THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Forever on the Edge

by by Megan Hauptman

illustration by by Lizzie Davis

“The last time i played a show, the audience was pornographic with cameras,” Ian MacKaye says, scowling out over the crowd assembled in front of him. “Let’s all put our devices away and try to just be present for this one.” A few audience members sheepishly lower iPhones; one man in front of me tucks a hefty DSLR behind his back, the zoom lens jutting out into the audience like another limb. Most audience members look amused at the request, but not surprised. MacKaye is well known for his cantankerous style.

Ian MacKaye is one half of The Evens; the other half is his wife, Amy Farina. Both are dressed unassumingly in jeans and solid dark t-shirts. MacKaye wears a slouchy black beanie, though he is now almost 51. The two are playing in the charter school’s pale green assembly room. MacKaye is the former frontman of Teen Idles, Minor Threat and Fugazi, famous DC hardcore bands. Farina is the former drummer for DC rock darlings Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. The two married and later formed The Evens, a minimalist duo of drums and guitar backing soft, almost mumbled vocals, and have released three albums together: The Evens (2005), Get Evens (2006), and in November of last year, The Odds.

Home for winter break, a bunch of friends and I are at The Evens’ fundraiser show for the Next Step Public Charter School in Washington, DC. It costs five dollars, which has been the going rate for any MacKaye show since Minor Threat first hit it big. The school, which serves mainly older immigrants trying to get a high school diploma while working, used to be the site of the Wilson Center, a hotbed of punk shows and radical activism in the ’80s. As the show fills with black-clad original punks, I start to feel like I’m peering into someone else’s high school reunion.

Ian Mackaye is a punk legend, even beyond DC But he’s remained in his hometown for his whole life, returning to this city after every tour. He has donated most of the proceeds from his albums and shows to local causes and non-profits. His bands sang about homelessness and police violence, and the money they made from recordings went to shelters and public health clinics in D.C.

MacKaye began as the frontman for the Teen Idles during high school, a band that has been labelled one of the first DC hardcore bands. After high school, the Teen Idles disbanded and he and several friends started a new band, Minor Threat. It was the early ’80s, and DC was experiencing the AIDs crisis and had just been introduced to crack cocaine. MacKaye
had grown up the son of a newspaper editor, in the affluent Glover Park neighborhood on the northwest side of the city. DC was, and still is, one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the country; the northwest is full of lush parks and independent bookstores, the southeast is a flat, treeless land where the blocks of row houses are often described as blighted.

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Minor Threat only made it three years before disbanding in 1983; their most significant legacy was arguably the coining of “straight-edge,” the now-ubiquitous term for leading a drug, alcohol- (and often meat-) free life. In Minor Threat’s hit song, “Straight Edge,” MacKaye sang: “I’m a person just like you/ but I’ve got better things to do/ than sit around and fuck my head.” The song, based in MacKaye’s personal philosophy of sober living (defined as abstaining from alcohol, drugs, and casual sex), spread a new punk ethos; straight edge was an attempt to broach the occasional nihilism of punk music and connect it with a radical politics that called for active personal and systemic change. Straight edge has persisted as a punk subculture ever since.

MacKaye went on to form Fugazi in 1987, a much more musically coherent band with the same punk ethos. Shows were still only five dollars, and all the money raised went
to the causes MacKaye and bandmates were singing about. The band members were older, and so was their audience. MacKaye was no longer screaming about staying straight to high schoolers; he and his band crafted measured but still chaotic tirades about the state of the city. In “Cashout” (2001), MacKaye sings about corruption and eminent domain: “It’s official/ development wants this neighborhood /gone so the city just wants the same/ talking about process and dismissal/forced removal of the people on the corner.”

Fugazi hit it big, but they never left Dischord Records. Until they disbanded in 2003, they continued playing cheap shows in small venues in DC and all over the world, always donating the majority of their proceeds. They wouldn’t allow audience members to mosh or slam dance because aggressive dancing often hurt women and younger audience members. They mainly played in all-ages venues, and didn’t sell albums or merchandise at their shows to avoid commercialization of their music.

In 2001, just before Fugazi broke up, MacKaye and Farina formed The Evens. After playing in huge venues with Fugazi, some of which relied heavily on alcohol sales to furnish profit, MacKaye was interested in splitting off from any reliance on the commercial music scene. MacKaye and Farina dealt with this by keeping their set almost acoustic, which lowered their production costs and made it so that they could play anywhere with little equipment.

The anachronism of a camera-less show is kind of exciting, kind of uncomfortable, when I realize how much time I spend documenting my daily existence and then disseminating it via social media. For my generation, attending a show without being able to digitally capture a memento might almost defeat the purpose of being there, but as I look around I realize that my five friends and I are the only people of our age present. Most attendees look to be in their forties or fifties, save for the gaggle of under-ten year olds on the stage, assumedly the children of older attendees.

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The stage looks almost like a living room, with a small rug under the drum set and two floor lamps framing MacKaye and Farina, though I have no photographs to remind me of the exact set-up. A red DC hardcore flag has been pinned up on the wall behind the duo; the triple stars of the district’s official banner replaced with the straight-edge triple X.

