Tag Archives: My Aquatic Childhood and My Father the Pirate

Tori Amos: Boys for Pele

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

June 29, New York: I haven’t listened to Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele since 1996. It was probably September 4th when I played it for the last time. My father died on August 31st.

I did not consciously choose Boys for Pele to be the soundtrack to the early mourning period following my father’s death. It happened to be the album I had on repeat at the time. As a teenager, I listened to albums in constant loop; I would let a phase in time imprint itself upon an album and then I would lock it up and move on to the next. Boys for Pele received this treatment for the most extreme of phases. A titanic outpouring of emotion locked up in 18 songs.

August 31st was a Saturday and we were planning to go sailing in the afternoon. My Dad had been working on disassembling and reassembling a watch at the kitchen table. At some point, he went upstairs to lie down and then shortly thereafter we heard a loud thump. You don’t know a dying body when you see one for the first time. The wheezing, rattled breath. We called 911 and the ambulance raced over and my mom and I got ready to go to the hospital. We were frightened but not worried. We were sure he’d just taken a spill, knocked himself out. Here was a man of 43, a healthy husband and father, a stingy son of a bitch who was going to be so pissed when he woke up in the hospital owing money for the ambulance. My mom and I shared a nervous laugh about that in the car.

There is a room in hospitals called “The Quiet Room”. It’s a calming measure for extreme circumstances with a one-time use per occupant. It was my first time so I didn’t know what was coming. The doctor, near to my father’s age, was shocked herself. Kept asking questions about his smoking and rushing through the actual what of it all; it didn’t really sink in for us for a long time. He was dead. Felled by a heart attack. Dead and gone from our lives forever on a sunny Saturday before Memorial Day.

We went home and I went into my bedroom and I turned on Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele for the next five days and imprinted all of the emotions of that weekend into those songs. We talk about music as a powerful recall. This is one album I live in fear of. I have left coffeeshops when I heard the first strains of “Caught a Lite Sneeze”.

So today, a summer Sunday, I am listening to it again.

Deep breath. Here we go.

I thought for certain I was going to sob my way through this album, but it was hardly that climactic. I had a lump in my throat from the moment “Horses” began, a wariness like a darkness had descended upon a woodland walking path. But I only teared up a few times: “Marianne”, “Not the Red Baron”. This is not a mournful album. I remembered it poorly and expected a series of dirges, but there are hard drum beats and lighter ditties. There is though much darkness stitched through it (I discovered this album in a period that was the closest I ever came to a goth phase). Listening as an adult, I spent a lot of time appreciating Amos’ talent. And I spent most of this time feeling terrible for blaring this record on repeat for four straight days in a house of mourning. Hell, I just didn’t know what else to do. This was, at the time, how I experienced emotion. A few days in, my friend Darwin came and brought me to get ice cream. Darwin was the only one who knew what to do, Darwin who came from a large extended family, he’d seen death come knocking many times. Mourning was a routine. I’ve now written a few more eulogies in the time since, but that one, that first one I wrote listening to this album on repeat, it was brutal.

Dan Fitzgerald was a great dad. I was damned lucky to have him while I did. The formative years that came after he passed, formative for age and the incident itself, they tore through me. I like to think I came through those years stronger. And I don’t believe in regret or second-guessing the past. But I would give anything for one more warm Sunday afternoon with Dan Fitzgerald. Just to catch up and talk, preferably on a sailboat, a light breeze pushing us through the waters of the Gulf.

This post concludes the “My Aquatic Childhood and My Father the Pirate” theme. Next up is “A Long Waltz Through Nerddom.”

The Beatles: The White Album

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

June 28, New York: Of all the songs I could have loved first from this album, “Rocky Raccoon” was the one. Dad introduced me to The White Album, played all two records/four sides for me on his Philips “Super Electronic” turntable and his big silver Marantz amplifier. And “Rocky Raccoon” stuck in my head. It was for that song that I first learned to read the grooves in a record so as to gently place the needle at the start of a song. The White Album was one of the few albums for which I would power up Dad’s stereo on own, before he’d come home from work. This was after I’d bought a CD player, which made all of the actions of Dad’s stereo seem very manual.

