"Things get accepted into the mainstream and lose their edge." This is one of the first things Glen Friedman tells me in our conversation. Sitting in my Washington DC apartment, it’s hard not to agree with Friedman. This is a city that young hipsters and artists flocked to in recent years, but once the developers got wind that DC had now become "trendy," they swooped in like vultures with building permits.
DC is also the city that has produced beautiful and incendiary music. Duke Ellington was born here and played his first shows in the city. This is the home of Marvin Gaye and of Go-go music. And in the eighties DC became an epicenter for the hardcore punk movement and the experimentations that evolved from it.
Fugazi was one of the bands that defined this "post-hardcore" experiment and went well beyond anything such a label might have meant. For Friedman, Fugazi are an absolute passion. His photo-book, Keep Your Eyes Open, is a striking chronicle of the band’s existence over fifteen years of playing and recording. He speaks to me over the phone from New York City, where he runs his own independent imprint, Burning Flags Press. Burning Flags is releasing the book on September 3rd, the twentieth anniversary of Fugazi’s first live show.
Over a thirty-year career, Friedman’s photography has managed to accurately capture a staggering amount of counter-culture. In the 1970s, at age fourteen, his shots were some of the first to communicate the dynamic excitement of Southern California’s burgeoning skateboard scene.
Friedman is sober about the rebel attitude of those early years. "As far as bucking the system, it wasn’t a specific choice. But skateboarding helps inspire rebellious attitudes." This was a scene made of outlaws and non-conformists constantly testing the laws of both gravity and society. "The next step was punk rockÃ¢€Â¦ punk rock was the next logical thing."
And so began a movement that would alter (more like disrupt) the trajectory of rock music forever. Friedman was there as punk took over the American underground. He shot photos for punk/hardcore mainstays like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and even produced the first album from Suicidal Tendencies. Henry Rollins relies heavily on Friedman’s shots in Get in the Van, his book on the years he spent with Black Flag.
But as happens with all upstart music, hardcore began to falter by the mid-80s. Ian Svenonius, of Weird War and Nation of Ulysses fame, says as much in his intro to Keep Your Eyes Open.
Hardcore was volatile. But never underestimate the ability of artists to reinvent. Hence Fugazi. Friedman recalls seeing the group for the first time at a benefit show in New York City in 1987. "Immediately I knew there was something really special and progressive about what they were doing. That’s why I started shooting themÃ¢€Â¦ I wanted them to do for others what they did for me."
Formed out of the ashes of DC hardcore staple Minor Threat, originally fronted only by Ian McKaye and after several months joined by Guy Piccioto, Fugazi did the most for punk rock since it’s glory days of the mid-seventies. "They were playing punk rock in a way that hadn’t been done in a while or ever," says Friedman, "they weren’t trying to get a record deal. What it represented was a total dedication to what punk rock was and sticking to it for real."
Indeed, Fugazi’s attempts to iron out rock’s contradictions were what produced a sound that ran the gamut of emotion. Their music was simultaneously melodic and dissonant, now quiet and calculating, then raucous and confrontational, emotional and yet exacted with clinical precision. It was a kind of complexity previously unseen in punk.
The first song Friedman ever heard by Fugazi that really moved him was at the show in NYC. The song was "Suggestion," sung from the point of view of a woman who feels the eyes of men on her every day, the daily degradations of living in a world that treats certain people as little more than objects and much less than human. Friedman remembers his reaction to a band of men penning such an effective anti-sexist song: "I practically cried."
But it wasn’t just Fugazi’s sound that impressed Friedman. The band’s business practices were an inspiration too. The group’s shows were all-ages and never cost more than five or six dollars. Their albums were never more than ten dollars postpaid. And they not only discouraged violence at the shows, they downright forbade it and would have open dialogue with audience members to stop it. The result of all this was a musical experience designed to give as much as possible back to the audience the most "bang for their buck." It was an experience unsullied by the corporate grip on rock n’ roll.
