ELP, My Father, and Me

Andy’s van

During the Covid lockdowns my mom got really into listening to the bands she listened to when she was young. I like classic rock, so I enjoyed seeing what each CD that she purchased was. It makes me happy when she plays the albums, because it’s adorable to see her rocking out and excited. One night a few months ago during dinner she put one of her more recent purchases, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, into the little radio in our dining room. As it played my mom mentioned, “Andy liked this band.”

Andy. Her brother. My biological father.

My interest was immediately piqued.

I wrote once before on this blog about my unconventional upbringing and family structure (and I suggest you check out that post for more detail), but the short version is my biological parents were on drugs and so my brothers and I were raised by other members of our family instead. One of our aunts ultimately adopted us and she is the only mom I have really known. Our family rarely talks about my biological parents, but I know I could ask questions if I had them. Unfortunately, my most pressing questions (How did you pick my name? How could you value drugs over getting clean for your children?) are not ones that my older family members would have answers for anyway so I stay silent.

But silence does not mean lack of curiosity. I remember when I was younger I hid away a couple of photos of my biological parents that I found in the family photo collection, mysterious figures that I barely even remembered. I looked closely at their faces, wondering which parts of them I resembled. They aren’t people that I obsess over or miss, likely because I was simply too young to remember much when we left, but it would be a lie to say I haven’t spent a good chunk of time wondering about them over the years. I was lucky to grow up in an environment filled with enough love that I don’t ache over my estrangement from my biological mother, that I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by never having someone I could call “dad.” But I suppose that’s a privilege in its way — how I can miss something I don’t remember having?

But still, my mom casually handing me this information about Andy immediately sparked my interest. The music seemed like a way to connect with him, a chance to learn something small about the person he was before drugs ruined him and got his children taken away, never to be seen again. So I slipped the CD out of my mom’s collection and into my laptop, putting on my good headphones and closing my eyes to immerse myself as fully as I could. I wanted to go into my first listen with a clean slate and looked up nothing about the ELP or the album beforehand.

It turns out that ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery is a fucking weird album, at least so far as my taste in music is concerned. I’m no expert in the differences between genres, but I almost immediately pegged it as prog rock because of the weird harmonics and experimental arrangements. But even the song choices themselves seem odd to me. The album opens with an arrangement of the hymn Jerusalem, which the internet tells me is basically an alternative British national anthem. Then it segues into a spooky, siren-filled arrangement of the Toccata from Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto before delving into an acoustic love song followed by a song about a bar fight that feels almost ragtimeish. The album concludes with the 30 minute epic Karn Evil 9, which tells a story about a war between humans and computers, with a lot of innovative for the time bloopy electronic music along the way.

This album feels like the definition of mood whiplash and if I had to describe it in one word I would choose “ballsy.” I definitely feel like ELP wouldn’t get away with it today, but my impression of the 1970s is that people were more open to weird things than they are now and I wish we were still living in that kind of creative environment. So much of modern media in general feels so bland, like it’s been focus group tested to death in order to generate maximum profit. A lot of what’s considered “popular” music today, the stuff that gets the most radio play, is getting more and more samey to me. Luckily we at least have the internet now, so there is access to more unconventional projects if you dig for them. Brain Salad Surgery a messy album tonally, which somehow feels appropriate considering it’s also my link to my biological father. It’s weird music, but at least it’s memorable.

The album came out in 1973, when my biological father would have been 10 years old, give or take a year or two. So I assume he first encountered ELP when he was a little older and that this was part of the music he listened to when he was a teen or in his early 20s. I’m curious to know what other music he liked, to know how representative this album is of his overall taste. Was he a big prog rock fan or was ELP just an outlier? For once I have questions that my mom could perhaps answer for me since she and Andy were close in age, but 25 years removed from living with him feels weirdly late to start asking about this person our family never discusses.

My only memory of my biological father is him driving the family van with his knee as he opened a little packet of something that was likely illicit and which I was too young at the time to comprehend. That man was perhaps already no longer the one who had enjoyed ELP in all their weirdness, but I will never know. In 2010 my uncle, our family genealogy research fanatic, somehow found out that Andy had died some years prior from, you guessed it, an overdose.

But there’s a story my aunt told me once which has been on my mind again lately. After my brothers and I were taken away by CPS the adults of my family went to court. After the hearing, which turned out to be the last time my aunt ever saw my biological father, he passionately told her, “I’m gonna get my kids back.” And she replied, “I hope you do.”

While I didn’t know Andy well enough to still love him today, that story makes me assume that my brothers and I were beloved by him for at least a short portion of his life. It’s not like he disappeared from my life because he didn’t care at all, it’s just that sometimes people come across forces they, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to overcome. That being said, I understand addiction is a complicated beast, but I don’t think I will ever be able to comprehend how a person’s children wouldn’t be worth enough to fight it off, or at least inspire them to make more of an effort to do so than my biological parents seemed to make.

Do I feel closer to my biological father for having listened to ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery? No, not really. But it’s nice to know anything at all about him that isn’t his drug use or his neglect of his children or the effects that had on his extended family, nice to experience something that he enjoyed in his youth.

I don’t have a firm opinion on what happens when we die, but I’ve always liked to think that the people who care about us keep an eye on us when they pass. I hope Andy would be proud of what my brothers and I have managed to achieve despite his lingering specter, glad that we aren’t reenacting his mistakes.

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