Crazy Train

“Ozzy! Ozzy! Ozzy!” my four year old son, Jack screamed as he jumped from one piece of furniture in our living room to the other.

I had finally found a copy of Blizzard of Oz on vinyl. It’s the Ozzy Osbourne record with Crazy Train on it. His first solo LP, the one with Randy Rhoades. It was a big day in our family. Well, at least for Jack and I. We stopped off at a new neighborhood record store after a day at the park and lo and behold, a mint copy of what has been a white whale of a record for my son and I, was sitting right at the front of the Metal LPs section. I couldn’t spend the twelve bucks fast enough. We raced home and both agreed that nap time would have to be replaced by what Jack calls “rocking out time” – a spastic combination of jumping on the furniture, dancing, and not only air guitar, but air drums, air bass, and air singing. Sometimes it involves running in circles. “Crazy Train” definitely always warrants all of the above.

Yep. My son is into Ozzy big time already. He’s only four and a half and that crazy, old, mumbling, British bastard is a hero to him. Not because Ozzy was a member of the band that pretty much created heavy metal. Not because he was a reality TV train-wreck pioneer. Not because he once bit the head off not only a dove but also a dead bat (coincidentally, one of Jack’s current favorite animals). No, Ozzy Osbourne is a hero to Jack because he wrote hands down what Jack considers to be the greatest song about trains ever. And now we were finally able to listen to it on Daddy’s record player, on the big stereo in the living room where there’s enough room for a dance party with plenty of space left over to fit his air drum kit and rack of air guitars. All aboard.

I’ve listened to a lot of “Crazy Train” in the past couple of years. And that’s coming from a guy that used to have to listen to it at least once a day every day for 13 years working for rock radio stations. I was already ahead of the game. I imagine if there were a Guinness Book World Record for continuous listens of “Crazy Train,” my son and I broke it at some point last March. My son has loved trains for as long as he’s known about them. The same goes for “Crazy Train.” Elmo has nothing on Ozzy in this household. And so we listen to “Crazy Train” and then we listen to it some more. It’s totally cool with me.

I wasn’t ever the biggest Ozzy fan, but you can’t be a fan of rock and metal without respecting the man. Black Sabbath was the shit, and the Ozzy solo stuff has grown on me due to my radio days and my Jack days. Plus, no matter what your thoughts on the rest of the Ozzy catalog, you have to admit that “Crazy Train” is a badass song. It’s definitely a classic. Randy Rhoades guitar riff is legendary and his playing throughout the song and album energized a newly solo Ozzy and made him a superstar. The lyrics are some of Ozzy’s better work, and you can’t knock the positive message. For a guy that most of square America thought was the devil, he was sure spreading a pretty Christian message; preaching about peace and love in at least the same vein as John Lennon, if not Jesus Christ.  And it’s a great song for air guitar.

I still remember the first time I played the song for Jack. I first got his attention as Ozzy screamed “All aboard,” with his maniacal laugh that follows. But, as soon as the chorus hit with Ozzy singing, “I’m going off the rails on a crazy train,” Jack’s face lit up like he was at center stage under the spotlight. He wanted to hear the song over again, immediately. And again. And again. And a few more agains. We must have listened to it for a complete hour at least, and we’ve never really stopped. By the end of it, 2 and ½ year old Jack was toddling around the house screaming the infamous, “Aye Aye Aye” part from the beginning of the song as he went about his day. He was my own tow headed “Little Ozzy,” devil horn heavy metal salute included.

Shortly after turning three years old, he started to pick up on more of the “Crazy Train” lyrics. One day I had been unloading the dishwasher, as usual, and was intrigued by what seemed like silence throughout the rest of the house. I snuck past our kitchen table in the other room and stood behind the big fat chair in our living room as I tried to secretly spy on Jack lying on the carpet in the center of the room. He was pushing a toy train engine  around and quietly singing to himself, “going off the rails on a crazy train,” over and over again. I just stood there silently smiling while a few tears fell into my beard. I beamed with pride. My son was singing “Crazy Train” unprompted. It was like a Field of Dreams -“how bout a catch dad?”- “I’d like that” – father son moment. It was fucking beautiful. Jack was officially and genuinely into music, and I couldn’t be happier. Nothing would ever be the same.

