2008 NOTES: I’m not sure if this is the best interview I’ve ever done, but it’s hard to think of another I enjoyed more. Innocence & Despair had just come out a couple months earlier. I was absolutely obsessed with the Langley recordings at this point; after my first few listens I was literally hearing the kids’ voices in my head as I was sleeping. It was obvious even then that I’d found a new all-time favorite recording, and boom! there I was talking to its creator, just a few hours away from my home. I was a little intimidated at first, but Hans is such an engaging raconteur that I loosened up almost immediately.
I desperately wanted to talk to some of the kids afterward. I contacted a few of them and ended up interviewing Sheila Behman via phone. She sang “Desperado,” the “hit” of sorts from Innocence & Despair. Sheila was polite and friendly during our conversation, but uncomfortable with the attention and not entirely sure why I was so interested. You can hear it in the NPR interview she did around the same time, too. I don’t blame her. If someone released my elementary school recordings on CD, and the CD got rave reviews as a prime example of outsider music, and I knew nothing about that world, I’d be confused too. Please scroll down to read Sheila’s insights.
I’ve been wanting to put this interview online for awhile, but couldn’t find the original Word file. Luckily Scram editrix Kim Cooper had a spare copy on her hard drive, but I was hoping to find the original transcription, the one that’s about an hour longer and features a lot more detail about Hans’ teaching methods. So no bonus materials, but I am proud of the interview as it appeared in Scram, and I hope you like it too.
by Mike Appelstein
Langley, BC is a sprawling township located about 45 kilometers southeast of Vancouver. It was an appropriately rainy, gray Sunday morning when we visited. Turning off the highway at the 200th Street exit, we drove through a small downtown of strip malls and Home Depots. We turned at 24th Avenue, by which time the landscape had tapered off to a rural tableau of horse farms and plant nurseries. The Glenwood and Wix-Brown elementary schools are both along 24th Avenue. Glenwood is tiny; Wix-Brown is a little bigger, with an elaborate horse-and-carriage mural taking up one side of the building.
As unassuming as these schools appeared this drizzly morning, they once functioned as makeshift recording sites for Innocence & Despair, a CD that captures Langley schoolchildren singing and playing songs they learned in their music classes. Originally recorded in the mid-1970s, these recordings were released in late 2001 on the Bar/None and Basta labels to instant notoriety. David Bowie praised the recordings; Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly published glowing reviews; NPR did an extended story about the project. For a short time, Innocence & Despair was the #1 most popular CD in Amazon.com’s music catalog, shyly towering over Michael Jackson and Enya.
To hear the Langley kids sing hits by the Beach Boys, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and others is to experience the songs for the first time. Divorced from their original context and intent, each of these 19 tracks (21 on the Basta import version) sounds fresh. Solo renditions of “Desperado” and “The Long and Winding Road” are almost heartbreakingly bittersweet. Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” somehow becomes a lo-fi acoustic pop song that predicts Neutral Milk Hotel two decades later. The Carpenters’ (via Klaatu) “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” sounds like a delegation of extraterrestrial children sent to Earth on a goodwill mission. The kids accompany themselves on rudimentary bass and piano, random drum crescendos, and Orff xylophones and metallophones that coat even the most upbeat singalongs with a certain glimmering otherworldliness. Picture the Shaggs and Danielson presiding over an elementary school assembly, and you’re beginning to get the picture. The effect is literally haunting; I began to hear the kids’ voices in my head while drifting off to sleep.
These strange, wonderful recordings were the brainchild of Hans Fenger, a Vancouver musician who had taken a teaching position in Langley’s school district. Equally inspired by Brian Wilson and Carl Orff, he created a music program on pure instinct, and eventually made recordings of his classes. These were busy affairs in the Glenwood and Wix-Brown gymnasiums, involving as many as 60 children. Fenger compiled the sessions into two LPs, pressed up about 300 copies apiece, and distributed them to the students, their parents and friends. That was as far as it went until 25-odd years later, when WFMU DJ Irwin Chusid stumbled across the Langley version of “Space Oddity,” flipped for it, and arranged for the sessions to come out on CD. So if Innocence & Despair sounds almost voyeuristic at points, keep in mind that these sessions were never meant for public consumption.
