“Just for a second a glimpse of my father I see…”

Last week I dragged my electric guitar out of my mom’s storage locker and made a Saturday evening of playing scales and riffs that I used to spend hours as a teenager perfecting until I could do them in my sleep. Though I was primarily a bass player and a singer, when my favourite second brother abandoned music for other pursuits I inherited his axe and decided to shred my way through a few hours every day until I could sing and play a decent repertoire of heavy metal. I was really into Iron Maiden and a lot of other bands that rode along in the wake of the NWOBHM, but as I’ve mentioned before I was deeply steeped in the sounds of everything coming out of Scandinavia too – especially Finland, and especially Children of Bodom. Between the respective online forums for Iron Maiden and Children of Bodom I made many friends around the world, a handful of whom are still dear friends today.

Recently I found myself wondering how on earth I managed to get away with being a young teenager with such a flourishing online life in the early 2000s, especially with my father being the kind of man who definitely always wanted to know the crowd his children were currently running with, regardless of how totally uncool it made him (and us) look. True, my ancient but reliable old laptop was stuck in his home office because we didn’t really have WiFi back then – but still! I’ll probably never know what possessed my father to let his youngest child (his little girl, no less) go down the rabbit hole of music that on the surface seemed to be made and performed in one Circle of Hell or another.  I certainly don’t know what went through his mind when I started calling teenage boys (and a few young men) I knew off the forums and who came from Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Bulgaria my “best friends,” and I certainly don’t even want to know what he was thinking when I said a boy from the Netherlands that I had also been chatting with wanted to come to Vancouver and meet me. (That would be my first boyfriend, and he actually came two summers in a row before the relationship crashed and burned — right before my senior year. Yeah, I got away with a lot more than I realized…)

My dad and I were always close, and the “father and daughter” dates we had when I was a little kid evolved as I grew up and as his disabilities progressed. First there were long walks during spring and summer evenings around the neighbourhood, and then as he gradually lost his mobility we sat together on the front stoop or in his office while I read out loud to him. And those afternoons and evenings always had time in them for talking, and my dad was my best and wisest confidant. So maybe he saw in my eyes and heard in my voice the trust I had and judgement of character I made on these friends, and maybe not pulling out my blue Ethernet cord and sending me to an all-girls private school was his way of telling me he trusted me. And at that time in my life I think that degree of control over my friends and over the music I listened to was exactly what I needed to lock into some sense of stability during an emotionally and mentally tumultuous time.

In my last year of high school there were a lot of horrid rows shaking the walls of our home in the Valley, starting off with one in particular that was the direct result of me announcing that I had no intention of going to university and instead wanted to move overseas with my bass and my guitar and my voice and live the life of a twenty-first century heavy metal bohemian. After I was exiled to my room, I did the only thing my teenaged self knew she could do to release all the anger and frustration: I plugged in my Rhoads, cranked my stereo and my amp, and power-chorded my way through a mix-CD of Iron Maiden, Iced Earth, Metallica, Helloween, Children of Bodom, and Nightwish.

After a while my father came in to talk to me and of course I stopped playing to yell at him. Sitting on my bed and clutching my Rhoads, I ugly-cried while I tried to explain that I didn’t want to be boxed in, I didn’t want to do what was conventional, and I didn’t want to waste time when there were so many things to see and do in the world. As my yells died down to sniffles and as I fought to keep snot from dripping onto a set of brand-new strings, my dad said nothing; he remained silent for a long, long time. I broke the silence at some point with a defiant demand: “What was the point in me getting this far through life if all I’m going to do after high school is put myself into a bigger place with no friends? All my best friends are out there, Papa. What’s wrong with me wanting to go be with my best friends?”

I won’t ever forget what he said to me afterwards.  It was an explanation as to why it was important for me to get a good education without taking time off between this school and the next, why I had to set myself up for the real world and not be a broke and starving musician clinging to the hopes of making it big, and why getting a degree and entering a professional job as an adult would set me up for more opportunities anywhere in the world than going to Europe as a teenager with a guitar on my back and a dream in my heart would ever give me.

