SCHOOL HOUSE ROCK (2002)
When Class Is Dismissed, Harrisonburg High Teacher, Jim Nipe, Becomes Rock Star Jim Shelley
By Jennifer Holl, News-Record Correspondent
Smoky air wafts through the blue and yellow lights at Main Street Bar and Grill as crowds of teenagers leave their booth seats to sway closer to the stage. Book of Kills, one of Harrisonburg's longest standing rock and roll bands, has just broken into their first number, "Abandoned." The audience draws closer.
Casey Firkin, bare-chested and eyes closed, pounds a rhythm befitting the mohawk he dons on his head. His younger sister, Jane, strums a melodic rhythm and sings sweetly into the microphone. Bill Bird steps back, plucks his bass and smiles at the audience while Randy Simpson screeches out his screaming leads, jumping into the air and pounding his feet.
Front and center, shaggy-coiffed and bearded, peering out through wire-framed specs, Book of Kills frontman and originator, Jim Shelley, aka Jim Nipe, alternates spoken verse with wailing cries, melodic strumming with blistering solos.
Nipe plays under the name Jim Shelley as homage to British Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Following the example 60s folkster Bob Dylan set when he changed his surname from Zimmerman to reference poet Dylan Thomas, Nipe said, "He named himself after a poet so I did too."
Nipe's nom de plume is only one of his band's many literary ties. As a Harrisonburg High School English teacher for the past 21 years, Nipe has interwoven his love of literature into his passion for music in several ways, from his poet-inspired alias to his poetic lyrics to the band's name, which refers to a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, in itself a play on the ancient Anglo-Saxon "Book of Kells."
Nipe has played and recorded under the name Shelley since he began Book of Kills in 1988. Originally Nipe's solo project, Book of Kills has seen several permutations in its 13-year history and has featured some 22 different musicians consisting at various times of Nipe's friends, former students, and local musicians found through advertisements.
Shelley, though, remains the constant. Thirty albums and as many as 100 (actually over 300 - JS) recordings later, the band is a regular favorite at Harrisonburg's Little Grill and plays regularly at Main Street Bar and Grill and Charlottesville's Tokyo Rose.
Nipe began playing music at 12 when his parents bought him his first electric guitar from Sears. He has played in and out of bands since he was 15 until forming Book of Kills. "I just can't imagine not doing it," Nipe says. "It makes life seem a good deal more interesting."
Praised by critics for their "variety and depth" and known locally for their punk-inspired, hard-edged tunes as well as their melodic ballads, Book of Kills's latest incarnation features brother-sister team Casey and Jane Firkin on drums and rhythm guitar respectively, Bird on bass guitar, and newest member Simpson on lead guitar.
Jane Firkin wrote her first song, "Lunar Lullaby", in the bathtub when she was 12-years old, and she credits her musical parents for her and her brother's abilities.
Bird has played guitar since he was a teenager. He joined a heavy metal band at age 15 before he even knew how to play.
Simpson, who played his first gig with Book of Kills in July, attributes his talent and inspiration to his father, Mike Simpson, a local singer, songwriter, and guitarist.
Not only does each member of the band claim a different musical background, but the all share different ties to Nipe as well. The Firkins met Nipe and joined the project last year. Bird and Simpson are both former HHS students, and Andrew Neckowitz, the band's manager, is a long-time Book of Kills fan and one of Nipe's former students.
Neckowitz met Nipe in 1991 as a freshman in Nipe's creative writing club. A friend introduced him to one of Nipe's recordings.
"Every formation of (Book of Kills) was unique and interesting," Neckowitz said. "But these four people are the best the band has ever seen."
Nipe said maintaining a band with so many different members and balancing the project with his teaching career has been worth the effort.
"We all have fun together and love playing music beyond words," Nipe said. "I think people realize that when they come to see us. In fact, one girl who has come to see us several times told me that she liked to watch us play because it made her feel happy because she could see we were happy to be playing."
And Nipe happily juggles his duties as teacher and his passion for music, noting the support he has received from the high school. "(The faculty at HHS) are really positive, and the students are really interested in it," Nipe said. "I get questions every week (from students who ask) 'are you in a band?'"