A true story about a murder mystery, hippies in the woods, Catholic nuns, rock 'n' roll and my dad

click to enlarge A Criscione family photo
A Criscione family photo

If I ever have kids, the one thing I know is that no story I tell them about my life will ever measure up to the stories my father told me.

Kids can never truly know who their parents were before they became Mom and Dad. From the dinner table stories and the anecdotes he packed into life lessons, I've always understood my dad to have been two separate, but related characters. There's the guy with frizzy hair and a beard who hit the highway in a Volkswagen bus, who withdrew into the Pacific Northwest wilderness to teach himself guitar and made his money by performing in local taverns.

And then, before that, there's the carefree child from an Italian family in a suburb of Los Angeles who suddenly lost his dad in a mysterious, accidental murder-suicide.

The official account goes like this: My grandfather, Joe Criscione, owned and operated a car wash in the 1960s. He was a fun, life-of-the-party kind of guy — just like his son — but he'd begun to drink more as the family business was faltering. One day, he was in his office chatting with one of his close friends, Mike. As Mike was leaving, Joe pulled what he thought was an empty pistol out of his drawer and said, "I'm going to shoot you," but playfully, according to a completely bizarre newspaper article in the Pasadena Independent dated May 27, 1965.

Joe pulled the trigger, and he immediately knew he made a mistake. Mike slumped to the ground. Joe stumbled back in horror.

"My God, I've killed him," Joe said out loud. "I might as well kill myself."

"Don't do it!" someone shouted. "Don't do it!"

He did it.

The story is almost unbelievable, like a poorly written movie script. Was he really narrating his own actions out loud? Is it too convenient that witnesses heard the dialogue through the office windows?

When my dad, who went by Ronnie back then as a 15-year-old, got home after school, he found cars parked in the driveway. He opened the door to relatives gathered in the living room.

"What happened?" Ronnie asked. No one answered. He kept asking, "What happened, what happened?"

When finally he heard the answer, it was as if a glass wall formed around him, he'd later recall. He heard muffled voices and distant sobbing. He was present yet somehow detached, paralyzed yet floating, and suddenly without a father to ground him.

This is the version of my father that I've rarely asked about. I have a hard time imagining him being a vulnerable kid, because what he is now is the opposite. The dad I've known is the one with a guitar in his hand and a smile on his face — the old hippie singing songs and living the dream. How could that person have lost so much so young?

It's only been recently that I've come to understand that whoever my dad is, and whoever I've aspired to be, was created that day by two gunshots at a car wash.

When his dad died, Ronnie didn't cry for three days. He remembers it as a state of shock, a blur of relatives shuffling in and out of the house. He couldn't find any time to be alone. He couldn't listen to music, because people were always there and there weren't any headphones.

Joe Criscione, my grandpa, holding my dad and my aunt.
Joe Criscione, my grandpa, holding my dad and my aunt.

He went to school two days later. The principal called him into the office, and Ronnie thought he was in trouble again.

But the principal just wanted to ask what the hell he was doing there.

"I don't know where else to go," Ronnie said.

The reason my dad thought he was going to get in trouble at school is because he was constantly getting in trouble at school. He was like his dad, always joking around, laughing, the center of attention. But his private Catholic school teachers were nuns, and they couldn't handle a kid who wanted to be the class clown. They'd berate him and whip him and slap his hands with rulers. Once, in grade school, the nuns stuffed him in a locker for three hours for pushing another kid out of the bus. That actually wasn't his fault, my dad maintains to this day. Somebody behind him pushed him first.

Ronnie always felt like he wasn't living up to his dad's expectations, like he needed to be more. His dad wanted Ronnie to be a dentist. His mom and dad thought about buying him an accordion when he was young, but Ronnie didn't like it. His dad took him to Dodgers games, and Ronnie liked playing baseball, but he wasn't very good at it. Nor did he want to play violent sports like tackle football. "Ronnie's a lover, not a fighter," his dad would say.

At 14, he got his first guitar. My dad remembers that because it was the year he had to miss the first Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston fight for a guitar lesson. But he didn't really see a future in music. Everyone had a guitar in Los Angeles.

To this day, he laments that his dad never saw how good he got at guitar.

Even as a young child, I grew up listening to my dad's music.
Even as a young child, I grew up listening to my dad's music.

Neither my dad nor my aunt have really known anything besides the official story, that their dad accidentally killed someone before turning the gun on himself. It was only when my older brother dug up the article several years ago that I started to wonder what really happened. I recalled anecdotes that suddenly seemed incriminating, like the time my grandpa brought my dad into an empty house. It felt like the family had suddenly disappeared. Decades later, my dad still can't shake the feeling that they weren't supposed to be there. I've heard whispers within the family that grandma knew the "real story." My brother, sister and cousins have all semi-jokingly broached the idea that our grandpa was part of the Italian Mafia, that his death was the result of some deal gone wrong. But there's no way to know for sure. My dad and his sister, for what it's worth, have always believed the initial shot was an accident.

