Ghosts in the Radio

Three years ago today, I buried my father.  I flew south through a lightning storm only my father could conjure on the day he’d passed, and for once had not a shred of fear for flying. I bought a shitty black dress I’d never touch again, picked a casket, his final outfit and my final thoughts. Except those thoughts were far from final, but I knew nothing about that then. Wandering through the childhood home we would dismantle and sell a few years later, I stopped at his office; it smelled of medical decline and cologne. I went through the CDs he kept beside his desk, just under the candle that lit the night with fragrance while he worked. Vanilla, always vanilla. Elvis, The Four Tops, Louie Armstrong, a smattering of 1990s divas (he loved his Whitney Houston), The Supremes, and, last but not least, Nat King Cole all entered my eardrums well into the early hours of the morning as I wrote his obituary and soundtracked the funeral and wake. As always, I communicate best through music.

On October 23rd, 2010, we said goodbye from the chapel in which he’d married my mother some 30-odd years before, to the day. As always, Daddy drew a crowd. Faces from all stages of his life had come to tell  tales of the man whose largess we all assumed could never be felled. In between these stories the music played: first “Stardust” by Nat King Cole, for his nickname was Stardust Mel; then “(There’ll Be Peace) In The Valley (For Me)” to note an end to the man’s suffering alongside his love of Elvis; and, finally, “Smile” again by Nat King Cole because that song spoke best to his persistence. Then I took the stage. Ever the introvert afraid of public speaking, my words came with incredible ease even if they were strained by the circumstances. I told a simple story of his role as father.

Once a week, my Dad would take little me with him to a mom-and-pop newsstand in Temple City where he picked up the latest edition of the Racing Form. He’d leave me in the car, parked just out front, and come back with the paper and a treasure trove of sweets–always careful to note that I was not to tell my mother. We’d sit in the car for a few minutes to devour the contraband, and he would teach me how to snap my fingers, roll my tongue and whistle. Never did get the hang of that whistle. While approaching signals on the ride to and from our destination, he would gauge the change in lights and, just as it was about to shift, he would blow a mighty gust of wind towards it–changing the light from red to green. Being little, I literally believed my father could control traffic lights. As I paused to hold back tears, a thought came to me and I shared it with the group: my Dad spent the rest of his life ensuring I had nothing but green lights; in fact, he did that for us all.

Somehow we all made it through that month and year, and we live on because we have each other even if we we’re missing him. Although some days, the bad days, it’s easy to slip into confusion. Death is nonsensical to a woman who never bought into the fairytale of an Everafter with its pearly gates gleaming through a watercolor sunrise and a fatherly figure welcoming you home. Though all condolences were much appreciated, I began to resent those who cooed, “Don’t worry, sweetheart: he’s in a better place.” A better place. A better place? A better place for my father would have been on our couch, in perfect health, watching the Dodger game with my mother and me. While these people may have believed in Heaven they did not know it to be true, nor did/do I, nor do any of us and the last thing grief seeks in its surge is a blatant lie. So while those thoughts were well intentioned and I do not begrudge them their beliefs, they sent me on a fools errand to find a text that would tell me where, precisely, my father had gone. Where in the ether was he now?

I wanted science; an A + B = C of death and the afterlife. The problem there is that most texts on the subject are either religious, spiritual non-religious, or philosophical and decidedly anti-quantitative. After a few false starts I found the opposite of what I sought, which, turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time. At Green Apple Books on Clement Street, I stumbled upon a staff recommended book titled Mourning Diary. Hailed as a “unique study of grief–intimate, deeply moving and universal,” Mourning Diary is a posthumously published compilation of notes written daily by Roland Barthes following the death of his beloved mother in October 1977. In it he documents all the stages of grief in concise sentences owing to the small scraps of paper on which he wrote them, and in the process made phonetic all the ungraspable emotions I was attempting to define: the first realization of an imminent mortality; the sick impulse to charge into the future with more purpose, what he called “futuromania;” the infuriating inconsistency of grief–sometimes happy, sometimes sad, oftentimes an emotional paralytic–and the guilt associated with not knowing which one you prefer; and the “domestication of death” where the notion becomes a fiber in the fabric of daily life. In total, he owns up to the paradoxical nature of death for those who have died and for those who continue to live. Sometimes we just need smarter people to explain how we feel.

With Barthes in my back pocket, I found the perfect companion piece in Mary Roach’s Spook over a year later. In Spook, Roach attempts to find the mathematical equation for the after life I so desperately sought for so long. She addresses various angles with which people approach the great beyond from reincarnation to seances and telecommunication, near death experiences and ghost hunters–all through the lens of science, the law and a healthy dose of dry wit. A decided skeptic, she talks of and to believers, such as Mary Todd Lincoln or members of the International Ghost Hunters Society, and men of science who wanted proof to appease the nagging of an unanswered question, such as Duncan Macdougall’s quest to prove the existence of the soul (by weighing it at the precise moment of death, as it left flesh for the heavens), or Professor Bruce Greyson’s computer-reliant examination of near death experiences in operating rooms. In almost every instance, people on the hunt for proof of an afterlife–whether spiritual or scientific in nature–are motivated by loss, which only makes sense as questions never formulate without precipitators. In the end, Roach could not prove the existence of the soul or the sphere to which it traveled after death. However, she also could not disprove it and that very fact changed her decidedly skeptic stance to one of cautious acceptance of the unknown.

