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Listening again

Updated on January 1, 2013
My son's favorite nativity.  He puts it up every year.  The orange kitten in the manger looks like one of our cats, Mordecai.
My son's favorite nativity. He puts it up every year. The orange kitten in the manger looks like one of our cats, Mordecai.
Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
And Justice for All stands up still.
And Justice for All stands up still.
Is it only me, or has Dave Mustaine lost his head completely?
Is it only me, or has Dave Mustaine lost his head completely?
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who should have listened to Deportees, and still should really listen to Deportees.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who should have listened to Deportees, and still should really listen to Deportees.

New Year's Eve with a Six Year Old

Some of my friends will have ridiculous tales to tell tomorrow about their last moments with 2012. I won't. I have a son. He is six. I don't take him to drinking parties or rejoice when he throws up inappropriately. I could pretend that I am full of sorrow and regret, missing all the stumbling, cursing, and giggling that New Year's Eve can bring, but it would be only pretend. I don't miss it. When I was eighteen, twenty, twenty-three, twenty-five, or even thirty, I would, but those years are gone, and I, now, prefer spending the drinking time with a six year old who wants to play his guitar and dance. He even lets me sing when it's my turn, and is a very gentle critic.

He started the night with "Voodoo". This is one of his favorite songs, and has been for a few years now. It followed the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" on his personal playlist. When he was two and a half he would march down our hallway intoning the drums from that song. Then, he turned three and started singing "Voodoo" instead. It is a little odd to listen to a toddler piping out a song about heroin, but so it goes. He likes the singer's voice and is stuck on the rhythm. The rest of it doesn't mean much of anything to him yet.

After "Voodoo", he sang the lines he remembers from Ozzy Osbourne's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath". He doesn't remember many of the words at all, but he has the whine down and fills the rest in with dramatic gestures and grimacing. At least it wasn't "Iron Man". If they had played "Iron Man" one more time on my local rock station in the eighties I think I would have gone postal. I was damn close.

Then, it was my turn. And I didn't sing any of the songs I loved when I was sixteen. I was a headbanger all the way then, with a core of sixties folk, folk-rock, rock, and blues I had inherited from my parents. Even while singing with the boy--teaching him "The Weight" by the Band, "Hard Times" by Arlo Guthrie, and "Me and My Goose" by Arlo, too--I thought to myself, why don't I sing the songs from my teenage years anymore? Instead, I am singing songs from my parents' youth, and songs that I came to later, in my twenties and thirties, or new songs I have heard on youtube or on satellite radio. What is it about that music, the heavy metal of the 1980s, that just doesn't work for me anymore? When did it stop resonating and why?

Eventually, I ceased to care and just had fun singing with my son, both of us belting along to "Brown Eyed Girl" which is the song I have long assigned to my wife in my playlist. It is her ringtone on my phone. Near or far, that song makes me think of her with the wonder I had when we were first together. I really should listen to it every time she pisses me off. Because of me, it has become my son's song for his mother, too. He won't tell me what daddy's song is. It's a secret.

When I try to listen to the music I liked in the 1980s, I am often disappointed, or just bored. Being needlessly hyperaggressive and angry works when you're sixteen. It doesn't work so well when you are forty. At least not for me. I am just not that angry kid anymore, and most of the time I find that the artists I listened to then had nothing much to say once the anger and youth is removed as a position of response. I am still angry, too frequently and too intensely to claim that I hit forty and became a disillusioned pacifist. It is our illusions that keep us angry, after all, our belief that what is does not have to be, that somewhere, something has gone wrong, been corrupted, or fallen away. However, what I have is not the anger of adolescence, and my sense of what to do with my wrath is different, less self-righteous and more (I hope) constructive, than it was then. I have seen too much, been exposed to too much that is different from me, both good and bad, to think that punching, kicking, and screaming are appropriate responses to the world, or that they will get anything real done.

First, do no harm. First set down for physicians, it is a motto that we can all use in our lives, privately, socially, and politically to good effect. I try my best to keep to it. A growing awareness of your surroundings, of the people who inhabit the world with you and who are thus creatures you can harm, and sometimes will, makes it more difficult to judge when harm is being done, and, when it is done, to whom it has been done and with what remedy it can be addressed. I could get nostalgic for the simplicity of punching the world in the face, but that would be an escape from the real that would benefit no one--not me, not my son, not the world we live in. Complications are better than escapes. The only way to put the genie back in the bottle, is to live in a falsified world; in the end, the person living such a life becomes capable of doing nothing or doing harm. Without an active awareness of reality, doing good becomes an impossibility.

So, I can't go back to the 1980s, except as a nostalgic exercise in remembering my former beauty. Forty is fatter than I thought it would be. Grayer, too. I find I can return to the 1960s, though. There is still meaning in the lyrics that is not coded to anger, aggression, and hyperbolic epics to hormones. Some of those bands were writing and singing about things that mattered, and that still do matter. They were asking questions. Often, they were incapable of finding answers. I relate to that. That resonated with me when I was sixteen, and it resonates with me now.

Instead of teaching my son Metallica and Megadeth lyrics, I am singing with him Arlo Guthrie, the Band, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Doors. We sing Green Day songs, and System of a Down. After he goes to sleep, I sit awake at a keyboard, listening to "Sad Old Red" and wondering how the Irish got so much soul.


Tonight my favorite Guthrie album: Victor Jara, Guabi Guabi, In My Darkest Hour, Massachusetts, My Love, etc.



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    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      My mother learned to like Ministry through her children. She started driving to work listening to "The Land of Milk and Honey". It was strange, but for the most part we shared then, and share now, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, and the Guthries--Arlo and Woody. There is art of the moment, and art that lasts. You can't tell the difference when the art first appears. You wait and find out if the resonance remains ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years later. Thanks for reading.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I have learned to like SOME alternative rock through my older children. But the music you are teaching your son will last forever! Happy New Year!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Ed - A wonderful, evocative, philosophical essay. I now have grandchildren, five and eight, but I could relate to so much of what you said Some music endures and is worth listening to twenty years later and much does not . . . just like literature and film, I suppose.

      I still like, in my fifties, some of what I liked at twenty, but there is much I have no desire to ever hear again. This aging - maturity things is an interesting process. Your relationship with and love for your son is endearing. Thank you for sharing this lovely, thoughtful piece.