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Brat happening

An evening at the Stensrud raises an ugly question: are all ages shows worth the hassle?

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Everything is going great. First, hardcore heinie-whuppers Ass-End Offend blow us out of the pit and into the comfy chairs against the opposite wall with an ultra-fast, ultra-pissed and ultra-loud 20-minute set. When they finish and break down their gear, KBGA disc jockey Bryan Ramirez gets on stage behind a wooden lectern and conducts twelve performers scattered around the long rectangular room—most of them fellow college radio DJs—through a composition written for twelve radios by composer John Cage. Now Ramirez and drummer Michael Casler are setting up again to play 45 minutes of free jazz under the name Ex-cocaine. Afterwards, metal maniacs Maha Muwaldi will take the stage to finish the evening off.

We’ve been at this all-ages event at the Stensrud Building (an all-comers birthday party, in fact) for maybe an hour and a half, and we’ve been having a good time. The John Cage piece represents a first: It’s the only piece of experimental composition any of us can recall having heard performed at an all-ages event in Missoula, or at any other kind of event, for that matter. And the Stensrud is a warm and welcoming place to attend an event like this—a happening, in ’60s language. The walls are painted a warm pumpkin color, the light is subdued, and there’s a pleasant post-industrial buzz to be had from seeing such a multifaceted artistic event in a renovated place that has seen as much use, of as many kinds, as the Stensrud Building. It feels kind of European.

And then my companion goes into the bathroom and finds the drains in both sinks stuffed with toilet paper, both taps running, the water just about to spill over onto the floor. Someone did it on purpose. Exasperated, we tell the birthday girl to check on the bathroom from time to time, and keep an eye on any other dark corners that might breed the typical stupid shit that eventually spells the end of every all-ages venue in Missoula. The Stensrud, for all the charm of its present renovated state, is pretty much all dark corners where stupid shit can breed.

Call me Cassandra. I hate to think that I’m getting so cynical in my old age, but whenever I go to an all-ages show in a venue that hasn’t been jerk-proofed yet, all I see is what might get broken, stolen, defaced or defiled before the owners/renters either take steps to minimize future damage or decide they’re done with having all-ages shows.

Something usually does, and then they usually do—close their doors, that is; as with AIDS and pregnancy, the only surefire preventative measure is abstinence. I can name ten venues in town that used to rent out to promoters for all-ages rock shows, and two, maybe three, that might agree to an all-ages rock show now. And two of those haven’t had a show for at least a year.

A community center in a quiet part of town stops renting to bands when the neighbors complain that rowdy teenagers have been yelling right outside their windows and peeing on their rose bushes. A downtown venue does the same, citing vandalism and the annoyance of having to replace the same broken toilet seats over and over.

The management of another downtown venue wonders if the chicken feed it gets for renting to all-ages show promoters is worth the headache: the underage drinking, the motel across the street complaining because its guests are complaining about the noise, the police invariably coming by to issue a warning.

And the promoters wonder, too—whether it’s worth the hassle of putting up flyers and putting down damage deposits and having to act as guarantors to increasingly skeptical management for The Kids on whose behalf the show is supposedly being organized. And this when all The Kids really seem to care about is hanging around out front and scattering cigarette butts everywhere, or milling around listlessly upstairs after the frustrated promoter finally prevails upon them to go inside and deface something so the police won’t shut the show down for mass loitering. I talk to a guitarist at the Stensrud show who describes, with grim humor, the indignity of having to reach deep into a toilet bowl to remove a bolus of human feces and a hat at yet another venue where his band used to play all-ages shows. A venue, it should go without saying, that now rents only selectively, and never to anything remotely punk rock.

One former all-ages show organizer I know, now a small business owner, puts it succinctly: Fuck The Kids. All they do, he says, is bitch and whine about how there’s nothing for them to do and how it’s so fascist that they can’t go see bar shows because they’re underage. And then, when someone puts on a show they can go see, they can’t even police each other enough to keep a couple of moron peers from wrecking it for everybody, and probably souring management on the idea of ever letting bands play there again besides. These kids today, my friends says, they expect everyone else to do everything for them and then they literally take a giant dump on the people who do. Why bother? Why should anyone take the financial risk of organizing anything for the ungrateful little bastards when about the most positive response you can expect is a mopey, resentful show of compliance to the simplest ground rules? Sorry, The Kids, but you’re going to have to quit smoking and yelling “FUCK!” as loud as possible and go inside to watch the show now.

I’m paraphrasing my friend the small-business owner, of course—in fact, I’m conflating and paraphrasing about five conversations I’ve had with people who used to or even still occasionally put their necks on the line to organize all-ages events for local and out-of-town bands. But you get the general upshot: At best, The Kids are apathetic and unwilling to take any initiative, or maybe it’s just peer pressure and fear of being ostracized that keeps them huddled in indifferent little packs, acting like their parents are punishing them by making them go. At worst, well, they’re all bad apples, aren’t they? Wretched little suburban snots who don’t even know when someone’s doing them a favor. Even if the truth lies somewhere in between, they’re at least accessories to the stupidity of a rogue few for not taking the situation in hand when one of their own does something to endanger the possibility of future events by getting drunk and fighting, making a mess or breaking something.

Or flooding something, like the Stensrud’s bathroom. I try to maintain a friendly, outgoing and conciliatory attitude toward The Kids, partly because I’m not so old that I don’t remember being one of them myself, and partly because certain activities that I consider worthwhile are contingent on getting more people involved to keep them going. Corollary to this, though, is that my reserves of egalitarianism are themselves dependent on a certain amount of positive reinforcement, and they dry up awful fast when I find out that someone—and probably one of The Kids—is deliberately endangering the collective good time by trying to make a sink overflow. Good will dries up even faster when it’s someone’s birthday party and the birthday girl’s face suddenly clouds over with the sad expression peculiar to people who have just found out that their hospitality and good intentions have been turned against them.

We leave not long after the watering incident. There’s still a lot to do that night, and anyway, I decide I’ve had it with The Kids for one night. As we’re putting on our coats, it seems like one out of every three people in the room is a drunk teenager swaggering around looking for someone to validate his huge opinion of himself. We find out later that an altercation nearly breaks out after the easygoing Ramirez returns the taunts of one of the heckling punks, who in turn tries to get his buddies to back him up.

I’ve been going to all-ages shows in Missoula since a lot of these kids were literally in diapers. I’ve seen many, many venues open their doors with the best of intentions and the most generous of expectations and close them shortly thereafter on account of the same old stupid shit that was narrowly averted—or mostly averted, I guess—at the Stensrud tonight. The Stensrud is by far the nicest and most fragile of any of them, but I have this gut feeling that one way or another it won’t be for long.

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