Family Matters

Rhythm Guitar

Stepping Out of a Big Brother's Shadow

Magazine Issue
January/February 2021
An illustration of a hand on a guitar and a child playing guitar

My wife, Vicky, and I were walking to our car after a concert one evening, when I felt a stirring of sorrow inside me. We’d just finished watching a delightful husband-and-wife duo perform a handful of oldies at a small venue down the street from where we live, the stands packed with Birkenstock-wearing Boomers. The wife had sung with a bluegrassy twang, strumming an acoustic guitar that melded with the riffs of her husband’s 12-string Rickenbacker.

“Tonight, we’ve got a special treat for you all,” she shouted to the crowd. “This guitar rarely leaves our house.” Soon, the husband leapt into Roger McGuinn’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The crowd swooned in a moment of nostalgia, ignoring for a moment our body aches, potbellies, and varicose veins, as the music transported us to a time many, many years ago. But as we left, the sadness hit me like a tidal wave.

“Vicky, when was the last time you heard someone whaling on guitar like that?”

We both paused.

“Joe would’ve been thrilled,” she said softly. “I wish you could tell him about it.”

She looped both arms around me as the tears began to fall.

Joe was my older brother. He’d recently died at age 69, after spending many years struggling with obesity, heart problems, and ultimately, kidney failure. His descent had been painful to watch. He spurned our pleas to get help with dismissiveness, dark humor, and sometimes anger. That anger was familiar to anyone who tried to get close to him. His rage was unchecked, filled with put-downs, sarcasm, and challenges. Whether it was me, his ex-wife, a significant other, or his children, his message was always the same: stop trying to control my life, and back off!

Joe had mastered the art of being angry at an early age, outdoing both our father and stepfather. He’d learned that anger gave you control. I, in contrast, had been our family’s accommodating child, under the illusion I was creating peace, a balm to Joe’s volcanic temper. Ours was a household that didn’t provide much guidance, but music was the great equalizer in our family. And boy, was Joe a talented musician! His anger would fade into the background when he played classical or jazz piano, onlookers lavishing him with the attention and praise he craved. Two years my senior, he took me under his musical wing, teaching me rhythm guitar while he, naturally, took the lead.

On summer nights, we’d run through our late ’60s repertoire of Simon and Garfunkel, Richie Havens, Laura Nero, and the Beatles. But collaborating with him could be as humiliating as it was enjoyable. I felt conscripted into his service at times, pushed relentlessly for our duo to sound better. He determined every song arrangement and shot angry glares my way whenever I struggled to keep up. Pick up the pace, he’d say with a frown. The next verse is yours, he’d communicate with a lift of the chin. In moments when we were in sync, he’d squint his eyes and give me a subtle nod. A miserly offering, but one that kept me colluding nonetheless, feeling as though I’d assumed an esteemed position in his discerning company.

Still, I knew there was no way I’d ever keep up with Joe. By 17, he was an accomplished pianist. He fell short of the admissions panel at Julliard only because his sight reading wasn’t up to par. A few years later, he got into the Berklee College of Music, only to drop out before graduation. I imagine it must’ve been challenging for him to compete with pianists who were equally talented, if not superior to him, given that he was so accustomed to being viewed as exceptional.

On guitar, however, Joe had more fun. It demanded less of him than the piano. His love of it led him to compose full-length songs and eventually brought him success as a jingle writer. But sometimes it seemed like this wasn’t enough. As he grew older, humble successes no longer sufficed for him. Not being exceptional was akin to being unworthy of love. It was a myth that dogged him, often at the expense of those who tried to get close to him.

On the drive home from the concert, I thought back with envy and delight at how in sync that couple had been onstage, how harmonious the woman’s singing had been with her husband’s guitar. There was no struggle for control, no monopolizing of sound. They respected each other. Joe and I never could’ve played with that kind of unison. Sharing the lead was nonnegotiable.

Even after marriage and kids, Joe refused to share the spotlight with anyone. Not being the center of attention implied that he didn’t matter. When his wife began excelling in her career, he raged. It eventually led to their divorce. And when his daughter took up work as a teacher, he chastised her—probably out of jealousy—by insisting she’d never make enough money. When I decided to change careers in mid-life and become a therapist, he mocked me, too.

Still, after the concert with Vicky, all I could think about was what it would’ve been like to share some of that night with Joe. I imagined what it would be like to call him. I can hear him reciting the history of who used the 12-string Rickenbacker first. He’d insist that it was John Lennon in “A Hard Day’s Night,” not Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. He’d talk about other bands, then proclaim that he didn’t know why all these details were stuck in his head. He’d talk about these performers as if they were peers he shared space with onstage. And upholding an unspoken family rule, I’d accommodate his grandiosity, knowing that if I challenged him, his mood would change abruptly for the worse.

