My Turn to Sing Along

Author: Jay Mootz ’83

Music that spoke to me as a teenager was not kind to my elders. “I hope I die before I get old,” screamed The Who. Later, Neil Young offered a softer metaphor: “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” I now find myself on the other side of that divide, and my 14-year-old son, Daniel, serves as a daily reminder of my fall.

Daniel began teaching himself how to play the guitar this year, and he quickly joined with some friends to form a band. Their first gig was the after-party of the eighth grade dance, which my wife, Caren, and I were strictly forbidden to attend. Hiding in the bushes outside our neighbor’s house, we whispered to each other that the boys sounded pretty good.

We decided to support the band by surrendering our garage. Other than my unprotected car being totaled by a falling tree limb during a thunderstorm, hosting a garage band has been relatively cost-free. The neighbors have remained cordial, and the Borough Council hasn’t placed us on its agenda.

In this era of downloading, file-sharing, band websites and blogs, Daniel quickly became conversant with all forms of music. The range of his interest is virtually unlimited. Punk, however, from the Ramones to Bad Religion, is one of his favorite genres. If a 14-year-old boy rapidly approaching the insanity of the adult world doesn’t appreciate punk music, who will?

Although I enjoy the intelligence of Bad Religion, the loud punk sound is a bit too much to take on a regular basis. Recently, however, Daniel has become intrigued by “folk punk,” the blending of acoustic guitar with rebellious and insistent lyrics. One of his favorites, Erik Petersen, displays an incredible range of genre and mood in his music, and his work on the guitar is impressive. Make no mistake, there is a healthy dose of “punk” in Petersen’s “folk” music.

Daniel recently made what appeared to be a reasonable request: Would we drive him two hours to see an Erik Petersen concert? The veneer of reasonableness quickly peeled away under our questioning. We learned that the concert was to be in someone’s apartment. There were no tickets, just cash contributions at the site. This was publicized through a web posting, and appeared to be entirely unconnected to any responsible commercial enterprise.

Our son’s request seemed to be a test of our ability to act as parents, to disappoint our children with steely nerves informed by years of life experience. We said yes. Actually, Caren wanted to say yes and I wanted to say no. The thought of my wife and teenage son driving to some punk apartment made my path clear: I would drive and ensure that all went well.

We arrived in town at 5 p.m. for the concert scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. The streets in the location of the concert signaled economic distress. We looked for a restaurant nearby and finally happened upon a Chinese take-out place inhabiting a former gas station, where we sat eating our MSG-infused meals at mismatched Formica tables behind curtains fashioned from various sheets. At this point Caren and I began to wonder whether we had failed this parenting test in spectacular fashion. Daniel was oblivious, talking excitedly about the Petersen songs we had played during the long car ride and attempting to give us a crash course in folk punk.

We arrived at the apartment promptly at 6 p.m. We entered a warehouse and walked up a flight of concrete stairs to the second floor. Across the way, I saw numerous Asian women toiling away on sewing machines in a large open room that contained a few beds and a television. This was not a welcome harbinger.

Caren knocked on the door, and we entered a fabulous space. Its soaring warehouse windows and old wood floor couldn’t be obscured by the dilapidated furniture, bicycles and cluttered kitchen. A young man with purple hair was sitting at the kitchen table, but the place otherwise was empty. Caren stood in the doorway and quietly asked, “Is there a concert here tonight?” The young man answered cheerfully, “I don’t know. We often have concerts here, but Jordan organizes them, and he isn’t home from work yet. I don’t live here, and so I’m not sure.”

We noted that the concert was supposed to be starting, but there was a curious lack of bands and audience. Through a smile, he advised us that the concerts run on “punk time.” We were invited to wait until something started, and so we settled in.

An interesting array of young men and a few young women began to arrive. Many of them had extensive tattoos and at least some body piercings. It was unclear to me who lived in the upstairs bedrooms and who were friends dropping by; I gathered that it might have been unclear to them as well.

