Sad news from California has darkened the dappled-blue, fall Tennessee sky, 2,000 miles away.
There was a foreboding tone in middle-brother Theo’s voice-mail message this morning. “I have news,” he stated. “It’s something I don’t want to tell you in a phone message or an email. Please call me back.”
“Hi, Dad,” was my sister-in-law Cyndi’s answer.
“No, it’s Rand,” I corrected her.
“Why does it say Norman Bishop on the caller i.d.?” she inquired.
I reminded Cyndi that my legal name is Norman Randolph Bishop. As she handed the phone to her husband, I was comforted that at least I wasn’t about to hear bad news about my father. Over the last dozen years, Norm has confronted a seemingly never-ending barrage of health issues — triple bypass, prostate cancer, multiple bouts of pneumonia. When your folks hit their mid-80s, you live dreading that ultimate phone call. Then, it occurred to me that it might be Mom—so bulletproof (except for those soft, decaying teeth). But, I expected tuff-as-nails Jean to live another 20 years at least.
“I wish I had better news, Rand,” Theo began. I braced myself, shivering a little in anticipation. “Bart died last night.” Theo’s report was a brick wall for my heart. As the bearer of this unbearable news filled in the details—heart attack; his wife, Annie, finding him on the couch; how he’d complained of back pain over the last few days; of course, without health insurance, Bart hadn’t seen a doctor in who knows how many years.
I’m the oldest of the five Bishop boys. Bartley Graham came second—three and a half years after me. Theodore James was next. Then quickly, Gregory John arrived. And finally Jayson Matthew. Bart was the dark horse, the black sheep—literally. As compared to his fair-haired sibs, with our Scandinavian features, broad shoulders, and muscular legs, Bart’s Eskimo-like complexion and dark, curly locks, slender frame, and long, skinny legs inspired teasing that Mom must have stolen an “afternoon delight” with the milk man.
But, point of fact, Bart was the one of us who carried on the swarthy, mixed heritage of our father’s side of the family: the Bishops, the LaVies, and the Grahams. We other four were of our mother’s Finnish bloodline.
Bart never made things easy. As a baby, he suffered severe burns when he yanked over a steam vaporizer placed precariously above his crib. For years, those injuries put Bart in leg braces like a polio victim and he wore a scar across his chest that resembled a relief map of Africa. He lacked the natural athleticism of his brothers. But he always signed up to play anyway. As a statement of non-conformity, he insisted on batting from the left in Little League—when he was barely adequate from his natural right. While the rest of us pursued our musical inspirations by succumbing to years of classical lessons, Bart went the intuitive route. Aside from a few hours with a clarinet teacher, Bishop bro #2 was completely self-taught on the guitar, autoharp, keyboards and several other instruments.
Bart had a habit of bringing home strays—not pets, but friends. Growing up the outsider, he always had a strong empathy for the underdog. And, many of those castaway meeklings found their way to my family’s dinner table—at big-hearted Bart’s invitation.
He always admired me, his big brother, and so followed me onto the merry-go-round of the music biz. But, he always carved his own sound by creating new hybrids. Recruiting a group of Boise, Idaho classical prodigies, and writing dreamy, idealistic, artsy folk/rock, Bart formed Providence in the early ’70s. Fancying myself as a burgeoning producer, I took Providence into a Portland, Oregon studio and helped them make their first demo. That recording attracted the Moody Blues’ producer Tony Clark to fly in from London to see the band showcase in a circular Frank Lloyd Wright house in the high Idaho desert, a command performance that resulted in a record deal with Threshold Records. In the guise of his country/rock band, Bart also recorded an album produced by legendary Hollywood gadabout, Kim Fowley.
Above all, Bart was an enthusiast, a gamer. He was excited about being involved in whatever it was and threw himself into every endeavor—especially music projects, and later, politics—with abandon. On occasion, he could be overbearing, intense, too in-your-face. More than a few times, he got himself into some pretty questionable scrapes and a few risky situations—but always because of his natural gusto, never due to greed, or because he was trying to take the shortcut.
My brother had an innate passion for tradition. He was a student of country music history and a collector of vintage recording equipment. For awhile, he purchased the Sphere recording console company. The converted garage of the Valencia, California home he shared with his wife, Annie—where he helped raise his step-son Adam and shepherded his own two children, Graham and Jodi—was often littered with dusty odds and ends he’d wrangled or bartered from garages, pawnshops, and studios. Regardless of whether he was selling real estate or mattresses at Robinsons/May, he still tinkered in his own studio, writing songs and making music, always with that same trademark enthusiasm.
Over the last three or four years, Bart had found a new clarion call in a decades-old style of music. He transformed himself into a protest folksinger. He was so proud to be MySpace friends with his idol, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez. With the able production assistance of Theo, and even with some long-distance cello performed by our youngest frere, Jayson, Bart recorded an album of songs that reflected his idealism and railed against the injustices that pervade this misguided world. The last, so-far-incomplete project to which Bart devoted his unbridled passion was a tribute to his friend, Sid Bernstein, the man who produced the first Stateside concerts for The Beatles and managed The Rascals. I find it ironic that Sid will soon turn 93, while Bart will never see his 58th birthday.
There was never a better brother than Bart. He supported everything I did with absolute loyalty. When one of us was a little short on cash, we helped each other out. A year ago, our parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Some years back, the folks fell into a semi-permanent state of financial uncertainty, and I wanted to express a fraternal tribute to their enduring love by way of a substantial cash contribution. I thought, if all of us could kick in a hundred and twenty bucks, we could come up with $600—ten dollars for every year; not a lot, but meaningful. That seemed to be too much, so I reduced the suggested contribution to a hundred. Still, Bart and I were the only ones liquid enough to do it. I promised Greg I’d cover his part. Bart said he’d throw in for Theo and Jay. He was ready to take the biggest hit, even though he was still working a retail job at the mall. I talked him into letting me pay half. Bart and I came up with $250 each and the folks were thrilled.
Bart had a big-time fascination for our paternal grandfather, Albert Carl “Biddy” Bishop. “Pop,” as our father’s father was known to the family, was a WWI vet, a former minor-league pitcher (Biddy threw the spitter), and a diehard, itinerate salesman till the day he died, just shy of his 59th birthday. Bart was only a few months old when Biddy Bishop’s heart failed him, as he lay on the seat of a Jeep, in the showroom of the downtown Portland, Oregon car dealership he managed. Still, my brother kept his grandpop’s legend alive with a commemorative song: “Here’s to Biddy, you old baseball champ...” Bart often sang, with dogged commitment.
Baseball being a family tradition, I once bloodied Bart’s forehead with a Louisville Slugger—completely unintentionally, I swear. I was taking batting practice in the unfinished basement of our Spokane, Washington house, by throwing a tennis ball against the far wall. Always the gamer, Bart volunteered to be my catcher. Rearing back to take a swing, I blasted my brother right over his left eye. He cried out, I turned around, and blood was flowing down his face. It was one of dozens of times the Bishop team took stitches. I’m still sorry about that.
Brother, I will miss you more than you can imagine. I’ll miss your monthly calls and your daily liberal emails—and the friendly, back-and-forth email diatribes that would often distract me from the work at hand. I’ll miss talking about that someday when you planned to come to Nashville and how I was gonna school you on what it takes to write songs for the contemporary country market. You had so much left to do, Bro. So much more to offer. Yet, you gave so much already. I love you; and my love for you is unconditional and eternal.
“Here’s to Bart, the best brother any man ever had...”