The White Album was always worth the effort. Cranking up the volume on “Back in the U.S.S.R.”; singing along to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; dancing to “Birthday”; crooning to “Honey Pie”; wondering at “Revolution 9″. Bits of this album have stayed persistent throughout my life: for years I beat through whatever malaise was afflicting me on my birthday by waking up to “Birthday”, a guaranteed method of putting the blues at bay. I, like surely thousands, had a brief crush on a girl name Sadie that had me singing “Sexy Sadie” drunk to myself at college parties. I can still sing it (and more than half of the other songs on this album) by heart: “Sexy Sadie / what have you done / you’ve gone and made a fool of everyone.”

There are legacies a father leaves for his son, the things he is expected to teach him: how to shave, how to fix a car, etc. My Dad passed before he could pass those things on, but he did teach me great music and he left me the records. This album is the jewel of my inheritance. There are a lot of classics in my Dad’s collection (Blood on the Tracks, Beggars’ Banquet, and more) but this is the one that I always returned to on vinyl. I still have that old Philips record player. It’s never plugged in, but one day it will be. And The White Album will be the first record I put on.

You could, I suppose, order yourself a Mono vinyl version of this album. If you were so inclined.

Duane Allman: Anthology

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

June 8, New York: I love the way this album begins. Duane Allman’s guitar sings like a vocalist and you dive right into the blues as sang by B.B. King. Much of the album consists of covers, often far surpassing the originals (“The Weight” as sung by Aretha Franklin!) and Allman does deft work on the guitar. Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude” is a masterpiece— my absolute favorite version of this song. As if Pickett’s had always been meant to sing it, the song was just waiting for him to come around to it.

This album sat in my Dad’s record collection, scrawled with his initials in Sharpie: “DJF”. It’s a fun things about my Dad’s collection that no matter how many amazing albums are contained within, they’re protected from my ever selling them by those three black letters like a sigil or a magickal ward. Anthology is a great one to listen to on vinyl and the physical product itself is rewarding— nothing like a two-disc LP to make you feel like you’re really settling into some powerful listening.

Dad had always wanted to learn how to play blues guitar like Duane Allman. Look at Duane with his long hair in the swamp on the album cover— that totally could have been Dan Fitzgerald! One time in college his roommate Skip taught him to play one song on the guitar: “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. He couldn’t sing for shit and my Mom said the guitar-playing made Skip despondent. But every now and again Dad would put on an album like this one and listen to the blues wash right over him. It was a path unexplored, an ambition unfulfilled. When I was 14 my Dad bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas. It came with the classic Dad Offer: learn to play the acoustic well enough and you’ll get an electric (I imagine roughly half of all Dads made that offer to their teenagers at some point). It turned out guitar was not my thing either. At that age I was not good at being really bad at anything, I found it too frustrating. My fingers had to learn not just the chords but dexterity itself and my pick hand had to learn not just strumming but the patience to do it ten thousand times, not just for five minutes until boredom overtook me and my mind wandered back to books.

When my Dad passed I remembered very fondly the Christmas he’d given me the acoustic guitar. That morning or shortly thereafter I remember him telling me about his unfulfilled ambition to learn to play a mean blues guitar. I remembered this later because it was the first time in my life I realized ambition had to be finite, that that was a part of mortality. You could not be all things, do all things. You had to make choices. And the time could still run out on you before you could cross everything off your list.