This sealed the deal: "They were bringing it back; musically, ethically, in terms of their business practices." For Friedman, this was the truest punk had ever been to itself. That’s something he maintains to this day. He will frequently tell me that while Rolling Stone called the Clash the only band that mattered in 1979, in that same context "Fugazi was the only band that really mattered."
He puts up a good case. As he recalls, most documentaries on punk rock will only mention bands signed to major labels. But doesn’t the interest of those labels conflict with the ability of artist and listener to interact? Does it not put limits on what the artist can create? Aren’t major labels the antithesis of what punk rock was meant to be? "Fugazi never fit into a mold and they worked hard to not become one," says Friedman. And their minimizing of outside interests most definitely helped.
Keep Your Eyes Open is his labor of love, his contribution to a story that has changed both the face and business of music. And it provides stunning images that reflect the group’s sound. In photographing his four friends (vocalist/guitarists Piccioto and McKaye, bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty), Friedman’s shots are intensely egalitarian. "Most of the shoots I did, bands never had stars. You want it to be more democratic." One shot included is among the best known of Fugazi, as it appeared on the back of their album Repeater. It features Canty, not McKaye or Piccioto, in front. And while so many rock promos are intended to make the artists larger than life, Friedman makes the egregious transgression of showing the band as human being. Cool human beings, yes, but humans nonetheless.
"I wanted to continue what they did in pictures," Friedman tells me with frankness. "I went for what was inspirationalÃ¢€Â¦ I used natural light [as opposed to flash] in the shots. Fugazi never liked any light shows anyway." In doing so he captures the reality of the band. Most shots are black and white, and like the band’s sound provide an astonishing contrast of light and dark, grit and sharpness, calm and chaos.
The shots encompass fifteen years of Fugazi shows and photo-shoots. Like the band’s music, it is not immediately evident what makes them so incendiary. But like their music there are layers upon layers of texture and depth, allowing the listener/viewer to not sit back and consume, but actively participate with their minds and hearts. They are chaotic and beautiful. Chaotic because they break the mold, beautiful because they show that in doing so the possibility of something better arises.
Not surprisingly, Friedman is aware of the political implications of Fugazi’s existence. Rock n’ roll, and punk in particular, exposes kids to ideas that they simply don’t learn in school. "I didn’t even read Marx until college," he says. So he understands that there is importance in getting kids thinking politically early on. Being a young man during the eighties, Friedman remembers a candid comment from Reagan about communism being too idealistic. "If you were to tell that to fourteen year old kids, they’re more idealistic than anyone." But the paucity of radical ideas in schools cuts them off.
This, in essence, is the importance of punk rock. It provides kids with the inspiration to seek out something different than this stultifying existence.
Inspiration. That’s the bottom line to Friedman. It’s a rarity in today’s music, but Fugazi had it in spades. "Their daily existence was a constant inspiration. Every time they played live, every time I talked with them, every time we hung out and had something to eat, and last but not least every time a new record came out."
Today, Fugazi appear to be on extended hiatus. All the members are involved in various music projects and activist work. The possibility of a reunion is marginal. And the city that gave rise to them appears to be very different from the one twenty years ago. One by one the theaters and community centers are being torn down and replaced with luxury condos or dime-a-dozen chain stores. But if four punks in the Reagan eighties could come forward and create what they did, without the input of the massive industry, then there must be a sliver of hope today. And so, I have to ask Friedman if what they did was still possible. In a strong and optimistic fashion, he answers:
"It’s more possible than ever," he says. "Fugazi gave us a blueprint."
And blueprints are to be built upon by future generations.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. He is a regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice. His blog, Rebel Frequencies can be viewed at "http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com" http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at "mailto:[email protected]" [email protected]
Keep Your Eyes Open will be released by Burning Flags Press on September 3rd. To order a copy go to http://www.burningflags.com