“You are my daughter and I love you, which is why I’m not allowing you to run away to Europe.  I like knowing that how I’ve raised you has made you aware of a bigger world, but you have a lot more learning and growing up to do before you can appreciate that world,” he said.

But the one thing that made me listen and the one thing that made me trust in my father was the fact that he came over to me after this lecture, put his shaking hand on my shoulder, and said, “If you won’t listen to me, listen to those lyrics you love and sing so well. Your time will come. I promise you — your time will come.”

And so, I went to university and earned a double-major in two of the most useless fields imaginable at just an undergraduate level.  But earning that degree got me a second job, and working to put myself through that degree in the first place has taught me many valuable lessons that I’ll never forget and put me into friendships that have enriched my life beyond all measure.  In that one moment during my adolescence my father knew exactly what to say to make me believe in his wisdom for just a little longer and trust in him, and I will never forget that.

When my dad passed away exactly four years ago, the European guys who, during adolescence, I had dubbed my best friends were among the first to know what had happened, and they were among my strongest supporters who rallied around me with kind words, reassurances, and blood-brotherly love. They are now men with degrees and jobs and lives and I am now a young woman with the same, but music still kept us together even though those long-discussed plans of making an overseas journey had yet to become reality. My father’s acquiescence to my choice of music and my way of making friends allowed me to keep these people in my life — and in my opinion that makes them a part of my father’s legacy.

It’s a legacy of trust and faith, of seeing the good in all things and in all people; of wisdom and understanding, of knowing when to fight for control and when to let something beloved run wild; of willpower and strength and courage, of being fearless in the face of the unknown.

And my father was right, even nearly a decade ago: my time has come.

When the heat of late summer is blown away by the cooler, refreshing breath of early autumn, I will set my heels down on ground across the sea and kick up its dust with all the surefooted strides of the confident and strong woman that the tempestuous and petulant girl has become.

I am my father’s daughter, after all.

“But song, no wealth can buy.”

Something that tends to surprise new people in my life is that I was an award-winning musician in my youth. I played and sang in just about every iteration of musical ensembles in my high school, performed and ranked at high-profile national and international festivals, and took theory so that I could arrange and eventually compose my own music. I can read and play music in any clef and key signature, tell the difference by ear between classical composers, and see all the different parts of any song in sheet music form scrolling through my head if I shut my eyes and listen closely.

While performing music has, regrettably, fallen to the wayside in my adult life, none of this would have transpired if as an adolescent I hadn’t been a diehard metalhead with two bossy older brothers and very few friends.

I was actually sort of voluntold to take up the bass, as my brothers were already shredding away on their Jacksons (a midnight-blue Warrior named Layla and a black Randy Rhoads V dubbed Freya) and I was informed that if I wanted to jam with them I had to learn something that wasn’t lead or rhythm guitar. Our days as the Patridge Family Gone Metal were short-lived and we only ever did rock the high school gym, but as far as first steps go I’m pretty happy with where this particular instance of being bossed brought me.

The first bass line I ever learned by heart was from “Bed of Razors” by Children of Bodom. Using Guitar Pro 2.0 on an ancient laptop and the top four strings of my oldest brother’s abandoned five-and-dime six-string, I holed myself up in my room for hours on end until I could play along in real time to the song itself.

When I finally bought my first bass – a black LTD B-50 that I named Henkka after my COB idol and would later customize with ever-changing homemade decals of skulls, runes, Celtic knots, and grim reapers – I moved from the woodwinds to the rhythm section in concert band and joined the jazz band as well. I was encouraged to try the upright bass, known to some of you as a double bass or contrabass, and fell in love all over again with my instrument of choice. I loved that antique upright with its rosy finish and real band of ebony (exposed by a horrific chip from the time the tuba player clipped it with the U-bend of his brass noisemaker), its age and craftsmanship explained by the “Made in Czechoslovakia” stamp just discernible through the sound holes. And by the time I graduated in 2008, I played on three basses, having acquired a black-and-white Fender Jazz as well for the purpose of having an electric bass whose sound was more suited to jazz band and jazz combo than my so-called “axe” of a B-50.

