One of my happiest memories as a father is the night I took my son to see a musician who wrote one of the saddest songs ever written.
For close to 25 years, I’ve been a fan of cult singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, formerly with the 1960s folk-rock band Fairport Convention. My wife, Beth, and I chose one of his songs for the first dance at our wedding, I wear my Richard Thompson baseball cap regularly and I refer to my autographed songbooks to look up his lyrics.
Those lyrics, though, posed a bit of a problem for a father trying to introduce his very young son to music and musicians. The words are almost always dark, bleak, biting and bitter. The lyrics for arguably the Most Depressing Song Ever portray a man talking to an infant:
Life seems so rosy in the cradle, but I’ll be a friend, I’ll tell you what’s in store.
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow, there’s nothing to grow up for anymore.
Naturally, I didn’t play much of his music for my son, Nicholas, during his first few years. I stuck to “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden.”
As Nicholas got older, though, I played a few of his songs to ease Nicholas into Thompson’s world. I found that even songs with titles like “Tear Stained Letter” and “Wall of Death” could be fun for a little boy because the music hid grim themes behind funny lyrics, a beautiful melody or a foot-stomping beat.
I also wanted Nicholas to see him live, so I watched for shows, but they were always too far away or too late at night. Then I read that he would be coming to a theater just a few minutes from our home and I jumped at the chance to buy tickets.
I thought that Nicholas, now eight years old, would enjoy the show more if he knew more Thompson songs. So I kept his CD’s in heavy rotation at home and in the car in the weeks leading up to the concert.
I also thought my son would get more out of the show if the person, not just the music, was more familiar to him. I showed Nicholas snippets of a concert DVD and filled in Thompson’s life story a bit.
“Do you know where he’s from? London,” I told Nicholas. He had loved the city ever since we spent a week there, entranced as much by Thompson-esque tales of beheadings and torture as by rides in double-decker buses and London cabs.
The night of the show, I wondered how long Nicholas would last before falling asleep. It would be as dark as a Thompson verse outside by the time the musician hit the stage, since Thompson’s son, Teddy, was opening the show.
But I took comfort in the fact that we would be a father and son bonding over music by seeing another father and son bonding over music.
By the time Richard Thompson walked onto the bare stage in front of a black curtain, it was 9 p.m., past Nicholas’s bedtime. But there was my son, sitting in row F in a plush, red theater seat.
He recognized songs, listened to them and applauded. He laughed at Thompson’s many jokes. Then his eyelids started to droop. His legs curled up under him. His brown hair rested against Beth’s arm. His lids drooped some more over his green-blue eyes. I nudged him and the eyelids opened. Then they closed again. Beth and I looked at each other.
“We should go home,” I said. I didn’t want Nicholas’s memories to include his dad forcing him to slog his way through the show. We snuck up the dark aisle to leave half-way through the concert.
Still, the dad in me felt like a musician who managed to remember all the words and chords to a song at the same time that my band laid down a steady, supporting beat: Nicholas, without complaint, had seen one of my musical heroes live, and he would be in bed about 15 minutes later because we lived nearby.
The last song for which my son managed to stay awake was “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” about a man who rides a classic British motorcycle and falls in love with a red-haired girl. It includes the line: “I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you.” I don’t own a motorcycle and Beth’s not red haired, but I feel that way about her, and I feel that way about Nicholas.
And after he quickly fell asleep in bed that night, I hoped the concert had pulled back the curtain a bit to reveal to him that musicians and music that can be funny and sad, fun and dark–sometimes all at once. Maybe he even dreamed in choruses and guitar solos … or at least of old British motorcycles.
Christopher Harder is a freelance writer and editor who loves to walk his son to and from school every day. His essays have appeared in publications including the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Albany Times-Union and Newark Star-Ledger.
Photo credit: Nicholas Smale