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Fuse Book Review: “Stealing All Transmissions” — How The Clash Conquered America

By Adam Ellsworth
Arts Fuse
November 3rd, 2014

Books about the Clash are typically weighty affairs. Oral history coffee table book The Clash is nearly 400 pages and tips the scales at approximately five pounds. Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer is more than 600 pages long, while Marcus Gray’s Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling focuses primarily on just one album and still tops out around 500 pages.

And then on the other end of the spectrum there’s the new Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of the Clash by Randal Doane. Discounting its foreword, notes, and index, the tome is only a shade more than 130 pages in length but pound for pound, it’s one of the best things anyone has ever written about the group. It’s at least in the same league as the brilliant Route 19 Revisited.

“This is the story of how The Clash loved America, and how America loved them back,” Doane writes in the book’s opening pages.

Really, Stealing All Transmissions is more centered on New York City than the country as a whole, though that’s no tragedy. NYC was the center of American punk, so it’s only right that a book about the greatest of all the British punk bands (not to mention the greatest of all the punk bands period) should concentrate there. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon are all given their proper due by Doane for the role they played in their own stateside popularity, but where this telling of the tale is more original is the author’s highlighting of the deejays and music journalists who helped out along the way.

“Serendipity rarely simply happened,” Doane writes of the Clash’s U.S. success. “It needed nurturing from doting figures in retail, print, and on the radio.”

Those doting figures included deejays Meg Griffin and Joe Piasek and freeform New York City FM radio stations WNEW and WPIX. At a time when most stations were playing the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, it was these stations and deejays that went in the other direction and broadcast the sound of punk and new wave across the five boroughs. “Stealing all transmissions” indeed.

Credit is also given to “The Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau, who at the time was writing for the Village Voice. Not only did Christgau champion the Clash’s debut album, he also informed his readers where in the city they could buy it (the legendary Bleecker Bob’s) long before it was officially released in this country, thus helping to make The Clash the best-selling import record in U.S. history.

The efforts of these characters and others were undoubtedly successful and as Doane states, this meant the Clash had a larger American audience straight out of the gate than most British punk and punk-inspired bands of the late ’70s As a result, the band played their first New York City shows—in February, and again in September, 1979—at the prestigious Palladium, while other groups, including the Police, had to start out at smaller nightclub venues. Stealing All Transmissions pays special attention to the group’s second and third New York/Palladium shows, held September 20 and 21, for at least two important reasons: 1) the September 21 show was broadcast live on WNEW, one of the stations instrumental in breaking the band in the city, and 2) it was at one of these shows that arguably the most famous rock and roll photograph of all time was taken—Pennie Smith’s iconic shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the stage, which would be used as the cover of the group’s classic third album, London Calling.

When was this iconic photograph of The Clash’s Paul Simonon taken?

So, at which of these two shows was the photo taken? While history has long recorded the date as September 21, Doane makes a convincing case that perhaps history has been wrong all these years. And though it doesn’t necessarily “matter” when the picture was taken, if Doane’s hypothesis is correct then there’s some new and interesting context to consider when looking at the legendary image.

In addition to the novel angle of the work and its bass-smashing revelations, Stealing All Transmissions is also finely written, although it does at times read more like a long academic journal article than a book (Doane’s day job is assistant dean at Oberlin College, so perhaps this is inevitable). Regardless, this style never takes away from the content itself, so it’s only barely worth mentioning. Stealing’s only true bum note comes when Doane offers a “cinematic” interpretation of London Calling. He rightfully points out that the double record is not a concept album, and then he offers a reading of it that presents the group “as a single, peripatetic protagonist, wandering the avenues and alleys of London and New York, picking up stories and sounds in al fresco cafes, in movies in Times Square, and behind barricades in Brixton.” This reading is forced and incomplete. It’s also unnecessary. London Calling is what it is, and there’s no need for a storyline to be placed on it, even if that storyline is only there to point at larger truths.

Excluding this one weak spot, Stealing All Transmissions is a wonder of a book. Slim, yes, but nearly every page is filled with insight and originality. It sets a high bar for the many more volumes that will undoubtedly be written about the Clash in the years ahead.

Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine,, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Randal Doane's Author Page

Anarchy, Geography, and Modernity: A Glimpse into the Depth of Anarchism

By Sasha
Earth First! Newswire
October 18th, 2014

A new edition of Elisée Reclus’s works, Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, edited by the illustrious duo of John Clark and Camille Martin, provides a captivating introduction to the great anarchist’s life and works. This book will drive its readers into the most solitary spaces of reflection—whether the ocean’s rocky shoreline, the forest’s wild expanse, or the deepest reaches of the imagination. It provides a vital touchstone of time and place, a refraction that sheds light on our own ways of seeing the world.

Reclus has long been an understudied figure in the history of anarchism, so the first part of the book, taken up by Clark’s biography of Reclus, seems a welcome first step. A close friend of Bakunin and Kropotkin, it was Reclus who helped rescue, edit, and publish Bakunin’s final and greatest text, God and State. Reclus was among the insurrectionary anarchists exiled from France after participating in the Paris Commune of 1871. Reclus is also one of the greatest, most admired geographers in the world. Ever. With aspirational and voluminous texts on the world and its peoples, Reclus achieved a great milestone in the struggle to liberate scholarship from eurocentric confines.

Clark’s distillation of the major thinker’s oeuvre elicits a generous respect. A world traveler and generous intellect, Reclus carefully observed the ideas and behaviors of what he called “eco-regions” and their specific environs, contributing key insights for the growing understanding not only of environmental sciences and geography, but their effect on human societies—all during an era obsessed with progress and industry.

“Nature is for [Reclus] always an active presence, both encompassing humanity and remaining in intimate dialectical interaction with humanity throughout history,” Clark notes. In his careful reflections on Reclus’s life work, including the 19-volume The Earth and Its Inhabitants, Clark presents to the reader a deep engagement with the “convergence of reason, passion, and imagination—logos, eros, and poesis.” For its soft-spoken nature, which resonates from deep contemplation to romantic gestures of grandeur, this sort of radical thought affords the deepest contemplation on the problems with which Reclus engaged, as they ring true to this day.

This particular edition’s selection of Reclus’s work centers around Reclus’s critique of modern states and the dialectics of civilization and savagery. “A century ago,” Clark comments, “Reclus had already presciently announced an intensifying crisis of the city and diagnosed the crisis as only a symptom of the larger crisis of society.” With regards to the polis, Reclus writes, “the political unity [ensemble politique] of the social body was as simple, as undivided and as well-defined as was the unity of the individual himself.” The city becomes a performance of practical reason (Aristotle’s phronesis), as it actuates the gathering of individuals for the betterment of society. “[It] is in this sense that one must, like Aristotle, consider the human being to be par excellence the zoon politikon: the ‘urban animal,’ the participant [le part-prenant] in the organic city [la cité organique] (and not merely the ‘political animal’ as it is usually translated).” With this deeply philosophical reflection on organic politics in mind, Reclus developed the notion of eco-regions, providing significant insight into wilderness and distinct environments of other continents, finding models of organic political societies outside of and degraded by European thought.

With this introduction into European thought of ecoregions or bioregions, Reclus seeks an “evolution” of the modern nation-states beyond an unhealthy, pathological obsession with “progress.” The city, as an organic production or performance of reason, brings human society together in a political life of equality, liberty, mutual aid, and free association, but the corruption of political cunning inverts socio-organic independence, and transforms the city against nature into a divided state manifested through overconsumption and war. “It is only the free man—who of his own accord joins his strength with that of other men acting out of their own will—who has the right to disavow the mistakes or misdeeds of his so-called companions.

He takes responsibility only for himself.” As those “united with a single will” rise up against the master “so that they may be assured from that moment on of their bread and liberty,” revolution of the “free man” will liberate humanity through its growing sense of solidarity into an organic system of self-management.

As Clark notes, by today’s standards Reclus’s gendered language overshadows his activism for women’s rights and against patriarchy, but the editors’ decision to retain the atavistic lingo preserves a sense of confusing and contradictory time and place in fidelity, perhaps, to the text. For Reclus, “every new city immediately constitutes, by its configuration of dwellings, a collective organism,” and it is difficult to see how gender, race, and other identity-forming factors figure in that organism. On the one hand, it could be similar to a “historical bloc,” which is not only a collection of ideologies, but an “organic body,” according to influential leftist thinker Antonio Gramsci. On the other hand, the more mainstream socialist view promoted by Arthur Tansley of the collective unconscious as eminently connected to the ecological surrounds (i.e., the development of the concept of the “ecosystem”) might help construct a view of the possible “collective organism.” To bring things more up to date, one wants through Reclus to return to Bookchin’s ideas of social ecology and his later municipalism, and redefine radical approaches to politics by escaping the sectarianism and condemnations of the ultra-left and returning to the common ground of solidarity. But it’s not that easy; none of these trends and tendencies encompass the enormity of Reclus’s comprehensive thought.

In a way, Anarchy, Geography, Modernity goes “back to basics,” although Reclus is certainly not in favor of a homogenous approach to society. One tribute that Reclus pays to civilization is that the “civilized” maintains a “greater complexity of the elements that enter into its formation.” At the same time, the industrial cities “draped with a funeral veil” of smog appear to us far from “a future state of well-being and beauty” (both requisites for Aristotle’s organic polity), because the modern state “has to adapt to its bad environment, and in order to function, it must do so in a pathological way.” In this sense, “progress” takes on the form of degenerate habits, while the “thousands of tribes and other ethnic groupings, lumped together under the name ‘savages’ by haughty ‘civilized’ people… at least [have] the advantage of being coherent and consistent with [their] ideals.”

We have in Reclus not only a model academic and scholar compelled by field work to both the darkest and most luminous of critiques, but an anarchist and insurrectionary whose connections to other noteworthy anarchists opens up a broader understanding of anarchist perspectives on ecology. The effect is to produce a networked realization of the meaning of anarchist thought over time—not just its outcome, but its contemplative processes (what one may associate with phronesis), its relationship to the classical Aristotelian understandings of the polis and the political that throws into question the weight of philosophy that prefigured but fell short of the great anarchist ideal.

Sasha has been with the EF! Journal Collective since 2009ish, and helped found the Newswire. He has a new book out through AK Press called Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to John Clark's Editor Page | Back to Camille Martin's Editor Page

Talking Anarchy Review

By Kathy Labriola
November 2014

I rarely write book reviews, but this book got me so excited I just had to share my enthusiasm! This compact little PM Press book is essentially an extended conversation between two amazing British anarchist writers, editors, and activists. Weighing in at just 165 pages, it is jam-packed with anarchist history, events, and  ideas, and is the one book I would give to anyone who wants to understand what anarchism is all about.

