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Salad Days: love letter to the Washington D.C. punk scene

An interview with the director Scott Crawford who recently presented his documentary in In-Edit Greece.
Toni L. Querol
Void at 9:30 Club, 1983. Photo by Jim Saah.
 
1984, Washington DC. Scott Crawford is barely 12 years old when he decides to start interviewing the punk groups in the city to put together his own zine, which would be photocopied in his mother’s office. Three decades later, he joins forces with an old brother in arms, the reputed punk photographer Jim Saah, to film the definitive history of a scene that bloomed a few blocks from the White House, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, leaving a mark on both for life.
 
In an overwhelming display of video and photo archive, pioneers like Bad Brains and key groups of the scene like VoidFaithS.O.A.Minor ThreatIron CrossGovernment Issue or Marginal Man parade through the documentary Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. The film also sheds light on the perspectives of important “personalities” like Ian MacKaye (who founded the influential record label Dischord and at the end of the decade would definitively transcend the geographic limits of Washington with his group Fugazi), Henry Rollins (who sang in S.O.A. before heading towards the West Coast to become part of Black Flag) and Dave Grohl (who would go on to do the same, leaving behind Scream to join Nirvana).
 

 

Probably the best trick up the sleeve of this film is the rigor with which it dissects the social context in which the scene unfolded (abandoned neighborhoods, assaults by the hands of rednecks, the brutal crime rate related to drugs in the late 80s, a nearly bankrupt city council) and the political turn it took thanks to the activist group Positive ForceAnd the equanimity with which the eruption of the 'straight edge' movement (which rejected the consumption of drugs and alcohol) is confronted, and the evolution towards more melodic sounds and introspective lyrics which lead to it being called “emo-core” (a tag which was hung, without consultation, on groups like Rites of Spring or Embrace). It also tells of lesser known events like the fleeting encounter between the punk scene and  the “go-go” scene, a genuinely local musical sub-genre which mixed together funk, rhythm and blues and primitive hip hop. This brief union resulted in punk bands sharing the stage with bands like Trouble Funk, something which the heighten racism of the times would have made seem unlikely.

 

Alex MacKaye, of Faith, 1983. Photo by Jim Saah.
 
Coinciding with the presentation of Salad Days in In-Edit Greece, we talked to Scott to know more about the project that has consumed his every thought for the past four years.
 
In-Edit Beat: Considering your early and personal involvement in the DC punk scene, Salad Days is clearly an insider’s project, quite heavy on specifics. To what extent does your doc assume viewers have a basic knowledge or have you tried to provide material of interest to outsiders too?
Scott Crawford: I had to make a choice as to whether to spell everything out or assume the audience would have at least a working knowledge of the subject matter. I think I landed somewhere in the middle. That was definitely a challenge for me and took me many, many agonizing edits to finally get comfortable with.
 
What did you feel was missing –and want to shed light on– in other punk docs like Punk’s not dead and American Hardcore?
I loved those docs but I felt they weren't completely representative of my own experience. Much of the nihilism that American Hardcore explored just wasn't really happening in DC. It was certainly part of the punk culture at that time (having Reagan in office will do that to you), but I felt the DC scene evolved in ways that were a little different than the rest of the American hardcore scene at that point. 
 
How did you live and what did you learn throughout these 4 years working on the film, talking to the same people you used to talk three decades ago as a zine kid?
The whole experience for me has been like therapy. I was able to reconnect with people I hadn't seen in almost 30 years. On the other hand, many of the interviews were like conversations that I'd had with many of them over the years so it wasn't a heavy lift to get them to open up. Most of my close friends are ones that I made during this period of time, so in a way it was a love letter to the scene.
 
Was reflecting the DC scene’s diversity one of your main goals? Do you think that the misconception of the scene as a humorless, straight edge, strictly emo and serious movement, is still prevalent?
That was definitely one of the things I wanted to examine in the film. There were so many misconceptions about the scene at that time that I still hear people talk about now (that weren't there then) and I wanted to at least show another side to things. Were the bands serious about making meaningful music? Yes. But that didn't mean they didn't know how to laugh.
 
 
In the film you pinpoint on a map of the historic neighborhood of Georgetown the main punk hot spots – the local hangouts or “hiding places” for punk kids that were often bullied by rednecks. Did you experience that hostility yourself?
At that point in the early/mid eighties, you really had a target on your back if you decided to look a different way.  That was really important to show in the film. I wanted the audience to see how committed these kids were to the music and their community. While DC may be the seat of government, it's still essentially a small, southern town, so there's still no shortage of small-minded people here. I never went through half the torture that Henry Rollins and others went through, but I had my share of scary situations.
 
One of the things that most struck me watching the film is the connection between the punk and go-go scenes. What affinity or inspiration did punk kids find in that extremely local black funk scene?
I think there was a mutual respect among the two crowds—gogo was a very DIY scene. They booked their own shows and put out their own records and I think that struck a chord with the punk rock kids. Go-go is very much a DC sound—for as infectious and fun as it is, the music just never really took on a life outside of DC. When go-go and punk shared the same bill they could be hit or miss—the two crowds weren’t necessarily buying each other drinks at the bar, so I do recall a certain sense of heightened tension.
 
I guess some people may be surprised that the film speaks so little about Bad Brains. Were they outsiders even in the DC scene? How was their relationship with the DC scene after they moved to NY?
I wanted to stay true to the timeline and show that after they left for NYC, the impression they made was undeniable. They raised the bar for every musician in the city at that point. I think they showed how important a spiritual component to the music can be. I don’t think anyone that ever saw them live at that point did not have their life changed.
 
Some interviewees recall their own life-changing gigs – Ian MacKaye talks about a The Cramps show, others talk about Bad Brains or that The Clash show at Ontario Theater, after which they were inspiring kids in the audience to start their own bands… What was yours?
I can't think of a single moment like that. But I do remember feeling like I had to be part of this community. At 12, I was clearly searching for that one thing that might help define me. It wasn’t going to be sports, and it wasn't going to be school so I just became immersed in the music and the people making it. I did my zine (Metrozine) for over 3 years, until I was about 15 which were pretty formative years—as a result, I never wanted to do anything else with my life except run a music magazine or somehow make a living documenting independent music.
 
The use of pictures from yours and Jim Saah's personal archives is pretty impressive. How have you guys worked together over the years previous to embarking on this film?
I've been friends with Jim ever since that phone call I made to him (that he describes in the film). In the 90s I went on to start 2 more (much slicker) fanzines and he continued to shoot for them. By 2000, I had launched a music/culture magazine (Harp) that was quickly bought by another publishing company and I was able to finally make a living at documenting music for the next 8 years. Jim continued to shoot bands for me up until the last issue.
 
 
Just out of curiosity, how did you motivate Ian MacKaye to talk for the nth time about the Straight Edge song/movement? At 52, still gets crank calls about being straight edge... It’s great to see him more relaxed than usual and taking it with humor.
He may have been a little more at ease with it just because he's known both Jim and I for so long, but I think more importantly he seems to have made peace with the whole thing and is comfortable discussing his role in it all. 
 
I’ve just seen in the Salad Days’ facebook page this article of Condé Nast Traveler magazine ranking D.C. as the No. 1 city for music lovers in the USA, because of its venues and its rich music history (not only punk but Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, Pentagram…). What’s your view on this and the current musical landscape in D.C.?
Because of its history, DC will always be an important music town – it's just in the DNA of the city. But I think like any scene it ebbs and flows. There are certainly a lot more clubs that offer live music now than there was 30 years ago. The lack of a strong radio station/support still really hurts things though I think.