Side A: Composure
We always took Dad’s car. Whether it was our weekly Sunday dinner at Whole Foods or the four-hour trek to our Smokey Mountain cabin—Dad’s car was choice. The four of us would slide into the silver Lexus and roll out the driveway. Mom and Dad talked business as I stared out the window, their voices washing over me.
“Henry, Lil.” My head snapped forward, looking at Dad’s grinning face in the rearview mirror. Henry glanced up from his phone. “Check this out,” he said. I heard the Lexus swallow a disc. We knew what was coming. Dad savored these car rides to play us some old blues record, or a recently recovered Jimi Hendrix recording.
The Lexus speakers erupted with guitar strings. I jolted. The instruments plunked and a thick, gritty voice crumbled through the audio, “My smile is stuck, I cannot go back to your frownland.” It sounded like a caveman waltzed into a recording studio and banged his entire head on an electric guitar. I recoiled, shocked. Henry covered his ears, Mom rolled her eyes, and Dad shook his head enthusiastically, entering some instantaneous nirvana well beyond our range of sound.
This was my first exposure to Captain Beefheart.
Here is a frequent conversation I encountered growing up:
“What do your parents do, Lily?”
“No, but like what do they do for their job?”
“They play music. They’re musicians.”
In our house, situated between suburban Franklin and the city of Nashville, even the quiet days weren’t silent. Lyrics floated from the ground up, our basement recording studio pulsing with rhythm. Arpeggios of guitar strings trickled up the stairs as they slowly found their tuning. In the early hours of the morning, Mom perched on a stool with her teal guitar, switching between a pick and pencil in her hands, always giving, always refining. On the mixing days, I would hear the same chorus over and over as Dad sliced off the unnecessary debris moving towards the crisp quality of a finalized track.
When Dad came to tuck me in for bed, I would grasp his left hand and prod his fingertip calluses, poking in wonder at the calcified time.
Dad dropped a beat in the kitchen. “Her name is Lily,” his percussive mouth counted out the measure. “She’s kinda silly.” He beatboxed and motioned for me to jump in.
I grinned, “Her dress is frilly.”
“She’s been to Philly.”
“Outside it’s chilly.”
Back and forth we went, laughing with open mouths.
“Do you really like Captain Beefheart?” I asked Dad tentatively one day in his studio.
“Of course I do!”
“But it doesn’t...” I hesitated, unsure how to break it to him. “It doesn’t sound good...”
“Maybe to you it doesn’t. It’s abstract music. He’s playing with form to make way for something new.”
“You mean he wanted it to sound that way?”
“He wrote it to sound that way.”
Dad stood up from his rolling chair and started rummaging through a stack of papers. He brandished a copy of sheet music, the cover depicting a man’s body with a trout for a head. Underneath the picture read in chunky letters Troutmask Replica—Captain Beefheart’s 1969 album. Flipping through the pages, Dad showed me meticulously marked bars and measures. He paused to read aloud, “My smile is stuck, I cannot go back to your frownland. My spirit is made up of the ocean and the sky and the sun and the moon and all my eye can see...”
He looked up at me through his wire-rim frames. “It’s poetry, Lil.”
Music was not a profession in our house. It was a lens. We couldn’t talk about films without the scores, churches without the acoustics. My dad would wait outside while we shopped in Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch because he couldn’t stand the overly remixed pop music.
I visit home and watch Dad lie on the couch with his eyes closed, 2001: A Space Odyssey playing full volume on the television. He is not sleeping. He’s watching the movie through its quality of sound.
“Want to hear a song I wrote?” The answer was always yes. Sometimes Dad would pull out his bulky tape recorder and press the button with the little red circle as I belted out confused ballads. One after the next, my songs overflowed from stacks of notebooks.
My 5th teacher, Mrs. Torrence, caught me songwriting in class once and informed me that those words without the instruments could be made into poems.
“Write one for homework,” she said,
I was stunned. “You mean I can write a song for homework?”
