The Banjo

by: Tom Rau

A son’s attempt to build a bridge into the past in order to connect with his deceased father. As of now, he is building it on the back of a banjo….   

I think when your dad dies when you are a kid you are on a life long quest to get to know him as a man. Or, at the very least, to create some sort of connection to him, however unreal or delusional that connection may be. My dad was a surgeon. He carried with him the heavy hand of discipline much in the same way that a preacher carries the bible. At the time of his death I was nine, and to me he was 75% strict disciplinarian, 20% baseball coach, and 5% other. But one thing I truly believe about life is that there isn’t one thing that defines us, despite the way other people see us as individuals. In the case of my father, within that 5% lies an entire man I never got to know. Enter the banjo.

He wasn’t much of a musician, but he pushed the banjo on us like it was a way to speak to the gods. Maybe it was his love of Steve Martin, comedian and banjo extraordinaire, whose records we would listen to when I was a kid. More likely though, it was just one of those strange and beautiful universal flukes, that somehow a guy from Chicago who loved Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles fell in love with the old-timey sounds of Appalachia that spring forth from the banjo. He took lessons and he forced his children to take lessons. He wasn’t good, but unquestionably, he loved it. Unfortunately, no one else in the family shared his enthusiasm. Not one of his three children made it through more than a few lessons before declaring the banjo enemy of the state.

Fast forward 25 years and I have become a fairly accomplished musician. I don’t play music for a living, but I do get a chance to travel to some amazing places and and be a part of some extremely special things because of the incredible power of music. It is the closest thing to God that I have ever experienced. It is my church, my confession and my salvation. I’m not saying I would have killed myself without it, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t have. More importantly though, every time I hear a banjo I think about my dad.

A couple of months ago, I was listening to “Drummer Down” by Hiss Golden Messenger. I was surrounded by the thick cloud of loneliness that engulfs us after a breakup. On this particular morning I was feeling especially morose. Between the breakup, MC Taylor’s beautiful voice and lyrics, and the subtle layer of banjo in the song, my levee couldn’t hold. I let the tears wash over me. After the flood, when the water receded, I could see what remained. And there it was, on top of the rubble, a single obvious thought. I opened up Facebook and posted, “Does anyone have an old banjo they can part with?”

A couple hours later I received a somewhat cryptic response from my friend Murphy, whom in my circle of close friends is lovingly referred to as “The Wizard.” The Wizard has long, wild red hair, generally sports some kind of unruly facial hair, and for every part genius is an equal part mad man. “Hey man, give me a ring, I have a banjo to talk to you about,” he replied to my post.

I called him immediately and he told me a story about his stepbrother and a banjo.

The first time Murphy met his step-brother Eli, they were both 15. Murphy immediately took positive note of the slew of punk rock patches that adorned his new sibling’s trench coat. But one patch stood out. It was not for a punk band, rather for the West Orange High School Marching Band. Murphy, suddenly skeptical of his new brother’s entire being, began the inquisition. “Are you in a marching band?” he asked. Eli, undeterred, squashed all implications immediately. “I’m going to play the world’s first heavy metal tuba,” he retaliated. And with this unforgettable encounter, The Wizard met his punk-rock, tuba playing, eclectic stepbrother.

He never did play the heavy metal tuba. Or if he did, no one ever got to hear him bellow out the bassy bottom end of the dark lord. But he did once do a 40 minute solo tuba interpretation of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” It was much better on paper of course, at times completely unlistenable. That was the thing about Eli though, he was hapless. To him, a 40 minute tuba rendition of “Howl” was a way to be artistic and subversive, a way to undermine the status quo. To most of those around him however, it was a comedy. He was a comedy. And he was too nice of a guy to stand up and yell, “Fuck you! You shallow bastards! I’m a rebel! Listen to me roar!”

And that’s where the line was ultimately drawn. Between the way the world saw Eli, and the way Eli saw the world. He never made it as a musician in the way that he had dreamed. In that world he wasn’t quite good enough. But he was certainly a musician. And like most musicians, he was always learning and collecting new instruments. At some point, he acquired and began to play an old tenor banjo.

While Murphy told me his stepbrother’s story, I felt a certain kinship to him. Like Eli, music is my core. Like Eli, and maybe like all of us, I fight with reconciling what is on the inside with the way people define me. In some ways his story is also very much in parallel with the way I saw my dad. When I was nine, and he died, I had only seen a sliver. For Eli, he lived his whole life with only a few people seeing more than a sliver. In the end, I don’t think the world was ready for Eli.

I have been fortunate enough to find enough creative, or occasionally destructive, outlets to keep the train moving. Sometimes, in fact, I think I even feed on that vague combination of pain, sadness, anxiety, and angst. For me, I want to be able to feel everything. But for Eli, the peak of his sadness caught him at the worst possible time and he was lost. He hung himself in 2003. After his death, his family had to sift through his belongings. Amongst them was that old banjo from the 1960s he was learning to play. The Wizard took it into his possession. He was going to find it a meaningful home.

My heart was in my stomach. It was a fucking terrible story, but at the same time it was one of those rare moments where you feel like you are in exactly the right place at the right time. As he closed out his story, I began mine. I told him the story of my dad, his cancer, and his love of the banjo. Of how it was a way for me to do something that would have made him proud. How it was a way for me to fill a hole that feels infinitely deep. When I was done, Murphy didn’t hesitate, “Well, come get your banjo.” I asked him how much money he wanted for it. But of course, The Wizard only deals in magic.

Now everyday when I play the banjo I wander. I wander back to my youth, when my dad, my brother, and I would play baseball every afternoon until the ball was too dark to see. I can feel the clumps of freshly cut grass kicking up behind me as I run around the yard. I can smell the cow manure from the neighboring farm. I see his stained white t-shirt, the way he swung a Fungo bat. I feel his scruffy face rubbing against mine when we wrestled. He always laughed hysterically when he squashed me for fun.

I continue to play the banjo. Just like dad, I’m not very good, but it lets me wander. I wander into an old house in the middle of the grapevines where the banjo lessons took place. He is an old man now, his smile spans from ear to ear. He couldn’t be happier that someone is finally going to play the banjo with him. We butcher songs. We talk about life, about lust, about love. We have a bourbon. We wander on.

Everyday I play the banjo I get better. Soon, I’ll be able to make it sing. And I’ll sing a song, the notes forming waves that travel through the universe connecting the past to the present and the present to the future. Each one part of the web that binds everything together. I’ll sing a song, each new note a piece of the conversation I’m having with my father that spans time infinitely in every direction.

He was roughly the age that I am now, somewhere in his early-to-mid 30’s, in my memories. When I look in the mirror, I can literally see his reflection. It’s fucking eerie. I never got a chance to talk to him as an adult, never had that moment of acceptance where we were on equal ground. In turn, I spend a lot of time thinking about his approval. I have also spent a lot of my life doing things I know he absolutely would not have been ok with. I’m fine with that. But I’ve always wanted to find that thread in the universe that ties us together. When I hear the banjo, an instrument he so desperately wanted to play, I can hear something in the sound waves that speak to me. I pick it up, I also have something to say1

Cheers Dad, mind if I join you? Maybe, I can sing you a song.

  1. Authors note: I need to take a second and thank my friend Murphy for being willing to talk to me about his stepbrother and that experience. The story would have never been without his insights, not to mention his magic.  To Eli, this story is dedicated to you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. When I go, all I can hope is that on some level I can still help someone else discover a piece of of something special like you did with me. []
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