Written by Katie Hafner and Originally Published in The New York Times on June 17, 2007
Darren Reis isn’t opposed to the band practice that takes place in his house every Tuesday night. But there’s only so much loud rock music he is willing to tolerate. So when the umpteenth rendition of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” starts rattling the windows, he goes downstairs, knocks on the door and makes his entreaty: “Dad, do you think you guys could keep it down? I’m trying to study.”
The classic American midlife crisis has found a new outlet: garage-band rock ’n’ roll. Baby boomers across the country — mostly middle-aged dads who never quite outgrew an obsession with the music of their youth — are cranking up their amps and living their rock ’n’ roll fantasies.
The Tennyson Seven in Palo Alto, Calif., is typical. The two-year-old band includes Darren’s dad, Rob Reis, 53, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who gets together once a week with five other amateur rock ’n’ rollers — some more-experienced musicians than others — to play the musical comfort food of their generation: the Beatles, Van Morrison, the Monkees and the Romantics.
The band won’t be signing with Virgin Records any time soon. But that’s beside the point. With one son at college and Darren, 17, finishing high school next year, Mr. Reis said he can think of no better way to spend middle age. “What do other people do?” he asked, as if only vaguely aware of his other options, none of which appeal to him in the least. “A fancy car? An affair?”
Mr. Reis has plenty of company. In his town alone, there is a profusion of such bands. The Tennyson Seven recently sent out e-mail messages to several Palo Alto schools offering to play free of charge at some fund-raising events. The reply, Mr. Reis said, was, “No thanks, we have our own dad band that plays for us.”
Mike Lynd, 55, who lives just north of Palo Alto in Redwood City, plays bass, drums and guitar in a six-person band called Space Available. Mr. Lynd, who has a day job as a marketing writer at Deloitte & Touche, said nothing quite compares to the therapeutic aspects of practicing riffs with a group of like-minded rock aficionados.
“I don’t know what has done me more good — Lexapro or Thursday nights jamming with the band,” Mr. Lynd said. “You’re working out a whole lot more than chord patterns when you’re playing music together.”
NAMM, a trade group that represents music retailers and equipment manufacturers, has noticed the increasing numbers of middle-aged rockers, and now oversees what it calls the Weekend Warriors program, a six-weekend series designed specifically for baby boomers to get back into playing in a band — or start playing in one. The program brings would-be rockers into music stores around the country and provides gear, rehearsal space, coaches and, for those in need, additional band members.
Joe Lamond, the chief executive of NAMM, started the program when he was working in a music store in Sacramento and began noticing a change in the store’s clientele. “I started seeing customers coming in who you’d think would have been shopping for their kids,” he said. “But they were shopping for themselves.”
Mr. Lamond said the program has burgeoned in recent years, as the rock ’n’ rollers of the ’60s and ’70s become empty nesters with time and disposable income on their hands.
Nostalgia provides the backbeat for this movement. “The music we carry through our lifetimes is music we listen to in our late teens and early 20s, because it was such an emotional time,” Mr. Lamond said. “That music is literally locked into your system — your brain, your body, your emotions.”
For those now in their 50s wanting to turn back the clock, that means playing “Brown Eyed Girl” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” And “Mustang Sally,” in the key of C.
“We recommend ‘Mustang Sally’ as a good starter song,” Mr. Lamond said. “A bad starter song is anything by Steely Dan, or Frank Zappa. Or Yes.”
Part of recapturing lost innocence means laboring under an illusion or two. Mr. Lamond recommends that the practice rooms be free of mirrors. “You don’t want to be playing your guitar, feeling like you’re 20 all over again, then look in a mirror and see some paunchy balding guy,” Mr. Lamond said.
Not only do many spouses approve of the bands, some even participate. Rob Reis’s wife, Julie, 54, is a singer in the Tennyson Seven.
And when such bands get the occasional gig, the faces in the audience tend to skew to the band’s own demographic, a fact that helps determine song choice. Mike Brown, who was trained as a classical pianist and came to rock ’n’ roll a bit late in life as the keyboardist for the Palo Alto band the Wildcats, said his band’s repertory is easily recognizable, with a staple of Beatles and Doobie Brothers. “We want everyone to know the song in the first couple of notes,” he said.
