This essay is adapted from DeConto’s spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.
We want to count on the men in our lives. We might be feminists, but, still, doesn’t the definition of manhood have something to do with being dependable, stable, coming through, living up to who we’re supposed to be, doing the things that define us, whether as fathers or husbands or brothers or sons or craftsman or bosses or laborers? I spent a lot of my life trying to figure out where I could count on my Dad and where I couldn’t—would he define the sort of man I wanted to be, or its opposite?
Dad was my hero and my anti-hero all at the same time. He was everybody’s friend — funny, easygoing, not afraid to have a drink, but one of my earliest, haziest memories is of him and Mom throwing dishes and saltshakers at each other across the kitchen. Whether it was running off with his old high-school gang to watch football or gamble — or worse — he seemed to make Mom sad a lot. He’d been a star pitcher, third-baseman, and tennis player as a kid, but when I was about 4 years old I heard him yelling from the garage behind our house and ran out there to find him stumbling around, blinded by the chemicals he used to refinish furniture. He ended up being okay, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Dad wasn’t quite as invincible as I wanted him to be.
The furniture business was just one of many jobs Dad did to try and support us while hanging onto his real vocation as a musician. He drove a cab, just like Bobby the actor and Tony the boxer in Taxi, one of our favorite TV shows. He even looked the part with his long, reddish-brown curls tumbling out of his tweed driver’s cap. He delivered for a Greek pizzeria, bringing Mom fresh baklava and pizza for all of us; the gross fishy taste from his anchovies always ran onto my plain-cheese half. These seemed like dangerous, manly jobs: working with wood, driving all over town, playing electric-fuzz guitar through speakers bigger than me.
Dad had his music studio in the basement of our 100-year-old duplex in Lowell, Mass., an old cotton-mill city on the Merrimack River. Sometimes I’d go down there to listen to him practice. He liked to read to me from The Hobbit, so I recognized his poster of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves climbing the Misty Mountains. Dad was working on a rock opera based on Tolkien’s story. That and the fieldstone walls made the basement feel not just creepy but mysterious and ancient — a real Man Cave.
When I was a baby, Dad had been able to earn most of his living with just music. In fact, as Mom labored on the night before my birth on January 9, 1977, Super Bowl Sunday, Dad had been playing in his duo, The Fabulous Linguini Brothers, at The Alewife bar owned by one of his cousins. Dad and his partner Bob Gentile were out four or five nights a week, playing cover songs in restaurants, bars and hotel lounges all over New England. He’d come home late from a gig the night before, but I woke him and Mom with pregnancy pains at 5 a.m. Saturday morning. They’d slept at my grandparents’ house that night, and they stayed there all day until Dad had to leave for The Alewife.
Mom called the bar around 11 p.m. to say she was in labor, and Nanny and Poppy were taking her to the hospital. The bartender told the waitress, who whispered in Dad’s ear right in the middle of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” Dad stood up and knocked over his microphone stand, filling the room with ear-splitting feedback before he could pick it up.
“My wife’s having a baby,” he announced to the full house.
The crowd cheered.
Dad left his rock-star life in the middle of a set to come to the maternity ward. It was the ‘70s, and fathers were just beginning to be allowed into the birthing room. Dad put on green scrubs, a surgical cap and a mask and stood near my Aunt Lori, who was filming as my head crowned. Dad can’t handle much blood, and he walked up near Mom’s face to hold her hand. But that still wasn’t far enough away. He started to lose his balance, and Mom ordered him out.
In the waiting room, another father mistook my green-scrubbed father for his own wife’s obstetrician.
“What’s happening?” the worried dad asked as my Dad sat bent over with his head in his hands.
“I’m losing it, man,” he said.
Now here I am, a father of two, trying to pursue the creative life that Dad all-but abandoned as his own family grew. And I’m glad that “Cecilia” is part of my story from the beginning. Most people hear it as a silly love song about a dysfunctional relationship, but I think it’s about writer’s block. See, Cecilia is the patron saint of artists. So when Paul Simon sings of “making love in the afternoon with Cecilia” and of someone taking “his place,” I hear a pop star chasing the muse, afraid of becoming yesterday’s news like everyone who came before him, afraid even of losing his most precious gift. When you look at it like this, the bubble-gum chorus becomes a desperate sort of prayer to an icon of divine creativity:
Cecilia, you’re breakin’ my heart
You’re shaking my confidence daily
Cecilia, I’m down on my knees
I’m begging you please to come home
If you’re like most artists, struggling to build enough of an audience to make something that resembles a living, and if you’re like Dad or me, with a family to support, then a disease like writer’s block sounds like a death sentence. Dad had a hard time writing his own music, and he eventually had to quit putting so much time into his craft. He got into real estate, and Cecilia didn’t come around very often. He doesn’t talk about that, and he plays as much music as he has time for. Right or wrong, I attribute to him a deep sadness, which might be a projection of my own fear of failure.
You don’t have to be an artist to feel Paul Simon’s anguish. Don’t we all have this feeling that the skill or accomplishment or person or god we want most is just beyond our reach? “Cecilia” is about human longing—to have what we don’t, to be what we aren’t. And, yet, within this fundamental “not-ness” of life, there are moments when writers write, singers sing, mothers mother and lovers love. “Jubilation, she loves me again, I’m down on the floor and I’m laughing.” I am who I am because of Dad, not in spite of him. None of us is as invincible as we’d like to be, but maybe we’ll be okay.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer (jessejamesdeconto.com) and a musician (pinkertonraid.com) in Durham, N.C.