Kiwi singers share lyrics written for their dads

By Kirsten Warner

Some of New Zealand’s best songwriters share what their fathers’ mean to them. By Kirsten Warner.

Don McGlashan with his father Bain and daughter Pearl. Photo / Doug Sherring
Don McGlashan with his father Bain and daughter Pearl. Photo / Doug Sherring

Most people can't help smiling when they hear the title of Dunedin rock band Headless Chickens' song Totalling Dad's Car. It's such a classic New Zealand teenage story - we've either done it or know someone else who has. Once you become a father you know what you're letting yourself in for when you hand over your car keys or go away for the weekend.

There is a father-sized place inside all of us, but our reserved Kiwi nature can make the emotions that reside there hard to express. Thankfully, many of our talented songwriters have penned lyrics for their own fathers over the years, that may give us a way of telling Dad how much he means to us this Father's Day. Many reflect the broad nature of many father-child relationships, expressing not only love but also loss, longing, conflict, abandonment and rebellion. Use the links below to listen, and perhaps you'll find a song to download for your Dad that puts into words what you want to say to him today.

One of our greatest songwriters, Don McGlashan of The Front Lawn and The Mutton Birds, wrote Envy of Angels as an open letter to his father Bain, 88. "It's about realising that I had an adolescent way of looking at the world, and at Dad's world and his attitudes, and when I got older and had kids myself I was able to see what he was on about.

"As a civil engineer, and a teacher of engineering, he loved to decode the world. I always remember standing on a beach with him, he would pick up a rock and it wasn't just a rock to him, it was evidence of enormous forces years ago and great heat.

"He had the ability to see the meaning that underlies everything. I would just see a street ... "

Look over there, you used to say/The shape of the land beneath the street/Ridges and valleys and underground streams,/You have to know what's under your feet.

So you can make things strong enough,/To take the weight/The weight of all the people/That haven't been born.

That's what you said to me,/It's the envy of angels.

* Listen to Envy of Angels here.

"Dad was a wonderful teacher. I keep meeting people who come up to me and say 'Your Dad taught me, he was great'. He's quietened down now. I tell him about my day and he listens and we get on well."

They have breakfast together on Fridays and takeaways on Sunday nights, time "which is really precious for both of us".

Don has also written songs about being a father. This Is London was about putting two-year-old Pearl to bed and wanting to cast a spell to protect her from harm in the future.

I know you are asleep now/You've gone heavy on my shoulder/I carry you to your bed/Like a boat across the water.

Girl, Make Your Own Mind Up was written for an older, 17-year-old Pearl.

They'll try to make you believe in the burning rain/Coming down on the faithless, lighting up the plain.

And you will listen, you will listen/But girl, make your own mind up/About the world, make your own mind up/You're smarter than all of them.

Son Louie was five when Don wrote Straight To Your Head, about how in tune he felt with Louie's fantasy world.

I'll never leave you, it doesn't matter what you do/'Cause I can go straight to your head/to be close to you.

Pearl McGlashan, now 18, was in the hit band Bandicoot, and is now an actor on TV series Shortland Street and Louie McGlashan, 20, is a musician like his father and grandfather.

"They're such big people I can't imagine the world without them," says Don. "I feel very privileged to have a front row seat."

Like Don, singer-songwriter Jan Hellriegel clearly adores and admires her father. Albie, at 78, still works full time. He mows lawns, and one day a week does the accounts for Jan's brother Rob Hellriegel's backpackers in Fort St. "That's how I want to be," says Jan. "Dad loves his life and he's happy as anything. And he still has very blue eyes. He is a legend."

Jan's song for her father is called Very Mostly Good. "Not everyone's perfect but we have amazing lives. We sort of grow and learn and grow."

He's got a lot of what she really needs/I don't think that he does know it/ the good things that he does bring.

"The song ... is about good men in general but my father was the inspiration. A hard-working man who did everything for his family, and he is still rocking. Although it's called Very Mostly Good, my Dad is super great in my eyes."

On Jan's website is a photo of a young, cool looking Albie in his panel beating shop. For extra cash he took on one of the toughest and dirtiest jobs - getting down inside petrol tankers to steam clean. "He'd come out with really black eyes. That was when there was lead in the petrol as well.

"His hard work helped me go through university and I always appreciated that so I never missed a lecture or a tutorial. Talking about this reminds me how hard he worked to give his children a wonderful life."

* Listen to Very Mostly Good here.

Bernie Griffen, of electric string band The Grifters, wrote Put Your Hand In Mine for his father Ken Griffen.

"My song is a song of regret, love and remorse. My Dad was dead when I wrote it, and my children had been born. My regret was that my father had never seen them; he would have loved them. My remorse was my bad behaviour as a young man towards my parents. And my love was about remembering the respect they had for me and the way they used to try and help me and the belief they had in me."

