10 Songs about Bad Parenting and Rough Childhoods
'That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be' -- Carly Simon (1971)
With its vivid imagery of mixed drinks, cigarettes glowing in the dark like night-lights, severe Waspy repression ("Their children hate them for the things they love / They hate themselves for what they are ...") and ultimate suburban resignation ("You want to marry me? We'll marry"), poor little rich girl Carly Simon's very first chart record could serve as Sally Draper's theme song in 10 years.
'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' -- The Temptations (1972)
"It was the third of September / that day I'll always remember ...." Motown vets Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were at the top of their game when they created this lengthy, sophisticated masterpiece, which told a tale that a lot of their own label colleagues could relate to: shiftless, shady behavior which resulted in the early demise of the dad, and a lot of wistful soul-searching for the mother and kids. "And when he died / all he left us was alone ...." Ouch!
'She's Leaving Home' -- The Beatles (1967)
Set against elegant chamber-music orchestration, "She's Leaving Home" is the one song on rock's most revolutionary album that even hints at any kind of social revolution (and tepidly at that). Our girl, finally tiring of her working-class parents' repressive existence, scribbles a note and splits, heading far away to meet a man "from the motor trade." With true cluelessness, her mother moans, "How could she treat us so thoughtlessly / How could she do this to me?" And what exactly is "the motor trade," anyway?
'Patches' -- Clarence Carter (1970)
"Then one day a strong rain came and washed all the crops away ...." By the time this line opens the third verse, our ragged narrator has been teased, bullied, overworked and rendered fatherless. He feels like he has "the weight of the whole world" on his shoulders. He loses mom in the last verse, and still hears his papa's voice saying, "Patches, I'm depending on you, son" -- so he is either summoning strength or becoming delusional. Either way, a cautionary tale about overexpectation.
'Strawberry Blonde' -- Ron Sexsmith (1997)
Sexsmith, a grossly underrated Canadian singer/songwriter in the vein of Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett, infused all of his songs with haunting yet empathetic narratives. This one tells the sad, eloquent tale of the girl across the street, whose mum drinks herself to death one day. We then flash-forward to the girl -- all grown up -- on a bus with her own daughter, taking great pains to be protective and nurturing as they reach their stop and get off ("And they were gone / two strawberry blondes").
'I'm Livin' in Shame' - Diana Ross + the Supremes (1969)
This tune is somewhat of a sequel to the trio's number-one bad-parenting anthem "Love Child" -- with a twist. This time, it's the child who is neglectful, abandoning her mother for the bright lights of the big city. At song's end, our girl is crushed to hear that mom died "making homemade jam." But is she really that distraught? (And let's hope those preserves didn't need refrigerating ....)
'Cats in the Cradle' -- Harry Chapin (1974)
The late, great Chapin's number-one smash painted a plaintive picture of the ever-vicious generational cycle of absentee parenting, and still resonates today. Our narrator has no time to teach his son to throw a ball, and then is somehow crestfallen when the boy grows up and can't stay on the phone for more than two lines: "You see my new job's a hassle and the kids have the flu ...." (Sound familiar?) After a song's worth of the boy promising to grow up like dad, we get one of pop's most profound and poignant closers: "As I hung up the phone it occurred to me / He'd grown up just like me / My boy was just like me." Be careful what you wish for!
'I Don't Wanna Play House' -- Tammy Wynette (1967)
The country music landscape of the '60s and '70s was fraught with domestic strife, but no song was more visceral than this Billy Sherrill/Glenn Sutton classic, delivered expertly by Wynette. (You can practically feel her heart being wrenched.) Our forlorn mom eavesdrops on her daughter and a boy playing, and we'll let the rest speak for itself: "I don't wanna play house / I know it can't be fun / I've watched Mommy and Daddy / and if that's the way it's done / I don't wanna play house / It makes my mommy cry / 'cause when she played house / my daddy said goodbye." Please pass the Kleenex, if you would.
'Mother' -- John Lennon (1970)
Lennon's mother, Julia, was struck and killed by a car when he was 17. While the tragedy informed much of Lennon's music -- and his relationships with women -- this hypnotic, enraged dirge focuses on Lennon's trauma of having to choose which parent to live with at the age of 5. He picked his father -- twice -- yet walked away with his mother when she began crying. He didn't see his father again for 20 years, hence the iconic closing mantra: "Mama don't go / Daddy come home." It doesn't get much more basic than that.
'I Can Never Go Home Anymore' -- The Shangri-Las (1965)
No more calls, please -- we have a winner. In another example of "bad childing," our girl -- expertly portrayed in spoken word by the group's lead singer and old soul, Mary Weiss (who was 16 at the time) -- bolts when her "good" mom tells her she can't be with the boy she loves. And that's called "bad." But out in the cold, cruel world, hobo bag slung over shoulder, she forgets the boy and longs for her mama to tuck her in. But of course, mama dies of a broken heart -- and ergo, she can never go home again. And that's called "sad."