Before you have children, you hear a lot of horror stories, mostly from people who raised a kid forty years ago. There's the standard stuff about never sleeping again, eating discarded, unappreciated food, and watching your home and possessions subject to random destruction and vandalism.
But the scariest thing for a music fan (and writer like myself) was the prospect of being inundated with corny kids' songs ad nauseam.
Maybe my priorities were out of order but for a while there, it did seem as though I might lose my mind. Raffi rules and the Wiggles mean well but there’s only so much a man can take before he wants to take a trip to Belize. But then something special happened with my boy.
He turned into a complete sponge who wants to experience and appreciate everything we do. (Our most recent and likely fleeting victory has found him wanting to watch "Fantastic Mr. Fox" every day instead of "Team Umi Zoomi.")
We've almost always sung to our son and one day early in his life, during our regular rotation of "Baby Beluga" and the ABCs, I snuck in Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me." I remember him staring at me, captivated by the flurry of new words housed in this foreign melody. When I finished singing the last "la la las," he said nothing.
And then, quietly, "Again."
Ever since, I’ve fearlessly sung or played my boy almost whatever was on my mind and when something elicits a coveted "Again," he hears it again and again. The following is a list of songs my two-and-a-half-year-old requests the most.
In virtually every case, we've discovered that he knows all of the words and will just randomly begin singing each one when the mood strikes. There are some dark, lusty songs here but everything seems fun and innocent when rendered by a toddler.
1. "Long Black Veil" Performed by the Band
This happens to be a song that my wife and I know all of the words to and she decided to introduce it to him one night before bed. He refers to it as "Ten years ago," because it's the first line. It's very cute. Not so cute though is the song itself, a narrative from beyond the grave by a man who was hung for a murder he didn't commit because his alibi would reveal that he'd been making sweet, sweet love to his best friend's wife that night. "She walks these hills / In a long black veil / She visits my grave / While the night winds wail." Sleep well, sonny boy.
2. "The Man in Me" - Bob Dylan
I had to perform this song somewhere at some point and practiced it relentlessly in front of the boy at nap and bed times and during diaper changes. One day I was absent-mindedly playing it on guitar in the living room and he showed up with his ukulele and sang the whole thing with me as a duet. It made my wife cry. It's resilient too; if my son had a top 40 chart show, "The Man in Me" would never leave the top 5.
3. "24 Robbers" - Apostle of Hustle ft. The Huskys
The car stereo can be tricky business. At some point, the Paper Bag Records children's comp, "See You on the Moon," seemed destined to be permanently ensconced in our 2005 Matrix. Our son loved Great Lake Swimmers' title track, Junior Boys' "Max," and FemBots' "Under the Bed," but nothing came close to Apostle of Hustle's "24 Robbers." I've heard this song four million times and never tire of it. "Song 5!" my son would yell before we even got in the car. Somehow he knew the tracklisting; my wife must've mentioned it. This went on for many months. Now it's a memory. I kind of miss it. It's a catchy-ass song.
4. "Little Mascara" - The Replacements
<a href="http://instagram.com/p/f0w35eSQnT/" target="_blank">My son's favourite album of 2013 was "Tim"</a> by the Replacements. Around the time I saw the band play their first reunion show in Toronto this past summer, I put the reissued version of this incredible record in the car and it just brought the rocker out of my kid. He's insatiable about it. It makes him scream this hoarse, Paul Westerberg scream and drum on his knees and kick the passenger seat. I have sung or played the following songs every single day since August: "Waitress in the Sky," "Swingin' Party," "Bastards of Young," "Lay it Down Clown," "Left of the Dial," "Little Mascara,' and an outtake version of "Can't Hardly Wait." Requests for these songs can occur at any point in the day. We also have to "play band," where I'm on my drum kit, my wife pretends to play electric guitar, and he's on ukulele and lead vocals and we just belt out "Bastards of Young" in my office. If the songs didn't kick all ass, it'd be way too much but again, great record.