Colin Ward was a working-class kid who dropped out of school at age 15 in 1939, and was quickly drafted by the British Army during World War II. During the war, he happened upon an anarchist bookshop and became a lifelong anarchist, editing the anarchist journal “Freedom” and eventually founding the journal “Anarchy” which he edited for decades. He was a tireless anarchist speaker and writer, eventually writing 30 books on the subject. David Goodway is a British social and cultural historian whose best-known book is “Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow.”  He had the opportunity to interview Colin Ward at length, over a period of months, just before Ward's death in 2010 at the age of 86. Talking Anarchy is the result of those interviews, published in the US earlier this year. Goodway also mentions in the book his conversion to anarchism due to being exposed to “anarchist propaganda” in a left-wing bookstore. This should be a strong reminder to us all of the importance of anarchist infoshops and bookstores and of anarchist publications such as Slingshot that spread these ideas far and wide.

Despite being a card-carrying anarchist since 1968, I have successfully avoided reading Kropotkin, Bakunin, Read, Bookchin, and all the other anarchist heavyweights. I  am embarrassed to confess that I always found them tedious and maddeningly abstract and irrelevant to present-day reality. Ward's take on anarchism is refreshingly practical and tied to our current challenges of creating meaningful work, affordable housing, useful and child-centric education and child-care, building meaningful community, and doing effective political organizing.

Ward emphasizes the importance of tenants taking control of their buildings, of students and parents organizing for more humane and relevant education, and for alternative forms of work such as worker co-ops and individuals working independently rather than for an employer. He sees all these as ways of living our anarchist beliefs by demonstrating that people can create the forms of organization that they need and can empower themselves to be in charge of their lives on as many fronts as possible without coercion or guidance from an authoritarian state. For instance, he talks about the importance of individuals and groups of people in cities growing as much of our own food as possible, providing for ourselves and being more food self-sufficient. All such self-help and mutual aid projects prove that anarchism works, that people at a individual and/or local level are competent to decide what our communities need, and then create our own ways to meet those needs. His approach seems very focused on putting anarchist practices into action to solve the lief-threatening problems created by capitalism and imperialism. In another example, he says that squatting vacant buildings shows the irrational and barbaric nature of capitalism, a system that allows housing to sit vacant while people are homeless and freezing in the streets, and that people can take action to house themselves.

Of particular interest to me, as a deranged  militant feminist, are Ward and Goodway's discussion of the historical importance of anarchists, from Emma Goldman to Alex Comfort and many others, in challenging and successfully overturning the sexist and sex-negative attitudes and laws in Britain, in advocating for the right to birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, and equality for women. Ward reminds us that people today cannot even imagine the rigid and suffocating sexual repression,  ignorance, and rigid sex roles of compulsory heterosexual marriage that were the rule as recently as the early 1960's.  They emphasize the dramatic changes that have occurred  in a very short time, and the role that anarchists have played in fighting for equal rights for women and for sexual freedom for all. They both see the rights of each person to control their bodies, their sex lives, and their relationship choices as core anarchist values, because people are competent to create their own relationships, families, and communities without direction or restriction from the state.

And Ward talks extensively about the central role women have played in founding and sustaining anarchist organizations in the UK. He notes that women often do the constant, unglamorous, and usually unpaid work of producing publications, distributing literature, staffing bookstores, handling mailings, organizing meetings and events, and raising funds. Interestingly, he stresses the importance of  community-building and friendship networks in building and maintaining any political movement, and that this relational work of keeping people connected and creating strong relationships is usually done by women, while too often the men pontificate and fight amongst themselves.  

Ward quotes frequently throughout the book from many anarchist writers, some totally fascinating and exciting stuff! Some of the books he quotes are from the usual suspects, but many were from books and anarchists I had never even heard of. Ironically, despite my afore-mentioned aversion to anarchist theory, by the time I finished the book, I had jotted down a long list of anarchist books that I intend to read!

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to the David Goodway's Author Page | Back to Colin Ward's Author Page

An Alternative History of Rock’s Most Iconic Photograph

By Kathy Shaidle
PJ Lifestyle
November 17th, 2014

See Part 1 in Kathy Shaidle’s series exploring punk rock here: How the Sex Pistols Made History by Lying About It

Let’s get this out of the way:

Randal Doane is an assistant dean at Oberlin.

Politics aside (and he doesn’t shove it up your nose), this means you’ll trip over academic, culture-critic jargon — “codes” and “gestures” abound; “Eros” crashes the party — while otherwise enjoying his new book, Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash.

And there’s a lot to enjoy.

Stealing distills one fan’s decades of wide reading, deep listening, and just plain thinking into a multi-faceted gem.

In the hands of a less skillful writer, this book would feel like an out-of-your-league sexual pass, an awkward attempt to squeeze too many topics — the evolution of punk music (along with the etymology of the word); the rise and fall of AM and FM radio; the underground scenes in New York and California, to name but three — between only two (virtual) covers.

Somehow, though, Stealing works, distinguishing itself from similar titles by piling on plenty of original insights; for one thing (a bit like the recent How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll), this book explores how the medium changes the message — that is, how the technology we employ to consume music alters music itself, along with the culture at large.

(To cite a particularly cliched example: The LP made it easier to have sex to music, as one didn’t have to leap up to change the record, or worry that a radio DJ might ruin the mood with the wrong selection. How many children were conceived as Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers spun away on the other side of the room– besides me, that is — I couldn’t begin to guess.)

Doane also demonstrates, in pointillistic detail, how a tiny band of now-forgotten local DJs championed (today we’d say “curated”) punk, and “broke” The Clash and other English bands in America.

In doing so, he reveals what we lost when that free-form radio format was killed off.

(P.S. — A note about audio that follows throughout: These interviews with Joe Strummer were recently uploaded to YouTube by While the date is unknown, they seem to correspond roughly to the “early days” period Doane focuses on in his book.)

Barry Auguste and the band’s Renault, 1978

But first, Doane hands over the reigns to The Clash’s long time (that is, seven-year) self-described “backline roadie, loyal foot soldier and eminence grise,” Barry Auguste.

“The Baker,” as he’s better known, is also a natural writer (who doesn’t update his blog often enough).

In that spirit, his foreword to Stealing All Transmissions is too short, but most of the band’s fans would say that even if it clocked in at 50,000 words.

(Perhaps he’ll follow in road manager Johnny Green’s footsteps and put out a memoir some day…)

Here, August writes:

This story, the one in your hands, comes as a delightful surprise (…) After reading this tale, I stand corrected: I thought only I knew where the bodies were buried.

Stealing All Transmissions is the first history of The Clash by an American, and it lovingly documents — as Doane notes — how “The Clash fell in love with America, and how American loved them back.” It’s unlike anything else you’ve ever read about The Clash (…) it situates [the story] amid larger cultural and economic forces in the U.S. (…)

It was only upon reading Stealing that I realized that nothing happens in a vacuum: many people were tilling the soil to make America a fertile environment for the arrival of “the only English band that mattered.”

Silk-screened, parodied and even, in 2009, stuck on an official UK postage stamp (above), Pennie Smith’s photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass at New York’s Palladium on September 21, 1978, is one of those few pop culture artifacts entitled to wear that over-used adjective “iconic.”

In Stealing All Transmissions, however, Doane questions the standard-issue story behind the image.

Before it graced the cover of The Clash’s late-1979 double album London Calling, the photograph had been one of many Smith compiled in her instant-classic book, The Clash: Before and After.

All four band members contributed (often hilarious) captions, and were asked to situate the images in time and space as best they could, since Smith categorized her contact sheets “by tour and year only.”

Joe Strummer confidently dated the Simonon photo September 21, the band’s second of two nights at the Palladium.

Now, few of us are wholly reliable narrators of our own lives, but Strummer in particular couldn’t always be taken at face value.

Like all created entities, The Clash were prone to deliberate or accidental confusion when it came to manufacturing their mythology.

The trouble, Doane writes, is that the September 21 concert was broadcast live by one of those supportive local radio stations mentioned above, WNEW.

And surviving recordings of the DJs’ before-and-after concert banter don’t indicate that anything particularly unusual took place.

Furthermore, Simonon had little to be annoyed about that second night.

The first show, however, was another matter.

On this night, The Clash were aware that they stood at the crossroads of rock history. The band had just laid down the final tracks for London Calling, a double album they had put together largely on their own. Brimming with confidence, The Clash drew on their advance to finance this tour, despite the fact that Give ‘Em Enough Rope, their second album, had failed to crack the U.S. Billboard Top 100.

The Clash were nearly $100,000 in arrears and in a week would run out of money.

Also that night, they were frustrated — not for the first or last time — by a venue’s rigid staging seating: always top-of-mind concerns for the fan-centric band.

In subsequent interviews, Simonon highlighted the problem of separating the real fans from the stage by an orchestra pit full of press, and affirmed the band’s commitment to having fans up against the stage. During a two-night residency, such problems could be fixed.

Indeed, on night two at the Palladium, thanks to some strong-arming and work-arounds by The
Baker and Green, fans were back in their rightful place, front and center.

Other issues had been resolved, too, including the matter of overzealous bouncers.

It seems, though, that one bouncer’s behavior on Night #1 was the imputus for Simonon to go, as Doane puts it, “momentarily mental.”

…as you can see from the cover of this book, a squat bouncer crosses downstage right to upstage right, in pursuit of an unruly female fan. [Guitarist Mick] Jones, alertly, stepped in and whisked her off to safety.

That instance of managerial man-handling was what finally shoved an already frustrated Simonon over the edge.

Somebody owes this unknown bouncer a belated thank-you note.

When The Clash chose Smith’s photo for their next album cover, she objected at first.

For one thing, it’s out of focus.

(Fearing Simonon’s wrath that night, she’d held out her camera toward him and blindly snapped while she was backing out of his way.)
Other objections could have been raised at the time:

For one thing, if you’re going to put your group’s best looking member on an album cover, why choose a photograph in which he is not only unrecognizable, but has seemingly devolved into some kind of lumpy, deformed potato-primate hybrid?

With that broken instrument and all, is The Clash telling us to stop making music, after telling us to start, two records ago?

Are they telling us they’re quitting?

Luckily, no such second-guessing took place, or if it did, it obviously didn’t matter in the end.
Anyway, there’s much more to Stealing All Transmissions than this geek-level detective work.
Doane is particularly good at comparing yesterday’s media landscape (and fan-scape) to today’s — and the future’s, in which books like his probably won’t exist:

[F]ew bands coming of age in the past ten years have been subject to the lengthy profiles and features that characterized the rock press in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. (…) (In our youth, we poured over the album reviews, looking for just the right combination of adjectives and analogies — “low fi,” “the Velvets” — as we prepared for our next trip to Tower Records.) (…)

In turn, it is difficult to imagine, in the near future, a writer devoting the time to compile a five-hundred-and-twenty-four-page biography on a contemporary band or artist (see Marcus Gray’s The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town), for neither the raw materials nor the audience for such a project will exist. With digital screens and digital audio players, we read differently — and we listen differently.)

