A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
Widney High’s Outrageous Stars
“Facts About Life,” sung in a grim slur by Daniel Brattain, a blind and retarded child, is a laundry list of the violence and oppression that plagues the students daily. For the boy’s teacher, the effect is particularly chilling, since Daniel died shortly after the song was recorded.
By Al Ridenour
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. The crowd pushes through black, bare-walled rooms toward the amped-up voices.
It looks like a hospital scene under the spotlight. A black teenage couple slouch together on forearm crutches. An elegantly gaunt, saucer-eyed girl perches in a wheelchair. One boy seems to be shaking invisible maracas, rocking with all the wrong muscles. Another boy accentuates each beat by jabbing stubby limbs into the air like 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 piercing scream as the act dissolves into a caterwaul party. The crowd joins in, applauding.
These are the Kids of Widney High, graduates or current students in Michael Monagan’s songwriting class at this L.A. Unified special-ed school in the Adams District, near Olympic and Western. Late last year, they released their second CD, Let’s Get Busy, and since then have been playing occasional gigs like this one at The Smell, a downtown all-ages venue for experimental music.
The room is crammed with underground types mouthing words to familiar songs and beaming at the students. Among the guests, incurable eccentric Crispin Glover is discreetly taping the entire show, 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’ first release, Special Music from Special Kids, has found fans in Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, and Brian Warner, a.k.a. Marilyn Manson. Mike Patton of Mr. Bungle is so fond of the group that he’s had the Kids open 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 in front 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 gathered nine 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 about coins and their values. It’s one they’re in the process of writing. After running through the song, Monagan pivots the mic to different students in the group, inviting them to record spoken vocals to be laid in between verses. A kid with cerebral palsy pulls off “A soda costs 50 cents” without mistake.
“Kirk, how about you? What do you want to say?” Monagan redirects the mic as the boy bobs nervously in his wheelchair. “Kirk, what do 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 choice down to M&M’s and suggests the sentence “M&M’s cost 65 cents.” After four painstaking takes, each partly garbled, Monagan has the element she needs to piece together an intelligible version. He plays back his reconstruction to general applause. Kirk bobs even more frantically and burps.
Kirk isn’t the least functional by a long shot. Two of the girls — one spastically flailing throughout class and the other slumped and glassy-eyed — rely on speech synthesizers mounted on their wheelchairs. Unable to control their hands, they select utterances from a communicator menu by bumping their heads against a headrest button. Handicaps be damned, they’ve both contributed to the song’s running lists of items kids might buy at the store. In the replay, you can clearly hear a digitally intoned “Pepsi” and another monotone “Coke” testifying to the fact.
A few days later, Monagan sits over a cup of coffee trying to recall how he got into this mess. “I guess it comes with that Irish Catholic 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 challenged kids, the Christ Child Institute, where Monagan volunteered to assist with games that evolved into the Special Olympics. Later, at Boston University, he studied political science, but he admits to being less interested in that career path than in music. Tagging on a last-minute teaching credential, he eventually found himself in charge of a classroom in South Central after moving to Los Angeles in the 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 I left at three, the coroner still hadn’t come for the body.” His move to Widney in 1987 inspired him with hope. “There was a woman who did plays at Widney that year. I love musicals, and I thought it would be fun for the kids to do one.” The administration approved a songwriting class, and by the end of that year, he says, he and the Kids had most of the songs that ended up on the first album.
Released by Rounder Records in 1989, the album gained interest as both a worthy effort and a curiosity. The Kids of Widney High had suddenly become a full-blown public project. The group began accepting invitations to perform not only at other schools but also at places like Mondo Video/Archaic Idiots, a Los Feliz bohemian emporium where Monagan met House of Blues booker John Pantle. This friendship led to higher-profile gigs around town, in which the Kids were sometimes backed by live musicians assembled for the occasion. All the while, new kids were entering the songwriting class and cranking out new songs.
