The Kids of Widney High
July 12th, 2008
Northwest Film Forum
I was recently on the Ipecac Recordings website looking through upcoming Melvins tour dates. Ipecac is a label co-founded by Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Peeping Tom, etc) and is home to projects for Hella drummer Zach Hill, Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo’s band The Moistboyz, super heavy musical onslaughts from San Diego’s The Locust, and the Patton/Melvins side projects Fantomas and Tomahawk. Scrolling down through the various Ipecac tour dates, I was shocked and amazed to see listings for a handy capable vocal group known as The Kids of Widney High. They were coming to Seattle and it was only two days away.
Widney High is a Los Angeles based High School catering to special needs children from the ages of 13 to 22. The Kids of Widney High is a group of disabled prodigies and recording artists which stemmed from a songwriting class at the school. In 1989, after teacher Michael Monagan helped the students create and arrange their own music, the kids released their first original album called Special Music From Special Kids on Rounder Records, which included liner notes from both Smokey Robinson and Tiffany. It had to have been around 1995 or so when I finally first heard the album and I was immediately sucked in. At the time I was already beginning my infatuation with the late great Wesley Willis, and the energy and enthusiasm behind the music fit right into my scope of interest at the time. The first track off of the album, titled New Car, had notes of Rain Man as former student Robert Ross sang about the glory of having a new car in his garage. “I wash the windows, I vacuum the floors. I wash the motor, I dry the doors.” The song Insects warned, “Bees will sting you very hard, all over your body. Bugs are in the trees and they’re watching you” and the song Throw away the Trash discouraged littering wih lyrics like, “I wanna feel proud about my clean school, If someone throws trash ‘I pity the fool!!’ “. These songs and their catchy ass hooks have been stuck in my mind for the better part of the last decade and a half.
In 1999, 10 years after the original release, I began to hear about the second KOWH album, Let’s Get Busy. This album was released on Ipecac and featured the track Every Girl’s My Girlfriend. Although, Let’s Get Busy had a different lineup of students vocally, the transition was smooth between the two albums. I had only heard the album a few times but I liked it and was glad to know that the music project had remained productive.
The new tour dates that I had stumbled across recently were for what was to be the Kids first ever real tour and was being presented by Sony Playstation. Although they had never toured, KOWH have been plenty busy, since the 1999 recording, in ways that I was completely oblivious to. About half of the students from the Let’s Get Busy sessions were joined by new students in the rotating lineup for the rock heavy 2003 album, Act Your Age. Later, the group played a spot on the Vans Warped Tour in California, have opened up for The Melvins and Mr. Bungle, and have released a live album. The Johnny Knoxville film, The Ringer, featured two appearances by this most recent Widney crew performing tracks from Act Your Age. Videos have been produced for songs like “Pretty Girls” and the Kids have even broadened their interests to include the production of films and their own Better Bacon clothing line. The Kids of Widney High tour would now bring them to The Northwest Film Forum to perform their music and to present some short films that they had worked on.
The ticket fees went to charity. We paid ours online and took a bus out to the Film Forum. When we arrived, I checked in with will call and then confirmed the photo policy. Once I knew everything was legit, I hit up the merch table. I bought a blue shirt that had the white handicap wheelchair logo except, on this shirt, the upper logo morphs into a music note. We entered an auditorium 1/3 the size of a small movie theater and it was only about 20% full. There were microphones set up and one acoustic guitar. Someone took the center microphone and explained that there would be a few readings before the musical performance and then finally a few films would be shown.
Next a duo of hispanic students stepped up to the microphones. There was a female student, Elisa Delatorre, with a backwards pink baseball cap and a fanny pack slouched off to one side. She was there to read excerpts from her autobiography and opted against using the microphone stand. She held her reading material incredibly close to her face while reading and the mic in the other. This meant that every time that Elisa needed to change a page in her little book, she actually had to hand off the mic and pause, often mid-sentence, to do so. The other student, Luis “Peewee” Fernandez, stood by her side and held the mic for her during her page changes. He wore a self-designed, Velvet Underground inspired T-Shirt that had “Out of Shape Banana” printed on it and acted similar to a hip-hop hype man or Ed Mcmahan by her side, by chiming in at the end of sentences or cracking wise with some sarcastic outbursts. Elisa’s reading went something like this,
“We have our ups and downs but we don’t let it get-”
*hands mic off to turn page and gets it back*
Then Pee Wee would say something to the effect of. “That’s right, we’re people too” or threatening to deliver something along the lines of an “organic beating“. Content-wise, Elisa’s reading was very similar to Shelley’s. They both referred to the alienation that people feel and, due to the serious nature of the subject matter, it was hard to know how to react at first. Pee Wee really began to effect the vibe in the room early on and made me feel more comfortable about laughing. At one point, Elisa’s cell phone began ringing in her pocket and Pee Wee helped bring attention to that.
