Joshua Pajak was born to rock. You can see it in the way he punishes his drum kit, throwing every inch of his body into the beat, his 8-year old legs straining to reach the kick drum pedal. The rock is in him, in his overbite — still years from the orthodontist's fix — clamping down over his bottom lip as he slams the backbeat to AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie." It's in his reptilian gaze, which looks ahead at nothing in particular because his higher mind has shut off in complete physical surrender to the music. Certainly, Joshua Pajak was born to rock, and after 10 seconds of watching him anchor a band of his peers from behind the kit, you'd know it too. But more importantly, Pajak knows it, and he told me as much when I pulled him aside during practice.
"I've been drumming since I was 5, and even before then I always liked rock 'n' roll music," he says shrugging with bored conviction. "Led Zeppelin, KISS, Rush, stuff like that."
I'm surprised that any kid was getting down to Rush's high-concept rocktorial thesis in kindergarten. "Did your older brothers turn you on to this stuff?" I ask.
"Nah," he says. "When I was just a baby, I was a rocker. I've been a rocker forever."
We're standing outside the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Rochester, where Pajak has been studying since it opened its doors last January. Pajak has a preternatural self-awareness, a kind of "personal mythology of Josh" he's already worked out — like he can already see himself in the VH1 Behind the Music clips. As we swap drum-talk (he namedrops Moon and Bonham, and when I mention the Police, cuts me off to say, "Stewart Copeland is a great percussionist"), it's easy to overlook the obvious signs of buzzcut, bucktoothed boyhood about him. Such as the fact that I know he has to take a leak because he keeps holding himself. Or that when we're ready to head back into the noisy rehearsal room, he pauses, looks confused for a second, and then sweetly asks, "Can you help me put my earplugs back in?"
A school of rock is, by definition, a place where the rituals of rebellion are formalized and then passed on. It requires a sense of tongue-in-cheek attitude and playing at rule-breaking that, when carried out by grade-schoolers like Pajak, is adorable and funny. That gap, between Pajak, rock incarnate, and Pajak, the uncorrupted shy youth, places him right at home in a school that is, in a sense, in the business of charming contrasts.
A block west of downtown Rochester's main street, there's a row of old houses that have been converted into offices and storefronts. With their wood siding and spacious front porches still intact, the effect is one of homey welcome and preservation rather than grabby enterprise. Like many an otherwise tranquil suburban street, this one has its rock house. Out of its windows, the telltale sounds of smashing cymbals and sour guitar dirges filter out and say: "Rock happens here." In this case, that racket comes courtesy of Michigan's first Paul Green School of Rock Music.
Started in Philadelphia nine years ago by its namesake, the Paul Green rock education franchise, which claims to be the first of its kind (they own the domain schoolofrock.com), is by now a humming 18-state phenomenon of cute. Its sign, with its distressed yet clean typeface, tells you everything you need to know. A hand curls into the two-finger prong of rock devil horns, superimposed over the splotchy red, white and blue of an American flag. The effect is vaguely edgy, pulling its rebel punches in the way of Target screen-printed rock T-shirts. It suggests there's a brand behind all this and promises that, while your children will be safe within the cookie-cutter sameness of a national chain, they'll still be free to express themselves. (This school shouldn't be confused, by the way, with the similarly-titled Detroit School of Rock & Pop Music in Royal Oak, which caters to adult aspiring rock stars as well as children.)
Terry Longhway brought the School of Rock here last year in a bold act of faith and self-renewal. A few years ago, he and his wife, along with their two children, were thriving in a Dallas suburb, thanks to Longhway's successful career in corporate IT. But it was a dead-end street for his soul. Together with a career counselor, he and his wife hatched a plan to quit his job, scale back their lifestyle and find something, anything, for Longhway to do that drew upon his love of children and reverence for music. When a friend tipped him off to the Paul Green movement, Longhway sensed he had found a kindred spirit. He liked that the organization had been around for almost a decade, he says, "But more importantly, I felt that Paul Green and I were on the same wavelength."
