Cat Stevens’ Father and Son
Randy Newman’s So Long Dad
The complex relationships between parents and their children are the enduring stuff of books, plays, music, art. Every human emotion is explored through the prism of this primal bond.
Songs about fathers and sons are shot through with ideas of admiration, rivalry, bafflement, inadequacy, disappointment, rejection, acceptance, regret, anger, forgiveness.
Father and Son by Cat Stevens
In his song, Father and Son, Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) presents a moving dramatisation of the clash between a father and son.
His song is a dialogue between the two, with Stevens singing each part. It’s like a mini-opera. He sings in a deeper register for the father’s part, and renders the son’s words in a passionate wail of despair and frustration.
And in the background, from another voice, there are faint echoes of words and phrases which become louder as the song progresses.
In Father and Son, the father wants his son to slow down and not make any rash decisions. He understands how hard it is to stay calm when you’ve got something going on, but that’s just when you need to take your time and think about it. He wants his son to have the peace and happiness which he has.
But his son, like young men and young women everywhere, is fired by a passion for change.
He burns with the frustration of not being listened to, of the futility of trying to explain when his father, yet again, turns away. He weeps with anguish, keep his yearnings buried deep inside him. But the time has come for him to leave, to carve his own path.
We don’t know exactly what this boy’s chosen way is, but every generation can find its own interpretation.
We see the timeless clash between youth driven by fiery passion and parents driven by a longing to keep their sons and daughters safe. In Father and Son, you feel the pain that each of them suffers.
So Long Dad by Randy Newman
So Long Dad is one of those Randy Newman gems in which a short lyric contains enough material for a novel, and packs a punch like a Raymond Carver short story.
The bare bones of the narrative present us with a son visiting his father to tell him about his new girlfriend, who we assume he is going settle down with.
As in the best dramatic monologues, the opening lines create the situation and the character.
The son is home again, back to the old neighbourhood. This is a familiar scene, one which is often imbued with sentimentality, but not here.
The streets haven’t got any cleaner, the scenery which was once so quaint has lost its appeal. This boy hasn’t been home for a while, we think.
His first words tell his father that he’s found a girl. For a moment, you sympathise as the words bubble out of him, she’s great, he thinks his dad will like her, he hopes so.
Then he tells his dad it’s OK if you don’t like her, and we think of course it is, because they’re not going to be seeing that much of each other.
The son’s questions about his father’s life confirm they haven’t been in contact for along time, and that the gap between them is caused by more than geographical location.
The attempts at jocularity set your teeth on edge. The use of the word ‘still’ is masterly. Yes, his dad is still working in the drugstore, he’s still polishing the same old floor. What did you think, son, that he would have become a stockbroker?
Anyway, he won’t be staying at his dad’s. Well, of course he won’t. But hey, he’d love his good old dad, his old man, his poppa, to visit him and his girl. Any time you can, dad, any time at all! Oh, but just be sure to let us know in advance…
The relationship in So Long Dad is reminiscent of the relationship between Frasier Crane and his dad in the TV comedy Frasier.
You might remember the beginning of the series, when Marty goes to live with his son in the elegant, minimalist apartment which reflects Frasier’s self-conscious sophistication.
Marty wants to bring with him his comfortable old reclining armchair, an artefact of outstanding ugliness, in Frasier’s eyes, and which he sees as a blot on the carefully curated decor of the apartment.
Frasier’s eventual acceptance of the chair reflects his love for his father, with all its complexities and frustrations. We know that Newman’s boy would reject the chair and his father quicker than you can say ‘upward mobility’.
The situation in the song has been explored in drama and in social comedy. We recognise the characters. The kid who’s got on in life standing uncomfortably in the home of the parents who have stayed where they were. The heavy-handed attempts at intimacy and familiarity which come out as patronising. The ill-disguised relief at leaving.
It’s a close call, but it’s Hats Off to Randy Newman. So Long Dad opens a vein less noble than Cat Stevens’ song.
The discomfort which Newman engenders invites us to look at our own shortcomings, at our petty strivings and snobberies, at the distances we create not through values or ideology, but through far less high-minded motivation. Both songs can be painful to listen to, but the ‘ouch’ of So Long Dad is a painful gasp of self-recognition which transcends the context of the song.
But both of these songs make you want to call home before it’s too late.