For those just joining me, this is the final episode of my rather extensive 12-part May/June, 2015 Travelogue.  After the very rewarding AMIS conference in Boston, I would now stop home for two and a half emotional days in Chicago with my family.  Be forewarned that this blog will be something a bit different, having turned into a long (3500 words, sorry!), self-indulgent, emotional and personal (and even biographical) story.

The family had been dealing with it for months – it wouldn’t really hit me until I saw (and felt) it with my own eyes.  Mom and Dad had just relocated to their new assisted living facility (Oak Trace, a really nice place in Downers Grove).  They each just turned 88 and are in great shape both mentally and physically (well, in between the falls!), but finally agreed it was time to slow down a bit and be taken care of.  That meant clearing out and disseminating an entire 3-story house full of a lifetime of accumulation (and my mom was a “saver”).  This monumental task fell mostly on my sister Kris, with all pitching in during the 5 months of work when energy (and tempers) would allow.  The plan was to then sell the old family home (where I grew up) as quickly as possible and more than likely see it torn down for one of the McMansions that have taken over my old humble little mid-America town.  As you might imagine, this proved to be pretty heart-wrenching for every last one of us.  Would it even still be there when I arrived on June 6th?  Read on.

My brother Mark (retired, the bum!) picked me up from O’Hare and we headed straight over to our parents’ new digs.  After the entire extended family ate together in the large dining hall, I got the tour.

They were pretty well unpacked and settled in by this time, and finally able to relax.  And they were just as warm and hilarious as ever.

But I wasn’t there just to visit, I was there to work – to be specific, spending hours with my siblings (and later the folks) in Kris’ house to go through the last of the family belongings.  Pointing to a meat locker-sized stack of stuff in the basement corner, my sister said “That’s your pile…get busy.”  Some highlights:

No, we’re not playing whistles…Mark and I find our “flipperdingers” from our Kentucky/North Carolina summer vacation (growing up, our family took a 4-week tent-trailer trip to a different part of the country every year).  You have to blow the little cork ball to hook onto the ring (Mark won).

We’re chortling over the cheesy disposable paper place-mats our parents obviously ordered, reading “Welcome to The Miners.”  But the joke was on us – we were each given our own stack of personalized place-mats (ours covered with childish graphics of animals, toys and politically-incorrect cartoon characters)

Speaking of politically incorrect…Dad, Mark and I were members of the local YMCA Indian Guides program for a while, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  I remember making endless beaded trinkets and belts and such on a tiny little loom, Mark remembers beating the drum and our “secret handshake.”  This is my leather vest, which we had to make ourselves and wear each meeting like the clueless, racially-insensitive Caucasians we were.  Alas, they’ve probably completely done away with this program (or at least, theme) by now.  Hey, considering that in the same basement corner pile was my old Fort Apache playset, I’d say that Indian Guides was a vast improvement over the typical T.V. Cowboys & Indians culture we were weaned on.  The intention – misguided or not – was meant to actually try to learn something about and respect Native Americans and their traditions.  There was also supposed to be community service or something in there somewhere.

What I remember?

The sentiment summed up in the badge sewn on the back of our vests.  I certainly don’t remember doing it or ever paying attention to it, but, boy, did it ever now make me ball like a baby.

Speaking of male family bonding, I highly recommend taking the time to try on every one of Dad’s old hats from the ‘60s and ‘70s.  After Kris took some typical photos of us grinning like idiots, I said “C’mon, we have to play it straight – pretend you’re on Mad Men or something.”

Ok – so, we’ll have to work on it…

I always associate Little Orphan Annie with my mom, as – like Ralphie in A Christmas Story – she grew up on it and still has her mug and Big Little Books.  I remembered this particular book quite well, but forgot I had ruined a few pages by coloring them and had crudely written my name in it, apparently claiming it as my own.  But why was it missing Mom’s habitual owner’s signature?  It turned out that it was Dad’s – he was in the Ovaltine Secret Decoder Club too!

Though Dad remembered his Orphan Annie book and cereal bowl, he drew a complete blank on this fabulous working tin windup fireman.  We know it must have been his, found when the family cleared out his old home in Kankakee, so Kris starting shooting a video for him to tell the wonderful story about it.  After a minute or so of blank stare, “Dad, the camera’s rolling – make something up!”