I’m not really surprised that Jack has taken to music like he has. Did I expect him to be able to pick out AC/DC and Led Zeppelin songs off the radio at age 4? Obviously not, but I am pretty psyched about it. Some might say it was my secret master plan all along to get him interested in my lifelong passion, but though I wouldn’t deny it, it’s probably just as likely that he couldn’t really avoid it. It’s a rare moment that music is not on in our home, our car, our backyard, or even his bedroom. For better or worse, he hasn’t slept in silence a night in his life, falling asleep to lullaby versions of songs by Zeppelin, the Pixies, the Beatles, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam. What started as a tool to lure a newborn baby to sleep and keep him asleep, has now become a bedtime necessity. I pity his future bedmate or college roommate. Believe me, we’ve tried to remove the music from the bedtime equation, but it’s still as important to him as his fuzzy, white blanket and I don’t see it going anywhere soon.

At first he just listened as music played in the background, but then he started to like and dislike certain songs or music genres over others. Even before he spoke, you could tell what he enjoyed and didn’t. Oddly enough, his first favorite song was Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” He would smile widely and bob his head around in his car seat anytime it was played on the radio. Even after he was older and started talking, he still held on to a preference for dance pop with female vocalists. Pink, Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, it didn’t matter. “Girl songs,” as he calls them, were his first love, and I still can’t skip past anything in the genre when it comes on the radio. In fact, I don’t even have control of the car stereo anymore, DJ Backseat Driver is always on the ones and twos.

Soon, he had to have his own Spotify playlist, which we filled with his old and new favorite songs. Crazy Train was first on the list. Then came his favorite “girl songs.” I didn’t even get into The Boss until my thirties, but at age 3 he already had not one, but two favorite Bruce Springsteen songs (“Dancing in the Dark,” “Radio Nowhere”). Both songs are on the playlist. There are also songs about different kinds of trains (“Runaway Train,” “Train Kept a Rollin,” “Get Back on the Train,”). There are songs about other modes of transportation (“Jet Airliner,” “Fast Car,” “Drive My Car”). He even loves the Dave Matthews Band song “Gravedigger,” because he thinks it’s about the Grave Digger Monster Truck, which he pushes around the house while Matthews sings about death and dying, oblivious to the song’s true theme. It’s hilarious. And then there’s the Pearl Jam songs.

The music of Pearl Jam has been a part of my life since High School. I was hooked from the beginning. I could quote you gaudy concert attendance statistics, but my obsession with Pearl Jam goes beyond the shows I’ve been lucky enough to attend.  I mean, I still have the receipts for my Pearl Jam album purchases. Believe me, I was just as surprised as you when I found them in one of my formerly many boxes of stuff from my past lives. If you ever find yourself in my living room, and you are kind, perhaps I’ll show you my scrapbook. Yes, I’m at scrapbook level with this thing. But to be fair, it’s a whole lot easier than moving boxes of your obsession from place to place every time you move across the country. Go ahead and ask my spouse.

It’s not surprising that my son would take to my favorite band by mere exposure alone, but I just never imagined it happening so quickly or passionately for him as it has. He may have loved Ozzy because he sang about a train, Steve Miller because he sang about a plane, and Katy Perry because he was two years old, but he loves Pearl Jam because he actually loves the songs. No planes, trains, or automobiles with female vocalists anywhere in sight. Just chopsticks for drumsticks and the occasional guitar made of markers or shoe boxes and his Pearl Jam album on repeat for hours. His Pearl Jam album. Bought at a local record store on the first day it was released, just like his old man. A tradition passed down from father to son; a rite of passage that has almost been forgotten in this day and age. In addition to a Jet Airliner ’45 I picked him up in a record shop in Denver, and his two Ozzy records, it brought his record collection up to four. Not bad for a kid who still can’t wipe his own ass.

At the moment, Pearl Jam is right up there with jumping on the furniture, sticks, and eating half of a candy cane and leaving the rest laying around the house, on Jack’s list of favorite things. As I was back in 1991, Jack is full on obsessed with the first Pearl Jam record of his lifetime. He has a full on air band routine for each song and even switches from acoustic to electric air guitar at the right moments. Some songs he drums, some songs he plucks a stand up bass, and others he “quiet sings,” which is whispering, but with the full force and vigor of an actual on stage performance. He even thinks he knows all of the words to all of the songs on the album, which he doesn’t. But it’s Eddie Vedder, so one can be forgiven for a misheard word or twenty.

