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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006 11:54 am

Growing underground

Springfield’s second generation continues to rock for the kids

To roll down MacArthur Boulevard toward the lively interchange of Wabash and Stanford avenues is to forget that Wabash Curve ever existed. The four-lane intersection offers a gateway for drivers from the east to the commercial district on the west and presents a shortcut to Interstate 55. Chances are, even the neighbors living near the intersection have gotten used to the steady drone of traffic, forgetting the gritty guitar reverb and throbbing drumbeats that once inundated the night air south of the curve. Plenty of people remember the shabby greenhouse with the barbed-wire-fenced yard. To many, the Asylum — a teen coffeehouse and all-ages music venue — has become something of a legend, conjuring memories of the days when teens had a place where they could rock freely and let their dyed hair down. For kids who cut their chops on classic underground acts such as Black Flag and Minor Threat or learned that it doesn’t take rhythm to dance if you know how to pogo, the Asylum provided a place where a Mohawk and a Bad Brains album meant credibility. When this haven for the fringe closed its doors in 2001, it tied a figurative string around the fingers of a few individuals, reminding them of what it’s like to be young and marginalized — and many of them haven’t forgotten.
Early to finish, I was late to start — I might be an adult, but I’m a minor at heart.Minor Threat
Since the 1980s, the punk-rock underground of small towns and suburbs has been defined by hardcore, a genre much less scary than its title suggests. The speedy riffs and shouted vocals have branched off into numerous genres, including emo, its more radio-friendly cousin. The teenage practitioners and fans of this style of music are often excluded from the typical 21-and-up music venues, so the history of this particular brand of punk rock is, more so than many, intertwined with all-ages music venues. Clubs and shows attract a cross-section of underground-rock fans: bespectacled, tight-jeaned emo kids and indie rockers; old-school punks sporting dyed hair, leather, and studs; hardcore kids clad in obscure band T-shirts, perhaps with an X or two markered onto the back of a hand. But to stereotype the underground is to kill its spirit: Most are just there for the music and to hang out with kids who know the true worth of a good guitar riff. Springfield doesn’t have a shortage of good tries when it comes to the history of all-ages music shows. The Spot, the Atrium, the Asylum, the Rise, Club 10, Andiamo!, 2One7 Skate Shop, On Broadway, among others — all, at one time or another, have invited teens to come drink soda and listen to their favorite bands — or, at least, their friends’ bands. Now, only a handful of places are left where kids can come and rock. Skank Skates, an indoor skate park, has hosted shows off and on for more than a decade. Bread Stretchers crams music fans of all ages into its L-shaped downtown site on weekends. Viele’s Planet boards up the booze and hosts all-ages shows a couple times a month. The Black Sheep Café, with any luck, will open soon. All-ages music venues teeter on the brink of extinction — and, chances are, they always will. Owners make little money and tend to put more into their ventures than they get out. With no room for ulterior motives, the owners run shows on pure enthusiasm from their appreciative patrons. Some have more troubles than others, but, you can bet, the clipboard-toting men in suits are always lurking, trying to understand what’s happening inside the walls of these sanctuaries for young adults outside the mainstream. Success isn’t measured so much in profitable dollar signs as it is in how many months these venues can sustain themselves. Steve Brink, owner of the Asylum, envisioned a place for kids to hang out and drink noncorporate coffee, and that’s exactly what the Asylum was. There were a few incidents in the first six months: Brink recalls having to use scare tactics, kicking a door off its hinges when he caught a couple of kids smoking up in the bathroom. It sounds dramatic, but the door was hollow, Brink quips from his new stomping grounds in Raleigh, N.C. For the four years spent with kids running in and out, there was not a single lawsuit. “I understand the realities of being a teenager, but we tried to make the distinction that people come there to get away from things, not so much to get away with things,” Brink says. “So, that was our premise.” Brink got the itch to open a coffee shop of his own after spending some time at a similar hole-in-the-wall coffee joint in an area of Augusta, Ga., he