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Berlin Story: Family Band

I always knew my mom was a badass. Keeping up with her was a challenge.
Al Burian
Κείμενο Al Burian
6.7.12

Photo courtesy of Mnphotography.dec

My mom is a musical prodigy. Growing up in Germany in the lean years after World War II, it took some finagling to convince her parents that they should buy her a violin, but the investment paid off: at 15 she was admitted to the prestigious Schloss Belvedere music conservatory in Weimar, and by 19 she was on her way to a professional career, touring extensively in Europe and the USA with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, before eventually settling down to the less-renowned Greensboro Symphony Orchestra after she'd married my dad and moved to North Carolina. My mom is retired now, and back in Germany. A few years ago she slipped on a patch of icy pavement and broke her shoulder. That effectively ended her classical-caliber abilities. One of the more heartbreaking moments of my life was visiting her apartment one day, a few weeks after her shoulder surgery, and discovering her in the middle of attempting to play the violin, skronking and screeching around on it like a novice. “Hey, way to go, get back into it,” I said, trying to be encouraging. She put the instrument down and shook her head in defeat. “No, forget it. That’s it for me. I’m done with music. That part of my life is over.” In the months following that conversation, I watched her sink into a deep, lethargic depression. I resolved to help her in the only way I knew how. It was time to start a band.

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Our relationship has always been contentious as far as music is concerned. I spent years of my life touring and recording with punk/hardcore bands, and my mom consistently displayed zero respect for these endeavors. This wasn’t your typical “wish you had gone to law school” parental critique: my mom had solid aesthetic grounds for displeasure, would criticize the unimaginative chord progressions, the atonality, the rudimentary rhythmic sense. As for me, I could never get into classical music. Too many notes, and overall it is just a bit too fruity for my tastes. But tour is tour, and so despite our very different musical milieus, we eventually grew to find common ground in reminiscing about the road: the crappy hotel rooms we’d encountered, the gross food, the long overnight drives, the colleagues who drank too much. Slowly, I began to be accepted in her mind as an actual musician. But still, asking her to work on a project with me was met with incredulity. It was like Bart Simpson asking Shakespeare to collaborate on a play.

One day, however, my mom surprised me by turning up with a batch of sheet music she’d found at the local library. Old-time Irish fiddle jigs, early American bluegrass, stuff like that—musical genres neither she nor I knew much about, something neither of us had particular personal connection or attachment to, and thus neutral ground for experimentation.

My mom’s relatively incapacitated range of movement prevented her from fulfilling the complex technical demands of classical, but by punk rock standards, she could still shred pretty hard. What’s more, she has the impressive ability of being able to fluently read music off the page. Here we encountered our first hurdle, as we sat down the first day with the sheet music, a violin, and an acoustic guitar. She had penciled in the appropriate chords for me above the serpentine lines of squiggly, snaking black dots.

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“Just follow along with the music, and you’ll see where the changes are,” she said. I was forced to make an embarrassing admission.

“I can’t read music,” I said. My mom was perplexed.

“But… all those years… all those bands you played in…. how did you guys write your songs?”

“We jammed,” I explained.

“Jammed?”

“You know, improvised.”

An interesting fact about people with advanced musical knowledge is that their reverence for the masters often prevents them from believing that they are qualified to string notes together in an impromptu order of their own choosing. In other words, these people cannot jam. If I play a basic rhythm guitar progression, the kind your roommate with the Fender Squire and Peavey Rage practice amp would be thrilled to wanka-wanka over for hours on end, someone like my mom simply freezes up, paralyzed by the possibilities. How do you know what to play? How do you know what’s best?

In the end, we settled on her playing the sheet music, which she repeated note-for-note every time, while I strummed away, goofed around, and occasionally broke out in some ad-libbed lyrics. My mom was impressed with my improv abilities. I found myself the recipient of newfound respect, complimented for a musical talent previously characterized as “sounding like a broken washing machine.” As for me, well, I always knew my mom was a badass. Keeping up with her was a challenge, and it was nice to see her having a good time.

The Burian Family Band played our first show on New Year's Eve, at the Schokoladen, a DIY punk venue in my neighborhood. The place was packed, and I was nervous. There are few taboos in punk rock, but getting along with your parents is definitely one of them. Before the show, hanging out in the corner, I saw people eyeing us quizzically, even suspiciously. But after we fiddled through our first jig, the audience burst into wild cheers and jubilant applause. I looked over at my mom, seeing the thrill go through her like a lightning bolt. She turned to me and grinned. It had been a while since she had felt that rush. Whatever your genre, applause is the dulcet high that makes it all worth it, and keeps a musician going.

Al Burian, born 1971, grew up in North Carolina (state motto: "to be rather than to seem") and lives in Berlin. He is the author of numerous books: Burn Collector, Natural Disaster, and Things Are Meaning Less. He was a founding member of the punk/hardcore band Milemarker.