If this was my doing, I’ve definitely created a monster. I have a four year old consistently yelling at me from the back seat of the car to “turn up the song, Dada,” or “change the song, Dada,” or “put on my new Pearl Jam album, Dada.” Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. I ride on the whims of a four year old who thinks of Ozzy as most think of Elvis or The Beatles. Luckily he seems to already be showing signs of having great taste, no doubt a product of good genes or at least good direction. It’s gotten to the point where I get burnt out on Pearl Jam long before he does, and that’s no small feat. But that’s Jack, he knows what he likes and goes all in. I get it. My music has become our music, my band has become our band, and it’s the coolest thing ever.

Sharing the joy of music with others has always been one of my favorite things in life, so the feeling of getting to do that with my son is beyond any words I could write here. Even if it wasn’t Pearl Jam, or music for that matter, I’m just so happy that I have shown him how to be passionate about things he enjoys. To show him how to enjoy. To show him how to love. To show him how to get lost in the joy. There are precious few opportunities for a 36 year old and a four year old to bond over shared interests, and I’m not taking it for granted. So I’ll continue to happily indulge my pint sized Pearl Jam fanatic, metal head, air drummer with a thing for Ozzy Osborne and “girl songs.” I can relate. And after Christmas, when those air drums become real, loud, badly played drums, I’ll truly put this relationship to the test.

“Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?” Jack asked me the other day.

I thought for a second, thinking back through all of his past ideas. First it was a train engineer, then a Monster Truck driver, captain of the “My Lemony Falcon,” and the more traditional, fire-fighter. Last I heard he wanted to be a paleontologist or better yet, a “bird scientist.” I told him I didn’t have any idea.

“I want to be the drummer for Pearl Jam,” he said.

I didn’t laugh. Hell, I’ve wanted to be in Pearl Jam my whole life too, I wasn’t about to derail his dream at age four and half.

“If they’re still around, I’m sure you can try,” I responded knowing that they’ve switched drummers on multiple occasions in the past, so it’s not entirely a fantasy.

“I’ll probably sing too,” he added.

“What about Eddie Vedder?” I asked, “He’s a pretty good singer already.”

“Well, I guess Eddie can do the singing but I’ll sing “Crazy Train” if Pearl Jam wants to play that.”

“Sounds good dude, you better start practicing those air drums,” I smiled.

“Hey Dad?”

“Yes, Jack.”

“Can we have a Pearl Jam dance party day, today?” he asked, already knowing the answer, “But can we listen to Crazy Train first, Dada?”

“I’d like that,” I responded, choking back joyful tears like a modern day Ray Kinsella in his field of dreams.

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The Death of Fear?

“The first night that my son was born I started to think I was going to die.  Obviously I’ve always known that I would die, that’s not really what this particular feeling is about. It’s kind of fucked up, but since that kid popped out and began his life I’ve had this specter of the end of my life over my shoulder that I just can’t shake. I don’t want to die. I’m not trying to die. I have no reason to think that I would perish any time soon based on the odds alone, my good health not withstanding . But there it is, my death, in my thoughts more so now than ever. It’s beyond mere middle of the night heart pounding stark realizations. You just have to deal with those, realize you can’t change the final outcome, and go back to sleep. Or have another drink. This is different. It’s a different kind of fear of death.”

I wrote the preceding paragraph shortly after my son Jack was born. I hit “save draft” and forgot about it for awhile. It was always something I had planned to go back to and explore in greater depth when and if I ever had a chance. But then you spend every waking (and sleeping) hour making sure your newborn baby is happy, is fed, is changed, is sleeping, isn’t crying, isn’t sick, isn’t going to die under your watch and suddenly your own death, your own fears, and your own questions and problems get pushed so far out of your consciousness that you almost forget about all of them. Almost. Us humans, we are a worrisome lot.

