by kate siobhan
a short memoir on growing up with my father, a DJ, a VJ and a canadian icon.
|“‘I got into broadcasting when I was a Mountie on a stakeout watching a whorehouse’ says Terry David Mulligan, with a perfectly straight face … ‘while I was watching hookers, I got hooked on music’”
- The Sunday Times, September 5th, 1976
Despite the fact that my father was a music icon, I was an extravagantly geeky child, and this bewildered everyone. The offspring of a musical guru and Ms. Burnaby 1967 should not strut around in vests with pictures of cats on them or have such awkwardly big ears. The term “mulligan” means a second chance, which is suitable, if not ironic, for a Mountie who turned into a legendary Canadian DJ of the 60’s and 70’s, and the first Canadian VJ of the 80’s and 90’s. The term would one day become suitable for me, as my father was determined not to let my nerdiness ruin a musical inheritance that should rightfully be mine.
My parents lived in posh West Vancouver, determined to raise their four children next to the ocean. Because I was the baby girl, I was invisible to my brothers. So I was left to explore on my own. I usually chose to excavate my father’s office. In the five houses we inhabited, each office was essentially the same: wood floors, bright windows, CD’s in no order piled high above my head, autographs and photos strewn about, and his computer and recording equipment in the middle of it all. Every CD known to man was piled into there. Later, my brothers would secretly pawn hundreds of CD’s at a time for beer money. I would examine CD covers until bedtime but it was a different language to me: why is David Bowie wearing make-up? And why is Stevie Nicks a girl? What’s a Sex Pistol?
Regardless of my lack of musical intellect, my father hired me to work in his home office. My job was to sort every CD known to man into alphabetical order, for $5 an hour. During these long, seemingly endless days, I learned the names of many bands that I wouldn’t listen to for another decade. My father would drink wine and tinker on his computer, occasionally messing my hair and telling me that The Rolling Stones goes under R, not T. I would smile my cross-bite smile, squint at him through my eyeglasses, and appreciate the attention.
My father loved me through these awkward and spandex-ridden years. He dreamt music, he thought music, he spoke Music; but he found a way to love me through my foreign language of Dork. We also had mastered comfortable silences, sitting quietly in our car, while other people would pull up and yell “TDM!” through their window. Occasionally homeless people would come squeegee our windshield and then ask for an autograph. Sometimes my dad would flip on the radio, get me to snap along to the rhythm of some bluesy number, and then turn it off for thirty seconds. If I was still on beat when he turned it back on, I got spoiled rotten.
“Spoiled Rotten” was what my father said to lure me into doing pretty much anything. I spent most of my late childhood backstage, my nose stuck in the latest Goosebumps book, waiting for the spoiling to begin. My father would tote me in like a suitcase and prop me up on an amp, and I would morph into a tiny fumbling secretary. I would write things down, hand things to people, and field phone calls. Occasionally he would use me as a desk: my back was the surface and my pockets were the drawers. But if I behaved, I would end up on TV, usually just standing to the side looking dorky in whatever vest I was wearing that day. Sometimes I would wave. Sometimes I would fall down. Sometimes I got to talk and say “Coming Up Next!” as excitedly as I could muster. All the time, I remained as uncool as possible.
It wasn’t until I was 12 that I learned to work a radio. And I fell in love with the first song that rattled my little ears. Unfortunately, it was “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” by the Backstreet Boys. It would be four long years until my heart stopped jumping at the thought of Brian Littrell’s dimples and soul-melting high notes. I’m pretty sure my father was ashamed to be seen with me during this time. But I’d finally fallen in love with music. Terrible music, but it was still music, and my father noted this. Although the music made him cringe, I had started to speak his language, and he nurtured that as best he could. And it worked, because not too much later, my musical tastes took a sharp turn.
