I Discussed Counterculture with the Director of Punk Rock Doc, ‘Salad Days’

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salad days dc punk rock

Photo by Jim Saah

We often think about landmark music scenes as though they exist in an alternate dimension—as if a combination of angsty youth, underground squalor, and music combined to form a collective epiphany.

This is the sticky nostalgia that makes up cultural lore. It’s a tale told over and over, each time doubling in embellishment. Let’s call these celebrated eras “salad days.”

Salad days include the fabric of the ’60s countercultural revolution in all its flower-power haze, or the guttural grunge of early ’90s Seattle, or in our case, the sentimentality for 1980’s Washington D.C. punk, an explosive scene with far-reaching influence.

But to Scott Crawford, the director of a documentary on the D.C. movement, this nostalgia is the enemy. For these so-called salad days exist right now—and forever.

Let’s talk about the title of your documentary Salad Days for a moment — the phrase means: a time of inexperience, enthusiasm, idealism, and innocence for young people.

What inspired you to choose this name for the documentary and how does it connect to the D.C. punk movement?

Scott: First off, it’s a song by Minor Threat—who were obviously a very influential band at that time—and it was their final single. After that, they broke up. Even when they wrote it back in ’83, it was already a song about people that were looking back at the ‘glory days’ of punk rock. And to Ian MacKaye, who wrote the lyrics, it was like: ‘Why are you looking back? Your best days are ahead of you.’

So that was my thought with the film. My argument is that those days—as Ian was saying—don’t have to be in the past. They can be right now. This isn’t a nostalgic look-back at something. It’s more like, well, if it can be done then, why can’t it be done now?

Salad Days got funded on Kickstarter. Describe that process and the response you received from fans.

Scott: The response we got on Kickstarter… I was a little overwhelmed. We reached our goal in six days—I was not expecting that. I was expecting the longest 30 days of my life. So for us to reach that goal, it was kind of a validation for me in some ways. I knew what I had experienced growing up in the midst of the D.C. scene was pretty special, but I didn’t know it would resonate quite that way.

It must have been encouraging to see people still care about this movement.

Scott: It was. Very humbling.

When you consider the D.C. counterculture, the main currency was anger. What fueled the impetus to make noise, destroy instruments, and create this visceral music?

Scott: With the film, I was trying to show that initial burst of punk rock energy that came from England with the Sex Pistols and all those bands. So I wanted to show the interpretation of that by the people in our town [D.C.].

But by the time the mid-’80s came around, the people that had been exposed to that initial energy grew up, and that anger—urgency, maybe—never went away. But it evolved. And it became something a little less political and maybe more personal. Because at the time we were all coming-of-age and falling in love.

I’m not saying this didn’t exist elsewhere in other music scenes, but it was special here. And it wasn’t just one band. It was many. There was a certain evolution here, not just musically but lyrically.

Right. The impact of D.C. punk proved far-reaching. Dave Grohl of Nirvana cited it as a direct influence. 

Scott: That’s right.

But—just as it happened after the late ’60s—the generation that started this movement grew up, maybe got a little jaded, and sort of lost that wide-eyed idealism. 

Scott: Yup.

Can you talk about this ‘cultural churn?’

Scott: One of the things that I wanted to show was the cultural impact that Washington D.C. had. There are dozens of ways you can connect the dots between what happened in D.C. and what became the alternative explosion that was the ’90s. Obviously one of them is Dave Grohl’s involvement, which he applied to what he had done with Nirvana.

But when you talk about the D.C. punk band Jawbox, who got signed to Atlantic Records by the time the ’90s came around—every mainstream label was looking for the next Nirvana. So many labels saw them as nothing but a tax write-off. And they only sold 50,000 – 60,000 records on Atlantic. It was seen as a complete failure.

It was kind of similar to what happened with the English punk bands from the ’70s. They were signed to major labels and they just didn’t translate in the same way to the masses. I wanted to show that, in the end, the bands just got sucked up into the whole thing.

 

On counterculture today

What’s your take on current music? It seemed bands like Fugazi or Minor Threat stood for something. They were trying to make a statement. Does that still exist today?

Scott: I think that DNA is still present in the D.C. punk scene and always will be. In terms of who’s going to carry the torch, it’s hard to say. But there’s a very vibrant punk rock scene still in the city.

It’s not like L.A. or New York, though. It’s still fairly underground—and I hate to use that term because I don’t even know if it applies anymore. But most bands are still playing in these pop-up, one-off, DIY clubs. So I think that spirit is still there and probably always will be.  

