Passed/Failed: I Marched to My Own Beat

An Education in the Life of John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

The Independent, June 2, 2005
By John Linnell

John Linnell plays accordion and keyboards. He is half of US rock band They Might Be Giants, who have sold three million records worldwide. Their hits include the single 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' and 'Boss of Me', the theme from the TV series Malcolm in the Middle. The children's album No! and the compilation A User's Guide to They Might Be Giants: Melody, Fidelity, Quantity are both out now. A Disney education DVD, Here Come the ABCs, will be released shortly.

'Public School 158' " I don't think the school had any other name " was a grim, old building in New York, old-fashioned even in the mid-Sixties. We had a grumpy teacher and in the 'recess' yard there was a double yellow line which you had not to cross: boys on one side and girls on the other. It was bizarre. What were prepubescent children going to get up to that they had to be separated?

At seven, I went to Dalton, a private school and a more cheerful place: no yellow line. The following year, we moved about 200 miles, out of inner- city New York to Lincoln, Massachusetts, a green, leafy place. I was a little freaked out by the noise of insects: I was used to the sound of fire engines.

At Dalton we had dressed in blazers and now I looked really stuffy to the other kids. I came home from my first day at the public elementary school in Lincoln and told my mother we had to get rid of all my clothes. I started dressing like this: sneakers, jeans, pullover/shirt. I haven't really changed my wardrobe since.

I had a report in my last year in New York which said: 'John marches to the beat of a different drummer.' At the end of my first year at Lincoln, I got a report saying: 'John marches to the beat of a different drummer.' Exactly the same. My mother thought it might be true.

At Lincoln-Sudbury High School I met Mr Flansburgh [the other half of They Might Be Giants], who is a year younger. We have been calling each other by our last names since we were young; it's mildly facetious. He was somebody doing spectacularly oddball things. He wrote a play of 100 acts, each a paragraph long. No, it was never put on. I felt more run-of-the-mill. We both joined the school newspaper, writing and drawing cartoons.

I started playing the piano but was not very serious. John Flansburgh didn't pick up a guitar until his last year at school. I was getting less focused in my actual school work and was spending a lot of time in the band room. I joined the high school concert band, which was the equivalent of a marching band except everyone's sitting. I played the bass clarinet; I picked it up and taught myself. You didn't have to be very good. Students had the freedom to just wander in and do what they wanted to do.

Overall, school was a valuable resource for both of us, but it wasn't really the studies that led us to what we do now; it was the social aspect, meeting other people. I took music courses: I liked even the music theory and was good at it. I was not particularly good at the school work, but I fulfilled all the requirements and graduated.

John Flansburgh was more on track with his work; he did go to college for five years " to the stuffy Washington University, then to the completely alternative Antioch College, in Ohio, and finally to the Pratt Institute, the exclusive art school in Brooklyn.

At 18, I went to the University of Massachusetts. I spent a year doing liberal arts, which included English, maths, some drawing and Spanish. I considered studying music as a major subject but the programme was rigid, so I took a year off. That turned into 27 years. I still feel a little residual guilt.