Front Page Reviews & AIR
Josh Caress - The Rockford Files
Imagine if one of your favorite songwriters wrote an entire album about your childhood. And not in the “Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’ perfectly describes where I grew up” kind of way. I mean if they wrote about your actual specific childhood. Your family, your school, your little league field, your friends, your yard, your landmarks, your grandparents. And not only that, but imagine if that songwriter not only knew the intimate details of your childhood experiences, but also shared your musical sensibilities, your love of crescendo builds, major thirds, and Mark Knopfler. Well, put that all together and you’d be getting close to what it’s like for me to listen to my brother Josh’s album The Rockford Files.
Of course, it’s not just the shared experiences, or even the shared musical sensibilities, that make The Rockford Files so powerful for me. If that were the case, any old songwriter would be able to write an album that would be perceived as a masterpiece by his or her siblings. The fact is, Josh isn’t just any old songwriter; he is a profoundly skilled one. Yes, the recognizable backdrop of our hometown and the shared musical preferences predisposed me to like the record, but those things only guaranteed he’d have my attention. It’s what he did once he had it that makes this album the most moving listening experience I’ve ever had.
That’s not to say it’s the best album ever made. I mean, maybe it is, but I certainly wouldn’t be any kind of reliable judge. When it comes to this album, I’m pretty much as far from an objective listener as you can get. And yet I experience it differently than any other album. Generally, when we listen to a great song (or experience any art, really) it’s impossible for us to reside inside the artist’s head, to get it all, to experience it in all its nuance, in its totality. I love Bob Dylan, but I don’t pretend I know what he’s talking about half the time. And concerning that which Dylan conveys indirectly (which is a lot), what I’m able to intuit may or may not be the actual heart of the matter, because it’s being filtered through my own experiences, preconceived notions, etc. But of course I share so many experiences (especially childhood ones) and preconceived notions with my brother that I feel like I can grasp even those things which he leaves unsaid, that which exists between the lines. For these reasons, The Rockford Files is probably as close to a complete understanding of a work of art as I’m ever going to get.
Take the opening track, “The Lights at Churchill Park”. My memory immediately takes me to Churchill Park, the field where we played our earliest little league baseball games, growing up in Rockford, Illinois. And that specific park is in my mind as an accordion introduces the melodic theme, is joined by a banjo, percussion, and an electric slide guitar, and the opening lines begin:
The lights at Churchill Park are out
Where did the grandstands go?
And the crowds that cheered us through the years?
The summer night has come to take me home
The apparent meaning of these lines – looking back on memories of a time that is forever gone – is easy enough to understand. But that last line also conjures the ultimate Summer Night that awaits us all, the warm dusk from which we’ll look back at our entire lives as memories. As far as death analogies go, the Summer Night is an exceedingly comforting one, and it sets the tone for the entire album. As “The Lights at Churchill Park” continues, the narrator, alone on a little league pitching mound, is joined by his subconscious thoughts (in parentheses), sung by a Greek-style background chorus:
The curveball's breaking strong
(what is falling from the sky
the brightest light is on my eye
r.c. cola here for you
with the night so dark and blue)
The lights are shining bright
(don't wash the stains out of my shirt
i've been diving in the dirt
when you turn on your tv
in the future you'll see me)
And i am all alone
(on a day so blue and green
we are coming through the screen
with our uniforms and hats
and the virtue in our bats)
And i know i am loved
(share my popsicle with you
see you friday after school
i'll be perfect here tonight)
The curveball's breaking strong
The poignancy of the scene – the stream-of-consciousness inner monologue of a seven-year-old little leaguer – is effective in its own right, but again I’m privileged with more information than the average listener. I happen to know (if my memory serves me right) that Josh did indeed pitch a perfect game at Churchill Park around the time he was seven years old (“I’ll be perfect here tonight”), inspiring the dreams of future stardom (“when you turn on your tv/in the future you’ll see me”). But I also know that his days as a dominant pitcher were short-lived; throwing the curveball that gave him mastery over his peers – the curveball taught and encouraged by his little league coach – would also permanently damage his still-developing throwing arm. By the time he was ten, chronic elbow pain had effectively ended his pitching career. And so, the narrator is introduced in a state of childhood innocence, alone on the pitching mound in his baggy little uniform, in an act of literal perfection, secure in the love of his parents, the ultra-vivid perceptions of the innocent still intact. This is where the narratives of The Rockford Files are set, in that Edenic childhood, before all the shit goes down. It is an exploration of pre-cynical existence and our glorification and/or suppression of it, a lamenting of its loss, and a hope – a yearning – for its eventual (and eternally perfected) reinstatement.
