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Teen There, Done That

[whitespace] Chemical Free Zone

Jeff Kearns

Campbell's Chemical Free Zone, a punk rock party pad for teens, goes searching for a new home

By Cecily Barnes

THE DRUM SET STILL HASN'T arrived and the swelling pack of teenagers at the Campbell Community Center seems to be running short on patience. Eighteen-year-old Mike Carlsen--somewhat exasperated-- wraps his knees around a single drum lent to him by another band and begins tapping a beat with borrowed sticks, a signal to his band, Los Rabbis, that he'll just improvise with what he's got.

The front row of teens faces Los Rabbis on the floor, close enough to swap kisses. A single strip of masking tape laid across the carpet acts as the only barrier between the band and the audience.

A loud scream cracks through the PA system. Guitar feedback and bass sounds follow. This Friday night, like every other one for the past year, the Chemical Free Zone located at the Campbell Community Center has opened its doors to more than 50 teenagers looking for something to do. The Gods Hate Kansas will headline tonight, following Los Rabbis and four other local bands. On nights when bigger bands play--such as Insolence and Nothing Substantial--the crowd can swell to as many as 200.

Every band, including the unknowns, gets paid. Band members also each get a home-cooked meal from members of the Lighthouse of Silicon Valley, a church which sponsors the weekly event.

Cheryl Johnson, the petite church mother who founded the Chemical Free Zone with her husband, Pastor Terry Johnson, runs forward and offers earplugs to the smattering of adults in the crowd. Most have come to chaperone. Some still hustle in and out of the "band lounge"--a small linoleum kitchen--carrying crock pots of macaroni salad and chicken wings that they prepared for the musicians.

The non-Christian teenagers, many adorned with body piercings and multicolored hair, don't seem to mind the adults either, even if they are church people.

The fact is, the Lighthouse of Silicon Valley church members are providing one of the few consistent underground music scenes for teenagers in the Silicon Valley right now. As long as no one brings a bottle of Jim Beam or a bag of marijuana into the club, the teens are free to wrap dog collars around their necks and throw themselves on the floor for as long as they want.

"We feel that if you're going to reach a generation this age, you have to appeal to them and where they're coming from," explains Terry Johnson, who founded the church as well as the nightclub with Cheryl. "And their music, that's a big part of it."

Terry and Cheryl even allow moshing at the club, a practice some clubs discourage for fear of rowdiness or liability.

"It's not our style of dancing, if that's what you want to call it, but we decided it's fun," Cheryl Johnson says. "We like their music. I like ska. I like punk. I like hard-core."

Terry Johnson proudly admits he's even gone into the pit once or twice. "We've had a few bloody lips and stuff, but not much," he says.

By allowing kids to be different and express themselves through their clothes, music and style, Lighthouse church members hope fewer of them will feel the need to distinguish themselves through drugs, alcohol or sex.

Jonathan Johnson, 21, helps run the Chemical Free Zone with his mom, dad and sister Holly. In many ways, he was the reason the club began. When Johnson started a Christian alternative band, Sic Kid, two years ago, there was nowhere for them to play that wasn't in a bar. Cheryl and Terry Johnson decided to create one.

In the beginning, Sic Kid played almost every Friday night. The Johnson family, however, quickly realized that if their club was going to grow and be a viable teenage hangout, they needed to include secular kids and secular bands.

"Basically almost any band that calls us, we allow to play. They just have to agree to our conditions: no profanity, no drugs and no alcohol," Cheryl Johnson says.

The Johnsons are admittedly evangelical, which means part of their mandate is to recruit and convert, but they say they don't use the Chemical Free Zone as an outlet to do this. Facing the end of their lease, the Johnsons have been searching tirelessly for one large space that can accomodate the church, the Chemical Free Zone and a teen center.

"We're having a real hard time to get anyone to want to do what we're doing," Johnson says. "For some reason, this age group is not a particularly popular one."

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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