The Laurel Leaf, Part 2: All the Mountains That You Could Climb

Amedea Parker knew for as long as she was alive that, if she were to ever have a son, she would name him Rafaello Leoncio. Not after her father, then, but her two uncles on her mother’s side who lived in her house for a spell during her childhood, they who sat side by side at the dinner table and agreed on nothing at all, and loudly, be it about Italian politics or American movies, and who sang along to the old opera records her father left behind when he walked out on her long ago, all while she sat upon their laps and took it all in.

Arthur never like either of the names, however. If he had to call a child of his by something for the rest of his life, he preferred something simple and direct, and if it had to be more than two syllables then it was certainly to be no more than three (even so, it was definitely Arthur’s influence that convinced most people who knew her to call his youngest child Cath). If he let on that he enjoyed the musicality of Amadea and his life with her, he wasn’t about to abide it in a name. So when Amadea and Arthur had their first child together, the former bided her time, deciding this time to make her husband happy and vowing to get her chance the next time, and they decided on the name Ian Craig Parker.

No one can say she didn’t get her chance the next time. Arthur was at first thrilled to have a second boy with Amedea, and this second child created as much of a stir with the media as the first. It was not until six months later that the couple abruptly stopped talking about it, and the media buzz died down with them. It was at this point that Arthur learned through a tearful Amedea that the child was to be her second, and hers only. It’s a small miracle the two stayed together through it all, and the worst Arthur did was avoid Amedea for half a year in public and private. Even so, he perhaps could have more readily forgiven her if the father was anyone, literally any other man in the world, than Sherwood Williams.

The last thing Arthur said to his wife before their hiatus was simply “he’s not my problem, name him whatever you want.” Three months later, Rafaello Leoncio Williams entered the world.


It wasn’t quite loud enough for someone to call the police (and besides, it’s not like it was any quieter outside, and it’s not like the police were helping in that regard), but the music playing through the sound-proof recording-safe (or it should have been, anyway, if the windows weren’t open) top floor of the Williams’s Greenwich Village apartment sure was pushing it.

Rafa Williams knocked on the door, not that it would have done any good, and let himself in to his father’s bedroom, not that he figured he would be in for any surprises. Sure enough, there was his father, lying supine and limbs splayed out on his bed, amid a flowering cornucopia of paisley prints and silk frills beneath him. Even though he looked like shit, in pajamas he probably hadn’t changed out of in at least three days, the rest of room looked nice and orderly, or as nice and orderly as the bedroom of someone who was as stubbornly stuck in the one decade that Sherwood was could possibly be.

No, the rest of the room wasn’t the problem. It was the one song, the same song, playing over and over again on literally as loud as the stereo system in his room could manage. And not the whole song, mind you, but the half that starts at about 2:19 and doesn’t let up for another 2:30. When Rafa tiptoed to Sherwood’s bed, the song was starting to fade out again, which meant it was time for him to pick up his device and swipe his finger on the track bar back to 2:19 all over again and let, the sunshine, let, the sunshine in, the sunshine in.

Dad.

Woooah, let it shine. Come on…

—Dad.

Now everybody just sing along, and let the sun shine on in…

Dad! I have to talk to you.

Open up your heart and let it shine on in. And when you are lonely…

He gave him his due diligence of three tries and shoved on his shoulder to attention. Sherwood grumbled and paused the music.

—Oh, hi son. Didn’t even hear you come in…

—Wasn’t for lack of trying.

—So lay it on me. What’s for breakfast?

—Breakfast was three hours ago. I’m just going to have a sandwich and then I’m going to the venue for the rest of the day.

—Oh, I see. A sandwich is fine… I guess… you got that good prosciutto still, from the deli across the…

—You know it.

Sherwood let out a sigh and made a motion like he was going to get up and stretch his arms, but decided against it. He stared at his legs, which the way he was behaving you’d think he couldn’t move them if you didn’t know better.

—I’m sorry you have to see me like this…

Rafa certainly knew better.

—Not the worst I’ve seen out of you, to be honest.

—Oh, I know you’re just saying that to make me feel better. But there’s no denying it. I’m no good for anyone, you especially. I’m just a bag of offal and bones in a… in a bag, of paisley and silk.

—Dad, get up, I have to…

—I’m afraid not, son. I’m afraid it’s a life upon this trusty bed of mine, and a life entire.

—Dad, come on, really, put it in a song and get over it. I…

—It looks like I’ll finally get to achieve the one thing even the great Brian Wilson couldn’t. I’m actually never going to get up. I’m going to die right here on my bed.

—Okay, well, I was going to tell you Mr. Parker wants to see you…

—Mr… Arthur? You mean he’s here? Now?