In contrast to the opening track, which distills all individual memories into a single transcendent memory, the album’s second track, “The Rockford Movie (at The Belford Drive-In)”, lists as many childhood memories as possible amidst a cacophony of organs and guitars and drums and strings (and after an extended musical introduction that would make Robert Smith proud). In an unlikely act of remembrance, each memory flits across the screen at the now-defunct Belford Drive-In, which once stood on the outskirts of our old hometown:
Take the love you always wanted
Take the love you always had
Take your brother and your sister
Take your mother and your dad
Take the school that gave you jesus
Take the street that gave you friends
Take the park that gave you baseball
Take them with you to the end
Take me down to the belford drive-in
The movies start to play
I've seen the one with the little boy laughing
I've seen the one where he moves away
And again, the chorus chants away in the background, adding a few details about the town where the “Rockford Movie” is set:
(this is rockford in the eighties
rockford hair on rockford ladies
before development took the east side
uncle donnie lived in creekside
the last straw and old don carter
what happened to arnold palmer?
this is rockford in the eighties
rockford parents, rockford babies)
These Rockford-in-the-80s-specific references will mean more to me than they do to you (unless, of course, you grew up there too. Are you reading this, Jordan? Alex?). The mere mention of the ridiculous 80s hair that descended on Rockford like a plague (and manages to survive there still) or the haunts of my youth like The Last Straw ice cream parlour, Don Carter Lanes, or Arnold Palmer mini-golf course is enough to get my memories churning. The memories Josh lists are obscure and specific, but I think their specificity is important to the integrity of the album, to the emotion he is attempting to convey, even if the references themselves will certainly be lost on most listeners. It is by delving into his particular childhood that he is able to tap the universal emotions of humankind. Once he’s begun to populate the content of the “Rockford Movie”, he leaves the listener to reflect on his or her own memories, providing the accompanying soundtrack in the outro: a slow-building crescendo featuring one of the more soulful Robbie-Robertson-meets-David-Lindley guitar solos ever put to tape. (Parenthetical note: when I told my wife I was writing a review of this album she asked me if I was going to mention the fact that I cry any time I listen to it all the way through. I’m mentioning it here because it’s somewhere in the outro of this song that I am officially put on Waterfall Watch).
I’ll spare you 500 word descriptions of each song (given the first two songs, I’m sure you’re picking up on a general theme), but I can’t resist a few highlights: “Summer Song (for the Kids at Forest Hills)” is as close as you’ll ever get to a musical approximation of the exuberance of a childhood summer. “Chelsea Avenue Sports Car Ride (Put on that Record)” remembers those cherished evenings when Dad loaded us into the standard-shift Mercury Capri (and later, the Pontiac Grand Am), popped an album into the cassette player (Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, etc.), and hit the curves on Chelsea Avenue a little faster than Mom would have liked. In an Orwellian nod, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” captures the hope that accompanied Rockford’s high water mark (and perhaps the high water mark of America itself, but that’s a whole other discussion). And “String Up the Lights, It’s Christmas Time!” describes those first magical Christmases and conjures the extended family get-togethers that accompanied them. It is impressive to me that all of these songs ring so true to my own memories of the subject matter. For, while I may be the person most likely to appreciate these songs, let’s face it, I’m also the person most likely to notice both factual and emotional inaccuracies.
The theological center of The Rockford Files (and theology is exactly what this album amounts to), which is first hinted at in the opening song and sustains the entire album, is brought into focus on “Home (The Horns of Rockford Call)”. It begins with the questions:
Home, is it on the horizon?
Home, have we left it behind?
The lines reference a traditional part of the Christian narrative, a narrative which Josh and I grew up with and one which was very much a part of the fabric of 1980s-era Rockford, Illinois. In that narrative, the earth is only our temporary home; our “true” home is in the afterlife, in heaven. So these opening lines are asking which is our true home, a future heaven or the things we tend to associate with home here on earth: our family, our hometown, our memories. In the chorus, the memory of Josh’s childhood home seems to have an answer:
Hey! The horns of Rockford call
Your home is not here…
This is only midway
You can’t go back you must go forth
This is, of course, true. We can’t go back to our childhood homes. And part of what makes our childhood memories so poignant is the knowledge that that time is gone forever (and part of what makes abusive childhoods so tragic is the theft of that poignancy). We can’t regain our innocence. Once it’s gone, it’s gone – like the now deceased loved ones who populate those memories. But why then the yearning we feel for our lost innocence? Why the tears for our lost loved ones? If this is only midway, why the instinctive longing for things that are forever gone?
