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In 2002, Fugazi guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye explained how he feels when he makes music. “People use the word ‘fun’ when they talk about music all the time, and I just happen to be a person that doesn’t necessarily think that music is ‘fun’ or that I have ‘fun’ with music,” said MacKaye.
MacKaye wasn’t just having a bad day. In that Magnet interview, in fact, he effectively summed up the ethos of Fugazi, the band that put D.C. on the post-punk map. Formed in late 1987 by MacKaye, bassist Joe Lally, drummer Brendan Canty, and guitarist/vocalist Guy Picciotto, Fugazi quickly developed a devoted following. And the fans had something more than the music to hang on to: Far from the typical post-punk band, Fugazi built a reputation that relies on uncompromising morality.
Just how seriously do MacKaye and Fugazi take this mandate? Consider that MacKaye has been known to lecture Fugazi’s audiences on the evils of pushing in the mosh pit.
Ethicsin the mosh pit as well as the CD rackmay seem like a strange foundation to build a rock empire on, but Fugazi has outlasted most of its contemporaries. Indeed, of the 13 bands chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, only Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, and Fugazi are still around. Fugazi may or may not be selling quite as many records as it did during its early days, but who’s counting? What matters is that Fugazi has ardently upheld a set of values that seem, welllet’s just say that “idealistic” doesn’t quite do it. Against all odds, the four-piece band from Washington has survived some 15 years in the rough-and-tumble music biz without ever coming close to selling out to a major label, all the while holding firm to the quaint notion that it’s actually possible to give one’s fans more than their money’s worth.
Now I ask you: What could possibly be wrong with that?
As it turns out, plenty. With its message of moral probity, Fugaziand its direct predecessor in preachiness, Minor Threatcast a long pall over the Washington, D.C., music scene and in so doing seduced an entire generation of unsuspecting young people into believing a monstrous falsehood: namely, that rock ‘n’ roll both could and should be ethically redeemingthat it could, in fact, help them become better human beings.
The truth is that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t want you to become a better human being. It wants you to damage your hearing. It wants you to drink heavily, gobble illicit little pills without knowing what they are, and drive your car at insane speeds smack into a K-hole.
No wonder Washington is a lousy rock ‘n’ roll town. We got hoodwinked. Fugazi sold us a bill of goods. The band somehow managed to convince an entire rock community that doing good was more important than sounding evil. I can only think that the entire rock community must have been stoned out of its gourd at the time. But enough is enough. Somebody has to grab goodness by the halo and give it a good shaking, if only for rock’s sake. And seeing as how I’m the only person who ever seems to think Fugazi’s a problem, I might as well be that somebody.
Thanks to Fugazi, Washington can pride itself on having the most earnest music scene in the world. How earnest? Well, suffice it to say that emo was born here. Emo is an ill-defined but always harrowing subgenre, pioneered by the likes of Rites of Spring but now best represented by such intolerables as Dashboard Confessional and Rainer Maria. It sets diary-entry-emotionalism above all else. ‘Nuff said?
And on the do-gooder front, no one can outdo Fugazi. From the get-go, the post-punk band threw itself into charity like a remorseful Salvation Army soldier working off a hangover. It affiliated itself with Positive Force DC, a punk activist group, and played plenty of benefits to help the homeless, the Peace Center, the Washington Free Clinic, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, and various and sundry women’s and human-rights groupsFugazi even played a show for the inmates at Virginia’s (now defunct) Lorton Prison. MacKaye insisted that the band never charge more than five bucks a show, and that Dischord Recordsthe label he founded with Teen Idles bandmates Jeff Nelson and Nathan Strejcek in December 1980never charge more than $10 a record.
Let’s face it: If Cotton Mather had ever gotten around to forming a post-punk band, that band would have been a lot like Fugazi: moralistic, uptight, and inordinately fond of delivering hectoring sermons from the pulpiter, stage. Which is cool, reallyrock believes in a big tent, and if it can find a place under there for a Christian hair-metal band dressed in bee stripes, it can certainly find a smoke- and alcohol-free corner for the Roundhead post-punkers in Fugazi.
