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From Rebellion To Dad Rock: The Evolution Of Fatherhood In Rock ‘N Roll

You’re here, so you’re obviously a rockstar parent, but not too long ago mamas didn’t dance and daddies didn’t rock and/or roll. When rock music emerged from rhythm and blues in the 1950s, the nation’s parents reacted like your kid hearing their favorite song: hysterical, full-body freak outs set to music.

Elvis made white kids realize anyone could do black music, and made their parents realize any kid could rock around the clock and into the gutter. Rock threatened the older generation’s conservative values, and provided the soundtrack to a culture war that was still raging when an Indiana University grad student named Glenn Gass decided to finance his dream of being a classical composer by teaching the first university courses on rock history.

Elvis Presley with wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie.

Elvis Presley with wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie.

It was 1982, IU’s old guard music faculty thought rock was “musical garbage,” and parents called Gass nightly demanding to know what the hell they were paying for. Of course, the kids loved it.

Gass never realized his classical dreams, but he did live out every teenage kid’s Almost Famous fantasy. He’s a bonafide rock n roll historian, the author of A History Of Rock Music, and a member of the Education Advisory Board of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and Museum. And, as Provost Professor of Music in General Studies at the Indiana University Jacobs School Of Music, he still teaches longest-running slate of rock and pop history courses in the world. But, now, parents demand seats for the Jimi Hendrix lecture.

Here, your kid’s future favorite professor, a father of 2, explains the evolution of fatherhood in rock n roll, from “Yakety yak don’t talk back” to “Daddy’s alright” (although you still seem a little weird).


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Let There Be Rock!

In the earliest days of rock, parents loathed what they saw as a gateway to smoking, drinking, sex, and general juvenile delinquency across the board. Teenagers, being teenagers, loved it specifically for that reason — with their parents firmly on the outside, the music was all theirs. It wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but the underlying assumption of the music.

Dean Martin with his wife Jeanne and children (1966)

Dean Martin with his wife Jeanne and children (1966)

“In 50s songs like ‘Yakety Yak’ or ‘Summertime Blues,’ parents are this Charlie Brown-esque voice, never quite visible but always trying to keep you down. Rock was the force trying to pull you up,” Gass recalls. “It was the way you moved, the way you sang. Watching Jerry Lee Lewis smash a Steinway on the Steve Allen Show was like, ‘My god, that’s a powerful statement.’”

And for a while, things just sort of stayed like that. Kids didn’t want to hear Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin any more than their parents wanted to know about Cream or The Beach Boys, despite some genuine attempts by several rockers to explore parent-child dynamics.

The Summer Of 66 And Beyond

In 1966, Roy Orbison’s The Classic Roy Orbison included the track “Growing Up” about, well, yeah. That same year, The Rolling Stones sang about Valium-addled housewives on “Mother’s Little Helper,” while their rivals The Beatles released Revolver, featuring what Paul McCartney called a “kid’s story” in “Yellow Submarine.” A year later, McCartney and John Lennon, who’d both lost their mothers young and cherished their relationships with their fathers, evoked both teenage alienation and parental sorrow on “She’s Leaving Home.”


The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards with his son, Marlon Richards

Eventually, the Beatles broke up, and everyone waited for the next big thing to come along. And plenty of new stuff did, but nothing that unified an entire generation the same way that rock had. Instead of fading away like big bands and other passing musical fads, the rock hits just kept on coming. The rebellious longhairs of the 50s and 60s grew into contemplative fathers, and generations of kids grew up with rock n roll being as much a fact of life as death and taxes.

“The whole idea that to be a rocker meant rebelling against your parents is sort of ridiculous once you’re 40 or 50. You can still be angry and rebel against things in the world, but once you have kids, that changes your heart,” says Gass.


My Old Man He’s Really Alright

The passage of time revealed that change of heart for loads of artists. McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” to comfort Lennon’s son, Julian, during his parents’ divorce. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children” was a somewhat shocking take on parenting in 1970, the same year Cat Stevens released “Father And Son.” Stevie Wonder celebrated his daughter’s birth on “Isn’t She Lovely” and Bob Dylan wrote “Forever Young” for his son, Jakob; Dylan has said fatherhood changed his music and entire worldview.

In 1980, realizing how much he’d missed out on Julian, Lennon wrote “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” for his son, Sean; it’s Gass’ pick for the greatest father song ever written. There were also reflective, heartbreaking tunes like Lou Reed’s “Families,” Loudon Wainwright’s “Hitting You,” and U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” Hell, Bruce Springsteen has performed songs (and yammered on) about his troubled relationship with his father for the last 40 years.

“When those songs came out, I rolled my eyes, but now, as a father, I find it all really sweet,” Gass admits. “The way you make and listen to music changes as you grow older, which is how it should be. It happens with any great art; it’s always in motion if it’s good, and the best of rock n roll certainly is.”


The Kids Are Alright

Even the rockers’ kids have all grown up, and many have stayed in the family business. Jakob Dylan topped the charts as frontman of The Wallflowers. Jakob Nowell, son of the late Sublime bandleader Bradley Nowell, has become a bandleader as well. And in a move that surely would have made his father proud, Sean Lennon is currently touring with Primus leader Les Claypool. Other rock kids have literally filled their father’s (or godfather’s) shoes, like drummers Jason Bonham (son of John) with Led Zeppelin and Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr and godson of Keith Moon) with The Who.

“Kids don’t hate their parents anymore.”

Which brings us to today, when kids and their parents rock out together to the same playlists and actually enjoy it. Or, as Gass puts it, “Kids don’t hate their parents anymore.” Even kids’ music has caught up — kindie rock is a totally real and legitimately good genre that’s helping kids grow up with an appreciation for quality music that once required a 9-hour road trip to drill into their brains. (Bob Dylan once played nothing but Hank Williams, his first musical love, for an entire round-trip drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas to indoctrinate an impressionable young Jakob. True story. Probably.)

Bradley Nowell of Sublime with his son.

Bradley Nowell of Sublime with his son.

“My students grew up in a culture where rock n roll isn’t rebellion — it’s muzak. It’s in the grocery store, it’s everywhere,” Gass notes. “That’s a victory for rock n roll, I guess, but it’s also sort of too bad.” Still, for whatever bit of danger rock has lost, you’re much better suited to understand your kids’ emotional relationship to the music than your parents were because you lived it.

That’s why it’s totally reasonable for a 19-year-old Spencer Tweedy to go on tour with his father, Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy, aka the king of “Dad Rock,” completely voluntarily. Jeff, by the way, also played an acoustic version of “Forever Young,” at Spencer’s Bar Mitzvah, which could only have been a more Dad Rock moment if he’d been wearing cargo shorts.

“That’s a great example of embracing fatherhood and making rock n roll work in tandem; you don’t have to pick one or the other,” says Gass. “Paul McCartney talks about how he’d be writing a song, playing guitar, and his kids would tell him to be quiet. He thought it was hilarious. ‘But I’m a bloody legend!’ He’s achieved unimaginable stardom while raising, by all accounts, really wonderful kids and staying a vital artist. That’s no small feat.”