I don’t like the idea of providing narrative on my songs, much as I used to do it as a young fool, but I am going to do it here in the service of love to my firstborn son Benjamin. I would not want to leave this life without having been clear about this one. A number of planets lined up to make this important now, almost 20 years after the song was released.
This summer I had to make three trips to the West Coast within two months because of summer school sessions on each coast and my daughter Jillian’s wedding in Oregon. A daughter’s wedding tends to bring stuff to the surface. It’s emotionally overwhelming to focus the fullness of parental experience and love and at least some kind of fear of loss, or of a deepening of loss with one of the apples of your eye all on one day. After the wedding I flew back to DC to get my car and then began the last of these trips, a drive across the country from Virginia to California for the rest of the summer. There is a lot of empty real estate to cover between the oceans and all that space also tends to bring stuff to the surface.
I was eventually going to pass through Tucson to spend the last night of the trip visiting Ben, Stefani and their daughter Essence, one of my warmest fuzzies. Somewhere between Memphis and New Mexico I had a fitful night’s sleep that had to do with the changing dynamics, conditions and situations surrounding my relationships with my kids as they grow up, move away, marry, go off to school, and just generally individuate. Parents know that time is coming. I heard from a Jesuit priest once that, “There is a man waiting for you 5, 10, 20 years from now, counting on you to have made good choices and decisions on his behalf in the meantime.” He was referring to our own selves and the self we will surely meet 5, 10, 20 years down the road, but it could easily apply as well to those important to us. I tried to capture that sensibility in a song that I wrote, “He Fell in the Water,” recorded in 1988 for my album Relative.
He Fell In The Water
There they go
See how the children grow
One day I’ll see
If any ghosts come back to torment me.
Missed today the ones that I hold dear
Boys turn into men
Never seem to have the time again
Please, please don’t go
Did I tell you that I love you so?
No, please don’t go
Did I ever show you that I love you so?
They were so cute, so dear, and I had them come in to the recording studio when I was working on this song to simply be themselves. I recorded them while they played and then sprinkled some of the best parts into the song. Of course we cannot stop them from growing or leaving. It’s their work, and it’s parents’ work to prepare them for it and to facilitate it. We are left with only one good option for that person waiting for us down the road, and that is to actively learn to love them dearly and deeply all along the way.
A few years later, through a number of shifting circumstances Ben decided he needed to live with his mother some distance away. I was perplexed and opposed to the idea and was not sure how to navigate my way through it (I was the custodial parent). It was clear to me after a while that he needed to do this and so I reluctantly consented. My process was not pretty. I documented it in the song “Sea of Tranquility” on the Undercover album Devotion released in 1992.
I happened to have that CD in my CD changer on the drive this summer and when it came up I listened to it. I was already dealing with that stuff on the surface from the wedding and all, from the hypnotic real estate between the coasts, also dealing perhaps with my own senses of inadequacy for having moved to the East coast farther away from them and the many ways that complicates things. One gets an acute sense of the value of time in middle years. My inner real estate was thus fertile to process this song when it showed up somewhere between Memphis and New Mexico.
Sea of Tranquility
I was mortified by how raw, immature and narcissistic the first half of that song was! I somehow had made the episode all about me and my feelings. Now maybe expressing one’s raw feelings is what a song is supposed to do, but I was writing this from a point of view of an inner dialogue with my 13-year old son that was now spilled into a song released in a public forum. Lines like “Now I have to worry about a broken heart again, Oh no!” were completely blind to his process, what he might have been going through and feeling. All I could see was my own broken heart. I had a good idea of some of the externals surrounding the circumstance and had a right to feel intensely but I failed to put this into proper perspective and context. It’s a very bad thing for a parent to make their children’s experiences a reflection of their own. They need to be heard, validated and supported and too often our children are expected to accommodate deficient and needy adults. I fell short here.
I offer this in the way of explanation, not of justification or excuse. The twelve or so years of hard work and reconstruction I gave to myself later, the obvious path forward after the wreckage and unraveling of the Branded album had not yet begun in earnest. The lyrics sounded raw, immature and narcissistic because I was raw, immature and narcissistic. It was common for me, like many men, to express hurt in terms of anger. Hurt is too vulnerable. I can never take the words back or un-write them, but they truthfully reflect how I felt and thought at that time. There is no way to adequately apologize for them. But perhaps that is not necessary.
Devotion is an album of contrasts and dichotomies. It begins with the title song “Work It Out” where the mania of the workaday world is at once put into perspective by the transcendental encounter with hundreds of dolphins at the pier in the middle of the night. It is the same with “Sea of Tranquility.” It is the name of the place where Apollo 11 landed on the moon and the name itself is beautiful. The word “moon” is one of the first Ben learned. The lyrics at the end of the song recall a real evening when I held him in my arms and he did point to the moon, saying “Moom!” with the brightest smile, and saying it again, so pleased with himself as I was with him, not just because he had learned a word, but because I was holding him and because he liked that and loved his father and his father loved him. We always had such a great time together, a very special relationship that I feel I had been able to realize intentionally after the lack in my own relationship with my father.