The year he died, my Dad and I had been talking about circumnavigating the globe. We had long since moved back onto land, and while we sailed for weekends or week-long vacations, my Dad longed to capital-l-Leave again like he’d done from Louisiana. Sail off into the sunset, quite literally. We would muse on the back porch about courses we would chart, the length of the trip and the right time to take it with my school. The vague plan was to do it between high school and college. We picked the points along the trip Mom would most like to join us, but the rest of the trip would just be father and son. This was a perfectly reasonable grand ambition. Perhaps my Dad never could have played guitar like Duane Allman, but he could have damn sure sailed around the planet with his teenage son. Could have but for the clock running out. I guess that’s why they call it a ticker.

After my Dad passed I tried a handful of other sentimental times to learn the guitar but never had the patience for it. I eventually realized I had to choose the things I would do with my life. But every time I listen to Duane Allman play guitar I think about my Dad and paths not taken. The courses not charted.

With this album, there is actually a chance you’ve not heard it before. I highly recommend you download these MP3s and put your headphones on for a little while.

Highlander (TV Series)

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

June 7, New York: Queen’s “Princes of the Universe” is quite possibly the most awesome TV series theme song ever, ever used. “Heeeeeere we are, born to be kings…” Lucky break to have Queen write a soundtrack song for the movie your TV series is a spin-off from. Actually, two lucky breaks— because the Highlander also features “Who wants to live forever” (Awesome).

Quick review: Highlander was a movie staring Christopher Lambert. In it a secret society of Immortals live among us but, TWIST, “there can be only one”. So when they meet, they fight. And as an Immortal can only be killed by beheading, fighting means totally radical swordplay. There were a handful of Highlander films, and this show, which was a spin-off. In the first episode Lambert appears to hand-off/lend credibility to his clansman of the Clan Macleod (Adrian Paul— TOO handsome).

Highlander the TV Show is kind of the perfect awesome 1990s serial action drama. Remember, in the 90′s we weren’t allowed to have multi-episode story arcs like we do now (unless it was sweeps). So every episode had to be self-contained while feeling like it was advancing a greater plot. The Highlander universe allows for a perfect self-contained show. Every episode you have a new villain, another Immortal that Duncan Macleod must face off against. Which also means you’re going to have an awesome swordfight at the end of the show. Since Duncan has lived for 450 years, every episode also has a parallel arc at some point in the past: the Civil War, the French Revolution, literally ANY time. And then for the really big episodes you can trot out the second Queen song (or later in the show “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas).

I used to watch this show live on broadcast television with my Dad *every* night it came on. My Mom was traveling a lot in my tween years and so this was a regular ritual for Dad and I: make a ‘guys’ dinner (tuna casserole or fish sticks) and watch Duncan Macleod kick some ass with his katana. Watching TV was a big deal in our house; neither of my parents really liked TV or live sports so we never just plopped down and watched a bunch of shows. This was a special ritual for a special show.

I am not going to send you to Amazon this time. I am going to send you to Netflix where this show is available IN ITS ENTIRETY on streaming.

Led Zeppelin

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

June 7, New York: I did something rare the other day. I was alone in a hotel room and I put on the best headphones I own, laid down on the bed, and just listened to music for the next 45 minutes. I never do that, music is always in the background for me, but it seemed like Led Zeppelin required it.

AND HOLY CRAP THIS ALBUM IS AMAZING.

Part of the inspiration for the Thirty-Three Project comes from a friend of my friend Joe Maidenberg. Joe’s friend felt that he had been over-exposed to Led Zeppelin in his life and that that had cheapened the music for him. So he took a monastic vow to listen to no Zeppelin for ten years. Ten years! He would never put it on, if it came up in shuffle he’d skip it, if it came on in a room he would politely excuse himself. Until one day ten years later he threw a party and he listened to Led Zeppelin as if wholly new. And lo, but it blew the man’s mind.

I’m having more of that happen with non-musical media, but still this was an incredibly special experience. To lay back and listen to nothing but this album is an enormous treat. Everything about it, every single song, is just perfect. My Dad and I had a moment with this album where he caught me singing along to some Led Zeppelin radio single (probably off of IV; everything is off of IV) and he sat me down in front of the record player and made me listen to this in its entirety. My, how one tiny mind was blown that day.

