Friday, August 26, 2005

Rock School Saved My Life (In today's Guardian UK)

'Rock school saved my life'

A maverick teacher swears at the kids, orders them to worship Satan and idolises Zappa. Sound familiar? But Paul Green's School of Rock is a real-life institution, and the new documentary about it is even more outrageous than the Hollywood film. Will Hodgkinson goes behind the scenes

Friday August 26, 2005
The Guardian

Bad Doberan is a small and pretty town in eastern Germany. It has an old-fashioned steam train, high unemployment and, for the first weekend of every August, a large number of middle-aged men with long hair and very large moustaches. Bad Doberan plays host to Zappanale, an annual festival dedicated to the late jazz-rock iconoclast Frank Zappa. For the 1970s and 1980s, Zappa's complex, far-reaching music provided a soundtrack to the hippy underground of eastern Europe, and for many of his fans at Zappanale he was more than an accomplished musician with a lustrous facial hair arrangement: he was freedom.

It isn't the Zappa fans that look out of place in Bad Doberan, a resort town that has been struggling with the shift into capitalism ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but the 29 fresh-faced American schoolchildren that flew over the night before to headline at the festival. They are attendants at the School of Rock, an after-school programme in Philadelphia that was set up by Paul Green to provide a comprehensive education in a subject generally left off the school syllabus: classic rock. And there is no classic rock that is harder to play than Frank Zappa, so having his kids play the festival is Green's equivalent of setting them an end-of year final.

Green's efforts would probably have remained a local phenomenon had it not been for Don Argott's uproarious documentary Rock School, which captures him shouting abuse at his students, ordering them to worship Satan, and somehow managing to teach them how to play styles that are far, far beyond the reach of the average modern-day rock musician. As Green screams "I'm not your fucking roadie!" to a quivering 12-year-old before going on to mock a fragile-looking Quaker girl's religion in front of the rest of the class, it's pretty obvious his teaching methods wouldn't stand up to an Ofsted inspection. But then you hear the fruits of his labours - such as 12-year-old CJ Tywoniak playing Hendrix solos on a guitar his arms can barely hold - and you realise that Green must be doing something right.

Filmed verité-style over nine months in 2003, the film features profiles of a self-pitying 16-year-old called Will O'Connor who Green writes off as "a piss-poor musician"; the charming, quietly incredible CJ; and anarchic nine-year-old twins called Asa and Tucker Collins, who have been groomed for heavy-metal glory by their rebellious mum. In true rockumentary fashion, the film ends with a triumphant gig - at Zappanale, making this the second time the Paul Green School of Rock will have appeared at the festival. O'Connor gave up soon after Rock School was completed and the Collins twins aren't skilled enough to play Zappa, but CJ is in Bad Doberan once more, two years older and with longer hair, as are many of the other kids that appear briefly in the film.

If the story sounds uncannily similar to that of the Hollywood comedy School of Rock, starring Jack Black as a failed guitarist-turned-teacher who educates his students in the rules of rock from AC/DC to Zeppelin, that's not a coincidence. "They ripped me off," snaps Green at the mention of Richard Linklater's film. "In 2002 VH1 sent a crew to my school to make a reality show. It got shelved, and a few months later I hear that Paramount is in production with School of Rock. VH1 and Paramount are part of the same company. The director said he'd never heard of me, but we had been featured on CNN and in Spin magazine, so if he's telling the truth he had the laziest interns ever working on a movie."

With his high forehead, ever-present chewing gum and adolescent dress sense, Paul Green looks like either one of the American cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head. He makes jokes with the kids as much as he shouts at them, and they're all fond of him. In the catering marquee are Stevie Roberts, Lauren Pollack and Grace Hollander, pretty 16-year-old girls who appear to treat the Rock School, and even coming to Germany to play Frank Zappa songs in front of 1,000 middle-aged hippies, as one big social group. "It's the most fun ever," says Roberts, who plays keyboards and sings, and has the blonde, wholesome looks of a Miss America. "It's a really good after-school programme because you get to travel to interesting places and meet great people and make new friends. We hang out with each other, like, all the time and do everything together."

What about Paul Green's unorthodox teaching methods? Surely it can't be nice to be shouted at?

"You learn to live with it," says Hollander with a shrug. "What the movie doesn't show is the way in which he only shouts at you because he cares so much about making you achieve your potential. You can't take it personally, although he does go too far sometimes. He's made me cry."

"He's made all of us cry," says Pollack. "We have three-hour rehearsals during which he'll yell at you if he catches you chatting for even a minute. And if you screw up on stage, he'll get up there and humiliate you in front of everyone."

"Or stop the song and say to the audience: 'That was her fault'," adds Roberts. "We're beginning to get used to his tricks but the problem is that he keeps coming up with new ones. Recently he's been threatening to take his shirt off if we don't play well."

All three agree that Green is more of a kid than they are, and one that wants to be the centre of attention. But they speak about their rock school with evangelistic fervour. Their musical tastes have changed since attending - all are well versed in the music of such long-derided, cape-wearing 1970s progressive rock acts as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer - and they credit Green with making musicians out of them. "There's nothing scary about him," concludes Hollander, "but there's something about him that makes you want to do what he wants. I don't know how he does that."

The Paul Green School of Rock began in 1998 when Green, who had played guitar in various bands and paid for his college education by giving guitar lessons, decided that he got more of a thrill from teaching than he did from being up on stage. He had also realised that the standard format of one-on-one guitar tutorage only went so far. "I realised that education goes deeper than just lessons," says Green. "So I had a bunch of students come down and jam at my band's rehearsal space, and they sounded like shit. For the next few Saturdays I made them all come down and rehearse together for a show at an art opening, and that hands-on approach made all the difference. They needed to play together, and they needed the goal to work towards. That's when I realised that I had hit on something."