Sherwood ever-so-slightly raised his head toward his son, his interest piqued but not quite ready to abandon the goal he just set for himself.

—Well, yeah, but I mean, I’ll just go back down and tell him you want to die on your bed like Brian Wilson or whatever…

—Wait!

Sherwood swung his legs off the bed. The first thing he noticed was how much all of his muscles ached, and realized he wasn’t just fucking around with his son and really had been up in his room for a while. The second was how much he smelled.

—I’ll ah… tell him to give me a minute, I’m going to put on my face.

Rafa returned to the living room of his father’s apartment to find Arthur still trying to figure out exactly just how one does sit on one of his strange mod chairs.

—Jesus. I mean, I know Sherwood is Sherwood, but does everything here have to look like it was in an Antonioni film?

—Yeah, I know what you mean. I kind of just… well, when I visit dad I just kind of don’t sit anymore. I’m used to it.

—Huh. Well.

After more or less getting a handle on the thing, Rafa broke the silence by clearing his throat and heading to the kitchen.

—Well, I’m going to make a quick sandwich and head out. I can make you one if you want. We get this prosciutto from a really good deli a few blocks away on Jones…

—No thanks. I appreciate you accommodating me, but I don’t actually intend to stay here long. And also… now that I’m thinking of it, what I have to tell your father, it pertains to you too…

Rafa sighed and looked at his shoes.

—Well, it’s just…

—What?

—…he said he’s going to put on his face.

Arthur grumbled and sat back in his weird chair, careful to not let himself fall out while forceful enough to express just the right kind of frustrated that Sherwood could coax out of him.

—So that means…

—It sure does.

—…yeah, a sandwich sounds good, thanks.


Sherwood Williams was by no means a master performer, but unlike many of his peers at Juilliard, he was a master in music appreciation. He majored in music composition, recording, and production, when everyone around him was trying to reach twelve octaves or trill two hundred notes per minute when it was a hundred and seventy last week. He believed that popular music had reached an apex in the mid-to-late sixties and never improved since, that the synthesizer was the worst thing to ever happen to music and not even a few bonafide legends emerged from it unscathed, and from the first minute of his enrollment up to the present moment it was his life’s work to bestow upon modern society the joys of modern analog baroque-pop.

Like Arthur, Sherwood as a boy was told by his parents, his teacher, and in general by the media he consumed, that he could do anything he set out to do. When the piano came easy to him, and schoolwork even easier (which was to say easy enough to get out of the way so he could concentrate on the piano), he was unfortunate enough to be told by his parents and teacher that he was a very bright kid, very talented, even more so than the rest of his peers. Unfortunate because it set up a precedent that was to follow him for the rest of his life: never satisfied with one thing, he tried it out, and if it didn’t bring him instant success and gratification, he rejected it. Rock and roll was the single biggest thing that never let him down, along with the frenetic and spiraling arpeggios of the well-tempered Bach pieces he banged out on the piano, along with the whirling Fibonacci designs of 18th century Europe, the explosion of rainbow colors and the anarchic humor of Yellow Submarine, which he lost count to the number of times he watched it around the twentieth and never looked back.

He brought that single-minded dedication (or to be more accurate, that single-minded interest in anything at all), to his audition. It was either the greatest music conservatory in the country, or else a stint at St. Bonaventure (a catholic school, he was all but biologically incapable of saying without huffing through his nose in disdain), and a lifetime of conducting seventh grade orchestra. He brought with him binders full of his compositions, and while the admissions official he spoke to was impressed he did so, he nonetheless did not take a look at them and instead insisted he play the piano etude he was instructed to present to his audition.

Sherwood scored just two points shy of the minimum to get in. It was either live with his parents and try out next year and practice this stupid damn etude until it was perfect aside from everything else, he grumbled that whole year after high school, or else a stint at St. Bonaventure, a catholic etc., and a lifetime of conducting seventh grade orchestra. The next year, the next time, the admissions official still did not look at his binder (which had several new arrangements along with not a few of the ones he brought the year before that he felt were unfairly overlooked), and he scored two points above the minimum on his audition. This experience stayed with him as much as anything from his childhood, as it instilled in him a tendency, despite his talent and passion, to expect misunderstanding, disappointment, and ultimately rejection from anyone who could help him develop it.

In school like everywhere else, Sherwood comported himself with his own style, his own interests, and his own way of getting things done, with the indomitable attitude an outsider who didn’t give a damn what other people thought of him until overhearing someone make fun of him and then promptly giving a damn just a little bit (this was when he caught wind of the fact that nearly everyone in a choral composition class referred to him as “the Austin Powers kid,” which is hard to take no matter who you are). Even then, when it was his turn to present his work to class, the professors would as charitably as possible try to stifle down comments of “this is probably going to have an arpeggio or two, isn’t it?” In his entire conservatory career, just like his audition, Sherwood skated by with just a point or two over the bare minimum to stay enrolled, with perhaps the best positive feedback he had ever gotten from anyone, peer or professor, being “it’s kind of like Philip Glass, but I dunno, maybe a little less up its own ass?”

