An Oct. 13 Arts article about Ian MacKaye, of the rock band Fugazi, misspelled the name of the lead singer of another band, Black Flag. He is Keith Morris. (Published 10/18/02)
It would be overstating matters to say that jazz singer Nina Simone once saved the life of Ian MacKaye, but not by much. In 1996, MacKaye was touring Australia with his band, Fugazi, when he caught pneumonia that nearly killed him. One of his lungs collapsed, and after surgery he spent 19 days in the hospital, his principal solace a 90-second Simone tune called "Compensation."
"I was dying down there," says MacKaye, who is sitting in the office of his Arlington house and cueing up the song on his CD player. "I listened to this and it just pulled me through. . . . I kept hearing the music like it was speaking to me in a way that made me happy, made me feel like it's worth fighting through this thing."
"Compensation" is an enchanted little hymn, not much more than piano, Simone's upsweeping voice and lyrics that are dulcet poetry. It's a planet away from hard-core punk, the style that has consumed MacKaye, 40, for nearly all of his adult life and for the past 15 years as a guitarist and singer in Fugazi. Since the quartet's 1988 self-titled debut album, Fugazi has produced a ferocious and hugely influential racket with drums, guitars and earnest intensity. The group today has a vehement fan base that is spread around the world, and albums that sell by the hundreds of thousands without help from radio or mainstream advertising.
So how did a gospel-soul number wind up on a punk's list of favorite songs? The answer has something to do with what could politely be called Simone's "attitude problem." She's a generous performer with an adoring audience, but she has a spine of steel and over the decades she has steadfastly refused to sing on any but her own exacting terms.
"She's a total rebel," MacKaye mutters with admiration as "Compensation" begins to play. "She's such a badass."
That appeals to MacKaye, and the rest of Fugazi, which has made a noisy point of sticking to its own stringent set of operational bylaws. The band won't charge more than $5 for a ticket to any of its shows, it has refused to sign with a major label, and it won't engage in even the quietest varieties of commercial pandering. It has even shunned the glossy music press; Spin magazine once ran a lengthy piece detailing a reporter's failed efforts to interview the band.
Somehow, the longer Fugazi boycotts pop's conventions, the more admired its unconditional, off-the-grid approach has become. In a recent Spin list of the greatest rock groups ever, Fugazi ranked 31st, close behind Pearl Jam and the Grateful Dead. MacKaye and his bandmates -- singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto, drummer Brendan Canty and bass player Joe Lally -- have managed to create a parallel universe where they can record and tour at their own pace, with their own style and on their own dime.
At the center of that universe is Dischord, the label MacKaye founded (with Jeff Nelson) in 1980 to document the D.C. punk world and record his earlier band, Minor Threat. Since then the label has released CDs by dozens of bands, all of them punk, all of them local, with the single exception of Baltimore's Lungfish. Now run from an Arlington basement beneath a 7-Eleven by a handful of employees, Dischord has sold more than 2 million albums, a gargantuan sum given its near-total disregard for promotion.
"We've never signed a single contract," says MacKaye, during a quick tour of the label's headquarters, which is directly across the street from his house. "We save a lot of money on lawyers."
Never a stickler for ticktock timing, the label has just released its 20th-anniversary box set, two years after Dischord's actual 20th birthday. (See review on Page G5.) The three-CD, 73-song collection is a Washington monument of a different sort, and one that offered a good moment to talk with MacKaye -- his name rhymes with "rely" -- about the songs that motivated him and his fiercely anti-commercial approach to music.
He has, by request, come up with a list of his favorite 10 songs -- which wasn't easy. "This is tough," he said by phone a week before the interview. When you get a look at his music collection, you know why. MacKaye has a huge trove of CDs and vinyl records, much of which is boxed by genre and stored in a tiny home office, cluttered with photos, files and letters.
He talks about music the way he makes it: adamantly. He has a Senate's worth of firm opinions and a vivid memory. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and sipping unsweetened iced tea from a coffee mug, he discusses his 10 songs for nearly three hours. And while he can't tell you how many records he currently owns, he knows exactly which one started it all.
