All the Young Punks

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

AP's Pettigrew is impressed by the Lemp's longevity. "That is pretty rare, actually," he says. "Something happens, inevitably -- like neighbors complain about the noise. And some people who run these things reach a certain age and say, 'I'm over this, I'd better go get a wife and a mortgage.' People just burn out on this. The fact that [Sarich] is able to do that is a measure of him as a man. God bless him."

Sarich is unapologetically proud of his good relationship with local public officials and police.

"The best activism invites the city to be responsive to the needs of poorer neighborhoods," he argues. "I don't like alienating myself from the city, because we need them." He adds, "This is not the route that others took."

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.

He's alluding to the Bolozone housing cooperative down the street, which operates the Community Arts and Media Project (CAMP), several of whose residents were briefly taken into custody in the furor that coincided with last summer's World Agricultural Forum downtown. The well-publicized fiasco had legs, too: On the west side of Jefferson, Fort Gondo, an art gallery, and Radio Cherokee, a hole-in-the-wall all-ages performance space that serves as a complement to the Lemp scene, each felt compelled to shut down for varying stretches of time as a result of the ensuing regulatory heat.

"It seems like they went for legal dissidents and illegal buildings," says CAMP's Andy Jones, a 25-year-old Washington University alum.

So how did Sarich and his minions, whose operation certainly fits the artist-activist mold, avoid the sting? Sarich and Radio Cherokee's David Early, a high school teacher by day who concedes that his Cherokee Street venue was not up to code when he temporarily pulled the plug on it (it has since re-opened with an impressive calendar of all-ages action), chalk it up to the established nature of Sarich's center. But Jones goes so far as to allege that Sarich badmouthed CAMP to enforcement types behind the cooperative's back.

"I've heard he's tight with police," says Jones, who attended shows at Lemp before his relationship with Sarich chilled last summer. "As soon as I moved into Bolozone, it seemed like he started giving me the cold shoulder. It's uncomfortable. He's really critical of CAMP."

While he acknowledges that differences exist between the Lemp and CAMP, Sarich declines to go into depth about his misgivings, choosing to encapsulate his views with the following metaphor:

"You can paint anarchist slogans all over your bedroom walls while you're still a kid living at home," he says. "But don't be outraged when Mom yells at you."

Afforded the benefit of hindsight, Jones allows that there's a good bit of truth to this philosophy. "After that, I don't really feel good about protesting as a means of social change," he says in reference to the cops-versus-CAMP dustup. "It's good for solidarity among protesters, but if you fight power head-on, you're going to get smashed down. The way to do it is to create alternatives."

Which is exactly what Mark Sarich has been able to do so well at Lemp. But runaway success can come with a whole new slate of challenges, such as preserving one's founding principles.

"The problem with LNAC in late 2002 was the slide toward almost exclusively music and noise shows for programming," says Michael Allen, a former Lemp board member who now volunteers at CAMP. "Since then I've observed LNAC's potential to offer innovative events dwindle, even as it enjoys success as an all-ages venue that offers a much-needed home to the hardcore scene. The appearance seems to be that LNAC is no longer a proper neighborhood arts center with diverse programming rooted in the struggles of its mostly working-class neighbors. Even though it often glided under most people's eyes, LNAC used to offer a cooler, stranger array of events. To me, that's the biggest loss and one thing that I wish that I could have prevented."

Sarich doesn't dispute Allen's claim that the center's programming has become less dynamic as the music has gotten louder.

"The whole performance thing has overwhelmed everything," he concedes. But with the capable assistance of 24-year-old board member and Corbeta Corbata bassist Ben Smith, Sarich recently hatched plans for the center to program a slate of movie nights, block meetings, art workshops and photo exhibits.

Wolfing down a reheated chicken burrito at a salvaged diner table for two situated against the center's back wall, Sarich accepts a gift of homemade pottery from an energetic young rock starlet named Jess Rose, while another young couple bequeaths an array of red balloon animals. The occasion: Sarich's annual 29th birthday concert at the Lemp.

"You've got to take control of this at some point," says the guest of honor, "this" being the aging process.

Having just returned from a full day of teaching classes at Meramec Community College and Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, Sarich looks appropriately professorial as he mingles with the kids slumped comfortably on the half-dozen couches that front the stage area.

Warhammer 48k, a noise band from downstate in Columbia, soon takes the stage for a raucous 30-minute set that threatens to rouse Professor Brün from his dirt nap. The combo, which co-opted its name from a space-age role-playing game, plays like a fever dream, with an unlikely instrumental focal point -- drummer Cooper Crain -- driving every tune into the ether. Sarich likes to say music that's played in a bar probably belongs in a bar, an insinuation that some music doesn't. It is for just such hard-to-place timbre that the Lemp serves as a well-positioned life raft in a choppy national ocean of noise.

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