The children of rock dads

Being a child of a rock legend brings kudos, travel and famous friends – but fatherly wisdom and bedtime stories are rarely part of the deal. Rob Sharp reports

Tuesday 31 August 2010 00:00

Having a babysitter called "The Sulphate Strangler"; being forsaken by your tour bus; having a father who'd rather grease party-guests' palms with opiates than grip your mother's clammy paw during childbirth. If you thought everyday kid-rearing was difficult, then blaze through a guide to rock'n'roll parenting and prepare to baulk.

Except, well, there is no official guide. If only there was an instruction leaflet prescribing parenting tips to famous musicians; the best they have is How's Your Dad?, a new book by the rock journalist Zoë Street Howe, which outlines the excesses of rock stars and how they impact on their sprogs. From the tumultuous childhoods of the Geldof children to the bizarre childcare arrangements of Baxter Dury, a chip off the old Blockheads' frontman Ian Dury, being privately schooled and given access to a bulging address book doesn't always yield fame, power and an open door to greatness. It can force people into the public eye before they have anything to say.

"The expectation must be immense," says Howe, sitting in a cinema in Soho (where, Lordy be, Bobby Gillespie is propping up the bar). "Maybe a lot of them do follow in their parents' footsteps, but I wonder if that's a subconscious thing. In some people's cases there is a void inside them and they crave instant attention. Media approval is better than being ignored. It's a kind of love."

Nascent personalities have been skewed by famous parents for decades. John Lennon was a lot better at nurturing tunes than Julian Lennon's self-esteem. In 1963, barely a fortnight into his first-born's life, John disappeared on holiday with Brian Epstein, who had a crush on him. Lennon later said: "I wasn't going to break the holiday for a baby. I just thought what a bastard I was and went."

Lennon was a bully throughout his son's childhood. One visitor to his Surrey house recalls him shouting at Julian: "No, I won't mend your fucking bike."

Exhibit B is the case of Baxter Dury's babysitter, "The Sulphate Strangler", whose trademark was "grabbing people by the throat, lifting them up and biting their noses". Within The Blockheads' entourage he was known for his ability to sink a bottle of vodka in one go.

"There were a lot of lunatics and drugs around," says Baxter, now 37. "The whole process of Dad suddenly becoming famous affected me in a funny way. I became rebellious and didn't go to school. I was eventually in Dad's control and he couldn't handle that responsibility, so there were these odd people looking after me."

If there were such a thing as a parenting licence, you'd wonder if Ozzy Osbourne would qualify. When his third child, Jack, was born in November 1985, the former Black Sabbath singer blacked out on the hospital floor as cognac miniatures spilled out of his vampiric pockets. Calico Cooper, the 28-year-old actress and singer offspring of Alice Cooper, realised what a princess she had been until she was abandoned at a truck-stop by her father while on tour in Europe. "I just realised nobody here knows who I am and they're not going to do me any favours."

On Halloween 1976, Ronnie Wood's son Jessie was born into a party. In Wood's 2007 autobiography, Ronnie, the Rolling Stone writes of his first wife Krissie's labour: "I said to her, 'I'll be downstairs with our guests, just yell when it gets really bad.' She stayed upstairs to deal with the pain. I kept partying because I didn't want to be rude."

But we must mention the bright side: the schooling, the contacts and the genes can set career trajectories cruising at high altitude. As Howe says, sometimes the desire to emerge from one's parent's shadow inculcates ambition into fledgling talent. For every career careering off the tracks there is a Stella McCartney, or a Norah Jones (born in 1979 to Ravi Shankar and the concert producer Sue Jones), or a Rufus Wainwright, who endured a childhood dominated by his bullying, jealous father, Loudon.

Prog rock means progressive parenting, it seems. "I was encouraged from an early age to be a musician," says Roger Waters' son Harry, a jazz pianist. "Both my parents were very supportive. I have been in my old man's band for 10 years. I am more than capable of doing the job but there is some nepotism there. If you wanted the best Hammond player in the world, there are monstrous players out there. Being part of the family did help."

Howe wrote the book after observing how fans treated her husband, the jazz drummer and Blockhead Dylan Howe, son of the Yes guitarist Steve Howe. "I noticed that after his gigs men wearing Yes T-shirts would approach him and ask him how his Dad was," she explains. "He is gracious but it interested me that these strangers were chummy because he's pictured on some early Yes album covers and it occurred to me that these people felt their relationship with Dylan's father predated his."

Howe thinks some characteristics do unite the individuals she has studied. "All of them have grown up quickly, for better or worse," she says. "While some have intense childhoods, many are motivated by the need to get past this shadow cast over their lives."

There are also those whose childhoods must seem misleadingly glamorous from the outside. "I don't think my Dad is one of The Beatles," says Natascha Eleonore, aka singer-songwriter Aruba Red, daughter of the Cream frontman and notorious hell-raiser Jack Bruce. "I went to a normal school and had normal friends; I just got to travel a lot and meet interesting people. But I do notice on Facebook a lot of Dad's hardcore fans are tracking me down. It's funny what people will do to be your friend because of your parents."

So these striplings might deserve some understanding. While Peaches Geldof's wardrobe choices might inspire 50 newspaper stories a month, it is due to a symbiosis between her attention cravings and editorial exploitation. Maybe we have forgotten what it's like to be young and disillusioned, with everything to prove. As Howe concludes: "The difference is, we of the non-famous variety were allowed to grow out of it without having everything we did exposed." The censorious glare of British schadenfreude can be cruel and unrelenting. But it is no better than seizing life's rare opportunities, even if they are levied over the breakfast table with a 40-year-old album playing in the background.

"How's Your Dad? Living in the Shadow of a Rock Star Parent" is published by Omnibus Press.

Famous children

Norah Jones (born 1979)

Singer-songwriter largely estranged from her father, sitar player Ravi Shankar, during her childhood. Principally raised by her mother, the concert producer Sue Jones. She is the half-sister of sitar-player Anoushka Shankar.

Rufus Wainwright (born 1973)

Another singer-songwriter from a Canadian folk dynasty, performing what he desrcribes as "baroque pop". His parents are the folk singers Loudon Wainwright, and the late Kate McGarrigle.

Peaches Geldof (born Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof in 1989)

The second daughter of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, now a TV personality, columnist, model, socialite, who successfully sued The Daily Star last year for claims she was a prostitute. Has recently been receiving flak from the tabloid press for wearing a series of unflattering outfits.

Julian Lennon (born 1963)

Son of John Lennon and Cynthia (nee Powell). Has never hidden his mixed feelings towards his father. After his death he said: "Paul [McCartney] and I used to hang out quite a bit...more than Dad and I did. There seem to be far more pictures of me and Paul playing together at that age than there are pictures of me and my Dad."

Alexandra Burke (born 1988)

It was initially unknown during 2008's The X Factor that Burke was the daughter of Soul II Soul lead singer Melissa Bell. When it emerged that she had a difficult upbringing, being raised solely by Bell who later suffered from kidney failure.

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