City Paper is not for tourists
Other aesthetic movements undergo cycles of nostalgia, from neoclassicism to steampunk. We’re at a high point for D.C. hardcore nostalgia, what with the Corcoran’s recently concluded “Pump Me Up” show, various band reunions (Scream, Dag Nasty, and Black Market Baby to name just a few), the Fugazi Live Series, and a string of documentaries on the ’80s D.C. music scene. But one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s always been this way: that D.C. punks, like Baby Boomers, just never stop talking about themselves.
Hard Art, a photo book by Lucian Perkins, is another entry into the swollen literature of D.C. hardcore self-documentation. So the obvious question is, what can Perkins add to a subject—especially one with limited subcultural appeal—that Dance of Days and Banned in D.C. haven’t said already? Two things: First, a very narrow and early focus. The photos document just four shows in 1979 and 1980. We’re talking Carter administration, punk prehistory: when what came to be harDCore was still forming from the primordial ooze of art punk, yippie hangers-on, and foundational bands that don’t often get their due like The Slickee Boys.
Second, it’s only half self-documentation. Perkins, a career Washington Post photographer who covered wars from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, photographed this scene but was not of it. As intimate as they are, his pictures benefit from a certain distance that a curious outsider can lend to his subjects: anthropological though never exploitative. They are black and white, tightly framed moments of chaos, capturing all the energy of those shows without trying to explain it. The poses he gets of Bad Brains, Slickees, D.O.A., Tru Fax, and The Teen Idles are less iconic than some of Cynthia Connolly’s more famous images. Some of them might have made good T-shirts, but a lot of them wouldn’t: For all their swagger, H.R., Ian MacKaye, and the rest often look like confused kids trying to figure out how to play strange music in strange venues.
The other half, however, is a supremely insider perspective by Alec MacKaye, who serves as Hard Art’s narrator. Unlike his more frequently interviewed older brother, the younger MacKaye has some (quite funny) stories even diehard harDCore heads likely never heard, such as the time the Pagans motorcycle club tried to steal his brother’s leather jacket, or the unsuccessful recruitment efforts by a Marxist cult called the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose leader looked less like Che Guevara and “more like a model-train hobbyist advertising something”: “their vigorous pursuit of young punk energy started to feel desperate—like vampires in need of fresh blood.”
Henry Rollins closes the book with a brief, fawning essay on The Teen Idles, who for many stand at the starting point of D.C. hardcore. Far more fascinating, though, is the book’s first show, with Bad Brains and Trenchmouth at Washington Highlands’ now-demolished Valley Green housing complex in 1979. Here we see the range of reactions of an all-black audience regarding the pair of weirdo punk bands freaking out before them: confusion, bemusement, boredom, and for a couple kids, genuine excitement. It’s this gem that sums up the awkward, communitarian creative impulse that we rightly celebrate over and over again.
Lucian Perkins discusses his book with Alec MacKaye and Henry Rollins May 17 at Politics & Prose.