The most futile and frustrating conversations happen between people of different generations. The younger person buzzing off that opiate rush of new sounds, new sights, new loves, new emotions which hit once, and only briefly. The elder: well aware of this brevity, and of the way such youthful impulses mask considered thought.
Neither will listen. Neither will learn. Neither can. It’s okay though, this is how it is supposed to be.
‘Father and Son’ captures this gulf between generations in a way that is yet to be topped, and whereas most of rock and roll (in a general sense, I know this song is as ‘rock’ as a Ronan cover) is built upon the cornerstone of different generations clashing, oppressing, and straight out not understanding maaan – rarely has a writer come at both sides of the argument with such calm clarity. In 1970, when this song came out, the Western world had come off the back of the most socially-torn decade since – well the one that preceded it – but with the Vietnam War, racial tensions, second-wave feminism, communal living, marijuana, LSD, and the burgeoning sexual revolution (pre-AIDS, post-Pill, mid-sitar jam), there seemed a larger gulf between the generations than ever before. And here was 22-year-old Cat Stevens, calmly surveying the landscape, taking both sides, acting with a cool maturity that belies a dude who calls himself Cat Stevens.
The economy of the storytelling here is astounding, tying up years of resentment, misunderstanding, and knowledge in a few short verses. (Original drafts of the song contained a more concrete narrative about the Russian revolution, which we were thankfully spared ‘cos nothing rhymes with ‘Kremlin’ – at least nothing you can expose to light, water or feed after midnight.) The most impressive thing is how even-handed Cat’s perspective is, sailing effortlessly between the raw restlessness of the son, and the measured wisdom of the father. The father has been where his son is, and knows that nothing worthwhile comes quickly, which is why he can dole out some truly yen, and slightly patronising advice – “just relax, take it easy”; “take your time, think a lot”; “find a girl, settle down” – although his relaxed views on marriage seem remarkable for a man of his age, especially back in this lock-‘er-down-start-a-family-in-the-burbs-why-doncha-son era.
Vocally, the switch between the father’s measured lower-pitched voice which opens the song, and the son’s anguished cries a few verses later is amazing – and in terms of songwriting, the ‘double-father-verse opener coupled with sparse acoustic’ (a combo worthy of ‘Killer Instinct’) means that when the son’s high-pitched rage finally enters, it is startling. The father’s meditative calm makes you listen and nod, but this son’s anger makes you take notice. The age-old “God, Dad, you’re not even listening to me!” (slam bedroom door, put on headphones) is succinctly summarised by the stunning, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen” – one of the greatest one-liners in musical history.
In the end, it is all futile. The son is burning with a fire that cannot be quelled with mere advice, especially considering nobody in human history has ever had the feelings or the thoughts that he is having at that very moment. You know how it goes. He needs to break free and make something of himself. Everyone hits a point when they outgrow the comfortable life that seemed to fit fine mere months earlier; when you want to break free, to start something new, something that is yours and yours alone. Something scary, something unknown, something you can’t put into words, but can feel perfectly. Remember that feeling? Hell, this might be how you are feeling right now, your bags packed and hidden under a blanket in your walk-in wardrobe while you sit on the edge of your bed and work up the fortitude to walk downstairs and begin this very conversation. It is a beautiful thing you are feeling right now, and you need to chase it where it leads you. The conversation won’t go well. Neither of you will listen, but this doesn’t matter because – like the son in this song – you know you have to go away. The rest can be worked out at a later date, when you are both older, and wiser – and have maybe converted to Islam.