East of Normal

Music to my son’s ears

I can’t always tell what my son is thinking. I often don’t know if there’s “War & Peace” going on in his head, or nothing at all. I do know he’s not a child anymore. He’s as tall as I am. Children are transparent and filterless; you can tell when they’re happy and when they’re lying. But once adolescence cloaks them head to toe, they’re inscrutable. To even guess what’s going on in their minds you have to try and remember what you were like at that age, and that’s not always a pleasant patch of Memory Lane.
     I wonder if I spent enough time with him when he was younger. He always wanted to throw a goddamn ball back and forth, and if there’s one thing that bores me beyond tears, it’s throwing a goddamn ball back and forth. I can’t throw and never could, so it reminds me of my own childhood (which is never good), and otherwise there is nothing in the world more numbingly mundane than tossing a goddamn ball back and forth. After 10 minutes of it, I would always beg off, and he would beg me to play more. Now I feel bad about that because he doesn’t want to play catch anymore, or leave his room, for that matter.
     I’m not the worst father in the world. I’ve never beaten him up, we’ve had nice, deep conversations, and we bond over rock & roll. I have a shortlist of rock icons I want him to be able to say he saw, and we’re ticking them off: Springsteen, Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, The Who, Kiss, and others to come. With ticket prices today, I had a choice — take him to shows or send him to college. I went with the shows.
     He recently wanted to see Tool, who were coming to town with Primus. I got some money out of savings and went trawling the secondhand websites, which is how we get concert tickets now, as you well know. I didn’t know Tool from shinola, but Primus I did, a bit. (They actually opened for my band Government Cheese once before they hit it big, around 1988 or so.) And so off to Bridgestone we went.
It was freezing. The roads were ice, and the place was packed. I was thinking, these guys must be good, for this many people to brave the elements and fill this place up. And these folks were excited. More than me. I was just there to bond with my son, and if I got turned on to the music, all the better.
     Primus is a trio and noteworthy for Les Claypool the bass player, who is quite the Jaco. But there was a sameness to their stuff. One song ran into the other with little distinction, not that the audience minded. And it hit me that I was a parent, grousing, “It all sounds the same. Bah!” Their last two songs (the hits, such as they’ve had any) I at least did know — “My Name is Mud” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” — and I enjoyed those.
     And then came Tool. One loud electric guitar played by a short-haired fellow, a bass played by another short-haired fellow wearing suspenders, a fantastic long-haired drummer who would have not looked out of place in Molly Hatchet, and a lead singer who stood on a riser at the back of the stage and never came out of the shadows all night. He was never spotlit. Now that’s a new move, I thought.
     I don’t know how to describe Tool’s music. It was kinda prog, kinda grunge, heavy on the thud, definitely not feel-good party stuff. But I learned that in the last couple of decades — while I was listening to “Waterloo Sunset” 8,000 times — a whole generation had come of age and this band was their mother’s milk. A drunk in the aisle knew every word. Indeed, there were times when the crowd sang the songs as loud as the band played. Some were teens, some looked almost my age.
     I got wistful. This wasn’t my band — I was too old. The audience never sat down, but I had to on occasion, because standing hurts my back. I was jealous, and mindful that there was a whole younger generation I wasn’t part of. They weren’t going to buy my records, and I wasn’t going to buy theirs. My son loved it. He was making memories, and so was I. At least it wasn’t Dave Matthews, and it wasn’t throwing a goddamn ball back and forth.