Father’s Day has always been an unusual day for me. Prior to my son Jack’s birth in 1998, it wasn’t a happy day. But now it is, at least partly. Yes, it’s the day my son and his mom make a fuss over me, and that’s very sweet indeed. And it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on this most important aspect of my life; fatherhood defines me more than anything, and makes me feel blessed. But Father’s Day, for me, is also a time of deep, melancholy wonder.
I wonder how things might have been different, had my own father, Robert Burke Warren, Sr. – Burke to his family and friends – not died on April 11th, 1972, just after I turned 7. He was 30.
Jack’s birth has brought lasting joy in the face of a vacuum in my life, but Father’s Day still finds me longing, occasionally angry (less so these days), and stubbornly curious about what might have been, how my dad would have aged, changed, and whether he’d be a Mac guy or a PC guy. I think about the man who, even though I only knew him for a brief period, shaped me, and whose shaping I both accept and continually fight against.
Burke’s death was tragic and mysterious. He was an ex-Marine, and, like his parents, an alcoholic. One night, after carousing with his cousin, he drove drunk at high speed into an embankment off I-85 in Atlanta, and killed himself, by accident or by design I will never know. By all accounts, he was depressed (a proclivity I inherited), unemployed, and perhaps, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (spoiler alert) he knew his heirs would receive benefits in the event of his death. (Which my brother and I did.) But like I said, I’ll never know. My last memory of my dad, I’m happy to say, is of him playing guitar at my 7th birthday party, leading my friends and me in a singalong of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Country Roads,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Home Grown Tomatoes.” He seemed pretty ebullient that night, although if anyone knows the skill with which a depressive can hide his condition, it’s me. But I was so proud to call the cool guitar playing dude my daddy.
My mother had divorced him when my brother and I were toddlers, and they’d been estranged, but in the last few years of his life, he was making an effort, coming around, hosting us at his swingin’ singles apartment, taking us on trips. I adored him. He drove a blue ’68 Chevy Impala, and often had a cocktail in a plastic cup when he picked us up from our home. The summer before he died, he and his second wife, Dee, took us to Disneyland. Our first airplane trip. They rented a Volkswagen Bug, and I recall laying on the backseat, happily exhausted from all-day amusement, and making up a song as I watched the passing streetlights of Anaheim, bringing myself to the verge of tears with the joy of creating a melody out of thin air (a melody I do not recall, but was, in all likelihood, a rip-off of something from a Sid & Marty Krofft show).
Dee, a gorgeous stewardess, adored Burke, too. He was movie star handsome, charismatic, a fun character with a debilitating gloomy streak exacerbated and medicated by alcohol. Though my mother says he would rage when they were married, the only time I recall him angry was when my brother and I – aged 7 and 6, and impish – got his Marine sword down from a shelf and unsheathed it. He came in before anyone was impaled, and of course he freaked out, swatting us on our butts as we howled in terror and remorse. He wore British Sterling cologne, had a BA in English from UGA, had once considered the seminary, but also wanted to get in the shit in Vietnam (they wouldn’t send him). He loved to play guitar and sing, and was skilled and self-taught, loved the early 60s folk stuff and sappy, romantic ballads. Didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Probably peaked in high school and never got a chance to redress the imbalance. Was not cut out to be a husband, at least not at 22, when he married my mom, hastily, if you catch my drift.
From these details, and others I have culled from people who knew him, I compulsively try to create a presence with which to commune, to try to understand, to rage at, and, as I’ve gained a little perspective, to console. I expect no satisfaction from these actions, no “closure.” It’s just a thing I do, sometimes gaining traction somewhere inside, sometimes spinning like a hamster wheel.
When my mother sat us down and broke the news that sunny April day, we all cried for a long time. I remember, just before she dropped the bomb, being in a great mood. My mother said, “I’ve got some bad news,” and I replied, “What could be bad on a day like today?” And then she told us, through tears. Probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do, and she handled it well. 42 years on, I retain a visceral memory of the grief. All of us bereft, in unison, mom telling us to cry as long as we needed to. We asked if we’d ever see our father again, and she said no and she was so sorry.
She was sort of a weekend hippie, our mother, working in advertising, a la Peggy Olson, during the week, but attending protest marches, communes, and festivals on the weekends. (Atlanta in 1972 was still kind of “the 60s.”) She said she believed in the collective unconscious, which we did not understand intellectually at that time, but sort of “got.” In a move she regrets, she didn’t take us to our father’s funeral, at which, I was told many years later, Dee threw herself on the coffin.
