Paul Green is the subject of the documentary, Rock School, a not always flattering portrayal of a passionate teacher, trying to give kids the gift of rock and roll. Paul and I talked at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen with an iPod recording between us. Paul had complete freedom to push the off button whenever he liked.
You know when you have a near-three hour lunch and hardly eat that there’s some good conversation going on. And even though most of our conversation ended up being off the record, there’s plenty here to introduce you to a music-loving geek, who made the most of a tough beginning and found the vision and the work ethic to create one of the most unique, exciting teaching experiences out there.
Read the School of Rock manifesto.
Thanks to my amazing, O. Henry award winning webmaster, Terry Bain, I’ve embedded audio clips throughout the interview so you can hear Paul for yourself, especially some fun bits that are not here in print – his thoughts about The Orchid Thief, what he thinks of my shoes, what I think of his hair, ways to increase your chances of getting laid, that kind of thing.
One of the problems with two chatterboxes having a long conversation is that, if you’ve been hoping to keep something hidden – say, your complete lack of classic rock knowledge – you’ll eventually get busted and have to scramble around a bit (hopefully not with food in your mouth, but, yeah, okay) to try to paint yourself as at least a partial rocker.
But enough intro. It’s time to meet the incomparable Paul Green.
How ’bout we start with your life story?
Well, that’s, you know, that’s a long story. Uh… my dad died when I was very young.
How old were you?
Five. But I don’t really remember him. He and my mom were separated. I was raised by my mom, who was a mess. She was a victim of pretty horrendous child abuse. A drug addict. Always sick. So I technically raised myself from the time I was nine or so.
…Moved out when I was fifteen, moved in with a couple of college students. My life really just like 180 for the better at that point…
Now, stop with the fifteen-year-old. Who was this fifteen-year-old like?
He was right on the cusp.
When my mom moved back to Philadelphia, we moved to a very white, working-class neighborhood, very not me. And as soon as I started hanging out in downtown Philadelphia with the punks and the hippies and all that, I started to find my people. …Started hanging out with all these Hispanic rocker dudes and their friends (and they’re my friends to this day). And we were a very talented lot – very good musicians, and I was a writer and all this kind of stuff.
…I was dirty, had dreadlocks, used to wear the same thing, which is black jeans, boots, a white tuxedo shirt and white jacket all the time. Walk around with my little writing book. Smoked lots of cigarettes. Did lots of drugs. Love drugs. Love girls. Kind of for all the wrong reasons, though. You know what I mean? …[But] I always say, it’s better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven’t done.
Somewhere along the way, got a work ethic, which I never had. You know, I was the laziest kid in the world. But, just being on your own and not wanting to go home, you eventually just learn how to work and make money and all that kind of stuff. But it took a while.
Did you run away, or you just told your mom you were leaving?
Just told my mom and my aunt and my granddad I was just leaving. And my mom was on social security, and when I turned 16, she was going to lose one of the checks, but if you become emancipated, you can prevent that, so I kind of cut a financial deal with her. And at this point, she was drunk all the time.
No picture of dreadlocks, but we sure do have a fine prom photo.
So, when you were a kid, dreaming of being a rock star and playing air guitar in the mirror – who were you?
I was like corny stuff, you know? The Beatles. I’d just put on the radio, you know. I was playing air guitar in the early eighties, so Men at Work and that kind of crap. I remember really liking J. Geils Band a lot. I always used a tennis racket for air guitar.
I just used the air.
Yeah. I guess I didn’t have that level of imagination.
Do you think of yourself as a teacher or a musician?
A teacher. I was always a pretty good guitar player.
When did that change? When did you stop dreaming of yourself being a rock star?
Slightly before I started teaching. Don’t get me wrong; I can play guitar, but I always thought of myself more as a writer. And I was on my way to law school when this took off. I had already mentally moved on to academia, you know? So, if this hadn’t taken off, I’d hopefully be teaching law somewhere.
Describe how Rock School happened.
Well, community college happened first. And do you ever find something that was made for you? This program was made for me. I had always considered myself somewhat of an intellectual, always fairly well-read for my age, always prone to grand pronouncements. So this honors program was just heaven. It was challenging, and they’d force you to write. They’d print out your papers and hand them out to the entire class, and just tear them apart.
You know, School of Rock is the honors program, but adapted for rock music. They taught me how to teach, which is, care for the person, show them that you actually listen to what they say, and then beat the living snot out of them. And two, that the key to education is to find that point that you can push someone, right before they’ll turn you off. And they really got that. There were a couple times when I was quitting and I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. And they were just community college teachers anyway. But then you get over that bullshit. And it really is bullshit and self-defense. And you just let yourself learn. With the School of Rock, I never wanted good musicians; I’ve wanted good students. You know? Take a minute, and just listen.
You had this kind of family in the first School of Rock, you know, real small numbers, and now you’ve got this corporation. So how is that moving from to the other?
It never really moved for me because I always kept my small community inside of it. As soon as the Philly school got so big where I didn’t really have personal connections with all of the kids, I started All-Stars, which is just my way of taking 60 kids who really want to learn, and giving them access to me and giving myself access to them. So, as long as the All-Stars exist, there’s always 60 kids who are with me way too much. You know what I mean? Way too influenced by me and me caring about them more than I should, you know?
What do you think you offer as a teacher? What’s your gift?
Without being weird, I have almost a supernatural ability to read people, which is actually a blessing and a curse, because I’m also massively co-dependent, so I can tell who needs to be pushed, who needs to be pulled, who needs a hug. …It’s a con-man game, you know? It’s finding those right buttons to push.
