It was the Nina Simone documentary I reviewed the other week that got me thinking about this question. Simone’s daughter was a major contributor to the documentary, and the impression she gave was of a mother who was alternately absent and unstable, which made for a pretty awful childhood. Other music documentaries I’ve seen or books and interviews I’ve read have given similar impressions, that growing up the child of a musician was not a happy experience. Julian Lennon, for example does not have fond memories of his father, it seems.
When thinking about this question I first need to decide whatI mean by a great musician. There are plenty of musicians I personally think are great who also happen to be parents; Thea Gilmore, Laura Veirs, The Lovely Eggs, Kimya Dawson to name a few. I have no reason to think that they are anything other than great parents. I suppose I am thinking of the iconic musicians who every music fan and most of the general population would be aware of, your Bob Dylans, Aretha Franklins and Mick Jaggers to pick a few at random.
The biggest issue for musicians who are parents may be spending enough time with their children. Most of the biggest bands and artists are constantly touring their country or worldwide, taking them away from their families. This was certainly the case for Nina Simone, especially in the early years of her daughter’s childhood. It can be mitigated to some extent, either by taking children on tour or by limiting the number of shows you play. However, especially it seems for male musicians, the standard is that they go on tour without their families and don’t see them for 6 or 9 or 12 months of the year.
Being part of a touring rock band also brings with it temptations (drugs, drink, groupies) that are not wholly compatible with a quiet family life. Such temptations are not so prevalent in your standard 9 to 5 job, I certainly have yet to meet any accountancy groupies, nor have I been offered cocaine to prepare me for a budget meeting. My youth was only very mildly hedonistic, and I couldn’t have been a good father then, so I can’t imagine how a member of a famously wild rock band such as Led Zeppelin would have managed it.
Drug and alcohol addiction is common amongst musicians, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, those addictions don’t lend themselves to good parenting. Courtney Love, for example lost custody of her child for some time after suffering from drug problems. Pete Doherty, has three children by three different women, and his well documented addicition have made it difficult to be there for them. Although the mother of his first child, Lisa Moorish does state he is a better father than Liam Gallagher, who fathered another of her children. Promiscuity doesn’t necessarily cause someone to be a bad parent (although it probably doesn’t make them a good partner), but it can make them a prolific one. Bob Marley had almost a dozen known children. Blues musician Screaming Jay Hawkins supposedly had 75. Being a good parent to one child is difficult enough, being a good parent to 75 is, I would imagine, impossible.
Then there’s the effect of fame. Fame doesn’t make someone a bad parent, but I suspect it makes it harder to be a good one. Being constantly under the attention of fans, media, paparazzi and all is tough for an adult, let alone a child. Not to mention your parenting choices being constantly scrutinised. There’s also the impact fame has on musician’s personalities. At its’ most tragic, you have the case of Kurt Cobain, whose difficulty coping with his sudden ascent to fame may have contributed to his suicide. In other cases the impact is not so severe, but still leads to increasingly bizarre behaviour, Michael Jackson’s treatment of his children being a prime example (naming them blanket, dangling them over balconies, paranoia about germs wtc.)
Ultimately though, I totally believe it’s possible to be a great parent and a great musician. Musicians have barriers to overcome that most people don’t have when it comes to parenting, and those barriers increase the more successful and well known a musical becomes. But all parents have challenges, some deal with them well and some don’t. Musicians are an interesting case, but not an exceptional one.
It’s vital to remember as well, that we have no idea if any particular musician is a good parent or not. It’s easy to speculate when someone is the public eye, and I do it as much as anyone, but actually it’s unknowable, and more importantly, none of our goddamn business.