The whole story brings up an interesting paradox: If Fenger had followed his dream to be a professional musician, it’s likely no one outside of British Columbia would’ve heard of him. Instead he settled down and became a music teacher, and lo and behold, he’s got a hit record. Okay, it took a quarter of a century, but that’s more than he would’ve had following the conventional bar band path.
These days, Fenger lives right outside of Vancouver, in a high-rise apartment overlooking Central Park. He still teaches music in the Vancouver city school district; his lesson plans still include “In My Room” and “Help Me, Rhonda.” After showing us the original LPs, some ‘70s press clippings and school assembly programs, we got down to business. This really was one of the easiest interviews I’ve ever done; we just turned on the tape recorder and let him talk.
Hans Fenger: …I got a call from Hollywood yesterday.
Mike Appelstein: We were just saying on the way down that you should make a movie.
I told them I would only do it if Prince plays me.
Tell us a little about how your life has changed since this CD came out.
The biggest change in my life has been the attention, obviously. But I still go to work; I’ve still got a job. People keep saying, “Oh, you must be making money.” But it isn’t that kind of thing. What it’s done that changed me personally is made me very introspective about what I was doing and thinking. To have a spotlight thrown on your like this is like getting $100 million worth of free psychotherapy. It’s also changed my life in that I’m suddenly in contact with many, many people whom I haven’t seen, or even thought about, in many years. People have been so gracious about this.
What was your reaction when you first got the phone call from Irwin asking about releasing this record?
My first reaction was, “Huh?” I was going through a not-very-pleasant period of my own teaching life at that point. I’d reached the point with the school system where my own creativity and spontaneity was getting pretty thin. And I really didn’t think a lot about a re-release, quite frankly. It didn’t occur to me until Irwin had told me that there was an actual company putting it together as a CD that I went, “MAN! They ARE?” Then when theNew York Times review went up… and especially when I found out that David Bowie had heard it. That’s when I realized that it was a bit of a phenomenon.
When I was first talking to Irwin, I said to him, “If this is going to be one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ things, I don’t want to know about it. These are children. If this is going to be hyper-ironic, forget it. It’s not worth it to me.” But when I found out that Irwin was involved in Esquivel reissues, I was like, “WOW! You produced Esquivel?” I liked the way he used stereo, and how he used those small instruments so loudly. Reading Irwin’s book, I realize I’m in pretty heady company: Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett. I’ve always loved people like Sun Ra, people who just did music that was in their head.
Most reviews I’ve seen react in a very positive way, not campy at all.
I’m so glad that the response has been like that. That’s such a gift; I tell the kids that. It’s not everyday the New York Times writes about you; it’s not every day that David Bowie reviews your album. Can you imagine your nine-year-old art project being reviewed by Andy Warhol? It was that kind of feeling.
What do the actual students think? They must be even more shocked.
Well, the kids’ reaction is the same as mine. For many of them, the end of the story for me is the beginning of the story for them. I had no contact with them until Irwin first contacted me. They really hadn’t heard of the story until all the publicity came out. But they said “huh?” too.
And they were very young, so their memories are probably even foggier than yours are.
Well, their memories are children’s memories, which are different than mine. Tina, for example, remembered me making her climb a huge stepladder for that solo (in “Calling Occupants”), because I wanted to have the whole gym sound. But I can truthfully say that all of them remember making that album as one of the highlights of their school career. They all remember what a beautiful feeling they had making the music, how it was such a big deal to them. They had a record, Shaun Cassidy had a record, therefore in their heads they were just like Shaun Cassidy. Making a record put them in the same league. And I would tell them, “Of course you are. He makes a record, you make a record. What’s the difference?”
What do you think about those who hear an avant-garde appeal in it? How do you reconcile that with your original intents and feelings?
I love that; I think that’s really neat. I always liked the homemade approach to music–the idea that anybody can do this. Musicality and musical ability are two different things. Nobody in an African tribe says you can’t dance. That’s really to me what the avant-garde means; it’s just saying “Look, music is something for everyone. It’s not something that has to do with performer over here, and you pay $90 for a ticket.” So I can only think of my own influences at that time–Phil Spector, Gustav Mahler, Brian Wilson. Somehow, the mesh in my head put all that together.