Green set up the School of Rock on a $7,000 loan the following year. He resolved to teach his students to play only what he considered to be the classic rock canon: Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and, of course, Frank Zappa. I ask him why he doesn't want to teach the kids the kind of music that has been made in their own lifetime, The White Stripes, for example, or even Nirvana. "What did you study at college? Anthropology? Did you learn from the new anthropologists? No, you studied the masters. Say what you will about Kurt Cobain, but his talent would fit in Hendrix's pinkie. The White Stripes are not the Rolling Stones and, despite what Jack White may say to the contrary, virtuosity is important."

I roll out the much-repeated truism that you only have to learn three chords to form a band. "Yes, except that's a myth. A good punk band like the Ramones are far better musicians than you might think, and the Beatles cut their teeth playing R&B covers in clubs in Hamburg before they released their first single. Rock'n'roll is a visceral art, but it's technical too - Rock Around the Clock has a jazz solo in the middle of it and Elvis Presley always had the best band working. Genius will only take you so far. You also have to learn how to play."

Green's great mission in life is to get his kids to practise. His biggest problem is with pretty and popular girls such as Stevie, Grace and Lauren. "I could do a whole dissertation on the gender dynamics of rock education," he says with a sigh. "With the boys there is an element of the pissing contest - they have a natural competitive fire and they try to outdo each other. But the girls have a support system, so if I make one of them cry, the others will console her and tell her it's OK. They should be saying: 'It's not OK. You fucked up your fucking song. Now go home and practise, bitch!'"

Green has no problem with "the nerdy girls. You know what the nerds were doing while the cool girls were out here talking to you? Practising. I just don't want to be a chauvinist asshole, and I don't see why the girls can't be as good as the boys."

Asked about the types of kids that attend the School of Rock, Green replies: "Nerds, freaks and losers, although now we get a few cheerleader types too. But they tend to be more like Joe Randazzo."

Randazzo, wandering around backstage, stands out in particular from the 29-strong crowd. He is a 16-year-old drummer with long curly hair, oversized glasses, a bright yellow tracksuit and a maniacal grin. Randazzo is a wild card - he had to be dragged out of a local bar the night before. The girls have already told me that I have to speak to him, so just after he has performed an impromptu rap for the benefit of a gang of drunken European Zappa fans, I pull him to one side.

"Rock School saved my life!" he booms. "It made me who I am, and I like who I am because of it. I don't even want to think about where I might have ended up without it. Paul Green introduced me to Frank Zappa, who is so complex that there is always more to learn, and that's given me a positive focus. Now I can't see myself doing anything outside of music."

The trip marks his first time outside of the US, as it does for most of the children from Rock School. Randazzo is having the time of his life, but the rigours of being on the road in a rock'n'roll band are proving hard for others. The neatly turned-out 18-year-old keyboard player Larry Allen is missing his bed and his routine, and he is finding Paul Green's approach to organisation trying.

"I like him, but he drives me crazy," says the eminently sensible Allen. "He'll give us an itinerary that will say: 'Thursday: go to the festival in Germany.' He won't tell us how to get there or anything. But I'm getting used to this kind of behaviour. Sometimes he calls us in for an emergency rehearsal and spends the first hour telling us how he lost his virginity."

There is only an hour to go before the show. Throughout the backstage area teenagers are frantically practising guitar scales. Green's top player, Tywoniak, is sitting outside the marquee with his electric guitar. The only kid to have attended the Zappanale with the School of Rock on both visits, Tywoniak is an old hand. Having already conquered Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and Santana, he has moved on to emulating the "super-virtuosos" whose names are mentioned in hushed tones in guitar shops worldwide: Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani.

"I would like to be a rock star," says Tywoniak, who still looks like a young boy under his curtain of hair, "but I have now realised that that sort of thing only comes with a stroke of luck. I've decided that as long as I have a career as a professional musician, fame doesn't really matter."

There isn't much time before the kids are due on stage. Green arranges an impromptu sumo-wrestling session to help steady their nerves. Then they're on, with proud moms taking photographs at the front of the crowd in the heavy rain. Not only do the kids play some of Frank Zappa's most difficult songs with apparent ease; they put on a show. Junior Robert Plant makes love to his guitar, Joe Randazzo emerges from his drumkit to leap about the stage, and Tywoniak drives the crowd wild with his impossibly complex guitar solos. As each student gets their turn to go on stage and prove themselves, it's clear that Paul Green's unorthodox teaching methods work - even on the popular girls.

After the show, everyone is on a high. One of the mums organises an early trip back to the hostel. ("I'm only taking the nerds back because they're getting tired," she tells Green.) Randazzo has attracted the attentions of an amorous local girl, who has offered him a cigarette and the promise of an alternative bed. "No cigarettes for Joe!" says Green, grabbing Randazzo and dragging him away from the girl before guardianship issues have to be raised. The pretty girls are attracting the attention of two drunk Czech hippies. It looks like time to get everyone back to the hostel. Before he goes, I ask Green if he's living his rock star fantasies through the kids.

"My fantasies involve two women and a bed," he replies. "My goal is for the kids to be capable of magnificent things, to get over their own fear and laziness, and not sell themselves short. Basically, I just want them to practise."

Of course there are mistakes in this article. Ages of kids wrong, and there were other kids making a return visit to Zappanale. Also in Germany performing for a second time were Jeremy Blessing, Eric Slick, Lauren Pollock, Max DiMezza, Fil Smith, Andrew Haff, Matt Manser, and Dom Malandro.

Sheesh. Whatever happened to journalists doing fact checking?

But very enjoyable article nonetheless.