Saturday, February 28, 2009

Riffz and (no) Dunkzzz, Wk. 4/5

As time goes on and I continue to write here it's becoming more and more apparent that Riffz and Dunkz is going to be one of those things that just happens when it happens, kind of like Achewood. Anyway, just Riffs this week with an extra-long installment today Fugazi for those of you who might be interested.

The Riffs

Following his departure from Deep Purple in the late 1970s, Robert Plant couldofbeen David Coverdale formed Whitesnake from the remainder of his backing band, incidentally also known as The White Snake Band (see what he did there?). For most of the late 70s and early 1980s they were essentially an English Doobie Brothers, playing blues rock and boogie and getting pretty big in Japan and eventually England. But popularity in the US remained elusive, until that is Coverdale teamed up with John Sykes and jumped on the coke and hooker fueled hair metal bandwagon.

"Here I Go Again" really could be one the of the defining moments of hair metal. It has all the elements you need: mysterious and solitary anti-hero, a slow-build synthesizer intro, the usage of the phrase "lonely street of dreams", a guitar solo straight out of the Kansas City Guitar Center branch, Tawny Kitaen.

Is it stupid? Yes, of course it's stupid. But in its stupidity there's something so uninhibited and fun about it that you can't help but like it. And it's certainly better than the paint by numbers power ballad "Is This Love" and the beer-shit awfulness of "In the Still of the Night."

OK, this is unfair. But I don't think I'm the only one who felt a twinge of schadenfreude when Chinese Democracy finally hit and all of the Guns and Roses apologists were finally forced to admit that it was not the Howard Hughes hair metal triumph it was supposed to be. The fact is that Axl Rose, for all intents and purposes, was a great front man but he was nothing without the forces of the other Roses, specifically Izzy Stradlin.

The building up of Axl Rose throughout the 90s might be one of the more ridiculous myth making endeavors ever, fueled no doubt in large part by writers and editors eager to plumb the depths of their own misplaced nostalgia. That's all well and good, but the cult of Axl reached obnoxiously stupid heights, perhaps culminating in Spin's really, really labored 1999 cover feature, "What the World Needs Now is Axl Rose" (message from 2009: it doesn't). Rock stars and fans are a naturally symbiotic relationship, but the lesson of Axl may be that when we enter into that relationship with a pretty well known fuck-up, we can't not expect to be burned (see the above).

Saying bad things about Fugazi, especially if you are from D.C. (like myself), is tantamount to self-exile from the musical community down there. It happened to Pussy Galore, it happened to Jason Cherkis, and it happened to Michael Little. The flurry of angry letters to the editors of the City Paper after that last article was mind-boggling, indicative of the band's vaunted status as the elder statesmen of D.C. post-punk. Well, maybe this is my act of self-exile. It should be clear that musically, Fugazi were truly a great band, capable of incredible moments of tension and release. For any one who needs further indication of this, simply check out Jem Cohen's superb doc, Instrument.

The downside to the Fugazi legend though is the way that they allowed people to perceive them as being morally superior to other bands and figures within the punk community. In large part, this is the fault of Mackaye, who has been seen as some sort of figurehead ever since he was 17 and has had to probably qualify thousands of stupid comments since then. Regardless, the band's strict anti-corporate stance and their willingness to stand have garnered them fans and admiration the world over. But at the same time, it's impossible to see the band on anything approaching human terms. They're caricatures of themselves, of punk ethics taken to such a degree that one can't find a single fault or touch of humanity in them. Ian Mackaye's seeming lack of humor about himself and his band's mission no doubt played a huge role in the making of the legend.

By following the straight and narrow and battling the corporate ogre, by doing everything right, by singing a song that demonizes someone so weak and insecure that he finds himself the instigator of violence (which is such an easy move for a band commonly described as "challenging"), the band essentially insulated themselves from any form of criticism but gave them a vantage point from which to criticize not only those in power (who, let's be honest, couldn't give a flying fuck anyway) but also to their peers (who did in fact care. A lot.).

The result of this king making power is the creation of a scene that is fundamentally self-absorbed and desperately afraid of not falling in line with the Fugazi playbook. Dischord rarely if ever releases records from bands outside the area, and band's from D.C. are doomed to a very short shelf-life primarily because they are such a product of their environment that it seems they can only make their impact there. Nobody takes D.C. seriously anymore as a scene because, a few notable examples aside (Nation of Ulysses/Make Up, Shudder to Think, Lungfish, and a few others) if you've heard one Dischord band, you've heard them all. It's the same message, the same set of tools, and the same presentation.

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