And the Deal Was Struck: A Thanksgiving Tradition

Like seemingly 90% of the residents in Los Angeles, I live here as a transplant. And in the eleven years since I descended upon LA from the frozen tundra of Massachusetts, I’ve been home for Thanksgiving only once. I flew in secretly to surprise my family in 2006. It all started simply enough, I was on the phone with my brother, Brian (I call him Bri), in August and off-handedly said that it’d be funny if I showed up unannounced; our parents would love it. We spoke a few more times over the next few weeks and decided it’d absolutely be worth the cross-country flight on the busiest travel holiday of the year.

Only my brother knew I was coming, so he devised a plan in which he stealthily left the house to “run some errands,” but actually came to pick me up at Logan. His 120-minute round trip ended when we arrived at my mom’s house where she and my father were prepping family dinner for my brother, my father’s brother and parents, and themselves. Bri and I parked in the garage attached to our white house on Breen Road, and I quietly entered the adjoining family room. I poked my head in and my grandparents and uncle, who were watching the Broncos/Chiefs game, turned to greet who they thought was my brother. I pressed my index finger to my lips to encourage their silence and include them in the surprise for my parents. They contained their amusement and obliged, though my uncle did have to cover his own mouth with his hands while he joyously, but lightly, stamped his feet on the floor. Classic Uncle Ron.

My mother and father were together in the kitchen putting the final touches on Thanksgiving dinner, so I had some breathing room to maximize the surprise. Their backs were facing me as I entered the kitchen, so I nonchalantly stood in the doorway waiting for them to turn and lay eyes on their previously absent son. My dad turned first, to call everyone in to eat, and the look on his face was priceless. His forehead scrunched up; his mouth went agape, and he stood frozen in disbelief. I’m pretty sure I broke his brain. My mother was less boggled, instead overjoyed to see her west coast son.

After the initial hubbub of the surprise wore off, the family fell back into the routine of normalcy: My grandfather cracked jokes about his inability to taste the food – he had lost his ability to taste many years prior. My uncle complained about the teenage cashier at the grocery store who needed to use a calculator to figure the change for my uncle’s purchase as opposed to using his brain to figure it out – my uncle was always perplexed by the advancement of technology and his perceived directly proportional decline in the education of today’s youth. And my dad was inevitably the first to spill food on the tablecloth and immediately proceed to get on his own case about it, which, of course, upset my mother who then began to revert to their married days – they were divorced in the early 90s, but together parented my brother and me like champs – and joined in by getting on his case about being on his own case.

“Oh, dammit!” he said as he blotted the spill with a watery napkin.

“It’s fine, Gene,” my mother pleaded quietly.

“I always do this!”

“Don’t worry about it, Gene. It’ll come out,” my mother responded, slowly losing her patience.

The interruption culminated in a din of raised voices – most notably my mother’s and father’s, but joined peripherally by my grandfather’s, uncle’s, and mine – and ended when my dad finally gave up on the battle over whether a stain on the tablecloth truly mattered in the scheme of this otherwise joyous family gathering. My father stewed internally over the incident. He couldn’t let it go despite the spill not being a big deal. I knew what he was thinking: “I can’t do anything right. I can’t even get food from my plate to my mouth without fucking it up. I’m worthless.” He twisted his fork into the turkey on his plate and stared at it malevolently. He was overwhelmed by the pain of letting everyone down. He gave up on the battle with us about the spill stain, but he lost the battle with his mind.

The rest of the meal contained periodic small talk between long swathes of silence dotted with the clinking of glasses and dinnerware. The tension had arrived unannounced, made everyone painfully uncomfortable, and utterly consumed us as we consumed our Thanksgiving meal.

Since then, I haven’t been home for Turkey Day. And I’m totally OK with that. I dig my alone time on the holiday. I dig the fact that everyone leaves LA. I dig that I can do whatever I want. And I’ve discovered what I want to do when I have the day off work and nowhere to be: Make music. Thanksgiving has become my own personal musical holiday.