In his entire conservatory career, there was only one person who ever showed him unconditional acknowledgment of his abilities, and unconditional support to develop them, and luckily for Sherwood, that one person happened to be child prodigy and big-in-Italy superstar vocalist, Amedea Sartore. Amedea, not living at all in America up until her college education, had as much of an idea of what one was supposed to do and think here as Sherwood, so they hit it off as friends almost immediately. Tired of all the fawning and flattery and power plays from other students and faculty to make an influential friend out of her, Amedea was at first drawn to Sherwood for the simple reason that he had not only never heard of her, but indeed never heard of The X-Factor, Italy or wherever. Loving to sing the operatic arias as much as she did, she would occasionally tire of them the same way anyone who loves anything occasionally tires of it, and tapped her toes and nodded her head with a smile in silence as Sherwood would play his songs to her. She said yes every time Sherwood asked her to sing at any one of his recitals, everyone else hearing them thinking it was a colossal waste of her voice akin to beluga caviar spread on a toasted Thomas English muffin, everyone thinking this except Sherwood and Amedea themselves. If he was disposed to give up to easily amid even the most minor setback, it was arguably Amedea alone who helped Sherwood press on through school and make something of himself, in whatever capacity he could manage himself.

If his music and personality turned off other people his age, there were two others thing Sherwood could do that endeared him to his peers: One, he could throw a party, and two, he could be hilarious when drunk. Though he in no way whatsoever grew up among the same means as most of his classmates, or even those his age in other, even more prestigious colleges, his bacchanals attracted the snobbish sons and daughters of millionaires from all over the city, even Columbia!

He knew he was on to something when one day he sauntered over to a young man without a drink, without a girl, without a conversation partner, and without a smile. There was something about this young man wearing an argyle sweater and tie to his party, actually deciding to look like an L.L. Bean model in public (though who was he to complain, he who looked like a Peter Max painting come to life whenever he could get the chance), that made Sherwood decide he had to figure him out that night, or at least get his name. He gave the young man a beer and asked him to which of the pantheon of great wealthy families did this very scion belong to, and when he replied what, he asked him his name. Art, he muttered through a sip of beer. Art Parker. Short for Arthur? Yeah, sure. So lemme guess, you’re the owner of the company that made half of the sandwiches my mom used to put in my lunchbox. That’s right. What? My parents own Parker Butter. The usually unflappable Sherwood had to admit he was taken aback by the news, as he was completely fucking with him when he asked. Anyway. Anyone ever call you Arthur? Not really. You know what you remind me of? Nope.

Sherwood went to whoever’s phone was playing music and typed some stuff into it. Seconds later, a rollicking electric guitar skipped its way through the party. Whenever Sherwood put on any music that wasn’t his own, it had to be loud, it had to fill the entire room. I always wondered who the Kinks wrote this song about, he screamed to Arthur over the music. I finally found him. Listen to it! As if Arthur had to, as Sherwood sang along out of key the whole way:

 

Arthur was born just a plain simple man in a plain simple working class position

Though the road was hard and its ways were set he was young and he had so much ambition

All the way he was overtaken by people who made the big decisions

But he tried and he tried for a better life and a way to improve his own condition

 

If only life were easy it would be such fun

Things would be more equal there’d be plenty for everyone

 

Like a parent pissed at his child for breaking the lamp, Arthur was at first turned off by this dope trying to make small talk with him, but as he sang along, he couldn’t help but not be mad at him for long, maybe even kind of like him. The song was kinda catchy too.

 

Arthur the world’s gone and passed you by, don’t you know it, don’t you know it?

You can cry cry all night, but it won’t make it right don’t you know it, don’t you know it?

Arthur we know and we sympathize, don’t you know it, don’t you know it?

Arthur we like you and want to help you, somebody loves you don’t you know it?

 

Arthur made a new best friend that night, two in fact, because Sherwood had of course invited his professional collaborator and closest confidante, Amedea Sartore. Sherwood and Amedea sang together, and Sherwood listened with a perpetual smile as Arthur railed against the conservative politics of the day, both of them more or less sharing the same moderate-to-slightly-more-left political platform of “people shouldn’t have as much money as Arthur does.” Meanwhile, it brought Sherwood joy when he recommended the formative albums of his youth to Arthur, who not only liked them but often asked for more. And Arthur and Amedea, of course, fell in love.

