Baby, Lay Your Head Down
She’d said she felt like her soul was covered with filth, that that’s what she thought other people saw when they looked at her. Amanda, with her big, shy smile and the downward sloping glance of her big blue eyes, thought that’s what people saw in her. We were it was in one of those art therapy classes designed to give you something to do while you want to peel your face off with your own hands. She’d crayoned a picture of a cresting ocean wave, bottle blue beneath and foily froth and flecks in rose and gold all around it, with a candy-striped sky.
“Hey, you know, I listened to what you said, but when I look at you…” I put my hand on her shoulder. She was 22 and coming off a bad run of heroin. She’d gotten clean once, was sitting at the gas pump when a pouch buzzed through the open window like an insect. Her dealer had tossed it through, knowing she was shaky and easily lured back in. He told her once that he went around looking for people whose eyes were dead, knowing they’d do anything for relief.
I tapped the picture she’d colored. “When I look at you, that’s what I see, and that’s what everybody else sees.” She smiled and looked downward.
Who the hell was I? Dr. Drew? I wasn’t exactly suicidal, but I’d never felt less will to live and more will to roll up into a black ball and fall through the crust of the earth. But I made a determination once I got past the seizure watch to try not thinking about myself, to shift the concern over to the others. I’m no saint. I’m not even very friendly on most days. But I had enough Buddhism under my belt to know that this would be the only way I could come out of this rehab without intentionally walking out of the first bus that came my way.
I checked in on January 13 of last year, three weeks after my mother’s death from alcoholism, and probably a few weeks from my own if I didn’t do something. I had had almost six months sober, finally, when I was called home to keep her company while she committed slow suicide with the bottle after being widowed for the second time. Why me? No one else really knew how to do it, and I guess I had unfinished business with the bottle.
The rehab is housed in an ante-bellum mansion up on a sweeping mount of earth that spills down to a creek where some half-assed civil war skirmish took place, notable only because Kentucky was so bereft of significant battles that people forget its psyche was ripped apart worse than anything Sherman did to Georgia. Stepworks isn’t not posh, and but it had a stately grandeur that I associated with my family’s centuries-old roots in the state that soothed me. Plus, my cousin Rosie was nearby and was allowed to stop by to give me a hug and a few packs of cigarettes. I would’ve burst into tears when I saw her but I was pretty stoned on Librium. Welcome to the anti-bellum anti-seizure show, I thought.
There wasn’t much to do outside of group sessions and meetings, but there was a great spirit there during my ten days there. I made some true friends. There were about fifteen of us. Everyone huddled and smoked together in the frigid Kentucky weather, and told stories, and talked. I’d been in medical and non-medical detox before, the former through health insurance, the latter for homeless and indigent, which for a spell, I more or less was. This place was special. There was a spirit of mutual nurturing, and I think the number of people I crossed paths with who got their minds together there probably beats the general success rate. I will always love that place because first, it’s where I got sober, and second, it’s where I found my purpose.
Music and meditation had gotten me through the year, such as it was. In fact, battling the punishing TV volume at my parents’ house, I’d taught myself to meditate while I was playing, to concentrate on the sound without judging how the notes added up to music. I’d gone back to the blues of the Mississippi Delta that I’d started learning in college, now digging into its textures of heartbreak and desperation in a way I could only mimic in my youth. I played about five hours a day, and started to achieve a level of mastery I’d never imagined possible. During my sober bouts, I meditated two and three hours a day, too. In fits and starts, over that year and a half, I was laying the pipe for lasting recovery, or so it appears, 11 months since my last drink.
But this didn’t solve my existential crisis. Over the years, I’d written many songs. I’d become a credible singer. Now I’d started to find something in actual musicianship that was new and different. But what to do with it? The world at large was not in dire need of another folk/rocker. I had also quite a publishing history in newspapers, magazines and even books, though I’d lost faith in that industry, I was starting to wonder if the digital world might offer some new possibilities for finally sewing my writing, music and Buddhist practice together.
