In 2011, digitized scans of the Dead Sea Scrolls went online to great fanfare. I confess I’ve never once looked at them. But I spent the past weekend happily lost in the Dead Sea Scrolls of D.C.’s punk rock past, courtesy of a new online exhibit called “Persistent Vision: The D.C. Punk Collections at the University of Maryland.”
The pages and pages of material — concert fliers, fanzines, photos, recordings — make you feel as if you were there. And I was there. But even so, I couldn’t keep up with everything that was going on in that fecund scene back then. “Persistent Vision” is a digital bolus of D.C. punk rock stretching from 1976 to 1992.
The online collection was co-created by John Davis, a curator with the University Libraries’ Special Collections in Performing Arts, and musicologist and SCPA manager Ben Jackson. The more than 1,000 digitized items in it were selected from the SCPA’s more than 50 linear feet of material. (Visit it at exhibitions.lib.umd.edu/dc-punk.)
The fliers and zines are the most fun, but the co-curators, along with Jessica Grimmer, have written thoughtful essays that set the scene for each chunk of time the chronological exhibit explores. In D.C., as elsewhere, punk was created not by multinational music conglomerates, but by fans, some of whom picked up instruments and some of whom picked up cameras or X-Acto knives or, just as important, tickets and 45s.
“Most punks were alienated by the lengthy guitar solos, fantastical lyrics, and jet set lifestyles of prominent rock musicians in the mid-1970s,” the curators write. “Punk offered an irresistible antidote, blasting out succinct, serrated rock-and-roll songs like the Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and the Damned’s ‘New Rose.’”
Washington and its suburbs spawned their own Ramones, their own Damned, bands with names like Bad Brains, Teen Idles, Tru Fax & the Insaniacs, Minor Threat, Madhouse and Rites of Spring. It was a Rites of Spring song that gave the exhibit its name. Said Davis: “I asked [singer/guitarist] Guy Picciotto if it was okay if we used the song title as the exhibit title, and he very graciously said yes.”
Scrolling through the fliers you can see the evolution of a punk aesthetic, from a ransom-note-style design to something more elegant. There’s an evolution of nomenclature too. Early fliers describe bands as presenting “Real Rock & Roll,” “New Wave” or “New Wave Music.” A Bad Brains show in Forestville, Md., is described as “Another Punk Rock Bash,” suggesting that even fans were getting tired of the taxonomies — or could at least joke about them.
Zines such as the Infiltrator, Descenes and Vintage Violence track the ever-revolving musical gyre. One page of the June 1978 issue of Vintage Violence notes that “Razz’ guitarist Abaad [Behram] has left the band and joined Artful Dodger” while on another page, Slickee Boy Kim Kane laments the demise of a D.C. band called the Pop: “They were to me the better of the best ‘power pop’ bands in either the U.S. or the U.K.”
One reason for the breakup? Guitarist Tommy Keene has left to join Razz.
The ads are fun, too. Skip Groff’s influential Rockville record store Yesterday and Today is everywhere (“The records you want without having to go to New York”), while in the Infiltrator someone is selling a 1978 Fender Super Reverb amplifier for $285. It would probably set you back around $1,500 today.
The zines might be covering an occasionally threatening form of music, but they are homespun affairs. The first issue of 1983’s DCene, editors thank “our Moms,” while offering “no thanks to the people Safeway sends their pictures to, who lost a roll of my film.”
Scroll through the pages and you can see D.C. hardcore’s myths being born. A review in Capitol Crisis of a 1983 Black Market Baby, SOA and Minor Threat show at 9:30 Club notes: “Excessive preaching by Minor Threat’s Ian [MacKaye] (in protest against smoking, drinking and fighting) between numbers raised a few twitters in the audience, but it is healthy to be reminded of the Ten Commandments once in a while.”
In that same issue, edited by Xyra Harper, there’s a line typed at the bottom of one page. It’s there to fill space, but it encapsulates what the community was trying to do: “The scene you crave should be the scene you create!”
That’s the spirit Davis hopes “Persistent Vision” will engender.
“The hope is you go out and make things,” he said, “that this will inspire you to create new art or create new scholarship or increase the understanding of this pretty remarkable community. That has always been at the heart of punk.”