Not About Music: Marvin Gore [1923-2015]

Marvin Gore, 1940

Marvin Gore, 1940

If my blog and video posts have seemed fewer and less fun in recent months, it’s not your imagination. I’ve been shuttling between San Francisco and my childhood home in the LA suburbs, spending as much time as possible with my dad in the wake of a back-to-back broken hip and terminal cancer diagnosis. He passed away on January 28th — my late mother’s birthday.

Dad was many things: an engineer, a thinker, a WWII vet, a rocket scientist, a college dean, a loving husband and father, a passionate progressive, a sci-fi/horror geek, and a world traveler who visited all seven continents.

But there’s one thing he definitely was not: a musician.

Dad wasn’t merely musically untrained — he was freakishly untalented. I always called him the Anti-Mozart, because I’ve never encountered anyone with less musical aptitude. I’m not merely talking “can’t carry a tune” or “poor sense of rhythm.” Dad couldn’t discern such basic musical parameters as high/low or fast/slow. Aside from the lyrics, his “happy birthday to you” was indistinguishable from his “oh, say can you see.” Mom was an enthusiastic amateur pianist and guitarist, and my beloved “second mom,” Anne, is a classical music fanatic. (Good sport that he was, Dad would attend the opera with Anne, but he’d spend the four hours devising alternate endings to the melodramatic stories. Or just dozing.)

But paradoxically, Dad had much to do with who I became as a musician. The older I get and the more musicians I encounter, the more I believe that how we play is less a matter of our training or intentions, and more about who we are as people. And by that reckoning, Dad exerted an enormous influence on how and what I play. I doubt I’ll untangle the connections before it’s my own turn to go, but several qualities leap to mind: humor, irreverent skepticism, and an attraction to the weird and unexpected. If you’ve ever enjoyed one of my snarky jokes, tech debunkings, or bizarre guitar noises, thank Marvin.

Dad at the helm, 1950s.

Dad was generally supportive of my music career. He and Mom paid my way through the undergrad years, though he didn’t understand my initial career goal of becoming an early music scholar and performer. (After I got my first Renaissance lute, he’d tell everyone that his son was at UCLA studying to be a shepherd.) He was proud of my later successes, and attended many of my Southern California concerts and TV gigs, even though they were in a language he didn’t understand: music.

Like me, Dad went to UCLA and then grad school at Berkeley. His field, in those pre-computer days, was electrical engineering. He worked in aerospace till my adolescence, when he went into education, eventually becoming dean of the business division at Mount San Antonio College. He often observed how his life coincided with the emergence of digital technology. He was a tech geek till the end. I loathed that stuff when I was young, never dreaming that computers would one day be central to my own creativity. Dad was a bit bemused in recent years when I’d query him about antique analog technology, like paper-in-oil capacitors or vacuum tubes. When he got into the field, even computers ran on tubes.

Dad was an Apple fanboy from the get-go, perpetually excited about the latest gadgets. Last year we went into an Apple store to get the new iPad for his 90th birthday.

Dad Mac

Dad at 90, possibly downloading porn.

The pimply sales dude started explaining the device as if to a child.

“I have just one question,” interrupted Dad. “Can I use it to download porn?”

The poor sales guy turned to me with a panicked expression, seeking a cue: Should he laugh, or pity my  “senile” parent?

“Sorry,” I told him. “My dad really likes to work the ‘outrageous little old man’ angle.”

Dad was also a lifelong fan of the fantastical. Growing up in Depression-era Hollywood, he’d haunt the newsstands, devouring “weird fiction” pulp magazines. (He was old enough to have read H.P. Lovecraft tales when they debuted in cheap ink on disposable paper.) His father, Jacob, managed the old Lyceum Theater on Spring Street in downtown LA, so horror flicks, B-movie thrillers, and cliffhanger serials were also part of the mix. His life paralleled the development of sci-fi, from the pulp days of his youth through the “Golden Age” of the ’40s, the new wave of the ’60s/’70s, ’90s cyberpunk, and beyond. Dad dug it all.


My grandfather’s theater, where Dad spent much of his childhood.

The lurid covers of sci-fi paperbacks were a backdrop of my ’60s/’70s childhood. You bet your ass we watched the debut episode of Star Trek in 1966, though Dad had to explain to seven-year-old me what “trek” meant. Another highlight was the annual writers day at his college, which often featured sci-fi greats like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. (My mom once thrust her hand and a felt pen at Bradbury. “Illustrate me!” she demanded of the author of The Illustrated Man. He drew a little devil face on the back of her hand. But Mom’s quirks are an entirely different story.)