And it’s learning as you go. My ego is large but flexible. I’ve made a couple of big mistakes and learned from them. And then, as a business man, my best assets are, I take the losses much harder than I take the wins. When something really great happens, it’s gone – you know what I mean? – like, almost as soon as it happens.
In what ways have you felt hurt or misunderstood by the press, and particularly how you were featured in the documentary?
I wouldn’t say “hurt,” but definitely misrepresented. Very early in the movie process I realized that I would have to brace myself for what was to come. The movie is basically 9 months of my life condensed to 90 minutes and played for drama. There is very little of the background and mundane stuff…simple teaching, hanging around the school, etc, that really balances the picture. Yes, I can be a jerk, and that is there on film. But I also try to be so much more.
From the documentary: Teaching C.J. Tywoniak.
Tell me something about you that might surprise me.
Who’s your favorite author?
At different times of my life, I’ve had different people. Who do I think is the best? Whose prose impresses me the most? Karl Marx. That mother-fucker could write. Probably the greatest rhetorician ever. This side of St. Paul.
I read almost no fiction.
Really? Oh, that’s got to change.
Nope. Probably won’t change. Every art form has its trappings. And, in order to enjoy that art form, you need to forgive it its idiosyncrocies. Except for the great works…, I just can’t forgive fiction its idiosyncrasies enough to enjoy it.
You know, I can read a David Hume treatise. Probably the person I’ve read the most over the past three years, believe it or not, is Sir Winston Churchill. And I know he’s pompous and boring and all that, but for me, it’s a much more enjoyable read. I read The New Yorker every week. If they do a story about paint drying, I’ll read it, you know? I love good non-fiction writing. Of course, I love Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I read To Kill a Mockingbird over the summer, which was fantastic.
So, when my book comes out, you won’t read it?
Depends. I’ll try. If it starts, The screen door swung closed at the front door of 23 Huntington Street and inside there was a chill air, no, I won’t read it. You know. Like, I hate that. The first paragraph of almost every fiction I’ve ever read just loses me, you know? I think it’s so forumulaic, it’s beyond, you know? You know what I’m talking about, right? So, modern fiction’s almost right out.
C.J. and Paul today.
When you think of your place in rock and roll history, at the end of your life, where do you hope you fall?
At the very least? Touch some kids’ lives. I mean, rock school makes incredible friendships. And, you know, showed people that creativity and courage and diligence in whatever you do, works. Pipe dream: I control rock and roll. You know? I own that shit.
Meaning, you know, 17 different acts from our school make it. And because we believed in them and they trust us, we’re able to dictate how music’s done ten years from now. And, um, change it, put more control in the artists’ hands. Put the spirit of creativity and artistry back. Aim for the top while never losing focus of the bottom.
If you could change radio, what would you want to change about that?
Take some chances. They don’t take any chances.
What would you like to see someone take their chances on?
You know, music’s so beat right now. So, so, so beat.
Yeah, but even beyond, it’s just beat, you know? I mean, it’s a long – once again, you’re not going to get any real grand pronouncements because it’s such a multi-faceted issue – but it’s something I sit at my desk and work on all the time, you know?
I think that if people returned to making quality music again, everything else will follow.
What is quality music?
There’s just an inherent quality. Philosophically, I’m a real Platonist. Do you know what that means?
No, ’cause I only read fiction.
Yeah, I just made that shit up. You know, I don’t believe in any sort of relativism. I think there are truths. In fact, I’m almost positive there are. And I think there is such a thing as quality, and that the trained eye and ear can recognize it. And that there’s quality in the music in The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix that far surpasses really anything that’s out there now. I think people stopped demanding quality.
What accounts for this?
Part of the problem is modern technology. That’s why I hate modern recording equipment. When the possibilities are limitless, the imagination is severely limited. You know? Because you spend so much time thinking about what you’re not doing that you forget what you are doing.
Some of the best recordings ever were done a four-track recorders. And all of the best writing ever, almost without exception, was done on typewriters or handwritten, where they actually had to take a minute and think about things and be careful about the words on the page, you know?
Paul and Julie Slick (among others) watching Eric Slick on stage with Eddie Vedder in Seattle. By the way, Julie and Eric, 2/3 of the Adrian Belew Trio, have just released the album, Side Four Live. Check it out!
So tell me, the fifteen-year-old who left home early, do you feel like you grew up fast or do you feel like you never reached adulthood?
Both. I grew up really fast in so many ways, and then in other ways, you know, …I take really good care of my family, I earn a decent living, I’m very responsible, those sorts of things. But at the same time, I’m not going to fall into that looking-back track. You know what I mean? I’m going to enjoy my life. …The grownups I’ve seen, I don’t want to be part of that.
Able to patch things with your mom?
What do you want for your own kids?
Happiness. Before I had kids, people asked, “Are you going to talk to your own kids this way?” No. That’s not my job. My job is… happiness. And there’s all kinds of paradoxes. You know, most great art comes from unhappiness, but I’m not going to make my kids unhappy just to make great art.
Tell me about the role of music in your life, aside from work. If I saw you listening to your favorite music, what would I see?
Music is my life… the vibrations of the universe connecting us all to each other.
I would be in the car, and if I was with myself I would be singing along, or playing air drums, or rewinding a part to hear it again. If I was not alone, I would be pointing out a bass line, or drum fill, or giving biographical info for the song. Always teaching….
I’d like to end with this quote because it packs a lot of wisdom into something short and simple: “I’m not saying you’re going to play music for a living, but if you work hard at this age, you can do a job you love.”
Thank you for being here, Paul!