My biggest influence caught me by surprise

When I’m a little kid I just want to tell funny stories like my Uncle Andy. He’s the one in the middle of the picture — below my mom and above Aunt Mika — with his tongue out.

You know someone like him. The whole space brightens when he walks in the room and everybody laughs before he leaves, whatever the situation.

Eighteen years ago at the wake for his mom, my Baba, we’re all shell shocked, the room is silent. Baba was a force of nature, a crazy, super-talented artist — emphasis on crazy — and an academic with a work ethic no one should try to live up to (I won’t bore you with the details of the 11-volume encyclopedic history of Ukrainian music she assembled). So much talent, so much ability. And wonderfully incompetent in the role of doting mother and grandmother.

But she tried hard.

Andy breaks the silence at her wake by saying, “When I quit drinking, Ma comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve been talking to Mika and she explained how important this is for you, and I want to help. So I’m going to quit drinking too.’ But Ma, I says. You don’t drink. And she says, ‘I was going to quit coffee, but that would be too difficult.’”

Andy brought Baba back into the room for me. For all of us, because we all had a story like that about her, and somewhere under the sadness we understood that she’d always be with us. Laughter heals. Andy never said that but he knew it to his core.

The day Andy dies, about a month ago, my cousin Alana and I are sitting at the kitchen table in the Toronto house where my grandparents lived, having tea and talking. This is what my family does. My Baba and Dido sat at this table having tea and talking. My mom, Alana’s mom (my Aunt Mika), and our Uncle Andy sat around this table having tea and talking. We’ve seen this our whole lives and now it’s our turn.

Sitting there with Alana, I have a revelation but don’t want to say it out loud because it feels a little self-centered. Then she says it so I don’t have to: “You and Andy have a lot in common.”

How is it just occurring to me that my Uncle Andy is my biggest influence?

I write my first song because of Andy. This is in Atlanta where my parents live. Andy’s at Oglethorpe University, I’m four, my sister Krissi’s an infant. Andy’s babysitting us. I’ve got the kitchen sink full to the top with water, soap bubbles, and my boat collection, and I’m flooding every corner of the room. Krissi is busy flooding also — diaper after diaper after diaper.

Sorry Krissi.

When my mom calls to check on us, Andy says, “Well, Dean wants to join the Navy, and this kid keeps shitting and shitting and shitting.”

At which point, Andy hears four-year-old Dean in the kitchen start singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” and keep singing it til the parents get home.

I still think it’s the best song I’ve ever written, and it’s got Andy all over it.

Maybe two or three years later, I discover the stereo in the dining room at my grandparents’ house. You remember those old stereo cabinets? Big wooden furniture, you slide the door to the right, you’ve got a stereo, to the left, the record collection? Andy’s record collection. 

I’m sitting at the dining room table, headphones on, stack of records in front of me, and Andy starts sorting through what I’ve missed. He hands me Taj Mahal’s Live at Fillmore East record, The Real Thing.

“You gotta listen to this one,” he says. “He’s got four tubas in his band.”

Now, six-year-old Dean is thinking the exact same thing you are: “Does anybody need to hear a band with four tubas?”

But if six year olds are experts at anything, it’s at tuning in to people’s energy, and you can’t look away from the electricity coming off Andy when he talks about music. There was no one I trusted more, and the music he played for me was raw and real and human, the type of music that heals in that same way laughter can.

To this day I still listen to The Real Thing. It’s that good. And he kept putting blues records in front of me, and then country, and then jazz. But it’s only now that I hear that early music in every song I write and perform. It’s now that I look back and understand he made that music so much a part of me that when I moved to New York City to go to college, I got cast as the blues singing plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

When I’m nine Andy catches me on the floor of his room reading through his collection of National Lampoons. “Kid, why you keep going through my stuff?” he says, but he can’t stop himself from showing me more, and it’s the same excitement he brings to music.

He hands me the Blues Brothers album Briefcase Full of Blues, and when he’s not explaining who’s in the band and where else I’ve heard them, he’s telling me about Saturday Night Live, and oh, you gotta listen to this Steve Martin record.

Nine-year-old Dean takes all that back to Atlanta and everywhere he goes. I write my first sketch comedy, a live bowling tournament broadcast by Howard Cosell where last year’s champion has a bout of diarrhea that drowns an entire city, performed into my dad’s Dictaphone. Okay that last part was stupid. Dad grounds me and I don’t get to go to Six Flags.

But that doesn’t stop Dean from taking his new love for comedy to fourth grade, which lands him in detention until he graduates from high school. In that time, Dean will only manage three days without some sort of detention or KP duty. 

All thanks to my Uncle Andy.

But within a year of graduating college, I land my first regular humor column in an international magazine, go on to write for publications on five continents, and when I stop doing that, I realize that my ability to write a punch line could pay a lot of bills in advertising.

And in the past two years, I toured a comedy and music show around the US and UK, all that time telling funny stories like my Uncle Andy, playing music that grew out of what he played for me. But I didn’t understand that’s what I was doing.

All those years ago when my dad grounded me for being silly, I understood why. He wanted what was best for me. And thank God my Uncle Andy was there to remind me, “No. This is the good stuff.”

He was always teaching me, always supporting my interests, especially when I worked for him for two summers in his general contracting business. Andy taught me how to build and fix things. One day we’re working on my grandparents’ cottage, screening in the front porch so Baba can get some peace from the mosquitoes, and he’s showing me how to cut molding. You want them just right, so they fit tightly in place and stay there without nails or screws.

“If you’re gonna bother to do something,” he says, “you do it right.”

I hear him say that every time I work on my house, and sometimes I’d call him for help, although I try not to call too often because I don’t want to be that relative. But when Alana and I are sitting at the table at my grandparents’ old house, my Aunt Mika says, “Andy would tell me every time you called. It really meant a lot to him.”

I wish I’d known that. I have so many more things I need to fix.

But he took care of that too, by showing me that the people you love don’t really leave. They’re still in the room, and every time I pick up a tool, or sit at my desk to write my next project, I can hear Andy’s voice and the whole space brightens.

“Let’s do this right.”


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