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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Raider of the Lost Arts


by Simeon FlickOctober 2021

Simeon Flick.

The quartet would take the stage to the anticipatory swell of applause from an all-ages audience that had paid less than 10 dollars to get in, and about as much for any of their records. One of the two frontmen, usually the stage-right guy with buzzed male-pattern-baldness hair wearing a maroon t-shirt and charcoal thrift-store slacks or shorts, would ask for the house lights to be brought up and left there, if they weren’t already. The same member––or the other guy with a mic and guitar, or someone from the cause the band’s performance was championing––would give a short talk about the affiliated organization in question.
Directly preceding that talk, buzzed-head guy would utter the same badge-of-pride salutation he’d issued thousands of times on numerous stages across all 50 states and multiple continents:
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we are FUGAZI from Washington D.C.”
In the tradition of colloquial military acronyms from World War II (FUBAR = Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition, SNAFU = Situation Normal: All Fucked Up), FUGAZI (Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In) was actually borrowed from the Vietnam War, specifically Nam, a collection of veteran poetry compiled by Mark Baker. It was the perfect name for a band also fighting in black and white terms against elusive, dug in enemies during an increasingly grey and shambolic era, and protesting the shady injustices and collateral damage of unraveling institutions that were––and still are––closing in on all sides.
Ian MacKaye, the aforementioned frontman with his Irish tenor howl and burly Gibson SG guitar, came to this new supergroup with an already legendary pedigree, having sung for punk linchpin Minor Threat in the early eighties. Guy Picciotto, with his breathily emotive banshee wail echoed by his shrill Rickenbacker guitar, also boasted a long and lustrous history on the D.C. hardcore scene, having fronted the band Rites of Spring and others with future FUGAZI drummer Brendan Canty. Bassist Joe Lally was also a Capitol area mainstay, but he dovetailed with Ian’s latest desire to blend more groove-related genres into their post-punk stew. Coupled with Canty’s killer rhythmic feel, this rock-solid rhythm section provided the perfect springboard for the two impassioned singer-guitarists to rhythmically pace and pogo and, in Picciotto’s case, either dance with surprising proficiency, hang precariously from available obstacles (like a gym’s basketball hoop once:, or flop around like a landed fish up front while Lally typically hung out in the back with Canty.
Like The Clash a decade before, but even more steadfast in sustaining the practical application of their ascetic personal, social, and political ideals, FUGAZI was the only band that mattered in the late eighties and nineties (a sentiment echoed by Rolling Stone writer Matt Diehl in 1993), singing confrontational anthems and think pieces over innovative, intense, yet bare-boned music that alloyed a myriad of styles without being overbearing or trite. Even their lineup was revolutionary; there aren’t very many groups that have actually thrived featuring two singing/songwriting frontmen, let alone lasting for 16 some-odd years without imploding from what should have been inevitable ego conflicts (even Lally was allowed up front for a few turns on lead vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Canty contributed riffs). Along with all the other battles they were fighting, FUGAZI proved they were above the interpersonal pettiness that befell the majority of other bands, democratically open to all ideas no matter the source, and respectful of everyone’s desired breadth of function.
They were the most if not the only prominently successful independent group to actually walk their DIY talk, operating under the rubric of their own modestly run record label (Dischord, which has provided its shake-on-it services exclusively to D.C. bands since the early eighties, and apparently turned down a 10 million dollar buy-out deal from Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun), self-managing and booking, selling no merchandise beyond the music, and avoiding the mainstream labels and press outlets, which they saw as part of a larger, inherently corrupt industry irredeemably in bed with business-as-usual capitalism and politics (Ian and Guy even went so far as to remove the manufacturer logos from their amplifiers and replace them with FUGAZI stencils). If they did interviews at all, it was mostly for the little guys or small organizations that echoed their ethos, like independent ‘zines and public access TV.
It seemed fitting that a band from the country’s political headquarters would be so activist-minded. FUGAZI gave away 100% of the proceeds from local D.C. shows to one charity or another, usually causes in the direct line of fire from the mostly right-leaning and generally insouciant yet more often oppressive regimes of that era. They also staged numerous protest shows in front of such iconic national landmarks as the White House and the Washington Monument.