Playing together can also bring about some corporate bonding. Bryan Stapp, 44, the chief marketing officer for Quicken Loans, an online mortgage company in Detroit, has been playing guitar since he was 15. A father of four, Mr. Stapp is in a band called the Loaners with three of his colleagues.
When the Loaners are playing at company events and they start in on a Led Zeppelin song, or even Bruce Springsteen or AC/DC, sometimes the company’s chief executive, Bill Emerson, jumps in for the vocals. “It’s a great thing when your chief executive is singing an AC/DC song,” Mr. Stapp said. The Loaners were recently chosen to play at the Detroit International River Days festival later this month, opening for Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band.
There are a few advantages to being an aging rocker. For all its attendant angst, midlife can be a surprisingly stable platform from which to play out. Instead of smashing a guitar onstage, you’re more likely to forget your reading glasses.
“There’s no drama,” said Carol Cheney, 43, a nurse who moonlights as a singer in Alter Ego, a seven-piece band in the Boston area composed of middle-aged parents. “We’re all at the crest of our life. Everyone is settled. We’re just very comfortable with each other.”
And it’s easier to afford decent equipment. Alter Ego, for instance, practices at the large suburban home of one of the members, a successful insurance executive whose spacious basement is outfitted with copious amounts of professional-quality amps, mixing boards and mics.
“Credit cards and old stock options help make up for all the cool toys we did without when we were young,” Mr. Lynd said. “Tuners, effects pedals, multiple axes, stands that cost more than my first car.”
Then there is the general improvement in the realm of logistical skills. “When I was a teenager in a band, nobody had his act together,” Mr. Lynd said. “Bookings were always botched. You only realized the band stuff didn’t fit in the station wagon when you were already late.”
Now, he said, some of his fellow band members get as much therapeutic value out of organizing their playing experience as they do from the actual playing.
To skirt the problem of scrounging for paid gigs, some bands play only for charity: the eight members in the Wildcats, perhaps the most popular Palo Alto dad band, play only for fund-raising events. The group has raised close to $100,000 over the past several years, to supplement the budget for Palo Alto public schools.
Connections help, too. For one recent paid performance at a country club for the Tennyson Seven, it didn’t hurt that the resident golf pro plays bass in the band. And the band isn’t above paying to play. It recently rented a pool and tennis club in Palo Alto for one night and invited a couple hundred friends to come listen.
But sometimes being a low-demand band means putting up with performance conditions that are not exactly the rock ’n’ roll ideal.
Mr. Lynd said that Space Available has become something of a fixture at weekend schoolyard concerts around town. “We’ll be playing at the Oktoberfest, alternately playing Jimi Hendrix and announcing that the bake sale is going to be over in five minutes,” he said.
When Wall Street — a New York-area band that often practices in Metuchen, N.J., and gravitates to the Allman Brothers Band, Queen and Tom Petty — played at a bar mitzvah recently, acoustics were a challenge: The musicians stood underneath a tent, while the guests wandered across three acres of land. Still, said Bob O’Connell, 42, the art director at Ladies’ Home Journal who is a guitarist in Wall Street, “we got an incredible response,” and several requests for cards.
By and large, the children of the band members, some in bands of their own, approach their parents’ newfound passion with surprising equanimity. “Every single one of our kids thinks it’s very cool,” said Ms. Cheney, whose band plays many of its own compositions. “They actually like the music we do.”
When Mr. O’Connell’s 13-year-old son, Robby, has friends over, they often bring their guitars. “It’s great when your kid’s friends know you as the dad who can play all the licks to ‘Black Dog,’ ” Mr. O’Connell said.
In spite of the occasional irritation that comes when the throb of a bass interrupts his studying, Darren Reis is also open-minded about his parents’ hobby. “They’re pretty good,” he said. “It’s not like they’re in a bad band or anything. The music they play isn’t my music, but there’s some cool stuff.”
And Mr. Reis considers himself one of the luckiest aging boomers around. “Every Tuesday I get live rock ’n’ roll in my house,” he said. “Nothing can beat that.”