Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

The Most Remarkable Man, Redux

I’ve discussed a few of the heavyweight characters I encountered in my initial years as a player. But I didn’t yet talk about the man whose influence on me is so pervasive that it’s unseen — it’s just who I am: my father.

I write this to cause everyone who reads it to think about where they come from, what their influences are, and how they’ve ended up wherever they are today. I think my father, more than any other person, is the cause of my path. I latched on to certain influences on the way, like Casady, and Lesh, and Moog — that was largely after he was gone. But in my early years, the years before I took up music, his presence was huge.

Last year, Rick Turner, Jack Casady and I appeared at the Fretboard Summit, a semi-annual gathering of guitar enthusiasts. The subject matter sort of got away from us, but the intention was to talk about the way our upbringings were similar, and shaped by our fathers‘ enthusiasm for electronics. Of the three of us, only my father was actually an electronics engineer, though, and largely a self-taught one at that.

He grew up in a village in northeast Hungary, very close to present-day Ukraine and Slovakia, the eldest of four – two boys, two girls. In 1934, when he was 13, his father died, leaving my father to take care of everyone. He moved across the country to Budapest and apprenticed himself to a radio repairman (my wife’s father, who I didn’t know, has a remarkably similar story –– these were the times). And so ended his formal education.

He sent money home regularly to support his family, and on a visit he wired up their one room, dirt-floor house with a light bulb. As I said, these were the times, the place: it was Eastern Europe between the wars. I’m sure many people who are reading this could tell a similar tale. My parents told me that he saw my mother when he was 18, and for him, it was love at first sight. She had a few suitors as years passed, but HER father zeroed in: he liked my dad as much as my dad liked my mom. Her father saw a mensch.

Then came the war, and Auschwitz, and 60 people from my family dead — including my three remaining grandparents and my father’s sisters. My mother and her siblings survived – they all ended up in different places during the war; my mother, the youngest, went to Auschwitz with her parents. The Hungarian army, of course, was not on the Allies side, and Jewish men were put into slave-labor divisions. My father though, was highly skilled by this point, and was moved around from place to place, working on radios and engines (which he would, when circumstances allowed, sabotage).

The tale of their coming to the US is fascinating I think, but not really appropriate for this piece. I was born at the end of ‘56 in Camden, NJ, and grew up a couple towns east. So my growing-up was during the 60s, and that’s what I want to talk about.

I never thought about these things at the time of course, but in the years that have passed, I’ve found out the details. I have a brother who is ten years older than me (yes, he was born in Europe), and talking with him it’s become clear. But as kid, it was just the environment that I was in.

My father was an electronics engineer, but he never went to back school after 13 –– he was, quite literally, a man. And when he came to the States, to RCA in Camden in 1951, he hid that fact from most people. And yet, he designed automation systems for RCA, and then IRC in Philly. He had a second business, called Delta Industrial Electronics, in our basement all through the years. My brother assisted him with building what were actually analog computers for his clients, but specific ones. I remember large devices that I thought were ”simply” resistor counters. Yeah, my brother said, they did that, but that was the least of what they did — they prepped and tinned the resistors for soldering into place. And…

He built the first stereo system in our neighborhood, the first actual 2-channel system in the area. And he built the speaker cabs at first. I don’t know how into really good sound he was, but in those days, it was the best sound of which I knew. There were gadgets everywhere, and he at least aspired to good sound. When I was 13, when my (slightly older –– there were three of us) brother Bob and I set up a wall of the neighborhood kids’ amps in the basement, it was in the midst of the Delta Industrial workbenches. And, most importantly, our father was our fan. Although he and my mother occasionally had to crack the whip (they took away our guitar and bass lessons when our grades started to slip — I was in 8th grade, Bob was 10th), he never suggested we stop playing. And he built my first bass amp, from scratch: cabinet, chassis, and front panel — from a Heathkit schematic.

I remember this: Bob was 15, and had a band with another guitarist and the guitarist’s wife, doing their own music (as we always have done). My parents sat on the basement steps listening to them for a while, and when they went back up to the kitchen, my dad said, “These guys are GOOD.” I agreed.

In his last year, he carried a cardboard cutout of the not-yet released HP-35 calculator around in his shirt pocket. Yes, he was super-hep, but he could be a nerd.

It’s impossible for me to talk about him without discussing his politics, and I suspect he formed me here more than anywhere. After we went to Expo ‘67 in Montreal, he announced to my mother that we were moving there. She wouldn’t go. Too cold and her brother and two sisters were nearby. He then came home with four tickets on the SS United States and said, “Fine, we’re moving to London for a year.” And we did; it was the best year of my education (68-69). Later, my mother said we did it to save him from a nervous breakdown. He was so upset about what the US, his adopted country, was doing in Vietnam, that he needed to get away for a while.

He died of a massive heart attack a week after McGovern lost the race to Richard Nixon. When Nixon resigned the presidency, I thought of him.

But I also think of him regularly when I mess with my media system, or play my Moog. I think he would have disapproved of the life (or at least the occasional lack of dollars), but he would have loved the gadgetry of it all.