I must have been five or six years old when I had this conversation with my father while we were on our way to shoot hoops at the school playground:
Me: I don’t understand why I have to have so many names.
Dad: (laughing): How many names do you have?
Me: Well I have six – Mike, Michael, Mickey, I have a middle name, Edward, and my last name is Canter.
Dad: That’s only five.
Me: Sometimes Mom calls me Mikey and I hate it.
Dad: Well, your name is Michael, and Mike is short for Michael. I call you Mickey because someday you’re going to be a switch-hitting, slugging outfielder like Mickey Mantle, except you’ll play for the Cubs. Your middle name honors your grandfather, and your last name is a gift from me. In fact, your name is the first gift your parents ever give you. And from now on when your mother calls you Mikey, pretend like you don’t hear her. Maybe she’ll stop.
Now that I’m older, I’d argue that life is the first gift my parents ever gave me, but I’m sure dad wasn’t ready to get into a facts-of-life talk with his very inquisitive six-year old son. But the name is a cool gift too, and the story was probably the impetus behind dad’s choice of favorite song, I Got a Name by Jim Croce. He had wanted to name me Willie (after Willie Mays) since his name was Bill, but my mom threatened divorce, so Michael, and/or Mickey, I was dubbed.
I loved Saturdays with my father in those days. He didn’t have to work weekends, and we lived in an apartment at the time so he didn’t need to worry about chores and yardwork. So we’d head over to the playground at Worth-Ridge School to shoot hoops or play catch. Sometimes he’d pitch to me and he’d show me how to pick up the stitching on the ball so that I would know if the pitch was going to dip, curve, dart away, or come straight at me.
But it was the conversations we had that made our Saturdays so special. I learned his favorite basketball player was Jerry Sloan; his favorite Cubs player was Billy Williams; he hated the Bears, and was a Packers fan in Illinois when it could practically get you killed, though his favorite football player was one Joe Willie Namath. Same with the Cubs. We lived on the south side. Dad hated the White Sox, and claimed “Comiskey Park was the world’s biggest urinal.” He loved music and though he looked a lot like Glen Campbell, he did a spot on Elvis impersonation. He loved Dean Martin movies and had a thing for Raquel Welch. But who didn’t?
Sometimes my mom would go to Bingo on Friday nights and dad would stay home and sit with my sister and I, and he’d put Elvis records on the hi-fi and sing into a hairbrush, nailing every lyric and recreating every Elvis move that television stations felt would be better left unseen, because, you know, back in 1970, gyrating hips was a mortal sin. Then he’d wake me up on Saturdays, make some waffles and bacon, and we’d have our one-on-one time.
And though I never really liked playing baseball, I joined because the Worth Little League had the greatest incentive ever: a free hot dog and a root beer for every player at the end of each game. It turned out once the Little League coaches allowed me to pitch I started to love baseball and truly excel. But it was never going to lead me to any kind of a sports career. I never got to play for the Little League Cubs, but I did play for the Indians, Royals, and Angels during my three-year stint, and we had real uniforms that mirrored the major league versions.
My dad and I forged an unbreakable bond over music. His go-to songs included a lot of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Vogues, Harry Nilsson and almost every Motown song. He loved Marvin Gaye and Eddie Kendricks. He wouldn’t listen to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (“they’re un-American”), bands that played at Woodstock (“a bunch of hippies, queers, and druggies”), jazz (“sleeping pills work a lot faster”), or country and western (“it makes it ok for wives to cheat on their husbands”).
He did like Conway Twitty (“powerful voice”), Johnny Cash (“It’s not country when you can feel a man’s soul in the twang of his voice”), and Ray Charles, who was going through his country and western phase at the time anyway. In fact, as I look back now, my dad was really a closet C&W fan. I mean he loved the song Convoy by C.W McCall and anytime Charlie Rich came on the radio he’d lose his ever-loving mind. He’d always sing in the car. Always.
“Charlie Rich, man that son of a bitch sure can sing.”
Dad was a Baptist and a Catholic, and if you are not educated in the religions of the world, those are two faiths that sit at opposite ends of the Judeo-Christian emotional doctrine. I liked Baptist church because worship was more fun. It was a veritable jump up-spin-around-jump-down-praise-the-Lord hootenanny every Sunday. And dad loved to sing in church.
In comparison, Catholic church seemed like a lot of guilt-driven spiritual chastising by men in flowing robes who looked like they could see through you and know with great detail every sin you ever committed. I used to be deathly afraid of Communion under the watchful eye of the Priest or Monsignor.
Body of Christ?
Ok Father, I did it, I am so guilty, please don’t let me perish in the fiery lake of Hell.
All you had to say was ‘Amen’ Michael. Now go to confession.
I hated Catholic hymnals. Every song sounded like a funeral service because you are ultimately ordained to be miserable. I never left Ashburn Baptist afraid of the wrath of God, but at parish I felt there was no escaping His judgement. And whereas Jesus always felt like a loving son interceding for our sins at Baptist church, at St. Rita the Son of God felt more like a trick God played on us to get us to settle into a false sense of security. We’d rest easily until the Big Guy launched said wrath through a plague of locusts, poisonous frogs, bloody rain, disease and pestilence, and any other abomination that made a bad acid trip look like a walk in the park by comparison. These are, of course, promised to us in the Book of Revelations.
A random thought…
‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ What Christian lawyer added that disclaimer to the Bible? It’s like a ‘get out of jail free’ card that you can use over and over. Hey, anything to fill those donation baskets because if you knew you were going to Hell, why would you need to go to church? So we always had the divine retraction, and an extra dollar or two for the basket, our flesh be damned. Dad called it the “Interceding Basket” and mom hated that.
