Music Lessons [Excerpt]
In the coat closet in our house was the shirt my mother had embroidered for my father around the time they met, a sweep of colorful flowers on white slubby linen. It had a belt but no collar, and it had never been worn. I liked to take out and examine this pristine artifact. “It was too nice to wear,” my father would say, dismissively, although I suspect this wasn’t the only reason. He had been something of an anomaly as a young person, a raging right-winger who played folk songs. I always pictured him in college singing Peter, Paul and Mary covers with his eyes closed and his moustache curling wetly around his lips. My parents didn’t keep any scrapbooks or albums, but I came across a clipping once in my mother’s desk with a picture of my father and the band he played with then, sitting in a smiling row on a stone slab bench. They had a name like “The Madrigals”. His name was underlined in blue ink.
He still played those old songs. I hated them. The messages of that music—about brotherhood, peace, love and harmony—did not get through to me. I hated how mawkish he sounded, how self-righteous and pained these performances were, private tributes to that great mysterious wound of his which was so central to his existence, and which we were always demanded to attend to, and dress with our own suffering. The wound seemed connected to my mother’s refrain—“Your father had a difficult childhood”—as if this excuse would explain everything. It explained nothing to me. If the singing had been more cathartic for my father, maybe I wouldn’t have minded it, but he would be even more keyed up after putting down the guitar, as if those notes had connected him to something he had left behind because of us, and for which we were sorely resented. Did my father have big musical dreams? He never spoke of them. But his outrage at the world was fresh after these sessions; his temper more speedily provoked. The song playing usually signaled a kind of overture for one of his bad moods.
I knew that when my father was playing and singing, he was accessing something deeply private, but I didn’t know what that private thing was. And I didn’t know what to do with knowing, since such tenderness was out of character of the picture I held of him. I could only draw him in bold strokes, a blunt black crayon gripped by a fist.
I recognized something of myself in my father’s singing, the need for some outlet for expression. By singing I squeezed out the unhappiness that was connected to the same feelings that were aroused by hearing him sing, which was his way of squeezing out his unhappiness. All the time it was as if we were both rolling different ends of the same tube of toothpaste, moving the feeling around and both desperately wanting it out. We were like two magnets with the same polarity; the thing that was the same in both of us was the very thing that kept us apart.
As my singing career advanced, my father, always paranoid, became oddly protective. He once drove me into the Bronx for a Diet Dr. Pepper commercial and waited in his jeep the whole time I spent in a baseball stadium with a giant foam sports finger jammed on my hand. Even though no one there knew me, it was still somehow embarrassing for me to walk to his car afterwards for the ride home. The shoot had been so boring, I had little to tell him about my day. For my TV debut I wasn’t even going to be a face, but a giant fake finger. I was ashamed to admit how disappointed I was. I’d spent most of the day sitting around in the afternoon sun doing nothing, worrying about how long things were taking, and about him baking in his car. I was scared that he would be mad. He twisted around in his seat when he saw me approach in the rearview mirror and let out a cheerful bark. “Mike,” he said. No one else called me that. I found his kindness even more unbearable than his temper. It made me uneasy when he put himself out for me.
I would audition for anything. Even though I was tall for my age, and already long in the tooth for the parts that were available, I thought it would be a good idea to try out for a musical revue called “The Holiday Kids of Broadway.” The audition was in Manhattan, and once again my father insisted on driving me, although I was old enough and would have preferred to have taken the train by myself. We hit horrendous traffic, and I remember looking at the orange clock in the car as the hands sailed past my slotted audition time, and worrying my own hands into two fists that pulsed underneath my thighs; I remember twisting my whole body away from my father like the curl of a potato chip. The tension was already unbearable by the time it started pouring rain. Then we got lost. I remember finally clomping up a dingy flight of stairs, three or more hours late, and the weak reception I felt the minute I walked into the room. It didn’t matter how I sounded when I sang. I was too old and too late.
One of my greatest champions was my voice teacher, Bea Satz. She was a legend in our town, the only person anyone associated with musical success of any caliber. Although her career may have been minor in the larger scope of the world—summer stock productions, national tours--I truly felt I was in the presence of a star. She gave private lessons from her modest home across the street from the country club. I would let myself in through the screen door in the back, and would often sit with her husband while she was finishing up with the previous pupil. I remember Mr. Satz, white-haired and deaf, with dark-framed glasses, sitting in one of two chairs in a dazzling patch of sunlight that was amplified by the high gloss of the white brick fireplace behind him. He would usually have a big newspaper unfurled in front of him, and after peeking to make sure that it was me, he would crumple it into his lap and greet me with real enthusiasm. There were stacks and stacks of books all around us, and I would talk shyly to him about what he was reading. He talked with me in a way that no one really had before (like he valued my opinion) about art, music, and literature. My parents were bright, but we were not an intellectual family. Talking with Mr. Satz, I was always afraid of being nailed to the floor by concepts too big for me to understand.
Bea Satz always made her appearance with some fanfare, always with a gasp then a throaty purr—“Michael!”—then a brisk walk across the room for a hug around my waist; Bea Satz was much smaller than me. She favored long, ribbed turtleneck sweaters, stretch slacks, and medallion necklaces, all of them gold, some of them jeweled. A clap of her hands would always precede her next words. “Let’s get started.” She would lead me to the piano, and sometimes pat the bench next to her, an invitation for me to sit, after she had taken me through the warm up exercises, when we were going over new material. All of the music she recommended belonged to a different era, songs that usually evoked lovers with bow-shaped lips, lacquered bobs, and the “gay old days of yore.” I had no opinion on what was appropriate for me. I was a dry sponge soaking up everything in that room.
I was always busy with lessons, rehearsals, and performances. For my parents, there was the strain of driving, and trying to accommodate my scheduling. Finances had eased up when both my parents started working, but their poverty mentality was a deep immersion, not easily shaken off by any of us. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car with both my parents up front, on my way to a rehearsal, and my father complaining that I was “becoming a twenty dollar a day kid.” I resented his tab keeping. I got a job as soon as I was able, first babysitting, then, the day I turned sixteen, at a grocery store. I started thumbing rides to rehearsals from the new friends I was making. The music directors and accompanists and directors were always older, and usually happy to give me a lift. It was like snipping two more cords that tied me to the house.
Michael Quinn is working on a memoir. He would like to thank Joyce Johnson, his spirit animal Lynda Barry, and his writing group, The Trixies, for helping him find his way in the dark.