Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Man in the Bed

Dave Alvin wrote a song called “The Man in the Bed” after the death of his father. Dignified and emotionally charged, the song gives voice to a dying man in a way I’d never heard before.

In the summer of 2004 I was working on a project in San Francisco and while I was there, Dave Alvin’s tour brought him to the city. Knowing I’d be seeing him, my friend Eddie had asked me to tell Dave that he’d played “The Man in the Bed” for a mutual friend, Don. Don’s father was in decline, and the song had moved him to tears.

The show was at a venue called Slim’s. I worked my way into the thick of the crowd, enjoying the anonymous connectedness of being surrounded by strangers, all of us focused on the riveting engine that was churning away onstage, sending waves of sound over us all. Alvin’s songs are empowered by concise but sharply delineated portraits of lives in fractious circumstances, yet they are never without hope. In the midst of the set my mind suddenly filled with the completely clear and resonant memory of standing by my father’s bedside in the last moments of his life. Amongst the throng, as the rhythmic propulsion of the band rolled over me like waves, that vision changed. In an instant, it wasn't my father, but me in a bed and my daughter standing beside. In a loud and crowded club, I was overtaken by sense of one generation giving way to another, connecting me across time. This was not a sad moment, it was a state of complete calm, made all the more unexpected for the surroundings in which it had occurred.

Dave’s set did not include “The Man in the Bed,” nor would it have, given its quiet bearing. I’d forgotten all about conveying Eddie’s message, but unconsciously maybe that message was trying to draw attention to itself in my thoughts, constructing those vivid images. I was mostly reeling from the experience, as if suddenly awoken from a dream; I didn’t see the connection until much later, and I didn’t mention anything about it to Dave when we talked after the show.

Don’s father died earlier this year. My father died in 1997, fifteen years after suffering the first of several strokes. He would have turned eighty last month. It turns out that Dave Alvin and I both had fathers who were from South Bend, Indiana. Lives are linked through familial ties and through the parallel trajectories of our friends. There are always more connections to be found, each one offering a happy jolt of recognition. It’s these connections that keep me feeling like I’m tethered to the earth.

- David Greenberger

(The song “The Man in the Bed” should be in every household and is on the CD Ashgrove by Dave Alvin.)


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