Friendship Advice From My Dad and His Best Pal of Nearly 50 Years

What's the secret to long-lasting friendship?

April 4, 2024 10:11 am
Two guy friends, one sitting playing guitar and the other on piano. Here's the friendship advice from my dad and his bandmate of nearly 50 years.
My dad and his best friend have been making music together for nearly half a century.
Danica Killelea

During the month of April, we’re publishing a series of interviews, essays, advice columns and reported features about the male friendship crisis in the U.S., a particularly troubling slice of the country’s larger loneliness epidemic. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so we’re breaking it down from all angles in The Male Friendship Equation.

I don’t know if your dad has a catchphrase, but mine has several. There’s “Thank you, my friend,” uttered earnestly to every waiter, cashier, hotel concierge, bank teller or miscellaneous stranger he interacts with. Then there’s “It’s good to have friends,” repeated like a mantra to my brother and me whenever we happen to mention a particularly kind thing a buddy did for one of us, or even just casually mention weekend plans to hang out with a friend.

Growing up, it didn’t take me long to figure out that everyone is Don Stiernberg’s friend. But for as long as I’ve been around — and about a decade before that, if you want to be precise — there’s been one friend he’s shared the closest bond with, one he’s been matter-of-factly referring to as his best friend for close to half a century now.

My dad and Steve Rashid share a profession (they’re both musicians) and they’re frequent collaborators, but Steve’s always been more like family than just one of my father’s coworkers. Shortly after I was born, he wrote and recorded a song called “Bonnie Louise.” When I was a teenager applying to colleges, Steve — who has a graduate degree from Northwestern — took me around the campus and introduced me to someone who worked for the school. (I didn’t get in, but that’s not Steve’s fault.) I have memories of crawling around his studio as a little kid and, as an adult, of him making me Old Fashioneds at his Christmas parties.

Everyone deserves their own Steve, a friendship so close and long-lasting that your family becomes his family and vice versa. And yet 15% of American men say they don’t have any close friends at all. It can be hard. People grow apart and fall out of touch all the time. But watching my dad and Steve interact over the years has always felt like some sort of private lesson in how to be a great friend; it’s certainly something I’ve tried to emulate in my own friendships. So to help that surprisingly substantial chunk of lonely men navigate the male friendship crisis, I turned to my dad and Steve for advice and a little perspective on how they’ve managed to stay such integral parts of each other’s lives for so long.

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But first, a little background: Steve and my dad met at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin — a small town of fewer than 8,000 people that also happens to be Steve’s hometown. Neither of them can recall exactly when or how they first met. (That’s what happens when you’ve known someone for five decades.) As members of the local music scene, they knew of each other before they actually knew each other, and the details of their first contact are murky. Steve remembers my dad calling him up at his dorm and talking about playing together. My dad recalls seeing Steve perform with another band and introducing himself. Depending on who you ask, this was 1976 or 1977.

“Somehow I heard that there was a jazz trio playing in the first floor of Scott Hall. ‘Oh, I should go see that.’ So I went, and at the end of your set, I went up to you and said, ‘Great set. I’m Don, and I think we should play music together,’” he reminds Steve during our Zoom conversation. The rest, as they say, is history — Steve and Don started playing in various bands together before both eventually relocating from Ripon to the Chicago area. Steve landed in Evanston, where he owns and operates a recording studio and a performing arts space, and my dad wound up 10 minutes away in Skokie after a brief stop back in his hometown of Wauconda, Illinois. And to hear Steve tell it, his friendship with my dad played a key role in his decision to venture out of Wisconsin.

“Your dad graduated a year before I did and moved down to Wauconda when I was a senior in college,” he says. “After I graduated college, I knew that I wanted to pursue music professionally. I had thought about graduate school, it kind of felt like that was what I should do. And remember at this point in my life, I had never lived outside my hometown; this town has 6,000 people. I was 22. All these catalogs came in for graduate schools, and I take a look at them — I just tossed them in the corner. I realized I kind of just wasn’t interested yet, but later I was. But at that point it was like, ‘No, I think I just wanna play music.’ But I didn’t know how I could do that, and I certainly couldn’t do it at Ripon. Don and I had become such good pals by that point that I remember leaning on [him] for advice, and at one point [he] just said, ‘You come down here and play.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I could.’ So, I packed up my stuff in my little Volkswagen Rabbit and drove down to Wauconda and stayed on [his] couch for at least two weeks, if not longer.”

Don Stiernberg (left) and Steve Rashid (third from left) with their band Special Blend, circa 1978.
Courtesy of Steve Rashid

Tip 1: Don’t be afraid to mix business and pleasure

There are some people who are wary of working with or hiring their friends in a professional capacity out of fear that it might somehow ruin the friendship, but both Steve and my dad go out of their way to work with people they get along with on a personal level — specifically, each other.

“It seemed to me that way more often than not, musicians are funny,” Steve says. “I always had a good time hanging around with musicians. They always made me laugh, and that was absolutely true in the early days and straight on through. I still think that Don is one of the funniest people I ever met— it was a lot of laughter. So, I think that certainly is part of it for me, what makes a friendship attractive to me is that somebody I’m gonna get along with. I’ve always said, if there are two bass players that I could hire, and they’re both good players and one of them is a really nice guy and funny, and the other is less fun to be around, it’s a no-brainer for me…. My life is busy like everybody else’s. I don’t get to socialize with my friends often enough. So if I’ve got an opportunity to do some work, I’m gonna hire my friends partly so I can hang out with them.”

Of course, the hanging out can occasionally get in the way of the actual task at hand, but it’s worth it as long as you plan accordingly.

“We might book an afternoon to record a track, mix something, et cetera,” my dad explains. “And that’s all cool. But at one point or another, I realized I had to budget into my schedule the two or three hours that Steve and I would just be shooting the shit.”

