October 20, 2007

We Don’t Have to Try It and We Don’t Have to Buy It!
A look at Keep Your Eyes Open and the legacy of Fugazi

by Alexander Billet;

�Rock �n� roll is riddled with contradictions. No one has resolved them, though many have tried. In fact, the history of rock �n� roll has been, for the most part, a struggle to define its as yet unclear meaning. As battles are fought over this issue, different ideological fronts are constituted and abandoned. Every participant, whether they know it or not, is involved.�

In these opening lines from photographer Glen E. Friedman’s Keep Your Eyes Open, musician Ian Svenonius sets the stage for the entrance of the band that came closest to ironing out these contradictions: Fugazi. In doing so, the band showed just how much potential there is for real, significant rebellion in the broad pantheon of rock n’ roll.

Coming from the wreckage of the DC hardcore scene in the mid-1980s, Fugazi’s unshakeable independence was only matched by their revolutionary sound. They broke the mold musically and proved that they could do it without any help from the corporate music-machine.

KYEO, released on the twentieth anniversary of the group’s first show (September 3rd), is a stunning glimpse into what exactly it is that made this group tick. If a story can be told through pictures, and if Friedman’s story is to be believed, then the book succeeds in chronicling the existence of an important and influential band.

By 1987, hardcore punk had painted itself into a corner it couldn’t get out of. The music that had once struck fear into the heart of Reagan’s America with its fast beats and loud, confrontational attitude had become commonplace and, in many respects, boring. Even worse, many bands had taken the aggression of hardcore and parlayed it into the basest kind of macho excess. Svenonius, himself a big player in the DC punk scene through Nation of Ulysses, describes it:

�Soon, the limitations of hardcore and its own contradictions forced the form to mostly disintegrate, and it was eventually shunned, even by its progenitors, as being uninteresting, simplistic, or dumb.�

Fugazi, whose own members had all survived the scene’s early upsurge, wanted something different both musically and ethically.

Early on, front-man Ian McKaye would jokingly describe the band’s sound as “the Stooges playing reggae”. Certainly, their songs relied on strong, staccato bass-lines the way most hardcore bands wouldn’t dare. Their guitars strayed away from crude power chords and into the deceptively complex. But McKaye and co-singer Guy Piccioto’s desperate yet calculated shrieks undeniably kept punk’s inherent rebellion alive in Fugazi’s music.

They were experimenters with not just sound, but with human emotion itself. They exacted frenetic, sometimes even manic beats and riffs with rare precision. Fugazi’s sound reverberates the struggle to maintain your sanity in a world going more insane every day.

Enter Glen E. Friedman. He too had been immersed in the hardcore scene. Despite working with such iconic groups as Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag and many others, he had also become frustrated. However, at a benefit show in New York City, Friedman’s faith was renewed. In a phone interview he described to me the experience of being moved to tears by Fugazi’s performance of “Suggestion,” off their self-titled 1988 EP. “Immediately I knew there was something really special and progressive about what they were doing,” he told me. “That’s why I started shooting them; I wanted them to do for others what they did for me.”

�Suggestion� seems to embody the band�s sound and political outlook. The song darts back and forth with relative ease between a calm, collected verse and an angry, frenetic chorus. McKaye, backed by razor-on-metal guitars and Joe Lally�s trademark stutter-step bass, rails against modern sexism with unapologetic righteousness:

�We sit back like they taught us

We keep quiet like they taught us

He just wants, he wants to prove it

She does nothing to remove it

We don’t want anyone to mind us

We play the roles that they assigned us”

That a band made up of all males could pen a song openly confronting misogyny at the end of the conservative 80s sent a very clear message: Fugazi wanted nothing to do with the influence of “mainstream” America.

This rejection applied to everything they did. Among the contradictions mentioned in Svenonius’ intro, the most glaring might be the capacity for an insurgent art-form to be so easily co-opted by the behemoth music industry—the literal transformation of rebellion into money.

