Teacher/Musician Loves Walking Around Bridgewater
By Jen Bonds
(Feature from the Daily News-Record – February 12, 2003)
Imagine walking a mile in Jim Nipe’s shoes. The Bridgewater resident describes walking around his town as a favorite pastime, possibly serving as a dose of tranquility for a full and hectic life.
“I love going for walks around Bridgewater,” the easy-going Nipe says. “It’s a place where the people who run this town – and I say this absolutely seriously – actually care about making its citizen’s lives good.”
And with the walks around town – along with random-but-feels-right conversations – Nipe could possibly find peace in his seemingly double life of high school English teacher by day and rock musician by night. Or maybe the two aren’t that far apart.
The Bridgewater College alumnus has been a very prominent fixture in the lives of many, mainly Harrisonburg High School students and aspiring musicians, encouraging the utmost creativity with whatever activity consumes him.
Citing two especially influential teachers as the reason for his career decision 25 years ago, Nipe says teaching at the high school level “has always appealed to me because you can have such a profound effect on the kids.”
And Harrisonburg’s senior English, creative writing, and film studies teacher has always had a main objective for the students who come through his doors.
“I want them to be good writers, but I also want them to be good thinkers,” he says thoughtfully. “I have a lot of kids throughout the day who’ll come up to me and be like, “Wow, I never thought about it like that before.”
Remembering what it was like to be in the same place as his students, Nipe says he tries to make learning a little less painful with humor and discussion and also by encouraging students to use their individual creative capabilities.
“You sort of try to get them to do things without their realizing that they’re doing them,” he laughs. “I try to go back and remember what it was like to be 17 or 18.”
The information revolution of the past few decades has led to an evolution in teaching methods, and those changes are not lost on Nipe. When he was in school, technology meant watching a filmstrip or listening to a record a few times a semester.
Technology is so amazing,” he says, pointing to his high tech film studies class that mixes computers with film editing software. Nipe says he’s also got a principal and librarian to thank or being supportive of the arts “...and realizing the importance of the imagination.”
When the final bell rings at HHS, though, Nipe’s artistry valve doesn’t shut off. In his school shirt and tie, it’s hard to picture him at the forefront of a local band and sweaty rock and roll fiasco – his own brainchild, Book of Kills.
Named as a play on words after the old Irish Book of Kells, the troupe doesn't exude the heavy metal connotation the name suggests. Things also aren't what they seem as Nipe takes on the personification of Jim Shelley, named after a favorite poet, Percy Shelley.
"It's sort of a cover-up...I thought, well, if Bob Dylan can do it, I can do it, too," he chuckles. "He supposedly took his name from (poet) Dylan Thomas."
Playing since 1994, Nipe has written over 300 songs, recorded over 50 releases, and played countless performances with various people making up different incarnations of the band. He seemed to remain the only constant member until two years ago when he got together with the members of the current group. That band has covered a lot of ground and cultivated its own cult of fans.
"They just understand what I'm getting at," Nipe says with a conceding grin. "In a way, BOK is a band of misfits, and we attract a lot of misfits."
Attributing a wide range of musical influences in the shaping of the band's sound, Nipe says their style is sometimes hard to pin down. Ultimately it's a "punk jam band," he says, noting how a range of genres seem to emerge whenever people try to interpret them.
"I heard the best description once...a woman came up to me and said, "You sound like the Sex Pistols crossed with the Grateful Dead, interpreted by Bob Dylan, backed by Echo and the Bunnymen," he laughs. "But it's perfect when you think about it."
Having been immersed in music for the majority of his life, Nipe recalls the day the first spark was set for him as an 11-year-old.
It was the first night the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, a performance that would be the catalyst for American's rock'n'roll revolution.
"I still remember vividly sitting there in front of the TV with my mom and dad," he says smiling. "Dad kept complaining about how long their hair was."
Nipe recalls being "dumbstruck" and as a result of the performance he asked his parents for his first guitar, beginning the process of self-instruction.
"I tried to start teaching myself to play, and I don't know many more chords than I did when I was twelve," he laughs.
Though the band plays a majority of their shows in Harrisonburg, Nipe says most of his students aren't aware that he plays in a group--except for the ones who are in groups themselves.
"I had a lot of kids back in the mid-90s--when rock was big, Nirvana and all that--come up and say, 'Hey man, you're in a band?' But half the school seemed to be in a band," he says, recalling the grunge explosion that quickly replaced hair bands and heavy metal. Nipe says he still gets students who seek counsel in areas like performing and recording.
If Nipe can have it his way, he will continue to play as long as he can. He confesses that the dynamic of the people he comes into contact with gives him the drive to keep moving.
"I love hanging around musicians and people who hang around them," he says. "I just find them so interesting and I can talk to people like that."