Kris got dibs on the windup toy, but I found plenty of other treasures.  Here’s Mom’s original 1948 sheet music for “Nature Boy” – kind of fun to own after writing my in-depth blogs on the subject.

Something I’d never seen was my Dad’s sister Dorothy’s scrapbook of her 1959/60 years as a Methodist missionary in Nigeria.  There was also a diary that my parents hope to decipher.  We voted that I would be the family preservationist of this fascinating item.  Though I grew to have misgivings about the religious element of the missionary concept, there’s no denying my aunt’s devotion.

Sadly, there was only one of Aunt Dot herself amongst all the many intriguing caption-less color photos.

Kris had also found some obscure slides Dad took in the mid-1970s, plus various photos I had sent my folks over the years that they wanted me to go through.  There were some I had forgotten about and a few I don’t remember at all!  Scanned, cleaned up and put in chronological order, it occurred to me that these little snippets gave an interesting timeline of how my private musical pursuits grew into, well, whatever it is I’ve now become.

Clarendon Hills, IL

This shows a corner of the bedroom I grew up in from First grade until I left home in 1976.  Mark and I originally had bunk beds, then the same beds separated, then we got rid of his when he went off to college in 1971.  This slide would have been taken after my brother went off to college and I still lived at home – probably late 1974/early 1975, as I’ve now got a few reptiles but don’t yet have the Martin guitar I bought in Chicago.

There are two treasures here: first, my Les Paul Custom gold hardware “Black Beauty”!  I don’t remember where or how, but I bought this new about 1972 and played some serious hard rock on it daily in our bass player’s basement (and the two or three gigs we managed to get).  No longer playing electric at this point, I sold it soon after this was taken, probably for dirt cheap in the Tradin’ Times and don’t even tell me what it would be worth today!  I don’t regret it, but would dearly love to hold and play it just once more!

At left is another pricey item that I bought used soon after High School, now heavily into acoustic guitar (at this time, flatpicking and strumming more than fingerstyle): a Yamaha FG2000.  This was a special “handmade by one master Yamaha luthier” jumbo dreadnaughty thing.  I was told the model number came from the list price (which would’ve been a serious chunk of change in 1974!).  I strung this with Martin Marquis Heavys (no one even offers such a set anymore!) and just wailed on it.  It was a monster!  Researching this one, I saw two on eBay at around $4500 each.  Again, ouch!  I sold this one pretty quickly as I was finally learning fingerstyle and thought it was time to try to get the ungettable (then) – a vintage Martin.

Three of these instruments would later appear on my 1995 A Christmas Collection: the Jimmie Waller classical chosen for me by Richard Pick, the downtown Chicago teacher I saw for 6 months (I quit due to his weird, non-traditional technique), the cheap German-import Renaissance lute, and the fantastic National New Yorker lap steel.  The mandolins are a cheap Suzuki bowlback and a no-name Harmony/Kay/Regal type reverse scroll style (which sounded pretty lousy).

Above on the pegboard are two generic uke-banjos and a Ukelin we inherited from an uncle, and some garage sale finds of my brother’s.

The green shag carpet was not meant to be “groovy,” it was meant to go with my running waterfall fiberglass fountain and reptile cages.

Bloomington, IL

In the summer of 1976, I finally left the nest, relocating two hours downstate to Bloomington, Illinois with then-girlfriend Colleen.  For the three years she was at ISU to finish her degree, I would support us in this inexpensive and great top floor little apartment, complete with bedroom, kitchen, reptile room and living/music room.

On the left is my first recorder, the Sony “Sound-on-Sound” professional 12” reel deck!  I spent my entire saved allowance ($1000) to buy this in 1971; you did one mono track at a time, bouncing it from left to right as you added the next live take, creating a complicated recording of many layered instruments – but of course, there was no “undo”!  The degraded, hissy mess you managed to end with was magic to a young multi-instrumentalist’s ears!

But, man, did I waste my money!  A year later, TEAC would invent “Simul-Sync” and everyone rushed out to get the amazing 4-track A-3340 (I got mine used in 1973, ultimately replacing it with the bigger and better Tascam 80-8).

