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Paul Green

by Susan Henderson on December 19, 2007

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.

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Photo credit: Scott Weiner.

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.

From the Rock School film premiere.

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.

I’m an avid reader.

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 what?

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.

It’s predictable.

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?

We made our peace.

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….

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Paul conducting Mike Keneally (Zappa guitarist), Eric Slick and others at NAMM in California.

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!

{ 18 comments }

Neil Gaiman

by Susan Henderson on February 7, 2007

When I thought of having Neil Gaiman visit LitPark, I wondered, What of Neil hasn’t already been covered? I could say something about his storytelling, naturally, or how he’s the one author who lives on both my bookshelf and Mr. Henderson’s. I could say something about the characters he writes, like Dearly and The Runt, who sort of crawl into my brain and live there even after their stories end. But people write these things about Neil Gaiman all the time.

So I thought, When I talk to other people about Neil Gaiman, where does the conversation tend to go? Easy. In the end, I don’t tend to tell people the very private and permanent ways his writing takes hold of me. I tend to talk about his hair.

Neil was such a good sport about this. Ready?

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A Photo History of Neil Gaiman’s Hair:

In Sussex, aged about 22 months. Waiting for my sister to be born. Such a neat child (although I’ve probably been dressed by my grandmother). You pushed the roundabout around until it went fast and then you jumped on. Or you tripped and were pulled around, face-down, skinning your knees.

About three? Down at the bottom of the garden in Purbrook, in Hampshire, on the swing.

Mr. Punch territory. My paternal grandfather, me and my cousin Sara, on the seafront in Southsea. July 1963.

My sister, my mother, her mother and me. September 1963.

When about 4 or 5, my hair was bothering me, so I took matters into my own hands. I found a pair of scissors, climbed into bed, got under the sheets, to hide, I suspect, and gave myself a haircut. It was the sort of haircut you give yourself in the dark under your sheets at the age of 5. This was after the attempt to repair it by my father.

I’m not sure that hair particularly made much of an impression on me until I was in my teens. From age 9 to 13 it was something that the school barber cut once a month or so (except in school holidays), and that teachers grabbed by the place the sideburns would one day be in order to make a point. Like Newt in Good Omens, the best I could hope for from a haircut was shorter hair. I had my fair share of ears snipped by scissors and clippers, to the point where I’d be wary of hair cuts.My father bought a “home hair cutting” kit once. It was an evil plastic device that looked like a comb with razor blades in it, which he would use to cut our hair. The idea was that he’d drag the comb through your hair and you’d magically get a great haircut. In reality the razor blades hurt as they dragged and scraped across the hair, and you wound up looking like your dad had given you a haircut with something advertised on TV.

Graham, Geoff, Neil, AlI was sixteen. Shortly after this photograph was taken Geoff (then a drummer, now a meteor hunter) and I bleached our hair. We wanted to look like Billy Idol. His hair went sort of blonde. Mine went ginger. Following a disagreement with my father, in which phrases like “you are not staying here with hair that colour” may have been used, I borrowed a tub of raven black from my cousin and was delighted, the following morning, to discover that I now had black hair with purple highlights, which was, I decided, the best of all worlds.

Douglas Adams and me in 1983. I’m 22, still smoking and wearing colours. Douglas is playing guitar while we wait for the photographer, John Copthorne, to finish setting up. (Douglas is playing Marvin’s “How I Hate the Night” song.)

I think this was taken the day before Maddy was born in August 1994. I’d decided I wasn’t going to get a haircut or shave until she turned up. Or something like that. I’d grown some pumpkins for practically the first time.

I got to England to work on Neverwhere and found everyone had shorter hair than I did. So I walked into a barber’s on the corner and asked them to cut my hair. They did. 1995, per the postmark.

Me and Clive Barker circa 1996. Two very scary people in leather jackets. Look! We are so scary! Photo by Beth Gwinn. Tee-shirt by Jenny Holzer.

Gaiman, Gaiman, 1998.

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Neil, with his busy schedule, did not need to take the time to search for and scan in photos for me, but he did. And if there’s anything you should know about Neil Gaiman it’s this: Though he has the most glorious head of hair, he could lose all of it tomorrow and really lose nothing at all.

Thanks, Neil! Now let’s hope my site doesn’t crash. xx

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Oh, P.S. A shout out to The Olive Reader – thanks for the link! Okay, see you Friday for the Weekly Wrap.

{ 55 comments }

Buck Lewis

by Susan Henderson on August 31, 2006

My guest today is an artist with film credits you and your kids will recognize: MADAGASCAR, ROBOTS, LILO AND STITCH, TREASURE PLANET, ICE AGE, EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE, DINOSAUR, TARZAN, ANTZ, and two of today’s box office hits, OVER THE HEDGE and CARS.

I’m honored to introduce you to Buck Lewis. I think you’ll find that he shares some qualities with his drawings: he is engaging and full of both whimsy and depth.

Buck and his daughter, Audrey Rue

Can you describe the range of artwork you do and how those art forms feel different from one another?

My range. What a great question! My first impulse is to answer in a Pavlovian kind of slather about how I can do this and that with smudge sticks and Photoshop super XL and blah blah blah. But then I sink down a little deeper into the question and it feels more interesting, more inviting than at first glance. My range? What is anyone’s range? And how much a part do we, the creative self, play in defining that range? Now that is interesting to me. And so my answer, if I take the question to that place, would be something like – on a good day my range is much farther than I think it is. And I might add that my job, my function as an artist is to push that boundary of what I think I can do out a little further every chance I get.

