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The Good Guys of Punk: Fugazi Looks Back on Wilson and the Birth of DC Punk


BY ANNIE ROSENTHAL, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

PHOTO BY JEM COHEN, COURTESY OF IAN MACKAYE

On a Saturday morning in the fall of 1979, 17-year-old Ian MacKaye and the rest of the Beacon staff found themselves locked out of Wilson. They climbed in through an open window and were starting their first meeting of the year when the police showed up – the alarm had gone off. No one was arrested, but the administration barred the aspiring journalists from putting their own names in the paper for most of the year.

“I love the fact that we got in trouble…for having a meeting cuz we gave a damn,” says MacKaye, who went on to become the lead singer in Fugazi, the band that brought DC punk rock to the international stage in the 90s. “I never stole, didn’t get high. I got in trouble for being a free-thinker.”

Rebellion by definition is about breaking the rules. And yet in being good, Fugazi epitomized the ultimate rebellion: they lived entirely by their ideals in a culture that didn’t align with those ideals. They didn’t drink or do drugs. Their shows were all-ages, and cheap – the band-members declined an offer to headline Lollapalooza because tickets cost a whopping $30, and their concerts in DC, their hometown, were often free. Fugazi’s lyrics critiqued rape culture, homophobia, and racism. MacKaye would pause shows to tell audience members to stop fighting: “The violence in our culture gets so much attention, and we refused to provide a soundtrack to that,” he tells me.

The band and its ideals were born at our very own Woodrow Wilson High, in the late 70s and early 80s when MacKaye and drummer Brendan Canty were students here.

“Going to Wilson, I learned: don’t ask permission, cuz the answer’s always no,” says MacKaye, who graduated in 1980. He remembers looking through classroom windows once and seeing the school on fire, and another time, a kid coming in with a shotgun.

The school was freer then, and more chaotic: the Players theater troupe, of which MacKaye was a member, had taken over the abandoned rifle range in the basement and converted it into a graffiti-adorned, smoke-filled hangout. A student shot the vice-principal in the chin the year MacKaye was a freshman. Racial tension was palpable and both band members remember being hassled because they were white.

Canty didn’t love going to a school that was “kind of a battleground.” But for MacKaye, who was four years older, Wilson’s chaos opened up possibilities.

“I loved going to that school,” he says. “It was like a family of people – dysfunctional of course, all kinds of crazy stuff happening there – but every day we were together. It was an environment where I could sort of mess with The Man without going to jail. Kind of push back on the system.”

There were plenty of things to push back against at Wilson: the indifference of the administration, the hostility of race relations, and, most memorably, the party culture.

“I’m really not trying to be judgmental about [the partying], it was just all that anybody seemed to be doing at the time,” says Canty. “So much of the social interaction was based on the acquisition of drugs and the taking of drugs and it just became really boring to me. And it also seemed really clearly to be holding onto this thing that was happening in the late sixties, like Woodstock and stuff, and it just felt really stale to me.”

MacKaye had a similar response to the pervasive drugged-up lifestyle: “In Players, they used to call me ‘The Group Conscience,’ and it was a term of derision,” he says. “They were my friends but they’d tease me about it. They were all getting high. That was regular. And I never partook.”

The best way to push back on the system – to say I don’t agree, I don’t conform, I do things my way – was to be a punk.

MacKaye’s first experience with punk rock came at a benefit concert for the Georgetown University radio station WGTP. He was there with a friend, protesting the closing of the station, when he heard the Cramps live and was blown away.

“Punk seemed to be the gathering point for people that challenged conventional thinking and conventional ideas on every level – obviously musical and fashion, but also philosophically, intellectually, sexually, theologically, politically,” MacKaye says. “I thought, I’m a deviant. I wanna be with these people.”

And just like that – with the strum of an electric guitar and a guttural roar, Wilson’s punk scene was born. Together with fellow Players Jeff Nelson, Mark Sullivan and Georgie Grindle, MacKaye formed the Slinkees, which quickly morphed into the Teen Idles. The Idles shaved their heads and drove thumbtacks into their boots, playing at pizza parlors, art galleries and clubs like Madam’s Organ. They introduced the concept of marking the hands of minors with X’s at the 9:30 Club, and the double X’s eventually came to symbolize more than admittance to a club: they meant punk, and underage, and “straight edge” – a movement inspired by one of MacKaye’s songs about abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

Meanwhile, Canty’s brother had given him some fraternal advice: “Play the drums, because if you play the drums, you’ll always be in a band, and if you’re in a band, you’ll always have a girlfriend.” When Canty saw the pioneering DC punk band Bad Brains play at Fort Reno, he too was converted to punk. He and three Gonzaga kids formed Deadline, the first of a string of bands that eventually led him to working with MacKaye.

Together with Joe Lally and Guy Picciotto, a GDS graduate, Canty and MacKaye formed Fugazi in 1987. The band’s name, an acronym for “F***ed Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In,” came from a book about the Vietnam War.

At Wilson, the punks had been a minority – maybe 12 kids in a school of 2000. But with Fugazi, they were heroes to a devoted fanbase of hundred of thousands worldwide. From 1987 to 2002, the band played over 1000 shows in all 50 states and in 35 countries. In 2003, it went on indefinite hiatus.

Today, Canty and MacKaye both still live in DC. They both have new bands, and children – Canty’s two eldest attend Wilson.

Asa Canty was five when his dad’s band stopped playing together. As a two-year-old, he came on stage and played the drums to a cheering crowd of 2000 in Seattle. Now, at 17, he’s a junior at Wilson. His younger brother, Leo, a freshman, appears on the back of Fugazi’s final album.

Sometimes when the names connect, teachers will say, “Oh, I saw Fugazi in concert fifteen years ago!” and the boys will smile and say something appreciative. And sometimes it can get annoying: people will ask them if they want to be musicians, or if their dad can hook them up with concert tickets.

But mostly, they say, Fugazi has been a positive force in their lives.

“[My dad] doesn’t like…being strict and all that stuff cuz when he was my age and doing all this, that wasn’t what he wanted,” Asa says. “But I just think he has a better understanding of everything – me and my friends and my life.”

Brendan says he tries to give his kids room to be innovative. “I think it’s really hard to create sitting alone in your room pretending to do your homework. I’d much rather have them being out and collaborating with people,” he says.

Leo is grateful for that combination of freedom and support: “He doesn’t force us to do anything, but he’ll support us if we wanna do something creative.”

Fugazi has provided Asa with a real appreciation for growing up in DC. And, he says, “It kind of gives me something to aspire to…and sort of a reputation to uphold. I don’t listen to their music…but the biggest thing that I know about them is that a lot of people were really into their ideals. And so I kinda want to respect that.”

Now, 30 years out, Brendan looks back on high school with fondness – for the people he met and the world Wilson opened up for him. And he has some advice for Wilson students: “Don’t always look to people who are already in a position of power to give you power. That’s not where you’re gonna get your power. Your power is within your grasp.’”

 

To watch Fugazi play, go here and here. To explore their Live Series, go here.

 

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