The King of Cool
Alex Johnson and the future of rock
With its dark walls hung with exotic guitars and covered with concert posters and records, the inside of the Ann Arbor Music Center oozes cool. Coolest of all is its owner, Alex Johnson: teacher, guitarist, and prophet, his long blonde hair touched with gray at the temples. Standing with him is Karen King: Johnson's drummer, disciple, and pro bono business manager, her feathered black hair touched with blonde. Slim and fit, they look like rock royalty--which, for the students who come here to learn how to rock out, they arguably are.
An Ann Arbor native, Johnson grew up with the music. "I was born here in sixty-eight, and I remember playing volleyball with the MC5 in West Park as a little kid. I went to Tappan and Commie High, and in high school I was in Third Rail, a hippie metal hybrid, then I was in a band called Juice. I worked as an engineer at Big Sky and Solid Sound studios and as a studio musician, and in TV, and film, and commercials. But teaching was always something I did, sometimes as my primary source of income, sometimes just as a sideline."
He can recall distinctly the moment he recognized music was his destiny. "I had been working in computer sales, and when the dot-com bubble popped, a lot of my clients were folding. I remember I opened my computer one morning, and I realized that I only had two clients left. At that point I started the Music Center with absolutely no plan whatsoever."
The first years were rough. "I started it in November ninety-nine in the Technology Center over on Washington, where the new Y is now, in an eleven-by-eleven room with a drum set, guitar, amp, and two folding chairs. But the Technology Center was a terrible place to be. Kids would have to step over passed-out drunks to get to lessons! I finally realized how bad it was when somebody kicked in my door
and stole all my stuff."
He wised up, and the school grew. By 2003, he had two teachers working for him and moved to a house on the corner of North Main and Summit. By 2008, they'd outgrown that and moved to the upper floor of the Al Nalli Building, on Ashley next to the Fleetwood Diner. Just a year later, they rented the whole place. They now have two dozen teachers and nearly 500 students, "three floors of lessons, eight thousand square feet with fourteen practice rooms, four of which are also band practice rooms. And we just added the Ann Arbor Modern Conservatory in the building next door, where we teach violin, viola, cello, and double bass in all the fundamentals of classical and modern styles, so they can play everything from Mozart to Led Zeppelin!
"I've devoted my life to this," says Johnson, his sincerity as palpable as his cool. "I am a music teacher, and my goal is to teach our students to be musicians in the fullest sense of the word."
School's out by this time, and the center's filling with students, including the five teenagers playing in one of the school's bands--Dave Gissiner and Dan Sagher on guitars, Robert Manor on keyboard, Drew Polovick on bass, and Erez Levin on drums. Short-haired and casually dressed, they look like any other skinny kids until they pick up their instruments in the main practice room and are transformed into cocky little rock gods.
After a few quick licks, they settle into an amazingly credible cover of "Time" from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with Johnson on vocals and sound effects. Then they tear into a kick-ass surf-punk pastiche instrumental with a relentless groove from the rhythm section plus searing solos from the guitars. This isn't just zombie-making music. These kids have great technique, and they rock!
Ninety percent of the center's students are male, Johnson tells me, "the vast majority teenage boys and younger." For most, the irresistible lure is the chance to wield an electric guitar. "It's just so cool, like a sword or a laser gun or a hot rod all rolled into one," says Johnson. "And of course girls think you're cool if you play one."
But it's not just guitar--they also teach "bass, drums, piano, voice, ukulele--which is a great instrument for four-year-olds to start on!--flute, clarinet, and now violin, viola, cello, and double bass," Johnson says. "We also have rock bands, blues bands, jazz bands, and rock band camp in the summer."
The bands may be Johnson's greatest inspiration. "It dawned on me that I can teach the great rock songs and the great rock solos, but if my student doesn't have an outlet for his skills, he may not stick with it. I was in lessons with a kid named Nick, and I said to him, 'If I offered rock band classes, would you...' and before I could even finish the sentence, he said, 'Yes, sign me up.' From then forward, when someone inquires about lessons, I explain about the rock band school, and they love it.
