A few months ago, I received an email from Mark Gunn, an old friend and roommate whom I hear from only rarely now, yet one of those people whose life you can’t imagine your life without.
His message began: “It’s available.”
Fugazi had been slowly releasing audio of their entire concert archive—some 800 shows—and they’d reached that legendary show at Worcester, 1991.
Then: “I’m scared to listen to it.”
And then: “It lives in my memory as the greatest concert I ever saw (and will ever see, because I will never go to a concert again). It can’t live up, can it?”
Then he asked me to write a cycle of poems about it.
That’s the dilemma—to write anything about music always feels a little absurd, but it seems insane when you’re writing about music so skull-stunningly primal. It feels like a betrayal.
Which is pretty much how co-frontman and guitarist (and one-man seizure-machine) Guy Picciotto responded in a letter, some twenty years ago, when I wrote to Fugazi a series of questions about how they conceived the connection between their music and politics:
Thanks for your letter—it’s good to hear from people
who get something out of the music. As for answering
your questions, to be honest with you, it would be too much
like taking a midterm exam about my life—an unappetizing
concept. It’s not that the questions aren’t valid, it’s just
that we work out issues like the relation between music
and politics actively rather than theoretically—>what we do
and think is articulated on stage, on record, and in the
way we handle ourselves, not in how we might conceptualize
these activities ourselves—And your job (if you choose
to accept it, of course) is to decode the shit yourself—
that way, you participate in the process and make it yours—
I hope you understand where I’m coming from and that I
mean no disrespect—we definitely appreciate listeners like you—
all our best—Guy/FUGAZI
I’ve kept this as a talisman, to remind myself that artists don’t need to constantly explain what that they are doing or what they think they are doing. The practice is the thing.
So this is an essay at war with words, as a way to explain what Fugazi meant to me, what they might still mean or come to mean.
Language keeps me
locked and repeating.
To Mark, I wrote: “I haven’t listened much to Fugazi since the kids were born (as if entering another life), but it’s also true that I can’t imagine writing now without having been baptized by Fugazi. As for the poem, I consider it a challenge; maybe I’m going to buy this thing and listen to it until Ian gets his poem. It’s all sort of beyond language, which is the great problem of it.”
Dan Keating chimed in: “Phil, isn’t articulating that which is beyond language the job of the poet? Isn’t that what you do?”
Mark Gunn again: “I was watching YouTube videos of live Fugazi performances last night (which is why I searched for the Worcester show), and thought about how weirdly uplifting all that energetic rage is. I want to read something about that, written by you. If you can manage to access that seemingly dead part of your self.”
I didn’t listen to them for years—nearly a decade, in fact. The babies were napping, the girls were playing, we were enjoying a quiet meal together. Fugazi—with its primal noise, its pitched-fit discontents, its content-wrecking rage—just did not fit in the sleep-deprived half-dream of early parenthood. It also didn’t help that the band dissolved just as my parenting life began, so there was no need to return to that well of angst.
When I listen now, it feels like a door to another world.
Once, in my grandparent’s Brooklyn brownstone, I awoke to what I thought was the opening distorted notes of Fugazi’s “Turnover.” Its feedback slowly morphed, as I listened, to the distant horn of a tugboat coming into port.
My grandparents are long dead and buried, and the house is long sold and gone, but that moment has anchored in a corner of my brain. The song is, incidentally, about waking up:
Languor rising reaching
To turn off the alarm
And there’s never so much seething
That it can’t be disarmed.
And of course, “Turnover” is also about the primal dynamic of Fugazi’s music. Coming out of the underground Washington D.C. hardcore scene, composed of the remnants of Minor Threat (spawners of the ascetic Straight Edge movement) and Rites of Spring (whose music was so unrepeatable that they produced only one album’s worth of material), Fugazi was avowedly postpunk—struggling against the very daemonic impulses that their music emerged from and led to.
Punk, despite its DIY ethos and anti-authoritarianism, also found itself confronting the dark side of anarchism—skinheads whose idea of a good time involved beating the shit out of people in mosh pits under the guise of dancing.
A typical Fugazi show in the early 1990s involved this constant struggle between catharsis and violence, between abandon and discipline. They were, to use Nietzsche’s definition in The Birth of Tragedy, summoners of the Dionysian:
“Now is the slave a free man, now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now… every man feels himself not only united with his neighbour, reconciled and fused together, but also as if the veil of Maja has been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around before the mysterious original unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher unity. He has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures…. He feels himself a god. He now moves in a lofty ecstasy, as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist. He has become a work of art. The artistic power of all of nature, the rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the intoxicated performance.”
