It’s funny how time can change your perspective. In 1968 I was a 13-year-old high school freshman just starting to wonder about my place in the world. Although full of energy and enthusiasm, I was also plagued by the usual teenage insecurities. I wore my hair long, and smoked pot, so I could fit in with the nonconformist “hippie” crowd, whose approval I coveted. I cursed the blotches of acne that were starting to bloom on my chin and cheeks, and I worried about being too chubby to be attractive to the girls in my class.
Still, while the insecure teenage-me sought acceptance, and feared failure, at my core, I firmly believed that anyone could succeed if only they worked hard enough. I thought things could never get so bad that you couldn’t find some good in any situation. That life was never hopeless; that dreams never died.
In January of that year, the Otis Redding song, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” was released, and by March, it had reached the top of the pop charts. Part of the song’s appeal was the tragic story behind it: Redding and five of his bandmates all had died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, just two days after putting the final touches on the recording. The song has since been covered by many other artists, and it’s been replayed endlessly over the years. In fact, in 1999, BMI declared it the sixth most performed song of the twentieth century, with six million performances.
But in 1968, I hated it. There I was, ready (or so I thought) to embark on the terrifying and wonderful adventure of adulthood, hearing this hit song about a guy who had nothing better to do than ” … sittin’ on the dock of the bay wastin’ time.” It seemed like a woefully misguided ode to indolence, glorifying defeatist behavior that I had been taught to condemn rather than applaud. This song seemed to fly in the face of all my beliefs, and I just couldn’t accept it.
The first verse sums up his day:
Sittin’ in the morning sun.
I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes.
Watching the ships roll in,
Then I watch them roll away again.
I pictured some bum dozing in a daze of creosote fumes against the greasy piling of a California pier, doing zilch all day long. Oh no – not nothing – he’s listlessly noting the comings and goings of “ships” like fishing boats, freighters, and ferries piloted by people who have actual jobs, and some sense of purpose in their lives. A couple of verses later, he says he roamed “two thousand miles just to make this dock his home.”
Why, I thought, would anyone in their right mind leave a home in Georgia to live on a San Francisco dock steeped in the reek of rotting fish and seaweed?
Fast forward 45 years or so, and a sampling of life in those intervening decades: A lost love or two, plus a whole host of unrealized dreams that withered, not for lack of trying or faith, but simply in the harsh light of reality. Chances are, I’m not going to be a rock star, astronaut, Olympic athlete, world-renowned poet, or any of a dozen other things I might have considered within the realm of possibility when I was young. Throw in relatives and friends who have passed on – sometimes after wrestling long and hard with diseases you wouldn’t wish on a dog – and top it off with random natural disasters that destroy man and man-made things alike with impunity at the drop of a hat.
So the more tolerant, late-50s, me brings a far different context to the song. “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” now seems less the empty lament of a dissolute ne’er-do-well than a bittersweet mourning of the passage of worthy, yet unattainable, dreams, and one man’s peaceful acceptance of that fact. Loss doesn’t make you a loser; it’s just part of life. And sometimes, just sitting there resting your bones, watching the mad parade pass by, can be the most peaceful, and productive, way to spend your time.