Mike And The Mechanics: “The Living Years” – Philosophical Reflections

I recently stumbled upon a song that I’d forgotten about, “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics. The group formed in 1985 as a side project of Mike Rutherford, one of the founding members of the band Genesis. The song was written by Rutherford and B. A. Robertson after both of their fathers died, and shortly before Robertson’s son was born. (Rutherford wrote about his father in this article in the Guardian.) According to Wikipedia, “The song was a chart hit around the world, topping the US Billboard Hot 100 on 25 March 1989,[2] and reaching No.1 in Canada and Australia and No.2 in the UK. It spent four weeks at No. 1 on the US Adult Contemporary chart. The music video and lyrics are below, followed by a brief commentary.

“The Living Years”
Every generation

Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it
He says its perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defence

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts

So Don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be OK.

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new-born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

Reflections – We do tend to blame those who went before us, especially our parents, for many of our problems. But children are quite similar to their parents. This realization should bring about understanding—our parents probably did the best they could, and we should appreciate that. Of course members of the older generations often assume that the new generation is “going all to hell.” The understanding needs to go both ways.

Clearly the composers of the song feel regret for not having said more to their fathers and for the misunderstandings and anger. This is the problem with bitterness—as many sages from Buddha to the present have noted—it really hurts those who are bitter. When we cease expecting perfection from our parents and our children, we will find more inner peace.

Forgiving those who hurt us doesn’t mean we approve of their actions. It means we are letting go of the past and journeying into a better future. It also means that though we were hurt and didn’t deserve it, we also hurt others even if unknowingly. It is part of human interaction to hurt and be hurt despite the best intentions. But we would live better if we could all forgive and not have lifelong anger and the regrets that follow from it. We would all do better to be less judgmental, especially if we have not walked in the other’s shoes.

What a beautiful song.

4 thoughts on “Mike And The Mechanics: “The Living Years” – Philosophical Reflections

  1. you could do an entire series on music philosophy. ive been in a discussion with a friend about our varying aesthetic sense being evidence that ‘choice’ and ‘free will’ are imaginary.

  2. there’s a song by a band called the hold steady with the lyrics “the sing-along songs will be our scriptures;” another song says “raise a toast to saint joe strummer//i think he might have been our only decent teacher.” these lines caught my attention when i first heard them, and have done so every subsequent time. in our epoch, most of us find more meaning, purpose, and spirituality in song lyrics than we do in ancient books. and even someone like me who still reads ancient books nevertheless feels the most transcendent listening to records from the last half-century. music really does speak to our souls, inasmuch as we can still speak of souls.

  3. Thanks for the comment Peter. And I agree, it does seem that music with good lyrics speaks to us in a way that prose cannot. JGM

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