The problem here in D.C. is that nobody has stepped up to make the Devil’s case. People can talk all they want about the ubiquity of evil, but here in Washington the evil people seem to skip rock and head straight for the Republican Party. If only D.C. had been able to produce a band of total deviant fuckups to give its children some alternative role models. The folks in Pussy Galore, who let it be known what side of the fence they stood on with their song “Fuck Ian MacKaye,” might have served, had they notthe chickenshits!up and split for New York. As it was, the unfortunate young things of this fair city were left with nobody to emulate but Fugazi.
With his outrageous outfits and teetering-on-the-edge self-parody schtick, D.C.’s other IanIan Svenonius of Nation of Ulysses and the Make*Up famemight have bailed us out, had anybody been able to figure out what he was up to. As it was, the kids found it easier to bark along with Drill Sergeant MacKaye. Svenonius’ “Sassiest Boy in America” tag didn’t help matters, either. It’s a well-known fact that sassy and evil don’t mix.
The fact is, D.C. is a one-horse town, and the nag’s name is Fugazi. Bring up our nation’s capitol in rock circles nationwide and the band that comes to mindthe only band that comes to mind, usuallyis Fugazi. Throw in the fact that Dischord remains the city’s premier record label and you’re dealing with some major influence. If first Minor Threat, then Fugazi, has set D.C. music’s moral tone, Dischord has been there to nurture and document those bands that have fitted the taste.
Dischord’s motto is “Putting DC on the Map,” and it has. The folks who run Dischord will tell you that they’re not in the business of manufacturing Fugazi clones, and they’re telling the truth. Dischord has released records by dozens of groups that could in no way, shape, or form be likened to Fugazi. A few of these bands have even demonstrated a sense of humor. But in a company town run in large part by Fugazi, it can’t hurt to do what Fugazi does. And bands know this. Play benefits. Sing socially conscious songs, and sing them from the heart. Whatever you do, don’t advocate dope, guns, and fucking in the streets. Or fun. And for God’s sake, check your sense of humor at the door.
Take a stroll through Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ excellent Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capitol if you have any doubts about the ravages MacKaye and his ilk have inflicted on D.C.’s rock community. (Jenkins is a Washington City Paper contributing writer.) I find it to be depressing reading because, well, from the days of Minor Threat on down, nobody in the ’80s or ’90s ever seemed to be having any fun. The book’s 400-plus pages depict a rather dour circle of people dedicated to the proposition that punk rock can, and should, change the world. If nothing else, it’s definitive proof Oscar Wilde was right when he said that youth is wasted on the young. Where was the laughter? The fact is, when it comes to fun, the D.C. music scene in its formative years ranked right up there with rickets. You can argue about the musical merits of such bands as Faith, Scream, Three, Ignition, Rites of Spring, Beefeater, Bells Of, Hate From Ignorance, Embrace, and Insurrection, but they sure as shit weren’t a rollicking good time. Indeed, they all seem to have proceeded from the exotic notion that the point of rock is to play intense and humorless music as intensely and humorlessly as possible.
I can tick off scads of bands that make me laugh just to think of their names, but only one of themTesco Vee’s Meatmenmade D.C. its home. Black Flag, Flipper, the Adolescents, the Meat Puppets, Cows, the Circle Jerks, Killdozer, the Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, the Angry Samoans, Camper Van Beethoven, Fear, the Dead Milkmenthe list goes on and on, but the point is that in the ’80s, while the rest of the punk world was busting a gut and rolling in the fucking aisles, D.C. was at a Minor Threat show listening to a sermon.
The worst part of it is that the only thing that Minor Threat and Fugazi’s hometown imitators seem to have picked up on is that irksome tone of angry moral righteousness. If you’re going to emulate Fugazi, then for God’s sake emulate the band’s laudable aversion to big record companies, steep ticket prices, and ripping off the people with every CD you sell. But no, I guess it’s easier to sing whiny songs about society or about how your friends are sellouts who have lost their punk-rock cred.
Soulside, for instance, was a perfectly fine band, but during its three years of existence in the late ’80s, it did nothing but walk the Minor Threat/Fugazi stick-up-your-ass walk. Indeed, the chorus of “Bass” (“I’m calling for action/So rise people rise/Rise and revolt/Burn the eyes of rulers/Burn it down”) could stand as a D.C. agit-rock template. And Soulside was far from alone. Ignition, 96, Jawbox, Fidelity Joneswhy, there have been enough socially conscious rock bands here to fill a Quaker meetinghouse. Even the excellent Holy Rollers, whose membership fell closer to Jerry Lee Lewis than Ian MacKaye in the lifestyles department, couldn’t resist the urge to superglue political messages onto their songs.
