The venerable garage band Dead Moon has a song called "Don't Speak Ill of the Dead". The last verse opens strong: "Some of my friends are gone forever/Paled into the light/Things I wish I could have said/As they passed into the night". But that's not the part that gets me. What gets me is the next line, almost an aside. The singer's voice dips lower into speaking tone, and, in a three word phrase, distills the pain of loss: 'Oh, I miss you'. The quaver in that voice says it all.
I miss you
My dad, Steve Rogers, would not have liked Dead Moon. Steve didn't like music created after 1955, though he made exceptions for bluegrass, Gram Parsons, Merle, or songs his friends played on their guitars on long nights in Mexico. When I was nineteen, he came to visit me at college. I was attending a hippie school, Evergreen, and for the first time in my life I wasn't embarrassed to be seen on campus with my dad, who, with his long grey beard, enormous pot belly, and penchant for tie-dye, looked like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Galileo. As we peeled away from the dorm parking lot in my decrepit '83 Toyota Celica hatchback (he insisted it was the nicest car anyone in our family had ever owned), I popped a tape into the cassette player.
"What is this racket?" my dad asked after a moment, sounding profoundly irritated. It was Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy. About as bluesy as rock gets, but still not bluesy enough for my dad.
That said, I always think of my dad when I hear Dead Moon. Because when you strip away all of the philosophical ponderings, and the "Why him? Why me?" those plaintive three words are the crux of it: pure loss.
The spring of 1999, and I was 20. I got the call. My dad, that great, sweet, jovial bear of a man, had cancer of the bile duct. The doctors, he said, his voice sounding distant and tinny through the line, told him he had six months to live.
I went and bought a half rack (at that age I would have been drinking something terrible, perhaps Budweiser) and drank most of it, throwing each empty bottle at the cardboard walls of my crappy, motel-style apartment. (Throwing, but not too hard--I never break glasses when I throw them. Cleaning up broken glass when you're depressed or angry just adds insult to injury.)
My parents came up to visit a few days later. My dad's skin had yellowed. He hadn't started to lose weight, but he seemed to sag, like a hanging, half-empty burlap sack. His spark was dimming: the great jovial spirit had begun to fold inward, to wither. My apartment didn't have any furniture (I was 20), so he lay on the carpet, hands clasped behind his wool newsboy cap. I played him a tune on the record player, the song I'd been listening to obsessively since I got the news: Free Four by Pink Floyd.
In retrospect, I don't know what I was thinking. Though brilliant, the lyrics are terribly depressing ("Life is a short warm moment/Death is a long cold rest") and seem to imply that life might just be rather pointless ("You shuffle in the gloom of the sick room/And talk to yourself as you die"). Such is the self-centered folly of youth. I liked the song because it had a kicky beat and the lyrics captured my own despair. Plus, there was a nice reference to foxes. My dad listened, eyes glassy behind bifocal lenses, and didn't comment.
But those were my songs. My songs as an erratic kid with morbid tastes. The songs that got me through the first dark days. My dad's songs, the songs that still stop me in my tracks, the songs that have become my songs and changed my life, are the old songs: Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Grandpa Jones, The Blue Sky Boys.
I remember early on: "Good Night Irene" spinning on the record player in the cool wooden house, while outside light hung dappled in the summer trees. I sang "Good night, Irene, Good night Irene, I'll See you in my dreams..." as my dad and I drove through the night woods, coming home from a long day in town. The crunch of gravel beneath our tires, the mouse nest smell of a country Datsun.
My dad was an curious person. He knew a little something about most anything: long dead Russian monarchs, Indian cuisine, photography, quantum physics. And he knew a lot about some things: cooking, folk art, the back roads of Mexico, how to live on the cheap, the roots of country music, the blues. Like many people with varied interest, his net was cast so wide that he was a bit of a dabbler. He could fix a car (though not necessarily with much of an eye for permanence), he could intelligently discuss the history of Haiti (though his knowledge base might have been a Michener novel), he played the guitar (indifferently).
Steve was a strummer, happy to let his more musically talented friends take center stage. Notoriously tone deaf when it came to singing, he nodded along happily to country classics like "Orange Blossom Special" or "The Wild Side of Life". The adults drank boxed wine in the living room and we kids ran around the house, freed from parental notice: all eyes were fixed on my dad's handsome young friend Morgan, who, eyes closed, was singing "Miller's Cave".
