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Fugazi: A D.C. Scene Killjoy?

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If you are a fan of Fugazi, the D.C. rock scene, or independent rock in general, you owe it to yourself to read Michael Little’s well-written and insightful article entitled “In on the Killjoy” in this week’s Washington City Paper.

To sum up a rather lengthy article, Little contends that Ian MacKaye‘s ethical and moral posturing that is consequently engrained in his brand of rock stands in stark opposition to the very nature of rock ‘n roll. Anyone who knows anything about Fugazi knows that this aspect of the band is quite conspicuous: “Fugazi’s shows have long had the annoying tendency of morphing into civics classics where an ever-watchful Mr. MacKaye, who unlike Mr. Kotter doesn’t suffer from a sense of humor, condescendingly encourages people to be nice and keep their hands to themselves. Let’s face it: Ian missed his calling. He should have been a preacher. But good rock doesn’t preach. Shit, telling the preacher to go to hell is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.”

Little, however, takes this argument one step further by arguing that MacKaye and his self-righteousness inhibit the Washington D.C. independent rock scene:

“Thanks to MacKaye & Co., the city that once brought us the great Angel – the fantastically coiffed anti-KISS whose elaborate live shows in the ’70s were most likely the inspiration for some of Spi¨nal Tap’s proudest moments – is now overrun by earnest people who support earnest music, form earnest bands, come together to hold earnest benefits for earnest causes, and in turn encourage whole new generations of impressionable kiddies to do the same. Why, it’s enough to make a body ill. One can only imagine what it would be like to live in a town where the pool of rock is untainted by integrity. D.C. is the Vatican of earnest rock, and we kindly ask you not to smoke, snicker, or mosh.

It has to stop. Somebody has to give the deprived children of Washington, D.C., the chance to grow up to be depraved, no-account rock ‘n’ roll animals. Somebody has to teach them that rock is not about increasing awareness of social injustices or about making better citizens – it’s about having fun and making a fool of yourself before life gets around – which, believe me, it will – to doing it for you.”

These comments are thought-provoking in that they evince the importance of a local rock scene to a community. On the other hand, it seems that the disrespect for Fugazi and its collective accomplishments is unwarranted, if not heretical. Sure, this article is at least partly tongue-in-cheek; but there is clearly a sincere side to it as well. I don’t need to defend Fugazi — their credentials will speak for themselves. But I do find laughable Little’s inability to live it up rock ‘n roll style at non-hardcore, non-emo events in D.C. Or does he just want others to get their Joey Ramone on?

I doubt the D.C. scene is as uniform as Little portrays it, though I fully understand that Fugazi’s shadow looms large. Little’s article, however, begs the question: in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, why does one need a diverse local scene? Variety and frequency of live acts seems to be the obvious answer. But given that Little is in one of the nation’s most fertile rock markets, I would think that Little could attend a nightly rock show, work it Old-Style (or relish in others’ lechery) and not get bored. It’s clearly not community pride: “It’d be nice to see D.C. become the nation’s next hotbed of old-fashioned, juvenile-delinquent-friendly sleaze rock.”

So maybe, then, Little’s point is a political one: To shove some nice sleaze rock in the face of one of the worst presidential administrations in the last century would be kind of fitting. Little writes: “What better place, after all, for a teenage riot than right here in the World Capital of Sleaze, where life is cheap and lies with George W. Bush’s face on them are the coin of the realm?” Finally, a workable argument. But, as an outsider who doesn’t give two shits about the prurient interests of the D.C. rock scene or demanding a change in rock scenery only to shove it in Shrub’s face, I believe the independent rock community depserately needs its most vocal and upright leader in our nation’s capital. And that instance of local activism is shoving it in Shrub’s face.

For more independent rock commentary, visit No Matter What You Heard.

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  • http://www.particleman.org/ Particleman

    Agreed, it’s not all bad to have a band like Fugazi (and other ‘earnest’ bands) out there so long as there are more traditional and wild bands to see too. I see nothing wrong with the clean agenda that MacKaye and company sell, but I can see how, if that’s all a punker can find in D.C., that it would be problematic.

  • Eric Olsen

    I love Fugazi as a band but find the entire straight edge philosophy to be smug, self-satisfied, PC flummery of the worst kind. It is absolutely great to choose such a code of conduct for oneself, but to shove it down the throat of all who will listen, including concert audiences who just want to hear some fucking music is highhanded imperious demagoguery.

