We Are Alive
Posted on April 9, 2013
He asked, “What makes a writer?” “Well,” I said, “it’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge.
– Charles Bukowski
A few weeks ago, I stood beneath a dark blue and black sky. The wind was strong, and cold, and the river which lay before me was raging. I stood alone on the grassy embankment, with the bright lights of the city across the water, twinkling, and a tear in my eye. I was shaking. It was cold, much too cold, but that was only half the reason my knees trembled. The moon above me was bright, and the clouds illuminated below its pale white face looked like ghosts, out to remind the world that, hey - we are alive. They were dancing. This was the 5th time I had stood in that spot, beneath an ancient tree, and in the ‘garden of a thousand sighs’. The grass beneath my feet was soft, but unbroken. I knelt down, placed my hand onto the cold withered grass of late winter, and spoke. There were no people around me, but as I closed my eyes I was joined by my Father, and my best friend. Looking at the darkness of the ground beneath me, I witnessed the passing of another year without the man I call my Dad. I stared. I spoke. My voice cracked and my eyes stung. This was the last place my Dad’s physical being had ventured. It was the spot where his ashes were scattered. Now a seemingly unassuming patch of well kept grass beneath a tree a thousand years old, and teeming with the final songs of people who themselves had once mourned, the grey dust which I, as a young boy had knelt and cried over, half a decade before, had long since been absorbed back into the earth that gives us life. But as I stared into the void of my memories, for the first time, my Dad looked back.
I remembered a moment in September, when, over 5,000 miles away from Scotland, I stood looking out over the desert of New Mexico, on a cliff overlooking the Acoma Reservation. It was my furthest horizon – the land over which the distant sun was setting, was a whole world away from the place I had been running from all my life. Beneath a deep blue sky fading to a dark purple, with orange streaks of the sun’s sacred light casting out in all directions, as if painted by the hand of an Artist who had seen the sun from every angle, I stood – as I was doing now – looking into the sky and seeing the faces of the ghosts who, as Bruce had taught me about over the Tour, would continue to inform me, and walk alongside me, for as long as I should live.
Completely alone, I prayed. But as I prayed, I was haunted. Not by ghosts, but by reality. As it transpires, one really cannot outrun one’s problems. I was thousands of miles away from home, and yet I was acutely aware of all that I was missing. As I thought about my Dad, and about my dear brother Pere, two birds flew past my vantage point, serenaded me, danced, and flew away. Later in the evening, an elk walked in front of our car, glanced at my friend and I, and then disappeared into the night, giving a meaning which only a person of the 10,000 year old Acoma could define, but also a memory which will be with me for life. As our car lumbered peacefully down the deserted highway back to Albuquerque, the sky was full of a number of stars incomprehensible to a mere mortal like me. Listening to The Ghost of Tom Joad, I closed my eyes… Then I opened them, again, and I was back in the Garden of Remembrance.
As I have written about over the years, and as anyone who has ever known me is aware of, I would not be here if it wasn’t for Bruce Springsteen. His music has been the soundtrack to my life, from the moment I was thrust into adulthood when I should have been basking in the warmth of childhood innocence. My Dad’s death robbed me of my Father, but it also stole away my family, and cast me into a world where I was alone. When I discovered Bruce, I – as I have written about – felt for the first time in my life, that I was not alone. I discovered a voice which told my story, and which gave me the strength to make it from chapter to chapter. In moments of joy, Bruce’s music helped me celebrate. In moments of sorrow, Bruce’s voice told me that I would be OK, and in moments when I contemplated suicide, Racing In The Street convinced me to stay. I knew, with a faith stronger than anything I am yet to experience elsewhere, that I was listening to a man who had felt what I was feeling, but who had survived. I knew that I could, too. And so far, I have.
I could write a million words, in a million languages, and still would not find a more perfect way to describe to the world how I feel about Bruce, than to say, simply – he saved my life.