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Randal Doane's Author Page

Too Punk For TV: Positive Force Documentary To Premiere In D.C.

By Ally Schweitzer
WAMU 88.5/ bandwidth
October 29th, 2014

Once Jenny Toomey opened the door to MTV, her days at Positive Force’s headquarters were numbered.

Toomey and Kristin Thomson ran the independent record label Simple Machines out of the punk-rock house in Arlington, Virginia, in the early 1990s. The label shared space with Mark Andersen, the co-founder of activist group Positive Force and several other lefty activists involved in the collective. Inside the house’s walls, meat, alcohol, drugs and corporate rock were strictly prohibited.

Robin Bell has spent five years working on “Positive Force: More Than A Witness.”

But the cable TV network had caught on to Simple Machines, and in 1992 the label owners invited an MTV crew to film at the residence. What happened next is already recounted in Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ book about the history of D.C.’s punk scene, Dance Of Days, but the story is revived in Robin Bell’s engrossing new documentary, Positive Force: More Than A Witness, which gets a preview at Mount Pleasant Library Thursday night and formally premieres Nov. 14-15 at St. Stephen’s Church.

“All of a sudden, I come home to discover MTV’s in my house,” Andersen says in the film. He tells the tale with a faint smile, but at the time, it was a death blow. According to Dance of Days, he and Toomey stopped speaking almost entirely after the incident. “There was something about what we were doing that I think felt too commercial to Mark,” Toomey says in the film. She and Thomson soon moved out and started their own spot, the Simple Machines House.

Similar ideological clashes pock the story of Positive Force, the activist collective that has put on more than 500 benefit concerts for local organizations in its 29 years. Another rift came in 2005, when a faction of Positive Force volunteers arranged a march down Columbia Road NW that resulted in violence and more than 70 arrests. Some people in that group later split from Positive Force and redirected their attention toward the expressly anarchist Brian MacKenzie Infoshop in Shaw. For some, Positive Force seemed too traditional. For others, like Toomey, it seemed too uncompromising. But it still exists to this day—a testament not only to Andersen’s dedication, but also its mission’s ongoing relevance to volunteers and local musicians.

Positive Force’s operating procedure could be another reason it’s stuck around this long: In the film, Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna seems a little surprised by the hoops she had to jump through to host a riot grrrl meeting at the Positive Force house, which shut its doors in 2000.
“We had to go to a Positive Force meeting first,” Hanna says. “I’d never had a pitch meeting before. But I was doing a pitch meeting for why they should let us use their house for this all-women’s radical feminist community organizing meeting.” The house’s residents eventually gave her the green light—a decision that made Positive Force one of the earliest advocates of what would become a global feminist movement.

Kathleen Hanna – DC Punk Scene from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

Bell, a 37-year-old filmmaker who has taught at the Corcoran, calls himself a Positive Force ally. He developed a relationship with the organization while putting in hours at the Washington Independent Media Center, which shared the Arthur S. Flemming Center in Shaw with the Infoshop, Positive Force and other nonprofit groups starting in 2003. Encouraged by Positive Force members and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Bell began assembling Positive Force: More Than A Witness in 2009. Two years later he ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that grossed more than $16,000, and he kicked in money from a hefty settlement he won after successfully suing the D.C. government after police arrested him while he was covering a 2002 protest.

To produce the film as affordably as possible, Bell turned his Mount Pleasant bedroom into a studio and conducted most of his interviews there. With Andersen’s help, he recruited an impressive array of musicians who had played Positive Force shows in the past, including Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, Chumbawumba’s Danbert Nobacon, Anti-Flag’s Justin Sane and Trophy Wife’s Katy Otto. Bell traveled to interview indie rocker Ted Leo, Kathleen Hanna, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace and notably Crass founding member Penny Rimbaud, whom Bell filmed at Dial House, the artist’s famous rural commune in Essex, England. (Rimbaud whipped up an amazing pasta dish, Bell says.)

To channel the grimy intensity of a typical Positive Force show in the 1980s and ’90s, Bell included remarkable concert footage (much of which he helped funnel toward the D.C.-themed episode of Dave Grohl’s HBO series, Sonic Highways). Among that footage, some of which is online: visceral scenes from Bikini Kill and Fugazi protest concerts downtown and a particularly raucous Nation of Ulysses gig at Columbia Heights’ Sacred Heart Church in 1991. In the latter, singer Ian Svenonius is seen tossing himself like a flour sack into an undulating crowd—whose ticket money that night benefited the victims of the Latin American debt crisis.

To Bell, part of the point of making Positive Force: More Than A Witness was to show people from all over the world how music and activism can intersect, and in this case, under the banner of Positive Force. He describes the collective’s ethos as, “Let’s not just talk about the problem; we’re actually going to try to find a creative solution to it.”

But in today’s D.C. scene, we don’t see many of the charged, angsty punk protests that Bell spotlights in his documentary. Andersen now spends most of his time working with local organization We Are Family, a group that provides food, services and companionship to D.C. senior citizens. Meanwhile, Positive Force benefit shows seem fewer and farther between.

Is Positive Force winding down? “I don’t think it’s over,” Bell says. “I think it’s just changed.”

Protest movements ebb and flow, he says, and young idealistic people—the folks Positive Force has traditionally appealed to—face an ever-climbing cost of living in D.C. and its suburbs. “Now, with just how expensive it is to live in the city, pretty much everyone who’s young is under the gun,” Bell says.

Andersen says Positive Force’s benefit shows can happen as often as local bands want them to. “The musicians who played for us… we couldn’t work nearly as effectively without them,” he says. Fugazi—who only played free shows, protests and benefits in D.C., many of them connected to Positive Force—was the group’s greatest gift. But Fugazi last performed in 2002. Other local bands have stepped up to play Positive Force gigs, but it’s hard to match the draw Fugazi had in its peak years.

Nevertheless, Andersen says Positive Force is less about self-preservation than its ideas.
“If the vehicle wears out, then you find another one,” he says in the documentary. “The energy, the idea, the attitude, the spirit is what counts. I think the spirit’s still there… whether Positive Force is there or not.”

Mark Andersen is scheduled to appear on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show Thursday at noon. Robin Bell discusses Positive Force: More Than A Witness Thursday evening at Mount Pleasant Library. The film premieres Nov. 14 and 15 at St. Stephen’s Church.

Due to a reporting error, the original version of this article misidentified Penny Rimbaud as the singer of Crass. He co-founded and contributed vocals to the legendary punk band, but Rimbaud mostly played drums in the group. The article has been corrected.

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page

D.C.’s Punk Movement: Looking Back And Ahead

By Jen Golbeck
Kojo Nnamdi Show
October 30th, 2014

Listen HERE

It’s a chapter of D.C.’s cultural history that’s the subject of on onslaught of new documentary projects: the punk movement that took root in our area during the 1980s and 1990s. But this new wave of nostalgia has provoked tough questions too: is it overkill? Where did the creative and activist energy that fueled the art go? We ponder the past and the future of punk music in the Washington area.


    •    Tina Plottel Librarian, George Washington University
    •    Katie Alice Greer Singer, Priests
    •    Mark Andersen Co-founder, Positive Force D.C.; Co-author "Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capitol" (Akashic); and Director, We Are Family Group
    •    Ally Schweitzer Editor, WAMU 88.5's Bandwidth
Nation of Ulysses

A live performance of the band playing a Positive Force show in 1991.
Priests Perform "Doctor"

D.C. punks Priests perform “Doctor” from their new EP, “Bodies and Control and Money and Power,” live at the Wilderness Bureau for WAMU 88.5’s Bandwidth.
Foo Fighters "Feast And The Famine"

The song is about and was recorded in Washington, D.C.
Sonic Highways: Ian MacKaye & Bad Brains Extended Interview


    •    12:06:39

MS. JEN GOLBECK From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. It's almost as if the feedback from the amplifiers is still ringing out loud and clear. The punk movement that took root in the Washington region decades ago is one of the most celebrated pieces of D.C.'s recent musical history. Just look at the tidal wave of new documentary films and archive projects dedicated to all things D.C.-punk, and you'll get a sense for just how many people the music and the movement touched. 

    •    12:07:21

MS. JEN GOLBECK But today, we're contemplating what's fueling this new wave of nostalgia and where the creative and activist spirit behind all the music still exists now, in a D.C. that's very different from the one where punk planted its roots so many years ago and gave us songs like this. 

    •    12:08:03

MS. JEN GOLBECK We have a full studio of guests to talk about this with us today. First, we have Ally Schweitzer. She's the editor of WAMU 88.5's digital music project, Bandwidth. Good to have you here. 

    •    12:08:13


    •    12:08:14

GOLBECK We have Mark Andersen. He's the co-founder of the activist group, Positive Force D.C. He's also the founder of the organization, We Are Family, which provides services to seniors in the Washington region. He's the author of several books and the co-author of "Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capitol." Thanks for joining us, Mark. 

    •    12:08:32

MR. MARK ANDERSEN Great to be here. 

    •    12:08:33

GOLBECK We have Katie Alice Greer. She's the singer in the band, Priests. Good to have you. 

    •    12:08:37

MS. KATIE ALICE GREER Hi, Jen. Thanks for having me. 

    •    12:08:39

GOLBECK And Tina Plottel. She's a librarian at the George Washington University's Gelman Library. She's one of the organizers of the new D.C. vernacular music archive, which is housed at G.W. Thanks for joining us. 

    •    12:08:50

MS. TINA PLOTTEL Thanks for inviting me. 

    •    12:08:51

GOLBECK You can also join the conversation. If you want to talk about punk in D.C., give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Or drop us an email to Mark, let's start with you. You're one of the threads that connects all of these different projects -- the person who organized concerts that so many of the bands people loved played here. You co-wrote the book "Dance of Days." So let's start with you. What explains the outpouring of nostalgia for this part of the area's history? And as someone who lived it, what do you think is essential about recognizing it and understanding it? 

    •    12:09:28

ANDERSEN Well, the first thing I would say is I hope it is more than nostalgia, because nostalgia is kind of a totally anti-punk thing. 

    •    12:09:34

GOLBECK (laugh) 

    •    12:09:35

ANDERSEN Punk is about now and nostalgia is about looking back, wishing you were there. And, you know, I -- it's very human. But as a historian and as an activist, I don't relate to nostalgia. I relate to what that spirit was and is and how it's relevant to right now. And that's really what matters to me. And the answer, why are all these things happening? Why now? I can't really say, why now? But I can say why because the history of the D.C. punk scene is an extraordinary one. It represents something that is past simple commerce or even simple art. It is a mating of art and politics, at least at its best. It's a meeting of art and politics that aspires to, you know, the highest possibilities of both. 

    •    12:10:23

ANDERSEN And so to examine our past to learn about what people did and what they believed and then to apply that to right now, to what we might believe and what we might do, seems to be actually very punk. 

