My cousin looks like Tom Petty. Not exactly like, but close enough that people made the connection. Once in Nashville or LA they crossed paths at a venue, and my cousin had a friend take a photo of the two of them next to each other. Tom Petty has an innocent condescension that seems to say, I’m an alpha who doesn’t have to push it. I look a little like Phil Lesh—students have posted “separated at birth” photos on my door, and once a young man mistook me for Lesh in Maine when I was hiking with my daughter. (“Phil? Phil?” He refused to believe me when I disenchanted him.) My wife looks at photos of my cousin and swears he looks like me. But I don’t look like Petty, and my cousin doesn’t look like Lesh. The four of us would have made a good police lineup, if one of us, or someone who looked like us, had committed a crime. A good band, too, although I would have been the weakest link.
The first time I met my cousin was in 1953. Both of us were two, me a little riper two (born July vs. October 1951). My mother said he and I fought over a light switch we could both reach from our cribs. She had traveled from California to New Jersey to visit his mother Liz, by far her favorite of three sisters. The youngest sister had upset the family with an illicit pregnancy and other stuff. We didn’t hear so much about her. My mother’s twin sister came to live with us in California one summer as her marriage eroded, and by the end of August she had to be committed to a mental institution. She picked and picked at my mother, whom people had always seen as the smarter and prettier twin. Liz, my cousin’s mom, was an oasis. After 1953, she and my mother didn’t see each other again until 1977, when I married a Philadelphian. Liz and her husband hosted our family in the little stone house where my cousin and his brothers grew up. Liz was the good sister designed for my mother by Jane Austen. My mother’s life would have been much better had she lived close enough for easy visiting. And of course my cousin and I would have known each other well, with who knows what effect on our lives?
I found a Facebook photo of my cousin when he was 19. He and his two older brothers are sitting on motorcycles in the driveway outside their house. As a musical group, the three brothers sang with effortless harmonies that I envied so much it was a wonder I enjoyed them. The middle brother, the one who would pursue a teaching career, keep music as a serious hobby, and raise a family, looks relaxed and amused. My cousin has hair about the length of mine that year (to the shoulders), and like the 1971 me he’s wearing jeans and a rolled-up long-sleeve shirt. He looks tough but as if he’s posing. His model is the oldest brother: the only authentic badass of the bunch. Something about the way he sits on the bike; about the expressionless cool behind his beard. He died young. I don’t know under what circumstances—only that Liz, in despair, wrote a note to my mother telling her that she had lost him. My mother, before her own marriage and removal to California, had helped Liz take care of her firstborn infant. I can’t entirely repress my curiosity about his death, but I wish I could. It’s better just to leave it a blank, like his expression in the photo, the badass essence my cousin tried back then to imitate.
There’s one of my cousin’s country songs I particularly like. I figured it out on guitar and memorized the lyrics. Sometimes I play a little game while listening to “Outlaw Country” on satellite radio: with each song that comes on, I decide whether it’s not as good, about as good, or better than my cousin’s. Yesterday’s tally: not as good… not as good… about as good… not as good… not as good… better… about as good. Long ago I decided to stop fretting about canon-making in my own field, a process that seems more arbitrary than evenhanded and rational. So what if Louis Menand (same age as me and my cousin) was plucked into literary celebrity by some editor who never noticed that my essays were just as rich and nuanced? I could play the same game with, I don’t know, “The Rhetoric of New Atheism” (mine) and Menand’s New Yorker pieces: not as good… about the same… etc. But as I say, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m pretty sure it mattered to my cousin. It had to gall him to see equal or lesser singer-songwriters in Nashville rising to prominence while he remained stuck at almost, not quite.
In June of 1973, after I graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, I flew east to visit Liz and her husband. My plan was to stay with them for a week and then spend the summer hitchhiking around New Jersey, New York, and Canada. The first weekend I was there, Liz drove me to State College, Pennsylvania, where my cousin and one of his brothers lived. My cousin had also just graduated—like me, an English major. Liz dropped me with my cousin and left us until brunch the next morning. What did we talk about? I wish I remembered. We did talk freely, though, as we drank a prodigious volume of beer, ameliorated as pairs of cute Rolling Rocks. We were in his power spot: a hub for aspiring rockers, a place where for several years he would play in bands that flourished with his songs and guitar solos and harmonies. Play in bars full of college-age women who will many years later confess on Facebook, “I had such crushes on all of you!” I remember thinking at the time, I wish Liz hadn’t introduced me as your brilliant cousin who’s going to grad school at Yale. There’s a time and a place for feeling proud of that. This wasn’t the time, and for sure this wasn’t the place.
I found an entry for my cousin in the 2002 Who’s Who in Popular Music. It lists him as a musician (guitar) and songwriter. It says he played on stage with John Lee Hooker, Charlie Gracie, and others. It lists a management company, his Nashville address (a modest 50s brick house I pulled up on Zillow), and “leisure interests: tennis, surfing.” Surfing must have been a challenge in Nashville, but I wonder: what kind of tennis player was he? He had a build similar to mine, tall and lean, and his hands look coordinated as they move around the guitar. His dad played tennis at a fancy clay court complex. (He took me there when I visited.) Maybe my cousin had tennis training in his youth, lessons with dapper professionals? No matter how much guitar I play, I’ll never be as good as my cousin. No matter how many lessons my cousin might have taken, sorry, he would not have beaten me in tennis.
