THE PIT is ferocious and frightening: Young men's bodies slam into each other, arms and elbows out, fist flailing, like razor-edged Mexican jumping beans popping madly on the dance floor. Mayhem is played out against relentless, primitive, over-amped rock. The lead singer does combat with the instrumetal backing. Occasionally a dancer will leap to the stage and execute a swan dive back onto the floor; sometimes, it's the band members who fly into the audience without a trapeze or a net to catch them.
This ritual of resistance is fueled by dancers who are young, mostly white teen-age boys given to shaved heads, more extreme than a Marine cut, sometimes in a "Taxi Driver" mohawk. Hair has always been a gauge of rebellious spirits, and one can follow the fashion from grease in the '50s through the long hair of the '60s to the acts of barbarism that have evolved from England in the mid-'70s. Like the punks across the Atlantic, Washington's punks also are given to torn T-shirts and jeans, black leather jackets littered with names of bands and ideology. Their dancing feet are enveloped by combat boots, the heels that wound.
Slamdancing, as it has come to be known is less a dance than an attitude. One writer described it as "a digression in culture or community, more than an adventure in music or art" whose foremost possibilities were "artful nihilism and studied primitivism." Violence is not new to rock 'n' roll, but it's never been so menacing. In the past, rock riots tended to come from overcrowding or things getting out of hand, now things start out of hand. It's even moved beyond the jumping-up-and-down exuberance of the pogo that came into favor with the relentless energy of the Ramones and other proto-punk bands that inspired the British punk of 1976-'77. Years ago, Iggy Stooge used to damage himself in performance, throwing himself on broken glass or into the audience. Now the audience completes the cycle.
In the pit right before the stage, the hardcores, the razor-shaved muscleheads, perform their contact ritual with abandon. The less brave but wider-eyed and mostly male onlookers sometimes dart in for a shove but are usually content to be the wall that contains the rage. It's a sustained tension, the moment between the plunger being pushed and the dynamite exploding.
"It's kind of a dance. It's just LETTING GO, just going OFF," says Henry Garfield. "It's high energy and you're out there flailing away, smashing into stuff. You're not hurting anybody. You're just out to get it out and move, be out there with your friends and hear that loud music. You're out there to DO it."
And sometimes have it done unto you. Garfield, 20, was until recently the lead singer of SOA (State of Alert), one of the area's main musclehead bands; last week he became the new vocalist for Black Flag, the notorious hard-core punk band from Los Angeles, where the movement originated. Garfield, whose taut body is coverd with scratches, bruises and lumps, says, "I don't consider this dangerous. If it was I wouldn't care anyhow. I don't think about it. A lot of the stuff I do I don't remember 'cause I get so carried away with the music. I've got scars all over my face and most of them were given by my friends. So what."
"You can get very, very hurt at a show," adds Ian MacKaye, leader of Minor Threat, another local band drawn mostly from wealthy suburbia. There are a dozen such bands in this area, with names like Suburban Blight, Void, No Authority, Law and Order. "If someone -- particularly someone who doesn't look the same -- comes in and gets the wrong idea about what everybody's doing, goes against the grain, there'll be a fight. It sparks, it's immediate. It scares even me sometimes, but I find violence acceptable to that level."
That assessment is not shared by the police or most club owners. In California, where the phenomenon has been captured in a frightening film called "The Decline . . . of Western Civilization," the police regularly shut down clubs that provide a home to hard-core punk.
This movement, which started in and is still concentrated around California, has centered around the rich suburbs of Los Angeles, the dancing is known there as the Huntington Beach Strut. Like the highly visible alienated youth of England, America's surf punks have developed an all-encompassing mistrust in which they challenge the esthetic ideology and politics of the establishment with a mindless rage that expresses itself through mutually destructive nihilism.