I know it’s become cliche, but when you become a parent it’s instantly not about you at all anymore, so you learn to get out of your own head and into the life of your child. Not everyone is lucky enough to figure that part out, but I know it happened for me. It’s a daily struggle, but a necessary one. When I fail, I’ve been lucky. Something usually comes along to knock me out of the old patterns and into the reality I have discovered many times over.

Last Monday it was a Youtube video.  High on a Chicago Bears Monday Night Football victory against the Packers, I stayed up past everyone’s bedtime to listen online to post game coverage out of Chicago before moving on to my favorite late night pastime. No, not porn, Pearl Jam. As I perused YouTube for some new concert videos from the Fall Tour, I clicked away at suggested videos for a short while before coming across an ESPN segment featuring former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason interviewing Eddie Vedder.

Steve Gleason is the dude that blocked the punt during the NFL spectacle that was the first post-Katrina Saints game at the Superdome. He played for the Saints for 8 years, and in 2011 was diagnosed with ALS. Gleason, a huge Pearl Jam fan, was able to sit down with Vedder one on one and ask some pretty deep and personal questions that focused more on life than the twenty plus year music career of Vedder and his Pearl Jam band mates. Gleason reveals to Vedder that he’s been working on a video journal library for his son, Rivers in case the ALS ran its expected course. In one especially touching moment, Gleason asks Vedder what he wished he could have known about the father he never met. Vedder is clearly moved by the question and tells Gleason that he would have wanted to first know if his father loved him and how much, and that he also would have appreciated some pointers on how to be a good man.

You should have seen me as I was balling my eyes out alone in the dark as I watched the clip. I knew thirty seconds in that I was fucked. By the end of it, I was sobbing into my beer glass and wiping my nose with the sleeve of my grandmother’s old Jim McMahon jersey that I had donned for good luck. My parents would probably tell you that I’ve always been quick to cry. Well, fatherhood has made it a thousand times worse. I shed tears at least three times a week now. I’m a pitiful, sobbing, emotional wreck behind this bearded facade, yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

It was that ESPN segment on Youtube that brought me back to that unfinished paragraph from my parenting past. Looking back at those thoughts after these last four years with my son provides some clarity. My new found fear four years ago wasn’t really fear. It was love. No shit. A strange love that I’m still coming to terms with. I immediately felt so strangled with unconditional love at the first intense, messy glimpse of my son, that my greatest fear instantly became the possibility that I would miss any second of his life. That feeling has exponentially multiplied by the day as I have watched my son grow into a quite amazing four year old so full of life, laughter, curiosity, and kindness.

I don’t want to miss out on one second of my son’s life. But no matter what, I will. It will never be enough. Whether I die next week or in 60 years, I’ll be missing out on something. I know this. That’s why this feeling is so frustrating. And juxtaposed with the imminent worries of a father like Gleason who has real shit going down, I see the absurdity. I know that I have to get over the hypothetical moments that I may miss and make sure I’m making the most of the real and present moments. So I’m working on it. Apparently living is the hardest lesson to learn about life. At least I’ve learned that so far, I suppose.

We must quit worrying about death (or the other million things that are out of your control, unnecessary, or unimportant) and put all of that energy into being present for not only our children, but for all of the people that are present with and precious to you in this all too brief and precious fucking existence. It’s something I have to remind myself of constantly. When we get out of our heads and into our relationships, whichever ones they may be, all of our fears can subside because we are in this thing together.

But that’s not to say that those feelings that started those many days four years ago ever really went away, just as the reality of our own eventual deaths never really stop haunting us in our dark bedrooms. Even as I write this the little thought of my son reading this after I’ve suffered a way too early death, burrow into my mind, my gut, and into all of my fingers as they press the laptop keys. Hell, it’s those feelings that inspired this whole writing thing in the first place.  The words on this screen are my video journal library to my son, no matter when he reads it.

I’m just grateful every day that I am able to offer my son more than just videos or words. I can make sure that he knows how much I love him by loving him. I can show him how to be a good man by being a good man. I can prepare him to really live. But, I’ll keep writing it all down just in case. For him, for me, for you. Because you never know.

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulder.” — Eddie Vedder – Pearl Jam “Sirens”

Inspired by:

ESPN’s Steve Gleason and Pearl Jam Feature (Must Watch)

Pearl Jam’s “Sirens”

Team Gleason