My daughter wants to be a rock star: A Father’s Day reflection

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WEEKEND READ | As a music critic, my philosophy was that little kiddies should listen to good music — not irritating children’s songs. But that approach to parenting comes at a price.

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It’s at least partly my fault that my daughter wants to be an alt-rock star.

When my kids — Devan and her younger brother Keane — were toddlers, I fed them a steady diet of pre-Sergeant Pepper Beatles (the so-called Red Album, 1962-1966, was a particular favourite), early Ramones and anything by the Clash. Barney albums were banned from the household.

My philosophy, as a longtime music critic, was that little kiddies should listen to good music — not irritating children’s songs. But that approach to parenting comes at a price. I’ve been thinking about all this as Father’s Day approaches, about how those records ignited something in Devan’s imagination. You want your kids to follow their passion — whether it’s music or sports or physics — but it’s kind of impossible not to also worry about how your kids are going to pay the bills later in life. In other words, playing Blitzkrieg Bop for pre-schoolers can be a double-edged sword.

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It didn’t have as significant an impact on Keane. By the time he hit grade school, he wasn’t all that interested in music, except when he impressed visitors by playing his favourite Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin songs on iTunes. Now as a young man, he’s a huge music fan, of everything from hip hop to contemporary country. But it’s not his career path.

Devan Kelly-Menard was another story. Her mother and I bought her a Casio keyboard when she was around five and she was soon mighty attached to the little toy instrument. She was always tinkling the ivories on it and one day when we heard her playing something, I asked her what the song was.

“I just made it up,” she said.

Well if she did, it sure was one catchy little tune — and we began to think something was going on here. Fast forward four or five years and Devan had formed her first band, Greater Minds, with three other kids in Grade 5 at Roslyn School in Westmount. It was an almost all-femme outfit, with three girls and one boy.

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Most of the Greater Minds songs were originals penned by Devan with a few judiciously chosen covers thrown in for good measure, notably David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done, with the latter inevitably flooring folks not quite ready to see a bunch of 10-year-olds performing a heart-wrenching number about the ravages of heroin addiction. The highlight of the Greater Minds years was their first paying gig at the legendary Yellow Door coffeehouse in the McGill Ghetto, with the small room packed with friends, family and a few staffers from Roslyn.

Brendan Kelly once had rock star aspirations but the practical side kicked in and he made a career of writing about music. His daughter, Devan Kelly-Menard, has picked up where he left off.
Brendan Kelly once had rock star aspirations but the practical side kicked in and he made a career of writing about music. His daughter, Devan Kelly-Menard, has picked up where he left off. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

The whole thing was kind of surreal for me. I briefly played drums in a garage band, Captain Scarlet and the Gitanes (I know, great name!), when I was 18. But I soon left my own rock star aspirations behind and realized it was much easier to get paid for writing about music than it was making it. I got my start with the Loyola High School newspaper, then moved through the McGill Daily and on to the Montreal Mirror, which I co-founded with a bunch of university-press pals in the mid-’80s.

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By the time my daughter began taking music seriously with Greater Minds, I’d been plying my trade as a music writer for well over 20 years, reviewing concerts and interviewing artists. I’ve been obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll ever since my mum played me her 45 rpm single of She Loves You back in Glasgow in the early ’60s, and so I thought it was mighty cool that my daughter shared that love and, even better, had a natural talent for making music.

But I’m also her dad and I’m not immune to the parent thing of wanting your kids to have a good job that pays the rent. So from real early on, in early high school for sure, I told Devan that I totally supported her desire to become a working musician but I felt I had to also mention that she’d have to work hard at figuring out how to make a living cranking out rock songs. This, you’ll probably not be surprised to know, is an ongoing discussion.

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Then came her punk rock years, which very much seemed like instant karma given that I’m still recovering over four decades later from discovering the Sex Pistols, Clash and Ramones as a teenager.

Greater Minds was a singer-songwriter group steeped in the work of Bowie, Young, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. At that time, Devan was also studying piano pretty intensively, working with private piano teachers, and we’d installed an upright piano in the dining room for her.

When at 15 or 16, she became a punk, the piano was thrown on the trash heap of history and before you could say Sheena is a Punk Rocker, she’d learned the rudiments of playing guitar and was jamming with like-minded kids. I bought her her first guitar at a pawn shop near the Faubourg downtown, a purple Squier Stagemaster, for $175, an axe she still has.

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Around the same time, I took up playing the drums again, maybe trying to reconnect with my teen self. I bought a cheap drum kit off of a friend and installed it in the basement of our home in Westmount. I would go downstairs, slap on the headphones, crank up the old Stones tunes and start pounding the skins. It was super cathartic but I soon realized playing drums isn’t nearly as easy as it looks.

Devan Kelly-Menard with her Scarlet Wives bandmates Zenab Jaber, left, and the Mosquito. Their lead-off single, Dream Funeral, came out in March.
Devan Kelly-Menard with her Scarlet Wives bandmates Zenab Jaber, left, and the Mosquito. Their lead-off single, Dream Funeral, came out in March. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

I was using the drum kit less and less often, which worked out just fine for Devan and her friends. They took over the drums and ended up forming a Riot grrrl band in that basement room — another almost all-femme band, with four young women and a dude on drums. Devan, who was at Dawson College at the time, was the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist.

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I’ll never forget going to see them play at Dawson, where most of them were studying, and the first thing I saw was a band, the Barrelheads, playing the Sex Pistols’ 1977 punk classic, God Save the Queen. I had no idea there were a bunch of CEGEP kids still playing those old punk records. Over the next few years of following her band around, I discovered a vibrant local indie punk scene mostly populated by musicians and fans under the age of 25.

I was invariably one of the oldest people at these shows at places like Crobar on lower Crescent and in various semi-legal spots around the city, along with the usual handful of curious parents out to see what their kids were up to. One of the funnier aspects of this generation-gap scene was that the punks less than half my age were always super polite and there was way less violence than at the punk shows that I attended in the late ’70s.

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The band — whose name I’d rather not print in a family newspaper! — made an album, toured out east in Canada and through Ontario, and five years in, the only original member left was my daughter. Along the way, she also acted as de facto manager, booking shows, making business arrangements, managing the personnel. She sure learned a lot about running a small business, even if it was a business that cost rather than made money for the most part.

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Now she has a new band, Scarlet Wives, that has a more accessible name and a more accessible sound. Their lead-off single, Dream Funeral, which came out in March, has echoes of the ’90s grunge Devan loves so much, most notably Courtney Love’s Hole, blended with contemporary bands like Starcrawler that have similar musical roots. They call their music “fairy grunge.”

She is also part of the collective that runs Lackhaüs Records, a studio and record label, a business closely tied to her band and fellow alt-rockers the Sunset Drip. They’re trying to find a business model that will allow them to play music and pay the bills.

I’m happy to see her following her passion AND gaining experience as an entrepreneur. I still worry — hey I’m a parent! — but I think, no matter what direction she takes, she’s already learned so much chasing her rock ‘n’ roll dream. See what happens when you play the Ramones for a little kid?

[email protected]

twitter.com/brendanshowbiz

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