The first thing you see when you step inside the San Diego School of Rock is a poster of Pete Townshend destroying an amplifier with his guitar. The first thing you hear is the devil's music (in this case, Pantera), which seems strangely appropriate given that the school is sandwiched between the Living Word Faith Ministries and the First Samoan Assembly of God in a nondescript building south of South Park.
Inside, the walls are covered with posters of The Ramones, AC/DC, Johnny Rotten, Led Zeppelin and The Clash, along with hundreds of articles taken from the pages of Rolling Stone. Kids—ranging in age from 7 to 18—receive lessons in four different rehearsal rooms from instructors dishing out the how-to on vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. This is the home of one of the newest branches of The Paul Green School of Rock Music, a national brand that started in Philadelphia in 1998 and helped inspire School of Rock, the 2003 Jack Black movie. A 2005 documentary (Rock School) showed Green to be nearly as crazy as Black as his students prepared to wow the audience at a huge Frank Zappa festival in Germany. It was at this festival that Green first met San Diego native and renowned Zappa sidekick/guitarist Mike Keneally.
“It was just freaky to see kids playing that music well,” Keneally recalls. “Their performance was really emotional. They were the sensations of the festival that year.” When he asked Green about the school, the two hit it off and, ultimately—after talking music for hours—agreed to some day work together on the program.
“We both felt strongly about trying to maintain some continuous line from the music of the '60s and '70s to the present and instill some sense of appreciation for it,” Keneally says.
When the opportunity came up to open schools in the area, Keneally agreed to start a version in San Diego and one in Vista. But the search for permanent homes for both schools was complicated by wary neighbors, zoning requirements and the need for ample room and access to the facilities.
The San Diego school temporarily used an office space after-hours before settling on its current location while, almost a year later, the Vista school is finally opening the doors of its new home. Many current San Diego students—including Patrick Henry High School freshman Emily James-Kanis—signed up after an all-star lineup from Green's school in Philadelphia gave a local performance last year.
“We saw it and I thought, Wow, this is really cool. A bunch of teenagers on a stage. I wanna be part of that,” James-Kenis says. “Pretty soon, it's all I could think about.”
The school's ambitions started small—attendance has grown steadily from a handful of kids to at least 30 students presently—before the school joined in the Paul Green School of Rock tradition by debuting publicly with a performance of Pink Floyd's The Wall earlier this year.
But the school's upcoming “Best of the '90s” shows will be the last with Keneally at the helm. Turns out, being a full-time recording and touring guitar icon doesn't leave much time for organizing and advising students and teachers. “Even though I'm officially done, I feel really close to everybody at the school,” Keneally says. “The time I spent working with the kids this year has been incredibly rewarding and really educational for me in a lot of ways. All of the parents of the kids have been really supportive about how things have developed. It's going to be impossible for me to stay away [permanently].”
Keneally will return to play with local students when the Philly school's all-stars visit San Diego on Jan. 20 for a benefit show for wildfire victims at the Epicentre. In the meantime, his replacement as music director will be Tyler Ward, a drummer for the Ex-Friends and long-time employee of Lou's Records who has been teaching at the school. “He's fantastic and versatile musically,” Keneally says. “He has an energy that the kids in the program relate to 100 percent, so I feel incredibly strong about leaving the music side of the school in his hands.”
On a recent evening, rotating combinations of students worked with instructors on everything from Megadeth to No Doubt. A kid in a cardigan played bass, and a young boy pulled off a Charlie Watts-like performance on the drums. Meanwhile, a teenage girl struggled to hear her acoustic guitar over the sound of young metalheads shredding in the corner. It's this kind of random collective that Ward finds so endearing.
“Kids that might not be friends otherwise, they're thinking of the band as a unit,” he says. “They don't want to let their band members down. That's something they can't necessarily learn through private lessons. They learn how to operate and work as a group instead of being a closet guitarist.”
James-Kanis, the Patrick Henry freshman, agrees.
“The vibe here is really welcoming,” she says. “If I'm complaining to someone that a solo is hard, they'll be, like, ‘Don't worry, you'll get it.' The whole diversity of our ages is no big deal. We're all here for rock.” San Diego School of Rock performs “Best of the '90s” at the Epicentre at 1 p.m. on Dec. 15 and 4 p.m. on Dec. 16. www.schoolofrock.com.