Fathers and Sons: A Musical Reflection

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Recently, I had a favorite song transcribed for me, Steve Goodman’s “My Old Man.” I discovered it as a deleted scene on Goodman’s Austin City Limits DVD and fell in love with it. It’s a big ol’ Man-Weeper and my friend, The Nutty Professor, figured out a way for a novice guitar player like me to play it.

It’s a song about the boomer-songwriter’s father, and except for the names and a couple of  other minor details, it could be my own Dad’s story. This is the kind of song I picked up the guitar to learn how to play.

Other than one ill-fated attempt as a teenager to convince my Dad that prog-metal trio Rush really was worth giving a listen to, music is among the vast panoply of things we never discussed.

Consequently, I don’t know much about his taste in music, except that my Mom told me when he was wooing her, he was all about Der Bingle, which tells me that my old man was one smooth operator. I’ve looked into covering some of Bing Crosby’s hits, but the man sang pop songs, and for as maligned a genre as pop is, it uses an awful lot of fancy, complicated chords.

It’s a shame my lack of musical ability will keep me from ever profaning the Bing Crosby catalogue; it’s my long-held theory that every (male) pop crooner from the 1930s until today can trace his or her stylistic lineage back to either Bing Crosby or David Bowie. They’re all wannabes or wannabes of wannabes. Want to sing like Elvis, who wanted to sing like Dean Martin? You want to sing like Bing. Want to sing like early Sinatra? Any-period Dean Martin? Also Bing Crosby wannabes from the get-go. And so forth, until…

Until the 1980s, when inexplicably (to me), it seemed like almost everybody who got started suddenly wanted to sing like David Bowie, even girl-fronted bands like Blondie. While you can’t lay blame for the entire decade-long pop music debacle that was the ’80s at Bowie’s feet (even Rush’s albums from that period are not their best), neither can you deny how much all those earnest, over-dressed mulletheads from Flock of Seagulls to early U2 just happened to look and sound exactly like ’70s-era Bowie.

It makes the 1977 TV-Special appearance of Bowie and Crosby a pretty monumental pop cultural summit. I suspect there was a Watcher in the room somewhere, just out of camera range…

Dad and me, circa early-'80sI remember catching that show with my Dad when it originally aired, and enduring his familiar ribald insinuations, this time repurposed to remark upon Bowie’s questionable sexual orientation. Looking back, it seems more cool than irritating that I got to watch that generational passing of the torch with my Dad, ‘homo’ jokes aside. From his favorite crooner to, well, my generation’s, anyhow.

My old man’s grandson has his own wide-ranging taste in music. The CD selection in the car when he is a passenger is always an item of great concern to him. He loves him his big, splashy popsters like U2, Bruce and even Lady Gaga, but also allows room for traditional favorites like Johnny Cash and Tom Jones’ recent album of gospel classics. The Missus even pulled off the neat feat recently of getting him to sing on command.

We have been trying to steer him toward an arts-steeped life without being too obvious, unlike the clumsy, oblivious way my own poor old man tried to shoehorn me into an athletics-and-scouting-steeped life, to his unending frustration.

Fortunately, The Boy shows considerably more disposition toward the arts than I ever did to jockdom, so he is less likely to disappoint me the way I did my Dad.

You want your Daddy Issues? I’ll give you your Daddy Issues...

There’s a verse in Goodman’s song that includes the line,

“And now that the old man’s gone, I’d give all I own to hear what he said when I wasn't listening.”

The classic regret, right?

Except it’s not mine, because I remember what my Dad was saying and most of the time, it wasn’t actually very nice. It consisted mainly of variations on the theme of my suspect masculinity.

The poor guy wanted a proper son he could do Norman Rockwell father & son stuff with, and instead he got my brother the science geek and me, the artist. My brother did a better job of faking it, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout, but I was never about pleasing my parents as a kid. We were locked in a life-or-death struggle over my daily destiny; I didn’t have time for nuance.

Still, I have no idea how my Dad pulled it all off—worked the hours he did, kept up his busy social life (Knights of Columbus, bowling league, etc.) and still had time to sneak me up some dinner after my Mom had sent me to bed without any—but whenever I stop to really think about it, I take my hat off to him.

The fact that he and my Mom adopted all four of us sibs-to-be at different times, usually when they could barely afford to feed the ones they already had, also speaks volumes about either my Dad’s resilience, my Mom’s persistence, or what turned out to be a pretty consistently questionable decision-making process. My Dad was about 50 when I came along, back in the early ’60s when 50 was pretty old. And they still went out and adopted one more after me, so they’d have a matched set.

No wonder all my Dad ever did was work. What choice did an honest man have?

As an only child, our son knows he gets the benefit of 100% of our attention when he’s around. It’s easy to do. You know what would be hard, that would push all my fight-or-flight buttons? If we had two or three other kids, all also clamoring for 100% of our attention. I would make a lousy father of a proper Roman Catholic brood, the type of family from which I am myself descended. My Dad did such a better job of it than I ever could.

