Online Edition: Spring 2002

Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk Rock in the Nation's Capital

Dance of Days

Two Decades of Punk Rock in the Nation's Capital

Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins

Soft Skull Press ($20)

by Steve Burt

Between 1979 and 1995, the kids, bands and record labels of greater Washington DC invented--mostly with help, on occasion single-handedly--the following developments in rock music and culture: (1) the early-80s sound of American hardcore (very young, very fast, very loud); (2) the lifestyle called straightedge, with its sometimes commonsensical, sometimes dogmatic opposition to drink, sex and drugs; (3) the anticorporate, do-it-yourself ethos of the long-lived, small-scale record label, and the tactics which helped those labels endure; (4) "emo" (emotionally intense postpunk rock, often with a focus on anguished male vocals); (5) coalition tactics which linked post-punk bands and audiences to broad political issues; (6) the melodic Anglophile sounds of the subgenre called American indiepop; and, finally, (7) the young feminist rock-and-politics movement called Riot Grrrl. DC punk and its offshoots matter to any story of American rock over the past 25-or-so years; moreover, DC (like almost any metropolis) has not just one but many stories about individual bands, labels, scenes, musicians, worth hearing (and hearing about) for their own sake. Other folks have tried to tell bits of those stories--in years of zines, in alternaweekly newspapers, on websites, even in a book of photographs (Cynthia Connolly's Banned in DC). This volume, though, tell most of the stories at once; it's the most reliable, most thorough, guide I've ever seen to a local rock scene, and it's well-written enough to hold at least this reader's attention from first to last page.

DC had a punk scene, as many big cities had a punk scene, in 1978. It became exceptional in part with the advent of Bad Brains, who for a few months in 1979 were the fastest and most charismatic punk band on the continent, the font in some ways of all later harDCore. (Bad Brains leader HR soon turned from the self-help philosophy of their punk singles towards Rastafarian dogma and reggae, and later into vicious homophobia and serious mental illness.) Most of the story here, however, concerns the people and bands on the Dischord record label, started in 1981 by the high school-aged Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson to release singles by their band Teen Idles (whose signature song, "I Drink Milk," made a virtue of an underage necessity). In 1980 MacKaye would became the charismatic and intensely ethical front man for Minor Threat; Dischord would sponsor other seminal so-called "harDCore" bands, and find itself somewhat unwillingly at the head of a national subculture of sometimes moralistic, sometimes inspiring straightedge youth. "I consider my life a protest," MacKaye once said. Fans thought so too, and some idolized him, then turned on him for the slightest of imagined sellouts.

Bankrupt or unpredictable venues, hometown and out-of-town violence, and personnel changes (often, high school graduates leaving for college) meant that these bands and their members were constantly changing: some of those changes looked like decline. The label and its people would rally in the so-called "Revolution Summer" of 1985, marked by the first, and the best, "emo" band, Rites of Spring. "In the place of unfocused anger," Andersen and Jenkins explain, RoS's "passion suggested that any given song could be about the end of a relationship--or the beginning of a new world." Ex-MT and RoS members later formed Fugazi, whose national tours still draw thousands of fans, and adhere to the anticommercial agenda Andersen and Jenkins describe: "all ages shows, low door prices, minimal PR, no rock'n'roll bullshit." Political organizing by bandmates and friends created an organization called Positive Force, which begat protests and meetings, which begat the Olympia (Washington)-Washington, DC fanzine and rock band axis, which in turn begat Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Riot Grrrl.

Most people who read this book will enjoy its detailed accounts of those influential bands. And yet, Andersen and Jenkins show, those bands' tales are hardly the only ones DC has; show by show, single by single, person by person, this book explores an entire scene, or congeries of interlocking scenes, trying very hard to focus as much on one-gig bands, friendships, rallies and basements as on big-deal outfits and sold-out shows. (Even the title conveys that decentralized focus: it names a song by the "minor" Dischord band Embrace.) That consistent multiple focus--along with the show-by-show, person-by-person, sometimes day-by-day detail--let Andersen and Jenkins pursue discoveries larger than any individual musician's story.