While I inherited Mom’s taste for literary fiction, Dad and I always bonded on the genre stuff. In recent years we simultaneously read books on our respective iPads in our respective cities, comparing notes. I’d dig up things he hadn’t read in 60 or 70 years, like A.E. Van Vogt’s novella “Slan” and Weird Tales reprints. I turned him on to recent horror phenom Laird Barron, and we both devoured Jake Arnott’s kaleidoscopic novel The House of Rumour, one strand of which deals with an LA sci-fi author of precisely my dad’s age. (Another strand features real-life figure Jack Parsons, the rocket scientist who founded Aerojet General, Dad’s employer during the ’50s and ’60s. Dad had no idea that Parsons was a full-on Satanist — an Alistair Crowley acolyte who conducted sex magick rituals at his Pasadena home with L. Ron Hubbard in the latter’s pre-Scientology days, as documented in George Pendle’s Parsons biography, Strange Angel — another book we consumed in tandem.)

Even the knowledge that he was dying of cancer didn’t slake Dad’s taste for creepy stuff. Just a few weeks ago it occurred to me that he might get a kick out of Dead Snow, a campy Norwegian horror flick about reanimated WWII storm troopers.

“Dad, what do you think of zombies?” I asked.

“I love them.”

“Yeah, but what do you think of Nazi zombies?”

“They must be destroyed!” he decreed.

We had fun watching it together, though he didn’t dig it as much as I did. He was more into recent TV shows like American Horror Story. The realization that Dad will never learn the ending of Hemlock Grove or Game of Thrones is enough to unleash another torrent of tears, despite the fact that there’s a good chance none of us will live to see the conclusion of GoT.

Marvin 1928

Marvin Gore, 1928

The more I contemplate it, the more I believe Dad’s tastes shaped the way I approach music. By their nature, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror continually ask, “What if?” Those genres are conceptual teeter-totters, balancing objective science and unknowable mystery. What if everything we believe is wrong? If everything good is really bad, and vice versa? How might a seemingly trivial past incident have altered the course of history? Do we face a future of promise or desperation?

I perceive echoes of these questions in the way I embrace my canonic classical music education while simultaneously distrusting it. I can’t listen to or create music without asking questions of my own: What if Bartók had played punk rock? If Joni Mitchell had lived in the 14th century? If Hendrix had played with Ellington in the ’30s? If Bach had been Nigerian? I find it exceedingly difficult to accept things as they are, or to leave well enough alone.

Dad had far more facets than “tech guy” and “sci-fi geek” — those are just two aspects ricocheting around my skull at the moment. I know I’ll spend the rest of my days contemplating his life and trying to learn from his example. He had much to teach about kindness, patience, and the not-so-simple art of being happy — skills that don’t come easily to me.

My dad’s cancer was dire but relatively painless. His mind remained razor-sharp till the end. He died with calm dignity, at home. He was ready. (When he got the fatal diagnosis, his first words were, “I can’t complain. I’m 91. I’ve had a good run.”) He’d wrapped up his business and made his farewells, and we all had the opportunity to say everything that needed to be said. He lived long and prospered, and we should all be so lucky as to go as peacefully as he did.

But damn, I miss you, Dad. Love you always.

Screenshot 2015-02-08 17.06.47

60 comments to Not About Music: Marvin Gore [1923-2015]

  • Te acompaño en el sentimiento, Joe.

  • smgear

    My condolences to you and your family Joe. Thanks for sharing this celebration of his life and I can see that he passed on to you a rich legacy of exploration, discovery, and passion.

  • Martin

    Very sorry to hear about your loss Joe.

  • What an incredibly poignant and beautiful tribute from a son to his father. So moving to read this Joe. Thank you for sharing this love with us. I’m losing my own father slowly and frustratingly to Alzheimer’s and this song to your Dad made me weep. Sending you fondest thoughts…

  • condolences to you and your family Joe… we can easily forget the truly important things in life and we are often not granted the time to realise our dreams or potential ……….. your father sounds as of he succeeded in both respects and your tribute was full of pride, happiness and love for him …. what more could a Dad ask for of a son? or a Son of his Dad…?

