Interview: ‘The extraordinary mystery of human life’

‘The extraordinary mystery and magic of human life’: Mark Andersen on D.C. hardcore

Photo: James Lathos

While Duke Ellington is responsible for US100 Track 12 and our introduction to the music of the nation’s capital, its chapter gives us an opportunity to examine D.C.’s scene more widely. One of the more significant musical movements to emerge in the shadow of Capitol Hill was Washington’s hardcore punk scene – or harDCore – which saw early 1980s bands such as Minor Threat and Bad Brains develop a new punk ethos.

By 1985 this had manifested itself into ‘Revolution Summer’, a concentrated effort among the scene’s advocates to reinvent the image of the punk community to something altogether more welcoming, and to deliver on the principled promises of punk through tangible action. Mark Andersen and his Positive Force movement were at the heart of punk’s new direction.

Never let it be said that Mark Andersen is a tough interviewee. Over the course of around an hour, I need only ask two questions of any substance, the rest of the time filled with Mark passionately recounting every detail and exploring every possible insight into the subject in question. My mission is to learn a little more about the significance of D.C. hardcore, and more so, to establish what it is about Washington, D.C. specifically that enabled it to happen. Mark disappoints on neither front.

Raised in rural northeastern Montana, Mark rocked up in the national’s capital in 1984 having enrolled at Washington’s John Hopkins School of International Studies. Punk wasn’t the primary motivating factor behind the move, but Mark’s awareness of the District’s ongoing scene most definitely appealed. “By the time you’re getting to the eighties, it felt like punk had been around a long time and a lot of people felt like it was dead,” he explains. “But it seemed obvious to me that in Washington, D.C. that was not the case, and that was very important to me at that time.”

“We were driven by … by trying to take it another step further – so that punks aren’t just singing about change, they’re actually doing things to enact it.”

Ian Mackaye of Dischord Records, Minor Threat, and Fugazi. Photo: Jim Saah

The ‘harDCore’ scene to which Mark refers to is that mostly associated with Ian Mackaye’s Dischord Records, advocates of a DIY business model (including the handcrafting of individual records) and a ‘Straight Edge’ mantra that turned its back on narcotics and violence. When Mark reached D.C., Mackaye’s band, Minor Threat, had just played their last ever show; D.C. Hardcore’s other biggest name, Bad Brains, had moved to New York City.

He recalls: “That initial wave had kind of hit a wall. And despite Straight Edge, there was still a lot of problems in the D.C. punk scene with violence and drugs. There was a skinhead gang that was terrorising the scene. People weren’t sure where to go to next, like hardcore had dead ended and found itself within a prison created of its own contradictions.”

It is in this context that Mark develops the punk activist collective, Positive Force. “We were driven by the powerful music and community created by this earlier scene, but equally by trying to take it another step further – so that punks aren’t just singing about change, they’re actually doing things to enact it. That was profoundly important for me and for the group of D.C. punks who kind of coalesced around that,” he explains.

The action in question included living in communal housing, committing to vegetarianism, and directing proceeds from concerts towards progressive groups, whether connected to combating homelessness, sexism, or poverty. They even kept President Bush awake during a 1991 anti-war protest concert on virtually the steps of the White House.

Flyer design: Mark Andersen. Photo: Jim Hubbard

Six years prior to that particular incident, the movement to reinvent punk’s image and establish a new punk ethos had come under the banner of ‘Revolution Summer’, a period in 1985 in which Positive Force deepened their association with D.C.’s hardcore proponents. Mark describes Revolution Summer as a staging post in punk’s evolving maturity – its teenage adolescent phase over, the individuals and collectives of punk subculture were ready to challenge themselves personally, musically and politically. (It’s an interesting analogy which echoes a theme that seems to have emerged in this D.C. chapter: in my write up I allude to America’s move to the newly created federal capital in 1800 as being akin to a young adult leaving home for the first time; while elsewhere I liken D.C.’s other city-specific musical movement – gogo – as being hip hop’s less successfully younger brother within the Funk & Soul family unit.)

