Maybe I Can Raise a Jack White or Two

At a Jack White concert

At a Jack White concert

Sometimes, when I feel guilty that my children aren’t getting enough attention, I just remind myself that maybe that will make them turn out as cool as Jack White.

Mr. Okayest and I recently attended an incredible Jack White concert. Best date night ever. I’m still there in my head.

Jack White, founder of The White Stripes/ Raconteurs/ The Dead Weather / solo stuff/ Third Man Records, is one of my favorite guitarists. Even if you don’t care for his music, you may have to agree with me someday that he is ground-breaking and influential. (He already ranks on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitarists of all time list, and he’s still in his thirties!) In this digital world, Jack White is into preserving the analog sound. (Did you know he is on the board of Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Foundation? Me neither.) He built a plywood/ Coke bottle ELECTRIC guitar in five minutes on the documentary “It Might Get Loud” and then wrote a song in less than ten minutes. I’m no musician, but I love his sound AND I love his minimalist style.

He was the youngest of ten kids. Maybe he became such a free-thinker because he didn’t get enough attention. Benign neglect.

He says,

“I never wanted to play guitar. Ever. Everyone plays guitar. What’s the point? I’m the youngest of ten kids. There was just always stuff around- a microscope, a power tool. When you’re in a family of ten kids, it’s just a given that you’re going to be sharing all day long – you get hand-me-down clothes, hand-me-down-toys. Different interests and everyone’s in and out all the time. Some people are walking to work; some people are taking the bus. Competition, fighting for food, you push each other over, you muscle your way into situations. My brothers, a bunch of them were musicians – bass, keyboards, played guitar. I got really into drumming, playing along with the records. Those rhythms got into me early. I had a bedroom that was about 7×7 feet. Really small. I had two drum sets in there, a guitar, an amplifier, a reel-to-reel, and no bed. I took the bed out. I slept on a piece of foam, on an angle by the door.”

He muscled his way into things that he liked, and he had free time to be passionate about the things that he liked. There was just… stuff… lying around, begging for him to get all creative on it.

Would I let the my kids play with power tools? Would I let them throw out their beds to make room for drums? Would I ignore them enough that they had time to build a Coke bottle guitar?

I bet Jack White’s mom didn’t worry about that stuff.

From It Might Get Loud, the 2008 documentary by Davis Guggenheim, starring Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page (my three favorite guitarists all together!)

110 Decibel Lullabies: Memories of a Loud Childhood

My dad and my baby brother, circa 1989, with Jimi between them.

My dad and my baby brother, circa 1989, with Jimi between them.

This cartoon was taped into my baby book in 1979.

My mom taped this cartoon into my baby book in 1979.

My lullabies were 110 decibel Led Zeppelin songs. My dad didn’t turn it down for bedtime. I sang along to lyrics that were naughtier than I knew. (But I also changed the lyrics to fit my childhood brain.) I heard my name in “Good Times Bad Times”. I swear, from a very young age, I heard my mom and/or Robert Plant screaming my name in that one. By the age of seven or eight, I knew the difference between 1970s Rolling Stones and 1980s Rolling Stones. I could tell the difference between the Beatles and George Harrison’s solo work. I had seen Roy Orbison perform.  I knew what a Marshall half-stack was. I could tell the difference between a Les Paul and a Strat.  I inherited none of my parents’ musical talents, but I certainly have a brain full of classics and warm/odd memories.

Everyone has memories attached to music and songs. But nobody, of course, has memories like mine. Hearing “Harvest Moon” makes me feel like it’s really late and I am lying in bed and my dad has put the guitar away for the night. He’s just sitting on the couch with my mom while the vinyl spins. Hearing “Cinnamon Girl” makes me feel like it’s a Saturday afternoon band practice and I am watching the band from our basement steps. The music is so loud that my heart is vibrating, just like at a concert. Sometimes the toaster vibrated across the kitchen counter, and one time it walked right off the counter.

Sometimes band practice spilled over into Sunday morning, and my mom and I may have stepped over a sleeping band member a time or two on our way to church. (Interesting tidbit: my mom played the piano at church. Life was a beautiful dichotomy.)

music lover baby

Okayest Mom, circa 1980, loving record albums already…

My childhood was so loud. My mom and I couldn’t answer the kitchen phone, because we couldn’t hear a thing anyone said anyway. We watched a lot of TV shows on mute, because there was no point in having sound. Each TV show had a classic rock soundtrack. We didn’t mind at all – it was just the way it was. When we gave up answering the phone or watching muted TV, we would just sit in the music room and watch my dad practice. My mom and I snuggled on a chair together while he played. I remember sucking my thumb (which I stopped doing on my fourth birthday) while cuddling my mom before bed. My dad was playing guitar and the enormous sound was everywhere, in my whole body. That was relaxing to me. That was how I got sleepy for bed.

My parents never treated music as “background” to anything. Music was something that was enjoyed first-person in our house. It deserved to be the focus of our attention. It deserved to be loud. It deserved to be the featured guest. Besides, playing it quietly makes you miss some of the good stuff. Have you ever heard the beginning of “Time” by Pink Floyd really really loudly? Well, I have. Whenever my dad tested his speaker systems, he put that clock-ticking intro on to calibrate something, I think. The booming bass would shake my little skinny kid body, and I loved it.

My handmade sound system and small record collection, protected from my “quadruplets”.

