Rock ‘n’ Roll Coochie Coo

Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When rock ‘n’ rollers have used the word “baby” over the years, it’s been a term of affection or seduction, as in the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” or Bread’s “Baby I’m-a Want You.”

For a growing number of today’s rock musicians, however, baby talk is less about romance and more about formula. To them, “baby” simply signifies, well, baby, as in infant.

“I never thought too hard about being a mom and housewife,” says Kim Gordon, the singer and bassist with Sonic Youth, one of the most influential American rock bands of the last two decades.


“That was never a high priority. But you hit a point where your hormones start sending those signals, and having a kid starts making sense.

“After we signed with Geffen [in 1989], it seemed like a good time to start trying. We knew we’d have money for diapers. But even then it was a worry in terms of career: Would the label take our band seriously if one of the members was pregnant?”

Procreation isn’t a new idea for rock musicians, but the strong presence of women in rock in recent years has made it a more visible issue. The typical life on the road once left very little time to spend with families. But female artists, from Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh to Sinead O’Connor to Courtney Love, are not only having children, they’re making their kids a part of their musical life by taking them on tour.

And male stars who have become dads--from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, who has twin toddler girls, to surf guitarist Dick Dale--are showing an increasing desire to bring wives and children along during tours.

The rock life lived by such parents can be surprisingly wholesome; most rocker moms and dads have turned from “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” to naps, snacks and Fisher-Price. Instead of contract demands like buckets of champagne and cases of whiskey backstage, parents on the road are more likely to insist on “no smoking” signs and playpens in their dressing rooms.

Sonic Youth’s Gordon is sometimes surprised at how well band, career and family have blended.


“I think I’ve become more confident and honest as a songwriter,” says Gordon, whose daughter, Coco Hayley Gordon Moore, is almost 3 (bandmate and husband Thurston Moore is the dad). “Because having a kid gives you that source of strength, and I’ve got this really good band and a really smart, happy kid. The two have really adapted to each other well.”

According to Mark Kates, director of Artists & Repertoire at Geffen/DGC Records, the labels aren’t too concerned about a rocker’s parental status.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it. It’s never been an issue for me and wouldn’t affect the way I looked at a band, signed or unsigned,” Kates says.

“I’ve worked with Sonic Youth for a long time, and the only issue that arose with them when Kim was pregnant was that they released one record that they didn’t tour on. But that happens for all kinds of reasons all the time. I don’t think anybody’s personal life needs to be the industry’s business; though, frankly, in just about every example of musicians becoming parents I can think of, there’s been a positive impact on the music.”

Kates is learning to mix rock and family himself; he has a 4-month-old son at home. “Now I really respect what Kim and Thurston have been able to do. And it’s changed our relationship. Last week Kim and I spent a long time talking about preschools before we got to any of the business at hand.”

Kristin Hersh’s songwriting with the critically acclaimed band Throwing Muses has made her a powerful and influential female voice in the world of alternative rock. And as a mother of three sons, she has also served as a model for musicians looking for ways to combine music and family. Since she was pregnant with the first of her boys, Dylan, more than 10 years ago, Hersh, 31, has managed to take her children with her as her band tours.


Hersh recently split up Throwing Muses after a 13-year haul and has moved her family to the high desert of Southern California, where she is working on material for a solo album. (She’ll play some of it in a show at LunaPark on July 18.) But the Throwing Muses’ final tour was the typical family affair: Along with bandmates Bernard Georges and Dave Narcizo, Hersh was accompanied by her two younger sons, 5-year-old Ryder and 4-month-old Wyatt, and their father--her husband and band manager, Billy O’Connell.

Hersh recalls that even a rough post-show morning could be the best of family times.

“One morning, I got up with the baby on our tour bus, just a few hours after going to bed,” she says. “Everyone else was asleep except our driver, and we were heading through all this flat Minnesota farmland on a really gray morning. I felt like hell, but I was so happy. I’d worked hard the night before, had a good show, and now I had a contented baby in my arms. I thought, ‘This really is a nice life.’ ”

But although Hersh is a seasoned pro at keeping family and band together, she says it still takes a lot of hard work to balance the two.

“I would never, ever use the word ‘easy’ to describe the way we lived,” she says with a laugh. “Our family was always ‘home,’ but home happened to be a lot of tour buses and motel rooms.

“When I first took my oldest boy out with us, he didn’t realize we were ending up in a different motel every night. He thought our job was to drive around town every day and then go back to our room.”

At 60, Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar,” has come to fatherhood late; his only child is his 5-year-old son, Jimmy. But Dale not only travels with his family, he also makes his music with their help.


Jimmy has been on the road with his parents since he was 10 days old, and at age 1 he was holding gift drumsticks given to him by Prairie Prince of the Tubes. At 2, he was beginning to play a custom-built set, and he has just become the youngest performer ever to receive an endorsement deal from the Zildjian cymbal company. Jimmy--who has his own fan club--and his mom, Jill, go on stage and play drums at nearly all of Dale’s performances.

