Cool and Strange Music Magazine
Facts About Life: The Kids From Widney High
by Rich Wilhelm
Cool and Strange Music Magazine
"Music is a world within itself/it’s a language we all understand/with an equal opportunity/for all to sing, dance and clap their hands." This is how Stevie Wonder begins "Sir Duke," a hit single from 1977 that is a classic celebration of the joy of music. Wonder’s words are also the perfect way to begin the story of the Kids from Widney High, a story that very clearly illustrates the power of music to transform people’s lives. The Kids began in 1986 as an idea in Michael Monagan’s mind. Monagan, a special education teacher, wanted to see if the kids at Widney High School could learn to write songs. These weren’t just any kids though, since Widney is a high school in Los Angeles for the developmentally disabled. Widney High students deal on a daily basis with having conditions such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, blindness, Down’s syndrome, and muscular distrophy. In addition, many of the kids have behavior problems. Inspired by a Widney High drama teacher who staged an annual musical, Monagan (who volunteered as a teenager for the games that would eventually become known as the Special Olympics) started a songwriting class in the fall of 1987. This first class proved to be the beginning of a great adventure that has lasted to this day for Monagan as well as for the many Widney High students who have taken the class and become Kids from Widney High. Monagan says the toughest initial task during that first songwriting class was to teach the kids the concept of an original song. However, as the kids caught on, the first set of songs began to flow. Monagan was quite happy with the results and, after a fund raiser selling costume jewelry, decided to book some studio time to record the songs. Monagan’s main goal was simply to make tapes to give to the students as gifts, but one of the tapes made it to the offices of Rounder Records. The folks at Rounder loved the tape and, after the Kids recorded a few more songs, Rounder released Special Music from Special Kids (Rounder CD # 8014) in 1989. While the album didn’t necessarily storm up the pop charts, Special Music from Special Kids did become a cult phenomenom of sorts, getting a decent amount of media attention and gaining fans like Smokey Robinson, James Garner, Leo Buscaglia and Bob McGrath (Bob from Sesame Street) in the process. Special Music from Special Kids is, from beginning to end, an amazing document of the early days of the Kids from Widney High. The album has a fairly typical late 1980s production sound, but it’s obvious from the lyrics and the way the kids sing, that the lyrics come straight from the heart. Whether singing happily about a "New Car" or a "Teddy Bear;" dwelling on love and heartache ("Mayra" and "Ride Away"); commenting on the good and bad points of places like "Hollywood" and "New York;" or confronting their fears (the funny and scary "Insects," which remains one of the most popular songs by the Kids), the Kids’ honesty about their feelings is utterly and completely disarming, particularly when you compare it to the lack of anything resembling a true feeling in so much other popular music. As Monagan says, "The Kids from Widney High blow the cover off what the rest of us are doing."
