It’s midshow, and Fugazi’s singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye spots trouble. He can smell it from the breath of the mosh pit rising to the stage. MacKaye studies the sweaty crowd. His eyes spike to focused points; he’s trying to decide who’s being naughty and who’s being nice. Finally, his gaze rests on some big brutes and he bitches them out for roughhousing, his face pinched up to a pucker. The audience yelps and laughs, gobbling it up. Justice is served; faces are preserved. To paraphrase Courtney Love paraphrasing Carole King and Gerry Goffin, when MacKaye screams, it feels like a kiss.
The scenario contrived by the mainstream press (usually under a sullen-denial headline like “This Is Not a Fugazi Article”) gives a perception of the band members as plastic action figures; it’s pure punk comic book. They are punks straight-arrow enough to blast scenester tyranny, political wrongdoing, and mosh-pit oppression. They are our Super Friends; wind them up, and they will protect you from mainstream’s monoculture. Integrity powers activate!
The Fugazi vs. the World setup translates into hyperbole on the page. A Pulse magazine article (October ’91) has MacKaye beating the Big Apple: “In a town where Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal remains law, MacKaye’s unflagging steadfastness prevails. He’s turned the word ‘no’ into a very effective weapon.” Gosh, Ian wanted to charge just $5 at the Marquee! The coverage can be downright religious: Fugazi have been compared to the Amish in Rolling Stone, praised for their business savvy in Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, labeled messiahs against the Mariah Carey McCulture everywhere else. Spin notoriously devoted an entire article to begging the band for an interview. When Fugazi refused, the writer praised the band’s mettle, practically apologizing for his magazine’s being so uncool.
All this idol-engineering centers around Fugazi’s rule book. The media would have you believe MacKaye’s doctrine is so strict it rivals Martha Stewart’s kitchen fetish. They are both do-it-yourself do-goodersMartha frets over the length to which a bath towel should be folded, and MacKaye can be just as anal: no slamming at shows, no major labels, no videos, no smoking, no drinking, no tube socks, no shirt, no service. And fuck being cool. “I don’t want to be included in anything that’s being called ‘cool.’…Fugazi is a band and we should be taken as such,” MacKaye told Option back in ’91. He sounded like a See ‘n’ Say; you could almost see the pull-cord zipping back into his butt.
But that was back in his and the D.C. scene’s salad days, when there still was an Us vs. Them. It may not have been Revolution Summer, but ’91 through ’93 saw a huge musical flourish here. Between riot grrrls and post-hardcore experimentation, the church basements were flush with kids, and just spotting the band members could cause a coronary. MacKaye and Co. had the gift for speaking the minds of the community as well as keeping it all together. And any kid you bumped into was either a budding feminist revolutionary or a would-be punk pioneer.
Now, Fugazi’s social righteousness has slipped to the status of a personal soap box. Bands like Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Beth Orton, and Puffy are dominating teendom by dripping validation over their ids. Love and Lexuses are in fashion, not rules. Fugazi, by comparison, is too white and too old.
You could say that the punk scene doesn’t revolve around Fugazi anymore, and that’s as it should be. It’s one thing to be revered, as the band members have been for almost 20 yearsbut what do you do when you’re the last of your generation, one of the few institutions still standing? Recede. Get fat. Do soundtrack work for post-grunge Neve Campbell films.
With their latest release, End Hits, Fugazi have decided to take a more personal, grown-up approach. They’ve changed their personae from superheroes into anti-heroes. They’ve become human beings. But, after all this time, they’re not so likeablekinda like Adam West doing soft-core porn films or Margot Kidder lost and toothless in L.A. It’s not easy to escape the cape; why do you think Christopher Reeve titled his post-paralysis memoir Still Me?
The album is less a musical gamble than a gamble of relevance and acceptance. It’s hard to relate to an institution. Even the band members joke about living up to St. Ian. Erin Smith (formerly of Bratmobile and the Cold Cold Hearts) asked guitarist and singer Guy Picciotto, “Do you ever think…do you ever worry, that Ian MacKaye will think you’re dumb[?]” in her Action Teen fanzine (’91). The equally revered bandmate had to joke: “God, eternally, every day of my life.”
Lori plops down next to me. She looks a wrecklike a multicolored candy that’s stuck to the pavementall gooey and hairy. Her face, a pudgy pillow, is defiantly serious. She has gathered herself at Soho Café, on P Street NW, on a cool Wednesday night. She wants to talk about what happened to her pet hamsters.
“My mom flushed them down the toilet one night,” Lori, 18, complains. The incident occurred when she was 8 years old. “I was freaked. I really didn’t think anything about it until later. She never explained it to me.”
At this point some of Lori’s fellow squatters have gathered around the table. They lay their lives around me like so much shattered glass. Lori’s friend Ann, 18, is soon prompted to tell her even sadder tale. Ann says she was left on a church doorstep by her druggie mom before being adopted by another junkie. “She used to be a hooker. She used to get [jobs] at the Watergate,” Ann explains. “She needed to sell herself today, so she got $150 for a half an hour, so that’s pretty cool.” Whether she’s full of shit, I dunno. But her confidant, Gerbil (not to be confused with the flushed rodents), backs her up. “We’re really friends,” Ann says of their relationship. “More like street friends,” Gerbil counters. Sometimes pain is expressed without irony.
