On the Road with Neil Young

In July of 1993, I went on a twelve-day road trip with my two kids, then aged nine and six, driving a Ford Aerostar minivan from Highland Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New York (the whole state is a colonial appendage of the metropolis, ever more pavement even unto Pennsylvania), to Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where my brother and his family had recently moved. I had just sent the manuscript of my second book to the publisher-—that was Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940-—and was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

But I was also feeling pretty unhappy about my ten-year old marriage. I’d been Mr. Mom for three years by then, and the rewards of the role were now beginning to look like excuses for inertia and estrangement. My wife wouldn’t be on the road with us, she’d be flying in for the weekend only, because she couldn’t afford any time away from her high-pressure publishing job in the city. Driving toward Chicago, the place I still called home, I started to ask myself why I had to stay married. Did I actually need a wife to be a father? Did I want to become a cliché out of Updike and start fucking the neighbor’s wife?

So when my wife and I were briefly alone in my brother’s living room on the Saturday of her arrival—-I had picked her up at O’Hare an hour earlier-—I said, “You know, we have to talk, because, well, I think we have nothing left in common, nothing to talk about, except these kids. I’m sorry, it’s hard to say, but I don’t see why we’re married. Not anymore, I mean, I don’t see the point.”

She said, “Are you drunk? Don’t be absurd.” She left the room. I didn’t know how to follow her, or follow up, so I left the house. I walked around my brother’s fancy new neighborhood in a daze, wondering if I meant what I said. I drove her to the airport the next day, in what the 19th century called grim silence.

That conversation happened again and again, and more frequently, over the next ten years, until there really was nothing left to talk about, not even the kids. Meanwhile I left home three times, and finally escaped on the third try. And yes, I did start fucking the neighbor’s wife.

In retrospect-—and what other standpoint is there?-—being on the road that summer wasn’t just a pleasure. It was the beginning of the end of the marriage, because the time I spent with those kids let me see them as real people who would outlast any change in the relationship between their mother and me. Over this long haul, they became individuals in their own right, not merely my children.

The soundtrack of this process of mutual recognition—-on the road that summer, I believe my children began to see me as a person, not merely their father-—was composed by Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Merle Haggard.

We tuned into lots of radio stations along the way, of course, because this was the technological moment just before the Internet and satellite radio redefined telecommunication, and this was also the musical moment of grunge, heavy metal, hip-hop, and over-produced pop: we heard songs by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Metallica, DelAmitri, and (I think) Green Day, but the signals always receded, so we kept falling back on the three cassette tapes we carried across country. (I admit, though, that I had one other tape up my sleeve, N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which I would’ve played had the others failed.)

That bass line was my design. I wanted these kids to hear the origins and the echoes of the tastes they were already developing: I wanted them to hear the generation that had made the music of their time possible. But my curriculum couldn’t have worked if the musicians themselves weren’t compelling. I suppose I could’ve brought the blues tapes I had compiled over several years for my cultural history courses. I didn’t because I was afraid that music would sound too ancient, too old-timey, too much like a lesson plan, not enough listening just for fun.

No matter, Neil Young stole the show. The kids loved Van and Merle, especially “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Moondance” and “Ramblin’ Fever,” but they dug Neil. His strange, whiney, breathy voice captured them. The reedy sound of it held us together in silence for hundreds of miles. “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” . . . by the time we got to Cedar Point, Ohio, they knew all the verses, and they were involuntarily singing or murmuring along. When I told them about “Almost Cut My Hair” from the CSNY album, how it had changed my life—-“I had an Afro!””—-they laughed hysterically and told me they couldn’t believe my hair was ever longer than it was right then, when I looked, I am told, like a state trooper.

Cedar Point was our first day’s destination, recommended by a graduate student at Rutgers, Andrea Volpe. It’s a whole township on Lake Erie devoted to the art of the amusement park. We found a motel within a couple of miles from the park itself, with an indoor pool and access to convenience stores—-in other words, a snack and a swim for them, a twelve-pack for me.

Then we headed for the park. It was enchanting. I had always refused to take them to Disneyland or Disney World, on the grounds that I’d just be complaining all day about the premise and the purpose of the place, maybe even lose my shit and get jailed by Mickey Mouse. But Cedar Point was like Riverview, the amusement park on Belmont Avenue in Chicago that some developer tore down soon after I graduated from high school. My father grew up within a mile of that park and the other monument to old Chicago, Wrigley Field. He tested rides at Riverview when he was a kid. I tested girlfriends there when I was a kid.

Cedar Point was then an archeological marvel, the Olduvai Gorge of amusement parks: a shiny, high-tech set of new thrill rides built on the Paleolithic ruins of a funky circus, the place where the freaks, the barkers, and the runaways were the founding fathers. We spent three hours walking, talking, and riding, no lines—-it was a Thursday night—-then eating a late dinner on the grounds, in a real restaurant, no fast food. We were exhausted by the time we found the Aerostar and drove back to the motel.

We settled into our room, two king-size beds and a huge TV. They drank Cokes from the vending machine, I drank beer from the twelve-pack I had put on ice. I scrolled through the channels for a few minutes without any protest or plea from the children in the other bed, and then they started shrieking.

I had missed it. It was Neil Young in concert! I fell asleep while it was still in progress, long before they did. They talked about it all the way to Chicago the next day. The only interruptions of their intense conversation were cuts from the Neil Young cassette, and these were played on demand by the driver to prove a point one or the other was making. They were already composing the kind of notes a fan draws on in debate with fellow aficionados: “No, man, that wasn’t the concert of 1993, you’re thinking of the Grammy awards, when he sang ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ with Eddie Vedder.”

When I hear Neil Young these days, this is what I think of, two kids finding their own voices through his. Or was it three?

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