The Music Road Trip - The Man in the Moon
Updated: Aug 11, 2021
The Man in the Moon
“There are patterns in fingerprints and stars in the sky We often do things and don't know why And waiting for the chance to be set free A firefly, a firefly, in a jar.” - Michael Monagan
Michael Monagan has been given many nicknames during his 40-year career as a singer/songwriter. Some of the most memorable include, “Circus Boy,” “Cool,” and “Bananaman.” But the one that has stuck – the one that has become his moniker in both physical and virtual realities – is Moonman.
Ironically, Michael claims to have no memory of when and how he became known as Moonman. But once you’ve heard his story and listened to his music, the nickname will make perfect sense.
The first thing you need to know about Michael is that his story spans several generations. It is rooted in the lives and music of his ancestors who thrived through a combination of hard work and public service. By the time Michael appeared on the scene in 1951, his father (a graduate of Harvard law school) was practicing law and serving as an alderman in the town of Waterbury, Connecticut. He would go on to run for Congress and serve in the House of Representatives for 14 years.
Michael remembers his father as a serious and formal man with a fun-loving streak when it came to music. “My parents absolutely loved getting friends together for a music party- something that I have inherited,” Michael says. “Dad and mom and their friends would sit around the piano and sing everything from old Irish tunes and songs from the Great American Songbook to opera and classical music.”
Though his parents had high expectations (majoring in business was often mentioned), it’s important to understand that Michael and his siblings were byproducts of their times. Michael put words and music to his experiences in songs like “Runnin with the Boys,” and “Soul Survivor.” In them he chronicles the process of evolving from a young boy flattening pennies on railroad tracks, to a socially awkward teen with zero dance skills, to a college student grappling with the reality of a war gone horribly wrong. “I argued with my dad about how his generation was torpedoing the country's future,” Michael says, “because the brightest kids I knew were all dropping out of society.”
The combination of disillusionment with politics and his growing desire to write and perform his own music (he’d taught himself to play the guitar by then) led Michael to do two things. First, he decided to earn an elementary school teaching credential at Boston University. Thanks to a misunderstanding about requirements, however, his only option became a secondary credential. This would have allowed him teach to high school in the Boston area and complete the elementary credential in his free time were it not for the fact that Boston schools were in the process of integrating their faculty. Suddenly teaching was not an option. Frustrated and still hoping to find a way to launch his music career, Michael made his second decision – start a new life in California.
The Kids of Widney High
“Music is clearly an end unto itself as well as a building block in the development of any student.” - Michael Monagan
Michael arrived in Los Angeles in 1979, but the only teaching position available was at an inner city high school. There he received a rude awakening that would stay with him throughout his career. “A student of mine was shot and killed when he walked out of my math class into the school yard. His body lay there all day and still hadn’t been removed by quitting time. I’d heard the expression, ‘life is cheap’ before, but this made it all too real.”
The lessons learned at that first school stuck with Michael. When he was offered a position at Widney High - a high school serving students with severe disabilities – he had no idea that he would be staying more than 28 years or that he and his “special needs” students would open the hearts and minds of people around the world. What he did know was that in Widney High he’d found a place where he could make a difference. “People are afraid. They have preconceived notions about kids with disabilities,” says Michael. “It’s incredibly rewarding if you can put those prejudices aside and embrace this part of our population that is in many ways no different than we are.”
Michael began his teaching career at Widney by introducing his students to poetry using Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. His goal was to help them understand how words can be used to translate their thoughts and feelings into lyrics and music. “The kids would come up with an idea, and then we’d sit down at the piano and discuss how to approach it - the style, rhythm, and meaning - until we had it worked out,” Michael says.
Then one day, while watching another teacher perform plays with her students, he had an idea. “I thought it would be fun to do a musical. So I had my students write some songs for the play. They’d start with a topic they liked and flesh it out. They had all these great ideas. Towards the end of the year I thought, ‘We should really record these.’” It was then that the Kids of Widney High (KOWH) became an official group.
Music is Personal
“Someday, love will find me, someway love will find me. I have faith and hope that someday love will find me.” – Michael Monagan, Someday
While Michael’s teaching career was taking off, he continued to write and perform his own music and play in pick-up bands around southern California. It was while playing in one of these bands for a wedding at Wildwood School that he met Gaili Schoen, a music teacher. “Gaili knew Patrick, our drummer, so it was natural for us to meet. She stuck around after the show and we started talking.”
One thing led to another, and Michael and Gaili were married in 1989. The impact their relationship has had on Michael professionally and personally is profound. He’s not only distilled his experiences into songs like “Waterfall,” “Me ‘N U,” “Green Eyes,” and “Boogie Woogie Baby Girl,” but applied his insights into what it means to be a partner and a parent to his work at Widney.
“I’m so grateful that I spent time as a child visiting Widney High and making friends with his students,” says Kylie Monagan, Michael’s oldest daughter. “I think those experiences made me a more inclusive person. I’m so proud when I tell people about his time there. I wish some of our political leaders could spend just a day there and see what a difference a great teacher like my dad can make in the kids’ lives.”
“Surround me. Throw you arms around me. Surround me with your light and we will fight for our love.” - Michael Monagan, Surround Me
As Michael and the kids began to record their work, they started to attract the attention of others in the music community. Jackson Brown offered Michael and the kids recording time in his studio; Jose Feliciano conducted a sing-a-long with the kids; Kurt Cobain became a fan; Mike Patton, lead singer in the band “Faith No More” asked the kids to open a show for him; and Michael and the kids were featured on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Michael himself was the recipient of many awards including the Los Angeles Music Centers BRAVO award, and named Los Angeles Unified School District’s Special Education Teacher of the Year.
