“Well, what do you think?” my dad asked when it was over, looking straight at me, his glee seeping into the question and causing his final syllables to shoot up in pitch.
I was in seventh grade, it was my dad’s birthday, and my mom had advised me to get him Jackson Browne’s new live album for the occasion. As soon as he unwrapped the CD, my dad knew what had to be done. I had to hear “For a Dancer.”
He popped the CD into our player. For three minutes, I sat still at the nearby dining table while my Dad stood next to the CD player looking alternately at me and at the CD case.
I listened. Browne’s voice, by then raspy with age, wrapped around aching piano chords. What took the foreground, however, was what Browne was singing about: the death of a friend. Also, denial, regret and religious doubt.
When the track ended and my dad immediately asked me what I thought, I could only think of one thing to say.
“It’s a sad song,” I said uncomfortably.
I don’t remember how my dad responded. I do remember that my discomfort didn’t last, though. My dad continued playing his new live album around the house throughout the coming weeks, and he soon wore me down. Jackson Browne’s articulate, introspective lyrics and understated melodies began to grow on me.
It was only a matter of time before I began to see that first playthrough of “For a Dancer” as the beginning of an era; it was the first time I seriously listened to Serious Music. Whereas in the past I had casually watched music videos on Nickelodeon (not to mention a months-long Jimmy Buffett kick), this new era saw me immersing myself into older bands my dad introduced me to: first Jackson Browne, then Harry Chapin, then The Moody Blues, and so on.
Like “For a Dancer,” these bands all took themselves fairly seriously, something that the introverted budding adolescent in me welcomed. Suddenly, I had bouncing around in my head these beautiful songs that unabashedly took on Big Questions, and none of my classmates seemed to know about them. I began to see the divide between Browne grappling with a friend’s death and P!nk glibly singing about her next party as the divide between myself and the outside world. Needless to say, I wasn’t the best person to discuss music with (but that’s a story for another post).
Now that I’m a little older (and have extended my passion for music to songs written after 1980), I find it a little ironic that “For a Dancer” should stand as the symbolic beginning of my self-righteousness adolescent phase. The song exemplifies the kind of vulnerability that quashes self-righteousness. The vulnerability of Browne entertaining the idea that his prayers might just dissipate into space. The vulnerability of continuing to pray anyway. The vulnerability of admitting that his obsession with death has brought him nowhere closer to answers. The vulnerability of admitting his obsession with death in the first place.
The small vulnerability of my dad sharing something he loved with someone whose opinion he cared very much about. The potential of that moment when you offer a bit of yourself up not knowing what the other will make of it but hoping they might just see things your way.