    •    12:10:38

GOLBECK Ally, it seems that there's certainly an audience for this, not just here but in far-flung corners of the globe. What kind of traffic do you get when you post things related to, say, Fugazi, on Bandwidth? 

    •    12:10:50

SCHWEITZER (laugh) Mike Martinez, one of the producers of the show, has obviously been talking to you about this. Because... 

    •    12:10:55

GOLBECK He has. 

    •    12:10:55

SCHWEITZER ...I have told him numerous times about the spike in eyeballs that I get on content that we run on WAMU's Bandwidth anytime we write about Ian MacKaye, you know, one of the founders of Dischord Records, who was in Fugazi. Anytime we write about, you know, Henry Rollins or people who were involved in the scene -- Mark Andersen, too. You know, these are subjects that are clearly really relevant to a lot of people today still, all over the world. And it doesn't necessarily have, though, much to do -- and I agree with Mark -- it doesn't necessarily have much to do with nostalgia, per se. But the ideology that came out of the scene has been really foundational in the way that people continue to approach their music making. 

    •    12:11:33

SCHWEITZER So the idea that Ian MacKaye and members of his scene at the time came up with, where it's, do-it-yourself. You know, it's not about commercialism. These are ideas that a lot of people still look to. They go back to that well when they're making new music. So it's relevant to a lot of people to this day. And Ian MacKaye was on "The Kojo Show" in 2012. And we got tweets to him from outside the country. So he's clearly having an influence. 

    •    12:11:56

GOLBECK Oh, he's huge. You can also join the conversation. We'd love to hear from you. Were you part of the punk movement that took off in the D.C. area in the '80s and '90s? And what do you think explains the recent nostalgia for it, if that's a term that we can use, even though it's not very punk? Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us a tweet to @kojoshow. Tina, you've helped launch an archive at G.W. that focuses on punk, go-go, bluegrass and folk. How would you compare the wave of efforts to document and archive punk across the board to other kinds of music that took root here in the D.C. region? 

    •    12:12:32

PLOTTEL Yeah, well, this is actually one of the first archives that's going to put all of this together. There's other archives -- the jazz archive, and there's other things at the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. But I think what we're really interested in is the stories that also go along with the music and getting oral histories. There's an oral history project that's part of the archives that is based off of the Kansas House that used to be in Arlington that was a punk house for about 15 years. And those are the kinds of things that we're interested in, so that other people's stories -- Ian's story is really great. It's very foundational. It's important. But there's other stories that are also part of the scene that need to be heard. 

    •    12:13:14

GOLBECK And you mentioned the Kansas House project that you worked on. So you collected oral history as part of that project. Can you talk about which stories from that effort you think were most important to include in the archive you're working on now? 

    •    12:13:25

PLOTTEL Yeah, I -- well, all of the stories are going to be in the archive. And I should say, Ian was an -- interviewed for it as well. But he didn't talk about the general stuff that he would talk about. He talked about it from a personal perspective, so when the House was a thrift store. He talked about going there and buying Christmas presents. But the stories were all really interesting because they intersected about performance, but they also intersected about experience -- what it was like to see Arlington go from this really sort of sleepy, almost of the inter -- one of the people I interviewed, Mark Nelson, kind of called it a beach property with no Boardwalk... 

    •    12:14:06

PLOTTEL ...and sort of this sleepy area to what it is now, which is, on top of the House there is now a high-density condo. So the development was interesting to see over that time. And that's where people sort of intersected that with the music that was there and sort of the community that was built around that space. 

    •    12:14:22

GOLBECK Mark, there's a film coming out soon about Positive Force, the activist organization that put together so many of the shows that introduced people to this kind of music during the past few decades. For those who are coming to this subject for the first time, can you explain what Positive Force is and was? 

    •    12:14:38

ANDERSEN Well, what Positive Force is, is fairly simple, but potentially pretty challenging -- which is, taking the rhetoric of punk -- and punks tend to be loudmouths, I'm certainly one of those, you know, and so we say big things. But it's really important to do big things and to really life the life, if you will. That's a D.C.-punk anthem from Revolution Summer time. So honestly, what Positive Force was and is, is folks who were moved by that music and the ideals -- the ideas there, and who want to live it out. And we help each other to do that by kind of standing together. One of the ethics or ideas that was really important to us at the very beginning was a line from a Chumbawamba song, which says, "Isolation is the biggest barrier to change." 

    •    12:15:32

ANDERSEN And so, I think that's what we try to do. We try to bring people together in the flesh and blood as well as on the Internet to understand their own power and the power that we have together. Because that's really the way we have to change things. But it starts personally. It starts with oneself. And so that's really -- I hope that gives you some sense of Positive Force. To actually be concrete, that means we organize benefit concerts to help raise money for groups we think are important, to educate the folks who come to those concerts about issues in the world, and hopefully get them activated, to get them volunteering, to get them to protests and other events that we organize. 

    •    12:16:09

ANDERSEN You know, we have a book discussion group. We do service work, including with the Outreach and Advocacy Group. We are a family that serves seniors, so you've kind of got this crazy punk-senior crossover, you know, where literally you have folks with tri-hawks, like, you know, that's the more ambitious version of the mohawk... 

    •    12:16:26

GOLBECK (laugh) Not just the Mohawk. 

    •    12:16:28

ANDERSEN ...yeah, the tri-hawk, coming out to deliver groceries to African-American seniors. And it sounds wacky, but why not do it? It's something that the city needs. The city is so divided and there's such painful history. Here's a chance for us to kind of recognize ourselves -- each other, as brothers and sisters and one family. So that's really what Positive Force does. It's trying to get folks to do more than talk, to do something to make the world a better place. 

    •    12:16:56

GOLBECK And this link between activism and music -- it's something that's always been there. In the "Sonic Highways" documentary, Dave Grohl says his first show was the drummer for the band Scream, was a Positive Force show. And he said, after the show, he went and joined a drum protest in front of the South African Embassy. 

    •    12:17:13

ANDERSEN Well, and that's the kind of thing we like to do, because -- and we haven't been able to do it all the time. Sometimes our shows are shows and people don't go out and, you know, do actions afterwards. But that's one of our highest aspirations. And I think the power of it can be seen in the fact that Dave remembers that and remembers it fondly. That, you know, in the Positive Force documentary, "More Than a Witness," that Robin Bell did that's going to be premiering here in a couple of weeks, November 14 and 15 at St. Stephens, he credits that with so much of what he went on to do, you know? That was his first show with Scream. It gave him a sense of the possibility of music and art and his own possibilities. 

    •    12:17:56

ANDERSEN And he's someone who has actually really gracefully carried a lot of that D.C. spirit on to a stage that is really foreign to most of his old Revolution Summer comrades. But he carries it with a lot of grace, a lot of dignity. And quite frankly, he's an inspiration. 

    •    12:18:11

GOLBECK Let's take a listen to what a Positive Force show may have sounded like. Here's the band, The Nation of Ulysses, playing at Sacred Heart Church in D.C. in 1991. 

    •    12:18:52

GOLBECK Katie, you're part of a band that's carrying the flag for D.C. punk music in a lot of ways now. You told the Washington City Paper that you love Fugazi, but you're also tired of talking about Fugazi. 

    •    12:19:03

GREER (laugh) 

    •    12:19:03

GOLBECK Can you talk to us about that? 

    •    12:19:05

GREER Sure. I think it's a sentiment most fans of this kind of music feel in some capacity. And I mentioned in that quote that I think the band even feels the same way. It's like, 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? Because there's a lot of music happening here right now. It sounds all different kinds of ways. And it's a lot of people trying to make music that matters to them and that will matter to other people. And I think a lot of that stuff is overlooked sometimes in the nostalgia for a different age. 

    •    12:19:54

GREER And it's also easier to conceptualize of things that happened 20 years ago, because we have the scope of time framing it. So it's easier to understand. But that can be a little bit conservative when you're not taking the risk to understand, like, things that are happening right now around you. 

    •    12:20:12

GOLBECK Let's take a call from Cynthia in Arlington, Va. Cynthia, you're on the air. Go ahead. 

    •    12:20:17

CYNTHIA Hi. My name's Cynthia Connolly and I moved here in 1981. 

    •    12:20:22

GOLBECK (laugh) Cynthia, it sounds like many people in the studio know you. 

    •    12:20:26

ANDERSEN Hoorah for Cynthia. 

    •    12:20:27

CYNTHIA Hi, Mark. Anyway, I published a book called "Band in D.C." and I worked at Dischord Records for I don't know how many years, I guess 20 years maybe on and off. And also booked a club called D.C. Space from '86 to '91. And you had the question -- posed the question earlier as to why there's a nostalgic resurgence. And this is something I thought about for awhile because, I mean, we are looking at the resurgence now. But as you guys probably all know, this was all in the making for a long time, all of these projects that we're seeing coming to fruition all at once. 

    •    12:21:06

CYNTHIA But I've always thought that the -- what happened in the early '80s and why I was so -- kind of wanted to publish the "Band in D.C." book right after it happened, so to speak, was because I wanted to really capture the stories from the people who were involved with it, but try to catch the memories before the memories went away. 

    •    12:21:27

CYNTHIA And in the long run with the advent of the internet, a lot of our culture gets usurped by others. And the music scene in D.C. was something that was really generated by this passion to find something. And so many of the people involved with it were really trying to find something for themselves and really connected with what the message was. And it was different because we were actually all active -- we were actually all involved in it. We were all there in the room. We were all speaking to each other in the physical form as opposed to the virtual form. 

    •    12:22:07

CYNTHIA And I think that as we all get older we realize the importance of that. And I think that's one of the reasons why there's this, as you say, nostalgic resurgence. But what I think it is actually is sort of all of a sudden realizing that these aspects need to be documented and not forgotten. And so it's all coming together at the same time by coincidence, is how I see it. With the two or three films then, you know, also to me I feel more random the Dave Grohl documentary series. 

    •    12:22:41

CYNTHIA But I think that all of this is part of this -- it's almost one of the last, I see, movements in music before the internet that I think has a huge impact still to this day musically, well, pop music or musically, you know, in D.C., nationwide and internationally. 

    •    12:23:05

GOLBECK Well, Cynthia, that's a lot of really interesting points. Let me get the feedback from our panel here. 

    •    12:23:10

SCHWEITZER Let me say something about specifically when I went to the Smithsonian and talked with Henry Rawlins a couple weeks back, he mentioned that when he -- you know, he has always been a big collector and archivist of punk, right. And the big reason that he started to get into that at a very young age is that at the time when D.C. punk was just beginning to try to bubble up and he was a part of it, he felt very distinctly that the media wanted it gone, that people didn't want it to exist, that it wasn't going to be documented by the mainstream. So they had to come up with their own ways of archiving this stuff. 