Fugazi consciously countered this. They released their albums through McKaye’s independent Dischord label and sold them for no more than ten dollars postpaid. They avoided booking themselves in 21-and-over clubs and never charged more than five or six dollars for their shows.

Most famously, they openly discouraged crowd violence at performances, and sought to engage the audience in dialogue to stop it. Slam dancers would often be shocked and embarrassed when the band would stop playing and call them out: “excuse me sir, will you please knock that shit off?”

For Fugazi, there was to be as little as possible standing between artist and audience. It was punk’s DIY ethics taken to their logical and beautiful conclusion.

Friedman was hooked. Already good friends with the members of the band, he began shooting them every chance he got. The show in New York had won him over in a profound way. What Fugazi had delivered to him Friedman hoped to deliver to other people through picture. That was, first and foremost, inspiration; the idea that when all the muck of the industry was cleared away, something far better and far more lasting could be created.

Insisting on using natural light, Friedman’s shots have a stark contrast and not simply light and dark. Dualism is rife in these pictures. They are grainy yet razor sharp, austere yet intricate, uniquely artistic yet proudly proletarian. One wouldn’t think a photographer could capture such dynamism from a band that shunned fancy stage-shows; but Fugazi’s demand for focus on the music translates into shots that are deeply personal, and convey a pure intensity that was a staple of their live shows.

The shots of the band offstage hold the same qualities. Shutting out the model of the typical promo shoot, they display honesty, simplicity, and—most noticeably—egalitarianism. Friedman said “Most of the shoots I did, you never had stars. I wanted it to be more democratic.” In many, Friedman turns the traditional logic completely on its head by featuring the drummer, Brendan Canty, up front. Yet all the pictures display the band as a cohesive unit; four people working together toward one singular goal. A shot early on in the book captures the essence of what this meant.

Dressed in simple street-clothes, the group stand—just stand—in the center of the Jefferson Memorial in DC. It’s a striking contrast; four men, dressed in jeans, tennis-shoes and work-jackets standing defiantly in the middle of a massive, classical monument to power and authority. That’s the message Fugazi conveyed; that their mere existence and example were a threat to capitalism and oppression.

Fugazi would release seven albums, three EPs and a DVD before going on “permanent hiatus” in 2002. Each recording continues to push the envelope, searching out new ways to straddle between complexity and simplicity, dissonance and melody, intellect and raw emotion.

Their last album, The Argument, is the deepest that search went. Many songs maintain an exacted quietude far from their hardcore roots, while still clutching to their subversive menace. Characteristically, they confront issues from war and racism to consumer culture and gentrification. While vastly different from their first album, it is still recognizably Fugazi. Because of the complete lack of corporate say-so, they were able to keep experimentation and exploration as a guiding principle.

The amazing thing is that Friedman’s shots, which go through the early years of this century, don’t lose an inch of their dynamism. The band is older, and undoubtedly wiser, but still display the same frenetic energy they did in their early days.

Perhaps this is because as they evolved, Fugazi never got lazy, never lost touch with their reason for being. Some shots portray a 1993 show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom where Friedman remembers the band being approached by Ahmet Ertegun, the late legendary co-founder of Atlantic records. Ertegun reportedly offered the band anything they wanted if they signed with him. “The last time I did this was when I offered the Rolling Stones their own record label and $10 million,” he said to the group. Fugazi politely declined.

This simple, stick-to-your guns exchange epitomizes what runs though both Fugazi’s work and Keep Your Eyes Open. The release of this book is so important today as capitalism’s grip on music, and our daily lives, seems to be constantly tightening. The music of a band that kept themselves proudly outside that grip is enough to change the way we think of both music and the world around us. Friedman says as much in the final pages of the book:

�It was because of the thrill of capturing Fugazi�s iconic moments�or more specifically, the satisfaction brought to me by sharing those moments and the inspiration behind them with others�that I established a new paradigm in my work.�

This is what Fugazi means to us then and now; that outside the reach of the executives and suits, something else is not only necessary, but possible.


Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. He is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice and Znet, and has also appeared in CounterPunch, Socialist Worker, and MR Zine. His website, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com.