Never, ever, have so many peopleand music people, no lesstaken themselves and their problems and the problems of the world so seriously. It was ingrained in them by the likes of Fugazi. So seriously, in fact, that they succeeded in draining every last drop of joy right out of their music. There was no joy, but you couldn’t have tossed a dead cat in this town without hitting a vegan rocker committed to social justice. To this day, nobody dances, even at the Black Cat, where booze is duly served.
OK, I exaggerate. Washington has always had its fair share of music people who wanted nothing to do with consciousness-raising. And today, no one’s going to confuse a night at the Black Cat with a PETA meeting. But the rock-social activism nexus here is without parallel, and its pernicious effects are still evident everywhere.
Back in the ’80s, this town couldn’t even dredge up a decent hair-metal band. Why? Everybody was too busy banging drums outside the South African embassy. During my days in Philadelphia in that decade, the closest thing we had to a protest song was the Dead Milkmen’s “Beach Party Vietnam.” And I don’t remember ever attending a benefit anywhere for anything whatsoever. That’s not to say that nobody in Philadelphia gave a shit. We just didn’t like to mix politics and music. You might as well listen to the Indigo Girls.
While there’s no denying that their elders damn near abandoned the youth of D.C. to its terrible fate, the latter still had a choice to make. They could have turned away from Fugazi’s dour brand of scold-rock. Instead, many of them have done their darnedest to out-MacKaye MacKaye.
Take the straightedge thing, which is a moralistic offshoot of hardcore that stresses abstinence from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and sex. It sounds like a creation of the Moral Majority, but in truth, it was MacKaye’s brainchild. MacKaye christened this phenomenon with the songs “Straightedge” and “Out of Step,” which he wrote during his days with Minor Threat. In the latter song, MacKaye sings, “I don’t smoke/Don’t drink/
Don’t fuck/At least I can fucking think.” Jeff Nelson once said, “If it was [MacKaye’s] way, the whole scene wouldn’t drink or smoke.” And Nelson had to fight tooth and nail to get MacKaye to add the pronoun “I” to the lyrics.
MacKaye used to brag about how he and Henry Garfield (later Rollins) liked to run around clubs slapping beers out of people’s hands. Finally, if you play any Minor Threat song backward, what you’ll hear is MacKaye saying, “Put out that cigarette, now!”
That said, no one can accuse MacKaye of having forced thousands of intolerant little snots into becoming lockstep puritans with Xs on their hands. He never put a gun to anybody’s head. Nobody can make you be an asshole. It’s strictly a do-it-yourself job.
The problem with Fugaziand hence with D.C.is that it has always proceeded from a faulty premise. Rock isn’t a Positive Forcerock is pure sleaze. It’s the Devil’s music; he gave it to us to just the same as he gave us dope, shotguns, fast cars, M80s, high-octane booze, pornography, Big Macs, big colored pills, cigarettes, and all the other good things in life.
Hell, Frank Sinatra knew this: A wise man, he dismissed rock ‘n’ roll as the “most brutal, ugly, vicious form of expressionsly, lewd, dirtya rancid-smelling aphrodisiacmartial music of every delinquent on the face of the earth.” That’s telling ’em, Old Blue Eyes. Now get back to eating those scrambled eggs off the bosom of that prostitute!
Fact is, rock ‘n’ rolland before you start throwing some hoo-hah my way about how Fugazi ain’t rock but an American variation of English art-punk, may I simply remind you that you’re full of shitshould practically ooze lust, wickedness, decadence, and depravity. Indeed, depravity is the very lifeblood, the essence, of rock, and that’s as true of your English art-punker as it of John Bonham.
During his wonderfully fin de siècle Ziggy Stardust phase, which he spent hanging for dear life onto Lou Reed (or was it vice versa?), David Bowie said a very rock thing. He said, “Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.” Has there ever been a more magnificently direct statement of rock’s degenerative nature?
