Our second of two Lost Notes bonus episodes for this summer.
In 1977, a group of music obsessed friends got together and decided to form a band. Most of them were still in high school, almost none of them had even picked up an instrument before, but they lived and breathed the NYC music scene and wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. They worked in record stores, ran fan clubs, and spent every second they could together, hanging in clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City — clubs they’d eventually headline.
Soon after they formed the band, they played a practice gig at one of their high schools and took off from there. They spent their days studying for physics tests and practicing for French finals and spent their nights drinking White Russians and rubbing elbows with their rock heroes. In their two years together, they headlined their favorite clubs, went on tour, made recordings, got interviewed on the radio, opened for Iggy Pop and hung with David Bowie in the recording studio. As the decade came to a close and they got a little older, their love for each other dwindled, and the band imploded. But what a beautiful and wild ride it was. This is the story of the Student Teachers, in their own words.
The Student Teachers consisted of Lori Reese on bass, David Scharff (aka J.D Cruel on stage) on vocals, Laura Davis-Chanin on the drums, Philip Shelley and Joe Katz on guitars, and Bill Arning on keys.
This story was produced by Erica Heilman and Sara Brooke Curtis (it’s Sara’s voice you’ll hear in the piece). You’ll also hear a bit from the Student Teacher’s manager, Jody Robelo (now Jody Katz). We’d also like to thank Antone DeSantis, the Student Teacher’s roadie, for speaking with the producers of this story and providing valuable perspective. For more about the Student Teachers, check out Laura Davis-Chanin’s memoir, “The Girl in the Back.” Nacional Records here in Los Angeles also released a compilation album of Student Teacher recordings called “Invitation To...”
Philip: I’ve been approached about the Student Teachers story before. By people who always seem to have this moralistic agenda to tell this cautionary tale about young people who are in over their heads or taken advantage of, with too much freedom and sex and drugs and rock and roll. And I definitely want to be clear with you, that I actually believe that artistic exploration and that freedom is worth a certain amount of existential risk. And I’d rather live next door to junkies than millionaires any day. And I’m endlessly grateful that we came of age in a place and time like that.
[Archive Sound]: And welcome to another edition of The Shape of Things to Come. I’m Bill Fleur. And I’m Dean Miller. And our guests this week are the Student Teachers. And let’s start off where everything starts off with, let’s introduce ourselves. Band?
Should we say what we play?
Yeah, go ahead.
I’m Lori, I play bass.
Lori Reese: I was more comfortable from the time I was a little kid with what were considered freaks. I liked drag queens, I liked boys who tweezed their eyebrows. I wanted them to put my makeup on.
[Archive Sound]: J.D. I sing.
David “J.D. Cruel” Scharff: I mean going to a Dead Boys concert when you’re sitting in the front row at CBGB’s and Stiv Bators is ripping out his pubic hair and throwing it at you, that’s disgusting but it was amazing…
[Archive Sound]: I’m Laura, I play drums.
Laura Davis-Chanin: As teenagers we were filming gigs for the Mumps. We were helping the Erasers build up their sets for their shows. We were very involved and so there was kind of this like I say this organic thing that came together, maybe we could do that?
[Archive Sound]: I’m Philip, I play guitar.
Philip Shelley: Let’s say you had school in one hand and being in a band and hanging out with Blondie and David Bowie in the other hand and it was impossible to do both things. What do you think would happen? There’d be less school going.
[Archive Sound]: I’m Joe, I play another guitar.
Joe Katz: I wanted to be a rock and roller. I played guitar and I wanted to make wild noise.
[Archive Sound]: I play organ. I’m Bill. Lori says: “you play all the organs.”
No shop talk…
Bill: T. You would see Warhol walking around with his Polaroid handing out copies of Interview Magazine. So this is just what I thought every teenager did. It didn’t occur to me what an unusual environment this was.
Well we’re here to talk about the band and play some music and give people a chance to find out what the Student Teachers are about really. Because I think a lot of people in the audience even though you’re from New York, don’t know much about the Student Teachers.