All those artists had very original ideas, but managed to push them into the mainstream and have a big influence.
Exactly, the most famous being Brian Wilson. To me, he’s the ultimate “outsider” musician in many ways. Phil Spector as well; he became very big, but people forget he made his first record at age 15 with a tape recorder and his two next-door neighbors. The fact that success found them is an important deal. It’s like this thing. I didn’t look for this; it found me. And with Phil Spector and people like that, it found them, and they were able to continue on the passion of what they believed in. So now, when people tell me the arrangements and musical instruments are so interesting, it would be presumptuous to look back and say, “yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”
In the back of your mind, did you ever even consider that this would have an appeal outside of archiving it for the sake of the students?
Never. Many people say “Oh, this is great; it’s too bad this didn’t happen to you 25 years ago!” To me, that’s the best thing about it. If it had, I would have spent 24 years trying to remake something that couldn’t be made. I did think that “Desperado” was very, very good. Even at the time, I thought to myself, “I like this better than the commercial version of this song.” It represented the feeling many of the children had for the music. They were not afraid of–in fact they loved–singing introspective songs. They didn’t want to sing about “my friend the raccoon up in the tree,” and they certainly didn’t want to sing love songs, “you done me wrong” kind of things. They can’t really relate to that. They wanted to sing songs that musically gave them a feeling of heaviness.
But even with the love songs on the CD, something like “Mandy” could easily refer to a friend moving away or a lost pet.
That’s exactly right; it doesn’t have to be a love song. With “Desperado,” you can see it as a cowboy romantic story, but that’s not the way Sheila heard it. She couldn’t articulate metaphorically what the song was about, but in that sense, I think it was purer because it was unaffected. It’s not as if the kids were trying to be somebody else. They were just trying to be who they were, and they’re doing this music and falling love with it.
“Space Oddity” was, believe it or not, my attempt to teach kids opera. It had two guys in it, Major Tom and ground control; it had a narrative, a story. I’d ask, “Do any of you ever listen to opera?” No one had. “Well, this is an opera.” That was my approach to everything. The same with “Venus and Mars” and “Band On the Run”–I was trying to teach them classical music forms. “Good Vibrations” –I remember talking to them about what a neat invention the theremin was, and how it was OK to have strange sounds. Everything had, in my mind, an extremely valid reason. Even “Mandy,” for me, had a reason. I might not have been a very big Barry Manilow fan, but I thought it had a pretty melody. “Wildfire,” which the kids loved, was another.
Well, it’s a song about a horse. And we saw a lot of horse farms out there this morning.
Exactly; they could relate. In those days, there were even a lot more. There were still schools that had hitching posts out there. And it was a song about death and a horse, which was even neater.
I’m impressed that the kids don’t try too hard. Both as soloists and a group, they just let it pour forth.
Well, I think a lot of music teachers try to whip up enthusiasm that way. They equate enthusiasm with loudness, with smiling all the time, with a kind of overemotiveness. I never thought about the kids being enthusiastic; I thought about the kids being into it. I never thought these kids would actually perform any of this stuff. And when I did do a concert, the last thing I thought about was lines and dialogue. I did it with gymnastics and Day-Glo paint instead.
Let’s talk a little more about how this came to fruition. What was your life like at that time, and what brought you to teach in the Langley school district?
The Langley school district just happened to hire me. What brought me to teach was necessity. I had gotten a university degree, went to university at a very young age, not in education. I graduated from university and played in rock bands. I had a girlfriend; we had a young family and lived close to Fort Lee. And we had a neighbor there who was taking a year of teacher training. I was, at that time, teaching guitar in a music shop, but I didn’t really want the life anymore of playing in bars. So he suggested that I should take this one-year course, and because I had a BA already I could become a teacher. Well, I went and took the course; I wasn’t overly enthused about it. It was the mid-1970s; everything was kind of touchy-feely, and I was coming from Lou Reed, a different space. Langley, at that time, was a district that was just booming literally overnight. It was still very rural, but there were still lots of areas that were suddenly being subdivided. That’s what happens here in Surrey and Langley: you can buy a house with a little bit of land. So they hired a lot of teachers. They didn’t even have enough school buildings. Langley literally hired me before I finished training that year. And they hired a lot of teachers like me; they simply needed teachers. So Langley hired me first; they were my first interview, and bang, right there on the spot I had the job.
