One hot July afternoon between my junior and senior years of high school, I was crashed on the unheated waterbed in my basement bedroom. Alone with my tunes. A twist of the knob to rattle the house, the thump of the drums, a base riff through the woofer.
Van Halen’s latest spun on the turntable. A crackle through the speakers as the needle touched vinyl. Then the music and I was back in the Salt Palace reliving the concert I’d attended days earlier.
Eddie Van Halen’s left hand zipped with karate speed up and down the guitar’s neck. His brother, Alex, pounded the drums. Mike Anthony plucked his bass guitar, a smile covering his face between sips from a bottle of Jack Daniels. He swallowed the last ounce to a cheering Salt Palace crowd as the second encore started. The final song put the crowd into a riot level energy release as cushions torn from chairs flew through the air. I stood on my ninth row seat, watching the fans on the floor as much as the band. The crowd was a chaotic wave, pumping and moving, connected through hard rock as the band played the hit song, “Panama”.
I was there again, a slice of teenage heaven, head banging with my best friends, singing along until my father’s yell cut through the rock euphoria.
Extrication from the waterbed was a pain in my teenage ass, but I did it anyway. I’d just rolled back into the bed when Dad burst through the door.
“What’d he say?” Dad stood over me, poised like a preacher. “Reach down between his legs and do what?”
“Ease the seat back, Dad. He says: ‘reach down between my legs and ease the seat back’”
Dad huffed off, and I made the promise. No matter what happens, I will not judge my kid’s music.
It wasn’t just my folks that hated hard rock in the eighties. It was all grownups. Every last one of them it seemed. They organized church devotionals focused on wholesome and appropriate music. They’d find a Sabbath observing music professor to speak about how rock and roll stars sold their souls to the devil for fame. Proof was offered over the pulpit in the bands names. KISS stood for Kings In Satan’s Service, or Kings In the Service of Satan, depending on what grownup was giving the lecture. AC/DC stood for Anti Christ Devil’s Children. Then the sermon would move to symbols. They’d show Ozzie Osborne with an inverted crucifix and pretend to know what the upside down question mark on Blue Oyster Cult’s albums meant. Steely Dan was the best. Steely, they told us, was a giant dildo, while Dan was a black man. It always ended the same way. They’d throw in the clinchers. What teenager would argue that The Doobie Brothers weren’t out to promote marijuana, or that a band like Black Sabbath could be anything but evil personified.
After two hours, ending with all three verses of “Come Come Ye Saints” or the equivalent, someone would pray for God to restore our better judgment. We’d yawn our way outside, unroll our car’s windows and crank Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” as we fled the parking lot.
We read magazines like Hit Parader, Circus and Rolling Stone, searching the paragraphs, for news about what music would be released that month, or what bands were going on tour.
In the end it didn’t matter. We liked our music and our parent’s worry added to the appeal.
With this backdrop, I reiterated the promise. I’d be the cool parent. The guy who might not appreciate what my kids listened to, but who would allow them to be teenagers, young and full of life, free to crank tunes without judgment.
I kept the promise religiously through the years, practicing with grunge in my twenties. When Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden eclipsed the glamrock of the late eighties, I wore flannel like everyone else.
Kurt Cobain’s prophetic suicide hurt. His lyrics swore he didn’t, but truth was: he really did “have a gun.”
We had four daughters. They grew, and I raised them on tunes from my day mixed with whatever they liked. I fancied myself a rock instructor, a parent who cared enough to educate his offspring.
As my children’s interests grew beyond my tastes, I tolerated Lady Ga Ga’s “Poker face”, Avril Lavigne’s “Damn Cold Night”, and Adele “Rolling in the deep”. I even chuckled with them when Katy Perry “Kissed a Girl and Liked It”.
The rap thing was tougher until I saw Eight Mile and Emminem’s brilliant lyrics became viewing glass into an urban life I couldn’t fathom.
So the years have zipped by with the promise intact. Then I became a writer.
I’ve enjoyed literature with my kids, even read some of what they like. They’ve patiently humored me as I’ve read chapters from my novels. I’ve taken their critiques that prove nobody cuts through dad’s bullshit faster than a teenage daughter.
My seventeen year old read Lord Of The Flies, for her English class, like I did my junior year. She gave me a copy for Christmas that I re-read over the holidays. A discussion followed. I was proud when she grasped symbolism that had sailed past me.
A few years ago, I picked up the family’s copy of Twilight. The tattered cover, sand in the margins and dog-eared pages proved how much my kids loved it.
I quit reading before page ten.
Harry Potter carried me through the first book. I set the second aside after the third chapter for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Then one night we sat down as a family to watch Star Wars.
I had an epiphany when Han Solo said, “Trust me kid. Hoki religion and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster by your side.”
I jumped up and stood in front of television. “The problem with you kids today is your books!”
“You make a better door than a window.” My oldest daughter spoke for all of them.
“Shut up and listen.”
They responded by scooting down the couch to see around me.
“All this special powers crap started with The Force!” I mocked. “You can’t move objects with your mind.”
“We get it dad,” one of them said.
“No you don’t. Luke and Harry Potter. They all suck!”
A twenty five year old synapse connected inside my brain as distinctly as a water bed’s wave. I swear it sounded just like Dad. “Read about real people. Han Solo doesn’t need the force!”
Karma hit me as I walked away, like my dad once did, from children who had already dismissed my sermon.
Technically, I guess, I’ve kept the music promise. But if asked, I’d gladly proclaim my thoughts over a pulpit about today’s lousy fiction.
I tease dad about how the decades have brought vindication. The satanic music of the eighties is now classic. “Crazy Train” starts the second half for college basketball games. Teenagers become “street-light people” at school dances. A hundred kids yelling “We’re Not Gonna Take It” twenty five years after its release proves my first instinct.
I knew as a teenager the sermons and lectures weren’t about saving me. It was about adults who hated electric guitars and loud music; today my scorn for stories about teenagers with superpowers is just as strong.
Tonight I’ll turn out the light and cover my youngest daughter who will probably fall asleep with a Harry Potter book in her hands. I’ll mark the page with a business card and kiss her forehead.
Before working out, I’ll stuff skull-candy buds in my ears. The Ipod’s crackling scroll now music’s precursor instead of needle on vinyl static. I’ll run on the treadmill, sweating to Hard Rock, wisped from middle age, to arenas and concerts, to bonfires and parties and all the way to my basement bedroom and thoughts of Dad, who, like me, thinks Han Solo is the better role model, because real men don’t need the force.