Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Music Is Revolution

A life-threatening accident led to a detour into philanthropy for a musician whose career had already followed a long and circuitous path.

Bassist Michael Davis gives the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. In fact, by now he’s well into his fourth or fifth act. Born June 5, 1943, in Detroit, he survived the meteoric rise and flameout of iconic ‘60s rockers the MC5 – now revered as heavy metal and punk precursors, but once reviled by the music industry for their antiwar, anti-government stance – as well as heroin addiction and prison to build himself a new life in the ‘90s, performing with indie rockers Rich Hopkins & Luminarios while working at a natural history museum and botanical garden in Tucson.

That’s where he met Angela McCormick, a music publicist and artist manager who was working for the Luminarios’ label. They were married and Angela – president of Svengirly Music, Inc. -- became Michael’s manager. With her three children, they moved to Pasadena, California, in 2003. Davis and his surviving MC5 bandmates, guitarist Wayne Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson, subsequently regrouped and toured the world with a revolving cast of guest artists, playing over 200 dates under the rubric DKT/MC5 (sometimes jokingly referred to as the “MC3”).

“At first, it was really exhilarating, and it still is really exciting,” said Davis of the reunion shows. “But at the same time, we’re in a different place now, so it’s not exactly what it was; it can’t be. The first time, it was about discovery. The best part about it is the audiences, who have been so appreciative and are just beyond happy to see us.”

Davis has also mentored and produced bands from around the world: Italy’s OJM, Sweden’s Dollhouse, Spain’s Tokyo Sex Destruction, Israel’s The Mother’s Anger, Japan’s The Gimmies, and L.A.’s The Lords of Altamont.

In the spring of 2005, Michael was diagnosed with the Hepatitis-C virus and underwent months of grueling interferon treatment. Fully recovered from his illness, he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident on an L.A. freeway on May 8, 2006. During his recovery from that near-death experience, he and Angela were inspired to found a non-profit organization, the Music Is Revolution Foundation, to support music in public schools.

“A guy in San Francisco, a biker friend of mine, offered to do a benefit to raise money for my medical bills,” Davis said. “I told him we had it under control, that we didn’t need a benefit, but he insisted – he wouldn’t take no for a answer. Angela and I had been talking about the Music Is Revolution idea for awhile, so we decided to create the foundation and make the benefit our first fundraising event.”

Davis, whose musical career began with cello lessons in the fifth grade, explained the foundation’s ethos: “The MC5 had lofty revolutionary goals, but we were too confrontational in our approach. The approach we’re taking now [with Music Is Revolution] seems more feasible: keeping things streetwise, very punk, without a lot of complexity. We’re making $500 mini-grants available to any public school teacher in the U.S. who has a viable plan to use music in their classroom, whether it’s teaching music history, buying instruments, anything that allows kids to experience the feeling of performing music.”

He continued, “We’re conducting musical instrument drives, collecting orphan instruments. If they’re broken, we have a vintage music store that’s doing the repairs. We’re holding benefits where bands play and skaters put on exhibitions. We’re raising funds by selling Music Is Revolution merchandise. Anyone can organize a benefit; we’ll provide the PR stuff. We’re accepting direct donations. We’re looking at pursuing federal and corporate grants, donations from musical instrument manufacturers.”

Mathew J. Bartowiak, a Michigan State University doctoral candidate and member of Music Is Revolution’s board, elaborated on fund-raising efforts. “Funds are being raised through monetary donations from individuals and the business community,” he said. “All levels of giving are appreciated and have ranged from a few bucks to several thousand. Donations are coming from folks who are fed up with the way that music has become a disposable extra in education.”

I’d been thinking about the importance of music in schools since emceeing a tribute to the late tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year. Dewey graduated from I.M. Terrell, the only high school open to black students in the segregated Fort Worth of the late ‘40s. There’s a long list of Terrell alumni who went on to make significant contributions to the jazz and pop music of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. All were former students of band director Mr. Baxter, a perfectionist who had them playing Sousa marches on the football field in the fall and challenging classical scores on the concert stage in the spring.

But even teachers of other subjects can use music to involve students in their lessons.

Take Phillip Overeem, an English teacher at Columbia, Missouri’s David H. Hickman High School. Named Outstanding Middle/Junior High Educator by the Columbia Fund for Academic Excellence in 2002, the same year he was cited as “the teacher who most inspired or challenged” a former student who was selected as a Presidential Scholar, he’s long used music as a way of showing students living examples of what T.S. Eliot (in Choruses from “The Rock”) called “the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.”

While teaching at Smithton Middle School in Columbia, Overeem would assign students to investigate and analyze earlier musical figures who’d influenced their current-day heroes. “I taught a class in rock and roll history for 6th and 7th graders,” he said. “But even before that, I’ve always tried to include music which is some reflection of history, and used it to show kids examples of linguistic devices like metaphor, simile, and allusion.”

When Overem moved to Hickman, he sponsored the Academy of Rock – a student club whose membership has included up to 10% of the student body at Missouri’s largest high school. The Academy began when a pair of student musicians wanted to create a networking forum for their similarly inclined peers. “When the kid first pitched me the idea, I told him, ‘If you’re just screwing around, I’m really busy, but if you can show me you’re serious, I’ll sponsor you.’ And he did.”

