Dad You Be Killin Em: Leonard Smith

June 11, 2012

We have so much to thank our fathers for. In addition to teaching us how to ride bikes and be good sports, they’ve also been our sagely guides through life. As a small token of our affection, we’re counting down to Father's Day (this Sunday, heads up!) by celebrating our dads’ style, wit and wisdom.

What did your dad like to wear? As you can see by the above picture, my dad spent a large portion of his early adult life living completely in the middle of nowhere. He told me that this photo was taken on a "cross country ski trip over the mountains to a place called the Ruth Amphitheater in the middle of the Alaska range. That was after a two or three day violent snow storm, we are camped on a glacier. We flew out on a ski plane that got a running start going downhill on a glacier. The plane was single engine with only a pilot seat, we sat on our gear." Although those boots he's wearing look as big as planets, a lot of the other stuff he wore (and I've subsequently stolen from him) is still great. I'm not really sure how to define my dad's style—other than that it hewed close to heritage wear before heritage wear was ever a thing, which I guess is mostly the point of heritage wear anyway. He wore thick wool FIlson hunting coats, plain, loose, pocket tees, intensely thick flannels for actually keeping warm, and there is this brown, almost shredded Schott jacket that he passed on to me casually years ago, and I still wear to this day, despite the fact that it no longer provides any warmth and kind of just hangs off my body. At one point in the early ’90s, he tucked his t-shirts into his pants. Later on, my dad would become much more stylish. Actually stylish is the wrong word. He was always stylish, but as I became an adult he was much more vocal about the clothes he wore. I've never asked him about this, but I assume he's always had a latent interest in style, but opted for function in those early years. Turns out all those functional clothes are still great today.

What music did he listen to? My dad was never a big fan of The Beatles. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like right now had he been a deep Beatles fan. Instead, it was Van Morrison (Astral Weeks was a particularly formative record for me as a young kid, I remember hearing it in the house and imagining this intensely fat dude belting out lyrics from a van he lived in (why else would his name be Van? Little kid logic!)), The Band (especially the self-titled record, and actually anything having to do with The Last Waltz) and plenty of bluegrass that he saw live while living in Alaska. In one of the pictures below, you'll spot my dad in a crowd scene. That's at some informal Alaskan bluegrass gathering. It's interesting for me to look at it now, years later. Growing up in New York in the ’60s and ’70s, my dad got fed up with how messed up the city got, and jetted to Alaska before he was 20. Watching people in Brooklyn flat out reject city life as much as they possibly can by eating only locally-sourced products and, like, wearing suspenders or whatever and having that actually work for them makes me wonder. When my dad left, this alternative didn't really exist. Had it existed would he have stayed in New York and never left for Alaska? Probably not. ANYWAY! Music. Like fashion, music was never anything that my dad got deeply involved in, but it was an important—essential—part of his life. Based on what he listens to now, I think his aversion to The Beatles was more about their music not quite being rough enough—how it wasn't so concerned with reality. In the early part of the ’00s, he'd get deep into then-somewhat-forgotten bluesmen like R.L. Burnside, and I have a distinct memory of this one particular car ride where he played me a live version of Bruce Springsteen's "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" from the Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 record. It's unhinged and ragged and close to perfect.

What would he say? Does he have a favorite phrase or saying? Something anecdote-y. My dad was never big on sayings or advice, really. When I was first in college and thought I needed direction, I would ask my dad what I should do, hoping that he would give me a concrete answer so I could just do whatever he said. It was the kind of avoidance of decision-making that ran so deep, I didn't even notice it until he forced me to figure it out for myself. When I came to him with these dumb questions (don't let anyone tell you there aren't dumb questions, because the questions I was asking were dumb questions so I have proof that they exist), he would just say—after I'd talked in circles at him for ten or 20 or 30 minutes—"Well, what do you think you should do?" And then I would give him an answer and he would have tricked me into solving my own ridiculous problem. It's a kind of subtle dad wisdom that doesn't come easy, but what's even harder than gaining that wisdom by living your own life, is knowing when to step back and let your kid figure his own shit out. Also he often tells this story about how when he was a kid it was really cold out so he opened the window of his Upper West Side apartment and poured water all over the floor, hoping he could start an ice skating rink in the bedroom he shared with his two brothers. There's probably something there too.

Dad You Be Killin Em: Leonard Smith