Though they certainly stood apart from their nihilistic grunge-era peers in many respects, FUGAZI also employed the loud-quiet-loud dynamics, guitar feedback, and righteous indignation native to the popular music of the early ’90s. But while their colleagues focused mostly on heavy metal forebears, FUGAZI, akin to the aforementioned Clash, melded punk with more groove-based styles like dub, funk, hip-hop, and reggae to create a new hybrid that could not only compel an audience to move morally, but also physically.
It was a potent admixture that often catalyzed confrontations with the more rambunctious jock and skinhead contingents at their shows. FUGAZI cared intently about the physical and emotional well-being of their audiences, routinely castigating meatheads who harmed hapless concert goers when they rushed forward and created a crush at the front of the stage, or fomented chaotic mosh pits wherein attendees could sustain injuries. MacKaye, Picciotto, and Lally made a regular point to stand in the way of punters preparing to stage dive, occasionally escorting them offstage personally or stopping in the middle of a song and ask the crowd to take a few steps back on behalf of the crushed front rows, and single out certain members of the audience for their unruly behavior (check out Picciotto’s classic “Ice Cream” tirade:, often going so far as to refund an offender’s money and dismiss them from the concert hall if they persistently disrespected the band or anyone in the audience. All the while, and perhaps with a tinge of passive aggression, Mackaye would communicate politely and respectfully to the offender, addressing them as “sir,” or, much less often if ever, “ma’am.” “Have a nice time, be cool to each other,” MacKaye would sometimes say after his introductory monologue, but it’s a bit of a paradoxical conundrum to ask a crowd to be polite and constrained in the face of such galvanizing music, like throwing chum in the ocean and forbidding the sharks to devour it. But you have to respect their follow-through in attempting to foster a fair, safer, and in a way more democratic environment in every facet of their enterprise, fighting injustice wherever they saw fit, no matter how seemingly disproportionate to the infraction.
It’s interesting to contemplate now, considering their decidedly post-hardcore roots, but FUGAZI was very much an improvisational band. Though they did make a premeditated effort to alternate back and forth between Ian and Guy’s songs, and usually went with a pre-selected show opener, they never used a written set list and expanded live arrangements to create space for their experiments with feedback, dynamic breakdowns, vocal vamping, and whatever else came to mind in real time, though without much of anything resembling a typical guitar solo. Even some of their song-to-song segues constituted points of interest, ingenious and seamless in equal measure considering they were also improvised (via subtle signals and copious pre-tour rehearsing) and often cut the intra-song time down to a harrowing nil. They were also undaunted in their occasional spurning of vocal soapboxing to express themselves purely in musical terms through the many instrumental cuts they wrote, recorded, and performed. The addition of second drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jerry Busher to their touring lineup in the late ’90s, and their trove of soundboard recordings representing a significant number of career-spanning live shows in the member-accessible Dischord audio archive, reinforce the similarities to improvisational paragons like the Grateful Dead.
FUGAZI’s first two “albums”––the compilations 13 Songs and Repeater/Margin Walker respectively––are instant classics. The production is immaculate, with just enough reverb in a vocals-forward mix to get the band over without being a cheesy reminder of the overblown era they were leaving behind. The first cut on the debut opus––“Waiting Room”––is arguably their defining statement and most well-known song, and you could tell, just like Kurt Cobain quickly came to resent and shun “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after it became such an over-requested monster, it was a thorn in FUGAZI’s side. But it’s difficult to blame fans for cottoning to Canty’s infectious groove, Lally’s hummable low-end hook that starts the song by itself, MacKaye’s and Picciotto’s participation-inciting call-and-answer vocals, and the former’s high-velocity downstroke guitar figure that makes such a delectable chord inversion as it helixes with the bass line. Other key tracks are Mackaye’s similarly punk-funk-inflected “Suggestion” and “Bad Mouth” as well as the scabrous Picciotto cuts “Bulldog Front,” “Burning,” “Give Me the Cure,” and “Glue Man,” the last of which sounds horrifying enough to be an effective anti-drug PSA in its own right (“I spent it all / On the bag, on the drag”).