And how do those ‘art forms’ feel different from one another? I am more interested in the inverse of this question – how do all these ‘art forms’ feel the same? To me, if an art form is successful and vibrant, if it speaks to us, it really doesn’t matter how it comes packaged – as a song or a painting, a theater production or a poem, a children’s picture book or a feature film.

sneak peek at Lice from ANT BULLY

Now as for my ‘art forms’ – I think for me it boils down to one word – story. I started my career out fascinated with the idea of capturing an entire story in a moment. Like a beautiful insect trapped in amber I thought about what could be imprinted into one moment, how much could be imbued into one image that other people could experience.

And so the first type of art that I began to explore was editorial illustration – a natural venue for the narrative moment. That lasted for a good ten years or so before I found myself bumping up against my own limits of single frame imagery. I was growing bored, and I was becoming more and more aware of the next fascination – which for me was (and still is to a major extent) picture books.

Osbert

I grew into wanting to tell stories that involve sequence, that unfold in a series of connected moments. And that, in turn has led to a more current fascination of mine – the long form narrative of feature film. All of this has been a vary natural evolution that has led me to my current vocation – I will be directing a feature film for a major studio that I have co-written the story for, and I will design the characters for the movie as well.

I have really enjoyed designing the characters for well over 20 animated feature films, and have also contributed to story development on several of those features through my character development. But I discovered when I wrote my own children’s picture book how cool it was to create imagery for your own story. It is a rare and beautiful experience – and so I am looking forward to exploring my own stories in both mediums – feature films and picture books.

Describe the difference (in satisfaction, pay, etc) between the art you do that is commissioned versus the art you feel compelled to do regardless of knowing if it will sell. And can I see a sample of the more personal kind of art you do?

I think it would probably be easier for me if I could make such distinctions, but I have never been able to maintain any boundaries like that. Whenever I engage in something creatively I am in for the whole ride, so to speak. And even when I have tried to limit my involvement or have told myself I will only allow myself to go so far creatively, I forget all of that once I get rollin’ wit da homies.

As for a sample of my personal art – the answer is anything and everything I do is personal. For me there are only varying degrees of how successful I have been at opening up. I have learned that my best moments happen to be my most candid.

One of the interesting things about poking around on your website is seeing all of the great character ideas that go unused. What’s it like to sketch ideas and have them turned down?

It’s difficult, I admit. The previous answer should give you an idea of how personal each effort is for me. To have someone brush that aside and choose another path is hard to work through. But it is all part of collaborating on a massive creative endeavor like a feature film. I think the more difficult challenge to weather is not when someone turns you down, but when someone takes credit for something that you have created – now that is painful to bear.

To be at peace in the world as a practicing professional in the arts I believe you really need to understand, really understand, your own value outside of the opinion of your peers, your friends and most importantly your clients.

Do these rejected ideas ever find life somewhere else?

If they are property of a movie in development, they die with the project, subject to the whims of the rights holders. I liken it to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of sand painting. All care and attention is in the moment of creation. Everything else is “dust in the wind”.

Winnie Mae

Where were you trained?

Studied under Tom Bostelle
Pennsylvania Governor’s School For the Arts
Rhode Island School of Design
School of Visual Arts
Taught at RISD and at Massachusetts College of Art

And what’s the most helpful thing you were taught?

Process. I was introduced the creative process by Tom Bostelle, a local painter in West Chester, Pennsylvania where I grew up. This enlightenment continued with some of my most treasured mentors at RISD. Process is a way of life, if you care to look at it that way. And I do.

What artists have most influenced your work?

As I mentioned – Tom Bostelle, and at RISD, Akira Arita and George Papas. Another significant influence is a dear friend – Levent Bolukbasi, who is one of those people that you are never quite the same after getting to know. And in my case that was a good thing. And finally I would add to that my friend Chris Wedge, who is an inspiration as a director and a fellow collaborator.

Other artists that have had a significant influence on my work – Hayao Miyazaki, T.S. Sullivant, Edward Murch, Chekov, N.C. Wyeth, Wim Wenders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Rumi.

What do you consider your breakthrough job?

My first job – a 75-dollar spot illustration for BOATING Magazine.

How did you land that job, and what kinds of doors did it open for you?

Out of sheer desperation, after spending weeks pounding the pavement in NYC with my portfolio, I began to draw sailboats and various powerboats and took the results in to the art director of BOATING magazine. Brian Caniff was a kind person, and he took pity on me and gave me a job.

Share 3 pieces of advice for anyone interested in this field.

1 – I started out, long ago inking comics for Marvel. After one day of dutifully trying my very best to ink a couple of pages, I had an epiphany, one which leads into my rule number 1 – PAY ATTENTION TO THE QUIET VOICE INSIDE. You see, that was one of the first times in professional life the quiet voice spoke up – and it said something really unacceptable. It said I hate comics. And I was horrified. This was totally unacceptable – every self-respecting artist is supposed to love comics! What was I going to do with this information?! I JUST got my first job EVER as a comic book artist – and I needed that 50 dollars. Really needed. But as painful as it was to leave my precious dream of the world of comics behind, it opened the door to the next thing, which in turn led to the next and then so on, until here we are today, with me writing down my top three rules for navigating the creative waters of the art world.

2 – It’s not all about hard work; this is something that runs deeply contrary to my Protestant upbringing – but sometimes the profound can happen in an effortless instant.

3 – floss daily

Thank you for visiting, Buck!

Oh! One last thing because this is oh so cool: CLICK.

{ 4 comments }

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