My father’s guitar became a symbol for mental health

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Dad and Harvey, his Martin D-28. (early 1980s?)

My father used to say I’d be well off after he died. When the day came, all I wanted was his guitars.

Toward the end, I realised we were rarely close. He and my mum split up when I was a baby, and it was a loud divorce. In 1987 I was 14, and she took me with her to Ireland, having married Davy Rice from Ballymurphy. Growing up, I didn’t see my dad all that much, and afterward – even less.

We did spend some good times together. He taught me how to handle guns, how to fish (I hate fishing) how to take pictures, and when I was 11 he tried to teach me to drive. I reckon he taught me a great deal, probably because he just couldn’t seem to stop talking. He never tired of telling me (or anyone else) how hard he worked, especially after a few beers. I can still hear his slurred speech. Strange though, he never taught me to play guitar. In truth I wasn’t interested until I was 16.

When I was 26 I moved to Montreal with my girlfriend (now wife) Elaine. We had a tough time of it, struggling to get by, but we clawed our way to okay, and we had our kids in Toronto. Our son was born in 2002, daughter in 2007, and when she was only a few weeks old, my dad showed up unannounced. We had a small two-bedroom house, suddenly overcrowded.

‘How long are you staying dad?’

‘Oh I don’t know.’

There was an argument, and he stormed off.

Two days later he left a series of bizarre, drunken, semi-threatening phone messages beginning at 4am. I’d suffered his outbursts and rudeness before, but now with a newborn in the house my priorities were different, and my fuse for his drama was short. He used to phone me at stupid times – 1am, 2am, whenever he felt like it. He would always start with ‘Hey’ and I dreaded the rest to follow because he was drunk, and I’d have to listen the same old schtick.

Occasionally he’d remind me that when he died, I’d get a whopping life insurance cheque, all his stuff, everything he was working toward – ‘I’m building an empire!’ When I was a kid that was morbidly exciting. Imagine one day your old man is gone, and then you’re rich. But I wasn’t a kid anymore, and eventually I concluded this was all unhealthy. Why would someone feel the need to be supportive when they’re dead? Why can’t they do that in life?’

Some of these late night, inconvenient ramblings ended with my attempts at politeness failing, and I yelled at him, telling him not to call me whenever he felt like it. My ‘piss and vinegar’ made him laugh, it was his theatre. When he left those bizarre messages in May 2007, my role as dutiful son was stressed to breaking. This was the end of an era.

After a day of being really angry, wondering what the hell I was going to do about him, I called him up, and it went to voicemail. I can’t remember the whole of my message, but it ended with ‘Get some help!’

I didn’t hear back from him.

A year later our young family moved back to Ireland. I didn’t tell my dad we were going.

Years of radio silence followed.

Eventually I figured neither of us was getting any younger. I started writing to him, and he wrote back. He was living in Seguin, just outside a town called Parry Sound. (In Canadian parlance, Parry rhymes with scary.)

In 2016 I was touring with Bloc Party, and the schedule showed a day off in Toronto. I bit the bullet and arranged to meet with my dad (along with my aunt) on 28 May. I was so anxious I thought I would be sick. I’m glad my aunt was there. We were each other’s buffer zone.

When I saw him, it was eye opening. He was far too frail for someone approaching his 64th birthday. We hugged and he made a half-hearted apology for his past behaviour.

My dad always seemed to revel in the fact that he was a father, with a son, like he was some sort of lion king. He was one of three kids, the only to have a child of his own, and I was his only child. I think he had an inflated sense of accomplishment, keeping the family name alive. As a dad, his quality has been debated through the years, but I believe the jury is unanimous on one thing: he was never husband material.

He and my mum split up when I was around six months old. I remember seeing a document stating their separation began on July 22, 1973 – my father’s 22nd birthday. I can only speculate, but knowing how my dad liked to celebrate, I think he partied a little too hard on that day, and mum had to do something. And just so you know, she was far from a prude.

One story goes that when I was an infant, the three of us lived across the street from a park in Montreal. My dad would go out and sit on a bench and play guitar, leaving me alone in the house. It was to be a running theme. I remember when I was around 8, sitting with him on a park bench in Toronto, him playing and singing to everyone walking by. No empty coffee cup, no open guitar case, he wasn’t busking, he just liked to share his songs.

