In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Father/son dynamics are complicated things. When you’re a father, you feel this ingrained pressure to provide for your family. That’s probably an outmoded idea now, but it’s still out there, even for those of us who do goofy-ass infantile quasi-jobs like writing about popular music on the internet. It must’ve been stronger back in 1974, when Harry Chapin recorded “Cat’s In The Cradle.” It refuses to die, even in a world where mothers are the breadwinners as often as not. (Is there a song about being a mother that serves the same function as “Cat’s In The Cradle”? Is it “What Would You Do?” by City High? It’s probably “What Would You Do?” by City High.) (City High’s “What Would You Do?” peaked at #8 in 2002. It’s an 8.)
But in attempting to make enough money to keep your family above water, you inevitably end up ignoring your kids when you should be doing the parenting stuff you’d probably rather be doing. Maybe you get so caught up in the rhythms of your work that part of you would rather keep doing that than deal with the often-frustrating miasmic-ass realities of parenting. Maybe, when you are with your kids, you’ve still got work stuff bouncing all around in your head, making it impossible to be fully in the moment. Maybe you live in constant fear of being a distant and unresponsive father, and maybe that fear sometimes makes the distance and unresponsiveness worse.
All of which is to say: I am sitting here on a Monday afternoon, the day after Father’s Day, writing about “Cat’s In The Cradle” while my kids are at the pool with my wife. And this is the type of situation that makes “Cat’s In The Cradle” hit as hard as it does.
It’s not all that hard to find things wrong with “Cat’s In The Cradle.” I’ve done it. The song works as a four-minute musical guilt trip. It takes the shitty economic realities of capitalism and uses them as reasons to feel bad about yourself. It boils all the complexities of parenthood to the question of whether or not the dad is physically or mentally present. It has a big tearjerking coda about how the adult kid doesn’t have any time to spend with his father, which is pretty dickish to the young father. His new job’s a hassle! The kid’s got the flu! The father shouldn’t try to demand his son’s time! Have some boundaries!
But the power of “Cat’s In The Cradle” is that, if it hits you in the gut at the right moment, it can absolutely annihilate all those quibbles and turn you into a shuddering feelings-puddle. And it can do that even if the song’s situation doesn’t apply to you. I was 13 when the snotty LA quasi-metal band Ugly Kid Joe had a hit with their surprisingly sincere cover of “Cat’s In The Cradle.” At that point, if anything, I wished my father would be less present. And still the song fucked me up. (Ugly Kid Joe’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” cover peaked at #6 in 1993. It’s a 7. That cover is Ugly Kid Joe’s highest-charting single. Their other big hit was 1992’s “Everything About You,” which peaked at #9 in 1992. That one is an 8.)
When Harry Chapin would play “Cat’s In The Cradle” live, he’d say that his wife had written the song to “zap” him. That wasn’t entirely true. Sandra Chapin, Harry’s wife, wrote the “Cat’s In The Cradle” lyrics about James Cashmore, her first husband. Cashmore and his father, the former Brooklyn borough president John, had a rough relationship, and that, combined with an old country song that Sandra couldn’t remember the title of, served as the inspirations for “Cat’s In The Cradle.” When Sandra showed Harry the lyrics to “Cat’s In The Cradle,” it took about a year for him to set them to music. He finished the song shortly after his son Joshua was born. Chapin missed the boy’s birth; he was away touring. This bothered him. That’s when he wrote the song’s music. The poem zapped him.
The poem probably also zapped Chapin because he knew about growing up with a father who was away on tour all the time. Chapin’s father Jim was a big-time jazz drummer who toured with big bands from the ’40s to the ’60s. As a young man, Harry played trumpet and sang in choirs, and he was in a folk trio with his brothers. But Chapin didn’t make a career out of music until he was almost 30. Before then, he’d driven a taxi, and he’d directed Legendary Champions, a 1968 boxing documentary that was nominated for an Oscar. He took that gift for storytelling from documentary filmmaking into music, making his name with a series of finely-sketched narratives like “Taxi,” a 1972 single where Chapin takes on the role of a San Francisco cabdriver who, by chance, takes a depressed ex to a fancy party. (“Taxi” peaked at #24, pretty good for an intricate seven-minute story-song.)
“Cat’s In The Cradle” doesn’t have all the layers of some of other Chapin’s songs. That’s fine. It sacrifices those layers for pure throat-lump effectiveness. “Cat’s In The Cradle” is a lyrics-first song, and everything exists to serve the all-pervading regret at the center. Chapin’s got a declarative sing-speaking style, and he slowly tweaks it as the song builds, moving deliberately from distant wonder at his kid’s birth to heavy-hearted intensity. He never overplays any of the song’s big moments. When he reaches his big tearjerking finale — “My boy was just like me” — he could go for high drama. Instead, he holds back, almost murmuring that line to himself, letting the words do the work.
Musically, “Cat’s In The Cradle” is an assured piece of ’70s folk-rock. Those lyrics demand so much attention that it’s easy to neglect all the subtle little flourishes in the arrangement the same way the dad neglects his kid. But they’re all in there: the vaguely Eastern string-figure, the weirdly catchy electric-sitar riff, the bass that wells up at the exact right moment. On the chorus, Chapin just free-associates a bunch of innocent childhood touchstones. They don’t mean too much in isolation. But in the way he chants them — these totems that are all he has to remind him of the kid’s childhood that he didn’t properly savor as it was happening — they take on enormous power. It’s those musical decisions that make all that sentimental melodrama hit home.
Chapin never had another big hit after “Cat’s In The Cradle,” though he kept cranking out albums throughout the ’70s. He also co-founded the World Hunger Fund and raised a ton of money for good causes. In 1981, when Chapin was 38, Chapin was killed in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway, when he was on the way to play a free show. He didn’t get a chance to see if his kids would grow up just like him.
BONUS BEATS: On one of their routines, the Bronx rap originators Cold Crush Brothers interpolated “Cat’s In The Cradle,” somehow using that melody to sing about how good they were at rapping. Here’s audio of them doing it live, recorded at Harlem World in 1981:
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit, from a 2010 episode of The Office, where Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard torment new father Jim Halpert by singing “Cat’s In The Cradle”: