My father was my hero and mentor. He witnessed the highs, yet he would never have a chance to see the fruit of all that he had done for me. The man who helped shaped my destiny as a musician, songwriter, husband and father passed away at the young age of 63. I look back now, as I do every year around this time, and realize how the extent of his impact continues to grow deeper.
Growing up, my father gave me quarters to put into the jukebox at his favorite old watering hole, Pat’s Tavern. There were so many great tunes to choose from that always brought a little joy and cheer, like The Coasters’ “Charlie Brown,” which made me laugh when the low voice would say, “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?” Or the upbeat “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors, which made you want to move.
As the songs played, I would find myself over at the piano in the corner of Pat’s and playing chords and hitting notes to try and pick out the melodies I heard. One night, a man at the bar saw me playing, and after a few minutes, he and my father were talking about my accordion lessons. Dad told him that one day I was going to be a famous musician and play in front of thousands someday.
I felt embarrassed. “Dad, don’t say that … I don’t …”
He gave me his confident glance while sitting there at the bar. “Son, you’ve got special music in you. You’re gonna write and play it, and the world will know about you when you’ve grown up.”
As I sipped my ginger ale, I knew Dad had a vision for me and music.
Years later and Dad continued to support me, giving me advice that would later inspire great hits, lending me money when times got tough and showing me how to be loving father and husband. In 1987 after two rounds of radiation, the cancer center sent him home with three months to live. During those last difficult months of my father’s life, I couldn’t help but look back and reflect on growing up with a father who also was my greatest hero. I recalled how he guided me with his hand and showed me what it meant to be a man. My father had been dedicated to his family and had sworn never to let us down.
Two days before my Dad passed, I whispered the lyrics of “My Old Man” in his ear. “There’s no love that could ever take the place of me and my old man,” I gently sang to the one who understood the most why I needed to play music and sing songs in the first place.
My father’s eyes were open when I discovered he had passed away. I’ll never forget that day and just like in the movies, I gently closed his eyes and was struck by how handsome he was.
After we spread his ashes and began to find a new sense of normalcy, I wondered how I was supposed to move on now that my father was gone. I reflect on everyone who had offered prayers and support during this time. As I shifted through the cards and letters, I found a handwritten letter addressed to me from my aunt in Arkansas. In this letter, a single sentence stood out and caused me to stop and reread it multiple times.
“I’m so happy you have harvested His beliefs.”
Holding the paper in my hand, I thought about what she meant. I noticed how she capitalized the word His. Harvested his beliefs? Is she talking about Dad’s belief in me? Or does she mean God? Is she talking about Dad’s faith?
I realized that my aunt might have been talking about both of these things. I couldn’t help thinking of how my dad was always pushing me. About how a man needed to live a life that required respect and that required faith. Dad would always be giving me encouragement and advice, adding that he knew I would make it because I was his son. “You’re my son. You’re a Friga, and you don’t quit.”
I could see him kneeling in church and praying.
I could smell Pat’s Tavern while I played and he bragged.
I could feel my fingers playing the accordion.
I could hear him urging me on and on and on and on. That I’d make it. That one day I’d be famous and play for thousands.
“Stick to your guns.”
“Don’t stop believin’.”
Thanks to this little letter, I realized I didn’t need any more guiding and encouraging from my father. He would always be with me. I had been busy harvesting his beliefs, and I couldn’t stop now.
I have more crops to gather, Dad. The fields are still full of them.
Jonathan Cain is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a member of Journey and the co-writer of the bestselling catalog rock song in iTunes history, Don’t Stop Believin’. This piece was adapted from his 2018 book “Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, The Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations.”