5. "How Can I Love You if You Won't Lie Down" - Silver Jews
The boy calls this song "Fast Car," after the first line. He actually asked me to sing this to him one night and I thought he'd discovered Tracy Chapman on his own somehow until I figured it out. ("Not Tracy Chapman, Silver Jews!" he yelled at me.) For the longest time my son wouldn't nap in his crib; we always had to walk him around the neighbourhood in his stroller because it was the only way he’d sleep during the day. This cold long winter inspired me to work on this crib thing again and, to get him to calm down and stop leaping around in there, I gradually went from saying "Lie down!" to introducing this infectious David Berman song and now he cheerfully walks around singing about "Fine ass." It's really about having sex with someone but he doesn’t need to know that. Oh, and this followed a serious love affair with Silver Jews' "Honk If You’re Lonely," which is also still in high rotation. I miss new songs by David Berman. Come back, David. Think of the children!
6. "It Takes Two" - Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock
Another song I happened to have memorized showed up during bath and change table time. I forget which came first but this era also included "Gold Digger" by Kanye West and "Empire State of Mind" by Jay Z. I'd just go all in and when a song was done, my son would say "More raps!" and I'd have to go again. "It Takes Two" became a weird memory exercise. One night I decided to leave a blank: "I wanna rock right ___" and the boy yelled "Now!" "I'm Rob Base and I came to get ___" "Down!" It turned out that the boy could fill in lines for at least two verses. It blew my mind. If I only had one wish, it'd be that every two-year-old, at some point, <a href="http://instagram.com/p/ea6xKjyQmU/" target="_blank">feels compelled to demand "More raps!"</a>
7. "Poets" - The Tragically Hip
My son and I had the great privilege of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/10/04/sarah-harmer-protest-line-9-pipeline_n_4045387.html" target="_blank">co-emceeing a concert in Toronto</a> this past fall featuring Sarah Harmer, Hayden, MINOTAURS, and Gord Downie and the Sadies. His mom left town that day for a couple of weeks so, since it was a daytime show, I had no choice really but to bring him with me. I didn't plan for us to be onstage together but he’s obsessed with microphones and music (obviously), so he went and had himself a time. He became particularly obsessed with Downie who gave him some fist bumps and is just a super captivating man. I explained to him that Downie was in the Tragically Hip and played him "Poets" in the kitchen. For a good while there, he couldn't spend any time in the kitchen without hearing "Poets" and singing this song with all its references to porn and the industrial food complex. It's also made it into "band time" and he dances like Gord Downie every time.
8. "Rocky Raccoon" - The Beatles
On the surface, this seems like a great song for kids. Its main character appears to be a raccoon for crying out loud. Unfortunately he’s actually a cowboy packing heat so he can settle a score with a guy calling himself Dan who stole the girl of Rocky’s fancy. She has at least three names: McGill, Lil, and Nancy. This has already gotta get a little kid's head spinning. Then there are gunshots, a wounded "raccoon," a drunk doctor, and Gideon fleeing a hotel room that contains one of his bibles. I started singing this song one night and it got the "Again" green light from the boy, so it continues. Maybe it's because I try to mimic Paul McCartney's hokey southern U.S. accent or maybe it's all the action and adventure within it. I really shouldn't be singing about all of this gunplay should I? Should I switch to "Yellow Submarine" or "Octopus’ Garden?" I can't only sing Ringo songs to a kid craving the Beatles, can I? Such a conundrum.
9. "Shady Lane" - Pavement
Another great melody with lots of fun, fascinating words and cool phrasing, all of which the boy absorbs with great interest. He doesn't often call for this one but always seems excited by its recommendation. I love the song and I don’t know, it feels like some good vocabulary nutrition. "Oysters and dry lancers;" "Redder shade of neck on a whiter shade of trash;" "You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry;" "Recognize your heirs;" "Over-friendly concierge;" "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God / Oh my God, Oh your God, Oh his God, Oh her God / It’s everybody's God…” The worlds collide. I think there are important lessons for a young child within the song "Shady Lane."
10. "Frère Jacques"
My wife was in French immersion; I won the French award in grade 8. Her French feels tres bien to me, though that doesn’t stop servers in Quebec from ignoring her attempts en Français and helpfully reverting to English. My French, however, sucks the baguette, so when my wife brought this classic, simple song out of the woodwork, it caused some consternation. One night the boy requested it and I was like "Huh?" "Papa, sing 'Frère Jacques.' <em>Merde.</em> I fumble through this thing from time to time and feel like an idiot. "Semma leena Tina," I say at one point and then repeat this hapless gibberish again for good measure. When it's done, my son doesn’t say "Again." He doesn't say anything. He just gives me a look that could not more unmistakably convey, "We're done here papa."