Caren, who claims to be reserved, sized up the situation and began chatting with the audience members. Later she admitted that she was emulating my mother, who has never failed to find something in common with strangers she meets. Caren learned that most of the audience were college graduates who worked at day jobs to pay the bills, rode their bikes for transportation and took graduate-level courses with the professed goal of teaching school some day. They were here for a community experience and embodied a community in ways no dinner party will ever capture.

Daniel appeared to be comfortable with his parents sitting there and his mom chatting up the punks. “Are you in a band?” Caren would ask each person, leading to the quick follow-up: “Daniel is in a band, too.” It was superb icebreaking in a punk setting, which was a talent I had not known Caren possessed.

I appeared to be the only uncomfortable one, and it was days later when I realized why I hadn’t easily joined in on the conversation. Nobody outgrows their mom, but at a certain point young men differentiate themselves from their fathers in a sharp manner. I felt like an intruder on these burgeoning adult lives and on my own distant youth. A hard shell of establishmentarianism encased me, but in this environment a small part of a former me escaped and rose above the scene, viewing everything through eyes I hadn’t used in 25 years. It was what I saw in myself that caused my anxiety, a feeling the Germans capture well with the word unheimlich, meaning being unsettled, eerily out of one’s element.

We soon learned that the apartment was expected to provide food for the bands, as well as to pass the hat. Purple-hair left on a bike to get groceries. We knew from the website that the apartment was strictly vegan, and the meal preparation confirmed that fact. Pasta, sauce and veggies were prepared with all the loving care of a mom in the 1950s. Purple-hair proudly held up several bunches of slightly browned bananas from a bag and announced that he hit a gold mine in the garbage dumpster behind the store. As he quickly went to work peeling them, I mouthed to Caren across the room, “Don’t eat the banana bread!” Her look conveyed that she hadn’t understood, but I shrugged as if to say, “not important.” In the punk world, I decided, it is every person for him or herself.

That was not true, however. These kids were connected to each other and to their society in significant ways. Several of the residents worked on a project to convert cars to run on vegetable oil that otherwise would be discarded by restaurants. “Visit that Chinese place down the block,” I thought, “and you could fuel the Indy 500.” But their earnestness was beyond sarcasm. Purple-hair had traveled from a major city that was 300 miles away by bike. Now, that is commitment to a future that doesn’t rely on burning the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. As the audience members drifted in, they carried large bottles of tea, lemonade or water.

“Where’s the doobie and the beer?” I thought, disappointed that I wouldn’t have to explain to Daniel how my own activities as a youth were thoroughly unacceptable when considered in light of today’s wisdom. Instead, everyone entered quietly, carrying their healthful drinks and hugging each other like long-lost friends.

The bands arrived without much flourish. A van pulled up outside with a group of young adults who hauled musical instruments and cartons of merchandise up the steps. Caren was standing in the middle of the room when a young man strode into the place, extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Joe.” Why, I wondered, did he immediately greet the one woman who clearly didn’t fit into this picture? It soon became clear that he approached Caren precisely because she seemed out of place. He wanted to hear her story. When told that we had driven Daniel two hours to hear Erik Petersen, he smiled and said, “Moms are great. I love my mom.”

It turned out that Joe is a high school teacher who “tours” during the summer months, living on meals provided by the venue and the small amount of cash collected at the door. “I hope you brought earplugs,” he offered cheerfully. Caren hesitated. “Isn’t this acoustic punk?” she asked. “That’s Erik, not us,” said Joe, adding somewhat ominously, “but I’m sure you’ll be okay.”

I steered Caren away from the banana bread, and we sat down on two kitchen chairs off to the side. Daniel was transfixed as the band members began to set up and Joe took off his shirt to reveal an incredible array of tattoos. The first two bands were nothing but noise, energy and anger. Joe introduced each song that he sang (“This is a song about an uprising in a prison called Attica, where almost all the prisoners were African-American, and almost all the guards were white; isn’t there something f_ _ _ed up about that?”), but the lyrics were an incomprehensible blending of screams, grunts and wails.

