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Punk Family Values 

Meet the Rosenthals: two generations of art stars in one six-story warehouse.

Wednesday, May 7 2008
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Page 3 of 6

Henry spent the next ten years proposing to Carola. Each time she would accept and start compiling a list of what she calls "a few hundred close friends and family" for the wedding. And each time, they got distracted by "so many other interesting things we were busy doing," she says. They agreed to get married later, when they had more free time. Eventually the two eloped at City Hall in 1986.

The couple initially fell in love when they performed together in two plays and a medieval music group. Their union helped produce Other Music, an experimental music ensemble whose members made their own instruments based on a special tuning system, Just Intonation, that requires a 76-page primer to explain. Three-chord punk this ain't.

Not that they were punk-averse. Carola played sax in a fashion-conscious trio called Vs. in the late '70s. Henry became Hank Rank, the drummer for Crime, San Francisco's self-proclaimed "first and only rock 'n' roll band." Crime formed in 1976 and played loud, scuzzy rock, building the band's rep by dressing in cop uniforms, performing at San Quentin, and refusing to open for anyone but the Ramones (which they did) or the Sex Pistols (whom they famously turned down). The group also released the first U.S. punk single, "Hot Wire My Heart," which was later covered by New York art punks Sonic Youth.

In 1979, at the tail end of Henry's two and a half years in Crime, Henry and Carola went shopping for a house. Carola wasn't a white-picket-fence type. They looked at a number of places before stumbling upon a vacant warehouse across from the old Weinstein's department store. Carola thought it was perfect; Henry was skeptical. She won. "This building is really Carola's vision," he says. "When we looked at it, I didn't get it. I've been following Carola's mad vision all these years."

Henry and Carola spent the following years making the space their own. These days the Complex is downright homey. Lou Lou and George even have their own floor, with individual "houses": his is ocean liner moderne, while she has a miniature collapsed Palladian villa. A guest home for friends is Caribbean vernacular architecture flocked with Astroturf and fake flowers. "Spend five minutes at [the Complex] and you've met Carola," says New Conservatory Theatre Company director Stephanie Temple, a longtime friend. (Carola has costumed several plays for the company, as well as a dance performance at SFMOMA, for which she also composed the score.)

By the late '80s, the couple was talking about having kids. Henry jokes that they decided on babies because their first cat, Django, couldn't talk, and their parrots refused to (one of their current felines, Langford Po, allegedly says "hello" on command, though).

George S. Rosenthal was born in April 1989. The next generation of the Complex household had arrived. Lou Lou was born in November three years later.

From the house in the crack-addled alley where the Rosenthals raised their brood to the cultural attractions the children were exposed to, Lou Lou and George were treated as adults from the beginning.

"Right from the start we took them to concerts, films, museum shows, etc. that weren't intended for kids, but which I thought they would enjoy and be inspired by," Carola says. Before her little ones could pick up a book, she read them the subtitles of Wagner's Ring Cycle from a video from the library. "I thought it was too good for the kids to miss, so I wound up reading all the subtitles out loud to them for the whole 15-odd hours of it — spread over a few days."

Neither George nor Lou Lou had major periods of rebellion against Henry and Carola. In a household where your parents encourage artistically adventurous behavior, that would be too difficult. "They're into the same things I'm into," says Lou Lou of the parents she still addresses as "mommy" and "daddy." "I can't think of anything I'd want to rebel against."

So how do artsy kids buck artsy parents? They go mainstream. George had a phase where he was into Hollywood action films. Carola says that Lou Lou's "dark secret" came in second grade: "All the girls were listening to *NSYNC," she says. "So Lou Lou asked, 'Can I have *NSYNC?' And we were like ..." She pauses, giving a mock-horrified look. "But as open-minded parents, we bought it for her."

That phase didn't last a week. The kids not only developed their parents' alternative taste in music, they also inherited their musical talents. George particularly lives up to his parents' assertion that he's a rock prodigy: Carola says her son was playing free jazz at age two. In kindergarten, he was performing Beethoven's Ode to Joy on every instrument in the Complex. There are a lot of instruments on those six floors.

"I like to think I got something from my dad," George says with a shrug. "The spot at drumming that I started at seemed to be a lot further along than most people start at. I had the mechanics down."

When George was in high school he recruited his sister to start a band. "He just sort of grabbed her and said, 'Sing this,'" Carola says. "Lou Lou turned out to be a great singer." They secretly wrote songs together on the third floor of the Complex. Then in 2004, they went upstairs to ask their parents: "Want to listen to this song we wrote?"

It was a fully produced song, Henry gushes. "It had arrangements and instruments, and I was like, 'Where did this come from?'" he recalls. They'd used an early version of the GarageBand music software. Lou Lou wrote the lyrics, while George wrote the music and played all the instruments. They performed shows for their parents in the Complex. "George would be standing to one side and saying, 'Lou Lou do this, Lou Lou do that,'" Carola says. "The dynamic is sort of similar now."

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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