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“I always had aspirations of grandeur,” says Paul Green.

Big Rock 'n' Roll Kid

Paul Green’s great dreams

By Steve Israel

Photos by Michael Bloom

 

THIS WAS YEARS BEFORE the man Jon Anderson of  Yes calls “wild, wacky, wonderful … a tad crazy” would become the inspiration for the hit movie “School of Rock.”

This was ages before Woodstock’s Paul Green would star in a documentary about himself and be called “extravagantly voluble, relentlessly belligerent, sometimes wearisome” by the New York Times.

And this sure seemed light years before Green established a veritable rock school empire with 57 of those schools where thousands of kids learned the glory of rock ’n’ roll and played gigs with stars such as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Alice Cooper.

All of this was unimaginable 26 years ago. That’s when Paul Green was a skinny 15-year-old high school dropout with dyed jet-black hair whose “home” in Philadelphia was a bay window with a cardboard petition in an apartment he shared with three other guys. The son of a pot-smoking single mom who lived off her Social Security checks had one goal back in the ’70s: to be a rocker, like his heroes, those hardcore punksters who would settle in Woodstock, the Bad Brains.

So how did this dropout get a degree in philosophy from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania?

How did the man who now has about 100 students at Saugerties’ Paul Green Rock Academy go from teaching $10-an-hour guitar lessons in an apartment in Philadelphia to building a corporate empire he sold for millions?

And how can the 41-year-old man who lives in black T-shirts and jeans have the audacity to try to fulfill his biggest dream yet: create the Woodstock College of Music – “Stevie Wonder meets the Iowa Writers Project,” he calls it – teaching kids everything from how to write, arrange, record and make records to how to sell them, and themselves?

 

‘Great dreams to fulfill’

If you know anything about Paul Green, you know this: When he describes what he loves about rock ’n’ roll in words that fire like a Jimi Hendrix guitar lick, he could be talking about himself.

“For me, it’s all about the unexpected,” he says, sitting with his feet in untied sneakers perched on a desk in the headquarters of the Paul Green Rock Academy, where old 45s like Bobby Rydell’s “Volare” line one wall and a picture of David Bowie is on another.

Or, as he says to the 8- to 16-year-old students who munch M&Ms and suck lollipops before a rehearsal for a recent Beatles show: “Like Beethoven said, ‘To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.’”

Paul Green’s heart always has pulsed with the passion of great rock ’n’ rollers such as the Rolling Stones. And he’s always been fueled by the drive of the guitarist who makes their music go, Keith Richards.

“I always had aspirations of grandeur,” Green says.

But he also had this, says Yes’ Anderson: “A good soul (with) great dreams to fulfill.”

So even in the third grade, he submitted a short story he wrote to a national contest.

And when he dropped out of school to play rock ’n’ roll in the abandoned warehouses of Philadelphia and supported himself by cutting fish, well, he gave that seemingly menial job his all.

“He just had to be the best at it,” says his wife, Lisa, who met Paul when they were both young punk rockers in Philadelphia.

That passion is why Green will tell you that he’ll go crazy over a raw Keith Richards lick but despise a note-for-note perfect solo by Jeff Beck.

That passion also is why he loved go-for-broke bands like the Butthole Surfers but not publicity-grabbing stars like Nirvana.

 

Time to grow up

But Green was also smart enough to realize he might never be a rock star – this guitarist/drummer who thought he’d made it when he got a Friday night gig at some hole-in-the-wall club. He also knew that most rock ’n’ rollers have to grow up.

That really hit home when he and Lisa took what Paul calls “a poor people’s vacation” to Mexico, where a gourmet meal was sharing an appetizer.

They were walking on the beach when Lisa said to him: “You know, I love you with all my heart, but I’m 6½ years older than you, and someday I’ll want to settle down and start a family.”

So Green decided to go back to school and earn a high school equivalency degree.

He did so well, he got into the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied philosophy and planned to go to law school. To support himself, he taught those $10-per-hour guitar lessons – once being paid $5 and a couple of subway tokens from a struggling mom.

It wasn’t long before he realized that while the kids could learn scales, they were missing what he loved about rock in the first place: the passion of those three-chord songs.

