The most popular group to emerge from Towson-Glen Arm was The Preschoolers, a high energy teenage ska band/performance art mutation who garnered a cult following throughout central Maryland during the early-mid 90’s. The Preschoolers stuck out like a sore thumb as an outrageous voice of the avant-garde in a suburban enclave that was, for the most part, devoid of any unique culture. This large ensemble regularly featured a line-up comprised of between 7 to 10 musicians, a few dancers, and even a hype-man, and, like that of many other TGA artists, The Preschoolers’ work was unusual for often expressing bold political sentiments.
In particular, Preschoolers’ co-founders Dave Willemain and Bob Phair made notable efforts to support social justice, efforts that were reflected in much of the innovative work made by the pair. Furthermore, by analyzing the relationship that Towson-Glen Arm collectively had with America’s contentious DelMarVa region, it’s easy to see how a strong political undercurrent became a core element of the scene’s activity.
“…on March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law calling for the gradual end of slavery, and the longest portion of the Mason-Dixon Line became the boundary not just between Pennsylvania and Maryland, but between freedom and slavery…
When the Civil War ended slavery was abolished but the Mason-Dixon Line was still there, separating North from South. Up and down the Line, the racial hatred that had been seeded two and one-half centuries earlier continued to be carefully watered every day. And the Line is still embedded in the national psyche as a powerful racial symbol.”
– William Ecenbarger, from ‘Walkin’ The Line’
“If you believe in fighting racism, you make a commitment for the rest of your life…There’s no getting off that train. You can’t say, ‘I’ve put five years in fighting racism and now I’m finished.’ No, you are not finished. Our job is to fight it every day, to continue to shove it down and when it rises up to shove it down even harder.”
Parren J. Mitchell
Maryland, U.S.A.’s first African-American congressman (7th district, 1970 to 1986), the first African American to graduate from the University Of Maryland School Of Law
Every single story behind every single wild art movement seems to begin with its own dramatic ‘Big Bang’ moment …right? Actually, that point is totally debatable, especially when it comes to Towson-Glen Arm and The Preschoolers. Nonetheless, it’s telling to find that some of the scene’s earliest works came to be shortly after a unique political demonstration with origins tied tightly to the geography of central Maryland and also to an actual parent of one of The Preschoolers’ co-founders.
David G. Willemain – father of artist David Scott Willemain – worked for the early 90’s administration of Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a celebrated local democrat who gained fame and infamy for openly promoting radical notions regarding illicit drug policy, and the treatment of A.I.D.S. and H.I.V. Schmoke was also outspoken in confronting the financial problems that plagued the federal government funds intended to help impoverished urban America. To Mayor Schmoke, those interferences created by President George H.W. Bush’s aggressive foreign policy were especially troublesome.
In late 1991 civil rights pioneer Parren J. Mitchell (with support from Mayor Schmoke, and a coalition of community leaders and local politicians) used a series of town hall meetings in Baltimore to come up with a strategy for confronting the Bush administration’s apathetic response to the complex needs of blighted American cities like Baltimore and its neighbor D.C. The meetings resulted in a collective resolution to march on Washington, D.C. in May of 1992 to demand a decrease in U.S. military spending and an increase in federal funding for progressive social projects custom made for the nation’s most at risk neighborhoods. To publicly announce the D.C. march a smaller local march through the streets of Baltimore was held in October 1991. This consisted mostly of the same local leaders and activists who hatched the idea of the D.C. march. Eventually, The United States Conference Of Mayors and The National League Of Cities would join in to help organize Parren J. Mitchell’s effort thus giving the march a shot of prestige that had been missing as it developed in Baltimore’s low budget community centers.
Mitchell and his supporters dubbed their series of marches “Save Our Cities, Save Our Children”. David G. Willemain worked with Kurt Schmoke’s office thoughout the mayor’s tenure; as Schmoke was a close confidante to Mitchell, Willemain found himeslf on the front lines of the “Save Our Cities…” movement as it evolved. David G. Willemain’s son caught wind of the march and its purpose just at a time when he began to gain a strong interest and admiration for the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and the radical sentiments of the Black Panther Party. The goals of these movements shared a’lot of common ground with those of the “Save Our Cities” campaign, so David Scott Willemain (known to friends as ‘Dave’) decided to attend the march in order to express solidarity with those struggling against racist/classist oppression.
