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Why Are America’s Rock Bands So Goddamned Angry?
Nine-year-old Kurt Cobain stumbled upon the answer when he angrily scrawled “Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad” on his bedroom wall. Blink-182 know all too well. So do Nickelback, Staind, Papa Roach, Korn and a nation of kids who have suffered the painful emotional fallout from their parents’ divorces. “Is this a damaged generation?” asks Blink’s Tom DeLonge. “Yeah, I’d say so.”
By William Shaw
The day Blink-182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket came out, Lauren Levy, of Middletown, New Jersey, was desperate to buy a copy. Lauren was 14, and a huge fan of Blink-182.

At home, she demanded: “I want that CD!”

Her mother, Debbie Levy, can’t stand Blink-182 — they’re way too noisy, she says — but she’d do anything for her only daughter, so she had already been to Jack’s Music in Middletown and picked up the record. When Lauren arrived home from school, Debbie smiled, pulled out the shopping bag and presented the CD to her.

Breathlessly, Lauren charged upstairs to her bedroom and turned up her stereo as loud as it could go.

It was track seven, “Stay Together for the Kids,” that knocked the wind out of her. The lyrics hit home: “The anger hurts my ears, been running strong for seven years/Rather than fix the problem they never solve it; it makes no sense at all/I see them every day; we get along so why can’t they?”

Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge wrote “Stay Together” about the misery of his parents’ divorce. Lauren loved Blink’s goofy, self-effacing punk, but this was something else entirely. It could have been written about the way her parents used to fight. Or about how her father moved out when she was 6. This song, Lauren thought, could be about her.

If there’s a theme running through rock at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it’s a pervasive sense of hurt. For the past few years, bands like Korn, Linkin Park, Slipknot, Papa Roach and Disturbed have been thrusting forward their dark accounts of dysfunctional upbringings. Albums bursting with tirelessly autobiographical tales of anguish are selling millions. Even good-time punks like Blink-182 are telling how deep their emotional scars run.

The ’90s had Generation X — have we ended up with Generation Whine?

Throughout the past decade, hip-hop has helped teach a nation of suburban white kids the well-paid joys of misery memoir. But rap artists such as Tupac Shakur had major difficulties to inveigh against: assassination attempts, homelessness, poverty, a crack-addicted mother, a crack-selling father, gun-happy cops, rape accusations, prison sentences, racial injustice.

Compared to those troubles, one might wonder, what exactly do Blink-182 or Papa Roach have to complain about? After all, they came of age during a period of unprecedented affluence — white, suburban America benefited from the longest sustained economic boom the country had ever seen. Peace, until recently, prevailed. Of course, social, political and economic advantage never guarantee happiness, and kids will always yearn to break stuff — but given the circumstances, it seems that at least a few pierced twentysomethings might feel OK with the world. As the clichéd elder might mutter, what’s wrong with kids today?

Blink-182’s DeLonge thinks he found an answer in his fans’ impassioned response to “Stay Together for the Kids.” “We get e-mails about ‘Stay Together,’ kid after kid after kid saying ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about! That song is about my life!’ ” says DeLonge. “And you know what? That sucks. You look at statistics that 50 percent of parents get divorced, and you’re going to get a pretty large group of kids who are pissed off and who don’t agree with what their parents have done.”

Indeed, in recent years, a torrent of modern-rock bands have spilled the dirt on their family breakups: Blink’s “Stay Together,” Papa Roach’s “Broken Home,” Staind’s “For You” and Nickelback’s “Too Bad.” Even pop singer Pink got in on the act with “Family Portrait”: “Momma please stop cryin’, I can’t stand the sound/Your pain is painful, and it’s tearin’ me down/I hear glasses breakin’ as I sit up in my bed/I told Dad you didn’t mean those nasty things you said.” Not Shakespeare, exactly, but these songs reflect the zeitgeist of an age group coping with the highest marital-breakdown rate ever recorded in America. If this era’s music says anything, it’s that this generation sees itself as uniquely fractured.