Lori: we don’t know anything about the band.
David: we seem to be a mystery to ourselves and everyone else.
Well sometimes that’s effective, I don’t know.
[Music: “Past Tense” by the Student Teachers plays]
Sara Brooke Curtis: Imagine this group of teenagers in the late 70’s in New York City. Most of them are still in high school, a couple recently graduated. They’re obsessed with bands like Television, Patti Smith, The Ramones and Roxy Music. Most of them come from fractured family lives and find community in the club scene. But get this: in the span of six months, they go from not knowing how to play instruments to headlining they’re favorite clubs, then opening for Iggy Pop and getting interviewed on one of their favorite radio stations 89.1: WNYU. How did they make that happen?
This ragtag group of best friends lived and breathed the scene. They spent all their time together, buying records, running fanclubs, reading rock magazines. They’d go to shows together and they’d often get mistaken for being in a band, so one day, in Bill’s living room, they decide...why not? Let’s form one.
David: So we just kind of sat down and said you know I’ll play drums, I’ll play guitar, you play bass and I said okay. And Lori said well I don’t know if my voice will be good enough cause she was gonna sing. So maybe you should be up front and we’ll have a female rhythm section and then we started playing.
Bill: We all hated when bands felt like sports teams, and with David and I both being gay and Philip and later Joe being straight boys and then Laura and Lori being the female rhythm section, we really loved what we did visually.
Laura: To us I think it’s more important that we have a concept, an idea. Before the actual technical ability. We knew our instruments well enough to be able to convey the idea to an extent and it’s getting easier.
Interviewer: do you think you guys are gonna make it?
Student Teachers: right after the show…all of us together (laughter)
David: We all knew that we weren’t musicians and none of us cared. What we cared about was that we were gonna have a blast. We were gonna have a blast, we were gonna be cool, we were gonna be the coolest kids and we weren’t gonna imitate anyone.
Sara: So while their days in the late 70s were spent in high school studying for physics tests or writing essays or learning French, or being the captain of the basketball team, their nights were spent rehearsing, playing shows and hanging out in clubs. Rubbing elbows with their heroes. Just being feral teenagers. They drank White Russians because nobody carded them and nobody cared. They were immersed in the scene and bound to each other and there was nowhere they’d rather be.
[Music: Past Tense finishes]
David: Well... what’s love got to do with it? (sings) Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken? I would say that in a very real way the whole beginning of the band was like one group relationship. We really did kind of all fall in love with each other. Philip and I had this fraternal love which was so strong, I mean when we were in fifth grade he broke a guy’s nose because the guy sat in my chair when I got up. Then Bill and Laura had this beautiful love, friendship and Lori and Bill had this beautiful friendship of this galvanizing passion about the music. And then when we all started hanging out together, Bill had a little bit of a crush on me, Lori and I kind of almost hooked up, Philip and Laura got together. Even when there wasn’t a physical thing between members, we were all kind of hooking up with each other as a group.
[Archive Sound]: (tape click transition) We’re essentially six neurotic self indulgent people who...everybody has to have their say. This is really group therapy, we don’t have a band. (laughter)
Interviewer: What do you call your music anyways?
Student Teachers: Say, it say it. Existential pop. Existential pop, that’s what it says in the press kit. In NME they call us punk psychedelic surf pop which is somewhere around the same lines...That was good though.
David: People used to say are you Punk or New Wave? And we actually answered we’re First Splash. We’re not Punk, we’re not New Wave. The New Wave is old wave, we’re First Splash
David: We tried to explain to people then oh we’re this kind of pop band, they would’ve been like oh yeah, you’re pop right. You know but there were people like Charlie at CBGB’s who were like, thought that we were, and waited for us to show through and actually sound a little more like pop than noise.
Lori: we had a reputation as an art rock band, yeah that was just cause we didn’t know how to tune our instruments and we didn’t know how to play them and we lost some fan, it was written up in some magazine, who had liked us back in the beginning when we were an art rock band and then we went commercial. What they don’t realize is that we learned how to play a little better.