Anyone who has listened to punk rock (or, perhaps any music which aspires to this self-forgetting) for more than a minute would feel this power.
Yet Fugazi always situated itself between the balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian. For all their embrace of the DIY aesthetic, they were quite technically proficient, and the music itself—echoing the Minutemen before them—was rife with stops and starts, as if to measure their mastery over the noisy chaos they induced.
One show, halfway through a song, seeing the mosh pit grow more and more violent, pushing young kids up against the stage, Ian stopped the band and admonished the perpetrators, saying: “we will not be a soundtrack to your violence.”
He was known for calling those violators of the common good “sir”—as if to place them in the category of brutal authority figures. Which would freak out any real punk.
There’s never so much seething
That it can’t be disarmed.
This struggle was described well in the song by my friend Jim Doppke, “Ian Knows,” whose lyrics begin:
Ian looks out tired from the stage
And he wonders if they’ll let him turn that page
But they’re not even hearing the words
And Ian knows that it’s the songs that breach
Turn over in the masses the kids all reach
At the stage with their trembling hands
Is this what wanted? He’s just in a band….
He can’t believe they’re not hearing the words
Ian says your soundtrack is not my words….
Another time, a slam dancer took the stage and started to dance with Guy, and Guy went into a fully limp position, as if he were a nonviolent activist being hauled away by the cops.
In the tradition of self-consciously political punk bands like the Clash, Fugazi was different. Though the Clash called themselves “the only band that mattered,” their music was produced and distributed by CBS Records; however nuanced their message, they served a particular consumer niche and was absorbed in the profit motive of a huge media conglomerate. Clash frontman Joe Strummer often lamented the compromises that ensued from this devil’s bargain: “Everybody’s got their price…. But what about Fugazi?”
To paraphrase Russian poet Lev Rubinstein, the watershed between traditional and avant-garde aesthetics cannot be delineated merely by style. Fugazi was beyond the commodifiable gesture of oppositional protest because of how they shared their music. They made their own record label, Dischord Records, which MacKaye ran out of his house. They recorded at their friend Don Zientara’s Inner Ear Studios—which was in his basement. They produced and printed and distributed their own records and CDs for an affordable price ($10). They played only at all-ages venues so that young people could hear them. Their shows cost five dollars a ticket. Fugazi’s creation of an alternative to the music industry itself—not “alternative music,” but an alternate way of making and sharing music—made them one of the few truly avant-garde and truly punk bands of our time. Fugazi’s art was not meant to be consumed; it was meant to be lived.
In the cassette version of Repeater, one would find the following quote from Ortega y Gassett: “Revolution is not the uprising against preexisting order, but the setting up of a new order contradictory to the traditional one.”
Fugazi’s ethos and practice hearkened back to the tradition of American anarchism, radical politics, and participatory democracy (Thoreau, the I.W.W., Students for a Democratic Society, Malcolm X, and Noam Chomsky) and anticipated the Occupy Movement’s attempts to create what MacKaye calls “a working model of a real community, an alternative community that could continue to exist outside the mainstream.”
In a weird way, Fugazi may be the Grateful Dead of the post-punk generation—if the Dead were fronted by Mario Savio and a skinny tornado. They did more than create music; they made the soundtrack to an alternative mode of being.
E.J. McAdams: “I have gotten more interested in Fugazi as I have gotten older. I have bought albums, watched the documentary, and played ‘full disclosure’ for the kids in the car. As I get older I am more interested in the participatory democracy that Guy elucidates in the letter to Phil. We moved to Harlem, are active in the kids’ schools, protest standardized testing, join climate marches, dragging the kids to it all. Also, my anger has not subsided much, although I think I have better ways to channel it.”
It’s true, the themes of their songs reads like a laundry list of progressive issues, but their approach to the material is nothing less than art. Consider “Five Corporations.”
Sure, Fugazi here engages in a typical critique of monopolistic capitalism; the title itself refers to the five corporations that control 90% of U.S. mass media. But it’s the chorus that makes this song so memorable, embodying and giving voice to the lustful aggression that animates corporate raiderism: “this one’s ours let’s take another / this one’s ours let’s take another / this one’s ours let’s take another,” etc. By leaping between oppositional rage and giving voice to the hunger of greed, Fugazi again situates itself at the heart of the Dionysian dynamic.
Throughout their work, Fugazi shows that they are not simply interested in the aesthetics of protest; they want to move through the energies of the warrior impulse, to bend them toward new directions. In Guy Picciotto’s words, “What we have at these shows, and with these records—this is our battlefield, this is where we’ll be fighting about what we’re for” (qtd. in Our Band 376).
