Behind the Music: Musical Memories

I don’t remember the specific day, but the memory of the moment is clear and indelible.

One day in 1967, my father came home with a record player that was a significant upgrade from its primitive predecessor. The new “system” was a Magnavox with two speakers that brought us into the two-channel, stereo world and a turntable with a spindle that would accommodate at least eight vinyl LPs, which would play in succession, automatically, saving time and steps.

My father also brought home a brown sack filled with records, which was of less interest to his children, given his preferences in music. My brother, two older sisters, and I had developed our own tastes, especially the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and Papas, pop acts like the Cowsills and the Turtles and, most recently, the Monkees. 

My father’s preferences: Irish folk, especially the Clancy Brothers, show tunes, some classical music here and there, and the easy-listening symphonic sounds in the 101 Strings Orchestra collection.

As my dad set up the Magnavox, my older sisters retreated to their room to play their records on the crude, monophonic “hi-fi” systems they and my brother and I had in our rooms: portable turntables with two-bit speakers and an AM radio. After the Magnavox was ready for its launch, my father turned his back to us, pulled a record from the bag, placed the album on the turntable and set the process in motion.

He told us to notice the difference in sound—richer and fuller, etc. Then the needle hit the vinyl, and instead of anything Clancy Brothers or 101 Strings, we heard something unmistakable: a short drum riff, then a lyric: “Here we come …” It was the theme song to The Monkees television show and the lead track on their debut, self-titled album. The show had become must-see TV in our house, and they’d become pop idols, but at that point, none of us owned the album.

Between the “Here we come” and the next lyric, “Walking down the street,” we heard from upstairs two long, high-pitched squeals, then the sound of our older sisters bounding down the stairs, three at a time, to join the listening party. And as this jubilant scene unfurled itself, my father stood aside his sparkling new toy, beaming at our collective happiness—a scene I can recall vividly more than 50 years later.

In 1967, both my parents would turn 37; in August of that year, my mother would give birth to their eighth child—and sixth daughter. My mother ran the ship, but my dad was the patriarch, and in so many ways, a man of secrets and mysteries, thanks to the career he’d chosen.

Since the middle of the 1950s, he’d worked for the CIA—a spy, we guessed. But all we knew about what he did for a living was that—work for the CIA. Very little else was revealed, and we were instructed regularly not to tell anyone even that. Instead, when asked what he did, we were to say, “He works for the government” and leave it at that, no matter how much suspicion the nebulous answer aroused.

At that point in his career, he traveled a lot, sometimes gone as long as four or six weeks. So, there was physical distance as well as the emotional distance that accrued over the years as his work became a place of mystery, a world he discussed only with my mother, his two siblings, and colleagues.

My brother and I connected with him through sports: He’d been an all-state football player in high school and played two years of college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. A staunch Irish Catholic, he was a devout Notre Dame fan, so we watched them regularly, as well as professional football. He took my brother and me to see the Buffalo Bills once (we lived 30 miles north of Buffalo) and to at least one University of Buffalo game. And he was always up for a game of catch in the backyard.

Music was another connection he nurtured, especially when we were young. By the time I was five, we had all memorized every lyric and moment on The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem: Live at Carnegie Hall, including the songs performed in Gaelic and the entirety of the W.B. Yeats poem O Driscoll (Host of the Air). And the musicals: The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

A few times, while throwing parties, he’d summon us (or haul us out of bed) to perform those Clancy Brothers songs for their friends, like a disgruntled Irish version of the Von Trapps. Some of those songs were hardly children’s tunes. Like Wella Wallia, a bubbly tale of a woman who is convicted and hung for stabbing to death her infant child. Hashtag: not kidding.

Somewhere exist photos and maybe even 8mm footage of my dad leading his young troupe in a parade around the living room as we sang those songs and he waved a baton, like a drum major.

As the years passed and we all plunged into adolescence and moved on to more contemporary music—little of which interested my parents—that connection waned. And the mystery that veiled my father deepened and thickened.

He died in March 1987, just 15 months after he’d retired from the CIA, after more than 30 years. He was only 56. At the time of his death, in true tragic-Irish form, he was at home in Clifton Park, N.Y., not far from Albany, with my mother and her sister. The rest of us were in St. Louis for my sister’s wedding. He died the night of her rehearsal dinner; we were told the next evening, after the ceremony and reception. The next day we all scattered, then reconvened for the funeral in his hometown, St. Albans, Vermont. And all those secrets went with him.

A few years ago, for The Kansas City Star on Father’s Day weekend, I wrote a piece about him, giving my perspective on growing up with a dad who was abundantly kind and friendly and generous, who loved his family deeply, but who sacrificed something personal for the sake of his career: an uninhibited connection to his children. The assumption was that he’d tell us more after he retired, but he never got the chance. So, we all were left to speculate because, even then, my mother was honoring her code of discretion, if not silence.

A few months after that story ran in The Star, I received an email from one of my father’s colleagues. And in a matter of about a thousand words, I learned more about my dad than I’d learned in my 28 years with him. 

First: He was not a “spy,” rather he was an intelligence officer, someone who talked with sources who knew what he did but who required anonymity. Thus, when he visited the University of Missouri for work while I was attending school there, I was not to approach him if I saw him—not to protect him, but to protect his “expert volunteer” sources. His job was to gather information—“find very specific needles in very specific haystacks”—and convey all he’d discovered in long, detailed reports.

That was all illuminating and interesting, and it filled in blanks and spaces and corrected misperceptions. But it was the closing of this email that rendered and clarified what was missing most: my father’s stature and reputation at his place of work. I’ve read it a hundred times, and it never fails to bring me to tears.

“All it takes to succeed in the intelligence business is the same as most any other worthy pursuit: unerring character judgment, a versatile and agile intellect, and consummate integrity. A sense of humor helps, too. Your father had it all, and the respect and admiration of his colleagues, a remarkable legacy.”

Every March, around St. Patrick’s Day, which is two days before the anniversary of his death, I play the Live at Carnegie Hall album in its entirety. Still remember every word. It closes with an a cappella version of The Parting Glass, a valediction that includes the verse: “And since it falls into my lot / That I should rise and you should not / I’ll gently rise, and I’ll softly call / Good night, and joy be with you all.”

It was a favorite of his, one we played a few times at his wake. And each time I hear it, it resurrects his spirit. I play the Monkees less frequently, but to this day, when I hear that theme song, I can still hear my sisters’ squeals and see my dad standing back, basking in the elation he’d detonated among the people he most loved. 

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