Divorce, like the Pill, became an entrenched American phenomenon during the 1960s. In 1969, California became the first state to pass a no-fault divorce law. Other states followed. Divorce rapidly shed the worst of its social stigma, and in the ’70s and ’80s, the freewheelin’ parents of today’s vitriolic songwriters married — and split.

These days, divorce rates are four times higher than they were in 1970. Up to 50 percent of first marriages now end in divorce, and 30 percent of marriages end within 18 years, when couples are likely to have dependent children.

Blink fan Lauren Levy is 15 now. She remembers being 6 and wondering why her dad never came home after work, why he had an apartment across town. She remembers the day she finally figured it out, collapsed over the kitchen counter and cried her heart out. How, she wondered, could two people who loved her, who always seemed so happy, suddenly leave each other? What was that going to solve? These days, she hears “Stay Together for the Kids,” and it encapsulates perfectly what she felt:

“See them every day/We get along, so why can’t they?/If this is what he wants and what she wants, why’s there so much pain?/I’m ripe with things to say/The words rot and fall away. . . . ”

Whenever her parents fight, Lauren goes upstairs to her room, with the bed in the middle and the Blink-182 posters on the wall, and plays her music. Hearing “Stay Together” lets her know that the feelings churning inside her do not mean she’s going crazy. It reassures her she’s not the only one who’s been through this.

“Is this a damaged generation?” asks DeLonge. “Yeah, I’d say so.” If there’s an edge of bitterness in “Stay Together,” it dates from the day an 18-year-old DeLonge came home and noticed scrape marks across the driveway. “What are those doing on the ground?” he wondered. He followed them through the front door. Reaching the living room, DeLonge was shocked to see that half the furniture had vanished. Which is when it hit him. Of course he’d noticed his parents weren’t getting along — but like most children of divorce, he never expected things to go so far.

“Right then, I knew my dad had dragged out his furniture single-handedly,” DeLonge recalls. “That’s the first image that went through my head. It was a horrible thing.”

Art Alexakis, the leader of the pop-grunge band Everclear, wrote the 1997 hit “Father of Mine” about the day when he was 10 and his father walked out, leaving the family in a housing project in Culver City, California. “Father of mine — tell me, how do you sleep?/With all the children you abandoned and the wife I saw you beat?/I will never be safe, I will never be sane/I will always be weird inside, I will always be lame. . . . ” Alexakis’s response in adolescence was suicide attempts and drug abuse.

Back when his parents split, divorce wasn’t a common topic for rock songs. But Alexakis clearly remembers the rainy California day his older brother, George, played him “Mother,” by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: “Father, you left me/But I never left you/I needed you/But you didn’t need me.” Alexakis thought, “God, that’s my life.” Just like Lauren Levy years later, he recognized he wasn’t alone in his despair and anger, and he now says that moment was one of the reasons he became a songwriter.

These days, we’re accustomed to writers who use their audience as a church confessional. It’s fashionable to complain about how scarred you are. But the nearly omnipresent archetype of singer as emotional fuckup is a relatively recent phenomenon. What was an undercurrent in the ’90s has burst into the mainstream.

Alexakis dates the growth of warts-and-all musical autobiography back to Nirvana. “I think Kurt Cobain embodied the ability to communicate the feeling of nothingness,” he says. “His lyrics touched a nerve with a generation. I think it’s easier for people to write honestly now.”

If Cobain did indeed write the book about how to wax eloquently about self-loathing and misery, it’s worth remembering that he too was the child of a drawn-out, messy divorce. Cobain was the quintessential divorce kid, passed around from relative to relative while Mom and Dad tried to sort out their lives — an experience he wrote about obliquely on 1991’s “Sliver.” The Cobains split when Kurt was 9. That was the year he scrawled on his bedroom wall: “I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you want to be so sad.”

