Nobody else can host the whole tribe for such a dinner, so once again (and totally to my delight) it’s time to help Dad throughout another Thanksgiving gathering. Because it’s holiday time, there’s a truce all around with the Generation Gap. Mom’s got so many brothers that I divide them into two groups: Todd and BJ and Casey are way older; Eddie and Kevin are much younger.
After dinner, Dad says the best way I can help is to go to the stereo console in the corner of the basement, and select some music that everybody will enjoy, and to go ahead and play what I think is right. I want it to be my music, even though I know that the safest bet is a Henry Mancini record or a Herb Alpert number; those get a pass for now and I run, upstairs and back downstairs, after telling Dad I have to go to the bathroom. That’s nonsense, of course, because what I really have to do is grab Colleen’s Simon & Garfunkel album and my copy of The Beatles’ Hey Jude album and once I’m back in the front of the basement it’s a good time to get some music going because the table’s being cleared and all that’s done by Colleen and Mom and Aunt Sheila and Aunt Celeste and Grandfather’s new lady friend, Helen. Dad’s at the bar pouring fresh drinks for Uncle Todd and Uncle BJ. Suddenly, I hear Dad say I should play some Trini Lopez. I pretend not to hear. When we were small, Trini Lopez was cool. That was forever ago.
It’s BJ’s wife who first asks me what I’m gonna play and I tell her it’s The Beatles and she says that’s good; she likes the song “Hey Jude” and I tell her that’s the name of the LP I’m pulling out of its sleeve. When she asks to see the cover of the album, I decide that she’s the best aunt in the history of the world. Besides, she is beautiful.
But when my way older uncles get a look at the LP cover, they react as if they’re staring at reptiles. “They look weird,” is the unanimous verdict. Aunt Sue seems to agree (sort of) and before I can say anything about what song should I play, just for her, she says: “Do you know — this is a bunch of the old songs and some new stuff?” I tell her I know that. I like her a lot and by instinct I opt for “I Should Have Known Better” with its easy lilt and the not-too-loud vocals and all.
It’s a smart move to stay with the earlier songs and that’s why I let the record play on, because “Paperback Writer” is next and that’s also a pretty good sing-a-long song; unaggressive in that there’s no wild guitar solo or wild-man screaming. I love the occasional interlude when the guitars stop and the drums pause and only singing is heard. It’s that part with John, Paul and George, when all three voices are harmonizing with the title –“Paperback writer . . . Paaaaaaperback Writerrrrr . . .” and then Ringo kicks hard, and the song is off and running again.
Right now Dad’s got a killer look. He waves me down to the bar and reminds me that he can’t do everything between bartending and hosting and getting more and more annoyed at the way some of the music is getting louder and louder. So, would I please play some music that everybody can enjoy and not just the stuff I like? Behind the bar at the far end of the basement there’s a speaker hooked up, so even though Dad’s behind the bar and maybe 30 feet away from where the turntable is spinning, he hears everything ’cause a friend of his, who’s bonkers about electronics, hooked up this extra speaker. And I promise to go into the cabinet below the stereo system and find some Tony Bennett records or some Sinatra (“How about Perry Como?” says Grandfather’s new lady-friend, Helen).
That gets me thinking about playing what I know is Dad’s favorite Sinatra song, and it’s easy to find the My Way album in the pile of the cabinet just below the turntable. And I put on the title song, which is the first track on Side Two, and I even turn up the volume a bit. One glance toward the other end of the basement and I know I’m in good shape. Dad is nodding, Grandfather winks, and Helen smiles as she lights a Tareyton.
Sinatra’s voice fills the room like smoke. The older folks close their eyes and hum.
While Sinatra’s “My Way‘” plays on and on, with each minute and verse becoming a bit more intense and louder and more pronounced, I realize it’s right that Dad calls this his very own theme song. Maybe the song isn’t considered cool by kids, but still . . . I know it makes Dad happy, and right away then and there I decide to study the album’s back cover. There I see a Beatles’ song listed that everyone likes; it’s definitely a Frank Sinatra album, but “Yesterday” is still considered a Beatles’ song. Almost, anyway.
It’s also Mom’s favorite song and she doesn’t mind if Sinatra sings it. But Uncle Eddie says it’s not as good as The Beatles’ version and Uncle Kev reminds him that actually no matter what the label said, it wasn’t really The Beatles ‘cause only Paul sang and played on the original version of “Yesterday” – “Paul and some hired violin players, not the other Beatles at all.”
Everyone’s in the large TV-area that’s situated right in the middle of the front of the basement (the bar at one end, the back corner with the stereo console at the other end, the TV-area smack dab in the middle, with a huge new shag rug there so you can sit on the floor and be comfy if the couch and chairs are filled). It’s my job to carry on with music they like to hum along with. Everybody is smoking (Mom’s got her new pack of Silva Thins, and Aunt Celeste is puffing on a Benson & Hedges, and Aunt Sheila’s got her Larks) and holding a fresh drink from Dad at the bar. Mom’s drinking lightly tonight, and has been since October, and after “Yesterday” the question is what do I play to keep ’em all in harmony? So I decide that while Dad’s at the bar talking to Helen and with the four-way ping-pong game going on, there’s an audience around the TV-area that might be okay with “Hey Jude.” The whole song. All seven minutes.
There’s one line in “Hey Jude” that really gets me in trouble and that’s the bit about “So let it out and let it in . . .” and that’s when I see Dad come out from behind the bar and he walks down to the stereo cabinet next to the TV-area . . . boy, he’s ready to blow a fuse, yet he walks right in to a sudden-dialogue between BJ and Sue, ’cause Uncle BJ’s asking if that line meant what he thinks it meant, and Sue’s saying: “No-no-no-no-no . . .”
“It’s all about breathing in and breathing out–letting your breath in and out,” cool Aunt Sue says. Everyone remembers about The Beatles and the weird meditation guru-guy and all like that, so the moment passes. But in the second half of the song, when some of the “Na-na-na-naaaas” get repeated again and again and are punctuated by rip-roaring screams that sound great to me and good to Uncle Kev and exciting to Colleen Marie, well . . . they don’t go over with Dad. Now he puts on a Henry Mancini LP from many years ago. Helen loves this and Grandfather says that “Moon River” is a classic and Uncle Eddie looks like he’s going to barf.
Mom’s other favorite music is just about anything by Peter, Paul and Mary. So, after Henry Mancini for a while, I put on Side One from a P, P and M album and it’s a chance to shift the mood a little. Peter, Paul and Mary are quiet enough for the older folks, but the kids also like them. When everybody hears “Leaving on a Jet Plane” begin, the jokes start that it must’ve been written about Dad and Mom. They don’t know how right that is.
Dad still travels out of state each month, for a week or two at a time. All the time.
When he’s gone, Mom plays “Leaving on a Jet Plane” night after night, while quietly drinking. By herself. I always stay awake for as long as it takes; then I hear her cry.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine‘s RETRO columnist and the author of the novel For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, which was published by Heliotrope Books in October. This piece is from a memoir-in-progress called It Don’t Come Easy: Growing Up in the Shadows of the Sixties.)