A zillion years ago one of my bands got to do something really special and be the headlining band at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro. Never mind that there were maybe 50 people in a club that holds a thousand, we were playing a real club that real musicians love to play. My older brother was our entire crew. Six or seven songs into the show, he left backstage to go get a drink, when he heard the noise you never want to hear when a band is onstage – the high string on my guitar had snapped, in the middle of the song. He’s played guitar even longer and way better than I ever have, so he knew what it meant. He raced backstage, grabbed my backup guitar, tuned it up and had it ready to go at the end of the song.
It was a two minute long song, my string snapped halfway through, he wasn’t even backstage when it happened, and yet he was still right there when I needed his help. That’s my big bro for you.
My brother is a private person, so I won’t go into too much detail about him (it took me a while to even find a photo of the two of us that isn’t from, like, a wedding) but let’s just say that the things that you might know me for started with him. I started doing radio shows at my high school because he’d done radio shows there; I used to tape his broadcasts from home. I first got interested in history and geography after reading some of his schoolbooks on the American Revolution and the Lincoln assassination. And there was the guitar, of course. The very first tape recording I ever made, at age five, includes the two of us doing a song together – him on slide guitar, me singing. We called ourselves The Electric Blues Brothers. On the tape I introduce him as “the best blues guitarist in the world,” which he immediately denies. So I try again: “He may be the second best.”
I should point out here that when I was five, he was eleven – and not every eleven year old wants to have a five year old shadow following them around the house while they’re doing cool eleven year old things. And yet, I don’t think he ever once excluded me from his cool eleven year old things. If anything, he made a point of including me in his world, or including himself in mine. He was on the safety patrol for my kindergarten class, an assistant coach on my t-ball team, the person who took me out for driving practice after I got my learner’s permit. Usually we went record shopping. “Have you ever been to Crow’s Nest?” he asked one time as we buckled in. I had not, because that massive record store was 40 minutes away, and it was on the highway and I had only started driving a few weeks before. “Well, then let’s go,” he said, and when your driving teacher says go, you go. It was excellent. So I should also add “road trips” to the list of things he’s introduced me to.
That list, by the way, is endless. He’s a reader, like everybody in my family, and so when we’d stay up late, flipping through channels, playing guitars or digging through his enormous record collection, he’d make mention of some weird fact about what we were watching, or a guitar tuning I didn’t know, or band I’d never heard of, and I’d say “what’s that?” “You haven’t heard that?” he’d say, and then I’d get the whole backstory right then and there. It wasn’t just that he loved the knowledge, he loved sharing the knowledge, which definitely rubbed off on me because giving out the backstory on things people might not have heard about before is pretty much my entire podcast.
When you spend that much time with somebody else, you learn to communicate beyond just regular words. The other person gives you a look, or a nod, and you’re right there with them. One time the two of us were the accompanists at the family Christmas Eve party, playing “Frosty” and “Rudolph” and “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and then he turned to me and said, “The band has to play one for themselves.” Without saying a word, we both launched into the Big Star song “Jesus Christ,” which is technically a Christmas song but well off the radar for most family functions. (Years later, at a different Christmas Eve party my brother couldn’t make, I invoked his spirit when my uncle and I veered away from the holiday songs to play “I’m Waiting for the Man” by the Velvet Underground.) Another time, at a family funeral, he must’ve known I was having an extra hard time, cause he came over and, with perfect timing, whispered a line Homer Simpson had said at a similarly glum moment: “I thought this thing was gonna be catered.” Some people just know the right words to say at these moments.
Even now, when we can’t get together, one of us will text the other some goofy line from an offbeat show or song we both love, no context included because we already know the context. It always makes the day better. And someday we’ll get together and pick back up in person where we left off. We’ve been doing that a long time, after all.