“People see him play and they can’t believe it,” crows the guitarist, who defined the surf-rock sound in the early ‘60s with hits such as “Misirlou.” “They think he’s a man in a boy’s body. He’s not on tour with me right now, because he was sick when I was ready to leave. But he calls every night and asks, ‘Hey, Dad, how are the crowds?’ ”

From the post-grunge charge and dark-toned lyrics of Everclear’s hit “Santa Monica,” one might assume that the gruff-voiced singer is a dark-hearted wanderer. But he is, in fact, a family man who pines for his wife and 5-year-old daughter whenever he’s on the road.

“It’s tough,” says Art Alexakis, in Los Angeles to finish recording Everclear’s third album. “I hate being away from them. And with all the touring the band’s done, I’m just lucky that when I go home my daughter doesn’t say, ‘And you are. . . ?’ ”

Five years ago, Alexakis and his pregnant wife-to-be Jennifer Dodson moved from San Francisco to Portland, Ore., seeking a better place to raise a child. Alexakis didn’t have high hopes for a musical career; he was hoping to find a steady music industry-related job to support his family. Finances were so tight that his daughter’s delivery was paid for with welfare checks. But the Everclear lineup clicked into place just about the time the baby arrived, and Alexakis worked fiercely to make the band a success.

That success has come with one stiff price: a loss of family time. Though Alexakis occasionally takes his wife and child on the road with the band, he wants them to have a more stable home life than a relentless touring schedule permits.


“I don’t feel so much like a rock star,” he says. “I feel more like I’m a throwback to those postwar baby boom dads. I’ve had this work ethic kick in where I’ll do anything to be a good provider for my family, even if it means I can’t be with them. And I try to be there for my daughter even when I’m not there. I call home three times a day and talk to her every day I’m on the road. My body’s out here working, but my heart’s always at home.”

Alexakis did find one novel way to get family and music in the same place. Two years ago, instead of taking daughter Annabella out with the band, Alexakis took the band to her with a headlining gig at the youngster’s preschool.

“It was show and tell week,” Alexakis explains. “My wife wanted me to come play, but I wasn’t going to face a roomful of kids alone. I made the band come with me. We started playing an acoustic set for the preschoolers. Then they brought in the toddlers, then the wobblers. After a couple of songs we had one of the wildest little mosh pits I’ve ever seen.”

The band doesn’t have any more kiddie gigs lined up, but Alexakis has cleared his music schedule for his daughter’s first day of kindergarten.

“I’ve already announced that I want two weeks of family time when she’s starting school,” he says. “It’s right when our record should be coming out, and of course the label wants us everywhere. But that time’s untouchable. The band will be fine; the important thing is that I want to hold my daughter’s hand, drop her off, pick her up, make her lunch. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”

Like many touring parents, Hersh and husband O’Connell sometimes took nannies on the road with them, but they remained devoted to their parental duties. Still, as well as Hersh would seem to have worked out a balance of family and career, she was never beyond worrying about both.


“Every day there were a hundred times when I thought, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ for either the kids or the music,” she explains. “The one thing that’s helped a lot is the realization that you don’t really ‘raise’ kids. You love them and watch them grow. If you start thinking you’re in control, you’re in trouble. As a parent, you’re in a service position, not a managerial one. You’ve basically got these little, insane people living with you, and you need to serve them the best you can.”

Fatherhood hasn’t given Dick Dale just happy memories and bulging photo albums; it’s had a strong, invigorating effect on his music.

The guitarist had grown weary of the music industry and went for long stretches in the ‘70s and ‘80s without releasing a record or mounting a major tour. But his son’s birth helped him rediscover a passion for his music, he says, and in the last five years he has released three highly acclaimed albums and played all over the world.

“Jimmy has totally influenced what I do, and he’s the whole reason I began touring and recording again,” says Dale. “I basically haven’t slept for the last five years from worrying about him, but I look at him and see a pure soul, and so everything I do with my music is from the heart. I feel that everything I do for him is nothing compared to the joy he gives me.”

Gordon of Sonic Youth says she has also found a good deal more pleasure in her work now that she’s blended rock life and family life.

“It’s so much more fun for us to have our daughter on tour because what used to be waiting around time now becomes play time,” Gordon says. “And she really likes it.


“We did a show at Madison Square Garden a while ago, and Coco felt really at home backstage. She knew all the people, she knew exactly what was going on, and she was really happy.

“I don’t think she understands that mom and dad are ‘working’ at these places. To her it’s just what our family does. We go places together. It’ll be harder when she’s ready for school, because we want her to be around other kids.

“But right now I’d have to say that we’re a happy family.”