Widney High’s Outrageous Stars
These young singer-songwriters are barely affected by their reputation as cool dudes.
By Al Ridenour
The New Times
Los Angeles, May 11, 2000
“You better watch out or the insects will get you!”
The chant thunders into a desolate alley behind Main Street.A few dark figures flick out their cigarettes and run into the club.”The insect song!” they call to friends loitering by parked cars. Thecrowd pushes through black, bare-walled rooms toward the amped-up voices.
It looks like a hospital scene under the spotlight. A blackteenage couple slouch together on forearm crutches. An elegantlygaunt, saucer-eyed girl perches in a wheelchair. One boy seems tobe shaking invisible maracas, rocking with all the wrong muscles. Anotherboy accentuates each beat by jabbing stubby limbs into the airlike Meat Loaf with a belly full of diet pills.
“If you accidentally fall in the water, you’re in trouble!Spiders will come after you! YOU!”
The kids begin scrubbing imaginary insects from their bodies,giggling and yelping. The girl in the wheelchair lets out a piercingscream as the act dissolves into a caterwaul party. The crowd joinsin, applauding.
These are the Kids of Widney High, graduates or current studentsin Michael Monagan’s songwriting class at this L.A. Unifiedspecial ed school in the Adams District, near Olympic and Western. Latelast year, they released their second CD, Let’s Get Busy, and sincethen have been playing occasional gigs like this one at The Smell, a downtownall-ages venue for experimental music.
The room is crammed with underground types mouthing wordsto familiar songs and beaming at the students. Among the guests, incurable eccentric Crispin Glover is discreetly taping the entireshow, and KXLU disc jockey Mitchell Brown, who’s been sending the kids’songs out over the airwaves for years, is selling T-shirts. The Kids’ firstrelease, Special Music from Special Kids, has found fans in Ad-Rockof the Beastie Boys, and Brian Warner, a.k.a. Marilyn Manson. MikePatton of Mr. Bungle is so fond of the group that he’s had the Kidsopen for him, and he released Let’s Get Busy on his own label.
Several days after the show, project mastermind, lead guitarist,and sixth-period songwriting teacher Michael Monagan sits infront of his class next to a table piled high with digital recording gear.He’s a trim 48, pretty much the look of a clean-living studio musician.A mic stand sits on a cartoon-colored rug, and around it are gatherednine mostly Hispanic teens. Three of them sit in wheelchairs.Not all the students in the songwriting class are up to public gigs.Of those present, only a few go out regularly.
The kids are singing a Schoolhouse Rock-style number aboutcoins and their values. It’s one they’re in the process of writing.After running through the song, Monagan pivots the mic to differentstudents in the group, inviting them to record spoken vocals to belaid in between verses. A kid with cerebral palsy pulls off “A sodacosts 50 cents” without mistake.
“Kirk, how about you? What do you want to say?” Monagan redirectsthe mic as the boy bobs nervously in his wheelchair. “Kirk, whatdo you like to buy at the store? Candy?”
The bobbing becomes a sort of nod.
“Good! What kind of candy?”
“Chocolate,” Kirk mutters. Monagan helps narrow the choicedown to M&M’s and suggests the sentence “M&M’s cost 65 cents.”After four painstaking takes, each partly garbled, Monagan has the elementshe needs to piece together an intelligible version. He playsback his reconstruction to general applause. Kirk bobs even more franticallyand burps.
Kirk isn’t the least functional by a long shot. Two of thegirls — one spastically flailing throughout class and the other slumpedand glassy-eyed — rely on speech synthesizers mounted on theirwheelchairs. Unable to control their hands, they select utterances froma communicator menu by bumping their heads against a headrestbutton. Handicaps be damned, they’ve both contributed to the song’srunning lists of items kids might buy at the store. In the replay,you can clearly hear a flatly intoned “Pepsi” and another monotone”Coke” testifying to the fact.
A few days later, Monagan sits over a cup of coffee tryingto recall how he got into this mess. “I guess it comes with that IrishCatholic idea of social service,” he says. Son of a Connecticut congressman,Monagan and family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was a teen.Near their home was Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s summer day camp for challengedkids, the Christ Child Institute, where Monagan volunteered toassist with games that evolved into the Special Olympics. Later, at Boston University, he studied political science, but he admits tobeing less interested in that career path than in music. Tagging ona last-minute teaching credential, he eventually found himself in chargeof a classroom in South Central after moving to Los Angeles inthe early ’80s.
“That was the worst,” he recalls. “One of my kids was murdered!Shot on school grounds at 11:30 in the morning, and by the time Ileft at three, the coroner still hadn’t come for the body.” His move toWidney in 1987 inspired him with hope. “There was a woman who did playsat Widney that year. I love musicals, and I thought it would be fun forthe kids to do one.” The administration approved a songwriting class, andby the end of that year, he says, he and the Kids had most of the songsthat ended up on the first album.
Released by Rounder Records in 1989, the album gained interestas both a worthy effort and a curiosity. The Kids of Widney High hadsuddenly become a full-blown public project. The group began accepting invitations to perform not only at other schools but alsoat places like Mondo Video/Archaic Idiots, a Los Feliz bohemian emporiumwhere Monagan met House of Blues booker John Pantle. This friendship ledto higher-profile gigs around town, in which the Kids were sometimesbacked by live musicians assembled for the occasion. All the while,new kids were entering the songwriting class and cranking out newsongs.
