The singing mentor

Growing up, some of my favorite memories were of laying out on the living room floor and listening to albums with my dad. I remember the Muddy Waters cassette he gave me as a teen which took me a decade to grow into. Driving down the road with him, I prided myself on knowing the name and players on the FM station. As I grew up, we started hitting concerts, the most memorable being Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Mentors come in unlikely forms and from unlooked for places. In my case, Petty became a consistent voice in my ear. My first real memory came from the ‘Wildflowers’ album that my cousin played for me when we were in junior high. As a kid, it sounded a little wild, telling me stories about risk, failure, love and delight. This album has always been in my back pocket. It led me to love as I played ‘Wildflowers’ on my first guitar and timidly sang it to my now-wife when I proposed to her. It taught me about the grandiosity of an addict hitting bottom, and then crawling his way out as I did in my early 30’s. It also taught me to value friendship, initiative and grace. My heart broke when I heard Tom died. I wept from a deep well of gratitude for this story-teller who seemed more like an uncle than a rock star.

The old men tell the boys stories as soon as they enter the men’s world. If we have no story, we cannot take hold of the wound.
— Robert Bly, Iron John

I longed to hear stories as a kid. I needed them in a deep way. Honestly, I don’t think we ever outgrow this. Musicians, good ones at least, are storytellers for the lost, forgotten, fatherless and needy. Robert Bly goes on to say that the boy who grows up without a story-telling guide (mentor), either tries to climb over their woundedness through grandiosity, descend into and become their wound as they play the victim, or becomes depressed, frozen and paralyzed by their wound. Stories are what inform us, guide us, and ultimately lead us through pain and into adulthood. To live without the stories of ‘old men’ is to grow up malnourished and set on a path of self-destruction or disillusionment.

Where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be.
— Robert Bly, Iron John

In fact, it is through the hearing and telling of stories that we begin to see ourselves clearly. In working with adolescent males, I consistently find that they have no idea what to do with their pain, or for what purpose it serves them. Pain is seen as the enemy, the wound as a devil, and they desire to escape towards some ethereal state of happiness. When they are neglected the stories of toil and grit, they fail to find out how to work with their own wounds. In this, they miss out on some of the greatest gifts their pain has to offer. Wisdom comes by experience, and experience is chocked full of suffering. You cannot have one without the other.

The ancient societies believed that a boy becomes a man only through ritual and effort - only through the active intervention of the older men.
— Robert Bly, Iron John

I implore you to tell more stories. Play records for your kids. Take delight in verse, poem and lyric. Read short stories aloud for the pleasure of reading them. Make sure your kids know your story so that they come to understand their own, as well as their grandparents, great-parents, and as far back as you can go. Story telling is risky business, as it requires that know and own your story before can you share it.

Here is one of my all-time favorite songs, not just of Petty but of anyone. I've more than once listened to this as I crawled out of the pits of addiction, self-hate, depression, or failure; and then back again and again to the light of grace and love. Thank God for story-tellers.