Monday, May 14, 2012

Dad is 60

This is a gift I gave my father for his 60th birthday. I went old school and made him a biographical mixed CD.

I don't know how much you'll appreciate this CD. I never got the sense—from you or mom—that music was a big important part of your lives. Clearly you enjoy music, but it always seemed peripheral in your lives. From my point of view there is no greater gift than the gift of music. A music compilation from the heart of a loved one, even if I hate the music, is something I would always cherish. I've picked a set of songs, most of which you've probably never heard, that I think you could like because they have close roots to country music, which is the only music I've know you to listen to (besides Elvis). The songs are in approximate chronological order of when I first heard them, or when they became important to my life. Although I spent most of high school and college listening to music that bore little to no resemblance to country music, I believe its constant presence in our home greatly influenced the music I love today as well as affected some very important parts of my life that aren't really related to music directly. So this CD is a tribute to you and mom, a thank you of sorts, for not raising us on shitty music. The list of songs also represent things in my life that I find important and I think you would want to know about your son, even if the song isn't exactly something you would appreciate on its own.

This first song was picked partially to set the mood of the CD. In addition I probably have an overly romanticized ideal about how love is suppose to work; I attribute many of these ideals to the country music I grew up on, and this song I would say is one of the best (if not the best) country song ever written. When I heard it, before I ever knew Robyn, I hoped and prayed I'd one day have a love like that. That I could love some one so well, too well. To whatever degree I'm succeeding at that aim, this song deserves credit for some part of it.

From the 11th grade until I graduated college I probably listened to this album four to five times a week. I have fallen to sleep listening to these heart felt melodies more than any other. They've latched onto my soul and found a permanent place in my life. A union born of dreams, born of dark nights, born of a great aching belief that one day I'd share in a love big enough to fill the Earth. Each song represents in my mind some stage of mine and Robyn's early courtships. A lot of failure, a lot of hope, and some really great moments. This particular song is my favorite on the CD, but the CD is so good (probably my all time favorite) that over half the songs on the album at one time or another have been my favorite.

I feared I'd have to leave Nine Inch Nails off the CD because they don't match the tone at all but then remembered I had this version of the song around and rejoiced with the perfection of it. It's probably hyperbole but I feel that without Nine Inch Nails getting through high school would have been much harder than it was. With this music I was introduced to lyrics and music that spoke to my frustrations and pains. I felt a sense of belonging that had been missing in my teen years. It filled a large painful void that our exit from Indiana created. So a compilation CD from me without NIN on it is inconceivable. I don't know how you guys felt about NIN and Marilyn Manson, but I'm eternally grateful to the freedom and trust you placed in me to allow me to select the music I listened to and I assure you that the net affect of their music upon me has been incredibly positive. I don't know if you realize how important that was for me and how it wasn't a common thing amongst my friends and their parents. So again, thank you.

Another great country song. Included here because it is the reason Robyn and I became good friends so fast. The first time she met me I was at her neighbors house with Jason. We were out front and I was singing a version of this song but I changed “horses” to “turkeys.” Robyn came over in the middle of it and was interested in the gothic/industrial kid who knew country music well enough to sing it and alter it on the fly. It took about seven years of major convincing after that, but this was the first little hook that tapped into her heart and eventually bound us together.

There's too much piano and not enough guitar to be really country, but here it is. Tori was the first music Robyn introduced me to, so this album is tied to her and our courtship in my mind as well. Most of her songs from this album deal with a lot of issues that girls seem to identify with better, but this song I think captures a certain aspect of growing up that belongs to both genders. We were all little kids once, with our hands in our father's glove. And we all let go at some point. Eventually we all skate on our own, and bare the winter alone.

The thing about this song is that I partially love it because I'm convinced that the singer/writer loves it more than any other song has ever been loved. I don't know how to explain it, but his voice just tells me that he knows that he has something amazing here, something to be cherished. There is a minor religious tone that meanders through the song and all the talk of snow and old men reminds me of Idaho and family (even though it's about South Georgia).

