Rod Morgenstein drummed for the Dixie Dregs, a rocking fusion band that formed at the University of Miami in the early 1970s, around the time that Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny were there: heady days in the history of fusion. After four really good instrumental albums, the Dregs dropped their “Dixie” to relieve the misconception that they played country music. On their sixth album – titled, with a weary irony, Industry Standard – they made a last-ditch heave at FM viability with the songs “Crank It Up” and “Ridin’ High”: the only two vocal songs that they ever recorded, and quite possibly the two worst songs ever written by a good band.
There was a lesson there that Morgenstein would still need a few years to grok. At the Dregs’ end, it occurred to him that he might make some real money for a change, and play to audiences that included more than two or three females. Dregs guitarist/composer Steve Morse would join Kansas and, later, Deep Purple. Morgenstein turned up in the meteoric hair-metal band Winger, and got his.
In his audition for Winger, Morgenstein played – by his own account – in a way that he thought stupid people would appreciate. He held his nose and condescended to rawk. Kip Winger stopped mid-song and said (my dramatization):
“Hey man, what the *&^% are you doing?”
“Just laying it down, man!”
Winger called him on it, and the light began to dawn: Simple is not dumb. Often, simple is not even simple. All music demands honesty, respect and conviction of the player, if it demands anything at all; and when musicians deign to play beneath themselves, it shows. You stoop, you lose. This may be why rock virtuosi have such a hard time finding work outside of music-store clinics and sports news programs.
Now, think of the many extramusical reasons why a musician might get into the kids’ music scene: There’s a market; a stage at every festival, and some festivals entire; an audience that is both captive and willing. Kids’ music enjoys an actual grassroots economy at a time when adult bands are increasingly expected to accept play-money for their pains: likes, hits, song-plays and all the other promissory tokens of networking.
But take a tip from your pal Kip Winger: Don’t do it because it might pay, even less because it’s easy – you just dumb yourself down to their size, right? In the hands of the ones who do it well, music for children sounds more like liberation than limitation. Listen to enough Dog on Fleas, Uncle Rock and Ratboy, Jr. and you may come to think that it is all the other genres that are afflicted with the dumb-downs. The sonic palette seems more vivid and experimental, the dynamics more dynamic, the language and perceptions tapped straight from the mythic rather than from the cluttered psychological boxes of adult personality. And the spirit flies far above the reach of that disfiguring psychic overlord that we call “cool.” In a word, this kids’ music is supercool.
Sometimes people make kids’ music because they have always made kids’ music; they just didn’t know it. I consider most of the early They Might Be Giants albums better music for kids than the kids’ record that they did eventually make. Rosendale producer, composer and Dog on Fleas bandleader Dean Jones has always made kids’ music: sonically outrageous, wide-eyed and experimental, unperturbed by the fashions of the day. When Dog on Fleas evolved into his main project, it was a “no duh” moment. He didn’t really have to change much but his marketing.
Jones’s idiosyncratic, vibrant musical garden is a safe place for kids; but there are plenty of snakes and spiders there, and a few fish. There has always been a subversive, avant-garde hip to it: bebop honk, Minimalist funk, worldbeat, Monk- and Mancini-inspired melody all handled with a limber grace and lack of self-consciousness.
No wonder that other artists like Uncle Rock, Ratboy, Jr. and the charming family-oriented vocal group Grenadilla have called on Jones to co-produce their own CDs. Jones’s aesthetic as arranger and producer has come to define the Hudson Valley’s “kindie” sound. It is distinguished by deep grooves and a taste for found, odd and lovably ugly sounds. There is a rare lucidity to Jones’s often-complex arrangements: Each instrument and voice in a mix is distinct and full of personality, and yet the whole exceeds the parts. If kids’ music is inherently didactic, Jones’ stuff is a deep lesson in how ensemble music works.
But is all kids’ music didactic? We seem to assume as much, maybe for bioevolutionary reasons. Kids just make us want to teach, to flex our authorities and lay out our certainties. It may in fact be the most effective form of activism. And yet here enters the great reductivist peril of kids’ music.
As adults, we hunger for meaning, not message. Meaning is complex, often unintentional, contradictory and ambiguous. We the listeners are as much involved in its making as the artist. Message only flows one way: It is directive, baldly intentional, takeaway. Message makes adults feel preached-to. We generally prefer to be left to manage the challenge of meaning for ourselves.
So can kids’ songs, with their typical skew toward message, breathe the way that good art does? Indeed: In the right hands, they can. Uncle Rock, the persona of Phoenicia-based songwriter and music journalist Robert Burke Warren, welcomes the didactic calling of this genre a little more openly than the other artists discussed here. He is also perhaps the best-suited to manage it: a classicist singer/songwriter with a crooner’s voice and a well-stocked writer’s tool drawer that enables him to handle message-driven songs with great nuance and imagination.
In “Garbage Barge,” a deliriously detailed catalogue of the varieties of garbage dumped in the ocean, the joy is in the grit and specificity of the images. But when the message does arrive, it comes in the form of a light-touch, koanlike refrain: “When you throw it away, there is no away.” That’s a line that respects the capacity of children to process not just wordplay but also paradox. I am hard-pressed to think of a more provocative and memorable expression of environmental consciousness in any rock anthem on the same theme.
So it goes throughout Uncle Rock’s Jones-produced CD The Big Picture. The songs are masterpieces of micro-messaging, each impeccably executed in distinct rock and roots styles that are teaching their own lessons: the buy-local honky-tonk stomp of “Stop at a Mom ‘n’ Pop”; the tricky Beatles ‘n’ Bowie harmonic movement of “Secret Spaceman”; and, one of my very favorites, “You Look Good in the Rain,” a subtle paean to human endurance and our place in Nature cast as a mid-tempo, Mick Taylor-era Stones rocker. It’s just friggin’ great, in sound and in sentiment.
Somewhere to the left of message and even a piece beyond meaning at times, you will find Ratboy, Jr. plying a sound scruffier and more surreal. If you call it “silly” then it is marginalized as kids’ music; but if you call it “absurdist,” then you see how it is allied with a major trend in confrontational 20th-century art. I call it absurdist. The sensibility lives somewhere between the earthy folk/rock of Neil Young and the Merry Prankster mentality of Ween or Beck. It’s a deep pocket that the duo of Tim Sutton and Matt Senzatimore has been developing together for going on 20 years, in various projects.
The do-it-yourself aesthetic masks some pretty potent musical sophistication, but Ratboy, Jr. never lets the musical play violate the core sense that You kids really could do this yourselves. Not that it’s easy. There’s a loose, hip-hop spontaneity to the word flow. If an irresistible rhyme wants to derail – or re-rail – the sense of a song, it is permitted, as in the wonderful unreleased track “How to Eat a Cloud”:
How to eat a cloud:/First, make sure you’re allowed,/Then pick one from the crowd…/You can eat a stratus,/Then update your status.
In fact, permission might be the meta-message of Ratboy, Jr. If you can think it, it’s allowed. Reality is a bit of a tattered old thing, comfortably worn but leaking. So just be good to others; beyond that, it’s your trip. How come that message never seems to lose its resonance?
But that’s what is so beautiful about watching what happens when all these veteran, versatile cats turn their attention to children. Using a lifetime of accumulated moves, they work their way through their own preconceptions about what kids’ music is, shedding clichés and restrictions as they go and moving closer to the big question: What would you do and what would you say if everything were suddenly new again?