Through all my searching, this is also where I have landed: the realm of unknowable knowing. Belief is incredibly intimate and informed by each micro and macro nuance of our existence to date. It is subjective and as such we hold “this” but not “that” as true and fold it into our worldview–how we believe the world (and our place in it) to be. While I can’t bring myself to fully believe my Dad is looking over me from on high, I’m able to understand where my Dad “is” thanks to Gerry Nahum, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine who was interviewed by Mary Roach. As a quantum physicist, Nahum believes that the soul is merely a group of information which must have an energy equivalent. Since energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be displaced, then the soul, the entity that makes us who we are, merely exists somewhere else after we die although most likely not in the same exact form. Incredibly enough, this is the same explanation my Fella gave me in October of 2010 and, as such, it’s what I now believe. Fella + Physicist = A Believer.

Perhaps this search would have been moot if I knew my father’s thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, we never had that talk since he refused to speak of his own demise, save for one moment of disabled terror where he looked my mother in the eye and asked, “Am I going to die?” All she could muster was an “I don’t know” and he grew silent, thinking of what I can only imagine. Not that I blame him for this, it’s just another regret; there are so many in times like these. But regrets never change the past, and the living must decide to decay under the weight of loss, live a deadened life, or live better, stronger and more intentionally to honor those that left us. Most importantly, the living must speak of the dead so that they live on in a different but equally as substantive a way.

May it be good or bad, I am the one and only progeny of Robert Meldahl–I work with hands like his, I speak with inflections like his, I live with afflictions like his. In this there is comfort, and nothing makes me happier than speaking about my father, who was a great man, a flawed man, a man of stories, professional accomplishment and stubborn pride. This stubbornness is why, despite myself, I think he speaks to me through the radio. For this I have my reasons which revolve around my belief that there are no coincidences in life; feel free to comment or message me if you’re keen on hearing the stories. This nonsensical notion makes sense to me because a) beliefs emerge from sensory experiences more often than they do from words or logic, and b) if we revert to unbundled energy after we die and are returned to the universal electromagnetic field then radio waves would be the easiest way to communicate with a daughter obsessed with music.

So if you’re out with me and Nat King Cole or Elvis comes across the air waves, give me a little nod and I’ll know you believe what I believe, and we’ll believe together.

Throwback Thursday: Elvis and My Father Comeback

Our musical education starts young, and is largely influenced by our parents in its infancy. I’ve oft hypothesized that you either grow up in a Beatles household, or an Elvis abode–that the two seem to be mutually exclusive. My father was a HUGE fan of the King. To my teenage horror, he would roam the house doing impressions: singing with his lip curled and pulling Presley tunes from his diaphragm. I even inherited a sweat-stained scarf he allegedly (according to lore from his own mouth) fought a woman for after Presley had tossed it into the audience at a show. To reassure you, the provenance of the item is legitimate, but the process of acquisition is suspect; my father could tell a tale.

Elvis Presley remains an integral thread in the fabric of our American heritage, he cannot be ignored, but he is also a controversial icon. Largely credited with the creation of Rock and Roll, he is also criticized as a thief for stealing music played more authentically by its originators, black musicians, and making money from their sweat with his white face and bedroom eyes. He was also a drugged-out psychotic who commodified women, loved guns to an uncomfortable degree, and was drunk on the power of his own mystique. Greil Marcus (my idol) discusses Elvis’ legacy as it relates to the American landscape far better that I in Mystery Train, which I suggest you read if you want to follow this thought further.

As with most criticisms, however, there is always a counter-argument. Elvis grew up dirt poor on the wrong side of the tracks, literally, so it stands to reason that he would absorb the rhythm and blues prevalent in the black community with which he interacted, bonded as they were in their poverty. He was also incredibly generous and while his taste was ostentatious and his entourage  absurd, it’s easy to interpolate from these facts the underlying insecurities that drove the King of Rock and Roll–he would always be the Mississippi mama’s boy with dirt under his fingernails from scratching his way up into the world. To displace this, he lived lavishly and showered all he knew, even mere acquaintances, with finery as if to remind himself that he had made it, but also for the joy of giving and having. Once you taste the P in Poor, you never again want that flavor on your tongue and are compelled to spare others from the same.