Over the next few days I listened to the rest of the discography as well and it was all spectacular. Hard-charging “Immigrant Song” and “Achilles Last Stand” are old favorites. The Tolkien references throughout were welcome as I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings. “Thank You” we played at my Dad’s funeral.

But the first album is just… is just… I think it might be the most perfect album.

You own it already. But if you don’t, buy it immediately. Then listen to it with your headphones on and grin like goon the whole damn 45 minutes, just like me.

Jimmy Buffett: Boats, Beaches, Bars, & Ballads

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

May 29, San Diego: The title of Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits album is, appropriately, Songs You Know By Heart. Any fan of Jimmy Buffett has lived many years of their life scored by his music and knows every note inside and out. But also, any true fan of Jimmy Buffett knows that the real treasure horde of Buffett songs is in the box set Boats, Bars, Beaches, and Ballads. Yesterday, I cued that sucker up to shuffle and let it play.

The very first song is exactly why Buffett features in my life at all: “Son of a Son of a Sailor”. That was my Dad. That’s me. From a long line o sailors. And we had a purer connection to that soft country twang and steel drum rhythms than 99% of other aspiring parrotheads. We would listen to these songs on worn-out cassettes in anchorages across the Caribbean. Myself, in various stages of tiny, my Dad with his deep-hued suntan and his arm around my Mom, more than likely with her sunglasses on. Sitting in the cockpit of the “Mimi”, listening to the music and musing.

We lived on the “Mimi” for about six years before we moved to land. We eventually sold her, but after some time my Dad found another boat, named her the “Mimi” and while we didn’t live aboard again, we would still spend some time cruising. Whether in a stained teak sailboat cockpit or poolside at a condo, this music offered us a tie back to the ocean. Back to our life on the seas.

I don’t know if this music is any good or not (well, I’m pretty sure it’s not good) but it’s scrawled too indelibly into my memory to ever let it go. As the son of a son of sailor or just the son of a pirate 400 years too late, this is for better or worse the music of my people.

You, the secret parrothead in the corner. You should probably go and buy the boxed set, shouldn’t you?

Hardy Boys #48: The Arctic Patrol Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

May 28, San Diego: When I was three my parents sold the house, sold the cars, and bought a sailboat. They were burnt-out, unhappy, and they needed a break. The idea was to take something along the lines of a ‘six month vacation’ and go cruising. Cruising, in this sense, means living on a boat and slowly making your way from anchorage to anchorage. We lived in a marina in Louisiana for a few months while they built up the courage to leave it all behind and then, one day, we cast off. And me, I was just a the tiniest little thing, in a series of oversized life-preservers, tethered to the compass in the center of the cockpit and perpetually slathered with suntan oil. My grandparents were terrified.

We lived on that boat, the “Mimi”, for about six years. We spent at least two of those years just cruising: down the Florida coast and through the Keys, then across to the Bahamas where we spent six months island-hopping. We made cruising buddies, we snorkeled for conch that we prepared and ate fresh, they trained me to climb trees and knock down coconuts that we’d break into for the juice. One time I convinced my dad to buy a whole bushel of bananas over his objections and we ate nothing that didn’t include bananas for a full two weeks.

As an only child on a sailboat you have one true nemesis: boredom. (Also, falling over the side and drowning, but I had a million life preservers to protect against that.) Boredom is always there, always lurking. The adults have saved up their money for this, for a life in which they have nothing to do. But for you— it is a watery prison. From Louisiana to the Florida Keys I was accompanied by a small television that ran off our on-board electrical power. I’m sure my Dad hated that I was sitting there draining the batteries, but at least I wasn’t bored. This was the time in my life in which I really watched a lot of He-Man. That’s what most kids my age were doing! Anytime they weren’t running around the yard (I would have drowned in our yard, so it wasn’t an option) other kids were plopped down in front of the boob tube basking in the nuturing glow of animated entertainment.

