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On Monday May 16, Michael Lee Mariotte, the first editor of Washington City Paper (when it was initially called 1981), drummer for the new wave garage-punk outfit Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, and an anti-nuclear activist, died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. Mariotte had been fighting the disease for three years. Mariotte, a Herndon High and Antioch College in Ohio graduate, had first moved to the D.C. area when he was 13.
In 1981, an alternative newsweekly publication in D.C. called 1981 was started by a team of owners including Russ Smith. A year later the name was changed to the Washington City Paper. Smith says he hired Mariotte as editor because “his passion and love of D.C. won the day.” He noted that Mariotte, who later became the publication’s general manager, “was a tireless worker, especially during the startup period, and would carry out any jobs asked of him.” Smith says “he had a laid-back demeanor, a bit of a throwback to the ’60s, and was fun to be around.”
Alona Wartofsky, who has been a writer and arts editor for City Paper and later the Washington Post, started as the alt-weekly’s first intern. She remembers Michael was “brilliant and absolutely committed to his political ideology. I was intimidated by him, which was ridiculous because he and his [then] wife Lynn Thorp were really these down-to-earth hippies. To me, they were intellectuals in this cultural space where hippie and punk overlapped. The office was really small, so I could hear pretty much everything that was going on. I absorbed a lot just by listening to Michael run the paper; I learned about editing but also gained a lefty view of the world.”
In the late 1970s, when Mariotte was looking for a place to live in D.C., he responded to a group house ad that said in part, “Devo not disco.” Mariotte, who had played guitar in high school bands, soon moved in and became roommates and soon bandmates with singer/guitarist Diana Quinn and guitarist David Wells. Quinn and Wells and their bassist needed a drummer, and so Mariotte got the job, despite not having a drumming background. By 1978, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs were born. Mixing pop-leaning originals that included topical lyrics with garage rock, the group was part of D.C.’s original punk scene. Quinn says that of the drummers she’s played with, “Michael was the one who could remember every start and end to every song, and he ALWAYS kept the beat.”
Mariotte co-wrote Tru Fax’s most well-known song, “Washingtron,” with its lyrics full of references to numbing jobs and neighborhoods—Quinn sings about having been a “waitron” but now “working for a Senatron” and living in “Arlingtron.” The combo did not speed up its version of “Stepping Stone” as fast as local fledgling hardcore bands did in the early ‘80s, but they happily added such groups as its opening acts at clubs and venues like Fort Reno. The band was on and off for decades, but through it all, Tru Fax released a series of records in the early ‘80s and returned in 2015 for the EP 4Shadows. “Perfect Day,” a Mariotte-penned song on the EP, is an ode to spending time with his kids, with the touching lyric ”you were alive and so was I.” Quinn says she hopes to soon release a project Tru Fax have been working on that’s tentatively called ArtiFax. She says it will include “some newly recorded older songs, some never-before-recorded older songs, and some brand new songs.”
In 1985, Mariotte founded and edited Groundswell (later renamed Nuclear Monitor), the newsletter of the organization he soon came to lead, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). From 1986 until December 2013, he served as the entity’s executive director. Subsequently he became the organization’s president. In 2014, a number of non-governmental organizations including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and the Physicians for Social Responsibility presented Mariotte with a Lifetime Achievement Award at an event in D.C. for his efforts to create a “nuclear-free, carbon-free future.”
There’s no funeral scheduled, instead Quinn says “he didn’t want a funeral—he wanted a party.” Yesterday at the Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, a tribute for Mariotte was held, with music and booze, the way he wanted it.
Mariotte, is survived by his wife, Tanya Murza, four children, and a brother and sister. The family has indicated that donations under his name can be provided to his organization.