Watching the kids.
by Tom Neal on October 21st, 2008
I want to write this right. I want to refrain from typical, prideful, parental gushing. After all, who really wants to hear the beaming, boasting Dad who goes on and on about watching his kid excel on the athletic field or making all As or bagging their first trophy deer? Not me. But Dino pretty much said I had to write this! (And no one says you have to read this.) So …
Parents witness all sorts of proud moments, times when their kids shine. But what I’m thinking and feeling is less about shining, and more about carrying on, embracing a tradition, making a connection with something intrinsic and personal.
Recently, I watched my son Ian play lead guitar as he and his friends in Freedown opened the show at the Fillmor for Scott Holt (a national act!). A long way from their one-song gig a year ago at the East High School variety show. Back then, the kids were nervous … and so was I. It can be unsettling to put it out there in front of people. I sat in that auditorium and dreaded the possibility that they would murder (and not in a good way) Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. But they came off well and the crowd liked them. I was relieved, and pleased. But it’s just one tune.
In short order, Dino asked if they’d like to open for Scott Holt in Woodruff in March of this year. Yes! They had three months to prepare a set list and pull their chops together. Long story short — they put on a great show in the smoky bar and even jammed with the headliner. Thankfully, they’re not into screaming and rapping and being all negative and Goth. They play rock. Good rock. Maybe what you’d call progressive alternative rock.
From there, it’s been teen nights at the Fillmor and Rockwater, a gig at the Harley dealership for the Big Ride, a long night at a bar in Park Falls. The boys have been paying their dues. Timbuk 3: “Things are goin’ great, and they’re only gettin’ better!” Increasingly, their tunes are tightly arranged, polished, with shifty changes, breaks, bridges, interplay, melody, power, physicality, even humor.
For this Fillmor show, as usual, Ian expressed no apprehension beforehand, no nervousness about being watched by a large “barful” of people. Freedown practices a lot, honing their craft, creating new tunes and arrangements. They have achieved a level of confidence that comes across on stage. They’re almost blasé. Cool.
I, on the other hand, still get the pre-show jitters. Am I living vicariously? Or just being a dad? I rush over with a pocketful of picks because Ian forgot to bring any. Agonize that there won’t be a good-size crowd. Worry that the sound will be bad, that his guitar won’t be loud enough. Hope that he’ll have fun. Hope that people will enjoy and applaud. Fear that the band will be ignored. I don’t want the kids to be disappointed.
Finally, Dino does the introduction and they break into their first number. For me, it’s not like watching a raggedy garage band or typical high school or bar cover band; to me, it’s more like a performance, a concert. And I’m glued to my spot, everyone and everything else just seems to “go away.” I watch every move, listen to every note, anticipate how a guitar lick will finish out, or zero in on drummer Danny’s spot-on fills. After the first tune, I erupt in applause. I make loud noises, like, “Wooo!” and “Yeah!” as if to draw everyone’s attention to the enormity of what’s happening on stage. “Everyone! You must give this your attention! Don’t miss this!” I want everyone to know that my kid’s playing the guitar, but have to settle for knowing that only a handful in attendance are aware of the fact. Next tune: I’m literally feeling a tremble, heart flutter, whatever the heck it was. Adrenaline? Vodka? Pride? Best of all, I snap out of my trance, look around and see virtually everyone’s eyes glued to the stage. Heads bobbing. Smiles and nods of affirmation. I see a professional bass player standing near me in rapt attention with a big grin. I talk to Ian’s former guitar instructor, who obviously is impressed. They play like grownups, cool grownups (sort of a rare animal), and these kids are barely 17. I’m humbled by them. My high school band was never this cool! But that’s okay. I’m a fan.
At risk of sounding like a dumb lyric, I have to say that I was raised on rock. I never grew out of it, never let it go. I think it has a magic quality to it … when it’s done well. It can also be dumb. And in many cases, too many, it is dumb to the extreme. But here, I feel a sense of fulfillment — something is happening that constitutes a cultural continuity, another generation of kids who actually “get it” when it comes to rock. They’re not rejecting or trashing tradition; they’re embracing it, and building on it. And my kid is right in the thick of it.
So, here’s my son; I have a photo of him at about age two “playing” a guitar of mine on the couch, I gave him his first guitar and first lessons, his first listen to Led Zeppelin III, his first ticket to a Rolling Stones concert, his wah-wah pedal. He’s playing well … heck, he’s killing. Better than I ever was, by far. I think to myself, he’s a natural. But that implies some sort of freakish, unfair advantage. Truth is, he’s been exposed to music all his life, been encouraged without being pushed and been supported when he decided to pursue it. But, really, this is all his own doing. He’s worked hard at it. Researched it. Internalized it. And it is paying him back with interest.
He has told us that he’s never happier than when he’s playing. It’s right up there among my happier moments too, to see and hear him having so much fun. And I sense the band’s joy is infecting the people in the crowd. These older people. Watching the kids.
Afterward, after their encore, he walks up to me lugging his amp. I give him a hug, say the band was great. He says he screwed up in about six songs. He’s almost embarrassed. Mostly, he’s like a laborer that just got off his shift. Tired. Spent. Hungry. But it’s also evident that he is living a dream.
It will be similar for Jane and me next week when Ian’s younger sister Molly dances in Wausau Dance Theatre’s Thriller. Maybe I’ll cajole Jane into writing about how it feels to see her little girl on stage, being a dancer, enjoying performing for a packed Grand Theater, after weeks of rehearsals.
These are the moments. This is what it’s all about.