Metal was my first love on the bass and it always will be, but learning to read a new clef and being exposed to all kinds of music really expanded my knowledge and skills as a young musician and, if anything, made it easier for me to play metal well. Whenever my short-lived career in music comes up around the dinner table, my mother always says that my fingers flew all over my instrument and that I seemed to unconsciously dance to the music. Those fingers played for so many hours daily that until now there are no prints left on the tips of my picking digits, and I still unconsciously move to music I really enjoy, even when on the first listen.

But I’m writing about all of this to tell you more than just the story of how I was a musician, once upon a time.

My dedication to music in my adolescence was born of an anger at an adolescent environment that rejected me, and an endless craving and need to be recognized as good at something so I throw myself defiantly back at whoever said I wasn’t good, thin, pretty, cute, or cool enough to be accepted.

If I was better at playing music than they were at playing sports, then I could walk into school every day with my head a little higher than it would have been without music. If I could say, “I can read and write English, French, and music,” then I wouldn’t get hurt as much by the other smart people in class who always teased and made fun of me if I got even one point less than them on a Math or Science test. If I had the best strings, straps, and amps that I could afford on my own dime it didn’t matter that my parents couldn’t afford name-brand clothing for me to wear to school. And from early-morning jazz rehearsals to concert band and music theory on alternating school days to nonstop activity on heavy metal internet forums, every way in which I encountered music in my adolescence helped me build myself up as an individual while also building up a small handful of friendships with other musicians which have lasted to this day.

And to this day, there’s music for every single one of my moods and emotions, with the exception of 2015. Last year pretty much the only time I listened to music was at the gym, but every song I had on my workout playlist was chosen to keep me in an upbeat, hard-hitting, go-get-em attitude because that’s what I needed to do: stay upbeat, hit back hard when life punched me, and be proactive about getting what I wanted out of the time I’ve been given. I will still howl into a hairbrush along to Bon Jovi when I feel empowered. When I am frustrated and angry I will still plug into Children of Bodom to channel the raw emotions. When I miss my father more than usual the only thing that eases the pain is Brahms’ “Lullaby.” When a long Montreal winter gets me down, I will play Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer” until I’m upbeat again. Hallowe’en is never Hallowe’en unless I play St-Saens’ “Dance Macabre” at least five times and Christmas is never Christmas until I’ve gone through my favourites by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The theme from Pacific Rim will always pump me up for a workout, Iron Maiden will always put me in a mood to read and daydream, and some songs will always make me remember the good times I shared with people who gave those songs more meaning for me. And whenever I find myself in a mood without appropriate music, well – as you know from the last two posts, there’s always a judgey-ass music nerd of a friend to help me out with that.

The Andrew Solomon quote I’ve chosen for this post’s featured image speaks to me on so many levels, and mainly because forging meaning and building identity is exactly how I survived high school, too. Instead of trying to create talents I did not have to be able to do activities I loathed simply because those were the popular past-times, I found meaning in developing the talents I was given in ways I enjoyed. And then I built an identity for myself that didn’t conform and couldn’t be hurt, an identity that kept me practicing through hours that my peers passed without me and then put me up on a stage where I was untouchable.

I was not meant to be a musician forever and I was not meant to find either my entire life’s meaning or my whole identity in being one. But for the time that I was in peak musical form, being a young musician gave me reasons to think big and dream bigger, and ways to make something of myself in an environment in which I was supposed to remain a nobody. A performing and award-winning musician I may no longer be, but music still means as much to me now as it did back then and who I was will always be a part of who I have become.

Everyone at high school graduation can throw their cap and say they did it, but I don’t think that everyone can say they survived. Doing it is still hard because it still comes with challenges that require a measure of strength to overcome – I’m not denying that and I’m not belittling the achievement. I know everyone has their own moments of difficulty and their own hardships to bear, but let me tell you from experience – as a teenager it’s hard to see that when you’re the one who’s always excluded.

So doing it, while hard in its own right, is very different from surviving it. Surviving means that in order to overcome your challenges, every day you have to find something worth getting up for, and then find enough strength and true grit in yourself somewhere to fight through the day. It means every morning brings with it the additional challenge of mustering up the courage to even start the day – especially after a sleepless night when you’ve been kept up by wondering if anyone would miss you the next day if you weren’t there.

I speak from experience – and because of music, I survived.