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Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser are nervous. They’re facing a small crowd at the Adams Morgan music store DCCD two Saturdays ago, about to give a reading from their new self-published novel, Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing. The two D.C. punk expats have embarked on a 20-city indie book tour, driving around the country like itinerant rockers to hawk their book at club shows, on the streets, and to independent bookstores. But today’s crowd is different: It includes a smattering of local music-scene personalities who are closer than most people to the book’s coming-of-rage subject matter.
Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing is set in the D.C. music underground, circa 1993. Some people in the audience, the authors expect, may see themselves in the story. And it’s not a happy story. It’s a story of disillusionment, confusion, and a rock scene that seemingly collapsed like a black hole. It’s also, of course, largely autobiographical.
Himelstein and Schweser are both goofy, idealist punkers who were drawn to the D.C. music scene in the early ’90s like iron filings to a magnet. At the time, local punk culture was in full flourish: Activist groups like Positive Force, Food Not Bombs, Riot Grrrl, and the now-defunct Beehive Autonomous Punk Rock Collective provided an infrastructure for punks to turn their agoraphobic revulsion to the world into radical utopia-building. Behind it all, the music was playingD.C.’s own hardcore music, the industrial export of the city’s independent record labels, the lingua franca of the disaffected.
“D.C. punk rock totally changed my life,” says Schweser, a lanky leftist with curly hair and frayed anarchical values. He makes crazy faces and expansive body gestures to punctuate his points, and as he talks reverentially about bands such as Minor Threat, he practically loses control. “I really liked the idea that people could have a band and sing about things that I thought were really important,” he says, “in a way I didn’t think was corny at all.”
Back then, the authors looked at D.C.’s punk microcosm and saw their dreams for a punk-rock lifestyle reflected in it. Dischord Records had firmly established itself on the success of bands such as Fugazi and Nation of Ulysses, and Schweser and Himelstein were hooked. But not all remained pure as the authors, and the scene itself, got older. Indeed, Tales paints a portrait of the latter-day D.C. punk circuit as a failing, frustrating tangle of fashion slaves and dead-end ideas.
“The things I loved about D.C. punk are in the book, and the things that pissed me off are in the book,” explains Himelstein, a more soft-spoken revolutionary who casually spouts punk agitprop like a vocal tic. “I feel like this music scene [in D.C.] has always aspired to something I hold near and dear to my heart,” he muses, “so when it fails in different ways, it feels that much crappier.”
The protagonist of Tales, 19-year-old Elliot Rosenberg, navigates D.C.’s underground music scene with naive wonderment. An epiphany has brought him here from the hamlet of Wilson, Tenn.: Back home, Elliot overheard a hardware store owner make a racist remark in front of a black employee, and he wound up smashing the store’s front window with a baseball bat. Having mastered the art of punk-rock subtlety, he bailed on his parents’ expectations that he go to college and skipped town for D.C.
When Elliott arrives, he encounters people and ideas that challenge him at every turn. He moves in and out of an activist group house in Arlington, a downtown revolutionary bookstore staffed by young anarchists, and the dark rock clubs ruled by the elder statesmen of D.C. punk. Local landmarks, institutions, and scenesters appear behind gossamer veils of fictionalization: the “Positive Change” house, “Hornet’s Nest,” “El Pollo Negro,” and “Eron McDunn,” owner of “Discontent Records.”
Elliot’s tale, which reads like an overly ambitious fanzine, unravels through letters to his friend Maureen, as well as through ‘zines and journals that he and his new-found comrades produce together. The best parts of the story are told through a ‘zine called minDCleaner, interspersed with lists, manifestoes, observations, propaganda posters, and random rants, together forming a fragmented narrative of young characters creating a progressive underground subculture. The book is reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s disjointed A Crackup at the Race Riots, but it often comes off like the sloppy punk ‘zines stapled together by earnest kids and left at record stores for tribal readers.
Elliot tries to construct a worldview out of his Jewish upbringing and his dawning punk values. Wowed by the spirit and energy of punk music and the pseudorevolutionary ideas behind the genre’s local form, he starts a band with his friends. He works at a Dupont Circle health-food store and volunteers with local activist gangs. Elliot dates Christa, an ultrafeminist riot grrrl who is mostly uninterested in his adolescent advances.
In one of his ‘zine entries, Elliot takes a moment of absurd, pompous reflectionnever fully explainedto ask himself: “Hast thou moved to D.C. to be around deviants in the hope that you can learn to ‘deviate from the norm’ correctly? Whilst thou purport that thou livest the revolution when it isn’t all around you? If thou cannot be punk rock in Wilson, then is it truly radical to be radical in D.C.? Whilst thou keep the revolution quiet?”
The question, so ridiculously phrased in the book, rings true for the authors, who fled the scene two years ago. Riot Grrrl had faded, the Beehive Collective had shut down, and many of the punk and hardcore bands that first drew them to D.C. had disappeared. The ’90s versions of revolution and rebellion had turned into marketing bywords. Alternative rock had been co-opted by mainstream record labels and radio, and punk’s promise seemed to be fading. “The idea of revolution is really important to me,” says Himelstein, “and when things here seemed like [people] were selling revolution rather than embodying the revolution, it sucked.”
Schweser left to run a rogue radio station in Iowa City, which the FCC recently shut down. Himelstein moved to New Orleans and founded New Mouth from the Dirty South, a do-it-yourself publishing house. (Tales is its first title.) They reunited last year to write the book as an act of closure on their D.C. days.
By punk standardsthe only standards they care aboutthe book is selling well. The small-press distributors Last Gasp, AK Press, and Profane Existence have picked up the book, but most of their sales so far have come during face-to-face encounters. Upstart capitalism is an unlikely calling for Himelstein, especially marketing for the “revolution” set; but for business models, he looks to independent record labels and lefty publishers in hopes of maintaining genuine outsider credibility. For, despite the book’s despairing tone, Himelstein still subscribes to punk values and DIY ethics while picking up the professional stuff along the way.
“We’re learning,” he says, having sold out of the book’s first run of 1,000 copies during the West Coast leg of his tour. “The second edition has an ISBN number on itand we’re going to proofread it before the third edition.” It appears that the punk-rock lifestyle the authors (and their characters) dreamed of has finally become a sustainable reality, putting the fate of the revolution, whatever it may be, back in their hands. CP