Looking at Longhway, it's easy to see why he would find his calling in the tattered but sanitized ethos of the School of Rock chains. He alludes to a metal-head youth and being a "slip between the cracks" kind of kid, but he's all family man now — not corporatized, but cleaned-up. The reformation of his reckless youth is everywhere on him: tattooed calves (poking over clean white socks), black T-shirt (ironed), 5 o'clock shadow (half gray), scruffy hair (shampooed). He's doggedly positive, but laid back. He shows up for interviews early and returns calls like his life depends it, because it kind of does — he's staked his savings on this business. And yet, he doesn't have to bullshit anymore. He's not working for the Man. This time, he's selling you on something he actually loves.
Longhway has put a lot of his personal style (call it family-friendly grunge) into his school. The inside has a grandmother's touch, if Grandma came up punk rock. Rugs are vacuumed, surfaces are dusted and the place smells lived-in while clean. The bathroom mirror is plastered with stickers for groups like NOFX, Helmet and Peaches, but it's not exactly CBGB. There's no grime, no vomit stink. The toilet looks immaculate and I imagine the soap dispenser is always full. In the lobby and rehearsal rooms, it's more of the same. Hanging everywhere are the ornaments of rock iconography — LP sleeves of once-subversive bands like Alice Cooper, the Doors and Tool — but none of it seems inappropriate in this place of learning. Rock's phallic subtext, dangling off everything from Nevermind's full frontal baby to the bulge of denim-worm on Sticky Fingers, is all somehow OK within the milk-and-cookies ambience.
No choice reflects the true spirit of what Longhway is trying to do with the school more than hiring Eugene Strobe to be his music director. I knew, or thought I knew, Strobe from way back — our bands shared a few stages in the trenches of Detroit's dive bar circuit — but now, watching him conduct a Thursday night group rehearsal, I realize I don't know this Strobe. I remember last seeing him years ago, manning the drums behind alt-country pixies Loretta and the Larkspurs. He was his famously meek self, not big on eye contact and sort of bowing his head sweetly wherever he walked. But this Strobe is filled-out, not physically but in presence. He has gravitas, stands upright and gestures with righteous command to the throng of students encircling him. As he holds his hand up for silence in the middle of total amplifier cacophony — and gets it — his thick beard, unkempt hair and kind voice make him seem almost apostolic.
"Welcome to AC/CD night," Strobe says in greeting before returning to task. He has stopped the rock for a moment because it's obvious not enough of the students have been doing their homework. The curriculum here involves learning a semester-long repertoire consisting entirely of one seminal rock group's output — in this case AC/DC — and then performing the fruits of their labor at the season's end in a big concert referred to as "The Show." Tonight is one of the first practices for the kids who signed up for AC/DC and they're not nailing the changes to "Thunderstruck."
"You guys," Strobe says. "There is a reason behind the things we ask you to do. Those of you who do them will continue to get better. Those of you who don't will continue to suck."
Anywhere else, Strobe's threat of sucking might catch some flak for being borderline abusive, considering his students range in age from 7 to 18. But it falls softly here within these walls of kiddie rock culture and the choice of words seems more about relevance than anything else.
Once Strobe finishes his lecture, he calls out, "OK, 'Rock 'n' Roll Damnation,'" much in the same way a high school band teacher calls out for his students to switch Sousa marches. The room bustles with swishing notebook pages, instrument swapping and the ever-present white noise of amp crackle, mindless guitar noodling and absent-minded drum thwacks.
This goes on for the better part of an hour and the routine is basically this: The band — composed of one drummer, one bass player, an occasional vocalist and about six guitarists — wobbles forward through the number, out of tune and stumbling like a wino. It's just like a fifth-grade orchestra, but beefed up with amplifier stacks. Dissonant power chords abound and the drummer keeps on trying different concepts, all of which involve ending each measure in a jarring punch of crash cymbal and kick drum. The guitarists are a particular problem. With so many of them playing at the same time, dissonance comes easy. All it takes is for one finger playing a single fret in the wrong direction to create an atonal mess of things.
