Bodies Never Lie
Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.
Ted Shawn, quoted in The New York Times
Dance of Days is a revolution book. Much more than a howling political screed of the 1980s-90 Washington, DC, punk/hardcore scene, Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’s fruitful and in-depth collaboration is an inspiring and rousing call to action. The authors dare you to pick up drums, arms, and voices. They challenge you to ask what you have done to better your neighborhood or world or self. As it chronicles the ins and outs of the music and the players, it never glosses over the fact there was darkness while the defiant voices screamed a message.
Dance of Days is in its third printing and the introduction contains the story of how the book came to find a publisher, a story worth noting. Eventually, the book was put out by the highly commendable independent press Akashic, publisher of “urban literary fiction and political non-fiction” by authors who wish to stay clear of the mainstream, or are simply ignored by it. This is the first Akashic book I’ve seen, and judging the publisher on the criteria of the quality of this book alone, I can say the coupling of such anti-mainstream writers with Akashic certainly makes for good allies. Their activism nicely shores up the convictions expressed in Dance of Days.
Chronicling the electrifying 1980-90’s hardcore scene (or harDCore, as it was called), Dance of Days tells the tale of the bands that fought for social change in the nation’s capital while putting out some of the fierce albums ever heard. A massive assortment of big and small bands are deftly juggled by the authors, even as these bands break up, trade players, form new allegiances, and sometimes reunite. The largest forces, naturally, get the most play: Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and Fugazi, to name the largest. And in some ways, the narrative of the book is the rising of one (Fugazi), the falling of another (Bad Brains), and the steady presence of activist group called Positive Force Movement, with which Anderson was closely associated.
But the “lesser” bands populate the pages like essential trills and grace notes, too. The music made by Dag Nasty, Slant 6, Scream, and the Slickee Boys was the manifestation of kids’ distorted anger and terrible boredom. Their instruments emitted punishing cacophonies and impassioned pleas, and the concerts were often swirling masses of sweaty distended forms hallelujahing to their avowed independence. Railing against the conservative politicians, DC’s astronomically high murder rate, and their own middle-class upbringing, the bands formed a thunderous attack on those they saw as oppressors and liars. The music, far from secondary in this effort, was loud, chaotic, and violent. It intoned in guttural drawls and then piercing howls, and accompanied Revolution Summer’s social renaissance.
Reading the book now prompts the question—Where is today’s political-musical counterculture? The present climate is certainly similar: conservatives rule the nation; employees are disgruntled, controversial wars are being wages. As Tobi Vail puts it in the liner notes to a Kill Rock Stars compilation, it may in fact be there, but “the mass dissemination of an ideology indicating [that the underground is dead] should be taken for what it is, a desperate plea on the part of those ‘alternative nation’ co-conspirators who are so busy trying to convince themselves that, simply because they are no longer punk rockers, punk rock must no longer exist.” These are inflammatory words that attack any readers coming to this book for simple nostalgia. And the discomfort they cause is what makes this book so powerful. The music was always about shock and challenge, and the book loudly seconds that effort. In fact, it seems to be a direct challenge to anyone who ever complained about an injustice but sat back and did nothing to fight it.
Jenkins whose job was to shape the narrative has done a solid job with what sounds like began as the too-personal memoirs of Andersen. And considering the staggering number of interviews, points of views, bands, and musicians he had to juggle, there is a traceable cohesive storyline, with a sequence of events and fully realized characters. The authors wisely hold strictly to the DC scene, even when such mighty, but geographically separated, weights as Nirvana and Greg Gynn are sending their own reverberations through the underground. They’re are not ignored, but Jenkins leads up to their affects with a roar, then drops off like a TV show’s cliffhanging episode so he can return to DC and describe the city’s significant parallel developments and reactions. When he returns to, for example, Nirvana’s appearance on the cover or Rolling Stone, say, the reader has been provided with context and a DC perspective.
Impassioned by their causes, the authors are not unwillingly, however, to confront the minor chords of the scene. For instance, harDCore was almost solely male-dominated. Not until the Riot Grrrl movement gained strength did a strong woman’s presence enter, with bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. The Riot Grrl ‘zine was put out, in Molly Neuman’s words, “so that we could have a chance to hang out with other girls who weren’t necessarily scenesters but who were cool nonetheless.” That faction brought a much needed political rejuvenation to an increasingly calming scene, as well some powerful and exciting music. Additionally, the violence of shows angered some punks, and an undercurrent of racism and homophobia could be found in certain quarters. While clearly upset by these negative strains, the authors don’t shy away from them, make no attempt to discount their existence, and aptly point out how many members of the scene fought virulently against this hostility.
Because of its perspective, Dance of Days was bound to be as controversial as the success of some of the punk bands (most notable, Fugazi), and you can find some fiercely angry reactions to it online. It would be impossible for one book to document everything that happened in DC, so things are left out, and some readers could rail against the book’s strong bent toward Dischord and the authors’ own political leanings. But that would be unfair, as this is not a history text book, but a screaming political and social account of a small musical bloc that made a big impact. Like the music it follows, Dance of Days stands wholly by its convictions.