pre-school rock

[a topic now at the front of my mind - Dan Zanes fills me with terror]

New York Times Magazine -January 29, 2006

Preschool of Rock By NEAL POLLACK

Elijah’s first birthday party was on Halloween. Regina prepared a bowl of green punch that contained a translucent glove filled with red Jell-O. For the grown-ups, we stocked the larder with Shiner bock beer, a deli tray and good-quality fruits and cheeses. The kids grazed off their parents’ plates.

There was a lot of crawling, grasping and drooling. Usually that doesn’t happen at my parties until the end. My job at the party, other than to feed a cupcake to Elijah for the inevitable chocolate-all-over-the-mouth photo, was to entertain the dads. I did this by playing records. Good records. My records.

Two dads were more interested than the others: Shannon, who had a daytime copywriting job but refused to let his 6-month-old son, Emmett, get in the way of his dream of doing avant-garde improv comedy, and my neighbor Jennings, who had been in a popular indie-rock band in Iowa. His son, Eamon, was 2. Jennings claimed that Eamon’s favorite band was Devo. To prove his point, he said: “Hey, Eamon! Are we not men?”

Eamon turned and quickly replied, “We are Devo!”

I found this pretentious but also, admittedly, kind of thrilling. When the gift-opening was over, I bragged to Jennings and Shannon that Elijah really appreciated the music I played for him. To prove this, I put on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Greatest Hits” album. They approved. “That’s a great idea,” Shannon said. “Stevie Wonder would be good, too.”

In the months that followed the party, I began an extracurricular program for Elijah. It was a kind of rock ‘n’ roll home school. I called it Music Hour, and it went a little something like this. We began each Music Hour with a VH1 compilation album from 2000 called “For the Kids,” one of the earliest musical examples of hipsters trying to hang on to a shred of their dignity after waking up and discovering that they were parents. The opening song is the band Cake doing a cover of “Mahna Mahna.”

Elijah danced around to this for a while. Then I ejected the CD. The only other songs on it that were even remotely worth considering were the Barenaked Ladies singing “La La La La Lemon” (though Elijah explicitly disdained that cut) and a lovely Sarah McLachlan cover of “The Rainbow Connection.” I generally used that one as a tender cool-down song. Otherwise, we had the likes of Darius Rucker from Hootie and the Blowfish singing “It’s All Right to Cry.” Hell, no. There was also a number from the ubiquitous Dan Zanes, the frosty-haired, drippy-voiced Woody Guthrie for kids of parents who want to think they still know something about music but would secretly be happy listening to nothing but Norah Jones for the rest of their lives. Dan Zanes couldn’t fool me, though.

Next came the Aquabats, a ska ensemble from Southern California whose members dress like superheroes, fight monsters onstage called Dr. Space Mummy and Powdered Milk Man and sing songs with titles like “The Cat With Two Heads” and “Captain Hampton and the Midget Pirates.” They’re actually pretty annoying, but they’re fun enough, and were perfect for my purposes.

Then I turned down the stereo. “Elijah, now is a very special time in Music Hour.”


“Pay attention.” I fingered a CD. “At this time, we leave the world of the Aquabats behind us, and suddenly, Music Hour becomes the exclusive domain of” - I pushed play - “polka!”

I had a brief early-90’s fixation with a band called Brave Combo, from Denton, Tex., which specializes in psycho-polka and klezmer. Elijah’s Music Hour favorite, far and away, was the band’s cover of “Happy Wanderer.” This is probably because, from the first note, I scooped him up and twirled him around the room madly and sweatily, as if this were 1950’s rural Wisconsin and he were my girl.

After more than a year of Music Hours, Elijah was truly ready to rock. I reviewed my collection carefully and decided on the Hives. The songs are short, loud, silly, melodic and not particularly complicated. My instinct proved instantly correct. When Howlin’ Pelle Almquist opened the song with a guttural scream, Elijah recognized the sound from direct experience and howled back. He began to flap his arms and run in a circle.

“That’s good, Elijah. You’re rocking out!”

“Rock out! Rock out! Thunder music, Daddy! This is thunder!”

Yes! He got it! It was thunder. I bounced along with him. He looked at me and, flapping his arms madly, left the ground and launched himself at my midsection. I caught him and threw him back. He landed on his feet. Then, gently, I launched myself into him. My son and I were moshing! Awesome! “We’re moshing, Elijah! Let’s mosh!”

“Mosh! Mosh!”

From there, I branched out, quickly discovering that my son likes his “thunder music” fast and loud. Sometimes, though, I couldn’t understand his choices at all. He found the White Stripes ponderous, but happily thrashed his head to the original Black Sabbath version of “Iron Man.” He particularly liked the Max Roach drum solo on a Dinah Washington album. And then one day he said, “I wanna hear the Ramones, Daddy.” I nearly wept.

Neal Pollack is the author of “Alternadad,” a memoir about parenthood, which will be published by Pantheon.

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