‘Salad Days’ Provides Punk Food for Thought

This D.C. punk doc eschews rose colored glasses as it looks back on that most influential American punk scene.

In some ways Salad Days: A Decade of Punk In Washington, D.C. (1980-1990) seems overly ambitious. After all, one could quite easily make a film just on that first year alone. But where the film really succeeds is that it doesn’t treat D.C. punk as being just about that moment but about that moment and all those that came afterward. Director/writer Scott Crawford traces the scenes origins from a few clubs and a few bands making their own records and doing things their way to a time when sometimes seemingly innocent events became transformed into legend.

The usual suspects are here: Dischord co-founder and Fugazi/Teen Idles man Ian MacKaye (as is his bandmate and business partner Jeff Nelson), Thurston Moore (Just how many records does this guy buy?), J Mascis, Henry Rollins, and, of course, Dave Grohl. And the stories are incredible. Rollins recalls wondering why anyone would want to listen to the lo-fi records of those Ramones; MacKaye and others recall the birth of straight edge, a term that has been misunderstood, over-mythologized and was, as it turns out, probably more annoying than most would imagine. (MacKaye reports that he still receives drunken calls from anti-straight edge folks; Nelson says he wasn’t all in when it came to the no sex/no drugs thing.)

We learn about how the politicized elements of the so-called Revolution Summer were both educational (young people began talking about issues that needed to be talked about—including AIDS) and polarizing (time came when you couldn’t escape the politics and just have a good time). We also learn about how the decay of D.C. in the ‘80s was both a help and hindrance to the music and are reminded that one of the reasons the independent music from that city flourished is that no one else would touch it.

Until they would. By the end of the decade (and a little beyond) the majors came sniffing around, snatched up Jawbox, made a play for Fugazi and failed to translate the local enthusiasm to the national stage the way that the bands themselves did. Later, we meet Scream (the band that gave Dave Grohl to the world), hear about gender and racial politics and are reminded that, actually, a lot of the kids from the punk scene were a little better off than you might imagine. (Oh! We also get to the bottom of that pesky term—emo—one more time.)

Take or leave the music—some of it is remarkably forgettable, some of it is just noise with slogans screamed atop of it, some of it is beyond brilliant—you cannot deny the impact that it had on generations of musicians since 1980. That influence is frankly one of the areas that doesn’t get as much discussion as one might like in the confines of the film. Since most of the players are locals we never get a real sense of what impact the D.C. scene had for kids coming out of, say, Iowa 20 years later or how D.C. mirrored (or didn’t) its counterparts. At least not in any substantial way. Then again, there’s enough of D.C.-worship that can be found elsewhere.

Moreover, there are attempts to make sure that the impact of the music doesn’t become over-stated. Often we look back upon a record or film and pronounce that it changed our lives when in fact it was just another slab on the turntable or flick in the tape machine. It’s only with retrospect that we sometimes see the changes that we went through and retrace our steps to that pivotal place and time. If we’re lucky.

Youth and ageing aren’t always as neat as we’d like them to be and MacKaye is the first to point out that some of the problems in the scene—the tendency of young people to be insensitive and sometimes seemingly sexist or otherwise ignorant—can be traced to the fact that, as the adage goes, ain’t none of us perfect. It’s a refreshing perspective to include in the film and one that is perhaps too often overlooked in most documentaries as they try to paint in the broadest splashes possible. (Rollins also enters with observation that sometimes just being a punk—just moving against the standard issue uniform of the ’70s was an act of confrontation—a fact of life that no doubt resonates with today’s scene kids.)

Crawford might dwell a little too long on the foundation and maybe spends too little time once we’ve gotten to the top floor but the characters and their stories make the ride well worth it. Whether the scene doc—those that examine a specific place and time—is on the decline doesn’t matter when you see a story executed this well and with this much passion. Moreover, it’s amazing to think, while watching this story unfold, that there’s so much life left in something that started 30 years ago and more or less came to an end roughly a decade later.

In the end, Salad Days avoids nostalgia and instead focuses on the truth and is all the better for it.

Bonus features include live performances from amazing Beefeater, plus Gray Matter, Government Issue and Fugazi. A helping of additional interview clips—none of them particularly illuminating—is also on the menu.

RATING 7 / 10