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Tales from the Chief: Making music -- and memories

Not long before my dad left his multi-yurt home in upstate New York earlier this month for Worthington, he announced his plans to bring what amounted to a full recording studio with him.

Well, good, I thought. My dad, now retired, has a master’s degree in music composition, and I was happy he’d be spending some time working on some sort of new piece during the extended visit to our place that he’d planned. Little did I guess, though, that his next piece would involve my entire family.

Dad arrived in Worthington on Jan. 9, and by then he’d already told me what his basic proposal was — record a song with Grace, Zach and I performing as well as my brother, Ian (who was here Jan. 10-13). It wasn’t long before a decision was made on what tune we’d cover — The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Dad figured he could create a simple arrangement for more novice-level musicians (Grace, Zach and I) and, well, since my mom’s name is Jude, the choice certainly seemed more than appropriate. Little did the rest of us know quite what we were in store for, however.

On the Saturday and Sunday of Ian’s visit, a lot of the groundwork was laid, but even at this point I could sense that Dad wasn’t exactly going the kind of producer who wanted a half-hearted product. Ian, who has played professionally over the years, did his work (some piano and an electric bass fill) quickly, Dad played some accordion (I mean, WHO brings an accordion on vacation?!), Grace contributed a drum track with a strong and steady beat, Zach played a simple yet very effective bass line and I … attempted to channel my inner Paul McCartney as lead singer. One might think that replicating the vocals on a song I’ve heard probably thousands of times would be simple, but either “Hey Jude” is deceptively difficult vocally or I’m just a fairly lame singer. (The real answer is probably somewhere in the mysterious middle.)

It’s easy, of course, to be your own worst critic, but upon listening to the final product on Monday, I sound a tad flat and a bit uneven throughout the whole dang thing. And, of course, there’s a moment in the piece that I sound like a 13-year-old boy — my voice audibly cracks as if I’ve hit puberty nearly 40 years too late. So much for my initial notion of Dad being a perfectionist, though. Every time I brought up that flub, he responded with something akin to an “oh well.” I eventually learned that for Dad, it was not so much about the performances being perfect; it was all about the most ideal blending of what ultimately became 20 tracks of music.

The busy-ness of life got in the way of further recording sessions after that first weekend, but last week finally brought additional touches. Dad, Grace and I added background vocals, and so did an initially reticent Zach (with a promise from me in return that I had to play Super Smash Bros. on his Nintendo Switch with him). Even Bec got in the act; I imagine there will be as-yet-unknown something (or things) I’ll need to do in return. I also contributed a couple of tracks of acoustic guitar, and more vocals (the build-up of the “better, better, better, better, better, better, AH!!” could be, well, better, but we were tired at that point). After all that was done — this past Saturday night, around 11 p.m. or so — Dad spent more time at his mixing board/computer. Shortly after midnight, the final cut had been loaded into Dropbox.   

Dad hit the road back to New York on Monday morning, hoping to keep at least a day ahead of the thermometer’s nosedive into true tundra territory. He took all his recording equipment (and the accordion) with him, but he left something we’ll always remember for us … an imperfect musical masterpiece of sorts. Plus, since my mom has often joked that “Hey Jude” was written “for me,” I’m sure she’ll get some enjoyment out of our 2019 version. Plus, as she continues to face occasional struggles as she adjusts to her new life at Ecumen Meadows, I’d like to think our little tune could offer a few simple words of solace: “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better.

The last few days, all in all, couldn’t have been much better.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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