A Local Rocker Ruminates

Washington Social Club  --  left to right, Olivia Mancini, Randy Scope, Martin Royle and Evan Featherstone  --  performs Sept. 23 at T.T. Reynolds in Fairfax.
Washington Social Club -- left to right, Olivia Mancini, Randy Scope, Martin Royle and Evan Featherstone -- performs Sept. 23 at T.T. Reynolds in Fairfax. (By Sam Erickson)
Sunday, September 4, 2005

My name is Martin Royle, and I am a D.C. rocker. I sing for a band called the Washington Social Club. Consider the name an invitation. We play indie rock-and-roll to the masses in Virginia, Maryland and the District, and we're on MTV if you stay up late enough. Rolling Stone reviewed our CD "CatchingLooks" and said that we "specialize in Elvis Costello-y power pop and caffeinated danceability." I'm not totally sure what that means. A guy at our last show said we were "pop for everybody" and I won't argue with that.

Every night in D.C. since we played the Grog and Tankard four years ago has been interesting. Some nights I'm a lithe god, born of pomposity and baptized by footlights. Some nights I'm a complete fraud. To be a rock star in the strangest city in the free world is to experience this town in a very different way.

Did you know that D.C. is completely and utterly bizarre? Or have you lost perspective? Don't blame yourself, it happens. Well, I see all from the stage. I see the fears and the hopes of the city's populace undulating around me. The little secrets you hide from each other burn through your eyelids at a rock show, and I collect them.

Don't be afraid, I can be trusted farther than I can be thrown, and I don't weigh more than a buck fifty.

Some of you are devious and smart, power hungry but, ironically, scared of authority. Some of you dress to impress but feel the scorn of your New York friends. Some of you try to be bohemian but end up being simply cosmopolitan. You want to live and look like you're starving artists, but living here shatters those illusions, forces you to fit in, get a normal job, drink coffee and talk politics. Some of you dance wildly like pagans around a fire and some cling to the sides of the club like a child in the deep end. All of you are looking for something real, something more than 9 to 5, something better than Democrat or Republican. Something you can hold on to at night, like an idea or a belief . . . or me.

People ask, "What is it like to play here?" I'll tell you; touch a nerve in this town and it begs for more. Get it off its feet and it can't stop dancing. If New York is with you, you're rich. If L.A. is with you, you're cool. But if D.C. is with you, you're strong. You get into people's hearts and you stay there.

A while ago I was in Austin watching the band the Drive By Truckers play to 300 or so very loyal fans. After one song the singer began preaching to the crowd, telling them that "by god," now was the time to rise up and reject all they had accepted and live! And dance, damn it, dance! The crowd devoured every word and at the fever pitch of the speech the singer turned his back to them. From the side where I stood I could see his face. It was scared and frightened and childlike. It was as if he had extended his very essence over the crowd and then had it snap back into him like a rubber band. He looked so vulnerable and beautiful and so unlike the fearsome revivalist that had just graced the microphone. Same guy. In that moment I thought of a line for one of my songs, "One night you're a god, you're a rock-and-roller, the next night you're a fraud, the same rock-and-roller."

That's the stage for me. A place of redemption or a landing pad for a maelstrom of self-doubt. Some nights the music can soar over and through a crowd so that it mixes with the tattoos and tank tops, and when the set ends I float away on a ship of hope, feeling whole and thinking to myself, "Wow, that was easy." And other nights it's like one of those dreams where I'm swinging at someone who is attacking me but my arms have no strength.

But when I'm on stage in D.C., I can't get enough of the crowd. You stare better. You move better. Hell, you stand better. It's your intensity that colors the air and heightens reality. It makes guitar chords important. For the same reasons why getting a cup of coffee in Dupont can be an awkward culture clash, and why passing strangers yell at you for jaywalking, D.C. rocks harder when the lights go down. We're all in the same rock-and-roll foxhole here, fighting to bring irresponsibility to an overly responsible city. We fight the daylight, we fight our jobs, and we fight peoples' expectations.

This can be a tough town to live in. Maybe some of you are reading this and are trying to deny it. Don't. This is a town of secrets, a town of cold stone where kindness is weakness. It needs love, but gets hate. And maybe we will overcome and maybe we won't, but either way when it's all said and done you can bury me in the District and leave guitar picks on my grave. Martin E. Royle

© 2005 The Washington Post Company