"Does anyone have a joke they could tell while we tune?" asks Andy King, the lip-pierced, blond-highlighted guitarist for Tempe punks Slowpoke at lunch time in between songs in the band's ska-inflected set.
He finds almost no takers, and the one guy who does answer the call, a short chubby dude dressed in black, is so unintelligible he gets laughed off the stage. Boy, is that punk going to hear it from his classmates next period.
Those aren't words you usually see in the same paragraph. Dobson High School in Mesa, an institution of learning for 2,700-plus students, has been holding rock concerts during lunch every Friday this fall. Yes, these are excruciatingly loud hourlong shows with professional PA systems and merchandising tables manned by guys with dyed hair, tattoos and funky beards, shows that allow several hundred kids to jump around and let loose. Broken beer bottles are replaced by coleslaw, and the swearing is replaced by civility (though a few "frickings" slip through), but at heart, the concerts are real gigs that attract a vibrant underage scene -- local bash-out stalwarts Redfield and Fourbanger are among the other bands booked, for free, during the 10-week lunch series.
"Kids love to get a break from high school bullshit," says Slowpoke vocalist Derek Smith, 21. "Bands never played at my high school. That would have been fucking awesome." The band played the school last month for more than 500 faithfuls and casual observers. The school expects to attract more than 1,000 students to the courtyard by week 10 next month.
My journey to the sprawling, spare-no-expense, open campus -- embroidered banners for the school's Speech and Debate team fly in the halls like baseball pennants, and its courtyard is undeniably enormous -- brings back memories, ones that back in the day left me jaded.
I hated high school for all the usual teen angst reasons. I especially hated the kids who participated in student government. These students were the supposed leaders of the student body, the model citizens for all of us to admire and respect. What I saw instead were a bunch of suck-ups playing an angle to beautify their high school transcripts and carve out a rarefied air for themselves. I saw arrogant pricks who thought they knew what was good for their peers. The school sat near the well-to-do campus of a major university, and it also sat near two different poorer neighborhoods. Student government, then, was the elitist voice in an urban school otherwise populated by lower-middle-class and impoverished kids.
I remember one exercise in particular in 1992, when the administration and the Principal's Cabinet, as it was called, decided it needed to deal with the racial tension that existed among the student body (the school was an even mix of black, white and Latino). Its grand idea was to hold separate assemblies for all the black males in the school, all the white females, and so on. This would give the individual groups the chance to work out differences among their own kind, so that they could bring a unity to the table when it came time to interact with everyone else. This genius exercise in social engineering went precisely nowhere -- the meeting of the black males degenerated into discussion of how best to assault the school's white boys.
In other words, my student government didn't have anyone as cool as Dobson's Brandon Towle, and there was no way in hell we'd have ever gotten the rock 'n' roll experience on my school grounds.
"I just love music, dude," says Towle, a tall, lanky 17-year-old senior who serves as secretary on the Dobson student council. The concerts are Towle's baby -- he preps the fliers; oversees the code of conduct, which includes bans on smoking, swearing and general mayhem; courts and pampers the bands -- important since he has no budget to pay them -- ensures things run smoothly; and woos players like Starbucks and Stinkweeds to set up booths as sponsors. His jeans sag below his waistline as he nervously patrols the courtyard. His sprouting blond hair sits at attention atop his head, and with his bug-eye sunglasses and Golden Gate Bridge smile, he resembles the cocky Tom Cruise near the end of Risky Business.
Towle exudes an unusual warmth for a kid his age, and when he says that, for him, student government is a way to make friends with as many people as possible, it's easy to believe he's not full of crap. (Later, Towle greets a group of mentally handicapped students by name -- "Hi, John!" -- as he walks the hallways.) He's also a guy who admits to watching public government hearings on cable access in his Chandler home for three hours at a time.
Rock 'n' roll is Towle's true passion, however. He's been attending shows for years -- he proudly remembers seeing Eminem and Less Than Jake live, especially -- and counts DJs at alt-rock station KEDJ-FM among his friends. When it came time to sell the administration on the idea, Towle found the process surprisingly easy. "That's the coolest part. They've been so lenient," he says. There was none of the "dangerous element" talk one might expect from the higher-ups. In fact, Steve Green, the high school's principal, says he and school officials actually discussed variations on the idea last year. Green and company were looking for ways to keep more kids on campus during lunch. Even though leaving campus for runs to Taco Bell or Dairy Queen is allowed, the risk of traffic accidents, moving violations and drug and alcohol use are ever-present.
So, what the hell, why not invite a few bands in to rock the bells, even if it isn't the Celine Dion, "don't do drugs" cornball stuff? At least it breaks up the monotony of the school day. "School should be a fun thing," says the 37-year-old Green, who, with his enthusiasm, boyish looks and shades, could pass for Towle's older brother.
Green then mentions a concept I never associate with school -- respect for the students -- and it all begins to floor me. "If this is something the students want, then it's something we want," Green says.
And it's that simple. Other schools should take notice. I snoop around the courtyard. I find no one smoking joints -- even the hacky-sack players look decidedly unburnt. I find no fights or even heated arguments, and I see no one get taunted or picked on. What I do see is a core group of punk kids, taping Slowpoke with camcorders, slamming their heads back and forth wildly, wrestling each other down to the ground in playful silliness. Around them, I see the preppier kids minding their own business, just absorbing a beautiful day without commotion.
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No doubt, I'm sure high school is still full of no-good assholes. On this day, however, in the middle of a slammin' punk show and surrounded by the dregs of the student body, I feel momentarily assured.
Andrew W.K., whose over-the-top brand of colossal rock and attitude was arguably too ridiculous even for Ozzfest, played inside tiny Nita's Hideaway in Tempe on November 22. Not surprisingly, the show was a claustrophobic affair. W.K., a 6-foot-3 hairy goofball from Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose entire wardrobe consists of white tee shirts and white jeans, thrashes nonstop during his set and openly invites folks to crash the stage and dive gloriously back into the crowd. He also has a habit of throwing stuff, whether it be water bottles, confetti or toilet paper. This is a fine and exhilarating idea for a theater or an arena. But for Nita's -- capacity of 225 people, tight confines, small stage, fence separating drinkers from teetotalers, ear-blasting acoustics -- the W.K. shtick created an especially beautiful chaos. Crowd surfers bounced off the ceiling. Stage divers had no room to leap and took it right in the mush upon landing. The reverberations of people jumping rumbled mightily underfoot. The sweaty W.K. at times looked at a loss for spaces to rock out yet somehow managed to prop one girl onto his shoulders without collapsing. When he ended the set with his agro-pop masterpiece "Party Hard," several dozen fans took over the stage, rowdily cheering and bouncing while the six-piece band, by now completely invisible in the mass, continued to play.
W.K.'s efforts to win mainstream acceptance in the U.S. ("Party Hard" reached the top 20 in Britain last year) have sputtered, despite intense publicity and stunts like licensing songs for Twix commercials. While his marginalization isn't all that unfortunate -- a guy who melds Ted Nugent with Jim Steinman probably shouldn't be a superstar -- his live show is incredibly energetic, and those of us at Nita's that night should be thankful for the opportunity to witness it on such a small scale.