What You Were (Not): Fugazi

“You’ve got your hands over your ears / you’ve got your mouth running on / you’ve got your eyes looking for something / that will never be found” from “Give Me the Cure”

When I was in high school in the overwhelmingly white backwoods region the Family J calls home, learning about music (outside of the few stations we could receive clearly which included double doses of top 40’s, easy listening, Oldies, Country and Classic Rock) was a task that both challenged and defined. Classic Rock came with acid washed jeans and cigarette smoking in elementary school. Country blared from pick-up trucks with gun racks. Most high school students were wired into MTV and/or Rick Dees’ weekly top 40.

Some of us tried to define ourselves against these stand-bys by gravitating towards the obscure (or not).  Why we did this is hard to explain without humility and self-deprecation. The choice to be ‘different’ is made for many reasons—some have it made for them, some accept it as a confirmation of long-felt dislocation, and others (probably me) embrace it because it is attractive. The mundane everydayness of the ‘mainstream’ pales in comparison to the drama of alienation, otherness, and imagined persecution.

So, in the days before the internet, when ‘alternative’ music began to seep into the top 40 and received heavy play on MTV, the new arms race of self-identification centered around obscurity. To be different one had to possess a musical sensibility and style that was unreplicated and that was, even if impossible so, ‘original’. For musical taste, the obscurity aesthetic is a bit of a paradox. Like conforming to non-conformism, espousing an exclusive taste in the obscure is a bit of a shell game. And here’s why: the pose of the obscurist also entails claiming superiority of product over the more popular examples. It is thus not obscurity that is highlighted but the excellence of the ‘original’ individual’s taste (and this works for most art forms as well as palette and eye).

For some, these poses came easier than others. Geography gave some a regular stream of instruction from a local college radio station. Others benefited from older siblings who initiated them into the mysteries of the underground. And, even others were industrious and daring—sneaking out to small gigs in near-by towns, scouring music magazines and hanging out at record stores. I, on the other hand, was the oldest, out in the sticks, with a mother who listened to Neil Diamond and a deaf father. I have an interview I did when I was in elementary school. I listed the Monkees as my favorite band. I liked Weird Al before a significant (and persistent) They Might Be Giants obsession. I was not, by any means, cool.

But that did not keep me from trying to play the game. The band that I advertised to others as the token of my ‘otherness’ and excellence in my darkest poseurship was Fugazi. You couldn’t find Fugazi on the radio or on MTV. Most music stores in the area did not sell Fugazi albums. This band was the ultimate for the bluffer’s pose. I had learned about Fugazi from an older artist-friend who was the epitome of an underground music connoisseur. (He made Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume look like a two-bit hack.) As I learned later, much of his pronouncements were also poses—they were just better than, cleverer than, and most important of all, prior to mine.

Fugazi’s  DIY ethic, anti-capitalist rhetoric and belligerence towards record companies made it, at least in theory, a perfect band for a quasi-idealistic non-conformist during the swan-song of hair bands and at the dawning of neutered rap and hip-hop (before suburban white kids were listening to Gansta Rap). Fugazi, as I learned, wouldn’t market through merchandise (hence the “This is not a Fugazi T-Shirt” t-shirt), charged an egalitarian 5 dollars for all shows and an affordable 5/8 dollars for each album.

Was I never this 'cool'?

Fugazi, in addition, didn’t carry some of the same associations as other Hardcore. While the band was largely Straight-Edge, it wasn’t as uniformly message centered as other groups. The general Fugazi ethic (forgoing labels, having smaller shows, banning mosh pits) made its associations if not hard to pin down than at least rather anodyne. And, most importantly, unlike other Hardcore, Fugazi is still fairly melodic. The catch is, while I told people that I listened to Fugazi, I never really did. Every time I entered the only independent record store in a 40 miles radius, I leafed through the albums always turning back to my secret obsessions with geek rock.

It was not until the uncovering of a magical music treasure trove years later that I came to possess all of Fugazi’s albums. Upon reflecting upon my youthful deceptions, I took it upon myself to listen to Fugazi finally. I also watched the Fugazi documentary Instrument and, to bolster my appreciation, followed that up with American Hardcore (both films are excellent, by the way). Yes, this is an outsider’s approach to the subject—still, and always, the pursuit of a poseur. The documentary Instrument is an epiphany While frontman Ian Mackaye can be annoying, the film is a testament to the musicianship of the band. The intimate shots show the  brilliance of the rhythm section and the ingenuity of the guitarists. On and off during the movie, I found myself spellbound by the sight of these artists in motion.

Happily, or sadly, I found that I did actually like Fugazi even though their music can be challenging to listen to at times. The guitars can be grating; many of the vocals are shouted and the overall combination of sounds can come close to cacophony. What makes Fugazi really good is that the band flirts with sonic chaos but never completely surrenders its melodies to the madness found in some Hardcore. Listen to the first EPs once and you will hear a musical style that anticipates some of the best sounds of the 1990’s. The use of distortion and feedback by the dueling guitars is nearly pitch-perfect. The bass lines and guitar licks clearly influence bands like Pearl Jam. Listen to the lyrics and you will find an earnestness that is never quite self-righteous as it flirts with poetic ambiguity and often elegant phrasings.

The problem is that I don’t love Fugazi. At some level, the ‘pose’ is still and always will be just that. I am not angry enough for the music. My ear has aged terribly—I lean towards the melodic, the harmonic and the acoustic more with each passing year.  Fairly or not, I always find myself suspicious of music with overt messages. While I can recognize the originality and the importance of Fugazi, and I do truly like the band, I find myself listening to the band rarely and then even only in short bursts. I would definitely number one of Fugazi’s albums in my personal top 50—but it wouldn’t make my ‘desert island list’ (about which there will be some posts soon).

