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Personal essay — A former member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers (who wrote their top-20 hit "Hell") learns a thing or two about being in a band from the kids he is mentoring.
By the chorus of the first song, Dean had gone to pieces. I stood just feet away on the side of the stage as a series of honks and unrelated notes issued from his alto sax. His posture didn't change during the first ruined phrase. He was still slightly hunched, and skinny as an unbent paper clip. His smoked sunglasses, which brought yelps of approval from the audience when he first took the stage, concealed any reaction. I focused on Dean intently. We were at a crossroads.
This was the Razz, and they were my band. Or rather, I had been their counselor at this week's rock camp and was feeling paternal pride. Six days ago, these kids didn't even know each other. They met at the charter school where the camp was held this summer, out in the rolling pastureland of Chatham County, N.C. Almost 30 kids had signed up for this year's rock camp. In five days, they would be assigned a band, name it, write original songs, work up covers, fall apart, come together, and cap the week off with a performance at a local rock club. Not long after I’d walked into the school's enormous and overly air-conditioned main hall, Matt, the camp's founder, called me over.
"Tom, this is Dean's mom. She should tell you what she just told me."
Dean's mom let me know that he was a good kid, but had a problem with perfection. She described tears forming in his eyes if he couldn't get something right on the saxophone the first time. He'd only been playing the instrument for eight months. Alto sax was my first instrument too. I was an intuitive player with good tone, but none of that served me in a recital at a statewide competition when I was Dean's age. I performed for judges seated with their backs turned. I was so nervous that my lips shook and my breath became shallow. The sound from my horn was wobbly and thin. I won no prizes.
"I know the type," I reassured Dean's mom. "We'll be fine."
We gathered that first Monday morning around several folding tables in the main hall. Kids were seated with their counselors. At the far end sat a band of several willowy girls, barely into their teens. They flocked together in the coming days, sitting three across on two plastic chairs, clutching each other's arms and giggling musically as they all crushed on the boy drummer. One band member, Etta, was a little more confident than the others, her voice unhampered by fear or inexperience. What came out of her mouth was assured, soulful, and expressive. They named themselves the Graces and wrote songs, which spared us from the inevitable Adele retreads, although a lumbering version of Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" did make an appearance, featuring a noticeably out-of-tune flute.
The band at the table next to us were teenagers too, but boys. Good kids, sweet and a little spastic. I enjoyed looking in on them that week. As energetic as they were directionless, they made a rollicking go at the Tetris theme song but never quite agreed on an ending. Their drummer, Evan, always wore a wool hat, even out on the soccer field in the July summer sun during after-lunch recess. I admired his dedication to fashion as the kids made up a clumsy coed game of Monkey in the Middle.
Camp director Matt, as was his custom, worked with the littlest kids in his band. There were eight of them this year, all boys between the ages of 7 and 10. They called themselves the Baconators and were the denizens of the choir room, down on the first floor. The place had a sunken feeling because of the stairs leading up to the raised stage that faced the main hall. There the boys wore bright red hearing protectors shaped like earphones and banged away furiously on whatever came to hand — plastic buckets, beat-up drum kits, woodblocks, keyboards and each other. Matt is perhaps the most patient man I've ever met, and he was always able to corral these little trolls into something approaching acceptable behavior. I first heard their set at the end of the week, when it was time for our dress rehearsal. Unlike the older kids, who increasingly tried to conform either to popularity or ironic detachment, the Baconators were a musical blank slate.
Of course there was the boom-boom-CHA of Queen's "We Will Rock You" — a perennial for the little kid bands — as well as a Morphine cover, but their originals really grabbed me. They were spectacular, even when they went completely off the rails. One song, "Puppy’s On Fire," featured twangy guitar sounds like Syd Barrett's acidic Telecaster on Pink Floyd's first record. With the dreadful, dark relentlessness of Bauhaus and the seeming rhythmic aimlessness of Chinese opera, it could have fit neatly into the local college radio station’s playlist. It reminded me of Frank Zappa's love for the wonderfully incompetent '60s girl group the Shaggs, whom he described as "better than the Beatles."
