“[Geographers] are good people. They’re really f–kin’ good people.”
Ian MacKaye and Tyler Sonnichsen at ‘A Conversation with Ian MacKaye,’ presented by the AAG Media and Communication Geography Specialty Group. Washington, DC, April 5, 2019. Photo by Emily Fekete.
My Conversation with Ian MacKaye
Audience Questions for Ian
One of the highlights of this year’s AAG meeting came on Friday afternoon, when punk legend Ian MacKaye stopped by the Wardman Park hotel to share some stories about his career as an underground musician and touring artist (Fugazi, Minor Threat, The Evens, and more), as well as Dischord Records captain. As numerous participants reflected afterward, it could easily have gone on for another hour. Though it was not intentional, the bulk of the conversation focused on how much geography can learn from the network and influence of early harDCore, which we realized worked well for the Media and Communication Geography group’s focus.
This was such a privilege. Special thanks to Emily Fekete (Chair of the MACGSG and AAG mainstay) for helping coordinate this event, as well as to Joshua Pitt (Palgrave MacMillan) for recording the session. Joshua, Steven Donnelly, and other participants took some great photos, as well as of the DC Punk walking tour on Saturday, which I’ll post here soon.
The long wait is almost over: AAG DC starts this week! Because the meeting’s in the AAG’s (and my former, for a while) home base this year, I’ve been working to arrange a few special events that I’ll be announcing here, on twitter, and via the AAG’s social media as well. It’s going to be a busy but good time. You can find me at one of the following three events (or of course by just hitting me up).
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ian MacKaye for the keynote session of the Media and Communication Geography Specialty Group. Thank you to Ian for his interest as well as to my friend Emily Fekete at the AAG for making this happen. We’ll be talking about the relationship between the city and punk history, as well as the history of Dischord Records and his own musical career (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Embrace, The Evens, and more). Get there early to get a good seat!
SATURDAY 4/6: DC PUNK WALKING TOUR [SOLD OUT]
Meet at 12pm Marriott 24th St Entrance
I’ll be honest: I wrote a long, fun draft entry to publish closer to the event for a last-minute push in case it didn’t fill up, but it did. I’m grateful and humbled that this tour has generated as much interest as it has. I’m sorry if you missed a chance to register for a spot, but as with any walking tour, there’s a reasonable chance for a few no-shows. If any spots do open up, I’ll make sure to announce it on twitter and contact those registered.
For now, here is the gist of what I wrote originally. I’ll wait to divulge more details until we’re closer to the event, but there will be surprises, some brought to you by our good friends at Palgrave Publishing, and others brought to you by our tour sites. You’re probably wondering, “AAG members offer plenty of great walking tours every year; why should I, a person of [indeterminate] interest in punk rock, be looking forward to this one?”
You’ll have time built-in to enjoy some of the best Falafel, Empanadas, or food of your choice that DC has to offer.
We’ll be walking through a gastronomic epicenter toward the beginning of our tour that includes a couple of places I absolutely cannot miss when I’m in town. I’m building in some free time for eating and shopping, so you don’t need to eat a gigantic brunch beforehand. But if you do, you’ll have more time to focus on…
Shopping for records, clothes, and other merchandise.
Get your souvenir shopping out of the way while learning about DC culture. Why spend your money on some Washington Monument snow globe when you could have something from a boutique where locals actually hang out? Grab that Fugazi record for your turntable or that photo book for your coffee table.
You’ll meet luminaries of the DC punk scene.
Any stroll through Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant on a Saturday afternoon affords you plenty of chances to bump into somebody who played (and still plays) a key role in the DC punk story. For this tour, I’ve been coordinating cameos from some of my favorite people I knew from the scene when I lived there as well as some great folks I met while working on the book.
You’ll get those steps in.
Many landmark sites in harDCore history are right down the street from the conference hotel in Adams-Morgan and around the corner in Mount Pleasant. In other words, no hopping on and off of a shuttle, dealing with traffic, or battling tourists on the Metro. That being said, if you have a disability and require transport assistance, please notify us in your registration. From what I remember, all of the key sites we’ll be visiting (and most lunch/shopping options) are accessible.
I will be leading it.
Not that I would be the biggest selling point, but I’d be grateful to have you along for my first AAG walking tour, in a neighborhood that was so important to me when I lived there (and still is). Over my time there, I heard so many stories and have so many great memories (not included in Capitals of Punk) I look forward to sharing.
