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“Turn that acid rock down!” my dad would shout from somewhere else in the house. It didn’t matter if we were listening to Supertramp, Bob Marley, Ramones, Sugarhill Gang or actual acid rock – that was his stock line when he wanted you to bring the volume level down of whatever popular music you were blasting on his Realistic stereo in the living room. (My brothers and I wore the heads off that piece of junk making endless tape-to-tape mixes.)
Every November, around his birthday, I reflect on the paternal gifts he gave us. The love of music is one of them. Raising a family with three boys whose ages spanned eight years, and whose adolescent heyday bridged the late 1970s through to the late 1980s, there was an eclectic mix of popular music blaring 24/7 in our house. And my dad loathed all of it.
Our parents were passionate classical music and opera fans – but our father had a dark secret. He had one claim to coolness with his sons, the fact that he liked, and owned, one rock ‘n’ roll record and one only: Pearl by Janis Joplin (seriously, in a world of autotune, how can you listen to Pearl and not get goosebumps at the passion and playing on that record? Live takes, no overdubs, with mainly Canadian musicians backing Janis).
I remember on my 11th birthday I got the album Permanent Waves by Rush. I threw it on the turntable and played my parents a track called Freewill. The look of utter bewilderment on their faces was on par with taking a Cro-Magnon man for a helicopter ride around the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The combination of Geddy Lee’s shriek and Neil Peart’s lyrics was melting their faces like the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
These days I can’t deny my own middle-age-ness, as I tend to gravitate less to Rage Against the Machine and more toward Bach and Mozart, but my love of many genres of music is ingrained and enormous. Our mother died almost a decade ago, and our dad never fully recovered from her death. The huge hole in his heart, coupled with his own Parkinson’s/Lewy body dementia diagnosis left him slowly chugging down the track and led to such a crappy finale for a father who was loved for his super-dry wit and razor-sharp mind. For the last six months of his life, my visits with him at his nursing home were reduced to 20-minute stays where I’d sit next to him and slip headphones over his white-fur-rimmed ears (the fact that they were children’s headphones with frogs on them seemed fitting), and transport him via an iPod, to somewhere known. A transcendent state. Primal. I’d play him Yo-Yo Ma. Kathleen Battle. Amadeus. His eyes widening in a quizzical look as if trying to solve the puzzle of where these beautiful sounds were coming from, and why they were familiar? It was King Lear madness with momentary synapse-firing bliss. Music was his breakthrough medicine.
One afternoon, a few weeks before my dad died, I popped in to visit him on the dreaded seventh dementia floor (my cynical punk-mouthed kids often say I’m ready for the seventh floor whenever I momentarily forget what I’m doing). I found the ward empty of its confused-faced citizens, but still tickling my nostrils with cleaning fluids masking boiled vegetables and golden-age decay. You could bottle that smell and drop it on an enemy and they’d surrender immediately.
A nurse informed me that the gang was on the eighth floor partaking in a sing-a-long with Pearly and Greg. When I found the musical get-together, it was a circle of lost souls staring, pretty vacantly, at the overzealous duo, leading the group through When the Saints Go Marching In. One resident, Joan, was half-heartedly shaking a maraca. Rosemary, much older, had a huge grin on her handsome, sun-weathered face. Her exuberant smile and perfect teeth were matched by her on-beat tambourine shaking. The entertainers – Pearly on handclaps and Greg on his ukulele – seemed like they’d been conjured up by screenwriter Christopher Guest. Their eagerness and desperation to summon fun were futile, but earnest.
I spotted dad in his wheelchair with a familiar look on his face: confused squint with his nose scrunched up like he was smelling a bad smell (maybe he was?). That specific facial contortion seems like a commonality when I speak with others who are watching a loved one suffering from Parkinson’s dementia. I sidled up next to my father hoping for a smile, or clue that he recognized me.
“Hi, Dad … it’s Matthew.”
Suddenly the geriatric sing-a-long was over. I had caught the tail end of the last song, but I wanted more! I wished for my dad to break through, like The Mummy busting through a wall to screams, or Glenn Close rising out of the bathtub gasping for air in Fatal Attraction, I wanted that visceral reaction to music, the great, last hope.
I asked Pearly and Greg if they had time for one more song. “Sure!” They replied, then asked, “what song?” When I said Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin I was greeted with a blank response. Greg suggested I lead, so I jumped in eagerly.
“Here’s a classic – sing along if you know the words!” I then proceeded to do my best Janis, accompanied by me, myself and I on handclaps and foot stomps. Something stirred in my father. The slightest flicker was perceptible in his pale blue eyes. Then the confused squint. Finally, thankfully, the hint of a smirk. With his wife of 50 years gone, the work he enjoyed as a judge for 30 years long wrapped up, and long separated from his beloved dog, what was left? Only the joy of rhythm and melody.
Mercedes Benz was the last song Janis Joplin recorded before her premature death. It was the last song my dad ever heard. And maybe even recognized.
Matt Hawkins lives in Toronto.
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