Too Young to be Singing the Blues
Where words leave off, music begins.
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Part of TNF’s mission is to bring the best writing on fatherhood into your inbox. Last month I stumbled on David Yaffe’s Substack and was floored by one of his essays. He kindly agreed to republish it here. David is a music critic, professor of humanities at Syracuse University, the author of three books, and has written for The New York Review of Books, New York Magazine, The Paris Review, Harper's Magazine, The New York Times, The Village Voice and many more.
Parenthood started with a sound. My son, Julian Alexander Yaffe, entered the world on June 17, 2009. Amy—his mother, my wife—and I hid under the covers until the C-section was complete. We huddled together—scared, exhilarated, giddy. And then, the first cry. Babies all sound the same until you hear yours. “That’s the sound of my son’s voice,” I thought. That’s the voice I’ll hear making his first adorable attempts at speech. That’s the voice that I’ll hear, eventually, haggling for cash, or getting in trouble, or wondering why we need to go to school and get in line and play by the rules. That voice would probably sing along to a nihilism that hadn’t even been invented yet. That voice could hate everything he thought I stood for. Or he could be a simpatico spirit. That voice could get along with me. I’d go easy on him. The world would be tough enough. All this, just from that first cry. I couldn’t wait.
At two and a half, Julian was diagnosed with autism. The developmental pediatrician was, he said, “cautiously optimistic.” I later learned that he said that to every parent. Nothing left to do, sang Leonard Cohen, when you’re waiting for the miracle to come. And we waited. We tried sign language, even though he could hear. We tried drills, behavioral therapy methods, a carb free diet, medical THC. Nothing really stuck. He said a few things here and there over the years, but never much, never consistently. If anything could reach him at all, it was music. I would play and sing many songs, and, gauging from his reactions, he had his preferences. He would jump up and down for Da’s versions of The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” The Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” among others. Some days, even the music did not get through. The years would go by, I would watch him grow. I saw my wife’s beauty in his features. And as he made it to 10, that voice, which I first imagined saying and doing so many things, was not speaking to me or anyone else. By then, Julian was having seizures on a daily basis, sometimes a cluster of more than 30 in one day. The neurologist said he had probably been having them in utero. The die was cast before that first cry.
Seizures in utero. Every day, memories erased. What must he be thinking? On one of his many hospital stays for his EEG exam—something that had become routine, resulting in a constant adjustment of meds—I watched a music therapist work with him. She tried a few things, but only one of them seemed to get somewhere. She didn’t seem to notice it, but I did. Then it was my turn. I got his attention with a pulse, just by hitting the hospital table and singing acapella. I imagined him in the womb, hearing his mother’s heartbeat. His memories weren’t completely erased. Reaching back to 2 was easier than remembering what he did at school that day. Amy and I both had hyperverbal childhoods. No preparation for dealing with his. But both of us stored music in our brains. Was he hearing it the way I did when I was a kid? The music was being taken away from him every day, along with everything else, and I was trying to get it back. “Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are,” wrote John Ruskin. What if what you like is the only way you can express who you are?
“I've been so many places in my life and time
I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes…”
Julian adored this performance of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” as performed by a blind and autistic 22 year old man named Kodi Lee, who went on America’s Got Talent and blew everyone away. Within two weeks, it was viewed over 50 million times. Usually, those shows are everything that is wrong with the music business, but at that moment, it was everything that was right. Kodi struggled for speech but thrived in song. He took Leon Russell’s song and went as deep as anyone could go. For a moment, it was all that mattered.
When Julian was in the right state, he was going through musical phases—Pink Floyd, Queen, Elton John. His seizures had become so grave, we didn’t know if he would survive. He was 11, nonverbal. His neurologist was a friend of Oliver Sacks—one of the dedicatees of Sacks’s Musicophilia—and he had essentially given up on him. Every day, I never know when a call from Amy is the call. As Covid kept us apart before the vaccine—he and Amy were living in Vermont—I sent him recordings, and I would speak over them. I asked Amy if he understood, and she told me he loved them. The news kept getting worse, and I kept the music coming.
I play “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” and I keep the vamp going.
“This song is called “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and the Yellow Brick Road leads to Oz, which you know from The Wizard of Oz. So many of us grew up watching that movie. [The vamp continues. G Minor, B Flat Major, C Major…] We all want to get to Oz. We all want the Wizard to give us what we want. We think that if we can just find it, we’ll be happy. [G Minor, B Flat Major, C Major…]. But this song is about saying goodbye. It’s about letting go. When I was 11, I could sing it in Elton John’s range. But I don’t have that voice anymore. My voice is much deeper. This is the voice I have now, so I rock it down an octave…. [G Minor, B Flat Major, C Major]… The Wizard, as you know, just turns out to be a man behind the curtain…. So it’s a song about letting go. I can’t sing it the way Elton John sings it. I can only sing it the way I sing it. But we all have to do what we do the way we do it, right?”
