"Who is this?" asks the boy, who always wants to know the name and artist of every song.
"It's..." I pause. "Huh."
I can't remember.
I know every lyric. I know how to play it on the guitar. My college band played it, and being the drummer, I was the one to kick it off, and set the tempo way too damn fast. (Also, I forgot that we changed the setlist and was supposed to be starting an entirely different song. Whoops.) I've been listening to Natalie Imbruglia's new cover of it for days on end now. If I could draw, I could probably storyboard the video, even without having seen it in years. (Or at least that was the case before I wrote this post.) I was outraged when it was used in a fast food commercial. I loved it when it was used in Valley Girl.
I know this song.
But I cannot think of the name of the artist.
The hit was so pervasive that it's not like this is some arcane bit of music trivia, like who was the first major rock artist to use Paiste cymbals or something. I can picture where the artist's catalog was located in the record store I worked at in high school. The band was the very definition of "one hit wonder." I'm working my way there...but no. I can't quite do it.
I'm crushed. How can this be happening? And it's not a temporary glitch: the song's nearly over and I still can't came up with the artists' name.
I can't believe this. This is the most
"Modern English!" I yell.
I breathe a sigh of relief. And then I simply sigh.
"This is it," I tell the Rose. "I have passed my peak. This is like peak oil, only it's me. We have hit peak Scott. This is the exact moment at which I have started my long inevitable decline. It's all downhill from here."
The Rose pats my knee. "Remember, Daddy," she says. "Once you've crested the mountain and start going down the other side? Well, a mountain looks beautiful from the other side of the peak, too."
"Hey! Why's the carseat over on this side now?" asks The Brawn as he gets into the car. Almost all his trips are taken in the minivan, and apparently, at some point, in this vehicle his carseat got moved from the passenger side to behind the driver's seat.
"I dunno," I say. "The carseat goblins must've come in the middle of the night and moved it."
He pauses, mid-buckle. "Are there really carseat goblins?"
"No," I say, and take over buckling for him.
He stares into my eyes a long moment and then, very slowly, he smiles ever so slightly and nods almost imperceptibly, with what might have been an attempt at a sly wink.
Sorry for the radio silence. What can I say? Other than Comic-Con, a few sniffles and the Rose having abandoned the family, things have been perfect. Which is nice, but doesn't lead to having much to say. (Not that that's often stopped me.)
I'll be back with more when things fall apart again, as they're certain to.
"Did you know the low for today was 54?" the Rose asks in delighted disbelief. Given that it was in the high 90s just a few weeks ago and she blooms when it's cold and overcast and if it's rainy? oh my. This is her way of making it clear it was a good day.
The Golden Weasel looks perplexed. "What a loafer?" she asks. Clearly she didn't know me back in college.
The two boys are watching Dora the Explorer as I'm doing the dishes, the younger one enthusiastically, the older one considerably less so; he's not a huge fan of La Exploradora, for reasons I've never understood, possibly because they're utterly inexplicable.
I hear Dora instruct her faithful viewer to call Map and, instinctively, I yell "map!" as I always do and have ever since our oldest started watching television. We hoped, as did the makers of the programs, that it would encourage the kids to be more actively involved, rather than simply passive viewers. It never worked, no matter how many times or how loudly I tried.
(The show did, however, lead to one of our family's favorite sayings, thanks to a then-young daughter who couldn't pronounce the villainous Swiper's name correctly: "Fiper no fiping!")
Except I'm dimly aware I can hear The Brawn join me in yelling "map! Map!" from the other room as I start scrubbing the pasta pot.
A moment later, I realize he's now yelling, "Dad! Dad!"
I turn off the water. "What is it, buddy?"
"It worked," he politely informs me. "We got Map to come."
The 16-year-old, attempting to prove to the Golden Weasel that as her older sister she does, in fact, know all there is to know, confidently states the prime interest rate at the close of business (on a Sunday): "C2."
The final exchange rate for the yen against the euro at market close? "Cumulus."
The Golden Weasel looks suitably impressed. The Rose looks at me to see if I'm as proud of her as she deems I should be.
I'm not. I'm twice as proud. Or, as she might put it, "Schrödinger equation."