In 1971, when I was just 19, I mustered the courage to play a solo gig at a small, hippie-friendly macrobiotic restaurant in Brooklyn called Nature’s Nest. Back then, small cafes and restaurants were popping up all over Brooklyn, hoping to capitalize on the success of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and its hipster vibes. Nature’s Nest was filled with a hodgepodge of tables and chairs and murals of exotic animals. The night I was scheduled to play was a slow one, with just a handful of customers. The owner and I chit-chatted while I pretended to enjoy the curried pumpkin soup and banana-honey walnut bread he’d brought out for me and my date. I was excited and anxious. My first—and unbeknownst to me, last—solo gig.

Joe should’ve been at Berklee, but as luck would have it, he came home to visit a friend that weekend. The second night I played, he showed up to the restaurant with his entourage. When I noticed his face in the crowd, I stumbled, mangling the notes on a few songs. Most of the audience didn’t seem to care, but Joe, in classic fashion, heckled me. “Man, you died!” he laughed, before looking away. I think he realized how much it hurt me, but he never apologized.

After the concert, a rush of thoughts flooded my brain: Did Joe feel left out? Was it wrong that I was onstage without him? Why was my independence so threatening? Why couldn’t he see how much he had taught me?

I soon realized that to stay in Joe’s good graces, I would’ve needed to stay in his shadow, but as I grew older and found my own way, I wasn’t willing to be his subordinate anymore, and our relationship became increasingly strained. By the time I’d started college, I was beginning to discover my own passions as an artist. While a part of me modeled my enthusiasm on Joe’s, he wasn’t a direct part of my success, and he reacted with anger and jealousy.

In developing my own confidence as a husband, father, and therapist, I could only offer Joe the choice to join with me on mutual terms. Our interactions were tinged by years of conflict and resentment, but I held on to the potential for humor, fun, and reliving the memories that solidified our childhood. As I watched the other relationships in his life crumble under the weight of his grandiosity and his body deteriorate, I’d sometimes revert back to the role of the rhythm guitarist, his adoring little brother, just so he wouldn’t forget how much he was losing by being so stubborn.

Long after we stopped making music together, one song could always bring us back together: Paul Simon’s “America.” Playing “America” was a tradition that began on the eve of my cousin Nick’s wedding, when Joe was 16 and I was 14. Nick was like a big brother to us, and our mother had decided to host a dinner party at our house in Brooklyn for him, his soon-to-be wife, Kathy, and our family and friends. Mom had prepared a wonderful spread of spanakopita, moussaka, and overcooked lamb—the staples our Greek family loved. All the relatives hugged and kissed. Before the night was over, Joe was beckoned to the front of the living room at our relatives’ insistence to play piano for Nick and Kathy, who sang a handful of their favorite show tunes.

Midway through the performance, Joe gave me a nod, and I brought out our guitars. We’d been rehearsing “America” as a special welcome song for Kathy. And so we began to sing, together: “Let us be lovers and marry our fortunes together. I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.”

By the time we were done, Kathy had begun to cry. She and Nick had connected through their love of music. Joe and I knew how that felt.

Even though, later in life, Joe and I no longer played together regularly, for decades we could always make an exception for Nick and Kathy and play “America” for them at family gatherings, until Joe’s worsening health took away his enthusiasm to play both piano and guitar.

In a eulogy at Joe’s funeral, Nick and Kathy reminisced about the many times they’d sung with Joe. His two daughters told the family how they’d always remember their father’s intensity, intelligence, and love of music. And in my eulogy, I cried and laughed as I remembered how often I was a target for Joe’s acerbic humor.

At the funeral, Joe’s daughters hung up his beloved Gibson guitar. As I stared at it, a wave of grief swept over me, taking me back to a time when I played well enough to share the stage with one of the most exceptional guitarists I’ve ever known and admired.

A few days later, I received an unexpected email. It was from a close friend of Joe’s, a lyricist who’d worked with him for years. “I have a sense that closeness with Joe was both a treasured and difficult thing to maintain,” she wrote. “Not just for you but for many others as well.”

It was true. As Joe’s brother, I’d been grieving long before he died, realizing that there was no one else in our family whose love I wanted more, yet needed to emancipate myself from in order to claim my own identity.

But even now that he’s gone, I’ll always be Joe’s little brother. Always at his side. Always his rhythm guitarist.



Robert Fontana

Robert Fontana, LCSW, is a husband, father, grandfather, and former therapist of more than 30 years based in Falls Church, VA.