Thursday, July 1, 2010

Four songs to break a Hipster Dad’s heart

Disclaimer: My pal Doc Waffles recently congratulated me on not letting fatherhood push me into "going all Mitch Albom" with my writing. Apologies to the Doc, but this column is where I let my inner Albom get the better of me. If you have a low tolerance for sentimentality, I suggest you skip this one. I'll be back to our regularly scheduled irreverence soon enough.

I knew going into fatherhood that a lot of my entertainment options would change. I wouldn’t be attending nighttime concerts with any regularity for quite some time, for instance, and I’d have to wait for the baby to fall asleep to pop in those Breaking Bad DVDs. But I didn’t expect just how much impact having a kid would have on the way I hear certain songs.

For some reason, I’ve never been especially bothered by songs about children dying. I think that’s just too big a concept and too far-removed from anything in my own experience to make a real impact on me. That hasn’t changed since I’ve had a child of my own. I can still listen to Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song” or The Decemberists’ “The Rake’s Song” – both sung from the perspective of a father who murders his own kids – and regard them as appropriately macabre murder ballads.

No, what really get me are songs about kids living, or to put it more accurately, songs about kids aging. I’m not talking about obvious tear-jerkers like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Those songs are a bit too on-the-nose and preachy to really grab me. The ones that knock me for a loop take a subtler, more lived-in approach that makes me think the songwriters have really been there. That type of song has always done a number on me, but now that I have a son of my own, they’ve become downright hard to listen to. Here are a few that consistently put a lump in my throat.

Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game”

I can’t always take a whole lot of Joni Mitchell in one sitting, but I’m an unabashed devotee of her Ladies of the Canyon album. Even amongst all the stellar songwriting on display there, “The Circle Game” stands out as a spot-on, only slightly sentimental assessment of a child growing into manhood. Mitchell captures the wide-eyed wonder of growing up while avoiding the fetishization of childhood that tainted much of her contemporaries’ work. Joni remembers that terror and frustration (“Words like, ‘When you’re older’ must appease him / And promises of someday make his dreams”) are huge parts of being too young to fend for oneself.

The part that slays me, though, is one line in the last verse: “So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty / Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.” That hits awfully close to home. I’ve never dealt well with the way advancing years force us to sacrifice and alter our dearly held dreams. Sometimes that’s a good thing – at 20, for instance, I was just starting to get the idea that the world wasn’t going to fall at my feet and vault me into the pantheon of Great American Writers unless I put in some years of hard, thankless work. Now that I’m 31 with more than a decade of writerly labor under my belt, I’m still clinging to my dream of fame and prestige, but it becomes a little harder to believe in with each passing year.

It terrifies me to think that my son will have to abandon his dreams one day. For the moment, it’s not a big concern. His current dreams seem to involve propelling himself forward rather than back, getting a hold of his mom’s Nalgene water bottle for gumming purposes and maybe being as tall as he is when I carry him on my shoulders. Soon enough, though, he’ll be able to assess the world and decide what he wants from it. I truly hope that he will be able to realize the dreams that matter most to him, but deep in my heart I know that few people ever do.

Neil Young – “My Boy”

(Sorry for the cover - Neil is pretty touchy about his videos being shared online)

Oh man, I have a long emotional history with this one. It’s from Young’s underrated country record Old Ways, an album I received as a Christmas gift from my dad when I was 15. My dad’s not really one for picking out presents, so when he does, it usually means the gift is something personal that he knew the recipient would specifically appreciate. My copy of Old Ways was dubbed from his friend’s record collection onto the B-side of a cassette tape, with Van Morrison’s Moondance occupying the A-side. Some might think giving a dub as a gift rather chintzy, but in my estimation the hand-lettered cassette case and the time dedicated to picking a record and playing it through as it recorded just gave it all the more sentimental value.