This puts the whole thing in context for me. The first half is mania and while the episode was heartbreaking in Jeremiahan proportion (A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more), it all shifts when I find my center again, when I recall and remember, remembering once again and again that nothing else matters more than holding him in my arms. Tranquility. This is the part of the song that matters. This is the point. This part is the answer to the inadequate and misdirected expression of loss and grief in the first part and any narcissistic stupidities on my part over the next few years that came from it.
I can’t stop thinking of the Sea of Tranquility.
No, please don’t go.
I’ll always love you.
This is the point, the Sea of Tranquility.
I held you in my arms.
Did I ever show you that I love you so?
I’ll always love you.
I am your father.
I …I wish there was something that summed up my feelings on this post. I missed my father, I understood my father, I argued with my father, and all in one simple wordpress posting – I know what to say and I don’t know what to say, just like I understand and I know that I’ll never understand.
I think at times my father wanted the hurt he caused me to be the worst hurt I’d ever feel in the world and, yet, at times, didn’t realize he was causing me hurt. Your children are endlessly lucky. As are you. This singular post erupted so many emotions. I hope your children realize just how lucky they are. I nearly lost my father last summer. He was diagnosed with cancer on my mother’s birthday. Rather than tell us (his three children) the truth, he reacted in a manner we were were used to connecting to his drinking – irrational anger and yelling. Two days later, he sat us down and told us the truth. While I didn’t cry at the time, I did cry a month later when my mother texted me: “Can you bring Dad a wee dram of bourbon when you come? For his toddy tonight? Love, Mom” I still have the text saved in my phone. Yes, he’s flawed and still filled with the hurt his father caused him, but he’s still the greatest man I know. I brought him his toddy that night – Bowman Brother’s Bourbon, special to our family in many ways – and I sat next to him until he fell asleep. So many, many, many people came by to express their sincere wishes despite the extremely hot political climate of the time (a lengthy story in and of itself). The bond between a child and their father is one no words can ever hope to express. Your children are so endlessly lucky that you were capable of even trying, regardless of how you may feel about those words now. My father has nearly stopped drinking completely. When he does, it is merely a glass of wine with my mother or a glass of whisky with me. He never yells anymore. The last time he irrupted in violent anger, it was against a man that wanted to put down his dog, rather than calm him of his seizures and let him slip peacefully into whatever the Lord wished to be next.
I never cry. Ever. But when I do, it’s because I fear for my father. I know I’ve revealed more to you than the average student reveals to their teacher, but I hope I’ve even come within a centimeter of expressing what I wish to express and wishing that your children understand just how endlessly lucky they are. You are incredible. Really. It takes a lot to write down what you’ve written down, and even more to realize what you’ve realized. Thank you.
All the best in everything and ever,
Great thoughts Joe. Glad you shared them.
Next time you come out west/Oregon (or should i find myself in the vicnity of JMU), we must sit a spell and chat about our being fathers and sons and about our children and dads….and our faith…sort of try to roll it all up and of course watch it come all unravelled again 🙂
hindsight is 20/20
Joe – I remember that pic of Ben and you in Germany. I feel lucky to have been there, a trip of lifetime for me – singing too and meeting all those people, spending quality time w/ the women I love, and hanging w/ all you guys. Thanks for including and giving me that opp. I have read both your articles on “Father’s”, great reads. Your relationship w/ your father hit home for me. Very similar feelings and instances, but no regrets. He was probably my best life teacher, some on what to do and a lot of what not to do. I thank him for that immensly. One his greatest gifts was when I asked him if he could define love in one word what would it be (as we were eating one of his famous cheese sandwiches, w/ gobbs of mayo, on white wonder bread – a very healthy meal) Without pause he replied “give.” I know love is so many things, but I will take this one to the grave w/ me. It was meant to be and it meant so much in how I approach life now, this conversation w/ my great teacher – one that sticks out like it was yesterday. I try to remember it always.
Thanks for sharing brother!
Wow. I never new the story behind the song…Devotion still works as a favorite Undercover album, partially because of the dichotomies…the narcissism-the “I hurt” aspect of it…that rawness you speak of…ut of a transcendent hope. Even as an agnostic, those hopes still dwell within me. But I appreciate the new aspect you provide with the song.
Joey, I know there are only about 5,000 of us that own an original copy of Relative on CD, but I’m one of them. And ten years after its release (and also ten years ago), when I became a Dad, I fell in love with He Fell in the Water. Thanks.
I have heard that you had become a pastor for the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church
in Northern California. I attend a sister church in Muscatine, Iowa. The song “He Fell into the Water” is a veritable master piece. I used to have the tape “Relative”, but literaly wore it out. It is out of print now. As they say in Israel, “Oh, well”. Thank you for your gift of music.