My dad and I quit drinking around the same time. Him, because his body had deteriorated to the point that it physically wasn’t an option. Me, I quit because I had befriended a sweet old woman in her eighties named Dorothy. I had spent most of my life resenting my dad for his struggles, and the effect they had on me and our family. Yet here I was sharing his same struggles, only my shortcomings didn’t come with the pain of having fought in a war. Much like my old man, everyone believed I have a heart of gold, and I always held it all together.
I had, as many artists do, always felt a higher calling. I must be meant for great things. Shortly after I fell in love with music, I decided at the ripe old age of eighteen that those great things must mean being a great songwriter. Dad was always very supportive of my musical pursuits, as long as I understood I would be better off keeping it a hobby. What did he know? He had only grown up during the Great Depression, lost his own father as a child, been shipped off to boarding school, joined the Navy, fought and survived in Korea, gotten a PhD by putting himself through school, started a family, lost a wife to cancer, started another family, and provided for us by working his ass off sixty hours a week at a job he rarely complained about. All the while putting his deep love of poetry on the backburner for the sake of practicality and necessity. What did he know about becoming a rock star? Nothing. I couldn’t wait to prove him wrong.
Like many young musicians, I bought into three common notions about what makes great artists great. I experimented to expand my mind. When I wasn't busy with that, I kept busy throwing myself into the second notion, that great art takes suffering. And boy was I good at it. I could create suffering like nobody’s business. Those two practices spiraled into a most thriving and symbiotic relationship with the third notion, that quality is equated with commercial success.
Twenty years later, I walked into Dorothy’s house for the first time. I had been working at a café in Topanga, California for nine years. She was a customer. Dorothy was a little girl in Germany as the Nazis came into power. She and her parents narrowly escaped capture, grabbing a few belongings and boarding a boat in the middle of the night. Her father died on that boat. Dorothy was no stranger to suffering. She was also the most no nonsense, optimistic person I’ve ever known. But I didn’t know any of this yet. The day I found out that she had been a therapist before she retired, I semi-jokingly asked if she would go back into practice and be my therapist. The next day, she asked me if I would like to come have dinner at her house.
I had been inside for all of about thirty seconds when Dorothy very bluntly asked, “So, do you want to talk about your depression?” Holy shit, here we go. I decided over the course of the next two or three minutes that it was time to come clean. So I did. Completely, thoroughly. I spilled my guts. I had been abusing my body, mind, and spirit my entire adult life. I was confused, unhappy, and lost not only as an artist, but as a person. At the end of the night, Dorothy told me that she wanted to help me find, and sustain, joy. One catch though. One big, scary as hell catch. There was no point in trying to help me help myself if I wasn’t going to do so with a clear mind. Nervous and uncertain, I accepted. The time to stop numbing myself to the pains of the world had come. True suffering, with no secret escape hatch.
It took some time to actually decide to shut the door to that hatch. I went to go see one of my musical heroes later that week at the Greek Theater. Friday, May 13th. John Prine. Jason Isbell opened for him. There was magic in the air that night. Stardust. That’s the only explanation for how I got home to Topanga safely. The next morning, while swimming in self-loathing, as I had done countless times before, the sting was deeper than usual. I hadn’t followed through on my word. That was when it stuck. Disappointing myself was one thing, but no way could I back out on my promise to Dorothy. That Saturday, in my own quiet desperation, I read about Jason Isbell. He had made public his dirty laundry, how he managed to clean it, and better his artistry in the process. Somewhere in all of that, I started to find my own resolve.
Jason Isbell has a Dylan lyric tattooed on the inside of his left forearm, so it’s quite visible when playing the guitar. I thought that looked cool as shit, so I started writing a John Prine lyric on my own arm in the same spot. “Carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go”. It was equal parts childish and profound. I was trying it on as a first tattoo, because I thought it looked cool, but the message served as a constant reminder in case the memory of this self-inflicted pain faded over time. I wrote this on my arm every single day for months, until one day I decided to switch it to a phrase Bill Fay had written on the back of his first album. I had come to the conclusion, largely through my ongoing discussions with Dorothy, that most everything in my life that brought unhappiness, including self-destructive behavior, was the result of fear.
Three months later I said my final goodbye to my Dad in Dallas. Words can’t describe losing a parent. Either you’ve gone through it or you haven’t. One late night I got the call from my sister. As I lay on the couch where I had been sleeping, I spoke out loud, hoping he could hear. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember putting on a Townes Van Zandt record. As the last song on the album played, “None But the Rain”, an idea for a song came to me. My dad helped me write my farewell song to him that night. In the clarity of that night, and the perspective that followed, I came to a new understanding about my father and of myself. Despite his flaws, he had made countless sacrifices in trying to do the right thing. He had tried his best, and in doing so, brought some light into every life he had touched.
The months passed, and as it came close to a year since my dad’s passing I had the idea for a European pilgrimage, one that started off in my mind as a grand tour twenty years in the making. When I first started writing songs as a young man, I figured I would soon be a seasoned traveler. Alas, there I was one year away from forty still holding out for my big break, having always held down a steady day job, with a roof over my head, hardly ever having traveled. I wasn’t getting any younger, and it was now or never. I put in my notice at work and bought a plane ticket. Two weeks later I kissed my future wife, but I digress. After plotting out a tour that would have kept me confined to a strict path and schedule, I realized that was not what I actually wanted after all. For once in my life, I was going to have no schedule, and no plan. So with very little money, with just a backpack and guitar, what ended up happening was, I walked. Day in and day out, city after city, country after country, I walked, while occasionally glancing at the inside of my left forearm at the words, “wind do transport me from this place where was made the fear”