Let me know if you have any questions [sonicgeography at gmail]. We will take off from Marriott Wardman Park’s 24th St Entrance on Saturday 4/6 at Noon. See you there!
SUNDAY: LIGHTNING TALK ON FLORIDA MAN
3:55 – 5:05 PM Contemporary Issues in Human Geography Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level
You read that right: I’m engaging with some research on the Florida Man. This is a topic that, as a cultural geographer with a soft spot for Florida (that I catch heat for, no pun intended), I’ve been interested in for some time. It seems that every six months or so, the internet breathes new life into this apocryphal character. Recently, a meme went around imploring people to google “Florida Man” and their birthday. Much of my research focuses on circulation, and internet-mediated phenomena like these work wonders(?) to perpetuate (inter)national perspectives on what makes Florida assume the mantel of “our weirdest state.”
I understand many of you may have skipped town by Sunday afternoon, but this session looks like it will be amazing: talks on Kingston, Cincinnati, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), Climate security, and Uttarakhand.
Anyway, see you in DC. If you’re not going, you’ll be missed and I’ll be happy to give you all a rundown of the highlights from this year’s meeting on this site sometime after I get back to Knoxville. I’m still reeling as I write this from a great time in Memphis at the Balancing the Mix conference, in fact. Thanks to Mark Duffett and Amanda Nell Edgar for putting it together. If I have time this week (that’s a big ‘if’), I’ll post an update or two about the conference as well as the West Tennessee chapter of the Ben Irving Postcard Project.
Being able to teach an advanced course in Cultural Geography this semester has been great for many reasons, most of which stem from the ability to dig deeper (or, I guess in the case of this entry, drink deeper…get it? No? That’s fine) on both places and topics. One particular place has been my longtime hometown (and dissertation focus) of Washington, DC, and one topic has been how music both operates as a representation of the place it was made and reflects back upon the place to influence public imagination of that place (see Lily Kong “Popular music in geographical analyses.” Progress in human geography 19, 1995).
I’ve discussed DC’s perpetually-increasing role within the scholarship on musical geography before, but last week, I had the opportunity to present the geographies behind DC’s legendary underground music scene to my Cultural Geography course. It was a neat coincidence that Bad Brains, largely considered responsible for the “big bang of hardcore punk” (credit) in the Nation’s Capital, were nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week. It doesn’t require a background in pop culture studies (which I don’t have) to realize this is a big deal. This means that, even if/when the Bad Brains don’t win the induction this year (considering all of the dad-rock they’re up against), DC has finally cracked through the record industry’s hegemonic glass ceiling. Obviously, the scene has created some fissures in the glass over the years; the biggest of which were probably Dave Grohl’s rise to super-stardom and the signings of brilliant yet completely unmarketable DC post-hardcore bands to major labels in the early 90’s. Also, the fact that Fugazi had four albums chart (albeit swimming in the top 200) with absolutely no help from conglomerated media was remarkable. But now, the baby-boomer “rock” establishment has finally peered around the corner and realized that maybe those bands really did change the world without any #1 hits or platinum records.
As part of my lesson plan, I presented a truncated version of the first decade of harDCore, which had many unfortunate but necessary omissions due to time constraints. For example, I did mention how the now-universal terms “straight edge” and “emo” originated in DC in 1981 and 1985 respectively, but I completely forgot to mention that even the term “hardcore” punk emerged in DC as a way for the then-teenage Georgetown punks to differentiate themselves from poseurs who only dressed the part. A more thorough retelling of the story is readily available in Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (2001, Akashic) among various other titles in print and on video, which I make no pretenses to replicate. I don’t need to retell the whole story since it’s already been told so well from so many different readily-available vantage points.
The story that my dissertation does tell, however (in predictably greater detail than here), is how Washington, DC’s geography affected that music scene. In my lecture, I began in the mid-1970s and stopped at the end of the 1980s to (1) conclude that every key trend in underground and punk music either originated in DC or had some noteworthy filtering through that city, and (2) ask the question: WHAT IS IT ABOUT WASHINGTON, DC?