"Our average age has gotten younger, it's twelve years old now, and they're playing in bands! We've got seven-year-olds in bands, and they can play! Our kids are from Ann Arbor and the surrounding communities. I speak in the schools all the time, and our bands play their ice cream social circuit. We've got these kids playing Black Sabbath sets at the ice cream social! It's everything rock never knew it would be!
"We have twenty bands, usually four or five students in each band, and always students playing with instructors--if a seven-year-old can keep up with a forty-year-old, he'll have chops to spare. The bands play classic rock, advanced bands do whole sets of single bands, like we've done Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and we've done Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and the Who. And we do shows all the time. The Tap Room in Ypsilanti has been a great outlet for us. We get the Saturday slot between six and eight."
But rock and roll isn't just for kids; it's for adults too. "Our adults are from all walks of life, usually very well established in their careers. But there's a problem: a lot of adults reach about forty and realize that they've screwed up. They've got a successful career, true, but they don't know how to rock!
"Though for adults," he adds, "it's really mostly the blues. A lot of guys over forty have the blues because the blues is about daily life and the daily struggle for existence. Plus, for anyone just learning the guitar, the blues only has three chords and five notes, and it doesn't take long to play the blues."
When he's not playing rock with his students, Johnson plays mostly blues. "It's something I really love, though I also love the Beatles, and I'm a giant Zeppelin head." Asked his favorite guitarist, he thinks about it then says, "Eric Clapton." To hear Johnson play a killer electric twelve-bar, google "Guitar Center King of the Blues '07," and stand back.
The center's not a one-man band. "Karen King is very important," Johnson says. "I started it, but she's the force that drives the growth. She's filled with limitless energy, and she's made my job so much easier. She came to learn drums eight years ago, and a couple years later, she's running the place!"
"I asked him if he could teach old ladies to drum," King says when I talk to her later in the Ann Arbor Modern Conservatory's tastefully decorated front room. "I've always loved percussion, but I thought you had to be born with some special talent. But I started in August and practiced every day, and they put me in a band in December! Now I wonder why more people don't do it. Because I know what it did for me, what it did for my soul, and I want everyone to have this experience."
King began helping out back when the music center was on North Main. Her kids were taking lessons from Johnson, so she started cleaning up the place while she waited for them. "Now I do almost everything."
Back in the main building, Johnson describes his faculty. "Many of my teachers were my students. I know they know how to read and theory and how to teach it. Most rock-and-roll dudes say, 'put your fingers here, here, and here, and now strum,' but our teachers do so much more than that."
Brendon Lally matches Johnson's description. He had two years of lessons with Johnson as a teenager and went on to become a professional musician. Then he bumped into his old teacher at the Tap Room. They talked, Lally agreed to try teaching, and two years later he's got fifty students, five days a week.
"I've got an eight-and-a-half-year-old and one in his mid-forties," Lally says, "but mostly early teenage dudes who know the guitar is the coolest thing in the world. I teach guitar and bass and have four or five rock bands. I teach them how to rehearse, to tighten it up or hold to the tempo, or whatever. They all have a tendency to play fast and loud, and I try to get them to slow down a little bit and focus on the dynamics."
The music center charges $31 for a half-hour weekly private lesson and $90 per month to participate in the band program: weekly hour-long rehearsals plus regular performances. About 20 percent of the students play in the program, and there are currently six adult bands and twenty kid bands.
Johnson still has no definite plan for the future. "We might possibly open another location in another city in maybe four or five years, but there's lots of work to do yet." And he plans to keep doing a lot of it himself--after twenty years, he still teaches seven days a week. "Someday, however, it'll be big enough to take care of me in my golden years, I hope," he says.
It should--as long as boys still know the guitar is the coolest thing in the world, and middle-aged men still have the blues.
[Originally published in April, 2012.]