On the first day, Dean was one of four boys in the band at my table, all between 11 and 14. Pete was the affable drummer. He would sit dwarfed behind the drum kit, sandy-haired and smiling. Topher, the eldest, played trombone and keyboard, wrote songs, and carefully maintained a small ridge down the center of his hairline. It wasn't even close to resembling a mohawk, but it still required a lot of his attention. Mikey was the bassist, a slight and sleepy-eyed kid. I thought he was 9 until the night of the recital, when he claimed to be 11. "I'm tiny," he said. Once, when the band was rehearsing, Mikey fixed me with a smile so genuine that it made me feel corrupted and cynical. He was clearly at a time in life when he had neither problems nor the need to invent them.
"Fellas," I announced, "even before we go to our room upstairs you should start thinking about a band name." Usually in rock camp, as in real life, naming a band is a titanic battle of wills, producing a catalog of terrible ideas, slimmed down by the most disappointing form of compromise, resulting in an unpopular choice. I was expecting this process to take up half of the first day, as it usually did, with me writing suggestions on the school room’s erasable white board, admonishing kids not to immediately shoot down ideas they didn’t like, pointing out opportunities for flexibility, and making several executive decisions.
The job was done before I returned from the snack machine.
"Two of us play horns," said Topher, "so we're kind of like jazz. But we like to rock too, so we combined the words 'rock' and 'jazz' and got the Razz."
"Wow, you guys came up with it that fast?" I asked, shocked. "And everybody’s cool with it?"
"Yeah," said Pete. "We think it's great. It was Dean's first suggestion."
And so went the rest of the week, smooth as a glassy sea. Dean improvised a line on his horn that became the first song, written before lunch. We talked arrangements and drum breaks. Topher came in with a piano line on Tuesday and another song was written.
"Watch out for Wednesday," I told them. "That's when bands fall apart. We're playing music for something like six hours a day, and it can be stressful. Don't be surprised if there’s a fight."
Three years of counseling had revealed this pattern. There are times in rock camp when you quickly find yourself in situations above your pay grade. A sobbing girl, telling you of her dominating mother. A detached boy, who blurts out the trauma of his father’s recent death. There are walkouts and shouting disagreements over trivialities, and they almost always happen midweek. (In real life the process is similar, if not as compressed. It took me years to learn that part of a successful recording session includes a day or two of absolutely hating every note.)
Matt says that rock camp is just about playing music and having fun, but it's not really about music at all. It's about learning to get along, to communicate, to ask for what you want, and how to be graceful when you don't get it. It’s about practicing the sacred and frustrating dance of the familial. And, like all families and bands, it's about creating something from nothing.
But with the Razz, Wednesday saw even more productivity. "Drama's for the girls," Pete said matter-of-factly, and then went to the keyboard to work up our third song, a cover of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," which we played with great gusto for the rest of the afternoon.
At the rock club show that Sunday, the Razz closed with that song. During his solo, Dean's D-sharp key got stuck, making the horn unplayable. He honked away, but I wasn’t concerned. Two songs back, as I had watched him go to pieces on the first chorus of the first song, I leaned in. There were two ways for him to go. He could fold up emotionally, as I used to and as his mom worried he might. It's one thing to blow a musical line when you're with your mates, but quite another onstage, even if the crowd is cheering your every move. It can make your face burning hot and your fingers shake.
Not Dean. He stood a little straighter, got himself together, and nailed his solo. I beamed, I burst. I clapped and shouted manly encouragement.
After "Cantaloupe Island," and the set's ecstatic reception, Dean walked up to me at the back of the stage. "My key got stuck," he said, as if slightly inconvenienced.
I grinned and put a hand on his shoulder. "It happens."
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