“No one has the right to define punk for everybody.”

Mark elaborates on Revolution Summer: “Every new revolutionary idea is an opportunity for money making and is quickly turned into a commodity, into merchandise, and punk is no different. So we were trying to reclaim punk as a window into a universe of possibilities – rather than the corporate conformist cartoon which the system works to turn everything into.”

“It’s about challenging punk rock as usual. Some of the longer term folks had become disgusted by what punk has turned into,” he continues. “But no one has the right to define punk for everybody, so you go and try and create something that you can be proud of. You put forward a positive alternative to this negative scene that you have seen develop.”

The attitudinal step change was also reflected in the music of Revolution Summer: it was here that the band Rites of Spring first announced themselves to D.C., with Mark still to this day positively inspired by what he first witnessed them playing. “I remember being astonished when I first saw them at the abandon they played with, the emotional nakedness,” he said.

What was so unique about Rites of Spring, beyond being named after a Stravinsky ballet? Mark explains that it is in the contrast one can draw between their style and the image that punk had found itself representing at that point – one of machismo and bravado. He said: “They presented themselves in the opposite of a macho way. They were very naked in terms of how they’re expressing themselves, very vulnerable. It wasn’t tough guy rock n roll, it was something much more brave than that.”

Photo: Cynthia Connolly

The premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913 was so shocking to its Parisian audience it nearly prompted a riot; Guy Picciotto’s namesake band similarly challenged punk’s preconceptions, reflected in the nature of their shows and interaction with the crowd. “They didn’t want the punk rock rituals, they didn’t want slamdancing (‘moshing’), stage diving, that stuff,” Mark adds. “They wanted a communion with the audience that could include everybody – not just the biggest and the strongest who had thrown on the punk uniform and gone through the motions. They stood at the doorway of Revolution Summer and knocked it down.”

This level of emotional vulnerability contained within the music and performance of Rites of Spring actually provides the etymological origin for ‘emo’ music, originally married to ‘hardcore’ to create ‘emocore’ – a label that the scene itself largely rejected. Mark said: “Ian [Mackaye]’s response was: wasn’t punk always emotional? And he’s got a good point. If punk is a way of embracing universal possibilities and challenging a galaxy of negativity and conformity, then you don’t want that immense possibility being labelled, boxed, and filed away.”

Revolution Summer’s rejection of male-dominated chauvinist dogma had the knock on effect of inspiring the later ‘riot grrrl’ movement of the early 1990s, a wave of punk feminism partly centred around the Pacific Northwest but which had its roots in D.C. and a link to Positive Force, in whose communal house the first riot grrrl meetings happened. “There was no sense at that time that it would come to have a global impact but it did,” Mark says. “It just seemed incredibly important to us.”

So seems to be the story for so much of D.C. hardcore. On a musical level the likes of Bad Brains and Mackaye’s most renowned band, Fugazi, are cited as influences on anything from Rage Against the Machine to Red Hot Chili Peppers via Green Day. But Mark explains that no one within the scene was motivated by fame, fortune or recognition – if they were, they wouldn’t have been in D.C.

“No offence to New York or L.A., but they are places people go to if they’re going to play the game – we didn’t want to play the game.”

He says: “Part of what made it so powerful was that people weren’t thinking about getting in the music press or securing a major label contract. There was a very powerful convention at the time that if you were going to make it, you’d have to go to New York or L.A., and a number of people did. But the basic sense was no, D.C. is where it’s happening. No offence to New York or L.A., but they are places people go to if they’re going to play the game – we didn’t want to play the game.”

He goes on: “These are not bands motivated by money or fame, they were driven by this very demanding and creative D.C. punk ethic. It didn’t matter if there was a thousand people there or 10,000 people there or ten people there. It didn’t matter if you were going to go and tour the world or be on major labels or have a hit single. What mattered was that moment right there with the people in the room.”

