Mother Rocker

Mother Rocker

 

A SMALL CROWD HAS GATHERED outside Giants Stadium in Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s a Saturday morning in early June and the parking lot that would be packed during football season is nearly empty. Ages range from young children to the elderly. Most are wearing t-shirts of various solid colors. Kids toss around footballs and play tag. Adults call after their children, chat amongst themselves or on cell phones, look for friends, and await instructions for the Lupus charity walk that has drawn all of them here today. Hands go up in the air as soon as any of them spies a fellow team member in a matching t-shirt.

As their herding continues, the crowd is unaware of the large black SUV that has pulled up slowly to one of the gates. They take no notice as five women emerge from the oversized vehicle and begin unpacking guitars, drums, an electric bass, and a trombone. They charge into the stadium and immediately begin setting up on the stage located in the center of the field. As they begin their sound check, it’s obvious they’re here to rock, not walk.

They are Housewives on Prozac, and they’d be complete as a band if only they had their leader, Joy Rose ‘79. Word is, Rose is stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Slowing her down even further is a broken foot. She dropped a table on it the previous night and spent most of the evening in the hospital. Everyone is wondering how she’ll manage to perform today.

If she’s as tough as the other Housewives look, she’ll do just fine. Drummer Donna Kelly and bass player Susan Graham are a muscular pair, dressed as if they would have preferred to ride in on Harley-Davidsons rather than a Chevy Suburban. But they’re really quite sweet and their “Moms Rock” t-shirts soften their images considerably. “We’ve been together a long time and we have a lot of fun,” Kelly says. “I love my girls.”

If she’s as tough as the other Housewives look, she’ll do just fine. Drummer Donna Kelly and bass player Susan Graham are a muscular pair, dressed as if they would have preferred to ride in on Harley-Davidsons rather than a Chevy Suburban. But they’re really quite sweet and their “Moms Rock” t-shirts soften their images considerably. “We’ve been together a long time and we have a lot of fun,” Kelly says. “I love my girls.”

Standing by the entrance, she coyly calls on one of the burly grounds employees to give her a piggyback ride to the stage, and he seems most happy to oblige.

This is Joy Rose, a seasoned veteran of the New York City punk, disco, and pop music scenes, the founder of Housewives on Prozac, and the owner of the voice that’s sounding an increasingly strong, primal yawp across the land on behalf of unfulfilled women everywhere. She is the proud mother not only of four children, but of a new, hybrid genre of music: “mom rock.”

Her idea is starting to get some real attention. In the last few years, Rose and/or her band have appeared on CNN and Good Morning America (twice). They’ve been covered in People, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. But her impact on the music world doesn’t end with the band. Five years ago, she launched Mamapalooza, a festival of music, arts, and comedy by and for women, and she has since delivered to major cities across the country. Mamapalooza’s success has made Rose a poster girl of sorts for women’s lib and has placed her image in ads running in O Magazine and Ladies Home Journal.

“I’m here to help redefine the role of the mother,” Rose says. “Women have liberated themselves, but then we have babies and we go back to playing archetypes that don’t fit with our highly educated, competent selves. Rock and roll is the Trojan horse. It’s the great art form of rebellion.”

“I’m here to help redefine the role of the mother,” Rose says. “Women have liberated themselves, but then we have babies and we go back to playing archetypes that don’t fit with our highly educated, competent selves. Rock and roll is the Trojan horse. It’s rebellion, the great art form of rebellion.

“We’re able to break it all apart in a way that’s not too threatening. I like to define this whole genre with the idea that we need to open up to new kinds of music for people who are at different stages in their lives. We’re not political or religious, and we love everybody.”

But Rose and the Housewives didn’t storm into this particular establishment, this charity event, to break it all apart. She’s here for a far more poignant reason, to help find a cure for the disease that nearly killed her and still afflicts one of her best friends, Housewives backup singer Gillian Crane. Had their struggle against Lupus not been successful, the band might not exist today. Then again, Housewives on Prozac may never have been had Rose not contracted the disease.

Rose was diagnosed with Lupus in 1994, long before Housewives formed, and battled it until late 2000, after a powerful regimen of chemotherapy and a kidney transplant from a friend helped set her on the path to recovery. Even now, a laundry list of prescriptions helps bolster her war torn immune system.

As many as 1.5 million Americans, mostly women between the ages of 15 and 45, currently suffer from Lupus. It hit Rose just when her life seemed perfect, when she had a “super successful” husband, a big house in the suburbs, and four children. “I was incapacitated with four kids at home under the age of five,” Rose recalls. “It was terrible…Parenting is the most important job you can have and how do you do it? Nobody teaches you.”