My favorite video of my cousin playing music comes from one of his State College bands performing in a bar crowded with fans. The lead singer introduces their finale: “Here’s a song we wrote for the summer. You’ve probably heard it around.” (Yes, they’d heard it. It got a lot of local radio play. The crowd sings along, with gestures. But a point of clarification: we didn’t write it: my cousin wrote it.) It’s a catchy, smart song that welds 60s Surf Rock to New Wave of the late 70s. It made a local splash but it deserved to become a standard. While the introducer is talking, my cousin improvises a prelude of guitar notes based on the opening to “California Girls.” Then, bang! New Wave drums. Between verses, my cousin fills the room with a Chuck Berry style solo. He still has his shoulder-length hair at age 30. He looks like someone in love.
My cousin recorded a version of “Embryonic Journey,” although I haven’t found a link to hear it. I learned to play “Embryonic Journey” in my first month of college. In my mid 40s I went on a quest for a vintage Gibson J-50, the kind of guitar Jorma Kaukonen used for his famous instrumental. I ended up buying a J-50 made in 1958, the exact year of Jorma’s guitar. I see from photos that my cousin also performed with a J-50. Back in college I played “Embryonic Journey” on a cheap Yamaha, but it still sounded pretty good. Once in a dorm-room gathering, as a few of us were smoking weed and listening to Jefferson Airplane, a sophomore from the east coast I knew only slightly was trying to impress a woman with his musical expertise. “Listen to the way Grace puts the high cap on Kantner’s vocal”—that sort of thing. “Now ‘Embryonic Journey,’” he told her ardently, “What can I say? If I have one goal in life before I die, it’s to be able to play that perfectly.” And I thought, Really, dude?
The State College band that played the Surf-cum-New Wave song attracted the attention of a talent scout. He invited them to Pittsburgh, where his record label was based, for a full tryout. This happened in late 1981 or thereabouts. According to a Facebook memory posted by one of the band members, the label offered them a contract, but with a condition that finally led them to decline: the executives wanted them to change their name to “Pittsburgh.” None of them had any connection to Pittsburgh. The new name seemed corporate, inane. Because my father and his father came from the steel mills of Pittsburgh, I would have embraced the new name and signed right away. My cousin’s band, I have to say, clung to a pretentious name that I would have been willing to trade for “Pittsburgh” under any circumstances. I wonder: was the decision to decline unanimous? Might my cousin have cast a dissenting vote? Perhaps I’m projecting. It’s tempting to think that my cousin might have shared with me, among many other things, aesthetic doubts about his band’s name and the feeling that acceptance might have changed his life. Whatever the case, the band broke up not long after their trip to Pittsburgh.
My cousin took his own life in January 2013. It staggered his brother, who knew him better than anyone. He saw no hint such a thing was coming. Friends who learned of his death on Facebook wrote, What?!! How did it happen? I just saw him a month ago! Heart attack? Car accident?
I found a long video from when my cousin was probably in his late 40s or early 50s. He’s part of a three-person band, with two younger musicians. The video captures them in a few club performances as well as some studio work. The young woman seems to take the lead in vocals and songwriting. She has a sort of voice I don’t like—not sure I can explain why—and her songs don’t impress me. With his talents blended into the mix but not showcased, my cousin looks content more than delighted.
My cousin’s girlfriend from his college years was named Beth; I’m pretty sure they got married when he was in his early twenties. Liz talked about her a lot when I visited in 1973. She seemed pleased that her son with an artist’s soul had found steadiness in his love life. My first girlfriend was also named Beth—someone my mother tried to like but deep down didn’t, although she never publicly admitted that fact, not even after the Beth era had ended. My cousin and his Beth didn’t last too long as a couple. As far as I know, my cousin never married again. Did he live with anyone in a long-term relationship? I have no idea. I do know this: the country song I learned has a bridge with minor chords that gives me shivers. “She might be the angel/ Come to break this lonely spell . . .”
His brother wrote a loving and painful eulogy for my cousin. In the first part, he celebrated his musical gifts. “He infused any group and any session with energy and joy.” Then the difficult second part. “I cannot respect the decision he made to take his own life and I cannot participate in any gesture that validates or glorifies it.” In his grief, he will not compromise about one thing. Whatever cause might be surmised retrospectively, no one will ever persuade him that his brother’s death made any sense.
I met my cousin for the last time in 1973, our college graduation year, when I joined his family for Thanksgiving. The train from New Haven to Grand Central was insanely overcrowded with Yale students. I shuttled from Grand Central to Penn Station in a cab with one other passenger, a grad student I didn’t know. Liz’s house overflowed like the train, because so many of my cousin’s high school friends dropped in. The three brothers sang Beach Boys, Everly Brothers, Byrds, Beatles, The Band. Their voices charmed me more than any record. When they sang “The Weight,” I declined their polite invitation to join the chorus. The three of them performed as one of the more popular bands in State College until adult decisions scattered them. My cousin had the most talent, and a pristine enthusiasm for classic rock; his brothers completed the harmonies in their stone house that smelled like turkey the whole time I was there. Four year later I would visit that house again, when I married the grad student who shared the Grand Central cab with me. She had a moment of prophetic intuition once when she saw me entering a lecture hall to hear Harold Bloom hold forth on Kabbalah. My lip was swollen from a basketball injury. “That’s the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.” We were only casual friends at the time. My wife has prophetic intuitions. Me, I think about so many wrong turns I almost took, the close calls, all the branching universes that might have claimed me instead of the one right one.
His brother named his first son after my cousin. After that namesake son married and had a boy, my cousin posted a picture of his darling great-nephew holding a parlor guitar in his lap. This is 2009. “I’m worried,” he captioned. “He looks like he means it.”
Wayne Glausser is Professor Emeritus of English at DePauw University. He has published over 30 essays, on a dizzy variety of topics, from semicolons to psychedelics. Lately most of his work has been creative nonfiction. He lives in Greencastle, Indiana, where four grandchildren from NYC and Cleveland love to visit.