ISN'T THAT SPECIAL?
THE KIDS OF WIDNEY HIGH PREPARE TO RULE THE PLANET
In the center of Los Angeles, amid the crack wars, five-dollar hookers, racial animosity, freeway snipers, psychotic drifters, Martian immigrants, and lung-shriveling air, there exists a special place.
It's a place of marshmallow bunnies, banana splits with butterscotch sauce, red-nosed reindeer, merry-go-rounds, cotton candy, spinning tops, strawberry bubble gum, and rubber duckies.
That place is Widney High, a school for developmentally disabled and severely handicapped youth. For there, music teacher Michael Monagan was smart enough to have an original idea, wise enough to share it with others, and brave enough to see it to fruition. His idea was to transform a music curriculum founded on rote instruction and dull repetition into a forum for boundless creativity. Instead of disinterested stabs at "Chopsticks" or "Hot Cross Buns," his class would write and perform their own tunes. He simply asked his pupils what was on their minds, and their answers became the germ for lyrics. They tapped out simple melodies on the piano, and songs were born.
Thirteen students-described as suffering from "epilepsy, cerebral palsy, blindness, Down's syndrome, and muscular dystrophy," as well as chronic behavioral problems-were involved in a recording project beginning in 1987. With Monagan's careful guidance, they became living proof that genius isn't found in the obvious places.
The result of their toils was Special Music From Special Kids, a full-length album released by Rounder Records in 1989. It comes out of nowhere and tickles your innards, restoring your faith in music's redemptive power. S.M.F.S.K. covers the emotional spectrum, from love to fear, joy to melancholy, loss to salvation, paranoia to unconditional trust. I've probably listened to it five hundred times.
The LP kicks off with the mercantile exuberance of "New Car," featuring a smoother vocal than anything Lou Reed's done since the Velvets; it segues into the bittersweet fetishism of "Teddy Bear" and nakedly honest introspection of "Mirror, Mirror"; switches gears for a drive through the gritty streets of "Hollywood"; drops into the jungle during the phobic, Kafkaesque "Insects"; wins our hearts with "Mayra," a love letter purer than "Donna" or "Peggy Sue"; opens up the throttle for "Stand Up and Dance," a Jerry Lee Lewis knockoff without the substance abuse or religious delusions; sweeps into the breathless wonderment of "Throw Away the Trash"; paints "New York" in wistful, Gershwinesque pastels; and transcends the wheel of birth and death in the closer, "Ride Away." It's the mightiest musical achievement of the past ten years, if not the entire century.
Monagan shoves the mix along with Casio crispness, forging the distinctive Widney High sound: rubbery electronic bass, thwapping beats, and, in the glimmering keyboards, a hint of Jamaican dancehall. Sinuous guitar solos sting like Aqua-Velva on a brush burn. Monagan's sonic jambalaya touches on doo-wop, disco, rockabilly, reggae, and torch balladry. It's a super-sweet musical bonbon that tastes better with each bite.
Of course, it's the words and performances of The Kids themselves that make the album immortal instead of merely memorable. Each Kid is a disabled Amadeus. A multiracial coalition, The Kids display a collectivist ethos reminiscent of Up With People or the first few Crass LPs. But there are no cloudy metaphors here, no soulless obscurantism. You couldn't find pretension on this record with an electron microscope. Check out these lyrics:
Bugs are in the trees, and they're watching you.... You better watch out, or the insects will get you.
Minimalist poets could struggle a lifetime without achieving such clarity.
"The Kids-you know, they'll just say anything," boasts Monagan, a gentle man with Clark Kent good looks, "and so they'll really come up with sort of more wild ideas. Just out of left field. Which is neat, in an artistic sort of way."
In concert, The Kids unleash the joyous yelp of a tent-show gospel rave-up. A recent performance blew the roof off of Hollywood's Mondo Video. As Monagan struck the opening notes of "Stand Up and Dance," The Kids' smiles burst open like an April sunrise. A euphoric crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk just to catch a glimpse of the rollicking, butt-wiggling hootenanny. Bobbing and weaving, slippin' and sliding, The Kids turned the blackest hearts into little puddles of melted butter. In addition to performing most of the album, they debuted four new tunes: "Facts About Life," Jerron Crook's martial anti-gang jeremiad; "We're Going Home," an evangelical barn-burner belted out by a new class member named Veronica; the soul-searching "Help Me to Find My Way," during which a few of The Kids donned blindfolds; and "Let's Get Busy," a hip-hop scorcher courtesy of Shelly, another new Kid whose buzz-saw larynx ripped through the speakers with megawatt ferocity. In an unexpected spoken segment during "Ride Away," diminutive diva Michelle Yamashita told how devastated she was when her mother died. She suddenly dropped her mike and staggered straight into my arms, sobbing rivulets onto my starched shirt. I felt inspired right down to the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.
"I like nice people, but I don't like bad people," Michelle later reveals in an exclusive phone interview. A recent Widney graduate, she's studying music at Los Angeles Community College and plans to become a blues singer. "What I didn't like about high school was leaving it," she says breathlessly.
Life-sized drawings of big people with tiny heads line one wall in Michael Monagan's classroom, the place where it all began. Disassembled chunks of old machinery lay scattered on a splintered workbench. Using a dozen-and-a-half Winchell's donuts as interview bait, I greet The Kids as they slowly file in for a round-table powwow.
Jerron rolls in on his wheel chair and recognizes ANSWER Me!'s editorial staff from the show. "It was fun," he reminisces. "We wish we could do it again." I proffer him a donut, which he gingerly plucks from the cardboard box.
"We had fun," chimes in Brenda, a blind girl with a mile-wide grin. "Yeah, the audience, too. They liked it....I feel safe when everybody is helping me a lot with the songs....When the record starts, then I can sing in front of you guys." She pauses to nibble on a chocolate cruller.
Carl "Downtown" Brown slides in on his walker and hovers intently over the donuts. He says his least favorite thing about school is getting up in the morning, and Brenda agrees. Carl eventually consumes not one, not two, but a trio of dough-based circular confections.
Shy sprite Veronica enters and sits, eyeing the donuts nervously. "A couple of years ago, when I was a little girl singing, I loved to sing a long, long time ago," she confesses. With a little coaxing she joins in the festive sugar-chomping. Then, after the donuts and questions have run out, The Kids leave for recess.
"These are really the best years of their lives," Michael Monagan says of The Kids' sudden rise to rock 'n' roll celebrity. He recalls some recent live appearances, perhaps a portent of bigger things to come: a dance concert at another special-ed school; two spots on a cerebral-palsy telethon; and a raucous version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at an L.A. Clippers game. The Kids have also graced several local newscasts, as well as CBS's Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. A video has been shot for "New Car," showing The Kids as car-wash attendants who magically transform a dumpy VW Beetle into a cherry-red, tail-finned Buick convertible. In the end, they all pile in for a ride down the Freeway of Success. Although some of the original Kids have graduated, new ones take their place each year in the manner of a Mongoloid Menudo, ensuring that the Widney legacy will endure for perhaps all of eternity.
The Kids of Widney High are becoming a multimedia juggernaut: A book and movie are in the works, to be followed by the ineluctable tsunami of global superstardom. Their ominous rise to world domination can be explained in one word: superiority.
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