The Geography of DC in harDCore

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

easternusmapWhen 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.

cover-photodan-ken-maggie

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

racemap

via greatergreaterwashington.org

…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

fugazi-basketball-hooporiginal

Two points.

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

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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.

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Was this your Dissertated Summer? (Paris 1988 & Paris 1926)

One of the things that nobody warned me about as I’ve slid down the slippery slope into dissertation mode has been the creeping guilt. I know everyone’s dissertation experience is different and I wouldn’t expect everyone to share my exact academic anxieties (everyone should harbor their own; it’s perfectly natural). But I’ve reached a point where, whenever I’m doing anything unrelated to my dissertation (academic, professional, or recreational/completely disconnected), I feel this benign (yet still jarring) guilt that I’m losing ground on my monolithic self-assigned finish line. I know my whole life can’t be reading and writing for the dissertation, because that would be insane. But concurrently, I’d be in a bad position if my own conscience wasn’t nudging me back toward my mostly-digital pile of notes and drafts.

Please don’t take this rare moment of vulnerability as a caveat about my progress (or any discouragement for potential employers, *wink*). I’m definitely going to finish it, and in all likelihood on schedule. I’m not writing this to elicit sympathy or cast doubt on myself. I still thank myself disproportionately often that I walked away from my 9-to-6 life in DC to dive into academia. I still occasionally stop and think… “wow, I get to write this for a dissertation. Rad.” The pressure of the dissertation isn’t even a guarded secret among academics; a member of a seminal 90’s band (a great drummer and label manager but hardly the scholastic type) even shouted friendly words of encouragement at me when after his new band’s show in SF when he found out what I did.

I have three primary reasons for wanting to bring this up, all increasingly relevant to what I’ll be sharing here.

  1. I want to impart what little wisdom I’ve accumulated from the writing process thus far to anyone reading this who may be thinking about pursuing a PhD. Most of those people probably already have their minds made up but are just stopping by on their daily blogroll (thanks!)
  2. This is why I haven’t written anything on here for almost a month. I know I’ve had similar gaps before, but in this case, I’m honestly too preoccupied with reading, notating, and writing, and that aforementioned guilt has kept me from trying to produce unrelated material for my site. I’m also pretty subdued about works in progress, so I’m loathe to share much material about my dissertation, which (again) composes a vast majority of my recent productivity. I’ll relax this a bit tonight, though, because…
  3. The ostensibly last-minute mad-dash for literature and source material has yielded a few things in the last 48 hours that I couldn’t keep to myself.

A wise(au) man once said “Don’t plan too much, it may not come out right.” One piece of advice I’d gotten ages ago from a colleague was to avoid handicapping myself by doing anything other than expecting the unexpected when it came to research, especially given any umbrella as wide as a dissertation’s. I do have my proposal to reference whenever I forget, but I could never rewind my brain to whatever mode it was in when I first landed on my topic. The qualitative researcher is no different than their subject(s)- fluid and subject to an endless stream of external and internal influences. It’s just as important to keep as open of a mind in qualitative research as anywhere in life. This applies equally when digging through cluttered archives as accumulating the most iconoclastic of oral histories from folks in another country (both of which I’ve done over the past year).

Two research practices that have yielded mouth-nearly-agape results-level material for me in the past 48 hours range from superbly post(?)-modern (YouTube) to the downright old-fashioned (library stacks).

PARIS, 1988
From where I sit, not a whole lot of scholarship has been done on how useful YouTube can be in qualitative research, at least within geography. Some disparate articles using YouTube have appeared over the last decade (Longhurst 2009, Garrett 2011, Carter 2015), but streaming and participatory video is hardly even a generation-old phenomenon. Video recording has become more ubiquitous through smart phones, but that doesn’t mean a treasure trove of audio-visual research material hasn’t been digitized and uploaded by benevolent users all over the internet. A full year after gathering stories about the first two Fugazi shows in Paris (November 1988 and December 1989), I discovered that not only were they both filmed with excellent sound for the VHS era, but they are also now online, thanks to Philippe Roger.