Perhaps that’s why their music and vision appealed to me so strongly. In the early 1990s, at a time when unfettered macho capitalism led to massive deregulation and union busting, when the American cities were flayed by the scourge of crack cocaine, when the U.S. began to flex its imperial muscle in Iraq, Fugazi was trying to find new ways of creating structures of freedom, of self-becoming—by drawing upon the primordial chemical stew that makes us raiders or addicts or soldiers.
I remember how angry I could get at my own helplessness, at my failures to be the man I wanted to become. Attacked by dark moods, I wondered what the hell I was doing with my life; I’d been helpless to stop the war, I’d broken up with someone, I was self-conscious and awkward around girls. I couldn’t even write my way out of the first stanza in a new poem.
Sometimes I had to be buried in noise, in the tomb of a dorm room, for hours, before I could emerge again.
The Vale of Soul-Making, as Keats called it, was rife with amplifier feedback, primal screaming, and masses of sweat-drenched bodies seething in the whirlpool of a mosh pit. It was a song so outside of your parents’ definition of music it was a secret code, a code you couldn’t crack unless it cracked you open.
Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”
Once, in a mosh pit, a particularly thick-headed dude was whaling away at everyone around him, lost to himself and everyone else in his damaged flailing; for some reason, I found myself grabbing and hugging him, holding him in my arms, bearing him until he calmed.
Maybe all he needed was a fucking hug.
W.B. Yeats: O body swayed to music—
Julia Story: “I remember me and a male friend handing our eyeglasses to another friend so they wouldn’t get broken in ‘the pit’ at a Fugazi show. I’m pretty sure it was in one of the Memorial Union ballrooms at the University of Iowa, 1993. Glasses were unharmed but I did get kicked in the head and I wore that bump with pride.”
O brightening glance—
Paul Connolly: “Not all mosh pits are violent…. Each is a snowflake changing shape under the same influences that are shaping the show’s collective mood. It’s possible to view a pit as a group impulse of all its participants to touch every other participant at the same time.”
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
I have not written a word about “The Waiting Room,” Fugazi’s first anthem, which at the time I saw as the punk male counterpart to Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Each delves into the mystery of being an embodied self, full of desire and expectation and pain, somehow connected to all these other bodies. Bishop:
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How—I didn’t know any
word for it—how “unlikely”…
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
Paul Connolly: “if the band was pleased with how a show had gone, they would end with “Glue Man,” their most ecstatic live song. It was always played in an extended unhinged jam, well beyond the album cut. This song about addiction was an experience of the destruction of self; it was musical bliss. It has the power of deep pain as it becomes crushed under its own pure heaviness. It is one of the more misanthropic songs about D.C., but the best possible daydream to have in a rock concert is that the band can and might show us the destruction of the world.”
Nietzsche: “Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, ‘You please me, happiness! Abide moment!’ then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants—eternity.”
I’d forgotten about the joy. Watching a YouTube video of the February 13, 1991 show at the Sacred Heart Church in Washington D.C., I am utterly taken up again. Beneath a huge glimmering red heart, and surrounded on all sides by a sea of ecstatic waves of dancing, MacKaye sings that we can’t be what we were, how we need to be what we are. But were and are, I want to say, are entangled, ensnared, enamored.
Every music essay needs to describe the band’s musicianship, what the band sounds like. So:
Rhythm section: The spider crawl of Joe Lally’s bass. Dub-step.
After pounding the skins until our ears began to pound, Brendan Canty would thud-crack his massive bell.
Guitars: buzzsaw meets industrial shop floor, noisy-odd harmonics.
Vocals: Ian MacKay’s drill sergeant anthemic growl-yowl—The Boss with a buzz cut, if he’d listened to the Buzzcocks and Bad Brains instead of R & B. Guy Picciotto’s taunt-yodel—Johnny Rotten, without the sneer.
Double frontmen in counterpoint:
Guy’s physical and vocal angularity, drawing a cubist image of himself, mic-stand-charming human contortionist able to shoot himself into a basketball hoop and hang there upside-down, while singing “Glue Man.”
Ian’s meat-thick guitar-chunking, his visage vaguely resembling Popeye’s, squinty-eyed as he bellowed. For all the deadly earnestness and self-righteous didacticism of the band, the squint suggested his broad humor (see also “Birthday Pony” for his gleeful comedy).
Which is to say: they were just a band. They played their version of pop music.