Lori: It was sort of like you want to take one hair out of the scarf and let it stick out like electricity has only gotten to that one piece. We wanted to make something that I believe, that stood out, was easily recognizable as not Elton John, not the Rolling Stones, not David Bowie and not Roxy Music and not Television. This was the Student Teachers, our unique little corner of the world.
[Archive Sound]: Bill had a crush on a student teacher at his school and it was a cute idea. Also I said it once and you remembered it real quick. It’s a phrase that exists in everyday life anyway and you can put as many meanings on it as you want.
[Music: “Invitation To” by the Student Teachers starts playing]
Sara: So they formed mid-fall of 77 - and in March they had their first unofficial gig. It was for Career Day at Bill and Laura’s Quaker high school, Friends Seminary. They played in the gym where Laura usually played basketball and about fifty students showed up.
Lori: I had borrowed - I had taken a couple of bass lessons. I had a bass teacher, Laura had a drum teacher. We borrowed their stuff. I had this big white, I think it was a Precision, Fender Precision. I kept hitting the pick up, bleeding. I was like, this is so punk rock!
David: Some of the Blessed were there and they saw it and they’re like hey we’re playing Max’s this Sunday, you want to play and we’re like uhhhhhhhh
Sara: So, they said yes and on Easter Sunday of 1978, they played their first paid gig with the Blessed at Max’s Kansas City and then..they got their first gig at CBGB’s.
[Archive Sound]: First time we played at CBGB’s is when we opened for Lydia Lunch and that was cause you know Lydia was friends with the band and she liked David and stuff (laughter) and so she said well why don’t you open for us? And this was without an audition or anything and at that point Charlie didn’t know us and after we played and got off stage, Charlie said smokin set! He said we had the karma, he liked it.
Sara: David became the lead singer, not because he knew how to sing, though he used to love to sing in temple as a kid, but because he was hot and they decided the hot one should be up front. It turned out he loved it. And he savored every damn second.
[Archive Sound]: We’re the Student Teachers and you’re the audience…
David: When I grabbed the mic stand, I was like working the mic stand. I was pushing, throwing it down and stepping on the base and having it fly back up into my hands. I was practicing moves because I was like, this is what I’m going to do. I’m gonna rock this out. I’m gonna show everybody what it’s like to be a teenage rockstar... and I didn’t know if I sounded good, I just knew I was going to wail and make a lot of noise with my mouth. I was gonna snarl and I was gonna trill and I was gonna scream and I was gonna hopefully be somewhat on key... I wanted to thrill them. I wanted them to want me... badly.
Laura: Jimmy Destri got involved about six months after we started and he got involved after he saw us play, I believe we were opening for The Know, a band that was run by Gary Valentine, the original bass player for Blondie.
Lori: So Jimmy Destri, the keyboard player in Blondie decided that he needed to produce a band as well, and he likened that it would be the Student Teachers. He said I’m gonna take you into a studio and we’re gonna record a single. And we said, great, who are we to say no?!
Laura: You know he sat with us at the table and he bought us all drinks and handed out cigarettes and started handing out drugs because that’s what he did. He was overwhelmed with us, he loved us and we were all like, hmm? Cause I’m not saying we didn’t think we were great, we thought we were great, but it’s not like we thought we were that great you know and he wanted to record some of our songs. Particularly The Quake which Bill wrote, which is about I guess being Quaker and it’s because Bill and I went to a Quaker high school.
[Music: “The Quake” by the Student Teachers]
Joe: Jimmy Destri of Blondie became the band’s producer and “guider,” if you will.
Lori: He really had a crush on Laura.
Laura: Well I’m 15and I’m being approached by this big rock star?! I mean what would you do? I’m not saying I’m the greatest person on earth and that I’m morally sound and fabulous but at15, you know, it’s very complicated and you don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing what you’re doing and so...