Even if you aren’t a fan of Fugazi’s music, this is a fascinating watch. You can see the violence breaking out among this snapshot of Paris’ late-80’s punks scene. Watch how annoyed (and even scared) the band gets when people won’t stop stagediving and otherwise disrupting them, but they still take it like true professionals and unleash their set of early-era highlights. Guy Piciotto (whose near-fluent French he speaks here) wasn’t even playing the guitar in the first show, embedded here below. You can check out the second one, from 1990, here. For those of you who were wondering what the essence of my dissertation was, and were looking for a response to be in video form:


PARIS, 1926
Yesterday, I decided to go the library to dig up a 1984 edition of Pierre Bourdieu’s  Distinction. Normally, I just use the handy delivery service that UTK offers to save time, but the other day, I decided to give my legs and brain much-needed stretches and walked over there. I also needed to return a couple books to a different campus library, but that’s besides the point. Right before a seismic monsoon landed on campus, I ducked into the main library and wandered up to the third floor. The Bourdieu book was nowhere to be found. The staff couldn’t locate it either. I know how many books just disappear or slip under the radar within library systems every year, but at the time, it was a little frustrating. I did, however, grab a few books on a whim that have already jumped to the top of my reading list and begun to influence my writing. These included Utopia Deferred, a series of essays by the always delightful leftist quote-machine Jean Baudrillard. I also grabbed French Cultural Studies, a 1995 collection edited by Jill Forbes and Michael Kelly. I’m not sure how prominently this book will figure into my work, but I’m more confused as to why it hadn’t occurred to me yet to dig into French Cultural Studies as a resource. Last but not least (actually, least-least) was Nancy L. Green’s exhaustively-researched The Other Americans in Paris (2014), an exhaustively-researched history of the American community in Paris, from the gold- and culture-digging elites down to the petty criminals who escaped Uncle Sam’s grasp in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On Page 1, Green clearly lays out her mission statement:

There is an untold tale of Americans in the City of Light, a history of expatriation that parallels the story of those who came to France for creative inspiration. But with an important twist. While many Americans came to France in search of (European) civilization, many more came to disseminate the American version of it. Even as the writers and artists of the well-known “Lost Generation” expressed angst over modernity and America’s role in it, other Americans overseas were participating in the debate over modernity in another way: by selling it or trying to.

The cultural and sub-cultural exchanges between the US and France, while I’m focusing on the past four decades, have been prominent for the entire lifespan of both Republics. These thoughts had been crossing my mind for the whole lifespan of my project, but until I grabbed Green’s book on a whim, I hadn’t really thought much about how much interwar American expats and tourists told us about the societies’ love-hate relationship. Did you know there was a vicious anti-American demonstration on Grands Boulevards almost exactly 90 years ago this week? Did you know hundreds of angry locals gathered to take out their frustrations on a cluster of the 200,000 American tourists in town that summer? Well, it happened (see Green, p. 204).

What I’m trying to say is, these are the things that have distracted me from this blog this summer, and take an hour a week to wander around your library’s stacks. Even if they don’t have the book you’re looking for, it can and will push/pull your research in different and fun directions.

Back to writing….

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Carter, Perry. “3 Virtual ethnography.” Social memory and heritage tourism methodologies 49 (2015): 48.
Garrett, Bradley L. “Videographic Geographies: Using Digital Video for Geographic Research.” Progress in Human Geography 35, no. 4 (2011): 521-41.
Green, Nancy L. The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Longhurst, Robyn. “YouTube: a new space for birth?” Feminist Review 93, no. 1 (2009): 46-63.

Wanted: Fans of DC Punk and Hardcore in Paris

BadBrains_Eiffel

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.

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.

Qui cherchez-vous?
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.