We've got those word magnets on our fridge. We have at least the basic starter kit and the Shakespeare expansion pack and maybe another. We've had them for nearly as long as we've had kids, or maybe even longer? We go through phases as a family where we'll be more active and then through dormant periods, and even some dark times where the fridge has been free of "besmirch" and "verily" for a few months, until the kids find them and dig them out again. We've gotten some great sentences and phrases over the years and more than a few that made no sense but amused the heck out of the younger contingent.
So I'm opening the fridge today and I knock one onto the floor. The Golden Weasel says, without looking up from the kitchen table where she's been drawing, "what word was that?"
"Um..." I say, bending down and picking it up. "To. Tee Oh."
"Mm," she murmurs, nodding, still not looking up. "That's what I thought. It sounded like that."
There is nothing quite like the feel of one of your kids falling asleep on you. The way they get heavier and heavier, the way their head slowly sinks further and further into a position you just know can't possibly be comfortable, the way their little body—normally stuffed full of so much energy they can't be still for a moment—grows more and more still, all tension leaving, until finally all that's left are those one or two full body muscle twitches that tell you your mission has been almost fully accomplished.
A few days ago I read something about how every person on earth, at some point, their parents put 'em down and never picked 'em up again. It happens to all of us—at some point, we simply get too big to be picked up by our parents. But rarely if ever does either parent or child know it—no one goes, "right, that's the last time I'll be picking up little Bobby then." The kid doesn't think, "well, that was a good long run; I guess I'm walking to bed from here on out for the rest of my life." It just...happens.
(Naturally, the moment I read that, I went and picked up every one of my children living at home, even the almost 17-year-old, who went along with it patiently, but who looked at me as though I'd lost my mind. Which means: yeah, you, up there—I know you're reading this, Max, and you know what's happening the next time you come home.)
Top Management and I went and met one of her best friends from college and his husband for drinks last night, and I mentioned this little revelation, and it hit both of them as hard as it had hit us. Unfortunately, shortly therefore, I found out that the husband had lost both his parents a few years earlier, making it that much more poignant. I mean, it's not likely my dad's going to pick me up any time soon, even if he weren't 3000 miles away...but, you know, at least in theory it's possible.
So tonight I had some work I hadn't finished and I was tempted to get it done after the boys were in bed and before Top Management finished her evening shift. But instead I put on a Springsteen concert DVD and turned off the lights and had The Golden Weasel cuddle up on top of me on the couch while she's still (just barely) small enough to fit. And as I felt her going, I thought, that last time may be approaching...but, at least for now, it's not here quite yet.
The Golden Weasel, uncharacteristically, grows weary of drawing and drifts over to the couch. She picks up a book and begins reading—and, characteristically, it's aloud. Which is fine, delightful, even; I'm going to be very sad when I one day realize she doesn't do that anymore.
I'm only dimly aware of her voice chirping away in the background, as I'm working on Important Things, and as I'm characteristically much closer to the speakers currently pumping out music at an uncharacteristically reasonable volume.
Max, uncharacteristically home from college but characteristically on her computer, IMs me from nine feet away.
what're we listening to? bc i'm really enjoying the contrast we've got going here between the music and the story we're being read.
I pause and listen.
This is what we're being read:
And this is what we're listening to:
Talk about worlds colliding or, perhaps, two great tastes that taste great together.
I turn and see a commercial for a furniture store. We have a family policy about fast-forwarding through commercials, since about 95% of what we watch is from the DVR, but this is one of those rare live shows.
"If you go to that store," says the six-year-old in wonder, "you get a dollar."
"Yeah. You could go to that store every day and get a dollar every day."
"Buttons can't talk," says the six-year-old with affectionate exasperation.
I look up at the television. Apparently there's either a talking button I missed, or someone is under the mistaken impression that buttons can converse? Something like that and, either way, it's obviously absurd.
Never mind that on screen at that exact moment, a cow and a chicken are learning to square dance. That's just fine. But talking buttons? A bridge too far.