The very first year, I’m hired to teach music, but I’m also hired to teach one academic subject, which was language arts. But it soon becomes apparent to whoever’s out there that music is the thing I’m teaching. The kids love music; I come out there, at first I don’t know what to do, and I’m thinking, “What should I teach? Children’s songs? I don’t know children’s songs.” At first, I’d teach them something like “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.” I hate the song, but it has cute lyrics, maybe they’ll like it. I’m trying, in my head, to think of what they would like. Can’t think of anything. Finally, somewhere around February of that year, I just go, “This is no good. What you guys need is a bass guitar.”
So I had this one kid who was a little bit shy. One day I taught him how to play three or four little riffs on the bass guitar. Then I thought, “You know, I’m going to teach you guys harmony. And I can’t think of a better or neater song to teach harmony than ‘Help Me, Rhonda’.” It’s the ultimate. Lyrically, you just say “Help me, Rhonda” 47 times. And it’s got that middle “ba-ba-ba-ba” part. Easy, right? I taught the kid on the bass guitar that riff. Well, the kids just went nuts. They couldn’t sing “Help Me, Rhonda” enough. It was like, “Yeah, that’s what we want to do!” And I thought, okay, I know lots of songs like this!
I started thinking, “What other Beach Boys songs do I know?” We went from “Help Me, Rhonda” to “Little Deuce Coupe” to the more uptempo songs. But although I love those songs very much, what I really liked was the Pet Sounds era. So why not teach them “God Only Knows,” which has a round in it, it’s constructed like Bach? Why not teach “I Get Around”–which is a round, if you listen to it musically. It repeats and repeats–it’s like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” I don’t think people understand what a genius Brian Wilson is, how he was able to do so many subtle things.
“In My Room” is such a great song for pre-teens, too.
“In My Room” is the ultimate children’s song. It’s the perfect introspective song for a nine-year-old, just as “Dust in the Wind” is the perfect philosophy song for a nine-year-old. Adults may think it’s dumb, but for a child, it’s a very heavy, profound thought. To think that there is nothing, and it’s expressed in such a simple way.
One of the principals came out there and asked me to perform with my group of kids at a little festival in Langley. I taught the kids “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Do You Wanna Dance?” Lots of bass parts, kids rocking and rolling like crazy. We go out there, and we’re surrounded by choirs, and right away we go “Whoops! What am I doing here?” And all these little girls singing, “I like candy…” My kids come out, and they just blast the roof off! Anyway, a principal says, “I think this is great, just wonderful. It’s not what all the other people are doing, but I love the fact that you have this kind of participation.”
At the same time, I was living in Vancouver, still playing music. One time I was sitting around playing “Space Oddity” on the guitar with my friends, singing away. So of course, I walked in the next day to my music class and said, “I’m going to teach you this song! This is like opera, and it’s by David Bowie, this really cool guy…” And I played it once, and the kids were like “wow, let’s do this one.” The guy’s floating around in space; he’s not dead but he’s not alive.
And songs about space and rocketships were big in the ‘70s.
That’s right; “Rocket Man” by Elton John was a big hit too. I was going to teach that one, but it mentioned the word “hell” in it, I didn’t really want to. Langley was a very Bible-belt community, and I was a little cognizant of that language-wise. And “Calling Occupants” had the outer-space theme. It was a big thing.
I noticed in “I Get Around,” you cut out the second verse, the “we never mess yet with the girls we meet” line. Was that an attempt to meet community standards?
That was an attempt to meet with the sensibilities of the children. I thought it was important that they understood what they were singing about, which usually had to come from an experience. Strangely enough, I thought kids could relate to lost astronauts, but I didn’t think they could relate to “messing” with girls. Even now, kids don’t like to do songs that are overtly about boy-girl things. Even though they hear all this stuff constantly, they themselves aren’t really enamored of those lyrics.
At that age, the kids are still trying to figure that out.
