If We Only Have Love
The Song Which Changed My Family’s Life
Name the One Song That Means the Most to You
If you asked me to speak of one song that meant more to me than any other song, without a moment’s hesitation, my answer would be, “If We Only Have Love”, from Jacques Brel is Alive & Well and Living in Paris.
Why this song, of all the songs that have comprised the soundtrack of my life? This song has been sung at more family gatherings than any other song, and it evokes more memories, more raw emotion, and has much more meaning, than any song I know.
I don’t know who I heard sing it first - my father, my sister Juli, my brother Ken, or some combination of those three — I just know that when they all sang it together, it gave me insane goosebumps, and whenever I hear it today, I still get those crazy goosebumps.
It’s a song whose lyrics are certainly profound enough, on their own. But, with the piano accompaniment, and the right blend of voices to lift those lyrics to the heavens, it simply melts my heart right away.
This song was sung at my sister Juli’s wedding in 1970, and it was sung at my brother Jim’s third wedding in 2012, led by little sister Mary’s “vocal piano” lead-in. It was sung at my father’s memorial service in 1996 by the entire congregation. That time, as the highest notes were being sung by all, I could hear, in perfect accompaniment to the song, our dear family friend and adopted 6th Bridgeman boy, Dickie Kilburg, wailing above the din, just letting his grief fly on those notes at the loss of a man who meant the world to him, and to all of us.
This song was played and sung at the memorial service held for my sister Juli’s life partner, Ralph, who had died rather suddenly and unexpectedly five years ago when, at age 70, he was discovered to have had lung cancer, though he’d never smoked in his life.
I had flown out to San Diego to be with my sister in her time of grief. She was holding up incredibly well until this song played. She lost it on the line, “If we only have love, we can melt all the guns…” This was the sister who taught me, at age 11, the importance of nonviolence, something I’ve strived to live by ever since, despite a few significant deviations from it in moments of lost control.
This song reminds us that, no matter how bad things may seem, and no matter how angry we might be about something, if we only have love, “we’ll have conquered all time, all space, the sun and the stars”.
Most significantly, the story related to this song that has the most meaning to me, because of the impact it subsequently had, was when my Dad and brother Ken sang it together, arm in arm, on the stage of the Philadelphia Gay Coffeehouse sometime in the late 70’s.
Ken had come out as a gay man right around the time he was discharged from the Air Force in 1976. He’d been suicidal at that point, and had learned that he had to stop leading a double life. My parents had immediately been supportive of him, as they had learned, through training they’d taken for a crisis hot line Mom worked for, and Dad volunteered for, that homosexuality was no longer considered an aberration or deviance, but that many people were born with an affinity for the same sex — it wasn’t even really a “choice”, but a preference. They were, of course, rare parents, at that time, to be so understanding on this issue.
Ken had become a regular entertainer at the gay coffeehouse, as he had a wonderful singing voice, and played guitar to accompany the ballads he loved to sing. In fact, it was there, in September, 1977, that he came out to me.
I was extremely homophobic at the time, but at the end of the line of my alcoholism, and Ken was about the last person left in the world that I trusted. He’d gotten sober in AA, and I was seriously considering doing that myself. After he came out to me, which absolutely shocked me, him and his friends took me out to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on South Street for the first time. That night, famously, became the last time I ever drank. After all of that, I went home, broke into the old man’s liquor cabinet, downed a fifth of Jack Daniels, then admitted to my Mom the next morning that I had a drinking problem. I never drank again.
What does that all have to do with the song? Well, Mom and Dad went down to that same coffeehouse to support Ken and hear his wonderful singing show, there. When Ken was about to start singing the Jacques Brel number that often closed out his shows, he’d invited Dad up to the stage to sing it with him.
They sang this amazing song, arm in arm, in front of a coffeehouse full of gay and lesbian men and women who had never seen such a thing before — a parent lovingly embracing his openly gay son, in front of God and the whole coffeehouse, as together they sang about the power of love.
One by one, they came up to Dad after the show, and told him how much they appreciated him, and asking how it was he understood his son’s sexuality. They shared many stories of how their own parents had either disowned them, wanted to act like they weren’t gay, wanted to “fix” them, or that they’d been too scared to come out to, knowing what the negative reaction would be.
That night, my Dad determined to do something about this, declaring on the way home to my Mother, “Those fine young men and women are all effectively orphans, because of the ignorance we (as a society) still have about sexuality. We must do something about this.”
He then proceeded to put his actions where his intentions were, and dedicated the rest of his life to being an instrument of understanding to parents of lesbians and gays, and to gay and lesbian men and women disowned by their own parents, wherever he could. He became a living, loving father figure to many of them.
He spoke at church functions, he wrote letters to newspapers, he spoke on television and radio, he did all that he could possibly do to raise awareness. This was throughout the 80’s and the early 90's. He had a special phone line installed in his house, with an advertised toll-free number for anyone to call if they had issues or problems with understanding homosexuality.
He even took a call when he was literally on his deathbed. That phone rang, and on the other end of the line was a distraught, potentially suicidal young man whose parents were having trouble understanding him. My Dad spent an hour of his dying time understanding, and loving, that young man, who would never know that the kind man talking him back into the living, was actually dying himself.
Yes, of all the family stories associated with this song, that one remains my favorite. My Dad always referred to the song as “The Song Which Changed My Life”.
That story was the one that cemented my father as a true hero in my personal Hall of Fame.