‘Father and Son’
Yusuf/Cat Stevens presents an emotional two-hander that hits hard (but it's harder to ignore it)
Thanks to everyone who has subscribed to Slayed by Voices, including the new folks who have come on board this free newsletter since Monday, many of those via Craig Calcaterra’s newsletter extraordinaire, Cup of Coffee. If you follow me on social media, you know how much I loved Craig’s amazing description:
Jon just, apparently, has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, so we call get to benefit from it.
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I’ve had several questions or comments about what songs and artists will appear in this 26-episode effort. The first thing I’ll say is that I’m not going to repeat artists, much as I could — and even in following that policy, there are obviously going to be many great performers that I won’t get to. And the second thing, as I hinted in my preview post, is that my choices are very idiosyncratic. Several of them, even with the most popular artists, are not the obvious choices. I’ve gone off the beaten path many times — to some extent on purpose — to shine a light on a song less traveled, in the hopes that its value will be discovered by others.
Looking at the full list of songs I did choose, I have wondered about the overall tone. Several of them, like “Red Dirt Girl,” can be uplifting musically while telling a more sober kind of story, and I’m a little wary of bumming everyone out on here. So keep in mind is that if a song one day seems depressing, that doesn’t mean they all will. But it is true that I like that synthesis of dark and light, both in an individual song and in my overall rotation. Again, my main hope is that you’ll see the value in that as well.
All right, enough preamble. Thanks again for coming, and on with the show …
Song: “Father and Son”
Artist: Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Album: Tea for the Tillerman
Writer: Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Producer: Paul Samuel-Smith
I don’t think you need me to take much time introducing you to the artist born Steven Georgiou, first known popularly as Cat Stevens, later as Yusuf Islam and now, best that I can tell, as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. By the time I became conscious of adult music as a child listening to AM radio in the mid-1970s, he was already huge. When he converted to Islam, I was still so young that it was more confusing than confounding — before he became controversial — but he did move off the radar for me, leaving behind the memory and legacy of transcendent songs like “Wild World” and “Peace Train.”
For some inexplicable reason, “Father and Son” only registered with me as an adult — only after becoming a father, to be more specific — and it’s the way I experience the song today that I want to focus on here.
Underscored only by guitar, the song begins calmly, soothingly even. The lyrics take center stage, sort of midway through the story. (I think there’s a Latin term for this.)
It's not time to make a change
Just relax, take it easy
At this moment, we’re not yet aware that this is a parent speaking to his child. This advice is universal, and it’s welcome. Take a breath.
Things step up quickly, though, with the third line.
You're still young, that's your fault
Wow. “You’re still young” — okay, we’ve begun to define the relationship, and those three words could be as much encouragement as they are counsel. Every once in a while, I find myself in one-on-one career conversations with people a generation younger than myself, and the No. 1 advice I give is that you are always younger than you think you are. Determination and drive are tremendous assets, but don’t let them lead to the kind of impatience for success that frustrates you — like it did for me. (And then there’s the fact that even as I’ve reached middle age, I still feel like an immature kid in some ways.)
But … “that’s your fault.” That line, or half a line, lands like an anvil. It could be interpreted as an earthquake fault, something organic that evolves like a natural fracture in our personal tectonics. But there’s an unmistakable tinge of blame that’s hard to ignore. An implication that youth is something to atone for? Perhaps a slight bit of resentment from the speaker? Youth as an open wound that you need to heal?
This remains in the back of my mind as we move on.
There's so much you have to know
Find a girl, settle down
If you want you can marry
Yeah, this strikes a harsh nerve with me, but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. Unusually early in my life, I did want to find a girl, settle down and marry. In my mind, if only it were that easy — it was anything but. That desire instead proved to be an albatross, yielding an unhealthy desperation. I imagine that for many others listening to this song, the reaction was the opposite — you’d rebel against the idea of thinking about marriage while still experiencing the fault (and let’s be positive, the joy and freedom) of youth.
And then there’s this: Of all the advice to offer, this comes first and foremost? Whatever occasion that has prompted this conversation, Dad’s not telling the kid to explore the self? He’s leading with the classically successful one-two punch of “you’re immature — get married.” As I listen, even as a fan of marriage, I’m immediately perplexed.
His explanation? Basically, “Well, it worked for me.”
Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy
Ah, okay Pop.
