All the Young Punks

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

Vintage Bowie is substantial, to be sure, but what really turns Sarich's crank is punk rock, the current incarnation of which seems shockingly similar to the soundtrack of Sarich's heyday in the head-banging '80s.

"I really believe in this stuff," he says of hard, hard rock and its kindred offshoots. "It's really crazy to be at the center with kids half my age, bopping my head. The music hasn't changed. Holy shit!"

What has changed, offers Sarich, is the crowd.

Ultraman's Tim Jamison blames younger punks' 
flower-child friendliness on Smurfs and Ritalin.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ultraman's Tim Jamison blames younger punks' flower-child friendliness on Smurfs and Ritalin.

"It was completely violent," Sarich says of '80s punk. "Now it reminds me of the '60s."

Longtime local punk rocker Tim Jamison, lead singer of the venerable group Ultraman, concurs.

"It all started with the Smurfs," the 39-year-old Jamison asserts over a draw of Sprite at the Hi-Pointe. "Another theory is that [kids today] are all on Ritalin. They've been brought up to think everyone's okay. Well, to me, someone's got to be wrong. Some of these kids sit on the floor. In the '80s they'd have kicked you in the head for that."

Sarich also considers today's players to be generally far more polite than the prior generation of thrashers, an emotion seconded by Jason Pettigrew, editor-in-chief of the influential Cleveland-based rag Alternative Press.

"One of my favorite bands right now, the Blood Brothers -- their music is just like 5,000 superballs made of thumbtacks going off all over the place," Pettigrew says. "But they're all very patient, very kind, very friendly."

Thou shalt not charge more than five dollars per show. Thou shalt not deny anyone entry to any show based on his or her age. Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not shoot up. Thou shalt not degrade offensively -- at least without a wink and a smile.

Such is the ethos of Lemp, a short fall from the tree of Washington, D.C.'s sanctimonious activist-punk scene of the 1980s. For most -- namely the parents of kids who account for the bulk of Lemp's thriving teen scene -- this structure of social sobriety is A-OK. But to longtime D.C.-based music writer Mike Little, it's downright blasphemous.

"There are worse things in the world, of course, than being moral," says the 45-year-old Little, a native Philadelphian who penned a blistering 4,200-word anti-Fugazi screed in the weekly Washington City Paper last fall. "But I'd rather see Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass. Ian MacKaye -- I just kind of feel sorry for him. He seems like a sweet guy, he's not bullshit at all, but to me it's like he's missed part of life. I'd rather see the 360 degrees: 'I've been fucked up, I've been not fucked up.' It's like you're deliberately limiting your experience. That's not what rock & roll is all about. To me, it's like, 'Try it all. Give it a shot. If you don't like it, then go back.' The moral higher ground -- that bugs me. I don't see anything better about somebody who doesn't use drugs or drink. Somebody who's done them, that's a different story. To come out and say, 'I'm never going to do them,' is a sign of fear and ignorance. Ian MacKaye and Fugazi are very big on revolt and rebellion, but they're playing benefit concerts. There's nothing dangerous about that."

Sarich's all for zany, dangerous rock, but if his Lemp labor of love errs on the safe side, its motives are firmly rooted in practicality. If you're running an all-ages venue, you can't exactly tap a keg during soundcheck if you don't have a liquor license. Furthermore, while Benton Park's scruffy plots of real estate have been making a slow, steady comeback owing in large part to an influx of young creative types, it wasn't so long ago that the crack trade was the neighborhood's leading industry.

"I hate to sound like a Pollyanna, but if you organize a neighborhood that's a crack neighborhood, everybody in public office -- even police officers -- want to be your friend," says Sarich, who still resides next door to the center and is rehabbing another portion of his corner compound to serve as a future bungalow for touring bands in need of a good night's sleep. "In '91 it was a disaster area. The police know me primarily as the guy who organized the group that effectively ran drugs and prostitution from our neighborhood. You have to figure out a way to make this thing sustainable, rather than go until the police bust you."

Ninth Ward Alderman Ken Ortmann says Sarich's cooperative nature has been crucial to his success.

"He's got his little hub down there, and he's organized when there've been problems," says Ortmann. "We're all effective when we work together. He's held on like me. We love the city."

Still, seven years is a remarkably long lifespan for an all-ages hard-rock venue with no liquor license. ("Early on it was, 'Bring your fake ID or don't get in,'" Ultraman's Jamison says of the old days. "We'd find little bars on the north side to play in. They'd see punk rockers come and say, 'Never again.' There were a lot of one-offs.")

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