Documentary screening in Venice takes a hard look at Washington D.C.’s fast and loud hardcore scene
By Michael Aushenker
It was called “hardcore,” but there was more to it than that. While the Washington D.C. punk rock scene of the 1980s paralleled Los Angeles’ grassroots punk movement, it varied in content, political consciousness and scope.
Scott Crawford’s new documentary, “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington D.C. (1980 to ’90)”—screening Friday at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice — examines the early DIY scene that spawned Bad Brains, Government Issue, Scream, Void, and Minor Threat (which later begot Fugazi).
Patrick Iaconis, co-owner of Venice’s C.A.V.E. Gallery, organized the screening.
“The whole early D.C. hardcore music scene influenced me at a very young age — in a positive way. It got me thinking about politics or social issues that ‘popular music’ just wasn’t focusing on,” said Iaconis, who grew up in Pittsburgh and worked as a high school art teacher in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Former Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski will introduce the film. Arguably the leader of L.A.-area punk, Black Flag shared an important connector with its D.C. brethren: the Hermosa band’s third and most established vocalist, Henry Rollins, started there.
“They were ambitious from the get-go, and hiring Henry [in August 1981] was proof of their ambition. He brought a very focused, disciplined persona to the work,” said Marty Davis, the cartoonist behind the Black Flag piece in the just-released book, “How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 and 1/3rd Series.”
Crawford said that personal experience compelled him to make the film. Myriad punk documentaries had “focused on the nihilism and negative aspect. Not that this is all sunshine and lollipops, but what I saw was a community of people that continued to evolve musically and spiritually and politically. A lot of other scenes had turned into speed metal or thrash metal. [D.C. punk] was fairly introspective compared to what was going on in scenes in other parts of the country.”
It was also diverse: Bad Brains were the anomalous all-African-American punk band.
According to Crawford, Bad Brains and the short-lived Minor Threat set the standard for many post-punk groups into the 1990s. D.C. bands “released their own records and booked their own shows, without major record label constraints or mainstream media scrutiny,” he said.
Songs such as Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge” (eschewing drugs, alcohol) and frontman Ian MacKaye’s insistence on setting affordable ticket prices for Fugazi shows (later echoed by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) set an example that was different from their raw, often cruder West Coast counterparts such as Fear, Dead Kennedys, The Adolescents and The Circle Jerks.
While L.A. punk often dealt with more mundane anti-authority targets such as parents, teachers and the police, D.C. music appeared more specifically political for obvious reasons.
“The seat of power is your backyard, so it affects you in a way. By the mid-‘80s, it was fairly politicized. You wouldn’t see them discussing these issues overtly in their lyrics but they would be playing benefit shows and talking about these issues from the stage,” Crawford said.
He credits D.C. hardcore for influencing the alternative music explosion of the 1990s, namely the Seattle grunge movement that produced anti-corporate acts such as Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney.
Any hardline rivalry between L.A. and D.C. remains fuzzy.
Crawford noted no tangible backlash in D.C. against Rollins joining Black Flag (with MacKaye’s blessing).
“It was dangerous but not in the same way as L.A.,” he said of the D.C. scene. Contrary to the violent mosh pits of L.A., Rollins might have been “hassled a lot by rednecks and Marines and frat boys in Georgetown — that was probably their biggest challenges,” he said. However, once Rollins came to L.A. he was constantly harassed by police.
Southern California-based Davis believes “there was a certain SoCal snobbishness when it came to the D.C. scene” and that “D.C. seemed so very second-tier … to our way of thinking.”
Exene Cervenka of the L.A. group X said “the hardcore scene (not the bands, but the fans) in Southern California was hostile towards the punk scene in Hollywood, so I rarely went to shows like those.”
Circle Jerks’ founding drummer Lucky Lehrer suggests a high tide of both scenes raising all ships.
“When the Circle Jerks played with the Bad Brains at Devonshire Downs, the show was explosive — both bands pushing each other to play fast, loud and tight,” Lehrer recalled of “the biggest punk show ever in the San Fernando Valley.”
Bad Brains were already legendary by the time the Circle Jerks formed in 1980.
“We visited Bad Brains as soon as the Circle Jerks arrived on our first tour to New York,” Lehrer said. “They were super-cool people, and their hit ‘Pay to Cum’ influenced me to play fast and tight.”
Crawford, an Annapolis resident, grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. The 43-year-old filmmaker used to hit punk shows at two major venues, 9:30 Club and D.C. Space, as well as every house party and church basement in-between — starting even before his teens.
“I’ve been writing about music since I was 12,” said Crawford, who as a teen published the scene zine Metrozine and from 2000 to 2009 helmed alternative music and culture magazine Harp.
Crawford raised the $32,000 in seed money for “Salad Days” through Kickstarter four years ago. Long ingrained in the scene, he encountered few problems with music rights issues as he befriended many of the musicians — guys like Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer and leader of the Foo Fighters (and one of the doc’s talking heads).
“[Late Nirvana leader Kurt] Cobain was a really big D.C. punk fan. That’s what made me go see Dave Grohl — he was the second drummer for Scream. [Nirvana] saw him play and they’re like, ‘we need a drummer like that.’”
“Salad Days” has screened this year in New York, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Portland, Boston, San Francisco and downtown at the Regent, where former Circle Jerks frontman and original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris introduced the film. However, the apex of Crawford’s journey was the December 2014 premiere at the AFI Theater in Washington D.C., which sold out four nights in a row and gathered together many who had been part of the ‘80s punk scene.
So is the D.C. scene finally getting its due?
“Maybe on film,” said L.A.-based Frontier Records founder Lisa Fancher, who signed The Adolescents and The Circle Jerks, “but since about 1980 it was always there — just waiting to change your life for the better.”
“Salad Days” screens at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. There is also a 6 p.m. pre-party. Tickets are $10 or $6 for students and seniors. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.