Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time.
–New Order, “Ceremony”
Mercifully, The Punk Archive in Washington, DC is not the kind of multi-million-dollar so-called punk fashion show that once blighted the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring of 2013. It’s librarians. It’s old show posters. It’s an all-caps announcement of “IF YOUR DC BAND WOULD LIKE TO PLAY PLEASE LET US KNOW!” It’s memories made of “Gonna sing it, gonna love it” and Chuck Brown ticked at folks for even thinking of leaving the dance floor, while around the archive’s epicentre — which makes its home in the MLK Jr. Memorial Library on 901 G Street NW — we have swirls of endlessly forgettable “best of” lists applied to restaurants and zip codes (though I’m sure they all deserved it, and well done, and go yell at someone else) and Alvarez the Iguana at 826DC wandering over to a box that proclaims “NO POKING,” while Tangier Island, Virginia quietly contemplates what it might mean to turn into a ghost in fifty years’ time along with the likes of Isle de Jean Charles down south in Louisiana.
Joy Buttons at the DC Public Library
The Archive is the kind of thing the book Dance of Days ought to head running straight towards, what with its stories about WGTB being founded by a priest who ran the astronomy department at Georgetown; of the entire staff of the radio station being fired because of the music they played; of one DJ joking that he later got his job back because he bribed someone with a couple of tabs of acid; of White Boy opening up a show in a basement with James Kowalski grabbing a microphone and saying, “Good evening and fuck you!”; of Ian MacKaye getting up on stage in 1981 and sarcastically asking, “When is ‘77 coming back?”; of Government Issue oi-oi-oi-ing through “Hey Ronnie”; of H.R. from Bad Brains singing out loud in a backyard in Arlington and neighborhood kids coming over to gawk; of Chain and The Gang blasting through “Devitalize” and giving an all-but-explicit soundtrack to the nonsense of seeing a bar like The Pour House go and close (a track which pairs itself well with Jack On Fire’s “Here’s the condo, here’s the steeple / Urban life without urban people,” I suppose. And that — when you think of the history of recent DC gentrification and the history of gentrification in general — partially pairs itself with DC-centric debates concerning the Height of Buildings Act from 1910, and, look: the skyline is fine; why not — for instance — focus less on the buildings and more on the music being produced by public housing?).
Literally, though, the DC Punk Archive is also just a list — as in, 7 Door Sedan, The Apes, Bad Brains, Bikini Kill, Black Market Baby, Coke Bust, Crispus Attacks, Dag Nasty, Fugazi, Government Issue, Lungfish, Minor Threat, Q and Not U, Rites of Spring, Slickbee Boys, and more. (But what good is that? Is a list alive?)
“The most striking thing about DC and NoVA music right now,” Paul Vodra of Hometown Sounds told me, “is the spirit of DIT, or ‘do it together.’ This twist on the old punk/harDCore mantra of ‘do it yourself’ is inspiring the wave of house shows throughout DC, providing an alternative outlet and communal spirit to local acts.”
“DIT” partially manifests itself in something like Positive Force, too, where — as Mark Anderson told WAMU — you have an “Outreach and Advocacy Group”: “We are a family that serves seniors, so you’ve kind of got this crazy punk-senior crossover, you know, where literally you have folks with tri-hawks, like, you know, that’s the more ambitious version of the mohawk…yeah, the tri-hawk, coming out to deliver groceries to African American seniors. And it sounds wacky, but why not do it? It’s something that the city needs. The city is so divided and there’s such painful history. Here’s a chance for us to kind of recognize ourselves — each other, as brothers and sisters and one family.”
Performance-wise, though, “DIT” marks a slight change in what once was. For a time, as Henry Rollins put it, “you’d go to someone’s house and someone would start lecturing you about Nicaragua.” Then it was once about following a short, play “as many songs in as little time as possible” routine developed from the almost certain inevitability of a police shutdown: “It was almost like clockwork — you could play for twenty minutes before the police would show up…the shows, which began as simulated violence, became full of real, harmful violence, fulfilling the media representations that had framed them that way in the beginning” — which is where a story like Ted Leo’s comes in: “However, there were some friends of theirs who’d driven up from DC and who were grabbing people in the pit, physically stopping them from dancing…an angry skinhead in the middle of the pit says, ‘Can we DANCE to this part?’ Ian MacKaye looks him in the eye and says, rising from a spoken question to a scream, moving upward as the music surges to a crescendo along with his voice, ‘Why don’t you listen for JUST – ONE – SECOOOOOOOOOOND!!!'”
