Alex Williams and Toby

Alex Williams and Toby

As a first-time father, I had a lot of things on my mind the night Joanna and I brought Toby home from the hospital six years ago: How do I hold his delicate body so he feels safe and comfortable? How many hours will he sleep? And, of course, how am I going to keep this precious creature alive through the night? I was so new to this!

Even given all that new-dad anxiety, though, there was one question I felt could not wait even until Night 2: What would be the first notes of music he would ever hear? I took the question seriously. As a music lover who had grown up listening to my dad’s old records (pretty much everything from Johnny Cash to Beethoven), I considered music to be the ultimate welcome-to-earth present that a father could give his child. It would be, I hoped, something we would always share.

So, with Joanna catching a few hours of sleep in the bedroom, and Toby in his baby seat staring up at me with those newborn eyes, I dialed up Penny Lane by the Beatles on my iTunes and let it flow over his new ears. I’m not sure if it meant anything to him, but it meant a lot to me.

And after six years, turning Toby on to music has been one of the great joys of fatherhood. Since Toby was two, we’ve spent hours listening to music alone, loud, usually when Joanna is out of the house. I keep a “Toby” playlist on my Spotify, and every time he hears a new song he likes, he nods in approval and says, like a grown-up, “Add that to my playlist.”

At first, I called the shots. I managed to steer him away from kids’ stuff like “Yankee Doodle” to sunny ’60s pop, like Herman Hermits’ No Milk Today, and eventually even to some contemporary club stuff like Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Mark Ronson’s Bang Bang Bang. I figured I could continue to guide his tastes and he would like the stuff I liked. You know, the “chip off the old block” stuff.

By the time Toby was four, though, I started to realize, through our musical journeys, that there’s only so much you can do to influence your kids. They have minds of their own, and they have ears of their own, too. Thanks to Toby, the first song Anton ever heard on earth was Shake Your Booty, because that’s what Toby wanted to hear when we brought his little brother home from the hospital (sorry, Anton!).

Now, when Toby and Anton and I turn down the lights for a living room “dance party,” it’s Toby who is the DJ. I’m expected to follow his lead. He’ll call out “Happy!” (Pharrell Williams) or “All Star!” (Smash Mouth, via Shrek, naturally), and my job is to comply. The most I can do is gently nudge him. I mean, I turned him onto Belle & Sebastian years ago, and he now considers them the most danceable band since the Bee Gees. But even there, he likes totally different songs from the ones I once tried to force-feed him. His favorite song is the the haunting, ethereal, Waiting for the Moon to Rise. Try dancing to that one. Toby can.

Given what I’ve learned with Toby, I’m exercising a more hands-off approach with Anton, who is three years younger. I gave up on trying to make him my musical clone. So, now, I just follow his lead. If Anton wants to hear The Gummy Bear Song on an endless loop, that’s what we play.

So, imagine my surprise yesterday, when Anton and I were in the backseat of a cab on the way to a picnic. I took out my phone and told him he could watch any video he wanted.

He looked at me without hesitation: “Penny Lane!”

P.S. Eight confessions of a new dad, and Alex’s side of the birth story.