Sometimes, when I would drink by myself til I was bleary eyed, I’d try and make myself feel right by searching for the perfect song. This was always in the depths of the night and I would always be hunched at the computer, alone, an inebriated embryo in the yolk of the opalescent glow of the screen. It might be Pink Anderson or The Beatles, but it was usually Philip Glass, specifically Philip glass as performed on piano by Aleck Karis. Glasses’ looping movements in minor keys that opened up a theme only to close it by repeating it back felt exactly like the dark center at the core of this conveyor belt of addiction I’d grown into. The music and thus the effort simultaneously worked (I felt that emptiness in me from somewhere outside myself and was a smidge less alone) and didn’t work (I would always end up drunk again). Sometimes though, part way through the search I’d just pass out.
In many ways, he was a small town savior. He came in after the previous band director, who was well loved, was caught engaged in some seedy behavior and thus resigned. There was a fill in year where the interim director, an understandably unconfident young woman who, knowing her Sisyphean task, before stomping up the stairs for our first concert, shouted to the confused parents, “it will sound better when the new auditorium get’s built!” Under her guidance, it never really sounded better because high school boys can be assholes and assholes don’t easily make wonderful high school musicians. And in many ways his arrival was a kind of second coming for our high school music program. A talented director with an admirable pedigree, a degree of professionalism that only barely held back his burning love for music and his desire to get the best out of us. We played simple classics (I remember him wisely explaining he’d let us play the usual Christmas tripe because, he explained in his baritone voice, “you don’t mess with tradition.”) to truly avant garde contemporary pieces that made use of 5:14 time signatures and, unfortunately, prominent Euphonium sections. He was, as I would later say in a passive aggressive rap about him, given to the senior class on a tired bus ride on our Disney trip “big and he’s bald, but he’s got the plan.” He was rotund in a Falstaffian manner. He was the kind of man who twisted his wedding ring when he was talking. He was good to many students. I was not one of them. And so when he died under circumspect conditions, I was not sad and I was not happy and I was disgusted with my ambivalence. But in coming to understand my own drinking, I’ve come to love this man in a way I do not know how to explain. But, I’m going to try anyways.
This is the part where the writer usually I casually, but dramatically drops the subject’s name in an understated, but powerful fashion. I’m not going to do that. Partly because this blog goes out to people that knew him, and partly because I have no right to insist the story I’m about to tell is really his story. It is not his namesake. It is the ghostly shimmer of memories I’ve been left to make sense of and that is what I want to do. Because he was many things to many people. He did plenty veritable capital “G” Good. He convinced students who were unconfident that they should attend college, he nurtured talented musicians to be something even more, he demanded excellence and from many (some of whom now make their living as musicians) got it.
To be fair I probably shouldn’t have been in “Wind Ensemble”, the “good” band. I didn’t belong. In a way I only got in on a technicality. Under the interim band director’s whim I switch from trumpet (which I was passable at) to the Euphonium (or Baritone, mini tuba looking thing) because we were going to play the Jurassic Park Theme Song for the summer concert and it required a euphonium. The instrument’s keys were the same as the trumpet’s, the notes were the same and I happened to know that song really well (I was a dinosaur kid). She put me in wind ensemble. There weren’t any other people in the school who played euphonium. Except me, I did now. I was the one playing the euphonium in wind ensemble.
Of all the team sports I had to play baseball was my favorite sport. In baseball I got three tries. My first strike I’d be too nervous to even understand I was supposed to swing at the damn ball. The pitcher could lob a fat meatball over the plate and I’d watch it like it was a UFO. My second strike I’d be getting used to the feel of the creeping neurosis throughout my body, maybe look downfield, squint, start feeling like this was something I could do. I felt determined and nervous. And so, usually I did okay the third time around. Most of which is to say I’ve always had near crippling performance anxiety for everything and I did not have a handle on it as a sophomore in the good band in high school. So when he went around, with a matter of fact demeanor that seemed to invoke coattails and black bowties, on our first day of class I started wondering whether I should piss myself before or after I ran to the bathroom. But instead, while tuning, he got to me and asked to play a G (just the bread and butter of a horn) and my shaking lips on the damp cold mouthpiece managed to eek out something that sounded like a leaking balloon. He said “that’s okay, again” and was dismayed when I did little more. I’m not entirely positive, but I might have asked him to pass me. By the end he went to the piano and, with his pointer finger slammed the G key over and over until he agreed to pass. Some of the older students looked dismayed. And honestly, I didn’t blame them because I didn’t know what I was doing there. And from that moment forward I would dread band class for the next two years. And from that moment forward his dislike for me, or what I was, or what I represented, or what I meant to him, only increased. As did the humiliation.
