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.