A spectrum of experience, in song
Benefit CD tries to dispel myths about autism
By Steve Morse, Globe Correspondent
April 4, 2010
John O’Neil spent seemingly “20 hours a day’’ thinking about what to do for his autistic son, James. He and his wife sued James’s school district in New Jersey to get extra help. They hired specialists to work with him at home. Finally, on the commuter train to his job in Manhattan, O’Neil starting writing confessional poems that would become song lyrics in the hands of his neighbors, who are in the indie-folk band the Cucumbers. The songs rattled off the frustrations and the joys of raising an autistic child.
“Nothing’s ever brought me so much happiness; nothing’s ever caused me so much pain,’’ went one tune recorded by Jackson Browne as part of the new benefit album, “Sing SOS,’’ standing for “Songs on the Spectrum.’’
I can relate. I’m also the parent of an autistic boy. My son Nick, 21, has fought valiantly, just as James O’Neil has. In fact, James, now in eighth grade, closes out the new album (due out Tuesday and available at www.singsos.org) with his own poem put to music. He explains his world view: “My thoughts have just been a forest.’’
Or, as Kelly Flint, another singer on the album (and mother of an autistic son) notes: “Autistic children don’t go from A to B. They go from A to CDEFG, then to B.’’ So true.
Hopefully people will listen, because this smartly cathartic album — which includes tracks by Marshall Crenshaw, Dar Williams, and Ari Hest — tries to dispel myths about autism, which affects 1 in 100 children.
“Autism is a concept that sounds weird and scary to people,’’ says O’Neil, an editor and writer at The New York Times. “Part of the reason that we haven’t responded adequately as a society is that many people don’t know what it is. They think of it not as an ‘us’ situation but as a ‘them’ situation.’’
Wikipedia describes autism as a “disorder of neural development caused by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.’’ No one, unfortunately, knows what causes it.
O’Neil’s son, who has made remarkable progress and jumped on the phone to chat for this story, was “far away and lost in autism’’ when he was younger, recalls Jon Fried of the Cucumbers, who wrote most of the music with his wife, Deena Shoshkes. In the song “Diagnosis’’ is this wrenching line: “How far will he fall — send me a ladder to his soul . . . [He’s] alone in a corner rocking in a chair staring into a mirror.’’
These and other tracks challenge the listener, but they’re generally framed in breezy melodies stretching from Beatlesque folk-pop to moving, Rosanne Cash-like ballads to buoyant Everly Brothers influences.
O’Neil’s son now plays guitar and is mainstreamed in an eighth-grade classroom. My son, Nick, has made strides, too. He has become a skilled abstract painter who just had a monthlong exhibit at ZuZu in Central Square and will show his work as part of Cambridge Arts Council’s Open Studios on April 24-25 at the Ice Cream Factory Lofts in North Cambridge. He has been a student at the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Hanover, which has done wonders with him.
The album was aided by producer Mike Visceglia, who has played bass with Williams and Suzanne Vega and put together a band for the project. Singer Marshall Chapman was the first national act to be coaxed on board. He sings “Understanding,’’ a backbeat-fueled rocker with the verse, “There’s a boy inside who’s having fun — maybe of a different kind.’’
Chapman has a niece with autism. “She has a higher level of innocence compared to other people her age,’’ he says. “She is very loving, and she loves my two kids. We have a close family, and I see her a lot. She’s in my thoughts, so I was glad to be part of this project.’’
Browne replied next, and his presence sparked others to join such as Ollabelle, Richard Julian, Jonatha Brooke, Dan Bern, and Don Dixon and Marti Jones, who have an autistic son.
The most poignant number is “House on Fire,’’ sung by Williams. It’s about O’Neil’s comment on a traditional father’s hope of playing baseball with his son and maybe building things with him. But now, she sings, “the baseball glove is gathering dust, the tools in the woodshed rust.’’
“I liked the way that song got right to the point,’’ says Williams, who has friends with children on the spectrum. “It deals with fantasy hitting reality head on.’’
I used to take my son to watch baseball games, but he couldn’t follow the path of the ball. For the same reason, he couldn’t play soccer. Today, though, he can dribble a basketball and serve a volleyball. These kids, O’Neil says, are “full of surprises.’’ His boy still has trouble fitting in socially (as does mine), but O’Neil says: “He has come a long way.’’
Suddenly, James grabs the phone from his dad and is on the line, describing his progress. “It’s like the Evanescence song ‘Bring Me to Life,’ ’’ he says. “It’s the same concept of open-mindedness. . . . It’s about bridging the normal world and the autistic world.’’
At first, O’Neil worried about James’s reaction to the album, but James admits to being excited at the thought that he might now be a “celebrity.’’
Then he says something that startles with its immediacy: “I feel like I’ve gotten to the normal world.’’
Steve Morse, a former Globe staff music critic, can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company