Substitute for Tears
by Daniel Browne
When I was a kid I was different from my peers, and I’ve often wondered why. Why was I the only one in my elementary school who carried a briefcase? When my mom asked me what my friends would want to dance to at my bar mitzvah, why didn’t I have a clue?
The mystery is only heightened when I think back on my summers in camp. First there was Camp Shalom, a day camp in my home town, where girls in acid-wash jean shorts lolled on picnic tables, blasting L’Trimm’s “Cars That Go Boom.” During the endless knock hockey tournaments I wondered what it meant for a car to go boom. Were these exploding cars?
Even more alienating was being forced, along with the rest of the boys in Troop Maccabi, to lip-synch to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” for the talent show. I thought my parents understood me quite well, thank you.
When I was a little older, I was shipped off to sleep-away camp in the Laurentian Mountains outside Montreal. The isolation I felt there made Camp Shalom seem like Zion.
In the tent-cabin I shared with four other boys, the soundtrack was 2 Live Crew’s Banned in the USA. I tried making friends by explaining that the subject of “Fuck Martinez” was Bob Martinez, then-governor of my home state of Florida. My Canadian bunkmates were more interested in screaming “Martinez eats pussy! Martinez’ wife sucks dick!” along with the boombox than in hearing the backstory.
At the dances where I made myself invisible, the communal anthem was “Mony Mony” by Billy Idol. The thing to do was to shout a response to each line of the verse:
Idol: “Well, here she come now singing Mony Mony”
Campers: “Hey motherfucker, get laid, get fucked!”
(Apparently, this was a widespread phenomenon.) The only thing that embarrassed me more than the vulgarity of the other kids was the camp director telling us before the final dance that we could keep chanting but only if we accepted the following substitution: “Hey bubbe zayde, get bagels, get lox.”
Music may have been one of the things that made feel alone, but it was also the way I fought against that feeling. My first year at Camp Hellhole, I decided to direct a production of Little Shop of Horrors. I got the idea from watching the episode of Head of the Class in which Mr. Moore and the gang put on Little Shop to great acclaim. What followed was an absurd tug of war between my delusions of grandeur and my timid, insular nature. So few boys were interested in trying out I had to play the role of Seymour myself, even though I’d never sung in public. I’d love to tell you it was the moment I came out of my shell, but honestly, I’ve blocked it out.
For some reason, I came back the following summer. If I thought my situation would improve, I was woefully mistaken. I’d shaken the musical theater bug only to catch laryngitis, which both the counselors and my fellow campers interpreted as the silent treatment, the pathetic stunt of a sullen weirdo.
This time, my choice of refuge made a little more sense: not a stage but a Walkman in which I played my cassette of Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints over and over.
Is there a more subtle, sophisticated, downright adult album than The Rhythm of the Saints? The first song may be called “The Obvious Child,” but really it’s about getting old. “I’m accustomed to a smooth ride, or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost his bite”; that’s how the album begins. A less adolescent sentiment has never been expressed.
I remember one of the nicer counselors asking what I was listening to so intently. I passed him my headphones, and he slipped them on for a moment, only to hand them back without saying much. Even he was too young to appreciate this stuff.
But I was an old soul, or maybe just a precocious twerp. Three years earlier, I’d tagged along with my parents to Paris (where it wasn’t unheard of for a child to carry a briefcase) and London (where I was freaked out by the punks). Graceland was our soundtrack. I was nine at the time, the same age as the traveling companion in the title song, but I didn’t identify with the kid. I imagined myself as the narrator of “I Know What I Know,” dispensing urbane pick-up lines like, “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright” (I had no idea what a Fulbright was).
The Rhythm of the Saints is more world-weary and introverted than Graceland. Its intricate grooves and elliptical imagery suited my mood that summer in the mountains. “Can’t run but I can walk much faster than this” skittered through my head as I dogged it on hikes in the woods, trailing the rest of the group. Lying in my bunk while the others played cards for Pop Tarts like they were prison cigarettes, I braced myself for the bridge of “The Cool, Cool River,” the horns punching me in the chest every time, driving home Simon’s invocation of “the mother’s restless son”:
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run
Who says, “Hard times?
I’m used to them
The speeding planet burns
I’m used to that
My life’s so common it disappears”
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears
But sometimes it can. I didn’t cry once that summer.
Listening again at age 37, though, I find myself choking up a bit. The words I only thought I could relate to back then hit much closer to home these days. “I don’t expect to sleep through the night”—boy, does that ring true now as I stare into the bottom of my Ambien bottle.
Soon, like the narrator of “The Obvious Child,” I’ll have a son of my own, though I doubt we’ll call him Sonny. To this unborn child of mine, Simon offers a blessing at the center of the album:
Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
The whole world whispering
Born at the right time
That’s basically how I feel when I look back on my own life so far, the life that has led me to this moment, pregnant with uncertainty and joy. Inevitably, though, I’ve had my share of loneliness, times when I was desperate to get the growing pains over with and be some kind of finished product. I hope my own son doesn’t get stuck in the same mindset. Maybe, to be on the safe side, I’ll play the little tyke Billy Idol and L’Trimm (or the current equivalents) alongside Paul Simon. But if he insists on rushing into adulthood, I think, rather than give advice, I’ll just ask a question: “Why? Why deny the obvious child?”
Daniel Browne has written about music for Salon, The Oxford American and Mojo Magazine and contributed fiction to 40 Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among others. Visit him on Tumblr.