    •    12:23:38

CYNTHIA That's a good point. 

    •    12:23:39

SCHWEITZER And he felt very much like when the media did cover D.C. punk it was aggressively anti-punk, it was very suspicious. It was about this is a violent community. This is a community that basically should be shut out and made silent. 

    •    12:23:53


    •    12:23:54

SCHWEITZER So he made a very concerted effort and he -- of course Ian MacKaye made a very concerted effort to hang on to as much as they could. 

    •    12:24:00

GOLBECK And Tina, what are your thoughts on this? 

    •    12:24:01

PLOTTEL Yeah, I want to respond to what Cynthia said about capturing the moment before the memories are gone. And I think that's really important. And it's not necessarily nostalgia as it is sort of marking maybe a moment or a signpost of some sort and really, really important. And I think that's kind of the idea of capturing all of the stories and kind of looking at photographs of shows or looking at the video of the Nation of Ulysses concert and sort of asking people what their response was to that, if people were there at the time and how they felt about what was going on. I think that's really important. 

    •    12:24:41

GOLBECK Thanks for your call, Cynthia. You can also give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. We're going to take a quick break and we'll continue our conversation then. Stay tuned. 

    •    12:26:40

GOLBECK Welcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in with (sic) Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Ally Schweitzer, Mark Andersen, Katie Alice Greer and Tina Plottel about the D.C. punk scene. A couple notes for our listeners. The documentary Positive Force More Than a Witness will be previewed tonight at Mount Pleasant Library, and will have an official premier at St. Stephens Church in Washington, D.C. the weekend of November 14 and 15th. And also the D.C. installment of the Foo Fighters series Sonic Highways is currently playing on HBO. 

    •    12:27:11

GOLBECK Katie, we were talking during the break about something that came up with Cynthia's call about the media perception of punk. And I thought I'd ask you to talk a little bit more about that. 

    •    12:27:20

GREER Well, it was really interesting to hear what Ally was saying Henry Rawlins had said about punk at the time being something that the media wanted to shut out, not talk about, distort as this dangerous thing and silent. Because I think at this point there's a very consumable -- punk has become a very consumable market and product. It's been totally absorbed by the mainstream in a lot of ways. It's not dangerous. It's not unappealing to people. It seems really cool to be a rebel. 

    •    12:27:50

GREER So I think that plays into sort of this resurgence in punk nostalgia. And on top of that, when you're talking about things that happened 20, 25 years ago they don't have the sting or the danger that they did at the time because... 

    •    12:28:09

SCHWEITZER They're totally fussy and warm. 

    •    12:28:10

GREER They're dead things that have already happened. I'm not saying that they haven't given life to things that are happening right now. They certainly have. But like the danger in the immediacy is gone. 

    •    12:28:23

ANDERSEN Well, I mean, I would just jump in because as kind of the senior citizen in the room, (laugh) I do remember when to look punk meant you could get your ass kicked walking down the street. 

    •    12:28:37

GREER Right. 

    •    12:28:38

ANDERSEN And now you walk around and all these fancy hairstyles, all this, you know, shake fashion, it's pulling so much of pieces of punk rock in there, clearly something has shifted. I will say though that what punk was aiming at past the outside stuff is still as dangerous as ever. I mean, are we actually going to build a world where everybody really matters or are there going to be throwaway people? I mean, that's the story of Washington, D.C. You know, this capitol of the free world where, you know, much of the original population was kept in subjugation, I mean, initially as slaves and then through legal segregation. 

    •    12:29:18

ANDERSEN And now, you know, the gap between the rich and the poor in the city is growing immensely. Now of course that makes it hard for punk rock bands to, you know, have practice spaces in Mount Pleasant or in Columbia Heights or Adams Morgan or, you know, the former haunts of people like myself, you know. 

    •    12:29:34

GREER Totally. 

    •    12:29:35

ANDERSEN But more importantly, it's making it impossible for the people who historically lived here, the black majority which has just turned into a minority just slightly over the last few years, to be able to live here. Now these are folks who lived here during segregation, during riots, during drug wars where the blood ran in the streets. You know, that to me seems dangerous. That to me seems relevant. That seems to me to be what punk should and must be speaking to. 

    •    12:30:00

GOLBECK And what's a punk activist though now -- because you've been around and you've seen sort of maybe what could be called a peak in punk activism, right, in the '80s and '90s when punks were very active in, you know, rallying in the streets and so forth. I'm a nuvo (sp?) punk rocker. You know, I'm much younger, 29 years old. I haven't really -- I wasn't around for a lot of that stuff. I don't see that kind of stuff happening in D.C. anymore. Where do punks think they fit in, because of course they're all being kicked out of D.C. because of gentrification but where do they fit into the larger conversation about people who are on the very edge who were kicked out longer ago? 

    •    12:30:34

ANDERSEN Yeah well... 

    •    12:30:34

GOLBECK Where do they think they come in now? 

    •    12:30:37

ANDERSEN Well, I think that's an important conversation. It's the conversation that Positive Force and its ally We Are Family is trying to have. Because those of us -- for example, why did I first come to Columbia Heights? To go to shows at places like the Wilson Center or All Souls Church or Sanctuary Theater at St. Stephens. And that was part of how that neighborhood started mattering to me. And now there's a lot of us who live in those neighborhoods who are raising our kids there. 

    •    12:31:02

ANDERSEN And there is something for us, the older punks, as well as the newer punks who still come to the shows there. For us there's a responsibility to engage because that community was there because people had persisted and made it a place that could welcome even the wacky looking ugly sounding punk rocker. So I think that's a conversation we need to have. I don't have an easy answer for folks. All I know is that we have to connect across these boundaries, you know, raise class, gender, sexual orientation, age, you know, in culture, even language. We have to get together. 

    •    12:31:35

ANDERSEN And that's really the center of my work. And you can see it both in Dave's documentary, you can see it in Robin's documentary about Positive Force. You know, this effort to draw folks together across the boundaries, because in the end punk, if you look at its root meaning, it's referred over history from back in Shakespeare's time until now to the folks who are on the margins, the people who are considered to be absolutely worthless. 

    •    12:32:00

ANDERSEN And if there is a highest aspiration for a punk politics, if you will, it would be to bring together those throwaway people, the ones that the world thinks are disposable, and for us to build our lives around that fundamentally different perspective. And that's -- and the one thing I would say -- and I know I said a lot so I'll shut up (laugh) I swear... 

    •    12:32:21

GOLBECK You're saying good stuff. 

    •    12:32:23

ANDERSEN ...but punk is not just about music. It is about life. And so whether you're in a band now or not in a band now, it doesn't really matter. You can take that spirit, that creative questioning, you can do a PMA spirit and transform your life -- 

    •    12:32:39

GREER ...positive mental attitude for anybody that doesn't know what that... 

    •    12:32:40

ANDERSEN Oh yeah, sorry, positive mental attitude. And that's what we're trying to encourage folks, including the folks who are -- you know, I'm 55 years old so I'm kind of, like I said, one of the elderly in the punk scene. (laugh) But, you know, whether you're 55 or 15 there is a relevance to this. And that's what we're trying to -- you know, speaking for my friends in Positive Force, my comrades in Positive Force and We Are Family, that's what we're trying to do. Let's bring people together. Let's create a community, a city and a world where there's a place for everyone where everybody really matters and no one's being forgotten or thrown away. You know, that's relevant across all boundaries. 

    •    12:33:21

SCHWEITZER I think what you just said kind of explains why this is not nostalgic, right. Because what we're trying to do is assign meaning and help other people assign meaning for themselves of what punk is and how they can become involved and help the situation and help people who may feel marginalized and sort of become involved in the scene. That's to me why it's not about nostalgia because it's still a moment that's happening, and helping people understand what that means. 

    •    12:33:48

GREER I don't even always like using the word punk right now because punk is such a product in a lot of conversations at this point. But if you are a person who is creating things, who is trying to engage with these ideas and make things, you are probably aware in some capacity that being an artist or a young person generates a lot of interest in your neighborhood, is kind of like the initial spark that starts the machine of gentrification a lot of times. But as an artist you also need the same kind of resources that spur gentrification forward. 

    •    12:34:29

GREER So it's kind of like the hugely frustrating crux of being a creative person at this point is like how do you stay engaged with these ideas? How do you make art that resists these kind of oppressive forces that we're talking about? And -- but still, how do you have the resources to move forward? Like, Mark, I think you were saying, like most, you know -- not that this is the gravest problem that Washington, D.C. is facing right now, but we don't have the money for practice spaces within D.C. proper at this point. 

    •    12:35:05

GREER I worked 45 hours last week and like -- and I'm not saying that is, like, oh, I know plenty of people do that but, like, I can't do my band and do my other job that has nothing to do with my band. And I don't know if that was always the state of things for artists. 

    •    12:35:23

SCHWEITZER Right. Yeah, exactly. 

    •    12:35:23

GREER I think the standard of living is much higher now and... 

    •    12:35:25

SCHWEITZER And you had houses, like, in Arlington that you have documented, Tina, and that Mark lived in, and that, you know, where this -- where you could, you know, get by paying maybe $100 a month to live in a group house. That is no longer, you know, a reality. 

    •    12:35:36

PLOTTEL A group house with a basement ideally, right. 

    •    12:35:40

GOLBECK So let me pull us back around here because we've hit a bunch of issues that we're going to expand more in the conversation. But I'd like to pick up on this idea that D.C. was a place that had a movement that, in fact, wasn't just D.C. centric but that drew a lot of people to it. We're going to listen to a clip here from the band Bikini Kill which came from Washington State to Washington, D.C. during the Riot Girl movement, which was really women trying to get involved in this. And we have a clip of Bikini Girl (sic) playing at a Positive Force show in Washington. 

    •    12:36:36

GOLBECK Tina, in an article about the Candace House Project a few years ago, you say you don't necessarily see the culture as having passed. And I think that's the consensus in the room. We've had this conversation about it. So do you think that some people may be guilty of looking for past movements too much, that they see it as something that, you know, they were into in their 20's. And now they're raising their kids and they see it as something that's gone? 

    •    12:36:59

PLOTTEL I think that is probably true. I think the thing -- and not to keep using the N word nostalgia, (laugh) but I think it's a really personal thing for people to have come up in a scene. And then when you age out of a scene, whatever that means, I guess when you have a job that you have to go to more than band practice, could be one of the ways to think about that. But who you are kind of loses that identity. And it's a really uncomfortable feeling, I think. And so I think maybe sometimes that's true but it's hard -- I think it's an intensely personal moment. 

    •    12:37:39

GOLBECK We have a couple callers waiting. You can also join us. How do you think the cost of living in D.C., which is an issue we just brought up, how is that affecting the city's ability to produce great art of any kind including rock music? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. But right now let's go to Danny in Silver Spring, Md. Danny, you're on the air. Go ahead. 

