A Day's Work

Search this site:

The Commonspace

Mar 2003 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

Rock'n'Roll High School
By Stephen Schenkenberg

We were mostly alone in the Galaxy, and it was quiet and dark. Two friends inside the downtown club orbited the pool table, eyeing their shots with care. Four others sat on stools at the bar. Minors with their arms crossed lingered in their special section, looking at the stage on which sat those who would soon bring noise: The Reactions.

The Reactions in uniform It was 7:15 p.m. on a February Friday, and this trio of Lindbergh High School seniors was starting their night jobs. They were dressed in their standard uniform — dark pants and matching red shirts with horizontal stripes — and in doing so either joining the rock trend of expressing personality through uniformity, or poking fun at it, or both. The drummer's mom's van had pulled through, and they'd reached the gig on time. 7:15 meant sound-check.

They played "Shades," track one from their self-titled record, then asked the few in the crowd and an unseen soundman, "How'd that sound out there?" Good? Good. They played 20 seconds of another song, adjusted some levels, then replayed those same 20 seconds. Good enough. They ducked off stage, and over the PA came NWA, straight outta Compton.

The Reactions are drummer and singer Jake Alspach, guitarist Robert Mayfield and bassist Dave Rocco. I'd emailed the band a few days earlier, asking for a few minutes to talk with them before the show. An anonymous Reaction responded: "well.... we could let you see the pre-show ritual but it kills anyone who doesn't own one of the shirts... sorry." Okay-doke. Ten years my junior, but clearly in the driver's seat.

While they went wherever they went for a while, I waited and tried to just sip an expensive Boulevard. A man approached, and I recognized him as the guitarist's father, whom I had met at a December Reactions show at Radio Cherokee (though this time the father had left the video camera at home). A warm, affable man, Mr. Mayfield convincingly said he's not just a father, but a fan. Sipping a PBR, he told me of working nights at St. Elizabeth's hospital, cross-checking his schedule with Reactions shows. At Radio Cherokee, he had sheepishly introduced himself as "one of the guy's old man," but here at the Galaxy he said that in fact the trio isn't just for kids. "They catch a lot of 50-year-olds," he said, remembering in particular one woman in her 60's — "an old flower child" — who even went home with her own copy of the CD.

At 7:50, the three took the stage and started their real night's work. From behind the drum kit, and into a mike tilted down to his mouth, Alspach greeted the crowd, which had grown here and there: "Hello, everybody — We're The Reactions." With a drumstick count-off, they launched into the set, sounding loud and tight and confident. Ten seconds in, I decided that my description of the band to a friend — "sort of Sunny-D punk" — hadn't done their sound justice. The boys rocked for any age.

The Reactions Alspach banged his drums and sang about girls and jobs, his screamy delivery a series of authoritative statements. Mayfield, on guitar, shifted between power chords and solos, and Rocco played his high, fluttering bass chords with enthusiastic purpose. On the floor in front of the band, two girls twirled together, purses swinging, one of them in a polka-dot skirt doing the surprisingly timeless Twist. Those not dancing did the digging-it head movements, and were continually offered chances to join in on one of the songs' many repeated choruses. After eight or nine hard-driving tunes, Alspach announced the last song. Young but experienced, The Reactions know how to end a show — their last was an extended song, played in shifts, with each musician given his shining time. They finished as tightly as they'd begun, with Alspach bookending the show with a good-bye: "Thank you, we're the Reactions. We have CDs for eight dollars if you want to buy one."

As NWA came back over the PA, a mid-20ish guy named Alex walked over to introduce himself. A musician himself, he was part of Ambivalent Records, which put out The Reactions' CD. Like the father, Alex seemed to be proud of the high-school kids, saying that Ambivalent put out the record because, "people need to hear these guys." He also offered a startling (and, for other musicians, depressing) statement: It took the kids just six hours to complete their record. Three hours one day, recording, and three the next, mastering.

The father reappeared to say that he'd rounded up the guys if I wanted a post-show chat. I met them near a CD-selling table and we headed to a quieter spot off the main hall. They were far from ego'd up about being interviewed, and answered my questions in a fun, jumpy manner, each one talking over the other. They disagreed pleasantly, cracked wisely, and generally spoke far too quickly to really quote.

Best and worst show so far? One said a benefit at Velvet was too much sitting around; another disagreed. One's best was the Radio Cherokee show, another's was at Mississippi Nights. Why Mississippi Nights? "'Cause there were 400 people there." So the crowd is a big factor? "It's all about the people."

When I asked about their fans, each one described them differently, though they seemed to meet up at the overall idea that they had few fans at first, then a visible bunch, and now it seems to be tapering off. The drummer made a stock-market motion with his hands. All smiled when the bearded bassist mentioned the early days of being recognized at a restaurant on the Hill "where they serve things in really small pieces."

What's ahead of you in the next few months? "Graduating from high school." I try to not sound like a grandparent while asking about college. The bearded one: "I plan to drop out of film school." The drummer: "I'd rather be homeless." The drummer again, a bit more seriously, and this time referring to their budding career: "If no one cares by August, we'll go to college."

Time was running out, and I hadn't yet asked about their matching red t-shirts. Do you have multiples? "No." Where'd you get them? "Marshall's. We got screwed."

With the interview complete and their night's work coming to a close, we left the back area and headed into the main bar. Although I was first to walk back into the room, the waiting girls' eyes stared at the three behind me. The girl with the polka-dot black skirt — the dots like stars in this Galaxy — approached and as I curved right to head out toward the exit, Alspach walked toward the wall, turned around, leaned back, and began listening to his newest fan. Maybe their night was just beginning.

Stephen Schenkenberg works for a museum and has written articles, essays and reviews for St. Louis Magazine, Playback St. Louis, and Popular Music & Society. His screenplay remains unbought.

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2003 The Commonspace