For nearly fifteen years, author Matt Fogelson didn’t recognize how deeply the early death of his workaholic father affected him. Then he had a son of his own, and the floodgates opened. In his memoir, tentatively titled Release Me: A Son's Journey to Write His Own Song, Fogelson explores the realization that the wound left by his father’s death was small compared to the wounds inflicted by his absence while alive.
Set to the soundtrack to his life, Fogelson’s memoir explores insecurity, teen angst, and regret and the power of music to make it all bearable.
Follow Fogelson through the '80s as he combs through vinyl at Greenwich Village’s Second Coming Records, bumbles through interactions with girls, and struggles to connect with the only other kindred spirit in his family—the rebellious Aunt Wendy who quotes Bob Dylan at every turn. Join him in the '90s as he discovers a new side of himself in the Alaskan wilderness and later searches for meaning in the Chilean desert. Then watch him become a father who revives his long suppressed passion for music and shares it with his son, singing to him every night for 14 years, so his son can know his father in a way Fogelson never knew his.
Told with humor, grief, and hope, it’s the story of a passionate music lover’s desire to break free of the real and imagined constraints standing between him and his best life. And this writer’s road is paved with the kinds of revelations that can be found only in the glory of rock and roll. If Nick Hornby’s Songbook and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild had a book baby, it would be Matt Fogelson’s moving, funny, and deeply honest memoir.
Check out the Prologue below
River gonna take me, sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home.
Those were the words I sang that finally cracked the code, that finally nudged my two-day-old son Jed off to sleep his first night home. It was like a magic trick. All my prior efforts to get the boy to stop crying and for the love of God just close his eyes had failed. Reasoning with him—telling him he’d had a strenuous couple of days, that he needed his rest, both in the short term to brace for meeting his maternal grandparents in the morning and in the long term to prepare for the protracted, arduous journey that is life—hadn’t worked. Neither had politely shushing him. Trying to barter with him by asking him to do me this one solid and I’d have his back forever was equally fruitless. Bouncing with him on a huge yoga ball only agitated him more, as if he wanted to bust out of his blanket swaddle and heave the yoga ball at me. And feeding him only took the decibel level down from ear splitting to can’t-hear-myself-think.
Out of options as I held the boy like some incredibly fragile over-inflated football, I retreated to the same wooden rocking chair in which my mother had rocked me, and I sang to him. It was an odd turn because I’m not the singing type. Never have been. Not in the shower, not while strumming my guitar, not in the car (okay, sometimes alone in the car—I’m only human). But honestly, I didn’t know what else to do.
As strange as it was to hear myself singing to Jed, perhaps even more puzzling was my song choice. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to go with a tried-and-true bedtime staple like “Rock-A-Bye Baby” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” No, I sang “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead. I gave absolutely no thought to the choice; it just flowed out of me like a breath. Luckily, it turned out to be the perfect lullaby, full of imagery of flowing rivers, sleep, and the peace that comes with being home.
As I began the second verse, the furious howling bundle unclenched and started to relax. The eyes got a little narrower, the body went a touch limp. Peace and harmony were restored. I was amazed. Thank you, Jerry Garcia! A memory of myself as a little kid home sick from school flashed through my mind, my mother taking me in her arms and spinning me around in front of the large mirror in the hallway, me watching us laughing until I became dizzy and my mother put me down. Perhaps not the best home remedy, but I felt comforted and loved, as I hoped Jed did now.
As I watched Jed’s tiny chest move up and down almost imperceptibly, I realized that not only is “Brokedown Palace” the perfect lullaby, it’s also a statement of the transcendent: “Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll.” It was plain to me that first night at home with Jed that he and I are forever joined no matter what lies ahead for each of us. We are stones in each other’s river, carried along in the other’s current. I am his father. He is my son.
I rose from the rocking chair, gently placed Jed in his crib, and kissed him softly on the forehead, a bit anxious the kiss might wake him but unable to stop myself. Then I stood and gazed down at him, wondering who he might become and thinking of my own father who died when I was in college, wishing he was there beside me, the two of us trying to acclimate to our new roles—his as grandfather, mine as father—and wishing he could watch Jed grow, that he could see his own son become a father, that I could tell him I loved him.