Rose believes a partial cause of her Lupus was her pursuit of being the ideal mom and a rock and roller (she performed and recorded as a solo artist early in her parenthood). More specifically, she blames her efforts to play both roles to the extreme. “I went from domestic over-achiever to domestic liberator. I saw my need to be perfect as contributing to my illness. Lupus is a disease that affects your active immune system. Think about it.”

Ever since her strength has returned, Rose has dedicated herself to finding a cure. Today marks her third performance at this annual charity walk. She hopes to do on a smaller scale what Michael J. Fox is doing for Parkinson’s disease or Christopher Reeve did for paralysis. “I’m not a big celebrity like them, but I can still bring some higher visibility and attention to the cause,” she says. “You gotta think how it’s gonna benefit everybody. You gotta think big. All diseases suck, and mine’s not any more special than any other.”

Gillian Crane, Rose’s sidekick in the band, developed Lupus two years ago. She was already involved with the band by that point–like most of the Housewives, she became acquainted with Rose through her involvement with a rock musical Rose wrote called Shut Up and Drive–but when she got the diagnosis, it cemented her commitment to the band and to Rose in particular, she says. “I felt a connection to her and my life just totally changed. I think we met for a reason.”

Now Crane is able to joke about the disease, saying it gives her cheeks a permanent natural blush since her body temperature is always a little higher than it should be. But Lupus drained her energy and the color in her cheeks for two solid years, so much so that she believes a more accurate title for today’s fundraiser might be “A Sleep Walk for Lupus.”

But if there’s one thing that Housewives on Prozac have, it is energy, and the charity event gives them a chance to show it. A small group has gathered at the foot of the stage, but most in attendance are still fervently pacing the stadium. As they march for an end to Lupus, an energysapping disease, Rose is warming up to sing a whole set of vigorous songs, a collective exhortation to take charge of your life. She’s the one to deliver it, too, because she’s been there and back. “I’ve already had that big, eye-opening, mountaintop experience,” she says later. “I’m talking about a life with meaning but with creativity and song. It’s about celebrating your family and your creativity.”

“We all want to be happy, but too often we reach for the easy solution to core spiritual questions,” Rose says. “Some people need medication. We look for an alternative. Music is our Prozac.”

After a few final sound-checks, the Housewives are ready to go. They launch into “Fuzzy Slippers,” a funky, upbeat song that’s not about slippers at all. Really, it’s an anthem encouraging women to keep on moving forward after they have children. Next up is “Life.” The song is flavored like 1980s-style heavy metal, but its regretful tone–”a long way from Nashville and Carnegie Hall”–is thoroughly postmodern. “Eat Your Spaghetti” is a musical release valve for any mom who’s had it up to here with the Power Rangers, the Flintstones, or SpongeBob SquarePants. The Housewives are about nothing if not relieving “domestic desperation.”

The musical intensity is rising, but the housewives haven’t forgotten what they’re here for. They pause to make an announcement. “Every step I take hurts like heck,” Rose yells, “but every step you take is doing somebody some good.”

Rose jumps down from the stage, with help, and coaxes the children in the audience to dance with her to a funny, sarcastic punk-style song called “I Don’t Think Like My Mom Anymore.” Later, she breaks out an imaginary kazoo and jams with Kyle Ann Burtt’s real trombone in “Tension,” and Housewives on Prozac rock on.

The crowd begins to dissipate as the early afternoon sun turns the stadium bowl into a gigantic oven. The band’s set is over and soon they’re dismantling their equipment. Black and white feathers, the windblown remnants of the band’s many costume boas, litter the field. It looks as if a flock of chickens, not a crowd of human beings, had done the Lupus walk. “We leave a trail wherever we go,” Graham explains with a grin. They do indeed.

Back behind the wheel of her own SUV, on her way home, Rose is having a little trouble driving. The car is large enough to be slightly unwieldy for her under normal circumstances, but now she’s wearing a cast on her foot and pain medicine is coursing through her veins. Somehow she’s still able to negotiate dense New Jersey traffic and carry on an interview simultaneously.

Her medicine notwithstanding, mind-altering substances comprise one of Rose’s burning hot-button issues. It’s right up there with women’s rights and her anti-conformist mantra. Growing up in Hudson, Ohio, and later in Westport, Connecticut, she says she was appalled by the amount of alcohol her peers consumed, even in high school. Her astonishment carried over to her years at Denison, where she was one of the few during the late 1970s to abstain entirely from drinking. Unlike many rock-and-rollers, she also refuses to smoke, although she does keep a pack of clove cigarettes in her car because she genuinely likes how they smell.

