Family Matters

A letter to my new niece, Maya Eve Rubenstein:

Dear Maya,

So you made it to the party, an eight-pound, one-ounce bundle of joy that, come the day I hold you in my arms, I’m deathly afraid of dropping. It’s still hard for me to believe that I’m an uncle, or that my brother, who I’m convinced still has some Hammer pants stashed away in his closet, is a father. But as all the pictures in my email make perfectly clear, this is very real. So I understand that I have some responsibilities here…and I’m not talking about diaper changing, which I’m pretty sure I’m going to refuse to do.

Your parents, for all their great qualities, aren’t exactly the most musically up-to-date folks, so it’s up to me to make sure you get the proper information — the dos and don’ts, if you will. Since I live halfway across the country, I couldn’t make it back to Boston to broadcast some developmentally beneficial tunes into the womb (plus, your mother probably wouldn’t have appreciated the headphones clamped onto her belly). So I’ll have to impart these lessons in another way. The following are some things I’ve learned over my 25 years, which hopefully you can begin to apply as soon as you can read them (in what I imagine will be a vastly different musical world from the one I grew up in). I would save ’em for my own kids, but as your worried grandmother can tell you, there’s no certainty I’ll ever be able to support a family. So here goes:

Play a musical instrument. More than one, if you can. Start early and don’t quit, like I did with the trumpet. And definitely don’t pretend to get serious, have your parents buy you an expensive saxophone, and then quit, like your father. You won’t be able to pick it up later, I promise. Few people become virtuosos in their 20s; you’re more likely to get really annoyed when you can barely play “Chopsticks”. Right now, I’m picturing you as a jazz guitarist blessed with some serious pipes, but I’m not gonna pin that one on you just yet. Better that you make your own choices — and if, during your music education, you happen to come across my old teacher Mr. Spencer, go ahead and punch him in the diaphragm for me. He can take it.

Let your parents take you to your first concert. Even though I’ve already told you that Mom and Dad need some help in this area, it’ll be worth it for the story you tell later (yes, even if it’s the Fray). I mean, how cool is it that my first concert was one of Roy Orbison’s last shows, also featuring the Beach Boys with John Stamos on drums? You just can’t buy this type of memory.

Try to accept, if not embrace, the inevitable gap between your parents’ music choices and your own. Though I may not have always wanted to listen to Oldies 103.3 on every car trip during my formative years, I was glad I did later on. A well-rounded musical background is crucial; otherwise, you could end up like a friend of mine, who had never heard Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life”, and so felt lost during some hand-clapping good times at the bar last weekend.

That reminds me: learn all the words to “Sweet Caroline” and “Dirty Water” as soon as possible. You will be the most popular toddler at Fenway Park. If your parents don’t take you there soon, give me a call and I’ll head home.

Don’t let your parents pick all your music, of course. Explore on your own, and don’t be afraid to try new things. With all the mash-ups these days, there’ll probably just be one huge genre by the time you’re my age, but do your best to seek out as many of the multi-hyphenated subsets as you can. It’s probably overly optimistic to think that there will still be record stores around in the next decade or two, but however you find music, try to do it randomly every once in awhile. There’s nothing like stumbling upon a gem after an hour of wandering through the stacks (or shuffling through the database on your surgically-implanted microchip).

When you do know what you want, don’t hesitate. Back when I was eight, I spent a week or two yearning for a cassette single of Dino’s “Romeo” (don’t try to find it). When I finally had the money and got a ride to the store, I decided I was too embarrassed to buy it, with all those people standing around, silently judging me. As if anyone shopping at Strawberries cared what anyone else bought. On the way home, I confessed what I’d really wanted, but by then it was too late. So listen to what you want, and don’t worry what anyone else thinks about it. They probably don’t think about it at all. But remember to temper your expectations; “Romeo” got old, fast.

As for what to buy, I can’t, and won’t, tell you. Well, I do suggest that you save some money for when NOW! That’s What I Call Music No. 133 comes out. In general, though, don’t make any hard and fast rules when it comes to music, because I promise, you will break them all. No matter what you think, you probably do like country music and Broadway shows. And you may claim to hate mainstream rap, but it’s gonna be hard to resist when it comes on at the next school dance.

Photo from Al.Vox.Com

By the way, dance. At concerts, at parties, wherever. You’re lucky, you’re a girl — you probably have natural rhythm. Even if you don’t, trust me: you’ll be much happier in the middle of the crowd than standing by the wall making bitter jokes. There was a time, somewhere between Bar Mitzvah parties and frat parties, when I forgot how to have fun. Don’t make the same mistake. Stay open to any new experiences, because you never know what’s going to strike the right chord.

At the same time, don’t spread yourself too thin. There’s something to be said for a little bit of single-minded obsession. Find a band or musician you absolutely love, and commit yourself for awhile…get every EP, learn every song lyric, read every book you can. Go on about their virtues to your friends. No matter what else happens, this kind of love will stick with you. Plus, you’ll get that sense of superiority that only comes from true fanhood. Just don’t get too upset when “your” band betrays you by licensing their songs for a car commercial (there’s no such thing as selling out, anyway) or getting into some legal scrapes that send them tumbling off that pedestal. It’s bound to happen.

I envy you, Maya…you’ve got a clean slate (and you didn’t even have to sit through a few hours of Yom Kippur services to get it). I promise, I won’t try too hard to be the “cool” uncle, or attempt to turn you into a cooler kid than I was. I trust that you can make your own decisions, and you don’t really need me to guide you along the way. I will insist on one thing, though:

Stay the heck away from R. Kelly.


Uncle Ben