News & Politics

First Person: Accidental Rock Band

It started as a joke. Next thing I knew, I was onstage with my father, playing “Twist and Shout” in front of hundreds of people.

The idea of forming a rock band with my father started as a joke, got incrementally more serious, and then accidentally became real.

The joke began two years ago, when my mother got him an electric guitar for his birthday. It was a nod to middle age and cheaper than a Ferrari, which he wouldn’t have wanted anyway—he drives Volvos.

A few months later, he started taking lessons from Mike D’Antoni, who taught my sister and me piano and is an excellent guitarist. That’s when my father and I began threatening to start a band—I’d play organ—and subject my mother to it for her 50th birthday. She said she wasn’t having a party.

I got the call one afternoon when I was a senior at the University of Virginia, about a mile from my parents’ house in Charlottesville; my father has taught psychology there for nearly 30 years. He told me, “I booked Mike for Mom’s birthday.”

Because we hadn’t managed to persuade anyone else to be in our band, Mike was going to bring some people who actually knew how to play. Soon after, Dad booked the ballroom at the local beach club, which can hold several hundred.

I heard bits of his playing when I dropped by. He dabbled in the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Neil Young, but his favorite was Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” I started working on the accompaniment.

By the end of my senior year, he and I were occasionally practicing in my dorm room on the Lawn, the heart of UVa’s campus, where there was a maximum possibility that he could embarrass himself in front of his students.

We tried to recruit my sister, Leigh, to accompany him on vocals. She agreed to videotape the performance instead.

My father and I practiced over the summer before I moved to DC. We didn’t play together again until October 1, the night of the party. Sometime in September, my mother had resigned herself to the fact that she was having one.

The day before, I took the bus to Charlottesville. I had been too preoccupied with throwing a career together to practice much, and it looked as though hundreds of people were going to attend, so I was trying to deny I was nervous.

We were scheduled to play a few songs with Mike’s band and were hoping to run through them before guests arrived. But by the time the band had set up, people were streaming in.

Mike’s band played dance tunes from the ’50s and ’60s. My father and I hadn’t planned to join them until 11, after the guests had had a crack at the alcohol, but by 9:30 the guests were calling us to the stage.

My father seemed calm, but it may have been preshow paralysis setting in. He’s been lecturing in front of students for years, but playing music for hundreds of revelers is entirely different.

Mike counted off the tempo to “Runaway”—nice and easy. Dad struck the A-minor chord that opens the tune. We were doing this.

My memory of the performance is fuzzy—a phenomenon of evolution that prevents people from dying of embarrassment. My father and I didn’t fall apart, and we got a lot of applause. “Twist and Shout” was particularly popular. Then again, it was a sympathetic audience.

My mother had a good time, which was—at least early on—the whole point. Perhaps my father and I will play again someday. I’m told he’s still practicing.