Mark holds this up as a testament to the spirit of D.C. overall. “In 2001 Joe Strummer was asked which band most represented the spirit of punk in his eyes, and he was definitive and immediate in his response: Fugazi,” he recalls. “And that tribute to Fugazi is really a tribute to Washington, D.C. Fugazi expressed all of those elements that made D.C. punk so profoundly inspirational and influential, and never buckled under.”

Fugazi perform in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Photo: Pat Graham

Fugazi saw Ian Mackaye team up with Rites of Spring’s Guy Picciotto, breaking the mould of D.C. hardcore bands who tended not to last more than a year or two, playing for over 15 years before going on hiatus in 2002. They managed this without a manager or merchandise, without releasing a record on any other label than Dischord, and without ever charging more than $15 cover charge for shows that were open to all ages (their targeted goal for each ticket was no more than $5). Mark’s tone is one of awe when discussing the band: “They were constantly told that it could not and would not work. But it did. Fugazi represents a phenomenon.”

“You have all of the symbols of our national idealism here [and yet] America has been embarrassed by significant portions of its history … But if you are awake to that contradiction it will fire you up in a particular direction.”

As Mark continues to discuss the ways in which D.C.’s punks sacrificed luxury and materialism in order to give themselves the freedom to explore something real and true to them, I become increasingly intrigued as to what it is about the District specifically that enabled such a culture to thrive. Some of Mark’s most emotionally engaging language comes out when he is describing extraordinary things achieved by ordinary people – “when you have people who are willing to throw themselves into something, that is when magic can thrive … the purity of intention and the intensity of passion can – and generally does – lead to the great advances in human history”. But why would such people find themselves in D.C.?

It is firstly impossible to ignore the fact that D.C. is the seat of central U.S. power, and in theory a symbol of modern western democracy. “The presence of the federal government marks this city indelibly,” Mark explains. “You have all of the symbols of our national idealism here. You can walk over to the Lincoln Memorial and read ‘The Government of the People by the People for the People Shall not Vanish from the Earth’. What a profound idea.”

He goes on: “On top of the Capitol Building there is the Statue of Freedom facing due East so symbolically there’s a new birth of freedom with every sunrise. How can you not be touched by that? Especially as so many of us moved to this town.” But one of the catches to living in D.C. is in becoming painfully aware as to the enormous discrepancy between America’s ideals and its reality. “The statue on top of the Capitol, like the building itself, was built in part by slave labour. The first time I went to the Lincoln Memorial I was so moved that I was literally crying there in public – and then I walked by homeless people sleeping nearby. The contradiction is poignant.”

The Lincoln Memorial: a source of inspiration and frustration for the artists of D.C.

Mark links this to D.C. punk and its commitment to change. “America has been embarrassed by significant portions of its history, and by Washington, D.C. as its capital city because we have had a century of segregation here in the ‘capital of the free world’,” he explains. “But if you are awake to that contradiction it will fire you up in a particular direction.”

He is, however, eager to qualify this factor. For Mark, there is always some serendipitous ‘meant-to-be’ factor that underwrites harDCore. “What you have here is beyond something that you can rationally explain – it is part of the extraordinary mystery and magic of human life,” he says. “You had the right people in the right place at the right time. And they came together and did something that they did could never have done anywhere else with any other mix of people in any other location. There is this element of mystical accident about all of this.”

Positive Force continues to operate in D.C. – when I spoke with Mark he had just returned from protesting at the White House that morning against President Trump’s election integrity commission. With the next chapter of US100 staying in D.C. but focusing instead on the federal government and music’s past and future status as a means of protest, I ask Mark, now a father of two children aged four and seven, if there is a clear vision for the role of Positive Force in today’s political climate. “There is of course a tremendous opportunity and need to take the energy that was expressed in various moments in D.C. punk and to spread them once again,” he says.

He concludes: “It was easy as a teenager to critique the world as it is, but as you grow older the world becomes one that you have helped to make. However the general challenge is the same. What will happen I can’t possibly say other than we are going to help write that history – right now, right here.”

What better place to start than D.C.?

US100 Track 12: Duke Ellington – Take The “A” Train

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