It's easy to mock geriatric rock stars, even as their numbers increase. But what about the even more numerous aging amateurs who once dreamed of musical stardom in their bedrooms, basements, and bar booths, only to grow up all responsible and find themselves rocking cubicles, conference rooms, and carpools instead? Is it too late for us? And how will you mock us if it is?
Fortunately for everyone concerned, it's not. In Minneapolis, for example, Rock Camp for Dads allows — nay, encourages — alleged grown-ups to put down the BlackBerry and pick up an instrument for one evening a week. Even if you're not a dad (moms and non-parents over 21 are welcome too), it's a low-impact way of getting into a band at a certain age. No combing Craigslist, no networking at clubs, no covering the gray in your hair before showing up to an audition. And, to give it that extra cachet of maturity, you have to pay good money to get in.
From there, it's up to organizer/bandleader/rock guru Mike Michel — who refers to himself with the characteristically modest title of "host" — to pull everyone together into a cohesive whole and help them assemble a set of polished songs to perform in front of a live audience at a pre-scheduled gig. If the band jells, there's nothing to stop them from continuing to jam together, as several "alumni" bands have done. And if not, well, it was only four weeks.
Here's where I'd like to say that I strapped on my bass guitar to go all undercover-journalist, but in fact I simply shook down my wife for an RCFD Father's Day present. And that's how it came to pass that on the first Tuesday in August, I stuffed my bass into its old gig bag (finding that thing was an adventure in itself) and drove to the practice studio in arty Uptown Minneapolis.
Michel is a gifted instructor, not only providing much-needed leadership in an atmosphere where nobody wants to come off as a power-mad egotist, but also able to quickly and patiently communicate musical ideas to even those of us with little formal training. Which is good, because flawless performances don't just happen spontaneously, whatever you may have seen on Glee.
Come gig night, the venue was full of friends and family members there to support the dads (and others) who'd been bailing on them one night a week for the past month. Michel joined the bands onstage as rhythm guitarist, emcee, and conductor (a much-needed role after only four rehearsals). Afterwards, I approached him and confessed that I'd gone all undercover-journalist on him.
During our phone interview a few weeks later, I talked to Michel about RCFD's past and future. The idea originally arose from Michel teaching some dudes who had a hankering to return to the musical glory days of their youth, now that their own kids were busy in college or high school. Seeing a need, Michel assembled a group of guys with guitars to get together in the cramped hallway of a local music school, with the rhythm section consisting of Michel himself on bass and a drum machine.
After a few neighborhood gigs and a Craigslist ad that garnered a huge response, the program took off. Rock Camp For Dads now has its own dedicated rehearsal space, with room and equipment for bassists and drummers to join in. Michel is also at work upgrading the rehearsal space; a recent visit revealed amps, drums, and PA gear that may not be as new as the fresh paint on the walls and carpet on the floor, but are a major upgrade from what you might find in the average man-cave.
Michel's not out to create one of those rock & roll fantasy camps where well-to-do wannabees shell out thousands of bucks to hang out with one-hit wonders of decades past. With a resume of his own that covers every job in the music biz from performer to producer to Jimmy Page's roadie, he's trying to create the experience of really being in a band — not only putting together songs, but working with the group you're thrown into in a realistic atmosphere.
Although Michel has trademarked the Rock Camp For Dads idea, he has no plans to get rich launching national franchises (even if he arguably could). Rather, his focus is on growing the program here in the Twin Cities, with future camps divided by musical genre or skill level rather than by who can make it on which night. An even loftier goal is to help spawn a unique scene that connects people who not only want to make noise together, but also understand when their bandmates show up late to practice stained in vomit that's not their own — because it's their kids'.
So how's that working out? It's still early, but I can say that since graduating, I've jammed with not one but two bands, and there may be another gig with an audience in my future. As to whether the Twin Cities music scene returns to its 1980s heyday, but with older people, only time will tell. Let's hope enough rock dads are still around to enjoy it when it happens.
Jeff Alexander is a Minneapolis-based writer who really should have known better.