Washington’s punk rock past, captured by a filmmaker who was there for it all

John Kelly
Columnist May 19

The movie film that passes through Paul Bishow’s hands represents both ends, the alpha and the omega, of the cinematic spectrum.

Paul is a projectionist at a Smithsonian Imax theater, regularly handling reels of that format’s large, meticulously shot 70mm film. Thirty years ago, he chronicled the District’s nascent, sweaty punk rock scene with a hand-held Super 8 camera, each frame just 8mm wide.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“With 70mm, each picture looks like a postcard,” Paul said. “With Super 8, people need a magnifying glass to see what’s on there.”

Paul has spent a lot of time looking at those days through a magnifying glass, both literally and metaphorically. He and James Schneider, another local filmmaker, are on the homestretch of their documentary, “Punk the Capital: Straight From Washington, D.C.” They hope to raise $43,000 on Kickstarter by June 14 to complete the film. (When last I checked, they were at $13,154. Operators are standing by.)

Paul came to Washington in 1978 from Long Island. He didn’t really intend to stay, but he was drawn into the fervent, fertile scene that coalesced at Madam’s Organ — not the Adams Morgan blues bar of today but an artist’s collective on 18th Street NW that hosted music and film.

“The Organ itself was a very open-minded place,” Paul said. “That was one of the best things about it. One of the things that really attracted me was the closeness of the audience and the bands. They were often the same people. You’d have people in the audience this week and next week they’d be forming a band, too.”

That kind of sums up punk in a nutshell.

Eumig camera in hand, Paul captured the early days: punk, hardcore, straight edge and new wave at places such as Madam’s Organ and d.c. space. He has more than eight hours of footage, including early performances by one of the most interesting bands ever to come from Washington: Bad Brains, black musicians playing what was primarily white music, inspired by — of all things — self-help author Napoleon Hill’s work. Their blitzkrieg attack would echo in bands such as Fugazi.

“Bad Brains, you really recognized them as being great,” Paul said. “The first time you saw them, they were like amazing.”

Paul is 62 and once managed the Biograph movie theater in Georgetown. His co-director, James, 42, came of age in the District a generation later, obsessed with the bands spawned in the wake of the 1978-’80 explosion “Punk the Capital” focuses on. He’s made films with the Makeup and Chain & the Gang, and directed a documentary about French filmmaker Jean Epstein.

The current project’s gestation has been a long one. The earliest efforts at making the movie started more than a decade ago. Since then, another documentary — “Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital” — has neared completion. Is there room for (at least) two D.C. punk movies?

“We’re hoping these films will all be complementary,” James said. “We’re all working simultaneously to bring this big story together. It’s a really rich and long story, and I think it will take several films to do it justice.”

On June 10, the Black Cat will host a fundraising event for “Punk the Capital.” Paul and James will screen some sections of their in-progress film. They promise a surprise: footage of what James described as “an important band from 1979 that nobody’s seen.”

For now, the movie’s structure is basically planked out. Most of the interviews — with the likes of Dischord’s Ian MacKaye — are done. Part of the money from the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign will be used to transfer Paul’s original footage to a more stable, high-definition digital format. It will join a D.C. punk archive being assembled by the D.C. Public Library’s Special Collections department.

Said Paul: “Super 8 film, even though it’s old, has this sort of quality that I don’t think you’d get [with other formats]. It just has a really you-are-there quality to it.”

Thanks to Paul, you can be there, too.

Born on the Bayou

Bad Brains played at the Bayou in Georgetown once before being banned. (They opened for the Damned.) A documentary about that legendary club — “The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint” — has been nominated for a local Emmy award. It’s up against “The Kennedy Half Century,” a documentary based on Larry Sabato’s book about the late president’s lasting influence.

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