The Beat Goes On

Brogan Sullivan

Brogan Sullivan

My father’s a jazz musician. A great one, actually, a phenomenon, freakishly talented. A multi-instrumentalist, he plays the trumpet; flute; flugelhorn; peckhorn; cornet; soprano; alto and tenor saxes; drums; guitar; and piano. He’s the kind of musician other musicians mention in interviews when they’re asked to list their influences. The kind of musician journalists like to call “a musician’s musician,” which is a nice way of saying that he’s not famous. You, for instance, probably never heard of him. But he’s been nominated for a Grammy Award seven times. In the 50s, in Chicago, he played with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie.  In the 60s, in the middle of the avant-garde jazz craze, he moved to Miami, and his band-mates followed soon after, one by one. They couldn’t bear the thought of playing without him. He became the locus of the Miami jazz scene, drawing music-lovers to him with the power of a fetish. One time, Van Morrison was playing a sold-out show at the gigantic amphitheater downtown, and when the concert was over, he had his driver take him to the tiny club where my father was gigging that week. Dad saw him hiding out in the corner and waved him up to the stage, but Van shook his head and stayed in his seat. He just wanted to hear my father play.

*

It’s a strange thing, when you think about it, that human beings play music at all. Like other customs of ancient provenance, such as playing games or painting our faces, it seems to have no logical or necessary place in the universe, no function beyond the aesthetic. And yet we keep on listening to it, making it. It resonates with something deep within us, some pre-rational need to imitate and rearrange the patterns of silence and noise that make up our audible universe. It calls to us. We hear its voice with our bones, our muscles, our blood, our skin.

*

For some people that voice is stronger than it is for others. Growing up as the son of a semi-famous musical genius, you learn to deal, very early on, with a few inescapable realities: First, you will feel compelled to become a musician yourself. Second, you will nurse a secret wish to one day surpass your father’s achievements, become not only a musical genius but also rich and legitimately famous. Third, you know, instinctively and without any doubt, that you will fail, utterly. Fourth, you will try anyway, because every single one of his friends expects it of you, because you want him to be proud of you, because you want to punish him for being your father, for being better and bigger and stronger and smarter than you for most of your life. Because some primordial reptile corner of your brain, operating according to the dictates of an eons-old evolutionary imperative, insists that you must ritually, symbolically, kill your father, so he doesn’t kill you first.

*

It took me years to realize that I didn’t want to play the trumpet, which is my father’s primary instrument. I’d been playing it in the school band since 1st grade, and I was pretty good. But it always hurt my teeth, and after long practice sessions, my lips felt like they’d been stung by wasps. I thought this was normal, that all trumpet players, indeed, all musicians endured constant pain in some part of their bodies. I suppose I thought that this was what my father’s friends meant when they talked about paying your dues. And, in fact, when you first pick up a trumpet and start learning to play, a little pain is normal; you are literally reshaping your jaw around the mouthpiece. But I still felt this ache after years of playing, and one day, when my teeth felt like they were going to fall out, I asked my band teacher if there was anything I could do about it. He looked at me like I’d grown a third eye and asked me what the hell I was talking about. When I told him, he laughed, but he also told me to pack up my horn and go home. After a nauseating week of working up my courage, I finally told Dad.

“Good,” he said. “The last thing I want is for you to become a musician. Get a real job.”

I felt elated, and guilty, and free.

*

Like alcoholism or baldness or heart disease, like a werewolf curse, you can’t escape music; it runs in the family. You’ll never be free, because it’s in you, a bloodborne pathogen howling like a locomotive through your veins. You are a rhythm whore; every time a car passes by, blaring its speakers, your heartbeat speeds up to pulse in tandem with the radio song, and when the car disappears, taking the music with it, you feel empty and orphaned.

*

It is worse for my brother, born six years ahead of me. He is a Third, as in the third to bear his father’s name. The legacy is imprinted on his report card, his medical records, his drivers’ license. He also starts with the trumpet. Joins the high school marching band. After winning multiple trophies and awards, he moves on to the piano. In high school, he discovers rock and roll, and the quicksilver jolt it sends screaming through his muscles. He picks up a guitar, finds he can play it like a demon, faster and louder than Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads. He practices 12 hours every day, his fingers dancing ethereally across the frets, executing impossible arpeggios. Watching him play makes me dizzy. He is a legitimate musical genius. He makes it safe for me to quit music entirely. I take up writing, leaving my brother to compete with our father, because he, at least, has a fighting chance.