Mom initially told us our father “fell asleep at the wheel,” but when I was about 13, I found the police report in the attic and learned the truth. Documents and, horrifically, a photo of the Impala, the front end demolished, spiderweb shatter on the windshield. Thankfully, no photos of my dad, but autopsy reports stating he’d died with high levels of alcohol in his brain. This discovery occasioned another memorable sit-down with my mom, during which she revealed to my brother and me some of our genetic inheritance, i.e. our family tree is blighted with alcoholism. (Also, I would find out later, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicide, and, not surprisingly, divorce.) We were adolescents then, and it was an excruciating, but enlightening chat, and one of the only times she talked to us about our father when we were kids. Mainly, she said, “Watch out for alcohol, boys,” which I appreciate.
I’ve dodged the bullet of a “drinking problem,” but, interestingly, I am drawn to addicts, usually without consciously knowing they are saddled with the disease. Somehow – pheromones? facial “tells”? intuition? – I am disastrously discerning on a preconscious level. I have a history of diving into relationships with addicts, and then, after wonderful intimacy followed by stress, disappointment, and chaos, I bolt. I need to do the abandoning this time around, and I do. After the dust clears, I see the pattern clearly and feel like an idiot. Again. It was – and is – a therapist’s dream, and I have the bills, the time spent in Al Anon, and some fractured relationships to prove it. Also: my main source of moonlighting income in 16 years in NYC? Bartending, at which I excelled. I have to admit: I enjoyed cutting people off and 86’ing them. Power over the drunk at last.
Is it my destiny to neurotically recreate the story of the relationship between my troubled father and me, wherein the addict elicits and invites great affection only to spoil it all through bad, yet predictable, choices? Choices I, as an adult, can now control, or feel like I control, through rejection? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe addicts are common, especially in my lifestyle, and 86’ing some – from my life and the bars – was the right call, regardless of my history. The addicts still in my life are a challenge to love, but that’s not been wasted energy. And they will tell you I can be trying, too, because I can be.
Juicy Freudian interpretations of such life choices are the rage of our age, as is blaming and shaming, etc., but at the end of the day, that all feels simplistic and reductive. Fodder for good stories, sure, but only fodder. To flesh it all out, to get closer to accommodating, if not understanding, marks left by love, you need music. You need art.
I inherited my father’s musicality, and I’ve been a musician most of my life. I wrote songs in my teens and 20s, but didn’t really invest serious energy in songwriting until I became a father at 32.
The received wisdom is that parenthood saps your creative juices, and your spawn are like little vampires. But, like a lot of dire parenting predictions, this was not true for either my wife, a writer, or me. For both of us, Jack’s birth brought a burst of creative energy. Also, and this is crucial, I wanted to impress him. Granted, he wouldn’t grasp the tunes for a few years, but I needed to buckle down and write some good stuff, and that entailed lots of rewrites and hammering away as I had never done before. No writing about romantic love; the best stuff came when I wrote about family.
I’d tried to write about my father before. I wrote a terrible poem about him in high school, a screed about his alcoholism and abandonment. My English teacher loved it, and I got an A, but I’m glad it did not survive.
With my first CD, … to this day, I set about trying to write a resonant song about Burke, how I felt about him, how I dreamed about him sometimes, how I was angry but also sad about his death, and how I would always remember and miss him. In becoming a father myself, I felt a few steps closer to knowing who he was, what he’d felt; the delirious happiness, the terror, the humbling – and, at times, humiliating – privilege of parenthood. But for my father co-creating me (albeit by accident, my mom says) I would not be experiencing any of that – and I was and remain grateful for all of it. Becoming a dad helped me move further toward forgiveness.
Al Anon sharing, therapy, et al, is helpful in constructing a less chaotic narrative of one’s life, but it’s no help in the songwriting process, so I let all that go, and let dreams and photos guide me. Most interesting, the song for my father began to come when I tuned my guitar to DADGAD. Coincidence? Maybe. (I would record it one step higher, in EBEABE, which makes the story less cool, but true.) For non musicians, all you need to know is this is an alternate tuning favored by folkies.
My efforts birthed “Blue Impala.” Except for Richard Doll’s exquisite bowed double bass part, I played everything. And I stepped back from it and felt satisfaction. Fourteen years on, I still do.
Your paper face, your silent smile
Peel back the years, erase the miles
Bittersweet scent, cliche cologne
Photograph ghost in sepia tone.
A blue Impala, one hand on the wheel
I will remember you, you were just passing through.
Sometimes you rise into my dreams
Some strange disguise in mad shifting scenes
I’m like you now, back then did you know?
Did that make it easier to let go?
Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.
Just a wild seed in the tailwind of time
Cruel as a storm with calm in your eye
You left us all with so very much
So much to claim but nothing to touch.
Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.
I sent … to this day to my mom, and she loved it, but for about a year, she told me she couldn’t bear to listen to “Blue Impala.” This did not surprise me, and, in fact, gave me a perverse little thrill; I’d evoked an emotional response, which is what you want as a writer. But finally, she told me she could listen to it, and was ready to talk in detail about my dad, lo these many years later.
Even though I’d wanted to hear that for decades, I said, “That’s OK.”
I’d found him on my own.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Your son, Robert, June, 2014