The Pop Group — Feed The Hungry
But what does it mean to have an archive to part of the city’s history when the city is something of, as Perry Stein put it, “a transient city?” And why a punk archive? Why is a physical punk archive better or more necessary than an internet that — in theory — never forgets? (Because if you put it in one place, the internet can’t physically come in, lift it up, and carry it away to be appropriated somewhere else?) What do archives do to and for the future?
One argument is, of course, as a certain white-haired French-speaking philosopher put it, the archives are about the “irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” But, lest we’ve forgotten: it’s punk. Derrida had a fever about an archive, but what can make the ideation of archiving punk? Getting David Blaine to issue a rhetorically ornate prediction that LucasFilm will actually come to be better known in one hundred years for their world-class contributions to the porn industry? Getting Johnny Rotten to promise to have his future ghost somehow show up at the unofficial headquarters of the Internet Outrage Machine and/or Fox News and/or The Daily Mail and somehow force a sprig of quiet and peaceful flowers to grow from the pages in question and/or the heads of those professionally charged with gnashing their teeth?
Let’s add this, too: Derrida’s argument regarding archives and the future strikes me as slightly off. Just because the future is an unstable thing “over there” and there will always be the need for memory or institutions of memory doesn’t necessarily imply that the institution of memory directly generates the future. But let’s be practical, and ask ourselves what it means to throw an archive of music into outer space like a giant log at a Scottish festival. Because the “Voyager Golden Record” is already out there flying through space, isn’t it? And, unless the universe collapses, unless our dimension fractals itself into a sneezed-upon-dandelion’s worth of other dimensions, it’s there. That record is there. That’s ours.
That Voyager Golden Record is — in the words of Timothy Ferris — “a gold-plated copper disc, 12 inches in diameter, containing sounds of Earth, greetings in 55 languages spoken by 87 percent of the world’s population, 115 analog-encoded photographs and 90 minutes of music ranging from the bell-pure tones of Pygmy girls singing in a forest in Zaire to Beethoven’s Cavatina and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.’”
There are aspects of the Voyager Golden Record that are impossible to follow. One is its obvious physical head start. Another is that the creation of the record served as the catalyst for the eventual marriage of Carl Sagan and Ann Bruyan — which, I mean, you son of a bitch, Carl. An interstellar mixtape? What the hell am I supposed to do, then? Make my own planet? Figure out how to successfully test the Novikov self-consistency principle?
More seriously, though: to hear Kurt Waldheim say, “We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate” is a striking thing; it’s rhetoric that befits the glass curvature of blue that houses our air. Sagan called it “a local and momentary expression of cosmic discourse.”
The Voyager Golden Record
“Having produced the record,” Timothy Ferris wrote elsewhere, “I answer that I wouldn’t change much.” Though there’s an incredible selection on the record, Philip Glass wasn’t wrong to say that there should be more songs from more musical traditions from other cultures across the world onto the record; for instance, despite Alan Lomax being consulted, only two songs from the African continent ended up on the record, and that’s absurd. What about the rollicking, archingly river-like banjo lines of amazigh music? What about those “YouTubes to make your Mexican grandmother cry”? What about the buskers we see as we walk through city subways and city streets? What about a super ironic “sex mixtape” filled with songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” What about the twenty different version of “The Gardener” or “Thrown Right At Me” or “Like The Wheel” uploaded to YouTube from twenty different shows? And — only ninety minutes? Where does that leave the sounds of a New Orleans second line and the backchat from neighbors on their porch?
Let’s let gravity be gravity and drag the softly pinging imaginary satellite back down into our mucky raw, to another form of archiving: Humans of New York and the spin-off sites it inspired. What’s to keep us from looking at these endless lists and photos and interviews as just a bunch of blah-blah-blah? What’s to keep us from feeling overwhelmed with all the information and unable to find the human thing?
