The band's backstage room is upstairs and guarded by a Samoan in a fatigue jacket. The wild-eyed bass player is opening bottles of imported beer with his teeth. On one wall there is a giant abstract painting of a chicken. Two sallow-skinned women, who somehow got past the Samoan and who are wearing "Hang the Hostages" buttons, are hugging members of the band like mothers hugging sons bound for war.
The Bad Brains, the outlaws of punk in Washington, are mentally preparing themselves to play their kind of music -- the kind that just naturally seems to make people kick holes in walls.
Downstairs in Madam's Organ -- a sometimes art gallery, sometimes concert hall in the Adams Morgan area of Washington -- 80 or 90 regulars in Washington's Punk/New Wave scene are placidly awaiting the Bad Brains. In one corner a thickly made-up young woman with blond hair cut punk short is kissing a man in a leather jacket. A German shepherd dog has wandered in off 18th Street, as has Tommy Vacant, a punker from Baltimore. Two coeds from Georgetown Day School, who compare Punk/New Wave music to the Italian Mannerist school of painting, are seated on the steps leading up to the Samoan and the Bad Brains.
And then the band members rumble down the steps to play. The painfully loud music scares the German shepherd and the audience dances with spasmodic little jumps that are characteristically punk. An American flag is ripped off a wall, and a 14-year-old boy is punched in the chest by a much older man. Everybody sweats.
Punk/New Wave music, Washington-style, is a difficultly acquired taste. For the most part, it has all the professional polish of feral dogs fighting in a back alley. It can be condemned for what rock and roll music has always been condemned for: incomprehensible lyrics sung in the shadow of electronically amplified, guitar-dominated instrumentals blurted out in acoustically inappropriate buildings at volume levels that make blood drip from the ears. It can be praised for its energy, lack of pretense and outrageous disregard for accepted cultural values.
In Washington, where New Wave musicians claim that most upper-middle-class professionals only recognize art when Time and Newsweek tell it's art, Punk/New Wave does not have a large audience. By most estimates the music has had a hardcore following of about 500 teenagers and young adults since 1978. They range in age from 14 to 35. The same faces keep showing up at the five or six area clubs where the music is played. Punk/New Wave, which has become a major musical movement, is little more than a festering pimple on the face of culture in Washington where the main attactions continue to be movies that get good reviews.
Those still listening to their old Beatles albums may need a few definitions here. Punk grew out of working-class hopelessness in England in the 1970s. The Clash, a major English punk group, summed up the philosophical stance of punk in a number called "All the Young Punks." They sang: "Drag yourself to work, drag yourself to sleep. You're dead from the neck up by the middle of the week." The Sex Pistols, spitting and sassing and committing major crimes, brought punk to America. It is punk to stick a safety pin in your cheek, although few do.
New Wave is American and more philosophically muddy. The songs, for the most part, are short, hard-driving and danceable. They hark back to the early years of rock and roll and pound-it-out performers like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Internationally known New Wave performers like Blondie and the Knack are on the pop charts and making big money. Record company executives say New Wave, with its roots in the garages and basements of renegades from the Me Decade, may fill the void left by the declining popularity of disco music.
Although the distinction between punks and New Wavers is often impossible to make in Washington's watered-down music scene, punks tend to be young and very young while New Wavers are older, some in their 30s. Punks, who seem to come mostly from the affluent suburbs, are skinnier, curse louder, dress weirder, espouse more arcane political dogma and manage to jump more frenetically when they dance than do followers of New Wave, many of whom are young professionals living in the city.
Ruth Gutekunst, 18, is a punk in the District of Columbia. She wears black leather jackets and black leather skirts, and on occasion will wear a chain. Her red hair used to be blue. She chews bubble gum, wears butterfly-frame sunglasses and considers what she does a revolt against "the middle-class brutes" and "dullness" of the suburbs, where she used to live.
"I found the people in the suburbs [of Chicago] to be nonpeople who had no vitality. Punk has that vital element," says Ruth, a senior at the School Without Walls in the District. Ruth gets Bs in school, wants to study journalism at Catholic University and realizes that her mother thinks she's a bit crazy.
New Wave devotees in Washington, who are extremely reluctant to be quoted, say they enjoy the hard-driving music because it is cathartic and the catharsis is fresh and sharp -- not mass-produced frenzy like that available from world-class rock bands such as The Who or the Rolling Stones. New Wavers in Washington are often young investment bankers, art students or unemployed college graduates waiting on tables at local restaurants.
Yet there are so few punks and New Wavers in Washington that they are forced to seek musical gratification together in the same clubs, such as d.c. space in downtown Washington (which has reduced the number of Punk and New Wave bands it hires), Psyche Delly in Bethesda and Madam's Organ (which may not remain in business at its present Adams-Morgan location much longer). Although they often accuse each other of "posing" (not authentically punk or New Wave or both), they seem to get along together fine, with the exception of an occasional fist fight.
Drawing strength from each other, the punks and New Wavers get together to share their avant garde little culture. They share a sneering contempt for mindless achievers in the nation's capital. In "Washington," a song written and performed by a local New Wave band called Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, the contempt is explained in the chorus: "I used to work as a waitron in the lounge of the Hilton/Now I work for my senatron and I live in Arlingtron/I'm just a Washingtron."
They share rude riddles, such as: "Why do you put a baby in the blender feet first? So you can see the expression on its face." They share words like "atonal" and "minimalist." They share a taste for narrow ties, narrow lapels and hair cut short on the sides. They roll their blue jeans up at the cuff. Punks seem to push it to the limits (leopard-skin body tights, ski goggles, "Shoot Mondale First" buttons), but they all seem to be playing dress-up too. Confirmed punk Gutekunst says it's easier to play dress-up when they're all together. "I still get queasy when I get on Metro alone in the morning. I'm really glad the blue [in her hair] grew out," she says.