About this, Dan Keating wrote: “Their guitar sound was structured—Gibson SG’s through Marshall Stacks. They chose their tools and stuck with them. I’d imagine that was on purpose. It’s about setting boundaries and staying within to see how far you can go, how much juice you can squeeze out of it. There’s a discipline to it, and that’s not a limiting boundary. Instead, it forces creativity…. Stay within the confines, and you have to push yourself to do something new.”
In “Exit Only,” they wondered if they’d left any trace:
This is three minute access,
So pop the question.
Will we leave the last place burning?
Or do we just get leaving?
They wanted to be heard. They had anxieties about what they were doing. You can hear it in Guy’s vocals in “Do You Like Me,” while he rails about the state of things (“Lockheed Lockheed Martin Marietta”), he ends with the litany of ego: “Do you like me? Do you like me? Do you like me?”
When Ian MacKaye gave a talk at the Library of Congress in 2013—a sentence that would astonish my twenty-year old self—he proposed this definition of punk: “It’s a free space. It could be called jazz. It could be called hip-hop. It could be called blues, or rock, or beat. It could be called techno. It’s just a new idea. For me, it was punk rock. That was my entrance to this idea of the new ideas being able to be presented in an environment that wasn’t being dictated by a profit motive.”
I still don’t know what to do with the fact that MacKaye, through a third-party company, recently allowed Minor Threat t-shirts to be licensed for sale at Urban Outfitters for $28 apiece.
Joshua Poteat wrote: “One of my old bands opened for [Fugazi] in 1993 then again in ‘95-‘96. They washed their clothes in the club’s sink and dried them in an old, beaten up clothes dryer they brought with them. There is nothing more punk than bringing your own dryer on tour.”
In “Nice New Outfit,” in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Guy sings about a culture obsessed with style and appearance and able to launch missiles down chimneys thousands of miles away:
You’re number one with a bullet,
That’s money well spent,
Your mouth plastered like poster,
Address yourself success.
You can pinpoint your chimney
And drop one down its length.
In your nice new outfit,
Sorry about the mess.
This song—a prophetic critique of the optics of domination and self-surveillance—sutures together the culture of conformity at home in the U.S. with the Amiriyah shelter massacre, in which a U.S. “smart” bomb killed four hundred civilians in a bomb shelter during the bombing of Iraq.
I remember earlier that winter watching fellow classmates huddled around the dorm television, as President George H.W. Bush declared war on Iraq. It was surreal, to see them buzz with excitement, even cheer—as if it were a football game.
Then I was outside, walking in the bitter snow.
This time is real,
I feel it passing through the telephone,
No one is home now,
No one is home.
They keep me down,
So I build some more.
America is just a word but I use it.
Language keeps me locked and repeating.
This time is real,
I see it passing by the avenue,
Nothing to do now,
There’s nothing to do.
I see them spinning on,
So I spin out.
America is just a word but I use it.
Language keeps me locked and repeating.
Fugazi was where I could go when the country around me no longer felt like home.
Yeats, from “Ego Dominus Tuus”:
What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?
Matt McGowan wrote: “It’s the poetry that matters…. Like the $5 ticket or screaming through a pick-up, poetry refuses to accept the world as it is.”
From a notebook dated 1991, quoting Ian MacKaye: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t make a difference what you talk about, it’s what you do. And that’s the way it’s always been.”
Fugazi, among other influences, was partly to blame for our outlandish acts of naked abandon (literal and figurative) among our band at the Annapurna apartment—“The Purn,” as we called it and us.
Now that the statute of limitations has long since passed, here’s one from The Purn. For perhaps a decade after the Vietnam War, a huge painted peace symbol had graced the roof of the former ROTC building at Holy Cross College. Then in the summer before our junior year, it disappeared after a roof repair, only to reappear again suddenly one morning—along with the initials of a beloved but recently suicided professor. When we returned our senior year, just months after the Persian Gulf War, the roof again was brushed bare. Those of us who thought of our pacifism as traditional saw its erasure as an outrage, another censorship after a censored war.
On September 10th, 1991, in the dead of night, Thom visited us with a paint can and brushes. I thought he was joking at first. After we sat down and considered all the consequences, and infused with the spirit of Fugazi and the Berrigans, The Purn slipped onto campus, hiding in the Jesuit cemetery while we waited for our opening. Campus security snaked their way around the cluster of dorms. Twice we rose to do our work. Twice their headlights circled back, and we scurried to lay ourselves flat as corpses among the stones. The coast was clear. Mark set up beneath a bush, our sole lookout armed with a flashlight and stainless steel wok lid to brighten his alert signal. With a few boards laid across a roof, we walked over the abyss of our lawfulness and a twenty foot drop. My hands were shaking from nerves and botched one side of the circle, so Brian completed it, reapplying a tradition in 90 seconds flat.