In 2016 I’m seeing my frail father standing before me. He had an overnight bag with him, and a guitar in a case. I wasn’t sure which guitar, maybe the Epiphone Granada. I asked him where he was staying and he said he didn’t know. (There was no way I was having him stay with me in my hotel room.) He said he would sleep on a park bench, or rock up to some shitty motel on Gerard Street, or whatever. That’s fine if you’re a strapping lad, but not when you have difficulty walking a city block, stopping every few yards for gulps of air.

We jumped in a taxi and stopped outside an Italian restaurant on Queen Street, near Spadina Avenue. We had dinner, and he was quieter than I remember, thankfully. Through Alcoholics Anonymous he had learnt to restrain himself from interrupting people. Still, I’m not sure he was really listening. He didn’t ask about his grandkids, and he certainly didn’t ask about Elaine. She was the devil. Which makes the date mildly interesting. This was the day after our wedding anniversary.

We parted ways outside the restaurant. It was a warm sunny evening, and in true dramatic fashion, he sauntered off into the sunset.

My father the homeless guy.

It was tough to let him wander away with no plan. He said not to worry about him, he’d find a bar, pull out his guitar, make new friends, and crash on a couch.

It took me years to learn that it was okay to step back and remind myself he was the adult, and I was the child. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do.

As he strolled away, guitar and wheely-case trundling onto Spadina Avenue, my aunt turned to me–

‘Well I suppose the next time I see him it’ll be in a pine box.’

To the uninitiated, that sounds pretty cold, but she was sad saying it. And as it turns out, that was the last time I saw him. The next time, he would be a bag of dust.

Over the next 15 months we exchanged letters, and talked on the phone a few times. A month or two before he died, a friend of his got in touch to say that my dad was doing really poorly. My mother had died less than a year prior, and I was a little numb to this end-of-life stuff. It was a tough choice, deciding I wouldn’t visit him. Many years ago he wrote to tell me he was dying, and that came to nothing. He was always a bit liberal with the truth, and now I just didn’t know what to think or believe. You can’t do anything for him said the repeating voice in my head.

I remember back in the 1980s, he had lots of friends, and a social life. I met tons of musicians, listened to their songs, my eyes stinging in smoky bars, ears pounded by live drums. When I think back now I love it. I got to play with mixing desks, and the very first time I heard someone strum an electric guitar – which wasn’t plugged in – has always stuck with me. The metallic peal of a solid-body electric was fascinating. It didn’t sound like those other guitars everyone played, some big thing with a round hole in it. This was something magical. To this day I prefer electric guitars, but all well-made guitars have a beauty to them, and my dad’s little collection was special.

In the 80s, I don’t think anyone in my dad’s circle ever gave any thought to mental health. I watched opinionated and brash musicians argue all the time. Back then if someone thought you were an asshole, they called you an asshole, and they steered clear of you. We see things a little differently now. With hindsight, I believe my father’s mental health had been deteriorating for decades. If he and his friends had the sense and tools to look after his mind, I think he would’ve lived a happier life, and still be around today.

He was a carpenter by trade, and his handiwork is all over the place, especially around Parry Sound, where he preferred living over Toronto (Hogtown, aka the big smoke). When my grandparents died, he came into some money, and bought a plot of land in Seguin. It was essentially a little patch of forest on a dirt road. Trucks and machines came to clear it, and he started building his own house. It was his dream, but it never got finished. He even had to pull down what he built, and start again. The second attempt also halted. For many years he lived on a building site in a caravan. No electricity, heat, or running water. It contributed to further health decline.

However, for a few years he did start taking care of himself. He moved off his property and lived in Dunchurch Ontario. I don’t know much about the place, but from what I can glean, he lived an almost normal, small-town life. I would learn later that he was doing well there. Happy even. He really wanted to start a band. He had lost his drivers licence, and living in a town must have been easier than out in the country.

For some reason – maybe he knew his time was up – he moved back to his building site. He got in trouble with the law often. He had to rely on favours to get around, learning through necessity and experience that an ambulance was cheaper than a taxi. He ran out of money, borrowed here and there, and when he got a disability allowance from the government, he paid off his debts.

