What a weekend. It was one thing to watch a couple of D.C. legends on the movie screen talk about their home town. It was another to see many of them together in the same place again. A little grayer, a little slower and a lot wiser.
“I hardly recognized you without the hair!” I heard from multiple people, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. Some brought their kids and many broke out their old leathers. The three-day extravaganza
started with the opening of “Pump Me Up” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and ended with the D.C. Funk Punk Jam at 9:30 Club, with a screening of “The Legend Of Cool Disco Dan.” In between, it was an incredible reunion of sorts.
With bands like Trouble Funk — whose 1982 go-go/funk hit “Pump Me Up” was the inspiration for the name of the entire project — and Scream, a hardcore band that started in Alexandria on the same stage, you got the feeling you were looking at something you’d probably never see again.
Friday, the gallery show took my breath away. There was a small part of me that just wanted to go into a corner and cry because it was a bit overwhelming. If you were here in the 1980s and 1990s, this exhibit is more than a must-see. It’s an incredible collection of multimedia items from an era that helped create what the city is today, from an anti-drug public service announcement in which a doctor uses the D.C. slang term “lunching out” to describe someone to photos of Junk Yard Band playing on the street as little kids.
I talked to Henry Rollins, the punk-rock legend, about what it felt like to see so much of his younger days on a museum wall.
“The whole thing kind of comes to this weird full circle, but we’re not dead yet. It’s wonderful, but you just remember those days,” Rollins said.
“It was one of those cities that, to this day, is not as mixed as I would like it. But back in those days, it was so high contrast. All us punk-rocker guys, we loved go-go,” he said. Referring to Ian MacKaye, the founder and owner of Dischord Records, he added: “Me and Ian would go to these DJ stores in downtown D.C., we’d walk in, the only two white guys in there. We wanted these records. Because we heard “Pump Me Up” on WOL driving up Wisconsin Avenue one day and we’re like,
what’s that? Ian figured out DJ stores had these records. So we bought all of them.”
For others, the exhibit was a bridge between the federal and local sides of the city that so rarely cross paths. Gangster George, whose work is featured in the movie, had never been in the museum at all.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine a spray-paint can on a bus would evolve into this,” George said. “And I worked downtown for 15 years of my adult life. I told my wife, I’ve walked by this place a thousand times, ain’t never set foot in it.”
On Sunday, the excitement was palpable. Just walking around, the stories being traded by old band guys and their fans about long-ago D.C. shows and haunts made you feel like people were talking about an entirely different place. In a sense, they were.
Ron Moten, the Peaceaholics founder and former Ward 7 D.C. Council candidate, was definitely impressed. “This is taking me back, man! I was just expecting Globe posters and a couple of old go-go pictures, but it pretty much takes me back,” Moten said. “I’m a little sad and happy. Because this is D.C., what you see is the old D.C. Some good, some bad, but it was when we had our own culture.”
Maybe these past three days are what the city needed to finally move into its next phase as a far more mainstream, homogenized place. A reminder that all that effort didn’t just go to waste, to be co-opted and popularized with nothing to show for it. A reminder that no matter how much it may have felt like it, it wasn’t all just a dream.
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC.
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