Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye, in his de facto role as the gray eminence of the District’s music scene, appears throughout “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990),” providing blunt and unvarnished context for this lively documentary history of the city’s most famous musical moment.
MacKaye admits that a critique often leveled against Dischord Records, the DIY music label he co-founded in 1980 with musician and graphic designer Jeff Nelson, was that its founders were provincial, “documenting their little music scene,” as he puts it, in the manner of a vanity label.
There’s a bit of that navel-gazing quality to the film as well. Yet “Salad Days” features interviews with local-boys-made-good Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl, along with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and actor Fred Armisen, just to prove that when the punk pebble was thrown into D.C.’s little pond, it really did make a big splash.
Although the target audience for “Salad Days” is the generation of those who lived through the 1980s in Washington, the film holds a fair amount of interest beyond that thin slice of the demographic pie. While the movie is best viewed as an examination of a specific place and time, it also can be seen as a celebration of a larger, more generic cultural phenomenon that one might call creative foment.
The period of intense, nose-thumbing, system-bucking energy that gave rise to the punk movement in D.C. is something that can exist anywhere, and in any time — including now. This point is articulated by Mark Andersen, the founder of the punk-for-social-change group Positive Force. Andersen, himself the subject of another recent documentary on D.C.’s punk rock scene, echoes the film’s title — taken from a Minor Threat song featured in the closing credits — when he notes that “the salad days are now, they are always now.”
“Salad Days” explores many fascinating threads: misogyny and violence in punk; the parallel rise of go-go; and the lingering reputation of Washington’s so-called “straight edge” scene, which reputedly promoted a puritanical abstinence from all corrupting substances and pernicious moral influences.
Singer John Stabb of Government Issue, now middle-aged and bespectacled, explodes that myth, entertainingly reminding us that punk, like most pop movements, was born of teenage hormones. “If it was true that everyone in the D.C. punk scene in the 1980s didn’t drink, smoke or f---, we would not be punk rock,” he says. “We’d be monk rock.”
Unrated. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains crude language and drug references. 90 minutes.