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I like two-singer bands. I think they’re intrinsically cool. I like the duality. You get two distinct voices and personae to focus on or identify with.
Some of my personal favorite examples: The Beatles (four singers, actually!), A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, The Clash, Tricky (with Martina Topley-Bird as his “female half”), and Fugazi.
One thing that happens with two-singer bands is the listener often begins to frame the singers in contrast to each other. Their voices come to represent emotional archetypes in our heads. For a lot of Beatles fans, Paul is the sweet and sentimental one (“It’s getting better all the time…”) and John is the acerbic counterweight (“It can’t get much worse.”)
When we talk about Fugazi, we tend to ascribe certain polar traits to Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto. Ian is direct lines, hard angles, confrontation, straightforwardness, and (most famously?) fiery didacticism. By contrast, Guy is curves, ellipses, abstraction, poetry, obliqueness, and mystery. Ian is an icon/champion of youth: he advocates for all ages access and inclusion. His lyrics are galvanizing and accessible. Guy is a more exotic, elusive creature. Or so the stereotypes go.
But here’s the thing: we usually get it wrong. And so it is with Fugazi.
This simplification happens despite a large catalog of evidence to the contrary. Some of the band’s most challenging, impressionistic, richly nuanced, delicately coded songs are sung by Ian (“Facet Squared” and “Pink Frosty”). And some of the band’s most conspicuous youth advocacy songs are actually sung by Guy (“Target” and “Latin Roots”).
This leads me to “Runaway Return,” my favorite Guy Picciotto youth-advocate song.
The song opens with the provocative line “Out of the ashtray! Into the ashtray!” It incisively captures the thesis of the song in just seven words.
The metaphor is bare: A kid runs away to escape home, only to discover the outside world is equally terrible.
That’s the song in a nutshell, pretty much. The tone is compassionate, if despondent. One imagines it might even be autobiographical. (It’s worth noting, however, that the song is written in second person, present tense.)
“There’s nothing living, there’s nothing given / Weekender’s vision turns to working shoes / There’s nothing living, there’s nothing given / Weekender gives in, puts on his working suit / There’s nothing waiting, there’s nothing imminent / Nothing forgiven for your young idea / There’s nothing waiting, there’s nothing imminent / Nobody seems surprised / Runaway returns…”
A young teen (who has possibly endured abuse or neglect) runs away from his family and haplessly tries to forge a new life for himself. Though Guy calls the kid a “weekender,” which seems possibly dismissive, he expresses only anguish and sympathy for his innocence. There is repeated reference to “your young idea,” a phrase that suggests idealism and nobility. The poor kid ran away with no plan or knowledge of how the outside world works because… well, how could he?! He’s just a kid—something all of us are at some point in our lives.
It is at this point we encounter one of Guy’s most clever tropes: dub lyrics.
In the chorus, Guy sings “Home / son / doing / gone.” The words are monosyllabic, evocative, and elemental and they land on a syncopation. They don’t exactly make sense in order, but we can feel something has been subtracted. When the progression come around again, Guy fills in the spaces. “Welcome home / misplaced son / This is what we were doing / while you were gone...” With this structure, Guy introduces us to the negative space first before offering context. This puts the listener in the same circumstance as the kid in the song… confused and desolate, but with the scene gradually becoming clearer. And the use of the word “misplaced” is devastating.
Guy lays out the scene explicitly. The kid has returned home in the middle of some kind of cocktail party or suburban barbecue. And it becomes tragically apparent that nobody in the family even noticed the kid was ever gone. Nobody was alarmed. There was no search.
It’s a pretty depressing story. And the music seems intent on rendering the narrative with cinematic clarity. The song becomes almost literal. Guy sings “Why don’t you sit down?” And with those words, the whole band suddenly gets quiet and still. They play two extremely slow, minimal, contemplative chords. We’re forced to imagine the scene: a melancholic kid looking around a room, a festive party in full swing, and the kid feels only isolation and hopelessness.
The song builds up again and Guy sings “Welcome back!” and it’s… just crushing.
Plainly conveying youth experience is the kind of populism we tend to ascribe to Ian. But here it is Guy who does it.
Bands are complex.