Country music has made me a sucker for sad songs. I don't know that I've heard a more heart wrenching song than this. The last two line slay me: “tell him I love him, but I am not returning.” Part of the greatness of the song is that it embraces the complexity of life. Some of our hardest decisions come about because we do still love those we leave behind. Life would be easier if all separations were spurred on by hate and anger. But life isn't lived as such.

I probably don't even need to say anything about this song. I mean it's so obvious. It's almost an embarrassing cliché to include it. I don't know what it was like for you “becoming a man.” But I've always felt like a kid. I mean even now, with a child in my house, I feel like a 34 year old kid. This song captures the awkward process of really growing up, a process I'm still in the middle of, and captures a new type of love that I can honestly say I didn't expect to enjoy so much. I can barely listen to this song without crying. That little girl, man, she, she, she makes me speechless. I stand amazed.

As I've grown older I've enjoyed abstraction and metaphors and literary depth more and more. If the previous song was the epitome of obvious this song is its polar opposite. It's dark, it's beautiful, it's vague. Without hesitation I'll say it is my all time favorite song. It resonates with me, it causes feelings in my soul I've never felt before. Or that I'd felt, but been unable to name. It's a song that overwhelms me with emotion. Check these lines: “you always told me. No matter how long it holds. If it falls apart or makes us millionaires. We'll be right here forever. Go through this thing together. And on heavens golden shore we'll lay our heads.” To me that is perfect. It's what I want out of life. A sense of joy and wonder and struggle, that no matter the results, if the trip is with the right people, then in the end we'll have our reward (because the the journey is the reward).

Don't ask me how to pronounce either of those words. This is one song that veers away from the country music feel I had going, but I think its worth it. The band is Icelandic. I couldn't tell you anything about what the lyrics mean. I don't want to know what the lyrics mean. But when I want to soar, when I want to feel alive, this song (and their music in general) does it for me. Somewhere in their music is the meaning of life. It feels like you're riding on the back of a whale, or flying like a bird, or running like a human through a field of wheat. The music feels alive, consistently, like little else I've ever listened to. If I were to send a piece of music out into space in hopes that it would one day reach an alien land and that the music would tell those aliens something about what it means to be human, this would be the song I would choose. Hear this, and be filled by humanity.

I have a great wife. One of the best I'm certain, for a lot of reasons. I don't know why I've been so blessed, what I've done to deserve such a quality life. Sometimes I feel guilty at how good life has been to me. Robyn is a large part of why I feel that way. Jason once said that you learn a lot about someone by looking at the person they love. So if you want to know me, then know Robyn. This song, and its main theme of forgiveness, I think is Robyn put to music. Understand this song and you understand her, and me by extension I guess. “May the voices inside you that fill you with dread, make the sounds of thousands of angels instead.” … “your swinging off those gates of hell, but I can tell, how hard you're trying” … “somewhere on the steepest slope, there's an endless rope, and nobody's crying.” The world would be a much better place if we all had Robyn's capacity to forgive.

Idaho. Josh Ritter is from Moscow, Idaho. Born and raised. So his relationship to it is different from mine. But the place, it will always remind me of you. Thinking of it makes me think of you, even more than it makes me think of mom. I don't know why. But you and that state seem inexplicably connected. It's nice to see someone with that sort of relationship to a place. I can appreciate that it means so much to you even though I don't know that I've ever had the chance to get quite so attached to a place. It's full of our family history. So many dead bones there. It's a shame I suppose that I have no desire to live there, but one place isn't meant for everybody.

This is sort of an extension of the previous song. I know you're not a “real” farmer, but your desire to be on the land feels farmy to me. And if I were you (whatever that means) I imagine this song would reflect well the struggle of staying in a place I love while my kids (and grandchildren) were elsewhere, out there. And I'm almost jealous of the feeling of being so attached to a place that you just can't leave it behind. It sounds magnificently painful. :)

I think one of the most overlooked, or under represented relationship in popular music is that about child and parent. This song nails that relationship perfectly I think, from both sides. It looks at things from the child's point of view as well as the parent's. The family make up in this song, two brothers and a man who has a wife and daughter, fits perfectly into the shape of my life. I mean come on, “make sure my daughter knows I love her, make sure her mother knows the same.” I see me in Berkeley and I see you in me. I'll know your pains and your joys. And in turn, one day, she'll know them, too. It's a beautiful chain.