Here’s this big rock star and he’s interested in signing my band and recording my band and he’s frickin gorgeous, you know what are you going to do?! I mean, okay, sure.
Jimmy: And that was a major thing because here was somebody with all this newfound clout, Blondie was getting quite big, and you know he took us into the studio and we recorded the first single on Ork Records.
[Music: “Channel 13” by the Student Teachers]
Lori: We got to go into a studio with a window in front of us with a control board, record something, then come out and sit on a couch and listen to it played back. How cool is that?
Laura: Like, how did this happen, how did we get here?
Philip: It’s a make or break environment. We wanted to do good and he got good out of us.
David: There was this trajectory, a crescendo that was going up and up. Each step was the right and next step. Recordings we did with Jimmy… we recorded at Electric Ladyland Studios, I mean every step we took felt like we were being ushered into greatness.
Joe: We were rehearsing at a place, I think on 12th Street. It was February of 1980, and we had gigs that weekend playing CBGB’s playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday, weekend the following weekend at CBGB’s. So we’re practicing and the door opens and Jimmy walks in and behind him -
Lori: Oh my god that’s David Bowie.
Joe: Is David Bowie.
David: It was pretty cinematic, I have to say, because I think Bowie was always naturally cinematic, there were always invisible movie cameras on him wherever he went and he walked in...and in my memory he was wearing a kind of a trench coat and he like walked in like this amazing demigod that he was and was just kind of like acting polite. Like “oh, don’t mind me, I don’t want to interrupt, keep playing,” and so all of us were agog.
Laura: He went behind Lori and stood behind her and held the bass up to her and I think she was literally dying inside.
Lori: So David Bowie is sitting next to me, I’ve got you know like big curly hair. And I can feel his breath next to me. We’re tuning up. First thing I remember him saying is, I’m like, “give me an A,” to Bill, like hit the A key so I can tune to the A, and David Bowie says, “play A minor. It’s always best to tune to A minor.” I thought that was hilarious and I was making up what he could possibly mean by that. And he says, “you pull the strings and I’ll turn the peg.” So in retrospect, I think he probably didn’t think I was capable of tuning my bass. As a seventeen year old kid sitting next to the biggest rock star she’s ever been in the same room with that she’s absolutely madly in love with, I was like oh my god he’s turning the pegs and I’m pulling the strings, I so can die after this!
David: Lori was trembling because he was behind her talking into her ear holding her hand basically. And so that was to me it was like this is real, we’re gonna make it, this is it.
Lori: And then he was gone.
[Music: “Second Before” by the Student Teachers]
Joe: Things kept building, kept getting better gigs, and then got the gig opening for Iggy at the Palladium on Halloween and that was 1979 and that was huge, it was a huge place to play.
Interviewer: where have you been playing recently?
Student Teachers: We played at the Palladium recently. We opened for Iggy. We play there all the time (laughter) That was the largest audience we’ve ever played for, it was about three thousand, and the friendliest. It went over really well. We were a lot more frightened. We played also at My Father’s Place with Iggy and at the Palladium, it was a lot better reception than at My Father’s Place where they threw things at us. They have the best french fries…
Bill: We got a ton of attention very quickly. It all seemed very unreal like, “oh I guess we’re actually a band now and I guess we really making records and I guess we’re really going on tour.”
David: Phillip had this phrase he would say: we were teenagers surfing on the wave of the apocalypse so there was a sense of we are riding this, and we’re gonna ride it out and it’s gonna be an amazing ride.
Bill: I remember we were on tour and I think we were playing Philly and Philip, in his usual humor, said “oh we’re a rock band on tour we should trash the hotel room” so Lori got up dutifully unplugged a table lamp and then sat it gently into a garbage pail and she’s like “are we done trashing the hotel room?” And he’s like “yeah, that’s beautiful.”
David: We were headlining whole weekends at CBGB’s with bands that we used to open for, opening for us, drawing thousands of people and actually making money for the first time.
Lori: We were trying to be big kids and rock stars. We were living the life. We got to - I can’t believe I said “living the life.”