  • Sorry to hear the news. My condolences. What a wonderful inspiration to have had.

  • Avi

    Hey Joe. What an excellent and interesting tribute. My condolences. So sorry for your loss.

  • Sorry for your loss Joe, loved your tribute to your dad.

  • Beautiful, Joe. May you find consolation wherever it may be.

  • My condolences. I lost my paternal grandfather last month as well after he had one hell of an 86 year run. I feel our bond was more father/son than just Grandfather/Grandson. He definitely influenced my interest in understanding all things I can about anything and my interest in things involving wood and electronics.

  • Dear Joe,
    I know the pain of this kind of loss. Your words about your Dad are a wonderful tribute and elegy to him. All the best.

  • Beautiful and thought provoking. Much sorrow for your loss Joe.

  • And now your dad’s life has reached out and touched all of us who have read you wonderful story about him. He sounds like he was a very cool dude. I’m sorry for you Joe.

  • Bebah Palulah

    You have my deepest and most sincere sympathy.

  • el reclusa

    My condolences, Joe. Your Pops sounds like he was one of a kind. 🙂

  • Jason Lee Weight

    That was beautiful, man. To the point I feel I got to know him a little.

  • G. Rover

    A beautiful and moving tribute. Requiescat in pace.

  • Words seem inadequate to express sadness. Sorry for your lost

  • Oinkus

    Life is a funny thing , think you have a grip on reality and it just shows you that you don’t have a clue.Pretty interesting my dad was an electrical engineer too but he was very musical doing the big band thing.I sit here in his room next to his collection of Analog science fiction magazines reading this and it just makes my heart ache for you Joe.My sincere condolences friend I am glad you were able to speak with him and actually be there for him .

  • Beautifully written and said. So special…….xoxo

  • Joe, those are wonderful words. I know what you are feeling having lost my father also. My condolences to your family.

  • Glenda Solis

    I’m so sorry about your father……I can feel the love you have for him in your writing…..lovely tribute you wrote about him and love your shared interests! big hugs!!

  • Laertes

    Sorry for your loss, Joe. You have made me laugh with the porn download story but by the time I finished reading tears were showing in my eyes.

    I wish we all had the chance to live such a long and fruitful life, go in peace and have someone remembering us the same way as you remember your dad.

  • NicPic

    Gosh Joe, I’m terribly sorry for your loss,Brother… I remember when My Pop died in 08… I’ve felt kind of lost ever since. He was a good Man, And insanely intelligent, funny and painfully loving.. but made Me the man I Am.. God Bless your family Joe..


  • Lovely tribute, and I’m sorry for your loss. Take care of yourself, and be well.

  • Tom Mulhern

    Joe, that’s a fabulous tribute to your dad. I’m sure he was proud of you, and it seems you carry a lot of what made–and still makes–him a great person. His energy carries on.

  • I’m very sorry for your loss Joe. That was a very beautiful tribute you wrote for him.

  • I was wondering if every thing was okay. And while this isn’t “okay,” I’m glad you had the chance to prepare and to say goodbye.

    Sounds like Marvin was a great guy and father. And that is an epic-level Dad joke at the Apple Store. Well played. The interesting thing is that it was a story about the clerk being surprised and not you–definitely another sign of some of the common wavelengths happening.

  • Sorry for your loss, Joe. Don't know if is the subject or the writer but I can't help but think there's a guy I wish I'd known.

  • roberto

    My sincere condolences. I am happy you’re back!

  • I'm sorry for your loss Joe, your eulogy to your Father is infused with your warmth and respect for him, may he rest in peace.

  • joe

    Dear friends — I can’t tell you how touched I am by your kind words. This blog generally focuses on nerdy, ultimately inconsequential stuff, and I wasn’t sure whether I should even post about something so personal here.

    But I’m so glad I did. Every comment is a bit of balm to the soul — and taken together, they’re powerful medicine. You’ve all put a smile on my face at a time when that’s exceedingly hard to do. I’m deeply grateful.

  • Wow, Joe, my condolences. Marvin sounds like a great man, and you pay him great tribute in your words as well as the life you live.

  • Like a lighthouse you must stand alone and landmark the sailors journeys end…………no matter what sea he's been sailing on…………he will always sail this way again……………………

  • Slava Azarov

    Very nice and warm words, Joe. My deepest condolences.

