Friday, November 20, 2015

DVD Review: Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90)

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90)
Written and directed by Scott Crawford
New Rose Films / MVD Visual
102 minutes, 2014 / 2015

There were so many important Third Wave scenes when the hardcore explosion grew into fruition, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Phoenix, and so on. There is no doubt, however, that the standing of the Washington, DC base is among the strongest. Two names tend to rise to the top, Henry Rollins, and especially Ian MacKaye, both of whom are represented here.

Of course, the opening shot is of Ian MacKaye talking. Without meaning this as any form of sarcasm or complaint, is there anyone in the punk scene who is represented on indie documentaries about the genre as much as Ian? After all, he was the one who started the whole Straight-Edge movement (though he did not invent the symbol of the X on the hand) that became somewhat of a preachy religion to some. And the fact that he’s this present so many decades later just proves how much he has injected into the movement.

The second person to talk is Henry Rollins. Henry, one might say, left his band SOA and joined one that was arguably bigger than Fugazi ever became, namely Black Flag. Flag had an influence on the world, but MacKaye was definitely – and rightly so – king of his kingdom, the land known as DC. Whereas Black Flag spread a sound, MacKaye spread a philosophy.

The growth of DC hardcore was nothing less than ferocious, with Little Ronnie Reagan right there, in a town mixed with rich government overlords and extreme poverty. This split personality was a societal PTSD with a beltway around it. Generally speaking, you could get depressed or you could get angry. Punk in that town went down the road towards the latter, with Doc Martins and spiked hair.

It’s no secret that the home base for Third Wave in DC is the 9:30 Club. Every town had it, be it CBGB, the Rat, or the Mabuhay Garden. In DC, it was the womb that launched a hundred bands that would have a ripple effect on every other club in every other town, even the older, more established ones.

The film is broken up into segments, each of which covers a topic or two. This is extremely well handled, as are the interviews. Yes, talking heads, but even when it’s the same person discussing her or her view, sometimes you can tell it was done over time as you can see them in different settings. Mixing in with this is some of the best hardcore photos I’ve seen, mostly in crisp black and white, and music clips that ranged from clear to pre-camcorder fuzzy, of bands and fans in action.

Let’s talk about some of the guest interviewees. There are the likes of Thurston Moore (known for Sonic Youth, but before then he was in the Coachmen, and I do believe that FFanzeen was the first ‘zine ever to publish anything about Moore; but I brag and digress…), Fred Armisen (the actor/comedian from Chicago was also in the band Trenchmouth), J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. , Tim Kerr (Big Boys, from Austin), and arguably the almost as omnipresent Dave Grohl, who was in the early DC scene and in the local band Scream. For once his stories didn’t sound like Whocares to me. And what, no Keith Morris, who is also usually on these types of documentaries?

Punk scenes that last long enough seem to follow a similar trajectory. A group of people start playing at a bar or a new space and an insular crowd with camaraderie forms. Everyone knows each other, bands respect each other (even with some rivalry), and everyone gets picked on by the local jocks and cops. Time passes and the scene starts to get popular, and the very jocks that were doing the jumping are now doing the moshing, and being violent inside the club. People get fed up and stop coming. The scene disintegrates. On some level, that fits DC as well, even though it splintered in the early 1990s, rather than disappeared.

The scene starts with the likes of the surf-inspired Insect Surfers (saw them play Hurrahs), the pop-rock Tru Fax and the Insaniacs (both these bands not mentioned in the DVD) and the garage-laced Slickee Boys (I saw them play twice at CBGBs and was a fan), and becomes the balls out Bad Brains. The BB left early on in 1980 to move to NYC, but they were adults by then. So the kids start forming their own bands, like Gray Matter (their drummer, Dante Ferrando, was amazing), Iron Cross and especially Teen Idles, began to rise.

The latter, with Ian MacKaye, didn’t last long, but they were the first to release a DIY single in the area. After they broke up, MacKaye formed the more iconic Minor Youth. It was here he started the record company that would define the scene, Dischord Records. Soon touring bands from DC would find gigs on just the strength of having a Dischord release.

This is the first section of the film. Another part discusses the violence coming from outside the close-knit group, from Georgetown College boys in Mustangs who would gang up on punkers. Henry Rollins tells a great story of how a group of punks used Alec MacKaye (Ian’s younger brother) for bait to catch the guys who were doing the beating to return the favor. They needed to take actions into their own hands due to a police force ambivalent to their needs. This would be mirrored in a later section on how moshing turned into performed behavior independent of music (I’ve seen this too, where the music playing was not as important as the stage diving; it could have been Andy Williams and gotten the same action), which turned into violence as the pit became the eye of the storm of the elbows and knees of skinheads and “Drunk Punks.” This led to gay bashing. Some started DIY self-promoted shows to limit this vehemence. MacKaye, again wisely, says he realized that the music they were playing and its subject matter are partially to blame because, as he put it, “Violence begets violence.” This led to his forming the less ferocious yet equally energetic (and nationally popular) Fugazi.

You really can’t discuss the DC scene without detailing the whole Straight Edge movement started by Ian, with the black “X” on the hands. While this is a quasi-zealous group, it did have at least two important results: it lead to the All Ages shows, which opened up a whole new, younger fan market, and (b) created a backlash that sometimes broke the scene into two defiant schisms, and bands would fall on either side; e.g., Black Market Baby came out as anti-SE, calling their counter-movement Bent Edge. The legacy of that lives on: when I wrote a blog on how I imbibe just a tiny bit and called the piece “OnBeing Straight Edge, Kinda Sorta,” l had some interesting responses blasting me for not being all in; this was in 2008.

While even the director of this film, Scott Crawford, becomes part of the story as he discusses his own introduction to the scene at age 12, and also fanzines, including his own Metrozine. There is a short, interesting segment on Go-Go, a black music scene that was incorporated into the punk catalog, much as earlier British punk celebrated reggae. As MacKaye succinctly puts it, you would find punks at Go-Go shows, but no Go-Go fans at punk shows.

The more interesting and intersecting segments to me dealt with social issues, including Misogyny (the “boys club,” dismissed by one dude as “we were young”) toward the female musicians who explain what it was like. Also there was the political and social upheaval as DC became the “murder capital of the U.S.” and the mayor, Marion Berry [d. 2014] was caught on camera smoking crack (sound familiar, Toronto? DC beat you to it!). One of the results of this, in 1985, was the formation of Mark Anderson’s Positive Force organization, that booked shows and held fundraisers for various causes (poverty, end animal cruelty, etc.). They were (and are, after three decades) a bit preachy, but a definite positive influence in the region. There is a documentary about / by them called Positive Force: More Than a Witness – 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action.

The extras include 14 “Extended Interviews” (aka deleted scenes), and 10 full live song performances (each averaging around two minutes) from the likes of Fugazi, Government Issue, Gray Matter, and Marginal Man (acknowledged as the first Emocore band, coined by Brian Baker of Dag Nasty), and others.

Representing the scene is more than thirty people interviewed, including musicians, photographers, fans (titled “Scenesters,” I term I often use), fanzine editors, and organizers. It’s an excellent oral history of the period. Mix in all the stills and films, plus some interesting graphics, it’s well-edited together and gives a well-rounded view of what was going on during the 1980s in the Capitol’s punk capitol.


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