Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
My baby boy, just a week old, is perched on my stomach, and I’m singing to him what I hope is his new favorite lullaby, “Train to Chicago.”
Gas station, neon sign
Orange and white winks an eye
And whispers goodnight
Drunk on the train to Chicago, I feel alright.
I’ve had this song in my back pocket for awhile. When I first heard it on Mike Doughty’s Smofe & Smang live album back in 2002, I knew instantly that I’d be singing it to my child someday. There’s just something about the melody that sounds like a children’s song. The lyrics maybe not so much, but it’s close. It’s about trains and dreams, which are big staples of children’s music. It always sounded to my ears like a cooler version of The Polar Express, but instead of Santa there’s a commuter sloshed on Dewar’s White Label who just wants to hold your hand “all through the night.”
For the nine months leading up to my son’s birth, friends and family members, both with kids and otherwise, have told me repeatedly about all the terrible children’s music I’ll be forced to endure in the coming years. And they always say it with a smirk, like they’re barely able to suppress their schadenfreude at the inevitability of my musical suffering. They’ll tell me about Thomas, the anthropomorphic and underachieving British train engine; and the Veggie Tales, with their not-in-any-way subtle proselytizing; and Yo Gabba Gabba, whose name sounds like the frightened last words of somebody having a stroke. They’ve delighted in telling me how I’ll soon be intimately familiar with the entire Wiggles canon, able to recite by heart the lyrics to “I Love Waffles in the Morning” and “Toot Toot, Chugga Chugga, Big Red Car.”
Well you know what? Fuck them. Long before I had unprotected sex with my wife, I was determined to never, ever learn the lyrics to a song called “Toot Toot, Chugga Chugga, Big Red Car,” unless it’s performed by Iggy Pop and the “big red car” is a metaphor for Iggy’s penis. I don’t believe in children’s music. It’s like Christian music; if you want music with Christian themes, don’t waste your time on the shit that calls itself Christian. Listen to late ‘70s Bob Dylan or that song on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea where Jeff Mangum sings about loving Jesus Christ. The same goes for kids’ music. Most of the music in your current record collection are baby-ready with just a little editing, because every artist has at least one baby appropriate song. Take the Pixies. Obviously you shouldn’t play “Wave of Mutilation” or “You Fucking Die” for a newborn. But what about “Where Is My Mind?” It creeps you out because you associate it with the time you bought hash from that albino guy in Glendale and got way higher than you should have. (Or is that just me?) But in the right context, the lyrics are innocuous and sweetly poetic, like something from a Shel Silverstein book. “I was swimming in the Caribbean/ Animals were hiding behind the rocks/ Except the little fish.” Adorable!
I like to claim that I’m making a moral stand against the insipidity of children’s music. But my wife, the Dame, she knows better. “You’re just showing off for the baby,” she laughs. “You’re like the delusional old guy in that Randy Newman song.”
That should be a vague insult — all Randy Newman songs are essentially about delusional old guys — but I know exactly what she’s referring to. She means the delusional old guy in “Memo to My Son,” with the narrator who chastises an infant for not being more impressed with his father’s knowledge. “Wait’ll you learn how to talk, baby/ I’ll show you how smart I am.”
I’m not quite that delusional. I know my baby’s respect for me, if it exists at all, is fleeting. The lullabies I sing to him today will be long forgotten tomorrow, and by the time he’s old enough to have a musical point of view, our personal tastes will be so incompatible that I’ll start to doubt whether we actually share DNA. When he’s 16, he’ll be listening to Acid Robot Hip-Hop, or whatever the fuck is popular among teens in the future, and rolling his eyes when I blare LCD Soundsystem or the Hold Steady on my beat-up iPod docking station.
For most of my marriage to the Dame, we avoided breeding for generally the same reasons we recycled and drove a hybrid; Given the crappy condition of the planet, it seemed like the only unselfish choice. Or at least that’s what we told people when they asked. But it’s bullshit, for the same reason the “I’m not going to get married until gay people can get married” excuse is bullshit. We didn’t have kids because it scared the shit out of us. And when we finally decided to try parenthood anyway, to jump into the chasm and hope for the best, it just got scarier.
Some people are born to be parents. They can change a diaper with the razor-sharp precision of a sushi chef, or carry the numerous baby apparati on their backs like sherpas. I still think getting day drunk on a weekday and waiting for a “final notice” bill from the electric company sound like good ideas. I’ve had rare moments of self-confidence when it comes to kids, like when I’ve babysat my 3-year old nephew. But it’s not a fair test of my abilities. It’s like when you’re invited into the cockpit of a plane, and the pilot lets you hold the controls for a few seconds, and you think, “Holy shit, I’m totally flying this plane!” But really, you’re not flying it at all. The most you’ve proven is that you can hold the controls of a plane without immediately sending it into a tailspin.
When my son was born, I felt love like I’ve never experienced before in my life. But by day two, I was in free-fall panic mode. What chance did I have of raising this tiny, fragile human being without fucking him up? It suddenly made sense why some people just give up. Not that I could ever bring myself to do it, but in the more terrifying moments, it has occurred to me to find a nice-looking house in a nice-looking neighborhood and ring the doorbell before running away. When the homeowner opens their front door, they’ll look down and see my baby, pink and shiny with possibility, with a note safety-pinned to his diaper that reads: “TOO CONFUSING.”
When the baby anxiety grips me, I sing to him. I don’t know if it calms him, but it definitely calms me. It’s the same reason why I sang along to the Replacement’s “Unsatisfied” as a teenager until I got hoarse. Because it made me feel, at least temporarily, that I had life in any way figured out. It’s also the reason why the Dame and I put so much thought into the labor soundtrack for our son’s delivery. We spent weeks arguing about it, bouncing song ideas back and forth. We devoted more time to creating and fine-tuning playlists then reading baby books. We once wasted an entire evening debating whether Ani DiFranco’s “Dilate” should be included, despite having nothing to do with cervixes, and ended up missing a birthing class. The only song we actually agreed on was the Foo Fighters’ “Razor,” which was lyrically perfect without being too explicit. “Wake up it’s time/ Need to find a better place to hide/ Make up your mind/ I need to know, I need to know tonight.” Maybe Dave Grohl wasn’t talking about a stubborn womb-squatting baby, but he might as well have been.
A few verses of “Train to Chicago” and my son is gurgling happily, which I just assume is his way of saying “What else you got in that genre?” So I start singing “We Will Become Silhouettes” by the Postal Service, which has that same gentle melodic phrasing that babies like so much (I’m guessing).
Because the air outside will make
Our cells divide at an alarming rate
Until our shells simply cannot hold
All our insides in
And that’s when we’ll explode.
And I swear to you, right around the lyric about disintegrating bodies, he smiles up at me. I know it’s probably just a fart, but to me it feels like a victory.