“This was my first real job,” John Davis told me at the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library recently. “I’d only ever played music before.”
For all his adult life, Davis had been a full-time musician, writing, recording and touring as part of the acclaimed Dischord Records band Q And Not U, and then with his groups Georgie James and Title Tracks.
But indie punk music did not seem conducive to the sort of life Davis knew he wanted some day, one that included kids, a mortgage, health insurance . . .
“I wanted a career I would feel as excited about as music,” he said. “I didn’t want to do something I didn’t like. I knew I wanted to have a family.”
So Davis and his wife, Molly, talked for hours about a job that would allow those “adult” things, but also include a measure of creativity and maintain a connection to the music he had been a part of.
Their decision? John Davis would become an archivist.
It might not seem like the most obvious choice, but since graduating in 2012 from Catholic University with a master’s degree in library science and going to work the following year in Maryland’s performing arts library, Davis has helped assemble a vast and varied collection of material related to D.C.’s punk and indie music history. It includes thousands of items from the 1970s to today, encompassing fanzines, fliers, posters, recordings and assorted ephemera.
Most musicians are record collectors, and every record collector has an acquisitive gene that drives him or her to chase down the hallowed bootleg, the alternate take, the rare remix.
It’s an approach that Davis’s boss, Vin Novara, curator of special collections in performing arts, understands. Novara played drums in such bands as the Crownhate Ruin, Alarms & Controls, Canyon and the Sorts.
“Being a musician informs all my work,” Novara said. “So many of us get interested in this as a second act.”
Far from fixing D.C.’s punk music scene in acid-free amber, assembling the collection “gives this material a second or third life,” Novara said.
Said Davis: “I don’t think of it as a tomb for these materials.”
Davis wants the stuff to be seen and used. Some people visit just to page through the fanzines. (By the end of the year, some 1,500 ’zines collected by Dischord’s Ian MacKaye will be digitized and posted online.)
Others, like Joe Loyacono, an American studies graduate student at George Washington University, are doing proper research. He was studying punk zines to see how their design evolved over the years.
“Their aesthetic isn’t the top priority,” Loyacono said, looking at the crude but lovingly made publications. “They were more focused on the content and on what they want to tell the reader.”
Much as Thomas Jefferson gave the Library of Congress a boost with his own books, so Davis jump-started U-Md.’s collection with hundreds of band fliers he collected and photographs he took throughout the 1990s.
Davis grew up in the music biz. His father, Don, was the program director at DC101 from 1981 to 1985, an irony that’s not lost on his indie-credible son.
“He jokes about that,” Davis said. “DC101 was the evil empire during that period if you were into punk or new wave music. That was not their forte.”
Maryland’s collection joins the D.C. Public Library’s D.C. Punk Archive as another resource of researchers. “I think we can work together as collaborators,” said Davis.
The Maryland archive holds the two-dimensional remnants of the lives of two important area figures: the late record store and label owner Skip Groff and the late D.C. musician Tommy Keene.
When I visited, Paul Bushmiller — a library employee who once worked at campus radio station WMUC — sat at a table carefully filing and cataloguing newspaper clippings, record reviews, posters and publicity photos of Keene, who died in 2017 at age 59.
“These are some old promo shots from Geffen, when he has a fancy bouffant haircut and looks all winsome,” said Bushmiller as he methodically sifted through the material.
Ever the archivist, Davis is always collecting. He’s especially interested in bands beyond the ones everyone knows.
“I don’t think there are enough voices involved yet,” he said. D.C.’s punk and indie history doesn’t comprise just a handful of bands, even if only a handful of bands get most of the attention.
Davis has his beautiful house, his beautiful wife and his beautiful kids (two: ages 7 and 2). And in a way, he’s still performing.
“In music, you get in front of people,” he said. “There’s a similar impulse with the collection.”
Want to check out the collection — or donate to it? Visit lib.umd.edu/scpa.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.