On the wall you see some of the same instruments.  Hey, and leaning against the right wall is my “Bear & Fish” bandura!  Wow, looks like I had barely started on it. You’ll remember its story from the Xmas Volume 1 booklet – I started it in 1975 in my dad’s workshop, but would take two years to finish it, with help from him and some guitar repairman in our tiny college town.

My luthier friends are gonna love this story…

In my last year of High School, the parents of one of my friends (Mitch Manker, who would go on to fame playing trumpet in Ray Charles’ band) gave me this Lyon & Healy Troubadour harp that had been sitting in front of their living room window for years, unplayed by anyone in the family.  Sadly, it was now unplayable by anyone, as the constant sun had caused the soundboard to crack horrifically.  It had giant vertical splits along the center strip and jagged splits inside on both edges holding it to the sidewalls.  L&H had quoted repairing it as more than the cost of a new one (about 2 grand then?), so it was literally time to toss it in the dumpster.  With nothing to lose, I figured it couldn’t hurt at this point, so just poured Elmer’s Glue into all the cracks.  I’m not exaggerating – these were gaping 16th or 8th inch wide crevasses!  I didn’t even find wood glue, I just used a bottle (at least) of household white glue.

The next day, I slowly tuned it up to pitch, waiting for it to explode.  And whaddaya know…nothing!  I tuned it a half-step low and kept it for 5-6 years until I got the pedal harp in 1979.  Leaving it in my parents’ basement, they would give it to a family friend’s grandson – who himself would learn on it and play it for many years until he got his own full-size harp.  Eventually, they gave it away at the Church rummage sale or something, and I bet it’s still out there making some poor soul very happy.

Here I am clawing at it in 1976 in one of my ubiquitous tank tops.  There were no method books around, so I just made up my own crude plucking techniques and actually managed to learn and play Derek Bell’s harp solo of “Women of Ireland” off the Barry Lyndon soundtrack.

Los Angeles, CA

It was only by complete serendipity that I would soon become a genuine harpist.

I told this story briefly also in the CD booklet – here I am in the summer of 1979 just after moving to Los Angeles.  This is Mildred Dilling, Harpo’s “teacher,” who I had just met in April for an interview in Chicago, where I ended up taking my first impromptu harp lesson in front of her class, and also acquiring my concert harp from one of her ex-students that very same week.  And this was all in the 7 days I was packing to move lock, stock and barrel from Illinois to California (can you believe the harp trunk just cleared the opening in my just-purchased used Chevy van)!

Mildred was now out giving a two week master class at UCLA.  I not only participated, but somehow learned and played Harpo’s solo from Horsefeathers, with his son, musician Bill Marx sitting in the audience!

And there’s the new harp.  It cost me my entire aborted college savings ($3250) but I would sell it some twenty years later (upgrading to the larger model) for $12,500…I suppose maybe that makes up for that Yamaha and Les Paul.

I must have taken these two photos (circa 1985/86) to send to my family to show my new lodgings, a rental house in Northridge.

I keep forgetting what a bizarre and random assemblage of ultra low end and high end instruments I once had.  Note that I still have some of my old High School instruments.  There’s that Martin (1928 0-21) I mentioned, a Gibson K1 mandocello (I would later upgrade to the K4), and the Gibson HG I bought in 1983 from R.C. Snoddy in Costa Mesa.  Of this meager and transitional (but gradually growing) collection, instruments that in ten years I’d begin using on the Christma CD project include (L-R): wooden tongue drum, National double-neck lap steel, Fiji Island log drum, toy piano, Marxophone, balalaika, National New Yorker lap steel, anklung (bamboo rattles), Martin 0-21, Gibson Style U, lute, Lyon & Healy 17G harp.

In 1987, I bought my first home in the San Fernando Valley (Jaci would join me there a year after our 1989 wedding).  There the collection grew big time (mostly from slowly liquidating my treasured Disney animation art pieces).  I have lots of photos of the instruments in situ there (if any imaginary future biographers are interested…); as you know, every single one would appear on the CDs.