In part, her view may be a genetic hand-me-down from her grandfather, who was an abolitionist, and from her strict parents. Really, though, her disgust for alcohol and drugs stems from her musical core. She can’t understand why anyone would drink or take drugs knowing they’re about to gloss over reality, which in her opinion is the source of all great art. “I think creativity is why we’re here,” she says. “It’s the essence of life itself. It’s a missed opportunity when you’re drunk.”

Rose earned a degree from Denison in theater. She was, and still is, “a bit of a free spirit, a notorious presence,” she says. She starred in a number of one-woman shows but also took part in larger campus productions of The Crucible and Sweethearts. Her fondest theater memory is of Edward Albee, the great playwright, directing her in one of his own scripts, The American Dream.

As theatrical as Rose has remained, the more fruitful seed may have been planted while serving as the head of Denison’s largest women’s dormitory. Not only did her stand against alcohol first take root then, the role put her in a position to help her fellow students. It’s a charge she’s still fulfilling as a Housewife on Prozac. “My purpose, even in those days, was to empower,” she says. “I was trying to help them feel better, okay about who they are, and not to be defined by their relationships.”

After college, Rose yearned for big city life and made a beeline for New York, where she landed a costume design internship at the Juilliard School. She tried to establish herself as a solo singer, hanging out at the infamous Studio 54 and performing in male guise in a downtown punk band called Peter and the Girlfriends. In 1984, she went solo, recording “In And Out of Love Affairs” with Chris Lord and Roscoe Mercer. That and “Sexual Voodoo,” a song from 1988, made it onto the Billboard magazine dance charts. “Those were some wild years,” Rose admits. It may have taken her a while to adjust to life in Manhattan, but she was doing pretty well.

Soon enough, though, she took on domestic duties. She got pregnant soon after getting married and became what she calls a “baby pig,” having four children in succession. “My strategy was to see how many I could squeeze out in the shortest time,” she says.

By 1997, Lupus and its treatment had knocked her down, but she was getting back up. She was feeling better, strong enough to form a new band, Housewives on Prozac. “I decided to stop doing what other people expected of me,” she says, “and that’s what I’m doing now.” Many of her songs during this period were autobiographical, venting her anger at how disease had altered her life in ways both permanent and temporary. After two years of this, Rose compiled the songs into a rock musical called Shut Up and Drive. Work on the show led her to Crane and the others, who have been a band ever since. Now they’re performing between four and six shows a month, making records, and appearing on television.

Like teenage punk rockers exiled to someone’s garage, though, the Housewives still rehearse in Rose’s living room. The space seems incredibly small for the purpose. Even without people in it, it feels cramped, what with the drum set, the large amplifier, the old electric keyboard, the upright piano, and the oversized felt-covered chair shaped like a high-heeled shoe all crowded inside along with the exercise bike and Thigh Master on the floor.

The band isn’t the only enterprise Rose runs out of her home. She’s equally passionate about Mamapolooza, the festival she founded in 2000. At first there were nine bands involved; now there are 200. As executive producer, Rose has taken Mamapalooza to New York, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Florida, and she has her sights on Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Toronto, and others. The festival is now sponsored by Meredith Corp., whose holdings include Parent and CHILD magazines.

In addition to performing and producing, Rose runs her own women’s clothing line called “Mommy-girl-go-go.” The line specializes in shirts emblazoned with mom rock catchphrases like “I’m Not Your Typical Housewife,” “Mrs. Trouble,” and “Women Do Not Have an Expiration Date.”

The “Prozac” part of the band’s name suggests depression. In fact, Rose is about as un-depressed as anyone could be. She’s forced to take 18 pills a day, but that’s to keep her Lupus in check. Three years ago she separated from her husband, who supported her throughout her illness and who remains a close friend. She’s not particularly happy about the split, which she attributes to the “transformative and, in a weird way, empowering” effect Lupus had on her, but she accepts it. Otherwise, her life with her four children, five sister-like bandmates, and two chinchillas is pretty swell. “Everything is a gift for me,” she says. “We seem to be blessed with amazing opportunities again and again. Everybody seems to be saying ‘yes’ to us now. It’s all good.”

Besides, Rose’s real drug of choice is her art, her mission to help women and humanity in general live “a life with meaning but with creativity and song. We all want to be happy, but too often we reach for the easy solution to core spiritual questions,” she says. “Some people need medication. We look for an alternative. Music is our Prozac.”


Zachary Lewis is an arts and enterainment journalist from Cleveland, Ohio.

Published November 2020