[“Second Before” ends]
David: I think when people saw us and they liked us, they thought this was something that took a lot of rehearsal. It didn’t, it took a little bit of acclimation. We loved each other and we could do this thing with each other and it worked. There was this sense that we were a unit. So that sense was really strong and it stayed really strong, all the way up until the kind of feeling of a rift started to develop, because of Laura spending less and less time with the band and spending more and more time with Blondie.
Laura: I think we should just go in there and take every cliche as far as lyrics and hooks, write a song that’ll go to the top ten, get a record contract with a fabulous lawyer and then be ourselves.
Student Teachers: Laura, of course has been hanging out with the Blondie people…(laughter)
David: All of us were feeling betrayed by her ascent. And I actually remember there was an interview with WNYU and she was saying stuff that, if I were around us at the time I would have said it was stuff that Jimmy was saying to her, which was: we’re in the process, we’re gonna have a photo shoot and put together a press kit and we have to do a bio and we were gonna have a demo and we’re gonna send it out to labels. And all of us were kind of like oh, I can tell where you’ve been hanging out, cause that’s not how we roll. We don’t have a press kit, we don’t have a bio. We’re us, we’re gonna play, somebody’s gonna love it and we’re gonna go. So that professionalism that Jimmy was trying to inculcate in her was not something that we felt very interested in. We just thought we’re gonna blow up, so that wedge kept growing.
Interviewer: What do you think is the thing that keeps the band together?
Student Teachers: Neurosis. No one else will have us. None of us are musicians, it just wouldn’t work with other people other than the people who started it. It’s band chemistry. You can add on but not delete. It’s not necessarily that we were a bunch of musicians that found an ad in the back of the Village Voice or something. We were just a bunch of kids going to concerts together and having a good time and found out that you could get in free at clubs if you played in a band. (Laura tries to talk: Can I)… go ahead Laura. one sentence from me…
Sara: Laura was living with Jimmy Destri and the band became less of a priority. She was focused on Jimmy’s life, hanging with David Bowie and other rock stars, waiting in greenrooms during Blondie’s tv appearances and traveling with them all over the world. Yet, she was still in high school, studying for exams and writing papers from tour busses and missing rehearsals...
Jody: She was always either away so we couldn’t rehearse, we couldn’t do anything because she was off touring the world. Blondie got so big so quickly and there was so much money and there was so much drugs and she was never around, and when she was around, she wasn’t around us.
Philip: She finally missed a sound check at a place called Squat Theater and the band, I guess the band that we were playing with that night was a band called Voodoo Shoes, Donna Destrie’s band, and the drummer of that band was Laura Hayden, so Hayden sat in during sound check cause Laura didn’t show up, and it sounded great, and we all looked at each other like “why do we need this fucking head ache, this fucking bullshit.”
Laura: I think David was the one who first said, “we want you out of the band” and I was shocked. I was just blown away. It had been my sense of identity for a couple of years and here they were saying, you know, you’re not with us anymore, and then Philip went on to explain why. They got up to leave and I think the last person who left was Philip. And I said I’m so sorry to them and he said he was sorry and then they left. I ran upstairs and I called Jimmy and I screamed in tears, “I’m not a Student Teacher anymore!”
Jody: The band definitely went on after Laura and we had another drummer, also named Laura, who was really good. But it didn’t feel the same. Somebody had kind of come in who, that was her role to be the drummer. It wasn’t that same feeling of all of us forming something and doing something together. It definitely became much more...Now we had gigs, and because we sort of knew if the band wanted to keep going, we knew I had to get gigs and we had to play, but I think after Laura left a lot of the joy was gone.
Joe: It was, to use a trite saying, like a loss of innocence. You know we’re not just kids putting on a show anymore, this is a real band and we had to make this ugly real life decision and it’s not so fun anymore.
