen him act like this before. He can’t talk.’
I cannot recall what he said that prompted me to tell him that, but it hardly matters at all. I’d known the guy for something like 23 years, and he’d been married to my mom for ~16 years. But I’d been thinking and cogitating on it for a while. I try to be really careful about these things. If I’m gonna commit emotionally, I’m gonna be certain. And if I do, you can count your un-hatched chickens.
The following paragraph is an addendum. It didn’t occur to me when I originally wrote this piece a week or so ago. I suspect that’s because we have this ability to suppress things that make us feel bad about ourselves and our character. Anyway, here goes:
As long as I remember, Dad always called me “son.” Not just talking to me, as any man might do with a boy. He introduced me to friends, colleagues, even clients (and prospective clients) as his son. I never recall him telling anyone I was his stepson. He introduced me to everyone he ever spoke to who hadn’t met me as “my son, Chris.” I had forgotten that even as I was writing this piece. I think at least part of the reason for that is that I had been thinking about it a long time. It was a big part of the process of coming to the ‘Dad’ decision. It wasn’t reciprocation, but it was heavy on my mind during that time. He never directly asked me to call him Dad, and in fact I don’t even recall knowing he would want me to. I guess that’s part of why I was taken aback when he got emotional when I said that to him.
If you will kindly indulge me, there are two songs that never fail to make my eyes well up about dad. First up is the song that inspired this piece and whose title I borrowed for it:
The other is from Brad Paisley, who seems to know me better than I know myself in many respects:
I love you, Dad. Requiescat in pace.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.