Sure I'm aggressive," boasts Henry Garfield, swaggering down Georgetown's main drag, one hand in a cast and spurs a-jangling. "People think I'm a jerk. It's just that I'm so bored I've got to have some kind of outlet."
Henry, 19, is a Georgetown punk: apolitical, atypical and seemingly amoral. Like many of his friends, he is young, comes from an affluent family and is a member of a local punk music group, in this case one called SOA (State of Alert). He can engage in easy conversation with the man serving burgers at Little Tavern one moment, then turn and ruthlessly heckle a group of sightseers the next.
But, says Henry, he could care less what people think.
"We don't say f--- the world, we just say f--- the people around us," says Ian MacKaye, 18, who sings with the local punk band Minor Threat. "You know -- the people who put us down for the way we act, the way we look."
Ian and Henry are part of a small but flourishing youth-oriented, music-centered subculture that has gravitated to the streets of Georgetown. For lack of a more appropriate label, they call themselves hard-core punks ("'cause everything's got to be labeled, right?" Henry adds contemptuously), and their lifestyle is strongly influenced by the highly energized, sometimes raw music performed by groups with names like the Germs, Cramps and the Dead Kennedys. Most of them are white, middle and upper middle-class kids; many are still in high school and living at home. Too young to get into many of the clubs, they just hang out at places like Station Break, a Georgetown arcade, or the Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream Shoppe on Wisconsin Avenue NW.
The hanging out and the boredom sometimes lead to trouble.
"I hate to fight," says Ian, trying to repudiate the charge that punks are prone to violence. "Yeah," Henry agrees, "but we have a strict policy. If a bouncer (at a nightclub) lays a hand on us, it's 10 on one until his ears bleed."
Despite their appearance and demeanor, however, these punks say they do not indulge in drink or drugs, and many do not smoke cigarettes. The consensus is that drugs are an excuse for people to get away with things they wouldn't ordinarily do if they were straight. "Anyway," says Ian, "who wants to get burned out?"
But punks can hardly be called wholesome. In fact, they would probably be offended by the term.
Like modern-day Marlon Brandos and James Deans, they literally dress to kill -- or at least to maim. Their regalia includes chains, steel-toed combat boots, leathers, torn shirts and jackets held together by safety pins and steel-studded leather bracelets. Much of it comes from the bins and racks of thrift stores; the rest comes from local gay shops that cater to those of the leather-and-hardware persuasion.
The hair style is equally severe -- generally short, oiled down and combed into mean little spikes.
It is difficult to generalize about punks because in many ways, their music and attitude defy description. It's easier to describe what they're not. They fiercely deny any connection with new wave, a highly stylized fashion movement they say is too trendy, whose music they disdain as too bland. Local clubs and record stores are more likely to carry new wave music than punk, however, since new wave fans outnumber the punks.
"I think it's kind of silly," Henry says of new wave, "but I don't mind them."
Music is at the heart of the punk subculture -- pulsating, fast, sometimes indecipherable and crude. Henry boasts that punk music born in Washington is much "harder" than anything coming out of New York City, where the movement first took root when it migrated from Britain. But punk music often is social commentary. Typical is the following excerpt from a song by Minor Threat, "Guilty of Being White:" I'm sorry for something I didn't do Lynched somebody but I don't know who You blame me for slavery Yet it was a hundred years before I was born I'm guilty of being white (chorus) I'm a convict of a racist crime I've only served 18 years of my time I'm guilty of being white
Much of the inspiration for the songs comes from experiences at school. The punks say that for the most part, they are accepted by their classmates -- or at least tolerated. Lyles, 17, a senior at Georgetown Day School, says he's never had any problem with other students and he's willing to talk about punk with anyone. But Alec, 15, who wears the punk hair style and attends Wilson High School in a tattered black jacket held together with safety pins, says he is hassled continually by fellow students. "People are constantly kicking me and calling me names to see what my reaction would be," he says, adding that he was beaten and robbed in a bathroom at the school earlier this year.
Dancing to punk music is an exhausting exchange of energy and physical contact. "If an elbow catches you in the face, it's no problem," says Henry, showing off some of his battle scars. "After all, we're all friends." They look tough and they know it, adds Ian, but the boots they wear also protect the feet on the dance floor.
Skip Groff, owner of Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville and an observer of Washington's music scene since 1966, knows several of the punks and is advising them in their musical careers. He says the Georgetown punks are an anomaly whose only true counterparts can be found on the West Coast. He says he admires the brashness and belligerence of their music, which he says is exciting and born of enthusiasm and creativity.
"They missed the whole beginning of the new wave (which started in about 1977)," he says. "It's only in the last year and a half or so they've started getting into music that fits their social patterns."
Groff adds that through music, Henry, Ian and their friends have developed a sense of identity different from that of their parents and peers, and he speculates they'll go through more changes, both musically and personally over the coming months.
"They're by no means angels," Groff says, but he adds that although some people may view them as "glorified Nazis" because of their appearance, "they're not like that at all."