    •    12:38:01

DANNY Hey Mark, Dan Ingram here, how you doing? 

    •    12:38:04

ANDERSEN (laugh) Great to hear from you, brother. 

    •    12:38:05

GOLBECK It's a familiar set of callers today. 

    •    12:38:09

DANNY I have a question. Historically there is always sort of a symbiotic relationship between the D.C. punk scene and Positive Force. How do you see that moving forward with, you know, that original punk scene being considerably older now, myself being one of them? Do you see the involvement still from that older generation or is there a constant infusion of youth? And is that an essential part of making sure that Positive Force continues to do good work? 

    •    12:38:39

ANDERSEN Well, I think you've touched on something really important there, Danny. The first thing is that absolutely I see, like, kind of the -- folks like you and I, the older generation still engaged on these issues. We're engaged in different ways than we were, but that's all right, you know. It's also not that moment. It's not the '80s anymore. So we should be engaged in different ways. But I think the ideals really have stuck with a lot of folks. 

    •    12:39:05

ANDERSEN Now in terms of Positive Force, absolutely it depends on both of those things. Part of what drew me to work with other members of Positive Force and with seniors down near the (unintelligible) complex to create We Are Family was this sense that punk couldn't just be about our little scene or even just about music. It had to grow just like we had to grow. And so there's a value from the older generation. 

    •    12:39:34

ANDERSEN There's also a value from the folks who are coming into the room for the first time because they're bringing those questions again. Because, you know, we answer the questions over and over again. And sometimes we learn something new. And it's good to have them there. It's good to have them bring new energy, new ideas, create new bands, new fan scenes, new websites, whatever. And of course Positive Force absolutely depends on that music scene. 

    •    12:40:03

ANDERSEN We could not have done half of what or even a quarter of what we've done without bands like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill, Beefeater, Scream, you name it, supporting us over this time. The D.C. scene -- and part of why the Positive Force scene or the Positive Force story matters and it continues is because D.C. is a special place. And we are so blessed to be here within that community. 

    •    12:40:31

SCHWEITZER But one thing -- let me ask you, though, because one thing we talked about the other day, Mark, was the new generation, like Katie's generation of bands, what -- are they doing these Positive Force shows? I mean, you had a band like Fugazi, who drew thousands of people to Positive Force shows over the years. There hasn't been another Fugazi. Fugazi hasn't played in 12 years. 

    •    12:40:47

ANDERSEN There'll probably never be another Fugazi. 

    •    12:40:48

SCHWEITZER And there probably never will be -- a band that did a lot of work for Positive Force over the years. There hasn't been band that has been on that level and has been able to step up and say I'm going to start, you know, carrying on the torch of doing these positive force shows. So do you think that the new generation of bands is connected to Positive Force like the last generation's bands? 

    •    12:41:08

GOLBECK And, Mark, before you answer, I'll just say we're coming up on a break. So I'd like a quick answer to this one. And we'll... 

    •    12:41:13

ANDERSEN A quick answer from Mark Andersen? Okay. I'll try to be very quick. Yes. I see new bands coming up and doing that. Katie's band, Priest, is a tremendous example. There are other bands like Coke Bust, Max Levine Ensemble, Ian, of course, is still out there with Amy Farina and The Evens. I mean they're still making stuff happen. Absolutely we see that. They're not Fugazi and they shouldn't be. They should be who they are. And when they want their art to mean more than just simple entertainment, Positive Force is right there to work together to make something revolutionary I hope. 

    •    12:41:48

GREER I would say I don't feel as connected to that as I would like to be, but I know we can talk about that after the break. 

    •    12:41:53

GOLBECK We'll pick up with that after the break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm the very punk Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about the D.C.'s punk scene in a moment. Stay with us. 

    •    12:44:05

GOLBECK Welcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Ally Schweitzer, Mark Andersen, Katie Alice Greer and Tina Plottel about the D.C. punk scene. If you'd like to join us give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Katie, your band put out a new album this year and got a lot of credit for carrying both the sound and the spirit of punk in this area. Let's listen to one of those songs. 

    •    12:45:01

GOLBECK How would you say songs like the one we just heard are shaped or informed by what came before you and your bandmates in the area? 

    •    12:45:09

GREER It's kind of hard to separate because it's, you know, it's almost like being in water and trying to explain that when you've just been around it. But we want to make music that matters to us, that matters to our friends, that matters to and speaks to other people on a level that's deeper than just something that's like easily consumable, I guess. So -- and I keep going back to, Mark, something that you said earlier. You were -- I think you were quoting a Chumbawamba song -- but just about isolation. 

    •    12:45:47

GREER And it's like we don't want to be just speaking to an echo chamber of people just nodding along with us and saying, like, I agree. We want to, like, reach more people and figure out how to, like, totally transform the way that we're making art and ideas in this country, but it is hard to do that with resources available, I think. 

    •    12:46:09

GOLBECK It's my understanding that you had a particular beef with a gig your band played that was sponsored by Doc Martin. And you settled it by acting like Chipotle sponsored the show. So… 

    •    12:46:19

GREER Well, yeah, we just -- we made a joke last year. It was one of the more industry, I guess, gigs that we've done. But, yeah, there was a sponsor. We had never really played a show that was sponsored in that capacity. We got free shoes and I think they wanted Doc Martins, like, as advertisement to play behind us while we performed -- which we had them turn off. But the advertisement said, like, what do you stand for? 

    •    12:46:45

GREER Which was just like so nauseating… 

    •    12:46:47

SCHWEITZER Hilarious. 

    •    12:46:47

GREER …to me, that, like, this idea, again, you see it again and again. This idea of being a rebel, of speaking out is like turned into a style of clothing that you can wear and is like totally stripped of any sort of meaning or danger. And so, yeah, we just, like, we thought it would be funny to be like, thank you so much for sponsoring this. Like, here's some burritos. We were just -- I don't know. We were just having fun with it. 

    •    12:47:15

GREER Because we want to use our band as a platform to, like, ask questions and to have conversations. Because so much art, so many ideas are stripped of that, just the ability to, like, ask people to think with you and talk with you. Because we're all involved in this machine that just asks us to make something shiny and pretty so that we can get more resources and survive. 

    •    12:47:40

SCHWEITZER And get put on all the cool blogs. And… 

    •    12:47:42

GREER Right. And it's not even just like it's a vanity thing. I understand why people want to be on, like, the modern equivalent of MTV. We all, like, you are paid for things like that. And, like, I want to be involved in activism in this community. And I want to be involved in, like, maintaining this community and building it and keeping it strong. But there aren't always resources involved in that. And it just costs a lot of money to do anything right now. 

    •    12:48:12

SCHWEITZER A friend of mine at The Atlantic, Kriston Capps wrote a really funny -- it was mostly tongue-in-cheek, I think, because I just know that that's the way that Kriston approaches a lot of his work, but he wrote a piece that basically posited that gentrification is the new Reagan in punk lyrics. And, you know, because in the '80s every punk band had a song about how much they hate Reagan. Right? 

    •    12:48:30

SCHWEITZER So now the -- there's a minor, minor trend of a slight theme in D.C. music where, you know, gentrification is being talked about in a similar way. And, you know, of course Chain and The Gang they have this song called "Devitalize." And it's -- everything Ian Svenonius does is a little bit, you know, is a little tongue-in-cheek. But the song is basically, I want to devitalize the city. You know, I want to tear down all the cool bars, you know. And so I'm wondering, is that going to be a thing in D.C. musicians' lyrics? 

    •    12:48:59

SCHWEITZER Is it, you know, could we say -- I know Mark thinks it's all very silly -- but could we say that this is a subject that we should all be embracing a lot more in the music community? 

    •    12:49:08

ANDERSEN Well, what I would say is I don't think it's silly and I think, you know, Ian Svenonius, and that song in particular, brings a smile to my face and a fighting spirit into my heart. So right on to the mighty (unintelligible). But I -- what I think is silly is if we just stay -- stop at that level of, you know, there's no it's hard to find practice space or it's hard to find affordable group house living. It is. It's very true. It is a sad reality that we must fight. 

    •    12:49:39

ANDERSEN However, the next step is really crucial, it seems to me. Which is it is that reality for many, many other people. And we need to make common cause with those people. We need to stand up with them. In the City Paper today it happens just by accident that I have an article talking about the tragedy, the on-going tragedy of New Communities in the city. Which is this program which was supposed to be such a huge step forward for protecting and advancing affordable housing. 

    •    12:50:10

ANDERSEN And it's turned into just another -- a trail of broken promises. And, you know, that's what we need to do and that's what We Are Family tries to do. It tries to get our punk rock brethren and sistren connected to the long-term low-income residents of the neighborhood, you know, and to the immigrant communities and all of these folks who are also in danger of being pushed out in the face of a corporate consumerist, conformist, mono culture. 

    •    12:50:41

ANDERSEN And, you know, I don't oppose that just simply on an esthetic level. Although, I do. I think it's ugly and cheap and devitalizing in the real sense. But I oppose it because it crushes people. And the people become fuel for this money God, for this capitalist machine. And that's what we have to fight. And we cannot win unless we fight it together. And so for me punk is a starting point. And it is a new journey, a new adventure every day. So not silly at all. Gentrification is something we should be wrestling with. 

    •    12:51:21

GOLBECK And we have a caller, actually, on this topic, who I'd like to bring in. We have a call from G. L. Jaguar, in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead, please. 

    •    12:51:29

GREER Hey, pal. 

    •    12:51:30

G.L. JAGUAR Hey, panel. Hey, bandmate. How's it going? 

    •    12:51:32

GOLBECK More familiar callers. 

    •    12:51:33

GREER This is the guitarist from my band. Hey, how's it going? 

    •    12:51:38

JAGUAR All right. So I guess my question for the panel is, you know, like, I grew up in D.C. I've seen all the changes happen through the years. And it is increasingly harder for anyone to live here. And I remember through the past, it was -- there's a lot easier of a connection to have to activism just because it was easier to live here, it was easier -- there was a lot more of a common enemy. But now it's kind of hard to pinpoint what exactly is like the main thing, other than, like, oh, yeah, you know, it's really expensive to live here. 

    •    12:52:14

JAGUAR And I was wondering if -- what the panel thinks about how the music that is coming out now is reflect in -- reflects the time that we live in, just, you know, people are being forced out, you know. Is the music, like, more kind of ignoring that fact? Or is it… 

    •    12:52:33

GREER Mike and I… 

    •    12:52:34

JAGUAR …you know, are people not addressing the issues? You know, like what… 

    •    12:52:36

GREER Mike and I were talking about this yesterday in preparation for the show, how when he -- Mike, one of the producers for the show -- he was saying he actually, you know, grew up around here, went to a private school. How there were often like go-go's at the schools, like school dances at the time. And I don't think that really happens anymore. I think one way that we're seeing this is like you're pushing out a lot of different voices and different styles of music. 

