Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mr. Friedman's Opus

It's March of 1985. I'm a senior in high school. It’s a good time. I haven’t yet heard of a company called Clear Channel and I’m still naive enough to think that music is more than just a business…

Growing up in Fair Lawn, NJ meant that, for as long as I could remember, every Memorial Day, the whole town would gather for the Senior Class Softball Marathon. Each year, this three-day, non-stop, round-the-clock softball game raised money for different charities. The senior class was divided into teams that competed against each other, straight through the night and into the next morning, without stopping, while a mass of beer-drinking, hot dog-munching town folk gathered to cheer them on, even at four-thirty in the a.m.

So, it happened that, on one particular sunny afternoon, my friend, Matt Gitkin and I were approached by Howie Friedman, our beloved chemistry and physics teacher who would brag in the halls on a daily basis about being the 38th most allergic human on the planet. Mr. Friedman was a "rocker" in the truest sense of the word, back in the sixties; he lived for rock music and the power it displayed. He told us of his idea to form a student-teacher band to perform classic rock tunes during the first intermission at the upcoming Marathon. Matt and I thought he was joking, as that was nothing new, and eventually, the nutty professor managed to convince us to drag some friends into the madness, while he recruited some semi-sane teachers willing to make fools of themselves singing Steppenwolf in front of their students. We called this student-teacher rock extravaganza, "The Boptones."

We rehearsed in my parent’s basement and after a few shaky months, we dragged our Peavey amps and Ibanez guitars onto the poorly lit ball field (picture Field of Dreams meets School of Rock). We played to a smattering of supportive cheers and polite applause. Our audience didn’t hate us, it was just tough to hear us. The two Campbell's soup cans we used as a P.A. couldn't provide the oomph we needed to really "RAWWWWK!"

That first "concert", Memorial Day weekend in 1985, featured six kids on our respective instruments and three crazy teachers, singing everything from Born to Be Wild, to Runaround Sue to Aqualung. Little did we know what we (or Howie) had started.

Fast-forward twenty years later (Jesus); Matt gets a call from a girl who claims to be on the official "Boptones Advisory Board" of Fair Lawn High School. Huh? Apparently, when we weren't looking, the Boptones student-teacher rock band had gone and transformed itself into something of an anomaly.

No longer are there six students and three teachers; no longer are there soup cans for P.A.'s; and no longer is the concert a forty-minute gig on the ball field between innings. Now, there's a lengthy audition process for both juniors and seniors, during which over one hundred and sixty kids try out each year and only thirty or so make the cut. Now, handfuls of crazy teachers lurk the hallways practicing their best Ozzy impersonations. (Mrs. Levine, the darling, sixty-something Spanish teacher who's retiring next year, is rumored to be performing Black Sabbath's Iron Man at this year's show.) Now, the P.A. is a state-of-the-art sound system, complete with top notch console, lighting board, and monitor wedges for the performers.
Even the art department donates their time and builds huge scaffolding and risers for the performers, complete with fake, crepe paper flames shooting up from the stage. The "gig" has become an event; a three-hour plus party held inside the school's thousand-seat auditorium, and I would be rendered speechless.

The phone call Matt received was to inform him that this year, Mr. Friedman would be hanging up the chalk and moving to Florida, and would we like to say something on his behalf at the upcoming concert? She explained that there would be a short video tribute to him during the show and they could film us saying something nice for his retirement. Matt and I had a better idea. What if the original Boptones were to reunite and surprise Mr. Friedman at the show by doing a few tunes from years ago? Now all we needed was to find everyone.

Thank God most of us from the original band are losers and never moved anywhere outside the New York area. We were all easily reachable, except for Chrissy Campanella. Who knows what she's doing these days? Last I heard she’s working for Clear Channel.

After about sixty thousand emails arguing what tunes we should do, we five surviving members get together a few days before the show to rehearse our short, but emotionally charged, set. The songs are Sergeant Pepper, Runaround Sue, Born to Be Wild, and Sounds of Silence.

