The first time I picked out the hidden chords of the bass guitar was the last time I saw my father.
I did not know him, an aging musician with only three things to remember him by; long, greying hair, a broad, tarnished brass belt buckle the size of a pack of smokes, embossed with the words, “The South Will Rise Again,” and framed black and white photos of himself onstage with famous country musicians who would not remember his name once the tour was over.
He did not know me either, a new teenager on a one-week pass from a group home, a stranger wearing a Led Zeppelin tee shirt and a hand me down jean jacket. I asked him for cigarettes, taking a chance he’d want to be a cool dad. I stood on his deck later, focused on making a cigarette burn on the cuff of my jacket. It would be proof that I’d had contraband while I was away.
As a child, I learned to read by sounding out the lyrics on the liner notes of my mother’s record collection. (Cat Stephens songs did not have difficult words.) She took half of my father’s records in the divorce, but I suspect he kept the valuable ones. Thus, my father and I had music in common. It had not connected us over the miles or the years, but we had nothing else to talk about.
He showed me how to identify the bass guitar in music; invisible, yet also a backbone. “You don’t notice it until it’s missing,” he said. He played the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” tapping out the chords of his instrument on his thigh: dun, dun dun. I followed his lead and we tapped our thighs in unison: dun, dun dun.
Parkinson’s disease overtook him more than two decades later. My younger sister drove ten hours to wait for the end. I did not go with her.
I remember myself at fourteen, tapping the bass line on my jeans in a Nashville living room far more vividly than I remember the man who showed me the tapping. I do not believe you only notice the bass when it’s missing. Since that cigarette-burned jean jacket, I have not been able to hear anything else.