My dad's sick. He's got cancer. It's bad.
At first, it was six months. Then that turned into a few, indeterminate years.
That's a roller coaster of emotions that no one could ever be prepared for. The slow climb to the crest is guilt. Trust me.
Outside of my young childhood, my relationship with him was a bit at odds for a long time. It wasn't bad. It wasn't strained….it just wasn't terribly warm. I think once I moved past the formative years, we weren't ready to redefine what our relationship was. As it turns out, we just needed to be adults together.
When I was still too young to really understand this—or perhaps too young for him to see me as an adult—the two of us drove cross-country to NYC. I was moving for school. It was, in short, excruciating. I feel like shit admitting that now. But it wasn't his fault. It wasn't my fault either. Our lack of anything to connect over had never been confined to an enclosed, slowly-moving vehicle, creeping ever further from the only life I had ever known. In one of the boldest, biggest, most emotional changes of my life, I was with someone with whom I hadn't yet learned to express my emotions.
About a year later, I was back in California after being in New York at a school that was obviously wrong for me. Moving back to be with the girl I loved, only to have that dissolve almost immediately. This is when I found the music of Otis Redding. I mean, of course I knew who Otis Redding was. Who doesn't? But I had one of those epiphanic moments that only music seems equipped to deliver. The right place and time mixed with the right company and emotions. I put “These Arms of Mine” on the jukebox. It was a song I’d always enjoyed, solely because it had a sweet sound, with very soulful vocals. But in this moment, it spoke to me in a very different way, allowing for my own emotions to mix into it. I was transfixed. Thus was born my obsession with soul music. It quickly became my genre of choice and Otis quickly became—and remains—my favorite artist of all time. But how much do we, as listeners, dissect that very personal opinion? Of course, I have the easy answers: He's one of the most earnest and energetic performers ever. He was a master songwriter (with a huge, obligatory shout-out to collaborator Steve Cropper). He had the perfect voice for the time. He never took himself too seriously. But why does that make him suited to be my favorite artist? That's a relationship that's tough to understand.
Soul music is about hard times. But it's generally not written in a self-pitying manner. It's about getting through it by embracing what good you have in life. And in a time when I needed just that—to be reminded that it's worth getting through the tough stuff to embrace what matters—I found soul music. And so, Otis Redding helped me understand and cope with the first truly defining adult moment of my life.
I have a definitive moment of when music first became important to me. My dad and I were in the car. Oh, who knows where? I was probably six or seven years old, and he used to quiz me on what I knew about the songs on the radio. I still recall the elation of making my father proud when "Horse With No Name" came on and I answered correctly that it was a song by America. I usually have a pretty terrible memory, especially when it comes to my childhood. I have a hard time recalling high school when pressed to remember a specific moment. Hell, I don't remember what I ate for dinner last night. But I remember answering "America." Of course, at seven, I didn't realize my dad was shaping my musical knowledge, taste, connection. But I sure as shit know that now. When soul music started to have an impact on my life, it became clear that the blossoming interest really had started in my childhood, from what my dad had been listening to in those days. And just like my relationship with him, it turns out I just wasn’t ready to fully appreciate it at the time.
My brother and I had been talking over the past few years, wanting to do something significant and memorable with our dad before it became too late. Dad's side of the family is Irish and at first we thought it would be amazing to go explore those roots. He wasn't interested. Too much travel, not near enough to home….just in case something were to happen. Just in case he wasn't feeling well at the time. Chemo doesn't really let you plan anything too major. Somewhere in our discussions I suggested New Orleans. And it stuck. During the planning of that trip, my brother also realized the proximity to Memphis and brilliantly suggested we drive up there for the second leg of the journey.
Everything about the trip was perfect. It was immediately apparent that the three of us hadn't spent this kind of time together in decades. We used to go on excursions all the time when we were kids and those are some of my favorite memories. And I know this trip was instantly added to that pile. The look of pure joy and excitement on my dad's face the first night in New Orleans as we were bar-hopping….that is one of my happiest moments. In a way, this was the chance to hit the reset button on the road trip I took with him back in my freshman year.
Being in Memphis and getting a chance to visit Stax was an amazing opportunity. Being able to visit some of that history and seeing where all these musicians were flocking to in order to get through the hard times….it was so much easier to put soul's influence on me into perspective. And now my family was flocking to the same spot. To get through the hard times. And in those moments, seeing the joy on my father's face, in this place that was important to us for the same reasons—that will always be a reminder to me that no matter what happens, there is always something good to hold on to. Even if it’s only just a memory.
And in that way, Otis Redding had helped me understand and cope with the latest truly defining adult moment of my life.