Many of them were just coming out of the “boy germs” phase. See, “Help Me, Rhonda” was innocent– “I go out late at night, and in the morning just stay in bed.” It’s not really a love song; it’s just a happy, bouncy song. “Mandy” was an overt love song, but as you said, it could be about a dog. So I didn’t want to have them sing anything they didn’t understand.
“I’m Into Something Good” is pretty bouncy, too, and that takes the heat off the lyrics, which describe this first-date scenario.
That’s a Carole King song written in the same spirit as “The Loco-Motion.” It has no thing to it that really goes into romance. The kids really liked the “woo-woo-woo” part of that song. But most of the time, I really tried to make sure that whatever it was they were singing was something they could actually relate to. Strangely enough, the weirder the song, the better they could relate.
At what point did you learn about Orff and those instruments?
That was actually one of the few things I learned in university those few months. Carl Orff was a German composer. He invented a method of teaching children’s music in which he took folk songs and arranged them with xylophones that had different voicings. The beauty of a xylophone instrument is that you can remove keys, any notes that don’t fit within the harmonic structure. Theoretically, it becomes impossible to hit a “wrong” musical note. It became very popular with many music teachers, taught in many places in North America. It’s a very strict method; you had to use certain songs in certain ways, with a specific sequence to it. I liked the instruments, but I hated the method exactly because it was so rigid. When I came to Langley, they happened to have a set of Orff instruments. Somebody was very high on this thing. And so I had them, but I didn’t “teach” them. And you may see on one of the web pages about the CD that the Orff foundation is not happy about this at all.
That must feel like a compliment.
I thought it was one of the nicest things you could say. It says everything about them and zero about me. Many of these people constantly forget that Carl Orff and Beethoven were great improvisers. I can’t help but think that Carl Orff would have been able to recognize the musicality. (Note: The American Orff-Schulwerk Association did not respond to my requests for comments. And I literally did try to get a response from them.–MA)
So at some point, you decided to make recordings. How did that come about?
My friend Greg had a Revox tape recorder. The Revox tape recorder was a big deal at the time; this was before people had home four-tracks. I said to Greg one time, “You should come out and tape my kids. And I think if we do it in the gym” –this I was very conscious of–“with no audience, it’s going to create a sound that would be really neat.” People always complain about gym reverb. I read an interview once with Robbie Robertson where he said the Band’s album was recorded in a bathroom because he loved the echo. And the echo on those old Elvis Presley records was achieved accidentally.
I think when bands don’t sound good in echoey rooms, it’s sometimes because they’re playing at too high a volume. But here you were doing a lower-volume recording that used the echo to its best advantage.
I thought we could get a Phil Spector kind of idea going. Once we recorded it, I said to kids, “We could make a record.” I knew there were little pressing plants locally that always did these things for church groups. And this was before all that punk and new wave was around, when there was an explosion of homemade records. I said, “Well, we can do this, but you’re all going to have to ante up $7 first so I can get the thing pressed.” So I wrote a little notice to go home–“The class of Glenwood are going to make a record, please pay $7.” And they all bought one; some bought two or three.
What kind of preparations did you do? Were there rehearsals?
There were no rehearsals; this came out of their music class. It was never like, “We’ve got a recording gig tomorrow.” The only practice they really had was that they had performed in a little concert at the school maybe two weeks before, where we had performed four or five of these songs that were not actually on this recording. I think one of them was “Amazing Grace,” which I never recorded. But for the rest, there was no real preparation; they just did it.
How did you get those cool sound effects in “Space Oddity?” It sounds like “A Day in the Life” in places.
That’s a steel guitar. When I first taught “Space Oddity,” the first part I taught after the song was the kids counting down. They loved that: they’d go “TEN!” They couldn’t say it loud enough; the countdown in the song was the big winner. But as soon as they got to zero, nothing happened. So I brought this old steel guitar. Well, one of the little guys whose name I’ve forgot, I put him on this thing and said, “Now listen, when they get to zero, you’re the rocket. So make a lot of noise on this. He’s fooling around with this steel guitar, and I didn’t even think of this, but he intuitively took out a Coke bottle from his lunch and started doing this (imitates a bottle running up and down the fretboard). I just cranked up the volume and turned down the master volume so it was really distorted. And that was the “Space Oddity” sound effect.