When the reading was done the rest of the crew stepped side by side up to the microphones and a faculty member, whom I assume was Monagan, stood to their right with his acoustic guitar. There were five students total now. The two new additions were a black girl with braided hair and glasses named Tanesa Tarvin and Cain Fonseca, a Hispanic student sporting a straw cowboy hat. As soon as the guitar riff hit, the super crew went at the vocals full force. The first song that they performed was the track Doctor Doctor and it was the fucking jam. Everyone in the group was giving it their all and singing along to the lyrics “Please don’t hurt me Doctor, Doctor, please don’t hurt me“. The next song they performed was a song from the album Act Your Age called I Make My Teachers Mad, which begins with the lyrics, “I wake up every morning, listen to Howard Stern. I think about things I can slash and burn“. It began to look like they may have just gotten some of the serious readings and messages out of the way early but, when it became time to rock, this crew tore the stage up like a goddamn collections letter. They did not seem concerned in the slightest with the lack of audience turn-out which, in my opinion, is how it should be. I’ve played more than a few concerts like that myself before.
When Cain took the helm for the song E.L.V.I.S. it becomes very apparent that he is completely blind. Tanesa stepped up to help him get to the microphone before he screamed out that he wanted to dedicate the song “…to the king of rock and roll!” Around this point everything started to gel for me as a much larger picture. The messages presented prior to the music were coming back to me and I instantly realized that they had been absorbed effortlessly into my consciousness. What seemed like “obvious” lessons that “I already knew” or overly detailed information that may “help them” but “not me“, transformed into a very meaningful and powerful awareness and it snuck up on me. These lessons were not necessarily for students of special education, at least not the ones who were performing in front of me. They already knew the value of respect and displayed it admirably throughout. These students come from diverse backgrounds and have to deal with the obstacles of being racial minorities beyond any mentally related hurdles that they may have to climb over. Their messages are reminders that should be regularly drilled into the frontal and/or excavated from the temporal lobe.
Elisa took the lead on the next song, which was Insects. I was extremely psyched about the newer tracks that I wasn’t as familiar with, but I was glad to hear something that I already loved and recognized. On the way up to the event and all the way up until the music began, I was actually questioning my own intentions in attending the event on some level, because it had been so long since I had even listened to KOWH. When the kids busted into Insects, I immediately remembered the reasons that I was drawn to their music in the first place. The energy and enthusiasm in their voices was still unsurpassable and, in reality, the song structures are pretty fucking good. While the energy was at it’s peak, Shelly Goodhope announced that that we wanted to dedicate a song “for all you pretty girls out there“. They performed thier most well known tune Pretty Girls with Goodhope on lead vocals and busting into an extremely energetic, yet convulsive, version of the cabbage patch. Pee Wee sang lead on what was probably my favorite song of the night, Life Without A Cow. In this song, the kids explain in which ways they couldn’t “stand” life without the cow in much the same way that L.L. Cool J couldn’t “live without” his radio and the rollerskating rastas from Steel Pulse couldn’t “go for” life without music. I liked how, with all of the regurgitated politically correct rhetoric pertaining to animal rights and ecology, these kids were able to somehow construct both a pro-animal and pro-consumerism viewpoint that articulately expressed their respect and appreciation for the very entity that they were devouring. After the song, Pee Wee made reference to an organic beating again and threw up the classic and defiant double middle-fingers. This guy was like Johnny Rotten without being sued on an episode Judge Judy.
Among the rest of the tunes were two songs about love. The song Look Out Your Window encourages people to see look for love in everything, while Hold Me is about relationships. Prior to singing Hold Me, Elisa announced that it was about the love between “a boyfriend and a girlfriend” or and engaged couple to which Pee Wee replied “What about love with a man and a man or a woman and a woman?“. He then made some sideways comment about San Francisco. Afterwards however he announced that “the kids” had visited the space needle at which time he had proposed to Elisa. He continued by explaining that they were finally engaged after 9 yrs of being together as they raised their arms over their heads in victory. Next came a reworked and more personalized version of Respect (also featured in The Ringer) before ending with an encore of Throw Away the Trash. I got the feeling that they would have kept on going if the facutly hadn’t forced them to move on to the movie portion of the evening. They took a bow and left the stage.
The film portion was much like the rest of the evening in the respect that it started off a bit slow. The film was a ten minute feature called Denied Access. The story revolves around Elisa’s character waiting for friends to arrive and meet her at a park bench. She’s feeling misunderstood and lonely and… you get the idea. Tanesa plays the character “Gangsta” and Cain shows up in his straw hat again to have a heated debate with Elisa about which one of them is truly the number one Randy Travis fan. Two other students who were unable to make the event made appearances in this film. Matty Caravajal, a female student bound to a wheel chair, played an angel while Fabian Castillo was featured as an angry sherriff. The story was definitely a bit random, the costumes could have easily been borrowed from a daycare’s play area, and the film was clearly filmed at a rest stop but, what could I really expect? The budget was obviously low and the kids are already incredibly accomplished; maybe film just wasn’t their medium.