Let’s revisit an earlier point you made about the ‘now.’

Scott: OK, sure.

At one point in one of your interviews, Mark Anderson [D.C. punk historian] states ‘Salad Days isn’t then. It’s now. It’s always now. So go make it real—now.’

Is it possible for a counterculture like D.C. to exist in today’s cultural climate?

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. I think it evolves, and it can’t be what it was 30 years ago. You have the internet and an entire online community now. That existed then with fan ‘zines, or college radio stations, or word-of-mouth. So I think it’s easier to spread the word now.

I don’t want to sound too much like a ’60s hippie, but I think it’s always going to be out there. Because, in a way, every generation questions the previous one. That type of community [the D.C. counterculture] is always going to exist. It may not be what it was in the ’80s, but that doesn’t make it any less important or inspirational.

Speaking as a Millennial, I can say that we catch flak from prior generations. This whole ‘they can’t possibly do what we did’ type of attitude. There’s always this ‘us vs. them.’

Scott: No! I think it’s not all that different than what hippies said about us with punk rock. In the early ’80s, it was: ‘oh, you can’t possibly do what we did.’ But the thought then was that a lot of the hippies had given up. They had stopped questioning things. And that was the whole point of punk rock.

You talk about ‘us vs. them’; in the ’80s, if you had long hair and you showed up to a punk rock show—you were gonna’ catch some shit. Which is funny. But that was the reality. And people thought all the ‘peace, love, and understanding’ just wasn’t how to get things done.

In the ’80s people became more nihilistic, and you had Reagan and the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall hadn’t come down yet. Everyone was thinking the end was near. In a lot of ways, it was a better time to create punk rock. Reagan had cast a big shadow on the country at that time.

Totally. And it’s interesting how Salad Days touches on the negative effects that resulted from the movement as well. You talk about homophobia, sexism, and attracting the wrong people. 

Scott: Absolutely. I’d seen some pretty heavy stuff as a kid. It was heavy to hear and see that stuff at that age. I didn’t want to suggest that D.C. was different than other cities at that point. That stuff did exist. It wasn’t considered OK. But it was there.

That was happening it other cities too. Nazi skinheads were a pretty big problem at that time. It was pretty ugly for a few years in this town, as it was in others.

dc punk rock

Photo by Jim Saah

 

Gentrification vs. The Underground

We’re based in NYC and we cover culture here pretty closely. For years, there’s been a healthy DIY music scene, especially in Brooklyn.

Scott: In Brooklyn, sure.

Recently, it’s been pushed further and further out. Last year, 285 Kent, Glasslands, and Death By Audio [well-known DIY music venues] were all forced to close as the area gets further gentrified. 

What’s your take on this? Is an underground music scene possible without this squalor that attracts youth?

Scott: I think you can say the same for D.C. One of my favorite clubs way back when was called D.C. Space. At that time it was in a part of northwest D.C. that was basically uninhabited at night. The city basically shut down at five o’clock. It was kind of a shit hole. But that club that I grew up in is now a Starbucks.

No kidding?

dc space punk rock

D.C. Space in ’79. Photo by Anice Hoachlander

Scott: The old 9:30 Club that I grew up in is now a J. Crew. So I think that stuff is kind of happening everywhere. I hate that it’s being pushed further and further beyond urban areas. But I have a lot of faith in that kind of community. You can price stuff out of certain areas, but [a counterculture] will always find a home someplace. The people will follow.

Hell, I remember a lot of these ’80s clubs were in places that would be good for one or two shows. And then you’d move onto someplace else. So, fuck, I would go wherever. Just to go see the music. That still exists.

But gentrification is unfortunate, especially in urban areas. It wasn’t something that I ever saw 30 years ago. I had friends that moved into Park Slope, Brooklyn 20 years ago—but they certainly couldn’t afford it now. Even the Lower East Side now…

It’s rapidly changing. A lot of small businesses are being replaced by luxury condos. Everyone’s being pushed out. It’s pretty far-reaching here. 

Scott: I don’t think it’s unusual anywhere now. It would have been interesting to see if the D.C. movement would have existed if it was a different place from a socio-economic perspective. I lived in a suburb of D.C. and it was an adventure just getting down to the clubs. Between the prostitutes and panhandlers and everything else… it was a little treacherous.

Maybe that type of environment breeds an underground? 

Scott: Yeah, maybe it does.

 

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