I encourage my students to pose some form of that question to themselves whenever approaching any topic. For example, our East TN History Center visit sought out answers to the question “what is it about Knoxville…?” So, it was only fitting to bring in that question template when breaking down the wonders of the DMV. Here we go:
1. DC is where The South meets The North
When teaching the history of American popular music, it makes sense to begin with Stephen Foster, the first American Popular songwriter. Foster spent much of his adult life in Cincinnati, which was a similar gateway between the South and the North due to its location on the Ohio River. Foster was able to borrow Southern musical traditions and references from workers who came up the Mississippi River, which coalesced with the English, Scottish and Irish traditions of the North and generated South-fetishizing songs like “Oh, Susanna.”
While DC’s (to paraphrase JFK) blend of “the warmth of a Northern City with the efficiency of a Southern one” wasn’t the only reason that harDCore happened, but it was why so many progenitors of the people who built the scene moved there. Ian MacKaye’s mother Ginger’s family came from Georgia, bringing with them a long Southern-Gothic storytelling tradition that eked into “the archive” that made punk so available over the years and is making it possible for mainstream sources to pay tribute.
2. DC has the Federal Government
The thing responsible for the greatest misconception about DC (that it has no indigenous culture or local scene) is actually responsible for most of that indigenous culture and those local scenes. The Federal Government brings people from all over the United States and world together into one veritable melting pot. The punks who emerged from that melting pot are too numerous to mention here, but a couple in particular spring to mind.
3 Generations of Inouyes.
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) came to DC to serve on the Hill even before Hawaii was officially recognized as a state. His son Kenny, born in Hawaii in 1962 and raised in DC, founded Marginal Man in 1982. Kenny remained one of the band’s core members throughout its existence, and even led the band to be one of few in that orbit to leave DC and tour. Here’s a video of them playing sometime in 1985.
Others came into the DC punk scene through more subversive paths. The photographer Cynthia Connolly, longtime Dischord employee, came to DC in 1981 when her mom got a job working for Reagan’s new government. Connolly even talked her mom into buying a house near Georgetown because that’s where she heard the punks hung out. She recalls as much in her notes at the end of the latest printing of her seminal photo-book Banned in DC, which gave much of the world their first visual glance into that volcanic scene.
3. DC is Small
Though the DC metropolitan area stretches well out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (even farther depending on where gentrification has pushed some people), and actual District is bounded within a pretty small physical territory. When punk was young, it had few places to exist and even fewer in the suburbs, so many of those had to be centralized. Tiny co-ops like the Hard Art Gallery and Madam’s Organ gave Bad Brains central locations to perform and teenagers from the more affluent side of DC could venture in if they could arrange a ride or were willing to brave the Metro. Unlike LA, which had dozens of nodal communities that were physically and ideologically distant from one another, DC’s social life existed upon a relatively small amount of acreage. This reason goes hand in hand with how…
4. DC is Diverse
…albeit segregated to no end. Natalie Hopkinson wrote in her great 2012 study on Go-Go music that DC was one of few segregated cities (at least formally, pre-Civil Rights era) to have infrastructure in place that afforded black citizens the luxury of living full professional and social lives without interacting with a single white person on a quotidian basis. Certain blue-collar domains within DC culture are also arguably quintessentially black provinces, such as the custodial culture on Capital Hill. I remember my friend Brian, who interned with Congress in 2005, being amazed that every single custodial worker that he saw while at work was black. This is hardly a coincidence; for generations, cleaning the chambers of lawmakers was among the more prestigious jobs to which many working-class African-Americans in DC could aspire.
All that being said, the growth of the Central American community in the DC area over the past thirty years has added another dimension to the town’s productive diversity. Though most of the suburbanites who commuted to Metro Center or Federal Center and spent little actual free time in the District wouldn’t have known it, the DC underground featured a vast array of blending “white” and “black”-coded cultures throughout the 1980’s. Trouble Funk, one of DC’s biggest Go-Go outfits, played several shows with harDCore bands like Government Issue and Minor Threat. The shows weren’t always successful, but at least they were f**kin’ trying.
Another byproduct of DC’s diversity and social structure was a prominent black middle class. Obviously, not all black harDCore musicians had been middle class kids, but it did contribute to a noticeably high proportion of musicians of color in the DC punk scene in bands like Void, Scream, Dag Nasty, Fire Party, Beefeater, and others. The standard-bearers of hardcore being African-American certainly didn’t hurt, either.