Someone had brought a guitar there, and one night I started to play a song I wrote long ago. It’s a lullaby. Of all my songs, people like it the best. You can listen to it here:
Baby, I’m here to tell you, these dark stars will surely pass…
Baby, I know too well how, a cold wind blowing cannot last
So baby, lay down your head now, lay your head upon my chest
Tomorrow will be a new day, and you deserve to get some rest
I was in a chair facing the wall. I heard weeping behind me. Then I heard Amanda say, “Please don’t stop. I haven’t cried in three years.”
I took this in. “Baby, Lay Your Head Down” was the first song I ever wrote offering solace instead of begging for it. It was quite old. I was 30 when I wrote it, and it was perhaps the first time I’d really opened my awareness to someone else’s pain. It’s the song everyone has always asked for. I changed its title to “Amanda’s Song” and dedicated it to her sobriety.
I played some more and Amanda cried some more. Then Terrance, the night shift guy, busts in and just about explodes, orders Amanda to do her laundry, tells her just don’t think about it! I mean, like he’s putting out a fire or something. You’ve never seen such a beautiful spell broken like that. Terrance is recovered, and he went through hell, did time in the joint, and when it comes to emotion… he can’t handle emotion. In the joint, emotion gets you killed.
But for the next few days, Amanda and I snuck around like lovers, and I’d play the song and she’d cry for a minute or two, then we’d get on with our chores, or run to smoke in the lip-splitting January wind, and hug each other and get into snits with each other, and I think for many of us it was the greatest sense of family we’d experienced in a long time.
In the wake of my dad’s passing, I appointed myself to keep my mother company while she drank herself to death. This was her strange gift me, but there were two more, tenable ones: her piano, or perhaps I should just say “music,” and even better and surely worse, one of those deathbedish family secrets that tie everything together in all too a believable and terrifying way. It was rough duty but no one else could handle it, and I could moan and whine about being hung out to not stay dry by everyone else, but the fact of the matter was, I still had unfinished business with alcohol, and I was going to finish that business one way or another. Looking back, finishing it by keeping my mother company on her way out-- I think that was as good a way as any to finish my business with alcohol, along with some other bad patterns, including the Spanish Prisoner scam I was running on myself.
During the year it took my mother to finish the job, I tried many times to sober up: in an urban rehab in Louisville for the homeless and criminal; in a halfway house in the town’s Victorian preservation district; and finally in a rehab in the hamlet where I got drunk for the first time with my wild-ass country cousins. There was a guitar there. One night when I thought I was by myself, I was played a lullaby I wrote called “Baby, Lay Your Head Down.” I heard quiet weeping behind me. I’d thought I was alone. It was Amanda, whom I’d bonded with earlier. She hadn’t cried in three years, she said. She asked me to keep playing so she could cry and get the pain out, let go of herself.
It was at that moment that I realized that all of the inexplicable effort I’d put into songwriting over the years when I felt like I should have been a more serious journalist, or….a more serious something, anything, so long as it was dignified by the fact that I secretly despised doing it, and from this would spew the contempt I so urgently need to separate myself from others. But all the way, I was writing songs and now I knew there was a purpose to it, that I was meant to shoot these darts to the heart at a very specific group of people.
I left there a different person, shaky but different, and pointed in the right direction. I had no conviction that I could stay sober, and briefly contemplated an act of probable self-destruction for the sake of my career: taking the drug naltrexone to see if it would finally cure my alcoholism. (Naltrexone is proven to work for many, and approved for alcoholism treatment by the FDA, but paradoxically, you have to drink on it for it to work, and in my case that would be a perilous undertaking). This is a story I am fairly sure I could’ve made a bestseller. But I was talked out of it, both by my therapist, and, really, some sense was finally starting to break through. I took it on faith that I would find some niche to fit into.
One day, about six months into my recovery, and after resuming my life in Los Angeles, thought I heard somebody say “Blues for a Buddha!” I thought I heard this three times.
I looked over and a few yards away from me stood a man speaking Armenian into a cell phone.
And I went inside and called Amanda to tell her that I hoped she would one day be well enough to come out and work with me.