April ’92 saw the “Save Our Cities, Save Our Children” march suddenly and drastically take on a whole new kind of currency. On March 3rd, 1991, a 26 year old unarmed African-American man named Rodney King was nearly beaten to death by a group of white Los Angeles police officers. Naturally, this incident shocked and outraged the world, so it took a full year to gather up an impartial jury who could try the police accused of the beating. The evidence presented in the trial – including a video tape that documented nearly the entire melee – overwhelmingly implicated the officers of police brutality and assault. Despite this, on April 29th ’92 three of the accused were acquitted of all wrong doing, and the jury couldn’t come to a conclusion on an extra charge against a fourth officer involved in the beating. Once news of the acquittals spread Los Angeles exploded in a haze of violent unrest. Soon afterward, several other North American cities followed L.A.’s incendiary path.
When the “Save Our Cities, Save Our Children” march on D.C. finally got off the ground on May 16th 1992 the event went from being an obscure fringe cause upheld only by the citizens of America’s toughest ghettos to a full blown national healing festival attended by an estimated 150,000 people. The march even featured the performance of a ‘Cumabaya’ type-anthem performed and written especially for the event by protest-folk veteran Peter Yarrow. This tune was made up entirely of quotes from a televised press conference that Rodney King gave at the end of the trial, including King’s famous plea, “Can we all just get along?”
Yarrow wasn’t the only one from the Civil rights-era old guard who illuminated the march with a more diplomatic tone. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, then New York Mayor David Dinkins, NAACP head Benjamin Gellis, and many other well known and obscure figures from America’s political left came out to protest against the financial excess of the conservative federal government and to try to calm the residual fear and rage inspired by the King trial.
Not everyone featured at the demonstration was repping the staid old ways of sit-ins and sing-a-longs. The Muslim hip-hop crew Defiant Giants brandished some tough Black Nationalist rap, and Bernice Price (a teenager who struggled with homelessness in D.C.) brought the sadness and frustration of poverty to life through brutal oration. Urvashi Vaid, a gay rights advocate who was then the executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, gave what was perhaps the event’s most radical speech when she proclaimed that the injustice unleashed upon Rodney King and the ghettos was no different than that which was being felt in America’s gay communities. She pulled no punches when uttering the words, “To be lesbian or gay in America today is to live in a state of war!”
Dave Willemain invited his friends Bob Phair and Lou Thomas to join him in attending the “Save Our Cities, Save Our Children” demonstration , and this trio did indeed end up going down to D.C. where they got to soak up plenty of the march’s intense rhetoric. Soon after attending the march these three young artists would form The Nudists – Towson-Glen Arm’s first recorded band, and Willemain and Phair would go on to form The Preschoolers at the end of 1993. Each of these kids were around 14 years old when they attended the protest, and they were driven there by Dave Willemain’s father the night before the march as he was part of its planning committee.
Bob Phair: We went to DC with Dave’s Dad , I think, where we parked at some church probably in Takoma Park or Hyattsville (Md.) From there we took a van full of marchers to downtown DC to another church where we slept on cots. It was cold in there but we were in good spirits and had been chatting up some DC school girls slumber party style. They got a kick out of us, white boys with long hair were pretty unusual to them.
Lou Thomas: …I remember we spent the night in some kind of hall or gym with the other marchers (I remember washing my armpits in a sink, partly because there was a girl I thought was cool and I was worried I smelled bad)…
…I remember talking to an African-American man, maybe in his 40s or 50s (hard to tell, I was 14), who was a long time activist, and Dave and I talked to him for a long time while marching. I think he told us stories about the civil rights movement, or at least 70s movements. I recall him being soft spoken, knowledgable, and really friendly. He made an impression on both of us, but I think particularly on Dave…
Bob Phair: …organizers spoke through bullhorns, we walked for what seemed like forever, at one point the two members of the (political rap group) Disposable Heroes of Hip Hoprisy joined in with the march… This was down by the National Mall, I think they then performed a few songs on a relatively large stage that had been set up… speeches were given and…some other performers played. We went home with bright red Save Our Cities T-shirts, I think the march had a positive impact…
…we all had pretty progressive parents so we were primed for seeing through the bullshit [that the march was confronting].
Although Dave took it farther than anyone. He borrowed Eldridge Cleaver from my mom! He also got tons of books from Che (Guevara) to Angela Davis and Marcus Garvey and I think internalized their struggles… But I think all of us realized that music is the great equalizer… the root of progress in our day and age.
