Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review of 'Salad Days' documentary

The latest hardcore documentary (now out on DVD) is Salad Days (2014), subtitled A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90), directed by Scott Crawford and photographed by Jim Saah.  The hardcore documentary film has become something of its own subgenre at this point, and perhaps it’s even now a bit formulaic — interview snippets, cut to old live footage of a band, cut to photograph, cut to the next interview snippet, etc.  (What else could it be?  I don’t know.)  Occasionally there is text here to give the viewer some of the basic history not filled in by the interviewees.  Salad Days, however, distinguishes itself both on the material that it presents (J Mascis says at one point that while Boston bands had some good drummers, for him, it was the D.C. bands that had the best songs) and by the more probing, at times even critical point of view the director takes.  Thus, the film is not merely a celebration of the extreme outpouring of creativity that the D.C. scene was, but also an exploration of its limitations (necessitating, within the 11-year period the film takes up, numerous changes in form and attitude).

When most people think of D.C. hardcore, of course it’s the Dischord bands that immediately spring to mind: Minor Threat, Government Issue, S.O.A., The Faith, Iron Cross, etc.; they represent the classic period and are covered relatively well.  Ian MacKaye is featured prominently, and it would not be the same film without him.  Ian is fairly ubiquitous in these things, but he brings an important and often challenging perspective and is clearly not content to rest on his reputation as “leader” of the D.C. scene.  He speaks dismissively of getting crank calls from kids haranguing him about straight-edge, a “movement” he clearly no longer cares about in the slightest, if he ever really did.  In answer to charges that Dischord somehow alienated certain bands who were not part of their coterie, MacKaye simply notes that he never stopped anyone from forming their own label.  Still, it’s interesting that, as one commentator points out, regarding the formation of Fugazi, of course everyone was waiting to see what Ian would do next (and, humorously, that despite their demands that their shows remain all-ages and cheaply priced, Fugazi with their big hooks were in a sense the ultimate arena-rock band).

I personally would have liked to see more on the band Void, and Salad Days might have benefited from a more in-depth focus on other individual bands.  Void, one of the era’s best in my opinion, gets only a 10-second or so live clip and a very brief interview segment with guitarist Bubba Dupree.  There’s also only brief mention of the Flex Your Head compilation (1982), which is maybe more than any other record responsible for putting D.C. “on the map” nationwide.  The film rightly begins with the Bad Brains and their overwhelming influence, inspiring the formation of the likes of the Teen Idles, and from there Minor Threat, and, well, most of us probably know the rest of the early Dischord story.  Henry Rollins does an effective job painting a picture of the danger of the early days, of uber-macho assholes looking for punk kids to beat up, something one might remember, if indeed one was a punk kid in the early 80s.

Void, Wilson Center, 1983. Photo by Jim Saah /

One thing I liked about this documentary was that it and many of its interview subjects are intent on pointing out that there were other aspects to D.C., that the scene was not monolithic, and so Black Market Baby gets some coverage, for example, and later the political turn of the Positive Force shows.  Salad Days also devotes a significant amount of time to gender dynamics (something largely absent, for example, in another recent hardcore doc, xxx ALL AGES xxx: The Boston Hardcore Film [2012]) and presents a number of women saying frankly that they often felt marginalized.  Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins both admit that, at least early on, it was a scene dominated by adolescent boys, and so a lot of stupid things were prone to occur.  Rollins claims that once people started to “get laid” or have healthy sexual relationships, the scene got better (Thurston Moore gives his analysis on the subject as well).  It does not appear that most female commentators here would agree, however.  To the credit of writer/director Crawford, this difference in point of view is clearly drawn, not papered-over or obfuscated.

It’s also interesting that the film gets into class issues, at least briefly.  Most D.C. punks, we’re told, were middle- and upper-middle-class kids, coming from well-educated, mostly supportive families.  This seems to be in stark contrast to many in the Boston scene or the figures inhabiting the recent Tony Rettman book on the New York scene, NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990 (2014) (there is also an NYHC documentary in the works from Drew Stone, who directed the Boston one), who are often more working-class or, in the case of New York, sometimes lived on the streets.  Though Salad Days doesn’t state this specifically, it could be argued that these differences at least partly account for the divergence in musical styles as well as attitude, with D.C. bands becoming more introspective and musically searching, while Boston and NYHC bands sometimes tended toward a rigid militancy.  (This of course is a broad generalization, and certainly counter-examples can be cited.)  On the flipside, these class differences could also have something to do with the accusation that D.C. punks were even spoiled or privileged, which is momentarily raised here but not examined very deeply.

Salad Days also engages with race, illustrating significant contributions from African American and Asian American participants.  Further, it briefly explores the intersections between the D.C. hardcore and go-go music scenes (Minor Threat shared a bill with Trouble Funk, for example), among other things.  However, Beefeater guitarist Fred Smith appears on a special-features interview segment discussing the fact that sound technicians at the band’s shows often assumed he was the bass player, simply because he was African American.  It might also have been interesting to analyze the meaning behind the Minor Threat song “Guilty of Being White,” but then it’s something that Ian MacKaye has already discussed at length in the 2006 film American Hardcore.

One minor revelation in Salad Days, for me anyway, is the extent of the split between the “Revolution Summer” bands circa 1985, such as Embrace (MacKaye’s first post-Minor Threat band), Rites of Spring, Fire Party, and Beefeater, and bands like Marginal Man and Scream, whose members suggest they became disaffected by the political emphasis of the former.  Back then, the latter bands seemed to me to be more representative of the ongoing D.C. hardcore sound, since Marginal Man and Scream (along with G.I.) were the ones who were still touring to other cities, whereas “Revolution Summer” was strictly a D.C.-based thing, and the bands associated with it were short-lived.  However, the film goes into some detail about the “Revolution Summer” departure, ascribing to it a much greater importance than many outside of D.C. might heretofore have realized.

The late-80s Dischord bands mostly lost my attention at the time, but Salad Days gives them their just due.  At least the likes of Fugazi, Ignition, and Holy Rollers broadened their styles out from the basic hardcore template that many of the bands in the New York of that period (for example) continued to assert.  Whether one direction is better than the other is a question for another time — my point here is simply that there’s something to be said for trying new things, which appears to be the hallmark of the D.C. scene.  (No doubt Stone’s upcoming NYHC film will have its own point of view on the continuance of the strict hardcore form in New York, after it was essentially over elsewhere).  It’s no accident, then, that Scott Crawford’s title refers to the Minor Threat song “Salad Days,” in which Ian MacKaye, as far back as 1983 (!), depicts hardcore itself as limited and limiting, as having “gotten soft.”  In any case, Salad Days the film manages to transcend the pitfalls inherent in the hardcore-documentary genre and provides a fresh look at one of the most important periods (and places) in American musical history.