Jonathan Sherman knew he had two options: He could go to the rock concerts he desperately wanted to, but only if Dad went along. Or, he could stay home and not risk death-by-parental-embarrassment.
Not an easy decision for a 14-year-old.
In the end, the music won. So in the midst of recent concerts by thrashers Blink-182 and popsters No Doubt, there was Carl Sherman, the 50-year-old CPA from Towson who normally prefers Count Basie, Dave Brubeck and classic jazz.
"I thought the musicians were great," says the elder Sherman, a relative neophyte to the concert scene since watching Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears perform three decades ago. "Maybe it was different from my tastes, but if I were Jonathan's age, I'm sure I'd be listening to them."
Sherman is not the only baby boomer getting a healthy dose of deja vu. Whether grunge or punk, rap, alternative or teen heartthrob, rock concerts are attracting a healthy share of parents to go along with the younger crowd.
Such a concept was unimaginable in the '60s and '70s, when boomers dominated the concert scene. Catch Mom or Dad at a rock concert? Maybe if Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were the headliners.
But in recent years, parents have become such a common sight at rock concerts that many arenas are setting up "quiet rooms" where they can go to escape the high-volume sound, munch on snacks, watch TV or socialize with fellow parents.
"I figured my high-end
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hearing was pretty lost anyway from working as a dentist, but when the band yelled, 'We can't hear you, Baltimore,' the fifth or sixth time, the noise was deafening," says Tom Ritter, of Ruxton, who accompanied his 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, and five of her friends to a recent Britney Spears concert at the Baltimore Arena.
"It was loud. I've been to rock concerts all my life, and it was loud."
Don Wehner, a Baltimore concert promoter, says it's pretty obvious to any regular concert-goer that parents are showing up in greater numbers -- and not just for such acts as Britney Spears, who attracts an almost strictly pre-teen audience. Even heavy-metal shows like Metallica will draw in a certain number of parents, he says.
Wehner suspects that many come to supervise (parents often question him about drug use at shows). But he also sees parents who genuinely seem to enjoy the music and want to share the experience with their children.
"The difference is that we're baby boomers. We grew up watching shows," says Wehner, 47, president of Upfront Productions. "The music is not really that far off the music someone in their 40s might enjoy."
That's exactly how Bruce Grau feels. The owner of an insurance agency in Towson, Grau rattles off the names of the rock and roll acts he's seen over the past several summers with his 15-year-old son, Tim: Barenaked Ladies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Everclear and the Dave Matthews Band.
"I don't mind doing it. I can still remember when I was a teen-ager," says Grau, 48, who has driven Tim and his friends as far as Myrtle Beach and Pittsburgh to catch concerts. "In his Father's Day card, Tim wrote, 'Thanks for taking me to those concerts.' I think he appreciates my being there with him."
Tim says his father is cool and "loves the music." But there are times when he wishes he could go alone. "I'm glad he's there, but I'd rather be there by myself," he adds.
Grau says his son is probably old enough to attend a concert alone, but Tim's friends have more skeptical parents. So when he takes the group to a show, he gives them space -- he sometimes sits in a different part of the arena -- but stops by their seats periodically.
"The best compliment I heard came from someone who was sitting behind my son in Pittsburgh," he recalls. "She was maybe 30 or 31 and said they were so well-behaved she wanted to adopt those four boys. Most people don't take time to say that kind of stuff."
Fred Puddester, 45, of Annapolis takes a similar approach. Twice, he has accompanied his 14-year-old daughter, Emily, to the HFStival, an all-day concert featuring dozens of progressive rock bands. He doesn't sit with her necessarily, but he requires her to meet him every 90 minutes or so.
"It's not like I'm walking around with her. She doesn't want to be seen with me while we're there," says Puddester, budget director for the Johns Hopkins University. "But as soon as we arrive, we scout out a place to meet. She knows I want to make sure nothing bad is happening."
Concertgoing parents admit it doesn't take a lot of effort to spot some underage drinking at a concert or catch a whiff of marijuana.
For Puddester, reality hit when a youngster offered him a hit on his hash pipe during the HFStival at FedEx Field outside Washington. But, he says, it's hard to act too surprised to find drugs at a concert.
"I think it's a fairly safe environment," he says.
Donna Jean Rumbley, promotions director for radio station WHFS, the event's sponsor, says the festival has evolved into a family affair. While the show's target audience is 18 to 35, there is clearly no shortage of 40-plus-year-olds attending.
"They bring the whole family out," she says.
Not every parent can tolerate an 11-hour rock concert like the HFStival, of course. Jonathan Sherman's mother admits she couldn't handle two hours at Merriweather Post Pavilion listening to No Doubt and left that chore strictly to her husband -- after she outfitted the group with silicone earplugs from the local CVS pharmacy.
"A lot of parents can't handle the high volume," says Edie Brown, director of public and community relations for the Baltimore Arena. "And then there are the parents who want to see Britney Spears, but they don't want to admit it."
Jonathan, who keeps his stereo tuned to WHFS but also plays classical flute, says he wasn't terribly embarrassed by his father's presence at the concerts after all. He says he's even happy to experience his old man's growing appreciation for progressive rock -- at least for some of it.
"He went to a lot of concerts when he was in his prime," says Jonathan, who will be entering 10th grade at Friends School in Baltimore this fall. "He says they were just as loud back then. It's not that much different -- he just sits down a lot when the rest of us stand up."
Advice for the old and uncool
So you want to take your kids to a rock concert, but maybe you're so far out of touch that you think Korn, Phish and Leftover Salmon sound like a dinner menu.
How does a 40- to 50-something handle the concert scene without mortifying a son or daughter? Here are some tips:
* Leave your '70s concert attire home. That Led Zeppelin T-shirt has seen better days anyway. (Another tip: No yelling "Freebird." Boy, does that date you.)
* Abstain from body surfing. That's strictly for younger -- and lighter -- bodies.
* If you ever feel tempted to say, "In my day, a rock concert ..." -- don't. Best to keep those stories to yourself.
* If the music's too loud, earplugs are OK. Earmuffs are not.
* Don't drink or eat anything offered by strangers. Otherwise, the boss will wonder why you spent the following day staring at the phone cord and giggling.
* If you dance, the kids will just die.
* Talk like a normal oldster. Throwing out words like "phat" or "awesome" doesn't work when you're old enough to have a 401(k).
* Complain about vulgar language only if you've never cursed in front of your children.
* Most importantly, keep telling yourself this: You may not be as cool as you want to be, but you're not as uncool as you may feel.
When to let go
When should parents relent and let a child attend a concert without them?
Dr. Timothy F. Doran, chairman of pediatrics at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, says it can be a tough call. He recommends that parents consider these factors:
Is the child mature enough? "The difference between a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old is a chasm," he says.
Are you ready? Some parents will have a hard time letting go -- and that's OK, Doran says. "You go by how you feel, not what Johnny's mother does."
Know the concert. There's a big difference between letting a child go with friends to a folk concert and letting them go to hear Marilyn Manson.
"The more we know about what our children are doing, the better we are informed to make decisions," he says.
Protect their hearing. Rock concerts can cause hearing loss that might not show up for 20 or 30 years.