Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I think it was my friend Rob Dewar who dubbed my dad The Big Man. No offense to Clarence Clemons, that other big man, but the name came to life as part testimonial to his size, 6’4”, and his large presence, his encompassing capacity for love and concern, his benevolent and instructive role in everyone’s life, and the depth of his acumen and intelligence. It was a Big Name, but he lived up to it and walked tall with it, gracefully and powerfully. We used to laugh and say we were gonna get bracelets that said “WWBGD” because he was never flustered or without direction. He was the rudder.
The Big Man. He was a giant of a man, an enormous spirit among us, imbued with a pragmatic optimism that in his mind made all things in this country seem possible. It’s something my sisters & I constantly heard growing up—“You can do anything in this country. You can come from nowhere.”
He believed that dreams were merely ambitions, and could be realized with work, friendship, teamwork and vision, yet he was keenly and emotionally aware that the starting line in this country was not the same for all of us. He was an egalitarian in this sense, although he worked in the framework of capitalism, and trusted capitalism until he saw it fall apart at the end of his life. Ultimately he truly placed his faith in democracy as the way to live together.
He didn’t intellectualize his sense of what democracy meant, or ignore it, or just live with it and enjoy its benefits; he and his generation DID something about it. As Mayor of our hometown of Saginaw in the 1960s, he was an outspoken advocate for civil rights. He championed a uniform civil rights policy for state and local governments so that there would not be discrimination against minorities among different municipalities. While mayor, he was also president of the United Negro College Fund, bolstering his belief in realized dreams through a concrete connection to public education.
He and councilman Henry Marsh worked with then Michigan governor, George Romney, to pass legislation at a state level to benefit minorities and inner cities. In October of 1963, the Michigan Conference of Mayors adopted their resolutions for an aggressive stand on civil rights which, among other things, called for equal employment opportunities and equal housing rights for all. I’m very proud of my dad’s commitment to civil rights, his commitment to equality, and his friendship with and support for Mayor Henry Marsh, his successor and Saginaw’s first African-American mayor.
I’m named after him. Growing up with the same name as a self-assured man with his place already soundly carved out in the social fabric of our town and state wasn’t always easy. Add to that the fact that my dad & I were entirely different as people, as men, and it was a confusing, sometimes angry relationship when I was in my late teens and 20s.
He was, however, far more understanding than he was rigid and didactic, and had been a musician himself as a young man—a drummer, no less. He loved his music as much as I loved mine, and once we grew toward each other, working to come to terms with it all—big band, jazz, rock and roll, each other—we found that we were both floating in the same stream of the Great Song, that incredible continuum of music that runs from Louis Armstrong and Billy May to James Brown and The Beatles with only changes in tempo, volume, lyrical content and whether it was a coronet or a strat in the 8 bar solo section. Of the many gifts he gave me, I most appreciate the love of music—a working knowledge of all the American music. Once we started to listen to each other, and each other’s music, everything improved. He went from urging me to sing Sinatra standards on Cruise Ships to getting why rock and roll was such a life-changing thing.
He once saw the legendary saxophonist Sonny Stitt, a fellow Saginawian, in an airport, and was proud that Sonny introduced him to his guys as “a drummer.” And he surely hadn’t played in years.
I think most of us sons try to impress and please our fathers, and either succeed and live with it or give up for the sake of self revelation and survival. I had to give up there for awhile, and just do my own thing in my own way, because I couldn’t find the words to explain to him what I was trying to do, trying to be, how the artist’s life is undefined and chaotic if you’re looking in from the outside, but often highly disciplined and ascetic in actuality.
We couldn’t bridge our differences for awhile: He understood and succeeded in big business; I saw it as manipulative and cold. He hated long hair; I grew it to my ass and loved it. He loved music and knew many musicians, but never thought of a musician’s life as stable or enduring--living as an artist was no way to make your way in love or family or career. He loved order, discipline and predictability; I’d always lived a disciplined life privately but courted chaos and unpredictability until my own kids were born. To impress him and earn his respect and acceptance, I had to reject him and his lifestyle.
I had his name but none of his gifts, or so I thought at the time, and no one stood up to disagree. He was too overwhelming, too gracious, too confident, so gifted as a public person and only plagued with self doubt later in his life.
I remember when he & my mom came to my graduation day from college—I was young, angry and hubristic, and failed to recognize how important it was for them to have a kid graduate from college, a real regret now. In addition to that, the commencement speaker was Jim McDonald, then VP of GM, my dad’s employer at the time, so it was a momentous deal. In my disgust with all things bourgeois and straight, I thought it a good idea to wear nothing but socks underneath my gown, and hope the wind didn’t blow the gown to reveal my birthday suit. When I told my dad I was probably the only naked graduate, to my surprise he found it funny. He understood and loved my mom’s joyous eccentricity and recognized it in me I guess. But when he was 19, he was a Lieutenant in the Air Force, with a world of responsibility and war thrust upon him. There was no sowing of wild oats for him as a young man.
We tussled and struggled through my youth and early adulthood, always loving each other deeply but not understanding each other much. I was successful as an athlete in school, and he showed his pride and love and respect.
When I began playing music full time at 20, he didn’t get or really approve of what I was doing, when in fact, as it’s turned out, it’s almost identical to what he’d done: live in and love my own community, identify the strengths and weaknesses of my community, reach out to others through words and music, try and stay involved out front in a visible way with a message that says that each of us has a true connection to each other and profound singular value, even in our anonymity. The thought is then to help us all identify and change how we live together. He sought to change what he saw while accepting and building upon what was already good about people and place; I continue to try and do something similar. With music, sometimes the objective is just to make people happy or carefree, minus any political entanglements.
