Somewhere Only We Know: Music, My Kid, and Keane

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Image by goatling CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

In this house, we listen to a lot of music. We always have. From the youngest of ages, my son Liam has had all sorts of music to choose from, ranging from your geek standbys like They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton to local North Carolina bluegrass to rock ‘n’ roll like The Beatles and The Beach boys, not to mention a big heap of Classical music.

But no band has stuck with him like Keane. I introduced Liam to Keane when he was three, with their third studio album, Perfect Symmetry. I was smitten with the album, which was an exciting departure from their more mellow sound (loved the synth) and I figured he might enjoy it, too. After all, so much music I loved as a kid was shared by my parents. Without them I’d never have heard Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, and so many others.

Anyway, when the album came out it was a tough time for us as a family. I distinctly remember splurging on the album in the iTunes store. We were in the process of losing our house, and we ended up moving from a cozy little North Carolina town to the state capital. We promptly lost our cat. My husband lost his job.

Maybe there was something about all that chaos and emotion that drew Liam to connect so much with Keane, I can’t say for sure. But soon he wanted to hear everything Keane ever wrote. He fell particularly for their song “Atlantic” off of Under the Iron Sea and used to beatbox the drum part in the backseat of my Saab as we ran around doing errands, his little blond head bobbing up and down with the music. At first he didn’t even know the name of the song and used to just ask for “Boom-boom-CHEE, boom-boom-boom-CHEE.” But I knew what he meant. (Now, he pronounces is so flawlessly.)

In the time since, I’ve been working a lot. Before my daughter was born, I was working a very demanding job that kept me away from Liam most of the week. Our Keane listening sessions all but evaporated until the release of Strangeland, which just happened to launch a few days before my daughter Elodie entered the world. As happy as I was with the new music, Liam’s enthusiasm was tenfold. Now six, he’s become a full-on fan. Strangeland has propelled him into the fan stratosphere. He wants to hear the B-sides, the demos, the outtakes, the videos. He wants to know their entire history. In short, he’s geeking the heck out about Keane. A few choice tidbits from his typical rotating queries regarding the boys from Battle:

“Mom, I would love to see Keane play live. That would be a dream come true!” “Can we look up the Sovereign Light Cafe on Google Maps again?” “Which song does Tim sing instead of Tom?” “How’d they meet?” “What’s that instrument?” “I haven’t heard this song before!” “Which one is Jesse?” “Where’s Bexhill?” Singing the lyrics to “Sovereign Light Cafe” with his headphones on, not realizing we can all hear him. Crooning, “Sea fog rolli-ing!” “Mom. Keane’s even better than the Beatles.”

But there’s something else that’s been going on with him in the last few months, which is nowhere near as warm and fuzzy. You might remember my post on raising spirited kids. I can’t tell you that life with Liam has gotten any easier in that respect. In fact, since starting kindergarten last year, his spirited bouts have turned into outright explosions. The last year has been the most exhausting on record, filled with notes from teachers, visits to the principal’s office, and behavior I just can’t begin to understand. His little sister is as calm and predictable as he is agitated and spontaneous. Liam is a creature of emotion.

Like many explosive children, Liam is a study in contrasts. Sometimes he’s a saint. The most thoughtful, adorable, loving, and mind-boggingly intelligent kid I’ve ever met. Then, his temper shows up. I’ve never seen anyone make themselves so miserable over anything–even when we’re ready to give him the world, he’s unhappy. I used to say this about him when he was little, but it’s still true now: when he’s in an argument, he’d rather win in that moment a thousand times than ever back down and get something. We could promise him a BMW (his other infatuation is cars) and it still wouldn’t matter.

My son, fast asleep, while Strangeland still plays. Image by Natania Barron

In spite of the challenges, Keane is like his safety blanket. Liam’s only recently started to enjoy my singing (and sometimes demands parlor performances of his favorite Keane standards, which I’m usually more than obliged to provide–after years of trying to get him to sing along, I’ll take what I can get), but he’s never turned down a moment to hear Tom Chaplin sing it to the crowd. We’re not in the car three minutes these days and he wants to listen to Keane. Any Keane. At this point we’ve just started running everything one shuffle. But his favorite song of all is their biggest hit, oddly enough, “Somewhere Only We Know.” Now, since he’s six, he really hasn’t had been exposed to any marketing. It’s just purely his favorite song, and he has no idea it was so huge. So while his selection of their biggest hit makes me cringe (I mean, come on, this gets the HipsterMom in me all grumpy) I indulge him where I can.

But it turns out he knows more than me when it comes to Keane, at least in regards to that song. You see, last weekend was a low point for me. After being brought to the brink by Liam’s completely erratic and disruptive behavior, my husband and I started working through The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. It’s a completely different way of looking at kids like Liam, and while the methodology has helped, it doesn’t mean that the explosive episodes have gone away. But it’s about collaborative problem solving, about approaching issues together and recognizing that his inability to cope with stress, anxiety, and frustration is a lack of skills and not a personality trait.

It takes time, though. Last week, after a visit to my parents’ house, I told him that we had to leave. He lost it. Just an utter freak-out. First he ran across the street, shrieking. Then he tried to get out of his seat in the car as I drove away, was kicking my chair, flailing around, screaming at the top of his lungs. I was terrified that he’d hurt his sister, and bawling my eyes out by the time I got on the highway.

After about four minutes, each of which felt like ten, he calmed himself down and apologized very sincerely. But I couldn’t stop crying. I was exhausted beyond belief from dealing with his behavior and trying to do everything in my power to make him happy and failing. I felt, in that moment, that my own son was just so foreign–he’s someone I don’t know. Someone I can’t reach. I don’t get angry like that. I don’t really even have a temper beyond occasional bitchy moments. How could I help him? I felt hopeless.

Then “Somewhere Only We Know” started up. I’ve heard this song probably more than one hundred times. I know every word and chord change on the guitar and piano. But, like with any song you love, with repetition can sometimes come a lyrical complacency. You don’t think about the words. Except suddenly the lyrics had never been so heartbreaking, capturing exactly what I was feeling. Cue the second verse:

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

Oh simple thing where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

And if you have a minute why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go
Somewhere only we know?

The place I’d been dreaming of? Parenthood. And my child, while I love him more than anything on earth, has been very different from what I’d dreamed. The simple things have become so complicated, from waking to sleeping, and yes–I’m getting older and tired and feeling entirely at a loss. He won’t let me in. That place only we know? That’s what I’d been searching for so fervently, some middle ground where we can meet. We are such different souls. But not entirely.

I sobbed. That’s was it. Epiphany.

Tonight, as I was making dinner, Liam was playing the keyboard in the living room. In the last month he’s moved from a general cacophony to more: deep thrumming synth and wandering melodies as he gets accustomed to the instrument. I smiled as I chopped broccoli. This music is what he wants to say; it’s his alone. Maybe it’s where he can express that anxiety and that anger; maybe someday he’ll be at the keys like Tim Rice-Oxley or swinging the microphone like Tom Chaplin. Whatever it is, it’s his place that only he knows–except, I, too, know the steps on that path. But it’s a start. It’s somewhere we can meet. It turns out, I know the pathway like the back of my hand.

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