Garage Mix #1

 

    My stepfather made these CDs called Garage Mixes. He crafted them late at night in the “studio” of our suburban north Florida garage. He pushed lawnmowers and weed whackers aside to make room for amps, subwoofers and a music collection that took nearly 40 years to build. 

    In addition to the complete Electric Light Orchestra catalogue, some Aretha Franklin B sides, and an original White Album, the “garage” showcased 70s Star Wars memorabilia, cork boards filled with Far Side cartoons, and faded pictures of old friends, boys-now-men making silly faces – radio headphones on their ears and Marlboros in their mouths.

    When our parents died four years ago, my brother and I divided their assets. Both in their 50s, they never drafted wills, but Evan and I quickly came to an agreement. We wanted different things. He took my mother’s Jeep and some photos of him naked in the bathtub. I took the record collection and a plastic bust of Darth Vader.  

    My favorite picture from the cork board is the only photo currently on display in my apartment. It is of Bob, my stepfather, leaning up against the front door of Carpenter Street Saloon in St. Michaels, Maryland, near where he grew up. He is looking to his left, with mirrored John Lennon shades slipped partway down the bridge of his nose. He has a glass of Disaronno and coffee in his left hand, a tambourine in his right. The neck of a Rickenbacker bass from that afternoon’s band jumps into the foreground, slightly out-of-focus. His best friend Sean juggles a book of matches and a bottle of Bud in the doorway behind him. The photo is wrinkled at the bottom and covered in thumbtack holes at the top.

    Tonight, I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of my apartment with a Garage Mix CD in my hand. It is neon pink, Memorex, with his even, block lettering, “GARAGE MIX #1,” across the top. There’s no real need to keep the CD at this point – I uploaded its contents to my computer years ago. It serves the same purpose as those ratty “Love you like you were my own daughter” birthday cards I hold onto, tucked into my nightstand.

    Bob didn’t just make Garage Mixes for me – he gave them to friends or to neighbors – but I suppose I keep the CD because it is a reminder that I got the first one. Hallmark has a whole division dedicated to“Stepdaughters Who Are Really Daughters;” they know the “#1” matters.

    He made the CDs at night after my mother banished him to the garage for breathing too loudly or drying the dishes too weirdly or another similar offense. As soon as her lips pursed and her gaze fixed itself out the window, he knew it was time to head to the garage. 

    The Garage Mixes were an occupational hazard. A tendency. Or a coping mechanism, I’m not sure. Bob was a lifelong radio DJ. Part of the profession long before the days of syndication or satellite, when being a DJ was an artistic experience. This was before Clear Channel or Cumulus mandated talent play certain songs and hawk national brands. When he was on air he used music to tell stories. It was his art.

    So tonight, like so many nights before it, I sit in my apartment to listen to what he has to say.

Track One: “After the Thrill is Gone” – The Eagles

    This is always the hardest track for me to get through. I usually skip it. As the first track in the mix, I imagine it to be reflective of Bob’s state of mind when he entered the garage. 

    It’s bluesy and mournful. But not in a flashy sort of way. This isn’t the blues of the young – not showy or attention-seeking. The pain in this song is more pragmatic. More adult. It captures the low-grade disappointment that hums beneath most adult relationships. “After the thrill is gone.”

    I imagine this is the way he felt about my mother. Not always, but then. When he was making the CD. When they met, nearly 20 years before the Garage Mix, that might have been the time for the youthful blues. She married someone else. So did he.

    He told me he thought of her constantly when they were apart. I know he meant it – he didn’t have a knack for bullshit. Lying was harder for him than telling the truth. He also told me this many years after my relationship with her deteriorated. He knew it made me angry to hear him say anything nice about her. 

    According to him, he tried to reconnect after their divorces.

    So when he arrived in our Florida driveway with an old Ford pickup and a Siamese cat, did he know what he was getting himself into? Did he know how bad her drinking had become? 

    And once he found out, did he, as Glenn Frey suggested, “Keep on singing for the sake of the song?”

Track Two: “Holding on to Yesterday” – Ambrosia

    One beat separates the final reverb of Don Felder’s guitar and the first syncopated sounds of the electric drums in Ambrosia’s “Holding on to Yesterday.” Just one single pause allows Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s harmony to linger in the air. And seep into the skin.

