When he was 19, Dan Hill wrote a song that would, in a few short years, earn him worldwide fame, the adoration of a generation, the respect of some the finest musicians in the business and more than $100-million. Enough, one would think, to also earn his father's approval and support.
But this wasn't to be. Dan Hill's memoir, I am My Father's Son, is his examination of the pain that rejection cost him.
Hill's memoir is actually a twin biography of his life and that of his father, Daniel Grafton Hill III, former director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Hill decided to write the book after he realized that his life was still bound up in his father's, even after his father's death. In fact, he had started taking sleeping pills, drinking heavily and running extreme distances while his father was on his deathbed, in an unconscious effort to die alongside him.
I am My Father's Son is subtitled A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness. Love is a gift you give others. Forgiveness is gift you give yourself. The result is release from a life of pinched perspectives, born of exhausting resentments, into a life of one's own.
Hill Sr.'s life perspective is directly related to the fact of his blackness. He grew up in Missouri in the 1920s at a time when black children were the last to use the public pool before it got drained, so that white kids wouldn't have to swim in "Negro contaminants."
His older relatives were part of what black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as "the talented tenth," that is, "well-educated and comfortably well-off Negroes." To be black and "survive with any sense of dignity meant to achieve and to never stop achieving."
But the bright and quick-witted Hill Sr. preferred to party rather than study, and so, to his great shock, he was conscripted into the army. During the Second World War, he was stationed in Oklahoma, notorious for its racist treatment of black soldiers. But even other black soldiers didn't take kindly to Hill Sr., whose advanced vocabulary and bourgeois airs made them suspicious of him. By the time Hill Sr. was released from the army, he was determined that he would be the only one doing the controlling.
Dan Hill Sr. used tales from his own life as lessons in survival for his children. In every story, he emerged "brashly triumphant" in the battle against a world where "being Negro is a crime."
One story, in particular, told on a family car trip, involved an army sergeant force-feeding him salt tablets while he was filling a trench with water using only a thimble. The younger Hill had to fight the impulse to throw his arms around his "father's shoulders and neck and protect him." It's tempting to imagine a young psyche stashing away the moment only to have it come out a decade later as the lyrics: "I want to hold you till the fear in me subsides."
Dan Hill Jr.'s hit song Sometimes When We Touch was inspired by a girlfriend who finally dumped him because he was "too fucking intense," but it could as easily be about a son's wildly conflicting urge to both exceed and escape his father's expectations. Even though few people on the planet have never heard the song, Hill's father continued, throughout its stratospheric success, to insist his son get a university degree, because that's how a black man gets respect in the world.
The story of the father-son struggle of wills is a story of conflicting identities. Hill Sr. was, first and foremost, a black man. And Hill Jr. was first and foremost a musician. In Don Mills, Ont., in the 1950s, racism existed, but it was not a life-and-death struggle for the Hill children.
In fact, in order to win over their father's approval, they sometimes had to deny part of their blackness. Both Dan Hill Jr. and his brother Larry (celebrated author Lawrence Hill) were expected to wear stocking caps to bed every night to flatten their wild and wiry heads of hair.
Throughout his youth, Hill wrote several successful romantic ballads. When Hill was 19, Harry Belafonte flew him to Manhattan to wine and dine him into letting him record one of his songs. Jose Feliciano and Tammy Wynette also showed interest.
While Hill's father dismissed his encounters with such musical giants as lies, he encouraged his son's liaisons with young groupies. Even when Hill's "addiction to sex on the road" destroyed a long-term relationship, his father warned him to "never ask for forgiveness. It makes you look weak." And "Hill men" were "never weak." A decade of "separating sex and romantic love made 1977 and 1978 the darkest and saddest years" of Dan Hill Jr.'s life.
But those same years also represented the zenith of his professional career. Sometimes When We Touch finally came together when Hill's producer teamed him with Barry Mann, the Mann behind such melodies as You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', On Broadway and We Gotta Get Out of This Place. At first, Hill was reluctant to work in a team. He had learned to stay insular and isolated when it came to revealing his artistic process.
But then Mann performed magic. He paired Hill's "intense" lyrics with a buoyant melody. The result was a less "funereal" sound and a hit song that generated more that $100-million, and continues to earn an average of $100,000 per year.
I finished Hill's wrenching book with the feeling that the author is still holding out for one last redeeming word of unconditional acceptance from his father. The last page reflects this childlike hope. It recalls a moment when young Hill was rescued from a deep, dark hole by clinging to his father's lowered leg.
But forgiveness is a process, not an event. It comes in bits. In I am My Father's Son, it comes to Hill every time he separates the conditional acts of approval from the spontaneous gestures of affection, the generational beliefs from the daily habits, the father from the son. And it comes once more, across the street from the hospital where his father died, in a non-descript café with a Muzak version of his hit tune piped through the restaurant speakers.
Madonna Hamel's radio series on singer-songwriters, Under_Score, can be heard on her website, www.madonnahamel.com.