Anybody else chirping such embarrassingly worn-out arena-rock clichés would have been creamed with a swift, sharp swipe from my rock critic's ballpoint. That someone in the band made that achingly tired horns-of-Satan gesture with his fingers made it smell even worse.
But these were the Kids of Widney High onstage last May at Chain Reaction —their uniform black T-shirts silkscreened with WIDNEY HIGH SCHOOL KODIAKS across the chest informing you as much. So it was okay, then—the Kids simply don't know cliché, their lives having gone unblemished by a zillion bad music videos and heavy-metal shows like the rest of us.
The Kids are students enrolled in a songwriting class at Widney, a special-ed school for developmentally disabled teens in the Adams District of Los Angeles. Some Kids are blind or wheelchair-bound; others are autistic, others suffer from cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Yet, as a collective, they pen songs frequently better than the fare that hogs up CD-bin space at your local Tower Records.
Not counting the Kids' own CDs, of course. Their first album, 1989's Special Music From Special Kids (released on Rounder) had simple tunes about mostly simple topics—cars, teddy bears, friends and dancing, stuff you'd probably expect from young mentally and physically challenged songwriters. But the batch of Kids who whipped those songs together (the lineup is forever changing as students come and go, making the Kids a sort of special-ed Menudo) also had a flair for portraying gritty, urban reality. "Hollywood" was a travelogue of some of the city's glitzier tourist stops, but they also took time to notice the "people without food, people without work," who had a "cardboard box for a home." "Insects," probably the Kids' most popular song, conjured up some cool, B-grade horror-flick imagery: "You better watch out or the insects will get you!/If you accidentally fall in the water, you're in trouble!/Spiders will come after you!/YOOOOOU!!!"
The Kids are semi-famous enough to have earned a serious cult following, one that even includes celebs ranging from Smokey Robinson to Jackson Browne to Marilyn Manson to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. They've opened shows for Mr. Bungle and the Melvins. They've played the House of Blues, the Viper Room and the Palace. They've been on two of Kevin & Bean's KROQ Christmas CDs. Howard Stern is a fan, which automatically raises the exploitation question: Are people into the Kids because of their songs, or is their popularity merely a more adult version of the classic kids game Let's Make Fun of the Retard? Are people laughing with them or laughing at them?
You want to believe it's the Kids' tunes, filled with the same genuine, honest innocence that also attracted a following for the songs of similarly touched performers like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis (it sure isn't the music that backs their lyrics, which is mostly 1950s- and '60s-flavored pop rock). And, particularly like Johnston's songs, the Kids also have a knack for relating the sort of winsome, sometimes hard universal truths you stumble upon while growing up. Take this line, from "Look out Your Window," off their latest CD, Let's Get Busy: "Girls are dancing in the street/I wish they were dancing with me." And this one, from "Pretty Girls": "There is my dream by the soda machine/I'm moving closer, my heart's beating faster/I opened my mouth, but nothing came out/She walked away, and my heart said, 'Ouch!'"
On Let's Get Busy, there are rich, detailed stories of what it's like to live their lives. "Facts About Life" is a keen reflection of the inner-city living conditions most of the Kids come from, in their neighborhoods ("Gangs outside, run for your life!/The park isn't safe without a gun or a knife/Wrestling, slam, off the top rope/Sirens, handcuffs, crooks without hope") and inside their homes ("Nagging parents tell us what to do/When to go to bed, when to tie our shoes/Don't do this! Don't do that!/Please don't hit us with a baseball bat"). "Christmas Is the Time" starts out like just another banal holiday ditty ("Snowballs of Styrofoam, frosting sprayed on the windows") but then takes a darker, vastly more realistic turn ("Family fights and phony smiles, people robbing other people/Sending out Christmas cards to people you don't know").
And then there's "Doctor Doctor," a harrowing first-person account of some of the medical travails these kids go through daily, one the rest of us might interpret as a commentary on HMOs: "I woke up in the middle of the night, my heart was barely beating/My head was hot, my pulse was slow, and I had trouble breathing/I called the doctor, 'Help me, please, I'm putting out a warning!'/All he said was 'Take two aspirin and call me in the morning!/Please don't hurt me, doctor, doctor/Please don't hurt me.'"
It's a lot smarter than "Oops, I did it again." But the Kids still know how to have a good time. From Let's Get Busy's title tune, there's this: "Come have some fun, we'll be jammin'/Bring some food, but don't bring beer now/Bring your pajamas, and your boom box/We'll rock the house and dance our socks off."