All the Young Punks

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

Apr 28, 2004 at 4:00 am
"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.

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.

But self-destructive? Not even. The intoxicant-free Lemp's unofficial mantra of "no drugs, no booze, no jerks" reveals shades of the "straight edge" philosophy that grew out of the 1980s Washington, D.C., punk scene. At the Lemp, getting fucked up is considered, well, fucked up.

But should rock & roll be so clear-headed? And, considering that Sarich and his arts center are said to be largely responsible for lifting an entire south-city neighborhood out of a crack-addled funk, should rock & roll be what the Lemp is all about? Some argue that the Lemp's success as a live-music venue has come at the expense of a more holistic original vision, one that once promised a broader array of events that gave equal billing to visual art, education and grassroots activism.

Sarich himself concedes that this may be true. What to do? What to do?

Benton Park could easily be mistaken for a cemetery on any given Sunday night. But the potential's there.

Saunter past Frazer's Brown Bag, one of the finest restaurants in town. Except on Sunday, when it's closed. Ahead looms the Venice Café, proud purveyor of Red Stripe sud grenades and one of the best patios in North America. Except on Sunday, when it's closed. On this night, a bum in a box is having a better time than the people who aren't at Frazer's and the Venice.

But down the road at the corner of Lemp Avenue and Utah Street, Mark Sarich's Lemp is alive. And burly doorman Adam "The Devastator" Greer has an issue with Beatle Bob.

Surely, when the mop-top fanatic descends upon your club on a Sunday night, it's either a signal that you've arrived or that the apocalypse is nigh.

To the husky, towheaded Greer, a towering touring band manager and LNAC board member, it's the latter.

"Anyone who's a scenester who's too good to pay a door charge, I just hate 'em," the eighteen-year-old Greer opines as a more polite patron presses a crinkled fiver into his palm.

Bob is fortunate that Salt the Earth, from Lawrence, Kansas, is among the Lemp's more radio-friendly quartets. His hallmark fist-jab dance moves seem right at home.

The next band, So Many Dynamos, doesn't lend itself to such syncopated propulsion.

There's something to be said for melting down brilliantly. To this end, So Many Dynamos, a battalion of bangers from the metro east, make elbows to a keyboard at the end of a tune seem as sweet as Chopin.

Sarich grew up in Madison, Illinois, where, he says, "kids are kind of public property." That same ethic holds true on the youthful board of the LNAC, on which he serves as founder, chairman and frequent referee. That last role is key, particularly when the third-oldest member of your board is 23 and hell-bent on discussing Frito-Lay flavors instead of starting the monthly meeting, held at the long table that runs parallel to the center's east wall, on time.

"Guacamole chips are not part of the minutes," Sarich reminds the board, at which point the group launches into a full-throated discussion of what sort of lights -- strobe or string -- will best illuminate the back patio this spring. Next on the agenda is the question of whether to give a neighborhood act, Satan's God, one more shot at not offending the Lemp crowd.

Everyone at the table hates Satan's God, perhaps because its frontman professes to despise "niggers and children" and once pulled a very real-looking toy gun on a female audience member mid-act (at another venue) -- all in the name of art. Still, it is moved and seconded that Satan's God will live to see another night at Lemp, on the strict condition that they check the six-shooter and racial epithets at the door.

Neighbors are a subject near and dear to Sarich's heart, so precious that later in the evening he'll leave the Dynamos' show to attend a nearby barbecue.

"Steak and port sounds really good to me right now," he says, letting on that regardless of his club's reputation, he doesn't personally walk the so-called straight edge, a sober, veggies-first lifestyle spawned by Minor Threat (and later Fugazi) lead guitarist Ian MacKaye in the early 1980s.

"I'm not nuts about getting drunk," says Sarich, a lifelong bachelor. "But I have my closetful of Eastern European liquors that I have after dinner."

Liquor isn't the only import Sarich admires. He cites as his mentor the late University of Illinois music-composition professor and computer-music pioneer Herbert Brün, a German immigrant who spoke with a thick, commanding accent and who, Sarich says, "instilled the link between music and social issues." According to Sarich, before his death three years ago Brün was apt to emit such thought-provoking declarations as:

"If you aren't careful about how you structure your music, all you will be doing is regurgitating what the system has taught you, and therefore you will be counter-revolutionary."


"If you compose something you like, it's because you've heard it before. And, therefore, you should throw it out."


"I want everybody to move forward and center, so you will no longer suffer the fate that music is too loud."

Soon after graduating from the U of I in the early '80s, Sarich was back in the metro east, playing lead guitar and singing in a new-wave band called the Heels.

In 1988 his father died of cancer and Sarich inherited the building that now houses the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, as well as a rickety residential structure next door. The property, which had been in the family since 1930, was being leased to a convenience store, but when the store moved out, Sarich got an occupancy permit for the residential space and moved in. After attempting unsuccessfully to lure a coffeehouse tenant to the commercial space, Sarich began the arduous process of rehabilitating it himself. In 1995 he held his first free-jazz show, followed by poetry readings, neighborhood meetings and the formal christening of the arts center in 1997. The Lemp is recognized as a not-for-profit entity by the state of Missouri, and Sarich and the arts center's directors are currently in the process of applying for federal nonprofit status.

