There are any number of life rituals parents notice as pivotal maturations of their child(ren)’s development. Among the perennials: the first sleep-over without parents, driving lessons, the first good cry over a desperately sad movie. They all have their place. For now, my own is watching my daughter evolve her own personal taste for rock ’n’ roll and other forms of popular culture.
Parents attempt to impart all sorts of life lessons to their children, hopefully far enough in advance of a situation where those lessons are brutally imposed. Religion, daily habits, and book recommendations—“So, when are you going to read Animal Farm? It’s short, you know!”—form the bulk of that genre. If you grew up with rock music as a central part of your life, rock and pop bands become their own life lessons. They are guideposts to future aesthetic decisions.
Granted, it is hard to say that rock bands have any lessons to recommend to anyone. But if you believe that rock music, partaken of deep in the night through headphones (sorry, earbuds) has saved more than one life, then who needs to argue the merits of rock music qua music?
Listening to the Pixies, the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, and various soul and rhythm and blues tracks with my daughter, then hear her affirm them as “really cool” is, short of seeing your child grow up to win a Nobel, incredibly affirming and thrilling.
Live music takes all that glory to make it of the moment, with an incredible level of anticipation for fans. Waiting for the band to take the stage was almost as momentous as a first kiss, albeit on repeat with every concert. When I was young, it could also be a bit dangerous, thanks to the punk rock traditions of slam dancing and stage diving. Of course, my daughter was undaunted, which intrigued me enough to make me ask, “What is live rock music even like more than twenty-five years since my last rock concert?”
The occasion was a concert by the Houston-based band Narrow Head. The date was late this November. The venue was Off Broadway in St. Louis, with restrooms and a concert hall so clean and tidy it was easy to suspect its “indie creds,” as my friends used to say.
Narrow Head is what an old man such as myself would call “heavy,” as in, the musicians sound as if they’re attempting to saw through ice bergs or whole granite mountains. That is a statement of both grudging admiration and dismissal. The funny thing about aging is that it tends to make most current pop and rock music monotone and indistinguishable. Once you reach your fifties, a hard turn into something as fresh as classical music or old Gregorian chants is the fastest path to something new, ironically, even though what is new is very, very old.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of pop and rock music is the manner in which it is constantly re-invented, then mostly rejected by older generations who insist on holding dear the memory of their past favorites. I had an uncle who adored Elvis, but was horrified by the Sex Pistols and punk rock, which ascended more or less that same year of Elvis’s 1977 death. An aunt of mine adored The Beatles, but could not abide Tom Waits or Nirvana. I also remember the “Satanic Panic” of the late ’70s and ’80s, when parents were convinced their children would be led to the Devil himself by playing a Led Zeppelin album backward.
My child is less interested in chronological distinctions of so-called “style” and far more interested in the here and now. She has reached the age when a teenager’s first live rock show is not a simple reward, but an inalienable human right.
It is easy to become distressed dwelling for too long on why your child prefers this or that song, this or that band. Why does my daughter adore Narrow Head, an “alternative metal” band that sounds like the end of the world? Perhaps because like everyone else in Gen Z, she fears the end of the world due to climate change and the rabid political polarization that is paralyzing the advancement of solutions?
Watching her enjoy this concert with so much relish I was reminded just how powerless I once felt as an adolescent, how much powerlessness defines adolescence, and how extreme music—whether rap or rock—imbues the young mind with sensations of a strange kind of power. That power is, in the final analysis, mostly empty. The generation that gave us Woodstock and Motown also gave us the calamity of the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Free Concert. But that power is not meaningless. Not in the least. Watching my daughter bob her head in time to the music, her fist pumping, I saw that she was in a moment all her own, along with others who followed the same band, all in moments of their own. It was a temporary collective, a bonding with strangers by the odd osmosis of music that grabs the young consciousness at almost every corner of being. The overwhelming angst of Narrow Head’s music was fear made tangible, but also approachable. The ear-crushing sorrow of a vocalist screaming into a microphone is a sorrow made manageable because you are there to enthusiastically receive it and identify wholeheartedly with it. If that is not authentic psychic power, what is?
I was glad to see her enjoy something so much, even if the appeal was largely lost on my ears. Some parents treat a child’s puzzling tastes they disagree with as a rejection of the values they worked hard to imbue. There is plenty in this world that leads youth to destructive ends. I just do not think that rock music is one of those forces. If it were, seven decades of rock music would have by now laid waste to many generations.
To my great surprise, the band did not offer an encore. Perhaps that is only right. The emotional energy it takes to churn out such songs must be taxing. My child, by contrast, was undeniably energized. Driving her and a friend to Off Broadway to make this pilgrimage was a Christmas present, literally and figuratively. She was, in a sense, re-born into the cycle of generations marked by rock ’n’ roll. Its powers of reinvention and healing rejuvenation march on. As Neil Young sang, “Rock and roll can never die.”