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Rock ’n’ roll saved his life

Aaron Manley was troubled after his mother died. But his introduction to death metal changed all that

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / June 20, 2010

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WEST SPRINGFIELD — Usually it goes like this. A child starts listening to loud music. He moves into the basement, grows his hair long, and gets an electric guitar. He begins wearing black clothes adorned with skulls, and starts hanging around with kids of similar tastes. Adults shake their heads ruefully and wonder how this happened to such a nice boy.

But they do not say that about Aaron Manley.

He was saved by rock ’n’ roll.

His father and teachers say so.

On Tuesday evening, Manley, 20, will take the stage at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and perform classical guitar renditions of works by Handel, Carcassi, and Brouwer. The event will be the culmination of a remarkable turnaround for Manley, whose mother’s death in 1999 left him deeply traumatized. It is a transformation those who know him say they never expected.

The sullen boy who hated crowds has grown into an affable young man who can play for 350 strangers. The angry pupil who got thrown out of schools is studying in a college music program. At the root of this recovery was a music therapy program at a school that did not give up on him, and where he found, in death metal, a way to live his life.

“The music kind of relieved me of the stress I was going through,’’ Manley said last week in his West Springfield home as he fingerpicked a rendition of Carcassi’s “Prelude in D Major’’ on his electric guitar. The dim bulb in the ceiling fixture of his basement bedroom reflected on the chain dangling from his black Goth pants, and glinted dully in the skull-and-scythe inlay on the fretboard. “It allowed me to come out of my shell,’’ he said.

For six years, David Madeloni has had a front-row view of Manley’s odyssey. Madeloni is the director of the Experiment with Travel School, which is run by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. The Holyoke school is where Manley started exploring his interest in guitar and where he received his high school diploma last year.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who has had a more dramatic change,’’ Madeloni said. “He found an outlet for some of the things he was dealing with.’’

Manley was 8 when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Katherine Manley wanted to spare her son, and his parents decided to send him to a foster home.

“She was in a lot of pain,’’ said Aaron’s father, Don Manley. “She was on medicine. She didn’t want him to watch.’’

The separation backfired. He was 9 when she died.

“About a month after her death I had a mental breakdown,’’ Aaron Manley said. “I couldn’t be around people.’’

He became withdrawn, and sometimes violent. He stopped talking. He was sent to psychiatric hospitals and group homes. The day he turned 12 his father brought him home. But Aaron had trouble staying in schools. The report of one that expelled him is taped to a wall behind his guitar amplifier. “Some form of defiant disorder, depressive disorder,’’ it reads. “Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder . . .’’

Manley was 13 when he was enrolled in Experiment with Travel, a school for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Madeloni recalled the boy sitting with his head down in class, unresponsive, or hitting rocks toward nearby houses, and laughing when teachers asked him to stop. He was obsessed with blood, death, gore, and cemeteries. “Scary,’’ is how Madeloni described it.

“For the first six months, if I spoke to him he would meow,’’ Madeloni said. “He was as checked out as anybody.’’

Gilberto J. Sotolongo, who teaches math, said teachers could see that Manley was very bright. Although he rarely did any work in class, Sotolongo recalled, he passed the math MCAS.

“But there were quite a few times when I questioned whether he would graduate,’’ Sotolongo said. Sotolongo also runs the music program. He used a $5,000 grant to expand it, and create a studio with state-of-the art recording equipment. Teachers saw how quickly Manley took interest. In the angst-ridden lyrics of such groups as Hammerfall, In Flames, and Iron Maiden, he found expression for his own morbid thoughts.

“He blossomed,’’ Madeloni said. “He related to that music and the musicians and the people who go to those concerts.’’

Manley made friends. He found musicians to play with, created his own musical project, “Sounds of Apostasy,’’ and a website where he posts his recordings. He graduated and began studying classical music at Holyoke Community College.

“What he’s doing with music now has opened him up to other people,’’ said Don Manley. “I never thought it would happen, but I tell you, it’s awesome, it’s amazing.’’

When the Children’s Action Corps was looking for performers for its annual awards dinner, Madeloni suggested Manley. His performance at the JFK Library on Tuesday will open the event.

Manley also has a job. The kid who had so many problems in school has become a guitar teacher. Last week, he sat in the recreation room of the Experiment with Travel school, across from a 12-year-old boy who had just enrolled. He helped the boy tune, and patiently explained the fingering for chords.

“Good, you’re getting it!’’ Manley said, as his student tentatively strummed a G major.

“It’s always good when he gets it down,’’ Manley said later.

And here the young man who was such a troubled boy smiled.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.

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