My parents met in a band. Mom was working lights at the time and my dad played rhythm and lead guitar. He had long wavy hair; Mom said he looked like Robert Plant. She calls him a brilliant guitarist, a perfectionist dedicated to getting every single note right. Mom remembers him sitting cross-legged in front of the stereo, rewinding and fast forwarding for hours until he could get a certain measure right. My dad doesn’t talk much about those days. I hear it mostly from Mom.
I remember his band mates. I’d go along to practice sometimes. Dad had a group photo sitting on the living room side table and I’d point to each member in turn while announcing the nicknames I’d given them. “Funny, Cutey, Baldy and Daddy!” I had a crush on Cutey with his long curly hair, then one day he cut it off and I was dumbfounded. I must have been eight or nine.
Dad had three guitars: the Fender Stratocaster that he proudly played on stage; his main acoustic that he’d play at home; and another acoustic that I was allowed to play (I suppose he didn’t care if I broke it). In my teens I started learning semi-seriously, and Dad would give me little lessons; he’d play a riff and I’d try to repeat it, dueling banjoes style. I never amounted to much on guitar but the lessons were always worth it. Long after he left his band, Dad would still bring out the acoustic in the evenings, sitting cross-legged on the couch to strum a few songs. He liked to play the classics but he rarely ever sang. (It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized The Rain Song had lyrics.)
A few years ago, maybe five, Dad stopped playing guitar. It was a gradual process, and it probably started long before I’d even begun to notice the dust covering the fret boards. He’d been struggling with a skin condition for a while that had left his fingertips cracked and painful; he could barely do everyday activities, much less press the strings. It was eventually realized that he has a severe cobalt allergy that he continues to struggle with on a daily basis. The little things that you wouldn’t think of — not putting your arms on the restaurant table because you don’t know what cleaning supplies they’ve used; that your daughter’s laundry detergent might make you break out if she hugs you — these are the things he deals with every day. I can’t imagine.
Dad doesn’t play acoustic in the evenings anymore. The guitars stay stored away in their cases, out of sight and mind. Last year he sold his Stratocaster.
Riding in the car the other night, Free Bird came on over the radio. “Your dad used to play this,” Mom said, smiling fondly. ”He was amazing.”