Progressive parents and righteous libraries weren’t dominant in every corner of the nascent TGA scene. In Towson-Glen Arm artist Violet LeVoit’s words, north Baltimore County in the early 90’s often seemed like “…a hermetic bubble for middle-class white people to live in without the ‘distraction’ of their own privilege…”. While the parents of some TGA artists did see the County as merely a pleasant backdrop for their domestic commitments, their kids often viewed greater Baltimore as a place littered with reminders of slavery, intolerance, and classism. Inevitably, these teens began making creative efforts to subvert the area’s darkest political elements. While the anti-racist/anti-right aims of the Save Our Cities march were influential, many in the TGA crew developed a radical consciousness completely on their own terms.
Matt Bray, TGA show promoter/activist/artist:
I lived in Lutherville-Timonium — it was a very white, middle class suburb. It seemed wealthy to me when my family first moved there from New York in 1983, but as I grew up and saw other parts of Baltimore County, I realized there were much much wealthier parts around me. From my parents’ bedroom I could see a large old plantation house, and tucked in the woods on the same property there was an actual cabin-like home that had been occupied by slaves. I remember thinking this was very scary but also super interesting. Once when I was about 12 I trespassed onto the property and met a man who lived in that house who said that the house had belonged to his ancestors that had been slaves on that plantation…I felt that I was touching history very closely, and I was haunted by the thoughts of slavery right in the land where I was living – interested and haunted. I always felt that given the history, the resistance (in Baltimore County) would be great and the fact that the opposite was true was always puzzling to me. When I lived in Germany, most regular people were extremely anti-Nazi, anti-racist — not just the leftists and punks. That made sense to me, and I never understood how the white kids who could trace their ancestry to slave owners were not deeply involved in anti-racism…
…Dulaney*(High School)…was full of right wing Catholics and other anti-choice Christians — it was the hot button issue of the time…I clearly remember there were very few actively pro-choice students…
At Dulaney, it was pretty clear that most people were at best Democrats, but mostly right wing and Republican. I don’t think I ever thought it was just the jock gestapo – they were simply the police force of the racist society…when the Iraq war started and there were probably less than 10 kids in the whole school that wore black armbands [in protest of the war] one of them was (I think) the president of the senior class and one of the only black girls in the school… She was totally ostracized based on her brave act, and the rest of us wearing the armbands stopped wearing them the first day. I was threatened with expulsion and suspension the first day of the bombing because I refused to stand for the Pledge!
Tricia Lane-Forster, visual artist/writer/member of the early TGA band Spastic Cracker:
I was very aware of social injustice, inequity of race, class, and the disabled. I remember being concerned about these issues at a very young age and very aware in middle school. How was a white suburban middle class girl aware of these issues? I’m not sure. Maybe because I was born without my left arm and was aware of anyone who was different and aware when things weren’t fair or right? My parents took me to the city and to other cities too and I saw the homeless, the poor, and often wanted to interact with them and help them from a young age.
My teachers, though, and the projects they gave me throughout school raised awareness too. I was reading short stories by Alice Walker in 10th grade and reporting on them. I had projects related to slavery several times during high school. I was reading about the holocaust, the Nazi doctors, and other travesties in history in 12th grade. I remember being thankful that I didn’t live in certain places or times throughout history because if I had I would have been killed or experimented on because of my arm. I also remember being thankful that I would have opportunities regardless of my limb difference. I knew that activists and political leaders and others had fought for these rights.
Lisa Starace, writer/member of the early TGA bands Spastic Cracker, The Unheard Ones, and Within:
I feel like there has always been this uneasy relationship between black Baltimore and white artists/musicians/punks…whatever you want to call them… it was totally common for places like The Loft**… to exist in these areas that were often invisible to most white Baltimoreans…I didn’t totally think about race then as much as I do now, but even if I didn’t critically think about what was happening, you couldn’t help but feel the divide deeply. And there was something so rebellious about crossing into this other world…crossing that line…perhaps a figurative Mason Dixon…
…the underpinnings of racial tension were part of why I always felt a love/hate relationship with Baltimore/Maryland. There’s so much to love, but I always found it hard to reconcile those things with the whole underlying world of injustice, poverty, and racism…
Cory Davolos, member of the early TGA bands Spactic Cracker, Retarded Dogs, The 6 O’Clock Alarm, Lard Star, etc.:
…the idea of growing up (in Maryland) and being unaware of its troubled past and divisions seems impossible to me. I always had an interest in history and very much remember my parents telling me stories about the racial disturbances in the sixties, MLK etc. The most disturbing of these were always the stories retold about their youths growing up in segregated Delaware if you can believe it! I’m always going back to this, my parents and their generation remember and were raised in a time that was nearly yesterday when Apartheid was ordered by the peoples governments! One generation away from us, it’s that close. It still blows my mind. My family were 20th century immigrants to America, racism is there, it always has been. It seems to be embedded with many newly established Americans, this jockeying for space, for power, a piece of the American dream that was guaranteed to them needs to be continually fought for, against fellow Americans. While we may not lose a war to some foreign nation, African Americans moving into a certain school district/rap music/hip hop culture posed a real threat to paranoid white suburbanites watching every penny and cultural edifice they were entitled to supposedly being eaten away by outsiders. Remember folks calling the Light Rail*** the ‘Soul Train’??