"Making money is not the object here; making music is," says Sarich, who draws no salary for his efforts, relying on his teaching gigs at Forest Park and Meramec community colleges and Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville to put food on the table, and on the center's modest door take to cover expenses, utilities and take-home pay for the bands he and his board book. (Sarich guarantees every touring band a minimum of $40 per night, with crowd capacity in the ballpark of 100. On all-local bills, Sarich divides 60 percent of the door among them and deposits the rest in the Lemp's operating kitty.)

As he was rehabbing the joint, Sarich discovered an old laxative sign bleeding through the Ritz Soda advertisement painted on the structure's exterior. He could make out the image of a bottle label with the letters "t" and "z," and what was left of the word "Constipation."

Now the label on the bottle says "Artz," and the center features a north façade that reads: "Art Relieves Social Constipation."

At least everyone dug the big, gold gong.

Mark Sarich, clad in trademark navy blazer and tattered loafers, had his class at Forest Park Community College take a field trip to his hard-rock venue the previous Monday, and the consensus is that Khanate (pronounced con-eight), a critically lauded New York City noise trio, blew ass, more or less.

"I couldn't understand what the guy was screaming," one student complains.

"I gave up on that years ago," replies Sarich, who's wearing his hair tied back in a short ponytail and sporting a yellow lapel button that reads, "Dance Fuckers Dance!"

Khanate's set was undeniably excruciating to sit through. Playing what might best be described as sludge metal cranked to eleven, the band is so loud that one's eyelids flap involuntarily with every smack of the percussionist's snare.

"He was holding back," Sarich says of the drummer, who smashed the aforementioned gong sporadically during each of the band's three twenty-minute songs. "Generally, when they play, things fall from the ceiling. They're obviously trying to conjure up images of warriors and leave a pool of blood wherever they go -- just like any good metal band."

Sarich is no fan of mainstream metal. But that doesn't stop him from booking quirky, radio-unfriendly, quasi-metal bands at the Lemp.

"The bands I end up liking the most are bands that take metal and turn it into something," he tells his class of six, adding that his favorite local manipulators are a combo called Sine Nomine. "I hate metal. When Metallica came out, I was looking for the barf bag."

Khanate's pre-show demands darn near made Sarich chunder, too.

"I had to sign a contract with them," he says. "I never sign contracts. And they had a list of requirements that included organic hummus and bottled Perrier. Oh yeah, that's rock."

Let the record show that Khanate backed off their pita-spread demand and set to the task of challenging the Lemp crowd with a peculiar brand of noise that, from the vantage point of the listener, is tantamount to standing naked in front of a wood chipper as it spits bark below belt level. To Sarich, that's exactly as it should be.

"It was so oppressive in how slow it was going that it was effective," he concludes. "The question is: Should rock & roll not be disturbing?"

For Sarich and the Lemp's regulars, it most certainly should. Music is life, and should therefore encompass all mood swings. As the late Professor Brün might hypothesize, whether one likes what he is hearing is irrelevant. All listening is required listening.

"I've had enough music training to know when I don't like it and it's good," says Sarich. "I also know when I like it and it's bad. You anticipate where people could get to with a little coaxing."

Leave it to Sarich, then, to find profound social value in glam rock, which is the focus of his three-hour Monday survey of rock seminar at Forest Park.

"I don't think it's trivial that [David] Bowie produced this before Stonewall," he lectures as The Artist Formerly Known as Ziggy Stardust's "Queen Bitch" plays on the classroom's tiny white Bose speakers. "One of the things that pisses me off about this guy is that he's essentially negated everything he did in his early career."

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.

"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.")

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."

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.

"St. Louis, and Lemp in particular, has been getting very high marks as one of the most comfortable and responsive places to play," improvisational jazzman Jack Wright offers. Adds Wright, who's scheduled to play at the Lemp on May 27: "What we've found in St. Louis inspires players to make the trek, following a trail through Lexington [Kentucky] and Bloomington [Indiana] -- two other high points of any Midwest tour.

"Is the St. Louis scene better than Chicago?" he muses. "At this point, most definitely."

The down-home hospitality -- breakfast pastries and comfy cushions to crash on -- don't hurt either.

"I think that Mark has a lot of great ideas for the way a venue should treat their bands and the surrounding neighborhood," says guitarist Chuck Rowell, a member of the Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, which played to a packed Lemp house on April 15.

Rowell's also mighty fond of the crowd.

"The kids are the best," Rowell continues. "We only play all-ages. Playing 21-and-up, people are mainly there to socialize, they're not there for the music. If a kid comes to a show, he's skipping out on homework -- there's a lot more urgency, a chance you can have an effect on a kid. That's what punk music is about."

There goes the neighborhood.