Finally, many share an egalitarian belief that any one of them can form a group (with nifty names like Rhoda and the Bad Seeds, The Insect Surfers, Tiny Desk Unit, Enzyme and Trench Mouth) and create worthwhile music.In Washington's tiny Punk/New Wave world, the word is that you are either in a group, managing a group, a groupee or a "poser."
Susan Mumford, 25, a tall, thin, blond-haired woman who was a math major at the University of Maryland, sings for Tiny Desk Unit. Her style involves the use of guttural yells and affected silences between unintelligible lyrics.During one of Mumford's performances at Columbia Station in Adams-Morgan, Susan Sizer, a bartender, remarked, "If she screams one more time, I'm going to pop her."
Mumford, who had no singing experience before she joined Tiny Desk Unit, explains: "Someone asked me to sing, not that I can sing, but they wanted my presence. You're not cut off from this music because you can't sing."
Musical ability and instrumental technique, say Mumford and other Washington-area New Wave performers, are not nearly as important as feeling -- authentic feling. And while no one may be able to say precisely what authentic feelings are, nearly every punk knows they are not contained in the slick, elaborately engineered records of major pop groups such as the Bee Gees, the Eagles or Steely Dan.
"[New Wave] music amounts to a transference of energy. The music has more to do with intuition than musicianship," says Robin Rose, who plays synthesizer for the Urban Verbs, a local New Wave group with excellent musicians and, not coincidentally, a record contract and an upcoming national and European tour.
Although the music of the Urban Verbs is instrumentally tight and danceable, it doesn't have the pop "hooks" that make listening to it catchy or even easy. The Verbs say this is intentional.
"This music is eccentric. It doesn't try to make itself understood; it doesn't make concessions to get a wider audience," Rose says. In Washington, New Wave music won't ever become popular, Rose says, because, "This music takes place on the edge and Washington is a government town. It just isn't on the edge."
Rose suggests that enjoyment of New Wave music requires "a leap of faith" that most Washingtonians won't make. And he says those who do will never be able to listen, without writhing, to most contemporary pop music. "Who wants to hear some white kid singing in a pseudo-blues voice that his baby walked out on him? That's garbage."
Paul Hudson, lead singer in the Bad Brains -- the area's only all-black punk band -- doesn't sing the blues. Hudson, known as H.R., shakes and gyrates and screams as the out-front man in what has been called the "most conventionally Dionysian group in town, a real hard-rock punkorama."
The Bad Brains were born in a rented house in Forestville, Md., in December 1978. The four band members invited a couple hundred friends over and played all night. People swarmed and drank and smoked and kicked great holes in the walls. H. R., lost in the trance of his performance, didn't notice the damage until later. "I wasn't really surprised about the walls," he says.
H. R. and his fellow Bad Brains used to play progressive jazz but quit when they felt their role models, like flutist Herbie Hancock, were selling out for the pop charts. Then they went electric and starting playing music that H. R., the 23-year-old son of a prison guard, says "knocks the rich people who have forgotten how to feel."
Playing their music in clubs like d.c. space and the Bayou in Georgetown, the Bad Brains last summer developed a reputation for attracting crowds that damage the buildings in which they dance. So the group was banned from some clubs. They hocked their instruments this fall to fly to London where they say they had been promised a job. The job didn't materialize and British customs requested that the Bad Brains, who arrived in England with 29 cents, return immediately to the United States.
Now the Bad Brains are without equipment and, although many punks say they are the most entertaining band in the area, they seldom perform. "When we play gigs, we just kind of show up and say: "Can we borrow your equipment?'"
At a recent Bad Brain's gig at Madam's Organ, Andrea Rashish is jumping up and down in the audience. A senior at Georgetown Day School, she says her commitment to New Wave is much different than that of young people who were committed to the rock-and-roll mentality of the 1960s.
Rashish says that while she sees the New Wave mentality as a way of "cutting down on superfician attitudes," she is careful not to overdo it. "I can do New Wave on one side of my life as long as I keep the important element of my life going, such as doing well in school."
And, although some devotees of the music in Washington are unwilling to transform their lives to fit its dissonant rhythms, some area New Wave musicians are beginning to question the punk belief that musical ignorance is a key to playing "good" music.
"Sure, you can create out of musical ignorance, but being ignorant isn't enough," says Robert Goldstein, lead guitarist for the Urban Verbs. Goldstein, 29, a graduate of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and an accomplished guitarist, says he cannot accept the idea that any untrained punk can play worthwhile music.
Not surprisingly, Goldstein and his band have been denounced by some Punk/New Wave chauvinists in Washington who don't have recording contracts and who call the Urban Verbs sellouts.
With record companies banking on Punk/New Wave music to revive slumping sales in the 1980s, the future of Punk/New Wave -- authentic, self-righteous, out-in-the-garage Punk/New Wave -- will almost certainly be bleak. Some big-name New Wave groups, with records on the pop charts and money in their pockets, tend to forget what it was like out in the garage because they don't spend much time there. In Washington skeptics say it's likely that Punk/New Wave music will lose touch with youth in the same slick commercialized way that rock ankd roll has.
When that happens, and the news magazines are writing cover stories about the new (albeit not authentic) music that has swept the nation, skeptics say upper-middle-class Washingtonians will then become interested.