A couple of weeks before he died, we spoke on the phone. He told me he loved me, and I said I loved him too. That was the last I talked to him. I figured he wasn’t well, and the inevitable was coming. What else can I say? We were apart for so many years.

He died on August 12, 2017. One year – to the very day – after my mum. Somehow he managed to upstage her anniversary. I was on tour with Ash, and we had pulled up to the venue in Linlithgow. I was expecting the news. I would have been fine with a text, but Dylan couldn’t tell me like that.

So who’s Dylan?

We’ll have to rewind.

Dylan isn’t his real name. Anyway he was like a second son to my dad. I first met Dylan when he was a baby. His dad Jason (not his real name either) and my dad were good friends.

Jason killed himself. Or that’s how my dad put it–

‘He locked himself in a room and drank himself to death.’

According to my father, Jason was a volunteer fireman, and witnessed a woman burning to death in a car fire. The screams haunted him. When Jason died, even though Dylan was old enough to be his own man, my father sort of took him under his wing – in a way that only my father could. Dylan bailed him out of jail more than a few times, but they remained close to the end.

In that final phone conversation I had with my dad, he told me he wanted Dylan to have his land. No problem from me. What was I going to do with it? All I wanted was a few guitars.

So I’m on tour with Ash, and I’m standing outside the venue in Linlithgow on a beautiful warm day. Over the phone, Dylan confirms what I was expecting, that my old man was gone. I had only been away from home a few days, the tour was young, and I was determined to finish it. There was nothing I could do for my father, and I’d need the money for a plane ticket to go over and deal with a few things. I’m pretty sure that’s how my dad would play it. He was a workaholic. Nothing got in the way of work. In the meantime I arranged his cremation over the phone. It amazes me how easy that was. Everything else could wait.

Obviously I was upset. The old bugger was gone. But we had spent so much time apart in our lives. His death didn’t affect me like my mother’s. Maybe I was hardened to it. Or maybe dying a year to the day after mum was just comical.

A month later, Elaine and I flew to Canada. We stayed with very generous friends just outside Parry Sound, and made their house our base for a few days. It was a ten-minute drive to my dad’s place. We were told to brace ourselves.

It was like a bomb site, or the set of a serial killer movie. If mental illness had a decor, this was it. A big messy plot of land strewn with rubbish, engine parts, a truck with keys in the ignition, a crushed old caravan he used to live in, and his most recent caravan looked like someone had used it for tank target practice. A bear (yes, a real bear) had got into the caravan and trashed it, and when I showed someone a photo, they said–

‘It looked like that before the bear got in.’

It was an unsettling experience. I always knew my father was a little unconventional, but to me, this was how truly disturbed people lived.

During the dark time when we didn’t speak, I had heard through back channels that he checked himself into a mental health facility. Possibly more than once, and possibly against his will. When we met in Toronto he told me a story:

He was locked up in Penetanguishene. Actually, that’s the name of the town, but the psychiatric hospital there is called Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. Think of it like Holywell or Carstairs. Anyway, according to my dad’s story, he had inadvertently foiled an ‘OxyContin ring’, an illegal network for patients/inmates to procure the drug. He informed a ‘whiteshirt’ that he feared for his life. He told me ‘the Russians’ controlled this mini-cartel, and now they were after him. In Toronto he didn’t want to use his credit card because any transactions would lead them to him.

Amazing story.

Except… after he died, while looking through his papers, I came across his criminal record, and one particular thing stood out: he was barred from Toronto. He had made some sinister threats to a girlfriend of an old friend of his, a guy with a few mental health issues of his own. The judge ruled that my dad was to stay out of the city.

My father the outlaw.

It was a little mind-blowing, in a sad way.

So here I am picking my way through a caravan that looked like it had suffered an earthquake. I find a guitar case. Empty. Sigh.

On the day we scattered my father’s ashes, we held a low-key funeral, with a dozen or so guests invited to the base.

My uncle Don brought a guitar with him, one he found in the caravan a few weeks prior. It was the Epiphone Granada. I knew my dad also had a similar Gibson, an ES120T. And an ES175, which I wanted most.

