Among the Young
A line of cars snakes down U.S. 1 toward a party in Kendall. Although tropical storm Allison is directly over Cuba at the moment, a torrent of rain has fallen on Miami, leaving the streets glistening and slick. There are about twenty cars in all, including a BMW 325i, a gold Dodge Aires with "GO NAVY" stickers on the bumper, and a white Toyota minivan crammed with electric guitars, a drum set, and ten kids barely old enough to be called teenagers.
The late-night caravan began at Cheers, a bar just north of Coconut Grove on SW Seventeenth Avenue. Cheers usually caters to "women who prefer women," but this Saturday night the club was open to both sexes and all ages for a punk-rock showcase. Cell 63 was the featured band, a quartet of veteran local rockers playing their last show. The opening act was the debut of a trio known as the Smerffs. Lead singer and guitarist James Fullwood thrashed his skeletal frame around the stage wearing a black Ramones T-shirt and a rainbow-hued stocking cap. Bass player Lee Smalley, who used gobs of gel and hair spray to shape his foot-long mohawk into five perfect Statue of Liberty spikes, smiled at the dozens of schoolgirls in the mosh pit. Drummer Arthur Vogler, who needed glue to keep his longer mohawk elevated, pounded out a steady backbeat. The boys had begun playing songs together only a month earlier, but already rock has become the most important thing in their lives. All of them are fourteen years old.
Now, after the show, James rides in the minivan, buried under friends in the passenger seat. When he and his bandmates get to the party, they will drink from clear bottles of Olde English 800 malt liquor and from cans of Budweiser. They will hit on each other's girlfriends while they stick cocktail parasols in the tips of their mohawks. As the movie A Clockwork Orange plays on a big-screen television in the deluxe Kendall home of one of their friends, they will sit on overstuffed couches and argue about how to split up the $120 they received for the gig. Should they invest it in equipment? Should they divide it equally? Or should they just buy some more beer?
The next morning James will return to his comfortable middle-class home in South Miami. His mother will ask about the show and about the rest of his evening (he told her he was staying over at Arthur's). The next weekend he will do much the same -- tell his parents he is sleeping over at a friend's house when in fact he'll be hanging in the Grove or on the Beach. He will drink, carouse, and of course listen to music. No surprise, then, that he will get into trouble eventually.
"It's like my dream to be able to like get this band on the road and just be able to quit school and stuff. Not necessarily quit school and like never finish it, but just be able to get away from it and go on tour or something," James says. It's 2:30 p.m. and he's walking out of South Miami Senior High School. When the academic year began in late August, he was a ninth grader at Southwood Middle School, a respected orchestra magnet school where he played first chair upright bass. All his friends were in senior high, though, so he begged his mother to let him transfer. "I like South Miami better because my other school was like boot camp," he says. "I learned there in a day what I now learn in a week. And now I get to go out to lunch."
James's grades have not been what they could be. Though he's an avid reader of contemporary fiction, and though his mother describes him as a child prodigy in math, he has let his marks slip. Last year, taking all gifted-program classes, he pulled down only C's. "C's are what I get," he concedes. "A few D's and a few B's but mostly C's." His mother reminds him that in ninth grade, the report cards start to count. She says that if he is ever going to get into Julliard or Berklee like he wants, he's going to need better than a C average. James listens to her but he still can't motivate himself to study harder. "I just find it pointless," he says as he passes rows of almond-colored school lockers and pep-rally signs that say Go Cobras and Seniors Rule. "I know that whether it's playing classical bass or playing in a band, I'm gonna do music when I grow up. I don't care like what anyone says, I just am. So like everything I do in school has like nothing to do with what I am going to do in the future. And I can see it all as one big meaningless thing. It's just there to waste my time."
He is wearing a pair of tan denim jeans at least five sizes too big for him. His navy blue T-shirt with the word "CREW" across it was picked up for ten dollars at a vintage clothing store in Miami Beach. The pants billow, but the shirt fits his lean torso like a second skin, the way he likes it. He and his bandmates shaved their heads a while ago. The short, even hair that has grown back on his head is bleached white on top with the roots showing his natural black. "James is always in the lead when it comes to his hair," says his mother. "He gets a mohawk and everyone else in the school gets a mohawk. He shaves his head and so does everyone else."