It started in my grade nine drama class. The assignment was to perform a lip-synced song live to the school at lunchtime. My group picked “Paradise City” by Guns n’ Roses. I was chosen to be Axl Rose for my manly good looks and unusual comfort with being ridiculed. To learn all the words to the eight minute song, I had to listen to it every night for a month. The Backstreet Boys stared at my from my walls, looking slightly disappointed and very lonely. But by the time we preformed, I had become Axl Rose. Clad in a ripped up monster-truck shirt, a red bandana and tight short shorts, fake tattoos and a beard made of dark brown eye shadow, I took the stage with my group. I loved every second of it: from my mastering of the Axl-Dance, to high-fiving the audience, to the cheers and the laughter, I ate it up. The adrenaline of the song, the addictive chorus, the tingle in my ears afterward – I was hooked. When my father saw the video of the performance, he had never been so proud. Except, perhaps, that I was dressed as a man and seemed to be enjoying it.
So I abandoned BSB at the gates of GNR. Guns ‘n Roses took my adolescent hand and chucked me into the decade-old eighties hair band world, ruled by groups like Twisted Sister, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi. My whole style and attitude changed. I decorated myself with studded things. I got a piercing and a tattoo. I wore raver jeans so big they doubled as a sleeping bag. I said words like “man” and “dude” and “rock on”. My father took the cue, and led me even farther back in time. He would show me old videos of himself interviewing Jimi Hendrix, or photos of him drinking with Janis Joplin. He would leave CD’s of Led Zeppelin, The Clash, and The Doors on my pillow. He would call me into his office and make me sit on the floor and listen to vinyl records before dinner. At the table, he would quiz me about what I’d just listened to, before I was allowed desert. I was eating it up. Once I had an appetite for rock and roll, he carefully began to serve up sides of renowned musicians from other genres, like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, B.B. King, CCR, J. Giles, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Pink Floyd, Duke Ellington, and Bob Dylan. He was teaching me how to speak music.
My father was unrelenting about the whole ordeal. My brothers had settled into Rage Against the Machine, and my dad longed for a protégé to unpack his decades of experience in rock, blues and jazz. Being the youngest daughter, I was an unlikely candidate, but the venture promised much spoiling. So I began stow away in his office and make my own mix tapes and radio shows. I taught myself to use the soundboard, and I had an endless supply of CD’s to rummage through for material. Back then, it only recorded to tape cassettes, so I ditched my CD player and went retro. My mixed tapes were a hit at school. I was becoming my father’s daughter.
Soon my 80’s phase progressed into an overall love for rock and blues around the time I was 16. I had also become a Born-Again Christian at summer camp. My dad says the conversion started when I was 12, when I spent the two hour drive home from camp “quoting scripture”. I was baptized at 16. I had pulled a serious mulligan. This caused much tension in the house, considering my oldest brother had become a Buddhist on his travels in Thailand. Christmas is still quite the experience. I became a strange teenager that had impeccable musical tastes, was nick-named “The Rockstar” and hitch-hiked to a youth church on Wednesdays nights. I never found a problem between the music I listened to, and what I believed in. To me, Music and Jesus met in the middle and high-fived.
So I pulled a few mulligans by the time high school was out. When I dropped ballet for snowboarding, he said okay. When I traded my geeky multicoloured glasses in for trendy black emo frames, he said cool. When I traded spandex for ripped jeans, he said thank god. When I turned 18, my parents gave me a leather jacket, a plane ticket to go anywhere, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a certificate for a tattoo. The tattoo became a music note on my hip. But the ultimate gift was the night of my grad dance, or “prom”, when I was presented with my graduation gift. While my friends and classmates got brand new cars or big time cheques, at the Mulligan household, I got spoiled rotten. After we popped a bottled of Dom Perrignon, my dad gave me my first record player. It was fully restored into an aged brown leather suitcase, with speakers on the side, making it portable and incredibly unique. The gift came as an announcement to the world that I was now fluent in two languages.
In my recent times, my father and I have traded roles. He taught me how to speak Music. He taught me to love records; in fact, record shopping on Main Street is now a Boxing Day tradition for the family. He taught me to listen to everything: the words, the rhythm, the space between the notes. Now he must sit patiently as I teach him how to use an Ipod. He fidgets and stares at me blankly. I ruffle what’s left of his hair and tell him that The Rolling Stones will show up under R, not T.