A Blog from John

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Saturday/March 20/2010

Last spring, at a meet and greet in the bar of a Beverly Hills hotel, New Roads School headmaster David Bryan asked Gela and I if we had any ideas how we could help the school celebrate their tenth anniversary. Ideally, best done by raising large amounts of cash. New Roads is a very untypical school in the Los Angeles area, and perhaps the entire world. Not just because it was home to both my daughter Atlanta and her sister Zoe for the last years of their High School experience, but because David really is a radical who offers help to kids from all walks of life that are deserved of opportunities and would likely not get them without his support, Gela and I were big fans of his, which is why we were there. I did have an idea, in a moment’s inspiration, (I laugh at that now, so easy it was to have in the moment) and made a suggestion.

‘Why not’, I ventured forth, ‘Make recordings of fifteen songs, a song for every year the school has been open, having the students, parents, faculty and alumni mix it up, playing and singing together, the best singers and musicians we can get our hands on. Make a CD of the songs and sell it online, and perform it all live at the spring benefit event?’

I rested my case and paused as the glow of the idea settled upon the bowl of cocktail nuts. Amy Simons, who had come with David and was to be the school event liason bit down hard on the idea, it was clear she loved it.

Over subsequent weeks and months many meetings were to follow, mostly discussions to establish practical guidelines; what was achievable and what was not. I was introduced to two music teachers from the school, Scott Roewe and Michael Abels. It was obvious that the project could not get done without their absolute complicity and enthusiasm. Mike became my point person, the translator who could work the base clay of the idea, and turn it into something worthwhile, and more simply, do-able. At first I wanted the student body to vote on which songs would get the makeovers, but we were about to begin summer break, and wrangling any involvement out of students that were not directly involved would prove to be almost impossible. Michael drew up a list of songs he thought would make interesting choices, which proved to be quite an eye-opener. He introducing me to many songs I was not familiar with, songs by the White Stripes for example, and Radiohead, whose work I thought I knew well. Also on his list was newcomer Adele and the wonderfully named Belle and Sebastian, whom I had somehow managed to avoid their entire career, which somehow now seems so wrong.

It turned out Michael has extraordinary taste in popular song, but more importantly he knew exactly who at the school could do what, as he knew all the singers and soloists, and what their strengths and weaknesses were.

Scott Roewe ran the jazz band, so he knew all the drummers and guitarists, the bassists and keyboardists and all of the horn players. (I was to discover that Scott is a red-hot tenor player who smartly writes parts for himself to play his band’s material!). These guys knew their students and knew their stuff.

Unsurprisingly, as this is LA, I am not the only musician/performer amongst the school’s ‘parental units’. Stewart Copeland has a daughter there and so he signed on to play drums, as does Jakob Dylan, so he agreed to sing, Atlanta’s step-dad, Nick from the Strokes, agreed to play guitar. I got quite excited about playing with this little super-group Stewart would name ‘The Grateful Dads’. Songs allocated to us were The White Stripes’ ‘We Are Going To Be Friends’, Radiohead’s ‘House of Cards’, Madonna’s ‘Music’ and Alannis Morrisette’s ‘You Learn’.

One of Michael’s nuttier ideas was asking Jakob to sing either ‘Toxic’ or ‘Music’. I would never dared to ask him, but laughingly Jakob agreed to take on both ‘Music’ and ‘We Are Going to be Friends’. Jakob is an amazing singer- everything he sings just sounds cool- no easy feat on a line like, ‘Do you like to boogie-woogie?’...

Sadly Nick Valensi had been called back to New York for Strokes duty, but Jakob brought along a friend, Blake Mills, who had been touring with Julian Casablancas. Blake’s contributions to the first four songs were terrific, we would have been in real trouble without him.

One of the teachers from the school, Claire Cronin, agreed to sing ‘House Of Cards’, and for ‘You Learn’, Michael approached a school alum named Natalie Beccera, who was at college on the East Coast. ‘Wait ‘til you hear her,’ said Michael, ‘She is truly amazing’. I was not disappointed.

So this was how we got the ball rolling, now we had to get the kids involved.

We were fortunate to hit it off with a local studio, with the unfortunate name of Schtung, right next door to the school. The engineer there, Jim, knew Scott from way back and offered to set up a pro-tools rig in the school band room. This was a fantastic move and may turn out to be the most important and longest lasting benefit of the entire project. Having a recording system in the band room enabled Scott to record the house bands, over and over, without having to watch the clock.

What could not be recorded in the band room, such as the Elementary School Chorus, who added their charming presence to both ‘We Are going to Be Friends’ and ‘Music’, was done at Schtung, as were other delights such as the ‘Malibu Didjeridoo Crew’, who added their unique flavour to ‘Sol’.

Scott now began supplying us with a seemingly endless line of musicians and singers, and coaxing great performances out of them. It seemed to me that generally Michael was assigned the ‘Divas’, while Scott got in the trenches with the rank and file. More of a union man, he seemed to me.

I could not believe the quality of performances coming out of these kids, it was like, the best reality show I ever took part in. After hearing Rajanae sing ‘Crazy’, and Fatima with her crazy hair totally nail Lady Gaga’s ‘Brown Eyes’ I was beginning to see dollar signs. I was beginning to think I might be in the wrong line of work. ‘Do we have these kids signed to exclusive contracts?’ I asked Michael. He laughed, but I’m not sure I wasn’t being a little bit serious...

And Jesus, the house band! These kids were smoking hot! Drummers, Guitarists and bassists, keyboardists.. Jonah, Dylan, Henry, Josue, Cameron and Aviv.. There were many more, you have to check out the credits.

Which brings me to the soft cell:
The CD got made, although it took longer than anyone imagined it would, (except Michael perhaps, who always seemed to know exactly what it was we were in for,) but we got something a lot better out of it than any us of imagined. It’s a limited edition, and comes dressed in a beautiful sleeve designed by the great Nick Egan, who designed ‘The Wedding Album’ and directed ‘Ordinary World’. The songs are intercut with playground chit-chat, which gives the listener an idea about what it is that makes the school click and why it is so unusual. I’m quite proud of the CD, and you can order it by going to the school website: New Roads School CD