Though gratifying, the response to the Kids of Widney High was not surprising to Michael. “A lot of those cool, popular musicians used to be outsiders too. A lot of them were unpopular growing up and understood what a difference it can make when you find a way to channel your energy artistically.”
The Kids of Widney High released their first CD, “Special Music From Special Kids” in 1989. It was produced on a shoestring but almost immediately started to get attention. Undeterred by their disabilities, the kids cheerfully branched out into other creative endeavors including a clothing line called, “Better Bacon,” radio appearances, filmmaking, and compilation albums. The second album, entitled “Let’s Get Busy” was released 10 years later in 1999 and the kids were subsequently featured performing Pretty Girls" (a KOWH original) and a special version of the 60s classic “Respect” in the movie “The Ringer.” Michael and the Kids rewrote “Respect” as a call to arms for people with disabilities.
Act Your Age
“We’re here to kick ass, rescue your summer, and chew bubble gum.” – “Pee Wee”
In 2010, a new and ambitious plan was proposed. Michael and the kids would tour the west coast, starting in Los Angeles and working their way up to Seattle, Washington. The kids would not only play at venues in each of the towns and cities they visited, but would be shadowed by a video crew with a goal of creating a feature-length film.
Michael had this to say about the endeavor. “Your first reaction is to want to protect them. But on the other hand you want to get them out there, give them a chance to see what they can do. Sure, they might fail, but if they do they can always try again. This is called ‘the dignity of risk.’ So I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
The full-length documentary made by Matthew Klickstein and Jesse Alba of the KOWH’s west coast tour is entitled “Act Your Age” (see the official trailer here). It’s both hilarious and deeply moving. In it, the kids are clearly having the time of their lives and are warmly received at each of their performances. However, there are sobering moments that underscore the tour’s purpose. Luis “Pee Wee” Fernandez, one of the group’s most outspoken members, often opens shows with this demand, “Stop associating us with our disabilities,” and Elisa del la Torre’s readings from her book about her experiences dealing with disrespect often bring tears to people’s eyes. However, it the kids’ lively performance of the reworked version of “Respect” that drives the tour’s inherent message home:
What you want, baby, I got it What you need, you know I got it All we're asking for is a little respect What's up, what's up, respect! What's up, what's up, what's up, respect! Don't ignore me, when you walk by I'm not that different, and that's no lie All we're asking for is a little respect What's up, what's up, respect! What's up, what's up, what's up, respect! Please don't tease me, and treat us like dirt You don't know how much it hurts All we're asking for is a little respect What's up, what's up, respect! What's up, what's up, what's up, respect!
Becoming the Man in the Moon
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” – Norman Vincent Peale
Michael retired from teaching in 2014 after 30 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “When I retired, there was no one else who could run the music program at Widney, and the administration didn’t show any enthusiasm for performing arts.”
The principal of Widney High had this to say about changes that would be made once Michael retired. “We’re going to shift the focus to be around more job skills, whether it is audio visual or setting up PA systems - things they can do in their community for a job - so they can contribute.”
“It’s a curious and very frustrating thing,” Michael says in response to the administration’s plans. “I created and made an entire music program available for them to use after I left, but they chose to bury it. Instead, the kids are going to get plodding, uncreative academics. Even though the administration knows and can see how important the arts are, it’s like they pretend they don’t exist.”
Since retiring, Michael has been focusing on doing what he loves best - writing and performing music. He’s embarked on an ambitious solo career recording three albums –“ Echo,” “Soul Survivor,” and “Restless” - featuring a crack band of LA musicians known as, ”The Sound.” Members of The Sound have played with a wide range of artists from Beyonce to Rod Stewart. He currently hosts a weekly sing along party – reminiscent of those hosted by his parents long ago – on ZOOM and a front porch music concert with his wife Gaili each Friday.
Finally, just for fun, and because the idea intrigued him, Michael signed up for an account in the virtual world of Second Life and has been doing live performances there as the avatar Moonman several times a week. “In a way I’m doing what I described in my song, “Open Your Heart,” Michael says. “The song is a plea that appeals to a higher calling. I think of it as a meditation on love, as a way to connect us all. To me, that’s what love is – the inexplicable and all encompassing connection with other human beings.”
The Man in the Moon LIVE!
Michael will be performing LIVE on the Music Road Trip Twitch channel hosted by Jena Ball on Wednesday April 7, 2021. He will also be answering questions after the show. Viewers can chat with one another, submit questions, and win cool Road Trip gear. The concert is FREE.
For details visit: https://www.braidedlives.com/mrt-monagan
To learn more about Michael’s music, his work with the Kids at Widney High, and The Music Road Trip (including how to suggest musicians you'd like us to feature) visit the links below:
1. Website: http://www.monagan.com/
2. Kids of Widney High archived site: https://web.archive.org/web/20190101173952/http://kidsofwidneyhigh.com/
3. Kids of Widney High YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMB7pWsqaaGHYvwXsA7SQYw
4. Mr. Monagan’s Last Class: https://vimeo.com/78844155
The Music Road Trip: https://www.braidedlives.com/mrt-monagan
Press inquiries, please contact Jena Ball at Jena@BraidLives.com
Copyright 2021 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.