    Of ALL the music-related people I tracked down to interview for the Networking in the Music Industry book, which was heavily DIY/indie related, MacKaye was the only one who wouldn’t be interviewed because we dared to include some major label scum in the book. Instead of having a forum to make his points, he just came across as a rejectionist prick, as he obviously still is.

  • Andy

    I used to be straigh edge….till I turned 21.

    Oh wait, how is that slogan? “Straight Edge:If you aren’t now, you never were” ohhhhhh

  • Andy

    “ethical and moral posturing that is consequently engrained in his brand of rock stands in stark opposition to the very nature of rock ‘n roll”

    Well…that would be why it’s punk rock

  • http://nomatterwhatyouheard.blogspot.com Sabo

    I’m glad to see some discussion on this. Some reactions to comments so far:

    Eric, I have to disagree with your comment, “It is absolutely great to choose such a code of conduct for oneself, but to shove it down the throat of all who will listen, including concert audiences who just want to hear some fucking music is highhanded imperious demagoguery.” Since when have you gone to a concert unwillingly? If I am listening to music, nothing is being shoved in my face. I have not had the opportunity to read your book, but MacKaye has long been opposed to marketing his music. No t-shirts are sold at Fugazi’s shows, tickets are and have remained at $5-6 for the last 20 years. I don’t find that heavy-handed in the least bit. Did you interview Jello for your book?

    Andy, I have to disagree with your take on what is “punk rock”. I think Little’s point is that he wants the D.C. scene to foster more bands like the Ramones and Sex Pistols, the two pioneers of the genre. There was not ethical or moral posturing in either of their music. No doubt that the definition of punk rock has evolved over the years with bands like the Clash, Minor Threat/Fugazi, and the Dead Kennedys banging heads…. But Little wants the scene to go old school.

  • Andy

    no, but the Ramones and Sex Pistols stood in stark opposition to what rock was in their day. Maybe not an ethical contrast, but it definately was a harsh rebellion to what was going on at the time. Fugazi is the same way. It started w/ Minor Threat really…and Mackeye’s genuine desire to see the younger generations make something of themselves instead of burning out on drugs and alcohol.

  • Eric Olsen

    Steve, Jello was out of the country at the time but I did interview his label manager, who was super cool. I have to disagree with your disagreement: what about the people who want to hear the music but not the speeches? They may be there voluntarily for the music but not the preaching.. Also, the point of the interview was not to “market his music,” but to explain how he operates and would have been a perfect forum for him to discuss his philosophy. I don’t see him as opposed to marketing anyway, just exploitation.

  • BRICKLAYER

    And I hate they insist on having all of the houselights turned up at their shows. If I wanna see a bunch of pasty guys with mutton chops, bad facial hair and thrift store clothes, standing around smoking cigarettes and looking bored, I can go down to the CMU campus anytime I want. Oh, but how they do rock out in concert, though. Ian’s cute, in a crotchety sort of way, kind of like Moby used to be.

  • Eric Olsen

    small hairless men, kind of like E.T.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    But E.T. could elongate his neck and make his finger glow. Can Moby and Ian do that? Noooo! Moby’s big talent is having the amazing ability to churn out boring, meaningless happy-techno that somehow infuriated someone enough to beat him to a pulp. I can’t even work up enough energy about the guy to come up with a good put-down.

    I like Fugazi, however.

  • http://chrispuzak.blogspot.com ChrisPUzak

    Ian Mackaye can be pretentious, and he certainly seems like a killjoy at times, but it seems a little odd to single him out for rock bands in D.C. having no sense of humor. I can think of lots of preachy and annoying straight edge bands across America who presence did not turn their hometowns into joyless wastelands. And at least MacKaye is sincere and honest, something which canot be said about many people in the independent music scene.

    I haven’t liked anything MacKaye has done since Minor Threat, but I can’t get myself worked into a lather over his supposed “influence”. If the author is that concerned about the abundance of boring badns in D.C., he should start his own and show the kids how to rock and roll again.

  • http://Nope xfightthepowerx

    The guy who wrote the killjoy article is a moron.

