Dear Parents, Please Do Not Turn Your Children Into the Shaggs

Categories: Dad Rock
The_Shaggs.JPG
The Shaggs in 1968.
The opening torrent of notes in Ornette Coleman's "Kaleidoscope" reminds me of the ubiquitous television closet gag. You know, when some unsuspecting soul opens a closet door and is buried under an avalanche of junk (executed rather brilliantly in this episode of Elmo's World). "Kaleidoscope" even has the closet gag's exclamation point (the moment when the victim believes the deluge is over, only to be bonked on the head by one final item): Around the 30-second mark, Coleman goes silent for a few beats and then blasts a cluster of notes.

Last fall, my 11-year-old joined the school band. When he chose the alto saxophone, one of my first thoughts was, "He will one day play the Closet Gag Intro in 'Kaleidoscope'!" But as he's learned to read sheet music and proper breathing techniques and how to replace a worn-out reed, I've learned to exhibit a bit more prudence.

Let's face it: When it comes to children and expectations, parents can be categorically nuts. Today's kids are required to be prodigious in music, sports, and school, and to ensure they properly attain such high levels of proficiency, moms and dads have become prodigious in their demands and desires. In their book The Over-Scheduled Child, Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise describe how raising children has become America's most competitive adult sport, how parental success is often measured by activities and the accomplishments accrued in those activities.

"It's a universal truth for all parents," John Langs tells me. "We all do it to a certain extent. If your child expresses a certain amount of talent in a particular area, we organize our lives around getting the most out of that talent."

Langs knows about this firsthand. He's a dad. He's also directing The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a musical that will open next month at New York's Playwrights Horizon. For the uninitiated, the Shaggs are central characters in one of pop music's most absorbing and twisted tales of uncompromising expectation. The trio was composed of three sisters -- Dorothy (vocals and lead guitar), Betty (vocals and rhythm guitar), and Helen (drums) Wiggin --and was formed in the small town of Fremont, N.H., in 1968 by their father, Austin.

In Irwin Chusid's book Songs in the Key of Z, Dorothy described her father as "something of a disciplinarian. He was stubborn and he could be temperamental. He directed. We obeyed. Or did our best." Despite earning a meager salary from a local cotton mill, Austin bought the girls instruments and paid for voice and music lessons. He withdrew them from high school and enforced an exhausting daily regimen of morning, afternoon, and post-dinner band rehearsals. Before bedtime, they had the option of foregoing practice ... for calisthenics. 



Austin dubbed himself his daughters' "proprietor." His teaching approach was the antithesis to the Suzuki method, which stresses a comforting, nurturing atmosphere for music students. He appeared motivated by an ideology Greil Marcus once wrote about in Mystery Train: In America, "you can always get what you want, and that even if you can't, you deserve it anyway."

"The Shaggs' story really is like a Greek myth," Langs says. "Like Cronus devouring his children. Austin was looking to fulfill the promise of the American dream at the expense of his daughters' childhood. He believed he was doing it to save them from a pretty dire situation. They were very poor, and he was on a quest to elevate his family."

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