Alexakis remembers writing “Wonderful” — another track about his father’s desertion — because he realized he’d never heard a song that dealt with the topic from a child’s viewpoint: “I go to school and run and play/I tell the kids that it’s all OK/I like to laugh so my friends won’t know/When the bell rings I just don’t wanna go home.”

“Being ashamed, being very sad and not being able to tell your friends about it: That’s a widespread experience,” psychologist Judith Wallerstein points out. Her 2000 book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, set out to debunk the idea that “kids get over it,” arguing that even a well-managed, well-meaning divorce leaves marks on children that can take decades to heal, and that parents often act selfishly in breaking up families. Wallerstein’s research was highlighted in a Time magazine cover story (“What Divorce Does to Kids”), and came under fire from critics who questioned the wisdom of her “stay together for the kids” advice.

Wallerstein, 80, was unaware of the recent outpouring of divorce songs until Blender offered her a crash course in Papa Roach and Blink-182: “These are rock bands? That is wonderful.”

For years, Wallerstein has been trying to make people understand the anguish divorce can cause. “It’s very upsetting for adult society to hear that divorce makes people unhappy — and that the unhappiness doesn’t just go away after a few months,” she says. “There has been a real attempt to deny that this suffering is anything that lasts for these young people. Society’s attitude is ‘Pull your socks up!’ I’m very grateful that these [bands] aren’t playing by those rules.”

“You left without saying goodbye/Although I’m sure you tried/You call and ask from time to time/To make sure we’re still alive/But you weren’t there right when I’m needing you most,” sings Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger on “Too Bad” — a song about his father, who left home when Kroeger was 2.

For Kroeger, songs like “Too Bad” are his generation’s protest music. The fact that the song is a personal story doesn’t make it any less so.

“If I just say, ‘Oh, I’m really pissed off,’ well, why am I pissed off?” Kroeger says. “And what am I trying to do about it? What was it that made me feel that way? When a song becomes autobiographical, that’s when it has the most impact.”

“Too Bad” is one of many tracks Kroeger wrote about his parents’ split. “Never Again,” from 2001’s Silver Side Up, is about the fistfights his parents used to get into; “Fly,” from 1997’s Curb, tells the story of a child having to listen to his mother run his absent father down; “Cowboy Hat,” from The State (2000), concerns a father who comes to visit bearing gifts (“All the money, all the gold/Couldn’t buy my love at 8 years old”). Writing songs, says Kroeger, is his way of coming to terms with his past.

Everclear’s Alexakis agrees — for a writer, such songs are therapy. “I think all good creativity comes from a selfish place,” he says.

Twenty-five-year-old Jacoby “Coby Dick” Shaddix of Papa Roach wrote “Broken Home” about how, as a 7-year-old, he wept constantly when his father left — thinking that maybe it was his fault: “I’m crying day and night now/What is wrong with me?”

“That song was just a way of letting go of it,” says Shaddix. “You’re my dad, but you don’t know how to love. OK. Whatever. Am I going to trip about it, or am I going to deal with it?”

His father has never told him what he thinks of the song. “I don’t really know,” Shaddix says. “I talk to him about once every six months: ‘What’s up? You still alive? I’m still alive too, man.’ But it’s cool. You can’t change the past.”

While Shaddix’s father might not react, his fans do. He’s become used to them coming up and telling him, over and over: “ ‘You know that song “Broken Home?” That’s my fuckin’ life, right there.’ It’s a bit sad that that’s true, you know?” he says.

This is the sound of one generation reproaching another — only this time, it’s the scorned, world-weary children telling off their narcissistic, irresponsible parents. “You were never there when I needed you,” blurts Shaddix at his absent father on “Broken Home.” “I hope you regret what you did.”

Everyone sees divorce as a breakdown in communication between parents. But the hidden communication breakdown is between parents and children. “Children tend to see their parents as not having given much thought to their feelings,” says Jeff Wood, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “They feel they haven’t been taken into consideration.”

Rock music has always been a perfect battleground for intergenerational skirmishes. The subtext of listening to its gloriously loud, obnoxious noise has always been, “See? You don’t understand me.”

