The Children of Rock

Their parents were music legends who broke all the rules. How do you grow up when your folks are the world's wildest kids?

April 7, 2005
Alexandra Richards, Ben Taylor, Nona Gaye, James Garfunkel and Sean Lennon on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Alexandra Richards, Ben Taylor, Nona Gaye, James Garfunkel and Sean Lennon on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Norman Jean Roy

Being raised by a rock star would seem to be every teenager's dream, unless you happen to be that teenager. Then, things can get weird. Trixie Garcia had her first psychedelic experience when she was one and a half. A bag of mushrooms had been left sitting out. Trixie's parents – the late Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia and the prototypical hippie chick Mountain Girl – were not particularly alarmed. "My mom was like, 'Oh, it made you more communicative!'" says Trixie, now thirty and a painter living in the Bay Area. "Most of the kids in the scene had some early dosing incident. My sister got into some acid-spiked orange juice."

The flip side of Trixie Garcia's childhood might be that of Anna Gabriel, who grew up in a modest cottage in the city of Bath, in the English countryside. Her father, Peter Gabriel, insisted he'd never done drugs and actually made her promise not to smoke cigarettes until her eighteenth birthday, in exchange for a car. He still doesn't know about Anna's tattoo (a flower, on her ankle), clandestinely inked during his 1993 Secret World Tour. For Anna – now a thirty-year-old filmmaker – the most harrowing experience involving her father's fame was the time she inadvertently made out to one of his songs: "It was 'In Your Eyes,' of course. I was with one of my first high school boyfriends and a three-song special came on the radio. I had to stop. It was like he was in the room!"

The rock & roll parents who most readily come to mind tend to be the most inappropriate. There's Courtney Love telling People how she tried to make her 2003 OxyContin overdose "fun" for her eleven-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, who made Love green tea while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Or 50 Cent outfitting his six-year-old son, Marquise, with a miniature bulletproof vest. And of course, there is the rock family America knows best, Ozzy Osbourne's. If The Osbournes is one's only insight into such matters, it would be understandable to assume the children of rock stars are spoiled rich kids whose loving but overly permissive parents have bequeathed them foul mouths, personal publicists and stints in rehab before their eighteenth birthdays.

But consider, as a counterpoint, Ozzy's longtime bandmate Geezer Butler, the bassist who wrote many of Black Sabbath's most evil-sounding lyrics and who once drunkenly menaced AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young with a knife during a tour in England. As a parent, it turns out, Butler is as buttoned-down as they come. "If they made a program called The Butlers, it would be the most boring thing ever," he says. "It would be my son doing his homework, me reading a book – right now, I'm reading the new Philip Roth – and my wife watching TV."

The sedate image is confirmed by Butler's twenty-year-old son, James, a history student at Oxford University currently focusing on Stalinist Russia. "At home, my dad listens to a lot of Norah Jones," he says. "My dad, coming from quite a humble background, wanted to provide what he wasn't able to get for himself, so he made sure to send us to private school, and I was always encouraged to read from an early age. I remember years ago being around the Osbournes' house and hearing Ozzy tell all these crazy stories from on the road. But my dad never did that. Everything I've heard about those days, I've read in magazines or heard at school from friends."

And even those tales may have been more fiction than fact. "A lot of the things James has heard have been exaggerated, as well," Geezer says. "But how many women you've been with, how many times you've OD'd — those just aren't the things you really talk to your kids about, are they?"

There's a mysterious gravitational pull that seems to bond the children of legendary musicians. Encounter enough of them and it starts to feel like a secret society. They've all grown up with parents who have simultaneously rejected society's rules and reaped its rewards, and they all recognize certain traits in each other.

Rufus Wainwright's father is folk singer Loudon Wainwright III; his mother is folk singer Kate McGarrigle. When Rufus moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in the mid-Nineties to pursue his own music career, he began playing at clubs like Largo, where he met other aspiring musicians — many of whom, it turned out, were also the offspring of musicians. Soon, an odd coterie had formed. There was Chris Stills, the son of Crosby, Stills and Nash singer-guitarist Stephen Stills. And Adam Cohen, the son of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (Adam is now the frontman for Low Millions, which scored a recent hit with the single "Eleanor"). Harper Simon, Paul's eldest, was around, as was Sean Lennon.

"We befriended each other," says Rufus. "I guess because, at the end of the day, we could relate to each other."

The connection is often intense. "It's not like some automatic pass into this club," stresses Chris Stills. "It's just that we might be hip to — how would I put it? It's kind of like we grew up behind the stage, so we're privy to the smoke and mirrors and the strings holding up the puppets. Most people just have their eye on the puppets. So that knowledge bonds us."

When Nona Gaye first met Sean Lennon, she says, "I felt like I was talking to myself." Nona was nine years old when her father, Marvin Gaye, was shot and killed by his own father; Sean was five when his father, John Lennon, was shot and killed by a deranged fan. "My father was just such a beautiful force in so many people's lives, and Sean's father did such similar things," says Nona, a thirty-year-old actress who has appeared in Alt and the Matrix sequels. "And now we both have this feeling of, 'I have to carry on this legacy in my own way.' And who else knows how I feel? I just had to give him a great big hug and go, 'Oh! Somebody knows!'"

Alexa Joel – the daughter of singer Billy Joel and supermodel Christie Brinkley had never met any other children of rock stars before the photo shoot for this issue's cover. Yet she too felt an immediate bond: "I think one of the reasons we all got along is because nobody was like, 'Oh, that's Stevie Wonder's daughter!' That's Marvin Gaye's daughter!' 'That's Paul Simon's son.' I mean, I can't tell you how many times I meet people and someone will say, 'This is Billy Joel's daughter.' I used to get mad and say, 'My name is Alexa!' Harper [SimonJ and I were talking about how it was really nice, for once, to just discuss our own work and what we wanted to do with our own lives."

In fact, Alexa spent most of her childhood avoiding the trappings of celebrity. "My parents would ask me, 'Do you want to go to this movie premiere with me or watch me accept this award?" But it was embarrassing," she says. "When you're, like, eleven or twelve years old, you don't want people to make a fuss over your parents. You just want your parents to be normal."

Now a nineteen-year-old freshman at New York University, Alexa is thinking about switching her major from musical theater to English. "I've tried to leave some room for her to grow and find her own way," says Billy Joel. "She's an excellent songwriter. But when she tells me that I'm an influence on her, I don't necessarily want to be, because with her name, she may have some difficulty being taken seriously. I don't want to impinge on her ability to have a career as a musician, so I'm a little shy about being too involved."

Many children of rock stars decide, quite naturally, to get into the family business. Perhaps there's a gift for melody in the genes; perhaps growing up in a creative environment simply inspires them and makes such a career seem like a realistic possibility. But the notion of rocking-by-birthright has always been a tough sell. Fairly or unfairly, growing up in a world of fame and luxury does not lend itself to much street credibility.

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