David and Lou (and Iggy too) understood that the decline of the West could be fun. But not the guys in Fugazi. They would put us on a mirth-free, high-moral-fiber diet, and let us enjoy none of the wonderful bad things in life. Rock is one of the most childish, stupid, and, yes, fun things aroundand it’s for these very reasons that it’s one of the most important forces on the face of the Earth.
Fugazi has made the terrible mistake of using its position as a bully pulpit. It preaches and preaches and preaches. Take the famous “ice-cream-eating motherfucker” incident, which is captured in Jem Cohen’s documentary about Fugazi, Instrument. In it, MacKaye berates two punks for hurting people in the audience. “It sucks to have to tell people how to behave themselves,” he says, sounding less like a punker than a hall monitor at Our Lady of Fugazi Middle School. Then Picciotto says, “I saw you two guys earlier at the Good Humor truck, and you were eating your ice cream like little boys….Oh, I saw you eating ice cream, pal….You were eating an ice-cream cone, and I saw you….You’re an ice-cream-eating motherfucker, that’s what you are.”
If this were an isolated incident, you could write it off as an understandable case of pique directed at a couple of assholes. But Fugazi’s shows have long had the annoying tendency of morphing into civics classics where an ever-watchful Mr. MacKaye, who unlike Mr. Kotter doesn’t suffer from a sense of humor, condescendingly encourages people to be nice and keep their hands to themselves. Let’s face it: Ian missed his calling. He should have been a preacher.
But good rock doesn’t preach. Shit, telling the preacher to go to hell is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about. If I want a lecture on personal responsibility, I can always talk to my wife. No, I look to rock for the same reasons people have always looked to rockfor a hedonistic, degenerate, and lewd message. As the great Waylon Jennings, who knew a thing or two about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, once said, “Rock ‘n’ roll meant fucking, originallywhich I don’t think is a bad idea. Let’s bring it back again.”
MacKaye has gone on record as saying he’s opposed to sex only of the casual-Friday variety. But that’s just the point. Rock ‘n’ roll is about casual sex, deviant sex, Mars-bar sexa fact that seems to have registered with everyone on the planet except Fugazi. Little Richardwho went on, unfortunately, to do a little preaching himselfnever had any doubts about the nexus between rock and fucking. He said, and I quote, “If there was anything I loved more than a big penis, it was a bigger penis.”
Ah, and then there are drugs. Drugs and rock music go together like, well, drugs and sex. The reasons are myriad, but the simple truth is that rock music, no matter how “corporate,” retains the ability to frighten parents, and so do drugs. Ergo, kids who want to shock their elders are going to want to do both, and preferably in tandem. It was MacKaye’s ridiculous idea to try to sunder the connection between the two. This led to a nice bit of irony. While the rest of the punk world was gleefully excoriating the Reagan administration, MacKaye was an unofficial spear-carrier for Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign.
In an interview conducted during his days with Minor Threat, MacKaye bragged that he once “fuckin’ hit a kid with a hammer because he blew pot smoke in my face.” John Ashcroft would be proud of him.
Look, I’m going to tell you the truth here: Rock music is dumb. So dumb it’s funny. What’s more, it’s supposed to be, even though MacKaye would like to think otherwise: “I made a mistake thinking that rock ‘n’ roll had something to do with being intelligent and not accepting society as it was being given to us,” he once lamented.
Don’t despair, rock fans, because dumb is good. Hell, dumb just could be your salvation. I mean, take a gander at your great rock ‘n’ rollers. Elvis Presley? Dumb as a stump. And he knew it. Hell, Elvis is the man who said, “I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.”
Jerry Lee Lewis? He’s living proof that rock ‘n’ roll can only be improved by the total lack of a moral compass. This is a man who has never done the right thing in his lifethat is, unless you can be convinced that shooting a member of your own band in the chest is doing the right thing. But I’ll be damned if ornery ol’ Jerry Lee, who may or may not be the most fucked-up-on-drugs person ever to walk the face of the Earth, didn’t record a whole shitload of great rock ‘n’ roll records that will still be around long after Fugazi has been relegated to a footnote in rock history as that band that tried to save us from the unspeakable evils of band T-shirts.
And why? Because Fugazi cares! Well, great rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t care. The notorious dopers in Flipper didn’t give a flying fuck, and the world’s a more interesting place for it. Flipper understood that what the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards once sneeringly dismissed as “petty morals” were completely beside the point, the point being to make music so loud and terrifying our animal brains would be fooled into thinking dinosaurs had come back.