After we scattered the ashes, we shared stories of my dad, and the conversation turned to his stuff. Dylan was supposed to get the land and everything on it (so much crap to be hauled away, bulldozed and crushed) and he could do whatever he wanted with it. I just wanted a few guitars. Rumour said that one friend of my dad’s had the ES120T. I phoned him up, and he gladly brought it over.

Now if I could just get my hands on the ES175, that would be great. While standing around the food (hey, it’s a funeral) I chatted with my dad’s long-time friend Steve, and he said–

‘What about Harvey?’

‘Huh?’

I had forgotten all about the Martin. My dad named it Harvey for some reason. Yeah, where the hell was Harvey?

By the time our Canadian trip came to an end, Elaine and I brought home the Granada and the ES120T, but no ES175 or Harvey. Carrying the guitars as hand luggage, we all made it back to Larne in one piece.

A couple of days later, Dylan texted me – he found Harvey.

Turns out one of the people my father had owed money was a taxi driver, who, instead of a cash repayment, got a Martin guitar. Dylan found the driver (Parry Sound isn’t very big) and paid him a couple of hundred bucks for it. The guitar is worth way more than that.

Now that Harvey was safe, the challenge was getting the guitar home to me. I phoned UPS Store #276 in Bracebridge. The guy told me it could cost as much as a thousand bucks to ship this guitar across the Atlantic. (Carriage, insurance, taxes, etc.)

Sigh. That’s just too much.

Ah well, what was I going to do with Harvey anyway? I prefer electrics. Maybe I’d be in Canada again some time. I could rent a car, drive to Parry Sound, visit friends, and fly home with Harvey. It can wait.

Some time later I was heading into work, in Belfast, to my guitar repair workshop. It’s inside the Oh Yeah Music Centre, and almost every morning I stop for a chat with its Arts and Older People Manager Paul Kane. Along with several other music-related projects, Paul heads a collective called Over the Hill, which aims to get older people involved in music. On this day, Paul told me that Over the Hill had teamed up with Help Musicians NI (formerly Musicians Benevolent Fund, formed in 1921). They see mental health as one of the most important issues facing people in the music industry.

Paul then said he was looking at getting a really good guitar for the collective. The idea was to give Over the Hill members a chance to play something really special. Something that surpasses Ibanez, Takamine, Gibson etc. Paul said he had his eye on a Martin in a US guitar shop. The problem? The cost of course. Shipping, export hassles, all the rest.

So here’s me standing there. I’m not getting any younger myself. I’ve seen what Over the Hill do, and it benefits mature people who might feel like music is only a young person’s game.

I also know what it is to work in the music industry and suffer mental health issues. I’ve had my own fights with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, all that stuff. My father had tried to commit suicide, struggled with depression, alcoholism, was diagnosed bipolar, and had lost so many friends through the years by simply not recognising his own weaknesses.

So when Paul told me about the partnership, it really spoke to me. And guess what? Guess who owns a Martin guitar, and can’t think of what to do with it? And guess whose birthday is August 12, the same day my mum and dad died? Paul.

The stars had aligned. This guitar with a stupid name had a new purpose.

So let’s do this. I’m a roadie, I know how stuff works.

I immediately posted on Facebook, asking if any of my Ontario friends were coming to the UK or Ireland in the near future. I got two hits. The first was from Hilda. She knew my mum when they were teenagers. They hitchhiked across Canada, out west, to Vancouver, where my mum and dad first met. Hilda was coming to Dublin and Belfast, and we could meet up on July 22 – my father’s birthday.

The second hit was from Dave. He and I worked together with Leonard Cohen. Dave has also worked for Status Quo, and King Crimson to name but a couple of heavy hitters. Dave lives in Cliftonville in Kent, and sent me a simple message–

‘Russ is coming over in April to do some King Crimson rehearsals.’

So who’s Russ?

He did monitors for Leonard Cohen, and has also worked with Norah Jones. Russ lives in Napanee Ontario, Avril Lavigne’s hometown.

I texted Dylan, asking if he could get Harvey to Napanee. No problem. He posted it. Yep, Canada Post. A few days before Russ was due to fly to England, the guitar arrived with him.

