Monday, February 3
From the time I witnessed my Grandfather Ray Thyssen playing the piano, as everyone gathered around at holiday time to sing old standards, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. Though I didn’t know all the tunes at the time, I sat next to him as he played these classics and Christmas tunes by ear, everyone joined in the fun. My grampa (Pa) was a real character. A tall, smart and funny man who always smelled great (British Sterling?) with a fantastic sense of humor. He had a close friend from Hackensack, Hal Leroy, who was a great song & dance man, he started as a “sensation in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1931″*, as well as a movie actor throughout the 30’s for Vitaphone and Warner Brothers pictures. When Pa and Hal would get together, they had a blast, laughing, singing, and playing music together. Pa would play a snare drum, and Hal the Piano. I more heard about it than witnessed it, but the way they spoke about it and each other was inspiring to me.
I have a very musical family on Grandfather’s side, my mother was a fine pianist who loved show tunes, easy listening and Frank Sinatra. I would never know she played piano until I was around 15 or 16 and taking piano lessons, I was having a difficult time with a particular Joe Jackson song I was learning from a book. After about 20 minutes of me repeatedly playing it wrong, she either sensed my frustration, or was sick of hearing the dissonance herself, came in, bent over, looked at the music, and played it perfectly. I haven’t heard her play since.
My sister Laura is more or less a musical genius. She has perfect pitch, learned piano early and played much better than any of her peers. I’m sure my introduction to harmony was her singing along with the radio, she would harmonize with everything. At first we thought she was as tone deaf as my dad, when I was about 3 and Laura was 6 or 7, dad would sing to her “You are my Sunshine” horribly off key, and she would come back and serve it up in the same off key tone. That’s the perfect pitch working against her in this case. Laura has a beautiful voice, and is a great musician. She follows more closely to my parents, much more functional, logical, and the brainy side of the family, I’m more of a spacey day- dreamer type. Ironically, we essentially ended up doing the same thing, she’s a high school teacher, she directs plays & musicals and sings in church at weddings and funerals. I teach school age children in an arts enrichment program, and give private music lessons on guitar, ukulele, piano & bass for students of all ages. I also have performed at hundreds of weddings and events, singing, playing and DJing.
I grew up in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the home of the Bravo reality show the New Jersey Housewives.
Those fake, fucking awful harpy bitches couldn’t hold the match to light a candle to my mom.
The self-proclaimed “wicked witch of Navajo Trail”, Carol is the mom that would call your mom the week after your parents were away on vacation and you threw a kegger. Carol would be all sweet on the phone and say to your mom “so,I see you had a party on Saturday night, I was a little surprised we weren’t invited….”
Then your mom would ground you for month.
A few of my friends went to see “Jaws” in 1975.
Many of my friends saw “The Bad News Bears” in 1976.
Most of my friends went to see “Saturday Night Fever” in 1977
ALL OF MY FRIENDS got to see “Halloween” in 1978
Not me, as these films were rated R.
1979 came, and moms took me to my first R rated movie, “The Jerk”, around my birthday, so she made it count.
In 1984, she took me to see a movie, I begrudgingly went to see something I never heard of, “This is Spinal Tap” thinking, this is gonna suck.
It only sucked for the clueless and confused metal heads in the audience, miserable, stupid jersey bastids.
Thanks mom, for turning me on to this Rob Reiner directed classic, which turned me on to a whole new brand of comedy, National Lampoon’s Radio Hour.
Classic parent lines from my mom came often,
“I don’t care what Johnny is doing, I’m not Johnny’s Mother, I’m yours!”
My mother tolerated little to no shenanigans, but she sure let me make a racket in the basement, always recommended a good film, and always had my back.
One of the most telling tales of my mother and I would be when I was on
My parents 50th anniversary cruise. Laura my sister and my brother-in-law John were at the bar having a drink later in the evening, not something they often do. My sister was teasing me about being a mama’s boy, and I have to protest, “are you kidding me? I left home right after school and got as far away in the country as I could, not at mom’s expense mind you, but i’m a self-made man dammit! Nobody does shit for me nowadays, I’m totally out there on my own, rewriting the whole Wilcox Family album.”
At that moment my mom walks up with three shopping bags, “oh I bought you some nice shirts and some other clothes downstairs,” she says. My sister shot me a look, ” Mom hasn’t bought me clothes since I was 17,” Laura dead pans. What an eye-opening slap in the face that was.
All of that silliness aside, my mother is an angel. Honest as the day is long she always put up with me no matter what the scenario. She is an amazing cook and would always make interesting, yummy dishes. We were the first people in the suburban NJ to get a wok, as far as I know, and she would do things with a casserole or a crockpot that I still haven’t tasted in all the fancy restaurants I’ve eaten in to this day. She’s actually a little mad at Rachael Ray for ripping off her thrifty cooking stylings. She would make all types of exotic things too. She had a special way of serving things, always offering up a “no thank you” serving for things you weren’t sure about. She would make us try a little, and if no one liked it, she wouldn’t serve it again, bless her heart.
