I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Longtime Washingtonians will remember when a CSX railroad bridge over the Beltway between Georgia and Connecticut avenues was daubed with the legend “Surrender Dorothy.” It was a wry commentary on the nearby Mormon temple, which rises above the trees like the Emerald City of Oz.
The graffiti was long ago painted over, but two weeks back I noticed something new had been daubed on the bridge: “Fugazi.” That’s the band that many consider the greatest to come out of Washington. (The bridge also says “C. Rot. Voyer.” I’m not sure what that means.)
The vandalism was timely. A new documentary called “Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital” premiered earlier this month. It covers roughly 1980 to 1990, a decade that saw roiling musical creativity twinned with social activism and even responsible commerce, in the figure of Dischord Records, which released so many important records. Scott Crawford was the film’s writer-director and Jim Saah the director of photography.
Jim’s a friend of mine, and I got to see the film before I moderated a post-screening discussion at the AFI Silver Theatre. I found it a refreshingly honest wayback machine to the time of Ronald Reagan.
I’ve always been conflicted about D.C. punk, mainly because I was on the outside looking in. I was a habitue of the old 9:30 Club and remember members of the Teen Idles glowering aggressively near the entrance of the long, tiled hallway that led to the venue. I saw one of Minor Threat’s first performances (at d.c. space, on a bill that included a band I was in).
As those and other bands became more celebrated, I was both envious of their success and put off by a community that struck me as insular. Rightly or wrongly, I thought the majority of D.C. punks were upper middle class — Who else but a rich kid would rip up a perfectly good jacket just to stick safety pins in it? — and that offended me. (That perception is something that Silver Spring writer George Pelecanos remarks upon in “Salad Days.”)
I realize now that I was just a jealous whiner, and I’m embarrassed at my resistance to D.C. hardcore. The do-it-yourself ethic that the Dischord crew embraced was as open to me as it was to them. If I’d been a little more open-minded, perhaps today I’d be Dave Grohl. Or at least have met Minor Threat and Fugazi alum Ian MacKaye, who in “Salad Days” comes across as smart, funny and counterintuitively commonsensical. I don’t think his influence as an artist can be overstated.
We’re in the midst of a fertile patch for D.C. music films. There was 2012’s “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan.” And a documentary about the Bayou nightclub in Georgetown. And one on Positive Force, the social justice group that teamed with local bands. A film on WHFS-FM is in the works.
Still, I find it odd that someone painted “Fugazi” on a railroad bridge in 2014. It’s like painting “Clapton is God” on a London brick wall today. The moment has passed.
Or has it? Maybe, 12 years after Fugazi’s last gig, the graffiti is like throwing the switch on the Bat Light: Come back.
The Washington Post Helping Hand is coming down to the wire. You have until Wednesday to give if you would like to deduct from your 2014 taxes your contribution to any of the three local charities I’ve been profiling. You can contribute to any of them online by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com. (Details on donating by check are below.)
Community of Hope: Last year, this nonprofit group helped 354 District families, the most it had ever served. These are women, men and children who endured D.C. General, the city’s abysmal family shelter. In addition to stable housing, Community of Hope offers such things as workforce training, mentoring, health education and medical care.
To give by mail, send a check payable to “Community of Hope” to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, DC 20032.
Homestretch: Based in Falls Church, this charity helps families in Northern Virginia. Fifty to 60 families at a time are enrolled in the two-year program. They receive housing and support such as budget counseling, job training and child care. Sixty percent of the mothers who come to Homestretch are victims of domestic violence.
To contribute by mail, send a check payable to “Homestretch” to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, VA 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork: In addition to operating the District’s only 24-hour emergency shelter for teens, Sasha Bruce has short-term and long-term housing. Programs help teens earn a high school diploma or GED, learn entrepreneurship and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
To donate by mail, send a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, DC 20003. Attention: James Beck.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.