Growing Up

James O'Brien

The latest Magic Moment in Parenting I witnessed took place not at a park or in a classroom, but at that great downtown adult day-care center known as First Avenue. It was last Monday evening, around 7:30. The joint was empty, save for a new local band called Johnny Rock doing their soundcheck, bartenders replenishing their bunkers with fresh ice and clean glasses, an electrician fixing a light on the stairway, and a staffer hanging posters on the wall with all the verve of a post-nap tabby. Upstairs in the V.I.P. Lounge, which is actually just a small annex with a bar, deejay booth, dance floor, and bulletin board bejeweled with historic flyers and photos, a small crowd had gathered to celebrate the 54th birthday of First Avenue's historic flyer, Steve McClellan.

Outside, the Hard Rock Café was doing brisk business, Sun's Rock & Roll Items was going out of business, fresh rumors about Clear Channel buying First Avenue were swirling, and the painted stars on the side of the building that commemorate all sorts of revelations and rites of passage were twinkling. Farther outside still, puttering around Lake of the Isles or Payne Avenue or River Road, cars nuzzled the budding springtime with the Hold Steady's new record, which invokes the word "kid" or "kids" roughly two dozen times: "A thousand kids will fall in love in all these clubs tonight/A thousand other kids will end up gushing blood tonight/Two thousand kids won't get all that much sleep tonight/Two thousand kids they still feel pretty sweet tonight."

Steve walked into the party with his kids. His mom, sister, and brother ambled about, along with his dad, walking with a cane and wearing a hearing aid. Steve said a few nervous words to the group of friends and colleagues, then promptly tried to deflect the attention to his dad, who had recently celebrated a birthday. Then--finally, mercifully--someone threw him a life preserver, a gift he's always giving, something everyone in the room knew he'd be more comfortable with than a speech.

Linus has his blanket. Eric Eskola has his scarf. Steve McClellan has his drink tickets. They're good for free booze, and they're gold for anyone hoping for a cheap night on the Avenue. Steve usually has a fistful of them when he's at the club, which these nights isn't nearly as often as it once was. He keeps them stuffed in his shirt pocket, and every thirsty musician and any other hanger-outer in town knows the drill: Sidle up to Steve and make small talk until he hands over a couple, like a silver dollar from an uncle to a spoiled niece or nephew; a communion wafer from a priest to a Sunday slacker; or a shot of love from Minneapolis's own Johnny Appleseed, the man whom most regard as the embodiment of First Avenue, and who told Peter Scholtes in his oral history of the club last year, "I can still tell the difference between somebody who's in it for the music and somebody who's not."

This night, the stack of drink tickets--a couple of hundred at least--spread out in Steve's hand like a Japanese fan, and he reared back and laughed when they were presented to him. He's been going through some personal problems lately, going to AA meetings the way some people go to the Old Country Buffet (early and often), so the irony was obvious. Here he was, holding his drink tickets and playing the cards he's been dealt, and, in a passing-of-the-torch ritual that went largely undetected by the birthday partiers, handing the stack to his nine-year-old daughter, Lulu. "Pass these out to everyone," he said, a little flustered. And so she did, just like her dad, working the room and plastering on the adults' mugs the sort of naughty smiles that bloom at the prospect of free drinks.

You will not see this sweet vignette showing up on the Feel Good Channel anytime soon. You will not see its protagonist in any Dad of the Year contests, since those go to the superhuman moms and dads who go in for "How Are the Children?" bumper stickers, not "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student." You might even be horrified at the prospect of a man with a drinking history passing it down so concretely and cavalierly to his daughter, and, to make yourself feel better about your own problems, you might mutter something about irresponsibility and kids having kids. But for me, the exchange between Steve and his daughter was the epitome of what so much of the book The Parent's Tao Te Ching says about raising kids--namely, that the most important thing you can do is show them your world, your passion, and

Parents who hide failure, deny loss,
and berate themselves for weakness,
have nothing to teach their children.
But parents who reveal themselves,
in all of their humanness,
become heroes.

The hero-parents who were in attendance at Steve's party were mostly musicians. Since they have kids, they don't hang out at the bar as much as they used to. Instead of spending their nights drinking and deciphering sounds, they now find themselves in PTA meetings and church functions and talking to teachers and other parents and pretty much feeling like freaks, like the world is constantly telling them to grow up, trying to kill a part of them. I suppose I was heartened by the scene, and by talking with the likes of Chuck Statler and Hugo Klaers about their kids' bands, because it reminded me of all the parents I know who are making it up as they go along, all these club kids who got their educations in places like First Avenue and who temper their kids' formal schooling with healthy doses of Radio K, KFAI, and their own version of School of Rock.

Me, I've been making mix tapes for my kids lately, in hopes that they'll discover the secrets of the universe that their dad is, after much study, thoroughly convinced are unavailable through any other means. One of these days I'll introduce them to the 'Mats' "Kids Don't Follow," which will probably ensure me plenty of future mother-I-want-to-fuck-you-father-I-want-to-kill-you headaches, but it'll also give them spines and minds of their own, and will hopefully go a long way toward making sure that they grow up free, which is what any parent wants.

One of the birthday partiers I hung out with the other night was my friend P.D. Larson, the veteran music scribe who regaled me with tales of his recent trip to Chicago to see Bob Dylan, Kraig Johnson & the Program, and Neil Young, and whose cover story on the Replacements kicks off the "Art of City Pages" exhibit that went up in Calhoun Square last week. When he got home from the party, P.D. e-mailed me an article about a 43-year-old Florida grandmother and her four-year-old granddaughter whose tumultuous year was helped by the music of Lucinda Williams, whom they met after a show, and whose mother died a few days later. He ended his e-mail like this:

"What a fun b-day bash for the old Chainsaw. Thought of one of my fave Neil lyrics on the way home: 'Well, I keep getting younger/My life's been funny that way.'"


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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