A fleet of fifteen school buses stands ready on SW 68th Avenue to cart home most of the South Miami students. But James shuffles his suede Converse sneakers past the buses and heads to Herbie's Pizza a block away. Herbie makes a living selling his pizza to South Miami students, but James doesn't stop in that often. He's here only to meet up with Lee, the bass player.
Lee sits at a booth smoking a Marlboro with a friend, who is bragging that he was suspended for insubordination on the first day of school. Lee nods hello to James and asks what the plan is for the evening. Tonight they will rehearse, James declares. The band is playing its third gig tomorrow night back at Cheers. They'll need to get to Patty's house by maybe 5:00 p.m. Patty is James's girlfriend. She is also in a band, Denny's Unit, and the Smerffs need her amplifiers and microphones to practice. The Smerffs have so little equipment of their own that they can't play a show without borrowing a few amps. Patty is indispensible.
If he needed to, James would cross the street to the 7-Eleven and grab a Metro bus home. Fortunately, most people in the older crowd James hangs with already have their driver's licenses. It's a testament to his popularity that several of them want nothing more than to be his chauffeur, so he is rarely without transportation. Today one of his friends is willing to shuttle him around all evening long, wherever he wants to go. James hops in the car. Lee, with a few hours to kill before rehearsal, gets in the back seat.
Radio is forbidden. Even with the heralded changes to alternative-rock formats, South Florida radio remains too mainstream and boring for a passionate music fan like James. He pulls a tape out of his green canvas book bag decorated in Liquid Paper with the names of bands such as Screeching Weasel, Operation Ivy, and Green Day. The tape is of the Mr. T Experience, a band out of the same Oakland, California, scene as Green Day, and very much like that popular punk band in its sound. Green Day was James's favorite group until they exploded onto MTV; now too many other people like them. The Mr. T Experience might be his new favorite band. He sticks the tape in the deck, blasts the music, and sings along on the traffic-heavy, twenty-minute ride to his house.
Eight royal palm trees announce the entrance to James's home in South Miami. In a large ranch-style house built from Dade County pine and kept secure behind an automatic black iron gate, James lives with his mother, his stepfather, a half-brother, age six, and a half-sister, age eight. He's lived here since he was four, since the divorce, really. Inside are Audubon paintings and pillows embroidered with field birds. Stained-glass hummingbirds hover below the dining table chandelier while an aviary on the porch holds two live parakeets, two cockatiels, two finches, and two Java rice birds. The birds are a hobby of James's mother, Christine Spire. Behind the house is a pool, and behind that is the even larger house where Christine's mother-in-law lives alone.
James has his own room off the kitchen. It is a big space -- long and narrow with sliding glass doors opening out to the yard. Although he has the place to himself, two twin beds are placed at opposite corners of the room. The phone he uses to call Patty every night lies atop one bed, next to the acoustic guitar he started playing when he was twelve. The dark, wood-paneled walls are covered in Marlins pennants, there's a poster of Mickey Mantle, and a thousand loosely bundled basketball cards lie on a bookshelf. All describe a life in transition. Now it is music; before it was sports.
James's grandfather, Leo Fullwood, was a Miami tennis pioneer who founded the Coral Oaks Tennis Club on Red Road near Parrot Jungle. James's natural father was once the club pro. From age three until age twelve, James was at the courts almost every day hitting a ball around. He gave up sports because he doesn't like to sweat so much any more. He also says he has a far better chance of being successful in rock than in tennis. "I was like one of the best in the club, but when you talk about the world, that won't get you anywhere," he says of his tennis days. "My dad's friend's son was like the best in Miami. The best. But he was like number 200-something in the world and barely making money. I'll never put my kids into sports. Then they're going to want to be professional basketball players and have their minds set on that. It's really not worth getting their hopes up."
While James's sports past is still represented in his room, more predominant now are pictures of the Smerffs hanging next to flyers of shows he has either played or attended. There is a poster of Lookout Records, his favorite label because they signed Green Day before the band went big. Medals from the state band contests he has won (playing upright bass) rest on a cluttered dresser. The bass he plays every week in a community orchestra lies on the floor near a stool and some sheet music.