Attending public school I think really was the catalyst. Cockeysville Middle was a buck wild cauldron man. My first introduction to racial bullying, violence, pre-imposed class differences, sexual bravado. Those years are really some of the first times you become aware of the larger outside world around you, being more attuned to the cultural brew…
…Northern Baltimore County LAX culture: I played lacrosse all the way into sophmore year [of high school]…at the time Lacrosse was the upper class/private school white boy sport. Still is I’m sure. When I decided to attend Dulaney [a public high school], the guys on my Junior A team took to calling it ‘Dirtlaney’, because you know the kids (from) Dulaney were of a lower class and therefore ‘Dirtballs’ and ‘Grits’. There were no black kids on my lacrosse team either.
…In my senior year, I had a good friend gay bashed by jocks…of everything that happened at Dulaney this was a defining moment… Year by year I was convinced that there were major problems with not only myself but with our society in general. High school was bullshit, I had to get out from under the magnifying glass of pre-adulthood, I withdrew into music and art and started to daydream…about speaking out, freaking straight people out, dressing weird, making our own secret noise…leaving ’em all behind. This new thing…a dedication to radical awareness and mega fun…wouldn’t be something they could touch or corrupt…This was Towson-Glen Arm.
TO BE CONTINUED
* Dulaney High School in Timonium, Md.; many Towson-Glen Arm artists attended this school.
** The Loft was an 80’s/90’s Baltimore. Md. music venue that primarily catered to punk and hardcore bands, but also hosted many Towson-Glen Arm concerts. It was located in an abandoned building situated near a predominantly black neighborhood in the city’s impoverished west side.
*** The Light Rail is a public transportation train line that runs north/south through Baltimore city. It also runs through many of the suburban neighborhoods that were hotbeds of TGA action during the 90’s.
The introductory quote from Congressman Parren J. Mitchell was made circa 1989 and appeared in an obituary for him published in the May 30th 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times
Ecenbarger, William. Walkin The Line. New York: M. Evans and Company, 2007. First printing.
LoLordo, Ann, “Save Our Cities: ‘Ordinary people’ plan extraordinary steps”. The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Md.]. 10/5/1991.
Anonymous. “Saving the cities”. The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Md.]. 10/8/1991.
Mitchell, Parren J., and Corr, Katherine. “We march against a policy of abandonment and neglect”. The Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, Md.]. 10/11/1991
“Save Our Cities march on Saturday” letter to editor of The Baltimore Sun newspaper [Baltimore, Md.]. May 13th, 1992. Levin, Jack L.; Baltimore, Md.
Weisensee, Nicole. “Mayors Demand $$ To Save Ailing Cities Rendell Wants Urban Aid To Match Soviet Aid”. The Philadelphia Daily News [Philadelphia, Pa.]. May 16th, 1992.
Carlson, Tucker. “At Home With Big Government”. City Journal [New York, NY]. Summer 1993.
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D.C.#1950.E2.80.931999. December 18th, 2014.
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The Wikipedia Foundation. “Rodney King”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King. December 14th, 2014.
Asian/Pacific American Archives Survey. “The Rocky Chin Papers”. http://dev-dl-pa.home.nyu.edu/tamimentapa. New York University. 12/13/2011.
Sauro, Briar (with revisions by Leslie Reyman). “Women’s Action Coalition Records 1989-2003”. http://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/archivalcollections/pdf/wac_0.pdf. The New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library Manuscripts and Archives Division. October 1997 (revisions: October 2008).
Gary, Garney and C-Span. (5/18/1992) “Save Our Cities Save Our Children march”. [http://www.c-span.org/video/?26089-1/save-cities-save-children]