So he started setting up jam sessions for the students, and discovered the kids would actually practice when they had to play real songs with real musicians.

When he got the kids a gig at a club in Philadelphia playing songs like Pink Floyd’s “Time” and Frank Zappa’s “Muffin Man,” he and Lisa were amazed by what happened. Not only did parents, friends and rock ’n’ roll lovers make the show a sellout, there were people lined up outside waiting to get in.

 

A growing empire

Green realized that there was so much demand for a rock school like his, he could open other schools outside Philadelphia. There was no shortage of teachers – all the desperate out-of-work rockers he and Lisa, who taught singing, knew. So much to Lisa’s dismay, Paul maxed out a credit card with a $7,000 loan to open more schools, even though they were about to start the family that now includes two children, Sparrow, 7, and Walden, 11.

As demand grew, he borrowed a half million dollars from the dentist parent of a young rocker. By 2005, that demand was so great – fueled by the publicity of the 2003 movie starring Jack Black – Green was opening rock schools across the country. (He says he spoke to lawyers about suing the movie makers but didn’t want to spend years in litigation, and besides, “not suing was the noble thing to do.”) This is also when he was featured in the documentary about him and his rock ’n’ rolling kids, “Rock School,” which gave the world a glimpse of Green’s impulsive, yet somehow endearing loud-as-a-grating-guitar behavior:

“It’s a lovable quirk that he’s mentally disturbed,” he says of one student.

Yet the film also captures the School of Rock’s remarkable success, with the kids playing the complex music of Frank Zappa at a festival in Germany, where they actually wow the adult musicians who are there to play Zappa’s music.

But as they expanded, and Green traveled to places like Chicago and San Francisco and spent 120 nights per year in hotels, this grown-up kid who had slept in the alcove, played in abandoned buildings and wanted to be a rocker started losing the spark that fueled him.

“He wasn’t doing anything but the corporate thing,” says Lisa. “He wasn’t teaching. And he hated it.”

Paul Green works with Ethan Siegel (partial view) and Amadeus Bollin on keyboards, Cally Mansfield and Toni Weeks on vocals, Eli Propper on drums and Monte Chetkof on bass.

Coming to Woodstock

So in 2009, Green sold the School of Rock to the parent company of the Sylvan Learning Center. He says he got “seven figures” for the School of Rock franchise, which today has more than 100 branches across the country.

That money may run out, but the passion that fueled him never died.

So, determined to teach all he’d learned about music, and the business of it, he decided to open a college of rock.

What better place than Woodstock, where he could raise his kids and draw on a community of musicians that has included everyone from Bob Dylan to David Bowie?

He plans to launch the Woodstock College of Music with his partner, 1969 Woodstock Festival promoter Michael Lang, in 2015. He would really like to see it open at the former Zena Elementary School in Woodstock and is working with several members of the community to make it happen. It will be a sort of graduate school of rock, teaching all aspects of the music – from making records with the latest technology to navigating the legal hurdles to get that music heard. The Rock Academy will stay open because “that will always be a part of me,” says Green. And so will his desire to give needy kids what he couldn’t afford as a rock-crazed child: a rock ‘n’ roll education. That’s why about one-third of the kids get financial aid.

But before opening a college, he had to reconnect with his School of Rock roots.

So after throwing himself into the community by staging concerts at places such as Byrdcliffe and becoming the music director for the Woodstock Film Festival, he found a space in the former 5,000-square-foot Woodstock Jewish Congregation building, assured neighbors the music wouldn’t be too loud and set up the Paul Green Rock Academy. He found a receptive community of kids who wanted to rock, and their rocking parents who encouraged them, like Wendy Erikson, who has three kids in the Rock Academy, aged 8, 11 and 14, and like other parents, volunteers during classes and shows and says, “It’s like I’m living vicariously through my kids. It’s amazing what he can bring out of these kids.”

He does that in the demanding, yet understanding way of a grown-up punk rocking kid/turned rocking parent who one 8-year-old describes like this: “He can be a jerk, but he’s a jerk that works with you and makes you better.”

