Today sees the return of The Lone Ranger, one of the most enduring characters of the West.
The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has just released Mo’ Meta Blues, his memoir which serves several functions. Part historical retelling of his life, growing up the son of Lee Andrews of the doo-wop group, Lee Andrews & The Hearts, part autobiographical discography — in addition to his encyclopedic recounting of the music in his life, the guy is a massive Prince fan — and part self-effacing recounting of several, what he calls, “Forrest Gump moments” in his life. Through various opportunities, first as the drummer for “the last great hip hop band” and now as the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night program, Quest has found himself at several of history’s focal points. As he points out on Fresh Air, when President Obama slow-jammed the news, a segment in which Fallon hypes the news being read — typically by NBC’s Brian Williams — that though the event was a big deal, he’s learned to curb his enthusiasm. “I don’t mourn the bad. I don’t celebrate the good. Just walk forward.”
Legendary record producer Rick Rubin made Kanye West’s Yeezus, which took over at number one on the Billboard charts this month for another Rubin production, 13, Black Sabbath’s first album in thirty-five years. Andrew Romano, senior writer for Newsweek and recent contributor to the Things My Father Taught Me, explained in his interview with Rubin, “Few, if any, other producers have ever managed such a feat.”
Like anyone my age, you too are a Rick Rubin fan. As the title to Romano’s piece suggests, “You listen to this man every day.” As I read his piece, I recalled when I first heard of Rubin.
Go make a mix tape for your cast-mates.
What a gem of an assignment. Because the play takes place in Henley’s hometown of Hazelhurst, Mississippi in 1974, I spent a week researching music that would’ve emanated from the area’s popular music radio stations in the summer and fall of 1974, and — in addition to discovering that one of my favorite songs, Rufus & Chaka’s “Tell Me Something Good,” was the most-played song in Mississippi that year — on these smelly, old microfiche copies of handwritten playlists from a Jackson radio station, I discovered the smokey-voiced, insouciant, beautifully crafted songs of Bobbie Gentry.
They say you never forget your first.
I was five. It was on the back deck of my parents’ house. My uncle slipped me a sip from the shiny yellow pop-top can. In my small hands, it felt like I was holding this giant golden cannon. I swallowed. Bleck. I hated it. Beer.
When I was a little kid, a family friend of ours, a general contractor named Greg Elder, was hired to give a facelift to the Kentucky Fried Chicken in our small Kansas town. From time-to-time, Greg and his wife Sue would babysit me and my brother, and one night, they took us to the KFC.
Looking up at this giant bucket-shaped piece of tin, he said, “You know, Max, The Colonel himself taught me how to get that bucket to spin.” Now, I’m not sure if Colonel Sanders was even alive when Greg went to work on the world famous fried chicken joint that bears Colonel Sanders’ visage to this day, but every time I pass an old storefront that still bears the words “Kentucky Fried Chicken” and not the shortened, uber-corporate “KFC,” I look for that twirling bucket of chicken and think of Greg Elder.
And while it might not (yet) have a giant tin chicken basket spinning out front, what’s inside is a clean, modern take on the ol’ chicken shack. A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of dining at Parson’s Chicken and Fish, the latest venture from Land & Sea, comprised of some of the braintrust behind the Michelin-star rated restaurant, bar, and inn Longman & Eagle.
Most of the stories I know of my grandfather and my great-grandfather are largely exaggerated. They’re tales handed down from my father and his siblings. I was told my great-grandfather was the only man in Alton, Illinois who drove a convertible with reclining front seats, and his friend Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to have ever lived, would occasionally borrow my grandfather’s car to cruise for chicks.
I am a snoop, always finding Christmas presents well in advance of the holiday. One year, while sneaking around in my dad’s closet, I uncovered a prayer book that had once belonged to my grandfather. I know this, because, in the front of the book, in the most precise penmanship, on the line beneath “Property of” was written “Harlan Charles Wastler.”
When I was caught by my father, and let it be known I was always caught while snooping (at least that’s what I’ll tell the authorities), he told me — I swear to this day — that my grandfather had such nice penmanship that he was often asked to handwrite the entire Bible. Until as recently as a couple years ago, I still believed this to be fact. I figured he would just do it for fun after work while listening to the Cardinals game on the radio, and I imagined a large shelf above his head with beautiful leather-bound journals filled with blank pages, awaiting his quill.
