Recently, The New York Times published a letter mimicking a famous MasterCard commercial: "Price of two tickets: $190. Parking: $15. Two cokes and a popcorn: $12.50. Two tour T-shirts: $50. Taking a ten-year-old to his first Bruce Springsteen concert: priceless."
It was unclear whether the author meant this missive facetiously, but one can only hope so. After all, to think your child could experience the same thrill you did when you first saw Bruce Springsteen is to completely misunderstand the importance of context in rock 'n' roll.
This is not to say that rock is dead, moribund, or even passé. It just holds an entirely different place in the zeitgeist now.
At first, parents didn't know about rock 'n' roll, which became part of its great appeal. Today's parents, however, do. Many are better at keeping up with current bands than their children, speed-dialing KFOG to request the new White Stripes track while their kid begs them to change the station to KFRC. Entire clans now attend Springsteen shows the way families used to go to football games, and moms drag their daughters to free Patti Smith concerts in the (fallow) hope of destroying their kid's love of Britney Spears.
Meanwhile, parents of small children often feel about Barney the way Tipper Gore wanted us to feel about NWA.
For that type of parent -- and their name is legion, especially in Berkeley -- Dan Zanes has become a savior whose work is essential to every family CD rack. Zanes, who formed the seminal Boston alt-rock band the Del Fuegos in the early '80s, is currently kid rock's leading light.
On his six self-made, self-distributed records (including Rocket Ship Beach, Family Dance, and this year's House Party), Zanes has mined the annals of folk music for kid-friendly -- and rock-friendly -- music, performed with famous guests like Aimee Mann, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega, and Sheryl Crow. He employs traditional blues, bluegrass, sea chanteys, and folk for his fare -- songs from Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" to Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" -- in addition to writing his own ditties. Touring the country as Dan Zanes and Friends, he then encourages parents to bring their kids for concerts intended to please listeners of every age.
In short, to parents who love rock 'n' roll, Zanes really is the new Bruce Springsteen -- or perhaps more accurately, the new Minutemen or Hüsker Dü. That's why his two upcoming shows at Zellerbach Hall this weekend have created such excitement among young East Bay parents.
Zanes says he has no axe to grind with kid rock in general: His daughter Anna listened to Barney when she was little, and he isn't out to make her the next Ben Kweller, whose grunge band Radish got signed when he was just twelve. Instead, the idea for making kid rock, Zanes says, began when he began thinking about the environment he wanted Anna to grow up in.
"I guess there's a lot of people who envision the ideal home life as being a house with the Clash playing on the stereo all the time," Zanes says. "But what I wanted her to have was a house where musicians came and went. Where people sat in the kitchen playing guitar and laughing and dancing."
That, he says, was the kind of house he himself grew up in, in New Hampshire. "Our mother was pretty bohemian. We grew up listening to folk, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Dylan, and the Band -- all the things leftie liberal parents in the '60s played for their kids."
Thus, as a teenager Zanes had trouble with "modern" rock. Bowie and Zeppelin left him cold; punk, he admits, "was so much noise." Instead, he liked Jan and Dean. "It wasn't high concept, it was soulful, and it made me think. 'I could do this too.'"
So Zanes formed the Del Fuegos with his brother, Warren. The band signed to Warner Bros. -- who hyped them to the skies -- but the Fuegos' garage-folk ethos arrived about twenty years too early. In retrospect, Zanes isn't surprised the Fuegos didn't make it: they were utterly out of sync not just with punk, but with rock itself.
"To us," he notes wryly, "the spirit of rock was like folk music or early hip-hop. It was part of everyday experience. To me, the biggest message of punk was that it didn't have to be about leather pants and colored lights and enormous stages. It was something anyone could do, and that is our message today, too. When you play music for your kids, you can easily put yourself into the equation."
Ironically, one of the many rocks the luckless Del Fuegos foundered on was a Miller beer commercial in which Zanes declared that "Rock 'n' roll is folk music -- it's made for and by folk." In the days before commercial endorsements were considered de rigueur for hip bands, the Fuegos permanently alienated the entire rock cognoscenti by "selling out."
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