The Back Page: Family Values

backpage76_280Raising children is the ultimate opportunity to indulge your music snobbery. For anyone who writes about music or just plain spends way too much time listening to it, thinking about it and standing in bars for three hours waiting to see someone play it, kids are your golden chance to replicate your own magnificent taste in the personality of another living human being. (Or two or three of them.) Except for the minor problem that it doesn’t work.

Before we go any further, let’s get rid of the Clockwork Orange-y image you might’ve been forming of Little Alex with his eyelids forced open, watching violent images and listening to Old Ludwig Van as part of his social reconditioning. We’re not talking about force-feeding our favorite tunes to helpless young children here, although God help the toddler who fucks with the stereo on my watch.

Kidding, kidding. Seriously, though, it’s a heady thing to realize when they’re young that you have virtually complete control of what your kids hear. As a parent, you are able—and perhaps obligated—to create a top-40-radio-free environment for your offspring. You wouldn’t store leaky barrels of benzene in the nursery, so why would you allow strangers to fill your children’s impressionable brains with shitty music?

As the 24 longtime readers of this column know, I’m an old cuss. My daughters, known briefly and Seussically as Thing One and Thing Two, are all but grown now. And while I didn’t tape headphones to their cherubic little noggins in the cradle so they could hear the complete works of the Kinks in their sleep (well, not often, anyway), I like to think they grew up with good music playing in the house and with access to a pretty solid collection of CDs and records. Books and movies, too, but we’re here to talk about music.

My older daughter (Thing One, as you may have guessed) made the grievous error of showing an interest. This led to a long (for her), enthusiastic (for me) apprenticeship in which I tried shamelessly to clone my exact aesthetic sensibility in her mind. The younger one, seeing the gruesome fate that befell her sister, never took the bait when I’d try to catch her attention. I would nonchalantly slide a CD she might like into the car stereo when we were about to go somewhere, hoping it would lead her to listen on her own time. Alas, the conversations tended to go:

Thing Two: “What’s this?”
Pater familias: “This is the Replacements. Minneapolis band. Mid-1980s. What do you think?”
TT: “Can I put on the radio?”
PF: “Wait, check out this part … ”
TT: “Can I please put on the radio?”
PF: [Inaudible].

But the older daughter, she was into it. I’d happily discover all the Wilco CDs missing from the shelf one week, a couple of Bevis Frond discs the next. She loved the Who and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones and the Clash and the Mats and Nirvana and Pavement and They Might Be Giants and the Wrens. I took her to see the Stones and the Who, Guided By Voices and Superchunk. We met Paul Westerberg at an in-store thing. Oh, and she went out and found her own favorites, too: Moldy Peaches, Bright Eyes and really, I don’t know who all.

So when she went away to college in the fall, I felt like I’d done my job. If in these troubled times you can raise a daughter to be healthy, bright, engaging, possessed of a good self-image and almost completely Xtina free, well, you can feel pretty good about things. If she goes on to listen to lite-rock or soft-country hits later in life, well, that’s on her. We can’t live their lives for them. I thought I’d done just swell until fucking Patrick got into the act.

Patrick is my friend. He’s a good man and a great person to talk about music with. He also happens to live in Chicago, where Thing One had enrolled in college, and was kind enough to look out for her. Music was an obvious subject for getting-acquainted type conversations. The e-mails started coming almost immediately.

“How can she never have heard Traffic?”

“Didn’t you have any Zappa in your house?”

“Phil, this girl has no idea who XTC is.”

At first, I would try to be polite, which is my usual policy. I pride myself on not being one of those music snobs who shits all over civilians when they mention a band they like or, worse, a band they think I might like. I’m large-minded enough to concede the possibility that some people really, really enjoy the music of Beyoncé and Maroon 5. The younger me assumed it was all about exposure and social engineering—that people would prefer better music if they had ready access to it—but maybe not. The longest line in every food court I’ve ever been in is at McDonald’s. I get it. The point is, I’m long past the point of trying to change people’s minds.

But here I was getting a double-barreled blast of disbelief and, dare I say, scorn over my lack of Traffic records. I kept it civil: Sorry, man. Just kind of missed the boat on that one. Zappa? Love Zappa. Saw him in 1978 at the Tower Theater. Just didn’t play “Dong Work For Yuda” to my nine-year-old daughter, that’s all. There were some boundaries in Casa Sheridan. XTC? I always thought they were fine. I was never that into them. I loved Squeeze around that era, but I never really bought any XTC albums. It didn’t seem like a character flaw until I got Patrick’s e-mail.

This time, I replied with a little more edge, writing something to the effect that Andy Partridge was insufferably smug (which is true, right?) and I thought the band was overrated. All style, no heart. Something like that. It wasn’t really what I believed, but at this point, it felt as if my parenting had been called into question. What kind of man denies his children the opportunity to hear Skylarking? Did you beat them with a belt while you were at it? In fairness, I must accentuate the fact that Patrick didn’t accuse me of beating anyone with a belt. That part was in my head. Thing is, I had gotten defensive and responded by lashing out at XTC. Poor, smug Andy and the other two guys were but collateral damage.

The reality is that everyone has gaps in their cultural awareness. I only own one Dylan album. Zero by Pearl Jam. I know people who listen to nothing but Dylan, who are obsessive about Eddie Vedder. I know what they’re about, know a fair amount of their work—enough to get it, anyway. I just didn’t click with them. I own tons of Neil Young stuff. Like him better than Dylan. Pearl Jam just didn’t register while Nirvana was happening. No big deal.

It could be that I’m really bothered because my beloved first-born is now hearing great music from another source. I don’t think so. That’s been the case for a while, anyway, and besides, one of the great joys of being a parent is seeing your children blossom and grow and experience new things. So it’s cool if my old pal tries to fill in some gaps in my daughter’s musical education. He can lend her Traffic, Zappa and XTC records, and he has. The other night, in a generous and all-embracing mood, I asked Thing One how she liked that Traffic CD.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t listened to it.”

Damn, I love that kid.

—Phil Sheridan