Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Fugazi's Resonance; Amherst's smallpox blankets

(This post is inspired by Adam Kotsko)

At first it was the sound. The very long build-ups, the slow jazz pauses, punctuated by explosive rhythm. The crowds at the early shows I went to were in constant motion; it was the release of a terrible frenetic energy. (Jem Cohen captures a bit of this in his documentary on Fugazi, Instrument).

Fugazi was just a band, but they flirted with religion. They had rituals (the shows, the dancing), core beliefs (straight-edge: no drinking, no drugs, no smoking), and core texts (the lyrics). And most of all, they had numbers; albums like Steady Diet of Nothing sold in the hundreds of thousands. Fugazi shows were, aside from everything else, experiences of being in an unpredictable, wild, crowd, intoxicated by the power to reject the external authority. But they substituted the mechanical restrictions of parents and school-principals with their own orthodoxies, which were designed to guide its listeners crudely towards commitment, and towards a considered life ("live the life").

Though he repeatedly refused the role, the crowd wanted Ian MacKaye for its ascetic priest. He had denounced the commercial music industry: Fugazi's independent record label Dischord, sold records at prices only to break even. Fugazi shows only cost $5, and the band insisted on playing alcohol-free all-ages shows. MacKaye had argued publicly for a straight-edge approach to life: no intoxicants, responsibility to the (punk) community, no voluntary support for anyone who does otherwise. But he had also denounced the band's own stardom: we're only musicians, we're not prophets or politicians.

And yet the kids wanted prophets, and Fugazi almost gave them one. The late 1980s was a crisis age of alienation in America. Crack, AIDS, gang wars, South African apartheid, Iran-Contra, and the huge steaming pile of delusion that was Nancy Reagan's response to all social ills: “Just say no.” Crisis produced a fascinating ideological disarray, with punk philosophers and micro-movements cropping up all over DC: straight-edge hardcore, Krishna Consciousness, Positive Force, Riot Grrl. By and large they were disciplined cults, which required a great deal by way of sacrifice from adherents. More than anything else, belonging required total commitment, an almost blind belief. Such belief was readily available from many kids, at least for a few months: many alienated teenagers in the city desperately wanted something to believe in, something to be.

I was never a cultist, but in my late teens I did turn to Fugazi for something to believe in, and was disappointed that in life Ian MacKaye refused to claim the prophetic role he assumed vocally in Fugazi's songs. Fugazi songs brought kids into sharp awareness of injustice: they were songs that could start causes. Sometimes, in early songs like “Waiting Room,” for instance, MacKaye's lyrics weren't even particularly inspiring: it is hard to know what to do with an anthem against waiting rooms (there is an allegory there about the realization of historical destiny, but it is buried). And yet MacKaye's anthemic phrasing (with “Waiting Room's” catchy & memorable bass riff) could rivet thousands of people. I remember it vividly: one at a free show by the Washington Monument (on the eve of the first Gulf War) and again at free summertime shows at Fort Reno Park in the years following.

Similarly, Fugazi's famous anti-rape song “Suggestion,” is a little unpolished, and it ends with an unfortunate choice of phrase: “We are all guilty.” But this song too uses dramatic pauses to draw the listener in before nailing (him) for his complicity. And yet some lines continue to be compelling for me, 15 years later: “he just wants, he wants to feel it/ she does nothing to conceal it/ we blame her for being there.”

Ian and Guy Picciotto reached song-writing maturity in Repeater, Steady Diet of Nothing, and In on the Kill Taker, especially the latter two albums. The band continued to develop songs set, like “Suggestion,” in specific contexts, with a particular drama at hand: the interaction of kid and clerk at a record store (“what could a businessman ever want more/ than to have us sucking in his store?”), the anger at the television ("Got with the program, swallowed it whole/ Sugar made it easy, ice made it cold / Reached out and touched them on a tv screen / Broke out the polish, scrubbed it clean, that dirty machine"). These songs, with concrete reference, are the ones I continue to find listenable. But alongside them Fugazi continued to write loose anthems, like “Blueprint” and “Turnover”: “Langour rises reaching/ to turn off the alarm/ And there's never so much seething/ that it can't be disarmed/ You just stop it up/ Pass it on/ Shove to shelf it/ To leave it off and turnover.” These songs are, like “Waiting Room” earlier, allegories for social liberation. They point to a movement for social justice that Fugazi clearly wished to encourage, but which it nevertheless refused to embody. They are vague songs about the failure to be free, and they don't resonate for me anymore.

Today it's hard to see the value of vague prophets (prophets are always vague, aren't they?); analytical clarity is to be preferred. But even within the clarity I personally aspire to there remains a place for the concrete poetry of resistence, and Fugazi songs continue to have an impact.

I am probably alone in thinking that the best songs Fugazi ever wrote were in In on the Kill Taker. My favorite, still, is “Smallpox champion,” which is a progressive political anthem that, almost in the vein of Woody Guthrie, hinges on a very specific historical atrocity -– the fact that General Jeffrey Amherst (Amherst, Massachusetts is named after him) gave Native Americans blankets that were intentionally laced with smallpox. It may be the first case of biological warfare in history; at any rate, it is certainly one of the most diabolical. Fugazi finds it a suitable allegory for the Trojan horse of colonialism in general, and the band directs their rage at Amherst, and America:

Smallpox champion u s of a
Give natives some blankets
Warm like the grave
This is the pattern cut from the cloth
This is the pattern designed to take you right out

Bury your heart u s of a history rears up to spit in your face
You saw what you wanted
You took what you saw
We know how you got it
Your method equals wipe out

I find the song oddly appropriate to the present moment. Somewhere I hope there are kids working out the lyrics and guitar to express their fresh realization of the failures of American justice: interrogation champions, u.s. of a...

Update: I earnestly implore anyone reading this to start a punk band called "The Lynndies."


Rob Breymaier said...

I always took Waiting Room to be about civil rights. "Because I can't get up" always seemed to refer to whites keeping blacks (and others down). But, I'm not a big fan just casual.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that "In On The Kill Taker" is their best album.

10:17 PM  

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