Frank Ocean’s “Crack Rock” & Observing Familial Trauma

What else is there to say, except love makes little sense?
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For the majority of my young life, I spent my idle time wrestling with my relationship with my father. I loved him; I feared him. I admired him; I hated him. More than anything, too, I worried about becoming him. The nights where he would drink himself into a different man, the nights responsible for shattered plates, holes in the wall, and words never meant to be exchanged; those were the nights I feared lived within me. When I began my journey down drinking too much and thinking too little, I could feel my father’s presence all around me. The fabled tale of me taking 11 shots in 30 minutes rolls off the tongue. The weight of my father’s drinking and all the pain he’d caused our family does not.

In the time leading up to penning this piece, I mulled over several readings of “Crack Rock.” I thought of spinning it into another piece on love and loss, but that wouldn’t be honest. As poet Tommy Pico always asks: Is it honest? So, I want to use this space on the page to be as honest as possible. “Crack Rock” is a stunning song written under dour circumstances. Reading up on the track, too, brings a dark air into any room “Crack Rock” plays. 

When Frank Ocean remarks upon his grandfather’s second chance at fatherhood, I think of myself. You see, before this life with me and my mother, my father had two children and an abusive ex-wife. He had a stint as displaced, sleeping on rooftops of Brooklyn buildings. He had his kids wrongfully taken away. He lost everything before meeting my mother and them starting their new life together. Throughout it all, though, my dad knew how to bring a bottle to his lips.

“For a song like ‘Crack Rock,’ my grandfather, who had struggled to be a father for my mum and my uncle … his second chance at fatherhood was me. In his early-20s, he had a host of problems with addiction and substance abuse. When I knew him, he was a mentor for the NA and the AA groups. I used to go to the meetings and hear these stories from the addicts — heroin and crack and alcohol. So stories like that influence a song like that.” —Frank Ocean, “Frank Ocean: the most talked-about man in music

Very vividly, I recall a time where my father and I took a trip alone. At dinner, I asked him if he missed his first family—if I made up for the two children he fell out with. He grew tense. How to compare lives in the way a younger me was asking? I realize now it was an unfair and uncalled for question, but at the time, these thoughts weighed on me. I needed to know I was enough for him, needed to know his life was worthwhile because I was involved. He never did answer my question directly, but the way he looked at me before taking a sip of his drink, I knew he loved me.

So many of our most important memories played out like this, over drinks. It seems banal—so many people share drinks with their parents—but so many of these important memories were also some of our darkest times. I remember him stinking drunk and threatening to smear me against a wall if I didn’t stop acting out. I also remember him offering to do shots with me—along with sharing some chocolate cake—after I had a hard day in undergrad. I was sad and drunk the first time he told me he believed in my mental illnesses, the first time he told me it was okay to get professional help. He was drunk the first time he told me he was depressed. The thin veil of alcohol hangs over our relationship to this day. For a time, that veil terrified me to the point where I quit drinking altogether, to the point where the sight of people drinking sparked undue fear in me.

There’s something to be said for the way witnessing familial trauma as a child shapes you as an adult. For Frank, the observation of familial trauma transformed into an incredible piece of art. “Crack Rock” is, of course, yet another testament to the storytelling legend that is Frank Ocean. Too, though, the song is a reminder the adults in our lives are not infallible. They can hurt us and mold us in dastardly ways. To produce a song like “Crack Rock” in the vein of what Frank observed from the AA meetings is to create another piece in the ongoing puzzle of generational trauma. I have to wonder, what was Frank thinking at those meetings? What questions formed in his young mind? Did he ever get the answers he was searching for?

In my realm, I’ve only been able to infer answers with my father. He drank, probably, because he grew up in an anti-Semitic world, lost his mother early in his life, and married a woman he shouldn’t have for the sake of looking like a man’s man. He drank because he was misled to believe to be a man in the USSR was to drink the next man under the table. Or, maybe, he just drank because he liked it. Maybe there’s no long list of reasons for why he started drinking in excess; maybe the addiction just festered in him. Perhaps it was just easier to feed his habit rather than confront it. I find our search for answers is primarily for our comfort, now for the comfort of the addicts in our lives. But there are no neat answers for addiction—there never will be.

In truth, as you may have guessed, I know nothing about the workings of addiction. I only know myself and my father and where drinking has taken us. When Frank sings, “You’re smokin’ stones in abandoned homes / You hit them stones and broke your home,” I think of every time I vowed to cut ties with my father, even when I lived under his roof, and how futile those moments feel now. Without Frank meaning to, I find “Crack Rock” to be the most complicated song on channel ORANGE, if only because it raises two questions I do not know how to answer: How to part ways with the man of my life? And how to accept him? “Crack Rock” plays, and Frank admits to witnessing familial trauma, and it shaping him, moving him enough to pen the song itself.

I have no “Crack Rock” to my name. No great catharsis or shedding. I have nowhere to shelve the night my mother and I shared my twin bed because we were scared of who my father was becoming beside his handle of vodka. I have no grand statement of purpose, no way to comment on the drug epidemic. I just know the notion of family is destroyed by the end of “Crack Rock,” and my family is still intact—as intact as it can be. For that, I am grateful, but I am also concerned. “Crack Rock” makes me question how much I have stomached, and if I should stomach no more. Too, “Crack Rock” makes me certain it could have been worse, and perhaps it can get better. I believe in the innate goodness of people; my father does not get excluded.

When “Crack Rock” plays in earnest, love those who come to mind. I love my father, all sides of him, for better or worse. “Crack Rock” is a gorgeous reminder of the ugly side of those we cherish. “Crack Rock” is a tale of what addiction can do to a family. “Crack Rock” makes me think of the lines crossed and the amends made between myself and my father. How, at present, we have a different ending from the tune, but how there’s always a chance we could become characters in one of Frank Ocean’s expertly written sagas. What else is there to say, except love makes little sense? Family is knotted by nature. Everything is wrought, that is the “Crack Rock” story.

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