In my early 20s I recall playing one of the toughest joints in Michigan, out on Groesbeck Highway, a biker bar with a rough, drunk, mean, indifferent audience. It was smoky, loud, vulgar, violent, sexual, and if you rocked you went over. My kind of place at the time. My parents were always ridiculously loyal in coming to hear me sing or watch sports when I was a kid, and that night I looked out through the smoke and dust and humidity at a table in the middle of this joint to see my mom in her nicest evening dress and my dad in a suit after leaving some GM function. By the end of the night, they’d made friends with everyone around them, buying drinks and shots, listening to the band, having fun, never wasting a minute.
The men that came out of the Depression and WWII were stoic kind of guys. Their models were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, the austerity of Hemingway. My dad was gentle, sweet, patient and kind, but was not an exception to this rule of avoiding any mawkish display. Ever. Not a lot of random praise or expressions of love were spoken, so he showed his love through little actions or hand-made projects. When I was 11 he made me this large box adorned with Sports Illustrated photos of my favorite players in all sports—Walton, Unitas, Jabbar, Willie Horton, Namath. It took a ton of carpentry work, but was apparently easier than saying “I love you.” So be it.
Although retirement at 65 and the 20+ years that ensued were certainly no friend to him and his self esteem, it was a great gift of time for us. We grew to be closer than just father and son; we became best friends and confidantes. I called him or he called me 4-5 times a day for at least the last 15 years, and the same was probably true with my sisters.
When I was very sick with leukemia and going though a stem cell/bone marrow transplant, he would talk to me about sports, the great common subject, as if nothing was wrong, keeping me in the flow of daily life—a very important aspect of survival. And he would never flinch when the toughest questions came at him.
I remember one night, the two of us alone in my room, when I said that I was struggling so hard to survive and live, and it felt like I was losing. I said to him that maybe there’s a way to die as well as live and I should seek that, that acceptance and dignity. Can you imagine your only son talking to you about his own death? I cannot. But he just calmly agreed with me without dramatics, said that, yes, there is surely a way and time to die, but I should just keep giving it one more day and see how I went. It was such pragmatic encouragement…no histrionics, no exposed fear, just emotional consistency and the kind of faith that’s real, not pie-in-the-sky with religious nonsense and your worth tied to your right to live. He had emotional consistency by the truckload.
That night he waved off the orderly who usually took me by wheelchair down to x-ray, and just talked about the Lions and how lousy they were (it was a Sunday in November) and how they’d been lousy since Bobby Layne, and did I remember Pat Studstill and Karl Sweetan and all the Lions that I’d loved as a kid. It was the most kind and humane thing anyone’s ever done for me. I was slumped in the wheelchair with a heart infection and no blood counts and couldn’t talk, but his soliloquy got me through the night. He stayed with me that night at Karmanos, sleeping in a tiny chair for his large frame, and woke with the same kind encouragement he’d given me the night before. He’d seen me through perhaps the longest, worst night of my life. And we both love the Lions to the day he died, good, bad or worse. It was our team, and a real bond between us.
I think at some point in the middle of his life he made it his code to ask about your life and times, your school, your work and family; it was a transgression to discuss himself in conversation, a betrayal of his stoic code.
I also think it’s fitting that his town, Saginaw, a place he loved and served and had to return to almost magnetically over the years, is naming a bridge after him now. It’s a real honor to him and his vitality. He and my mom and their generation extended a hand--they built relationships like bridges. They got stuff done—built a Zoo, developed relationships with Japan, built parks and a Civic Center.
Since he died, much has been written about his public life and achievements. Great men often don’t make good fathers. He would’ve scoffed at the idea of him as anything but just a guy, and I can’t imagine a finer father. He was to me just my dad, always there, a robust sense of humor always humming, always fired up to see you when you walked in to his place, and see his grandchildren and sons and daughters-in-law. As I wrote and recorded more music, worked at my career, and played different and larger shows, he expressed his pride and love for me at every turn. I gotta tell ya, although I had long ago stopped seeking his acceptance or approval, it felt pretty good once it was earned and expressed.
On the last night he was conscious, July 29, I sat on the bed, held his hand and said to him, “Dad, there’s so much love being expressed about you and your health. You’re the most beloved man I know, the most beloved man on earth.” With his eyes closed and mouth open, looking as if he was between worlds, he held up both hands and pantomimed playing a violin. The humor was there to the end—that act said to me: “Big fuckin’ deal. Stop blowin smoke up my skirt. I’m busy dyin’ here.”
For every moment but those last few, he was always busy living—with enormous vitality, kindness, humor, love and sense of responsibility that will remain unmatched in its unique confluence of gifts. He and his generation lived all the slogans we need to remind us to live—“I’m gonna live ‘til I die;” “Money can’t buy happiness, but it’s easier crying in a Cadillac.” They didn’t need maxims; they were the Nike generation before there was one. They just did it.
On the morning of July 30, my sister & I held his hand and I put my hand on his chest, feeling his heart flutter then simply stop. That mighty and inclusive and loving heart just ceased working.
I have no idea what, if anything, happens to us after we die. But I do believe that, while life certainly ends, love endures in many forms, forever. If my dad were alive tonight I’d call him and read this to him to see if I got it anywhere close to right. He probably would’ve said, “Don’t let them think I went to Michigan.” Those Spartans, so touchy to the end.
I’ve been told it will get worse before it gets better, this ache in my chest, this desperate and sorrowful longing, this numbing distraction, the sheer physical part of missing someone no longer in this world. I’ve gone to call him several times, walked to his house many times since he’s been gone, as it was part of my daily ritual when he was alive and we were up north near his home. I don’t mind admitting I’m a grown man who is very much wayward, a grown man who has lost his footing and balance right now, because the gift my dad gave me when I was young and searching and angry and uncertain is this: he knew that all who wander are not lost.