And considering how completely I failed to measure up to what his idea of a man was, he in fact treated me much better than I deserved. I’m lucky he didn’t throw me into the river in a burlap sack.

Here’s how disappointing a son I was. In our little suburban town growing up, my Dad’s business sponsored a Little League team, securing for me a spot on the roster at a time before social promotion necessarily applied to athletic competition. On my own merits, I wasn’t qualified to be bat boy (nor interested in even that proximity to summer sports programs).

I spent one inning a game—the league minimum—in center field, being shadowed by edgy left- and right-fielders covering my flanks. I struck out every time at bat, unless the pitcher was an even bigger schmuck and accidentally walked me. Then I inevitably died on base, usually due to an error on my part.

My Little League highlight occurred the one time my bat miraculously collided with a pitched baseball, and I took off around the bases, starting with the one on my left, reasoning that that’s the way we do everything else, left to right, like reading… Needless to say, the third-basemen was almost too incapacitated by laughter to tag me out… but not quite.

How could I have spent that much time in center field, and on the bench, and not taken note of the correct order in which to run the bases? I guess I just never thought it was information I would need to apply to my own baseball experience, so I ignored it.

Whatever happened that night, I’ve blocked it out. My Dad wasn’t the hitter in the parental power structure anyhow, but his disappointment resonated a lot more and hurt a great deal worse than my Mom’s most histrionic whuppings of ass. And there are probably fewer Dad-disappointments more humiliating than suffering all the your fellow neighborhood dads watching your probably-a-fag son run the bases backwards after a once-in-a-lifetime lucky hit.

So I ask myself, what are we doing right that my Dad didn’t? Why is my son happy and well-adjusted, but his son was miserably unhappy and well on his way to a life of crime by the time he was five? Is it really as simple as hours-put-in?

Because my Dad was an indisputably good guy, whereas fewer people have said the same of me with a straight face. He would give a stranger the shirt off his back, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. Not because he was rolling in greenbacks, but because that’s just the kind of sweetheart of a guy my Dad was (generational gender-assignment prejudices aside).

Here’s an example that sticks in my throat. In the last few years before illness took him down a long, debilitating terminal bunny hole, he noticed that people in Tucson were going to bed hungry. So he started his own one-man, ad hoc charity operation, and casting pride aside, stood out in front of church after every Mass with a table and a box and a sign requesting donations. And by God, after a while, people started bringing food to church, and dropping it off with my Dad afterwards. No one put him up to it, he had to spend all morning every Sunday manning his booth outside of church through good weather (rare) and bad (abundant), and then he had to drive all that food to the really dangerous part of town and drop it off with the proper aid organizations down there.

I believe it’s at least partially because he was of the generation that survived the Great Depression as kids, and made the world safe for democracy shortly thereafter. It was simply my old man’s nature to step up where he saw a need.

To him and his peeps, artsy-fartsy navel-gazers like me were just road-kill waiting to happen. “Send the poet with the thick glasses up ahead to check the road for landmines.”

BOOOOM. One pantywaist down…

Guys like me were the exact sort of hippie artist-types my Dad and his contemporaries had contempt for. He knew—and he was right—if the fate of American freedom found itself in my hands, I’d recommend registering for an online Chinese language course right now. Maybe Farsi, too, just in case.

The BoyStill, I think my Dad would have liked my son, in spite of The Boy’s undeniable artistic bent, and the fact that his rapid growth has left him fairly clumsy, physically, compared to his peers. Because just like my Dad, my son is a righteous dude. He remembers what stuff is important, and reminds me of it when circumstances necessitate. Just today I was fretting—loudly and at length—about something I’d misplaced, and he reminded me, “Daddy, it’s just a thing.”

When he leaves preschool in the afternoon, he blows kisses to his teachers. Not show-biz kisses, but genuine demonstrations of affection. They blow them back. His classmates hug him goodbye. One of them drew a lovely picture of The Boy and I last week. Yesterday, a kid who’d been in class three days informed me that my son “was funny.”

He’s so much like his Grandpa, without being anything outwardly like him at all. The Boy is a mensch. He’s the-guy-everybody-loves my Dad always was. He’s Norm walking into Cheers. In so many of the very best ways, he’s my old man all over again (as well as his maternal Grandpa, who is also an extremely likeable chap) and thank God, not me.

I’m just the worn, rusty link between these two generations of great men. I’m proud to share their name, and if I do nothing else right, I’m going to make sure my son doesn’t grow up with the same Daddy Issues as me. He’ll never disappoint his old man like I did mine, because I won’t place any expectations on him besides the few simple items I’ve already introduced and he’s agreed to: That he be happy, helpful, and that he places people’s feelings ahead of the value of objects.

Just like his Grandpa Bastardson, except for maybe that first part. He was only really happy when he was working his ass off and smoking cigarettes… which, come to think of it, meant he must have been happy most of the time, too!

I love those fucking guys… I reckon I always will.

Here’s my attempt at the song that got all this emotional bloodletting going:

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