Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder & Prince

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My father left when I was young. He had a dream. I don’t think I was a part of it.

I think being a father is hard. It’s rewarding, and beautiful and loving and 1,000 other great things, but it’s hard.

When I was born my parents were young. They were much younger than I am now. At my age I struggle with being a good dad. At 19 or 20 I would have been awful. I was too emotional. I was too steadfast and unwilling to bend. I knew I was right about everything. There was learning to do. When I was born my dad was 19.

He still had that dream. He wanted to finish his music program. He wanted to master his craft. He wanted to be great. He wanted to make lots of money. He wanted to do what he loved. Ypsilanti, Michigan is a fine place, but it ain’t Music City USA. In his mind he had to make his way in Nashville, New York or Los Angeles. Those were the places where careers were built. Nashville is great for country but only starting to open to other sounds. New York is too cold. He moved to LA.

I visited sometimes. I’d spend a summer. I’d spend a Christmas. He’d visit too. He made some of my birthdays.

He moved to Europe to concentrate on opera. I visited. It was nice. The people were friendly. The food was strange. I got homesick.

We drifted apart. Not speaking for a few weeks would become a few months. At one point I counted when I was in Jr High. We didn’t speak in a year. If I called he would have answered. He would have told me he loved me. It would have been nice. I never called.

When we began to slowly reconnect I was a bit older. I thought I was a bit wiser. What could he tell me? I knew everything. I was sure about the world. I knew how to be. I knew how to act. I knew best. What did he know that I didn’t? Music. He knew music.

Not just any music. Specific music by supremely talented people that found their way. You see, for people like my father, who are among the very best at something, they don’t see others as better. LeBron doesn’t think Steph Curry is a better shooter than him. He just works at different parts of the game. Denzel Washington doesn’t think Tom Hardy is a better actor than him. He just chooses different roles. My dad doesn’t believe anyone is a better singer or bassist or song writer than him. They just have fame or fortune.

When I’d hear a song and sing along he’d scoff. He’d roll his eyes. He’d dismiss them. I knew better. I knew everything. I still wanted his approval. It meant the world to me. I wanted to like who he liked.

There were so many. There were The Stylistics. There was Marvin Gaye. There was David Bowie. There was Marcus Miller. But they came and went. There was always Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and Prince.

They had hit songs. They had fame and fortune. But to my dad they earned it. So for me they deserved it. I wanted to devour their music. It meant we had something in common. It meant I was like him. It meant I could earn his respect, his attention, his love.

I bought my Steely Dan cassette tapes. They morphed into CDs. They became mp3s. Now they’re just playlists in Apple Music. I grew up. The sounds didn’t. I can hear the first bar of Black Cow or Do It Again or sing along like I’m Michael McDonald on backing vocals on Peg. The next time he plays that song in the car I’ll know it all.

Stevie wasn’t just Isn’t She Lovely or Superstition. I became a student of his work. How it morphed from jams to social justice to love and sex and was both of the time, incorporating jazz or disco or new wave, while also being timeless. The next time he finds even song 14 on Songs in the Key of Life, I’ll sing not just in English but the Spanish too. (Es un historia de mi corazon)

I love Stevie Wonder. I love Steely Dan. Then there’s Prince.

I’ve seen Prince in concert more than all other concerts combined.

When I collected CDs I had more Prince than all others combined.

I joined one fan club in my life. It was Prince.

My ex-wife and I, who were incompatible in every way, first spoke and fell in love because we shared Prince.

I know Steely Dan Music. I know Stevie Wonder Music. I think they’re amazing and talented and among the people I’d pay real, silly money to see. They’re not Prince.

I remember Jimmy Jam talking about Prince. He said that Prince went to multiple high schools so that he could play in all the different bands. He said that Prince would write the song, get the band together, record, and then re-record playing all the parts. He said Prince would come to you, grab your instrument that was the only instrument you played, and he would show you how it was supposed to be played. He said Prince was the most talented person he’d ever seen. He didn’t say musician. He said person.

He might have been right. Prince was a great song writer. He was a great pianist. He was one of the best ever to grip a guitar. (I’m choked up writing “was”) But it’s not that he was those things. It’s that he was all of those things. He could do the thing that you did best and do it better than you.

Prince is gone now. It’s silly to make his loss, which has a profound affect on the world of music, about me. It’s not fair, but music is personal. Art is personal. It doesn’t feel like I’m losing a musician I like. It doesn’t feel like I’m losing a person I admire. It feels like there’s a spark in the world that’s not there anymore. The feeling that someone can do anything, that I can do anything, is gone.

My dad felt like Prince had that spark. My dad didn’t just like Prince’s music. He deeply and truly respected him as a man and an artist.

I wanted that. I still want that.

I talked to my dad a few weeks ago. He came for my daughter’s birthday. It was nice. I hadn’t spoken to him in more than a month since.  He’d been to Asia. He was on his way to Europe. He was excited but only had a few moments at the airport. I don’t know if he’s back in LA or not. He might still be in Europe. I don’t remember what we talked about.

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