Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital: by Mark Andersen & Mark Jenkins, 446 pgs. By Aphid

It’s probably somehow inevitable, in an Orwellian “Room 101” sort of way, that a person like me – a one-trick gadfly who’s taken more than a few untoward stabs at some of the more zealous strains of straight-edgerdom out there – would wind up having to stare a book like this straight in its clean and sober eyes. I probably had it coming. Just like I had a DWI coming and just like I had to stare straight into the clean and sober and wildly-caffeinated eyes of the chain-smoking, court-appointed drug counselor who kept telling me over and over what a wretched substance abuser I am. Thinking back to all the times I immaturely pantsed clear-minded soldiers in the sXe army (figuratively, of course. I’m too much of a wuss to do it in real life) – why, in the pages of this very magazine – egad, I shudder to think what else I might have coming. Will some black, laughing winds of fate somehow plop me into a “reality” TV show where I’m trapped in a room for a month lifting weights, playing Parcheesi and drinking Yoo-hoo with Ray Cappo and Porcell from Youth of Today? The mind reels. But I am, of course, exaggerating the solemnity of having to grapple with this tome.

 

 

            It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction of mine that whenever I’m surrounded by starched-up, neatly-pleated seriousness, I inevitably feel compelled to make a roaring ass of myself just to break up all the seriousness hanging in the air. In truth, reading this book is not as bad as being arrested for drunk driving. It’s much better than that, really. And it is chock full of information in much the same way that bran cereal is full of dietary fiber. Be that as it may, I must admit to feeling slightly uneasy as I made my way through Dance of Days; I felt a nagging feeling like I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, as if I were wandering without a membership card through the secret passageways of some ancient hermetic order that has secret hand shakes and arcane rituals. Though this isn’t a straight edge book, it chronicles many of the people and events that were to set the stage for sXe and later become a major influence on the movement (and eventually even emo.)

 

 

            This is a book – akin to England’s Dreaming and We Got the Neutron Bomb – that sets out to document the spawning activities within a particular musical/cultural pool or “scene.” The spawning beds here, of course, are those that loosely fall within the geographical area of WashingtonDC. But the lava lamp-like protoplasmic coupling, de-coupling, dividing, and multiplying of so many earnest young punk rockers in so many DC-area bands is downright dizzying, even for a sober reader. My Attention Deficit Disorder simply will not allow me the luxury of assimilating all the comings and goings of so many characters – especially when so many of those characters are cranky, diaper-rashy yits with blooming messiah complexes. Take for example, one of the main focuses of the book, HR of Bad Brains: a colorful, interesting guy until his “interestingness” is swallowed whole by his own ponderous self-righteousness and prejudice. So while this book and its meandering storyline are crawling like an ant farm with characters, there just aren’t any real characters in it. I like Minor Threat as much as the next guy, but I’ve always found Ian MacKaye to be about as interesting as a box of wet-naps. Oh, here and there you have a few ill-mannered “bent-edge” punks (like Fear, Black Market Baby, some guy named Don Diego) who stumble briefly into the narrative and then right back out again; Tesco Vee and the Meatmen pop up a few times only to be dismissed by the author(s) as important buffoons and quickly pushed aside to make room for someone or some band more full of moral rectitude. But this is a quibbling and flimsy complaint because this is, of course, a work of “nonfiction” and the authors are merely reporting on the activities of real people in space/time – they are not responsible for which characters come across as being “important” and which characters come across as being “minor.” Or are they? Here again another age-old bias of mine creeps in: I’m a bit Henry Fordish in my opinion of history on the whole; most of it’s probably “bunk” of some kind of another and calling any of it “revisionist” is redundant. But I’m teetering harrowingly close to the bubbling, stink-festering abyss of epistemology here, which is a slippery turd ride we don’t need to go on right now. And to be fair, though falling short of any Howard Zinn-like appraisals of their own “objectivity,” the authors do admit their short comings and limited perspectives right up front.

 

 

            Dance of Days is very informative (I finally found out where those X’ed hands came from) and though the authors make sure to get a message out along with the storyline, they generally avoid the type of wringing over-intellectualizing that bogged down parts of England’s Dreaming. With its clear, even-paced journalistic writing and wealth of behind-the-scenes information, Dance of Days will be gluttonously gobbled up by anyone with more than a passing interest in the formative years of harDCore, straight edge and riot grrrls. For me though, pretty much any book that tries to recapture the spirit and intensity of anything bursting with as much raw, gritty, unbridled life as a burgeoning punk scene – straight edge or bent edge, DC or London – is doomed to disappoint. It will be as brittle and lifeless as butterfly carcasses stuck with pins to styrofoam slabs. For history buffs and those with a passion for the particular scene in general, it can provide a scaffolding with which to build an understanding of the intricacies of that scene. For a more disinterested outsider like myself, it can serve only as a dusty visit to someone’s attic full of old photo albums and letters and a few taxidermied grandparents and great uncles and aunts propped up here and there. –Aphid Peewit (Akashic, PO Box 1456, New York, NY10009)