Where Is My Wandering
“I’d always believed that if you were patient enough you could find the perfect song for any emotional weather,” wrote novelist Jenny Offill in an essay for the recently revived music blog Moistworks. This is an article of faith for almost anyone whose music fandom is central to their identity: let jocks and soldiers use music to pump them up or cool them down. Only newbies and the naïve would try to cheer themselves up with music. Real heads use music homeopathically. The only treatment for sadness is sadder music. Matching the music to the moment contextualizes it, labels it, boxes it in velvet for display. Makes the moment less terrifying because, though matching the music to the mood may be solipsistic, somehow, it’s less lonely.
Even writers, whose articulacy is their calling card, use music as ready-to-hand language. (This is the essential premise of, for example, Rob Sheffield’s Love Is A Mixtape: that deeply dissimilar people can use songs as a medium, even a substitute, for communication.) “Music had been a kind of thought to me,” wrote Offill, and in the absence of songs about the profound ambivalence of new parenthood—“There should be songs for this, I thought”—language fails her:
This is the point where I’m supposed to stop and tell you all the things that are great about having a kid, but I don’t think I’m going to. […] [There] are important things, essential things really, but they are not transferable. Something in the explanation cheapens them.
I remember listening, in the early weeks and months of my own parenthood, to country radio—not the classic country everyone now approves of, but contemporary pop country—and thinking that this was, for all its faults, music for adults: songs about marriage, parenthood, military service, home and car ownership. All the topics that hipper songwriters, the urban and the childless and the voluntary poor, must think incomprehensibly mundane, or never think of at all.
It’s not that there aren’t songs about new parenthood. The erstwhile tough-guy rocker sitting down at a piano and banging out a sappy tribute to their baby on all white keys is common enough to be a cliché. The best of the undistinguished pile of parental pride songs is probably Loudon Wainwright’s “Daughter.” But these preverbal objects of our idealized affection eventually acquire voices, and those voices air judgments, and those judgments can be unflattering: Loudon’s daughter Martha’s song about him is called “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.”
When I was first poleaxed by Randy Newman’s “Wandering Boy,” I had already passed through the shock, denial, depression, and ambivalence of new parenthood, and was negotiating with something like acceptance. My daughter had just turned four. I’d even had a second: my son was just about nine months old. I’d been braced for another brutal transition. My handful of friends who’d had a second child seemed to emerge from the experience with the unfocused eyes, wild hair, and semi-articulate warnings of a rescued castaway.
But for me, the traumatic life changes had already happened. We were already the kind of people who got up at 6:30 in the morning. The boy was healthy and boisterous, and I was a bourgeois bohemian listening to public radio podcasts in a second-hand Subaru. In his sanguine grumble, Leonard Lopate introduced Randy Newman, who was dutifully promoting his first album in almost a decade. If pressed, my sense about Newman at the time constituted a generalized admiration unmoored from any particular familiarity. I knew “Short People,” of course, and “Rednecks” and “Political Science;” I knew “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear” via the Muppet Show. I had a sense of him as a sharp, gently misanthropic, professional songwriter—as a refined taste with a flavorfully anarchic streak; as a public-facing sentimentalist for hire while a private cynic for the enlightened—without any deep knowledge of his catalog.
Which is to say, I was entirely unprepared for the guileless grief of “Wandering Boy.” It’s more or less a rewrite—for an era of new, synthetic addictions—of a 19th century temperance song (by the Reverend Robert Lowery, better known as the composer of “Shall We Gather At The River?”): both are gentle parlor-piano hymns, both narrations of a parent’s muted anguish over a dissolute child. (And narration is what Newman does, as much as sing: a simple melody in the circumscribed range of his faltering voice, whose cadence follows, more than steady meter, the stop-and-go rhythm of resigned small talk, while the piano sighs and creaks.) Where the older song is couched, though, in Victorian flounce (Once he was pure as morning dew/as he knelt at his mother’s knee/No face was as bright, no heart more true/and none was so sweet as he), Newman, agonizingly, gives his narrator the kind of subdued despair that maintains the decorum of the neighborhood party. His heart is breaking, but he doesn’t want to ruin the get-together—Thank you for the party/We’re always glad we came/I’m the only one from the family tonight/But I know they’d say the same—even as his thoughts can’t keep from turning to the golden memories of his baby boy, the little caboose, we called him. The family described in the song, four sons and a daughter, mirrors Newman’s own. I’ll let him set the scene:
As a family, we went to this Labor Day party in the neighborhood for years. I was there when I was 10 years old and when I was 50 years old. You would see a little kid at 5, and then you’d see him again 20 years later, for one day. There was one bright-eyed 11-year-old kid there, and my dad said, “He’s gonna be president someday.” But he had a tough time with heroin and a lot of other things; he was not president. It was about having that kind of promise—jumping off the high board, yelling, and being real happy—and then falling off the grid for some reason, into the big hole. […] So I tried to imagine what it would be like if one of those homeless guys that I see on the street a little ways away from here were one of my sons.
It is the father’s helplessness, in the song, that is most poignant and rings most true—the love and the helplessness. This is not the avenging savior father, Liam Neeson in the movie, prowling the skid row streets and dragging the young man home for a shower and some tough love. This father doesn’t know how to help, or what to do besides carrying out his social obligations, going through the motions of his quotidian upper-middle class day—and telling anyone who asks, If you see him, push him toward the light. (That push him toward the light is equivocal, though: one can move into the light of grace more irrevocably than the father may mean to imply.) Not “bring him home;” not “get him the help he needs,” or any of the other sympathetic clichés—just the small available hopes:
I hope he’s warm and I hope he’s dry
And that a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye
And I hope he has someone close by his side
And I hope that he’ll come home
Where is my wandering boy tonight?
Where is my wandering boy?
If you see him, tell him everything’s alright
Push him toward the light
Where is my wandering boy?
Weeping at the wheel, I had to pull the car over to the side of the road. Even now, just typing the lyrics, I feel that warm swelling pressure. The song’s effect on me is undiluted—and I’m not, in general, the crying type. It’s too easy to see myself in it, myself and my beautiful, irresponsible, roly-poly, face-pulling boy; and too unthinkable, but not impossible enough, to imagine him ruined and alone, and I powerless.
We can imagine, we parents, the signature emotional moments of our future: the weddings, graduations, and grandchildren. And we have songs for them. We can even imagine the grand guignol calamities: a toddler running into traffic, an icy runway; there’s even a kind of self-pityingly grim glamour in the fantasy of being the grieving survivor. There are songs for those catastrophes, too, hoary dead baby folk ballads (distant enough in time and sensibility to be emotionally impotent) and their maudlin contemporary counterparts. But there’s no comforting heroism in confronting the slow, grinding tragedy of addiction, estrangement, all the quotidian ways in which a family can disintegrate—and what might be our culpability.