“You got it. That button,” he said to me.
I pressed the button on the stereo system. The 5CD player was a piece of innovation that I thought was incredible. It was the new big thing, he told me. I could see why. The music started to play.
I was around 10 when Dad came home with the system. To start its virgin voyage, Dad put five CDs into it and told me to hit that shuffle button without looking at what CDs had been placed into it. I sat down in front of the speakers and gazed at him. We’d had a CD player for about a year now, and all this music was not new to me. I grew up on it from LP to cassette and now CD.
Then we started a new game.
“I’m sailing away. Set an open course for the virgin sea,” it opined.
“Mel, tell me the song, artist, album and track number this is,” he said with a smile. He knew I would know. I had the memory of an elephant.
“Come Sail Away. Track 4 on Grand Illusion by Styx,” I said.
I’d heard it a hundred times before. When the whim caught him, Dad would pull out his keyboard and start trying to play it. He could get through about half the song before he couldn’t hear the keys enough anymore to get the notes. Dad was a pianist and singer. He could read music, but he also had this strange gift of being able to play from sound, too. From a very young age, he had encouraged all of us to find our inner artist. Though, he never had the patience to actually train us. But he still wanted us to find our passion.
Choose we did. It helped that mom sang and used to play French horn too. My brother sings, plays guitar, and some piano. He writes as well. My sister sings, played the clarinet, and showed great promise in art, too. And I sing, played flute (temporary oboist), and write (obviously).
It occurs to me now, though, that artistry comes with a certain level of insanity. I sat down yesterday to watch Amy – the documentary based on Amy Winehouse’s last ten years. Now, I never listened to her much when she was famous, but watching the doco made me realize something that she and many artists have in common.
Choose your poison. Whether it be music, art, or writing, you have to admit that a part of you is quite insane. Some fill that with their work, but many – and I mean many – fill it with substances. Alcohol. Pills. Drugs. Sex. Games. Life. Whatever it is, it becomes an all-consuming part of their existence.
I was lucky. I saw what substance abuse does to a person, and I have never been one of those people. I did have a nearly unhealthy addiction with gaming for a while there, so I was not completely immune. I know I have an addictive personality, and I work very hard to curb that.
But some do not. I watched Amy croon away. Even at her worst, she could still sing. And damn could she write.
She had no support network. Just as many people not famous do. She died from neglect. Her father and her husband both enabled her in some way.
I remind myself about how, on more than one occasion, I wanted to tell Dad that he was killing himself. But my fears were more in line with him driving his car into another. He drove when he was drunk. He had done it since I was young, and I remember bouncing in the backseat from the reckless way he drove. Every night he was out and I heard a siren, I imagined it was him. But then he’d come home.
I was a grown adult when he passed. Part of me believes that if I had said the words to him that he should stop he might have done it. But another part of me imagines he would have told me to mind my own business.
While I paid for everything, he had the kindness to not spend any of my money on alcohol, but after I left, he went back to his old ways.
He died sixteen months later.
He was 45.
But at that moment, I was ten, and life was simple. Dad and I sang along to the music. For half a day everything was perfect. For half a day, I was able to forget about Dad’s demons.