I first met my dog, Aretha, on Christmas Eve 1994. I was
hangin' out with my buddy “Miserable Tim” Gernhardt at his house in LaFayette having a couple
Christmas Eve drinks on a howling cold winter night, when we heard what sounded
like someone knocking on the front door. I opened it, looked around, didn't see
anything and closed the door again.
A few minutes later the door rattled as if someone was pushing on it. Once again, I opened it and this time I looked down to find a little black puppy staring back at me, wagging her whole body. She was all ribs and bones with a tummy that looked like it had been blown up with a bicycle pump. I took her inside and we gave her some food and water. I immediately felt it my responsibility to find this little Christmas present come early a loving home; it’s something I soon discovered was easier said than done.
My mother Victoria’s place has been a satellite home for me throughout my entire adult life and at that time, I was holed up there. Though I’ve always had my own place, I’ve often ended up at my mom’s as we are each other’s only family in this country as my father passed away when I was 20. However, she was none too happy about me draggin' a puppy along back to her house and told me so, in no uncertain terms.
As I tried to find a home for the little black pup, who was
gaining strength with each passing day, I fixed up an appointment with the
veterinarian which addressed the worms, which contributed to her bloated belly
and cartoonish appearance. But as I saw her through it all, I became
increasingly attached and somewhat distressed that my mother was resolute: one
stray dog of a musician living at her house was plenty and she was not going to
be swayed, no matter how cute the new interloper was.
So, after being out one evening and having left our house guest in what I thought was a secured location, I came home to find her with my prized two-CD, Aretha Franklin box set, crushed between her little jaws. Her whole body wagged back and forth with great pride as she greeted me, showing off the precious item of mine. It was as if she knew how prized it was.
But I just couldn't get mad at this little black ball of enthusiasm, a pup the vet and I had guessed was a black lab/husky/pitbull mutt and who clearly just wanted to be accepted and loved. I took the crushed CD case from her mouth, picked her up, snuggled her and told her, “Your name is Aretha and you are staying!”
My mother was not impressed when I shared that proclamation with her, but being the very sweet, supportive and loving woman she is, she weathered the information with grace, even if she didn’t share Aretha's or my own enthusiasm for this decision.
I told her I would be getting my own place promptly, which she did not seem to believe (and I understood her skepticism). At the time, I was working for a company called Kerner and Merchant Pipe Organ Builders, building pipe organs by day and gigging at night, so in order to keep Aretha, I had to secure someone to care for her while I was at work. I eventually managed to find a house to rent and got together my pals Miserable Tim and Jose Alvarez.
Gernhardt was a mercurial performer, blues guitarist and singer, whose energy when playing seemed boundless and wild (complete with the duckwalk invented by Chuck Berry). He would climb atop whatever bar he was tearin' up at the time and his entire body convulsed as he hurled Elmore James riffs from his revved-up slide guitar rig, as staples of his show. Jose was the guitar wunderkind of The Roosevelt Dean Band at the time, and would go on to form Los Blancos with Steven T. Winston, our original drummer, Paul Roehrig and myself. So it was Miserable Tim, Jose, Aretha and myself as housemates.
Aretha thrived as the dog-child of this house full of blues maniacs. Jose spent his days practicing like a man possessed and caring for her. Tim, or Le Miz, as we nicknamed him, was an amazingly nurturing and dog-friendly housemate. He continued to care for Aretha throughout her life, sometimes for months at a time when I would go and see my family and play gigs in Australia.
She became like a musical dignitary in her own right and was well-known throughout the joints I played, festivals and bars alike, from New Paltz to Saranac Lake, where at The Waterhole No. 3, the locals with my buddy Doc at the lead, shortened her name to “Reta.”