Then the TV died. It died once and we brought it to get repaired. That involved loading it into a dinghy, ferrying it across a busy anchorage, lifting it up to a dock, walking to hail a taxi, and then trekking it to a TV repair shop. A week later we reversed the trip. And it was in the dinghy, ferrying it across the busy anchorage, that we encountered a passing cruise ship with a wake so large it swamped the dinghy and there I was staring at a television sitting in six inches of seawater. I started to cry. The TV repair shop laughed at us when we brought it back. And that was the end of the TV.

Boredom began to win at this point.

We sailed from Marathon across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas where we sailed from island to island, lazily exploring drifters. And while there was much to see, the pace was slow and I found myself trying to pass the time with books. Books! We had a couple of versions of “Clifford the Big Red Dog”". I wore those puppies out, natch.

I forget what island it was on, but along the way we met a pair of English schoolteachers. They kept a house on this little island with a single school in which they taught students of all ages. They invited me to read “Clifford the Big Red Dog” aloud to the class, all very impressed with tiny four year old me and my endless head of curls. Knowing I was a reader, and probably suspecting that I was slowly dying of boredom, the schoolteachers gave me a parting gift. A book of their son’s, who was away at boarding school: The Hardy Boys Arctic Patrol Mystery. An absolutely random single selection out of the 52 hardcover books by Franklin W. Dixon (to say nothing of the hundreds of paperbacks that followed).

This book was, to be generous, well outside of my reading ability. But in this boredom became my ally, my greatest strength. And I struggled through that book. Many times over. Reading it aloud to myself in the cockpit, asking my mom what words meant, then slowly starting to read it silently.

In the years that followed I read every Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on. I owned the full 52 book hardcover set. I would devour them if found at the library. The formula was simple— twenty chapters all the same (in eighteen they’re always kidnapped!)— so simple that I even tried to write one, by hand. It included a young boat-dweller named Andrew who was a friend of Chet Morton’s, and I believe it was about snorkeling for sunken treasure. I also only ever wrote the first and last chapters and left Franklin W. Dixon a note to fill in the middle.

It is thanks to these little books that I love to read and to write. There was no great joy re-reading this one, no spectacular turns of phrase or unlocking of hidden memory lockboxes. Just some worn-out and cliched prose in a pattern I knew by heart. But I have that book to thank for so much— for teaching me new words, for opening up a world of learning outside the television, and for helping me to defeat boredom on the high seas.

You too can buy a Hardy Boys book from some used bookstore in Pennsylvania and have it sent to you through the Amazon-matrix.

John Prine: John Prine

This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.

May 26, In flight: If you’d asked me at twenty-four to name a John Prine song it would have been a struggle. His name would have reverberated, perhaps, but I couldn’t have sung to you every word of “Sam Stone” by heart. Or at least I thought not until one afternoon, in my friend Jed’s car, when a cover of “Sam Stone” came on the radio and every single one of the lyrics welled up inside me like groundwater after a flood.

This is an important part of the Thirty-Three Project for me, discovering these pockets of memory locked up in media.

Dad spent a lot of time trying to convince me that country music was not what it was in the 1990s. One time Dad asked me “Why do you listen to that crap?” (‘That crap’ being hip hop, the same as it was across most American suburbs.) And trying to connect with him on some adult level I told him it was rebellion, that I liked the rebellion of it. Well, he had a response for that: Country was rebellious! In the era of Billy Ray Cyrus I couldn’t imagine a more ridiculous statement. And then my Dad tried and tried to introduce me to music like David Allan Coe and Willie Nelson and, well, John Prine. These guys cursed, did drugs, and sang about breaking the law. Totally unlike the plastic pop radio country we had at the time.

