I write away death.
I was raised Episcopalian but am not a practicing Christian. I have deep misgivings about organized religion or any system where people are given easy answers to hard questions from others. I’m certainly no atheist and I can muster more faith than many, but my spoiled progressive world view does leave me treading water at the deep end when someone special dies and we’re all left shattered, with a part of us missing.
Jay Flippin was my father in law. I married his daughter Emily when I was 19 and we dropped out of college together. Well, it actuality was 7 years later before we grew up enough to decide we perhaps did believe in marriage and I was able to drum up the nerve to put a ring on her finger, but I was faithful to her in every way from that last week of school on.
You most likely know who Jay Flippin was if you’re reading this. If you don’t, pick up any newspaper in Kentucky this weekend and you’re going to find a half page spread on him. He was one of the most famous not-famous people around. He was an amazing Emmy award winning musician who played with everyone from Ray Charles to Ricky Skaggs, and he could have done anything anyone can imagine with his talent. He played piano like Thelonious Monk, I’m not bullshitting you.
Unlike so many blow hards with far less talent, Jay didn’t move to New York or LA to toot his own horn and hope to get rich. Instead he chose to become a big fish in the small pond of Morehead, Kentucky as a Jazz professor at MSU. He taught all sorts of intro and theory classes, lead the Jazz Fusion band, but was best known for his History of Rock ‘n Roll class which countless stoner freshmen signed up for with the expectation of an easy pass, only to learn they were in for a life changing experience.
His passion for music was infectious. Emily’s high school boyfriends before me quickly learned that when Jay would tell them “it’s time for you to go home” a simple “sure, hey is it true that Bootsy Collins played with James Brown?” would lead to a three hour conversation that would keep their hand on my now wife’s leg at the dinner table until midnight. Jay’s story telling is legendary, but he’s hardly the first bumbling professor who can wax endlessly on some topic of expertise — he just picked a cool one.
What made Jay so special to me, and probably to you, was his heart and kindness. This man knew what he thought was right, but never judged a soul. I truly believe that. Most of us put up a good face in public but are perfectly eager to talk catty with our closer friends about this and that after the fact. Jay didn’t know how to do that, and he wasn’t interested in learning.
Jay spent his life playing music in bars, but he didn’t drink a drop — and I don’t think he ever wanted to. I have pictures of Jay from the 70’s wearing rocker stripped pants that would make Mick Jagger jealous, but I doubt Jay ever pressed a joint to his lips, let alone inhaled.
When I showed up at his door, his daughter and I had just both dropped out of college with absolutely no plan what-so-ever. I had hair down to my belt, and I’m sure I reeked of weed (tobacco farmers in Kentucky know what they’re doing.) It was the early/mid 90’s and we were raver kids who were in an unapologetic rush to live life to the fullest before we died like our heros at 27. My own family was crumbling as my Dad lost his long battle with prostate cancer and ended his life full of regrets.
I don’t know what Jay saw in me. As a Dad of two lovely daughters today, I can’t say I know if I’d be very impressed with the act I had going on. There were countless reasons to throw some huge wrenches in the gears and get us to break up and go back to school pronto, but he never did. Quite the opposite, when Emily’s car broke down the man bought her a new one that happened to be manual transmission — knowing that I was the only one of the two of us who could drive stick. When my family situation in Cleveland became too overwhelming, he supported the dubious idea of us moving to Morehead to live in a 40 year old trailer next to the local jam band house. When I used to sit at his dinner table using vulgar language and ranting on about the evils committed in the world in the name of Christianity, he patiently listened and resisted the urge to even offer an opposing view.
He was no fool. I know there were boyfriends before me that didn’t get such benefits. I have no idea why he decided I was a keeper, or frankly if I would have been worth keeping without his faith in me. Jay Flippin was a man who could fill you up with love without you knowing it was happening. I can’t point you to some kick in the ass conversation he had with me or tell you that I don’t drink, smoke and swear today. I can say that I run a successful company that gives away free software that hundreds of thousands of people and organizations use to communicate their ideas online, including the Army and Planned Parenthood. I have two wonderful daughters that are beloved wherever they go, and Jay’s daughter Emily is a ray of sunshine to the people she touches in life.
Jay taught me that life is about giving energy with no caveats. A true Christian doesn’t force the homeless to listen to some sermon in order to sleep at the mission, they simply give the man a bed — and more importantly a genuine ear to hear their view. You then take the best of that view, the best of your experience, and tell them a story that makes you both see the world with a rosier glow. That’s the point of life. Shakespeare told us “all the world’s a stage” and Jay knew how to put on a good show.
Many close to Jay would wonder why he wouldn’t follow up on any of the many opportunities that came his way to make it big time in the industry. When your teenage daughter desperately wants to leave the hollers of eastern Kentucky, and ends up taking messages from Patti LaBelle on the phone asking if her Dad will come on tour, one can see why the typical adolescent realization that your parents are humans not heros might be tempered with a stronger than average sense of resentment. For a very long time I didn’t get it either; “Let’s get Jay writing jingles in LA, let’s get Jay on tour with whosiefrickle, what is his manager even doing???” as recently as our last trip to Kentucky this summer I was left wondering how amazing the “might have beens” would have been if he had just rolled the dice a little more.
What I’ve learned now is that his life was much fuller than any rich and successful artist on the radio will ever be. Sure, you may have had a great time that weekend listening to “Call Me, Maybe” and I’m sure a whole slew of people paid for a whole lot of their kids braces and tuitions on that song. I also know that creative team didn’t meet the people who had that ‘best party ever,’ and it was their CD not them who were invited to join.
I just shook the hands of what must have been a thousand people at Jay’s viewing today. There were little old ladies in rascals, business men in $300 shirts, and kids that looked like they were barely out of highschool — but not a dry eye in the place. There were people from church, Lexington Singers, Morehead State, Marshal University, bands that recorded last week, bands that recorded in the early 60s — every one of them was heart broken. Every one of them feels exactly the way we do sitting in this house on Sycamore lane. We’ve all lost the best Dad we could ever have. The only truly curious man you could goto with any idea or problem and get a honest ear with no judgement. We love you so much Jay.
I know Jay thought he was going to sing before God in the choir in heaven. I don’t know if I can really believe in a old bearded white dude on a throne up there that lets us in if we believe in Jesus but sends us to hell if we’re just as giving but are into Buddha, Mohammed or the Spaghetti Monster. My own beliefs have always been more around the idea that were all matter and energy, so when we die it’s like food coloring dropped in a river — we’re still just as much there, but our container is gone so we tend to dissolve into everything. Faint colors dissolve fast. Jay Flippin was no faint color. He touched so many people in such a deep and meaningful way, that I know he will be with all of us forever and he has fundamentally changed the color of the river in a way he never would have been able to banging out jingles at some agency in LA.
I can’t hope to have an iota of the positive impact on the world that this man has. I wish I would have understood earlier. He’s left us a lofty example to live up to. Goodnight Jay, sleep tight — you deserve it.