And then, of course, there was this whole thing because it goes in parts: the rocket takes off, and then Major Tom talks again (murmuring:) “Here I am in my spaceship,” and then BOOM: “Ground control, where are you, where are you?”
There was that one part where they murmur “Tell my wife I love her very much,” and the response is, “SHE KNOWS!!!” I wondered if that was intentional.
I think that was just the way they heard it. But they loved the idea of that guy floating away; they thought that was such an amazing deal, because it’s kind of a living death. They couldn’t articulate this, of course, but your senses are gone. There’s nothing to see, there’s nothing to hear, but you’re still alive. So it was like a real horror, like being buried alive–but not, because you’re in infinity. They really related to that, thought it was the most amazing thing. To a nine-year-old that’s a whole new idea.
Again from a recording perspective: you mentioned a little about “Calling Occupants.” I’m impressed that Tina’s voice is so up there, and then the rest of the group vocals come in at the same level. How did you position the kids so as to make that work?
I had Tina up on a ladder. See, I only had one mic, which is unheard of in a choir. So in order to get the choir sound, I had to get the mic elevated. You have to remember there’s no mixing in this. This is straight from the tape recorder into the vinyl. And we never did the songs more than once or twice, because with kids you can’t do that. You can’t do 43 takes; they’re falling asleep, they’re hitting each other, they’re poking each other. If you don’t get it the first time, you’re not going to get it the fourth time.
So after doing this first at Glenwood–and I know I’m getting the time line confused, since “Calling Occupants” was on the second album– you then took this concept to Wix-Brown.
I left Glenwood. The principal of Wix-Brown came to see me and said, “How would you like to do this in just one school?” So he got me to teach in his school, and Denny was a very interesting man. He’d been a logger, a boxer, he’d done a lot of things before teaching. He did gymnastics. Very passionate guy; he lived in a barn in Langley. I jumped at the chance to go to his school, because I really, really liked the guy.
I was teaching songs at Wix-Brown, the same as I’d been doing before. One day I was sitting around the gym watching these kids do gymnastics. I said to Denny, “It would be fun to hear how these kids interpret the music that the kids are doing here in school.” He was a smart enough guy to say, “What a fabulous idea. Why don’t you do that? Have them work with the music the kids are doing.”
So I started to put together a whole thing. I thought: “What are all the things I hate about kids’ musicals? You can never understand it, it’s always stifled, it’s always simple. I hate blocking and all that sort of bad scenery.” I always thought they all came out the same. So first of all, I decided we’re going to do music with no dialogue. The story is going to be completely abstract. What am I going to do for background? There’s a huge planetarium here in Vancouver. We’ll buy slides of Alpha Centuri.” I get all these slide projectors from all over the place, and we station them all over the gym. We even got those disco balls. Makeup: well, how do you get the art teachers involved with gymnastics kids? Kids loved black light: glow-in-the-dark was very popular. We found a place that had body paint that actually did the black light, so they could make shapes through the gymnastics. So they were doing this while the kids were singing “Calling Occupants” and “Space Oddity.”
It was mind-blowing. I have to say, without sounding overly egotistical, that I have never seen an event done like that since. If there was a video of this, it would have been mind-boggling, I kid you not. I remember Denny Ross came up to my parents, who went to see it, and said, “Your kid is either completely crazy or a genius.”
If a movie really does happen, this has to be the centerpiece.
This has to be in it, because it’s so essential to it. So at Wix-Brown, I started getting into this musical thing. Once I got into that, it was, “Let’s do a recording of this,” the soundtrack to the musicals. When we collaged the cover, we made it sort of like the sun and the rays coming out, these kids singing in the stars. The height of this particular concert is when Sheila sang “Desperado.” She sang it in the dark, and you could have heard a pin drop. And the last song we sang, of course, was “Calling Occupants.”
Not having been there, hearing the kids singing “we are your friends” is very spooky.
It is. Because they are aliens.
It has this Close Encounters tone to it.