    But it only lasts a second. It is early and Bob has just settled into the garage. Likely eased himself into his canvas director’s chair and put on his DJ headphones so he doesn’t disturb the neighbors on a school night.

    The haunting sounds of David Pack’s voice and Ambrosia’s mournful strings nudges Frey and Henley aside as I settle into a 70s waterbed of gold and navy blue.    

    I find the psychedelic sounds of Ambrosia are best described not by lyrics or sounds, but by abstract images and colors. And for me, I can think of nothing but the sound of water slapping against the side of a blue plastic waterbed tube covered by a gold brocaded comforter. Or, perhaps, the audio version of a Dalí painting. Featuring blobs of whatever is actually in a lava lamp.

    Am I high? No. But, at 6:12 into the mix, he was likely pretty buzzed.

    His body functioned primarily on what he called CafaNicaTHCahol, a mixture of caffeine, nicotine, THC and alcohol. Or, more specifically, instant Folgers coffee with Disaronno amaretto, cheap pot purchased from a kid who attended my high school, and long, More brand cigarettes.

    It is about this time in the Garage Mix I imagine Bob’s eyes transfixed on one of the cartoons attached to a cork board on the wall or staring at the plastic replica of R2D2 above the Fender amp. Totally zoned out.

    My biological parents were both alcoholics, and Bob was as well. But I handle their addictions differently. With my parents I use psychoanalytical terms like codependency and anxiety. Their problems with alcohol directly relate to my struggles with commitment or ability to trust. But when describing the chemical composition of his blood I reuse his clever turn of phrase and imagine him innocently starting at a comic strip.

    Why is that? I suppose shame is the biggest factor. With my parents I feel it. With him I don’t.

    Unlike my mother, Bob could maintain a consistent buzz all day without being visibly impaired. There was no slurred “nicetameetcha” when high school boys came to pick me up for a movie. There were no car accidents or broken collarbones I’d have to explain to the neighbors. And in the 11 years I knew him, he never fell asleep at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Not once. 

    He just began his day with a hit, maintained his buzz with a travel mug filled with Folgers and Disaronno, and finished it off with a few hits in the evening. Keeping a cigarette lit at all times, of course. He smelled like a day-old frat party with no one the wiser.

    I won’t get into the “stepparent” vs. “parent” debate here. But with alcoholism, blood seems to matter. Her addiction has implications for me. Just like her cholesterol and low blood pressure. Can I drink? Should I drink? His addictions don’t run in my veins. The “step” in “stepparent” feels massive in this case.

    Shame also feels like it travels in the bloodstream. Something about the close relationship confers responsibility. She is part of me. She was a mess. Therefore, I am a mess.

    Does the fact that he died from lung cancer make a difference? Nope. She still sucks. He doesn’t. Next song.

Track Three: “Smoke from a Distant Fire” – Sanford & Townsend

    Here’s where the mix gets fun. Sanford & Townsend’s blue-eyed soul tune is extremely silly and very danceable. Had the single actually made it past #9 on the Billboard Top 100, it would have been played at every wedding reception in the last 40 years. Largely due to the fact that even middle-aged white dudes can dance to it. It is very difficult to hear this song and not do “the Carleton.” Or give yourself an overbite and dance with your thumbs.

    Bob used to call me Sara Lizbeth. It was the name he picked out for his first daughter. The one he daydreamed about having while smoking pot in his tractor shed apartment on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. 

    But he never had any biological children. His ex-wife did not want to be a mother and by the time he rekindled his relationship with my mother, her ovaries were rusty and Evan and I were teenagers. 

    I cannot remember when he started using the name. Right before he died, I asked him. He didn’t know, it just evolved. In fact, he couldn’t figure out why I was even asking. According to him, the details weren’t important. What mattered was that it happened. I was his kid.

    But it bothers me. Now and then. I want these events to have nice, clean lines. A clear chronology. Bob was promoted from stepparent to parent on June 5, 1997. 

    He never minded a little fuzziness. A little color outside the lines.

    The name actually surprised me. Not because it is so different from my given name, but because it is so unlike him. Two common names strung together with a slight modification seemed a tad ordinary for such a character. 

