Basement Songs: Pink Floyd, “On the Turning Away”
Through the eyes of my son, I’ve been reliving a part of my youth in the form of colorful costumed super heroes from cartoons and the pages of comic books. Because Jacob’s sister, Sophie, and his mom have no enthusiasm whatsoever for this stuff, he and I get to bond over the muscle bound humans out to save the world. With equal parts fascination and wonder, the two of us leaf through my musty old comics from the ‘80s and the glossy new ones we buy once a month.
My personal interest began as a child, around Jacob’s age, when my parents bought me the oversized graphic novel Superman vs. Wonder Woman. From that point on, I was obsessed with all of the big guns, like Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Green Arrow. But my favorite adventures always involved a group of outcasts, teens mostly: The Uncanny X-Men. In my teens, most of my X-Men comics were bought in a Convenient Food Mart located next door to the small music studio where I took drum lessons. In the time between when my lesson ended and when my father would pick me up, I would peruse the comic books held in a squeaking, turning metal rack in the back of the store. With any change I could scrounge from the sofa cushions or whatever I “acquired” from my dad’s dresser, my monthly does of mutant mayhem would always get snuck into the house and immediately taken to the basement, as if I were carrying a Playboy or something worse.
I’m unsure where this feeling that reading comic books was an illicit, depraved thing came from. Particularly in high school, when I was supposed to be poring over the works of Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and Voltaire, I didn’t want my friends to know I was more interested in Chris Claremont, Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Primarily, it was an escape, yet there were strong themes that I identified with, like brotherhood, loyalty, tolerance and redemption. (Ironically, many of these same themes were found in the novels I was reading by those classic authors I mentioned.) The comics also brought me comfort. In early ’88 I holed myself up in the basement to mope about a broken heart and listen to sad Springsteen songs. My one pleasure was delving into the X-Men saga “Fall of the Mutants.” In this epic story, Storm, Rogue, Wolverine and their teammates sacrificed their lives to defeat an evil spirit unleashed on our world.
As I read each issue several times over, my musical accompaniment on my fanboy journey was Pink Floyd’s 1987 comeback LP, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. The apocalyptic feel and melancholy tone of the music, in particularly “On the Turning Away,” reflected the sadness of the X-Men saying goodbye to a world that didn’t particularly like them because they were different. That music became so intertwined with the story I was reading that I could not listen to the record otherwise; it didn’t have the same power to me without the words of Claremont and the art of Mark Silvestri.
Twenty years later, that same artwork is unappealing to me; I find it too rough. And I can barely listen to A Momentary Lapse of Reason; its ’80s production values are so bombastic. Yet “On the Turning Away” holds up. It begins quietly, like any good story, inviting you into the plot, and then gradually builds until the climactic finale. Yes, the drums sound like cannons going off and there are moments that could be outtakes from The Wall, but David Gilmour sings with sincerity and, as usual, his guitar playing is impeccable.
When Jacob discovered my favorite mutant superheroes and began requesting we record every cartoon in which they appeared, we started reading some of my old comics together. If you can imagine a grown man sitting on a couch with his seven-year-old snuggled up next to him, trying to explain why people don’t like the X-Men even though they’re heroes, then you’ll have imagined many nights in our household. If only I could get him to listen to Floyd with me, then my life will have come full circle.
Lately, Jake has been having a hard time being the only kid he knows with cystic fibrosis. Besides the physical challenges of taking multiple medicines and having your chest pounded daily by a machine, there is the emotional aspect that we without the disease have difficulty understanding. CF is an illness for which there is no cure, so he will live with these treatments and medicines and the thought of being different his whole life.
One evening, we discussed how the X-Men got their powers. “They were born with them,” I explained. “Do they like their powers?” he asked. “If most of them had their way, they wish they’d never been born with their mutant powers.” It dawned on me that my boy is like his favorite heroes, born with something he doesn’t want, but bravely making the best of it. This little boy inspires me in ways no one ever has. When I tell him he’s my hero, he doesn’t really understand; he usually laughs and says, “Daddy, I’m not a hero. I don’t have super powers.”
Jake may not be able to walk through walls or disappear in a cloud of brimstone; he may not be able to move solid objects with his thoughts or soar through the air on wings growing out of his back. But he has the strength of a thousand men as far as I’m concerned, and he could teach those characters in the comics he reads a thing or two about courage.