Dance of Days shows how the development of an artistic style--the earnest, propulsive post-punk of most Dischord bands--interacts with everything else in the artists' lives. Highschool kids chuck out 60s song forms for faster, simpler music which expresses their independence, then discover that the older forms and disciplines can be harnessed to express the same ideals. Minor Threat learned, and spread, this lesson with their punk-rock covers of 60s songs--"Stepping Stone," "Good Guys Don't Wear White"; later outfits from Gray Matter to Q and Not U picked it up fast and well. Later DC punk bands found their own paths between spontaneity and songwriting, between energy and organization, and- not least--between "white" and "black" musical forms; some of the bands that interest Andersen most matter not so much for what they accomplished as for what they tried to do. (Beefeater, for example, tried to merge late punk with early funk and performance art; their records sound terrible, but their shows mattered a lot.)

Other overarching stories here bring in age, race, sexuality, and gender in other ways. Every 50 pages here, or every two years, a new crop of teen bands arise to challenge, as it were, the staid twenty-something scene: no matter how na´ve the kids' expectations seem, their new bands always add something--musically, personally, organizationally--to what already exists. Bad Brains were African-American, while almost everyone else in these bands (and in other U.S. hardcore scenes) was white: the DC scene of the early Eighties included genuine racial violence along with idealistic organizers who wanted to make an anti-racist scene. Punk and its offshoots (even more then than now) were largely music by, for and about young men: national tours and local events brought violent homophobes into confrontations with out gay punks. (I was less surprised by the bashings and slurs recounted here than by how early--1982, say--many punks spoke out against homophobic peers.)

Though DC New Wave (like New Wave in New York and Boston) included plenty of women musicians, the harDCore sound, and the Dischord roster, remained for years almost all male; only in 1986 did the label release its first woman-fronted band, the underrated and prescient Fire Party. Andersen and Jenkins show how MacKaye and others at the scene's "center" (if that's the right word) gradually realized, and worked to mitigate, the music's links to male dominance and aggression. (Fugazi's first EP included a powerful, controversial song about sexual harassment.) Musical and moral leaders--not just MacKaye but Tomas Squip and many others--worked hard to disarticulate punk message of independence and strength from the hypermasculine violence which so often accompanied harDCore shows. (Peripheral players in the Dischord scene--like the young Henry Rollins--seemed to thrive on the violence instead.) Later chapters--in which Andersen himself enters the story--show how leftie organizing and DC's post-punk musical became more heavily intertwined, and how Andersen's own anticapitalist ideology clashed with the anticorporate but entrepreneurial agenda of people who actually ran record labels (especially Tsunami's Toomey). The last chapters here describe the dizzyingly rapid--and widely discussed--rise of Riot Grrrl: this is a story we'll likely hear over and over, and Andersen and Jenkins offer mostly (as they know) a sympathetic, DC-based outsiders' perspective.

As Jenkins' foreword indicates, this is "overwhelmingly Mark Andersen's book." Andersen moved from Montana to DC in 1984: he ended up organizing, and in part directing, Positive Force, which sponsored events like the famous Punk Percussion Protests, owned a house in Arlington (across the river from DC proper), and offered groups and labels meeting space. Andersen seems to have conducted most of the (many, many) interviews: he also provides the personal reactions which dominate the last few chapters--"it is hard to build a movement for broad social change," he reflect, "out of moments occurring erratically in subterranean enclaves." He's upset that harDCore and its descendents built--in the last analysis--an art movement with political beliefs attached, rather than a more durable instrument for a social and moral cause. Jenkins--the very articulate longtime rock critic for DC's City Paper and, latterly, the Washington Post--brings to the coauthored volume (I suspect) a feel for good prose, and a knowledge of the pre-Dischord late-70s scene--from the raunchy Slickee Boys to the geeky brilliance of Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. Readers who want to read about the music--rather than just about people and their beliefs--will recognize and appreciate Jenkins' work.

This collaboration gives an understandably Dischord-centric view of the DC scene (with timeouts for Bad Brains and their bad behavior). For most of the book that makes sense; near the end, it doesn't. Andersen and Jenkins do follow the newer, poppier, labels and bands of the early 1990s--not just Tsunami but, say, Shudder to Think--though coverage there ends up neither as supportive nor as detailed as it might be; bands with no Dischord links and no politics (like those on the Teen Beat label: Unrest, Eggs) get ignored almost entirely. But this is only to say that there remain other stories to tell. (Simple Machines has told theirs very well, as any web search will attest.) Rockers past, present and future--not to mention anyone interested in rock scenes, youth organizing, and youth culture--need this book on their shelves.

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Spring 2002 Table of Contents