In that moment I felt my father’s absence as I had so many times over the prior fourteen years as I morphed from boy to man, a feeling like I was flailing in quicksand, struggling not to be sucked under. But the truth is, I felt my father’s absence long before he died, the presence of an absence—his absence—gnawing at me always. My father dedicated himself to his career as a high-powered corporate lawyer and was rarely around as I grew up. Even when it was painfully clear that he was very near the end of his life, he had work papers delivered to his hospital room. His family came a distant second—I came a distant second. It’s a reality, a realization, I struggled with for a long time, wondering if the person I became was truly me or the person I thought my father wanted me to become, if perhaps I’d succumbed to the pull of loyalty as a stand-in for closeness.
I didn’t know much yet about being a father, but I knew I didn’t want Jed to ever feel that same absence, that same kind of ache. A song by Bruce Springsteen, one of my all-time favorite artists, hummed in my ears, a plea that the sins of the son be his own, not handed down from the prior generation, that the cycle of emotional neglect be broken. And I committed to Jed then and there that I would be present for him as much as he wished and for as long as I was around.
I gazed down at my son, just now embarking on a life-long adventure full of possibilities, and I wondered, had my father lived long enough to become a grandfather, might that have broken the spell of work, might he have at least occasionally left his corner office early to catch his grandson’s basketball games? Would he have felt excited to cheer from the stands for Jed even if he’d never shown up to cheer for his son? I smiled at the thought of my father watching Jed drain three-pointers in some imaginary dream world. And then a memory of my father bubbled up in my mind. He and I were with my mother somewhere in Colorado sitting at an outdoor table with a panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains. The cancer that eventually destroyed my father had started to manifest itself in his thinning frame and bald head. He stared out at those majestic mountains and said, “Well, I’d do a lot of things differently if I’d known.” What did he mean by that? Did he mean he would’ve spent less time working and more time with his family? With me? Did he ultimately find his work soulless and deadening? Did he wish he hadn’t built his life around it? Is that what he meant? Is that what killed him? His work? His regret?
I didn’t know the answers to those questions then and I still don’t. But I do know this: before Jed arrived, I was on a path heading straight to that same place, a place of deep regret. And I was headed down that dark, dead-end road in the name of trying to keep my father close. But that first night with Jed started me on a different path, a path to freedom from the constraints I’d placed on myself. And as was the case at so many turns in my life, I have music to thank for showing me the way.
Looking back at that night singing “Brokedown Palace,” I realize my impromptu rendition was the manifestation of a deeply-held wish to share my passion for music with my son. But even more than that, to stake a claim to a part of myself I’d held in check my entire life, that had lain dormant as I tried to fill the hole created by my father’s absence. Singing to Jed started me on a journey toward recognizing the indispensable role music has played in sustaining me and it allowed me to begin to embrace that part of myself, to know that the hole cannot be filled by suppressing my passion, that in fact the hole is of a type that can never be filled but must instead be acknowledged, honored, and somehow, someway, transcended.
Satisfied that Jed was down for the count, I turned on the baby monitor and tiptoed to the door. My wife was standing in the hallway outside Jed’s room. “That was incredible,” she said, giving my hand a squeeze. “Was that ‘Brokedown Palace’?”
I nodded and squeezed her hand. She pressed her head against my chest and hugged me close. I felt my head gently drop and come to rest on top of hers.
“He’s lucky to have you for a father.”
I tunneled my nose into her hair and breathed deeply. Hearing her refer to me as Jed’s father made me feel proud. I sensed my father passing me the paternal torch for safekeeping. And I hoped that his absence wouldn’t dim its beneficent glow.
My wife looked up at me and sighed. “That song really saved us,” she whispered as we embraced in the blissful quiet.
I smiled. Music as succor, music as sustenance—music as savior.