It was 1979. I was 7 and fatherless.
I missed those magnificent mornings when my father would crank up his classic rock to draw me out of bed. The soaring harmonies, the driving tempos, the pulsing power-packed and rousing anthems ... dad music, I called it.
I would float down the hallway to find my father in the living room sitting next to a stack of 10 or so albums. Somewhere in the usual mix were Yes; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Genesis; Pink Floyd; Billy Joel; Elton John; Earth, Wind and Fire; Doobie Brothers; Stevie Wonder; Steely Dan and Styx.
My father would put on a record and hand me the album jacket. I’d read it front to back, and stumble over some of the hard words (mosaic? psychedelic?) and music-industry phrases I didn’t understand (sound engineer? mastered by?).
I focused on the sounds in the songs ... mostly the keyboard sounds. My ears locked on to them; my brain wrapped itself around them. The cutting, pitch-bending buzz of the Moog synthesizer; the rotary brokenness and chunky stab of the Hammond B3; the smooth and mellow-dark Fender Rhodes; the ethereal ambiance of the synth pads; and finally, the riveting complexity and enchanted soul-stirring piano, which was my favorite.
These sounds from the dad music sent me soaring and led me to our old piano in the living room after my father had disappeared. I ran my fingers along the piano’s wood. I waved my fingers above the keys like a magician, then made light contact: no sound, just a tender grazing. I was like a blind man reading the braille of the keys, feeling the cracks between them, surveying the places where the black keys interrupted the flow of the white.
I randomly struck an E just above middle C: not hard, not soft, just right.
I felt it: the vibration through the lever of hammer striking string. The sound cut through me like a saw.
The E. I could hear it and feel it, and when I closed my eyes I could see it. The E looked blue, the blue of the sky above my father on the pitcher’s mound, the same blue of the sky from the Fort Lauderdale beach where he had held me high to protect me from the crashing waves. It also made me taste mint because I recognized it from a spearmint gum commercial melody.
I kept my eyes closed and struck the E again, this time harder to invoke more power from it. I let the note ring. When it ended, I pushed gently on the ivory to see how soft and delicate a tone I could produce. The piano responded with a meek tone, almost imperceptible. I giggled.
I repeated the pattern of striking the E — loud then soft, loud then soft.
I let other fingers fall gently on the keys next to the E. Not knowing what I was doing, I struck an E minor chord. I pulled back from the piano as if it had electrocuted me. I glazed my fingers over the keys as if I were trying not to hurt them, for the piano had just dealt me an unexpected blow. The piano, through the minor chord, had expressed sadness and fear at the same time, things I knew well.
I struck the same minor chord again, loud then soft, fast then slow. The sound was painful and portentous — the blue turned a darker shade — but now it made me laugh; laugh because I had never before connected with something so easily; laugh because in that moment I knew that I could express myself without saying a word. I banged the hell out of an E minor for several seconds, transferring everything to the piano.
As the days and weeks passed, I ran absolutely wild on the piano. I explored at will. The freedom was intoxicating. I taught myself chords and melodies from the dad music. I worked out commercial jingles and learned the hooks of popular radio hits. My fingers were clumsy and inefficient, but I developed my own technique to get around the keys and make the music I wanted.
I heard emotions; I saw colors and shapes. There was light and dark, purity and release. I closed my eyes most of the time I played, because there, in the blackness, I saw my father smiling at me.