*

There are some things sons can say to their fathers; others they can’t articulate in the limited vocabulary of male rhetoric. The feelings just won’t translate. For example: that crinkly, electric burst of love that blooms in your chest on a Sunday evening while the two of you throw a softball around the yard and the sun crawls down into the wide emptiness below the horizon. Or the guilt that settles in because your father is no longer bigger or stronger or smarter. The fear that clutches your throat when you look at him and realize you’re running out of time to say anything at all, and one day everything you left unsaid will cast a shadow over all your memories of him.

*

I want to say something here about continuance, about the persistence of human will and the urge to carve our own names into the cosmos. To make a connection between that urge and the reason anyone, anywhere, picks up an instrument: that is to say, in order to spit into the face of time, to insist that we are here, we matter, even though we know that time always wins, and one distant day in the future, there will be no more fathers and sons, no more mothers and daughters, no more legacies to fulfill, and all the music will stop.

But for now, now, now, there is the rhythm, the rhythm, the rhythm, and we are here, here, here, and in fact when you think about it we are all instruments, all vessels of music, a symphony of beating hearts and bloodrush and twanging tendons and snaredrum skin stretched over pulsing muscle; we are a syndrome, a pattern, an orchestral crashing in the emptiness of space, and that is why we play, why we sing. It’s why, when we reach a certain age, we no longer want to compete with our parents, to eclipse their achievements, to purge their influence. Because we are all playing the same song, every last one of us, and the beat goes on.

5 Comments

  1. What can I say about this piece that isn’t evident by the time you reach its closing lines? “The Beat Goes On” moved me–left me tear-slick in the middle of the night, waking up my husband to tell him, “I have to read you this story,” and knowing that it was a story worth waking someone up to hear. Sons and fathers, mothers and daughters, coming to terms with our parents’ mortality–that’s well covered territory in literature, and because it’s so well-covered, it’s incredibly difficult to take on the task and make it work, as well as find a receptive audience–and Brogan manages to pull off both feats as though it’s no big thing–like the music that came to his father so naturally, so do the right words, in the right place, in the right order, in the right narrative come to the son. The final paragraph of the piece mirrors to musicality of his inheritance and threads the reader into the song as well. I cannot tell you what a joy this piece was to read, how my heart stopped when it disappeared from the queue (“OMG please tell me it was accepted, not withdrawn and that’s why its gone!!!!”) and how very much I look forward to reading more of Brogan’s work. In the future, I predict interviews where journalists refer to you as “A writer’s writer.”

  2. This piece needs a warning label: “Severe emotional reaction”. And my dad is a lawyer…for you a trumpet, for me a debate.

  3. Brogan, I remember so well spending time with a kid who was special. I saw you grow, heard you express your feelings, made you laugh at Lenny Bruce. And here you are, in my neighborhood, in my college, in my thoughts.
    I read this on father’s day, and it brought back my relationshp with my father….a man who believed he belonged on Broadway as a dancer and ended up delivering soft drinks to support his family, serving as a bartender, and still dancing in the empty living room of a pretty small , old house with two kids and a wife who played wonderful concert piano.

    And of course, I have known your father for many years and have had the real privelege of hearing his so special talent unlike any other ….reeds and horns?? ah, come on! Also have encouraged him to sing which is fun. (try frim fram sauce).

    So…it is a wonderfully written and touching work by one of my favorite kids…

    come to Lutz some day again and meanwhile, I am proud to know you , Brogan. Love, Jackie

  4. This is beautiful, Brogan!

  5. Brogan, I’m speechless. I WAS considering submitting a humorous short story about my dad, but after reading this, I felt ashamed to even call myself a writer. This is, quite possibly, the most beautifully written story I have ever read! And I’m a musician (strictly amateur), so I totally get what music can do to us and how it transcends generations. BRAVO to you, sir, for putting into words what most people (myself included) will never be able to articulate!

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