Lee grabs the acoustic guitar and strums some chords while James tears into a package he received in the mail. Two weeks ago he ordered a Screeching Weasel T-shirt and he assumes this is it. It is A sort of. The shirt he ordered was black; the one that arrived is white. He already has a white one. "I was going to wear that shirt at the show tomorrow," he complains. Lee asks if he can have it and James throws it to him in disgust. "Let's get out of here and go to Y&T," he commands.
Yesterday & Today Records is James's favorite place to purchase the vital, fresh music that Miami radio just doesn't play. Bands he loves, such as the Queers, and songs he loves, like "Teenage Bonehead," can be found in the pale blue bins of the small store.
Y&T, located in a strip mall on SW 57th Avenue in South Miami, is also a repository for obscure older recordings (cassettes of the first two Soul Asylum albums, back when they still had a punk edge) and used posters of bands that are no longer trendy (R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure). T-shirts of every current pop band line the walls: Belly, Hole, and Nirvana still, despite the year-old suicide of lead singer Kurt Cobain. James heads straight for the bins of vinyl seven-inch singles to see if there are any new Screeching Weasel records he doesn't already have. The singles are often the only way he can hear new music. Up by the front door James checks to make sure photocopied notices for the upcoming Smerffs show are prominently displayed. He flips through a few of the free magazines stacked near the cash register. "I just want to be able to like open up Maximum Rock 'n' Roll -- it's the biggest 'zine around -- and just be able to like see our names somewhere in that. It's nothing special, but I want to do it to be a band. It is my dream to get in Maximum Rock 'n' Roll."
James is running late at 5:30 p.m. It's time to go to Patty's, but not before some fast food. "Taco Bell should like rule the world," James shouts over the music on the way to the restaurant. "Did you ever see Demolition Man, where all the restaurants are the same? That's like my dream. Me and Lee always said that if we can get famous, we're going to buy a Taco Bell and then we'd get to eat all we want any time we want."
James's evening meals are almost always eaten at home, where his mother spends much of the day preparing dinner. "My mom's whole life is revolved around dinner," he mutters as he downs a Taco Supreme, a Texas Taco, and water from a clear plastic cup. "It's like, 'You need to be here at dinner because I planned out dinner all day. When you don't show up for dinner, it messes up my whole plans.' I mean, if like not coming home for dinner is messing up your whole plans, I mean there is something wrong there. I mean, dinner is your whole life? I don't know. It's just really bad."
James's mother, Christine, admits that she probably does spend too much time planning and preparing dinners, but the evening meal has always been very important to her. "It is the only time the whole family comes together," she explains. "I like to hear what they've done with their day and what they hope to do the next day." She has consciously arranged her life in order to make dinner such a priority.
Just 22 years older than James, Christine is a third-generation Miamian reared in a house her grandfather built in the venerable northeast section of Miami. She moved to Miami Beach in the sixth grade and didn't leave until she entered college at the University of Miami. The school gave her a full scholarship because of her outstanding talents on the violin.
But after only two years, she dropped out. "I had reached my goal in music," she recalls as she toys with her necklace, which bears three gold charms: a cross, a tennis racket, and the word Mom. "I always said I wanted to be concertmaster at the UM orchestra. When I made top violin after two years, I was bored. And then James's dad came into my life." Jim Fullwood was a gem dealer at the time who traveled all over the country before he eventually returned to teach tennis at his father's club. To a bored concertmaster who had lived her entire life in the same place, he was as dazzling as the stones he sold. "I thought that was just very exciting -- to travel -- and so I kind of left town with him without telling anybody," Christine recalls. "We were gone for I guess six months, but we did come back and we did have a formal wedding."
James was born soon after they returned to a life that proved to be more uncertain than Christine wanted. Because Jim worked on commission, money was always a concern. As Christine looked at their future together, she didn't see a time when she could ever quit her job as a legal secretary to stay home and raise children. She wanted a different life. Her mother, who had divorced after 29 years of marriage, told her that if she was ever going to leave James's father, she should do it quickly, while the child was still young. Christine did just that.
