Papa was a Fuddy-Dud
Vancouver Sun, July 22, 2000
I am a pop culture pariah. Having already come out on these pages as a wuss who’s never smoked pot, I can freely admit I don’t know anything about anything, although I do know this: I know even less about baggy panted people.
Armed with this ignorance, I recently engaged in debate with my 17-year-old nephew (he of the XXXL pants) on the merits of hip-hop. My position was that hip-hop isn’t music. It’s bad poetry with a beat. It has elements of music, I conceded, but most of that is sampled from other, real musicians. To drive my point home, I drolly noted that one need not spend years at Julliard studying to play the freakin’ turntable. Game, set and match to me, right?
When he informed me that hip-hop isn’t music, I thought I had won. But no. Hip-hop is the culture, I was told; rap is the music. Or something like that. I lose interest when I’m losing an argument, not to mention street cred, when I don’t even know the reference points I’m arguing.
A variety of factors have led to my current state, but the bulk of the blame must go to my father. Most of the culture I’ve got, I got from my pop. But it certainly wasn’t pop culture. I guess that’s what happens when your dad is a jazz musician whose cultural references ground to a halt some time in the 1940s. My own knowledge-gap mostly manifests itself in the musical realm, but is by no means confined to it. I’m hopelessly clueless in myriad areas.
I first noticed my disconnection to the masses in ’72: the big Canada-Russia hockey game – or was it a series? (You’d think I’d know these things, having written professionally about hockey in a major daily newspaper, albeit a paper with really big pictures.) The single event in my lifetime that brought Canadians of all political stripes together, and I was left out. No, not left out. That would imply I gave a rat’s ass about the game. I didn’t. Nor did my family. Over the years I have made giant strides to the point where I now know there was some sort of nation-defining sporting event that people my age still talk about. (My sister, however, didn’t find out about it until a few weeks ago when I brought it up in a vain effort to relate to them.)
It’s not that I want to be this ivory-towered pedant who is too good for such earthly concerns. It’s just that nature and nurture conspired to make me this way. I was raised not only by a European mother and grandparents, but, alternately, by a Canadian father, a man who knew less about popular culture than anyone I’ve ever met.
This is a man who didn’t own a TV for years. And years. And years. When he finally acquired one, it was a tiny black-and-white number that sat unused in a corner until I or my sisters came to stay. I remember once he regretted to inform me it wasn’t working. Being a musician, he had no idea why. I’ve never been a handyman but I thought I’d go over and take a look.
It’s possible, now that I think back on it, that he was disappointed his only son didn’t show enough interest in reading (except for books with really big pictures, which perhaps led to me writing for newspapers with really big pictures) and he was using the old unplugged TV trick to get me up and out.
You had to know my dad, though, to know that he likely believed it was broken. He was not the most mechanical of men. I never once saw him use a tool or do a chore, other than to load the dishwasher. He was above all that. Once, as a child, I was sent over without a change of socks (an oversight, I’m almost certain). I wore the same pair for days until they crusted over and retained the shape of my foot even when off, as if I had an invisible sock-wearing friend. No laundry for those stinkers, though. Not on dad’s watch. They went straight into the garbage and he bought me new lifeless ones.
Once I forced him to sit down and watch Cheers, at the time my favourite show and widely thought to be the best-written one on television. But this was a man who was proud to claim that Andy Hardy Joins the Army was the last movie he’d ever seen, so it was an uphill battle. He watched five minutes of it before harrumphing “Dumb” and leaving, all the while muttering “Dumb, dumb, dumb” as he walked away.
Pop’s place was not child-friendly. He had no toys. He had no yard. There was not much for a kid to do. So we made do. On our visits pre-TV, we had but three options:
1. We could read from his vast collection of books, consisting of jazz biographies and histories, Russian literature, classic humourists like S.J. Perelman and P.G. Wodehouse, philosophy, essays, curmudgeonly tomes on the English language, or a smattering of books from the entertainment world, most of which were written by old-time comics he worked with at the Cave Supper Club, and to which I gravitated, leaving me with a lifelong admiration (bordering on obsession, friends tell me) for Steve Allen.
2. We could listen to his vast record collection: classical or jazz, that was it. I got enough of that long-haired music (I’ve always loved that anachronistic phrase) at piano lessons so I opted for the jazz (Jelly Roll Morton and Lance Harrison were my faves as a pre-teen), which also ensured I’d always miss the pop culture parade. A 15-year-old kid should not be attempting to play Bix Beiderbecke’s solo from “I’m Coming Virginia” on his trumpet. He probably shouldn’t even know who Bix Beiderbecke is. Or, if he does, he should also know at least one song from Pink Floyd. (I kid you not – I http://time.com/3639655/serial-innocence-project-deirdre-enright/spent 10 minutes searching through a reference book just to find the name “Pink Floyd.” Someone like me should have grown up on that stuff! Friends give me that you-can’t-be-serious look when some vaguely familiar (to me) rock anthem is playing and I ask who sings it and it turns out to be The Who or The Stones or The Led Zeppelin.)
Or 3., and this was the best option, we could throw grapes off his 16th floor balcony while he was inside practicing scales or doing the cryptic crossword.
All that jazz education I absorbed from my dad was endearing when I was younger. It was cute when I was pulled out of school for a day in 1969 so I could meet Duke Ellington and all the cats in the band at the Cave. Whether it was Count Basie at the Queen E, Harry “Sweets” Edison winking and me and my sister, the only kids at his show, or Chet Baker at a local club, I soaked it up. Even the Stephane Grappelli concert I attended alone amongst the blue-hairs and no hairs. Now I’m a no-hair (thanks again, Pops) and I know I’m perceived by the kids today as just an out-of-touch guy who likes old-guy music. But what can I expect when I find myself dropping phrases like “The kids today”?
Truth is, I was an out-of-touch young guy who liked old-guy music, too. Over the years, I’ve made some concessions to today’s music with an expanding pop CD collection, but none of it is considered very “popular”. I do know this: no matter how tasteful and musical I may think a particular pop group is, my Dad would have none of it. I’m relieved in a way that rap and hip-hop culture had the decency to wait for him to die before it took hold on society. I don’t know what I’d do if some rap group were to sample one of his many recordings. I’d probably become catatonic.
Is it any wonder I feel lost in this world of pop culture? I’m not saying I’m giving an inch on the rap/hip-hop debate. Or any other debate in which I’m ill-suited to participate. I’m just saying, that’s all.