Becoming an adult is hard. I’ve been working on it for nearly half my life now, and I still struggle. There are a lot of milestones along the way, markers for the journey, by which we measure our travels, our successes and our failures. Not everyone takes the same route, and so not all of the markers are the same.
For some, it’s landing that first “grown up” job. For others, it’s having their first kid. Maybe buying your first house. Sometimes, these milestones aren’t discrete moments in time, but changing and evolving perspectives. Realizations that only come with time, and which cause you to reevaluate what you thought you knew. For me, growing up is realizing that my parents had good taste in music.
The youthful tendency toward cultural and intellectual arrogance is damn near universal. There’s a virtual need to frame our parents as hopelessly out of touch. A pull to define ourselves in counter-position to the authority figures who shape our lives, as we push at the boundaries they’ve defined for us. In short, it is natural to think of your parents as dumb and lame.
Over the years, I've had a few growing up moments. After each one, I called my parents. I called them to thank them and, more importantly, to apologize. Thank them for their correctness and guidance, and apologize for my wrongheaded refusal to follow their guidance. I recently called (well, texted) my dad to thank him, and to apologize, yet again. The event that spurred the growing pains? Annihilation.
I've had to offer my parents more than a few musical mea culpas over the years, like when I recanted my positions on The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Re: the latter, I'd maintained that Simon was worthwhile, but not the pair, much to the dismay of my father, who once talked his way into a Simon and Garfunkel concert after trying to sneak backstage as a roadie and being busted by Art Garfunkel's brother. My Annihilation apology followed a similar path.
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I love Neil Young. I've loved him for a long time. My parents weren't the origin, my older brother was. As with the Simon and Garfunkel debacle, I'd decided long ago that Neil was cool, but his acronymic compatriots - the CSN in CSNY - were not. Neil was a tough-edged rock icon who drove a hearse, CSN were a glorified glee club. Then, Annihilation.
"Helplessly Hoping" — from Crosby, Stills and Nash's eponymous debut — drifts in and out of the soundtrack, a sort of emotional anchor for the characters and the audience. It grabbed me immediately, catching in my ears and my throat. It's one of those songs whose emotional impact is immediate. Something about the mournful nostalgia of the song, the delicate power of the harmonies, the sweep and swell of it took hold of me and would not let go. I spent the next three days deep in a Crosby, Stills and Nash fugue-state, burning through every album I could find across four streaming services.
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It had been a while since I'd had a "crap, my parents were right" moment, especially about music. I couldn't let it pass unnoted. Dad didn't even rub it in. The mention did earn me a retelling of the time Stephen Stills (allegedly) nearly ran him off the road in '72, just a few years after Helplessly Hoping came out. Dad was living in Colorado at the time, building houses in between his abandoned education as a medical doctor and his successful education as a "book" doctor (he's a philosophy professor).
As dad tells it, he was driving up Boulder Canyon when a broad-shouldered, blond-haired man with a ponytail came barrelling downhill in a tan Land Cruiser, forcing him toward the outside edge of the road and a sheer drop. "Who does that guy think he is?" asked my dad, flustered. "He thinks he’s Stephen Stills, because he is Stephen Stills," his friend Kim replied. Dad was incredulous. Then, a few days later in town, dad saw the same car at a stoplight. "I'll be damned if it wasn't Stephen Stills" dad says, every time he retells the story.
Now, I can't say for sure that this story is true, or that it really was Stills, but I did a quick bit of Google research and verified that Stills was indeed living in Colorado at the time of this story, where he was recording solo material and forming Manassas while living at the top of Gold Hill. So it's possible. Regardless, it's a great story, and worth an admission of youthful wrongheadedness.
What does that story have to do with this one? Nothing, really, except as further illustration of the central theme: when you're a kid, you're incapable of seeing anything cool about your parents. If you're lucky, part of growing up is realizing that your parents were actually pretty cool the whole time. So thanks for being cool, dad, and thanks for trying to get me to appreciate Crosby, Stills and Nash. I get it now. I still don't get The Moody Blues, though. You're gonna have to let that one go.