    •    12:53:03

GREER Like, this isn't the case I every punk scene, but D.C. punk has a history of definitely different kinds of privileges, be that like a very male dominated scene, maybe a wealthier scene in some ways. And when we don't see the connection that Mark is talking about, of people realizing that their struggles are the same and reaching out to other people who don't have the same privileges that they do, we see a lot of voices, I think, pushed out. And we see more of the mono culture, as, again, Mark, as you said. That's a great word. We hear more of the same, instead of more diversity. 

    •    12:53:43

GOLBECK And let me pick up on this issue of the city and its history and how it's changed because last week the Foo Fighters released a song they recorded in D.C., as part of their Sonic Highways project. It's called "The Feast and the Famine." And it's written about the city itself. Let's take a listen. 

    •    12:54:36

GOLBECK Mark, it's my understanding that this song particularly resonates with you. Can you talk about that a bit? 

    •    12:54:42

ANDERSEN Well, absolutely. I think it captures both the reality of Washington, D.C., when, you know, this punk scene that, you know, has had this global impact erupted. If anything the poignancy is even though that Dave's references are too many of the themes and ideas of punk rock past, they are extraordinarily relevant to right now. "The Feast and the Famine" is what is happening right now. You know, this city, according to the Wall Street Journal is the single-most expensive place to live. 

    •    12:55:13

ANDERSEN And it is, by many -- this metropolitan area is, by many standards, the most affluent one. But there's extraordinary poverty here as well. There's a huge gap and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. And so what I think is beautiful about Dave's song is that he evokes the past, but points essentially to use it as fuel for the struggle right now, which is a very human struggle. And, you know, so, yeah, it speaks to me profoundly because it speaks the truth about Washington, D.C. One thing I just want to mention, too, because I was… 

    •    12:55:46

GOLBECK Quickly, because we're coming (unintelligible) time. 

    •    12:55:47

ANDERSEN Very quickly. You'll notice the reference to 14th and U. I was there when they premiered this in front of an audience at The Black Cat. And there was a cheer that went out to the crowd, because it's like they're name-checking my home town. Yes, that's true. And it was just a block and a half away, but what Dave was trying to do is bring us to the history. 14th and U is not only a corner where there's lots of clubs that white kids go to now. 

    •    12:56:09

ANDERSEN It is the corner of African-American history, the black Broadway, the place where the riots started in 1968. This is the history that we need to know. And that is part of what makes this song so powerful right now. 

    •    12:56:22

SCHWEITZER And new people who move here don't have any idea about that. They just see it as like party central. 

    •    12:56:26

GOLBECK Tina, can I get your thoughts on this? 

    •    12:56:28

PLOTTEL Yeah, one of -- something that Katie's bandmate made me think of is a song by the band The Aquarium, that's basically called "Can't Afford to Live Here." And I think it came out in 2007, maybe. And Jason Hutto from The Aquarium is a very good friend of mine. And we kind of used joke about how he should sell it somebody running for office. And they could play it and, like, everyone would resonate with it because everyone would get it. 

    •    12:56:51

PLOTTEL They're like, yeah, none of us can afford to live here. And I think that sometimes plays into sort of the -- maybe the lack of participation. Because everyone is trying to just work so hard. And everyone loves D.C. Right? Maybe not everyone. But everyone in this room loves D.C. And it's hard to sort of maintain that love and maintain sort of your own well-being. And then start thinking about the activism that punk brings up. It's been -- it's a difficult proposition. And just his comments, how he kept saying you can't afford to live here, and I keep hearing Jason in my head sort of singing that song. 

    •    12:57:24

GREER And that was in 2007. I feel like things have so accelerated… 

    •    12:57:26

PLOTTEL Seven years ago. 

    •    12:57:27

GREER …since 2007, like, wow. 

    •    12:57:30

GOLBECK I wonder if selling your song to a politician actually counts as punk. 

    •    12:57:35

PLOTTEL It's probably the complete opposite. 

    •    12:57:35

SCHWEITZER Definitely not. 

    •    12:57:37

GOLBECK Well, we have run out of time. This is a fascinating conversation that's hit obviously on a lot more issues than just the music itself. I'd like to thank our guests, Ally Schweitzer is editor of WAMU 88.5's digital music project Bandwidth. Thanks for joining us. 

    •    12:57:50

SCHWEITZER Thank you. 

    •    12:57:51

GOLBECK Mark Andersen is co-founder of the activist group Positive Force D.C. He's co-author of "Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital." Thanks for joining us, Mark. 

    •    12:57:59

ANDERSEN Great to be here. 

    •    12:58:00

GOLBECK Katie Alice Greer, I loved your music. She's a singer for the band Priest. 

    •    12:58:04

GREER Thank you so much for having me. 

    •    12:58:05

GOLBECK And Tina Plottel is a librarian at George Washington University's Gelman Library and organizer of the new D.C. vernacular music archive housed at G.W. Thanks for joining us. 

    •    12:58:14

PLOTTEL Thank you so much. This was super fun. 

    •    12:58:16

GOLBECK I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening. 

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page

Does D.C. Really Need Two More Punk Retrospectives?

By Maxwell Tani
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.”

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Recap: Positive Force: More than a Witness Screening

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 11.39.03 PMBy Clarissa Villondo
Brightest Young
November 17th, 2014

Trailer by Bell Visuals, Photos by Nicholas Karlin and Clarissa Villondo, Words by Clarissa Villondo

Positive Force DC wasn’t the first Positive Force group to pop up, but it was the only one to last past the 1980s. Positive Force: More than a Witness, a documentary about the punk organization, goes through countless interviews to frame how Positive Force got its grounding within D.C. and the impact it’s made on the community. Positive Force had its own straight-edge house and later moved into its current location, St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. From Punk Percussion Circles that drove people crazy to benefit concerts for numerous causes, Positive Force exists to create action and impact. The documentary screening itself was a benefit for We Are Family, an organization Positive Force Founder Mark Andersen is heavily involved in to help the senior citizens of Washington, D.C. The refreshments at the screening were made by local vendors with proceeds going to We Are Family.

Positive Force: More than a Witness Film Screening

Positive Force: More than a Witness interviews numerous of people throughout the punk scene from the obvious who would be interviewed (i.e. Mark Andersen, Ian MacKaye) to the maybe-not-so-obvious (i.e. Laura Jane Grace, Spoonboy). Dave Grohl, seemingly everywhere in D.C. again, was also interviewed. One short clip stood out to me, at first not understanding why would Benji Madden of Good Charlotte ever be in this documentary. It wasn’t until I got a flyer about We Are Family and read how Good Charlotte donated $15,000 to We Are Family, that I somewhat understood why maybe he’d be in this.

Positive Force: More than a Witness Film Screening

At the end of the screening, Robin Bell opened the floor for questions and encouraged everyone to stick around and chat. One person stood up and told the crowd about how he found Positive Force with a thick accent. He had come to the United States, loving hardcore music, supported the SF hardcore scene, the New York hardcore scene and eventually found his way to D.C., supporting our hardcore scene along with Positive Force. Everyone cheered. Everyone passed by the 50% off books sale by PM Press and picked up a DVD of Positive Force: More than a Witness.

Before everyone could pass by the book sale one last time on their way out, Mark Andersen needed to say a few words with a stack of flyers in his arms. Robin offered him the microphone, but Mark announced (and I paraphrase, the exact wording escapes me), “I don’t need a microphone. I’m a loud motherfucker!” He encouraged the crowd to help with We Are Family’s food delivery to senior citizens the next day and go to the Democracy not Drones show next March. He inspired the crowd to take what they saw in the film and create action.

Positive Force: More than a Witness Film Screening

Ian MacKaye was also at the screening and thanked by Robin Bell, while hiding in the back near the refreshments stand. I took no photos of him since I apparently forgot how to take a photo pointed in his direction and say the words, “Ian, may I take your photo?” before he left.

Positive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film Screening Positive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film ScreeningPositive Force: More than a Witness Film Screening

Positive Force: More than a Witness Film Screening

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‘Positive Force: More Than a Witness’ profiles a D.C. group that’s hard-core in its pursuit of change

By Dean Essner
Washington Post
November 13th, 2014

If Robin Bell’s new documentary “Positive Force: More Than a Witness” is out to prove anything, it’s that D.C. punk is as much about ideals as it is about attitude.

The film chronicles the origins of Positive Force, an activist group founded in 1985 that channels punk’s raw anger and discontent to foster social change — be it delivering groceries to the elderly or raising money through benefit concerts.

It may not be as widely known or celebrated as the music itself, but the Positive Force story is inextricably linked with D.C. punk.

“I think a group like Positive Force is really unique,” says Bell, 37, whose film screens at St. Stephen’s this weekend. “It’s an all-volunteer group. So many influential people have been a part of it and worked with it. There’s so much [there] that it almost feels like a disservice that we’re trying to fit it all into a film.”

Even the seeds of the project were rooted in rebellion. Bell was arrested in 2002 while on assignment for the D.C. Independent Media Center, covering demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He filed two class-action lawsuits against the D.C. government — one for that incident, and one for a similar arrest in 2000 — and received $25,000.

“I was trying to figure out something creative to use the money for, and I was like, ‘Well, make an activist film,’ ” says Bell, who plans to donate the movie’s proceeds to Positive Force-affiliated organization We Are Family. (An additional $16,000 in funding for the film came from Kickstarter contributions.)

“Positive Force: More Than a Witness,” which is also available on DVD, is framed by intimate pieces of old concert footage that reinforce how bands and Positive Force worked together. In one striking sequence from Jan. 12, 1991, Fugazi rips through “KYEO” at an outdoor benefit show for the homeless with the White House looming in the background. Both the band and the audience were willing to brave the cold because the cause, and the music, were important to them.

Bell’s film further comes to life through candid interviews with Positive Force founders Mark Andersen and Kevin Mattson, as well as iconic punk rockers like Ian MacKaye, Dave Grohl, Kathleen Hanna and Ian Svenonius. Yet his subjects’ stories and political stances don’t always intersect or even agree with each other.

For Bell, these incongruences were vital. Positive Force has never been about any singular point of view or opinion. It’s about the very idea of possessing an opinion — and having the wherewithal to do something about it. That ethos lives on, even as Positive Force members come and go.

“[Viewers] want you to create this drama 45 minutes into the film that has some kind of resolution at the end,” Bell says. “There’s always been contention. [But] for Positive Force and our film, there is no resolution at the end. It’s going on.”

And on … and on … and on.

That other movie about the D.C. punk scene

While Positive Force: More Than a Witness is about the activism surrounding D.C. punk, Scott Crawford’s new film Salad Days is more about the music itself, documenting the origin story of bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Black Flag through interviews with scene veterans like — you guessed it — Ian MacKaye and Dave Grohl. The film, which tracks D.C.’s punk and hardcore scenes in the 1980s, makes its local premiere on Dec. 19, 21 and 22 at the AFI Silver Theatre. While the first three screenings sold out quickly, tickets for a Dec. 22 showing at 7:15 p.m. are still available. The Black Cat then screens the film on Dec. 26. Tickets are on-sale Friday.

