by Adam Cayton-Holland
Middle-school-aged children are by far the most fickle creatures in all of the animal kingdom. Every child is by nature capricious, but between the grades of six and eight human children exhibit such a desperate malleability one would be compelled to feel sorry for them, were they not so entirely unsympathetic. Passing trends are embraced with near religious zeal, then discarded cruelly and callously, any memory of them all but erased from the collective unconscious.
Essentially, middle-schoolers are just pieces of shit that try on hats, reject them, then make fun of other middle-schoolers for trying on hats.
And so it came to pass that while other kids were latching onto Nirvana and Street Fighter II and learning that something called a scud missile existed, my entire middle school became obsessed with a capella music.
Specifically The Nylons, a Toronto-based a capella force that for a brief period in the early 1990’s melted our middle-school faces.
And this was all the work of Mr. Black.
* * *
I can’t remember a music teacher before Mr. Black. In my recollection there was simply nothingness, then there was him, like the Big Bang. Of course I’m sure this isn’t actually the case. I went to the type of elite, private K-8 that leaves no academic stone unturned. In the pursuit of forging the well-rounded super-children of tomorrow – children capable of running Fortune 500 companies and goose-stepping with the best of them – they no doubt had us water-coloring and yes-anding and haiku-ing years before any other school in the area, with the statistics at-the-ready to prove it. Certainly music entered into the equation from a very early age.
Still, in my memory, that’s how it plays: there was no Mr. Black; then he simply was.
I can still see him in front of the class. His every move seemed to indicate that he was not like the other teachers; he was one of us. As he asked us about our day he would grab a folded metal chair and spin it in one hand as he spoke, like some seasoned road comic grinding the gears with the mic stand. And he didn’t look like the other teachers either. Before the mullet came with any socio-economic stigma, Mr. Black wore it flamboyantly: short hair in the front, back as long as a mid-day shadow. As far as we were concerned that short-long was the Tiananmen Square protestor to our school’s Chinese tank. It was a statement haircut.
He was partial to loud, short-sleeved shirts, all unbuttoned low enough to unveil a thin swatch of dangerous chest hair, replete with a thin, gold chain. Mr. Black felt safe but also kind of dangerous, like John Stamos on Full House: a trusted figure, but also a rebel without a cause, capable of taking off on a motor-cycle at the drop of a sweet Uncle Jesse and the Rippers guitar riff.
One of Mr. Black’s earliest lesson plans saw us bringing in our favorite CD’s to play a track for group discussion. For the most parts our playlists were innocuous – They Might Be Giants, lame, parental-inspired choices like Simon & Garfunkel or Billy Joel – but then one hell-raiser upped the ante by bringing in “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A. No one could believe it. That CD was Tipper Gore Kryptonite. It had the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker right there on the front to prove it. It was dangerous, a record we all kept hidden from our parents. Typically casual, Mr. Black removed the CD from the case and played the track. He watched us unflinchingly, appraising the music, tapping his foot to the beat. When it was done he complimented the production value and talked about the ability of music to empower the voiceless. He thanked the student for bringing in that song and moved on to the next kid. Nothing about the language, not a word about it being inappropriate to kill cops – he treated it like any other musical offering.
More than anything, his enthusiasm was infectious. Whether he was showing us the movie Amadeus or inviting the numerous vocalists he tutored on the side to come and perform for us – including a seventeen-year-old-girl with a voice like an angel who blew us all away – for forty-five minutes, three times a week, Mr. Black made us feel like music was the most important thing in the world.
Maybe for those forty-five minute periods it actually was.
The student body firmly entrenched in the Mr. Black camp, he wisely set his eyes on shoring up the administration. Every year the school hosted a winter pageant, a limp, uninspired affair that was more of an obligation than a celebration. Mr. Black aimed to change that – through The Nylons’ 1987 power-anthem, “This Island Earth.”
A mere sampling of the lyrics:
Calling all dreamers and optimistic fools
Don’t let go of your dreams make it now, make it all come true
If you believe in a brighter day, I know we can find our way
To this island, in a starry ocean
Poetry in motion, this island earth.
