Burning Down the House

Photo: Gillian Laub

A windblown bar on a ­desolate corner in deepest Red Hook seems like an ideal place for New York’s next big rock scene to be ­germinating—until you notice all the Subarus and Volvos parked on the street. Inside, the Liberty Heights Tap Room looks as if it’s half rocker bar, half unaccredited day-care facility. Pint-size kids in pint-size rock T-shirts dart maniacally underfoot. Long-haired teens in vintage rock tees chomp on pizza, while gently graying adults drink beer and worry aloud that they’ll be sorry for it later.

Onstage, a local power trio called Care Bears on Fire is barking out one of its raucous original numbers that perfectly encapsulates the age-old, anti-authoritarian, fuck-off spirit of punk rock.

“Don’t tell me what to do, what to wear, what to say / Don’t wanna follow rules, gonna do it my way / I’ve got a brain, I can think for myself / I don’t wanna be like everybody else / Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na / Don’t wanna be like everybody else … ”

The band members are 10 and 11 years old. And the authority figures in question—their parents—are pumping their fists and singing along.

Welcome to the age of the rocker mom. Kids who might otherwise have their parents ferry them to the soccer field are now being enthusiastically chaperoned to dive bars. Rock, once the realm of outcasts and dangerously attractive miscreants, is practically a curriculum choice. In Park Slope, after-school classes are offered at private and public schools, and Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (an offshoot of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon) is in its second year. On the syllabus are the classics: Ramones and Clash and Pixies songs that youngish parents revere, and that their offspring have been hearing since birth.

Rather than being cause for rebellion, grown-ups are rock mentors. Several, in the great tradition of Jack Black, have even become coaches, teaching teens and tweens the rudiments of rocking that normally take several alienated years to fumble through. Nowadays, punk isn’t just sanctioned by parents and school teachers; it’s good, clean fun. The Care Bears—singer-guitarist Sophie Kasakove, 11, bassist-singer Lucio Westmoreland, 11, and drummer-singer Isadora “Izzy” Schappell-Spillman, 10, all classmates at Park Slope’s Berkeley Carroll School—couldn’t be better poster children for this burgeoning movement if they’d been carefully pre-auditioned for a reality show. They wear standard rocker gear—jeans, Converse All-Stars, Black Sabbath T-shirts—but they’re also polite overachieving kids, cramming in band practice between art class, homework, and Hebrew school.

“Izzy didn’t want to be on the soccer team, didn’t want to play field hockey, didn’t want to be on any team,” her mom, Elissa Schappell, says of the girl who co-wrote the lyrics to “Don’t Wanna Be Like Everybody Else” and who pounds her drums with startling ferocity. “And suddenly, her friends wanted to play music. From the very beginning, all we’ve ever thought is that this is a chance for Izzy to have playdates with kids who share the same interests.”

“It’s not like soccer,” Izzy says. “It’s more of a thing kids choose instead of a pushed thing.” The band began life as Nada Clue in 2004 after Sophie and Lucio had taken a music course at Berkeley Carroll’s creative-arts camp and Izzy had attended Rock Camp for Girls (her family spends a lot of time in Portland, where Tin House, the literary magazine her parents co-founded, is based). One day, Sophie recalls, she and her friend Lyle Kokiko “decided we ­wanted to be in a band, so we each chose people and he chose Lucio … ”

“And you chose moi,” Izzy finishes. “I met Sophie in third grade, and I got to know Lucio in the band.”

Elissa gently points out that the three were in the same kindergarten class.

“I didn’t really hang out with boys then,” Izzy says. “That was my princess-dress phase.”

After about a year, Lyle left the band over “musical differences” (but they’re all still friends). Since he’d suggested the name Nada Clue, Izzy proposed changing it to Care Bear Death Battle, after a family joke about the nauseatingly adorable toys’ becoming evil. That soon evolved into Care Bears on Fire.

“We wanted something sweet and fuzzy, because that’s what people think when they think of a kid band—and we wanted something super-anti-that, too,” Izzy explains.

As the band’s chops improved—they’re not prodigies, but they rock with impressive skill for their age—their gigging schedule picked up. Last school year, they wowed their peers at two Berkeley Carroll variety shows. Then in April, they played at Southpaw in Park Slope, which like the Tap Room hosts regular teen-rock shows. Fandom was quick to find them. “After the first [Berkeley Carroll] gig, I was like, ‘I need to go play ball,’ ’cuz you get so hyped up for the gig,” Izzy recalls. “And these kids in our grade asked for our autographs and I was like, ‘What do I do?’ It was weird.”