From 1973 on, Bruce Springsteen's career trajectory was more or less upward. Yes, his first album tanked after an over the top and ill-advised advertising campaign, and his second album did no better, despite showing significant artistic growth and garnering some excellent reviews. If his third LP hadn't been successful, it's entirely likely he would have been dropped by his label. Fortunately, he pulled a little something called Born to Run out of his hat and he never had to worry about sales again. (Which isn't to say he didn't—just that he didn't have to.) But even if he hadn't, it's likely he would have had a decent, if disappointing, career as a northeast legend, a sort of roots rock solo NRBQ. And although it's hard to predict how his writing might have progressed—or not—in such a scenario, it certainly seems likely he'd have managed to have at least a few songs covered by successful artists, further cementing his relative financial security.
But that's in an alternate universe. In ours, fortunately, triumph led to triumph. Born to Run gave way to Darkness on the Edge of Town, which led to the hit single "Hungry Heart," which led to the amazing solo acoustic album Nebraska, which led to worldwide blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. with its seven top ten singles, which led to the best-selling live album in history which led to Tunnel of Love, the only album to ever challenge Blood on the Tracks for supremacy in the I'm-in-love-and-my-marriage-is-falling-apart department. (Despite those two masterpieces, this is not necessarily a department you're looking to tower over.) Everything the guy touched seemed to turn to gold.
And then it went away. His marriage dissolved, and he broke up the E Street Band. His recorded two solo albums, the first time he'd used studio musicians. The results were Human Touch and Lucky Town, the first albums he'd released in nearly 20 years where the hosannas weren't nearly universal and verging on deafening. And with good reason: Lucky Town was, it can now be said objectively, a wonderful album, but Human Touch really is terrible. A few years later he released the quiet and solo but not acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad, a very good album with some brilliant material, but one which, despite winning a Grammy, didn't cause any buzz with a public that had moved on. A boxset of largely unreleased cuts was good-to-great but, again, Springsteen—while never in danger of going homeless—seemed unable to make a larger audience care again; even the ones who listened to him daily on classic rock radio didn't want to hear anything newer than 1984, and preferably 1978.
A decade-ending reunion tour with the E Street Band sold out everywhere instantly—and, what's more, was damn good. The final few shows at Madison Square Garden, in summer of 2000, were recorded for HBO and made news when "American Skin (41 Shots)," a powerful and incisive new song, was performed, addressing the killing of Amadou Diallo. A handful of cops walked out, egged on by reactionaries, while those who listened even cursorily a single time understood it—the writing was exquisite, but one had to be clinically brain-dead or actively try in order to misunderstand the song's point.
Bruce Springsteen was once again in the headlines, and once again, it was at least in part because people were stupid. But either way, he was a major rock star again.
And then came September 11th, 2001. The legend goes that a few days after the attack, a guy pulled up next to Springsteen, rolled down the window and said, "we need you." Soon after, Springsteen began working on The Rising, the first full album of new material recorded with the E Street Band since 1984. Although all the recordings were new, a few of the songs were written before the attacks, including the album's closing track, "My City of Ruins."
Performed just 10 days later, accompanied by Patti Scialfa, Steven van Zandt and Clarence Clemons, to open the live telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes, "My City of Ruins" was actually written nearly a year earlier, for an Asbury Park Christmas show, and was meant to illustrate his love for his adopted city, which had fallen on hard times since its pre-Vietnam war-era heyday. Without more than minor tweaks to the lyrics, and essentially the same arrangement (albeit a bit less New Orleans in the horns), the song was seemingly reborn as something of a salve for a shellshocked nation. The omnipresent optimism of Springsteen's words served as perhaps the first homily delivered following the tragedy that spoke not of vengeance, payback or even pragmatic response, but rather of hope. Or so it seemed at the time of that first broadcast.
As far as his closing tracks go, "My City of Ruins" is an amazing return to form for Springsteen, after the disappointment of 1995's Tom Joad's "My Best Was Never Good Enough" and win one/lose one doubleheader of 1992's Human Touch ("Pony Boy") and Lucky Town ("My Beautiful Reward"). The confidence and assurance of a master musician shines through every moment, all the more remarkable not just because it's his first time in nearly 20 years in the studio with the E Street Band but because, on this particular song, Springsteen tackles a genre he'd barely even brushed up against previously.
