It’s while walking up to the new downtown digs of the Paul Green School of Rock that I first get a taste of what it’s all about. Emanating from within, I can make out the reverberations of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and initially it sounds as if someone must be spinning an old LP. Then, unexpectedly, it all train-wrecks and I can hear Steve Auerbach, the headmaster of Salt Lake’s newest performance-based music school, start yelling something about paying attention to the cues and, “Jesus Christ! Will everyone stop talking?”
A few minutes later I poke my head into a crowded rehearsal room, packed with some 30-odd children ranging in ages from 8 to 18. As a young guitarist starts in on “Hey You,” Auerbach literally gets down upon his knees in prostration and starts spewing, quite convincingly, “You are a rock god! You are a rock god!” over and over again.
Away from all the chaos, Auerbach admits that, “Rock School’s not for everybody, and I’m not for everybody. What I’m bringing to the table is the Paul Green School of Rock, not the Salt Lake City School of Rock. It’s not going to be adapted for this culture. It’s not going to be molly coddled, softened, turned into something it’s not meant to be. The Paul Green method can sometimes be hardcore. He’s like the Vince Lombardi of rock & roll.”
Auerbach is right. Green started his first school in 1998 in the heart of Philly. Now, seven years later, there are nine locations scattered about the country—Salt Lake City’s is the newest, having just opened its doors in February—with four more planned to open this fall. Apparently Green knows that sure, it may take yelling at a few kids, but success can be had with that hard-ass attitude—especially if you are talking about the glories of rock. It may even take reminding a kid, only half in jest, that they need another dose of Ritalin before rejoining rehearsal.
Green often wears a T-shirt with the slogan “I Yell Because I Care” emblazoned across the front. Auerbach has apparently taken notes from the master and appears hell bent on keeping Green’s vision alive in Utah.
“Right now the average age at the school is 12-and-a-half,” Auerbach says. “So, we have a lot of young budding musicians, a lot of 9-year-olds that have never played drums, bass or guitar before. These kids are at the beginning of a new phase of creativity and expression in their lives that is just really cool. The great thing is they get all this life experience before they’re even 18, before they really get their hearts broken.”
That, too, is the Paul Green method—real-life experience. The idea is that the students learn the chops behind some of the greatest rock & roll music in history during one-on-one lessons with working musicians (think Dave Payne of the Red Bennies teaching a tweener to wail like Ozzy). We’re talking about children fingering the frets Hendrix-style and banging out drum solos that Neil Peart would be proud of. And in the end, the School books a local club and the kids get to stage a real Rock Show—this weekend, The Wall in its epic entirety.
But still, there’s something strangely unnerving about watching kids—often preteens—playing rock tunes laden with adult emotional baggage. It can be hard listening to that little girl, the one sporting a mini camouflage skirt over her corduroys, play music about being immersed in the recoils of a drug overdose. And as she nails the ensuing guitar solo, she’s convincing enough that you believe her tiny, tiny soul is besieged by the dark, dark night.
It’s hard to imagine watching that same little girl perform that same heart-wrenching act onstage in front of several hundred paying concertgoers, including her encouraging parents. And it will surely prove to be far more than just unnerving; it’s got to be downright soul rattling.
“That’s what it’s all about,” says Auerbach. “We get kids onstage performing rock music. And I’m telling you, it is just the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen, it’s just stunning.”
The thing is, back in rehearsal, the music isn’t perfect. It’s far from it. The 14-year-old drummer is clearly wavering around with the backbeat. The young kid holding a bass guitar bigger than he is, is having a hell of a time matching the drummer’s wandering enthusiasm. And, as might be expected, the guitarists often fumble the soaring solos and the young blonde vocalist is trying, desperately, to find her key. Yes, “Comfortably Numb” can at times be far from comfortable.
And that is precisely why the oft-soft Auerbach is also a heavy-handed taskmaster.
“I don’t want them to be mediocre. I don’t want them to be sucky. You know, my moment with these kids is going to be when they get it. When they’re onstage and they realize that they just rocked the f—king house. Right now these kids really don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into. Once they get onstage I think they will finally be able to say to themselves, ‘I get it. It was so worth it. It was so worth being the butt of a Ritalin joke.’” PAUL GREEN SCHOOLOF ROCK MUSIC:Pink Floyd’s The WallLo-Fi Caf127 S. West TempleFriday, May 20 &Saturday, May 218 p.m. All-ages800-888-8499