What does my relationship with Fugazi tell me about me? I was/am not the person I would like others to think me to be. Does this make me special and different? No. But at least this recognition is a step somewhere—as Fugazi puts it “You can’t be what you were / so you better start being / just what you are” (“Bad Mouth”, from 13 Songs). It is even harder to be what you never were at all.

27 comments on “What You Were (Not): Fugazi

  1. professormortis says:

    My relationship to Fugazi was a troubled one. My method of staking out my originality and obscurity was influenced by my native interest in history and my weakness for nostalgia. So in 1991 I decided I would get into Punk, more or less. I had recently heard The Clash, and I recalled how much I liked the “punk” stuff I saw on MTV when I was very young (and, that, importantly, neither my sister or brother loved but also didn’t hate). I learned later that this was actually a really broad mix of punk and New Wave, but I kept with the “punk” thing and found out if I stayed away from punk made after the early 1980s, say, 1982, I generally liked it a lot. A lot of the stuff I liked was actually pre-punk, Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, etc., but that didn’t stop me from claiming I liked “Punk” music.

    In any case, Fugazi was more my cousins’ speed, so I heard a lot of their stuff and just never warmed to it, but I knew the fact that I didn’t marked me out as uncool (as if I needed any additional cues). It doesn’t appeal to me, and it was one of the things that made me never really even try to get into Alternative and underground stuff that was current. Some of it was the attitude of the kids that I knew that liked it, some of it was just that I didn’t love the music-but I think the biggest thing was, I didn’t have to worry if the band would get lame or not with dead bands. Just keep listening to the old stuff, and you know how they turned out.

  2. theelderj says:

    So you played the antiquarian game. A nice move, but limiting in the long run. If they stay the same, can you change?

    You remember my senseless aversion to black and white movies? With the exception of a few bands (e.g., the talking heads), I was similarly dismissive of older music. Ask my brother about my reaction to classic rock.

    • professormortis says:

      I still play the antiquarian game…in music, movies and TV (hell, even old radio shows) there is always something new I’ve never seen before. At this point I don’t think it’s a “pose” so much as what I like, and I’ve never been opposed to picking up new bands, I just don’t put a lot of effort into finding them. I’ve also come to terms with my love of Pop music since then and am more honest about exactly what old stuff I like. Antiquarian is only limiting if you limit yourself to a specific genre,time period, or artist.

      I completely forgot about your aversion to black and white movies. That aversion always makes me sad in anyone. So many amazing films out there waiting to be seen.

      • theelderj says:

        True, on the mirage of limitation (and I didn’t mean that as an insult–you have to narrow the field somehow).

        I don’t think I will ever get over the black and white allergy. I’m a Philistine. I admit it.

  3. theelderj says:

    But I also adopted a similar reaction to yours to some of the bands of the alt-era. When Green Day first appeared, I insisted that punk was dead (and was wrong).

    Next week I will post a review of a Fugazi album/

    • professormortis says:

      The problem for me is “which Punk is dead?”, because Green Day et al. are really their own thing. The very act of reviving a new style always changes it. I don’t consider Green Day to be Punk in the same sense as, say, The Sex Pistols were punk. The same goes in film….although I adore some of the Neo-Noir films made in the 1960s (Le Samourai), 1970s (Chinatown), 1980s (Blood Simple), and so on, they’re never going to be the same kind of movie as the Noirs of the 1940s and 50s were. They’re always an exercise in revival, which generally means you take the parts you like (or just as often, that are germane to your era) and ignore the rest. It’s simply impossible to make art in the same style as a style that either died or radically changed in the period between when it was a cultural moment and when the reviver came around, even more so when the ones doing the reviving are from a different culture than the one that initially produced the art.

  4. […] Tang, Liz Phair and U2, to name a few, but ahead of The Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction), Fugazi’s 13 Songs (1989) is by far the band’s best album. Problematically enough (for those who care […]

  5. […] not digging deep enough (when will a mainstream station give me some early They Might Be Giants, Fugazi or Pixies?) and not playing enough outside the alt-rock mainstream (if that makes sense, Mates of […]

  6. […] know the great drummers like Moon from The Who, Rush’s Peart, or Led Zepplin’s Bonham. Fugazi are known for their message, but what about the titanic rhythm section? Who knows the drummer for The Pixies or U2 by name? […]

  7. […] Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know […]

  8. […] are typically underrepresented artists (I have yet to hear They Might Be Giants, the Pixies or Fugazi on any channel). But, since I am too lazy to do any real research on the matter, I will just assume […]

  9. […] why you think I am such a simpering baby that I can’t handle hard music. Have you not heard of my love and respect for Fugazi? I just think that heavier sounds need to be justified by being matched well to their material and […]

  10. […] been a little bewildered by the attraction of the heavier and angrier bands (to the extent that my own affinity for Fugazi is only half-hearted). Moshing, slam-dancing, intentional violence—all these things always seemed off to me. Of […]

  11. […] of some of my chosen tracks next to hers (Wilco as a prelude to Rihanna? Sinatra followed by Fugazi? Whiplash.) and by initial hearings of songs I didn’t know my wife was listening to. See, she and […]

  12. […] completely is if I had witnessed the display of a Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam or, heaven forefend, Fugazi T-shirt. I mean, we all know what one of those looks like, […]

  13. […] might catch a They Might Be Giants video; but seminal bands like the Pixies and real warriors like Fugazi were still part of the realm of the select few. During these years, what and who you listened to […]

  14. […] is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many […]

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  22. Joanna says:

    Hi! I was wondering if you owned the rights to this image of the Fugazi t-shirt? If so, can you get in touch with me. Thank you!

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