[Music: “It’s Supposed to Be Fun” by the Student Teachers]
Philip: I think once Laura was out of the band, the initial chemistry was destroyed. That was pretty much the end of the good. We can surmise that Jimmy wouldn’t have been interested in the band if he hadn’t been interested in Laura, and if Laura hadn’t left the band the way she did we might have been able to do something more.
Sara: For the next six months or so, the band played gigs and they recorded new tracks, but it was a whole different thing. It was two years into the band’s life and two years later in their teenaged lives - which from 16 to 18 is kind of like a lifetime, right? - and it felt different. They were different. It was 1980, the scene was changing, the bands they loved weren’t making their favorite records anymore. Their original love story, the thing that propelled them to make music together so effortlessly, despite most of them not being musicians, ended. And their drive to keep making music together kind of did too. It was less about the collective now and a little more about ego. And in those last months of playing, the band slowly imploded.
Joe: We were doing a lot of speed then so we played everything a hundred and twelve miles an hour. You listen to some of that stuff and you’re like woah, take it easy.
[Music: “Samantha” by the Student Teachers]
Philip: It’s a very unproduced record. It sounds kind of terrible but also kind of psychotic and wonderful in the sense that it really captures the Student Teachers falling apart. That record just sounds like you know six people way high on speed or drunk clawing at each other….[“Samantha” ends]
Philip: Bill would offer me money to not drink before we went on stage.
David: You know he would get plastered and then sometimes on stage he would get very antagonistic. He would try and knock me into the audience. I wouldn’t call it passive aggressive. He got aggressive at times. So as much as that can be a fun visual, it was not a fun experience.
Philip: I wasn’t very nice to David. I wrote the songs that got on the records and I certainly, you know, threw that bit of small weight around.
David: We started to use an instrumental to open the set and I thought well okay if that’s what everybody wants I’m down with that kind of builds the drama more for when I come out. And then Philip had a song where basically all I did was duhdudududh..and then I’ll have another drink and then I’ll go. [Recording of the song plays alongside David] That was the whole song, those were the lyrics to the song, it said a lot about Philip at the time that the only lyric in the song is “I’ll have another drink and then I’ll go” but it also said a lot that all he wanted me to sing was “duhduhduhdudh” and so I felt a kind of betrayal.
Philip: I didn’t want David to sing my songs anymore and I was drinking a lot... we were in different worlds then it wasn’t... five people playing hearts backstage.
DAVID: So the idea of it being the right time for the band to end. That coincided with the emotions of the final gig.
[Music: “Christmas Weather” by the Student Teachers]
David: We’re all dressed in different Halloween outfits... but the conclusion of the final gig just erupted into mayhem and we all, a lot of our friends got up on stage with us, and then Philip fell off stage, and that was one of the nights he tried to knock me off stage, and there was just this melee that went on, that was like, we’re gonna make sure that this is the final gig. Now that we’ve decided we’re gonna make sure that this is it. It’s almost like we need to annihilate and bury this band... and that’s what we did.
David: (sings “Looks” acapella) “I’m getting tired of the view and I wish the lights would dim cause I see what this is leading to and it looks real grim cause I know I got my looks and you got yours. I guess I musta seen em in a million stores. Ah, looks. Oh man. Ah looks, oh man.”
[Music: “Looks” by the Student Teachers fades in under Philip talking. When Philip finishes, David continues singing over the old recording with his “oh man”]
Bill: I always loved David’s “oh man” in that. That was the moment, “ahh looks oh man” cause that’s when he was his most Steve Hurley or Bryan Ferry-like.
Lori: Getting to meet all of the people that constituted the Student Teachers and allowed us to be a band and to play at clubs like Max’ and CBGB’s and Hurrah was a justification of all of those days I spent locked in my room in an apartment on Avenue D in Brooklyn listening to Nico records, listening to Velvet Underground records, thinking there’s something different out there that I need to be a part of.
Laura: There was just this connection between the five of us and it was very deep.
David: [Sings along as “Looks” finishes]
David: The song ends with Philip’s very plaintive guitar solo.
[David imitates the guitar solo]
David: Oh, man….