Through all this, there is Strobe, listening with furrowed brow as he tries to identify the offending player, weaving through the room and giving instructions where they're needed. He stops the music from time to time to make more involved adjustments and then raises his hand and makes a fist signal that means "Rock it." I get goose bumps when, after four or five of these sloppy passes, Strobe makes one last crucial tweak and the band erupts into what is now finally recognizable as "For Those About to Rock." Longhway calls these "shiver moments" and Strobe says it's watching this movement from chaos to clarity that keeps him sane.
Considering the age of School of Rock's student body, it's a bit surprising that the material leans heavily on old-fashioned classic rock. There's a little bit of the American Idol effect going on here, the gap between what the kids are privately listening to and what they're studying and performing. While that disconnect is at its most bizarre on the hit show, where teenage contestants eschew their favorite new Fergie single for show tunes and Disney ballads, it feels more purposeful here. The kids seem to genuinely like discovering their parents' jams — Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Stones — and cross-generational bonding is a frequent implied theme. Still, you can't help but wonder if they wouldn't or shouldn't rather be tackling the Mars Volta instead of Zappa, or even Weezer instead of the Beatles.
Longhway says the emphasis on '60s and '70s artists is about immersing them in a quality of material that has stood the test of time, as well as using bands that have a wider body of work, and not about dismissing whatever the hot new thing is. "If a kid comes in and wants to learn the new Fall Out Boy, I totally respect that, or what any kid is into," he says. "But our view is, learn this stuff, it's educational and you're going to have a blast with it. Then go be the next Fall Out Boy."
Longhway makes a convincing argument about the vitality of those formative groups — "It's all about getting closer to the source" — but I suspect the reason he picks hit acts with staying power is also another concession to safety, part of catering to a target demo of children who are on leave from protective middle-class homes during their three hours a week at the school. Classic rock is called classic for a reason. It's been tested, not just in terms of quality, but in the way that culture can absorb just about anything if it hangs around long enough.
For his part, Longhway emphasizes discretion. "For instance," he says, "with AC/DC, there are two topics: sex and drugs. 'Big Balls'? You can kind of get a laugh. 'Giving the Dog a Bone?' No. We're careful about what we pick and we're careful about who we select for the song."
It helps that Longhway's mission is not one of rebellion but of "changing lives" and reaching the kinds of kids that "slip through the cracks" like he did and find their own dead-ends for the soul in public school orchestra classes and extra-curricular sports. Like all attempts at progressive education, his requires a bit of a tightrope act between pushing for new ideas and satisfying worried parents. School of Rock fills a vocational school niche as long as it strikes the right sort of balance, and Longhway's rock classes will probably continue to exist. But, with a syllabus full of metaphors for drugs and sex, it can only happen in the private sector where there are no angry school board meetings to contend with. Longhway says he's already seeing results and providing a healthy outlet to chronically underwhelmed kids goes a long way in his favor. Seeing their children re-energized makes his parents more likely to cut him some slack and not look too closely at the lyrics for "Whole Lotta Love" or "Let it Bleed."
Both Longhway and Strobe seem like true believers, and both separately express regret that they didn't have something like this when they were kids. If Longhway is the visionary, Strobe is equally the philosopher. Strobe says things like, "We want it to be a culture of rock 'n' roll, but we want it to be a culture of respect."
Having only just opened, it's too soon to tell if either of them will start to show the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder that could result from handling spastic kids while having their eardrums violated simultaneously on a daily basis. But Strobe chooses to focus on the thrill of seeing his students develop as people, as well as musicians, and is content to make the most of what he's given. "Bringing kids together in the same room is a lot like a chemistry set," he says. "You never know what's going to happen. But we try to keep it as controlled an experiment as possible."
Back in AC/DC rehearsal, Strobe calls out another song change and once again the musicians swap spots. Pajak is off the bench and back behind the kit. As he pounds out the four-four to "Highway to Hell" I try unsuccessfully to make eye contact and give him the thumbs up. Pajak doesn't see me. He's lost in the rock.
The Rochester chapter of Paul Green's School of Rock is at 415 Walnut Blvd., Rochester; 248-726-9787.Daniel Johnson is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org