Time is always moving forward
We are always looking back
I know what you're seeing in your
Frozen farmhouse landscapes
I can see the innocence that's lost out in the snow
It's in your eyes
These are all the things we left behind
This is the spark that we all have inside
Home, it is on the horizon
Home, it's what we left behind
There is an idea beginning to form here, the idea that the memories “we left behind” are also the “spark that we all have inside.” It is, admittedly, still pretty vague. And those final lines – conveying the idea that home is both in front of us (i.e. in heaven) and behind us (i.e. in our memory) – don’t necessarily help either. It’s not until the final song of the album that this idea is crystallized, and just in time…
I can’t speak for you, but I know that for me there is a sense of loss and sadness that colors many of my most deeply rooted memories. For instance, the memories of my grandparents who have passed on – which are in and of themselves almost entirely positive – are tempered by a great sadness. I miss them, as I do all my family members of that generation who are slowly leaving us – one by one. It also saddens me deeply that my wife and son will never have a chance to meet them. And for most of my life, that sadness kept me from really revisiting and exploring my memories of them. As soon as the hurt started, I would pull back. And the same was true of all kinds of memories I had from those long lost early years. What The Rockford Files did for me was create a whole new context in which to see my memories.
The last song on the album is called “The Lies that Memory Tells and Why They Are True (Hold On, Rockford!)”. I’m not sure I can do it justice, so I’ll avoid specific lyrical analyses and stick to my own experience of it. The song revisits those two conceptions of “home”, the one that lives in our memory and the idea of heavenly home. Growing up, my impression was that heaven was an escape from the ills of this world, a la gospel hymns like “I’ll Fly Away”. But what about those things we don’t want to “fly away” from? What about the good times? The good memories? The last song on The Rockford Files suggests a potential way to harmonize my cherished memories and my hope in the world to come. It suggests that those memories of childhood innocence, those first impressions of “home”, aren’t lies that we mistake for home, but rather the promise of the home to come. They contain the spark of eternity. All that which is good in them, we will meet again. And when our memories “lie”, when we glorify the past, remembering the sublime and forgetting the imperfections, we are not necessarily being delusional. Perhaps our selective memories are closer to the Truth than historical accuracy can ever be.
I’m not a theologian or philosopher. This way of understanding our pasts may have been floating around for centuries. And it may also be terribly flawed. I can only speak to what this idea, inspired by The Rockford Files, did for me. The ability to see my own childhood memories as promises of the future, as opposed to just remembrances of a lost past, began to strip away the sadness that had kept me from dwelling on them. And doors to my memory bank began to open that I didn’t even know had been closed. I was able to explore and embrace my past in a way I never thought possible. I was able to experience depths of feeling that I had never known existed. I cried for the first time in years (prior to that time, I couldn’t have told you the last time I had wept). And it hasn’t stopped there. My emotional evolution has extended all over the place. I’ll be rambling on about something I’m passionate about and find myself tearing up. Or I’ll be listening to a song and find myself nearly overwhelmed by the experience of it. In any event, my understanding and experience of sadness (and beauty, too) has been deepened immeasurably. I’m even learning to get over the embarrassment of my accentuated emotion – and also finding commercial appeals to American-Male-Emotional-Repression less and less compelling or funny. They seem kind of sad, actually.
Anyway, I see and feel this change as a positive thing. And it’s ongoing, but I can still trace its beginnings to The Rockford Files. Maybe I was ripe for a change and this album just happened to come along at the right time. But since I’ll never know that, I’m going to go ahead and continue crediting the album itself. And maybe in doing so I’ll get you to give it a listen. I realize your experience of it won’t be the same as mine, but then again, have any two people ever experienced any album in exactly the same way? Well, except for OK Computer. We’ll always have that in common…
A final note: in case you hadn’t already figured it out, yes, the title of the album is also a reference to one of my (and Josh’s) favorite childhood TV shows…