When Steve was really dying, Morgan, now middle-aged, came to visit him several times a week, driving an hour and a half each way from town. My dad spent most of his time on the couch in those last few weeks. He was not gregarious. For the first time in my memory he seemed truly depressed and cynical. Maybe death is hardest for the ones who really love life.
He was high on morphine, and his skin was stretched taut over the rounded bones of his face, which gave him an other-worldly beauty he'd never had in health. With his long, grizzled beard, he looked like father time. He didn't have much energy for talking, but he brightened a little when he saw Morgan with his guitar.
"Can you play "Miller's Cave?" he asked.
My dad's music suffused my childhood with a honeyed grace. When I was six years old, my favorite song was "Don't Fence Me In". I don't even recall which version it was, but I remember loving the verse:
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences/And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses /And I can't look at hovels and I can't stand fences/Don't fence me in...
I adopted his Patsy Cline albums, and played her greatest hits over and over the summer my parents contemplated splitting up. Paeans to obsession such as "Walkin' After Midnight" didn't really echo our family heartbreak in a lyrical sense, but the crystalline melancholy of Patsy's voice pierced to a deeper level.
And despite my adolescent love for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, my first big 'rock' show wasn't rock at all--when I was sixteen, my dad took me to see John Prine at Eugene's biggest venue, and I was thrilled to hear legions of drunk fans singing along to the songs we loved--especially my dad's favorite, a song that always brought tears to his eyes, "Paradise".
Even so, if you had approached me at age 19 and asked me if I liked country music, I would have denied it. The 90s country resurgence was booming, and the phrase country music conjured the specter of Shania Twain. Sure, I still loved my dad's country and blues records, but I didn't think of "Waiting for a Train" or "In the Pines" as belonging to any particular musical categories. At that age, those songs just weren't on my mind--they were my dad's music, comforting and there when I needed them, like the man himself, but I hadn't incorporated them into my identity. I was too busy sitting in black-lit rooms listening to my own decade-appropriate discoveries--the Pixies, Jane's Addiction, Sublime.
That said, when I returned home to Oregon to watch my dad die, I abandoned "Free Four" as my anthem of loss and instead turned to the old favorites. My dad's old friend Carl, who was acting as tireless caregiver, even introduced me to a newer country artist that I liked, Fred Eaglesmith. My dad, I thought, would have liked him too, had he had the energy to like anything. Carl and I listened to a song called "Carter" over and over again that summer. And even though Daddy wasn't named Carter, the song said it all.
When Steve Rogers breathed his last rattling breath at age 61 (only six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct), he was watched over by old cohorts, many of whom had traveled far, at great expense, to be there. His friends Irv and Robert organized a New Orleans style jazz processional (or as New Orleans as you can get on a gravel road in rural Oregon when the band mostly consists of transplanted New York jews) to the memorial site. When everyone was gathered we sang "Paradise", the final verse taking on a terrible resonance: "When I die let my ashes float down the green river/Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam/I'll be half way to heaven with paradise waitin'/Just five miles away from wherever I am..."
That night Irv and Morgan and company played music well into the night, and the man who had been happy to strum in the background was, for once, at the forefront of every song.
When I returned to college in the fall, I took my dad's records with me. Listening to his music made him seem closer; playing the old songs brought back a shadow of the good old days. I remembered some of the albums, but others were a revelation: Grandpa Jones yodeling sexual innuendo about peaches, Riley Pucket gravel-throated and sinister, rattling off tunes that straddled country and blues in the dirtiest fashion possible. And then there were sweet old spirituals sung in heart-breaking harmony by voices long dead but not extinguished.
As I write and contemplate these country and blues tunes, I begin to wonder if maybe "Free Four" wasn't so inappropriate a choice after all. There is a darkness in these old American songs as well, belied by the sweetness of the melodies: "Paradise" is about an entire county in Kentucky shoveled away in a strip-mining operation; "In the Pines" features a beheading and the loneliest refrain known to man, and "Miller's Cave", which includes the line "they laughed at me until I shot them", is morbid enough to put Roger Waters to shame.
Music offers us both redemption and escape. It validates our darkest thoughts while offering us a way out. Which is why this father's day maybe I'll kick back with Fred Eaglesmith, who sings: "Drive ins on the state line, that high and lonesome sound/ Wake up on that hilltop, Carter's in the ground/ Well, it makes you kinda hang your head, and cry into the dawn/ 'Cause it won't be the same, now that Carter's gone."
The searing pain of loss, made beautiful by song.