5. DC is a College Town
This is another commonly overlooked facet of DC. It has five major universities (Georgetown, George Washington, American, Maryland, and George Mason), yet people rarely mention it in the same “college town” breath as Boston or Columbus. But taking a cue from the Federal Government, universities provided fertile locations for outsiders to mix ideas, bands to form, and musical tropes to circulate. Although tape trading and mail-order existed well before 1983, I wouldn’t be shocked if the first time a lot of Washingtonians heard Naked Raygun was on the tape decks in the dorm rooms of Midwestern transplants. By the end of the 80’s, Dischord bands (and those in that orbit) were actually inspiring people to attend college in DC, as the most recent comment on this YouTube video of Shudder to Think in 1989 would attest:
I was there. BYOB, as I recall. Freshman year GWU. I chose my GW ’cause of Dischord Records and no other reason, never even visited the campus before moving there. 1989: One of the best years for D.C. bands since the Minor Threat days. Seemed like Fugazi played live every damn week that year.
Even if it’s not the punks themselves who come to DC for school, a lot of their parents had come to DC for school and stuck around. Guy Picciotto, best remembered from Fugazi and Rites of Spring, is the progeny of a French-speaking Italian-Syrian who came to Washington for graduate school, fell for an American woman, and stayed put.
6. Nobody Cared about DC
via townhall.com (I know, I know).
I should clarify that plenty of people cared about DC; it’s just that the American hegemonic mainstream looked down on it, and they had their reasons in the 1980’s. It was blighted- a well-documented “murder capital.” The crack epidemic was in full swing, and white people of any means had by and large jumped ship a full generation prior. DC had a notoriously troubled mayor in Marion Barry, who was caught smoking crack on video in 1980 and still won reelection eventually. It figures how far he stuck his neck out for DC’s 8th Ward and other underrepresented people in an underrepresented (still, to this day) District.
Of course, the same people had no idea about everything amazing that was happening. The public perception of DC’s landscape as something untouchable or beyond hope gave those who actually lived in the District freedom from certain expectations. The bands were playing for their friends and each other; they weren’t aiming for the pop charts or trying to please people outside of their means. This same phenomenon was occurring in Seattle, San Diego, and other cities that didn’t exist within most music writers’ vernacular. Even after REM scored their first top-40 hit in 1987 and people began buzzing “what is it about Athens, Georgia?” many similar culture hearths would have to wait a full generation to get their due.
Hopefully this has provided a satisfactory primer on the how and why of 1980’s Washington, DC. Music fans often say that the influential hardcore movement would not have happened without Reagan in office, but I tend to disagree. The geographic factors of the landscape that spawned harDCore were already in place by the time he assumed office in 1981. I could also list further reasons why DC became what it was in the 1980’s and, via legacy, still is today in the face of incalculable gentrification and subsequent landscape modification. Its toxic culture of pre-packaged tourism and nationalist symbolism, for one, motivated many progenitors of punk to take great care when representing their city abroad. DC’s proximity and easy access to other east coast cities like New York and Philadelphia also aided in the circulation of people and the music they carried with them. The reasons go on and are still accumulating.
Thanks for reading. If you’re looking for a documentary about this era of the underground in our Nation’s Capital, there are several. American Hardcore, which came out in 2006, takes a wider focus but of course addresses the phenomenon of DC. Salad Days, Scott Crawford’s documentary on DC hardcore, came out in 2014 and is readily available. It has a lot of great footage and interviews, including some with Crawford himself (which may be a no-no for some documentary buffs). The next one coming soon will be James Schneider’s film Punk the Capital, which traces DC punk back through rock and new wave in the area. I had the chance to meet Schneider in DC and saw some of the amazing archived footage that he’s weaving together. He actually shared one highlight on his YouTube page, which I’ll embed here. In the summer of 1985, Gray Matter climbed onto the roof of Food for Thought (a restaurant near Dupont Circle owned by Dante Ferrando’s father) to play their cover of “I Am the Walrus.” The cutaway shots show a curious crowd watching from the graffiti-tagged median as well as several abandoned storefronts, common at the time. It wasn’t a paradigm-shifting spectacle when they did it, but it was part of one in the movement that was ‘Revolution Summer.’ Either way, they beat U2 to it by a couple of years. Enjoy.
For those of you who don’t know me (which is probably many of you), my name is Tyler Sonnichsen, and I’m spending this month in Paris, looking for anybody here or elsewhere in France who enjoys the underground music of Washington, DC (e.g. Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, and many more).