She remarried when James was four, to a man who is now the vice president of a commercial real estate firm. "My dream was always to stay at home," she says of being a housewife. "We both said that as soon as we could financially afford it, I would stay home." There still isn't money to do absolutely everything she wants (Christine tells James he can't have five dollars every time he wants to run to Taco Bell), but now there is enough that she can stay home full-time, cleaning house in the morning and teaching tennis to the two youngest ones in the afternoon.
On the weekends, Christine and her husband drive up to Broward, where they are looking for a new home outside the boundaries of the Weston subdivision. "We just have to get out of Dade County," she says. "It's too crowded now." The homes they are looking at would give them a smaller mortgage, a bigger house, and more land. No strict deadline has been assigned to the move, but they hope to be out before the next school year begins.
James is horrified about the move. Even if he's only 40 minutes north, he'll have to leave his friends. He'll have to leave his school. Most important, he worries about the band. How will it survive the separation? His mother is sensitive to his concerns, but she is not worried. "Sooner or later they will outgrow each other," she says. "I don't see this band staying together. It's a new thing right now. Their friends love them. But I don't see the excitement going on forever."
Christine is trying to be more flexible about dinner. Every so often she'll let James take his food to his bedroom. On rare occasions, she'll even let him go to Taco Bell with his friends instead of eating at home. Because of band rehearsal, tonight is one of those occasions. James crumples up the foil taco wrappers and heads to rehearsal with Lee. First they pick up Arthur. In the car at 6:00 p.m., James explains to his drummer that the practice is starting later than they'd hoped because Patty is sick, that she didn't want anyone to see her band practice, and that one of the two other girls in her band can sometimes be a pain. "Instead of singing our song 'School Sucks,'" James moans, referring to one of the tunes he wrote for the Smerffs, "we should change the song's name to 'Girls Suck.'" Lee approves initially, then thinks about it a bit. "But then everybody would think that we're like gay or something," he says, "which I don't really want."
Patty has the teenage dream. Her stepfather is a prosperous physician, so she lives in an enormous house in a part of unincorporated Dade that may soon become the Village of Pinecrest. One entire wing of the house has been turned over to sixteen-year-old Patty, her thirteen-year-old half-sister, and her younger half-brother. Each child has a private bedroom and shares a common room with a full gym, a big-screen TV, and a screened-in patio, and each has access to the pool out back. Patty also has a practice room, a small, enclosed section of the gym where her band keeps its equipment. A junior at Palmetto High School, Patty makes straight A's, so she can have friends over whenever she wants. Judging from the dried pink strands of Silly String stuck to the exercise mirrors, they can do almost anything.
Patty met James almost a year ago at Santa's Enchanted Forest on the first day it opened for the season. Like James, her mother divorced and remarried when she was four. Like James, she has two half-siblings. And above all, like James, she shares a burning passion for punk-rock music, and she idolizes the Broward-based, all-girl band Jack Off Jill. Her short, straight hair is dyed black and pulled to the side with barrettes and she has a ring pierced through her left eyebrow, another reward for her good grades.
"It's just different," James says of their relationship. "It's not like we're two high school kids who are just like kissing each other and like hold hands and stuff. It's like there is more to it. There's a lot more. We don't have to do that kind of stuff to let each other know what we're feeling and stuff, you know? It's just, I don't know, maybe it's wrong for me to say it so young, but it's just like a real mature relationship, you know?"
The Smerffs begin rehearsing. On the practice room's white walls, Patty and her band have scribbled graffiti in red, blue, and black paint, which says "Riot Grrrl," "I want to be stereotyped," and there are several penis references. James, Lee, and Arthur play a set as Patty sits on a couch cushion just outside the small room, mesmerized by her boyfriend's music. Furiously fast guitar chords blur together into one gnawing buzz. The cymbals crash continuously as Arthur pounds them as hard as he can. James shouts into a microphone but cannot be heard above the din; all that can be understood is a sense of anger or frustration. It is perfect punk, almost too much in the mold of Green Day. James, who writes all the band's songs, admits that Green Day lead singer Billie Joe is the one person in the world he would really, really like to meet.