She was an amazing beast, an alpha bitch to be sure, but incredibly sensitive and gentle with children. She was smart enough to be able to roam without any problems, avoiding traffic, and would visit people as I loaded in or out of clubs. She always seemed to find the cook wherever we went and would invariably secure herself some treats. She was stout and powerful too. At one point I had set up an industrial grade dog run for her in our back yard mounted between a tree and the post of the porch. She managed to pull the post from under the roof it was supporting while chasing a squirrel and invariably finding out the hard way that the dog run had a finite length and the squirrel was, luckily for it, untethered and had no such limitations. I was in the building trades, fixed the post back up, and found a new mounting point.
She had friends everywhere we went, humans, canines, you name it. She loved to play.
She would go on to travel all over with me and went virtually everywhere I did, including work, where she became the de facto shop dog and seemed to know just which slimy insurance peddlers--who haunt all builder and tradesman workplaces with terrible stories of maiming and disfigurement--to scare off.
She kept me warm when I would play in the heart of the Adirondacks in sub-zero temperatures while we both huddled up in the back of my van. I had a queen-sized futon bed built into the back of it, complete with a waterproof canvas cover over the bedding, which kept my bed free of dirty dog paw prints and commiserate mess and an ambulance style, 4-by-8-foot pull-out tray which would house my PA , amps and guitars underneath.
People would marvel at how I could stand the cold in a van
during the dead of winter and I would just tell them, “Oh, I have heater.” I did, and so did
I remember one Blues, Brews and Barbeque put on by WAQX-FM 95.7 under Dave Frisina's direction. I believe Gov't Mule was the headliner and I had Aretha tied up off the back bumper of my van (with shade and water of course, you ninnies!), when I discovered my friend's kids had been rubbing their hands on the cold cuts in the hospitality tent and letting Aretha lick their hands. It was totally gross, but she loved it, as did they. She was a funny chick, ol' Aretha!
As she grew older, she and my mom became even better friends and Aretha would defer to her, even more than me.
We traveled, we partied, we swam daily in lakes anywhere we could from the frigid early spring into the deep cold of late fall. She came fishing with me, she hiked with me, she came to work with me and, as I have said, she sometimes slept with me. One particularly awful evening, I found out one of my best friends in Australia, Jenny, had died. Jenny had had shown me the real local color and flavor of my father’s homeland and had helped me understand my own father by facilitating my inclusion in a very small and insular beach/farm community, which reflected the stories of his childhood home. My mom was with my sisters and their families in Australia and I had no one in this country who knew Jenny or my Australian family and that culture with whom I could share my grief. It was Aretha who gently nudged my hands from my face and softly licked up my streaming tears.
She grew ever more egalitarian as she aged, like a grand old dame, which she was. When we found out she had an inoperable tumor, I took her cross-country skiing daily, and as spring rolled in we went swimming every day, until it was time to put her down in the fall of 2007. My mother, Aretha, Miserable Tim and myself spent her last day with a swim at Skaneateles Lake, a spot she loved, and she ate a beautiful ribeye steak for her last meal. Then we took her to Dr. Zeigler, an extremely compassionate and understanding vet, at Stack Animal Hospital in Fayetteville and sent her home, free from struggle or suffering. It was a sad day but an unbelievable journey with an absolutely wonderful dog. She was, truly, this man's best friend.
Born in London, England to an Australian father an a British mother, and raised in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and later Syracuse, Colin Aberdeen has become a staple of the local music scene since he got his start in the late 1980s, always bringing an authentic take on the blues to every gig he plays. Starting with the Westcott Jugsuckers in the late 1980s, Los Blancos in 1997, as well as steady solo gigs along the way, Aberdeen has kept a consistently demanding schedule and is well-known throughout the area as a talented, sincere and genuine singer, songwriter, guitarist and music-supporter, known and loved throughout the community. Aberdeen also teaches guitar and can be found performing regularly, always with his signature Akubra hat, at the Limerick Pub, 134 Walton St., every Tuesday at 9 p.m., with Los Blancos at Blues Brunch at Empire, 120 Walton St., each Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Check our Club Dates section to keep up with the indefatigable Aberdeen.