It would not at all be an overstatement to say that Sherwood fell in love too. Not with Amedea, not with Arthur, but both of them together. Their company, their attention, was like a drug to him. Everything he accomplished came with, not the satisfaction that he achieved something with his own abilities and hard work, but the notion deep in his heart or mind somewhere that Amedea or Arthur would be impressed with him. Any time he fucked up at anything at all, what made him come around was the shame that Arthur or Amedea probably would have felt for him. Everything he wrote, he wrote with the assumption that Amedea would perform it for him, and Arthur would appreciate it, and his tastes would become Sherwood’s own carefully curated tastes. For years, for better or worse, Sherwood locked himself into a groove of basing his entire identity, his entire sense of self-worth, on the admiration and approval of two other people.

This lasted for a while, with all of them graduating from their respective institutions of higher learning, and Amedea becoming a star, and Arthur becoming a brief CEO, and Sherwood getting not a little notoriety as an eccentric pop music producer, eccentric in his arrangements as much as his behavior, hitting just the right amount of minor jail stints for outbursts in temper to give him bad-boy punk-rock cred without quite crossing over to violent and dangerous (where other people would put their degrees on the wall, or maybe their gold records, Sherwood framed and hung with pride of place a tabloid clipping with the headline MUSIC PRODUCER PUNCHES JACK WHITE).

It promptly ended on the night Amedea’s debut album went platinum, this being the only occasion Sherwood ever produced her work, her own selection of old arias paired with the usual “Wall of Flowers” sound. To celebrate, the three of them drank whiskey and grappa together until Arthur called it a night. Then, Amedea and Sherwood drank more, and rather than go home to Arthur and their son, she stayed the night with Sherwood. No one person pressed the other into it, it was something they both wanted, something they both decided together. And as it was said before, Sherwood was in love with both of them. It wouldn’t have surprised him, if Arthur was gay that is, if it panned out the other way around.

Though Arthur, as we all know, forgave Amedea in the end, he never did Sherwood. In fact, one of the conditions of the couple’s reconciliation was to completely excise Sherwood from both of their lives. Neither he nor his family would ever speak to him again, and Amedea’s son with Sherwood, though there was the occasional detente, the occasional chance for her to briefly visit little Rafaello, was to be his responsibility and his alone.

The problem with Sherwood was that he was madly in love with them both, and was doomed to love them both for the rest of his life, even though Arthur detested him for the remainder of his, and Amedea had no choice but to do so as well for her family’s sake. On the day Amedea confessed their indiscretion to Arthur, and on the day Arthur’s decision was made, Sherwood grieved for them with the furor of a man who lost his wife of fifty years, even more than he did years later, upon the news that Amedea died in a plane crash.


Arthur remembered cackling in glee years ago, when Sherwood first told him the story of how a hapless record company stooge called on his house one day to see how the recording was going, and made him wait for hours as he donned a costume for the occasion fit for the Sun King. A powdered wig with curls and frills to rival the tallest beehive, and amid a vomit of paisley and velvet and brocade he made up his face a bright white with a bit of rouge in the tiny concave between his upper lip and nose. It was the kind of thing you were supposed to coo in awe over when a behind-the-scenes featurette told you the actors had to sit for a couple hours each day for makeup and costume. And while true, he still detested the man to his core, he couldn’t help but feel a little sting of hurt when he did the same thing to him years later.

—Well, if it isn’t the man. Arthur Parker as I breathe indeed, how are you?

—Goddamn it, Wood. What the fuck?

Risking the real possibility that he would never figure out how to sit back down in his chair, he rose and pointed at Sherwood’s Versailles getup, complete with a train that even now he was bundling up to take his own seat.

—In the time I waited for you to look like Barry Lyndon took a shit, I could have fucking watched Barry Lyndon. Fuck, I could have read the whole book. You asshole. You think I have all day to just…

—Oh, this old thing? I only wear this when I don’t care what I look like.

—Wood, goddamn it…

—Can I get you anything? There’s this deli across the street that has the best prosciutto you ever…

—…no, I already had a sandwich… and yes, the prosciutto was good.

It always pissed off Arthur when Sherwood did that too, just flat-out refuse to acknowledge his anger until he forgot about it or forgave it like the aforementioned parent with the kid and broken lamp. With a smirk and shrug Sherwood sat down on the nearest mod chair with no effort at all.

—I’m glad you liked it. Now then, what can I do for you?

Arthur, after taking some time to attempt the chair one more time and also calm down from Sherwood’s prank, told him and Rafa both what they could do for him, which all present except those two already know about. Sherwood’s drew out silence once Arthur finished explaining his visit, sitting in his chair with his chin resting on his fist like the Rodin statue.

—Wild… that’s wild.