Caren, who was enamored of Joe (in a motherly way), sat horror-struck: What could this noise possibly mean? Having not been part of an earlier excursion with Daniel and a friend to see Bad Religion and a variety of hard punk bands, her naivete was understandable. I noticed, though, that virtually everyone in the audience of 30 or so young people used earplugs. No fools here, I thought, except me and Caren.

Between the two loud and driving punk bands that opened the show, Erik Petersen arrived at the apartment with his wife, Denise Vertucci, and their two little pug dogs. Erik has a kind and open face, and he wore a fedora; his wife sported a denim skirt and black top. Neither showed any tattoos or piercings. They appeared to be . . . grown-ups. The crowd embraced them as they entered, and Daniel turned to us with a look in his eyes that said it all: “That’s him!"

Life offers unforeseen moments when one is tested. Here was my son’s hero, and all I could think was, “Stay out of his way and don’t embarrass him.” Caren, however, correctly sized up the situation and ignored my firm grasp of her forearm. After Erik hugged a number of folks and worked his way around the room, Caren went up to him and told him that our son had persuaded us to drive him two hours just to see him play. Erik was more than gracious. “My parents wouldn’t have done that,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, and he shook Daniel’s hand and made small talk. Amazing. Caren had again seized the moment by simply being Daniel’s mom. Men are supposed to be so simple: Why was this event so complicated for me?

When Erik took the stage, the evening was complete. He started with a microphone and amplifier, but he quickly discarded both and stood before the group with nothing but his acoustic guitar and his heart. It was the most riveting concert experience of my life, even though I had seen the big stage productions by The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis and many others. It was what music was supposed to be about: a connection between artist and audience that elevated both to a better place. The audience that had been head-banging just minutes earlier sat down on the floor and sang along with folk punk gusto.

Erik’s songs cover a wide range, and his audience called for him to play a variety of tunes. Daniel requested “Dirty Pennies,” and Erik noted that he almost always was called on to play this ballad of an old street lady befriended by a child who gathers coins off the street and gives them to her to help her make her way. With wonderful irony but no despair or nihilism, Erik sang:

In those burning wint’ry Decembers,
he’d pick dirty pennies off the cold street.
And while his mother was out Christmas shopping
he’d say “come on in, warm your feet,
as long as you share with me stories.”
So, she spoke of a product of war:
“My mother never knew who she could be
as my father lay drunk on the floor.”

The story took an even sadder turn. The boy grows up to be a police officer (“taught in the schools to not talk to strangers and don’t feed the fools”) who tries to move the old lady along one night and doesn’t recognize her. She dies alone in a dumpster, but the officer vaguely remembers a tale that still resonates, “So he told it to his own growing boy . . . once in a while before bed.” The song was piercing and subtle. The boy is Rousseau’s “natural man” who becomes corrupted, although not completely, by the socializing forces of modern capitalism. The glimmer of hope lies in the old tale being retold, in which we ask the next generation to listen to its message more attentively than we have managed to do.

The highlight of the night came when Erik sang “Roll Me Through the Gates of Hell,” an anti-anthem of sorts.

I am a leader, but you will not follow me.
I ain’t no preacher, for I’m full of blasphemy.
See you in hell, boys.
See you in hell, boys.

The audience sang boisterously and swayed to the music, while Erik violently played his guitar. “And at the border of utopia, I’ll toast to anarchy.” The song spoke of defiance rather than resignation; commitment rather than nihilism; community rather than isolation.

Erik happily agreed to pose with Daniel for a picture before we exited the loft in the early morning hours. The picture is now a screensaver on our computer, a moment frozen in time with my son and a performance-flush musician each smiling broadly. Driving home after the concert, an old song played clearly in my mind while Caren and Daniel dozed. The Who’s lyrics are still insisting, “the kids are alright.” Amen.

I smiled to myself as I drove through the dark and lonely night, thinking that all was right with the world. Thank you, Purple-hair. Thank you, Erik. Thank you, Daniel. I hope I die before I get old.

Jay Mootz is the Samuel Weiss distinguished faculty scholar and professor of law at Penn State Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.