My Old Man – Steve Goodman
My Old Man
My Dad would’ve turned 83 today, so you won’t blame me if I gave Steve Goodman’s ode to his father’s passing a spin. Singing in a rueful voice, the whisper of strings in the background, Goodman’s meditation on his Dad teeters on the maudlin. He saves the song with the honesty of his portrait and the truth he finds.
As if tiptoeing up to his subject, Goodman opens the song with his voice tentative, trying to capture not the idea of the man, but the man himself:
With his corny jokes and his cheap cigars
He could look you in the eye and sell you a car.
That’s not an easy thing to do,
But no one ever knew a more charming creature
On this earth than my old man.
It’s hard to write about family, too many urges to pull punches or cut deep enough to make up for the hurts that only family can deliver, too many urges to save our subjects from themselves, to make them better than they were. Yet Goodman trusts his own eyes and respects his father for who he was, not who he should have been. You have to believe that car salesman Dad embarrassed a young, sensitive Steve Goodman, yet here is the more mature man, recognizing what a talent it took to sell those cars that put food on the table.
Goodman trusts the facts of his father’s life and the way his father’s life unfolded against a backdrop of history. Like so many children of veterans, he may not have known the heroics, tedium or terrors his father suffered in the war; it is just enough to know the facts:
And after they dropped the bomb
He came home and married mom
And not long after that
He was my old man
Throughout the song, Goodman grows closer to the man, until in the last verse he seems his father in all his human frailty:
And I can almost see his face
He was always trying to watch his weight
And his heart only made it to fifty-eight.
We so often lock our fathers into caricatures of themselves that we fail to see the man standing right there before us. Not the one bellowing or lecturing, but the man standing in his boxers on a scale wondering why he can’t lose any weight.
Yet it’s the penultimate verse where Goodman comes to understand both the nature of the relationship with his father and the meaning of his death:
And oh the fights we had
When my brother and I got him mad;
He’d get all boiled up and he’d start to shout
And I knew what was coming so I tuned him out.
And now the old man’s gone, and I’d give all I own
To hear what he said when I wasn’t listening
To my old man
Goodman looks back and learns the hard lesson: that the worse thing he ever did was to stop listening. A relationship is an ongoing dialogue and it falls apart when the talking stops. What more can we ask than to have someone who cares enough to listen, who engages enough to tell us what they need to say, be it the facts of the day or the moments of heartbreak and joy. In a world where the number of years and people make our lives increasingly insignificant, what more could we ask than to have someone whose engagement proves that we do matter.
I hear Goodman’s plaintive voice and think of my own father and his retreats to silence. He cared so much about being the Dad, about the role he had to play in drawing lines and trying to mold his children the way he so deeply believed that they need to be. And when the chaos of the world and our burgeoning lives did not conform, he felt he had no choice but to cross his arms and stand mute. In my heady adolescence and early twenties, that silence hurt and angered and sometimes grew to the point where I didn’t notice as the rest of my life gave me more than I could handle. Years later, I realized the cost we both paid with his silence and think of how my father sacrificed so much joy – the ongoing dialogue of that father-son relationship – to play the role of Dad that he felt thrust upon him. We were fortunate to take up that dialogue when we both aged and softened; we grew close and relished that on-going dialogue, though we could never fill in the hole left from the years of fierce silence.
At the end of the verse, Goodman comes to understand the fullness of the loss in his father’s passing for the dialogue ends, “I’d give all I own/To hear what he said when I wasn’t listening.” If a relationship is an on-going dialogue, then death ends the dialogue, it silences voices. We’re left to replay lines, to rethink what we heard and wish for what we could not ask or say.
So the song ends, with Goodman seeing his father, aging, struggling with his weight and feels all the silence of the universe in what his father can no longer say and what he can no longer hear. No wonder he sings:
For the first time since he died
Late last night, I cried.
I wondered when I was gonna do that
For my old man
If we could re-engage, just for a day, oh the things I would say and the things I’d hope to hear. Happy birthday would be a good place to start.