Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Spite of My Voice

I sang at my brother's wake last July. In front of people. Just me and Will. And I wasn't even drunk, although admittedly I had clonazepam coursing through my bloodstream.

I hadn't sung in public since the summer of 1984 at my sister's wedding. I was thirteen. My parent's didn't own a video camera. No one in the audience held up a smartphone to record us because the idea you could record someone on your phone had only been realized in such shows as "Get Smart" or in "James Bond" movies. So I have no footage of my aunt and me singing the duet. Thank God.

Here's Paul Stookey's version of the song:

Yes, the Paul Stookey of the singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary. The ones who did "Puff the Magic Dragon."

I didn't see much of my brother when I was a kid. When I was six my dad moved half of our family sixty miles south so he wouldn't have such a long commute to work. Pat was in the half that got left up north. He had just turned fifteen a couple months earlier. He moved in with our mom's dad, who taught Pat all he knew about building things and fixing things. Our grandfather also taught Pat how to smoke Camel non-filters and do as he pleased.

He soon dropped out of school and hit the road. He hitchhiked all over the country, hopping trains, catching rides with truckers who often hurriedly pulled over to give Pat a lift, seeing his long hair from behind. Sometimes once they'd see Pat's scruffy-bearded face they'd pull away immediately. Other times Pat said they'd laugh and say, "Come on, buddy, where you headin?"

There weren't many times Pat visited us after he hit the road. So I vividly recall his visits since their infrequency made them a big deal. Once when I was probably seven and he was probably seventeen he took me with him to the record store at the mall. He had to flee his last residence before he was able to get in and get his stuff, so he needed reinforcements. He said I could pick out any album I wanted. He wandered around the store looking for his own favorite bands while I was left to pick out what I wanted.

I had never owned an album. I had a blue twisty container I kept my 45s in when I wasn't playing them on my suitcase record player. I mostly had my siblings discarded records, The Jackson Five, Sonny and Cher, something called "The Popcorn Song" as I recall. Was it by the band Hot Butter? I loved that song and played it over and over again in my bedroom.

So I searched the mall record store for my first album. I had no idea what to get. I didn't see any album covers with popcorn or butter on them. I contemplated getting Helen Reddy's "Greatest Hits" since it had what had been my favorite song when I was about two or three, "Delta Dawn" but then I couldn't remember if my mom already had it on 8 track tape. I decided to look for something new.

When Pat came back to check on me, he looked at the album I held in my hand and said, "Ooooh, yes! Get that one."

"Does it have 'Puff the Magic Dragon' on it?" I flipped it over so he could read the song list for me.

"Oh yeah. It does. That's a good one, Beck. Let's go home and listen to these." He pointed to a stack of albums he had picked out too.

I have always loved singing. But by the time I was thirteen, at my sister's wedding, I was more concerned with the zits on my face, my frizzy hair, and my doofy braces than I was with paying attention to the transcendent moment of singing "The Wedding Song" at my sister's wedding. My sister was always supportive of my voice, whether through singing or writing. But it was the last performance I could manage without becoming chronically nauseous. I stopped singing, even to myself.

I never stopped listening though. Pat fed me a steady diet of music during his short visits while I was growing up. He's the one who gave me the cassette tape to Joni Mitchell's "Blue," one of my all time favorite albums. As I grew older, Pat and I talked about our mutual interest in bands like R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, and of course, Joni Mitchell.

By the time we found out Pat was dying of liver failure at age forty-nine, we each had an extensive record collection. But there was only one song he wanted to listen to over and over. His fiancée Sharon had passed away about a month before Pat was diagnosed with liver failure. All he wanted to listen to, over and over again, "turn it up so we can hear it out on the front porch," was his and Sharon's song, "In Spite of Ourselves" by John Prine and Iris DeMent.

It's an awesome song. And it completely fits them as a couple:

We had Pat's wake at a local bar on what would have been his fiftieth birthday. If only he could be there, right? He would have had a blast. Before Pat died, I asked my father-in-law and mother-in-law to come to Pat's house to play "In Spite of Ourselves" for him. It brought tears to about ten pairs of eyes in the room. They were unavailable to make the wake, so, the night before the wake, I asked Will if he would sing it with me. It takes a lot to surprise Will, but my question made him cock his eyebrow and smile. "Really? You're going to sing in front of all those people? Good for you!"

"It's my brother's wake for godsake!"

"Ok, then, let's learn it." Will pulled out his acoustic guitar. We watched the John Prine/Iris Dement version on YouTube a few times. We practiced singing the song together just three times, drove north to the wake, butted ourselves behind the microphone and sang “their” song for Sharon and Pat, my brother, my musical mentor.

It felt good to have my voice back. Life is too short spent unsung.