It was Rafa who cleared his throat and broke the silence in a meaningful way.

—I’ll have to postpone the tour. It won’t be easy but Cath and I can always say it’s a family emergency. But I mean, it’s also true…

—Ah shit, the tour. That show is tonight, I bet you I…

—Oh, don’t worry about that. I made plans to be there a little later. If anyone, blame dad for delaying me, not you.

—Will do… But what about all this… other stuff? The government taking an interest? People killing themselves over it? Do you think…

Sherwood got to his feet and, after silently asking Arthur permission to look at the package with the recording inside it by extending a hand, looked it over.

—Well, if we have to watch it, we have to watch it.

He gave it back to Arthur and returned to his seat.

—I’d be happy to have everyone over for the occasion. I have a lovely little home entertainment room right across the way…

—Hell no, Wood. There’s no way we’re doing this here.

—It’s nothing special though, but it’s just big enough for six people to feel like they’re actually in a theater…

—Even if this wasn’t your place, and even if you weren’t you, I still can’t sit in these fucking seats. I feel like I’m going to fall off and break my neck at any moment…

—Who knows, we could make a whole thing about it. Some drinks, some little finger foods, and then we get right…

—Hello? Wood, are you listening to me…

—Arthur.

Arthur fell silent when Sherwood gave him that tone that all joking around was done and something serious was to come. Rafa shook his head to himself, knowing that Arthur was not going to like that serious thing one bit.

—You have a film to show us, is that right?

—Yes.

—And is it imperative that I be present during that screening?

—It seems to be the case, yes.

—Then would you like me to explain to you why we’re going to view it at my place?

—…please do.

Without another word, Sherwood propped his leg upon the coffee table beside him and tugged on his pant leg to reveal a house-arrest sensor around his ankle.

—…what did you do this time?

—Well, I thought it was time for the label to give me another shot at producing, so I paid them a…

—You know what, forget it. Never mind I asked…

—I paid them a little visit, and showed them some arrangements I was working on, asked if they had any up and coming young starlets that needed some guidance…

—I just said I…

—And when they were less than inclined to give me an audience, I, well…

Rafa cleared his throat and interrupted his dad.

—He threatened to kill himself if they didn’t give him a contract. He actually brought a gun to their office and pointed it at his head.

—Jesus, Wood…

—Oh, come off it. You’re not my dad. Anyway, it was just a way to get their attention. The other proper avenues didn’t work, so. And no one was in danger whatsoever, least of all me.

—Oh, yeah?

—I made sure the gun wasn’t loaded…

—Remember the last time you made sure the gun wasn’t loaded? It nearly took my ear off. I… you know what, I don’t care. I’ve told you everything I set out to tell you, and now I have more important things to do than scold you.

Arthur did the best he could to rise from his weird seat and show himself to the door as Sherwood followed him.

—Well, that settles it. If you like, I can take that off your hands and keep it in my safe till the big night?

—I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. Besides, I have my own.

—Suit yourself. It was wonderful to see you, Arthur…

Arthur maybe heard half of that from Sherwood before he slammed the door behind him. As Sherwood sauntered back to his bedroom, French bourgeoise outfit and all, without a word to his son, the latter took that as an opportunity to excuse himself from his father’s house arrest and to his late-night performance with Cath and his band. This left Sherwood alone, back on his bed, with all the time in the world to play a different song over and over again.

Arthur was born just a plain simple man in a plain simple working class position…

He didn’t recall the night they first met, at another one of his wild college parties for bored rich kids, so much as he just spent the remainder of his life unable to forget, even if he wanted to.

…how’s your life and your Shangri-la, and your long-lost land of hallelujah?

And your hope and glory has passed you by, can’t you see what the world is doing to ya?

And now we see your children sailing off in the setting sun

To a new horizon where there’s plenty for everyone

He told Arthur how much the song reminded him of him, but when he heard it again that night, years later, right around the eighteenth Arthur could be that the world was wrong don’t you know it/Arthur could be you were right all along don’t you know it, he was struck by how so much of that song was actually about himself.


Rafaello Leoncio Williams could not have looked any less like a man named “Rafaello Leoncio” if he tried. It was impossible not to see that he was mostly the creation of his father, as whatever it is that decides who gets what from which parent doled out all of Sherwood’s red hair to him, and added even paler skin and freckles all over to boot. On a cursory look, it would look like the only two things his mother gave to Rafa were his eighty-percent Italian name and his natural aptitude for music.

