Fathers are on my mind this week.
There are far more, and more cheerful, songs about being a father than having one. The having one songs that are out there tend toward two themes: lack of communication and death. Jackson Browne’s “Daddy’s Tune” is in the first camp:
Though among the regrets that I can’t get by
There are just one or two
Unkind things I said to you
Daddy what was I supposed to do?
I don’t know why it was so hard to talk to you
Like many of the songs on “The Pretender” (Jackson’s best, and in my mind a truly profound album, one that grapples with the big themes with grace and compassion and a sense of tragedy that here never descends into self-pity, as Jackson sometimes can), the song starts out being about Jackson’s father but soon veers into a larger contemplation of the effort to live a meaningful life, and the difficulty of knowing if you’ve succeeded. Thinking about your father can do that to you. Even if your Dad was the happiest, most accomplished guy on the block, it’s hard not to see the waste and sadness and missed possibilities. It’s hard not to wonder if you’re reliving the same thing.
Steve Goodman’s “My Old Man” delivers a eulogy for a dead father, and its rhyming couplets feel like a real eulogy, full of generalizations, bromides, random bits of biography, things you want to be true because the waste and sadness and missed possibilities are too painful. It’s hard enough to sum up someone’s life without having to do it in the haze of grief. (I’ve always liked that Philip Roth had his fictional alter ego Zuckerman write his own eulogy in advance.) Steve seems to realize this himself at points: he says his father could “look you in the eye and sell you a car,” and then as though recognizing how he’s been reduced to cliche adds defensively, wistfully, “That’s not an easy thing to do.”
The saddest part of “My Old Man,” though, is right after Steve delivers this couplet:
He was always trying to watch his weight
But his heart only made it to fifty-eight
And then there’s a few bars of only guitar and strings, an instrumental where all through the rest of the song there have been words. The words have given out, temporarily, and their absence shadows the larger absence. If you listen closely, you can hear a small amazed sigh from Steve way in the background.
Jackson concludes his song with a reconciliation (“Make room for my 45s/Along beside your 78s”–he must have had one of those old Dads) and an observation: “Nothing survives/But the way we live our lives.” Nothing matters would have been more accurate. I’m not sure much of anything survives. But I guess he needed the rhyme.