The annual Hickman battle of the bands – a throwback in an era when most high schoolers prefer DJs to live music – has become the club’s signature event. “The first year we had it,” Overeem recalls, “the plan was to get the concept down and then do it the following school year, but by mid-February, we were so excited about it that we decided, ‘Let’s go ahead and schedule it so we have to do it; why not?’ That’s been the spirit of the club since then. We wound up having a huge crowd and raising a ton of money, and that success gave us the confidence to try more things.” Hickman student bands have benefited from media coverage of the school’s band battles. Local club owners now routinely call them to open shows for touring national and regional acts.

Academy of Rock members have enjoyed in-school concerts by major league rockers like the Drive-By Truckers and New York’s The Hold Steady. Overeem explained, “Since March 2004, we’ve had a monthly showing of a music documentary or music related movie in Hickman’s little theater. At one of our club meetings, one of the kids said, ‘The little theater is great, why don’t we get a band to play there?’

“The first band we approached was Social Distortion, but their schedule didn’t allow them time to visit the school. A couple of the kids who are alt-country fans asked about the Drive-By Truckers. I told them to try e-mailing the band’s publicity person. They did and she responded, ‘I think the boys might be interested in this.’ Our original hope was to get Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley to come out and talk to the kids about songwriting. Then their publicist e-mailed me and asked, ‘How long do you want them to play?’ I told her about an hour, unplugged, and just asked that they say something about how each of the songs was written and any other information that’s germane. They played for free, unplugged, and they were awesome.”

Since that show, said Overeem, “we’ve had lots of local Missouri bands, and a lot of emo, because it’s of interest to the kids. We bought a PA with some of the proceeds from the battle of the bands, so we don’t need to use the music department’s equipment.”

Overeem also co-sponsors the school’s radio station, KWPE-FM. “We broadcast out of the old in-school detention room in the basement, next to the janitor’s closet. Our equipment cost us less than $1000. We’ve got a turntable, a computer, and a CD player. The FCC limits our broadcast range to within a mile and a half of the school. Our biggest problem has been logistical. It’s hard for kids to listen to the station or DJ while they’re in class. We have set DJs every morning, during the two lunch periods, and after school until 4pm. Some of our better DJs are now recording their shows on Audacity [an open-source audio recording and editing program].”

The KWPE kids have taken over the studios at local college station KCOU on several occasions. “I was friends with one of the KCOU DJs, Jason Cafer,” said Overeem. “It was actually Jason who suggested that the kids take over the college station. What was amazing was how good they were, untrained. They did all the public service announcements and intros as well as programming the music, and they selected very interesting material. The KCOU DJs were on hand solely to help them with technical issues. We’ve done it about seven times so far, once a semester and once in the summer.”

In January 2007, Overeem applied to Music Is Revolution for a grant to expand the school library’s music collection. “We currently have 375 discs in our media center, focusing on the development of American music between 1894 and the present,” he said. “We still have some holes to fill, particularly the period between 1980 and the present day, but our last grant brought us into the 21st century. I get [circulation] reports; the CDs move faster than anything else in the media center.”

Overeem’s application almost didn’t happen. “I still haven’t figured out who copied the grant application off their website and put it in my school mailbox,” he said. “I read it and put it to the side in a tray on my desk, then didn’t look at it again for three months. By that time, the semester was over and I saw that the deadline was in January. The way they’ve got it set up, it’s a really easy grant application to write.”

That was by design, said board member Bartowiak: “The applications are short and highlight for the decision making body: the project, its intended use, materials needed and desired outcomes. The grants are given to those who have put together a specific and directed plan/program to further music education at their institutions. We want to see some kind of guarantee that these funds or instruments will directly be applied and will reflect the direct action ethos of the Foundation.”

In February, Overeem continued, “I e-mailed Angela [Davis], and she told me it usually takes 90 days for a grant application to be approved. I wasn’t 100% clear that what she had told me was that my grant had been approved, but they were still trying to raise the money to fund the grant.”

The application process has been streamlined this year, Bartowiak explained. “Originally there were several dates in which the applications were due and processed. Due to the great response, we have begun to process applications as they come in. We can get back to applicants within 60 days on the status of their applications and send approved grants to them within a month.”

After receiving his check for $500 on April 9th, Overeem remarked, “I never dreamed that I would find funding for my extracurricular rock and roll club from a former member of the MC5 and his cohorts, but, now that I think about it, it makes sense -- and I am certainly grateful!” Music Is Revolution founder Davis hopes more teachers will follow Overeem’s lead. “We need applications so we can show the need to corporate entities, instrument manufacturers, other foundations,” he said. “If kids are presented with something accessible that sparks a chord in them, like art or music, that can be as important as any subject they’re taught.”


Blogger Steve-O said...

Thanks for the inspiring story. At a time when so many either don't believe the arts have a role in education or have a narrow definition of what even constitutes "the arts," I think individuals will need to jump in and do more things like this.

12:10 PM  

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