considered a hub of activity for the alternative kids. A record shop and a concert hall flanked the place, and to Brink, who spent his days as an engineer in Girard, that life was a dream come true. His off time was spent getting involved with youth ministries throughout the city, but it was always the alternative side. He took a group of kids to Cornerstone, an outdoor concert featuring hardcore, punk and other Christian music genres that have wandered off the beaten path. The first year he brought a few kids; that number grew to a few dozen, and finally Brink hauled nearly 100 kids to the show. “I started to get to know this whole alternative counterculture that’s there in Springfield,” Brink says. “They were talking about how they would love a place to hang out, and I thought, ‘Here’s a base of support.’ ” Brink put up his retirement fund, somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000, to open the coffeehouse in 1997. With help from friends, people from the church he was involved in, and businesses, he managed to triple his money for converting the florist shop into a hip enclave. “I got pretty good at begging for materials,” Brink says. “Just installing a sink and putting in a urinal, things like that get pretty pricey when you have a concrete floor.” But after the plush Salvation Army couches and roasted beans moved in, the name of the game was making rent. The building was slated for demolition from the time Brink signed the lease, so approximetly $1,200 a month was offered, a discount that still meant pushing a lot of coffee to turn a profit. “Even I wasn’t paid that much; basically I was paid enough to put gas in my truck and maybe pay the insurance on it,” Brink says. “I had to supplement with working as a substitute teacher for the school district.” Brink started having shows “pretty much right off the bat.” As word got out, they hosted shows twice a month and an open-mic night. When things started moving, the number increased, and, after a couple of years, the young adults who frequented the coffeehouse were booking shows with bands from Los Angeles to New York City. A portion of the cover charge would always go to the bands. In the end, though the Asylum closed: a large road was slated to run through what was the back of the building, and Brink ran out of gas. Support was high and the shows were going strong, but the building was coming down. After closing the door on this particular dream, Brink began chasing another: hiking the Appalachian Trail. “[Brink] had a really good job, quit his job, spent a lot of money fixing the place up, and really friggin’ changed people’s lives,” says Miles Parkhill, drummer for the band Park and a patron of the coffeehouse. “One little place can make such a huge impact.”
“The worst crime that I ever did was playing rock & roll, but the money’s no good.” — The Stranglers
Around the same time the Asylum was getting its footing, Viele’s Planet and Skank Skates were consistently hosting shows. In 1997, the owners of Bread Stretchers Gourmet Subs decided to join the party. Mike Capps, co-owner of Bread Stretchers, started running shows when one of the other owners, who happened to be in a band, was looking for a place to play. As you walk into the corner shop, though, your first question might be “Where does the band go?” Push the tables and chairs up against the walls, put the band in the corner, and the shop becomes the perfect place for a band to play.  “If you [had] 50 kids, it looked packed,” says Parkhill. With a 100-person capacity, the shop lacks a stage, making for a close, cozy arrangement between band and crowd. In the beginning, Capps says, when the crowd was older, he made quite a bit of money. The restaurant is licensed to sell alcohol, and people came to eat and have a few beverages while watching the show. But around 2002 the crowd got younger, and with a younger crowd comes a smaller profit. Not that Capps minds; he doesn’t put on shows to rake in cash. But in 2004 the shows stopped paying for themselves, and Capps wondered how long he would be able to continue. “I would just say, ‘Pay my people what they are worth and keep the rest,’ ” Capps says, “but it’s got to a point where I have to take some of the money. Whatever they can make is great. If they can pull in $700 a night, they get to keep quite a bit of money.” Somehow the bands play on, and paying customers are coming to hear the music again. But if they’re not making money, why would the owners of a successful sandwich shop continue to put on shows that don’t turn a profit? “High-school kids have their basketball games, and that’s game night,” Capps says. “Well, Friday and Saturday night at Bread Stretchers is game night for a guitar player. Why not offer a place for them to play their game?”