Spinnin’ like a dancer, gravity is the answer
Rendezvous in the blue, this island earth
With that new-aged, Canadian catnip Mr. Black planned to give the school a celebration of the winter solstice the likes of which it had never seen. Gone would be the choruses of lisping six-year-olds choking on their pa rum pum pum pum’s. No longer would parents cram into the gymnasium to watch stacked iterations of white-gloved seventh-graders atonally ringing bells. This was to be an event! This was to be a statement piece! Mr. Black was in charge of the music program now. “This Island Earth” was his coming out party.
He didn’t waste any time. He exposed us to The Nylons very early in the semester. He sang each part for us, painstakingly demonstrating their superior rhythms and harmonies, patiently teaching us that if you ever hoped to reach any sort of musical next level, it was paramount that you cup one hand to your ear, all the while contorting your face like a woman giving birth to a water buffalo. But rather than rejecting the music as lame and outdated we devoured it wholesale. Never mind that there were no instruments. Don’t you get it? The voices become the instruments. And the Nylons became the unofficial favorite group of the entire school; such was the power of Mr. Black. Although, to be fair, such was the power of The Nylons. To wit:
We don’t know what’s in store today
We can spread our wings and we can soar away
Or we can go like the dinosaurs, they say,
The choice is ours to make
All this seems like yesterday
We can wake up one day and be history
Or stick around to unravel the mystery
Of how we came to be
Of how we came to be. The Nylons weren’t afraid to ask the big questions. Nor were they afraid to rhyme “yesterday” with “history.” And whether that was a by-product of their native Ontarian accents or just them laying their a capella balls right there on the fucking table for the whole world to appraise, we responded. Not only did we learn every lyric of that song, dutifully belting it out the last five minutes of each class, we started doing independent research. What we found only sent us deeper down the rabbit hole. It wasn’t just “This Island Earth.” There were signature takes on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Happy Together.” There was an original composition whose anthemic chorus urged us all to “buy back the Amazon” again and again and again.
The Nylons were a musical cornucopia; all we had to do was sit down to the feast.
Students began pairing off and forming a capella groups of their own. Little white, upper class, tone-deaf children getting together and harmonizing on whatever corners their parents deemed safe. Initially, Mr. Black offered to work after-school with these Mo-Town go-getters but soon their numbers swelled so large he had to stop taking on new groups. There was simply too high of a demand. Still the groups exploded in popularity and for a brief, bizarre period of fifth grade, if you weren’t in an a capella group, you weren’t shit.
The Nylons had become a pandemic.
I picture a record-executive lounging in a plush armchair in some sketchy Toronto nightclub. His face is flush from the cocaine he just funneled through a Canadian $1000 dollar bill directly into his frontal lobe. A lackey bursts into the room, initially struggling to push it all the way open on account of the pile of dead prostitutes blocking the entrance. He pays them no mind. He hands his boss the latest numbers.
“Boss you got to check this out!” he gasps.
The boss studies the papers: a graph of The Nylons record sales spiking over Denver, Colorado like a rocket ship to the fucking moon.
“I don’t understand,” he murmurs aloud. “W-w-what happened?”
What happened was Mr. Black.
* * *
Winter came around like it always does on the front range of the Rocky Mountains: too soon, and with little warning. One day you’re out throwing the football with your friends, the low sun bursting over the mountains through a canopy of golden leaves, the next morning the neighborhood wakes up beneath a blanket of white.
The Winter Carnival was upon us.
There was nothing to indicate that this Winter Carnival would be unlike any other winter carnival, save more polished performances by each grade and an ill-advised, solo dance number by the drama teacher Mr. Amici to “Lady in Red.” But at the very end of the pageant, while Republican fathers begin putting on their pea coats and dressed-down leather bomber jackets, and Republican mothers began anticipating that first acidic splash of chardonnay in the back of their throats, the lights went out. The entire gymnasium was suddenly awash in black. People gasped as many in the audience thought it was a power outage. But this was no power outage. Just then every single student in the gymnasium produced a glow-in-the-dark candlestick from beneath their seat and the room became eerie and luminescent. Then one voice, one golden, unfaltering voice, rang out over the room with the solemn clarity of a minaret: Mr. Black.
Calling all dreamers and optimistic fools
Don’t let go of your dreams, make it now, make it all come true…
His words were crisp, cleanly enunciated. We joined him, as we had been drilled so many times, a thousand K-8 voices as one.
