I am excited to be launching my blog, “Freedom From Within: Words and Music with Peter Melnick." Every installment features a song inspired by a healing journey. It’s a very big, quirky jukebox, filled with one-of-a-kind songs I love, like Rosanne Cash’s “She Remembers Everything” and John Lennon’s cry of pain, “Mother,” and some astonishing offerings from artists you haven’t even heard of — songs you can turn to whenever you want their wisdom and their magic. At some point, I’ll probably get around to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, which isn’t “about” anything, but always makes me feel something powerful having to do with release and forgiveness.
I often write about the healing journey in my own songs, and “Sometimes a Monster” is a birds-eye view of trauma passing from one generation to the next in the life of a family, a song about people who endured — and sometimes caused — great pain. But the song isn’t about pain. It has more to do with love, and the feeling of healing.
The idea for “Sometimes a Monster” came to me late one evening, inspired by the Lakota words Metakuye Oyasin (me-TAH-kweh o-YAH-sin) that are spoken at the start of many Sioux prayers to express a profound sense of interconnectedness. I first encountered the phrase in my twenties while researching an article on the Oglala reservation. I hadn't much occasion to use it since, but now found myself writing down the English translation, “All my relations.” More words poured out of me after that. I wrote without a thought to rhyme schemes or verse-chorus form, just trying to get it all down fast, like I was capturing a dream before it floated away. All my relations. I wasn’t writing about my family. I was writing to my family. And it was a love song:
I was in a twilight zone of discovery, a new way of seeing things that had never made sense to me before, like the loving feelings I had for my long departed maternal grandmother. Since her death, I had learned about the damage she bequeathed to her children and grandchildren, and loved her, nonetheless. Now I understood why.
There were many more stanzas, all rough around the edges, and I put off transforming them into song lyrics. Almost a year went by, and then, watching Bruce Springsteen’s one man show, Springsteen on Broadway, I heard something that struck a chord with me.
“When I was a young man, and looking for a voice to tell my stories,” Springsteen said, “I chose my father’s voice. My father was my hero. And my greatest foe… We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children’s lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors we walk along side of them. And we assist them in finding their own way, and some transcendence.”
I stopped watching the movie, went to the piano. This time, I knew exactly what I was looking for:
That was three generations of my mother’s side of the family, compressed into an eight-line verse. Then I wrote about my dad’s people:
When I got to the bridge, I left the storytelling behind and spoke directly to my own heart:
Finally, I pulled the camera back to take in the whole lot of us:
“Sometimes a Monster” turned out to be more than a song. It is my credo, the idea that has fueled almost everything I have written since then — songs, a musical called River of Stone, which became my first creative collaboration with my wife, Talia Van-Son Melnick, these newsletters... There's lots more to tell about my family, but for that I would have to write a book. I'm doing that too, an attempt to understand some extraordinary lives through the prism of trauma and the journey of healing...
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Best to all…