My father was a lot like Elvis Presley. The plot lines of his early years were the same but different, the generosity almost identical if not financed on a lower level. I have a feeling he understood this even if he didn’t consciously dissect it’s meaning. The last years of his life were difficult and did not befit his stature, just as the way the world lost the King did not jive with all that he had given. No man who savored company as sweetly and cared for his loved ones so thoroughly as these two should have died alone, and in this respect I will always mourn the passing of them both with a pang of regret. When Elvis died, the world sobbed together and sort of lost their minds. When my father died, I grew up fast and soundtracked his last moments aboveground with an Elvis song. After all, my father had left the building.

This Throwback Thursday happened because I stumbled upon an uncut version of Elvis Presley’s glorious 1968 NBC Comeback Special. 1968 was a heavy year of world-wide social upheaval, and in its midst comes a svelte, leather-clad Elvis, looking better than he ever did before and ever would again, singing stories in an intimate setting. This is how I prefer to remember Elvis, and not as the bejeweled Las Vegas spectacle he became. After rolling through the Presley catalog like a stroll down memory lane, the special ended with the debut of “If I Can Dream”–a call for hope in a time seemingly gone made, and now, through the fog of nostalgia, a thought to guide a daughter growing older in a vacuum.

A Love Note to Jack White (No, Not That Kind)

From a Pitchfork article announcing his appearance on "American Pickers".
From a Pitchfork article announcing his appearance on “American Pickers”

Let me begin by stating an annoyance: it’s repugnant when I, a twenty-something female, admit to loving a male musician and people, namely other men, assume that I want to sleep with said musician, that it is firstly a sexual and secondly a musical attraction. So let’s just clear the air here. Admiration expressed in this forum or otherwise by Nostos Nic is purely rooted in the music, in the pitch and fall of performance, in the artistry of whatever is discussed. 

Now, with that said, there is no musical man I love more than John Anthony Gillis, known to us all as Jack White. First finding national fame as the backbone of The White Stripes, he continues to reinvent himself even though lesser men would’ve surfed that White Stripes wave into retirement. Selecting partners like Brendan Benson to create The Raconteurs, and Allison Mosshart to form The Dead Weather shows confidence in his own ability and a penchant to be challenged, simultaneously keeping his music and career fresh. With the release of his 2012 solo album “Blunderbuss” a mature artist emerged into the spotlight, free from the shadows of his Detroit garage rock shelter. 

The lesser mentioned ventures, however, are what most attract me to Jack White. The soundtrack for Cold Mountain–a 2003 Civil War flick starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Rene Zellweger–benefitted from the contribution of five beautiful appalachian bluegrass hymnals brought to life by White’s warbling. This started an impressive run in Hollywood that went on to include “Another Way To Die”, a duet with Alicia Keys that officially made him a Quantum of Solace Bond girl, and the recently released “Love is Blindness” from The Great Gatsby, the perfect distillation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essence into the 21st-century world as seen so distinctly by Baz Luhrmann. And, by the way, please note the presence of Academy Award winners in these movies and remember that White was/is a pasty garage rock kid from Detroit, the posterchild of American industrial decay. Plus, it doesn’t end there. Aside from making movie music, he’s also made cameos as himself in six films, including Coffee and Cigarettes, and played Elvis in the imminently forgettable Walk Hard (which I only mention because it’s ELVIS and I have to believe researching that role influenced his onstage persona).

Whether wielding a guitar or controlling a mixing panel, the artist who holds the reins of his/her career determines the outcome of the journey; hence why Jack White as producer is such a brilliant career move. His credits run the gamut from Loretta Lynn and Jerry Lee Lewis to the Von Bondies and the Dex Romweber Duo (an awesome and totally underrated band), as well as pieces for Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert. Not to mention, he produced a fair portion of White Stripes and Raconteurs records. Genius. If you want something done right, do it yourself, which is why he started his own studio. In their own words, “Third Man Records was originally founded by Jack White in Detroit, MI in 2001. In March of 2009 a physical location was established in Nashville, TN. Third Man Records in its current state contains a record store, record label offices, photo studio, dark room and live venue with analog recording booth. Almost all of our records are recorded, printed and pressed in Nashville, TN and produced by Jack White. In this fashion TMR strives to bring a spontaneous and tangible aesthetic back into the record business.”

Did you read that?! Analog recording booth delivering a spontaneous and tangible aesthetic. Now that is what I’m talking about. In all, the totality and execution of his vision is equalled by few, and seeing him live was one of the best experiences of my life. I know that’s a heady statement, and I mean every word of it. His swagger, style and showmanship reek of the King himself, Elvis Presley, but his music is imbued with the authenticity of, say, a Johnny Cash or a Hank Williams. His output could be described as frenetic were it not for the quality of what he has achieved, and, if that weren’t enough to love the man, he opened his own joint to further the common cause of good music in the fight against synthetic sludge.

So thank you, Jack White, you old pied-piper of musical integrity, you; this is a note of appreciation.