If you believe in a brighter day, I know we can find our waaaaaaaaaay…
The way we could find was to an island. That island was in a starry ocean. That island was poetry in motion. That island was “This Island Earth.”
We belted that song out with the poise and confidence of The Nylons themselves and when we finished there was a brief, stunned silence. No one knew what to do. At that moment, we weren’t simply performers and an audience; we were something bigger, something intangible and beautiful. We were a force, a single organism operating as one, using our voices as instruments – as Mr. Black had taught us to do – to channel a higher plain, a plain only accessible through a capella.
Then suddenly an explosion of applause, a deafening boom that shook the very foundation of the gymnasium and was heard from blocks away. Republican fathers made ear-piercing whistles, Republican mothers demanded encores. We had tapped into something deep within them, something profound and eternal. No one wanted to leave. The lights came back on and the bowls of candy canes were placed by the exits but the applause refused to subside. It went on for minutes, only growing in fervor and intensity. Mr. Black took bow after bow; he clutched a bouquet of flowers someone had handed him as he wiped tears from his eyes. He was the proud conductor of a successful opus. He had done it.
Unseen in the back of the gymnasium that day, the administrators and board of trustees no doubt nodded at one another in hushed amazement. They had found their guy. This Mr. Black was the real deal, the man to carry the music department far into the future. We exited the gymnasium that day, into that suffocating winter black that swallows late afternoons, proud of all that we had accomplished. We were children excited for the break from school, sure, but we were also children excited for the semester to come, excited for the musical heights we would no doubt achieve in the coming year. We were children just beginning to learn what we were capable of.
And then Mr. Black fucked a seventeen year old. It was one of the vocalists he was coaching on the side – the girl he had brought into school to perform for us. Of course no one told us this until years later. We came back to school after break and Mr. Black was simply no longer there. “Family problems,” we were told. With little explanation or fanfare he just disappeared from our lives, gone like in those South American countries where people vanish mysteriously in the middle of the night and other people get their hands cut off for talking about it.
They trotted out a temporary replacement before abandoning the idea of inspired music teacher choices altogether, a laid-back, Jimmy Buffet type with an arsenal of steel pans for us to play. He was the lead singer in a band called The Pan-Jumbies and for the next several months he taught every grade how to play “Stir It Up”, the school no doubt hoping the laid-back island vibes would wash over us and we would forget all about the man who had enraptured us, took us to dizzying musical heights, and then statutory-raped his way out of our lives.
For the most part it worked, like some soothing Caribbean balm. Steel pans became the new thing. We loved them. How could you not? Kids started listening to Bob Marley and getting into reggae. We forgot all about Mr. Black, our a capella pied piper.
Still, the ghost of him lingered. We would talk about Mr. Black. Rumors swirled. He was teaching in a different state now. He married that girl and ran off with her and was managing her music career in Scandinavia. His old band had asked him to join back up with them and he just said fuck it and left. No one knew for sure. No one ever would.
One day in class our steel-pan teacher showed us a video. It was footage of this insane, steel pan festival that took place in Trinidad and Tobago. In the video, teams of steel pan musicians competed against each other, each band comprised of dozens of members. But this was no mere competition. It was an explosion. It was the wild, untamed essence of the music, a frenzied, brilliant celebration of reggae and Calypso. The musicians attached themselves to one another using thin rods and beams so that they moved as a unit, and then they banged on those steel pans and sweated and gyrated until eventually it was hard to decipher what was even going on. It was just a blur, this amazing, collective fever-dream that left everyone in a daze. When it was finished none of us watching the video could really even tell what had just happened. The musicians on the video didn’t even seem to know. Something just took them over, possessed them completely. It was beyond words.
Mr. Black was like that for us. We were caught up in his groundswell, taken over by his charm and passion, lifted to new musical levels that we never thought ourselves capable of. And then, like in the video, it was all suddenly over.
Our a capella obsession had come and gone as would our love of steel pans and reggae, as would the next trend and the one after that too. We would plow on through the spring and then into the summer, then out of middle school and into high school and then beyond, the way all children do. The way everyone does. We were fickle little creatures still, but the lessons we were learning were becoming more concrete. The earth is a planet, not an island. We were foolish to ever think it could be anything else.