Like his father, and his mother, and his half-siblings, Rafa had an effortless talent for singing and performing since as far back as he could remember. It was his mother who identified that talent and nurtured it, the first of many small allowances Arthur gave for her second son. Not to say that Sherwood was a bad father, or even an absent one, but there were admittedly occasions where he had to spend the night in a different room for a few days, which opened the door for his other parent, by legal mandate more than anything else, to look after the boy. It was on these nights that Amedea taught her second child how to sing, just as she did her firstborn and was bound to do for her next child. Arthur more or less agreed to these meetings after the second or third, recognizing it was a futile exercise at best to excise the whole Williams family, if not just Sherwood, from his life.

It was around twelve when Rafa acquired the chops that most other performers get when they’re in their mid-twenties, when he and Sherwood sat down at the piano and wrote their first song together. Appropriately, their song,  “Digging to China,” was about the act of writing that song together. The music was almost certainly all Sherwood: the usual rocking piano intro that began any Wall of Flowers song began this one as well:

 

Did you hear the story of a historic sun, as it’s spiraling around you

Did you hear the calling of a luminous moon, as it’s heading down the hourglass

 

What Rafa brought to the song was more than the words, which if written by an adult would have been simply “psychedelic,” but as written by him were instead “imaginative, yet surprisingly sophisticated for a child.” Rafa brought an innocence untouched by the ravages that assailed Sherwood in his youth and college days. After Sherwood languished in lack of work and misdemeanors for years after the infidelity and birth, losing the two reasons why he bothered to do anything of worth at all, Rafa gave him another chance to make a name for himself again, vicariously through another name. Rafa Williams, the son of Amedea Parker, was another Amedea for Sherwood.

 

And I know if I could write you a hit song then I

Could show you all the mountains you could climb

All the mountains that you could climb

All the mountains that you could

And I know if I could write you a hit song then I

Could show you all the clouds that you could ride

 

The verses, per Sherwood’s usual MO, were more or less preludes to the main course that was the chorus, a remarkable one and as catchy as anything  ever produced by himself. The lead vocal part treats the listener to a literal and figurative high of write you a hit song then IiiIiiIie, and meanwhile chords seem to resolve, like climbing up the mountain of the song, only to tease the listener and revert back to the verse progression.

 

Did you know that we are just a part of it all, and it’s bigger than whatever thing we are

See it in the pairing of their feet in the sand, as they dig their way to China

And I know if I could write you a hit song then I

Could show you all the stars that you could ride

To the sky

 

The song, as a recognizable thing of verses and choruses, effectively ends at two minutes, concluding its other two with a rollicking jam that riffs on ride to the sky, to the sky, to the sky, completing the thought the end of the first chorus brought up without resolving, giving the listener a final destination. It was a move, like the back half of “Australia” from his favorite Kinks album, like the latter three-quarters of “Revelation” that still took up a good share of his otherwise favorite album by Love, that was often criticized by his peers when he did it. If the groove was good, he always told them, then why not listen to it on repeat? The Germans in the seventies started a whole genre based on this ethos after all. But let the producer beware when he subjects the listener to a fifteen-minute groove that wasn’t good. Hard to master and easy to mess up, it was a maneuver that demanded respect and discipline, two qualities Sherwood was famous for lacking.

Rafa became the latest in a long line of listeners who asked Sherwood what was the deal with the long outro. Why not play that great chorus one more time? It was then that Sherwood contributed arguably the most formative quality to his son. What, play the chorus again? A great chorus like that, three times, the number of psychological completion? And ruin my chance to make the listener push the back button? To which his son replied, the back button? Sherwood then pulled out his phone and turned on the music player. He didn’t play anything though, he just pointed to the back button.

This right here, he told his son. Forget whatever anyone else has to say to you about what music is all about. Music is about this button. Everything you do, you do with the goal of making your listeners push this button. When they start pushing this button (and he pointed to the skip forward button beside it), that’s it. It’s all over for you. Your song has to make any listener, anyone at all, want to hear it over and over again, every minute of every day, until you make another one that makes them want to do the same. Your songs have to be a cupids arrow that hits their heart every time, that makes them love it so much it hurts. Songs aren’t poetry, they’re not the blues, they’re not about your feelings, they’re about your listeners’ feelings. You want to express yourself, tell people how you feel? Get into performance art, or go to a poetry slam in Greenwich Village so I can ignore it. But kiddo, do you really want to know why I’m such a big British Invasion buff? Remember the Beatles? Remember those girls just losing themselves? In the heat of those performances those crowds would have done anything for them, would have felt anything, believed anything. That kind of songwriting is power. If you want that kind of power, keep writing songs, and make sure each one makes me want to push the back button.

To be fair, only two people in the world were present when they had that discussion, so to most people it would seem like Sherwood was a domineering Svengali who forced his only son into his vanity project, the latest Wall of Flowers boy band made up of literal boys, with twelve-year-old Rafa fronting the ‘Woods. But in fact, that pep talk burned a fire inside Rafa that never in Sherwood’s life burned as hot within his own breast. It was Rafa that made Sherwood start the ‘Woods, not the other way around. And I know if I could write you a hit song then I could show you all the mountains that you could climb, their song went, and it was equally the case that it was Rafa singing to his father as much as Sherwood singing it to his son.

