School of Rock

Marc Solomon's students are too young to drive but old enough to shred

"OK," said her mom, a little taken aback. "Why do you say that?"

"Because Marc told me. He said I feel the beat, even though sometimes my fingers can't make the notes."

When Lea's mom tells me this story, she leans in at this point. "And that's why she's still here," she says. "He makes her feel as though she has talent. I'm her mother. I don't know if she has talent or not." She points to Solomon with the stem of her sunglasses. "But I do know that's what great teachers do."

Turning Brian Jones into Keith Richards: Freshman Jones practices the opening notes to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine."
Mark Graham
Turning Brian Jones into Keith Richards: Freshman Jones practices the opening notes to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine."
"They would do this every day if they could," says Jana Littlejohn, whose sons have taken rock lessons with Solomon for more than two years.
Mark Graham
"They would do this every day if they could," says Jana Littlejohn, whose sons have taken rock lessons with Solomon for more than two years.

I asked Solomon why he likes teaching young people to play rock music, and though I don't recall exactly what he told me, he sent me an e-mail that night following a four-hour practice with the kids. "I don't think I answered your question about why I love it," he wrote. "It's because at the end of the day I feel great!! Kind of selfish, huh?"

Rock musicians have a natural kinship with adolescents, because there is no one in the world who cares more about rock music than they do. They could talk about it for days. They could swim in it, eat it, dress in it and never change the subject.

As a kid, Marc Solomon fell hard for rock music. He studied guitar at Dallas' Arts Magnet and later moved to L.A., where he lived out his childhood dreams by joining a band with ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, who was a bit of a child prodigy himself, starting in the legendary band at age 13. The band, called Perfect, recorded a well-received EP, When Squirrels Play Chicken, and Stinson and Solomon can be heard on the rock remix of the 1997 Puff Daddy smash "It's All About the Benjamins." But the band's name wasn't entirely prophetic: The label shelved their full-length for years, and, by 1999, it was all over. Solomon found himself in New York without a band or a job.

A friend in Dallas, who worked at the now-defunct Mars Record Store, was hiring guitar teachers. Solomon figured: What the hell? "In the back of my head, I still wanted to pursue the rock-and-roll fantasy," he says. His next band, Clumsy, was as promising as Perfect but ultimately as doomed. Clumsy broke up; Solomon's guitar lessons took off.

There is a conventional wisdom that men who play rock music are a little reluctant to, you know, grow up. And so it probably wouldn't surprise you that a person who spends most of his time not only playing rock music but also playing it with middle-schoolers would be described by many as "a big kid." And he is. Solomon has a mop of curly dark hair and an easy laugh that fills a room. He wears old, soft T-shirts with band names on them, vintage trousers and Converse, and he doesn't seem particularly concerned with such adult concerns as sophistication or maturity. But it would be wrong to say he refuses to grow up--he's engaged to a lovely woman, for one thing, but more important, he has done what every unfamous artist scrambling to make rent hopes for: He has turned his passion into a paying job.

Solomon left Mars to go out on his own, and within a year and a half he had a full schedule of kids. He teaches them to play radio hits, yes, but also more. In the rock shows, he teaches them to play together and watch each other. He teaches them to jam, something even some of the most accomplished musicians can't do. And he teaches them to read, at least a little bit. "I tell my kids, 'You can crack the code,'" he says. "'It's a different language that not a lot of people can read. Don't you wanna know it?'"

Unlike other musicologists who turn up their noses at three-chord songs and bubblegum pop, Solomon is unusually bereft of musical snobbery. Sure, he loves his Replacements and Clash, but he's also willing to teach a little girl to play Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway." ("That's a pretty good little tune," he says with a shrug.)

"I try to show my kids a broad scope of music, not just get them to like what I like," he says. A rock concert with Solomon's kids can segue from modern radio hits like Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" to Nirvana's "All Apologies," the selections driven purely by what inspires the kids, what fires their imagination. A lot of the songs happen to be classics, because today's dominant hip-hop, rap and Top 40 pop tunes are, for the most part, guitar-lite when compared with, say, the glory days of '70s arena rock. "I did recently have a request for the song 'Shadow,' though," Solomon says. "And the kid didn't even know the Burden Brothers were from Dallas! To him, it was just another song on the radio. And that was the exciting part, that I could tell him not only are these guys from your town, but the guitarist? The guy's a good friend of mine; I played with him in Clumsy. And that night, I bet you anything, that kid went home and looked it all up on the Internet. That guy Corey, yeah, he used to be in a band with my teacher. Kinda cool, huh?"

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