“Your Dad Did” / John Hiatt
JOHN HIATT WEEK
Consensus calls John Hiatt’s 1987 album Bring the Family his “breakthrough album.” I don’t entirely buy that – I’m astonished by how excellent his earlier albums are, the ones nobody bought, and I’m so in love with his later stuff, I’d fight anybody who implied Hiatt hit his peak in 1987.
Still, Bring the Family is brilliant, and it finally made John Hiatt’s name as a performer, not just a songwriter supplying material to folks like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. He assembled an extraordinary group of backing musicians -- Ry Cooder on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and Nick Lowe on bass, the same gang that later performed under the name Little Village. And he brought to the table a stunning collection of songs, all on the theme of growing up and shouldering responsibility for his own life (part of which included getting sober, a topic I’ll come back to later this week).
If you ask me, the centerpiece of this album is this upbeat rocker, “Your Dad Did,” wherein Hiatt surrenders with gusto to his role as a family man. We follow him from that first gruesome cup of coffee to his grudging day at work (“you might as well / Get out and sell / Your smart ass door to door”) to the chaotic dinner table, and it’s crammed full of dramatic details so vivid, you just know he’s lived it – “The missus wears her robe slightly undone / And your daughter dumps her oatmeal on your son.” (I love how Hiatt uses rhyme to yoke together the yin and yang.)
He doesn’t pretend to love it or to feel content. Work, in fact, is a bitch (“So you go to work / To watch some jerk / Pick up the perks / You were in line to get”) which he reacts to with typical male logic: “So you go and buy a brand new set of wheels / To show your family just how great you feel.” He knows it’s stupid, but he HAS to do it . . . and only afterward does he realize that it’s exactly the same shit his dad used to pull.
The bridge is such a hoot: “You’re a chip off the old block / Why does it come as such a shock / That every road up which you rock / Your dad already did?” I feel the same way whenever I blurt out the exact sentences I hated hearing my mom say. For all the whomping drums, the fuzzy guitar, this is an earth-shaking epiphany: “Yeah, you’ve seen the old man’s ghost / Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast / Now if you don’t get your slice of the roast / You’re gonna flip your lid / Just like your dad did.” In one flash of insight he understands himself, his father, and the world – and accepts it.
My favorite verse comes last, pausing for the tender moment when they gather around the table – “Yeah, the food is cold / And your wife feels old / But all hands fold / As the two-year-old says grace.” It’s a beautiful moment, nothing cheap or cloying about it – but just to flesh out the truth, Hiatt adds the yang to the yin: “She says help the starving children to get well / But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell.” Hiatt dives into that line with such savage glee, you have to laugh.
This song makes me realize that the only way to get through marriage and kids – the only way to get through adulthood at all – is to grin and bear it. If you can’t keep a sense of humor, you’re doomed. That’s why this is the best, truest, realest song I know about family life – except maybe for Hiatt’s “Slow Turning,” or “Seven Little Indians,” or “Crossing Muddy Water” . . .