This photo was stuck in with some my Mom had saved.  They must have taken this on a visit to California sometime in 1995 when I was finishing up the Christmas albums.  With only a handful of the 27 songs left to mix, I heard that John Jackson, a friend who had worked with me at Litton (now Northrop Grumman), had become a sound engineer.  His current gig was in Tarzana at Can-Am, this incredible hole-in-the-wall studio used by Snoop Dogg and that whole Death Row crowd (Yes! And this was during the hardcore “Gangsta Rap” era – look it up!).  That board alone was over half a mil.  The manager allowed John to do his own projects, so whenever it wasn’t booked I’d go in and pay John 50 bucks an hour and get the place for free.  We had a blast – I remember our biggest mix was “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” where we had 29 individual tracks for the “elves workshop” interlude. (Can you imagine having that on the playback and Snoop happens to walk in?)

For the 1996 Delos re-release, I had to get out and do some local promotion so put together a show with my friend Dave Marchant (of Magic If fame).  These are the instruments I managed to utilize live, while he played guitar, banjo and mandolin (plus a whole host of toys for our hilarious live stunt performance of that Santa’s Workshop sequence).  For the next couple seasons, we added an upright bass player and could then do more tunes, including a rendition of “Linus and Lucy” with chitarrone!  It was great fun but a time- and cost-prohibitive show in practical terms.

When this wound down, I spent a couple years on a great follow-up recording project that you may hear a bit of some future day – it got derailed when this whole harp guitar business started.  I blame Stephen Bennett.

But now I’d like to end this rousing adventure by going back even further…

At the top, I mentioned the family turmoil of giving up our old house, and worse – having to watch it getting torn down…to just be…gone.

The good news was that it was still intact when I arrived on June 6th.  I had thought about flying home during the early part of the year – both to help my poor sister and see the place one last time.  But by that time, it was already in complete disarray from all the packing & moving prep (and my presence wouldn’t have helped the drama any).  So I had been hoping for a chance to at least go through the now empty house when I finally got to Chicago.  It had now been sold to a family friend, but he is a developer and all know it will soon be torn down.  BTW, the house is just two doors down from Kris’, where I was headquartered, so, yes – they will have to watch all this happen.

The developer currently had a family renting it while their own home underwent some remodeling, and they kindly told my Mom that I could go through if I wanted.  I didn’t.  I walked around the whole outside, and just seeing their furniture through the windows where “it didn’t belong” creeped me out.  As did the photos my brother showed me that he took of all the empty rooms that we had grown up in.  I’m glad I hadn’t seen that.  I feel bad for everyone else, as I can still retain the warm memories of my visit two Christmases ago.

It was incredibly depressing.  But then my sister had a bittersweet brainstorm, and we hunted through a box of family photos and found these two:

We realized that we still had one last chance to take a family photo on our old front porch.  Other than some freshening up, it still had the same steps, railing and bricks.  So we had niece Sarah run home from work to wrangle the camera, while we drove the folks over from their new quarters.  Dad had recently broken his pelvis in a bad fall, but was graduating from his wheelchair to a walker, so we hoisted him up the steps and we all got into position.  Precise position – Kris and I wanted to try to re-create these exact same shots.

This first one was taken in December 1961, the year we moved from La Grange in the summer between my Kindergarten and First grade.  Mark was two years ahead, Kris three behind.  Hard to believe the span between these shots on the very same “hallowed ground” (for me, from 6 to 60).

This classic embarrassing family portrait was taken after church one morning in the spring of 1968, perhaps Easter Sunday.  We were able to date it by Kris’ 4th grade dress and my Monkees love beads.  For real.  The fall ’67 season is when the group went from “mod” to “groovy,” and therefore, so attempted yours truly.  I ordered my Davy Jones love beads from the back of Tiger Beat magazine, flawlessly threaded them upon arrival, and proceeded to impress my two friends (each of whom of course had their own Davy love beads).  I told my parents that I absolutely had to have a Nehru jacket, and managed to pick one out at Sears just before it officially went out of style the very next week.  Dutiful nerd that I was, I gamely wore it for a full eight Sundays before mothballing it alongside the cheesy Michael Nesmith woolen hat that I wore all through the previous hundred-degree summer.

But amazingly, I survived this strange childhood, am no less a geek, and my dear family has put up with me this entire time.

I’m really thankful I visited when I did and feel fortunate we have the relationships we do.

And we still take a great picture.