My dad built speaker systems from scratch. He was a carpenter by trade, and carried his skills over into his love for music. He never had any musical training, as far as I know, but he has audiophile ears and a craftsman’s hands that can build speaker systems to blow-dry your hair – and still make you hear ticking clocks like never before. He designed his music room to have optimal acoustics, and then built it. As an adult in my own home, I have custom-built speakers and a subwoofer, built as presents by my own dad. They are definitely gated off from my “quadruplets”.

The sound system shows off my vinyl record collection quite nicely, but it also shows off my iPod quite nicely. I don’t think my dad approves of me sending compressed digital files through his babies. Sorry, Dad. My dad has a record collection that gives new meaning to the word “collection.” He likes to say that his house couldn’t burn down – it could only melt down. He also told me he pities me when he dies and I inherit thousands of pounds of vinyl. Record albums are precious to audiophiles because they each sound different, depending on the weight and pressing and other things that my kid brain can’t remember. A person like my dad is going to need seven different pressings of “Sticky Fingers” because each pressing will sound unique. Much of that richness and variation is lost in our digital age. (By the way, Neil Young has been trying to solve this problem for years. He has been developing a superior digital music format to replace what we currently use.)

My husband loves my record collection and our homemade sound system. Of course, my record collection is itty-bitty, compared to my father’s. It’s just a sampling, really. I gathered it over many flea-market and thrift-store scavenges with my dad, when I was in high school in the 90s. I take great pride in my little collection. I have one problem: I don’t play it. My husband realized early on in our marriage that I had this strange habit of waiting for him to select the music. It’s a very odd habit that I seemed to have formed from being the offspring of a musician. Apparently, I wait for a man to DJ my life. Not proud of that, but, there it is.

I love vinyl. I’m no musician, but I can hear at least some of the sound quality, and I love it. However, I have no idea how to make music be the featured guest in my house of four children, ages four and under. They are always the featured guests. There is no sitting still to listen to the subtleties of music, and I miss that. However, we do have “dance party” several times a week, where we blast some compressed digital files through the homemade subwoofer (again, my apologies to Dad and Neil Young), and the kids dance with me until we fall down. They especially seem to like Black Keys and Black Sabbath right now.

My kids may not have as many musical memories as I do. They may not know the difference between a Les Paul and a Strat. They may not have 110 decibel Zeppelin lullabies. But, they do know how to headbang as soon as they can stand. They do know how to treat a guitar with respect as soon as they can walk. They do stop whatever they are doing when their father breaks out the acoustic. They probably won’t know what a CD is, but they already know what a vinyl records does. Let’s just hope they can hear the difference!

***

(Just for the “record”, all memories have been filtered through my kid brain and I am solely responsible for my errors. I am not a musician, and I’m sure my dad will have to correct me on a few things.)

A 3-Day-Long Conversation with my 3-Year-Old about Patti Smith

The record album wall above our TV

My three-year-old noticed the framed album cover of Patti Smith hanging on the wall. It’s been hanging there, right above the TV, for his entire life, but I guess he just now saw it. It’s the one of her “Easter” album from 1978, where she is showing some armpit hair. It’s a little memorable, I guess. I remember seeing it in my dad’s music room when I was a kid too.

What followed was a three-day-long conversation with a three-year-old about Patti Smith. It included some dancing, some guitar-playing, and some temper tantrums. You know, the usual. A typical day in our house.

Day 1, while watching TV:

R: Who dat, Momma?
Me: That’s Patti Smith. She is a musician. Wanna hear her music?
R: Yes. [Listens] I like Patti music. She come our house?
Me: No, she doesn’t come to houses. She just makes music for us to hear.
R: Please? Maybe someday? In two days?
Me: No.
R: I like Patti music. [Dances. Gets guitar.] You like Patti music, babies?!

Day 2, first thing in the morning:

R: I want to hear Patti music!
Me: Ok, go pee-pee first.
R: Patti come our house now?
Me: No, sorry.
R: [cries]

Day 3, sometime during the babies’ naps:

R: Can we listen to Patti?
Me: When the babies wake up.
R: Why?
Me: Because the music would wake up the babies.
R: We need to go in the car to see her. She’s far away. We can go on Wednesday. We can see her ‘nother day. Yeah momma.
Me: I don’t know where she lives.
R: We have to get there. We can get there later. We can go later. Maybe she’s at her house.
Me: Where’s her house?
R: She’s far away.
Me: What would we do when we got to her house?
R: We have to get there, to the right. Go right. We need to see her one time.
Me: Would she play music when we got there?
R: Yeah.
Me: That would be pretty cool.
R: Yeah, that would be pretty cool. I could bring my guitar. To sing too. I want to see Patti on the ‘puter. Let me sit on your lap. Show me Patti now. That would be pretty cool to sing with Patti. I can play guitar with her.
[We google some Patti Smith pictures.]
Me: See? There she is with a microphone. There she is with a guitar.
R: I want to see more Patti! MORE!!!
Me: No, we’re all done. I have to go clean up now.
R: [screams] I’m NOT all done! I want to see Patti again! NEVER!
Me: Don’t yell at me.
R: NEVER!
Me: Time-out!

I have seen Patti Smith perform at least twice. Maybe three times, but I have a terrible memory. One of those (two or three) times, I was in the front row at the 9:30 Club in DC. She kicked the microphone stand over on purpose, and some geek next to me picked it back up for her. Then, she pretty much kicked him. In the face. With her Doc Martens. Holy wow, best day of my teenage life. Then she picked her nose because she said the boogers made her off-key.

Patti, if you’re reading this, I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!