The still mostly underground Washington scene, everyone agrees, is, next to Los Angeles, the second-most active, but its adherents see its energy as positive compared to L.A.'s thinly veiled compulsion with self-mutilation. L.A.'s a strictly blood-and-cuts outfit, while Washington so far seems content with bruises and tension. Although they've revolted into a style that reeks of alienation, both MacKaye and Garfield refer to their fathers as "great guys." When SOA used to rehearse, they did so in the shadow of Vice President George Bush's official residence: The group's bass player was 17-year-old Ivor Hanson, whose father, Admiral Thor V. Hanson, lives on the Naval Observatory grounds. To get to rehearsal, the skinheaded band members walked uncontested past Bush's security apparatus, though their first trip to the Coke machine outside the Secret Service command post did elicit a few hard questions. "A lot of the kids live in good places, their parents are rich," admits Garfield. "That doesn't keep you from being mad or feeling angry or outraged or alienated. I like to be separated, I don't want any part of what's going on."
The heads are shaved, according to Garfield, "to look different. A lot of us feel rejected, different, lower. Treat me like that, I'll shave my head or I'll dress this way. It's an attitude, but it's no pose. You don't do something like that just to be part of a crowd. You're really nasty-looking and you're not accepted by girls or anything." In fact, both Garfield and MacKaye are frequently stopped and asked if they're marines; Garfield used to cadge taxi rides for half price from drivers who thought he was a marine. Until he left to join Black Flag, Garfield worked for 18 monthsh as assistant manager of the Haagen Daaz store in Georgetown; MacKaye, 19, still works at the Georgetown Theater, a job he's held for three years. Both are obviously bright and aware, but more importantly, they are self-described "action kids."
"We are the kinds of kids who are active. A lot of us were skateboarders, actions kids who are always outside doing something, always ripping. We thrash all day and we thrash when we go to the clubs. No one's going to tell us to calm down. A lot of kids pick up instruments, they want to play in a band and get their thoughts out. They want to get going and make some wild noise and have some fun and cut loose. Don't expect everyone to be geniuses."
Unlike the British punk movement of the late '70s, there's very little political consciousness offered in the music; in fact, one of the few British trappings involves the assaults on stage, but the spit of Britain has been replaced by the more fundamentally American violence of hurling bodies. "We don't want to change society," says Garfield, "we just want to go off. You can just relax, let off some steam. The kids are young and energetic and they're frustrated. They want everything fast, fast fast and that's why the tempo is so fast. They want action."
In joining Black Flag, Garfield feels he's joining a band that does make a statement. "They say 'HANDS OFF.' They say 'NO RULES,' they say don't fill me up with lies, don't pull my strings.' You get jerked around and pushed around every day and if you don't take notice of it, you're going to go down, get lost, drown."
In California, the ritual of resistance has become almost thuggish, which the D.C. punks attribute to a preponderance of drugs and alcohol, seldom a factor here. The hostility has spiraled both inwardly (the much publicized suicide of Darby Crash, lead singer for L.A.'s Germs) and outwardly (the frequent riots at nightclubs and parties featuring slamdancing). Even in Washington, the dividing line between harm and danger is dreadfully thin. "If someone goes home a little beat up and their ego bruised, I think it's good for them," says MacKaye, who, along with Garfield, is one of the foremost exponents of the public swan dive. "I have an uncanny ability when I dive off the stage to constantly miss everybody. I always hit the floor, but it doesn't hurt when you're in the show. The adrenalin is pumping, everything is good and you're getting it all out."
Garfield adds that "it's fun flying through the air. Landing on a bunch of people is a lot of fun. It's great, it's really wild. It makes a band play wild, there's just so much energy going on." The music is always super fast, an economic skeleton of rock 'n' roll played loud and raw. The songs tend to be off a piece, staccato bursts of aggressive black noise that come and go like machine gun bursts. The songs are always short, frenetic, brutish. "The way we improve is we start playing them faster," says Minor Threat's MacKaye. "It's very hard to play that fast, but it's a give and take in terms of adrenalin. We just want to go."
