Does D.C. Really Need Two More Punk Retrospectives?
Washington City Paper
November 20th, 2014
Last month, Henry Rollins packed the National Museum of Natural History for a speaking gig on the early days of punk. The event had all of the warmth of a homecoming show—Rollins shouted out friends in the audience; people in the crowd shouted out details from anecdotes that Rollins himself only half-remembered.
The former Black Flag frontman has succeeded at transposing his onstage charisma, humor, and outrage to outlets from TV to radio to public speaking, still nailing the old punk stories onstage. But in his column for LA Weekly, on Oct. 23, Rollins wryly questioned his current place in the never-ending cycle of punk nostalgia that’s obsessed over his journey from Häagen-Dazs employee to punk-rock superstar, writing, “Perhaps after the [NMNH talk] I should be killed, flash frozen for maximum freshness and put on display with all the other relics.”
While the business of rock ’n’ roll retrospectives has been keeping the lights on at Rolling Stone for years, some D.C. punks take as much issue with recent tributes to the scene as they once did with long guitar solos and age restrictions at shows. Ian MacKaye declined to be interviewed for Brandon Gentry’s recent Washington City Paper cover story about Fugazi because of the profusion of other recent punk history projects to which he’s already lent his name and words.
In the same City Paper piece, Priests singer Katie Alice Greer said, “I love Fugazi, but I’m tired of talking about Fugazi.” On WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show last month, when asked about that quote and the burden that rehashing old punk tales places on young bands, Greer doubled down: “How can these things matter and carry on into 2014 and not just be, like, a time and a place that’s totally isolated from what’s happening right now?”
Therein lies a conundrum. D.C. punk, as a loosely defined movement, had few organizing principles beyond speaking truth to power and a commitment to creating anew, right here, right now. That’s still true of some younger D.C. punk bands, though none have tapped into the same kind of national zeitgeist that allowed people like Rollins to quit his day job and live off his punk-rock salary. Yet some of the old guard from the ’80s and ’90s—whose bands are mostly inactive and whose iconic record label now only prints reissues—are showing some signs of wistful, backwards-looking sentimentality. Their photo history books are stacking up at Busboys and Poets. And their stories have gone from concert lore to documentary lore.
“I hope it’s more than just nostalgia, because nostalgia is kind of a totally anti-punk thing,” said Positive Force founder Mark Andersen when he joined Greer on Kojo last month.
Punk or not, those in the business of remembering one of D.C.’s greatest stakes in music history have made a big year of 2014. In the past 10 months alone, the D.C. public library announced a comprehensive punk archive; the University of Maryland launched its own D.C. punk fanzine collection; and one of the most expensive private schools in the country, George Washington University, opened a local music archive and introduced an academic course on D.C. punk history. To cap off the year of reminiscence, two different D.C. punk-rock documentaries—Positive Force: More Than a Witness and Salad Days: The DC Punk Revolution—premiered last weekend. The former traces the history of Positive Force, the activist collective that was born out of the revolutionary rhetoric and energy of punk rock in the mid-’80s; the latter, directed by Scott Crawford, is a more traditional rock doc, following a few influential bands and exposing some of the rifts and conflicts within the local scene.
The films are easily the most visible of this year’s D.C. punk history projects, and indeed, both docs traffic in a kind of dusty nostalgia. There’s grainy concert footage from famous moments of the era, black and white photos of punk rockers in their prime. There’s a parade of notable talking heads: Both films feature Dave Grohl, one or both of the MacKayes (Ian and Amanda, that is), and Andersen (plus, More Than a Witness director Robin Bell scored interviews with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden). The hallmarks of D.C. punk lore—the drum protests outside the South African embassy in the late ’80s, the Fugazi concert at the White House—get screentime in both, too.
That’s one way to look at it. Rollins, MacKaye, and Grohl have been ubiquitous in rock docs and American rock ’n’ roll histories since the ’90s, so their perspectives and ideologies are relatively well known. But reading too much wistfulness into the frequently trotted-out punk rockers and activists undermines the sincerity of the projects. The docs clarify that what was an active moment in both local music and politics was the nudge many young people needed to reexamine their own lives. Neither film focuses so much on the war stories or inside jokes of a loosely associated musical network as they do the impact of that movement on how many of the films subjects lead their lives today.