My father, in his twenties, sort of looked like John Travolta in Urban Cowboy. And I suspect there was a part of him that really wanted to live that. He kept a pair of cowboy boots throughout his entire adult life, he looked completely at home shaded by a ratty cowboy hat. But he wasn’t knocking over liquor stores and stealing TVs. And he didn’t act out as badly as Travolta, who always seemed to me to be a bit of prissy baby in his tight Wranglers.

Of all the country albums Dad played on repeat in the background while I was growing up, this one made the list because it surprises. You no longer hear country music with lyrics like “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore. They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” This album is so sweet, sometimes sad, always sincere. Also occasionally quite funny.

There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose. Little pitchers have big ears, they don’t stop to count the years. Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.

That last line can still make me tear up if caught unaware. It’s a melancholy sumbitch, this album. Totally canon-worthy. Thanks for the tip, Dad.

Buy John Prine, John Prine on the internet.

Randy Newman: Good Old Boys

This is the first post of the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”.

May 11, New York:

“We got no neck oilmen from Texas. Good old boys from Tennessee. College men from LSU, went in dumb come out dumb too. Hustling around Atlanta in their alligator shoes. Getting drunk every weekend at the barbecue.”

My parents were born and raised in southern Louisiana. Mostly New Orleans. They went to college in southern Louisiana and settled in a bayou exurb out in West St. Charles Parish split by a railroad track and bounded on one side by the Mississippi River. They were born of the fifties and children of the sixties, just a few years too late and a few hundred miles too south to be full-blown hippies. But they had their version: caught up in the Led Zeppelin-fueled post-Altamont Southern hippie wave. They were high school sweethearts who came from good families, they went and got professional degrees and good jobs, but they also snuck off to some rock shows and drank their fair share.

Southern Louisiana is a funny place. It’s sure as hell the south. But it’s also Catholic, which means it’s the one place in the south where you stand no danger of running into a blue county that won’t sell you a drink. No, in New Orleans, they fought the raising of the legal drinking age to 21 and they still let you cavort through the streets of the French Quarter with an open container. Hell, they don’t even call them counties anyway, they’re parishes. My father took this with him when he left; he was proud to have been a product of Southern Louisiana and was never afraid to argue with a bar bouncer about the logic of open container laws and the philosophy of the “Go Cup”.

I grew up listening to Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys from an age at which I was far too young to appreciate its irony. It would play on in the background in our various homes, and I think for my father, it reminded him of the South that raised him. “Rednecks” especially, which I remember fondly singing along too. Daniel J. Fitzgerald, DVM reveled in being a redneck. All the way until his death at 43 he kept a certificate on the bathroom wall proclaiming him a “Registered Coonass” (a cajun, bayou redneck). “We drink too much down here and we laugh too loud.” My father was a damn good veterinarian, but he also always wanted to be a good old boy and he never missed an opportunity to say “I went to LSU… went in dumb, came out dumb too”. My dad loved that song— not necessarily as an anthem, but somehow in our house it seemed to play like one. And I was so wildly unaware of the words I was singing along to, that I remember being disciplined in school for loudly declaring “WE’RE REDNECKS, WE’RE REDNECKS, WE DON’T KNOW OUR ASS FROM A HOLE IN THE GROUND.” Hopefully they didn’t let me finish the verse.

As an adult, “Good Old Boys” is everything I love about the South. It’s beautiful and it’s conflicted. It’s earnest and it’s irreverent. It’s terribly blunt and it’s beautifully subtle. My heart soars for “Kingfish” and how Huey P. Long “looks out for shit-kickers like you”. My eyes still tear up at “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline” which played in my house on repeat during the weeks of Katrina. And “Rednecks” always makes me think of my Dad, his “coon-ass” certificate, and his LSU degrees. I wonder how he felt about Lester Maddox, truly. “Well he may be a fool, but he’s our fool.”

Treat yourself to some Randy Newman.