Minor Threat, SOA, the Tenn Idles (now defunct) all have extended play records out on their own Dischords label, run by MacKaye. Minor Threat's third e.p. contains eight cuts, including "Bottled Violence," "I Don't Wanna Hear It," "Small Man, Big Mouth," "Screaming at a Wall" and "Straight Edge." The title song capsulizes much of the emotion behind the music: We're not the first, I hope we're not the last 'Cause I know we're all heading for that adult crash The time is so little, the time belongs to us Why is everybody in such a -- rush Early to finish, I was late to start I might be an adult, but I'm a minor at heart Go to college, be a man, what's the -- deal? It's not how old I am, it's how old I feel Chorus: Make do with what you have Take what you can get Pay no mind to us We're just a minor threat
Unlike many rock bands, the local groups include lyric sheets with their records so that what they're saying overcomes the blur of the vinly versions. The songs reflect their personal world, their attempt to define their constituency and shared styled of alienation, to polarize the suburban malaise and angst they honestly seem to feel. Kids like Garfield and MacKaye may seem irrational and dangerous, but they're also intelligent and creative. They are sincere in their alienation, not fanatical like L.A.'s surf punks. They are also great fans of black funk and rap records, a less volatile but equally youth-angst-oriented music played locally by bands like Mass Extinction and Trouble Funk. "Man, I'm so proud to live in the city with those bands," says MacKaye.
When several local hard-cores went up to a Black Flag show in Philadelphia a week ago, they were met by "outsiders" with baseball bats; many kids were seriously hurt. The explosive thread finally frayed there, as it has many times in Los Angeles, but the muscleheads insist that, with the exception of some people can't handle things emotionally or intellectually, the violence can be contained by the several hundred members of the Washington scene, that it's a personal thing. Most club owners don't agree with them; only the 9:30 Club lets the hard-cores play on the fairly regular basis. The dozen local groups, who also include the Youth Brigade and more pop-oriented comrades like Black Market Baby and the all-black Bad Brains, have not been welcome in local clubs, whose owners are scared not only of property damage but police harassment.
"All we want is a stage and a floor," says MacKaye, who admits he's "been through 10 clubs than have opened and closed to our music in one night.It may look like there's a lot of hard violence out there, but everyone's moving, mentally and physically, in the same direction. Once I'm inside a club, I feel very secure. Once I'm on the floor, I have no problems. Any kid our age that has energy; it depends where they direct it. We've given an acceptable physical release."
"There's no pleasure in the music," says Garfield. "The only pleasure is that sometimes you get to play. There's no money, there's no recognition, no fame or fortune." Adds MacKaye, "We're trying to push it the farthest we can go without hurting ourselves or somebody else." Sometimes, when the crowd is swirling and smashing into itself amoeba-like, when it seems as if a free-for-all is going to break out any minute, when the brawls and fire fights do occur, one can despair. That's the prerogative of the outsider and exactly what the hard-cores expect. "I don't worry about my future," says Ian MacKaye, who still lives at home and whose politeness belies his hard looks. "When the time comes, I'll do what I have to do. I don't want to go to waste, I don't want to burn out. I want to keep moving."
Jello Biafra, of San Francisco's notorious Dead Kennedys, once said, "This music will never die until someone finds something that's more dangerous." Politics of the Dance Floor
"The ring around the hard-core in front is for people who watch, who like to get in an occasional above for a second and jump back out . . . or they like to be bounced off of, that's as close as they want to get," says Henry Garfield.
"You don't just walk up and slug someone. If someone bumps you, you don't go running around the floor, chasing him so you can get him back. You just go."
Black Flag, who will be at the 9:30 on Aug. 13 with Garfield as lead singer, usually reverses the audience and performer roles by night's end. They encore with "Louie, Louie" [the Kingsmen's proto-punk hit from 1963] and during the song, audience members gradually take over the instruments -- whether or not they end up taking the night back for themselves. i"It's great," says Henry Garfield.