“Don’t want to stay at home not making any noise.” — Generation X
Kids who don’t play sports or are tired of cruising the mall — where do they go? As a young kid, Corey Howell, owner of 2One7, broke his back. He gave up his aspirations of playing traditional sports, trading them in for a skateboard. With the skateboard came music. Howell moved his skate shop from a much smaller space to his current location on Chatham Road, a large building resembling a domed barn, which houses an indoor skate park and, until recently, was the site of all-ages shows. “I guess my main concern is helping kids have an outlet besides drinking [and] smoking and just giving them something to do,” Howell says. It may sound like a lip service, but Howell’s not bluffing — his tattoo proves it. “They know I’m straightedge,” Howell says. “I have a huge X tattooed on my neck, and when you’ve got me — big scary tattoo guy standing — outside and it basically says ‘No drinking and no smoking’ tattooed across his throat, they know it’s not allowed.” That’s not to say that all kids are looking for good clean rock & roll fun, but keeping drugs and alcohol out is key to staying open. The straightedge scene — a no-alcohol, no-drugs lifestyle, some of whose participants practice veganism and eschew casual sex and smoking — was birthed in the mushrooming early-’80s Washington, D.C., punk-hardcore music scene. When hardcore prototypes Minor Threat — specifically lead singer Ian MacKaye — professed the virtues of an anti-indulgence lifestyle on such songs as “Straight Edge” and “Out of Step,” it struck a chord with young rockers around the country. The movement gained rapid steam in the late ’80s, with McKaye slowly fading back from the lead role, but the scene had planted roots, and today it’s a large faction of underground music across the country. After Howell had hosted approximately five shows, he received word of a complaint, conveyed by fire marshal, that the skate shop was hosting hundreds of kids each weekend. (It averaged more like 50 to 75 kids, Howell says.) Code violations were brought to light, and the plug was pulled. Howell opened his shop in a corner of the Asylum, in the garage, but it quickly outgrew that space. Park, a band that calls Springfield home when it isn’t touring the country, often played the Asylum’s greenhouse. Many of Springfield’s bands, flourishing and defunct, have played for friends at the coffeehouse on MacArthur. When the Asylum moved out, Howell and Parkhill, along with others, opened the Rise — a place, Howell says, that they envisioned as a space for music shows. “We knew that it would be hard, and we knew that there was no money involved and that we weren’t going to make anything,” Howell says, “but when the Asylum was closing, it was just, like, all these kids that don’t drink and are underage — they didn’t have a place to go.” Parkhill says that the place hosted quite a few shows, including a show by emo band Yellowcard just as it was breaking (Capitol Records faxed the band’s contract to our local Kinko’s). But the venue was losing money and the time was drawing near when the building would be torn down, so the Rise finally fell. But where one venue closes, another opens, keeping the music scene from being homeless for too long. “There hasn’t been a place for the music scene to be able to call its own for a while, and we wanted to establish that,” says Kevin Bradford, part-owner of the Black Sheep Café, a faith-based cafe and music venue. “We’re all about promoting the underground music.” Bradford and his partners in the Black Sheep Café — Roger Smith, Crystal Eairhart, and a silent partner — believe that the venue has great potential. In a corner of the front room sit the bare bones of what will become a record store to sell albums from independent labels such as Victory, Facedown, and Trustkill. But live music is the main draw: Bradford says that they hope to host shows every weekend, with a place onstage for local bands in addition to national acts. Because the opening of the café was postponed, planned, scheduled shows were moved next door to Skank Skates. (In mid-January, Skank Skates hosted the popular New York hardcore band 25 Ta Life). “We’re all about promoting the local scene because we want to give kids a place to play,” Bradford says. “We want to build a community; we’re very community-minded.” With help from landlord George Sinclair, owner of Skank Skates, the Black Sheep partners are making changes to comply with the city’s codes, including new doors that swing outward and a reinforced floor. The owners painted the walls bright colors and eliminated a drop ceiling to reveal a beautiful old-fashioned tin ceiling, which they have spray-painted silver. This place looks and feels like rock & roll. The owners plan to split the door charge right down the middle, Bradford says, paying bands 50 percent of the take, but they didn’t ever expect to make money in the beginning. “A lot of [the money to get started] came from the four of us, pretty much out of our pockets, to pay the first couple months rent,” Bradford says. “This place used to look like garbage before we got in here and started changing it.” Pubs and clubs that offer music shows have the luxury of handing over a large portion of the door charge to the band because, on any given night, alcohol sales will be enough to make the show worth a bar owner’s time and manpower. But there’s only so much food and soda the owners can sell at an all-ages show to turn a profit. The owners of the new café live straightedge lifestyles and want to offer an atmosphere to kids and young adults who either can’t or don’t want to patronize the bar scene but are looking for a place to hear music. Growing up on Minor Threat as he and the other owners did, Bradford says, it only seemed right to give the café its moniker — the black sheep was a symbol of the band — but, he says, there are other reasons. “The whole concept of the Black Sheep is that outwardly the sheep may look different — it maybe be different and may be shunned by the other sheep — but it’s still part of the flock,” Bradford says. “It’s a symbol for the underground scene here.”
On Saturday, Jan. 28, the Black Sheep Café hosts Ihateyourband Fest, a festival featuring the Its, Sparland, Daphne, I Shot Lincoln, and Cranksanatra. Tickets, which are available at www.ihateyourband.com/store.html or at the door on the night of the show, cost $6 in advance and $8 at the door. The Blacksheep Café is located at 1320 S. Eleventh St.
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