Steve La Cerra remembers a high school teacher, mentor, rock 'n' roller and lifelong friend

Brooklyn, N.Y., 1979

My friend John is a year ahead of me in the same school: John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. At the time, Dewey was a radical alternative to other NYC high schools. The school year consisted of seven-week “cycles.” At the end of the cycle you received a grade and moved on to the next topic and teacher. There were no numeric or letter grades for the classes. You received an “M” for Mastery of a subject, an “R” for Retention (failure and repeat), and—if you excelled in a particular class—you’d earn an “ME” certificate (Mastery With Excellence). The variety of classes was astonishing. I took three cycles of Shakespeare for the lit portion of my English requirement because I wanted to.

Classes were organized into 20-minute modules. A class would meet for 40 minutes on some days and 60 minutes on others, but over the course of the week you received the required instruction time in the subject. That left room for independent study time. For some of us that meant taking an indie class; for others it meant smoking pot and playing Frisbee. I walked the fine line between taking independent classes, playing Frisbee with the hippies, and not smoking pot.

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Being the old days of NYC public education, there was a music requirement. I wondered how John would survive this hurdle since he was (to be polite) not very musical. One day he started telling me about the Rock History class.

Me: “You’re studying what?” (Remember, it’s 1979. People still had delusions that the Beatles would reunite).

John: “We’re studying The Beatles and the history of rock music.”

Me: “Are you kidding me? That can’t be possible.” (And it otherwise wasn’t in 1979).

Steve La Cerra, left, with Victor Solotoff in 2017.

Steve La Cerra, left, with Victor Solotoff in 2017.

John told me when the class would meet next, and since I had an independent study module at the same time, I decided to tag along to witness this miracle of education.

And that’s when I met Victor Jay Solotoff. He was awesome. He taught us how The Beatles and other rock artists changed the world. He showed us the Yesterday and Today Butcher Block album cover and we gasped. We analyzed why The Beatles would make such an album cover, and why everyone flipped out when it was released. Eventually we analyzed Pink Floyd’s The Wall and talked about bands like Rush and Black Sabbath. In school. In class—not just in the hallways or while playing Frisbee.

Vic knew I was a drummer and mentioned that he intended to start a Rock Band class. I was all over it.

Me: “I’m your drummer.”

Vic (with that sparkle in his eye that I would later learn to love): “You’ll have to audition.”

No one would stand in my way for that gig. The school had plenty of great drummers in the jazz program, but they didn’t know Led Zeppelin from a lead pipe. They could audition all they wanted. That seat was going to be mine.

I auditioned and got the gig. Vic played bass and supervised us, teaching us classic rock songs like “Communication Breakdown,” “Heartbreaker,” “Paranoid,” “Barracuda,” and “Wheel in The Sky.” He patiently drilled me while I learned to play “Roxanne.” Our first performance at the school completely pissed off the head of the jazz program because the John Dewey Rock Band (aka Double Barrel) blew the lid off the auditorium, and it was the talk of the campus for the following weeks. I think that Vic secretly liked the fact that it bothered his nemesis.

Later that year Vic took us out gigging. Local clubs, other schools, Prospect Park. He’d pack our gear into his van and drive us to the gigs. We’d rehearse at the school till 9 or 10 p.m., and he’d drive us all home. Our parents didn’t have to worry because he watched over us like a hawk. It was a dream come true for me.

Vic was also the senior advisor, and I’m sure he noticed that I was hesitating to apply for college. I knew I’d go to college, but when you’re 16 you don’t know what you want to do with the rest of your life. Having already done a few recording sessions, I was intrigued with the recording studio. At the time there were three options for studying audio: a six-month certificate program at the Institute for Audio Research (no way my parents would go for that) or four-year degree programs at the University of Miami and New York University.

Vic: “So, you know what you’re gonna do after you graduate?”

Me: “Um… not really, but I saw that NYU has a Music Tech program.”

Vic: “Well, what are you waiting for?”

And there you have it. With one well-placed kick in my ass, Vic Solotoff, my high school music teacher, bandmate and friend set me on my path. I can recall that day in his office clearly: “What are you waiting for?”

I could tell you when Vic was born, and that he earned bachelor’s and master’s of music degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. I could tell you that he was an amazing musician. I could tell you that he earned a second master’s degree in music tech from NYU. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to what he did for my life and for the lives of the students he encountered. He gave us a sounding board without judging. He guided us kindly and quietly. He shared his love of music with us. Vic was one of the most important inspirations I’ve had in my life.

After I graduated Dewey I returned to work with Vic when he needed a drummer. His Rock Band class had grown to the point where there were enough students to create several bands, so it was only natural to have a showcase for them. Vic masterminded his epic Rock-A-Thons, where all of the school rock bands had the chance to perform. He’d stand at the side of the stage like a proud papa as each band completed their set. He gave the scrappy rock ‘n’ roll kids the chance to show off their stuff in an era when it was otherwise unacceptable in school.

That’s how I’ll remember him. I’ve lost way more than my high school music teacher; I’ve lost a mentor, bandmate and friend. Vic, you left us way too soon. I will miss you dearly.