Writing in detail about so resolutely unhappy and demanding a character as Friedman brings up an obvious question: why would anybody care? I’m not sure. In the case of an equally perplexing character, my father, I found it important to highlight his many virtues, his humor, intelligence, sensitivity, sense of fairness — qualities that made him a person people regularly sought out for friendship. Otherwise, I thought, why would the one-note story of someone who regularly behaved monstrously be a compelling tragedy?
In the case of Mark, the slowly dawning realization that there was no way to influence his stubborn determination to be justifiably miserable eventually eclipsed all the things that made us friends in the first place. His great qualities were all erased for me in the end. After years of his grim determination to be right at any cost, I can’t even picture the laughs we had as teenagers. I literally can’t imagine him smiling. I see him glaring churlishly, arms crossed over his chest, implacable in his demand that you acknowledge the righteousness of his pain.
The trajectory of our long descent into estrangement was the opposite of the arc of my relationship with my father. Though it came tragically late, on the last night of his life, my father in the end came to see how wrong he’d been to be so reflexively, aggressively defensive. His regrets were terrible, but it was a blessing to us both that he had the chance to express them. That deathbed confession changed his story from a tale of senseless brutality to a tragedy that offered the hope of redemption at the very end.
Thinking about that lost correspondence between Al Friedman and his youngest son, my mind always goes to the classic example of Mark proving himself right. His belief that his father didn’t respect him had irrefutable confirmation during an exchange Mark never forgot or forgave his father for. Although I understood why it would have been painful for Mark, I could never help seeing the incident from Al’s even more understandable point of view.
First, to help you picture the full pathos of the scene, I should convey an aspect of how Mark looked. He was a giant. His hands were large and his fingers thick. Those blunt, sledge-hammer fingers made his manual dexterity all the more surprising to watch. He didn’t have a piano player’s long fingers, his hands were more like your proverbial meathooks. Yet he developed impressive technique on guitar and piano, largely self-taught on both.
At some point Mark’s retired parents offered each of their three sons an expensive gift of their choosing. Mark chose a baby grand piano, and he found a very a nice one. He also found a piano teacher in Santa Fe, a very spiritual man to whom music was a sacred calling. Meditation and centering was necessary before one could play a note properly, a period of reverent silence was required to prepare. The mindful way you struck the note, and the moments of divine silence between the notes, Mark was taught, were the most essential parts of the practice of playing from the soul. This appealed to Mark’s esthetic. He sent me the guy’s book, it was called something like The Art of Listening, or perhaps The Lessons of Silence. An interesting, even inspiring, read, I’m sure I still have it somewhere.
Mark was nothing if not artistically ambitious. He practiced piano for hours a day and composed a perhaps forty minute long opus for solo piano that he mastered over the course of many weeks, even months. He visited his parents’ home in Fort Lee, New Jersey and proposed to his father, an organ player, that they go to the home of a cousin (who had a piano) and he would play his new masterpiece for his father. They went across the river to an apartment on the Upper West Side where Mark sat at the piano, his back to his father in the small music alcove. I can’t imagine how Mark’s mother managed not to be part of the audience, but it was only father and son in that narrow room.
Mark began the long piece with silence, followed by a stately presentation of the first theme. I can only imagine that stately opening, since I don’t think I ever heard the whole piece, though I heard others. Al was going to hear the entire masterpiece, after which, Mark probably believed, the father was going to have a moment of revelation that would change his entire dismissive view of his youngest son. You can probably imagine where this is going.
After a few minutes, history does not record if it was five minutes or twenty-five minutes, Al began to get distracted, to fidget. There was a rack of CDs behind the piano, and Al apparently began browsing through them. Clack. Clack. Mark’s spine stiffened as he played. Clack. He continued playing to the end, though in a cold rage. His deepest horror was being confirmed with every click of the CD cases. The clicking of the CD cases would come to encapsulate the cool indifference of the world toward the artist.
This is what I was referring to about nobody really caring about somebody else’s talent, unless it touches you directly. Al may well have felt pride that his son had reached this level of mastery of the piano, but unless he was moved by the actual music, he was being placed in a very tight spot as the sole audience and ultimate validator of his needy son’s genius. That’s what Mark was demanding– the long denied recognition that he was an true artist of a very high caliber. I always relate to Al’s dilemma, though, having always pursued artistic projects, I could relate to Mark’s hopes too. But, shit, Al was really placed in an impossible position. And it’s not like Mark was twelve, or twenty, he was well into his thirties by then. It turns out it’s never too late to be an eternally disappointed child.
But, look, of course, on a certain level, we are all babies at times. There are moments when many of us lapse into a childish reaction, triggered by some sensitivity that was implanted long before we had any say in the matter. The adult in us, hopefully, can see this afterwards and make amends to anyone we might have hurt by acting like a giant baby. Mark seemingly never fully developed this insight. He was like the baby who could not be satisfied until he was the universally respected king of the world, then grew enraged that people laughed at a tiny king in diapers.
The thing that amazes me now is that there was probably an exchange of letters, during the long correspondence between father and son, over the clicking of the CD cases. How does that square with Mark’s often expressed feeling that his father had no respect for him? Maybe Al’s letters were a study in stubborn paternal superiority, I have no idea. But it is intriguing to imagine the letters following the deadly clicking of the CD cases, is it not?