The bass player for Patty's band sits on a couch in front of the big-screen TV and works on a geometry assignment. When the Smerffs take a break, Lee comes over to bug her. Lee, unlike James, is no child prodigy. He failed history last year, he says, because he blew off the final. "I just showed up for my guitar final and then said, 'Fuck this' to history, so they made me go to summer school. Summer school was a joke," he says. "One teacher was like, 'Who won the battle of Normandy?' I'm like, 'Uh, the U.S.,' and he goes, 'Oh! We've got a smart one.' I think that the summer school teachers just want to get out of there."
Lee wants to make the band his life, just as James does, but he is not so confident that this band has what it takes to make it to the big time. There are so many other bands out there to compete with. "Being in a band is great, but it can fall through," he says as he sits on a recumbent exercise bicycle. "You have got to have something to fall back on. I want to be an architectural engineer. It's pretty satisfying. You can see a building and go, 'I helped make that.' All you need is four years of college and one year of architectural school, then you graduate and get a job. The first-year salary is like $50,000. Next year is $100,000. Then $150,000. You can make some really good money. Like the guy who was the architectural engineer on the Empire State Building? He's like set for life."
Arthur heads for Patty's bedroom, where someone has brought a six-pack of Budweiser Ice beer and a bottle of Southern Comfort. He flips through some snapshots on Patty's bed while the band Fugazi plays on her boom box. Getting beer is no problem, James explains. They just have to go down to a gas station where a homeless man will usually buy it for them. But they have to watch out because sometimes the buyer takes off with either their money or their beer. "Usually it's no problem," he says matter-of-factly.
Lee hears there is liquor and scoots into Patty's room for a drink. Patty's half-brother pounds on the door until he is let in. Someone allows him a few sips of Southern Comfort then laughs at how calmly the four-foot tall eleven-year-old drinks the hard liquor. "It was just a few sips," the teenage bartender later says with a laugh. "He's going to be an alcoholic!"
Except for the rehearsal and the dinner at Taco Bell, this is a fairly typical night for James. He stays out with friends until about 9:00 p.m. or 9:30 p.m., he says, then comes home and talks on the phone for a while before going to bed. "I never do homework," he confesses. "I just can't do it." On weekends he gets together with the same friends he's known for the past couple of years, the ones he saw every day this past summer, the ones he knows everything about. Maybe they'll go to a show, and to the Grove beforehand. They'll hang out and drink in Peacock Park until the cops chase them away. On cue, they'll complain about how boring it is. Then, also on cue, they will all agree it's a lot better than sitting at home with their parents.
Occasionally they swerve from the routine by visiting Miami Beach or making a road trip up to Fort Lauderdale for a big rock show. Those are sometimes pretty exciting nights, James says: "Like the other night, the last night of summer, Saturday night, this friend of ours she has, um, she has a fake I.D. So she rented a hotel room on South Beach, at the National. And so we're on the ninth floor. It started out as about twelve of us. Three of our friends went to the Vandals -- the show when they played with Splat. They brought back 25 more people. I freaked out. I got really mad they brought all these people over. 'Cause I thought it was just going to be a bunch of drunk punks. Drunk punks are really annoying, but these guys were like really like cool, like nice, like they're respecting kind of guys."
James's mother gets grief from her brothers and sisters for letting her son have such freedom. "They come over to the house," Christine says, "and they see James and they tell me, 'Oh, you let him go to the Grove,' as if it was something horribly bad. And I'm like, 'Well, what do you want me to do, keep him at home?' They don't understand what it's like to raise a teenager. They don't have a right to judge me. Nobody does."
As a form of discipline, Christine started grounding James when he turned twelve. He had begun attending a middle school with older kids who smoked cigarettes, drank liquor, and used drugs. After two years, however, the effectiveness of grounding had worn off A it is just as tough on her to have him around the house all the time. So now she tries to compromise and communicate better with her son. Her husband, she says, would like to take a more active role in raising James, but he has been more or less neutralized because the boy's natural father will not allow it. (James's father, who now lives in Rochester, New York, could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.)