And Close Encounters was around then at that time. You know, kids are natural outsiders–little kids more so than teenagers. Teenagers like to think they are because there is this whole culture geared at them, but kids have absolutely no power. They’re malleable, and people do that with them all the time. They‘re small, they’re not really articulate, they have to behave in obnoxious ways to get what they want… they really have nothing. I think what I’d been doing with them gave them a voice, a way of expressing that. This was purely fortunate; it wasn’t as if I’d been thinking of that. The kids themselves have pointed that out to me. Sheila pointed that out to me: she said, “What was going through me was coming out through the music.” Her childhood was not particularly happy; many of these children did not have happy childhoods, and many still don’t.
Do you think an album like this could happen today?
I think it’s hard for children now. They’re so marketed to, but children are still children. The kids I teach all have karaoke machines, they have CD writers, they’re downloading MP3s. All these things are happening, but like I told you at the beginning, I teach “In My Room” and get the same reaction. Kids are kids; you strip all that stuff away, and they will react to “Help Me, Rhonda” exactly the same way as 25 years ago. The music captures something.
What is the current state of music education in Canada? In America, that’s the first thing that gets cut from the school budget.
I’m not optimistic. They just took a survey in Canada, and only 12 percent of the population thought music was even useful in schools. There’s a lot of lip service paid, but in actual practicality, computer labs put hundreds of thousands of dollars into schools, and the music teacher teaches with three broken guitars. I’m not happy about it, and I have a feeling that I’m a bit of a dinosaur. I don’t think it’s going to get any better.
You’re still true to the teaching approach you invented for yourself in the mid-70s?
Very much so. I don’t try to do the same thing over and over again, and I’ve certainly broadened the kind of music I teach. I also teach much different kids of kids–most of them are from inner cities, so I do a lot more world music, I guess they call it now. I do music from Africa, Brazil, gospel music. Kids like that; it’s really rock & rollish, call and response, but with different words. But I still do “In My Room,” songs very much from that period.
Have you done any other recordings or videotapes of your classes?
I’ve done tapes. This year I’m thinking about a little project where they’ll do it on their own CD writers. We’re going to record Bee Gees songs–you should hear them sing “Words.”
Any plans to issue any of that stuff?
You know, I think this came out of a certain head space, and it’s one I’m still in. I don’t go around thinking, “I’m going to do a follow-up!”
A lot of people would be thinking about how to cash in.
That would ruin the entire thing. To try to do this… this has all come to me. So that’s my approach to it; if it comes to me, fine. Somehow, for whatever metaphysical reason, I’m in a very blessed position. You cannot put a price on what I’m getting back. It opens up some other opportunities for me when I leave teaching. I’m certainly not going to wander around selling T-shirts.
Seeking the kids’ perspective on all this, I called Sheila Langmann (nee Behman) one early evening a few days later. The voice of “Desperado,” she lives in the Langley jurisdiction with her family. These days she’s a youth-care worker, sings in a community choir, and has two daughters aged 11 and 15. Sheila was a little guarded, but for the most part was happy to answer my questions.
Had you even given much thought to the recordings before they came out on CD?
Not at all?
No. Kids sort of live in the moment. It’s like, “What’s next?”
So when you first got the call and you found out this was going to happen, what was your reaction?
Oh, I thought it was really neat.
How did you first find out about it?
Through my mom. Hans had contacted my mom, who still lives in the same house that she has for the past 30 years. He found her and contacted me.
And what was your mom’s reaction to that?
She was surprised. She’s 71, so she was surprised, but delightfully.
Obviously, these were things that happened when you were very young. Has it jogged your memory at all? Are you being asked about things you don’t remember?
Yeah, I guess some of the things. You know, to do with adults, teachers and parents. We weren’t privy to information when you’re a kid.
Are you born and raised in Langley?
Yes. Well, I was born in North Vancouver.
Was there much music in your house growing up?
No. I was adopted, and my biological parents were musical. I was adopted into a family where none of them were musical. Well, I had an older brother who was interested in music, so I used to sit outside his bedroom and listen to him play his records. He’s 10 years older than me, so he was interested in stuff that happening in the ‘70s.
I lived on a hobby farm. My parents bought 40 acres when we moved out from Burnaby, and then they sold it. When we moved out there, it was really, really rural. I actually lived in Aldergrove, and we were bussed to Wix-Brown. Aldergrove is in the Langley jurisdiction. It was just a little farm town with a gas station, the Alder Inn, the hotel, and a couple of other stores. There was the Otter Coop, where everyone got their seeds.