Repeater builds off of the prevailing template but now with Picciotto’s guitar integrated into the sonic mélange (he wasn’t much more than a vocalist/hype-man on 13 Songs). Using complementary guitar parts, which often favored the droning octave interval as a kind of anthemic device reminiscent of a military trumpet reveille, MacKaye and Picciotto snake around each other in a simple way that, when combined with Lally’s emphatically melodic bass lines, suggests intriguing upper harmony structures (“Turnover,” “Blueprint,” “Sieve-Fisted Find”). MacKaye’s “Shut the Door,” with its jazz-on-meth bar-chord chorus and wide-open spaces, would become a tour de force for the two guitarist’s improvisations in the live milieu. And the title track, with Canty’s tight-snared funk syncopation that wouldn’t be out of place on a James Brown record, MacKaye’s quasi-rap vocal delivery (not to mention his observations on urban injustice), and Picciotto’s repetitive, Public Enemy-esque dental-drill guitar melodies, constitutes a compelling punk analog to hip-hop.
Lyrically, Repeater takes on the world, challenging the listener to open their eyes and mind to the jive within and around us: “Lounge against your weapons / Until your muscles find lock / In the ease of that position” (“Turnover”), “Never mind what’s been selling / It’s what you’re buying / And receiving undefiled” (“Blueprint”), “You wanted everything / You needed everything” (“Greed”), “Merchandise it keeps us in line / It’s condescension by design / What could a businessman ever want more / Than to have us sucking in his store” (“Merchandise”), “Once upon a time, I had a name, I had a way / But to you, I’m nothing but a number” (“Repeater”), “We are all bigots / So filled with hatred / We release our poisons / Like Styrofoam” (“Styrofoam”). And, with their use of the “we” and “us” pronouns, they included themselves in their cross-examinations (“We are all here / We are all…GUILTY!”).
The third opus, and first proper album––Steady Diet of Nothing––is their first masterpiece. Despite the dried-out production (the band self-produced with Inner Ear Studios engineer Don Zientara), the songs are superlative from start to finish in the “all killer, no filler” tradition. The album’s opening cut––“Exit Only”––begins ominously with a dual-guitar feedback drone that lasts half a minute before Canty drops in with a modified midtempo Motown groove using a sparse yet syncopated hi-hat pattern and Lally stabbing out interlocking reggae fifths on bass. Picciotto confronts the listener with “This is three-minute access / So pop the question…Red light in my mind / Moves to refuse your filter / Are you still surprised?” That song ends and the silence is immediately broken by the doubled E-octave klaxon of “Reclamation,” MacKaye’s first tour de force of the album. Between utterly exultant choruses of “Reclamation!” and backed by a slow churning groove, he hands everyone else their asses: “You will do what looks good to you on paper / We will do what we must…”
If Steady Diet of Nothing is FUGAZI’s Rubber Soul, 1993’s In on the Kill Taker is their Revolver. The return of Ted Nicely’s coproduction, combined with the most extensive demoing, rehearsal, and live litmus-testing of the material preceding any of their other releases (as well as a shelved first attempt with Steve Albini), strikes an ideal compromise between the vibe-increasing reverb and the dry, unaffected aesthetic of punk, attaining an ideal balance that fits the entire sublime running order to a tee. This album––the most concise statement in their oeuvre––leaves you feeling confronted and spent, yet also uplifted, with all the dirt returned to the grave after the exhumation.
First heard is Mackaye’s strobing Morse code feedback guitar joined by a killer punk riff from Picciotto that throws them headlong into “Facet Squared,” which finds Mackaye railing against territorialism (“We draw lines and stand behind them / That’s why flags are such ugly things / That they should never touch the ground”). Picciotto’s directly proceeding “Public Witness Program” is classic punk with a twist, combining a manic up-tempo groove with scabrous yet brain-massaging chord inversions, while his “Smallpox Champion” addresses one of many inconvenient truths about our country’s origins––Native American genocide and displacement as manifest destiny’s collateral damage––over a fast-tempo riff that utilizes an avalanche of strange but pleasing guitar intervals: “Smallpox champion u s of a / Give natives some blankets, warm like the grave…Bury your heart u s of a / History rears up to spit in your face / You saw what you wanted / You took what you saw / We know how you got it / Your method equals wipeout.” MacKaye interjects with the color-by-numbers punk of “Great Cop,” in which he breaks off one journalist or another (probably from Rolling Stone, with whom the band had a semi-adversarial relationship: “Got a lot of questions for me / Got your finger pointing at me…Distrusted / I look for wires when I’m talking to you”), and the anthemic anti-gun dirge, “Instrument.” “Last Chance for a Slow Dance” is a classic album closer from Picciotto, with a somber samba beat and a repeating chord melody juxtaposed over a slowly shifting bass line, with ruminating verses (“Warning the threat of morning that just extends you another day”) culminating in loud, cathartic choruses of “Shot shooting / Shot shot / Shot shooting yourself again for what / To taste all the waste.”