So divorce could be rock’s ideal subject matter. These are songs about the chasm in understanding between parents — who routinely don’t comprehend the grief their children are feeling — and children who don’t know why their parents have torn up their world.

Fifteen-year-old Jessica, from Oakboro, North Carolina, was 11 when her parents split. Now, she says, instead of getting angry and punching walls, she puts on Staind’s “For You”: “The silence is what kills me/I need someone here to help me/But you don’t know how to listen/And let me make my decisions.” “It’s like a secret place I think nobody else has that I can go to in my mind,” Jessica says. “It really helps.”

Matt, from Sacramento, California, was 8 when it happened to him. He’s 15 now and says he often feels worthless. “Music helps me so much,” he says. “Blink-182 helped me get through so many tough times and situations.”

It’s the same stories again and again. It’s a vast communion of pain. “You should see some people who I meet after shows,” says Nickelback’s Kroeger. “They break down weeping, and they’re like, ‘I went through the exact same thing!’ Sometimes it’s terrifying how much they relate to it.”

A cynic could say that divorce has become a fast track into the hearts and wallets of a teenage audience. “Even if writing about divorce is just a marketing tool,” Wood counters, “that doesn’t stop the fact that there is real sentiment behind these songs.”

Wallerstein agrees: “It’s very easy to say to these rock singers, ‘Stop complaining!’ But who has a right to say that? That attitude ties into adult society’s wish for children to shut up.”

These days, 15-year-old Lauren Levy no longer wishes her parents would get back together. She does still wish they could talk to each other without arguing. But they can’t.

In her bedroom, Lauren replaces Take Off Your Pants and Jacket in its case and picks up her guitar. She’s learning to play the Blink song “Josie.” If she gets good, she wants to be in a band one day too.

Lauren’s mother, Debbie, walks in. “It’s OK, Mom,” says Lauren with a grin. “I didn’t make you sound like an evil witch in the article.”

“Thanks,” says Debbie. “Now, your father, you can make him sound evil . . . ”

“Mom!” Lauren scolds. She can’t stand it, she says, when her mother runs down her dad.

On the shelf over her bed is a photograph of Lauren bawling her eyes out. Last summer, she went to every Blink-182 show she could afford. She hung around outside the stage doors. At a show in Camden, New Jersey, she got to meet Blink drummer Travis Barker.

In the photograph, she’s standing between Chad Gilbert from New Found Glory and Barker. That afternoon, she desperately wanted to tell Barker what his band’s songs had done for her. But she couldn’t get a single word out. All she could do was cry.

Show Me The Alimony!
Breaking up may be hard to do, but writing a classic song about it? Not so hard, as these divorce standards surely attest

Merle Travis, “Divorce Me C.O.D.”
Marital bliss remained beyond this great Country & Western guitarist’s grasp. Travis assaulted his wife in 1956, resulting in a police siege of his home. He finally pulled things together when he married his fourth wife, Dorothy — ex-wife of Travis’s C&W crony Hank Thompson.

Sonny and Cher, “You Better Sit Down Kids”
Predating the couple’s bitter divorce by seven years, “You Better Sit Down Kids” remains a heartrending story of a broken home: “Now how should I put this/I’ve got something to say/Your mother is staying/But I’m going away.”

Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
The title holds the clue for this, the tale of Wynette’s relationship with her first husband, Euple Byrd, whom she married at age 17. Splitting after three years and three children, she became country legend George Jones’s third wife and musical partner in 1968. Seven years later, weary of Jones’s fascination with drugs, alcohol and shotguns, Wynette decided it was time for another D-I-V- . . . oh, you know.

Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear
Among the artists bitter enough to have devoted an entire record to ruined relationships (see Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights), Gaye is the only one to record a themed double album to make good on alimony payments to his ex-wife.

Jerry Reed, “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)”
The definitive recording of the self-deprecating split standard, cut by the definitive good ol’ boy.
— Ben Mitchell

August 2002

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