Crawford’s film is undoubtedly tied to his personal punk past; he dedicates a slightly tangential segment of the film to Metrozine, the D.C. fanzine that he started in the ’80s. But this isn’t an expression of vanity—it’s a chance to reexamine his character and passions. “None of it was like, ‘Ah man, remember that time?’” says Crawford. “For me, it’s been trying to look at that period and tap into what my energy was. I just wanted to find some of what it was I had then and try to apply that to my life now. It’s not really about looking back and saying that was the best. It wasn’t the best, but it was important.”
Both of the films are about adolescent and post-adolescent turning points and the lessons learned from punk that the docs’ subjects and filmmakers still lean on in their everyday lives. Subject after subject explains how punk helped them learn to question authority, speak out against perceived injustices, and ditch misguided, conformist fashion trends. “It’s hard for me to argue with how important discovering something like punk is at such a pivotal age,” says Crawford.
Andersen, whose role as Positive Force’s de facto leader is documented heavily in More Than a Witness, interpreted punk’s power as a call to action to pursue punk’s values in his own life. “It changed me—that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing,” says Andersen, who is still active in Positive Force and heads up We Are Family, a nonprofit that assists and advocates for D.C. seniors. “It’s not because I sang along to X-Ray Spex or Rites of Spring songs. A part of it was learning ideas and my own power, and that’s not something to take lightly.”
D.C. provided a uniquely fertile ground for this self-discovery. “In the early ’90s, if I was going to see some hardcore band in Cleveland, I was worried about getting my ass kicked because I was a Jewish kid hanging out at a hardcore show,” says Revolution Messaging founder and former promoter Scott Goodstein in a More Than a Witness online bonus clip. “In D.C., I went to Fort Reno and it was like, not only could I go to a show, I could have a discussion or an argument with somebody that I didn’t agree with and I could learn something. It would make me think a little different.”
Of course, not all D.C. punks were concerned with activism; nor did the politically engaged kids in the scene agree on any coherent belief system, beyond a general disdain for conservatism and a dorm room-level rage against “the system.” Andersen is quick to point out in interviews that Positive Force is a diverse organization with often conflicting viewpoints. Salad Days touches briefly on a few of the rifts that Positive Force and other political organizing caused in the punk scene for those who weren’t interested in activism. “Sometimes the information took center stage over the shows,” says Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando in the film. “I just didn’t know why we had to go back to the ’60s and have it be a movement for something, for good causes,” says Kingface member Andy Rapoport in Salad Days, before following up with the self-deprecating admission that he’s a “bad punk.”
Still, a common coming-of-age, outcast-empowerment thread runs through both films. The transformative effects of that era’s music and political climate still resonate with old punks today—many of the influential figures in the films are still “living the life.” Beyond the more high-profile advocates and organizers—Andersen, the MacKayes, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna—a number of subjects in both docs currently hold careers that can be traced directly to their involvement in the punk scene. This is one of the more fascinating aspects of both films. Grohl has a particularly revelatory moment in More Than a Witness where he remembers that his first show with Scream was a Positive Force benefit gig. Aside from his work crafting provocative ads for the left-leaning causes and candidates as CEO of Revolution Messaging, Goodstein worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and co-founded youth voter registration org Punkvoter. Positive Force founding member Kevin Mattson teaches politics and history at Ohio University; his professional bio dedicates as much space to his past with punk and Positive Force as it boasts his political punditry. Inspired by the local punk scene, Crawford created his own fanzine, a decision that led to his future work as a magazine editor.
Bell initially set out to center his documentary on a few influential members in Positive Force, but soon discovered that a film too narrowly focused on the key players wouldn’t accurately represent the organization’s broader impact. “I was surprised by how many people were affected by the group,” says Bell. “I knew it was the reason why I wanted to work on the film, but it really shaped a lot of people.”
Perhaps it’s an obvious conclusion: Punk opened minds, ergo, punk shaped lives. Certainly, at times, the montage of talking heads in More Than a Witness and Salad Days can have a chorus-like effect of championing a movement that doesn’t exist on the same scale or with the same visibility that it did in decades past. Nevertheless, there’s a key difference between the historically knowledgeable radical punk and the washed-up glory-days-reliving former prom king. “[More Than a Witness is] not just looking back at something and patting ourselves on the back,” says Andersen. “Hopefully it’s that prod to get out there.”