At age 13, I was baptized by my first stepfather. The baptism capped off an emotional high I had contracted at a recent church camp. To be honest, I was baptized because I wanted to date the pastor's daughter and assumed baptism was a prerequisite. And, to be more honest, I believed that having my stepfather baptize me might make him stick around. It was the same reason I intentionally lost our basketball games.
Three days after he raised me out of the font, my stepfather beat up my mom and me and ran off with the wife of a youth leader at our small church. We never saw him again.
Our family didn't talk about the strange events that dotted my childhood. Like the time I was almost kidnapped when I was 8. My mom and biological father (who left two years later) were hosting a party in our home in Santa Rosa, California, while a friend and I played on our front lawn. A stranger showed up and began talking to us, laughing as she suddenly picked me up and held me tight. While I screamed, she carried me around the corner, toward a black Lincoln sedan with the back door swung open. Hands emerged from the backseat to pull me inside while the woman started pushing me in. Right then, my dad and his friend arrived. The stranger jumped into the car and it sped away. My mom and dad never mentioned what happened.
The well-meaning people in the churches that my mom and I cycled through also didn't mention my unusual life circumstances, including four different dads within four years. Whether big or small, in Santa Rosa or in Sacramento, they were all suburban churches of the 1970s and early '80s, and they were very interested in saving me. This did not usually mean listening to me. They couldn't be present in the pain I was experiencing, and so my story felt stolen. I was without a father and without a voice.
Meeting the Man in Black
I found a few stand-in fathers through music. My safety zone was my bedroom, where I played with G.I. Joes and listened to Johnny Cash. Any Cash album I could get my hands on became my soundtrack. To me, Cash was the wooing voice of God. He sang of wearing black to honor the voiceless, and that he'd wear black until Jesus returns and makes it all right.
In 1975, my dad took me to a Cash concert at the Circle Star Theater in San Francisco. After the show we waited with a dozen or so other fans by the side door. A black Lincoln pulled up, but this one wasn't there to kidnap me. It was June Carter and her baby. Cash showed up soon after and shook a few hands before getting in the car.
My dad knocked on the car window. "Mr. Cash, Mr. Cash—you didn't say hello to my son." Cash got out of the car, walked over to me, looked down, and said, "Hello, son, I'm Johnny Cash." Then he shook my hand. That encounter and his music sustained me as I continued searching for a father who would stay.
I moved out my senior year of high school, joined the army, and swiftly got kicked out. I considered becoming a comedian. I would start off slapstick, then pull up the curtain and hit the audience with the truth. In order to do that, though, I needed to know the truth. And I realized I had nothing to say. I wanted to scream but ended up silent.
Music was still communicating to me, giving me inklings of a reality outside my own. In 1987, just as I was about to wear out my cassette tapes of Boy and War, U2 released The Joshua Tree. Arguably the Dublin rock band's magnum opus, it helped me center and remember that life was more than smoking pot and doing cocaine. That year, I went to see them in concert (yakked out on coke and tequila, still). The last song of the night was "40."