A couple days later, the whole lot of us happened to be dining with the president of the college at a scholar’s dinner. Thom asked Father Brooks what he thought of the peace symbol’s return, because he’d heard that he was furious at its return.
“Did you do it, Thom?” he thundered.
“No, Father Brooks,” Thom said, smiling, shaking his head so slowly it seemed his neck were broken.
I moved my hands off the table, afraid some last flecks of paint would give me away.
Born in the center of our decaying empire, in Washington D.C., Fugazi refused to be blind to the bifurcation of America—to what Michael Harrington once called “the other America.” In the album cover for End Hits (the title itself a play on the apocalypticism of their version of pop), the lower half of the cover is a photograph of a metropolis lit at night; the upper half is a slab of cracked concrete, smeared in the right corner with a red like blood.
On The Argument, the cover is another split-screen. On the left side, a gray sculptural frieze depicts a hand holding a torch, echoing Liberty. On the right, a hand held out—as if asking for money. The first song of that album, “Cashed-Out,” tells the story of the elect, whose willing collusion with developers (with hands out) leads directly to the have-nots losing their apartments (with hands out).
Jim Doppke: “Fugazi’s conception of virtue is very Greek—seeking to do good deeds in the world in order to be remembered well and justly. But they can also be temperamental and skeptical of those who would glibly lionize them.”
I want to read Fugazi’s resistance as vexed. In a song like “Caustic Acrostic,” Fugazi anticipates the “resistance is futile” narrative of postmodernism and post-avant poetics. The sense of complicity and implicatedness is almost inescapable. The possibility of resistance is complicated by the nature of the systems in which we find ourselves; we might think that we have opposed something, and then we find, as the chorus goes, “caustic acrostic / spelling out your name.” You think that you’ve resisted, reading horizontally, but from another angle, reading vertically, there you find your name.
In the incantatory “Full Disclosure,” Guy’s opening litany—which the lyrics page renders as “I want out (x1000)”—actually sounds like “I want out I don’t want out.” What animates their music is that desire to reinvent music itself, to reinvent expression, to reinvent the self. It’s fucking exhausting. Eventually, one settles into routine, daily comforts, easy answers—not endless revolutionary ascetic hunger-artistry. In this song, we hear Guy struggling against himself, against human nature.
During their heyday in the 1990s, the film The Matrix became a hit; it dramatized the ancient myth that the world was nothing but a fiction, a shadow-projection created by a computer, fed by human batteries. The real world, as the main character Neo would find out, was the desert of the Real, run by machine overlords.
Fugazi was outside the Matrix. But every once in a while, you could sense that it wasn’t easy, margin-walking.
Still, once, on April 11, 1992, after a show in Worcester and before heading up to the apartment above the Annapurna Indian restaurant, I saw Fugazi sitting at the window table, elbow-deep in vegetarian curry.
Here’s the poem I sent to Mark.
Heroic Simile for Fugazi
As if on pitching deck, you navigate
stage & raging
crowd, your slashing guitars a boom
we duck under
& rise again, our mouths gasping.
You sing Scylla
out of you. Anguish of whirlpools
you toss & burn
wax from clotted ears, hammering
anvils with beeswarm
& obstinate bells, amps & stomps,
staccato & Picciotto,
bloodpulse & abyss, each feedbacked song
a Pandora’s box
you unhinge like a jaw. The mosh pit
We don’t hear your words, spit & coil
alone, the song we want & we obey,
our fists free
to strike. You stop, we won’t be a soundtrack
to your violence—
sirens now silent. We wake & listen.
Lally’s bass trip
hops its heart-beat. Behind the skins
Canty counts out
beats in his mind. Under blazing stagelight
your shaven skull
beads a drop. Guy keels like a shipwreck.
Till Canty cracks
the bell like a buoy, & you dive in
shallows or shoals,
flood our cranial cans, we flailing
in the wake. Outside,
ligaments & spines athrum with noise,
we lurch in the ark
of night, anger now leeched from backs
& armpits briny
as low tide. This is our smokestacked
Ithaka, no longer
possessed by what seemed beyond our control,
ourselves. In shells
of ears you keep crying: carry my body.
Haunt us home.
Philip Metres has written and translated a number of books and chapbooks, including Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (2014), Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), Ode to Oil (2011), To See the Earth (2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (2007), Instants (2006), Primer for Non-Native Speakers (2004), Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (2004), and A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (2003). His writing has appeared widely, including in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, two Arab American Book Awards, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, the Beatrice Hawley Award, the Anne Halley Prize, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, and the Cleveland Arts Prize.