In 1998, when Jackson Browne offered free recording time in his studio, Monagan jumped at the chance, recruiting musicians from the bands World Tribe and Menthol Hill. As the new CD was taking shape, Mike Patton extended his Mr. Bungle tour invitation, eventually asking the Kids back for a Y2K blowout at the San Francisco Design Center and offering to release the material recently recorded at Browne’s studio.
Before starting his own label, Patton recorded for Warner Bros. Not everyone there was thrilled with the notion of a group of retarded teens as Patton’s warm-up act. Monagan recalls how a certain rep showed up at the House of Blues tormented with questions of propriety.” The Bungle guys were keeping an eye on her throughout the show,” he remembers, “and by the end of the Kids’ set, she had this huge smile on her face — they’re all having so much fun up there, and it’s just so honest.”
Struggling with his own hesitations about bringing the class members into clubs in the early ’90s, Monagan happened to see a video of Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was thrashing about and smacking her limbs in theatrical ecstasy. “I had this autistic kid in my class at the time who stimmed [self-stimulated] in exactly the 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, Daniel Johnston, and Jonathan Richman were finding larger audiences already primed by punk rock to digest unrefined talent.
But it would be willfully misleading to claim that the Kids gained cult status strictly as a symbol of unvarnished innocence. Face-to-face in performance, they have a disarming ability to connect with the outsider inside anyone, but abstracted from that — as a recorded novelty — they’ve also been appreciated as a sort of transgressive collectible, something to play between GG Allin’s Hated and Anton LaVey’s Satanic 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 fingers for videos, has enthusiastically mentioned the Kids in interviews.
Monagan is clearly shocked to hear this, and like a man who’s unchained a monster, he puzzles it out. “You know, it just sort of turned out that the people who are very interested in the band are all very alternative types. Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t have some concept like that. We just ended up in this niche, not because it’s the kind of music 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 backing the Kids is equally unthreatening.)
Yet there are darker songs among the affirmations and skill-builders of Let’s Get Busy . In particular, “Facts About Life,” sung in a grim slur by Daniel Brattain, a blind and retarded child, is a laundry list of the violence and oppression that plagues the students daily. For the boy’s teacher, the effect is particularly chilling, since Daniel died shortly after the song was recorded. The cause was a medication overdose– possibly an accident resulting from poor labeling. “But it may have been suicide,” Monagan says, “because he had a completely dysfunctional relationship with his mother, who was retarded too. And it’s so tragic after all this happened — right there in the middle of that song you can hear him say, ‘I want my mom to save me.'”
Daniel’s funeral was in Palos Verdes, Monagan recalls. “It was a beautiful, glorious day, and so fucking sad — one student explaining to the other what the dirt going in was all about. Everybody left, and we stayed for the kids; they wanted to sing songs to him.” Monagan locks his gaze on the middle distance. “It’s the tough part of this job when these kids go, and its not unusual with all their problems,” he says. Among Widney’s recent fatalities is Keisha Dotson, who died during a seizure, right before her mother’s eyes. Afflicted with gigantism– she was more than six feet tall at the age of seven – she was a Widney success story: graduated, employed, and married to another student at the time of her death. And there was Tommy Yates, who was killed in a house fire a year or so ago after suggesting a song to Monagan about “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,” specifically about Daniel, with whom one of Monagan’s songwriting students, Cain Fonseca, another blind boy, was especially close. “I like to have Cain do that song because he gets very upset about Daniel,” Monagan says. “He’ll come to me sometimes, asking, ‘Where’s Daniel? I was crying last night.’ He never really processed it completely. He couldn’t go to Palos Verdes.”
How does Monagan roll with all these existential punches? How does he keep coming back to all the tears, soiled wheelchairs, and bodies twitching like something half killed? Most of L.A. remains blissfully ignorant of what’s behind Widney’s chain-link fence. Doesn’t he ever think of skipping that turn through the gate? Does he even remember 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 going past the house of this one kid down the street,” he says, thinking back 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 it so it vibrated like a kazoo or something. And then he’d grab you by 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.