When I found out that I was going to be a dad, I was thrilled. The word “thrilled” is so appropriate because it sounds like I was happily excited. Which I was. But the term also applies to an amusement park thrill ride. You know the kind: the ones designed to convince you that you are always on the edge of danger. That’s the real thrill of fatherhood.
Thirteen years ago? Seriously? It’s been a long time. And it’s hard to remember that far back. But I’m certain as can be that in the back of my mind, the announcement that I was to become a father was also a signpost that I’d passed any opportunity to be an award-winning musician with adoring fans. Once you’re a dad, there’s no going back to being a carefree rocker.
It’s just not cool to be a dad in rock and roll. It’s not. Fifteen years ago, when I was hiring members for a band, I didn’t want to hire a father. I was afraid a dad would not have the time to put into the project. Years later, when I had the chance to join a major label band, the manager voided my contract because he found out I had kids and was “too old” to go on extended tours. I’d argue against that (and a musician’s union actually tried to argue on my behalf), but that is certainly the perception.
As recently as last week, I ran into that same perception. I was about to go on stage for my first show with a brand new tribute band when the bartender offered me a Jager Bomb. I declined and made the mistake of saying, “My 10-month-old kept us up all night. A drink might put me to sleep.”
You’d have thought I was telling him that I was a slug alien from another planet and alcohol causes me to explode slime from every pore. “You have a 10-month-old…. KID?” he said, almost spitting out the word “Kid.” I swear he even reeled back, as if whatever affliction caused the fatherhood disease could be passed on through proximity.
“Yup. And a 12-year-old and 10-year-old, too,” I continued. The two young ladies who had been checking me out went wide-eyed with surprise and started leaning the other way.
You don’t believe me? Isn't it possible that young women in a King Street bar were checking me out? Alright, I’ll admit it—that is a bit of a stretch. We wear unique outfits for this band, so these lovely ladies were likely wondering why I was dressed that way. Still, their reaction was tangible.
I was there to do a job and had forgotten about the “dad” perception. So I took my coke—no ice—and went on stage. Forty-five minutes later we came off stage having completed the first set ever with this new band, and were immediately greeted by the bartender, along with the booking agent and the owner. We’d done well and they wanted to book us for more dates, even before we finished the night. The bartender was no longer repulsed by me, telling me I looked like I was in my 20s up there. So I continue to prove the perception wrong.
Dads can rock. I think they can. Or am I lying to myself?
Perhaps I’ve already crossed the line into “creepy old guy with a guitar.” Perhaps friends secretly look at me with a bit of sad, embarrassed pity. Some might think it would be different if I were a Rolling Stone, or even Darius Rucker . At least those guys have hit records.
Ben Bridwell, lead man for Band of Horses, lives a couple of houses down the street from me, and is as much the family man of any other dad I know. I’ll be out cutting the lawn when a song of his comes on my iPod, and then I’ll see him bike by with his kids in a trailer behind him, all three laughing. He takes them through the neighborhood for trick-or-treating. He’s just a normal dad who happens to still keep alive that dream—for him a reality—of adoring fans and songs on the radio.
Those guys were all well established before they had kids. I’ve seen a lot of guys not only give up the dream of stardom, but also give up any opportunity to play music once they have kids. I wish they wouldn't.
When my first came along, I did wonder if it would signal the end of my playing. What took me a while to learn—and yet, what my wife already knew—was that I simply couldn’t stop playing. Not only that, but that I’m a better dad when I act like a kid and play some shows or do some recording. I may only write 10 to 15 songs a year, but I keep it up. It’s too much of who I am to give up, because it just won’t leave me. Without a band, a gig, a recording project, I become irritable and distant. So when people ask my wife, “You still let him play with a band?” she replies, “It’s not for me to ‘let’ him. It’s who he is.” Oh, lawd, I really hope her friends are not taking pity on her when they ask her that.
I’m not trying to convince myself, or anyone else, that things are the same after becoming a dad. If you care about your family, there is no way things can be the same. That’s probably what people without kids don’t understand. To put it in musician language, once you become a dad, you operate with a different rhythm. Sometimes, that makes it hard to sync with anyone who doesn’t have kids.