After the second film, which included a four-way split screen of out of focus swift pans from floors to walls to students, etc, and stacked audio tracks, I was reasonably concerned about staying any longer. I will admit that it was actually a lot easier to watch than Gus Van Sant’s horribly contrived elitist art trash feature, Last Days, that wasn’t “necessarily” exactly about Kurdt Cobain, but that really isn’t saying very much. I didn’t leave however and I am very pleased that I stayed because, as before, the night took a 180 and fast.
Two more films were shown before the night’s conclusion. The next was the 20 min Dinner Time and the last was a 15 min. documentary called Pee Wee’s America. The latter was filmed by “Pee Wee” Fernandez as a means of documenting a cross country Greyhound bus trip to visit family and be there for his cousin (a Marine) as he returned from Iraq. The highlights of this film were definitely the shooting sequences. Pee Wee, rocking his uniform from his temporary job at BC Pizza, is taken out by his cousin for the experience of firing off loaded machine guns. It was a slower reflective piece that was adequately shot and nicely edited, but the real stand out was Dinner Time.
I was shocked by the quality of both the look as well as the acting ability of the students in Dinner Time. The filming took place in an italian restaurant with music, pacing, and editing that reminded me of a Peter Greenway film. Student Darrell Love is introduced as a recorder playing/breakdancing/rapping/guitarist street performer outside of the restaurant who is eventually chased away by Cain who played four different characters employed by the restaurant, all of which wore the same name tag on their various uniforms. The rest of the actors were split up at 3 tables of 3 different couples. The main table had a married couple (Pee Wee and Elisa) that were in a constant argument. The second couple (Matty and Fabian) were on a blind date and the third table consisted of a movie star (Tanesa) who refused to get off her cell phone and an aspiring film maker (Shelly Goodhope) trying desperately to lock her into a deal. The dialogue is actually rather profane, especially from Pee Wee who is slamming back bottles of Buddweiser throughout the film. At one point he even calls one of Cain’s characters a “sack of shit” and threatens to kick his ass. Tanesa’s character spends the duration of the film yelling at her agent and screaming shit like, “You ain’t done shit for me nigga!” and “I faked it. I faked it.” KOWH definitely received some help in some of the production aspects in Dinner Time but I was amazed to find out at the end of the film that they had completely improvised all of the dialogue. I had intended to go into greater detail about this film, of which I had taken extensive notes, but since its genius is difficult to describe in words and because I found the you tube link, I’ve decided to post it here for your viewing enjoyment.
Here, draw your own conclusions:
The kids work as encouragement to all those who have disabilities, but they also show the rest of the lazy bastards out there what is possible. The work they do is an accomplishment for anyone not just, “Amazing for a handful of retards.” Films like Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia are hailed for their edginess and out of the box approaches that have heterosexuals portraying characters that represent unsung voices of society, but where are the gay actors? Sean Penn gets a pat on the back for playing someone who is mentally challenged but, in my opinion, it seems like these are just roles taken from disabled people and minorities that could have used those opportunities. Angelina Jolie played a fucking black woman for chrissakes! I don’t know if anyone with dwarfism will ever have the opportunity to play a character that is not a robot, a leprechaun, or does not consistently bring attention to their small stature, but I do love that KOWH take the responsibility of their fates in their own hands. What I love about films like Dinner Time is that they are commentaries on how they see those those of us “without disabilities“. Profound messages are woven in their dialogue and mannerism relating to relationships, egotism, and how we treat one another.
The applause that we gave at the end of the event were not patronizing, but had come from an honest appreciation and gratitude for what was equal parts entertainment and enlightenment. The real accomplishment and message is not that severely disabled people can work hard and become inspirations by emulating “the rest of us” but that they are actually the same as “the rest of us” and have their own accomplishments that are equally amazing as anyone else. They may always be referred to as the “Kids” of Widney High, but they are growing and have become adults in their own right who do things that other adults enjoy. Pee Wee likes to get his drink on and, where it refers to the tours stop in Humboldt on the KOWH site, it follows it up in parenthesis with “where Peewee is sure to have a smokin’ time“. The programs have not only helped those with disabilities with their self-esteem, learning, and with inspiration, but are also working as reminders of important messages to everyone else out there from the art that they have yielded. This is why it is such a tragedy that much of the funding for these programs are being cut in California by established ex-pot smoking and group sex enthusiast/governer Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a brief video interview with Pee Wee about the KOWH’s Better Bacon clothing line, he explains why he feels that it is important for them to express themselves to the public in an extremely poignant way that sums up the message that the kids represent and that the governator could benefit from listening to. “That way we are known throughout the world that we’re out here…. People will call us retards. I guess all of us in general are retards too, at some point. Yes we have things that might seem abnormal to regular people or, so called regular people, but in reality we all have issues. Now, let’s stop playing games, that is the truth.”