As any discerning fan of the musical genre can attest, punk rock rarely translates well to the written word, and the most wretched attempts to capture punk’s spirit have often been the efforts of those who try to “document” the scene(s). In more than one instance, what is usually touted as “years of extensive research,” be it by jaded veteran with a bias for friends’ bands or clueless outsider slumming for credibility, results in a really neat picture book accompanied by some incomplete, miserable blather passing itself off as history.
Even the few well-written documents that do exist miss a great deal of what was going on during the time covered, merely resulting in a series of snapshots of particular scenes, but never a full and comprehensive picture. Part of the problem is with punk itself. While it is easy to identify the “stars” in nearly every other musical niche (eg. Led Zeppelin vs. Dick Army and the Prosthetic Implants, Simon and Garfunkel vs. Otto and Lou), punk, supposedly the antithesis of that line of thinking, leveled the playing field, making stars of everyone, fan and band alike. In short, if you’re planning to document a punk “scene,” you better expect to bring a lot of paper, pencils and erasers, ‘cause you’re gonna need ‘em just writing down the names of everyone involved.
As a document of the DC punk scene, Anderson and Jenkins’ Dance of Days is a valiant effort, and one that almost succeeds. Starting with the beginnings of veterans like the Slickee Boys, White Boy and the Razz and ending things up somewhere in the mid-1990s, the two take the reader on a dizzying ride through an account of one of the most consistently creative musical scenes in the history of American rock music, filled to the brim with insider factoids, first person accounts, and profiles both positive and negative of many of the movers and shakers in the DC scene.
Jenkins’ account of the scene’s early years is executed with a detached yet loving hand, deftly getting to the point in a way that only years of work in the journalism field can provide, yet also laying the foundation of the book’s major characters, the Georgetown punks. Picking up where Jenkins leaves off, Anderson follows the Georgetown punks (specifically Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson) through the tumultuous 1980s/90s eras of harDCcore, “Revolution Summer,” punk percussion protests, the beginnings of “emo,” the rise of Fugazi, the fall of Riot Grrl, and throws in the comparatively brief history of the influential Positive Force DC, to boot.
Less detached from his subject than Jenkins, Anderson’s writing skirts a fine line between inspired accounts of what sound like some amazing gigs and sludgy attempts at incorporating punk’s PC wing of political activism into the tale. At his best, he can make even a mundane band sound vital to the history of rock’n’roll, their concerts events of Woodstock proportions, their records mandatory (quick related personal note: For the bulk of their entire existence, I have hated Fugazi with an intensity heretofore saved only for the likes of the Bee Gees, John Denver and the Backstreet Boys. After reading Anderson’s spirited descriptions of their shows, I borrowed 13 Songs from Todd’n’Sean. I have since been made to both grudgingly admit that I now like Fugazi and suffer Sean’s repeated offers to indulge myself in a good “emo” cry into his backpack. In exchange, they copied two of their other albums for me. Seemed like a fair trade to me). At his worst, he confirms certain elitist biases whispered in that scene for decades and touched upon by Anderson himself: if you aren’t favored in the Dischord scene, you ain’t shit.
The lion’s share of the book’s coverage goes to MacKaye, Nelson, their immediate friends and their label, while other “name” Dischord bands (most glaringly the highly influential Void) are given little attention, and other labels (like Outside Records) and bands (United Mutations, DC Necros) are given even less or no coverage at all. If one attempts to document a “scene,” shouldn’t they include as many different perspectives as are available to insure balanced coverage, and not just focus on the kids in the popular crowd?
Maddeningly, once the Dischord kids turn their collective backs on the harDCore scene they started (a scene described in such a way that it makes the reader feel like he missed out for not living in DC in its heyday) it is rarely mentioned for the remainder of the book except when it serves to illustrate the violence and ignorance swirling the “true” punk scene of the Dischord bands. Its continued existence is never denied so much as ignored, like the bastard stepson who no one wants to talk about.
Additionally, the latter parts of the book oftentimes read like nothing more than blow-by-blow accounts of assorted political actions and much of the character development built into the beginning of the book is largely forgotten. Lastly, it is never addressed in any real depth why these people not only found themselves attracted the punk scene in the first place, but also why they’ve stuck it out this long in spite of the violence, the negative press, the infighting, the revolving door of band lineups, the gigs, the protests, the backbiting, the pointless cries of “sellout” and other general silliness.
Still, you’ve got to give these guys credit for one hell of an effort. It’s damn hard to effectively tackle 20-plus years of music and give credit to all who are due. MacKaye, Nelson, and all their friends and their collective efforts are more than worthy of a book and, had the subheading read Two Decades of DISCHORD Punk in the Nation’s Capitol, this would’ve been damn near perfect.
It is, again, a valiant attempt, one that almost succeeds, one that places Dance of Days among the top books ever written about punk rock, the sum total of which can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. It is patently clear that Anderson and Jenkins are both fans and believers in the music they cover and, despite any of the book’s shortcomings, this fact comes through loud and clear. -Jimmy Alvarad (Soft Skull Press, 98 Suffolk St. 3A, New York, NY10002)