My grandfather died when my dad was seventeen. It left my father, who was all set to leave for college, to stay behind and help to take care of his younger brothers, twins Mark and Matt. My mother too lost her mother at a very young age and was relied upon to care for younger siblings. I think it’s part of what’s shaped my appreciation for what my parents did and what all parents do.
My brother Ben and I are lucky to have the parents we do. They had something of a trial period prior to raising us, and we got their best effort. In New York, while studying acting, I had an instructor who encouraged us to go back and research our family histories. “You’ll have a better idea of where you’re going if you know where you come from.” It was at this time I began recording my family’s history, and since then, I’ve had a fascination with origin stories of all kinds.
And so it is, as today is Father’s Day, and my dad is celebrating his last before becoming a grandfather, I am able to learn a bit more about the man who shaped the one I’ve idolized for my thirty-two years in his care. Thank you, dad, for taking time to share some things your father taught you.
A couple years ago, on the phone with an ex-girlfriend, I made mention of the word, “hero.”
“You use that word a lot.”
“Yeah. Have you ever thought about making a list of all your ‘heroes?’ Maybe you could do a blog post on it.”
I sat down after that conversation, and I jotted down the name of the first person to come to mind. And then I was completely stuck, fascinated by the name I wrote down. Not of some fancy designer, not of a leader in business, not of a musician, an artist, an athlete, and surprisingly, not of our father, it was the name of my brother. Ben’s a hero.
Here is how that post began:
Ben, younger than me, moves with a force unlike anyone I know. From the time we were born, Ben was good at most things. Sociable, happy, athletic, smart to a point, and willing to work hard when the smarts quit out.
Unlike me, he always had many friends. He’s still close with a large group of them from high school and college. And he works to keep in touch with them, even though they’ve spread out all over the place.
When I think back to our time as kids, Ben was always more willing to share than his big brother. He was also more willing to destroy my toys when he didn’t get his way (I recall a certain G.I. Joe birthday where legs literally flew). He was also quick to provide a genuine “Thank you,” thus making mine appear a formality, more than a true showing of gratitude. But how can I fault him? He is just nicer than me.
Today, I’ll continue expounding on why my brother is a hero, but first, it’s important to understand why his contribution comes five years into this series. In about two weeks, for the first time, Ben is going to be a father. That also means for the first time, my dad is going to be a grandfather. This year seemed like an appropriate one to include something from the two most important men in my life, and my father’s post will follow Ben’s later today.
Ben. Ben is driven. Ben is sweet. Ben is curious. Ben is pious. Ben is a student of — and for a time, he was a teacher with — the Jesuits. Ben is well-versed in English Premiership. Ben can wander off unannounced at times. Ben has a terrific, distinctive laugh. Ben is a son. Ben is a brother. Ben is a husband. Ben will be a great father.
Before you read what he wrote, I feel it’s my duty as his older brother to share a story that pertains to the one you’re about to read. In the summer of 2002, Ben was set to leave for college, and my parents were preparing for an empty nest. We were approached by the local NBC affiliate to play the centerpiece on the subject. In the segment, the question was posed to each of us, separately, “Who will take it worse, mom or dad?” My mother responded that they would both struggle, but ultimately it would be harder on my father. I said, “My dad.” My father’s response took the cake: “I’m going to be a mess,” and Ben — Ben who’s never wrong, said, “Definitely my mom.”
An important fact to remember while enjoying his story.
Someone once told me there’s no one better suited to do what he does than Jeff. Mr. Thrope is a kind of guru in the world of outdoor clothing. He doesn’t get super technical when talking about it, and that’s what makes his work so wonderfully good and approachable. But to hear him tell it, he wasn’t coaxed into a life in the wild in the way I was. My father often admits he might have been a park ranger in another life. I don’t know that Jeff’s dad would say the same.
The few times we’ve hung out Jeff’s been easy as pie to get along with, suuuuper chill, and just doin’ his thing. Sounds like a chip off the old block to me.