Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in December 1974
You people realize that Ugly Kid’s Joe 1993 top ten cover improved on the original, right? Here’s why: no strings. This massive hit by Brooklyn singer-songwriter Harry Chapin was soaked in them like Grandma’s meatloaf with ketchup. What simplicity and hardness Chapin attempts in the verse — the opening verse has the declarative flatness that was the hallmark of post-Dylan songwriting — he and his producers undermine with violins that ambled in from The Andy Williams Show. Applauding itself for hurling kids lingo back at the absent dad, the chorus is a masterpiece of tonal imbalance, thanks to Chapin’s inflexible vocal; he sounds as if an assailant had warned he would shoot if Chapin so much as breathed. By comparison Neil Diamond is Jimmy Somerville.
The seventies, about which I’ve written copiously, was the era of parents catching up to the previous decade’s triumph of youth culture while still clinging to the characteristics of aging: hair grown over the ears and mutton chops, yes, but substituting Hellmann’s mayonnaise and fondue for LSD and grass. It was also the divorces. By the time I got to fifth grade years later, more than half my classmates had grown up in single custody homes. In response, the number of songs in which fucked up kids blamed their parents for untold horrors multiplied (“The Living Years,” a #1 hit in early 1989 by bearded Genesis guitarist’s side project Mike and the Mechanics, substitutes synth gunk for the string section and treats a children’s choir like Kevin Shields did the guitar amp). During the Chapin decade, it got so that in her review of the diffuse and often laughable Autumn Sonata (1979) Pauline Kael wonders if it wasn’t Ingmar Bergman’s intention to put audiences on the side of mocked and put-upon Ingrid Bergman while humorless, neurotic daughter Liv Ullmann spends a hundred minutes yelling at her.
I get it. When they’re trying not to come off as replicas of humans, parents are still awful people. In “Cat’s in the Cradle” Chapin chastises his dad in terms his own father would recognize; he can’t escape the banality of several generations’ of psychobabble. Chapin recognizes the dilemma, and in his cinder block-light manner his most famous song circles back to the beginning as it approaches its end. My boy was just like me. The instruments drop. Chapin repeats it. Message sent. This from an album whose title was Verities and Balderdash. Until his death in a car accident eight years later, Chapin offered balderdash served with a side of verities. His popularity never waned — call him the Rod McKuen of the seventies pop world, and so was Rod McKuen.
I have another theory about why “Cat’s in the Cradle” touched a nerve. Nixon appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, no relation, was indicted for perjury in 1974. His name was in the news. Bathos and name recognition are a fizzy combination. I tend to think that during this era Americans cared more about second stringers than they ever would again.