Toby McAllister (right) with Marty McMorrow on stage at Hampton Beach earlier this summer. photo/Corey Fitzgerald
A teacher reflects on his rock-star students’ success
My friend Andy was a gifted storyteller and, like most raconteurs, a bit of an embellisher. He once told me a tale, possibly true, about his older brother, Mike, who, in the midst of finals during his senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, picked up a hitchhiker while driving through town. Mike asked the traveller where he was headed and the guy told him: “San Francisco.”
“Let me stop at home to grab my guitar and I’ll take you there,” Mike replied. According to Andy, Mike never returned to school to finish his finals or get a degree. He didn’t become a big rock star, either, but these days Mike’s one of the most sought-after guitar instructors and session players in the music industry.
I shared that story this summer with Toby McAllister, a former student of mine who founded the Maine punk-pop band Sparks The Rescue, after he recounted his own college-dropout story and explained how quitting school was one of the wisest choices he ever made.
I met Toby over 20 years ago, when he was a teenager and I was teaching English at Poland Regional High School (PRHS). Parents and students in and around the bucolic town of Poland, famous for its commodified spring water, had grown tired of long commutes to the nearest available high schools in Auburn or Westbrook, so plans were drawn up in the late 1990s for what was then the first “made from scratch” public high school built in Maine in many years.
The bigoted vitriol directed at school boards and administrators by today’s right-wing reactionaries has roots in the integration and bussing fights of the Civil Rights Era. Similar conflicts in Maine have been more muted, but the creation of PRHS in 1999 caused a public outcry that augured the current culture wars over school policy.
The group formed to envision the new high school included two educational think tanks — the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership, which promotes equity and diversity, and the national Coalition of Essential Schools — and forward-thinking educators like Mike Carter, a past nominee for Maine Teacher of the Year. Derek Pierce, who went on to become the founding principal of Portland’s progressive Casco Bay High School, was PRHS’ first dean of faculty and, soon after, became its principal.
The new school was non-traditional in many ways. For example, there were no letter grades. Instead, students were required to demonstrate proficiency in subjects according to certain standards — and were given as many attempts to meet those standards as they needed. Teachers partnered up to offer interdisciplinary classes and students could create curricula tailored to their interests. As recounted in a 2012 Maine magazine profile of Pierce, “The teachers spoke of strange things like a ‘culture of fairness and trust,’ ‘family engagement,’ and ‘community partnerships.’”
The trouble was, as Pierce himself concedes, the families in the communities of Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls had a distinct lack of trust in these egg-headed academics tasked with teaching their kids, and PRHS’ early leaders could have done a better job getting locals to understand and accept the new pedagogy. Community meetings held to discuss school issues were acrimonious, even menacing at times, and Pierce was unprepared for the backlash. He told me that after one particularly dispiriting session, he walked behind a stage curtain and cried. At another public forum, a parent showed up brandishing a pitchfork.
Opponents of the new school’s direction formally petitioned to recall PRHS’ leadership, but Pierce and his colleagues narrowly survived that effort and persevered, eventually gaining widespread approval of their unconventional approach to education.
The arts were well supported at PRHS. Its Music Department, led by Larry Williams, gave student musicians the instruments and the confidence to play whatever caught their ear: heavy metal, classical, electronica, polka … whatever. A steel-drum band would, on occasion and without notice, march through the halls banging out dulcet Caribbean tones to the delight of startled students, faculty and staff. The feelings of freedom, inspiration and potential were palpable.
The first time I saw Toby perform was during a function in the school’s entrance atrium. He was playing guitar and yelling in a trio that included future Sparks bandmates Ben Briggs on bass and Nate Spencer on drums. They called themselves Pozer, and to my ears, they were awful, almost unlistenable.
It was the heyday of screamo, the subgenre of emo defined by its screechy vocals and hardcore aggression. Naturally, the students in the audience that day loved it. (Not long after, I was similarly unimpressed when the boys told me they’d named their new band after Nicholas Sparks’ corny romance-adventure novel, The Rescue, a bestseller in 2000. An avid and admittedly snobbish reader, I implored them for years to change that name.)
For all its freedom and progressivism, PRHS had a policy I considered dreadfully backwards and oppressive. In order to graduate, students had to either apply to a college, enlist in the military or enter a vocational program. Grabbing your guitar and bee-lining it to Cali was not an option if you cared to leave with the diploma you’d earned. Debt, drudgery, or contract killing for the government were the only options, so Toby and his mates dutifully drove down Routes 26 and 100 to the closest and cheapest post-secondary educational institution in the area: the University of Southern Maine.
