Dec 282013

When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was immediate: “A hippie.” As I reached this career revelation my uncle had enough with his parents and split for a trip to Colorado. I vaguely recall a big scene with my grandmother crying uncontrollably and doors slamming as he left the house, it seemed, for good. He was wearing an Army jacket, which I’d never seen on anyone but my G.I. Joe figures until that time. I was a little worried about losing him while at the same time a little excited by the prospect of one day joining him.

After a couple weeks in the Rockies, my uncle returned home. He gave me his Army-issue sleeping bag to use on my first-ever camping trip. That bag, with real down stuffing and a troublesome zipper, was the coolest. I don’t know what happened to the jacket.

The influence my uncle had on my interests in music and sports is core to who I am today. The time spent hanging in his bedroom listening to a 8-track tapes while he let me fingerpaint Day-Glo designs on wall space next to his stereo was like a trip to the Old Country. He gave me my first look at the world under black light. He had a collection of velvet and wildly patterned shirts, with massive collars and puffy sleeves. I couldn’t wait to grow up and fit into those shirts.

He drove a pale yellow Buick Skylark with a black vinyl roof. His car always had a distinctive odor, an odor I could never place. “What’s that smell?” I asked him one day.

“Uh, one of my friends ate a cheesesteak,” came his hesitant reply, “with onions.”

My uncle played piano. He was the first musician I’d ever seen play live. Although he’d taken lessons since he was a young boy, he rarely played with other musicians. He told me he lacked confidence to play in a band. The world’s loss, I thought. He’d play around the house on a regular basis, and I’d sit in amazement as he played Traffic’s “Glad,” Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow,” and Leon Russell’s take on “Youngblood.”

At the urging of my grandmother, he’d also play romantic classical pieces that, although impressive in their technical mastery, showed me a side of my uncle I didn’t care to see. My grandmother would weep with joy as he hammered away at the classical music all his childhood lessons were meant to instill in him. Call me close minded, but that Chopin scene simply wasn’t half as liberating as when Uncle Joe played “Glad.” I loved my Gran like no one else but her requests were my uncle’s kryptonite.

Sometimes, beginning around the age of 12, I’d bring records down to our living room, where we had one of those gigantic wooden stereo consoles, as wide as a piano, with built-in, cloth-screened speakers. It was a substantial piece of furniture, holding foot-high reproductions of sculptures representing conquistadors, for god knows what reason. For a brief period conquistadors were in vogue, maybe owing to the popularity of The Man of La Mancha. My first and only basketball hero, Wilt Chamberlain, would end his career as player-coach of an ABA team called the Conquistadors. Lawsuits would prevent Chamberlain from playing with that team, and apathy would prevent him from continuing as a coach. I believe it was exactly at this moment that conquistadors went out of vogue.


The midsection of my family’s stereo console top flipped up to reveal a metal turntable, sunken, on springs. The knobs were big and black. They clicked into place just so. As the tubes warmed up the stereo gave off a pleasing hum and mild fire-hazard odor. When I was little and my Dad was still around he used to play me the Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” on that thing. It sounded great, and he’d get lost in the music the way he did over only one other song in the 12 years I knew him: Bobby Darin’s take on “Mack the Knife.”

I don’t think I’ll ever know what made my father tick and how those two songs might have explained it. He left me with such a small sample size compared with the musical tastes of most of the important people in my life. I do remember loving to listen to “1812 Overture” with him. The ending, with all those cymbals bashing and cannons firing off, gave me goose bumps. He would get psyched up in anticipation for this part too. We got a charge out of the composition’s violent finale.

My father also was a bit of a history buff, and he’d fill me in on the historic significance of the War of 1812 while loading the record and during its quiet parts. I haven’t retained an ounce of his history lessons, but looking back maybe our quarterly listening session with that lone Tchaikovsky record was his “guy” way of using music to help channel a more personal line of communication. It’s one of a handful of sweet memories I have of the man.

His love for “Mack the Knife,” on the other hand, was creepy. As a kid I couldn’t tell what that song was about, who this Mack character was, and why anyone cared that he was back in town. I couldn’t relate to the jazzy music and frequent modulations. My Dad knew every word of that song and sang along, in a trance. I don’t recall ever hearing him sing aloud except for that song. He used to hum and was quite a whistler, but only “Mack the Knife” inspired him to sing. Unlike “1812 Overture” he never tried to impart a history lesson or any other words of wisdom during that song. It was “his” song and his song alone. He’d shush me when it came on. When the song was over I was free to find whatever song I liked on the radio dial.

My Dad never owned a copy of “Mack the Knife” or any other Bobby Darin record. He was content to hear it randomly, on the radio, while calmly driving, ideally on his beloved Route 1. That Tchaikovsky album may have been the only record he took with him when he moved out.


