I'm forty years old. I'm a mom, a minivan driver, a homeschooler, a novelist, and I'm also a singer in a rock and roll band.
When I was twenty, I played in bands. I was a cool chick. Rock bands, weird progressive bands, one thrash punk band, and even a Depeche Mode cover band. I wore tight pants and leather boots, smoked, drank martinis, wrote songs about mean men and the pain of being young -- you get the idea. I got stoned with strangers, walked home alone in the dark, danced with bad boys. That was twenty years ago. I wasn't wise, but I was lucky.
I got married. I became a wife. I had kids. I became a mother. And I stopped playing in bands.
For many long responsible years, my electric guitar sat at the back of a closet, an emblem of the person I was no longer going to be. I had an acoustic guitar. I wrote educational songs to teach my children about Charles Darwin or help them memorize passages from The Odyssey. I played my acoustic guitar and sang songs as safe as milk, and I thought "This is what music looks like, for me, now that I am a mother." It seemed like I had done the right thing, in giving up.
Then one night, at a friend's party, there was an open mic. My friend Kim was there, who I had known tangentially since our kids were four years old. When I brought my acoustic guitar to this party, and then hesitated about going up on stage, Kim encouraged me to do it. "I'll go with you," she said. "What songs do you know?"
The party host sat down at the drum kit, Kim's husband plugged in his bass, and I borrowed an electric guitar from someone, and suddenly this was happening. Turns out our musical repertoire overlapped on the Violent Femmes' song "Add It Up." We cleaned up the lyrics and somehow got through it. I was wearing a very sensible corduroy skirt and a turtleneck. Seriously. Our kids watched us. They gave us the thumbs up.
When we got off the stage, Kim and I looked at each other, and something passed between us. We started talking about our history in bands, and it turned out Kim was ten times the rock and roll chick that I was, and had played bass on stages all over the country. "We should get together and jam," I said. So we did.
At first, it was just the two of us. We had microphones and set up my electric guitar and her bass in her music room that was wired with a P.A. system and speakers and everything. We played songs by Belly and P.J. Harvey, and harmonized, and had a great time. We were two middle-aged moms, singing loudly and adequately, playing instruments with near competence. We were unabashedly addicted. We called ourselves "The Virginia Janes."
My novel, SHINE SHINE SHINE (St Martin's Press, $24.99) is about Sunny, a woman who thinks she has to utterly change herself, and suppress her true nature, to become a proper mother to her kids. She learns, in the course of the novel, that only way to truly be a parent is to be yourself -- that the person you truly are is exactly the person your children need.
This was a lesson I needed to learn myself: me with my acoustic guitar and my sensible skirts. I learned, standing behind a microphone again after all those years, that one way to be myself was to rock out to Billy Bragg, and play bar chords, and turn up the volume.
Good grief, I thought. Who cares if I am twenty years older, and forty pounds heavier than I was last time I stood here? Who cares if my clothes are baggy, or if I've let my expensive lipstick dry up, or if my toenails are scraggly. I almost 40, and I wear a size XL, and I drive a minivan, but who cares? I want to do this, and I'm doing it. So I did it. Yeah, the floorboards shook a little more when I jumped up and down, but I was jumping and I liked it.
After a few weeks, we did something else crazy: instead of letting the kids hang out and wait while we practiced, we added our kids to the band. Originally we had thought this band was something we'd do for "me time," something to help us remember who we were before we were moms.
But my son Benny is a fantastic violin player. Kim's daughter Lorelei is a fantastic singer. No, it's not what we were supposed to be doing, but again we thought WHY NOT? Forget recapturing who we were; this is the way we figure out who we are now. Once we started practicing with the kids, we realized they were better musicians than both of us times ten, and the band started to take shape. We bought proper microphones, we bought Benny an electric violin, and the game was on. In short order we had a drummer.
With a drummer and two actual musicians in the band, we could no longer play around with covers. We needed original material. I needed to write songs again. But as a happily married middle aged woman in comfortable circumstances, I had a complete dearth of rock and roll material.
I could no longer write about struggling with authority, about being desperate, or dating mean men. I really like my husband, and I am not desperate. I like authority. I'm a grown up. So for my material I turned to the people in my life who *were* still desperate, and struggling, and growing, and those were the characters in my book. I wrote songs about motherhood, and giving up who you are. I wrote songs about loss and regret. And falling in love.
The two songs that are included on the audiobook of Shine Shine Shine are "Robots" and "Bad Machine." I wrote "Robots" after my son Benny said, "Mom, your book is about robots. Why don't you write a song about that?" So "Robots" came out a pop punk anthem, a droid-positive hymn to our titanium friends. "Bad Machine" is more serious; it's about loving someone with autistic tendencies, someone robotic and machine-like. This song reflects the way my main character Sunny feels much of the time with her husband Maxon: in love with him, and marveling at him, but frustrated with him and sometimes lonely even when he is there.
Putting this recording together allowed me to draw lines between three of the most important elements of my life: my novel, music, and parenting. Playing in a band with my friends and my kid has been the most rewarding musical experience of my life -- so much more satisfying than my angry rocker days, so much more authentic than my acoustic days, so much more true, in every way, than anything else I've done.
It's given me a way to communicate with my child, my readers, and myself in a very direct way. Had I hesitated to get up on stage, thought I was too old, too fat, too much a mom, too far from rock and roll, I would have missed out on a lot. Had I worried about letting my kid into the band, that it would ruin it for me, or that he wouldn't be able to hang, I would have missed out on a new relationship with my son, a better way to make music, and a new avenue through which I can bring my book to life.
Hear a clip of 'Bad Machine' below:
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