But that's not the question that sticks with my dad. What hurt him then and what hurts him still is why, even after killing another man, his father pulled the trigger on himself. Was he thinking of his son at all?

As a teenager, Ronnie had no one to talk to about it. There was no counseling for him, no extra support in place to help him get through it other than his grieving mother.

All of the sudden, the Beatles — who he didn't care much about when songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" were released one year prior — became everything to him. He glued his ears to the radio waiting for each new song. He spent hours in his room with his friends, adjusting the sound to hear every intricacy, every note. He saw them at Dodger Stadium in 1966, though he couldn't hear one word because the crowd just screamed wildly the entire time. But he laminated that ticket, put it in his wallet and told himself he'd keep it with him forever.

When he drove down Sunset Boulevard, he passed the billboards of all his idols: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, the Beach Boys. While his sister, a beautiful, classically trained singer, was majoring in music, my dad played drums for crappy garage bands in high school. Music was the one constant in a time when everything on the news was chaos — war, assassinations, civil rights protests. He was terrified he'd be shipped off to fight in Vietnam, and after Richard Nixon was elected president, my dad went to college if only to avoid the draft. He rebelled against societal norms. He rebelled against the Catholic school that beat the shit out of him.

And during all of this, he'd lost his only male role model just as he was trying to figure out what it meant to be a man.

click to enlarge My dad, Ron Criscione, has always felt the most comfortable with a guitar in his hand, seen here around 1980.
My dad, Ron Criscione, has always felt the most comfortable with a guitar in his hand, seen here around 1980.

"I didn't have someone to counsel me, or help me make decisions," he says. "I had nobody."

All he had was his music. With a guitar in his hands he knew who he was and who he was supposed to be. And ultimately, it led him out of Los Angeles and into the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

When I was 15, I decided that being a hippie was cool. And I figured it was about time I asked my dad for some suggestions to boost my credentials.

"What's some good hippie music to listen to?" I asked. He was confused because it was the same music we'd been listening to all my life. Still, I was newly fascinated with the idea in all the worst ways. I should start smoking weed, I thought. I should grow my hair out. I should stop caring about school.

I was one of those kids who was convinced I was born in the wrong era. The '60s, from what I'd heard from my dad, were the best time to be alive. How exciting it would have been to live in a time when new Beatles songs were coming out, when everyone was dancing around in fields with flowers on their heads, when it always felt like the world was on the verge of collapse. That last part may not sound fun to most people (and too real today), but to me it was evidence that the popular music back then mattered, that the art said something about the world we live in. This might shock you, but bands like Nickelback and Linkin Park weren't really doing it for me.

It's always been important to me that my dad approve of my musical tastes. He didn't like rap, and my mom didn't approve of all the cursing, so enjoying it filled me with immense guilt. When Eminem's Encore came out, my friend burned me a copy, and I listened to the entire thing in the back of the car coming home from a family trip one day, trying my hardest to stay still so it didn't look like I was bobbing my head to rap. (This is, I know, the whitest story you've ever heard.) Of course, I loved it. But at the end of the car trip, I took the CD out, waited for my parents to go inside, and threw it in the garbage bin by the curb. I was so proud of myself. Look at me, resisting the insidious dark force poisoning the minds of youths everywhere.

So when I asked for hippie music, my dad gave me some more suggestions: The Animals, the Doobie Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix. I illegally downloaded all I could on Limewire. Eventually I fell in love with a slightly later era, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin — not the music he loved from his high school days, but music he respected. I made some attempts to be a musician. I played percussion for the middle school band. My parents bought me a drum set but eventually I asked for a guitar that I played around with.

"I wasn't a hippie because it was cool. I was a hippie because I do believe in love, and I do believe in music, and those are the things that true hippies were all about back then."

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Any semblance to what my dad was like in high school was superficial. To wit, my favorite piece of clothing was a tight-fitting Dark Side of the Moon 1973 tour graphic T-shirt that I got at Target.

Like any teen, I didn't know my identity. I played sports, and that fact always dueled with my desire to be more like my dad. Really, though, I had no idea what that meant.

I never truly understood this until now, but for my dad, being a hippie wasn't about image.

It was like a religion to him. And music was the scripture.

"I wasn't a hippie because it was cool," he tells me now. "I was a hippie because I do believe in love, and I do believe in music, and those are the things that true hippies were all about back then."

And certain things followed that belief system. Leaving the busy city for the solitude of the woods was one of them. At the time, he wasn't consciously attempting to escape the trauma of his teenage years. But looking back, he realizes that his personality totally changed after the death of his father.

"I turned into an introvert," he says. "It was like I was in a shell for 10 to 15 years."

And he only allowed music inside.

click to enlarge The cabin he built in some woods 40 miles north of Spokane.
The cabin he built in some woods 40 miles north of Spokane.