For example, practice time is no longer time to waste. I want to get in, get the work done, have some good laughs, and get home to the family. I don’t always want to go out for drinks afterwards. Some gigs I really don’t want to do. Once there was a time that I’d do any gig, for any price, and drive any distance to do it. Now, it takes a little more incentive for me to play a gig. And even great gigs I’ll decline, if it means missing my son’s camp out or my daughter’s French horn concert.
Passing up on those opportunities makes it less likely that I’ll get those gigs again. And therefore, makes it evermore certain that I will not have the adoring fans that my 20-year-old mind imagined would be out there someday.
But the dream never stops.
I look at my dad-friends who are my age and I see them still cranking out good stuff. Joe Oestreich, who has written a fantastic book called Hitless Wonder—about being in an almost-famous rock band—is now an English teacher at Coastal Carolina and put out a very solid record with his band Watershed last year. He’s a father of two. His Watershed songwriting partner, Colin Gawel, is a father of one and has other musical projects back in Ohio. Kevin Roy is a father of one in New York and his latest band, Grumpy Old Punks, put out their hilarious second EP last year. One of my closest friends, Jason Linder, is a VP of marketing with Concord Music Group and is another father of two. A new dad-friend, Jason Galloway, has turned his musician passion into creating the South Carolina Music Guide.
You’ve likely never heard of these guys. But they are great dads, and in my estimation, rock stars. To paraphrase a section from Joe’s book, the guts are bigger, the arms thinner, and the crowds smaller than we all imagined in our younger days.
Being a full-time dad who occasionally goes to work and even less frequently plays a gig, I couldn’t be happier. Better than a hit song, I have three multi-platinum kids who constantly surprise me and make me happy. They’ve each given me moments that I hope to remember until the day I die.
One such moment was a perfect coming together of my musical past and fatherhood present. My band, Rambler 454, was invited to play at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The concert was to be an afternoon event on their outdoor stage, so families were welcome.
At the time, my daughter had to be about four, and my son was a stroller-bound one-year-old. The show was going well and I was having fun watching my wife and kids dance around outside that gleaming icon of rock history. I’m not sure why, but during one song I signaled my little girl to come up on stage with me. She was too young to do anything but try to have fun. In a red and green dress with the pigtails her mother loved to give her, she came up the back stairs and danced with me while I played. Then I nudged her to look out at the crowd. While still playing, I raised my bass over her head, leaned forward, and draped it in front of her. I called out, “Go ahead Caitlin, start strumming.” With her right hand she whacked frantically at the strings while I played the correct notes on the fretboard, trying to mute the unneeded strings.
I have no idea if it sounded close enough to the right notes or not, but my daughter smiled the biggest toothy smile. And I could say that she got to play the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What other four-year-old could say that? The moment was captured by a dozen cameras and appeared in the Cleveland paper the next day. It’s locked in my memory forever.
Then, shortly after moving here, my son saw me play at the Windjammer and acted like it was no big deal—doesn't every dad play in a rock band? Moments like that last longer than a great review or annual "Best of.." music paper parties.
For us, having a rock and roll dad in the family is normal. It’s also healthy for my mental well-being to have music as an outlet.
The drummer in my new band just became a father. And Tyler Mechem of Crowfield is about to become one. To them, I say welcome to the club. I hope whatever joy you have found with music will be multiplied 10 times by being a dad. And if you find yourself a little off-rhythm of your non-dad music buddies, don’t sweat it. Other music dads get it.
I’ve never been a star of any magnitude. But I can’t imagine anything better than when my son recently said, “You’re a great dad,” unprovoked. And he’s my biggest critic! These kids of mine are the greatest audience anyone can imagine, because I get to be their biggest fan, too.
Happy Father’s Day to all you rockers and non-rockers.
Last note: The great thing about being a rocker and having kids is that my kids are going to be darned confused when they hit that rebellious stage. What are they going to do to tick me off? Run away to join accounting firms? Stay sober and never get tattoos? I can’t wait for those threats.
(P.S. Get the book Punk Rock Dad by Pennywise singer Jim Lindberg. I was not a big Pennywise fan, but it gives a great summary of why I like punk music, the trouble with having your kid in kindergarten when the teacher knows your songs, and real-world, practical accounts of life as a music-loving dad, like what happens when you go out with the guys until 3 a.m. and have to be up with the kids at 6 a.m. Some hilarious moments honestly described. My kind of book.)