“We never went to class, we had no interest in school,” Toby told me. “But by this time, [future Sparks singer] Alex [Roy] was staying in our dorm room with us and all we wanted to do was make music.”
The addition of Roy, in 2006, was a crucial step in the band’s development as its sound coalesced into a slicker, tighter, punchier take on pop-punk. Early full-lengths and EPs like 2009’s excellent Eyes to the Sun hew closely to the subgenre’s aesthetic — weighty riffs, driving drums, and big sing-along choruses delivered with emo’s signature whiny sneer. Lyrically, love (finding it, losing it) is the most common theme, followed by intoxication and alienation. What early Sparks The Rescue lacked in terms of originality and stylistic range they more than made up for with unbridled enthusiasm and devotion to crowd and craft.
The task of informing mom and dad that college was no longer in the cards was dreaded and inevitable, but when the sit-downs were over, to the bandmates’ relief, their parents were, for the most part, supportive. By the mid-2000s, they’d watched their sons build their band into a popular brand and a viable micro-business through hard work and savvy self-promotion on the emerging social media and online music platforms.
I left PRHS not long after Pierce decamped to start Casco Bay High School, and I started working with a nonprofit that publishes student writing. As detailed in a previous cover story I wrote for this publication (“Up Long Creek Without a Paddle,” Sept. 2019), I collaborated with kids imprisoned at the so-called Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland, to produce the book Smoke Signals: Oral Histories from Long Creek.
Being a transgressor myself, while working at Long Creek I got the bright idea to have Sparks The Rescue play a short set for the imprisoned teens, and to my great surprise, the prison administration OK’d it. They set the band up in the gym and spread the prisoners out along the bleachers. I don’t recall whether female prisoners were allowed to attend, but I’ll never forget how, from the first frenetic, anguished notes of Toby’s guitar, the crowd of young offenders became absolutely unhinged. The atmosphere was electric with excitement and it felt like things might tilt out of control. The guards looked concerned, but the band ripped through the entire set. I later overheard a couple guards commiserating: “After that, it’s gonna take days to get these kids back to normal.”
Sparks The Rescue toured heavily and released half a dozen albums between 2008 and 2015. Their frequent shows at The Station, a subterranean pool hall in Portland, are legendary among local fans. Later EPs like 2013’s Truth Inside the Fiction display the group’s growing musical maturity, incorporating elements of roots, reggae and funk into their sound. They joined the Vans Warped Tour in 2010 and gigged across Europe with The All-American Rejects. MTV included their songs on shows like Real World Cancun.The California indie label Fearless Records signed them and included their fun cover of pop-country trio Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” on the third volume of its Punk Goes Pop series. The last time I checked Spotify, that track had been played well north of five million times.
Like a number of other Maine rock bands that flirted with national success only to have their dreams crushed by corporate forces beyond their control, Sparks The Rescue wasn’t able to break through to the big time. “We never made it to the tour bus; we were always just in the van,” Toby said. Band members came and went as marriages, kids and “real” jobs followed the group into their 30s. The shows were still exhilarating for audience and band alike, but the tours — which the group mostly booked and promoted themselves — were grueling.
These days, according to the band’s Wikipedia page, Sparks The Rescue is “actively playing cover shows at colleges, casinos, and tourist destinations.” That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. The group’s reunion shows have been a blast, with fans from the glory days joyfully shouting along to the band’s back catalogue. When Sparks The Rescue played Aura in downtown Portland earlier this year, the place was packed (even at $35 a ticket). It was hard to tell who was having more fun: the frenzied fans or the guys on stage reviving the rock they’ve been playing since their school cafeteria days.
Toby’s still a successful musician. Now a family man living in Poland, he plays weddings and does some solo touring, including a stint on the road opening for Old 97’s in the spring of last year. He released a solo EP, Daydreamin, during the thick on the pandemic, and followed that this past spring with Autumn Skies, a fine Americana outing with his old rhythm section of Briggs and Spencer.
There have also been plans for new Sparks The Rescue material, though if another record is made, the band will likely release it themselves, as “record labels are beginning to fade in the rearview mirror,” Toby observed. Also, after over two decades chasing the brass ring, the fellas are willing to let it go. “There are no more stars in our eyes,” Toby told me, “and if something happens, cool, it happens.”
As one reviewer wrote of Sparks The Rescue years ago, “some bands just don’t go away.” In this case, I’m glad that’s true.
Bill Lundgren is a professor at Southern Maine Community College. For more about Toby McAllister’s music, visit tobymcallister.com.