Rock, soul, pop, disco, reggae, funk, country, blues, folk, even jazz—virtually every major American genre had been at least broached by Springsteen at some point, and many were cornerstones of his style. But gospel was one genre with which he'd never reckoned. At least, not until the reunion tour. There, he not only converted "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" into a gospel-tinged endurance test stretching out for up to 20 minutes, he had a long, long segment in the middle where he did his best imitation of a preacher, even breaking out in the Reverend Al Green's "Take Me to the River." And beyond that, there was "Land of Hope and Dreams," the magnificent song with which he'd closed the shows. The gospel connection was obvious, not least because he'd interpolate the great Curtis Mayfield song "People Get Ready," but it was still gospel-influenced, not pure gospel.
Not so "My City of Ruins." From stem to stern, it's gospel through and through—or as close as a white guy from New Jersey who's a famously lapsed Catholic can get. Which, one listen will make clear, is pretty damn close, far closer than one would ever have guessed Springsteen could get even just a few years earlier.
The song opens with a tasteful Max Weinberg introduction—the first time any Springsteen album closer has opened with just drums. (Interestingly, The Rising has more songs [six of 'em] that open with drums than any other Springsteen album, except, oddly, Lucky Town—which is the only Springsteen album to feature one drummer that's not a member of the E Street Band—and The River, which is a double album.)
Immediately, the drums are joined by bass, piano, wordless vocals and, not insignificantly, organ—what instrument is more closely associated with the church, going all the way back to Bach and earlier?—with a descending line that will become a recurring element of the song, dropping down, down down to the searching subdominant IV chord.
There is a blood red circle On the cold dark ground And the rain is falling down The church door's thrown open I can hear the organ's song But the congregation's gone My city of ruins My city of ruins
If there were any doubt about the importance of gospel to this tune, the first verse dispels it handily, with its reference to church doors and congregations. After the first time Springsteen sings the title, there's some absolutely lovely guitar work—live it's played by the great Nils Lofgren, although I'd have bet that on record it was originally Little Steven—more than a little reminiscent of Pops Staples.
Now the sweet bells of mercy Drift through the evening trees Young men on the corner Like scattered leaves, The boarded up windows, The empty streets While my brother's down on his knees My city of ruins My city of ruins
Again, the religious imagery is obvious, with the brother—whether literally related genetically or not—on his knees, presumably in prayer. But this is Springsteen, so it's just as likely—or even more so—that it's not reverence that has him genuflecting, but exhaustion or dejection, an inability to remain standing another moment. (Of course, there's also the possibility, given the desolation of the surroundings, that it's neither of those scenarios, but something considerably more sordid.) But notice where the singer is: he's talking about hearing the organ wafting out from inside the open church, but he's singing about what's going on outside—he can see the promised land, but whether he's welcome or not, he's not inside, hasn't entered; they appear rank strangers to each other.
The opening two verses are significantly more downbeat than is generally customary for gospel, lyrically; and musically, although the song's in a major key, it surely feels like it's in the minor.
But then Springsteen pulls out the chorus, which manages to be both unexpected, given the preceding proceedings, and utterly right.
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
An organ solo from Phantom Dan Federici follows this exhortation, an incitement which comes across as of a decidedly earthly nature, encouraging his fellow sufferers to take matters into their own hands. (A word which will become a prominent player shortly.)
Now's there's tears on the pillow Darlin' where we slept And you took my heart when you left Without your sweet kiss My soul is lost, my friend Tell me how do I begin again? My city's in ruins My city's in ruins
This third verse is perhaps the most interesting, in that it turns even more personal—whereas before the singer was chronicling the sad state of his surroundings, here he pulls the camera in much closer...much, much closer, all the way into the bedroom, where we find that his beloved is gone. Was her departure deliberate, premeditated? Or the result of a horrific act of violence? We don't know and it doesn't matter, not right now: all that matters is the devastation it's wreaked upon the narrator.