In 2007, I spent the day writing my band’s second record. In 2010, I was fleshing out parts for a live show. In 2012, I was improvising on my guitar and pedal board in my rehearsal space to exorcise some emotional weight from an illness I survived. The other Turkey Days included any number of musical endeavors from solo jamming or technical exercise to recording sessions for proper album releases.

But there was one piece of music that needed to be completed; a piece that had been brewing since 1996. I was in high school when I wrote the main guitar theme. I was seventeen. I wrote it while lying in bed on some angsty teenage afternoon. It was a simple riff that I could never forget, but I also never felt right about turning it into a proper piece of music for any of my “public” musical projects over the years; it was somehow too personal and not yet complete. But what was missing, I couldn’t determine.

I woke up at 7:00am on Thanksgiving last year and decided to start the day off right by playing some music. I pulled my guitar into bed with me and began strumming this piece. I had one of those stereotypical musician moments when I didn’t think about what I was doing, I just played what I could remember and what felt right. When I finished the piece with its improvised structure, I banged out the final notes and knew I had the arrangement that perfectly complemented the music. I quickly tossed back the bed sheets, traversed the apartment, and hopped into my chair at my computer to fire up Logic and start recording.

For six and a half hours I sat at my workstation rotating between my miked up acoustic guitar and Logic’s software synthesizers and editing windows trying to find the perfect musical balance of mood, emotion, subtlety, and poignancy. I forgot to make breakfast. I didn’t shower. I didn’t take my vitamins. I didn’t even brush my teeth. I forgot to pee until I was about to burst. Then I forgot to eat lunch. I was ensconced. I was lost and found at the same time. The clock on the wall was meaningless to me; time only existed in musical measures. I had recorded the main guitar theme multiple times, but ended up settling on the first pass I did. It was one take, no punch-ins. It had a few flubs, but it captured that proper human feeling missing on so many overproduced records. I added some harmonies on an orchestral plug-in setting I call “Sad Bassoons.” I coupled my guitar with volume sensitive plug-in to give a smooth eeriness that sings along with my acoustic strumming. I introduced a vocal patch that bridged a few key bars. But still something was missing.

I took my first break at about 2:00pm. I stretched like a cat, and my muscles thanked me for moving more than my arms and fingers. I stood in between my guitar, which was laid out on the floor taking a break, and my computer, which was humming with anticipation of what was to come. The piece needed something else. Something important. Something to give it purpose and movement.

I stood there with my hands by my sides, gazing at the ceiling. The cool November air pressed on the closed windows. The hunger pangs were quelled by this burning desire for emotional completion. I thought about what my family’s Thanksgiving looked like back home. But I wasn’t sure exactly how it looked anymore. My family had gained some members since my last visit – my brother was married and had two amazing little children, and we lost a few – my father’s parents who were present at my last visit had both passed away. Did the kids bring much needed life to the festivities? Was my uncle still stamping his feet when someone cracked a joke? Was my father still the first to spill? Was he able to soften his criticism of himself? Did my mom relax her response when he did? I wondered if the spill on the tablecloth would matter to him on his deathbed. I thought about my lone surviving grandparent who had celebrated his 100thbirthday earlier that year. How much longer would he be with us? And that was it. That was the connection. My grandfather, William Burr Mason also known as Pop, or Garbage Can Willie for his penchant for eating everyone’s leftovers at family meals. I remembered a CD on which my mom’s sister recorded a 45-minute interview with Pop for Story Corps in 2007. Where was it? I rifled through my shoe box of old 4-track tapes and other miscellaneous musical trinkets and found my grandfather’s voice burnt to disc. I knew this interview was the missing piece.

Over the next five hours I snipped up the interview and worked the best bits into the music. The cuts were perfect; Pop’s story was so succinct, no detail was left out. I took the story about how Pop came to play the cornet for the first two verses and grabbed a bit when he talked about treating people fairly, especially during a time when the country was segregated. I added a personal touch of Pop introducing himself to the beginning, and added an interchange between him and my aunt talking about his family members to the end. After a few moments of silence when the music decays, Pop says something concise about each of his grandchildren and ends with a reference to my mother’s youngest son. “And her son Steven lives in Los Angeles.” Awesome. Each section fit like the proverbial glove and as I took the piece for one final spin, I was sold. It was perfect.