June 2010

The Chords That Bind

What used to divide generations now ties them together


laraine newman, coachella

Just like that, it’s 2006: My then 14-year-old daughter, Lena, had already become the go-to girl for mix CDs at her school, and since I drove her there every day, I was privy to hearing all that great stuff. Before that, the only new music I’d heard since having kids was “The Wheels on the Bus.” Songs like that made me want to go postal.

Now I was listening to bands like Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, Of Montreal, Dan Deacon and Gogol Bordello (gypsy punk—don’t ask). And it was a good thing, because Lena channeling her inner DJ coincided with a very tough time in my life. My dad had died, I’d gained 40 pounds from grief, and I didn’t have any new goals that inspired me. I was looking for something—and Lena showed me the way.

I didn’t know for sure if Lena liked the fact that I was into some of the same bands, but I had to believe that just as we took pride in introducing our friends to bands we’d discovered, I hoped she felt good about doing it for her mom. And let’s face it, some of the “retro” bands she loved had appeared on “Saturday Night Live” when I was there, and they were friends of mine. That had to give me some street cred—and hopefully exempt me from at least a little eye rolling when I did Billy Crystal’s “white-man’s overbite” at the steering wheel.

At 14, Lena didn’t drive, so by default, I got to go with her to see her first live performance of a band: Of Montreal. Well, really it was me saying, “Are you high? I’m not dropping you off in Echo Park, thank you very much!” They were playing at the Echoplex. Actually, in ’06 Echoplex should have been called Club Code Violation. Among other hardships like makeshift bathrooms and a cement dance floor that included what had clearly once been a sidewalk, there were no seats.

Four hours of music and no seats. But the music I heard that night infused me with a life force I thought had left me for good. The first act was Grand Buffet: white rappers with a techno sound mixed with funny and ironic lyrics. They were cranked so loud the base beats felt like a defibrillator. I loved it. Of Montreal’s sound was a revelation. I’ve since heard it compared to a cross between Sly Stone and Beck. Their lead singer (a guy in a fetching wedding dress) was a great showman. Lena never knew what she did for me that night, and I wasn’t about to burden her with it, because it was some heavy shit, but I was restored.

When you think about it, Los Angeles has always rocked pretty hard. I grew up here—and I saw everyone: the Beatles, the Stones, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Big Mama Thornton, Jimi Hendrix. I went to places like Thee Experience on Sunset (rumored to be part owned by Jimi himself) to see Bobby “Blue” Bland and James Cotton and to the Ash Grove to see Taj Mahal, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But the idea of my parents taking me? Forget it! First of all, they would have s--t bricks if they knew some of the joints their nerdy little princess was frequenting to hear the blues. And second, my mom’s favorite stuff at the time was Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Kill yourself.

But for Lena and me, rock music was the currency with which we traded a profound unspoken intimacy. Not long after Of Montreal, we saw Gogol Bordello at the Key Club. There were no seats there either. Their encore was an hour. Thanks.

Then in April of that same year came Coachella. This was an event we heard about on Indie 103.1. Going to clubs with your kid is all well and good, but this was a two-day rock concert in the desert. The deal was that I would take her and two of her friends. I didn’t figure on being odd man out, but that’s exactly what happened. They completely ditched me, and I had to suck it up and accept the fact that I was her mom, for crying out loud. I wasn’t prepared for this barrier, and it hurt.

laraine newman, daughters, coachella Laraine Newman

My generation, with its prolonged adolescence, had to learn that even though we liked the same music as our kids, and cartoons were becoming more sophisticated, we really weren’t supposed to be their friends. That blows. All the parenting books told us it just wasn’t a good idea. I guess what stung so much was that I really like my kids…as friends.

So, I had to adjust my attitude when we set foot on the Empire Polo Fields that first year. And it was something to behold: It looked like a medieval town on acid (um, not that I would know). With its fabulous art installations and tents and food stands, not to mention the clientele. It might as well have had a sign that said, “Abandon all preconceived notions about yourself, ye who enter here.”

There’s something about Coachella that forces you to surrender to it. But only if you have the kind of music-loving spirit that my daughter and I share. First of all, it’s the desert, people: as in hot as frikkin’ hell, my brothers and sisters. And it can be a bit dirty. I’m not complaining. I’m illustrating the fact that someone like me, who hates camping and anything to do with dirt, would submit myself to two days outdoors in 100-degree weather because it rocks so hard!

And, I must say, it brings in the most unexpected characters. One year I was there in the Artists’ Lounge, and I saw Danny DeVito, who has been coming since its inception. Really? Louie De Palma likes alternative? Then there are the more expected individuals, like Allan Arkush (Rock ’n’ Roll High School, among many other distinguished works) and Wesley Strick (a noted screenwriter and director who’s been a contributor to Creem, Rolling Stone and Circus). Walking back to my hotel room this year, I ran into Melanie Griffith, who has also been coming for years. I know her because our kids went to school together.

All of the people I mentioned are there for the same reason I am. We love the music as much as our kids do. Melanie said to me, “I think they think it’s normal—that all parents do this. It’s not that they’re spoiled; it’s just that they take it for granted that we enjoy it as much as they do, and we do.” She nailed it. And how wonderful, right?

Over the years of going to Coachella, my daughter Lena and I have gotten it down to a science. The first year we went, my cell phone was a dinosaur. It didn’t even text. When I tried to speak to her it was a constant back and forth of “Whaaaaat? You whaaaaaaaattt?” Then I got the iPhone, and it’s been a well-oiled machine of “I’ll meet you over at Throbbing Gristle after I see Buraka Som Sistema” and “Did you decide to go see Fucked Up?”

Last year was particularly bittersweet. Lena was 17 and welcomed me back amongst her friends. But still I was shocked back into a reality I didn’t even know I’d left when she introduced me to kids we ran into as “my mom.” Oh yeah, I thought, I’m not her friend. I’m her mom, and all of the necessary exclusions that come with that. It made me sad and sadder still as the days wore on and the reality of her leaving home next year for college was driven home with each happy memory forged during the festival. Maybe this would be our last time going together. Maybe she wouldn’t come home for it next year.

It turned out Lena did come home for the festival. And this year, my younger daughter, Hannah, came…with two of her friends. And once again, they ditched me.

Laraine Newman’s many fine writing, performing and voice-over credits can be found at larainenewman.com. Her Coachella playlists are there, too. Represent.

Want the flip side? Lena tells how it feels to do Coachella with Mom.