Music nights

Through sharing his favourite tunes with his kids, this dad finds he's learned a lot too

“I think he should go,” said my eldest daughter, Moira, with a look of deep contemplation on her freckled face.

“Excuse me?” I said, confused, putting down the dishes I was washing and turning to her.

“I think he should go,” she said again, pointing to the radio perched on the refrigerator where “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash was thumping out at a fair volume.

“Oh, I see,” I said, nodding. “Why?”

“Well, he says if he goes there will be trouble, but if he stays there will be double. He should go,” she reasoned.

There you have it, Mick Jones. Problem solved by an eight-year-old.

Music Nights

It was Tuesday, which means it’s rock and roll at dinnertime in our home in Port Stanley, Ont. It’s part of a six-year tradition of Music Nights for Moira, now 10, her nine-year-old brother, Liam, and their sister, Erin, seven.

Mondays are reserved for classical music (opera included). On Wednesdays, it’s swing and classics from the Great American Songbook. R & B and soul take the stage on Thursdays. Reggae and other summer music warms our kitchen on Fridays. There’s an eclectic mix on weekends and, periodically, I throw in other genres.

Thanks to a fairly extensive (legal) music collection, it’s easy with computer playlists and the iPod.

The impact of Music Nights has been immeasurable. Among Erin’s first handful of words was “Marley” — in gleeful recognition of a song by reggae legend Bob Marley. “Oh, great,” I said, turning to my wife, Laura. “A Rasta toddler. I can’t wait until she starts school and we get a call from the kindergarten teacher questioning our lifestyle.” You should know we love Marley’s music, but we don’t indulge in his other passion.

When Liam was about five years old, he didn’t just have an imaginary friend, he briefly had an imaginary band, fronted by a guitar player he told us was named Fire Explode. I don’t even want to know the drummer’s name.

An introspective child, Liam is something of a popular music savant and historian who can name songs and artists before the singing even starts. If you hadn’t already guessed from the incendiary axe man in the imaginary band, Liam’s favourite night is Tuesday, when the raucous beat travels some 60 years from Bill Haley & His Comets to The Killers and Vampire Weekend. He adores The Beatles most, but his music idols are broad and varied.

Erin, the bouncy blond with huge blue eyes, has developed a passion for all things summer. It suits her. She still loves reggae, along with Jimmy Buffett and power pop masters Fountains of Wayne, but reserves a special love for the five-part harmonies of The Beach Boys. Erin’s favourite part of each night is dancing around the table after dessert.

It is fitting Moira first gravitated toward ’60s soul, a musical passion to match her personality. She is an oft-fiery redhead with a heart as big as the ocean. Her first CD was Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits. Apart from being a brilliant first choice, Franklin is perfect for any parent who worries about the body-image issues of daughters who fall for any of a bevy of half-naked seductresses masquerading as musicians.

The Power of Music

My children roll their eyes when I get a bit too sentimental about the power of music. “Soul is honest music that comes from the heart,” I have been known to proclaim. “Listen to that voice. You know he’s speaking the truth.” But I notice they’re still bobbing their heads ever so slightly to the Motown beat.

Apart from Music Nights being an artistic exercise and my slightly warped attempt at a Mozart Effect, lessons in geography, history, culture, even civil rights have been applied to the soundtrack of our meals. We all know music can help children with math, if we forgive Bono for shouting, “One, two, three, 14” in Spanish as the count-in for U2’s hit “Vertigo.”

Really, all that matters, I say ad infinitum, is whether my children like what they’re hearing.

Naturally, I have to be careful, since modern music is filled with obscenities. There have been close calls. Moira is perpetually miffed because I won’t put a copy of Sheryl Crow’s song “Steve McQueen” on her iPod. That song has been banned in our household since I had to dive for the volume seconds before little Ms. Potty Mouth dropped the S-bomb.

Moira digests lyrics, remember? Besides decoding The Clash — which is no easy task given the din and the British snarl — Moira once also had some advice for The Beach Boys. As they sped toward the chorus in “Surfin’ USA” with the line “Tell the teacher we’re surfin’…” Moira looked annoyed and shouted, “No way, Beach Boys. You tell the teacher yourselves!”

Liam is more concerned about the musicians than the words. Every time I introduce the kids to a new artist, he asks, “Is this person still alive?” Sadly, the answer more times than not has been “no.” But even death can be turned into an educational opportunity — for us all.

Asked once how Elvis died, I gave them a curt answer they still repeat years later, to my chagrin. “Elvis ate junk, got fat and died,” I said before completely thinking through the answer. Liam still cautions his sweets-loving little sister to go easy on the treats lest she end up like Elvis, which pretty much nullifies any positive body-image impact Aretha Franklin has had on them.

As for how John Lennon died, I have been more guarded for fear that the ugly truth will break my son’s heart. “He had an accident” is all that I have told him, hoping to let him revel in his innocence just a little while longer.

The point of Music Night is not to force my kids to like my music. I just want them to know so much incredible music exists in the world. Before the inevitable teenage rebellion begins and the strong pull of peer-pressure-based conformity takes hold, I hope they will have a foundation on which to make their own, informed, music choices.

That’s how I justify it to myself, anyway. In truth, I’m just sharing my passion and building memories. At least we eat together every night, without watching television.

When I was a kid, I always ate dinner with my family at exactly six o’clock. CBC Radio was the sound of my mother’s kitchen.

My father controlled the stereo in our living room and filled the nights with Mozart and Donizetti and Verdi. Back then, to me, opera sounded like cats being tortured. Instead, I fell hard for the siren songs of Lennon and McCartney — much to the consternation of my parents.

It’s inevitable that my children will reject my music too. But I’m OK with that. I have the memories.

My three kids have danced on my feet to Frank Sinatra, been my backup singers for “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and ridiculed the synthesizer-heavy cheese of the ’80s music of my high school days.

Recently, we made our first — and likely last — trip together to a huge record store. (Most of the big ones are now on death row thanks to downloading.) Liam, in particular, was enthralled. He scoured the CD racks for artists he knew, desperate to pick out his first CD purchased with his own money. When he finally found it, he literally leapt with joy. In his hands was the self-titled debut album by the Ramones, an epic punk rock recording.

Like a father watching his child ride away on a bike for the first time without training wheels, I’ll admit I choked back a tear.

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