“Bob Dylan wrote this song, you know,” I whispered to my sister as the chorus of “Forever Young” bleated out of a plastic boom box at our father’s funeral.
“I know,” she said. “You tell me that whenever it comes on the radio. Dad died on Bob Dylan’s birthday you know.”
“I know,” I said. “Why aren’t they playing a Bob Denver song? Dad loved Bob Denver.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
On May 24, 2011, two years ago today, my dad decided he was done. Well, he likely decided long before that, it was just the day that he put his plan in action and hung himself in my aunt and uncle’s garage. He didn’t leave a letter or even a note. He died with $20 in his wallet that he could have spent on one last movie, a final pack of cigarettes, an ice cream cone or a steak. The obituary in the paper said, with typical New England terseness, that he died suddenly, but really, it was after a long illness. Having a parent who is bipolar is sort of like listening to the same song sung over and over again, but by wildly different people–from Bob Dylan to Rod Stewart to Burning Spear to the terrible band your ex-boyfriend is in, to Taylor Swift.
In the program at his funeral there was a section titled simply, “Special Music.” At the appointed time, after my ad-libbed eulogy based on scattered notes I had jotted down in the car, and the considerably more thought-through reflections from his brothers and sisters and a few friends he’d managed to hold on to over the years, there was some fumbling with an iPod, and then we all sat in the pews and cried while listening to “Over the Rainbow.” The one by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, that Hawaiian guy.
It was something of a surprise when “Forever Young” by Rod Stewart came on next. I don’t remember my dad really being into that song, or Rod Stewart in general, and also, for a lyrically heavy piece of music, it’s oddly without any palpable emotion. It did, however, serve the purpose of helping get my shit together and compose myself before we all filed into the church basement for ham salad and brownies.
“Forever Young” as performed by Bob Dylan is beyond terrible. It came out in 1974 on the record Planet Waves, which you’ve never heard of for a reason, and its plaintive chorus makes the worst out of his famously reedy twang. And while it’s a lovely sentiment, and fair to middling writing for another songwriter, lyrically, it’s not even close to Dylan’s best work. “May your heart always be joyful/ And may your song always be sung/May you stay forever young.” No characters, no sweeping American landscapes, no clever turns of phrase. This is the man who wrote, “Ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face.” Who sang about being tangled up in blue, who invented Mr. Tambourine Man, Mr. Jones and Maggie’s Farm. May your song always be sung?
For Rod Stewart on the other hand, “Forever Young” was some sort of mid-career transition where he decided to sing about the human condition instead of shagging or a hot girl or his own sexiness. I remembered the video as him riding in the back of a wagon filled with hay, through some beautiful fields, but a quick YouTube search corrected that–he’s actually in the back of a truck driving through a beautiful countryside. I did correctly remember that he spends the entire video singing the song to a tiny ginger child, who, when the video came out in 1988, I assumed must be the son of Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall (Wikipedia confirms that this is not true, though I still wish it were).
Before the funeral at the church, I climbed into a car with my sister, her soon-to-be-husband and my husband and we drove through some similarly beautiful fields to the tiny cemetery on a hill where we would lay my dad’s ashes to rest. It sounds like a cliche but really, the day was so beautiful that it hurt. Summer comes late to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom but when it does the green grass and golden glow in the humid air create a sort of magical aura–it feels like you’re wading through sun-infused air. I had been okay that day, despite my brutal hangover, a constant companion in the weeks after his death, but on the way to the cemetery I thought my heart would explode. I don’t remember what it was like crying as a child, that mouth open, head thrown back full body wail, but that was what I wanted to do, as we passed by freshly mown and sweetly scented fields, winding down sun-dappled dirt lanes.
Instead I laid my head in my husband’s lap and let the tears slip out of me, pooling on his pant leg. I didn’t want to let go, because I wasn’t sure how or when I would stop if I did, and we had a long day of ceremonial grieving ahead of us. When you are the child of a person who has committed suicide everyone looks to you as a gauge. You can see the calculus of pain in their minds, “If she can keep this together, well then, I have no business losing it.” I know that sounds self-centered, but it’s a weird thing that feels 100 percent true to me.
I don’t remember a lot of that summer; there was a lot of wine and a lot of late night tears, smoking out the window of my apartment and listening over and over again to songs that would make me cry, just to feel something that seemed appropriate, to force the grief a little at a time so I wouldn’t have to look at all in one place ever. I had a go-to soundtrack that never failed and the most important track in it was “Highway Patrolman,” not as sung by Bruce Springsteen, but by Dar Williams, off the album, Badlands a series of lovely covers of all the songs on Nebraska, by an array of different artists.