Springsteen mentions the lost lover's sweet kiss, a motif he touched upon repeatedly throughout the rest of the album. But even more interesting is the way he seems to conflate the animate and inanimate here. When he cries "my city's in ruins" this time, it feels less like he's bemoaning the downfall of his town, and more as though he himself has somehow become it, or it him, as though their fates are so inextricably entwined, they have become each other. Springsteen has often personified objects—highways that are alive, calliopes that sneeze and wheeze, dictaphones that possess nervous systems. He's even dabbled in chremamorphism, as in the dreamlike final verse of "My Beautiful Reward." But this here is something new for him—something perhaps new for rock and roll.
And then he's into the final verse, a simple repetitive recitation, and the kind of call-and-response for which gospel is famous.
Now with these hands, With these hands, With these hands, I pray Lord With these hands, With these hands, I pray for the strength, Lord With these hands, With these hands, I pray for the faith, Lord We pray for your love, Lord We pray for the lost, Lord We pray for this world, Lord We pray for the strength, Lord We pray for the strength, Lord
The repeated chant "with these hands" leads to the obvious followup "I pray for the strength, Lord." But because, before that, it follows the words "my city of ruins," the line "with these hands" first leads one to think of rebuilding, of the very real hard work of manual labor, of hands clearing away the wreckage and beginning again with literal tools and physical materials and very human sweat.
And note who prays: not just "I," but "we." And they pray, and they pray, and they pray. And then they—and not just he—once again exhorts the listeners to rise up, and if it's now clearly the kind of triumphant call for the congregation to stand, it's not only that. There's also the sense of encouraging the listeners to pick up tools and get to work in this life, as the backing vocalists become first Springsteen's equal in the mix and then nearly overwhelm him.
Come on Come on Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up Come on, rise up
And then, exhausted, they sing the descending line yet again, and sink into silence, leaving only the piano to doggedly repeat the line by itself, falling, falling, falling into a state of semi- but seemingly not full musical resolution, the fate left hanging, until only silence is left.
Our freezer's malfunctioning a bit again. It won't stop making ice cubes, even though the bin into which the cubes fall is completely full, so when you open the freezer door, dozens of excess cubes spill out if you're carefully monitoring the inventory. It keeps doing this even though I've actually turned the setting to off. Some things just don't take "no" for an answer.
So I open the door this morning and see that it's now malfunctioning in another, at least more aesthetically pleasing, way. I reach up and snap off the result of the malfunction and hand it to the six-year-old, who happens to be standing right next to me, thinking he might like it.
The Brawn looks at the thing in his hand, puzzled. Then he picks it up and turns it this way and that, delighted by its shape and texture.
"Look!" he yells. "It's like a straight cold candy cane made out of water!"
Yes, buddy, it is. To those of us who didn't grow up in SoCal, we call such bizarre, foreign marvels "icicles."
The door to the boys' bedroom is closed, which is unusual for late evening. I knock gently.
"Come in," politely calls a distinctly unhappy voice.
I poke my head in, and see The Brawn lying sideways on his bed, an arm sticking up straight in the air, an extremely disgruntled expression on his dirty face.
"What's wrong, buddy?" I ask. "Everything okay?"
He sits up and frowns. He grumbles something I don't quite catch.
"You can't what?"
"I can't snap."
"Oh," I say, relieved that for only the third time in my fathering career, here's something I can maybe help with.
I have him show me his technique, and I correct it. Soon he's...well, not snapping, since there's no sound accompanying his movements, but his form is very nearly correct. All that's now required is some patience and some practice, two things for which six year old boys are widely renowned.
Then I have an idea. You can find out how to do anything online. I google "how to snap" and bingo. The ftop hit lays out the exact steps—all of which merely confirmed I'd advised him correctly—and the fourth or fifth hit is a video that looks like just the thing.
We click through. The Brawn mimics the motions, looking down at himself to make sure he's doing it right. So he misses when the video really takes off.
He looks up for the final few seconds. "Wait," he says. "What was that?"
I play it again. He watches silently. When it's over he just keeps staring at the screen, then turns towards me. He doesn't say anything.
"It was a joke," I explain.
"Oh," he says. He thinks. "Can we watch it again?"
We do. This time he smiles. When it's over, he laughs. Then again, harder.