    But I loved being called Sara Lizbeth. He used it when he chastised me for not changing the oil in my car or when he reassured me my date would call. I always associated the name with a parental attention that was missing in my life. Sara Lizbeth received the birthday cards Allison’s parents forgot.

    The name also afforded me an excuse to shake off some expectations. After all, Sara Lizbeth was his kid. The radio DJ. So instead of being the responsible, straight-A student my biological parents demanded, I had permission to relax. Or write. Or listen to music. Anything that he would have done. As Sara Lizbeth, I did crazy things, like speak in public without anxiety-induced hives or sleep until noon for no apparent reason.

    When I hear Sanford & Townsend I cannot help but be Sara Lizbeth. Like him. Relaxed. Unembarrassed. Typically dancing in public.

    

    There is also a point in the song where the CD skips a little. A reminder of when, in high school, I tossed it into the back of my Jeep in favor of a new Dave Matthews album. It rattled around the floorboards for a couple of years, somewhere underneath a pile of newspapers and old Chinese takeout boxes.

    I always thought I could ask for a new one.

Track Four: “Just the Way it is, Baby” – The Rembrandts

    The next song is the other song by The Rembrandts. The one that is not the Friends theme song. When he gave me this Garage Mix in high school I was so annoyed. Annoyed by its lack of hits. There was no “Free Bird” or “Yellow Submarine,” and it included the wrong Rembrandts song.

    I get it. He played “I Shot the Sheriff and “Hotel California” nearly everyday for 40 years. He must have gotten tired of them. But as a teenager, when everyone was walking the halls with the same “vintage” Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt from Target, I had a CD filled with songs no teenager had ever heard of. What good was having a DJ as a parental unit if I couldn’t brag to my friends about a band they knew?

 

    We sat across from each other at a chain restaurant’s tiny laminate wood table for two. It was cramped even after we moved trays and side dishes, and balanced cutlery and napkins on our laps. The table was slammed up against floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out over the strip mall featuring a Party City, Ross Dress For Less, and Giant grocery store.

    Around us, parents were screaming at their children, children were screaming at each other, and, in the booth next to us, the limbs of a teenage couple were intertwined, one step closer to becoming the aforementioned parents screaming at children.

    I pushed a Kalamata olive through a trail of salad dressing with my bent fork, unable to look up at him. My black bean soup cooled next to it, untouched. My soup and salad combo was one of those meal deals in which a chain restaurant uses a jazzy idiomatic expression to convince you that two mediocre menu items are a good idea. Think “$7 of Heaven” or “Feel Great for $8!” 

    I don’t remember what he ordered. I am guessing a ham sandwich. White bread, no mustard, maybe mayo. I should remember his meal, but instead I only can remember mine. My greek salad, my black bean soup, and my preoccupation of how my life was going to change.

    Bob was dying.

    Pains in his stomach brought him to the doctor’s office that morning. Well, pains in his stomach two weeks previous brought him to a primary care physician, to the ER, then to a specialist, who recommended he see an oncologist in Annapolis.

    I was determined to accompany him to the appointment, not just because I wanted to support him, but because I deserved it. I earned it.  All that time I loved him, all that time I was his “daughter” – I wanted to be part of the story. The story of how he survived cancer.

    But, as we just found out, there would be no such story. The oncologist explained that with aggressive chemotherapy and radiation and surgery Bob might have 6-18 more months to live.

    He let me pay for lunch that afternoon. In the past, he would never have let me pay. He and my mom did not have much money, but he always insisted on buying new tires for my car or picking up lunch when I came home for Christmas. I was vaguely aware of their financial troubles and I had a decent job. We argued over the bill constantly.

    But this time he didn’t fight me. It didn’t feel so great for $8.

    He died six months and three days later.

    In listening to this song I find myself not really listening to the lyrics. Only “just the way it is, baby.” Even with all of the joy and lightness I have accumulated through Sanford & Townsend, I can’t help, at this point, to be angry and sad he’s gone. Never at him (see above for paradoxical thoughts surrounding stepparent’s substance abuse), but at the injustice of it. All of it. My parents’ addictions affecting their abilities to parent, my waiting nearly 17 years for Bob to come around, and him dying 11 years later.

    And I cry. Or I don’t. It depends. But always, as I do now on my apartment floor, I sing, “That’s just the way it is, baby.”

    And I always, always, stop the CD.