But on to the song itself. The summer after my freshman year of college, my dad and I took a road trip in his Toyota Camry station wagon to visit some friends in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Somewhere in the middle of the Nebraska flatlands, I popped Old Ways into the cassette deck. We’d hit that point in every long drive where chit-chat fades away into hazy silence when “My Boy” came on the stereo. We sat there quietly, staring out on the vast nothingness of rural Nebraska, listening to Neil Young wistfully asking his son why he was growing up so fast. I couldn’t help but wonder if my dad was feeling something similar, taking a cross-country trip with a young man who used to be his little boy.

To me, that sounds like a realization both painful and wonderful, terms that seem to appear in conjunction an awful lot in the course of fatherhood. As tough as I know it will be to let go of my son when the time comes, I hope I’ll at least have been able to pass a few totems of art and beauty along to him like my dad did with Old Ways.

Ben Folds – “Still Fighting It”

Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs was one of the first albums I ever reviewed, way back when I was a lowly intern at New Orleans’ Where Y’at magazine. It was a positive review overall, but I was underwhelmed by a few songs. I specifically singled out “Still Fighting It” for trafficking in what my 22-year-old self thought to be trite, maudlin observations about the nature of aging.

What a difference nine years makes. Oh, and a baby. The baby makes a fair bit of difference too. Listening to “Still Fighting It” now, I hear the song for what it really is: a young father sending his child an advance apology for the painful realities of existence and his own failings as a human being. The former is, of course, something we can’t do much about. The latter, though, is something I imagine to be a near-universal source of fear for parents.

I know it is for me. Since my son has been born, I’ve been on a personal improvement campaign. I’ve improved my diet, committed myself to working out consistently and re-energized my dedication to making art. I’ve never been much of a sleeper, but these days I’m clocking more hours of consciousness than ever as I work my day job, keep myself in shape, try to complete a novel, shop around old writing to publishers and, most importantly, take care of my baby. The way I see it, I’ve been in a holding pattern for too long. Now I’m in a race against time. I only have so long to make myself into someone my son can look upon with genuine pride and awe. I want him to be able to tell his little playground buddies, "My dad writes books!" The last thing I ever want is to have to look him in the eye and say, like Folds’ narrator, “You’re so much like me / I’m sorry.”

Low – “In Metal”

Even six months into his existence, I’m amazed at how quickly my own son is, to quote Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, “speeding forward through the plate glass of maturing selves.” As much as I love seeing him grow and develop, part of me wants to cling to his infancy and not let go. Sometimes when I’m holding him in my arms, I consider the fact that I’ll only be able to do this for a very limited period of time. When my wife and I put him to bed each night, I often ponder that the boy we’re laying down will be gone in the morning, replaced by a noticeably older, larger, more self-sufficient edition. He’s already so much bigger than he was just a few weeks ago. The day is fast approaching when he’ll be so big that I’ll never be able to cradle him again. That breaks my heart beyond belief.

And so I am totally with Mimi Parker when she sings this beautiful, wrenching ode to the tininess of babyhood. The tears come right to the surface every single time I hear “Partly hate to see you grow / And just like your baby shoes / Wish I could keep your little body / In metal.” I can’t wait to see what he’ll become, but I know I’ll always miss what he is right now. And right now. And right now.

- Ira Brooker


  1. Y'know Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life sample? Those cute little munchkin voices get me every time. Leave me with more blubber than a whaling eskimo.

  2. It's intriguing that "Still Fighting It" didn't get you until now. When that album came out, I found myself really moved by that song. Ben Folds seems to be one of the few artists that will admit - in song - that our parents failed us in the revolutionary sense. Songs like the "Ascent of Stan" really struck deep, because I have always felt that many people that were in positions of respect used to be drug-addled, angsty teens at one point. Now they are telling me to shape up and get real.
    I am glad aging hipsters actually like Ben Folds too. Also you're down with Ben "Doc Waffles" Ness, so I'm down with you. Thanks Ira!

  3. Yeah, I have to chalk that one up to being too young and jaded to assess the song for what it was. I do think Folds' lyrics veer into obvious a bit too often, but the good outweighs the bad.

    And any mate of the Doc's is a pal of mine.

  4. Low - In Metal is the ultimate baby song. So beautiful...