And the last time I checked, the Ramones didn’t care, except maybe a teensy little bit on “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg),” and even then they had the eminent good sense to leaven their protest with a healthy dollop of humor. So why is it that such sociopathic ditties as “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” are great and funny and stick in your head the way “Suggestion,” with its undeniably important and socially redeeming message, never will? Simple: Rock and morality don’t mix. Never have, never will. Morality says, “Let’s be better people.” Rock says, “Let’s all go to hell in a hand basket, preferably after having totally meaningless sex and snorting enough crank to keep Red China grinding its teeth for a week.” Now, rock may not necessarily mean this literally. Good rock, unlike the kind served up here in D.C., is as likely as not just doing what the British quaintly call “taking the piss.” Because rock is a prankster, and anybody who hasn’t caught onto the fact that rock doesn’t always mean what it says by the time he’s old enough to vote deserves whatever he gets.
Of course, not everybody agrees. Guy Picciotto once said, in reference to his pre-Fugazi band Rites of Spring, “I mean everything I sing, and we mean everything we play.” Well, isn’t that precious? One hundred percent sincerity guaranteed, or your money back! But if Picciotto was suggesting that rock is or should be a matter of sincere expression, he’s skating away, as that weird flute-playing guy in Jethro Tull once sang, on the thin ice of a new day. Randy Newman has made a careerand some really tremendous musicout of not meaning a single thing he says. Rock is performance, pure and simple, and though playing with passion is greatand nobody can deny that Fugazi has always had passion to sparesincerity is beside the point. Truth? Yeah, right. That’s the wonderful thing about rock: There’s nobody standing by the side of the stage to administer a lie-detector test. Why, you’re encouraged to just make stuff up as you go along. Rock loves the pathological liar, the disingenuous man, the shameless prevaricator. Look at Bob Dylan. Nobodyleast of all Bob Dylanhas any idea when Bob Dylan is being sincere. He has a gift for telling great stories, and that’s precisely what makes him such a great artist. He doesn’t let sincerity, morality, or any other damn thing get in his way. When it comes to rock, sincerity may sometimes be an assetU2’s Bono has done all right in that direction, certainlybut it’s certainly not a prerequisite.
Thanks to MacKaye & Co., the city that once brought us the great Angelthe fantastically coiffed anti-KISS whose elaborate live shows in the ’70s were most likely the inspiration for some of Spi¬nal Tap’s proudest momentsis now overrun by earnest people who support earnest music, form earnest bands, come together to hold earnest benefits for earnest causes, and in turn encourage whole new generations of impressionable kiddies to do the same. Why, it’s enough to make a body ill. One can only imagine what it would be like to live in a town where the pool of rock is untainted by integrity. D.C. is the Vatican of earnest rock, and we kindly ask you not to smoke, snicker, or mosh.
It has to stop. Somebody has to give the deprived children of Washington, D.C., the chance to grow up to be depraved, no-account rock ‘n’ roll animals. Somebody has to teach them that rock is not about increasing awareness of social injustices or about making better citizensit’s about having fun and making a fool of yourself before life gets aroundwhich, believe me, it willto doing it for you.
Of course, there are signs that Fugazi’s long stranglehold on Washington is coming to an end. The band barely performs locally anymoreit didn’t even play its time-honored annual gig at Fort Reno this year. It’d be nice to see something a bit more dangerous come along. It’d be nice to see D.C. become the nation’s next hotbed of old-fashioned, juvenile-delinquent-friendly sleaze rock. What better place, after all, for a teenage riot than right here in the World Capital of Sleaze, where life is cheap and lies with George W. Bush’s face on them are the coin of the realm?
In the meantime, we wait and we wait and we wait and we wait. Who knows? Maybe our saviors are already out there. Slouching, like W.B. Yeats’ rough beast, towards D.C., to be born. It’s about time. They’re long overdue. But they may be coming, coming to wrestle the crown of rock away from Fugazi and hand it back to the Devil, to whom it rightfully belongs. Together, hand in hand, perhaps we can make Frank Sinatra’s foul vision of rock a reality in our too fair and far too boring metropolis. Our young people deserve no less. CP