All the Young Punks

The Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center relieves social constipation, one ear-splitting roar at a time

"The guy who gave me the Tom Waits CDs was my English teacher, Mr. Leftridge," says Tony Krus.

"He gave me Velvet Underground CDs too," adds the eighteen-year-old Webster Groves High School senior, who by night plays keyboard and guitar in a hard-rockin' teen band called the Happening.

Way to go, Mr. Leftridge. Thanks to you, on the eve before April Fool's, in a no-frills south-city performance space known as the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, Krus' band is, as its name suggests, fucking happening.

Jennifer Silverberg
For "29-year-old" Lemp founder Mark Sarich, 
cacophony is bliss.
Jennifer Silverberg
For "29-year-old" Lemp founder Mark Sarich, cacophony is bliss.

Krus' classmate, Happening lead vocalist Adam McDaniel, is wearing a green naval commander's jacket borrowed from his high school, perhaps permanently. His onstage shtick, hammy as hell, lacks anything resembling militaristic order.

"Yo-ho!" screams McDaniel, with John Hoslte's break-beat drums crackling in the background.

Mid-verse, McDaniel's eyeballs, aimed at the bangs of his greasy, wavy coiffure, all but disappear into the top of his head. He approaches the microphone at crowd level -- the Lemp doesn't have an elevated stage -- as if he's going to spit out a sassy lyric. Instead, he hurls himself into the fray, nuzzling boys, girls and all points in between. The floor, too, soon becomes McDaniel's pal as he stops, drops and writhes upon it, eyes skyward, eliciting smiles from a lanky young crowd that's high on life.

"We still can't seem to get our heads around the idea that people genuinely enjoy our music," McDaniel gushes post-show. "I want to hug all those kids so much."

The feeling is mutual.

"They're so young," says audience member Stephen Inman, "that they're adorable."

In the front row of onlookers, one notices that, uh, one of these things does not belong here. Specifically, front and center stands a short, middle-aged gentleman with neat, shoulder-length brown hair, three-day stubble, slightly shabby brown loafers and a navy-blue blazer with gold buttons on the sleeves. This bloke, who looks old enough to have sired each and every yearling in the Spartan, white-walled room, is clapping in time with the Happening's kick drum, his broad, toothy smile betraying an affection for the Webster teens as genuine as young Inman's.

The peculiar old fellow is none other than Mark Sarich, community college instructor, avant-garde musician, punk-rock junkie and -- most important to the 50 teenage-to-twentysomething kids in the room -- founder and chief operating officer of the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center (LNAC). While Sarich, who is of Serbian descent, concedes that he's in his forties, he nonetheless celebrates his 29th birthday each and every March 16. You're only as old as you feel, Sarich figures, and if he's wearing the same band's T-shirt under his blazer as the acne victim next to him, that's all he needs to keep on cheating 30.

Sarich might be the only person in St. Louis who can get away with wearing a Cosby sweater to a hardcore gig. He's the Lemp's den father, and when there's music playing, you'd best stand for the band. This is Sarich's code of conduct, as are his rules of no booze and a fixed five-dollar cover charge.

The Lemp's seating area looks like a frat-house TV room (sans empty fifths of Wild Turkey and crushed cans of Busch). The comparison isn't far off: Touring acts often spend the night on the center's half-dozen couches before shoving off the next morning to play a furniture warehouse break room or some dude's basement in Lawrence, Little Rock or the like. But before they leave, Sarich will inevitably offer to buy them Mexican pastries on Cherokee Street or a plate of hash browns at the ramshackle Riverside Diner on South Broadway.

At stage right is the lone bathroom. Should one seek relief upon the commode, his or her gaze will inevitably fall upon a framed portrait of Miles Davis. Fitting, when you consider that most of the Lemp's music is more structurally akin to free-form jazz than to mainstream metal -- a quirk of the "post-hardcore" genre that has not fallen on deaf ears.

"It's more varied," says Sarich, who speaks as though permanently hypercaffeinated (and at times he is). "It has the drive that hardcore has, but it's more intelligent."

Sometimes the scene at the Lemp feels like one big love fest. Kids hug frequently, needle playfully and dance without a hint of self-consciousness. But a Dead show it ain't. The Lemp, birthed in the grunge decade as a sleepy, multifaceted gathering space for a downtrodden neighborhood and kids of all ages, has morphed into a destination venue on the national deep underground hard-rock, experimental-noise and improvisational-jazz concert circuits. Among the lengthy roster of out-of-town acts that have lately graced the club's motley stage are the Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, An Albatross, Xiu Xiu and Khanate -- bands whose record sales are relatively scant but whose live followings are loyal and ardent enough to support national tours.

The average human has never heard of these bands. The club's denizens are not mere rock snobs, but dyed-in-the-wool aural fetishists -- the sort of sick sonic puppies who would welcome an army of bloodthirsty red ants to the innards of their eardrums, if only for the pleasure of living to tell about it.

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