Inside D.C. entertainment

To the vaults: D.C. punk gets archived, sorta

August 9, 2010 - 09:33 AM
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d.c. punk
Mark Yoffe has Faith — that others will follow his lead in archiving D.C. punk. (Photo: TBD Staff)

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Mark Yoffe's office is in Gelman Library's Special Collections Research Center. In fact, it's in the Global Resources Center.

The D.C. punk rock collection at George Washington University's Gelman Library is smaller than you might expect. There’s a studded leather jacket — stored, overcautiously perhaps, in a locked vault — with a live photo of the hardcore band Faith embedded on the back; several T-shirts, one reading “Rock against Reagan, July 3-4, 1988” and another “Ron Sells Crack to Fund Contras”; some concert fliers from the scene’s ’80s and early ’90s heyday; and, what’s perhaps most significant, 86 CDs and 10 DVDs that comprise most of the Dischord Records catalog.

There’s nothing there yet from labels like Fountain of Youth, Limp, or Simple Machines, which all contributed to the region’s outsize place in punk history. The collection began only four years ago and, says its curator, Mark Yoffe, will require time and patience to grow. Furthermore, it’s only a small piece of a much more ambitious project on his hands: an archive of countercultural music and ephemera from around the world.

The walls of Yoffe’s cramped office in the library’s Global Resources Center are plastered with concert bills for Serj Tankian (of System of a Down) and the Evens (Ian MacKaye’s post-Fugazi band), and photos or busts of faces both familiar (Che Guevara; Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and less so (Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik secret police; Vaclav Havel, the final president of Czechoslovakia and Lou Reed’s hero). On metal shelves behind him, meanwhile, scholarly books with intimidating titles huddle alongside stacks of CDs grouped by country, from Argentina to Finland to Slovenia. These discs, he explains, are in the process of being cataloged and will soon join the hundreds of others, plus 242 mostly Russian zines, already in the International Counterculture Archive. With funding from Gelman, he established the archive in 1996 and has grown it into one of the largest collection of its kind in the world.

Dissidence is a subject Yoffe knows intimately. Born in Latvia in 1958, in the USSR, he saw friends taken to “the nuthouse” simply for having long hair or dressing differently. Playing rock ’n’ roll could get you hauled away, too, as the Soviet obsession with regulations extended to music, with the government running its own record label, Melodiya.

Yoffe, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Soviet rock and in 2005 co-edited the book Rock ’n’ Roll and Nationalism: A Multinational Perspective, says people in the Soviet Union were aware of British and American punk music in the late ’70s but that genre didn’t make landfall until 1980 — and never really caught on. The public’s musical sensibilities, even in underground scenes, favored melody over “atonal, disjointed music,” he says. But punk’s D.I.Y. ethos did take root there, as bands played unauthorized shows in tiny apartments, their instruments unplugged to avoid being caught. Albums were often recorded that way, too, or in underground studios.

And even though punk music itself didn’t take off in the Soviet Union, the word “punk” certainly did. Aquarium, a seminal band from Leningrad, caught the attention of authorities in 1980 and its members were derided as “punks” — despite the fact that Aquarium played prog rock. The word was used interchangeably with “fascist,” says Yoffe, and thereafter the underground dissidents, in the way of oppressed minorities the world over, claimed the epithet for themselves. (They also wore swastikas, though Yoffe argues they weren’t neo-Nazis: “They were using Nazi symbolism to annoy the Communists.”)

Punk rock, in sound or spirit, took root elsewhere: in Eastern Europe, in Finland and Denmark, in Uruguay and Argentina and Chile, even China and Burma. In some regions, like the Balkans, music united historically opposed groups; Serbians and Bosnians and Slovenians, for instance, would all play and attend shows together. “They refused to buy into this nationalist bullshit they were being served,” says Yoffe. “The punks transcended these ethnic and religious boundaries.”

In light of this — and if you want more, check out this excerpt from Rock ’n’ Roll and Nationalism — the D.C. punk of the ’80s, with its white guilt and straight-edge sermonizing, suddenly seems a lot less hardcore. Which is not to say, however, that it was any less revelatory for those who were a part of it.

“The one thing about being a punk is, everyone said it couldn’t be done,” says MacKaye, who cofounded and co-owns Dischord, “so we just did it. I think having evidence of that is important for all of the kids of the future, just so they know that it’s possible.”

MacKaye, 48, probably has more such evidence than anyone else. Besides everything he’s accumulated over the past three decades — zines, concert posters, photos, vinyl, cassettes, demos, reel-to-reel masters, DATs — others have donated boxes upon boxes memorabilia. And that, says MacKaye, is where everything rests now: in boxes. He’d like that to change. Someday. “Eventually this archive will go somewhere,” he says. “I mean, I don’t need it. I’ll be dead, and I certainly don’t need it then. I’m not even sure I need it while I’m alive.”

Several years ago he met with Yoffe and Tina Plottel, another librarian at Gelman and a longtime D.C. musician, to discuss the punk collection, but they haven’t talked since. Other projects, like an online archive of some 1,000 Fugazi shows, have taken precedence, and, he says, “I’m still in the process of getting my stuff organized.” He’s also not sure yet where he wants that stuff housed. If he gives it to Gelman, he would stipulate that it be available to everyone, not just GWU students: “I’m not interested in having it locked up in an archival, or an academic, tomb.”

Plottel, meanwhile, is working on her own contribution to the collection: an oral history of Kansas House, the legendary Arlington D.I.Y. venue demolished late last year.

“Anytime there’s something about the D.C. punk scene, they talk to the same three people,” she says (see MacKaye quotes, above). As a corrective, she has spent several months on leave from work, interviewing anyone who spent time at Kansas House. She’s hoping to schedule a West Coast trip for December, if she can raise enough for travel costs, and to finish most of the interviews by January. Once transcribed, those interviews, plus everything else she’s gathered, will join the D.C. punk collection and be available online.

In all this talk of preservation, there’s the unspoken implication that D.C. punk is dead, or at least no longer relevant. Plottel has a nicer way of phrasing it. “I don’t necessarily see it as the culture having passed,” she said, “but that moment is over.”

In other words, don’t expect much — or any — music and ephemera from the contemporary punk scene to end up in that collection.

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