On one side of the stage, a group of eclectically-dressed children has gathered, some wiggling around to the music, others still and focused intently on the band as the play. One boy has closed his eyes as he mouths along with the words. All of the kids are wearing lavishly large and brightly colored protective headphones, a sure sign of their parents’ punk- rock status. I assume one is Carmine Francis, MacKaye and Farina’s four-year-old son, but I’m not sure which, because all of the kids seem to be intimately familiar with the lyrics to the songs. Some jam out on complex air-guitars; at the end of each song a few boys yell out requests.

Their favorite seems to be “Wanted Criminals,” a song about the police and private prison industry; the admittedly catchy chorus repeats “jails in search of criminals” over a furious guitar riff. MacKaye plays the song at the request of the cheering children; but not before prefacing it with a lengthy pontification on the role of the police in DC. A few minutes into his thoughts, he pauses and looks out at the audience. “I promise I don’t think about the police all the time.” Farina cocks her eyebrows and chuckles, “That is just not true.”

It’s hard to imagine, looking at Arlington, VA, now, that in 1981, MacKaye’s record label, Dischord Records, moved their operations to a small bungalow home there because it was less expensive than renting space in the District. I grew up in Arlington, a fairly affluent and loudly liberal suburb just across the Potomac River from DC. The metro corridor of Arlington—the central urban areas of the city built up around the DC metro stops—is now replete with high-rise condos, shiny townhouses and upscale chain stores.

Dischord Records operated out of a small house only blocks away from this metro corridor for over twenty years; it was outfitted with a practice space, a design studio, and
a darkroom over the years, and temporarily housed many DC punks and passers-through. The house, still owned by MacKaye but out of use as Dischord’s base, is tucked behind unassuming suburban shrubbery only a few miles from the house where I grew up. Minor Threat played at least a  few shows in my high school’s cafeteria in the ’80s; Black Flag, another DC punk legend, played at our school’s prom sometime in that decade.

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I started listening to MacKaye’s music in the eighth grade, when a boy I had a huge crush on made me a mix CD with some Fugazi songs on it. I rocked out to “Give Me the Core” with my dad while driving to school in the morning, trying to cultivate the appropriate punk-rockness to impress the object of my affection.

In high school, I fell into the burgeoning DC punk youth scene. In December of my freshman year, I went to Positive Youth Fest for the first time, a weekend of punk shows and DIY workshops at a space called the Warehouse Next Door. I never really figured out how to blend into the punk aesthetic, but I went to Positive Youth Fest every year of high school, and even helped to organize it my junior year. This iteration of DC punk was just as angry as their ’80s forebears, and many of them had embraced that generation’s straight-edge lifestyle, but the two scenes seemed be glancing at each other across some sort of generational chasm.

The DIY punk shows I attended were overwhelmingly young; the main point of overlap with the still extant punks of the ’80s was St. Stephen’s Church, an Episcopalian church and occasional show venue in Columbia Heights. St. Stephen’s, which was MacKaye’s family’s church in the seventies, serves as the unofficial headquarters for Positive Force DC, an activist collective headed mainly by a cadre of 80s punk rockers. Ian MacKaye had his fiftieth birthday party at the church in March of 2012. St. Stephen’s also has served as a venue for two Positive Youth Fests, as well as a variety of other shows populated mainly by the under-25 generation.

for an aspiring punk with a dislike for screaming and mosh- pits, The Evens, with their incisively political lyrics delivered in a pared-down style, played exactly the kind of music I wanted to embrace. They sang about DC politics, police brutality, gentrification, depression, apathy. The tried and true punk topics were now hushed and crooned, so soft you could miss the anger if you weren’t listening to the words.

Their newest album, The Odds, features their reliably melodic condemnations, mellow and raging all at once. The photograph on the album’s front cover shows an almost-silhouette of their son running toward the camera, foregrounded against the green, billowing shrubbery of what is probably the National Mall. The Capitol building looms in the background, a subtle reminder of the intrinsic geography in all of The Evens’ music. The album cover highlights the fact that these aging rockers are now, first and foremost, parents. But the content of the album reminds listeners that having a kid doesn’t make you forget about how fucked up things are; if anything, MacKaye and Farina now have even more of a stake in improving DC’s future.

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In an interview with NPR in December, the interviewer asked MacKaye and Farina what it would mean for them to have a rebellious kid. Farina answered, “Well, he wanted to be a police officer for Halloween.”

MacKaye paused a little bit longer before answering. “I remember being in high school and being struck by, like, the rebels,” he said. “Like, the rebellious people were largely the people who were self-destructing. And it seemed, like, what a shame. That’s their only option in this culture, that you have to destroy yourself? And I thought, well, that’s just ridiculous. But, honestly, I haven’t really thought about—I mean, right now, like, what does our son have to do to rebel? He has to take 25 minutes to put his shoes on. That’s a form of rebellion that will drive you crazy, you know?”

Punk is still alive in DC, in a youth culture where new bands are constantly being formed and shows are being organized. But it also lives in the continued work of activists like Positive Force DC and musicians like MacKaye, who continue to produce challenging, political, pissed-off music even, as they become the parental authority to potential future punks.

MEGAN HAUPTMAN B’14.5 was a police officer for Halloween.