I remember once, much later, in college, I was home from school with a debilitating depression. I was in my bedroom and it was sunny, but I couldn’t feel anything but a weird sort of numb fire that made life throb with a queasy feel. And I had music playing. It wasa the blues. Pink Anderson. And Anderson’s nearly anti-musical moaning over his deliberate repetitive guitar as he sang, “Baby please don’t go” started to settle something in me “Oh baby please don’t go” and I was watching this great hot weight simply dissipate “back to new Orleans” and for a moment, no, two, no, an entire minute “Baby please don’t go back to new Orleans I know you man done gone, baby please don’t go” my depression was gone. That moment was a jewel I did not know how to handle, I didn’t want to move and have it crack or have the owner come and demand it back. The blues seemed to cure me. But on the car ride to the record shop I felt the old wet wool ghost dripping with fire as my fathers face turned from elation back to a resigned concern.
I don’t want to be melodramatic about this. It’s not as if he constantly verbally harassed me or threw things at me or even really raised his voice to me. It was often mild disdain in the face of adulation for others. In many ways I wonder if I was a different, less sensitive (or touchy if I’m being unkind) person, if all of this would have simply passed me by, not been a big deal, if I wasn’t already predisposed to self-loathing and fear of punishment, if this might have been a laugh in some ways. What it did lead to was a measure of time every weekday I could count on being thoroughly disappointing. I could count on hating myself for my inability to perform. I soon learned how to make a joke of myself after he stopped the band for the fourth time and asked me in that frustrated, growl, “Mr. Mango… again?!” to which I’d yell, shamefully, “Oh God, this is why we can’t have nice things!” or something just as obviously desperate in its design to cover my hurt. He was not a bad man, but to him I guessed I was an impediment to the success and esteem of the band. At that time, with that neurotic frame of mind, I hated him as thoroughly and deeply as any teenager has hated any authority figure. I became a kind of joke with some of my friends. Never a joke that really came to prominence or was passed around with joy, but we joked about how much him and I hated each other. And still I don’t know why I was there, why I didn’t leave.
There was one day in particular, we were getting ready for some nationwide competition that I still don’t really understand the details of, and we were playing a particular (and lovely) piece that required one full measure of unadulterated Euphonium melody. At home I played the part feverishly. Again, again, this floating, dulcimer measure, that propped one small moment of a beautiful song, I would play it until my fingerprints knew it better than my thoughts. Like if I could outrun my head with sheer digit speed, I might be free from that damn demon neurosis that seemed to choke me so often. And so we were in practice and the feel of the band room was heavy, as if everyone was sweating, including the walls. And he was certainly sweating. And it was in fact raining out, the large wall that was just a window in this lovely spacious place colored a burgundy and complementary grape-like purple, and he stood on the podium and his sleeves were rolled up. He lifted his wand (and he was so wide that it was like watching the continents of the globe carry themselves of the face of the Earth only to smash back down, it was silly and powerful), made swift eye contact with the room and we began. And percussion was thumping as the clarinets ran and the flutes drifted in to the sound of rising horns and they dimmed to the sound of beating thunder in my ears, my own heartbeat breaking my feel for the music and he looked, and up went the wand, and down, and a flubbed sad note, a schlemiel of a thing tumbling into a pool at a party where no one was swimming. And from the top and yet again. And the thunder was so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own anxious self-hatred, and I felt the sweat on my back and the eyes of the room and looked up in diminutive stature and great contrition, as if apologizing for my existence, to see a furrowed brow staring straight down. And I looked around the room and caught some quizzical glances, some gentle looks of concern, but mostly unreactions, refusing to engage or comment. And he began to say, in that baritone, he didn’t know what to do, this was turning into a failure, all a failure. He looked me in the eyes and said, with a kind of gravity I cannot myself muster, “Mr. Mango, you’re bringing the band down.” And then I was the black hole in the room that sucked in all attention only to destroy it. And part of me now wants to laugh, because this scene is so fucking ludicrous. It was just band. And yet, even as I think of it now it hurts. It was not the first time I was humiliated, nor the last, but it was the most notable time in front of a group of peers, some of whom Ioved, or admired, or crushed on, or wanted their approval and all I heard was my own inner voice telling myself I’d been rendered into a paste under the thumb of his words. But this of course is not the entire truth of the situation. Because, you see, I also sat there with a straight face, and kept my internal hatred internal and this is what is so difficult about this memory, to me at least, is that compared to so much I’ve lived through that moment is a goddamn cake walk, but it hurt like hell. Sometimes it still does. I even got nightmares. Does that make me weak? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but how are we supposed to process humiliation? For a long time I didn’t know what to do with that question.
