Auckland, New Zealand, early 1970s
Western Springs College, Auckland 2012
I’m in the back seat of our car with my brother. No-one has a safety-belt on, not even my parents who are in the front seat. The windows are down and my hair blows in my face. The radio is off because my father only listens to one kind of music. Jazz. Not the arty, sophisticated kind – the schmaltzy ‘lounge’ kind. Finger-snapping Rat Packers like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra; men who ran the world, hung with the mob and sang syrupy love songs which treated women like idiot children : Don’t you know little fool, you never can win …
Other cars on the road are going fast, but my father overtakes them all, as though driving is a race and he is going to win. When the car corners, my brother and I slide around on the seat and bang into each other. My mother grips the dashboard. Her knuckles are white, but she says nothing. We all know if she asks him to slow down, he will speed up. Everyone stares at the road and the silence is like a headache.
I’m not wondering where we are going or what will happen when we get there, I’m thinking about how much I hate being in a car with my father. Even the thought of getting into a car with him makes me feel sick. I feel the same way when I hear jazz.
I never knew my father when he played drums in a jazz combo – that was another lifetime, another country. He refugeed Hungary when the Russians arrived with their tanks to crush the uprising in 1956.
He packed one suitcase and escaped with a group of friends, breaking ice to swim across rivers, being shot at. Not all of them made it. He found his way to Italy where his suitcase was stolen as he waited to board a ship to Australia. He arrived in Sydney with nothing but the clothes on his back.
I have no idea what musical ambitions my father harboured when the revolution rudely disrupted his life – he never talked about things like that. When he died in 2000 we found his original brushes and harmonica collection inside a box, high on a wardrobe shelf. He had kept them there all those years.
There was a lot about my father I didn’t know and didn’t understand, but one thing I’ve always been sure of, was that he was angry. About everything. Sometimes he was angry about nothing – at least nothing we could fathom. Obviously he wasn’t angry and violent all the time, it just felt that way. Looking back, the constant possibility of danger was probably worse than the actual violence itself. It meant existing in a suspended state of anxiety and involved a lot of shutting down, trying to stay unnoticed. I learned to read every fluctuation in his mood.
My son was born in 1996 and we gave him a Hungarian name; he just looked like a László. Though my father only met his grandson a handful of times before he died, we saw mysterious affinities begin to emerge. When László started talking, he had an Eastern European acccent. Like some quirky cultural throwback, it was almost identical to my father’s gruff, broken English.
As a pre-schooler, László seemed preoccupied with music. I once found him listening to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and when I asked if he liked it, he said: “Yes, but what is God given ass?” At eight he got the guitar he’d been asking for and I don’t think he put it down for three months. He walked around the house with it as though it was a part of him. I showed him a few chords, the rest he worked out for himself by listening to music and back-engineering what he heard. Over the years, László found his way around drums, piano and bass in a similar fashion. He could hear a song, pick up an instrument and play it, in the same way that my father could.
When László was sitting NCEA Music at Western Springs College in 2012, there was a live performance requirement for the course. Though I didn’t know the song he chose, I became familiar with a muffled version of it through his closed bedroom door as he practised over and over for the next few weeks.
One drizzly winter evening, I sat in a high school music room packed with parents to wonder at the full musical gamut of our offspring. There were garage band thrashings, recorder solos and far too many Adele covers.
Then László sat down with his guitar and played He Doesn’t Know Why by Fleet Foxes. The simple, folky madrigal I’d heard from a distance was transformed up-close into something mysterious and powerful; a shimmering little hymn of love and pain. It was about separation, loss and things that are difficult to understand or change within a family: Memory is a fickle siren song, I didn’t understand.
And it came to me then, that the connection I’d never had with my father, I could actually have now, through my son. Inheritances run in families like a seam through generations; swallowed hopes and ambitions which sometimes find their full expression decades later. Music had been such a pent-up force in my father – angry, neglected and bent out of shape. In László it had found a pure, openhearted voice. And there I was, listening to it.
When he finished, there were a few moments of unexpected silence before the applause. I noticed László’s classmates looking surprised; some came up to talk to him, slapping him on the back. His teacher sought me out. She was laughing and shaking her head in disbelief – “Did you know he could sing like that?” she asked. I shrugged and laughed too, not yet fully trusting myself to speak. When I found László zipping his guitar into its case, he seemed keen to leave, embarrassed by all the attention. I asked how he thought it went and he said, “Okay, I think. I hope I pass.”
László passed NCEA music with Excellence and won the Music Prize that year.