This is a love song, but I think, it serves just as well as a celebration of family in general. “We came for salvation. We came for family. We came for all that's good. We came to break the bad. We came to cheer the sad. We came to leave behind a better way. If I am walking through the rain. And I hear you calling out my name. I will break into a run without a pause. And if your love laughs at your dreams. It's not as bad as it seems. If you take of my soul. You can still leave it whole, with the pieces of yours you left behind.” I don't know what it means to have a perfect family. But I'm so greatly pleased with the one I have. I'm grateful to you and mom and Frank and the love and life we've all shared.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Once upon a time I was a child. Like all children I was eventually introduced to the strange and mysterious world of adults. And, like many once-upon-a-time-children, that introduction was made by “three bad brothers.” These gentlemen, if I may, introduced me to a considerable and powerful set of concepts: pornography, violence, hypocrisy, girls, partying, drugs (legal and illegal), parable, and of course music and rhyme.

I was in early elementary school the first time I heard License to Ill. As a mostly innocent child eager to take in the world, to grow up fast, to be cool, I was highly receptive to their words. It’s been argued--and one might still argue--that the content of that album wasn’t suitable for a child of my age. But in retrospect I don’t think the messages I received from their music shaped me in any negative fashion. I’m grateful that my introduction to a lot of these concepts were accompanied by the silly and playful lyrics of the Beastie Boys rather than the more cynical (regardless of how true to life) lyrics of Ice Cube, Ice-T, EZ, and Dr. Dre (all of which I did appreciate later in life). 

License to Ill was likely the first tape I ever owned. I probably only listened to it for a year before moving on to other musics. But that year in Germany is inseparable from that album. I can’t listen to anything on it without recollecting fond memories of wandering the German countryside or riding my BMX around our neighborhood like I was some kind of badass (which I wasn’t). And so the album has forever had a place in my heart and the Beastie Boys have forever felt like big brothers to me, big brothers who had already gone off to college but who sent letters back telling of their wild tales and who, when they did visit, were always more than willing to hang out with me and my friends even if they were a hundred times cooler than I’d ever be.

I’m not qualified to speak to the quality of their music, I’ll leave that to others. But they own a place in pop culture that is amazing in its reach and power. I can’t imagine what it’s like for kids now to grow up with Slim Shady instead of the Beastie Boys. Sure the albums are still out there but you can’t expect kids to listen to License to Ill and get the same thing out of it any more than my parents could have expected me to have learned much from Elvis (sorry dad). 

I never bought another Beastie Boy album after that, so don’t confuse me for a great fan. But I do greatly appreciate their little place in my history and the much bigger roles they’ve likely played in thousands of their hardcore fans’ lives. I just want to pay homage to that greatness, that social importance, and the general manner in which they accomplished it. Bravo gentlemen, bravo. And at the same time I want to say goodbye to one of my early educators.

Two last thoughts. When I moved to Indiana there was a bully in our neighborhood who deplored me. I have exactly one memory of interacting with him that wasn’t negative. I traded him my License to Ill tape, my heritage, for his copy of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. It was a bizarre transaction on a lot of levels and I can’t help but force meaning into it. Clearly we were both going through a shift in music taste, but perhaps something else was happening as well. The Boys and Metallica made a bridge over a gap that I never thought could be crossed, and never again was. Perhaps I gave Adam that tape hoping he could learn about all those concepts in the same fashion I'd been taught and thus he could become a little more like me, a little softer. And perhaps Adam thought I could use a little metal in my life. Who knows? But it feels like a significant event.

And finally, there is a line from one of their songs that pops into my head all the time. I find myself singing it often, and smiling. It’s an odd song for me, and an odd line. I’ve never been in a physical fight (other than with my brother). I deplore violence, especially senseless and random violence. Yet, I can’t help but love these lyrics, which are now slightly melancholy, for they represent the loss of not only a big life but also a little piece of my childhood. “MCA was with it, and he’s my ace, so I grabbed the piano player and I punched him in the face.” R.I.P.