When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land? This boy’s too young to be singing the blues… I couldn’t cure anything. I have heard it said that music is a drug with no side effects. Music does have side effects. They reverberate, recapitulate. Sometimes, they come back as flashbacks, and sometimes they never leave your system. When G Minor turns to B Flat Major to C Major, as it does in this song, it is an addictive, powerful narcotic. When seizure drugs fail, as they have repeatedly failed my son, the music can still deliver, at least until the song ends. I finally decided my future lies beyond the Yellow Brick Road. The music is communicating, unmediated. There is no disability here. Nothing is missing and everything is present. We let go of our illusions long ago, but the song is still there. There is no Oz, and there may be no anything. Kodi Lee is still singing Leon Russell. There is still something left to hear.
A few years ago, I was invited to the Eastman School of Music, where I would be playing intricate arrangements of Joni Mitchell songs, which were transposed to flat keys for the conservatory horn players. We had time for just a brief rehearsal, and as I was making adjustments, they gave me a page turner. She looked like she was around my mother’s age.
“Hi, my name is Connie.”
“My mother’s name is Connie.”
“My son’s name is David, and he is autistic.”
“My son’s name is Julian, and he is autistic.”
A mother named Connie, a son named David, autism. Who was writing this script? We had names and a condition in common. She was dedicated, an impassioned advocate, all the way to the group home, all the way to encouraging her nonverbal son to communicate with an iPad when he was in his 30s. She was so proud when he learned to use it, but he really hated it.
“What gives you joy,” he typed, “gives me pain.”
Connie would never give up on David, no matter what.
“I think these nonverbal kids were sent here to give us a message,” she said. “We just have to figure out how to receive it.”
It was this woman’s job to turn my pages, to reveal the changes I had to play, to show me the music. Suddenly, she was showing me some version of my future. These nonverbal kids were here to send us a message? That’s what she’s telling herself, I thought.
We all have things we tell ourselves.
On the day you are born, the clock starts ticking. If all goes according to plan, you become progressively cuter. Everyone wants to see you. You don’t need to do anything. Just be cute. But the clock keeps ticking, and the audition begins. Being cute is no longer enough. You need to start talking, start walking, be smarter, more charming. Become good at something, compete, distinguish yourself. This starts with wanting to please your parents, but you do all this to be loved by someone outside of your family. The less you can do, or the less you can offer, the less external love you get. I knew I would never be good at sports. But I could play the piano. Love me. I can do this. Some are so damaged by the audition, they begin to hate what they are good at. My mother showed talent as a child pianist—she once played for Glenn Gould—but it was associated with fear more than pleasure. There is no way to completely get over that. And yet the thing that is associated with never being enough can also be exactly what we need. When we are in that space, we don’t need anyone else’s approval. We don’t need to be the best. We don’t even ever have to learn to speak. I can still find that look of delight in my son’s face. I am beyond competition, beyond ambition, beyond the need for perfection. Hail the hippocampus, beyond jurors, beyond judgment. If you accept what it stores, you are free.
3 things to read this week
“Magic Curtains and a 36-Hour Blur Mark the Arrival of our Newborn Daughter” by Séamas O’Reilly in The Guardian. O’Reilly—dad, author, features editor for The Fence, currently publishing some of the best writing out there—has been killing it with his funny, touching and insightful weekly essays for The Guardian. This, on the birth of his second child, is no exception. “It's calming to spend eight minutes attempting the perfect, safe-arm posture necessary to pick up your cooing infant, only to see a midwife pick one up, single-handed, as if it’s an avocado she’s checking for ripeness. I’m not even that calm at my job, which this week is sitting on my arse and describing their job.”
“A Smarter Way to Divide Chores?” by Joe Pinkser in The Atlantic. Who does what in your house? And does the to-do list cause conflict? This article outlines ways to redress imbalances, with an open conversation being key. ”The patterns that couples fall into when divvying up household tasks are often gendered and unfair, but this might be one way to try busting out of them. Perhaps sharing more chores could lead to more of a shared understanding of all the work that goes into managing a home.”
“When My Son Started to Ask How to Masturbate” by Brian Gresko in Slate. Gresko talks about his own repressed feelings towards masturbation growing up, his class being told by a priest not to “waste their seed” at 12 years old, and ensuring his son grows up with a healthier attitude towards sex and self-pleasure. Also great advice on shows to watch with a teenage son—I loved both Pen15 and Big Mouth, without realising how useful they could be in this context.
One thing to watch with the kids this week
I linked this in David’s essay, but dropping it again because you really have to see it. The original Kodi Lee audition from the 2019 season of America’s Got Talent. Spoiler alert: he won the whole thing that year. Maybe everything isn’t shit after all?
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