It was on a cross country train ride that my father instituted his first official act to curb my forthcoming love of music.
We were heading to Washington State. I was actually born in the Evergreen State and for the first time since leaving when I was very young, we were to return. Trains, then as now, aren’t nearly as enthralling as Hallmark movies make them out to be. I’m pretty good at staying still but I’m not good at staying still for three long days through Pennsylvania or the Colorado Rockies. Thankfully, a friend burned me a copy of a CD by a British band called Coldplay. The album was called “A Rush of Blood to the Head”.
AROBTTH is the kind of album that can grab a listener within its first ten seconds. The opener, Politik, is a noholdsbarred unleashing of pounding drums, wailing vocals and pulsing guitars.That’s intentional. In later interviews, they admitted that to be the case. I hadn’t listened to much Birtpop/alternative/indie/whatever-Coldplay-is before. But it worked on me.
My father, of course, hated it. He raised us on hymns, choruses and all manner of God-approved records. Upon snatching my headphones and hearing these same two minutes, he objected. He called it “nihilism”, a word I did not know and still do not know very well. He forbid me from listening to it for the rest of the train ride.
When we got back to New York, he gave me a book written by a Christian author who made a career convincing parents liked my dad of the impending Gommorafication of America because of music like Coldplay’s.
At that age, I was very cognizant of rules. Not enough that I wouldn’t break them. But that I’d feel incredibly guilty if I did and so I intended to not bring any music into his house without his approval.
Naturally, this did not happen. Beyond the rule being beyond idiotic, it was impractical. I had a radio. I had ears.
When I bought Michelle Branch’s the Spirit Room, it was doubly hard. First, I was a black guy buying a Michelle Branch record. Never had I felt more awkward in Target. After successfully smuggling it away from my mother, I rushed to my room and I quickly scanned the album sleeve for any lyrics that would have been questionable. I found something.
In her song, “Something to Sleep To”, she wrote, “He wakes up to the sound, scared that she’s leaving. He wishes she were still asleep next to him.”
Damn. This was a song about premarital sex. Suddenly, the Spirit Room needed to be smuggled like Anne Frank. Now, of all the singers my parent’s could have targeted, Michelle Branch probably is the 865th most worrisome. But at that age, I was convinced I’d brought the devil’s music into my house.
I stored it in the safest place I could think of: the radiator in my room. When it started to steam, I would pray the CD wouldn’t melt. Or catch fire. Goodbye to You didn’t seem worth burning down the house for. But it was. I’d listen at night and loved it.
As I know, I was never caught. And I’m still a massive fan. Buying my first Sarah Mclachlan CD was similar.
I spent an afternoon in my father’s office in our basement. I scrolled through pages and pages of her lyrics, hoping I’d find nothing objectionable so that I could buy Surfacing. Song after song I looked and I did not find anything “bad”. Success! Under no circumstances could the Wohners object to harmless expressions of love and friendship like I Will Remember You or Angel. It was beautiful. And I got excited.
That’s when I stumbled upon, what I was soon to find out, her biggest hit of all. Building a Mystery. Not only did it say FUCK, which was an automatic no-no, it was her anti-religion manifesto about a confused wander making razor wire shrines and voodoo dolls. I was floored.
Which is not to say I didn’t buy it. I did, indeed, using the money I won for winning my church’s talent contest singing a Christian song while playing the bongos. Music, I discovered, payed off in more ways than one.
All these years later, I love Michelle Branch. The Spirit Room is one of the greatest CDs I’ve ever bought. Sarah Mclachlan’s Possession is one of my favorite songs. As I type, the simmering “Do What You Have to Do” haunts my ears like it did when I was the wailing poet in high school.
Here’s the question. Would I love Michelle Branch had my parent’s simply let me listen and buy whatever CDs I wanted? Probably.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d love the things I love if my parents hadn’t told me I shouldn’t love them. That my CD collection under my bed was less about my love of music and more about defying my parent’s ridiculous expectations of me and my life.
I take this line of questioning to plenty other of aspects of my secular life. Would I still fascinate about the Pale Ale I drank at a happy hour last week had my father simply bought me a beer on my 21st birthday? Had my mother not banned the OC from our home, would I have spent a month in college watching every episode like an obsessed loser? I don’t want to love anything because I’m a rebel. Yet, sometimes, the only way to know how much you value something is to experience it when it is forbidden.
There are times when I think about how badly my parent’s lessons stuck with me and how strange it is how much better off I am that I didn’t. I love Coldplay and Sarah Mclachlan and all sorts of music made afer 1836. But I wish the motivation for this love felt entirely pure and my own. Baseball was a preapproved pleasure and now it is simply a passing pleasure. Not like the times I was supposed to be asleep but kept a random little radio behind my pillow in the morning.
One of my favorite quotes from the Bible was attributed to a man called Joseph. As if commonly described in the book of Genesis, Joseph was royally screwed by his family but, through the multiple calamities he faced, was able to achieve amazing things. Years later, when this same family needed help, Joseph dropped the gem, “you meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”
Now, while I don’t believe in God, the sentiment is still the same. My parents, in their overzealous fanaticism, never could have guessed that their efforts only would have lead me to the most amazing things in the world. And so I thank them.
Yes, I am the cliche. I am the prodigal. I’m just a cliche prodigal who loves a woman who can play a guitar.