Sharp Darts: Thousand-Watt Therapy | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: Thousand-Watt Therapy 

The Empty Bottle helps expose some kids with special needs to top-drawer live music.

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There isn't much on a typical Black Lips record I couldn't play for my parents—the band's brand of garage rock follows a blueprint that'd be perfectly familiar to Dick Biondi. But onstage they're another story: the Lips are raunchy at their mildest, often descending to the kind of public excretory displays that made GG Allin such a hit at parties. The audiences at their shows are thus tilted somewhat toward people who think shit like that is funny, or who don't mind staying well clear of the stage.

Last Saturday, though, the band played for a crowd I would've assumed was even more sheltered than mom and dad—a couple dozen special-needs teens, half of them wards of the state. They'd been driven to the Logan Square Auditorium from a residential treatment center in Des Plaines run by a group called Camelot, which operates facilities in five other states.

The event is the brainchild of Josh Scholl, director of community relations in Des Plaines. Though Camelot does offer music therapy, "It's usually acoustic guitar or playing them music," he says. Scholl took it upon himself to juice up the program, and last fall he got in touch with Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman about finding a way to expose the Camelot kids to honest-to-God live bands.

The trial run was in early October. Scholl and his charges came to the Bottle to see dance-pop outfit Fujiya & Miyagi play a few songs between their sound check and their set, before the doors opened to the public. It went well—the kids gave the band a pair of white Reeboks they'd all signed, a nod to the F&M tune "Reeboks in Heaven"—and the venue decided to make a regular thing of it. A second Camelot trip, to see Busdriver in November, was aborted when somebody threw up in the van on the way. The Black Lips show at LSA, also booked by the Bottle, is the third.

For me the words "music therapy" bring to mind someone with a graduate degree and a soothing voice playing the Autoharp for a roomful of kids with tambourines and toy drums. Most of us don't actually know what it's supposed to accomplish or how it's supposed to work, so we think of it as a palliative for people we're not sure what else will help.

It's true that people with autism sometimes get stuck in a place inside their heads that's difficult for anyone else to enter. And because the condition interferes with the comprehension of subtle changes in facial expression or verbal inflection, ordinary social interactions are a permanently foreign language to many autistics. But the excited adolescents that poured into the LSA, the majority of them autistic, didn't seem too different from ordinary high school students, aside from being less self-conscious and less fashionably dressed. A couple kids seemed content to sit on their own, but most gathered in knots, talking and goofing off, buzzing over this break from their routine.

Listening to a live band, Scholl says, is "a calming experience for some of them, especially the autistic kids. They really like the loud music." Autistics can become overstimulated easily, in part because they have difficulty not perceiving all the tiny details that make up the big picture other people see. It's possible that loud music works like a sonic version of the "squeeze machine" developed by autistic author Temple Grandin, creating a single profound sensation that damps down all that mental noise.

Though half a dozen Camelot staffers, including Scholl, were at the LSA to look after the group, there were no crises for them to handle. After the puppet show from opener Miss Pussycat that kicked off the afternoon, one kid had a sort of fit because he wanted more, but that was the only incident. The Lips didn't treat their set like a throwaway, though they did tone down their NC-17 stage act to a respectful G. When guitarist and vocalist Cole Alexander introduced their first song, the punk-rock love tune "Dirty Hands"—he said it was about "using soap when you use the bathroom"—the kids were so ready for the music they went off just like the crowd at every other Black Lips show I've seen, albeit a bit heavy on the yelling and light on the usual whistling and clapping.

As the set went on, the agitation and static in the air seemed to resolve itself into something more harmonious. More and more of the kids started to move. Some who'd been staring past the band started focusing on them. Others started dancing—a version of the twist, a modified Temptations-style back-and-forth step, a slow-motion pogo. Between their raw enthusiasm and their absolute lack of self-consciousness, they were one of the best crowds I've seen in a long time—just being around them made me appreciate all over again what a thrillingly physical experience seeing a loud rock band really is.

Alexander had a special affection for the kids in the crowd. Growing up he'd been placed in special-ed classes, where he got to be good friends with a boy named Andrew. "I was the only one who could talk to him," he says. "I had to be his translator for the teacher. I was like the horse whisperer for the autistic kids." The Lips were only expected to play two or three tunes, but they did six—an excellent selection of cuts from Let It Bloom and Good Bad Not Evil, plus an inexplicable cover of the Chuck Berry Christmas song "Run Rudolph Run." After an encore—"Sea of Blasphemy," for a kid in the audience who requested something "futuristic"—they jumped offstage to give high fives, and Alexander handed out copies of a cassette by like-minded Missouri band the Modern Primitives. Then it was the kids' turn: they presented the Lips with a huge framed collage of band photos, decorated with handwritten messages from all two dozen of them.

As everyone filed out—the kids heading back to Camelot, the band to an in-store at the Wicker Park Reckless—I asked Scholl about his plans for the program. He seemed open to experimenting with different genres on future trips, even jazz and classical, but he was wary about exposing the kids to anything too genteel. "Stuff that's faster, like the Black Lips or Fujiya & Miyagi, it keeps their interest more," he said. "If it's kinda boring and they're not into it, they're somewhere else. So when it's shorter and punchier the kids gravitate to it more. Especially if they can dance—they really enjoy that."

For the time being, at least, Scholl can't stray too far, since he's limited to venues the Bottle books. And though he chose the Bottle, he's not the one who chooses the shows—the kids pick from a list of acts who've said they're willing to participate. I asked him: Are the Black Lips really the kind of stuff they listen to around the center?

He laughed. "If they're by my office," he said.v

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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