It’s another late night. Lately, I think that’s the only time I can write. Once the world goes to sleep, I can put on my headset, play some music, and let my mind wander.
As I write this, I’m listening to the new album from Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways. He’s been releasing songs late at night over the last couple of months, and I’ve written about them as they’ve come out. Dylan has been one of the great chroniclers of America over the previous half-century, so it feels appropriate that his first album of original material in years comes during the year it’s all falling apart.
Historic protests all over the country have been raging for weeks, originally sparked by the murder of a man named George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Force. Flying a banner stating the Black Lives Matter, a simple and obvious truth that so many still willfully find confusing, the protestors are showing no signs of stopping.
The plague of Covid-19 is still a shadow over the world, especially in America. Thousands are dying every day, but much of the country seems to have grown bored of it and are trying to grab back a normal that is long gone and isn’t coming back.
Earlier this evening, the sad court jester President delivered a speech to a half-empty arena in Oklahoma that was little more than a list of things that have been bothering him. Nothing for the thousands that have died or the people in the streets looking for justice, just missives on petty bitterness.
It’s comforting to listen to Dylan’s cracked and dry caramel voice in the midst of the chaos and rage. For me, Dylan has always been part of the real America. It’s nothing to do with flags, parades, wars, or pledges of allegiance. It’s people singing about injustice and marching in the streets. He’s spent his career questioning our myths and singing about truths. He may not write protest songs anymore, but he’s still holding up the mirror to us and reminding us of the scars and warts. As I listen to the new album, it’s hard not to imagine what it might have been like for my father to listen back in the ’60s when the country was similarly on fire.
It’s Father’s Day tomorrow, or today I guess as the clock just clicked over. I get my love of Dylan from my father. Growing up, he didn’t listen to a lot of Dylan around me, he was more in his Neil Diamond, Harry Chapin, and Bread phase by then, but Dylan was still a presence. When I started to get more interested as I got older, my father and I listened to more Dylan together, and we talked about the music. It was a bit like baseball, a language we could both use to communicate when we might otherwise have been silent.
As the country has been in upheaval for the last few months, I’ve thought about my father a lot. A few weeks ago, I was asked if there was a moment that radicalized me. I pondered it for a while and narrowed it down to an evening in Brooklyn when I was much younger.
My parents divorced when I was five. Despite my brother and I living with my mother going forward, my father was never absent from our lives. We spent every other weekend with him for most of my childhood, including longer stretches during the summer, and some weeknights. If we got sick and stayed home from school, he’d show up with comic books or magazines. My brother and I were lucky as these things go, I know plenty of people who had parents virtually disappear after a divorce.
We spent a lot of the weekends with my father visiting his friends and colleagues. We would go into New York City to his office some days, or to dinner parties. It wasn’t always fun as a kid, but it was almost always interesting.
One of those weekends, we went to a brownstone in Brooklyn, where his friends Nancy and Finley lived. Nancy is my brother’s godmother. The reason for going was a dinner party that also included a missionary or refugee from Nicaragua. My father’s job at the time was with the General Board of Global Ministries in the Methodist church, working with missionaries around the world, among other things, so it wasn’t uncommon for us to spend time with people from other countries. This particular evening the woman talked about the Sandanista revolution and the US-backed Contras. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, but relatively familiar with the conflict, mostly through osmosis, but that evening opened my eyes. In particular, it was when she talked about the Contras forcing children to hold out their hands and using them as target practice for the guns the US had sent them. It was an image and a horror that stuck with me. I remember mulling it over and over in my head and not really understanding why the US that I was being taught about in school would support that. At some point, soon after that, I came to the conclusion that the US I was being taught about in schools didn’t actually exist.
In retrospect, it wasn’t that big a jump for me. When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, I wrote something for school questioning why President Reagan thought we needed “stupid nuclear missiles.” My father sent it to the White House. I got a form letter back from Reagan, and then one day was pulled out of lunch at school by two men in suits who asked me a number of questions about my parents. In retrospect, I realize it was probably the secret service. My parents being as political as they were, and having done things like visit Israel, sending the essay probably tripped some alarm or other. For the record, my brother doesn’t believe this story, but it’s true. It happened.
So when the evening with the Nicaraguan came, I was primed for radicalization. When I say radicalized, I don’t mean some nonsense brainwashing nonsense. I mean, it’s when I became what I remain today, a radical humanist. I believe in peace and justice and standing up for those things regardless of obstacles. Of all the gifts my father has given me, its the one I treasure the most.
When I think about my childhood, I realize how unique much of it was, and how much of it is because of my father.
The morning Nelson Mandella was freed, I was in a black church in Brooklyn. I don’t remember why we went there, but it wasn’t unusual. We went to a lot of different churches with my dad, who would often be invited to preach or give talks about mission work. The news broke as my brother, and I got ready to go that morning. We watched Mandella walk out of prison on a small TV in our room at my father’s house, and then traveled to Brooklyn. The pure joy in that church that day was something that I’ll never forget, and I’ll always be grateful to my father for that experience. More than that, I’ll always be thankful for his making sure we understood why it was important. In the years leading up to it, we had been to anti-apartheid marches and had met men and women from South Africa who told us what was going on there. We developed friendships with exiles.
I’ve been told a hundred times that I would get more conservative as I got older. This is, of course, a nonsensical platitude people say when they don’t want to take young people seriously. Truthfully I think it only happens to people whose ideals are built on a foundation of sand. My father made sure that my brother and I had a foundation of concrete. My father has given me plenty of gifts down through the years, but none has ever been as important as that foundation.
I’ve still got the new Dylan album on as I finish this. It’s a great album full of fire and fury in a way only he can bring it. The current song is “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” and there’s a line that I think sums this all up:
I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand
Because my Dad made sure I understood, I can sing the song.
Happy Father’s Day.