A good deal of my childhood was spent in my father's car, for a horribly tragic reason.
When my mother Eleanor died at the incomprehensible age of 26 from lymphatic cancer, my father Barry went off the rails emotionally. He quickly decided he could no longer bear to be reminded of Mom by continuing to live in our hometown of Jackson, Michigan, and so he chose to relocate to the more unfamiliar environs of Lansing, leaving me behind in the capable care of my maternal grandparents.
As a result, my life played out in two hometowns — I lived with my grandparents weekdays in Jackson and stayed with my father every weekend in Lansing. During those 60-mile round trips and various side excursions for golf, skiing, Detroit Tigers games or whatever Dad had in mind, I learned to tolerate cigarette smoke and love music.
Dad had pretty wide-ranging tastes in music; he like the new Folk, the Ventures, Big Band/Swing and Frank Sinatra. Eventually he got into traditional Country, which led to my appreciation of Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Hank Williams and many others. And when I reached a certain age, he wasn't averse to flipping over to a Rock station to placate my hormonal need for loud guitars, although he'd reach a point where he'd say, “OK, enough of that,” and punch the preset back to one of his favorite stations.
Dad's listening diversity became the blueprint for my own, as I found an affinity for many of music's permutations of the '60s: Rock, Pop, contemporary Folk, Soul/R&B (Motown was just 70 miles to the east, after all), Country and everything in between and beyond. And his love of jokes and comedy in most any form led to my appreciation of stand-up, comedy films and television, and people stepping on rakes.
The darker aspect of life with Dad was his propensity for hard living in the shadow of my mother's death as he moved into a future he no longer trusted or particularly valued. His relatively toxic lifestyle included four-plus packs of Camels a day, a diet of barely cooked red meat and an almost complete lack of vegetables, as well as a steady flow of alcohol — mostly scotch but always amenable to beer, vodka, Manhattans, White Russians and Stingers. In fact, it was probably Dad's zealous passion for golf and his insatiable desire to improve his game that kept him tethered to the planet when his habits indicated he had another destination in mind.
Dad survived two heart attacks when he was 40 and triple bypass surgery almost 30 years later, as well as colon cancer, numerous aneurysms, two strokes, congestive heart failure and, most recently, coronavirus. Last spring, doctors concluded he was no longer able to make reliable decisions about his health, meaning he could no longer live alone. A nurse at his last rehab facility in Jackson pointed me toward the website for Chesterwood Village, just 10 minutes from our home in West Chester. I secured him a spot at Chesterwood and picked him up from rehab last July, and we set out on our last great adventure — a five-hour car ride that brought him to West Chester and felt like a full-circle event.
Given the COVID restrictions of the nursing home, we didn't see much of each other, but I called him nearly every single day; there were a couple of monitored outdoor visits in the fall and face-to-face contact when he was admitted to the hospital, where visitation was slightly more relaxed. In late January, Dad experienced a serious fall that caused two separate brain bleeds, and even though the bleeding had been stabilized, his condition continued to deteriorate. When the hospital advised me that they had done everything possible, I had him transferred to hospice care; Dad died 31 hours later.
This playlist features songs that I will always associate with some aspect of my long, weirdly wonderful relationship with my father. No set of songs, no crate of albums, could accurately describe our lives together, but there are plenty hints and memory cues in these few tracks to serve as a fitting tribute to my wild old man.
Some notes: Frank Sinatra was an obvious choice, but “My Way” didn't quite feel right; Dad's way would have never included his 60-year mourning period for Mom. “That's Life” seemed more appropriate to his general outlook.
The first John Prine songs I ever heard were covers of songs from Prine's debut album performed by some of Dad's friends who had a band called the Brussels Sprouts; the subject matter of “Hello in There” speaks to his most recent situation. The second verse of Alan Doyle's “Stay” is a son imploring his father to hang around a little longer, and “Sins of Saturday Night” is likely about a romantic couple, but it's a crushingly apt visualization of many of my weekends with Dad.
I added the Pretenders' “Thumbelina” on the basis of the last line of the song, which has always managed to choke me up: “What's important in this life/ask the man who's lost his wife.”
The Cadillac Three's "Cadillacin'" was added because my Dad owned two Cadillacs in his life; the first was '54 or '55, green with a white hardtop, and the classic big fins, the second was a '66 Calais, which he sold to me after i got my license at 16. It was a boat. I was the chauffeur to so many concerts in Detroit because the caddy sat six with no trouble: me at the wheel, two more up front (because it was a bench seat), and three on the sofa in the back with room to spare.
And finally, the song that most faithfully encapsulates my response to my father's passing is Bruce Springsteen's “Terry's Song,” a hidden track from his 2007 album Magic. Springsteen wrote the song as a musical epitaph for his dear friend Terry McGovern, and it perfectly frames my thoughts and welling emotions in the days after my Dad's death, particularly this spot-on chorus observation: “When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.”
- “My Father's Eyes” - Eric Clapton
- “Father and Son” - Cat Stevens
- “Father to Son” - Queen
- “My Father's House” - Bruce Springsteen
- “Wake Me Up When September Ends” - Green Day
- “Forever Young” - Bob Dylan
- “Bein' a Dad” - Loudon Wainwright III
- “Ring of Fire” - Johnny Cash
- “King of the Road” - Roger Miller
- “Telstar” - The Ventures
- "Cadillacin'" - The Cadillac Three
- "Hello in There" - John Prine
- “Too Much of Nothing” - Peter, Paul and Mary
- “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry” - Hank Williams
- “Thumbelina” - The Pretenders
- “Rainbow Connection” - Willie Nelson
- “That's Life” - Frank Sinatra
- “Stay” - Alan Doyle
- “Sins of Saturday Night” - Alan Doyle
- “Terry's Song” - Bruce Springsteen