Elissa credits the band with helping to give Izzy a stronger—perhaps much stronger—sense of identity and empowerment. She remembers telling her daughter enthusiastically that a classmate had praised the band. “I don’t care what she thinks,” Izzy replied. “Why do you care? I think you’ve got low self-­esteem, Mom.”

Sophie Kasakove was rocking onstage with her mother even before she was born. “I gigged into my ninth month [of pregnancy],” Yahz Kasakove says. “That last gig was probably too much. I had to play sitting in a chair.”

While the other Care Bears also have music in their blood (Lucio’s lawyer dad plays guitar in a bluegrass band; Izzy’s grandparents were accomplished opera musicians), Yahz fronted a band called Red Betty for a dozen years—and now she’s one of those rock coaches. “It’s ­really not much different from helping with homework. This band is one of the most focused ones that I work with,” she notes. “They’re really into it.”

“I just like to be good at things,” Sophie says, “and”—she laughs—“I pretty much like to show off: the whole idea of having people watch you and kind of think of you as someone who’s not just, like, normal. I like being different.” While the band rehearses in Lucio’s basement, Yahz tidies the performing area as if it were her daughter’s bedroom, shifting the amp closer so Sophie won’t trip over the cord. She calls out instructions as the group rolls through some covers (Stones, Clash, White Stripes) before moving on to one of their originals, “Watchdog.”

When asked about the song’s inspiration, Sophie says, “It’s about … her.” She jerks a thumb toward her mother.

“Me?” Yahz asks, seeming a little startled. “Parents in general,” Sophie replies. “Parents keep you safe and pick you up from school and ask you questions,” she sing-songs. “ ‘What did you do today, honey?’ ”

They work on harmonies for the song, with Yahz taking the high part: “Watchdog, leave me alone … tonight … ”

The band then turns to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” sung by Lucio. His dad—Rip Westmoreland, son of William C., the late Vietnam-era general—is a vintage-guitar collector, so Lucio’s playing a Fender Precision bass approximately three-fourths his height and four times his age. His voice, currently in the midst of dropping, cracks a little on the knotty lyrics and melody, but that’s not what halts the song.

“That’d be so punk rock to spit out a tooth while you’re playing!”

“I have a loose tooth!” Izzy calls out.

After ascertaining that a trip to the dentist is not imminent, her mom laughs with delight. “That’d be so punk rock, to spit out a tooth while you’re playing!”

Parents are not the Care Bears’ only mentors. Lucian Buscemi and his friend Julian Bennett Holmes, both 15, have matching heads of frizzy, billowing hair that have become a familiar sight on the Punk Slope scene. In 2005, their band Fiasco performed at a block party, playing fairly obscure early-eighties punk covers—Flipper, Minor Threat, Bad Brains—that were met with slack-jawed astonishment by several wizening hipsters in the crowd. The set sounded like a box of vintage punk singles, and partially, it was: Elissa had loaned hers to Lucian.

He and Julian have embraced the DIY ethics of eighties-era independent labels like SST and Dischord Records, and in addition to their two bands—Fiasco and the experimental Soñar—they’ve started Beautiful Records, on which they hope to release recordings by their bands, as well as Care Bears, and other local teen outfits. Between MySpace and iTunes, you can, of course, now run a label from your laptop.

“[Care Bears’] taste in music is sooo much better than when I was their age,” says Buscemi, son of actor Steve. “We haven’t really helped out with the way they play, but I guess we’ll help them become more known by recording them.”

In 2003, Fiasco (then known as ­StunGun) were the first teen rockers to play the Tap Room, and they’ve been bringing along their friends’ bands ever since. So the gig in Red Hook is something of a kid-rock Lollapalooza. In addition to Fiasco and Care Bears, the bill features such bands as Good to Go (who are coached by Yahz) and the tween duos Tiny Masters of Today and Magnolia. The show kicks off with the Hollows, a Bay Ridge outfit from P.S. 186 that blazes through three covers—to the confusion of some other bands on the roster, who thought that “No cover” meant they couldn’t perform non-original material.

The Care Bears have performed live a number of times by now; they’re nervous, but they also know how to read an audience. “I said to Sophie and Izzy, ‘We have to play the first song extremely well so we’ll have the crowd on our side,’ ” Lucio says afterward, standing outside the bar as groups in muted colors—all denim, cotton, and hair—mill around. “And once we did that, I felt perfectly fine. I feel it was the best we’ve played live.”

But then the post-gig glow is shattered when Izzy comes bounding out of the Tap Room. “Yes!” she yells, breaking into a fist-pumping dance. “We’re going to Fairway! We’re all going!” 

When Joey Ramone sang, “We’re a happy family,” he probably never imagined this.

Burning Down the House