Kill Your Idols
I hated the documentary Rock School because 30 minutes into it I was reminded yet again that "rock" is not a thing that can be taught. It is, instead, a private expression that finds an external outlet through a personal path. It also became loud and clear that the Philadelphia-based school's founder Paul Green--who takes the danger out of rock and puts the Paul Green into the Paul Green School of Rock--is no great bastion of creativity, but a Harold Hill figure with a less interesting con: teaching kids how to play note-for-note copies of Zappa and Zeppelin.
"In 2007, [I'll be in] Rolling Stone magazine, and all these bands will be traced back to me," Green insists at one point. And if that is the case, then I will kill myself, because what that will mean is that the likes of Green and American Idol will have further turned rock 'n' roll into pabulum. The truth is, I can't speak to American Idol, because I've never seen it, and I can't give a fair shake to Rock School, which opens this weekend at the Lagoon Cinema, because when I watched it I was too distracted by other schools of rock. So I'm probably the wrong guy for the job. Still, I can't recommend it to anyone, even someone who has absolutely nothing better to do this weekend.
The Lagoon, by the way, is in Uptown, the same place Prince immortalized in song, and not far from Dixie's in the Calhoun Beach Club, where a few weeks ago I saw an acoustic reunion of the Suicide Commandos at Maggie McPherson's birthday party. I was sitting next to a Canadian guy, a jazz scholar who asked me who the three middle-aged men with guitars were. I said, "These guys started everything in this town." And the stranger nodded the nod of someone who wasn't acquainted with the particulars, but who understood the significance of the band that starts a scene, and the idea of musical roots. Unlike the classic rock-radio-weaned Paul Green.
Yeah, context is a bitch. As I cued up the promo DVD of Rock School, I was just starting to ruminate on the subject of the best Minnesota-made songs, which you can read in this week's paper. I was also in the process of burning a new compilation CD for my son, whose favorite, he says, is "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian, which Peter Jesperson used to end the night with at the Longhorn Bar. What's more, I had just received an e-mail from a guy I barely know, Peter Van Dusartz, who wrote about the thrill of taking his 16-year-old son to the Weezer show at First Avenue:
I gave him a tour of the club, telling him stories of Semisonic and Soul Asylum and the mayor of Minneapolis's stage dive when the Flops played the 'Rock the Vote' show. We looked at T-shirts and he pointed out his favorite and then [we] strategized our way around the staircase onto the main floor. He was floating, sparkling an endless grin, giddy. Me, too.
[After the show] we strolled past the autograph seekers waiting by the buses as they tried to avoid the wino beggars. We read the band names [on the] "stars" on the wall. I pointed out Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; he pointed out Green Day. We stopped in Shinders to buy a couple bottles of Coca-Cola and scan the comic book covers. We talked and laughed about the spectacle of it all and listened to more [Weezer] songs.
The morning that note arrived, nursing a slight hangover from yet another jaw-dropping excursion to Billy Holloman's B-3 Hammond organ night at the Artists' Quarter, I took my own kids to school. And I was happy to run into their music teacher, Pete Hofmann, who fills the halls at the start of every day with the sound of a different instrument. Hofmann is an accomplished songwriter and recording artist who told Chuck Terhark in these pages a few months ago, "I'm a budding agoraphobe. I'm fighting it off, but I could spend three days in the house without ever going outside." To which Terhark wrote: "Give me the shut-in songwriter, the loner who would just as soon skip out on the red carpet to spend a few days holed up with a four-track, phone disconnected, blackout curtains on the windows. That's the kind of psychosis that sticks to the tape. You can taste it."
Terhark and Hofmann are obviously great listeners, which this town is lousy with. I have had the privilege of being in contact with many of them--fans and musicians, parents and kids, to whom music is not a star vehicle but an extension of their lives. Into this maw stepped Rock School. It never mentions listening or fandom, which is where it all starts. Instead, we get the gospel according to Green, whose mouth is bigger than his ears. At one point, Green screams at one of the kids, "Do you love this song?"
"Do you love rock?"
"Do you love DIO?" (DIO?!)
"Do you love Satan?"
I feel ya, kid. I shrugged my way twice through Rock School--once because I'd been asked to write about it, the second to see if I'd missed anything. I hadn't. The movie has none of the astonishing moments that pop up in documentaries such as Hoop Dreams or The Yes Men or even Dig! I'm sure it's an entertaining home video for both Green and filmmaker Don Argott, but for the viewer there is no payoff. This is because the dream--of playing a Zappa festival in Germany in front of a bunch of punk-never-happened hippies--is nothing short of grotesque. It's a forced sort of Mr. Holland's Opus climax that Zappa himself would barf at.
In the end, Rock School exemplifies so much of what is happening with so much culture now: a documentary that looks like a documentary, rock that sounds like rock, school that feels like school. Yet none are the genuine article.
If rock is freedom, then unwittingly, Rock School itself is anti-rock. Green screams at the kids to do it his way and bullies his taste on them. Their only goal is to play covers, and creativity and songwriting aren't addressed. He's a good guitarist and a good guitar teacher, but rock is about more than chops, and it sure as hell is not about "sophistication," a word that gets invoked by both students and teacher like it matters. There's plenty of time to learn instruments and craft, but that moment of adolescence when music is ingested whole and experimented with comes only once. To watch Green corrupt it with such certitude is creepy.
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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