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Paul Krassner On Harvey Milk, the Yippies, and Talking to Dolphins After Dropping Acid

(Photo courtesy of Paul Krassner)

(Photo courtesy of Paul Krassner)
By Mary Reinholz
Bedford & Bowery
November 17th, 2014

Paul Krassner sometimes gets touted as a forerunner to comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who blend fact and fiction into combustible political cocktails. But the Daily Show can seem lame and tame compared to The Realist, launched in 1958 when Krassner was a Mad magazine contributor living in the East Village.

Printed on cheap paper, the no-holds-barred political journal ran left-wing articles and in-your-face cartoons that would never have seen the light of day in the timid mainstream press (1967′s “Disneyland Memorial Orgy” comes to mind).

The Realist‘s motto – “irreverence is our only sacred cow” — seemed to extend to Krassner’s gigs as a standup comic and as a co-founder of the Yippies, who ran a 45-pound pig named Pegasus for President in 1968. After it ceased publication in 2001, Krassner — who by then had long since relocated to California — remained a prolific writer, garnering awards that included a 2004 Upton Sinclair Award for Freedom of Expression from the ACLU.

In his latest book, a slender 112-page paperback collection of articles titled Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials, 82-year-old Krassner takes the stance of a serious personal journalist for outlets like the Berkeley Barb, The Nation and Playboy. Krassner answered B+B’s questions below from the home in Desert Hot Springs that he shares with Nancy Cain, whom he married many years ago on April Fool’s Day.


BB_Q(1) When did you start publishing The Realist and why?

BB_A(1) I was writing occasional scripts for Mad magazine, but the editor rejected a few ideas because the subjects were “too adult.” Since Mad’s circulation had gone over the million mark, publisher Bill Gaines intended to keep aiming the magazine at teenagers. I said, “I guess you don’t wanna change horses in midstream.” He responded, “Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass.” There was no satirical publication for grown-ups, so in 1958, I launched The Realist.

BB_Q(1) Why did it go out of business?

BB_A(1) In 1974, I ran out of money. In 1985, I got a $5,000 grant and re-launched the magazine in newsletter format. I published the final issue in the spring of 2001. As far as I was concerned, The Realist had served its purpose.

BB_Q(1) You were born at the Brooklyn Hospital and grew up in Queens, becoming a violin prodigy at age six and even playing in Carnegie Hall. How did you morph intellectually from classical child violinist to outrageous satirist?

BB_A(1) I started playing the violin when I was three, and I practiced myself right out of my childhood. I woke on the stage in Carnegie Hall, in the middle of the “Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor,” my left leg itched so hard that, without missing a note, I balanced on my left leg and scratched it with my right foot. And I was awakened by the sound of an audience laughing. It was a life-changing moment. I perceived reality through the prism of absurdity. I had a technique for playing the violin, but I had a passion for making people laugh.

BB_Q(1) You were influenced by Lenny Bruce and became a standup comic at the Village Gate. What was your mission as a comic and satirist? Were you just into iconoclastic material for the hell of it or did you/or do you have a larger purpose? Why, for example, would you claim in 1967 that LBJ had committed necrophilia on the corpse of JFK?

BB_A(1) Satire became my vehicle for revealing hypocrisy. It was like pasta fazool – each macaroni had its own bean – and there was a truth embedded in the humor. In 1967, while Lyndon Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War, William Manchester’s book, The Death of a President, was published. It had been authorized by Jackie and Bobby Kennedy, and they had the power to have material deleted by the publisher. I tried in vain to obtain the missing sections, so I was forced to write ’em myself in Manchester’s style. It was a Realist hoax, serving as a literary seduction.

It began with actual truths, then it morphed into truths that media personnel knew about but were afraid to break the taboos, then further morphing into satirical reports with verisimilitude, ultimately leading to this incredible image: Jackie Kennedy, still in shock, wearing her bloodied clothes, on Air Force One. She describes to Manchester how she witnessed LBJ crouching over JFK’s corpse. “And then I realized – there is only one way to say this — he was literally fucking my husband in the throat. In the bullet wound in the front of his throat. He reached a climax and dismounted. I froze. The next thing I remember, he was being sworn in as the new president.” It was a metaphorical truth, underscored by Manchester’s quote from marginal notes in the Warren Commission Report: “Is this simply necrophilia, or was LBJ trying to change entry wound from grassy knoll into exit wound from Book Depository by enlarging it?”

BB_Q(1) Your latest book is a collection of updated articles on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, bank robbery and trial and also on the assassinations of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk by a white homophobic cop. These are sensational cases, but how are they relevant today?

BB_A(1) Well, I was in the courtroom every day, I coined “the Twinkie Defense,” I had underground sources, and mainstream reporters gave me stuff they couldn’t publish. Both trials had aspects that are still absurd, unjust and informational. The book (available at my website) is definitely relevant today. I’m getting positive feedback from young millenials and aging counterculturals alike.

BB_Q(1) Dan White, the ex-cop who killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone, got off on murder charges with the so-called Twinkie Defense and served five years of a seven year sentence for manslaughter. He committed suicide after he got out of prison. How do you regard him in retrospect?

BB_A(1) He was an uptight homophobic narcissist who needed an empathy implant. As a supervisor on the City Council, he was a puppet of the downtown real-estate interests and the conservative Police Officers Association.

BB_Q(1) Your book notes that you are now using a walker, the result of injuries you sustained from being struck in the knee by a baton-wielding San Francisco cop during a police rampage to stop rioting by gays after White’s sentence. How else would you describe your health these days? And is it too late to sue the SF police?

BB_A(1) At the post-verdict riot, the police ran amuck in an orgy of beating protesters indiscriminately and sadistically, screaming, “Get the fuck outa here, you fuckin’ faggots, you motherfuckin’ cocksuckers!” One cop struck me with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee, and I fell to the ground. He ran off to injure as many other cockroaches in his kitchen as he could. Another cop came charging and yelled at me, “Get up! Get up!” I said, “I’m trying to.” He made a threatening gesture with his nightstick, and when I tried to protect my head with my arm, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side. I got a ride to the hospital emergency ward, and X-rays indicated that I had a fractured rib and a punctured lung. I didn’t have $75 for an attorney’s filing fee, and by the time I could afford that, it was too late to sue the SFPD.

BB_Q(1) The last part of your book is about Michelle Shocked and her “Christian anti-gay rant” at Yoshi’s nightclub in San Francisco last year. Why were you drawn to her as a subject?

BB_A(1) I thought she was misunderstood when her parody of hate-monger pastor Fred Phelps was taken as her own point of view.

BB_Q(1) What, if any, are your religious beliefs?

BB_A(1) My parents were Jewish, but I got bar mitzvahed only to please them, though I considered all religions to be organized superstition. I became an atheist when I was an adolescent and the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but lessened my militant attitude when I realized that Martin Luther King was a Christian but I admired what he stood for, and George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, was an agnostic but I abhorred what he stood for. I no longer judge any individuals by what they believe, but rather, whether they were kind or cruel.

BB_Q(1) You’ve dropped acid with Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and even Groucho Marx. Did you ever have a religious experience on LSD?

BB_A(1) No, but my awe of nature was enhanced. Also, I was once tripping on acid at the Seaquarium in Miami, and a dolphin told me, “If God is evolution, then how do you know He’s finished?” A couple of years later, I told dolphin researcher John Lilly about that encounter. “No,” he said, ”how do you know you’re finished?”

BB_Q(1) You were a co-founder of the Youth International Party in 1968. Why do you feel several prominent members, people who were your friends, such as Abbie Hoffman and Mayer Vishner, committed suicide? Was it partly because they were aging and their revolution seemed over? How viable is the yippie message for new generations?

BB_A(1) Abbie was clinically diagnosed as manic-depressive, and he felt like the parade had passed him by. Mayer was in unbearable pain, and he became extremely lonely. The spirit of the Youth International Party – known as the Yippies, described by folksinger Phil Ochs: “A demonstration should turn you on, not turn you off” — has continued with such proactivists as Occupy Wall Street, even if they never heard of their predecessors.

BB_Q(1) Who are some of your heroes these days and how have they inspired you?

BB_A(1) Malala Yousafzai. Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden. Doctors and Nurses Without Borders. Glenn Greenwald, James Risen. Richard Engel, Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartman. The Innocence Project. Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders. What they all have in common – as do those innumerable, unknown, unheralded heroes — is a mixture of compassion and courage. They give me hope.

BB_Q(1) You’ve been an early supporter of legalized abortion. How would you describe your relationship with the women’s liberation movement? Robin Morgan, for one, criticized you and other left-wing men as sexist in her 1970 essay, “Goodbye to All That.”

BB_A(1) In 1962, when abortion was illegal, I began an underground referral service for women to go to humane doctors instead of back-alley butchers. I was called before district attorneys in two cities, but refused to testify at their grand juries. In New York City, the D.A. said that he would grant me immunity because investigators found evidence in the doctors’ records showed the kickbacks given to me, but since I never got a penny, I knew he was bluffing.

Instead, on my behalf, an attorney sued New York state because the abortion law against abortion was unconstitutional, and therefore I didn’t have to testify. Women’s groups joined the lawsuit, and we won the case, which led to Roe vs. Wade. So I was quite friendly with the women’s liberation movement and was honored with the Feminist Party Media Workshop Award. Robin Morgan was a close friend until her essay took out of context things I had said and done. She was angry about my being a film critic in Cavalier, a men’s magazine she labeled sexist because it included nude photos of women.

BB_Q(1) Why did you take your young daughter Holly to Roman Polanski’s hearing for sodomizing an underage girl? And what’s your view of Polanski today?

BB_A(1) When Holly was 13, I got assigned to cover Roman Polanski’s trial for raping a 13-year-old girl. Holly wanted to come to the trial with me and write an article from her point of view. However, Polanski fled from the country, and there was no trial after all. Inasmuch as the grown-up victim, now a happy mother, has forgiven him, “Who am I to say?” That’s a quote from the pope. Funny, I thought he was supposed to be infallible.

BB_Q(1) What do you regard as your greatest journalistic and/or satirical accomplishment?

BB_A(1) That’s easy: “The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book.” I spent two months trying to find a printer. Police followed complaints and came to my office. I got death threats. Media people were outraged that I wouldn’t admit that it was a prank. It inspired performers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Elayne Boosler, Louis Black, Richard Lewis. Readers still refer to it as their favorite piece. A great many believed it to be true, if only for a moment, in which they realized that LBJ, the leader of the western world, was insane. They were awakened, just like I woke up at Carnegie Hall when I was six years old.

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