Stage one complete.

I made sure to warn Russ–

‘You might want to check the inside of the guitar, and throughout the case. God knows what my dad could’ve stashed in there.’ (Stash being the operative word.)

Russ had to pay an exorbitant excess luggage charge, but it was still much less than the UPS method was going to cost.

Stage two done.

The next bit was trickier. I had never shipped a single guitar on its own. Normally when touring, you ship literal tons of gear though freight agents who know how to handle musical equipment. But I’m just one guy, and this is just one guitar. Russ got it to Bedford, and that was as far as he could take it. The rest was up to me and I needed the help of strangers. Someone had to lift Harvey, stick him in a van, and get him to me in Belfast.

I phoned Russ’ hotel, and told them what I wanted to do. They said DHL come there all the time. So I phoned DHL and the woman probably thought I was an idiot. It must be hard for them to understand there are people like me, nervous at the idea of shipping something somewhere. She directed me to a third party website, and that’s when the experience went into full-on stranger mode. Trusting this was all going to work, I filled in the details with rough dimensions and weight, hoping I’d got it right.

I was amazed at the price. Under £40. That included collection in Bedford, carriage, £1,000 insurance, and delivery to Belfast.

The next challenge was the shipping label. Modern technology is amazing. All I have to do is print a label and tape it to the guitar case… but I don’t have the guitar.

Back on the phone with the hotel–

‘Can I email you this shipping label?’

‘Yes, sure.’

I emailed them. I didn’t hear back. That’s okay, I had a couple of days’ leeway. So I call them a couple of days later–

‘Did you get my email?’

‘Yes we did. As you asked, we’ve stuck one copy of the shipping label to the case, and left another inside the case for good measure.’

Legends.

I’m annoyingly thorough, but one thing I’ve learnt over the years is you can never be too careful when trusting third parties to handle your precious things.

Harvey was in the hands of the rock gods and all I could do was wait. It had been thirty-odd years since I’d seen him, and I had no idea what condition he was in. Dylan had sent me a picture from his phone, but that’s not the same as real life.

Monday: through the magic of online tracking, I saw the guitar had been picked up from the hotel.

Tuesday: I’m supposed to get the guitar today, but they’ve pushed the delivery back an extra day.

Wednesday: Your item is out for delivery.

Toward the end of the day, I thought delivery would be pushed back again. Just as I was getting ready to leave the workshop, I heard the elevator door open. I craned my neck for a look out my door, and saw a Belfast bloke carrying Harvey.

I cracked open the case, and I could smell my grandparents’ house. I pulled the guitar out. Aside from ancient strings and a missing pickguard, it was in great condition. A few nicks and scrapes, but that’s life. The soundboard was nice and flat, all the hardware was original, with only light wear on the frets. The guitar even had a little set list taped to the side, in my father’s messy scrawl. Harvey had made it, alive and well, ready for a new life in Belfast.

IMG_0108
Harvey in Belfast, 2018

I thought I’d be tempted to rescind my offer to Over the Hill and Help Musicians NI. After all, this is now a family heirloom. I could become like Gollum and covet the precious, but no. Like Pete Townshend said, a guitar is for playing. If it brings someone joy to strum a 1970s Martin D-28 with a stupid name, then that’s Harvey’s purpose.

Harvey could’ve lived out the rest of his days in some taxi driver’s house collecting dust, but I think he has is a higher purpose. The story of my father’s struggle with the ravages of time and mental illness is embodied in this guitar, preserved remarkably well for all its travels.

There’s just one more thing to mention. Harvey arrived with me on April 25, 2018. My mum’s birthday. My dad upstaged her again.

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8 Comments

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  1. Gary Ferguson May 14, 2018 — 1:00 pm

    Beautiful piece. Brutally honest and deeply moving.

  2. Such a moving story. I’m amazed we have never met…. maybe we have? I’ve been around the music scene a long time. Ive been down to Ooh yeah a dew times and know paul. I’m going to call down and pay my respects to Harvey.

  3. Aww Leif, I smiled and I cried. Beautifully written. Memories good and bad. The road that was travelled to make you the man you are.

  4. Very moving piece, Harvey is going to get some real good lovin, looking forward to playing it

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