Although The Black Sparks have managed to build a small adult following in D.C., they’d really rather play to their own peers than to a crowd that probably sees them as a novelty.
Over the past two years, the Sparks have played at Fort Reno, Black Cat, DC9, and Comet Ping Pong. These shows should have been exciting, but there was one problem: “We didn’t get many friends coming to those shows,” Ray says, “because most of them aren’t allowed to take the Metro to somewhere like U Street by themselves.”
Although many rock venues in D.C. are nominally all-ages, there are other barriers besides nightclub bouncers. Like parents. Or cops. It’s great that The Black Sparks got to play Comet, but most of the shows there start at 10:30 p.m. Good luck getting home before D.C.’s midnight curfew. Last December, Francy Graham did the DIY thing and took matters into her own hands: She booked her first show at Comet, titled Youth Takeover. The sets started early enough that all her friends could come.
Ray has similar aspirations. Last year, The Black Sparks played a show in Fredericksburg, Va., set up by the town’s branch of the All Ages Movement Project, a network that claims more than 200 member groups across the country. It was a revelatory experience: The show space was packed with both kids and adults, but everything logistical, from equipment to bouncing to concessions, was handled by youth. When they came back home, The Black Sparks vowed to start something similar.
Ray met with the director of the All Ages Movement Project, Kevin Erickson, and read the organization’s how-to book, In Every Town. It was galvanizing. Ray’s mom, Carol Ramirez, says he came downstairs for breakfast the next morning and said, “I found the Bible.”
Erickson helped Ray set up the series Bethesda Youth Shows, but from a distance; the project is almost entirely Ray’s baby. However, the series—set to premiere last week at the Bethesda Chevy Chase Regional Services Center—quickly ran into municipal resistance. Montgomery County officials wanted Ray to do an online presale, and not sell tickets at the door. Maybe that wouldn’t be a big deal to adults, but for Ray’s purposes it sucked: “You have to be 19 to have a PayPal account.”
“If a city is interested in making their community more livable and interesting and creatively vibrant for young people,” says Erickson. “One thing they can do is get out of the way and eliminate some of the regulatory barriers that can hinder young people from participating in culture or running a space.”
To be sure, punks of yore took advantage of a youth-assistance infrastructure, too. Plenty of early D.C. rock-scene figures earned paychecks through the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which had arts programs. (Of course, they still had to sneak into the Neighborhood Planning Council No. 3 building down the street for Fort Reno for practice time, rather than having parents pay rent for Bach to Rock space.) But The Black Sparks’ interest in setting up accessible, kid-friendly shows underscores the difference between playing for mostly adults in a D.C. club and performing for their friends in a suburban community center: the in-built assumptions.
The Black Sparks grew up on punk; Salfi’s mom tells me her kids have been “listening to Fugazi since they were babies.” As the years go by, the question becomes more pressing. When you’ve grown up knowing, internalizing, and respecting punk, how do you create your own meaningful definition of rebellion?
The Black Sparks’ song “The Sad Watermelon” does not sound much like Fugazi, but it showcases what’s so captivating about the band: It is a transmission of the world exactly how they experience it. To watch a Black Sparks set is, however briefly, to see the things the way its members do, to let go of the boundaries they don’t yet perceive, to view the existing order of the universe as if it were knocked slightly askew. What’s more punk than that?
And to the kids who come out to the shows, it makes sense.
To adults, well, it’s pretty much a song about a sad watermelon—if also one that’s visceral and technically accomplished and delightfully frantic.
So should we treat this stuff just like any other music? Erickson says so. “It’s important to have younger people in bands playing the same shows as older folks,” he says. “We’re not used to taking young people seriously in any capacity. We’re used to giving them very prescribed roles: bratty teenager, making empty gestures of rebellion. Once we start to recognize young people’s creative contributions, it can be a step toward treating them as humans in the rest of civic life.”
At St. Stephen’s, it’s easy to appreciate the melodic indie pop of Coxey Brown, the angsty noise of Narrow Spirit, and the bitingly self-aware Dead Milkmen-style punk of Foozle—even though most of these musicians are under 18. Enjoy the music, respect its ideas, maybe even mosh. Take or leave the authenticity hang-ups.
But you wouldn’t want to scrutinize it—which is a pretty important part of treating it like any other music.
“The media’s always asking, what’s the next big thing? What’s the next moneymaker?” Graham says. “It’s not going to be any teen punk band, because they’re not making brand new music. They’re just having fun.”
In other words, The Black Sparks may be going places, but they also deserve a critical pass.
At least until 10th grade.