Long Live Rock School

Hey kids! Dave Simon's music academy can transform you from a painfully shy teen to a guitar-slinging badass! Even your parents will approve!

Simon's high school new-wave/funk/ reggae band Blank Space, which specialized in "party music people could dance to," was far from a basement-only proposition. At various times during the 1980s Blank Space opened for Fishbone, the Violent Femmes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Fun fact: Jeff Tweedy's band the Primitives — which later morphed into Uncle Tupelo — opened for Simon's band.)

"He was completely obsessed with what he was doing. Very driven," recalls Blank Space bandmate Michael Apirion. "When he gets into a style of music, he really gets into it. He was new-wave Dave, he was ska-boy Dave, he was funky Dave. He was punk-rock Dave. He was a rapper for a while. [But] he's not a bandwagon jumper. He believes in those styles."

Jordan Heimburger, Rock School senior staffer and guitarist 
in Red Eyed Driver.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jordan Heimburger, Rock School senior staffer and guitarist in Red Eyed Driver.
Even in costume, bassist Caroline Newman brings the rock.
Jennifer Silverberg
Even in costume, bassist Caroline Newman brings the rock.

When Simon developed an interest in songwriting and hip-hop production, he bought a sampler and moved to New York City. ("Isn't that what you do once you buy a sampler?") He landed an internship at Spin, appeared in the pilot of MTV's The Real World and auditioned as an MTV VJ.

He also recorded a demo by high school friend Louise Post, who'd go on to greater fame as the vocalist for Veruca Salt.

"I've always been inspired by his passion for music and education, and devotion to music," Post says by phone from a recent Veruca Salt tour stop. "He really lives, breathes, sleeps and dreams it. He knows how to make things happen and follow through with his ideas and projects. There's nothing half-assed to what he does."

Simon's idea for a rock school took shape in 1996 when he was living in San Francisco, but he didn't have the money to follow through. Yet even after moving back to St. Louis for good in 2000 and marrying two years later, the idea stuck.

In 2002 he and wife Keri worked as counselors at a self-esteem-building summer camp for kids. At the time he was working in Savvis Inc.'s IT department; Keri was a caseworker at BJC. Mounting frustration with his job came to a head at the close of the weeklong camp session.

"We just loved being around kids again, being around teenagers," Simon says. "It was depressing for us to go back to our jobs — more me than her — and be in corporate America. Being around kids and feeling like I was impacting their lives had really helped me get back to my rock & roll roots. So we said, 'Hey, maybe we can do a rock & roll camp, a summer camp.' And the more I researched it, the more I thought, 'God, why not make it a school, a full-time thing?'"

John Covelli, Simon's childhood friend and college roommate, joined up. In September 2003, a year after Simon's camp-counseling epiphany, they rented space at McMurray Music.

"We had an open house," Simon says. "We had no idea what rock school was even going to be — I just got up on stage and talked. I didn't even know what to say, I had nothing planned. That's how things were run for the first couple months."

Eight kids signed up for the first session. By December enrollment swelled to eighteen; the following March, sixty. By the fall of 2004, the school had outgrown its basement digs and moved to Olivette.

There were, however, growing pains. The original division of duties — Covelli in charge of the business side, Simon handling curriculum and music — wasn't working as the enterprise evolved.

Simon says he had a career crisis when he realized that what he really loved in a job was the creativity — whether it came in the form of playing music or running a business.

Increasingly, he found the latter vocation most satisfying.

It dawned on Simon that while he had no formal business training, the responsibilities he'd assumed in his bands — "getting on the phone wheeling and dealing with the club owners" — provided an excellent foundation for running a company. The bigger adjustment would be learning to put those skills to practical use — and leaving behind the democratic decision-making process he knew so well from rock & roll.

"I realized if I'm going to be the owner of the business, I have to run the business. I have to think like an entrepreneur," Simon says today. "I got this business off the ground because of what I can do, because of what I know and experience from music. But now I realize the success of it is determined [by] my skills as a businessman."

The casualty was Simon's professional and personal relationship with Covelli, who left the school last November.

"With John and I, it was like two captains on one ship," Simon says. "We both realized that one person has to be the boss. Partnership is tricky. Somebody has to be the guy who goes, 'This is how it's going to be done.' That was really a huge adjustment for me. My biggest fear was, I didn't want to be an asshole. I realized, 'Wait a minute, I guess I kind of have to learn how to be one. I have to learn how to come down on people.'"

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