I was standing on the highway, just outside of Alice Springs/No money and no future/and I heard my Daddy sing.

"I had a lot of trouble, I remember my father sitting across the table crying, saying 'If you'd only let me guide you you'd be all right'. I just slammed the door and walked out. That's youth, arrogance, the know-all attitude which we have to have to break away, but you don't have to be as radical as I was. I feel sad talking about it."

I remember the tears, rolling down my father's cheeks,/As he looked across the table and said 'Boy you've got to stop this thing'.

"My Dad was a gentle, honest, patient, loving man with a great sense of humour. My earliest memory is sitting on his lap in front of the gas heater at three in the morning listening to the All Blacks play the Lions or the South Africans, all my uncles sitting around, the smell of beer and tobacco and the feeling of love and safety."

* Watch Bernie Griffen perform Put Your Hand In Mine here.

Country artist Tami Neilson wrote her song All You Are when she was 19, touring North America with her family performing together as The Neilsons, as they had for seven years. "I never imagined a life apart from my family musically, let alone that love (for her Kiwi husband Grant) would have me living permanently on the other side of the world."

Father's Day here always falls around her father Ron's birthday on September 3. This year Tami will be flying back to Auckland after a month visiting Ron and mum Betty so they could spend time with their new grandson Charlie, aged six months.

"I've always thought that my Dad was the very best a girl could possibly have, and seeing him as Papa with Charlie, I get a glimpse of what he was like with me when I was too young to remember. Charlie always has the biggest smiles for Papa, who wakes him in the morning with funny faces and serenades him with lullabies on his guitar until he falls asleep."

Ron, 63, was recently diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and has only 48 per cent of his lung capacity. "A horrible thing for a man who has always made his living with one of the most powerful voices I've ever heard," says Tami. "This trip has been a hard one, seeing him struggle to breathe and worrying I'll never hear him perform one of his amazing blues harp solos again.

"I love the first man in my life with all my heart and every word of this song still rings true 15 years later."

You're in the beating of my heart, part of every dream and plan/All you are has made me everything I am.

Tami won Best Country Album in the 2012 New Zealand Music Awards.

* Watch the video for Hey Mama here.

You could listen to Losing You, by pop-rocker Jordan Luck of The Exponents, and think it was a song for a lost lover. It's for Jordan's father, written when Jamie Luck was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, "eight years before he finally joined the hawks in the sky."

I'm losing you, yeah I'm losing you, /tell me, what will I do? What will I do? When you're gone?

Parkinson's is a slow, debilitating illness, a long goodbye. Jamie died on July 3, 2001 in England, which meant Jordan got the news here on July 4, American Independence Day. His father may have departed, but, says Jordan, was finally free. "He is always with me."

Jordan is an ambassador for Parkinson's New Zealand.

* A preview of the album can be found here.

Adam McGrath, of Lyttelton country-folk-punk band The Eastern, always avoided father songs: "Seemed like something you have a window for between the ages of 16 and 16½, you know 'Dad let me have the keys or I'm gonna go be very, very depressed in a very, very dark hole'.

"And besides, my dad (Richard) split when I was about nine. Although I saw him once on the street when I was 18 and we hung out a little. He once sent me a Milo tin with a whole heap of 20-cent pieces in it out of the blue.

"It wasn't as random as it seemed though. When I was six or seven he use to take me to Daytona cart racing track (in Christchurch) and would spend about 10 bucks in 20s, but I could only play one game called Time Pilot.

"I never knew why I could only play that game but it didn't matter, I got real good at it. I got so good that he would place bets on me with adults and teenagers passing through, 'Bet you ten bucks this six-year-old can beat you in Time Pilot' kinda deal.
"Anyways that was the kind of fella my dad was, smart but not such a great role model. I digress.

"A couple years ago we were on tour with this poet Ben Brown. We're in New Plymouth down by the port ... sharing beers and swapping stories and I bet him a dozen beers he couldn't write a 'happy' poem. He called my bluff and bet me I couldn't write a song about my Dad ... so I did ... it's called Copper Line.

"Its about my mum Dawn too."

* Listen to Copper Line here.

Other songs for fathers

* Anika Moa, My Old Man
* Tiki Taane, My Lion and Tangaroa
* Chris Knox, Becoming Something Other
* Greg Johnson, Make Good Friends
* Joe Lonie/Supergroove, 5th Wheel
* Graham Brazier/Hello Sailor, Billy Bold
* Barry Saunders/The Warratahs, St Peters Rendezvous
* Mike Hall/Nightchoir, Sunday Moon

- NZ Herald

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