Humans of Tokyo told me about things that stood out to them, like, “sumo wrestlers doing morning training, the lady with monkeys stealing fruit in her garden, the security guard who helped me deal with a large stash of cash that came blowing down the street. Saad Aktahr — one of many contributing to Humans of Pakistan — told me about how the site was there to humanize Pakistan; to take a thwack at Pakistan being — as Teju Cole put it when Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of school girls — “that” country.
“I used to be an introvert,” Aktahr said. “But through this project, I got to meet a lot of people. I’ve interviewed more than 800 people so far and it has been an amazing journey … [for instance]: I met a young boy around 12 — his father died a month or so back and he had to quit studies and work at a generator workshop to earn a living for his family. I posted about him on Humans of Pakistan and asked if people would want to help him. The response we received was immense. We raised more than $1000 in a couple of days.
“Then one day I picked him up from the place where he worked, took him to [a] food area nearby. Bought him drinks and a pizza to take home. I went to his home, it was somewhat a mud house. Met his mum and told her that I’m going enroll your son back to his school and will be taking care of [his] monthly expense[s]. Tears of joy streamed down her face, she kissed on my forehead and prayed for my long life. As I was leaving, the young boy came running to me and asked, ‘Saad bhai, isay khatay kis tarah hein?’ [Brother, how to eat this (pizza)?] It was a sudden emotional roller coaster. I’d almost burst into tears. Inside me, everything shattered and for a couple of seconds I was numb. This made me think how blessed we are and how we don’t feel thankful to God for all what he has given to us. The young fellow lives a few miles away from my place but…this was the very first time he had seen a pizza.”
Back to punk and the stories of the people who build up a punk archive: why a punk archive? Or — to put it another way — what’s a wise punk? Is it a wisdom of crowds? Sometimes I think we slip into a habit of looking at the internet the way we look at a hospital — that is to say, we don’t. A hospital somehow doesn’t hold the sick, because we’re fine, obviously, and the internet isn’t full of other humans, because we’re not on the other side of those screens, are we? Our bodies say as much.
“Punk is about now and nostalgia is about looking back, wishing you were there,” Mark Anderson told WAMU. “But as a historian and as an activist, I don’t relate to nostalgia. I relate to what that spirit was and is and how it’s relevant to right now. And that’s really what matters to me. And the answer, why are all these things happening? Why now? I can’t really say, why now?”
The DC Punk Archive marked its opening with a show. Three bands played at the show: Joy Buttons, Flamers, and Hemlines. “Screen printing and button making was happening,” Ryan McLaughlin of Joy Buttons told me. “Being from DC, our punk scene certainly doesn’t really need anymore validation besides from the forces that drive it, but it doesn’t hurt. It seems everyone I talk to about it is proud to have it ‘officially’ acknowledged by the city, you know?”
“I grew up in the DC area and feel lucky to have had access to such a vibrant punk scene with bands that are consistently politically and aesthetically provocative,” Jason Barnett from Flamers told me. “Many of my favorite DC bands were on small DIY labels with records that are now out of print, and many of my favorite show venues were houses that no longer host shows, so I like the idea of having an archive to keep a record of this ephemera.”
“I also realized when we arrived that a lot of people who play music locally and/or follow the local punk and hardcore scenes work in the library system as well,” Julie Yoder from Hemlines told me. “Many of them volunteered to stay after hours to help with the show. I think the reason so many punks study library science or work at the library is because it’s a social-justice oriented job and it’s meaningful.”
But why an archive? Why now? “The angel would like to stay,” Walter Benjamin once wrote, “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
If memory — to paraphrase Borges — inclines towards the timeless and timelessness is a variation on desire, then maybe we build archives because we half-expect to look at everything that’s been smashed and everyone we’ve failed and everywhere we’ve triumphed and everything we’ve forgotten and everything we’ve loved and everything we’ve hated and attempt to do the reverse of pulling a dining cloth out from beneath a chandelier’s worth of cutlery in what can only be described as an impossible Rube Goldberg act of love. As Feist once said: bring ’em all back to life. Somewhere, a lion roars.
Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.