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The Kids Are All Right 

Headbanging for credit at the Musicians Institute

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
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Inside a “Fretboard Basics” class, the predominantly male students sit in rows, each holding a bass, staring ahead attentively. An instructor stands on the side of a small stage, flanked by a rather bored-looking longhaired guitar player and a drummer. The center of attention is a slightly overweight and very nervous student, gripping his bass tightly. The band begins playing a medium-tempo “funk” song. The student glances down at some sheet music, then joins in hesitantly.

In a class called “Guitar Heroes,” a teacher plucks out a quick series of notes while the students desperately attempt to transcribe them. Some have long hair, but there are no spandex pants or enormous Billy Squire ’dos. In fact, the students look much like those you‘d expect to see in any college music class. It feels more like the esteemed Berklee College of Music than a heavy metal high school.

The sound of a lightning-fast, Eddie Van Halen--like guitar solo drifts down a hallway. Inside a small lab is that most endangered of species, the hair-band virtuoso. He appears exactly as one might expect: magnificent plumage, tight pants, strained grimace. But upon closer inspection, the large coif now frames a slightly older face, and the waist has started to bulge slightly over the still-tight pants. Regardless, the fingers fly and he solos away. Another, short-haired, guitarist sits next to him, completely frozen.

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Shawn and Dan and some other Musicians Institute students live together in a small apartment near the school -- fading white stucco, small, dirty swimming pool, very Miami Vice. Inside, there is hardly a stick of furniture, the lone decorative touch being a reverently displayed Slayer poster. Dan sits in the kitchen, listening to a tape of a Swedish punk band called Mob 47, studying the drumming with scientific rigor. “This is where it all comes from,” he says.

Shawn and Dan share a tiny room, basically two child-size beds side by side, surrounded by a mountain of amplifiers and gear. All four walls are completely plastered with fliers and pictures, of both their own band and those they love. Nothing in the room hints at any interest besides music (except for a bong). Dan politely offers a beverage. When asked about choices, he replies, “Kool-Aid.”

Shawn grew up in Massachusetts, splitting time between his divorced parents. “I love them both, they hate each other.” His dad is a cabinetmaker in Gloucester (the setting for the film The Perfect Storm), his mom a bus driver in a rural town called Uxbridge. He started getting into trouble at an early age, arrested for breaking into a neighbor’s house when he was 8. A few years later he fell in love with heavy metal music, and by the age of 12 was playing guitar in a Metallica cover band called Saboteur. Their debut performance was in a talent show at a nearby high school.

“Before us, there was a ballerina and some poetry, typical talent-show stuff, people doing skits off of TV shows,” he says. “Me and my brother‘s girlfriends were there, so there were like two chicks out of 500 people, just screaming at the top of their lungs. That’s all you could hear was these two chicks screaming.”

Shawn and his band go out and blast through their version of Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman.” The entire show is being broadcast on a local cable channel. It is their moment of stardom. That is, until they find out the only sound making it onto the broadcast is from the singer’s microphone -- no music, just vocals.

“We had this 12-year-old kid, just screaming, veins coming out, the most horrible-sounding thing you ever heard. We get the video the next day, we‘re like, ’Holy shit!‘ Our singer quit immediately.”

Shawn still has the video. It shows a close-up of a kid shrieking, face red, voice cracking. In the background, a prepubescent Shawn with long, curly hair wails away on a silent guitar, rocking out with the rest of the band to the unheard music. It is a work of art. Shawn pulls the tape out of the VCR. “The second show was a hundred times better. It was another talent show in a different town, and we took first place with Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death.’”

By the time Shawn was in high school, everything other than his music seemed to be falling apart. His mom‘s boyfriend ran up her credit cards and then split, and they fell on financial hard times. “We’re trying to take this guy to court, and they‘re like, ’Why‘d you give him the fucking credit cards?’ We were going down real fucking quick.” Meanwhile, Shawn was starting to have serious problems at school. “I was the kid that raised my hand and said, ‘I’m leaving,‘ and just walked out. You know what I’m saying? I had my detentions and late times booked up so high that they were like, ‘Why bother coming to school anymore? It’s just not gonna happen.‘”

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