In 1998, when Jackson Browne offered free recording time inhis studio, Monagan jumped at the chance, recruiting musicians from thebands World Tribe and Menthol Hill. As the new CD was taking shape, MikePatton extended his Mr. Bungle tour invitation, eventually askingthe Kids back for a Y2K blowout at the San Francisco Design Centerand offering to release the material recently recorded at Browne’s studio.
Before starting his own label, Patton recorded for WarnerBros. Not everyone there was thrilled with the notion of a group ofretarded teens as Patton’s warm-up act. Monagan recalls how a certain repshowed up at the House of Blues tormented with questions of propriety.”The Bungle guys were keeping an eye on her throughout the show,” heremembers, “and by the end of the Kids’ set, she had this huge smile on herface — they’re all having so much fun up there, and it’s just sohonest.”
Struggling with his own hesitations about bringing the classmembers into clubs in the early ’90s, Monagan happened to see a videoof Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was thrashing aboutand smacking her limbs in theatrical ecstasy. “I had this autistickid in my class at the time who stimmed [self-stimulated] in exactlythe same way when she sang,” says Monagan, “but it wasn’t for effect.People in rock want to project an image, but these kids are the real thing.”At the same time, charmingly clumsy acts like the Shaggs, DanielJohnston, and Jonathan Richman were finding larger audiences already primedby punk rock to digest unrefined talent.
But it would be willfully misleading to claim that the Kidsgained cult status strictly as a symbol of unvarnished innocence. Face-to-facein performance, they have a disarming ability to connect withthe outsider inside anyone, but abstracted from that — as a recordednovelty — they’ve also been appreciated as a sort of transgressivecollectible, something to file between G.G. Allin’s Hated and Anton Lavey’sSatanic Mass. Not surprisingly, the reigning Antichrist of pop transgression, Brian Warner/Marilyn Manson, who is intrigued enough by physical abnormality to don prosthetic breasts and surplus fingersfor video shoots, has enthusiastically mentioned the Kids in interviews.
Monagan is clearly shocked to hear this, and like a man who’sunchained a monster, he puzzles it out. “You know, it just sort ofturned out that the people who are very interested in the band are all veryalternative types. Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t have some conceptlike that. We just ended up in this niche, not because it’s the kind ofmusic I play, but because of who the kids are and how it all came out.”(Monagan describes his own band, See Saw, as “sort of rock, melodic,more Caribbean influence than anything else.” The music backingthe Kids is equally unthreatening.)
Yet there are darker songs among the affirmations and skill-buildersof Let’s Get Busy . In particular, “Facts About Life,” sungin a grim slur by Daniel Brattain, a blind and retarded child, is a laundrylist of the violence and oppression that plagues the students daily.For the boy’s teacher, the effect is particularly chilling, since Danieldied shortly after the song was recorded. The cause was a medication overdose– possibly an accident resulting from poor labeling. “But itmay have been suicide,” Monagan says, “because he had a completelydysfunctional relationship with his mother, who was retarded too. And it’sso tragic after all this happened — right there in the middle of thatsong you can hear him say, ‘I want my mom to save me.'”
Daniel’s funeral was in Palos Verdes, Monagan recalls. “Itwas a beautiful, glorious day, and so fucking sad — one studentexplaining to the other what the dirt going in was all about. Everybodyleft, and we stayed for the kids; they wanted to sing songs to him.” Monaganlocks his gaze on the middle distance. “It’s the tough part ofthis job when these kids go, and its not unusual with all their problems,”he says. Among Widney’s recent fatalities is Keisha Dotson, who diedduring a seizure, right before her mother’s eyes. Afflicted with gigantism– she was more than six feet tall at the age of seven — shewas a Widney success story: graduated, employed, and married to anotherstudent at the time of her death. And there was Tommy Yates, who waskilled in a house fire a year or so ago after suggesting a song to Monaganabout “someone who died trying to get up to God.”
Let’s Get Busy is dedicated to Daniel, Keisha, and Tommy.The students are working on a new song, “The Other Side,” specificallyabout Daniel, with whom one of Monagan’s songwriting students, Cain Fonseca,another blind boy, was especially close. “I like to have Cain dothat song because he gets very upset about Daniel,” Monagan says. “He’llcome to me sometimes, asking, ‘Where’s Daniel? I was crying lastnight.’ He never really processed it completely. He couldn’t go to PalosVerdes.”
How does Monagan roll with all these existential punches?How does he keep coming back to all the tears, soiled wheelchairs, andbodies twitching like something half killed? Most of L.A. remainsblissfully ignorant of what’s behind Widney’s chain-link fence. Doesn’the ever think of skipping that turn through the gate? Does he evenremember what it’s like to want to hide away from all this misery?
Monagan stares for a moment, baffled and supremely benign,then wrinkles his brow. “I suppose I always felt a little trepidation goingpast the house of this one kid down the street,” he says, thinkingback to his preteen years in Connecticut. “He was deaf, very strong,and not quite up to par mentally. He’d collar you with something he wanted.He’d have a pie tin and he’d have it against his lips, blowing on itso it vibrated like a kazoo or something. And then he’d grab youby the neck and want you to do it too. I’d be a little afraid.”
Clearly, Monagan has routed those fears in himself and others, demonstrating that music has many instruments: whole, bent,and broken.