On the strength of “Digging to China,” Rafa tasted the stardom enjoyed by his mother before any of her kids with Arthur were to do the same, and Sherwood received his second platinum album. And just as he was for the rest of his life since that horrible day, Sherwood was true to his word to Arthur in those days as well, in that he never asked him for anything at all. But again, if you didn’t know that, it would seem like a cynical, calculating decision on his part to tack on notoriety to the ‘Woods by tapping the firstborn child of his former best friend and mother of his child to participate. But no, once again, it was Rafa who asked fourteen-year-old Ian Parker to join his little band. Of course, Arthur could have, and would have, easily vetoed the move it was even tenuously Sherwood’s idea, but he was powerless even then to stop Ian himself from doing whatever he wanted. Two years after he lost his mother, Ian simply said “it’s something mom wanted me to do.”

Which is strange, because Ian was almost never happy being a part of the ‘Woods. Every single public appearance of the ‘Woods revealed four young boys leaning into the project, with Ian next to them doing everything he could to counter their efforts. Rafa and the other ‘Woods would defer to the psychedelic pastels of their leader’s father’s personal style if not ever going full puffy-shirt, and Ian would be beside them in all-black like the most dour of all the late-seventies post punk frontmen. In performances, people would remark how perhaps only David Byrne rivaled Rafa’s tendency to get into the music he was playing, maybe stopping short of the full-on gymnastics in Stop Making Sense but getting pretty close. Ian, on the other hand, was not so much a John Entwistle eye-of-the-storm kind of figure for the ‘Woods as much as someone gazing upon the eye of the storm and coming out of it wholly unimpressed.  Most magazine cover shoots found the band looking to the camera engaged and with consummately professional smiles, with Ian, if he was looking at it at all that is, showing a countenance that said he’d rather be literally anywhere else in the world than there, even Antarctica, even the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

It was on one of these photo shoots that the ‘Woods effectively disbanded. In this one, Ian once again opted to not bother looking at the camera, but what was different this time was the band was subjected to a photographer who would have none of his antics. Hearing many storied about Ian’s intractability, this hotshot set out with the hubristic goal of breaking the young man in line. Oh yeah, he imagined himself boasting at get-togethers with his photojournalism friends, well, I got Ian fucking Parker to shape up on my set.

Unfortunately, the opening salvo this man landed on first was perhaps the tritest thing he could have possibly attempted on any famous musician, let alone Ian Parker. Come on, man, don’t you want to be on the cover of a big magazine? Don’t you want to be on the cover of Laurel Leaf?

Ian never wasted emotion on anyone or anything. If something was inconsequential in his life, he treated that that thing as so and simply ignored it, which in itself could be more devastating than any emotional outburst. It was a shocking thing, then, to see Ian lose his temper, just go off on this man.

Do you have any idea how many covers of how many magazines I’ve already fucking been on, you fat moron? You fucking walking talking pustule, you living fucking infected cyst, can you imagine how meaningless it is for me to be on the cover of Laurel Leaf? Do you want to know how old I was when I had to placate the first dipshit like you who thought he was special for putting my mother and sister and I on the front of a rag? You think you’re any more special than the last mongoloid who took my picture when I was six? You think you’re special because you paid a technical school sixty thousand dollars a year to show you which button on a plastic black box you’re supposed to push with your fat sausage fingers?

Ian broke a few glasses and threw around a few things in craft services as he stormed off the set. The photographer (who, it should be noted, was a little big, and was the latest unfortunate recipient of Ian’s general strategy of “find the one weakness in someone and exploit it”) tried to stop him with another regrettable banality: come on, man, why not just do it for the fans? Think about the fans out there, counting on all of you. To which Ian replied, Who cares about the fans? I hate the fucking fans. Those idiot hooting, screeching, twelve-year-old girls, drooling through their gooey braces. They’re all even stupider than they already are for counting on me, and I hope they all die, then maybe I can stop singing these songs if no one listens to them anymore. I hope they die! I hope everyone dies in a fucking plague!

No one ever knew why Ian lost it that day. The best guess was he still wasn’t over his mother’s passing, but at two years after the fact it was a stretch at best. Ian never returned to any set, any performance, never returned any call from the record company, from Sherwood, or from Rafa. And while it’s true that it was Rafa that brought Ian along, not intending to let the ‘Woods coast on the fame of the arguably more famous boy of the group, the sad fact was that the ‘Woods did indeed coast on Ian being a member, and without him the ‘Woods were no more. The scene with Ian made Rafa lose heart in the project, which in turn made the others follow suit.