She was a master of the backhanded compliment, she would always say “I don’t care what anybody says about you Ray, in my book, you’re okay” She would serve up a bowl of soup and say, “Anybody can eat it with a spoon”
I’m like, “wha….?”
If I was kvetching about a little insignificant ailment or scratch on the arm she would say, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll kick you in the shin so hard you won’t even feel your arm. Funny, sassy, no nonsense New Jersey girl all the way. Tough love, I’m not sure it exists anymore. It’s too bad. Many of the children I teach are SO spoiled and SO entitled, so smart assed and snarky it’s absurd.
I’m not sure my father had the luxury of being creative musically. Dad started in NJ, but as a boy moved to upstate New York (WAY upstate) in a small town called Parishville. If I remember correctly, it’s less than a 1/2 hour from Canada. He beat Polio as a boy. As a teenger he snuck out of town, because I think, he thought, he would have killed himself with liquor, or something even more stupid than that. He traveled, working his way around the country doing all sorts of jobs. He served in the Army during the Korean War. He was a huge supporter of whatever I wanted to try, football, film making, dramatics, music and the rest, but he had been busting his ass all his life for everyone around him. It’s strange, and I imagine many fathers and sons have the same or similar situations, we always had a difficult time communicating I expect because we are SO SIMILAR, yet our past experiences and approach are so different. It’s become much easier as we’ve grown older and wiser, but one of my worst memories was him yelling at my mother, “What is he going to do Carol, sit around in the basement with the headphones on all his life?”
….well dad, pretty much.
There’s the tiny dark side of the story. My dad is an amazing man, just awesome. A people person if there ever was one, he’s got the heart of a lion, and he’s worked harder than anyone else I’ve ever met, all for my family to have an extremely comfortable life. My mom worked a year or 2 as a teacher, and I though I realize raising kids is more than a full-time job, that thinking doesn’t really fly nowadays, as being a stay at home mom is a luxury like owning a Porche or a 2nd vacation house.
Dad took over my grandfather’s auto parts business, Tyhssen Auto Parts in Union City New Jersey. He commuted and worked six long days a week every week to keep us “up with the Joneses”. He employed really great guys of all different creeds, colors and backgrounds, I’m sure he helped bankroll many a happy family. He took us on tropical vacations and to Europe & Disneyland, and we had a pool in the backyard and yearly membership to a country club. I always got everything I asked for for Christmas, and he built me the most amazing treehouse a boy could have. I’d find a dog in the woods, or bring a cat home that found me, he’d let us keep it. He never had a whole lot to say (that’s not so true nowadays, but he’s earned it) and we always had some trouble communicating directly to each other, but he always got his point across with his heart.
Malcom was a huge supporter of my high school band Ty and the Pedestrians . He and my mom let us practice in our basement which we did a lot. We would use his electricity and drink his beer and raise a racket and a ruckus, all he would do is open the basement door and yell, “turn down the bass!”, but it was all with love .
It’s funny that I hated the first gear he brought home for me, because if you were 16 years old in 1981, you could not possibly appreciate the sweetest vintage Ampeg, all tube, flip top bass amp anyone could ever buy. That thing had the warmest, grittiest, yummiest tone, but it would be years later before I would realize that. We had a small PA he got from a private electrician in New Jersey (Denis, also my dad’s middle name, ironically) that he bought around the corner from his store. He was definitely a “don’t try it, do it” type of guy, and he always used to say “there’s a right way and wrong way to do everything”, so naturally he sensed when we needed some real equipment.
After about six months of practice, when we had our set down and we were about to get our first gigs, my dad took us to Manny’s Music in New York City to buy us all kinds of equipment . He bought me the loudest Peavy Reknown guitar amp, and a great little PA with two huge Peavy 15 inch mains with horn tweeters. Along with all the mic’s, stands & cables it ended up costing him a grand, which in 1981 was a pretty penny.
Mal earned a lifelong nickname that day as we pulled the Ford Country Squire station wagon up and unloaded all the gear he had just purchased for us. He picked up a long, thin birch branch from the yard and started swatting it around, crackin’ it on the hard pavement, ordering us to get the stuff out of the car and into the basement.
To this day ALL my buddies (even guys who were not in the band then) still ask me, “how’s The Whip doing?”, and they’re not asking about my car.
We promised to pay him back as soon as we could. We played a Ramapo High School dance for two dollars a head, and at least 500 people came through the doors that night. I’ll never forget as the whole band filed up into his bedroom at around midnight after our show. He’s sitting there in his boxers and a T-shirt, reading the paper with the TV on, his eyeglasses perched down over his nose, kind of a little startled that six or seven teenage boys were running up to his room at this time of night. We had a paper grocery bag filled with mostly one dollar bills equaling very near $1000, in fact I think it was over that because I remember somebody made a joke about it including interest.
We turned the bag over and dumped all the cash on his bed, I’m not sure even a month went by before we had payed him back the entire debt! We were all surprised.
My dad was never a huge music guy, but he always got emotional when he saw me play.
That’s how I know he’s my dad. The older we get, the more we bond over the important stuff.