The night of the show arrives and the high school auditorium’s packed. Backstage, I glance at the set list. No more Let's Spend the Night Together or Won't Get Fooled Again. Now, there's Bulls on Parade and Green Day's Longview. Dylan was right.

We stand in the wings watching the show and to my amazement, these tiny, little dwarves (I think they're called teenagers) come up to us one after another to shake our hands, ask me where I got my "groovy looking guitar", and tell us how psyched they are that we're there to play for Howie's last concert.

I stood in awe, watching scores of teachers and students sharing the stage and singing away together in front of a mob of cheering and, for a change, happy adolescents; I wondered if Mr. Friedman really knew the full extent of what he'd created that day, twenty years earlier, with the simple idea to play some rock n’ roll with his students.

Halfway through the performance, the video screen is lowered and a "This Was Your Life at Fair Lawn High School, Howie Friedman" piece is shown. After slides and footage of the original Boptones (and me in parachute pants - which I'll publicly deny if asked), Matt is asked if the original Boptones would ever play together again, to which he replies, in true "Behind The Music" fashion, "No way. The five of us could never get along. We were always at each other's throats and there's too much bitterness involved now, so I don't see that happening anytime soon." With that, Mr. Friedman is beckoned to the stage and one by one, we are introduced from the wings. It’s all quite emotional. We lovingly molest each other, and take our positions on stage.

The kids go crazy. It feels like Altamont. (Never mind, bad analogy.) We have a blast playing our songs and for the last one, Sounds of Silence, we bring Mr. Friedman and a few new, younger, "Tones" up to join us; it feels very much like the passing of the torch.

Then the moment comes when I realize how old and out of touch I really am. We’re right in the middle of "Silence", the whole school is singing along, and I’m in the moment, looking down at my guitar. When I gaze up, I see one of the most spectacular sights I'm to witness as a performer; every kid in the auditorium’s waving his/her arms back and forth and a glowing, blue, neon stick is shimmering in each one of their hands, creating a sight I immediately take a mental picture of to make sure I'd never forget. What are those blue things? Are they those sticks that you break in half that glow neon when activated? I can't tell. Then it hits me. They're cell phones. Every kid in the crowd has his/her cell phone window glowing iridescent colors, replacing the obsolete cigarette lighters of old. My brother-in-law holds up his lighter and is about to flick it, when some twelve year old girl, shooting him a very serious look, says, "Um, sir, we don't do that anymore." Dylan was right again.

I realized that at the very least, the one thing I left the school with that night was knowledge that couldn’t be taught in a classroom; that one teacher, armed with the gift of music and a generous spirit, can bring an entire community together just by being crazy enough to “put it out there” and see what happens.

That night there were no cliques, no insults being hurled, nobody getting beaten up outside by the "Green Hill", no teachers being patronizing toward students. Everyone was "gettin' their groove on" together, like one big Partridge Family. And, I couldn't help but think, the next time a problem arises with a classmate, when a temper may cause someone to do something they'd later regret, simply remembering the sight of their teacher singing Black Sabbath with them, might make them laugh instead. What more reason do we need for keeping music programs alive in our schools? Thank you, Howie.


  1. That's heartwarming. Seriously, I wish I'd had a teacher like that. Only the really good Jewy districts like Fair Lawn get great life-changing teachers like that. I wish Howie well in his retirement and I wish you well in your continual career making people laugh and sing and most everything.

  2. And in a couple of weeks our good Fair Lawn will celebrate Mr. Friedman yet again, sadly post mortem. My son, a four-year Boptoner and 1993 graduate, will make it home from Seattle to take part in a Boptone memorial to Mr. Friedman. Can't wait to see all the men and women who will come home from all over the place to pay tribute to one of the best of educators. And yes, there were quite a few of them in our little district.

    1. Thank you for mentioned this here!