There is a small chrome skull embedded in one of Shawn McPhersons long, brownish dreadlocks. Hes 21 years old and loves heavy metal music. Not the prancing corporate rock of Motley Crue and Kiss, but underground, faster than shit, stop-on-a-dime, hardcore speed metal. His band is called Hostile Groove, and theyre setting up to rehearse in an empty classroom.
Shawn stands over 6 feet tall and talks with a thick Massachusetts accent, like JFK after a few thousand bong loads. At the door, he politely offers a set of earplugs, which are accepted with slight indignation. The rest of the band consists of his hometown friend and drummer, Dan Welby, and their new bass player, a lanky young Texan named Aric Wright. Shawn nods okay, and Dan clicks his sticks together, counting off a quick meter. The three lean forward and rip into their first song, On a Mission. The volume is incredible. The school desks begin vibrating and moving about the floor like amusement-park bumper cars. The earplugs are suddenly appreciated.
The music is complex and loaded with passion: Hank Williams filtered through punk rock and a thundering Black Sabbath. Shawns singing alternates between a low-end growl and fast, staccato rapping. He stomps the floor in a steady cadence, whipping his dreadlocks through the air and battering his guitar. Dan is behind his set, feet driving the double kick drum, arms in constant motion. He resembles a shirtless Gene Krupa -- with nipple rings. Aric, who minutes ago was the very embodiment of a laconic suburban kid, is now hunched over his bass, jaw clenched and fingers flying about the neck at a phenomenal speed. This is modern soul music, complete emotional catharsis.
Back in the early 80s, youd see these kids hiking up and down Hollywood Boulevard, long hair framing their still-pimply Midwestern faces, T-shirts adorned with some unpronounceable European guitar hero, shoulders hunched slightly from the weight of their gig-bagged neon guitars. Driving past, one could envision their fates with a condescending certainty -- grand dreams of rock stardom eroded by countless hours manning the counter of the local copy-mat, sporadic and unattended pay to play shows for their blindly supportive girlfriends. It all ended somewhere in the Valley with a day job in insurance, or porn.
At the center of this scenario, at the very epicenter of this hard-rock abomination, was the Guitar Institute of Technology, a school for aspiring rock stars. For many too-hip locals, this was both hilarious and pathetic. What might one learn at such a place? How to hurl a television set out a hotel window? The appropriately glorious pose to strike while rocking the local enormo-dome? The very idea seemed a contradiction. Even today, a mention of the Guitar Institute can provoke snickers and snide comments about outdated hair bands.
The schools slick brochure does little to dispel its lingering reputation as a hotbed of metal noodling and soulless fusion. It tells how the school was started in the late 70s by a studio guitarist giving seminars -- upstairs from the Hollywood Wax Museum -- and the first names featured on a list of visiting artists are jazz-rock technician Al Di Meola and ex--David Lee Roth sidekick Steve Vai. But what was once merely the Guitar Institute has blossomed into the Musicians Institute, encompassing bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, engineering and a student body of 600. And if one is inclined to read further, there are other names on that list, true legends like John Entwistle, Mick Taylor, Albert Collins and B.B. King. Perhaps the printer, overcome by some sort of toxic vapor, mistakenly reversed the order. And perhaps the cynics were wrong, and all those kids on the boulevard were never a joke after all.
The musicians institute is now housed in a large, anonymous building on McCadden Place, just of Hollywood Boulevard. Inside, theres the familiar clamor of school lockers being flung open and slammed shut. Students rush between classes, clutching instruments and handfuls of sheet music. A young Japanese kid with a 6-inch Mohawk and a backpack disappears up an echoing stairwell. Inside an empty auditorium, a wall-size video screen plays a constant feed of VH1s Behind the Music. A 15-foot Freddie Mercury is prancing about in hot pants and leather cap, singing, Radio goo goo, radio ga ga. a
The second floor is a maze of narrow hallways lined on each side with soundproof doors, their small windows covered with pictures, fliers and comics. Voices sing behind each door: a woman traversing a complex vocal scale, another trying, loudly, for Aretha Franklin. Past some fliers, a young man stands alone in a cramped rehearsal lab. He wears a dusty cowboy hat and strums a worn acoustic guitar, a harmonica around his neck like an early Bob Dylan.