I can’t help but think these kids look like they’ve been transplanted from CBGB circa ’77.They are just another generation of punks with the same hapless stories, broken family trees, cracked philosophies. Except they grew up on Minor Threat.
But somehow, for these kids, the do-it-yourself ethic has translated into making pants out of rubber and dental floss and squatting. They’ve pretty much left MacKaye, and now Fugazi, behind. Gerbil says he stopped listening to them years ago. And why not? Fugazi would sooner do a benefit for them than speak to them. If they did, Gerbil believes it surely would be a lecture.
“We’re always going to be the kids they are trying to reach,” Gerbil contends. Except this kid has tuned out and dropped out.
D.C. punks get birthed to Minor Threat, say goodbye with Rites of Spring, and have to live with Fugazi. Punks who grew up in the Decade of Fugazi could relate to the group the same way they did to Noam Chomskyon poli-sci terms. Their music was the equivalent of understanding parents, motivational speakers, and spiritual poohbahs.
They were your reason not to sell out. You may have kept them at a distance, but you worshiped them anyway. Fugazi’s shows were group therapy alternately painful and pleasurable. They were also the only shows my friends wouldn’t smoke at for fear of being reprimanded. There was nothing Nevermind about them.
Eventually, the music began to change. If the songs were once tight-ass rubber bands shot at the audience, they were now being turned inward and directed at the group. On End Hits’ predecessor Red Medicine, Ian the Institution finally let down his guard. Almost a decade had passed. The music grew murkier, the lyrics more personal, more doubting. Fugazi asked us listeners whether we liked them, told us they were failures, that life and personalities could scatter like “separate accounts.” They weren’t shouting so much as actually singing anymore.
On “Long Distance Runner,” MacKaye had a downright soul-searching moment when he sang: “I can’t keep your pace if I want to finish this race/My fight’s not with you it’s with gravity.”
End Hits begins where “Long Distance Runner” left offMacKaye emoting on aging. The band opens with “Break.” Under a whispery surf-guitar line, drummer Brendan Canty lays down a punchy staccato march, and MacKaye scats between it all. He’s still running and reflecting when he bops through the lyric: “We take apart/Everything we build/Had it right here/But now it’s gone/On and on,” almost humming the refrain “On and on” as if he were Erykah Badu. It’s a promising, ecstatic beginning.
“Place Position” has Picciotto weaving immigrant politics between his own feelings about boredom, genetics, and the irony of a fence-builder keeping people away, yet boasting about the “pleasures of home.” Picciotto ends the song by declaring, “I want to go home.” While the music carries the intensity, the song shirks polemics for subtle wordplay. No Rage Against the Machine territory here.
But what sounds at first like the building of serious personal architecture quickly dissolves into Fugazi’s usual punk mapping. The band paid for a full shrink session and left midway. We get a band holding backor writing about holding back. If anything the album is about the band’s own loss of connection. The effect is like hearing Allen Ginsberg during his last wacko years (remember his anti-smoking song with Conan?)loopy mood puddles that sound both mechanical and nonsensical.
You can hear the group reaching at every turn. More questions are asked than answered; more lyrics leave you emotionally desperate than comfort you. Songs end with allusions (literal and figurative) to domestic comforts (“Place Position,” “Recap Modotti,” “Pink Frosty”), with taunts (“Caustic Acrostic,” “Guilford Fall”), or with pleas for escape (“No Surprise”).
The music is equally depressed. When they’re not knocking off their own set list (“Place Position” sounds like “Do You Like Me” and “Closed Captioned” takes its beat from “Suggestion”), the band flirts with AOR. They’ve replaced the lo-fi jitters and jolts of Red Medicine with something closer to Led Zeppelin or Sonic Youth.
Picciotto does his best Robert Plant spoken-word religious shtick, and the music meanders, saunters, and crunches with him on “Floating Boy.” He goes to California, and this is what he sees: “The sun came up/The sun came out/The sun did us in/The sun came out/And tore us up/It ripped the shit/Out of our behinds.” Heavy, dude.
On “Foreman’s Dog,” the guitar riff comes right off Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, and on the instrumental “Arpeggiator,” we get scales. “Guilford Fall” opens with sublime guitar squeaks and squealsonly Sonic Youth mastered the sound before they went to the majors. Some of the stuff is bloated. “Recap Modotti” starts off about a taxi ride and takes its dubby rhythm nowhere. “Five Corporations” preaches to the converted about corporate domination.
The penultimate song, “Pink Frosty,” gives MacKaye his chance to make human contact. Through a creepy ambient pop melody, ponged by church bells, he mumbles. His words are barely audible and focus again on the breaking apart of things. This time he’s talking romance. Unfortunately, he stiffs. When he sings, “But if we can find/Some piece of mind/Intertwined the delivery/Is worth the load,” he could be crooning about his record label, about lifting weights, about fucking. Not exactly passionate kisses.
Ironically, this album may show the members of Fugazi to be more human than anything they’ve done before. The band listened to the same ’70s rock their audience bought into before grunge. They are confused, scattered, lonely, tired, separated, and crankyjust like the rest of the Positive Force graduates growing into their late 20s or mid-30s. The rub is that they have revealed themselves to be humiliatingly plainthey are as apathetic and phony as the rest of us. MacKaye has escaped the cape, but the next thing you know, he’ll be at Ikea picking out end tables. Now, isn’t that depressing? CP