  16 Responses to “The Ballad of Easy Rider”

  1. Amazing how much commonality between yours and my musical youth. I’m guessing you are about 50, like me.

    The Band is also in my top 5 albums – “standin’ by your window in pain, tang tang, tang”. I discovered it when I was about 20.

    My mum also loved Bacharach, etc, but my father had no interest in music.

    Unlike you, I hardly listen to music anymore. I have a maxim: if I liked it when I was 13, it is probably sh1t. Santana, Steppenwolf and Creedence Live in Europe, for instance. Ironically, the only music I do listen to is the sort my mum liked – Bacharach, etc.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Mod, that was awesome. Know that I read all the way through it, entranced, despite the fact that we had a horrible, awful, unusually sleep-deprived night with the baby. And the dog, who also decided rest was optional last night. I desperately *need* a cup of strong coffee, but I’m putting it off to write this note to you, so good was your story-telling. Keep at it!

    Your pal for life in the spirit of rock,


  3. Yes, I turned 50 this summer. For the record, I no longer purposely listen to Santana under any circumstances, but that album cover and Santana’s sustained, overdriven notes dazzled me when I was a young boy and, secretly, still dazzle me a little bit to this day.

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    Wha…? Aren’t you the guy who turned me on to “Caravanserai”?

  5. 2000 Man

    That was great! We never had one of those console stereo’s. Eventually dad got a Webcor all in one with two tiny speakers and I think the turntable platter was smaller than a 45. Albums on Dynaflex vinyl wouldn’t even play on it because the record would bow and the needle would just slide off the outer edge. Great stuff, though. Someday I’ll have to write about my dance class in 8th grade. I probably have the same “rhythm” as you!

  6. I thought you turned me onto that one! OK, let me get this straight: I still love the way Santana’s guitar sounds; I just don’t like many of his songs. Caravanserai is good to this day because it’s mostly instrumental.

  7. Definitely enjoyed reading this Mr. Moderator!

  8. Suburban kid

    Yeah I enjoyed that. I wish I had an uncle who rocked. I only had an older brother, but he wasn’t that much older.

    I had various cheap record players, but I loved the one that used to belong to my grandparents. It must have been from the 50s (wouldn’t earlier ones only have 78 rpm?), but it was very old fashioned looking when we got it. A self-contained wooden box with a lid, an AM-only radio, and a nasty brown turntable under the lid.

  9. H. Munster

    I look forward to the book.

  10. Santana is like Clapton – fine guitarist, sh1t songs.

  11. Mod – my ma bought me that little portable record player too. I had one record: ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford which I played over and over and over constantly for a week. The first record I bought with my own money was ‘Ballad of the Green Beret’ by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, and before I lost my warlike ways and became a Veetnam pacifist I also owned ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ but dripped a blob of model glue on it rendering it unplayable in the middle passages. Me and my brother and sister put our money together and bought ‘Something New’ by the Beatles for $1.98. Good times.

  12. diskojoe

    My first record player was a hand me down GE portable from my sister, then a battery-powered Panasonic circa 1969 in grey plastic. My father got us a RCA combo stereo-color TV in 1970 that I used to played the first albums I bought @ the Record Exchange (1st one: December’s Children & Everybody’s by the Stones) that remains mute in our living room to this day.

    I think that I’m going to be “Uncle Joe” to my grandnephew. I showed him a couple of episodes of the Beatles cartoon show that I have on a bootleg DVD & the next time he came over, he went to my room, grabbed the DVD & said “Beatles!, Beatles!”

    Finally, Bill Russell was better 😉

  13. Mr. Mod, put me down for the book – or a Kickstarter payment to fund publication.

  14. mockcarr

    Mod, I think I inherited a box turntable that already had the glossy paper covering the chip board peeling off of it. I miss having a 16 rpm setting.

    thanks foe some decidedly anti-meh content.

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    Looking forward to future installments 🙂

  16. misterioso

    Mod, I really enjoyed reading this. No one in my immediate family was “into music” when I was growing up and I more or less found my own way, which has its upside and downside. My father was born in the 20s and to immigrants from a non-English speaking land, no less, and he had no interest in rock and roll and liked to give me grief for listening to druggies like the Beatles and Stones. (I am 5 years younger than you so you can figure out the rough timeline.) My mother’s younger but still was a married woman by the time rock and roll hit in the 50s, but she was hip enough to give my father a hard time about listening to “dentist office” music on the car radio, and that helped.

    It makes me a little sad that you only find displeasure in your uncle’s playing Chopin for your grandmother. Partly because I love Chopin more than Traffic. Of course, I don’t know how your uncle felt about playing it; but it’s too bad you seem to hear in Chopin only something people are told they have to like as opposed to great music. (I know some younger people who feel the same way about the Beatles, actually, and that really makes me sad.)

    I don’t think I can invite you to my clubhouse, though, ’cause I don’t want anyone drawing on my Beatle lps.

    Very New Year to everyone!

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