Standing that lonely night by the River Tay, I listened to the music which had protected me throughout the years. So many of Bruce’s songs defined my relationship with my Dad; none more so than “Independence Day”. A few epitomised what it felt like to be a child without a Dad, and one even manages to describe how it feels being a 13 year old standing over the dead body of his Father, in the form of “You’re Missing”. That song continues to resonate in my heart, and mind, and I know absolutely that, if my Mum were to listen to it, it would tell her the story of losing her husband, too. The Rising had always been the album I would listen to, for strength, particularly when I was missing my Dad. This remains true in 2013, but what made this Valentine’s Day different, is that, in this past year, I have seen Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live, 10 times, myself. It was my ultimate dream, and it was realised.
Also different, was the fact that I stood with a ring on my finger. It was my Dad’s wedding ring, given to me by my Mum before I travelled America. I had placed it on my finger, during Bruce’s speech while playing ‘My City of Ruins’, as immortalised in my last blogpost. At that moment, I found peace with my Dad. And so, as the tears welled up in my eyes, and my body ached with the cold of a Scottish winter’s night, my heart was warmed once again while I listened to the ‘bootleg’ of that show. I relived the moment when I found the Ultimate peace, to the words of a 63 year old man from New Jersey. Whereas year before year I had stood there and cried, this year, I smiled. Because I knew that, for the first time since I lost him, I was smiling up at my Dad, and he was smiling down on me. Actually, he and Pere were alongside me, in the same way I imagine that Bruce felt Clarence, Danny, and the Ghosts of his life alongside him, as he gave to us, his fans, the strength which he has built up throughout the course of his life. I felt healed.
If I were given the opportunity to experience again either my 5 week mammoth tour of the United States, or my 5 day trip to Barcelona, I would choose the latter. Whenever I am feeling beat up, as though lying with my face in the dirt while people passed me by, I think about the experience I felt in Catalonia last May. The second show at the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, I heard Racing In The Street. It was the most perfect, and most beautiful moment of my life. It was also the most healing, and liberating. And so, as I stood beneath the moon in February remembering my Dad, I also listened to the moment that from the dark stage of Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium, came the piano of Roy Bittan, and voice of Bruce Springsteen, who, together along with the E Street Band, changed my life forever, by playing the song which kept me alive.
Since I lost Pere last year, my heart, my mind, and my soul, have been lacking their once permanent connection to my words. I have struggled immensely to write, but, as a Writer, my job is more than to simply put words to paper. It is a Writer’s job to observe, to feel, to see, and to listen. It is my job to tell the truth. And so, whilst I have been quiet for a lot longer than I would ever have wanted or anticipated, when – in an extraordinary and somewhat unusual moment of emotional intimacy – I write a post like this, I do so hoping that my words can have even a fraction of the effect on you, as Bruce’s words have had on me. Indeed, I know that many of you have read this post and smiled, nodded, in acknowledgement that you get what it is that I am saying. After all, 90% of the readers of this blog, come here to learn more about their favourite 63 year old.
Finally, as the night drew in, and the sky got even darker. As the wind intensified – as though mimicking the gust of rejuvenating breeze which fell upon all 50,000 people at the end of Barcelona’s Racing - and, as the moon brightened, I listened to the final song of the evening; We Are Alive. I remembered with painful vividness discussing hearing that song in Barcelona, with Pere, and how he looked at me in the eyes, patted me on the knee, and smiled, when I told him how that moment had been the closest I had felt to my Dad since he had died. Pere was the first person I met and was friends with who understood the weight of that sentence, and in one flash of his warm smile, he acknowledged me. He acknowledged everything, like no friend had done before.
Now he is gone, too.
But I can hear him. And I can hear my Dad. They’re singing… They’re singing a song…
Well, we’d put our ears to the cold grave stones
This is the song they’d sing
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We are alive.
After all, no good thing is ever wasted.