Rafa took the disbanding harder than anyone, but Sherwood, used to disappointment by now, was simply astonished that this good thing lasted as long as it did. And at this point, if anyone still thought Sherwood as the Svengali type, his behavior all but dispelled that rumor for good, because once Ian and the others left Sherwood never pushed Rafa to keep the ‘Woods going. He was a hands-off father in all things with Rafa, good or bad. While true, he could have gone to jail a lot less than he did, he also never took advantage of Rafa’s talent, never forced Rafa to do anything he didn’t want to do, and when he acted up he never raised his voice back at his son, he just sat there and took his screaming, sat there and tried to figure out how to solve the problem, like a tricky composition that wouldn’t stick more than a human being he was responsible for. He gave Rafa food and roof over his head, and encouragement when he needed it, and honest criticism when he really needed it, and not really much else.

No one ever really doubted that Rafa would bounce back from the ‘Woods, sooner or later. It turned out to be later, when he grew old enough to drink alcohol, that he reunited the grown-up former ‘Woods, sans Ian of course, and formed the Challengers. It took him nine years since writing “Digging to China” to take in his father’s lessons and really come out on his own. And, with their debut single “On the Table,” the Challengers came out on their own in a gigantic way.

Where his father’s style, as evidenced by the opening to “China,” preferred a bouncy effervescence, “On the Table” featured a pulsing rock beat that hit hard on the second and fourth beat, chugging along like a steam locomotive. Most other popular songs use a I IV ii V progression and try to force a melody around it, but Rafa took a melody in his head and then asked himself what chords could make it work. And what a melody it was: amid the relentless two-step pound of the beat was a graceful, delicate piano part that one could actually see dancing along with the vocals like a frilly masquerade ball in a Renaissance-era period piece. And while his father tended to write verses with an eye toward the chorus, here the verses were the main course, with the chorus being a brief respite before delving into another full meal.

The lyrics were a whole other story. Rafa took to his heart his father’s advice to keep his heart off his sleeve, but was hesitant to disregard entirely his own feelings and experience. Above all, the songs had to be fun to sing. Just like the chords, the words had to fit the melody, not the other way around. Which is why he ultimately decided to poke mild, gentle fun at the one person he knew better than anyone, Sherwood himself.

 

On the table

The deal that kept the courts at arm’s length

Stealing our thoughts with the force of their non-sequiturs

Amateurs

 

On the table

The deal between the thieves and exits

Common and breathless, shrugging at what they’ve become

Number one

 

Your average middle-schooler or middling bluesman would have written a song that went roughly something like “I got a dad, who raised me behind iron bars.” Rafa instead imagined his father striking deals with the courts to get off the hook, making the stuffy judges sputter and bluster in outrage over his father’s audaciously nonsensical defenses (one time, Sherwood punched a jerk recording engineer in the throat, after the latter made fun of his son for some reason or other in some offhand way, and neither Rafa nor the judge presiding over that trial would ever forget that his major defense was, not the somewhat plausible if still indefensible truth, but that he became temporarily violent due to his recently contracting the coronavirus. He would brag with a chuckle over how he got the trial delayed for three days pending a medical exam, which obviously came up negative).

 

On the table,

The steal that kept the courts at arm’s length

Stealing our hearts with the force of the new evidence

Innocent

 

On the table

Our hopes become a starting pistol

Though we have missed all the minutes, we know what we’ve won

Are we done?

 

He imagined with a laugh his father telling the judge he didn’t have all day to sit around and listen to this trifling little assault trial, as he had an important engagement with his son’s band, so go ahead and sentence him, but would he mind making it start tomorrow morning. The “starting pistol” was a nice image of someone literally starting a relay race, but it was just as much him remembering the time his father told him how in a drunken stupor he pretended to be the one at the big olympic race with the starting pistol, nearly taking off Mr. Parker’s left ear in the process, and ending up far more astonished the gun wasn’t loaded after all than sorry he nearly did so.

Rafa regarded his father the same way those judges did, even the same way Arthur did, like the precocious boy who broke the lamp. Often infuriating, but just as impossible to not love. This was why Rafa was not only unabashedly honest about the song’s subject matter, but also why Sherwood took it in stride: when asked what the chorus meant, the aforementioned brief break in-between verses that simply said do… re… mi… innocent, Rafa replied to the interviewer with a laugh that those are the four words that his father has spoken more than any others in the English language.

It was a remarkable thing to hear back then, coming out on TV and the radio for the first time, hearing Rafa for the first time taking complete command of his abilities, and all without his father.

 

Continued in Part 3: A New Empire in Rags

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