He chose Missoula as his first outside-of-LA home in the early '70s. For a year, he lived alone in an 8-foot-by-35-foot trailer, which he says was like a tin can that whistled as the frigid wind blew in. He didn't know anyone around him, so he'd spend each night teaching himself how to play the guitar. He wanted to prove to himself that he could do it, free of any outside judgment. He didn't read music. He listened and let it flow from his fingers.

If his life were a movie, this would be the two-minute montage ending with him ready to make it to the big stage. But that wasn't his goal. He just enjoyed playing for anyone who would listen.

He fell for a girl who lived in the trailer across the way, and they decided to look for a place to live together. They settled on a piece of land in the forest, 40 miles northwest of Spokane. They built a log cabin there, got married and had a child.

When I ask my dad how he learned to build a cabin, he says he "got a book." They used a chainsaw to cut down trees and then they would peel off the bark, bleach the logs, gather them together and then nail them on top of each other to form an eight-sided cabin. When it was finished, they had no running water. The toilet was a hole in the ground. In winter, they skied into town and took showers in the snow.

He was a musician constantly on the road, driving to the next dive bar in Canada or upscale restaurant in Spokane that would pay him to perform. The idealism of the flower power era was over. By the mid-'70s, it was the musicians who could shred an electric guitar like Jimmy Page who were idolized. But my dad and his partner stayed acoustic. They played a few originals, but the sets were dominated by covers from bands like Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and those same artists he saw on the billboards back in Los Angeles during high school.

In many ways, he'd achieved the lifestyle he'd dreamed of.

And he came to despise it.

It turns out, living without running water or a toilet or a snow plow isn't all it's cracked up to be. He remembers one day driving down a dirt road when a song came on, he can't remember which song exactly, but it made it click for him: All of this — his marriage, his lifestyle, the person he'd become — was falling apart. They couldn't live like this any more — he needed money, a real job. He moved to Spokane. He split up with his wife. Meanwhile, my older brother could hardly form a sentence when his parents landed on opposite sides of the country.

One winter night my dad was performing in Canada and a guy approached him on stage. He told him John Lennon got shot. My dad says the news wrecked him. He finished the set and went upstairs to the hotel room. When he opened his wallet, he says the Beatles ticket — the one he'd saved from that concert at Dodger Stadium — was gone.

Today, my dad is almost 70 and he's going stronger than ever. He books gigs all over town in local wineries and restaurants with his band the Ronaldos.

My dad, who goes by Ron now, may have left the woods, but he kept playing music. He met my mom while auditioning for a show in Spokane, and as their relationship blossomed in the '80s, he built a career in real estate. He kept playing music on the side as my sister was born, and as I was born four years later in 1991.

For my dad, playing music has always been a sort of meditative, spiritual experience. He's able to immerse in his craft, like he's tapping into something greater than himself. I can see it when he's performing in a crowded restaurant, or when he pulls out his guitar in the living room on Thanksgiving. It gives him a sense of purpose that few have. And it gives me a feeling of something, too. Whenever my dad's there with a guitar, I'm at home.

I am now 28, and I generally consider myself nothing like my dad. At 28, he'd figured out how to survive in the woods; I still call him for help when my sink's clogged. He bolted from his hometown; I've lived in mine my entire life. He's the guy on stage; I'm the guy in the corner.

click to enlarge My dad (right) and me. His band, the Ronaldos, plays Arbor Crest Wine Cellars at 5:30 pm Saturday. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
My dad (right) and me. His band, the Ronaldos, plays Arbor Crest Wine Cellars at 5:30 pm Saturday.

But I've always reached for that connection he has with music. If I've ever had it, it was fleeting. I thought it happened once, when I was 11 or 12 on a trip home from a basketball tournament in Yakima. The car stereo was turned off and I leaned my head against the window. As I studied the sounds of the tires humming along the road, somewhere within that white noise I heard a song. It was unmistakably "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" by Crosby, Stills & Nash. If you would have asked me to memorize the lyrics, I couldn't have done it. And yet somehow I heard every single word and every single note, like it was playing softly on the radio even though it was all in my head.

I've often wondered: Did I tap into whatever place my dad is able to go to? Or was I so desperate for a melody that my brain picked up a frequency it wanted to hear?

For most of my life, I've imagined what it would be like to have lived with my dad in the woods, to drive around the Northwest in a Volkswagen bus, to have the same sense of purpose he feels when he has a guitar. I wanted to be there with him on his journey.

But when I piece together all of the fragmented anecdotes he's told me, that journey becomes clearer. It's like I can hear the melody through the white noise. I remember that teenage kid surrounded by a glass wall, suspended in a state of disbelief, and I know music isn't some innate calling to my dad.

It's an escape, a retreat into a world of his own making. With each song he gives us a peek inside, but it's a world nobody else can follow him into. Not even me. ♦


Wilson Criscione is a staff writer at the Inlander. When he's not exposing deep family secrets and exploring what music means to his family, he writes news stories on schools and social services in the area. Contact him at 509-325-0634 ext. 282 or wilsonc@inlander.com.

About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.

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