"Floyd Cramer, song called 'Last Date,' " he says, slipping a turntable needle onto a 45. "I don't know anything about him. All I know is that this song, I just used to listen to it over and over. I wore the record out. I was probably about 6 and this song was my introduction to rock-and-roll, really."
Cramer, who died in 1997, was a Nashville session pianist who played on hundreds of singles through the '50s and '60s, including Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." "Last Date" is a breezy champagne-country instrumental, with chord progressions reminiscent of doo-wop.
"The violins are completely unnecessary," MacKaye says after the song is over. "They've always been unnecessary in almost all music. . . . When I put this song on I always forget, oh yeah, it's really schmaltzy, because in my head I don't hear it as schmaltzy."
MacKaye grew up in Washington, the son of a Washington Post editor who has since retired. The MacKayes attended a socially activist Episcopal church on 16th Street NW called St. Stephens & the Incarnation, where there was a soup kitchen and a piano. "These guys used to come and play the piano, blues piano guys, just guys off the street," says MacKaye. "I was just hanging out and listening to them and I just loved it."
Those impromptu jams led him to Janis Joplin, a favorite of his parents, who owned "Cheap Thrills," the classic 1968 acid-blues album by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin quit the band while "Thrills" was still on the charts -- it went No. 1 -- though many believe that as a soloist she never exceeded this, her major-label debut. MacKaye's favorite is "Ball and Chain," which was written by blues singer Willie Mae Thornton. Joplin and the musicians give the song, about a woman missing the man who's abandoned her, a desperate, raggedy passion.
"The playing is insane and weird," MacKaye says, as guitarist James Gurley finishes his warbling solo. "To me great music is flawed music; it has human elements to it. I like the flaws. I like the idea that people are wrestling with technology or with the moment or just playing with each other, that they're working hard, using imperfect pieces, putting them all together to create something that is perfect."
Years later, MacKaye discovered some of Joplin's musical forefathers, Texas country bluesmen like Lightnin' Hopkins. Born in 1912, Hopkins recorded hundreds of songs, most of them slow, rustic boogies. MacKaye has picked "Trouble in Mind," a drawling 12-bar that offers hope to a friend in a depressing darkness. "The sun's gonna shine through your back door some day," Hopkins sings with a poignant, earthen growl.
"I really love the sentiment of it," MacKaye says. "The idea that you're bummed, but eventually the sun is going to come up again and you'll be all right. I also love the economy of that: It's just a guitar and drums, and it's so full-sounding, because of the way he plays. He both picks the rhythm and the melody. And his voice, you don't get a better voice than that."
The impact of the blues on MacKaye was matched only by the impact of a concert he missed: Woodstock. He discovered the soundtrack as an 11-year-old, then watched the movie 16 times, by his own estimate, when it hit theaters.
"I was obsessed with it," he says. "I took it really at face value. All these bands came to play music and all the kids came out and it was like, the whole idea that there was this other community of people, this counterculture that was opposed to the war, that was opposed to Nixon, opposed to segregation."
"It's like punk rock to me," he continues. "Punk rock, it found the crease, it took over this wide-open area that had just been left for people to develop something, and we did. It took them 10 years to figure out how to capitalize on it," he says, referring to major-label attention paid to punk after Nirvana hit in the early '90s. "But we got a few damn good years out of it."
His Jimi Hendrix tune of choice is "Villanova Junction," the song he played before leaving the Woodstock stage and returning for an encore of "Hey Joe." "Villanova" is a thoughtful and relatively restrained instrumental. "A lot of people went right past this song," MacKaye says, "but for me it was proof that he was a musician on a celestial level."
The performance prompts MacKaye to think about a dilemma that every artist confronts -- the tension between the needs of art and the demands of commerce. "Really, he's as great as any musician who ever lived, in my opinion. But to be known, he had to stick his tongue out and light things on fire. Any time you see Hendrix ever represented by anything mainstream, you always see him setting his guitar on fire, and if you listen to this, it does not sound like a man who takes his music lightly, or a man that would want to incinerate things.
"That was showmanship, and I think all musicians struggle with this. Because you have something, this gift, but then the way you get it out is really dictated by what the culture around you wants, and you have to strike a balance between what's important to you and what people want and what they'll buy."
