I’m a professional musician and I have the jitters—but not because I’m playing. I’m seeing my son’s funk band, Vulfpeck, headline at SummerStage in Central Park Wednesday night. It’s a lot scarier when your kid plays than when you do. Ask any Little League parent.
Martin Amis, son of novelist Kingsley Amis, said that being in his father’s business was somewhat disreputable. “Being a hereditary novelist is a freaky thing, and people do find it a bit creepy,” he said. Being a second-generation musician is not that creepy. In fact, it’s acceptable. Musicians are often asked, “Did you grow up in a musical household?” If you answer “no,” you have explaining to do. I talk to my musician son Jack mostly about tax deductions, car insurance, and insoles—stuff that dads know about. We occasionally talk music. He lives in Los Angeles and knows all the latest on streaming and Spotify; I’m waiting for the next Simon and Garfunkel reunion. I told Jack to hire a manager. He didn’t listen. I told him to sell more merchandise (“merch”) at his shows. He didn’t listen. “You’re leaving money on the table,” I said. So far, Jack’s instincts are good—do the opposite of what Dad says. He’s playing Central Park, not me.
Jack wants to press 5,000 vinyl records at $7 a disc—his cost. “Was Grandpa a risk taker?” he asks. Grandpa (my father) certainly was. “He put down 8 percent on his first apartment-building investment in 1965,” I say. “That wasn’t risk taking, it was gambling!” (Nepotism, the word, comes from “nepos”—Latin for grandson.)
Before real estate, my father failed at Burger Chef (open-flame broiling) and Ovation Cosmetics (like Avon but not as popular). I went into the family business because my father bugged me about it nearly every evening. “I’m not lecturing, I’m just talking,” he said at the dinner table. Most of my high school friends—particularly the academic ones—left town after graduation and never came back. The kids who stuck around in Cleveland often had family businesses to go into, like Payner in plumbing supplies and Kogan in jewelry. A college friend, a freelance journalist, told me, “I wish I had a family business to pass on to my son or daughter.”
Jack, now 28, sat in with my klezmer band when he was three. The retirees at the concert liked his red suspenders and tambourine. He later took up drums and keyboards. I play clarinet and saxophone. These days, Jack typically wears his grandfather’s Boris Becker-era tennis shorts on stage. He owns the rights to all his music, and to all his shorts. His grandfather would approve. Joseph Epstein, the essayist, wrote, “Only a schmuck works for someone else is, in some quarters, the 11th Jewish commandment.” Vulfpeck has no record deal, by design.
My father wasn’t a musician. (My mother sang in the PTA chorus.) He worked in a Dilbert cubicle at a key-manufacturing company for 17 years and invested in real estate to escape having a boss. In 1985, a few months before he died, I interviewed him and brought up the subject of “meaningful work.” He said: “When I graduated Ohio State in 1938, I was looking for a job—any job.”
My job became keeping the family business going. I eventually paid Jack’s tuition to the University of Michigan, where he met his future bandmates. Middle-class musicians often meet up in college, as Phish did at the University of Vermont. If you’re working class, you have to work—not practice music for four years. Vulfpeck has played The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the Bonnaroo Festival. “We’re cruising,” Jack says. I’m flying—United, in fact, then taking Uber into Manhattan for the Central Park show. In my twenties, I took the shuttle bus from LaGuardia, stowed my gear in a Grand Central Station locker, and wound up at the West 34th Street YMCA. My dad had given me five years (until I turned 30 in 1980) to make it in the arts. The upshot: I play music on the side.
Other Vulfpeck parents will be at the New York show. Parenthood is all about the collateral joy and pain, and how it doesn’t end until, well, the parent ends. If you have kids, you’ve got your own family business.
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