I don't know where I read that phrase -- I think it might have been Stephen King's -- but it returns to me more and more often as I grow older, and popular music reduces me to a weeping ruin.
I was in my late thirties the first time it happened to me. My father, who was an Episcopalian Minister, died in 1990, and it was in the late 90s that I was driving to work, listening to a self-mixed cassette, and XTC's "Dear God" came on. It's the song that best states my beliefs about organized religion, and it's pretty, and why should it have been that when it came on, I had to pull my car over, and weep steadily for fifteen minutes?
Of course, it had to do with my father, and of course, the loss of a father is a wound that I could never heal, and that I will always after be incredibly vulnerable to. But it's not like it was the first time I heard that song since he'd died. At that moment, though, I felt his desolation that I could not bask in the love of a God who was to me imaginary, and I knew the horror in his heart that his beloved son was forever halved from Grace -- another phrase I've stolen -- and that and the knowledge that even if there were words of comfort I could offer him, he was beyond their reach, simply unmanned me, and so I sat, pulled over to the side of East Bare Hill Road, in Harvard, Massachusetts, weeping disconsolately.
(And, twenty minutes later, I was quietly but profoundly amused to be riding down the highway, being examined with Capricorn phlegmatism by a gorgeously-groomed animal regarding me from the back of a trailer sporting Maine license plates and a sign reading: "Caution: Show Goats.")
It's happened at other times, neither as explicable nor as memorable: Around 2003, after listening to Dire Strait's "Brothers in Arms," thinking of the tragic wastefulness of young men on distant shores killing other young men against whom they bore no ill-will.
And today, I saw it coming, and brought it on myself. This morning, on the way into work, I first noticed the Green Day song "Wake Me Up When September Ends." I have an odd relationship with Green Day. I ought to be a fan, but have somehow not crossed the line. And I associate them with a human being I love greatly, a loyal friend, a creative giant, a good man named Geoff Wade. There are a few reasons why: I first heard of Green Day from Geoff. He had seen them in concert at the Hatch Memorial Shell in Boston, and was relating with great amusement how the bass player had gotten into a fight with someone in the crowd. Geoff was -- and, I imagine, remains -- a real fan of theirs. He also sort of resembles their lead singer/songwriter, Billie Joe Armstrong, and, just as Armstrong comes through the punky toughness of Green Day from time to time with self-revelatory pieces like "The Time of Your Life" or "Wake Me Up When September Ends," so too, for all his joyful punk-rock affiliations, does Geoff have a very sweet, very soft heart.
So I worked through my day with Green Day's sweet song of melancholy, and my very distant friend, floating through my head. At one point, I googled the lyrics (and at another, downloaded an MP3 onto my smartphone) and one common search term that Google offered was "Green Day Wake me Up When September Comes Meaning." So when I got home, I googled that phrase, and found -- of course -- a Wikipedia article that told me that:
There was once much debate regarding the meaning of this song, one of the most common initial beliefs being that it was about the events of 9/11. In the liner notes, the song is dated September 10, and it is track 11 on the album. However, Billie Joe Armstrong has clarified that the song was written as a memorial to his father, a jazz musician and truck driver, who died of esophageal cancer September 10, 1982 when Armstrong was only 10 years old. In the live DVD Bullet in a Bible, Billie Joe started crying during the performance of the song. Billie stated, "I tried to fight it, but singing that song on stage and having 60,000 people singing it right back at you, it was just too overwhelming."
Okay, so now I have a stand-in for my dear friend mourning the death of his father.
In the meantime, however, before I had left work, I had a lengthy conversation with a very sweet Texan lady whose daughter is leaving shortly for Chicago, and she hadn't realized that the Great Lakes get big waves like an ocean. In discussing this with her, of course I had to mention Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
And when I got home, IM-chatting with another sweet lady, this one from Egypt, I mentioned the song before remembering that she's not up on Western Pop Music. But, because it's such a true representation of the Minstrel's art, a Ballad in the oldest and truest sense of the word, using music and rhyme to carry the truth, to bear witness to history, I looked up the lyrics and copied and pasted them into a series of IMs.
And when I got to "In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,/in the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral/The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times/for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald" -- even though I was only glancing at the lyrics, not reading, not listening, just copying and pasting -- my eyes were full of tears. And she wanted to hear the song, so I went to YouTube, and found her that music video, along with that for "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and -- after linking her to "Edmund Fitzgerald" -- watched both of them, the Green Day song first.
Samuel Bayer's video is nothing to do with Billie Joe and his father. It's a tale of a loving young couple who part with a terrible fight when the boy goes off to war, and leaving him terrified, and perhaps dying, in a foreign desert, and her alone and desolate without him. So I watched it, and listened, and was crushed twice, by Billie Joe Armstrong's loss, and the grace and artistry with which he expressed it, and by Bayer's devastating reimagining of the song's meaning. No, I was crushed thrice, for now, in my subconscious, Billie Joe Armstrong is Geoff Wade, and I'm hearing him cry out his heartbreak and never ending loss for his father -- who is not, in fact, dead. In my subconscious, I'm witnessing one of those dearest to me suffering a devastating loss that has never actually happened.
And then, far from recovered, I watched and listened to the tale of 29 honest working men snuffed out by the capricious power of the Greatest Lake. Did you know, in the video for "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," along with underwater footage of the great wreck -- the grave of those twenty-nine men -- we are shown the names, and jobs, and ages, and home towns of each man who was taken by the lake that dark November night? And each name hit like a physical blow, and even writing of it now, those names superimposed over simple snapshots of the lives of those lost men, tears threaten to overwhelm me.
I've heard those songs many times, sung "Edmund Fitzgerald" to myself while driving my car... And still, they have the power to simply crush me flat.
And I wonder at my increased ability to feel that keen slice of pain, and how much stronger that will get. And I resent the cheapness of that phrase, even as I accept its truth.
"The Easy Tears of an Old Man."