To get to work, Alex Delanda must walk across the I-94 footbridge from City Heights to Sherman Heights, where he teaches English to bilingual fourth graders. It's not a long or physically demanding walk. The tricky part is realizing that on one side of the freeway he deals with hipsters, musicians and artistic types. On the other side, it's a wholly different reality.
“Sometimes I sit at Krakatoa and drink coffee around all these indie kids who are listening to headphones or talking about a band,” says Delanda, who is half of San Diego's indie-folk duo, Out Brief Candle. “Then I can look over and see an apartment where one of my students would be sharing a living space with eight other relatives, and the discussion at Krakatoa seems a little weird.”
Blame it on idealism, apathy or Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X, but artists tend to view Day Job America as soulfully bankrupt. More than a few San Diego musicians, however, have discovered how to make a difference without spilling the soul-or whatever you want to call it-that they need to create their brand of rock-dive art.
Why take up a rung at the bottom of The Man's ladder when society could use a few good creative types at Rock 'n' Roll High School?
Channing Cope drummer Chris Conner, a band teacher in Del Mar, says wrangling elementary school kids is a lot harder than coaxing a good beat from his snare drum at places like Scolari's Office.
“It's hard to keep kids quiet when you're providing them with shiny noisemakers,” he says. “But I believe in teaching in terms of making a positive contribution to society. It feels good to do something that matters.”
It's surprising how much of San Diego's alternative music scene is involved in shaping San Diego's young minds. Dean Primicias, guitarist for up-and-comers The Shrines, is a school psychologist in East County. Waterline Drift guitarist Greg Gibson teaches guitar lessons to youngsters. Tim Reece of Via Satellite works with foster kids.
There are more: Brandon Welchez of The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, Bobby Shaddox and Jeremy Cooke of Billy Midnight, Dominic Carillo of Mal Duce, Bobby Anderson of This Holiday Life, Ken Horne of The Dragons, Jason Robinson and Andy Gibe of Wise Monkey Orchestra, the Damn Dirty Apes and Elijah Emanuel and the Revelations, and Dylan Martinez of Static Halo and Rookie Card.
The full list could staff a school of its own.
Gabe Cutrufello, formerly of The Dropscience, writes tunes in his bedroom by night. Come daybreak, he teaches English at ALBA, an involuntary second-chance school for kids who violate the San Diego Unified School District's zero-tolerance policy. It's his job to throw Shakespeare, Camus and Hemingway at kids who have committed violent offenses or brought alcohol, drugs or weapons to school.
For Cutrufello, it's the ultimate “tough crowd.” For the rest of us, it sounds like the opening scene of Dangerous Minds.
“People don't understand this, but music takes collaborative work and patience, too-just like teaching,” he says. “People want rock stars or movie stars to act a certain way-selfish and pompous. But in a band, you have to have a work ethic. Reality is, being successful at anything takes work. In that way, teaching and music fit together quite well.”
The rock-star myth is a firmly entrenched one. It's easy to stereotype rock musicians as morally suspect, live-for-the-moment types who don't waste time planning for a responsible future, let alone the futures of others.
“As a psychologist, your role is supposed to be very unselfish,” says Primicias. “And rock stars are supposed to be egotistical and do whatever they want to do.
“I think I can be a good role model. If I can just get a kid to make a good choice at a time when they are angry or under pressure, then that's success.”
While Delanda enjoys the nobility of affecting young lives, he's not after sainthood. He lets profanity slip every once in a while, and he's been the butt of sixth-grade jokes for leaving his fly down in class.
It's all in a day's work.
“At a lot of jobs, you get tired of the bottom line being the mighty dollar,” Delanda says. “I feel like this job is more pure than other work. If you don't do your job right, you mess up someone's life, not lose your tip. It goes beyond currency.”
Delanda also notices the way teaching affects his music. After singing “This Land Is Your Land” and “I've Been Working On The Railroad” all day, he began to realize that writing songs for kids isn't as simple as it sounds. It may even be the ultimate test of the craft. As Jimi Hendrix once said, “A song is no good if a kid can't skip and jump to it.”
“When kids realize that you can take music into the real world and you don't have to be a rock star to make music, they really light up,” says Waterline Drift's Gibson. “I think that musicians like me really drive that home because we're not typical teachers. We have taken our music to a real-world level that kids seem to think is so out of reach.
“It's nice to open up that world of music for a kid, just like someone did for me.”