Jesse James DeConto: Dad, ‘Cecilia’ and me

February 4, 2014 

When I was a baby, Dad earned most of his living as a musician. In fact, when Mom began labor on the night before my birth 37 years ago this month, Dad was playing in his duo, The Fabulous Linguini Brothers, at The Alewife bar owned by one of his cousins.

Dad and his partner Bob Gentile were out four or five nights a week, playing cover songs in restaurants, bars and hotel lounges all over New England. Around 11 p.m. that Saturday night Mom called the bar to say she was in labor, and Nanny and Poppy were taking her to the hospital.

The bartender told the waitress, who whispered in Dad’s ear right in the middle of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” Dad stood up and knocked over his microphone stand, filling the room with ear-splitting feedback before he could pick it up.

“My wife’s having a baby,” he announced to the full house.

The crowd cheered.

Dad left his rock-star life in the middle of a set to come to the maternity ward. It was the ’70s, and fathers were just beginning to be allowed into the birthing room. Dad put on green scrubs, a surgical cap and a mask and stood near my Aunt Lori, who was filming as my head crowned. Dad can’t handle much blood, and he walked up near Mom’s face to hold her hand. But that still wasn’t far enough away. He started to lose his balance, and Mom ordered him out.

In the waiting room, another father mistook my green-scrubbed father for his own wife’s obstetrician.

“What’s happening?” the worried dad asked as my Dad sat bent over with his head in his hands.

“I’m losing it, man,” he said.

Now here I am, a father of two, trying to pursue the creative life that Dad all-but abandoned as his own family grew. And I’m glad that “Cecilia” is part of my story from the beginning.

Most people hear it as a silly love song about a dysfunctional relationship, but I think it’s about writer’s block. See, Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians. So when Paul Simon sings of “making love in the afternoon with Cecilia” and of someone taking “his place,” I hear a pop star chasing the muse, afraid of becoming yesterday’s news like everyone who came before him, afraid even of losing his most precious gift. When you look at it like this, the bubble-gum chorus becomes a desperate sort of prayer to an icon of divine creativity:

Cecilia, you’re breakin’ my heart

You’re shaking my confidence daily

Cecilia, I’m down on my knees

I’m begging you please to come home

If you’re like most artists, struggling to build enough of an audience to make something that resembles a living, and if you’re like Dad or me, with a family to support, then a disease like writer’s block sounds like a death sentence. Dad had a hard time writing his own music, and he eventually had to quit putting so much time into his craft. He got into real estate, and Cecilia didn’t come around very often. He doesn’t talk about that, and he plays as much music as he has time for. Right or wrong, I attribute to him a deep sadness, which might be a projection of my own fear of failure.

You don’t have to be an artist to feel Paul Simon’s anguish. Don’t we all have this feeling that the skill or accomplishment or person or god we want most is just beyond our reach? “Cecilia” is about human longing – to have what we don’t, to be what we aren’t. And, yet, within this fundamental “not-ness” of life, amidst constant reminders of frailty and failure, there are moments when writers write, singers sing, mothers mother and lovers love. “Jubilation, she loves me again, I’m down on the floor and I’m laughing.” And, so, you savor those afternoon trysts when Cecilia shows up.

Jesse James DeConto is a Durham musician and author of the spiritual memoir “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World” (thislittlerlight.com), Cascade Books, 2013. He is releasing excerpts like this one, paired with music videos of songs that help to shape his story. Find “Cecilia” at http://bit.ly/1cvqaSH.

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