As musical tastes go, as many of you know, I am a garishly sentimental Billy Joel-worshiping sap. Worse yet, over the past few years, I have ratcheted up my sentimentality to sickening new heights by actually learning to bang out a few chords on the acoustic guitar. At parties, and even just after dinner with friends, I have totally become That Guy Who Whips It Out. And the beverages flow and the fireplace is cranked up to Max Cliche and the sing-along begins. And if you’re in my house, you better goddamn well sing along.
Cringe if you will. I own it all. The advent of Living Room Live Music into my family’s life has been one of the happiest and most profound developments here in Midlife Valley.
The spark was my good friend Michael, a professional-grade guitarist since high school whose body simply won’t allow an hour to pass without grabbing an axe and scratching away on something. (He’s one of those guys who has guitars scattered around his house.) When we first moved to town, Jen and I started having regular dinners at Michael and Sarah’s, and just at the typical moment when dinner starts to dissolve into nightcaps and Parting Thoughts and DUI-prep, Michael would take out his guitar. And suddenly, the typical would bloom into the profound.
After singing along with Michael for a year or so, I bought my first guitar (used) from a dude standing on the corner of 17th and Broadway. I think I didn’t want to buy a new one until I could prove to myself that I was serious.
And now, a little over two years later, the sing-along sessions in my home are even better than routine: they are ritual. Jim and Laura come over every Thursday or Friday, plus maybe Gene and Kelly if the schedules work out. And then, ladies and gentlemen, it is go time. We’ll howl until midnight or later: Bob Seger and Counting Crows and Pearl Jam and acoustic U2 and Paul Simon and now - as my appetite for the saccharine soars to profane new heights - we’ll just dive right on in to some Seals & Crofts and Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver and England Dan and John Ford Coley - all that Sunshine 70’s Feathered Blond Hair in the Wind shit.
It is fucking glorious.
As we wail ourselves hoarse, our kids linger around the fringes, lolling about on their screens, feigning humiliation and disinterest. But sometimes we’ll catch them at a weak moment. And they’ll jump right in and start singing. And in those moments, life, as we know it, peaks. But even when they keep their distance, there can be no doubt that this is passing into their bloodstream. Music’s absence, in our household, has become more conspicuous than its presence.
Am I bragging? I may be a just little bit bragging. I am chock full of flaws and fuckups, many of which I have confessed to you in this very space. But this whole sing-along dealio may be the best goddamn thing that our family has stumbled upon these past few years.
I give you this personal preamble just to provide a bit of context for the story of my train ride home last Friday.
I have been working my little Hebrew ass off of late, grinding out some of the longest and stressiest days I’ve worked in my adult life. (I’m working on a documentary on Princess Diana, which will air in a couple of weeks - more on that in a later post.) But anyhoo, last Friday night, after a bitch of a day/week/month/season, I boarded the 8:36pm local out of Grand Central, yet another Friday night obliterated by work, and slumped into the front end of a long-ass, 90-minute, bumpy ride home.
Full disclosure: it is technically possible that I might have had two three beers by the time I boarded.
I usually go with podcasts to accompany my evening train rides. But on this’un, sapped completely of any shred of (or desire for) critical thinking, I went with Apple Music. Given my proud ownership of all things saccharine, you will perhaps not be shocked to learn that I am in a serious John Mayer phase.
Is John Mayer a douche? Yeah, I guess John Mayer may be kind of a douche. When he first arrived on the scene I didn’t think much of him. Never loved the running through the halls of my high school. He seemed like just another top-40 pretty boy, and at the time (when was it? 2005? who the hell knows what year anything happened after we started having kids), I was too old for top-40. As the years went by I heard a few people mention that Mayer was actually a brilliant guitarist - one of those Berklee School of Music prodigies who actually hit it big. But that didn’t register much with me. I’ve never been one of those guitar geeks.
All I really know is that my wife and I started throwing John Mayer on the old Alexa shuffle a few months ago, and now that is pretty much all we do. In my humble opinion - and this is hardly any great insight - he is Billy Joel 2.0 to a tee: a Carnegie Hall-level technician with a campfire singalong heart. His art stems from a core desire to please, not to impress. And for precisely that reason, just like Billy Joel (Spielberg, too, BTW), John Mayer has been pigeonholed as a bit lite; insubstantial; even - the dreaded word - lounge.
So as I opened Apple Music on my 8:36, my pump was somewhat primed to enjoy a good John Mayer song. (Plus, op cit, the few beers.) I began browsing his catalog, not really knowing one John Mayer album from another. Jen and Alexa and I have been burning the hell out of the greatest hits, so I decided to venture into some deeper cuts. I picked an album at random (“Born and Raised”) and pressed play. And the train clicked off and trundled north.
We had maybe just crossed into Connecticut when I hit pause.
I had been listening with half my brain - exactly how one is supposed to listen to music, right? Some of the songs that had drifted by had been vaguely familiar, others weren’t. I was paying no mind in the best sense. But then a song came on - I think I was a little more than halfway through the song itself - that made me press pause. I unblackened my phone, and looked at the name of the song.
Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967
I give you this song today, friends, knowing full well that many of you opened another tab in your browser the moment I mentioned John Mayer. That is fine. I forgive you. Those of you who are still reading - and even the smaller subset of you who take it to the next level and actually listen to the song - will probably be unimpressed. I would imagine that probably none of you will be as gut-punched as I was, as I literally started to cry, somewhere north of Greenwich. I felt my throat get hot, and clench up, as my body tried to fight it back. And then, you know, fuck it, right? That’s what we’re searching for.
The 80’s pop I still go back to has almost nothing to do with the music itself. It’s just what I was looking for at the time, when my hormones opened up and suddenly the world was soaking wet with girls and status. The 90’s grunge I jumped up and down to was just the right dose of rebellion at the time, for me and millions of other white suburban American twentysomethings. It was a cry of impotent rage: a feigning of battle, for a generation of men in their prime without a war to fight. It was what we were looking for.
This one is where I am right now.
Walt Grace, desperately hating his whole place, Dreamed to discover a new space, And buried himself alive, Inside his basement, tongue on the side of his face when, He's working away on displacement, And what it would take to survive.
'Cause when you're done with this world, You know the next is up to you. And his wife told his kids he was crazy, And his friends said he'd fail if he tried, But with a will to work hard, And a library card, He took a homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride.
That morning, the sea was mad and I mean it, Waves as big as he'd seen it, Deep in his dreams at home. From dry land, He rolled it over to wet sand, Closed the hatch up with one hand, And peddled off alone.
'Cause when you're done with this world, You know the next is up to you. And for once in his life it was quiet, As he learned how to turn in the tide, And the sky was a flare, When he came up for air, In his homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride.
One evening, When weeks had passed since his leaving, The call she'd planned on receiving, Finally made it home. She accepted, The news she'd never expected, The operator connected, A call from Tokyo.
'Cause when you're done with this world, You know the next is up to you. Now his friends, Bring him up when they're drinking, At the bar with his name on the side, And they smile when they can, As they speak of a man, Who took a homemade, Fan-blade, one-man submarine ride.