I enjoyed going to church just because I loved the car rides. On Sundays we’d listen to America’s Top 40 hosted by Casey Kasem and dad could name the songs before they were announced with deadly accuracy. When it comes to music knowledge and taste, I learned everything from my father. He claimed Casey read one of his letters on the air when my dad was stationed in Germany while in the Army. He had no proof whatsoever, but we blindly believed him, because that’s how the father-child dynamic worked in those days.
Dad was also a fan of Wolfman Jack, and night drives over to the Dog ‘N Suds always included the Wolfman on WFYR — the Magic Oldies Station that was known as the Chicago Fire.
And speaking of cars, he always drove something with muscle and speed, and always a Chevy either a Camaro, Corvette, Corvair, or El Camino. He’d get a new car every year. When my little brother was born, he switched to roomier vehicles such as the Monte Carlo, Impala, and gasp, one year he bought a station wagon. He hated foreign cars and especially Volkswagens.
By the late 1970s he’d moved up to Cadillacs, though always with the white leather interior. I wasn’t a big fan of his 1977 salmon-colored Coupe DeVille with the white tuck and roll upholstery and over-exaggerated whitewalls. That upholstery looked good in the El Camino, but was shockingly disturbing in that Caddy. Big pimpin’ though. Big pimpin’.
And salmon? What in the name of Liberace was going on there? Dad paid a lot for that customization and never regretted it though. I used to hide below window level and always made him drop me off a block or two from my intended destination. I mean my Dad had an AMC Gremlin once and I was less ashamed of that monstrosity than I was of that hideous Cadillac. At least the Caddy had a cassette player, something I had never seen in a car before. One saving grace I guess.
Everything revolved around music in our family, and the music played through the same $15 baby-shit brown GE transistor radio that seemed to broadcast more buzz and fuzz than actual music. Dad carried it everywhere religiously. We’d constantly adjust the antenna for better reception.
Move it left. A little more. No that’s too far. Go back right. Ok. Hold it there.
That worked for about five minutes.
On Saturdays we’d always have pizza for dinner. Sometimes we’d order delivery from Pizza Pete and other times we’d go out to Nick & Vitos where my father would bartend and monopolize the jukebox. Yes, they did that shit in the 1970s, too. He’d pump that record machine full of quarters while sipping on an ice cold can of Schlitz and play everything from Crazy Arms by Jerry Lee Lewis to I’d Really Love to See You Tonight by England Dan & John Ford Coley. He always wore a white t-shirt with rolled up sleeves and a pair of blue jeans rolled at the ankles James Dean style.
He knew every word to every song, and in that respect, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I display similar traits when it comes to blue jeans, jukeboxes and song lyrics, though I prefer a better brand of beer, PBR being my beverage of choice, naturally.
Dad always wanted a jukebox for the house but mom always objected. Her taste in music was boring and simple: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and George Jones, and nothing else.
Well, as dad said, “country music makes it okay for wives to cheat on their husbands,” and I’ll just leave it at that. I had a lot of “uncles” back in the day who always seemed to need a place to crash. That’s no attack on my mother, either. Based on the divorce rates in this country there was a lot of that going on, and even more that nobody knew about. I’m sure my father was no saint either. He just never had the home field advantage, so to speak. Out of sight, out of mind.
As the decade wore on my parents got divorced and my father remarried. His new wife had a profound impact on his life. Dad started listening to disco music, permed his hair, traded his blue jeans in for polyester, and traded his Schlitz for some concoction known as a Grasshopper that looked a lot like the desserts nobody would buy at my high school cafeteria. Saturday pizza was replaced by pot roasts and Brandy Alexanders. He had sod put in the backyard of his new home. Sod! We were forbidden to play in the freaking backyard. Can you imagine?
Then the bomb dropped. I heard dad and my new stepmom singing Too Much Too Little Too Late by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams while barbecuing one afternoon. I was in the living room, watching NCAA basketball when I was distracted by my stepmom’s awful voice. Oh. My. God….. It was like I no longer knew him. I longed for the restoration of our own family and dad’s dreams of having his own jukebox. I blamed it all on my mom and who wouldn’t? No jukebox in the den. George Jones records night and day. Johnny Mathis. Deneice Williams. Lots of “uncles.”
I was thirteen and my life was nearly over. And then dad died later that fall.
I was going through some of my dad’s things from that era about twenty years ago and was astounded at the treasure I found. Hidden in a box that included a pen that said “Start the day right, fuck somebody” and a button that said “Don’t be so proud, if I had pulled out in time you wouldn’t even be here,” along with some combs, a patent for some space-aged gas pump device, paycheck stubs (apparently $340 per week in 1970 was a big deal), and a bunch of bitter, hateful letters from my mother, was a small spiral notebook. The notebook contained a single entry that said “Bill’s Jukebox” and a running list of songs he thought would make the perfect mix of music.
1. Southern Nights by Glenn Campbell
2. Uncloudy Day by Willie Nelson
3. You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles
4. A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash
5. In the Ghetto by Elvis Presley
6. Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley
7. Polk Salad Annie by Tony Joe White
8. Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues by Jim Croce
9. Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich
10. Waymore Blues by Waylon Jennings
11. Jolene by Dolly Parton
12. It Must Be Love by Don Williams
13. Sunday Morning Comin’ Down by Johnny Cash
14. The Ode to Billie Joe by Bobby Gentry
15. It’s a-Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall by Leon Russell
16. Mama Tried by Merle Haggard
Christ, I knew my dad was a country music fan.