The Heart of Rock and Roll

Passing down our love of music to our kids became a tug-of-war between Rush and Joni Mitchell

While pregnant with both of my sons, my husband suggested naming them after his favorite bass player. He teased that our children would have a moniker of musical triumph if we named either of them Geddy Lee. That's right: Geddy Lee, lead singer and bass player of the progressive rock band Rush. I would never saddle my kid with a name like Geddy, not only because I was no fan of Rush, but also because I would not want my kid to feel a sonic connection with them. Rush is a late 20th-century rock 'n' roll phenomena of searing, mathematical rhythms that harnessed the attention of 13-year-old boys and never relinquished them. A rock and roll tug of war ensued between my husband and my musical sensibilities and influence over our unborn children.

On family outings in the minivan, we muddled through Barney, unified in our mutual disdain, Elmo and Big Bird, and multi-CD compilations of Disney Classic Children's Songs which consumed our firstborn Steven on a daily basis. I launched a musical foundation of classic American children's songs, but acknowledged at some point, their opinions would evolve into arguments. One day, I popped a Monkees disk in the player. Down the rabbit hole we jumped. Each drive to preschool or birthday party or grocery store trip was an opportunity to insert my subtle tutelage of musical taste and subvert my husband's and thwart the middle-school revolt to death metal or angry screaming, redirecting their musical tastes forever. Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" chorus of "shoo bop bop bop bop" filled the car, and my 2-year-old son Andy, swinging his legs in the car seat, hit each "shoo bop bop" with precision and perfect pitch.

Steven and Andy sang and hammered their path to musical clarity. Carrying laundry in the basement became an exercise in balance and agility as my feet throbbed from stepping on kazoos, xylophones, guitars and keyboards littered across the floor. The once uncluttered family room was now a collection of unorganized CDs, guitars propped on the couch and toys. Not long after absorbing Joni Mitchell, my husband played the song "Anthem" by Rush. Gazing at the stereo, Andy's limbic system tilted as his fingers increased the volume and his brain absorbed the sounds into the DNA deep within his cells. As the next song began, he sat down at his plastic Target drum set gently tapping rhythms mimicking the general rhythms of drummer Neil Peart and Geddy Lee's voice. Most toddlers and kindergarteners still appreciated Barney, but Andy possessed the tastes of a junior-high school boy circa 1979. The irony was not lost upon me.

While many children obsessed over dinosaurs or baseball cards or cars, Andy discussed Rush songs and album releases with chronological accuracy. I played music besides Rush, often suggesting to Steven that he introduce new tunes to his brother to keep him from sinking deeper into the "Rush pit." Sitting on his knees on a chair in the office, Steven clicked, cut and pasted bits of U2 songs on Garageband. Five-year-old Andy posed and sneered into the mic my husband set up and belted, "Uno, dos tres, catorce," just like Bono.

But Andy possessed secrets. As elementary school progressed, he recorded rewritten lyrics of songs. "I do NOT like Lady Gaga!" he argued but one winter break, I discovered his Garageband version of "Bad Romance." His voice, tricked out on effects and years away from changing, he sang with Ms. Gaga and waited for the new DVD "Rush in Rio" my husband ordered. During the era where one could not avoid "High School Musical," I rented "Grease." As I chopped vegetables in the kitchen, Bruno Mars and The Black Eyed Peas blasted through the walls while Andy studied. Hallelujah. The red drum kit replaced the Target set and was tucked deep in the basement. An adult set would supplant the red one along with full size keyboards and guitars which were housed in what had become "the music room."

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I dozed and jolted every few minutes on the couch on Thursday afternoons at the piano teacher's unventilated home. Her uncompromising methods of teaching music theory coincided with the plastic covered couches and shag rugs. One kid's lesson continued while the other used the pre-floppy disk Apple computer she insisted was suitable for Atari-like music theory games. Within this weekly time travel, the kids learned to play piano in any key and would not view timidly a cluster of sharps and flats. Somewhere between Gap rugby shirts and college jerseys, Steven wore rock T-shirts and developed a taste for AC/DC as well as a snarky attitude accompanying the fuzz above his lip. After Steven told her he liked "The DaVinci Code" and she countered with accusations of blasphemy, piano lessons ended. Picking up his father's bass, he never looked back. My hopes of Mozart or Gershwin diminished.

Middle-school meant preparing for their bar mitzvahs and attending friends' parties. Photo montages are common and most consist of a lifetime of family vacations, birthdays and holiday pictures depicting the growth of the child through the years, set to pop tunes of the moment, complete with slick digital effects. Our montages required me to learn how to play rewritten versions of AC/DC and Rush songs on the guitar. Years passed since I balanced a guitar against my body and frittered away the weekend. My fingertips ached without callouses, and my voice no longer reached high notes. The boys mocked my awkwardness in learning songs which came so easily for them. Yet, somehow, we united as a family and recorded, and I squished myself into a pair of leather pants, only to be worn for such rock-and-roll events. After watching the video, people asked my husband if I actually played guitar on the songs. Yes!

Dragging Andy to early morning band practice grew to be a battle of wills until the band director said he needed him so badly on the drums, he could skip one rehearsal a week. When listening to Electric Light Orchestra, conversation flowed for the five-minute drive to school. However, when Andy clicked Nirvana on his iPod, he shoved the headphones in his ears and ignored any conversational attempts from me.

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We found a different piano teacher for Andy who, for the first time in his piano playing life, asked him what music he wanted to play. In a stunning reversal, he chose to focus on Beethoven, Mozart and eventually Chopin. Melody and emotion were the prime ingredients.

In high school, homework, college prep and school activities reduced our once plentiful conversations to grunts and single worded responses. When he walked in the house, I couldn't tell if it was him or my husband. But we could always discuss Rush.

"Andy, what year did 'Power Windows' come out? 1980 or '82?" I asked while he sat at the counter glued to his laptop, and I steeped my tea.

"You're thinking of 'Moving Pictures.' 'Power Windows' came out in 1985," he explained. "Remember? By the mid-80s, they were using keyboards," he said.

"Right. And 'Moving Pictures' had the song 'Tom Sawyer.'"

"See, Mom? You never thought you'd need to learn about Rush."

On a break from college, Steven sat at the counter, flipping through iTunes with a guitar on his lap. He started finger picking, "April Come She Will," by Simon and Garfunkel and shared his new discoveries of Peter Paul & Mary, Guster and Mumford & Sons. I stood on the other side of the counter, unloading the dishwasher smirking. I attempted to share that music five years earlier to no avail. Neither melodic nor musically complex, his newfound love of Bob Dylan brought a collective groan from my husband and myself. I should give Dylan another chance, he suggested. So, I did.

Somehow, the tug of war evolved into a four-way give-and-take. If I was too old to like Twenty-One Pilots, as Andy insisted, then he was too old to sing songs from "Saturday Night Fever" because his once high vocal register grew into a bass and cracked when he sang those Bee Gees falsettos. By his senior year, it was no surprise his college essay would feature Rush. "Rush has a presence in my life like a motivational speaker …"

As we ate soy "chicken nuggets" at a hipster bar during college registration week, Steven described Joni Mitchell's song "Circle Game," and the impact it made on him as I burst into tears in my craft beer. Steven says he and Andy like 30 percent of my music and 30 percent of my husband's. And 40 percent of their music, neither my husband nor I like at all. At least they listened.