What are your memories of Hans’ classes? Can you describe a typical class?
We had bleachers set up, so were sort of in rows in his music room. He sat in a chair with his guitar and he played songs. We had a harmony section, which was pretty good; a group of us were the ones that were more into it, I guess.
How did he teach you songs? Did you learn through records, or did he play the songs for you on his guitar?
A bit of both, I think. He played a lot of the songs on his guitar. I remember when I did “Desperado,” he gave me the Eagles’ album to take home and said, “Listen to this song and learn it.” So that’s how I learned “Desperado.” I don’t actually remember him playing records. We heard them for the first time by him playing them to us.
What were some of your favorite groups or favorite music at the time? Were you a music fan?
Oh, yeah. Well, I liked a lot of music, so… I think a lot of the music that was introduced to me. I know my first album was Elton John. Hans also taught some other stuff that we did, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I did that solo, and I just loved that one. I did “My Buddy,” do you that one? I don’t know what kind of tune that is; it’s a really neat bluesy thing. So there was a lot of variety.
What are your memories of Hans as a teacher? He strikes me as somewhat animated.
He was definitely a different character. He was very engrossed. I told him it was like he was on a magic carpet ride of his own.
What are your memories of the recordings?
It was great. I’d never really heard my voice before recorded. And then, when you put the headphones on, you hear yourself a lot differently. So the experience of hearing myself, I liked what I heard. And then just the whole experience… and I thought that was great.
What do you recall about the actual day that you went down and did the recordings?
The only thing I remember about that was just all the busyness going on. Hans was busy with a lot of the recording dudes that were in there, working out details, moving cords, stuff like that. And I remember doing my part. I guess it was kind of like a cafeteria off the gym, where we actually did the recording. That’s where I did my part, but Hans did his piano part in the gym.
So at some point they came out on LP. How did it feel to actually see it?
It was pretty neat. I don’t really remember the moment when we first saw the record, because it was really a work in progress. Because he was collecting pictures and stuff to put on the album. We were all part of the whole process. It wasn’t one moment, but lots of moments.
Hans mentioned the gymnastics routines. What are your memories of that?
The girls had their black leotards. They were doing little skits and stuff to make it look like sort of an underwater ocean scene. The costumes had the glowing stuff so you could see. Most kids had the glowing stuff and they were moving in their costumes. That’s when I sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It was the first time I actually sang a solo in the dark. So that was different.
Have you talked to a lot of people who’ve just heard the record, who weren’t there way back when?
No, not really. I’ve been really busy. I have the CD. I don’t have the LP; my mom has it somewhere. My daughter’s piano teacher has the CD right now. One woman just heard “Desperado,” and she said that it sounded eerie. Eerie!
It does sound eerie! I wondered whether that was strange to you – people hearing things that, I’m sure, are nothing like what you had in mind. How do you respond to something like that?
I don’t know! It was a strange time, we were strange kids. Art reflects life, or life reflects art–isn’t that how it goes?
Do you have any theories as to why people are responding to it, why they’re buying it?
This may sound a little corny, but I think it might touch a child in us. Art’s supposed to move us. If it does, it’s done its job. I think this recording seems to be doing that, moving people.
Have you done anything else with music since then? Did it kindle an appreciation for music in you?
It’s been a passion in me forever, and it’s been something that’s on the back burner for other things. Actually, maybe that’s what changed; I have been finding ways to open up music. I joined a choir and I’m taking guitar lessons again. Little things like that.
What are your favorite songs on the record now?
Probably “In My Room.” And I always liked “Mandy.”
Do you see a love for music in your kids as well?
The youngest one I do. The oldest one is not too interested.
What do they think of the CD?
The youngest one is more interested in it. My oldest one… it’s a little too touchy-feely for her. She doesn’t like that kind of stuff.
What kind of music do you listen to now? What are some of your favorites?
I’ve been listening to the radio a lot. My daughter’s gotten control of the radio, and she’s always got it on the alternative station. There’s a lot of interesting new stuff coming out. I love everything from classical to blues, a little bit of country. kd lang. Alanis Morrisette.