Mrs. Torrence corrected me, “A poem for homework.”
But I didn’t know the difference. I started writing songs for as many writing assignments as I could get away with. Mrs. Torrence only drew the line when I turned in two pages of rhyming couplets for a standardized essay prompt.
I wanted to be a singer like my mom when I grew up. As soon as I developed an ear for harmonies, she would pull me up on stage at her gigs, have me echo her verses and sing underneath her choruses. I have always been moody and sensitive just like her—qualities of an artist, she told me. We weren’t easygoing or good-humored like Dad and Henry, but we recognized something in one another, some depth of feeling. Singing with Mom was magic, like melding into a single perspective for one small moment. Even at my pitchiest, there was always room for me on stage.
Side B: Unraveling
On any given day, there were two possible places my parents could be: home and away. Home meant cars in the driveway, early dinners, and dog-walking around the loop of our neighborhood. Away meant Mom and Dad flying to another town for some gig, which then meant Sharlene.
Shar, as we affectionately called her, was the collective nanny for a whole slew of musician families around the Nashville area. She nannied for Amy Grant, Wynona Judd, and of course, Kenny and Ashley Greenberg. Shar would take me and Henry to Chuck E. Cheese’s, McDonald’s, Toys R Us (or as she called it, Toys For Us)—all of the places my parents avoided. Her motto was “Party on, dude.” She lived alone with two dogs, who she annually dressed up for Halloween. She called me Lil B. Shar was as much a child as I was.
As I grew older, Sharlene stayed the same. Her incessant adventures became too-tight pants, awkward and uncomfortable. Once in the 7th grade, Shar and I were in Target; she was stocking up on cleaning supplies and I had wandered into the Accessories section. My phone buzzed: a text message from Shar that read, “Find me if you can!” I searched for her for almost an hour, then dissolved into tears at the front of the store, calling her on repeat until she emerged from the billowing dresses of the Maternity section, angry at me for making such a scene. Mom called this “boundary issues.” Dad called this “fucked up.” Whatever it was, away changed shape.
Aunt Susan, our apologetic 2nd cousin from East Tennessee, took Sharlene’s place. Her car smelled like rancid perfume, and she only ate Nabisco 100-calorie snacks during the day. Henry and I avoided Aunt Susan like the plague.
Once Henry and I started driving, away meant alone. We picked out our own groceries and came home to an empty driveway. Sometimes it felt like freedom; other times, silence.
My junior year in high school, Henry left for college and Dad took away to a whole new level: he went on tour, as the guitar player for a big name country music artist. At first, we celebrated. Only the best studio musicians get to go on tour. Granted, we all knew how he felt about the cheesy commodified twang of mainstream country music—I think “insufferable” would be his description of choice—but hey, who can say no the benefits? Tours make a lot more money than songwriting and small gigs with Mom. Tours mean travel and fame.
Yet, with tours comes an indefinite out-of-town quality, a perpetual state of away. With Dad on the road, and Henry in college, Mom and I were the only ones left at home. She stopped travelling for gigs, only playing a few local shows here and there, which made for more quality time than we could have anticipated. Our house started to feel too big and too small at the same time. We had empty bedrooms, but Mom and I couldn’t escape one another. Our sameness became territorial, and we took turns standing on one another’s throat. Puberty and menopause don’t mix well.
Then Dad would come home and breathe laughter back into the house.
“I thought you didn’t like country music,” I whined.
“You know I don’t,” said Dad. “But this is where the money is—in the tours.”
“But what about Captain Beefheart? And Jimi Hendrix?”
“Lily. They’re not going to pay for you to go to college.”
We learned how to embrace with thousands of miles between us. Dad would text me pictures of stadiums that sat 10,000 people. We would play voicemail tag and perform different accents. We invented new rhyming games, messaging couplets back and forth. “I love you” and “I miss you” became synonymous. A ride in Dad’s Lexus became Christmas.
