Last week we talked about the sometimes onerous and unpleasant task of trying to turn friends on to the Grateful Dead. The consensus seemed to be that it’s often not worth the effort, and that maybe it’s better to let folks find the Dead on their own. Quitters! (Just kidding.)
But what about our children? This is a trickier area. Parents have an enormous impact on their kids in nearly every way imaginable, including the music they expose them to.
As a kid growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, most of the records I was exposed to by my parents on the sleek black mono hi-fi in our living room were either Broadway cast albums or comedy records. By the time I was 10, I could sing you almost every song from My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Pajama Game (my favorite), Fiorello, Camelot, Oklahoma and various others. My father had been a fan of big-band swing, but we didn’t have any records of that kind of music, for some reason. But he did love the stirring soundtrack for the World War II documentary series Victory at Sea (fantastic music by Richard Rodgers) and we had a couple of albums of college fight songs and an Edith Piaf record or two and one by the beautiful French chanteuse Francoise Hardy, which I never heard but used to stare at longingly—“Ah, ma cherie!” We had a handful of classical records, too, which I ignored until my teenage years. As for the comedy records, the whole family dug Allen Sherman’s clever parodies of familiar tunes, the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the dry wit of Bob Newhart, and anything political—rare was the household in the early ’60s that didn’t own The First Family, Vaughn Meader’s hilarious send-up of the Kennedy White House.
By the early ’60s, my older brother and I had branched off into the pop music of the day—including teen sensations such as Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and Bobby Darin—and by the time The Beatles hit in ’64 (I was living in Rome, Italy that year), we were long past being influenced by our parents’ tastes. (That said, I listened to Broadway albums all through high school, at the same time I was getting into Hendrix and Cream, and I still remember many songs from those records.)
Fast forward a few decades. My wife, Regan, and I met in the late ’70s working at a rock ’n’ roll magazine (BAM), and we went to many hundreds of concerts and club shows together over the nine years we were married before we had our first child, in October ’90, including around 215 Dead shows during that period. Our favorite weekend pastime in the pre-kid years was driving the back roads of Marin and Sonoma and Contra Costa counties listening to Dead tapes. Our nights were spent working on our fanzine, The Golden Road (and listening to more tapes).
Once we had a little one, we tried hard to continue our carefree vagabond lifestyle, and we succeeded for a while. Little Kyle liked driving around and he also didn’t mind listening to Dead tapes. After a point we also dropped some Disney tapes into the mix, which I had no problem with, since they consisted of old folk songs I’d listened to as a kid and classic songs from Disney films old and recent. We had our daughter, Hayley, three years after Kyle was born, and she was also a mellow car traveler who had no objection to our playing Dead tunes. However, we did start to become a little more selective about what Grateful Dead we played in the car, leaning heavily on shows that contained plenty of melodic rock songs and usually skipping through “Drums” and “Space.” Let me tell you, there aren’t many things cuter than a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old singing along with “Fire on the Mountain” and “The Wheel” from their car seats. I never felt like I was indoctrinating them; merely sharing this music we loved with them.
As the kids got a bit older, they began to crave other music in the car, though most of it was still “our” music. Is there any child alive who didn’t go through a Beatles phase? Mine fell for them hard, and I got to revisit all those great albums one by one, moving from the early pop stuff up to the “weird” later material; most of it great for car sing-alongs. Kyle also really loved Hendrix and U2 (among others in our collection), while Hayley became semi-obsessed with The Doors as she entered adolescence.
But they also developed their own tastes and increasingly wanted to hear their music in the car, which ran the gamut from Sugar Ray to Sheryl Crow to OK-GO to The Killers to the soundtracks of The O.C. television show. After a while, both rebelled against hearing Grateful Dead, and when we’d go on long drives it became common for each kid to have his/her own CD player with big headphones, while Regan and I would sit up front playing Dead CDs, the speakers in the back turned off. There was still common ground — The Harder They Come soundtrack, Beatles and some Pink Floyd, the occasional Jackson Browne or David Lindley album, various African discs — and we would often agree on a disc or mix-CD picked by one or the other kid. Sometimes, on the way back from a long day driving hither and yon, I’d insist on playing a Dead CD, and I rarely met resistance. If they got tired of it, they could go back to their private headphone world.
Kyle got back into the Dead a bit in late high school (though he was more passionate about the Wu Tang Clan, other rappers and all kinds of jazz), and after he went away to college (UCLA) he got into them even more. He’s seen Furthur three times, he can play a few Grateful Dead songs on the guitar, and just today he called me to tell me he’d finished reading and enjoyed my Garcia biography. But his favorite bands are My Morning Jacket, Of Montreal, Neon Indian, Flying Lotus and a bunch of other 21st century bands. Good for him!
During the four years Kyle has been in college, Hayley (who’s now 18) has been more tolerant of Dead in the car, but also perhaps more vocal about insisting that we check out the artists she likes. Fortunately she, like Kyle, has good taste, and as someone who still writes about music for a living, I appreciate her hipping me to folks like Noah & the Whale, Devendra Banhart, Edward Sharpe & His Magnetic Zeros, Beirut, Andrew Bird and Angels & Airwaves. She’s learned a lot of Dead songs just through osmosis (I’ll find her singing “Brokedown Palace” to herself, a song I sang her as a baby; Kyle too), and she’s learned to love songs such as “Sugaree” and “New Speedway Boogie” through our family-wide love of Jackie Greene. When she saw Furthur at the Bill Graham Civic on 12/29/11 (along with Kyle) she proclaimed it the best show she’d ever seen. She’ll be going off to college next year and will no doubt be exposed to all sorts of other cool music by roommates and friends.
So I guess this story has a happy ending. The circle is unbroken. We all have Grateful Dead in our blood.
What’s been your experience? Did you try to turn your kids on to the Dead? Or are you one of those kids who was subjected to the Dead by your parents (and lived to tell about it)?