The Meaning of 8

A couple of years ago, when he was a student at Woodberry, Dixon made us a mix CD of a band he'd been exposed to by his friend Dennis. The band was called Cloud Cult, and the disc intrigued me in a number of ways. The band didn't have any single sound, mixing instruments and styles with seeming abandon--the pulsing, threatening waltz of "Car Crash," the gentle acoustic nostalgia of "Transistor Radio," the thrashing disco-punk of "Please Remain Calm," the goofy electronica of "It's Gay"--but their melodic sense was enormously appealing, and they ducked into all kinds of interesting lyrical places. I learned a little more about them: that they were an indie-rock collective from Minnesota, that they were led by guitarist/singer/songwriter Craig Minowa; that the band featured two painters, one of them Minowa's wife Connie, who painted during each live performance and auctioned off the paintings at the end; and that in 2002, the Minowas' two-year-old son Kaidin had died unexpectedly.

It was this last piece of information that suddenly clarified certain elements in the bands' songs for me. The most obvious was that now I suddenly understood "Your 8th Birthday":

You make traffic jams feel like parades
You bury the dead with the faith that makes lightning bugs swarm like it was graduation
Kaidin, Kaidin...
Who could change your silly life into a screaming supernova?
You do, you do, you do, you do, you do...
Who could change my sleepy brain into the eye of a hurricane?
Kaidin, Kaidin...


There's so much there that's sad and beautiful: the mixture of the present and past tenses, the images of storm and celebration, the wailing of Kaidin's name... I mean, I don't know that I'd be able to handle the loss of my son with a coherent sentence, let alone a song this rich and honest. It definitely gave me a new respect for Minowa's writing, not to mention more than a little sympathy. As my mother-in-law (a very wise woman) put it to Kelly and me many years ago, "Once you become a parent, every child is your child."

It wasn't long before I finally decided I had to own a complete Cloud Cult album, and I ordered The Meaning of 8 from Amazon, largely because several of my favorite songs from Dixon's mix were on it--"Take Your Medicine" and "Please Remain Calm" among them--and I started playing it regularly. Suddenly I became aware of songs I'd never heard before, like "Chain Reaction" and "Dance of the Dead," but I also began hearing some of the songs from the mix with new ears. And the more I listened, the more aware I became that the pain underlying them wasn't really the whole point.

Yes, if you know the backstory, the calls of "Put your face on mine" in "Chain Reaction" carry a depth of feeling you might not otherwise detect. But listen to the swell of the cello and violin swirling and plucking around them and those lyrics seem intended not just to bemoan what's lost, but to appreciate what was there to begin with. If you can't escape the references to death on this album, you can't help but recognize how much there is that's celebrating life--the plaintive oboe here, the glorious crunch of guitar there--and above all, the sound of Minowa's voice: wavery, sometimes close to breaking, sometimes pure and clear.

If there's one song that wraps up everything I love about this album, it's "Chemicals Collide," which you can enjoy in this video.

Oh God, it's beautiful, insatiable,
The way our chemicals collide.
And oh God, it's unforgettable, unpredictable,
The way our chemicals collide.

There's a perfection to the mix of acoustic and electric, mournful cello and triumphant guitar, words and music. Any father who has looked at his child has felt this emotion--the shock and awe of seeing what a tiny bit of you has been transformed into, through processes you can barely understand, by mixing it with another. It's amazing enough when it happens once. When it happens again, and those bits of DNA combine to produce still another person, completely unlike the first one, there's really not much you can do but stand back and say I could never expect this, but yes, God, it's beautiful.

I'm very happy to hear that Craig and Connie Minowa have since delivered a new child, and though they'll never replace Kaidin, I hope they can take some comfort in knowing that the emotional journey they underwent has given their listeners a richer understanding of the ideas they explored. And I damn sure expect them to be great parents.

And as I watch myself responding to this music, I note a few things: I'm here in the middle of summer, a season which has been spent largely without my own kids around. They've mostly been in Richmond, working and salting away cash for next year. Ian is getting ready to leave the country altogether, heading down to Barbados for a month of courses on the history of the island and its slave trade. Dixon is finishing up his first-ever paid acting job with the VCU orientation committee, sleeping in his brother's apartment for a few more days until he can move into his own. They're not really out of our house yet--their stuff is certainly still strewn all over it--but they're not here, either, and that's a bit frightening. It's been easy to take their presence for granted, and I haven't always been the most alert or appreciative father when they've been around. Today, when they're not here, I think of them and appreciate them keenly.

I'm not where Craig Minowa has been, thank god, but as we prepare to let the boys go into their adult lives, I can't help thinking he's been writing songs for me, too. For that, and for all our children, I'm thankful.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 17, 2012 1:59 PM.

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