“There isn’t one specific year or day that we can pull out of all this where we announced to one another that we’re best friends. We just very quickly got about the business of being best friends.”

– Don stiernberg

“By the way, I never charged for that,” Steve adds with a laugh. “But in the absolute best way, I couldn’t say this in a more positive way, when I get a chance to work with Don, I always plan for extra time, because I know that we’re gonna wanna just hang out. I would much rather build into my day extra time to know that we’re gonna hang out, then we’re gonna go out for lunch, and we’ll get the work done for sure. But let’s make sure that we schedule this in a way that allows us to enjoy, especially at this point in our lives, let’s just spend some time enjoying each other’s company.”

After all, though their shared love of music is what initially bonded them, their friendship extended beyond it almost immediately.

“Sure, music was the first thing we talked about, but I have to think that it was not very long after that that all the rest, those other things started happening too by nature,” Don says. “There isn’t one specific year or day that we can pull out of all this where we announced to one another that we’re best friends. We just very quickly got about the business of being best friends.”

Tip 2: Don’t have an agenda

“There’s one very important observation that I happened upon several years ago, which actually occurred with another friend of mine,” my dad tells me. “He would call on the phone about nothing. I pick up the phone, ‘Hello?’ ‘Oh, is this Don?’ ‘Yeah, it’s Don.’ ‘What are you doing?’ That’s how I realized there’s no agenda, and I wish I could describe that more accurately, but I think that’s a real kind of core thing. You run into somebody that, for whatever reason, you get comfortable spending time visiting, talking and so on, and time and again come these calls that aren’t trying to get the other person to do something or trying to sell something.”

“It becomes active early on, and then you just stay on it. I think that’s what happened to Steve and myself too.”

Tip 3: It’s okay if you don’t see each other very often

“My truest friends, you might not run into each other for really long times,” my dad says. “But then when you reconnect in person or even on the phone, it always felt like a true friendship if that quality was involved, where you can be out of touch seemingly forever, but when you do connect again, you pick up right where you left off. No questions asked, no agenda.”

That’s certainly true of him and Steve. They’re fortunate that they’ve spent just about their entire adult lives living and working in the same city as each other, which obviously helps when it comes to keeping in touch, but they’re both quick to point out that being friends for almost 50 years doesn’t mean spending every moment together.

“We will go through periods where we’re on the phone a lot, and it’s seeing each other a lot, and we’re working on a project — maybe one of Don’s projects, maybe I’ve got a thing that he’s coming to play on, or we’ve gotta rehearse,” Steve says. “There can be a lot of interactivity for a while. And then we’re both off doing other things, he’s doing a camp, and I’ve got something else going on and we don’t even talk for quite a while, but then we pick it up as if it was like 10 minutes ago.”

“Yeah,” my dad agrees. “That type of friendship, at least I think in our case, established itself. It’s not like, ‘Hey, we better work at this’ or invest in it or maintain it or anything. It just is.”

Steve Rashid (left) and Don Stiernberg (right) performing at Rashid’s wedding, 1987.
Courtesy of Steve Rashid

Tip 4: Don’t overthink it

Friendships can be complicated, but the best ones always seem to come naturally and feel effortless. In all their years of knowing each other, neither Steve nor my dad can recall ever having an argument or getting angry with each other. (“We might be working on a recording at Steve’s studio, and one might say to the other, ‘Do you think the bass is loud enough right there?’ And the other one says, ‘Well, yeah, I think it is,’” my dad quips.)

“You probably know this, Bonnie, but your dad was a groomsman at my wedding,” Steve starts to tell me. “I was best man at his wedding. So that alone should tell you something—”

“But there’s another example of what I’m talking about,” my dad interjects. “Why did that happen? Because it did. What I mean by ‘it just happened’ was, you get yourself in a situation where you need a best man for your wedding. And you think about it and in my case, well, it has to be Steve. It took care of itself.”

Tip 5: Keep an open mind

What’s the difference between a good friend and a great friend? In many cases, it’s simply a matter of time. There is, of course, no way of knowing where life will take us or how long a new acquaintance will be in our orbit, but my dad points out that it’s important to remain open to long-haul friendship.

“The first thing is to be open to the possibility of running into somebody that you could possibly end up spending 50 years with, essentially,” he says. “You have to have an open mind about that. I would also say that you may want to look for that thing where these two people collide, and then the friendship starts to develop with no agenda. It’s not a business. You might be in the same business like Steve and I are, but a friendship is not a business. And so with a lot of people, you might ask them, ‘Well, what brought you guys together? What’s the basis of it?’ Nothing.”

Working in the studio together, 1994.
Courtesy of Steve Rashid

“Can you predict that? No,” he continues. “And you can’t predict what type of person it might be or where you might run into this person. It can all be very surprising. In our case, it wasn’t. We both love music, we love each other. But as far as tips for people kind of seeking friendships, looking for friendships to develop, I think you could boil mine down to those things: be open and be ready to be surprised. You probably will see that it takes care of itself.”

If you’re lucky enough for it to take care of itself, there’s truly nothing like an old friend.

“As things change and new experiences come up, everybody develops new friendships,” Steve says. “I’m grateful that some of the people that are newer friends of mine are also really great people and people that I’ve come to trust and people that I feel are good friends. [But] that’s different than an old friend. It’s like we can tell each other punchlines and we know exactly where it goes, but it goes back a generation.” He laughs. “There are a couple of phrases I could drop right now that we would know exactly where they started, where they originated. There’s something about that that’s really powerful.”

As my dad would say, it’s good to have friends.

Getting ready for Don Stiernberg’s album release show at Steve Rashid’s venue, Studio5, March 2024.
Courtesy of Don Stiernberg

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