Switchback blog: “School of Rock”
A few weeks ago, my wife Annie asked me to go with her to see her friend Melissa’s daughter, Morgana, perform in the School of Rock tribute to Queen.
“What?” I said.
“You know, ‘School of Rock,’ like the movie,” she answered.
I did see the movie starring Jack Black. For those of you who didn’t, it’s about a down and out rock musician who lies his way into becoming a substitute teacher and the only thing he manages is to teach to his students is rock n’ roll. The parents find out, are incensed, come out to see their kids play at a battle of the bands and….wait…isn’t this the plot to “The Music Man”? Oh well, out of this movie has now come The School of Rock Chicago.
I see. My wife, who has worshipped at the altar of Queen and Brian May in particular since she was a kid, wanted me to see a bunch of grade-schoolers performing rock opera? Was she serious? Indeed she was, and so, here I was on a Sunday afternoon, driving down to Reggie’s Rock Club to see a most unusual tribute to Queen.
I walked in the club as the band was playing their first number. By band, I mean a rotating group of about 20 kids. Several of the boys were decked out in Freddy Mercury gear, sporting slicked back hair, sleeveless white t-shirts and yes, mustaches. At the front of the stage were groupies, grade-school kids who would high five the musicians and scream at the end of the song. Behind the groupies were the real groupies, the parents who would also scream at the end of the song. I was surrounded by them, all armed with cameras and cell phones, recording each song and jostling for a good angle. Some of the moms seemed smaller than the kids and I wondered if there was a height requirement to have your kid in this school.
These parents were mostly in their 40s with the occasional bewildered grandmother hanging off on the side of the club, looking morose. The moms and dads were happily singing along to “We are the Champions” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” while their kids rocked out on stage. It was something to see some of the parents partying down, drinking beer and acting like it was 1982 all over again. And like true club patrons, they proceeded to talk excitedly about their kids while their kids were on stage performing. So in a way, it was a very real club experience for these kids as anyone who has been in a club knows that a lot of the club noise is not from stage, but from the audience talking. But all in all, there was an honest vibe to the parents. I sensed that the majority were not seeking glory for their kid, rather a great experience. So I took a deep breath, relaxed and enjoyed the show.
Like the movie, each of these kids had some talent. Checking out the school’s website, each student gets four 45-minute lessons on the instrument of his or her choice, as well as group lessons, jams, rehearsals and of course the concert. All in all, 16 hours a month for $300. And what about theory and that stuff? Well, the school kind of dances around it, saying “Our teachers introduce music theory in the context of other learnings (sic) and we hold group classes to cover music theory concepts such as chord construction, harmony, rhythm figures and so on.” But come on, like the movie, the school is here to get kids to rock! No garage band kid ever cracked a book on theory until much later in the game.
And these kids did rock! I was extremely impressed by some of the talent I saw taking place on stage. Two drummers were exceptional in my book, a blond-haired girl wearing a cape, who did a great solo during “Somebody to Love”, and a little African-American boy who sat at the drums and played his heart out on “We Will Rock You.” The lead vocalist for the boys was a curly headed kid who dressed the part of a rocker, complete with leather pants, no shirt, a leather jacket, tie and some sort of checkered police cap. He nailed “Love of My Life.” Several girls were natural talents vocally as well as on keyboards. The little boy (a dead ringer for DJ on “Roseanne”), who played a bicycle bell during, what else, “Bicycle Race” turned out to be a great bass player. And our friend Morgana did a great job on her solo for that same song, mugging expertly and dramatically waving her arms, commanding a huge round of applause from the audience. Not bad for a kid of 10.
Even the sound man was dead on. I had to give him credit as usually there were four guitarists, one bassist, one drummer, one lead vocalist, six backup vocalists hovering around a mic and even the kid holding a bicycle bell. Sometimes a crack of feedback would rip through, but the sound man got it quickly under control.
What touched me the most was that the people who were running the school were obviously not looking for the next American Idol. There was a great deal of fun and cooperation with the kids. There were mistakes made of course, but who doesn’t shank a chord when rocking? These kids were learning instruments, they were on stage and for gaw-sakes they were doing some decent renditions of the band Queen! Brian May would have loved that they delved into some obscure material like “Liar” and “Is This the World We Created?” I felt like I was in some school play about a band, but here we were in a real club and parents were drinking beer in front of their jammin’ kids on stage. Pretty unreal. However, there was no acting in the way the kids approached their music. They were most serious. Kudos to the teachers.
Our band camps when I was a kid consisted of blowing the trumpet to “God Bless America” and some other obscure piece that I can hardly remember today. But it was those sorts of band kids that got the movie “School of Rock” going. Would I have enjoyed being in a School of Rock? You bet. Did I enjoy seeing these kids enjoy themselves? You bet. Did I enjoy the parents rocking out? Absolutely. Does this replace the group of kids huddled in a garage listening to albums and practicing on their own? No way. But perhaps, once these kids “graduate,” they can start those bands and continue down the road as musicians. Maybe this will be their one shot at rock and some of these kids will get it out of their system. All the better than to spend years to find out you really never wanted to be a musician. But for those kids who persevere and become true independent musicians? I hope these kids will stare the business mogul in the eyes and mutter Dewey’s famous quote from the movie: “I don’t wanna hang out with a bunch of wannabe corporate sellouts. I’m gonna form my own band and we’re gonna start a revolution, OK? And you’re gonna be a funny little footnote on my epic ass!”
We will, we will rock you.