Dad’s tour opened a brutal window into the life of an artist. Sure, he loves music—loves songwriting and guitar solos and record making. But he didn’t go on tour for the love of music. He went for the paycheck.
I wanted desperately to escape this fate. Senior year, I quit my school’s Chamber Choir. I let my guitar gather dust as the strings drooped further and further from their tuning. My career as a singer ended before it started.
I only took one creative writing class in high school, which I strode into with confidence. Given all my songs and poems, I knew I could write. Now was my time to shine.
The class was taught by Mrs. Orr, a formidable woman who forbade all laughter in her classroom. Serious as this may seem, we didn’t do much of anything in the class.
“You will never learn a skill more important than following directions,” she told us, handing out coloring sheets with numbered sections to indicate which color should be used where. I reluctantly obliged, though I never much liked coloring inside the lines.
Over the entire semester, we read exactly one novel. “If you want to know what good writing is,” said Mrs. Orr, “then read John Grisham, and study him well.” We read The Painted House, which I think had something to do with baseball. As I stared at Grisham’s crusty white face on the book’s back cover, I wondered if I could ever do what he has done, if I could ever write like that. When Mrs. Orr handed back the only short story I wrote with a large D printed across the top, I assumed the negative.
Despite my creative writing catastrophe, I was the star writer in all my other classes. Mr. Scheetz often used my U.S. History papers as examples, commenting on my eloquent persuasion. Mrs. DeKraai invited me to eat lunch with her and talk about my literary analyses. When I wrote creatively for Mrs. Orr, I flopped. But when I wrote an academic paper creatively for History or Literature, I soared.
Because I was a strong student, academia felt like a safety net, where I could innovate and experiment, and still come out with a 4.0 GPA. The grades felt dependable, something I could really trust. All reading responses, essays, and research papers were graded with a letter in red ink to indicate my exact success level. If I got an A, then I was objectively good at writing. No one ever affirmed me with such certainty when I was singing songs.
And so, before ever setting foot on a college campus, I declared an English major. I knew I could write, but I didn’t want to be a writer. Writers write novels and poetry, meandering through the nomadic life of independently employed. Like a musician. No, no, I won’t entertain such foolish dreams, I thought.
I wanted to suspend the gratifying certainty of academic success, but I also wanted to write. So I started telling people that I would be a teacher. I could help my students shape their voices, and continue to craft my own on the side, all in the confines of Monday through Friday, 7am to 3pm. I would never leave the comfort of academia, a setting where I knew I could thrive. It didn’t matter whether my words would yield monetary value. I’d be on salary, a foreign, fantastical concept. What would Dad think, I wondered, as he strummed the guitar to music he hated for the sake of our mortgage.
I used to think that I had to choose between music and writing, or between academic and creative writing. But underneath all expressions, there’s a common well I’m pulling from, a well that reaches deep underground, before my life began. All these years I’ve been raising water from the same source as my parents, some pool of artistry that they have protected and passed dow
I am graduating this spring with English and Creative Writing—thank God some professors along the way helped me to reclaim the short story from Mrs. Orr—and I still flip-flop between the pursuit of capital “W” Writing and capital “E” Education. I waver from whimsy to practicality, from artistry to scholarship, and back again. Yet, after a while, everything becomes a creative writing course. As long as I’m willing to wring myself out a bit, Literary Theory starts to look a lot like Poetry.
For now, I listen and write. Sometimes the words have musical accompaniment, like Radiohead and Joanna Newsom and Frank Ocean, whose music washes over some flowerbed in my chest. Other times the rhythm’s in the consonants, melody’s in the vowels, like Marilynne Robinson and Italo Calvino and Louise Glück. The phrases still sing, taking my head right off its hinges. I write into an ecosystem of voices that my parents taught me to hear. Because of them, I cannot separate music from writing more than anyone can strip a song of its lyrics. Sometimes I wonder if I have been pursuing various manifestations of music all along. From my mom and dad, I learned how to be awestruck, how to honor the creative life force in others, and maybe too, surrender to the one in myself.