“I am totally comfortable with it, I’m just talking,” says Ian MacKaye, the 52-year-old D.C. Ur-punk. He is speaking from the Dischord label offices in Arlington, VA, which he has run for last 34 years. “I’ve told everybody I’ll talk to them but I am not going to do promotion, I am not gong to get into that. I just don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a promoter or a detractor. I can speak about it on a factual level, about my experiences to some degree, but it’s not really for me to critique the films because they’re not made for me. I know the fucking story, I don’t need to see a documentary.”
The outspoken, fifth-generation Washingtonian and the driving force behind the Teen Idols, Minor Threat, Embrace and Fugazi is referring to his participation in three excellent new documentaries in which his strident mien are prominently featured; the comprehensive Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90); Positive Force: More Than a Witness: 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action a film about the D.C.-based political action community that helped foster the punk scene while giving it a political voice; and Dave Grohl‘s HBO series Sonic Highways D.C. episode. Also in the pipeline are two more docs, Punk the Capital: Straight from Washington D.C. and a film on H.R. of the Bad Brains, Finding Joseph I, which also feature MacKaye.
“He’s probably tired of it at this point,” says Scott Crawford, the director of the Salad Days, when asked of MacKaye’s involvement with the various projects. “He’s wonderful,” he adds, “and obviously you can’t make a film like this and not have Ian involved in some way. His feedback means a lot.”
Indeed MacKay is a quote machine who lights up the screen with his succinct and edgy observations that generally do more to elucidate a point than the following three talking punk heads combined. Like for example in Salad Days when he describes seeing Lux Interior of the Cramps vomiting onstage and forever changing his life; or quotes like, “In the beginning everybody was just trying to figure out first off, ‘Who the fuck am I?’ And then, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ And then, ‘Who the fuck are we?’ And then, ‘How the fuck do we fit in,’ MacKaye says in Positive Force explaining what sparked the scene’s political activism. His punditry is so germane it can be a struggle for directors to avoid having too much Ian.
“When I cut the film, I made a promise to myself and some of the Positive Force people that I didn’t want to make the film all about Ian,” says Positive Force director Robin Bell (who said he also faced the same struggle with Positive Force D.C. prime mover Mark Anderson). “Ian thinks about this stuff. He’s put a lot of thought into it. By the time you or I talk to him about specifics he’s already thought it through and already had these conversations with people and tried to look at all the different sides.”
So what then must it be like for hardcore’s eminence grise to see himself on the silver screen digitally spliced, diced and recontextualized? “There was a couple of times where I’ve seen some of the stuff in documentaries where I’m like, ‘that’s not right’ and it’s frustrating,” says MacKaye. “There’s been some [parts] that I thought were crafty but were totally wrong and my words were being used to set up another quote which represented me 180 degrees to the reality. This happened to me in the past.”
MacKaye also takes issue with most contemporary documentaries, which he says rely too heavily on storytelling. “This is a real problem with modern documentaries,” he says, “It’s the way it’s being taught now and I find it odious, frankly. If you look at almost any modern documentary it has a narrative arc. If you look at earlier documentaries, like by the Maysles [bothers Albert and David Maysle whose classic documentary films include Gimmie Shelter, Grey Gardens], there’s no narrator. I mean obviously they’re editing stuff together so they have some God control over the storyline to some degree and they can shape it, but there’s no one telling you what to think necessarily.”
That lack of over-dramatization, MacKaye says, is what drew him to the D.C. episode of Grohl’s Sonic Highways. “What I appreciated, and I told Dave this, there’s no conflict. Like it’s just, ‘Here’s a band I like, here’s another band I like, here’s a music scene I think is cool, here’s another music scene I think is cool, here’s a political group I thought was pretty cool and here’s a song I wrote about it.’ I really appreciated that. There was no dah-dah! [sings suspense music]. There was no fucking crisis or conflict. He was just talking about the shit he liked — take it or leave it. It doesn’t claim to be speaking for the entire history of the music scene, no one has to feel like they were left out of history because he’s not thinking the history, he’s just showing people the things he likes and I appreciated that about it.”
When asked for an example of what these docs overlook, MacKaye, who over the years has been unfairly portrayed as spartan, overly-serious and a proselytizer for “straight-edge” dogma, points out one facet he’s never seen recorded in all the many documentaries, books and stories on D.C. Hardcore: humor.
Teen Idols’ “Flex Your Head”
“We did a lot of stuff that we thought was funny,” says MacKaye.” There was a significant aspect of — at least of my scene — that was absurdist. We found society and the situation absurd and we had extremely dry humor, but it was funny to us. That [Dischord] slogan, ‘Putting DC on the Map’ that was a fucking joke, I mean what map was D.C. not on? Flex Your Head was a joke. It was a joke because this New York music critic [Robert Christgau] referred to us as muscle heads, so we said, ‘Yeah, flex your head!’ It was a joke, you know, for us. The cover of the first Flex Your Head record was a stock photo of violins on the cover. Those were senseless violins [laughs] — get it? They were senseless violins, not senseless violence, senseless violins. There was a lot of fucking humor. And it’s too bad becuase the thing about laughing is that’s it’s intimate and when you laugh with somebody you trust them.”
While this recent spate of D.C. hardcore docs will certainly help to animate the city’s music history, it is more than just film contributing to the current resurgence. This rampant chronicling includes: the D.C. Public Library recently opening a punk archive, which follows the launch this year of a D.C. music collection at George Washington University and a D.C. Punk and Indie Fanzine Collection at the University of Maryland; reunion shows by ’80s hardcore bands Swiz and Soulside; Fugazi’s first demo from 1988 surfacing and making Rough Trade’s best album list of 2014; a Q&A with Henry Rollins at the Smithsonian with Chris Richards, previously of the Dischord-signed Q and Not U and now a Washington Post music critic; and the Center for Documentary Studies holding a photo exhibition on DC’s burgeoning late-’70s punk rock scene.
Part of this DC punk reemergence may just be cyclical, and a factor of age as punk kids from the ’80s begin to hit mid-life, and become media gatekeepers, reflecting on the halcyon days of yore. Salad Days, for example, features an abundance of mostly middle-aged white men looking back fondly on house parties from their teenage years, wilding-out on the streets of Georgetown and taking the District’s pounding music far beyond the city’s sixty-one square miles. Positive Force chronicles its history from 1985’s Revolution Summer until today recalling fondly how the city’s enlightened political activist community cross-pollinated with the influential hardcore, emo, riot grrrl and indie music scenes.
MacKaye, however, harbors absolutely no sentimentality whatsoever. “I am not a nostalgic person at all,” he says. “To me it was something that occurred, it was important, but what are you going to do about it now,” he asks. He also bristles at the term “resurgence,” perhaps because he’s never stopped actively participating in the D.C’s. music, political, cultural and social life.
“I’ve struggled a little bit with some of the tonality in some of the documentaries, because my sense is there is a little bit of wistfulness, and I’m not a wistful person,” he says. “Salad Days is named after a [Minor Threat] song I wrote and the last line of the song is ‘some people call them their Salad Days and I call it a fucking lie’ [laughs]. Having said that, there’s no question music in general and punk specifically was the fucking ferry that got me across. And I feel like I am indebted.”
An version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of Billboard.