Just to bring in my Dodger background for a moment: For a long time in franchise history, management encouraged players to get married — even offering financial incentives — in the belief that settling down made for a better ballplayer. (Among other times, this is reported to have happened in the mid-1970s between Dodger general manager Al Campanis and outfielder Glenn Burke, who was gay, with dicey ramifications to say the least.)
In the next verse, the father’s advice does shift back to something more inward.
I was once like you are now
And I know that it's not easy
To be calm when you've found
Something going on
But take your time, think a lot
Think of everything you've got
We’ve returned to the world of the first two lines of the song, which basically remind us to breathe. That is never not useful advice, at least for me, both in its value and in the need to be reminded of its value.
But in the final two lines of that second verse, Yusuf/Stevens drops a hammer.
For you will still be here tomorrow
But your dreams may not
After being told to breathe, suddenly there’s a ticking clock. This warning seems to fly in the face of what’s gone before. “Get married now — but by the way, there’s an expiration date on your wishes.” It’s fascinating to me. This confusion is part of the story (or meta-story) that Yusuf/Stevens is trying to tell. Different elements of what the father says almost fight with each other, and the overall package of conflicting aphorisms itself resonates, in a way I can experience as a parent, a son and a former child.
In the third verse, as the music amps up, Yusuf/Stevens begins to sing in a higher register. Looking back, I would say it took me until around the third time listening that I decided this meant a full-on character shift, from the father to the son. I probably should have known immediately, but what can I tell you — I’m slow.
How can I try to explain?
The universal lament of the child to the parent.
When I do he turns away again
It's always been the same, same old story
I was a lucky child. I was happy — insecure at a level I couldn’t understand — but happy. Of particular relevance here, I think my dad was a good listener to me. But then again, I didn’t speak all that much — and I spoke up even less. To have had crises that my father couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp would be depressing and devastating.
From the moment I could talk
I was ordered to listen
That’s just a brutal combo punch. The last thing you want to hear. Sometimes, I fear I inflict that treatment as a parent. I try to be conscious of it.
Now there's a way
And I know that I have to go away
I know I have to go
This son might be young, might have a lot to learn. But he’s growing up on us now, isn’t he. This is kind of what happens between the lines of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle,” a song that my own father explicitly feared and would turn off whenever it came on the car radio when I was young. Not that all kids don’t have to grow up, but it’s a major reckoning that the parent’s inattentiveness and hypocrisy helps drive the child away. Not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
After a musical interlude (illustrated, not that I knew so until I wrote this piece, by a chess match in the decades-old video), the third verse brings us back to the father, who repeats exactly what he said in the first verse. Does he not hear the son at all? No reaction? Is this the only advice he has? Something he’s settled on as the fundamental (and again, contradictory) sagicity of life? Note, though, that there’s a background vocal that begins “I know I have to go away.”
"Some people think that I was taking the son’s side," its composer explained. "But how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too? I was listening to that song recently and I heard one line and realized that that was my father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father speaking."
The final verse gives the son the last word, and he’s not content to settle for what he said before. He is trying, trying to get his message through.
All the times that I've cried
Keeping all the things I knew inside
It's hard, but it's harder to ignore it
Tell me this kid hasn’t grown up and gained an insight beyond what his father can offer. That’s throwing down the real hammer.
If they were right I'd agree
But it's them they know, not me
Suddenly, there’s a “they” in the picture, which is interesting. I have to think it’s the intent of Yusuf/Stevens to take this beyond father and son, to show that this song is a metaphor for a generational divide. (“They know their kind, but not mine.”) This one-on-one conversation envelops multitudes.
Now there's a way
And I know that I have to go away
I know I have to go
The final three lines do get repeated, and that repeat takes on more weight given what evolved before it. The final message: The way is to go away.
This is hard stuff to hear, whether you are parent or child, old or young. It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it.
In 2020, Yusuf/Cat Stevens released a stop-motion video of an updated version of the song. This four-minute film is uniquely beautiful but bloody sad — with the interlude evoking the emotional montage in the movie Up. (In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, there’s also the implication that the father’s wife left him.) Also, watch for the brief inclusion of Stevens himself on the family TV.
The new video, so powerful, makes the “Father and Son” story less of a conversation, and more of two solitary individuals who lament that they can’t figure each other out. The result is grim, yet very much … life.