by Robert Burke Warren
AKA Uncle Rock
originally published in Big Apple Parent
pic by Hillary Harvey
“Go away! Go away! Go awaaaay!!!”
Thus began my first gig as a children’s birthday party entertainer; I was being shrieked at by the soon-to-be three-year-old guest of honor. I had arrived early. Stepping up to the screen door of a weekend house in the Catskill Mountains of New York, I had come upon Chet – an only child contentedly amusing himself in the living room. Once I’d startled him, I did not need to knock.
His mother, a trim and energetic owner of a Manhattan PR firm, came bounding in. For all she knew, a drooling coyote was snarling on the steps. Upon seeing me, however, she smiled. “Chet’s just this way with new people!” she said with a good-natured laugh. She unlatched the lock and let me in amid the continued wailing.
“Look, Chet, look! It’s UNCLE ROCK!” she enthused. The screen door slammed behind me. It sounded really loud.
“No no no no no no no!” replied her son.
It was not an auspicious beginning. But that was two years ago, and I’ve started to get the hang of the children’s party circuit. I am becoming known as the cowboy-shirt-wearing guy who walks in with an acoustic guitar to sing rock and roll and invite partygoers of all ages to join in – an alternative to a clown or a magician.
A longtime musician, songwriter and actor, I had started making music for families under the name Uncle Rock, and eventually parents and kids began inviting me to play at private events – mostly parties. Although I worried that I’d be walking into farcical, Christopher Guest mock-umentary-type situations, I told myself it could be interesting. I was right on both counts; it’s been quite interesting and it’s been like a cross between Pop Go The Wiggles and This Is Spinal Tap.
My fellow family music troubadour Dan Zanes has said that when he started playing music for the juicebox set his friends secretly felt sorry for him. Not so with my cronies. No, they openly pitied me. And I’ve stopped trying to convince them that this has been a rich, valuable chapter of my performing life.
There still are awkward moments – like scaring the bejeezus out of Chet – but I’ve become drawn to them in a guerrilla theater/punk rock type of way. An awkward moment is possessed of a particularly potent energy, and like an adrenaline junkie, I love tapping into that. And truth be told, some of the kids’ parties I’ve played have been great gigs from start to finish. But those don’t make the best stories.
Like the time a domestic dispute during the festivities made the party feel like a cross between Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? and Stand By Me. And the obnoxious dad who kept trying to impress me by quizzing his five-year-old son on Beatles trivia in front of everyone.
Meltdowns by the Birthday Boy/Girl have been quite common, which has reminded me of the Oscar Wilde quote: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
I’ve performed in a sprawling Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River (similar to being in a Brooks Brothers catalog), in front of a crackling woodstove in a rural farmhouse (“Stand over there Uncle Rock, so the kids won’t get burned!”), and in the back rooms of a panoply of restaurants. Because of this unexpected depth of experience, I get questioned by parents who want to throw the “best party ever” for their child and need my advice. But when I say things like, “Don’t open the presents during the party,” “Don’t invite the whole school,” and “Don’t be a control freak,” they’re usually not listening.
More often than not, I have seen moms who are stressed simply because they aren’t sure what’s best for their kid. Being a parent myself, my heart goes out to them. “Teach me to care and not to care,” wrote T. S. Eliot, and if he had met a harried parent trying to do right by his or her child, he’d have known exactly what to say. A child’s birthday party sometimes seems like a microcosm of parenting itself: “When do I jump in and attempt to control this chaos? When is it OK to lay back and just let nature take its course?” But in reality, it’s not a microcosm. It’s just a kid’s party.
Overall, I’ve had a great time walking in with an acoustic guitar and taking up the challenge of entertaining kids – and parents – who have been weaned on jump-cut-edited cartoons and handheld computer games. My faith in the power of song is intact: There remains an innate desire in people of all ages to let go and be “inside the song.” It’s only when a performer is there to open the door that this is possible on a deep level, and that is what I come to do.
I performed “grown-up” rock and roll for years, and kids are not all that different from a potentially explosive, inebriated club audience. While playing a particularly rowdy sixth birthday party, I looked around at the exuberant dancing, singing, and group action, and I had an epiphany: This is what adults are trying to re-capture when they go see a band and head for the bar – a loosening of inhibitions and anxiety, a contagious joy.
And speaking of loosening up, Chet’s party turned out fine. By the end of it, after we’d rocked out a couple times on “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” he didn’t want me to leave. But I quit while I was ahead. Before the sun set, I got paid and headed home, turning the page on a new chapter in my performing life. I can’t recall if the screen door slammed behind me or not.