  • Alex Sandifer

    My condolences. Wonderful tribute to your father; I feel as if I got to know him. We should all strive to be the kind of human beings that, when we are gone, those we leave behind will remember us and speak of us so fondly.

  • Rich

    I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this story. It’s a fantastic tribute to your father and a reminder to treasure and appreciate the people important to us while we have them in our lives.

  • Joel

    He sounds like a cool dad. You were lucky to have each other.

  • So sorry for your loss, Joe. I lost my own father in January.
    There aren't really words. You do him great tribute here and it sounds as though his was a life very well lived.
    I'm sure he was incredibly proud of you and will continue to be so.
    Strength and love to you, fella.

  • Mark Altekruse

    Wonderful sentiments and story, Joe. So sorry for your loss.

  • Hernan

    Sorry for your loss, Joe. That was a wonderful tribute to your dad. All the best.

  • My deepest condolences, Joe. Great tribute to your father.

  • Bas

    My condolences. Sounds like a great guy. But then, he loved science fiction, so how could he not be? As we say over here, “live long and remember him”.

  • Rob Schnapf

    Having lost both my parents i can this,
    You dont get over it, you just get used to it.
    And it takes time

  • mwseniff

    Sorry for the loss of your father. The loss of a father is a game changer. Both my parent’s passed many years ago, it still makes me feel kind of orphaned (for lack of a better word). You father must have been a real trip to grow up with, my folks never got my love of sci-fi they were happy I was a “reader” tho’.

  • My condolences. We never will be ready to lose a loved person. To grow is to be a little "aloner" every day.

  • Javier

    Sorry for your loss, but for my personal belief I am sure he is in a better place now. I am glad to read you “He lived long and prospered”, very few people in this life have.

  • My condolences, Joe. And this is a beautiful tribute to your dad.

  • English is such an abundant language, and yet often falls short of conveying condolence accordingly from one to another. I really enjoyed reading about your Dad (which sounds odd under the circumstances); it sounds as if you have much to remember him for, which often is the best any of us can hope for. Best wishes to you and yours, Joe

  • Joe, thanks for sharing. I’m so sorry for your loss, yet glad for all that you have gained through having such a wonderful father – and by that, I mean full of wonder. He sounds like a fascinating, interesting and interested character who could only make those around him better for meeting him. It certainly sounds like you’ve inherited a lot of his good characters, and for that the world can be thankful. Us Dads have a lot to answer for, but it sounds like Marvin did everything he could to make sure his life continued in that of his son. The rest of us can only hope to be so lucky.
    Ok, I’m going to stop now while I can still see through the tears…
    God bless.


  • Nicolás

    I’m sorry for your loss Joe. From your text I see you have lots of wonderful things to remember him by so he will live on your memories.
    All the best.

  • Antoine

    Very nice eulogy and memories, and sometimes funny, if can be. And your text learn me much on californian/american culture topics & epoch on wich i share interest. +1 for the “Slans” even if it wasn’t the very best, but it was a book of my early teens. I know now why you wear hats.

    Les chiens ne font pas des chats.

    Avec toutes mes condoléances.

    • joe

      Merci beaucoup Antoine — et très amusant sur les chapeaux!

      I learned something fascinating about “Slan culture” when I visited Paul Allen’s sci-fi museum in Seattle, where I saw fanzines from the early 1940s. I wasn’t aware of the extent to which sci-fi geeks self-identified as Slans (a superior but persecuted race in the novella). There was a now-legendary communal house of sci-fi fans known as “The Slan Shack” in 1940s Michigan. It seems to have been an odd utopian micro-community with photo-hippie qualities. Later other Slan Shacks popped up around the world. I always thought that would make a great setting for a novel or screenplay ….

      And oh … mes chats sont chiens!

  • Hello Joe

    I`m from Norway, an use to read articles you have written, and listen to Music that you performe.
    And I love both of them. I have read the article about your father, and that helped me understanding the way you play…..
    Sometimes you have the most stunding riffs I ever heard. It`sa so much passion and feelings, and other times you have a great sence of humor…
    So, I love the way you play…..
    I`m also interest in the tech stof you present, very interesting. I`m educated in datatech and electronics, and use my skills to eksperiment with guitars and amps.
    Just now I have a project with a Epi Lucille, to change all the electronics….
    with parts from Jonesyblues….
    I hope I will hear and see a lot of stuff from you in the future, and take really care wherever you go….

    Pål Lein, Buvika, Norway

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