If you’re a teacher and want instant cred with your middle school students, try this: Land a hit song in a Marvel Comics hit film.
“It was shocking,” Larry Gonsky says of the opening sequence of the newly released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Shocking because it features Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), the 1972 chart-topping tune by Gonsky’s old band, Looking Glass.
In fact, the song–about a beautiful barmaid who yearns for her seafaring man–appears several times in the sci-fi adventure. The band even gets a plug, and Kurt Russell’s character calls Brandy “possibly Earth’s finest composition.”
“I would tend to disagree,” says Gonsky, a music teacher at the Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township.
“Guys like Mozart and Beethoven are pretty good. Not to mention other pop bands. But it’s nice that a whole new generation of people will be exposed to our music.”
So maybe it’s not Mozart. But Gonsky credits guitarist/vocalist Elliot Lurie, his former bandmate, with writing a “really well crafted song,” just the same.
Brandy won over legendary producer Clive Davis, and enabled keyboard player Gonsky, Lurie, drummer Jeff Grob and the late bass player Pieter Sweval to trade gigs at Rutgers frat houses and Shore bars for a taste of life as pop stars.
They would play Carnegie Hall and open for the Beach Boys, the Kinks, Jeff Beck, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Jim Croce.
A teenaged Cameron Crowe interviewed them for Creem magazine. Dogs and strippers suddenly were named Brandy. (Lurie modified the name of his former girlfriend, Randye.) Gonsky met George Harrison, and lent Bob Dylan a dime for a phone call.
“It was good,” says the soft-spoken Rutgers grad.
Looking Glass bonded, commune-style, in a house rented from Harry Chapin’s aunt on an 82-acre estate in Glen Gardner.
But the band soon faced an identity crisis. Fans of Brandy were put off by the group’s rocking live act.
Anxious to capitalize on the song’s success, the band released another pop-flavored single, Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne, in 1973. It reached No. 33, making Looking Glass “One-and-a-Half-Hit Wonders,” Gonsky jokes.
He saw the writing on the wall when Looking Glass appeared at a Midwestern fair with another fledgling act. It was the Eagles.
“They were so great…they don’t come along but once in a generation, bands like that,” he recalls, still in awe.
‘…THE TEACHER I NEVER HAD’
Looking Glass splintered. Lurie tried a solo career, then became a Hollywood music supervisor, choosing soundtracks for projects such as the 1985 John Travolta/Jamie Lee Curtis film Perfect.
Gonsky performed at private functions, before heeding someone’s observation that he would make a great teacher. Twenty-three years ago, the Paterson native was hired by the Morris School District, where he strives to infuse his musical instruction with life lessons from the music business.
“I try to inspire the kids. Usher, Michael Jackson–everybody was in 6th grade at some point. You just have to work hard, you have to be passionate about what you love, and you have to try really hard. You have to give your best effort and be focused,” says Gonsky, a father of three with three grandsons.
Video: Looking Glass sings ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)’
The middle school choral program has grown five-fold since he arrived, and the choir fares well in competitions with high schools and private schools, Gonsky says. He writes songs and arrangements for the kids, tailored to their individual strengths so they can shine.
“I decided I would be the teacher I never had,” says Gonsky, whose side projects include an album of Chanukah songs.
When he chooses covers for his classes, he seeks lyrics with positive messages. His students sing everything from the Dixie Cups’ Chapel of Love and the Black Eyed Peas’ Where Is the Love to hits from Phantom of the Opera and (they begged him!) Hamilton.
Divas are not tolerated. Gonsky’s golden rule:
“If you’re not helpful and kind, you’re out.”
Many of his students have seen Guardians 2, and yes, Gonsky says his stock has risen with them.
No, he doesn’t miss the good old days.
“My passion is what I do now. Because it’s more face to face. It’s a cliché, but I know that I change lives, I know I save people’s lives every day. I know, because people come back and tell me. And so this is what I was really cut out to do. It took me a long time to figure it out.”
And no, despite Guardians 2, and placements in Charlie’s Angels and A Very Brady Sequel, and one week as the world’s hottest record, Brandy is unlikely to make Gonsky a multimillionaire.
“But,” he says with a sly smile, “I might become a multi-hundred-aire.”