"Villanova" fascinates MacKaye, too, because Hendrix never seemed to play it the same way twice. MacKaye plucks one of a dozen different bootlegs he has in his Hendrix stash and plays a version of the song from another show; it sounds completely different.
"Most shows today are Broadway productions," he says. "The set list has probably even been devised by some expert who understands the emotional trajectory of the evening. Really! In Fugazi, we never use a set list. We play as we are. So a lot of times what we play is dictated by how the room feels, how the room sounds, whether we're well, whether the audience is being really extreme."
Longhair & Beyond
Through the '70s, MacKaye was a typical teenage rock fan. He loved Aerosmith and guys like Ted Nugent, whose manic strumming would have a surprisingly heavy influence on MacKaye's guitar style. Then in October 1978, his older sister and a friend lent him some early punk albums, by groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned.
"Hearing this stuff just completely freaked me out," he recalls. "I remember the Sex Pistols track 'Bodies' -- it scared me to death. It freaked me out that music could be used like that. And then I was hooked."
A few months later, MacKaye attended his first punk-rock concert, a benefit for the Georgetown radio station, which had recently been shut down by the university's dean. The Cramps, a punk rockabilly band, headlined and MacKaye watched the show in awe.
"That was an impossibly important evening for me," he says. "Because I'd only seen Ted Nugent and Queen up to that point and the relationship between the band and the audience was so distant."
In the '70s, MacKaye had been hunting without success for any trace of the kind of counterculture that assembled for Woodstock. He found it in the audience that evening, amid a crowd of what he approvingly refers to as "deviants." And among those deviants was a group of intense and slightly terrifying-looking African Americans, each of them handing out fliers with a brief message: "Bad Brains: Are you ready?"
MacKaye finally caught the Bad Brains live at the Bayou in June 1979 and thought it was the greatest band he'd ever seen. It wasn't just the music, high-velocity hard-core with just a splash of reggae and a level of musicianship that harked back to jazz. The Brains also offered a compelling ideology, which they'd gone so far as naming.
"Positive Mental Attitude," MacKaye recalls. "Their concept was: You can do it, let's just do it. Don't ask for permission. Just do it. H.R., the singer, wanted to do a Rock Against Racism concert here, but his idea of Rock Against Racism was to invite the Teen Idles," MacKaye's band at the time, "and my brother's band, the Untouchables, to come play with the Bad Brains in a courtyard in Valley Green projects in Anacostia. So we just went down, and set up equipment in this little courtyard, and just played music to the kids, all these little kids in the neighborhood. There was no government sanctioning going on, we just ran an extension cord out the window, set up and played right there."
MacKaye's favorite BB number is "The Blackdots," an autobiographical tune the Brains recorded in '79. The song is all speed, complexity and menace, which pretty much sums up the band's live show.
"You just had to come along with them," says MacKaye. "Anyone who saw them was like 'Yeah, I'm with these guys.' "
For MacKaye, the Bad Brains gave Washington considerable bragging rights and helped instill a fierce local pride that remains one of Dischord's organizing principles.
But then, as now, he listened to groups from all over the country and in the pages of a punk magazine called Slash he discovered a California band called Black Flag. In the magazine, they looked like the sort of kids who'd loiter at a 7-Eleven -- ordinary and unthreatening. Then he heard them play.
"And it's like Armageddon," he says. "See, there were people who dressed punk and people who were punk, and they were not necessarily the same people. . . . And I love people who seem unassuming but who actually have really intense power, really believe in things, not just to dress the part. Black Flag weren't fashionites, they weren't hung up on a look. They were these guys just presenting these really intense blasts of music."
One of MacKaye's first BF acquisitions was a 1978 single with "Nervous Breakdown" on one side and three songs, including "I've Had It," on the other. He listened to the latter about 100 times in a row, by his recollection. "And I've never gotten over it. The arrangement of it was so unique-sounding. The rhythm of it was just unlike other punk stuff."
