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How to Safely Party With 4th of July Fireworks, by Andrew W.K.

Andrew W.K.
(Credit: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic)

In preparation for 4th of July fetes nationwide, SPIN asked Andrew W.K. for some tips on choosing and safely lighting fireworks for a celebration of our own. The self-acclaimed king of partying ranks his all-time favorite fireworks and shares a particularly horrifying Independence Day memory below.

Growing up in Michigan, the only legal fireworks we had access to were the “safe” kind that didn’t really explode too loud or shoot fire balls or launch way up in the sky and erupt. One summer, my family drove to Wisconsin to spend 4th of July in my dad’s old hometown. I was especially excited because my uncle promised to buy enough firecrackers —the “real deal” kind you could find outside of my home state— to put on a massive show for the whole neighborhood. When dusk finally settled in on Independence Day, almost everyone from the surrounding neighborhood came out to see his fireworks show. My uncle passed out harmless handheld sparklers to all the little kids, including me, and Roman Candles to the older ones.

Not a great idea, it turns out. The big kids took the Roman Candles and began to shoot their colored balls of fire directly at each other and the younger kids. People started running in all directions while the big kids began storming the fireworks stockpile and lighting up everything they got their hands on. Adults were screaming and trying to find cover as the explosions sounded more like a machine-gun fight. It rained sparks and my uncle’s yelling only served to fuel the troublemakers’ malicious fire. (They had gone on to shoot bottle-rockets at him and throw M-80s and Cherry Bombs at everyone else.) No one was smiling or laughing anymore. It was no longer about having fun, it was about survival.

That night was one of the most nightmarish I had ever seen in my life. Amid the chaos, one teenager lit a huge firecracker and then stood there angrily grinning until the bomb exploded in his fist. He did it on purpose, like it was supposed to be a brave feat of strength. The firecracker completely blew his hand apart; there was a hole in his hand, and his fingers had strips of skin hanging off and flapping in the breeze as he ran in circles screaming. He was going berserk. I was told later that my uncle finally ended the night by spraying everyone and their fiery weapons down with water from his lawn hose.

Looking back on it now, it occurs to me that those older kids might have been really high on alcohol and some sort of speed. They all had this manic-eyed look of invincibility and they we’re hurting themselves and other people with such focused intent. Needless to say, I never touched fireworks for many years after. In a way, the violence of that 4th of July celebration might have been a perverted and darkly accurate reenactment of the battles and sacrifices the holiday actually pays tribute to.

With all this in mind, I’d like to recommend 4 very safe and fun fireworks that are among my top favorites, despite being quite tame and kid-friendly. I’ve ranked them on a fun-meter of 1-10 (least to most partiest).

Sparklers: 7/10

These hand-held fireworks look like metallic incense sticks and are safe enough for even very young children to enjoy. They also make a great gentle crackling sound and have a nice summer night smell. If you’re an adult who is looking to crank up the intensity a bit, try holding an entire box full of sparklers and light them all at once. I still like to simply hold a single one in each hand while doing arm waves and twirls. Sparklers have a kind of firefly-like twilight feeling and leave trails of light as you dance with them.

Whipper Snappers: 8/10

These are really a year-round treat, but they’re especially fun at 4th of July because no one can scold you for their incessant and potentially nerve-racking popping. Their elegant design and small size is part of their appeal; they’re little teardrop wads of balled-up paper, like gunpowder dumplings. You throw them down with some force and get a satisfying pop explosion. The occasional dud adds to the tension, and sometimes there’s an unusually loud, overloaded snapper. Great again for young kids, but definitely more intense than the sparklers.

Fountains: 9/10

As their name implies, these fireworks offer a bit more of a show and a chance to “ooh” and “ahh.” They provide a brief but genuinely entertaining display of colored fire and sparks. Usually housed in a colorfully decorated circular cardboard cone, the best fountains produce a series of different effects, one after another, thanks to a layered variety of ingredients, staggered for timing and dynamics. If you want to go the extra mile, buy some fuse line and string together several fountains in a circle formation. That way you can have something to watch without having to run and relight new ones over and over. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the fire!

Smoke Bombs: 10/10

Despite all the flash of the fireworks and fountains, and all the bombast of explosive firecrackers, my favorite fireworks are Smoke Bombs. They’re sort of an antithesis to traditional firecrackers since they don’t make any real fire or any loud sounds. They’re eerily silent and smooth. If it’s too dark, you can’t even really see their amazingly thick clouds of colored smoke oozing and floating out. In turn, Smoke Bombs are an excellent choice for day time displays. The more sunlight, the better to appreciate their ominous, billowing dream steam. The first time I saw a Smoke Bomb, I was truly hypnotized. Their simplicity and purity and singularity all add to their ominous power. Smoke Bombs are also wonderful to use year round. Discretely set 4 or 5 of them off in the middle of winter in your front yard and appreciate the colors as they contrast with the snow. There’s something other worldly about Smoke Bombs. I would choose them over any and all other fireworks forever. To me, they’re the partiest.

Please have a happy 4th of July and please, please, please be sure to party really, really hard.