One of the toughest things about parenting a small child is finding stuff to do. Not for the kid’s sake — they’ll happily play Monopoly Jr. for hours at a time or have you draw endless subway train logos or pretty much anything else — but for your own, so that there’s even a little bit of variety to your child-care time. Movies are especially good, because they get you out of the house and let you sit in the dark (it’s almost like sleep!), which is almost certainly why most movies made in the 21st century are either animated or feature superheroes or both.
For the years when my son was little (the progression of children goes “baby” to “little kid” to “big kid” to “teenager” — actual ages have no meaning except to the Department of Education), an annual highlight was the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMkids Film Festival, which brought together features and shorts from around the world for a weekend of cartoons that were a cut above what you’d find on PBS Kids or, god forbid, Disney. And best of all, there was usually some other kind of programming to go along with the films: music or other performers occupying BAM’s second-floor cafe, which would end up packed wall-to-wall with toddlers and their exhausted caregivers.
One year, when my son was probably five or so, the featured performer was something called Care Bears On Fire, which if I’m remembering right (I no longer have the program) was touted as something like “pre-teen punk rockers.” Sure, can’t hurt, I figured; though when a tiny girl carrying an electric guitar that was bigger than her cautiously made her way onto the BAM stage, I admit I began to have second thoughts. And third thoughts, when she sheepishly shuffled back off stage and announced to her mom, “I forgot a pick! Do you have one?”
She then shuffled back onto the stage, walked up to the mic — and delivered a flurry of power chords that would have blown me into the back row, if I hadn’t been sitting on the floor and buffered by toddlers.
That first song was “Everybody Else,” and featured not just Ramones-esque guitar but a killer hook: “Nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah, I don’t want to be like everybody else!” Sophie (that was the tiny guitarist) and Izzy (the powerhouse drummer, no older but maybe slightly taller) had both musical chops and enough energy to hold the attention of jaded aging punk rockers, let alone their kids in Dead Kennedy t-shirts. (I no longer remember the name of their bass player at that show, who was never heard from again: CBoF went through bass players like Spinal Tap did drummers.)
I’ve no doubt already shared my predilection for bands that both rock and have a sense of humor, and Care Bears On Fire had both in spades: Their debut album featured a song about an online relationship that goes sour when it turns out the singer’s crush is actually a unicorn, plus a song called “Baby Animals” that starts out naming their favorites (“I like piglets/I like puppies/I like kittens/I like tadpoles…”) then eventually deteriorates into a chaotic swirl of noise and shouting. My son and I soon became regulars at their shows; once we arrived early at a park they were playing at to discover that they were the last of four bands scheduled to play, and chose to stick out the long wait — we were rewarded not just with a great performance but with one of Izzy’s drumsticks, which flew out of her flailing hand and into the audience, where my son ran to retrieve it. (After the show he brought it back to Izzy, who stood flummoxed until her bandmates shouted at her, “You should sign it for him!” We still have it.)
Soon there was a followup album, which had more great crunchy guitar and wry teen lyrics (“Barbie Eat A Sandwich” was a favorite feminist anthem), but also a pop production sheen that was a little off-putting for a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dirt fan like me. A year and a couple more bassists later there was an EP — with an excellent cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” — and then that was it, as the band members got busy with other projects (there was a brief followup band called Claire’s Diary), and then eventually college. It was still a pretty great run.
Many years later, I was working as an editor at the Village Voice and scouting around for writers when my eye fell on an excellent article in The Nation about sanctuary cities fighting against the Trump administration’s attempts to cut their federal funding. I looked at the byline: Sophie Kasakove. It was vaguely familiar for some reason, so I Googled her and … oh.
Child performers are a weird bunch: Whether they’re acting or singing or whatever exactly Mason Reese was doing, you have to remember that they’re still kids, and likely to entirely change their conceptions of who they are and what they want to do when they grow up. Hopefully they’ll find a way to keep up the creative spirit that animated them when they were young — I was recently heartened to discover that Quinn Cummings, of Family and Goodbye Girl fame, is now a blogger and podcaster with an excellent Twitter account. My son is now a good bit older than Sophie and Izzy were when we first saw them at BAM, and a drummer as well — I have no idea whether he’ll keep it up as he heads into adulthood, but hopefully what he’s learned from music he can take with him in some form wherever he goes. There are many ways to be punk rock.