    1. Ian Mackaye has said on numerous occasions in print, live, etc. that he is not about telling other people how to live their lives. He has said over and over and over again that he does what works for him and he is not interested in telling other people what to do.

    2. His stopping shows for people who stage dive, etc. is purely for the safety of the people who come to the shows. Everybody who is into Fugazi knows that this is their view. If you like being hit in the face by peoples boots, etc. then there are plenty of shows you can go to. His stance is that if he does not stop violence from happening at his concerts then he is participating in it, which he is against. (side note to the person who said Fugazi insists on having house lights on…i’ve seen them 3 or 4 times live and the house lights were never on).

    3. Blaming one person for an entire cities music scene being lame is about as retarded as it gets. Could he really be any more clueless? If it sucks, blame yourself. What is the writer of the article doing to make the music scene better? Blaming Ian Mackaye? Give me a break. (echoing what ChrisPUzak said)

    4. Ian has also stated numerous times that he does not endorse any type of gang mentality including straight edge. I went to a Q&A with him at the Glass House and he went to great lengths to explain this. He is a staunch individualist and a pacifist (hence not wanting to be a part of any violence at his shows). He said that Jeff Nelson was always mad that he did not say “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke”. He said he thought it was obvious that he was ONLY talking about himself.

    5. Finally…there is supposed to be room for everybody in punk rock. There is a long history of thinking mans rock music. And there is also a long history of political punk. And considering the state of things we need this music more than ever. There is plenty of crazy, funny, party music to go around. Listen to what you want. But don’t ever blame somebody else for something that you have the power to change.

  • lefty

    did ian mackaye ever do drugs or was he straight-edge to begin with/

  • Binosmith

    Let’s See In Here
    Ian Mackaye – Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi.
    Minor Threat – Straight Edge.
    Straight Edge – I’m a person just like you
    But I’ve got better things to do
    Than sit around and fuck my head
    Hang out with the living dead
    Snort white shit up my nose
    Pass out at the shows
    I don’t even think about speed
    That’s something I just don’t need
    Fugazi- DIY Indie Label Band (maybe but truly DIY)
    ***************************************************
    And This Rock ‘N’ Roll drug taking fun has been going on for more than a decade. The Pop shits are all we see in TV. We see Marlboro ad with precautions at back.

    Ian Mackaye has been involved in pioneering the Hardcore Scene along with his friend Henry Rollins (who liked Bad Brains). Also Minor Threat were Punk Rock not just Rock. Ian was in much more modified version of Punk Rock – Hardcore.

    Hardcore- DIY, Creativity (Own creations where you do your own art without caring what other think about your art)
    Speak what you know and what you experienced.
    Don’t speak what you don’t know or preach or just for fun.
    Preach but don’t take it far too seriously

    This shows all Fugazi may be supporting is DIY and whatever they have learnt
    Jello Biafra – Dead Kennedys
    Dead Kennedys – Hardcore Band
    Had some legal issues (according to Alternative Tentacles website)
    The word in between * is important
    Nazi Punks Fuck Off- Punk ain’t no religious cult
    Punk means *thinking for yourself*
    You ain’t hardcore ‘cos you spike your hair
    When a jock still lives inside your head

    Some of you may find this insulting well i’m sorry if it’s bothering you. Also sorry this is becoming too long.I didn’t use any *fuck* or anything because it’s a cliche word

  • ed

    Andy’s right. But the Sex Pistols and Ramones were also all about morality, especially in terms of what rock and what was popular was in their time. Rock was about decadence, coke, and flash and punk was about individualism, making sense against status quo, anarchy. Fugazi carries on what punk is their own way and time in a real weird place called D.C. They’ve sung about corruption and the like more than they’ve sung about not smoking or drinking or whatever. The point of punk is that it’s not as definitive a genre for any single band out there. Fugazi is surely pretentious with all of their preaching, but no more pretentious than the idea that music is allowed to mean something. The idea of Fugazi ruining the ‘scene’ is just nit-picking and feeling out for some complaint that just can’t stand solid on its own. That said, the only complaint I personally have against Fugazi is that they or their members had something to do with Emo’s origins..and with a time machine I might gladly sacrifice Picotto to prevent what unfairly snowballed into popular Emo (given time and angsty teenies)..

  • Robby sXe™

    i like fugazi and i love minor threat.