My dad played piano from when he was about nine years old. Last Passover, my aunt showed me photos of my dad’s high school band playing at her thirteenth birthday party. At that age, all he wanted was a Farfisa organ. This was in the mid-to-late 60s, so this instrument was showing up in a lot of songs like “Wooly Bully” and “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” and then a little later on songs like “Time” by Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” Famously, Elton John also plays one on “Crocodile Rock.” While my dad’s uncle encouraged him to pursue the arts, his own dad didn’t. He worked a bunch of odd jobs and eventually bought himself a Farfisa. It became his most prized possession.
I don’t know how good he was, but he actually told me he played it in Television for one rehearsal. He said they realized they weren’t really a keyboard band and were more interested in guitars…
After that my dad worked a million different kinds of jobs in the music industry, which had him moving all over the place. He went to New Orleans where he managed the pianist James Booker, and instead of getting paid in cash, he got paid in piano lessons. He also did A&R for country artists including Kenny Rogers and No Wave acts like James Chance. He worked with ELO and DEVO at some point, too.
But by the time he met my mom and I was born, my dad had more of a “normal” job in the family insurance business and he wasn’t really connected to the music industry anymore. And in all of his moving around, somehow the Farfisa had vanished. When I was a little kid, he taught me to play music on a cheap upright piano in our apartment. The first song I ever wrote with him was on that piano, when I was in elementary school.
When I first started playing the guitar it was actually my mom who was more encouraging. She was the one who bought me a midnight blue Made-in-Mexico Strat with a 2-tone ska strap, right after the Josie and the Pussycats movie came out. I played that forever in bands, even though it wasn’t considered cool or flashy enough, or whatever.
I don’t think it was until maybe my nineteenth birthday that my dad got me a guitar—a legit, American-made Strat. I was getting serious about playing in bands, and thinking more about my gear. He was supportive, but also pretty critical at the same time. My old Strat sounded harsh and would fall out of tune all the time, and I think he thought it was time for me to step up my game. For him, the new guitar was kind of a business investment.
He got himself a new guitar, too, a PRS, but he was always obsessed with that lost Farfisa, always talking about it, getting it back. Whenever we went to music stores together, that was always what he was looking for. This was in the 90s, before my dad was very active on the Internet, so they were hard to find. But even later on, he was still resistant to online shopping. I think I got him on Netflix only after I gave him access to my account!
He did eventually use eBay one time to buy himself a Farfisa—not the exact model as the old one, but the closest one he could find: the VIP 400. When it arrived it wasn’t working well, and it’s hard to find people to repair them. He kept it in his apartment, surrounded by boxes. It was only ever semi-functional and he didn’t really play it.
In fact, by the time he got the Farfisa back he hadn’t actively played one for more than thirty years. I was in college at the time, and he was always trying to get me to come home and spend more time with him. I was starting to get interested in recording music, and I almost felt like he was trying to lure me back with the Farfisa, offering it for recording projects.
What I didn’t realize was how much it symbolized for him a venture back into his own childhood, what he lost that had been so sentimental to him—not just the actual instrument, but a reminder of how much love he had for music and how it had been what he really wanted to do with his life.
As I pursued music he was very concerned at first with me gaining practical skills and being able to have a “real” job—which I did up until a few years ago when I sat down with him and said, “Dad, here’s a financial breakdown of the touring versus the day job. Please give me your blessing!” And he did. We started to book bigger tours and festivals and he was so psyched about that, but he died right before our last record came out.
He willed the Farfisa to me along with some other belongings, but it was sold and I had to track down the music shop that bought it and buy it back from them. The price was super inflated but it was still worth it to me because it meant so much to him and I knew that he wanted me to have it. I have it with me now in my house, and I set it up in a small home recording space in my basement.
Given its condition it’s not practical for me to tour with it, but I use it to demo and write songs, and playing it has gotten me into other keyboards and synths, too. On our new record, I recorded all of the synths at home, and it’s taken me back to those memories of recording at my dad’s, and the stuff that took him back into his past, and ultimately into my future.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Sadie Dupuis is a poet, multi-instrumentalist, and the lead vocalist of the Massachusetts-based indie rock quartet Speedy Ortiz. She’s known for marrying clever, robust wordplay with wiry guitar hooks, and more recently, synth undercurrents. Speedy Ortiz’s forthcoming album, Twerp Verse, will be released on April 27 from Carpark Records. It’s said to be inspired by “the cutting observations of Eve Babitz, Aline Crumb’s biting memoirs, and the acute humor of AstroPoet Dorothea Lasky.“ Speedy Ortiz is currently on tour.