It’s at the Rock Academy where Green, in a black Scorpions T-shirt, gets back to those rocking roots, teaching kids everything from the complex music of Frank Zappa to the classic rock of the Beatles. Plus, while chomping a meatloaf hero, he’ll impart such rock ’n’ roll wisdom to a kid who makes a mistake as this: “That’s not messing up; getting married and having kids, that’s messing up.”

A few weeks ago, at a Beatles concert featuring many of those kids singing and playing tunes like “When I’m 64,” “Twist and Shout” and “Helter Skelter” in small voices that hadn’t yet changed, Paul Green stood on the stage of Woodstock’s Utopia Soundstage and introduced the show with words that were meant to describe the kids, but could have summed up his life:

“These kids have done something that 97 percent of the world wishes they could do – get on stage and play in front of other people.”

And then, as the kids rocked, this big man with the rock ’n’ roll kid inside him thrust his fists in the air and rocked, too.

Yes' Jon Anderson
on Paul Green

Steve Israel conducted an email interview with Jon Anderson of Yes about his experiences with Paul Green and his students:

 

So what’s a big star like you doing playing with a bunch of kids? How did it happen?

Paul got in touch with me, and we had a dozen teens come to see a Yes show. He just asked me to be involved. I said of course, why not, so I was able to perform with the original school seven years ago in Philly. We toured about five shows with 30 teens ... “wonderful” times ... excellent musicians ... We played Yes songs, Beatle songs, Nirvana and whatever they wanted to do. It was a blast!

 

Can you describe Paul: his musicianship, personality, art of persuasion?

Wild, wacky, wonderful ... full of energy ... a tad crazy, which helps, and a good soul. He has great dreams to fulfill.

 

How about the kids? What’s the caliber of their talent, particularly because your music is so much more complex than some of the basic three-chord rock?

They are amazing. I’m still in touch with many of them; they have grown up, girls and guys, into excellent musicians.

 

What do you get out of playing with the kids?

Well first, they are thankful, happy and full of energy ... non-stop. I got as much out of singing with them as they did performing with me. We had a moment in our lives just having fun.

 

What do you think the kids get out of it?

Experience of stage work, how to project to the audience, how to deal with each other, learning from people like me and how to be thankful and evolve as a person.

 

Any stories come to mind to illustrate your experiences with Paul and the kids?

In 2006 we traveled in a bus in the worst snowstorm, January weather, in and around New York state, then traveling to Pittsburgh, all laughing and singing our way through the snowstorm, the only people on the highway. It was amazing how we got to the gig, but we did. It was a church converted into a club ... I called it the Church of Yes show. A couple of years later, we played the West Coast, and on the last show, the teens asked if they could perform “Awaken.” I had said no a couple of times, because “Awaken” is a tough Yes song to pull off, but they said they had rehearsed it. “Please, please, can we play it on our last show?” I relented and to my amazement, they played it so well, even nearly as good as Yes; it was so uplifting. I was in tears ... a wonderful memory.

UPCOMING PERFORMANCES

April 8 and 9: The Paul Green Rock Academy will perform with Jon Anderson of Yes at the Bearsville Theater.

April 25 and 26: Rolling Stones theme, Barn at Byrdcliffe in Woodstock

May 2 and 4: Classic metal theme, BSP in Kingston

May 9 and 10: Big Fat ’80s Prom, complete with the show kids in full ’80s prom garb, including a prom photo booth and choreographed dances from the MTV 1980s era, to take place at a local school gym.

May 16 and 17: Queen theme, at the Woodstock Playhouse

The preceding dates list the locations at press time. Please check rockacademy.com prior to the event.

July 7-11: The Paul Green Rock Academy will offer its first sleepover camp at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge. A limited number of campers, ages 10-18, will participate in music intensives, private lessons, group jam sessions and rock-themed movie parties as well as other signature courses offered by the Ashokan Center.

Summer camps: Music-intensive weeklong day camps will be held at the Rock Academy through the summer, including participation from Tracy Bonham, Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween), Jason Bowman and others, including Brendon Small of Metalocalypse.

Summer shows will include a tribute to Woodstock ’69 (Aug. 15 and 16), Soul & Funk, AC/DC and Classic Punk.

Scholarship programs are available.

 

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