I am working on a project about French perceptions of Washington, DC outside the topic of government, US history, and those things which formulate mainstream tourism. Specifically, I am interested in (as a friend/colleague referred to it) your impression of Washington, DC, both before and after anytime you have visited. I would like to speak with you about how your love of DC’s legendary punk scene has altered your imagination of the city.
Why are you in Paris?
When I first visited in 2010, I was living and working in DC. I attended a Kimmo performance at Le Pix during my incredibly brief stay in the city, and I was surprised by the clear influence that “the DC sound” had on their music. Additionally, I saw all sorts of signatures of DC hardcore around the room, including at least two Bad Brains t-shirts and a Thrashington, DC pin. I later found out they were from Brest, which made me interested in how profoundly French punk was influenced by those bands.
What do you mean “impression?”
I’m interested in not only the changing dynamics of place, but peoples’ perception of place. This is very important to several industries today, especially tourism, which I have also been studying. When I ask you about your thoughts on Washington, DC, there are no wrong answers. The images of the city and its music have made a major worldwide impact, and I’m interested in what they mean to you. It does not matter if you have ever been to DC. Actually, that may possibly be better.
Who are you looking for?
If you live in France and love DC punk and hardcore, I want to talk to you. I am seeking a wide variety of voices: all races, all ages, all genders, all stories. Unfortunately, my French is not nearly as good as I would like it to be, so I would prefer if we could talk in English. However, if you are more comfortable speaking in French, then you are definitely welcome to.
So, if you or anybody you know would like to participate in the project, do not hesitate to call me (in France) at 06 18 33 88 60 or to email me at sonicgeography [at] gmail.com.
Thanks to/Merci a Phil Roizes.
Maintenant, en français (via google translate en raison de contraintes de temps…désolé si il y a des incohérences).
Pour ceux d’entre vous qui ne me connaissent pas (ce qui est probablement beaucoup d’entre vous), mon nom est Tyler Sonnichsen, et je vais passer ce mois-ci à Paris, à la recherche de quelqu’un ici ou ailleurs en France qui jouit de la musique underground de Washington , DC (par exemple de Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, et beaucoup plus).
Je travaille sur un projet sur les perceptions françaises de Washington, DC en dehors du sujet du gouvernement, de l’histoire américaine, et les choses qui formulent intégrer le tourisme. Plus précisément, je suis intéressé par (comme un ami / collègue a fait référence à elle) votre impression de Washington, DC, à la fois avant et après chaque fois que vous avez visité. Je voudrais vous parler de la façon dont votre amour de la légendaire scène punk de DC a modifié votre imagination de la ville.
Pourquoi êtes-vous à Paris?
Quand je suis allé la première fois en 2010, je vivais et travaillais à Washington DC. Je assisté à une représentation au Kimmo Le Pix pendant mon incroyablement bref séjour dans la ville, et je suis surpris par l’influence clair que “le son DC” a eu sur leur musique. En outre, je voyais toutes sortes de signatures de DC inconditionnel autour de la salle, y compris au moins deux cerveaux t-shirts Bad et une badge Thrashington, DC. Je découvris plus tard, ils étaient de Brest, qui m’a fait intéressé à sav oir comment profondément le punk français a été influencé par ces bandes.
Que voulez-vous dire “impression?”
Je suis intéressé non seulement la dynamique changeante de place, mais la perception de la place de peuples. Ceci est très important pour plusieurs industries d’aujourd’hui, en particulier le tourisme, dont je suis également étudié. Quand je vous demande de vos pensées sur Washington, DC, il n’y a pas de mauvaises réponses. Les images de la ville et sa musique ont eu un impact majeur dans le monde entier, et je suis intéressé par ce qu’ils signifient pour vous. Il n’a pas d’importance si vous avez déjà été à DC. En fait, cela peut éventuellement être mieux.
Si vous vivez en France et aimez le punk et le hardcore DC, je veux vous parler. Je cherche une grande variété de voix: toutes les races, tout les âges, tous les sexes, toutes les histoires. Malheureusement, mon français est loin d’être aussi bon que je voudrais que ce soit, donc je préférerais si nous pouvions parler en anglais. Toutefois, si vous êtes plus à l’aise en français, alors vous êtes certainement le bienvenu à.
Donc, si vous ou quelqu’un que vous connaissez aimerait participer au projet, ne pas hésiter à me contacter (en France) au 06 18 33 88 60 ou contactez-moi au sonicgeography [at] gmail.com.