1995’s Red Medicine was where FUGAZI started to get weird. Or that is to say, in a moderated fashion they began to set aside some of their anthemic punk leanings to reveal a more arty, experimental side. Whether it was predominantly slower tempos and overt experimentation with different sounds, textures and effects, or the expanded instrumentation (piano, clarinet, etc.), they may have been purposefully attempting to alienate and thus thin out the aforementioned meathead element from their audiences, like an In Utero-style kiss-off. Or maybe, five albums in, they just needed to change things up for growth and variety’s sake.
There’s still some fist-pumpers; Picciotto starts the album with a bombastic noise intro that leads into the fast-paced “Do You Like Me,” directly followed by the up-tempo R & B bass and drum groove of MacKaye’s “Bed for the Scraping” that finds him taking stock at the end of his wits (“I’m sick with this, I’m sick with this / Situation avoided or just missed? / My own sweet time says it’s ten twenty four / Hardly recognize simple things anymore / I don’t wanna be defeated”) before launching into one of the most deranged guitar hooks you’ll ever get stuck on repeat in your head (MacKaye plays it straight while Picciotto gives it a neurotic flair by tapping out some of the notes on the fretboard with his pick). The raucous bridge offers a taste of the classic FUGAZI post-punk before finishing with MacKaye’s unhinged high-range screaming over a trademark octave riff. “Birthday Pony” finds MacKaye laughing and wailing into his guitar’s pickups over Canty’s random crash accents and a piano version of the main riff that drops in shortly after, wherein he begins to screed about careful-what-you-wish-for concerns. A shocking millisecond intro drops in to the slow and steady bass and drum groove of “Forensic Scene,” with Picciotto as the hapless gumshoe at the taped-off, chalk-outlined room of one of his ended relationships: “Unclipped unclean this forensic scene’s all played out / The defense rests and sorry’s just a no shit Sherlock mouth talk con job…Like a mouth too late to shut / I’m a failure, not your failure now.” Picciotto’s “Fell Destroyed” is a lyrical sequel to ‘Turnover,’ which wouldn’t feel out of place at a beatnik poetry reading; you can almost hear the beret-and-turtleneck-clad fingersnaps as Guy low-key rhythm-reads the caveat verses over an easygoing riff before the melodic jazz chorus kicks in, punctuated by an onomatopoetically apropos percussive headstock figure from MacKaye: “To ring the alarm or you’re sold to dying.” Two dirges follow: the Lally-sung “By You,” with a mellow, Sousa-esque intro leading into a sleazy D-tuned guitar figure, and the slow-crawl churn of the echo-affected, Picciotto-performed clarinet instrumental, “Version.” Things amp back up with Picciotto’s “Target” and “Downed City,” and MacKaye’s return to almost straight punk form on the 5/4-timed “Back to Base.”
No humans could have sustained that level of steadfast intensity forever, and even FUGAZI were all too human; the final albums (End Hits and The Argument) and the 2001 Jem Cohen documentary Instrument, which overdoses on maudlin demos of upbeat album tracks, contains frustratingly few complete live clips (“Smallpox Champion” is a disemboweled ten seconds), is (deservedly) self-indulgent and generally lacks their trademark in-your-face elan––all feel scatterbrained and/or tired, belying a band in decline. They went on indefinite hiatus in 2003, having more than earned their rest, to get off the road less traveled and start families, put their careworn picket signs in storage, and to experience collaborations with other bands and musicians.
One hopes there is no truth to any of the whispered reunion rumors, that they take a cue from The Clash and let their work remain in the era during which it thrived, that they move on in their curiosity and separately create new music for this even more troubled era if they still have it in them. It seems a little strange that some new band or bands haven’t taken up the torch of their injustice-confronting, straight-edge living, we-jam-econo spirit into the new millennium, despite many having since cited them as a musical influence, but only the adversity-nurtured, latchkey-pragmatic, we’ve-seen-it-all Generation X could have produced such a band, and even when they were active, FUGAZI was the only honest cop on the force, and they had to fight absolutely everything to be what they were, and the fight has left us.
For now.

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