Before he goes back inside the practice room to teach Patty how to play a few guitar solos, James explains that the drinking and the drugs are nothing to get alarmed about. "I mean, I don't think anything I do is like really bad," he says, "'cause I consider ourselves good persons. I really like don't do hardly like any drugs at all. I mean, I used to before, in junior high, while I was like twelve. I tripped before. And I never really liked smoking any pot and stuff. I never really liked that stuff. I'd never do cocaine and any of that crazy stuff -- Ecstasy and all that. I think it's just like all pretty stupid. Um, I drink every now and then and that's about it. I really don't think about it as bad unless I'm getting alcohol poisoning every night and drinking my brains out."
The band returns to the practice room for a second set and Patty takes her place outside. The Smerffs will rehearse until 9:30 p.m., then they'll go home. Lee will finish his homework. James will talk to Patty and Arthur on the phone before going to sleep. "Like, I want to have an impact on something," James says in the car on the way home. "I just don't want to stay a dud my whole life and end up like my parents, who just like sit out by the pool with their kids and with no lives whatsoever. Not that sitting out by the pool with kids is so bad, because I really want to do that, but they haven't done like anything with their whole lives. You know what I mean?"
The night after rehearsal, a Thursday school night, the Smerffs took the stage for the third time. Cheers was again packed with the band's young friends. The bartenders, who probably have never served fewer drinks, polished liquor bottles while James, Lee, and Arthur trashed another set. Arthur had noticeably improved on the drums, which helped the band sound tighter. The vocals still needed a lot of work, but the crowd, slightly smaller because the Smerffs didn't begin until after midnight, nonetheless enjoyed what they were hearing.
James's mother, Christine, sat on a stool at the bar holding her ears while simultaneously videotaping her son on stage. It was the first time she had ever seen the band play and she clearly did not care for its brand of music. As James writhed and twisted on stage, shouting incomprehensibly into the microphone, Christine saw a side of her son she never really knew before. She admitted she probably wouldn't see that side again for a while; these shows take place far too late at night. She has to be up at 6:00 a.m. to take care of James's younger brother and sister and to get James out of the house in time for school. There is no room in her life for rock.
James was so tired the day after the show that he left school during lunch to crash on a couch in the living room of his parents' house. He didn't return for any classes. Two weeks later he blew off a test in English class to hang out with one of his friends from Palmetto High School. The friend drove over to South Miami and met James during his lunch break. "He said, 'Come on, skip school,'" James recalls. "I knew it would be easy but I didn't know if that's what I wanted. The last two periods are like my favorite classes and I knew that we were having a test [in English class]. He was like, 'C'mon, skip.' It was a really bad choice."
James and his friend went to a Best Buy electronics store in Kendall. As they have several times before, they browsed the store's wide selection of CDs. As he has before, James ripped the foam security strip off two CDs he particularly wanted. As he had practiced, James grabbed a handful of decoy CDs and headed with his friend to a corner of the store where they knew the security cameras could not see them. James stuffed the two CDs he wanted -- Weezer and the Cure -- into his oversized pants then headed back to the music section to drop off the decoy discs. "We always take a couple of extra CDs so that when we come back on the camera, it doesn't look like some of our CDs just disappeared," he explains. His friend was not so careful, though; he shoved all seven of his CDs into his pants, and Best Buy security officers found them as the two boys tried to exit the store.
According to both James and his friend, the arresting police officers mocked them for their weird clothes and odd haircuts. "The whole ride from the store and like even when we were in the station they were like calling us fags and queers and saying that we were like lovers," James recalls. "I was like, 'Aren't you going to read me my rights?' and they said, 'Kid, you watch too much Matlock.' The cops were such jerks."
Recounts his friend: "They were saying, 'You guys are a bunch of spoiled little rich kids,' and were being annoying. They kept asking if we were gay. We started blowing kisses at them and like fucking with them and they kind of got annoyed."
James was expecting the grounding of his life. "Once I skipped one class in seventh grade and they like grounded me for weeks. They wouldn't let me listen to the stereo or have anyone over or even go out. Now I get fucking arrested and they don't hardly do anything," he says of his parents. But since Christine believes grounding just doesn't work anymore, James was told only to be home for dinner for the next two weeks, including weekends.
Three days after the arrest, James was once again hanging out with his partner in crime. Five days after the arrest, he was practicing with the band again. "I knew I'd be arrested someday," he says nonchalantly, "but not when I was fourteen.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.