The songwriting on Nebraska owes a lot to Bob Dylan, though Springsteen is more controlled, weaving tight personal tales of families, individuals, desperation and hard-won triumph. When he sings “Highway Patrolman,” a story about a cop with a bad news brother, it’s in a low, almost monotonous growl. It’s a midwestern gothic about the connection to family trumping the rule of law, and he delivers it the way his main character would: Straightforwardly, with no bullshit and little emotion.
Listening to it in Dar Williams’ huskily sweet voice is almost unbearable. She starts reigned in, like the Boss, but as the song goes on her voice opens up and fills with emotion, until the end, where our highway patrolman is chasing his brother through back roads after he has almost certainly killed a man in a bar fight. He’s not going to stop him, mind you, he just needs to catch a last glimpse of him, or his car, really, before he crosses the Canadian border and disappears. I can’t even think about the way she sings, “I must have done 110, through Michigan County that night,” without tearing up. Still.
My sister Lauren got married a few months after my dad died. Among the many things I feel vaguely guilty about in this world is the fact that there are three of us and he only came to my wedding–both of my sisters were engaged when he died. (Jennie lives in Korea, and wasn’t able to come home for the funeral, though she came home later that summer, for Lauren’s wedding.)
We made it a point not to talk about my dad during the week leading up to the wedding. This may have been a mistake. My brother-in-law’s parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary the same weekend, and so the newlyweds turned the music over to them for an anniversary dance. They had no idea that his parents had chosen “Over the Rainbow” as their song. The one by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, that Hawaiian guy. I heard it and flew into a panic, running around the room and trying to tell the DJ to turn it off and then realizing that that would make a scene, and then sitting back down and bursting into sobs. It was like I had been trained for years to react that way–it was one of the most instantaneous, full body emotional reactions I have ever had to anything, let alone in response to a song I’ve only listened to maybe four times in my life.
I was sitting next to a really close friend at the time. We’ve talked each other through divorce, alcoholism, infidelity, bad decisions, crises and depression. Unlike the ladies on Girls we never have these conversations in the bathtub together, or even naked a little bit. We’re both really, really adults. We don’t cry in front of each other and we don’t meaningfully hug. We’re both cut from some pretty stiff cloth in a lot of ways and we bring that out in each other. She massaged my neck while I choked out why I had seemingly lost my mind and drooled and wept all over my already sweat-stained purple silk bridesmaid dress, which had turned out to be a really bad idea in August heat.
Lauren, who had spent an aggressively humid day having her picture taken with a million relatives, not eating enough and trying to make sure everyone was happy was even worse off. When I found her, and put my arms around her, she sobbed, “Don’t say anything nice, just make me laugh.”
“Does anyone have ‘Forever Young’ by Rod Stewart on their iPod?” I asked the assembled throng of bridesmaids and friends. “That’ll help.” It mostly worked, she cracked up and we both felt relieved. though I had to take my dress off and blow dry the tear and sweat stains out, and it looked like a Great Lash factory had exploded all over both of us. The rest of the night went off with no further tears and the DJ kept to wedding favorites like “Put a Ring on It” and “Sweet Child O Mine.”
To my mind Axl Rose is one of America’s underappreciated geniuses. Despite all the spandex and tough guy posturing, his songwriting really has more in common with Bob Dylan’s or Paul McCartney’s than with hair metal gems like “Cherry Pie” or “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” A friend once suggested to me, while on a road trip, listening to Appetite for Destruction, that “Mr. Brownstone” was the “Mr. Tambourine Man” for a new generation, and I don’t think she was wrong. Call me a heretic and infidel, but I prefer the Axl Rose version over Bob Dylan’s own rendering of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Even the track off the live album where Axl implores the band to “Give me some reggae.” Seriously, go listen to it. It’s insane.
I will admit that Bob Dylan’s nasal voice takes on a haunting sort of quality when singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but I still prefer Axl’s sweet croon as he sings, “Mama put my guns in the ground.” My father died with a lot of unfinished emotional business. In the manic months leading up to his last, stunningly deep depression he said things to me that no one should say to anyone ever, and usually while I was trying to get him checked into a hospital or trying to help him in some way. I had been waiting for him to be in a more capable place to talk about this, to get it all out, and the chance is gone now. In the aftermath I realized that it was time for me to put those guns in the ground, otherwise I’d have to carry them around with me forevermore. And they were heavy. And it’s not like my dad actually knocked on heaven’s door anyway–he just walked right up and let himself in.
So happy birthday, Bob Dylan. May your songs always be sung.