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Rock of Ages

Passing on the punk brings a father and son together


Published June 9, 2004 at 6:09 p.m.

Don't use speed! It'll mess up your liver, your heart and kidneys, and screw up your mind up and in general will make you just like your parents.

-- Frank Zappa

Last month my elder son, Max, turned 15. Our family celebrated at a Japanese restaurant with deep-fried ice cream for dessert, and with the promise of a proper birthday cake right after the craziness of his high school play was over. My birthday present to Max was a gift that I would have been thrilled to receive on my 15th birthday (had it existed then), or even on my 51st: a Rhino CD box set of 1970s punk-rock classics.

The staff at my local record store was impressed that I was cool enough to buy this set for one of my children. And for Max, so far, it seems to have been the "Mary Poppins" of birthday presents -- practically perfect in every way. He has been playing it nonstop, and loud: The Ramones in the morning, Ian Dury & the Blockheads at night.

This birthday gift was not a last-minute purchase. I had decided on that particular box set months ago, shortly after passing the kid my well-worn copy of The Clash's London Calling and seeing his response. I had done that during one of my fits of disgust with modern radio.

It's hard listening to this dreck. Most of the music on the radio stations my boys cue up in the car leaves me cold. As far as I can tell, it consists of a nightmare mix of a) young women who can't sing trying to warble like Whitney Houston over a heavy backbeat; b) bad copies of rock 'n' roll styles originally recorded between the eras of Led Zeppelin and Nirvana; and c) something that sounds like, or may actually be, gangsta rap. The girly teenypop leaves me feeling as if I just ate 28 packs of SweetTarts, the rock isn't even close to the quality of the originals, and the rap stuff always makes me want to drive off the road.

Hold it. I've heard something like this before, and I know exactly where: I'm starting to remind myself of my father and the comments he made about my music nearly 40 years ago. I can't bear to recall some of the things he said about The Temptations while we listened to the car radio one summer day in 1966. The Temptations!

I suppose it's normal to loathe the music your kids listen to, but I decided to try an experiment to see if the distaste always goes both ways. I do recall a family road trip in Utah, when my kids threatened to jump out of the car in the middle of nowhere if I played what I considered an amazing Orchestra Baobab CD for the 14th time.

So one day, after listening to a whole slew of bands on the radio trying to sound like The Clash, I decided to expose my sons, ages 12 and 14, to the real thing. Less than two months later, with The Clash's "Death or Glory" and "Guns of Brixton" blaring from CD players at all hours, I realized that Max had indeed seen the light. It only seemed right to lead him to some more great music.

The 100 cuts chosen by Rhino Records for No Thanks: The '70s Punk Rebellion make for a riveting and varied four hours of snarl and electric guitar. The set is beautifully remastered, too, by Rhino sound genius Bill Inglot, who's responsible for many of their best reissues. The man has ears comparable to a surgeon's hands, and he creates sonic digital wonder out of old vinyl.

Just the same, I'll confess that giving my wide-eyed young teenager a gift that includes some of the creative output of Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Stiv Bators made me feel a little uncomfortable. This is definitely not the same as playing DJ around the house with my old Beatles and Herman's Hermits records. We are talking about music based, for the most part, on teenage frustration, lust, hopelessness and drug abuse. Even though it's exactly the same stuff I loved at age 16 -- all power chords and dark images -- isn't this the kind of stuff parents are supposed to protect their kids from? Was I being a bad dad?

Right about the same time that my father was calling some of my own teenage favorites "jungle music," among other things, he declared with absolute confidence that the music he grew up with -- Sinatra, Como, Fitzgerald, et al. -- would "live forever." In almost the same breath he added that the music I listened to had no lyrics worth singing along to, was impossible to dance to, and would be completely forgotten in a year or two.

My father was right about one thing: The music of Frank and Perry and Ella is still very much with us, and worth listening to, even as its original fan base is passing away. But as we all know -- and as Max's birthday gift proves -- his predictions about rock 'n' roll were wrong.

Though I hate to admit it, my generation is already bouncing on mortality's diving board. Chuck Berry, Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop are still playing out, but it's not the same. And I find it's getting harder to wax delirious about my rock 'n' roll idols.

A few years ago Jethro Tull had a gig in Burlington, and somehow a friend and I, longtime rabid fans, got our hands on backstage passes. It was exciting to chat with Ian Anderson for a few moments, but if I had managed to score a backstage pass for Tull back in 1969, when I saw them for the first time in Central Park, I would have absolutely died. And I couldn't help thinking that Ian is looking a little old -- in fact, about the same age as me. Listening now to the non-stop classic-rock hits on music-mausoleum stations makes me realize there's nothing really sacred about my generation's time and tunes, even though it was the music we danced to, kissed to and drove to.

When I was 15, I was listening to The Doors around the clock and, thanks to college radio, had just discovered The MC5 and The Stooges. I saw all three bands perform live many times between 1968 and 1971. After reading the liner notes on the Rhino box, I now know that my friends and I were there at the "genesis" of punk-rock music. We had no clue then that we were at the genesis of anything -- just that this was the most brilliant, exciting music that had ever been or ever could be. The thing is, every generation feels this way about its music, even 40 years later.

Sacred or not, my music is not going away. It's simply taking its place alongside my dad's. Just like every other kind of popular music that came before, the best of it continues to be heard -- particularly in this age of CD re-issues. And if we're lucky, the best of it makes an impression on later generations and influences their music.

Until just a few decades ago, pop music around the world was passed on from parent to child in small communities. Today, the world community is huge, and the music industry is controlled by money, market shares and bandwidth. Still, I've managed to pass on some music the old-fashioned way, and it feels great that Max and I can appreciate some of the same tunes together -- something I never got to do with my own father.

Backed by some nasty, loud power chords, I've decided I'm a good dad. For my son and me, rock 'n' roll is here to stay. Happy Birthday, Max!

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