He was kind to my brother and sister. My brother is a superb drummer, my sister was a good flutist, it was weird being the oldest and a disappointment to a man that was not my parent. And after we’d made some uneasy peace (finally one day when he stopped me I just yelled at him “what the hell do you expect from me! It’s always the same” and he did lighten up) and after I left for college I’d come home to the local gossip. Most of which suggested that things were not as professional as I’d thought. That .he’d shown up to the parade reeking. That his wife was leaving. That he couldn’t function well in the morning. You know, that kind of nasty hearsay that’s as ugly in content as it is in intent. And part way through college my mom called me and told me that he’d died. Just, he’d died. And at that moment I was callous enough to say I didn’t care. And like any early death, the gossip didn’t stop. It stank of booze. I do not know how much or in what way, but it reeked of hushed whispers passing around the idea he’d died of alcohol poisoning. I didn’t want to care. I wanted to drink and get laid. I sure did drink.
Maybe the strangest thing about grace is not only the experience of it, but where you find it. Two months into sobriety, I had a dream where he stood at the podium again. The seats were black folding chairs with lush burgundy cushions, he was dressed in a smart looking suit, the lights seemed to follow us as if we were on stage and everything else was soft shadow. But this time, instead of playing music he came down and sat next to me and told me very earnestly he was an alcoholic. And I said that I knew. And his big round face and bald head, all colored an kind of light crimson changed without changing. The colors remained the same, but instead of some indication of a buffoonish bully I should eject from my mind, it was the hue of someone who was struggling with a drink, someone who could be warm and creative that was as riddled with demons just as I was and doing his best just like I was. And his best didn’t work. And in the dream he told me that. And when I got of from the chair and left, feeling lighter, I was thankful for that solidarity. And when I woke up I didn’t hate him anymore. I just, I didn’t. He made sense.
But here’s the hard thing and the true thing. I have no idea if any of that is true. That moment of closeness that I never felt with him in real waking life was my dream, my illusion, my fantasy. Even the evidence it was based on was gossip. I didn’t know the man or his insides. His cruelty was the realest thing I knew, the most confirmable. When I remembered him I remembered bringing the band down. But that particular not knowing is the exactly loveliness to this all. My subconscious did me a favor my conscious mind never could have. It forgave him. Those moments still hurt yes, but I don’t begrudge him. I feel a kind of cool sadness, a resting sadness, like the still water of a moonlit pool. And the thing is, that forgiveness ends up being more real than the gossip or the perceived cruelty. Forgiveness gets to exist where total ignorance and fear hovel up, because forgiveness wants me to loosen my grip on all this shitty stuff I thought was happening. He may have been an alcoholic, he may not have, but he definitely suffered and for that, some part of me better than my waking mind could forgive him.
It’s strange to realize that an internal act that reorients the way we might see the world is in some ways more real than the way we received said world.
And I have a special new freedom now. It’s this: I get to see him as just a man. A man I didn’t know a whole lot about, a man who I felt hurt by, a man who did good things, a man who struggled, and whether imagined or not, I get some sense of closeness to him.
Perhaps this is all deeply solipsistic, and in fact I’m only waxing poetic about how great I think my inside world is, but I think something else is going on. I think that, this was the kind of internal violence each of us experiences every moment of every day, just in this case it came to a tragic end. I do wish I’d known the good side of him like others did, but at the very least I can appreciate it was there. It is always there.
His favorite band is The Beatles. I know this from one strange mid-morning I shared with him. I was about to be a senior and he had asked to come in and meet with him. That morning he talked to me like I did matter and I was good. He even took an interest in me and when I told him I’d been really into the Beatles he said he shared that interest. I remember wanting to feel connected, so I asked him why he thought they were so good and he said something along these lines, “They were revolutionary right from the start. Right in Love Me Do you’ve got that thumping country drum line with a pop melody resting on top, but it’s so seamless you don’t even realize the blending is there. And they never stopped writing music that way.” It’s usually the first thing I tell a person when I want to sound smart about the Beatles brilliance. And part of me wishes I’d had more moments like that with him, where I felt appreciated, listened to and informed, but I also know that that part is misguided. That moment lives in me forever, just like the forgiveness, like the alcoholism. It is uncoupled from time. Now, while I might still remember I brought the band down and feel hurt I also know I was always and still am listened to. The really weird part is that now I wish I could tell him how much he means to me, how much I appreciate him, even if that ‘him’ is some facsimile of my own imagined solidarity. I hope somehow he knows that. I hope it’s not impossible.