As word about Special Music from Special Kids spread, the Kids began to receive invitations to perform at other schools. Backed up by a band that included Monagan and some of his friends, the Kids who were able to play live shows (not all of them were able to do this) began to play gigs at schools and occasionally other locations. It was while playing at an alternative record store that Monagan met up with John Pantle, who books shows at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. He asked Monagan if the Kids would want to play at the House of Blues, opening for Mr. Bungle, whose lead singer, former Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton, happened to be a big fan of the Kids. Monagan accepted the offer and the Kids wound up opening for a sold-out crowd at a Mr. Bungle show. "The place just went bananas over the Kids," Monagan
The Kids’ connection with Patton proved to be good for them after the House of Blues show, since Patton found a place for them on his own record label, Ipecac Recordiings. Ipecac released the second Kids of Widney High CD, Let’s Get Busy (Ipecac Recordings # 5), in 1999. This album has a more bit more of a rockish feel that the first CD, though it starts off with an irresistible pop tune, "Cowboy Brown" that has traces of ska in it. Although the lyrics mostly talk about the adventures of the title character, at one point the singer mentions that he needs a walker to get around, but that he can be free when he dreams of the rodeo. The Kids also cover Otis Redding’s classic "Respect," adapting the lyrics very well to their own situations in life and reminding listeners to have respect for the disabled. Otis would surely be
proud of where the Kids of Widney High have taken his song. By far, the most amazing track on Let’s Get Busy is "Facts About Life," which was largely written by one student, Daniel Brattain. Daniel wrote and sang with a searing honesty about the facts of his own life, and what emerges is a grim portrait of being a young person with serious disabilities who lives in the inner city. With the band roaring behind him (this song would not have sounded out-of-place on a Faith No More album), and the other kids yelling and whooping it up throughout the song, Brattain delivers a cathartic vocal performance that is nothing short of astonishing and that prompts one of the kids to yell "Yeah Daniel!" at the end of the song. Sadly, "Facts About Life" illustrates a heartbreaking aspect of Monagan’s songwriting classes through the years: Daniel Brattain died not long after recording this song. Let’s Get Busy is dedicated to his memory as well as to the memories of two other students, Keisha Dotson and Tommy Yates (Special Music from Special Kids was also dedicated to a student, David Aronin).
To illustrate how the songwriting process takes place within the classroom, Monagan used a recently written Kids song, "Two Faces On Fidel," as an example. "We start by talking about the kind of things the kids would like to write songs about. One day, Daniel [not Daniel Brattain], who’s originally from El Salvador said, "Let’s write a song about Fidel Castro." From there we talk about the angle that a song is going to take. In this case, we talked about how some people think Castro is a savior and other people think he’s a devil." After batting these ideas around for awhile, Monagan begins to take suggestions from the Kids for the rhythm the new song will have, and he begins to build the rhythm up on a sequencer in the classroom. He’ll ask if anybody has any ideas for a melody next. In the case of the Castro song, Daniel (who Monagan says is one of the highest-functioning students he’s had) worked up a melody on the piano. Finally, the class begins to work words and rhymes into the mix and Monagan records the kids singing into a computer. In "Two Faces of Fidel," the Kids drove home the point about Castro being either great or evil by creating a back-and-forth shouting match in the middle of the song, in which one kid sings something like "I’ve got a job," while another answers by saying, "He took all my money."
Monagan says that the beauty of working with the Kids of Widney High is that the kids don’t have many of the inhibitions that typical high school kids often possess. "When we were in high school, we were trying to be different, but really we’re just trying to be like everyone else," Monagan says. "These guys pretty much don’t care about things like that because they’ve never really fit in and they know they never will. So anything goes, which is really fun and liberating." Monagan says he has many memorable moments of his years with the Kids of Widney High. "Certainly, playing at the House of Blues was great, but all the time in class there are wonderful revelations." He cites a song his most recent class has been working on called "Life Without the Cow." "We were talking about song ideas and one girl just said, ‘the cow’," Monagan says. So we started talking about what life would be like without the cow and the song came out of that." Monagan then begins singing, "Life without the cow/no more milk and cheese/no more New York steak/no more fertilizer." At one point in the song, the kids yell out names of different breeds (Florida Cracker, Holstein, Black Angus) that they found while surfing the ‘Net. Monogan hopes that the Kids continue to record albums and perform live, but it is the transformation the Kids often go through as the classes progress that mean the most to him. In the liner notes to the Special Music from Special Kids CD, Monagan wrote, "I was amazed as the kids poured their emotions into the project and day after day created the ideas that are contained in this album. As a result of the project many of the behavior problems decreased and the kids experienced a boost in self-esteem and a feeling of success and accomplishment all too rare in their lives." Since that time, the faces in his class have changed and much has happened for the Kids from Widney High, but the basic goal is the same: to use the universal language of music to help these "special kids" connect with an important part of themselves and, when possible, to share the cool, strange and life-affirming music the Kids create with anyone whose ears and heart are open enough to hear the beauty in it.