"I've Had It" is powered by a martial beat that, according to MacKaye, would later double as the band's secret knock. (The group ran its label out of a storefront that police raided frequently, looking for drugs.) Lead vocalist Keith Morr sings with a Johnny Rotten British accent and the lyrics depict a teen on the verge of boredom-induced meltdown: "I'm losin' my mind / I'm going to explode / I've had it / Give another chance / Maybe one more romance."
"They are, I think, probably the most underappreciated band in rock-and-roll," MacKaye says of Black Flag. "They really were the trailblazers in terms of the underground community, the touring network, and their work ethic was out of control. They used to practice six hours a day."
MacKaye would never stop scouring the musical subterranean for inspiration. Years ago, he stumbled across a series of albums called "Back From the Grave," which collected the dozens of underground garage bands that were recording, in haphazard sessions, all over the country through the '60s. These were acts that worked in near-total obscurity.
When he heard the "Back" albums, he thought, "Whoa, this is the same as us now, all these different kids going into basements and making music. It was a massive underground movement that was not 'Louie, Louie,' and was not 'Nuggets,' " a collection of the better-known garage bands of the day. "It was beneath that."
A song called "We All Love Peanut Butter" is now playing. It's a three-chorder with shabbily harmonized backing vocals and psychedelic lyrics that are either celebrating acid or describing its perils. The band is One Way Streets, who, according to the "Back" liner notes, were four teens who pulled up to a studio in Hamilton, Ohio, one afternoon in 1966, recorded two songs, stole a microphone and were never heard from again.
The song gets MacKaye thinking about how homogenized music has become. In the '60s, radio was so decentralized and independent that a band could break big in one part of the country and remain unknown everywhere else. Today, the idea of a regional hit seems nearly impossible.
"American punk rock in the early '80s was really one of the last vestiges of that kind of regionality in music. Think about the timing of it, because 1981 was also the launch of MTV, and MTV was the ultimate frosting spreader, where suddenly everyone was getting not just the music but they were getting the visual, and because it was one station nationwide, and there's only so many hours in a day, they limited what you would get. And it created this sort of limited palette."
At the dawn of the MTV era, MacKaye abandoned rock radio for good. But he never tuned out funk stations, and one day in 1980, he came across "Pump Me Up," a song by a band called Trouble Funk. It was go-go, a locally grown style of R&B-funk, invented by Washington's own Chuck Brown.
"It was a parallel to the punk scene here, this indigenous music that exists only in this town," he says, as "Pump Me Up" spins on a turntable. Like all go-go, "Pump" is saturated with drums and bass, both instruments locked in a clanging gallop that could go on all night. The band would later sign to Island and record one of the very few go-go albums that were released nationally, though widespread fame eluded the band.
"This song, it should have been one of the biggest songs of all time," MacKaye says.
By the early 1980s, MacKaye had graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and formed Minor Threat, which thrashed its way to the forefront of the city's punk movement and soon acquired a national reputation. But by 1984, he'd soured slightly on the scene he'd helped create, in part because fans at the shows were violent and in part because the conversation going on among the bands in this creative community had gotten slightly stale. There weren't enough new ideas being added to the mix.
Then Rites of Spring was born.
"In terms of the trajectory of the musical community in this town, these guys were incredibly important," he says. "This was such a radical diversion. It created a whole new language in music, but one consistent with the aesthetic and intensity of the town."
MacKaye plays "Drink Deep," which is on an album called "End to End." The song forsakes the drill-sergeant beat common to Dischord bands at the time for something subtler and more complicated. The lyrics are about emotions rather than politics; lead singer Guy Picciotto, who soon would join MacKaye in Fugazi, sings with conviction that feels almost desperate.
By the time "Drink Deep" is through, it's close to 5 p.m. and MacKaye needs a lift to a nearby car stereo store where he's having a CD player installed.
On the drive over, he buzzes a little more about Rites of Spring, and when it's time to part, he offers a gracious invitation: Come back sometime and we'll listen to more songs.
"And next time, bring some of your stuff." Then comes the zinger: MacKaye invokes the name of the band that, for him, typifies the sort of bland pop that in the '80s masqueraded as hip, edgy music, the forgettable fluff that he's long loathed through his years in punk's trenches.
"Yeah," he says with a good-natured grin, as he closes the door. "I can listen to Echo and the Bunnymen."