This was an interview I had done for my old and defunct zine, Engine. It’s been languishing on a zip disc for about 7 years now. Figured I need to do something with it. So here you go.
For those who might not know, Dance Of Days is a book chronicling part of the DC punk scene (largely centered around Dischord) from the early days to when things started getting weird in the early to mid 90s when punk became a strange place that no longer made sense. So it goes...
Even though the subject matter of this interview is a book on punk, I think much of what is said can be applied to anyone, whether they have interest in reading this book or not. Ultimately this is a story of someone finding themselves via the channels and doors that punk presents.
Interview by Matt Average
M.Avrg : What made you want to write Dance Of Days?
Mark : Well, I came to DC in 1984, and I’d had kind of, already, a punk lifetime if you will, because a lot of people, in their teens or early 20s they were starting to wonder, Is this really for me anymore? By their mid 20s they’re on to something else. I had kind of gone through that. I came to DC actually to go to school, to grad school, and have a career. Instead, I found what I like. So, part of that discovery was, literally, encountering the DC punk scene, and becoming involved with it and learning a little bit about its history. By 1986, right at the tail end of what could be called the Revolution Summer period, it was just apparent to me that it was a great story, and someone should write it down. No one was writing it down, so being a punk, I volunteered.
M.Avrg : What was your first experience with DC punk?
Mark : Ironically, my very first experience with DC punk is very negative, as I mention it in the book. My first direct encounter with DC punk is seeing Nazi skinhead graffiti on a pay phone across the street from the apartment I moved in to in the DuPont Circle area of DC. And much of my initial impression was very negative. Part of it was I that I had come there knowing some about the DC scene already. I was from Montana, and news of it had already reached Montana, about PMA, and Bad Brains, and straight-edge, and Minor Threat, and all those other bands. Henry Rollins, obviously. I knew of him because of Black Flag. I knew he was from DC, from that scene. So I was kind of shocked to see this kind of fabled scene and how much violence and stupidity and conformity seemed to be running rampant there. Now, the good news was that wasn’t the whole story. As I got involved in helping to set up this group that would become Positive Force, a punk activist collective, I started running into other people who were kindred spirits. Largely from the Dischord crowd, who were preparing for this idea, or this moment called Revolution Summer, and we just became friends and allies. In the process, I learned a lot about the history of the DC scene, and became very inspired by what I saw.
M. Avrg : Is this when you became inspired to write the book?
Mark : I came up with the idea in ‘86, not terribly long after Embrace broke up. At that point I began to do interviews. By late ‘86 I was doing interviews, I was gathering old flyers, old audio tapes, video tapes, fanzines, any kind of scrap or document that I could find about DC punk I was starting to gather and immerse myself in that. And that immersion went on for about seven years because there was this intense work around researching from ‘86 to ‘93, when I started the rough draft of the book. I took some notes personally as I was doing that, but a lot of things I was at, personally, when I can came back to the book I was relying on tapes and photos, stuff like that. Memory is sometimes really reliable, and sometimes it’s not.
M.Avrg : Was it hard not to romanticize the past as you were writing the book?
Mark : It wasn’t hard for me, I don’t think, because by the time I was writing this town I kind of seen this story... It turned out the story I was trying to writing was part way through a certain cycle. By ‘93 it was starting to complete that cycle, from starting out very small, terribly marginal, and then going into something that was ushered into the mainstream in some sense. As I learned the story it was clear to me that this was the story of human beings, so there was a lot of mistakes, bad choices, and failure. That’s youth. It was really important to me to reflect that, including the mistakes I was making, or that I make in the context of that. To not pull any punches. To be fair and accurate, but also honest, because there’s not point in doing it other wise. I felt, and you might think, Well wouldn’t it be hard? You’re really passionately moved by something. You’re inspired by something, and you see it in a rosy light? Well, by ‘93, ‘94, ‘95, when I’m writing this down, I’m not seeing it in a rosy light. I’m seeing a lot of my own failures, I’m seeing a lot of the failures of other folks. I’m also seeing, of course, the beautiful stuff, the accomplishing, and inspiring stuff. And I would never make a pretense of somehow being objective, if objectivity can exist. We’re all caught within a certain context. Try as we might, we’re biased. And that’s okay, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s pretty clear to people that I’m pretty open about what my bias might be. I also tried very hard to document stuff and to be fair and accurate to everybody. It’s funny, because some people have critiqued the book saying that it’s too dry. That there’s not enough of the juice, like where’s the passion there? Well, I think it’s a passionate account. But it’s also one that’s trying to be just more than my account, obviously. I have a co-author, and so both our voices have to be represented.
M.Avrg : I find personality comes out in the later years, the later chapters.
Mark : As you’ll notice the book is set up to be framed by a very personal prologue, which talks about where I am when punk starts to happen, and how it effects me. But also about the ‘60s counter-culture, which is the essential foundation to understand how punk comes about. You really can’t understand punk without understanding the sense of betrayal of the promise of the ‘60s. So that was really important for me to be there, both for me historically, and also for accuracy historically. Then of course, at the very end of the book, I’m back in Montana, and this time I’m writing from the other end of the cycle. All these friend of mine, or acquaintances of mine, or peers of mine, are rock stars. They’re on the covers of magazines, and I’m seeing it from this context where I was this lost lonely teenager. I felt like, and other people may disagree, but I felt like that was a good way to frame things, and to bring in my personal perception, and to be able to ask some questions that maybe Mark (Jenkins) would be uncomfortable asking, because Mark, even though he’s been... I consider Mark Jenkins a punk, and he’s been around since the very beginning of the DC punk scene. He’s a great writer, he knows an awful lot, and he’s very smart. But, he’s a journalist, I’m not a journalist. I guess I am in some sense, but my primary identification is an activist. As a punk, understanding my definition of that, which is maybe not other people’s definition, but it’s mine. So Mark has tried to keep a certain distance, I’m really not interested in distance. I’m willing to participate and get in the thick of things. So, I think we managed to strike a good balance where some of the personal stuff could be shared, but also preserve enough of an objective tone so that it could be both in my voice and Mark’s voice. I think it made for a much stronger book than otherwise.
M.Avrg : Going back to what you said about the feeling of betrayal from the ‘60s counter-culture. Do you think there will be something created in the next few years by the people who feel betrayed by the commodification of punk?
Mark : It’s probably already happening. In some ways it’s already happened. We’ve seen the rise of rave, for example. Parts of the rave, or the hip-hop culture... Who knows what will come out. I don’t know what to predict. I can’t imagine that there won’t be a reaction against it. Although, it’s interesting, because if we look back it seems like cycles were happening more quicker then. There’s the initial rock explosion in the mid 50s, and then it kind of died down by the early ‘60s. Then it kind of explodes again in the mid ‘60s. Then punk comes along and explodes in the mid to late ‘70s. Now, we’re sitting at a point where we’re well into 25 plus years of punk. And you don’t see something connected to rock that is rising that is kind of new. You see a lot of the old things kind of playing themselves out. And obviously, there’s the punk underground that is thriving, and in a sense is already what you’re talking about; it is in rebellion against perceived failures of certain parts of the punk community. It’s an interesting question, and I can’t pretend to have an answer to it. I am certain however that anytime people try a would be revolutionary cultural experiment, counter-cultural experiment, that certain ground is gained, and there’s also certain sense of the promise is not entirely fulfilled, and that provides a foundation for a new movement. And also something that it reacts against. I don’t know if it will come from rock music, or if it will be tied to rock music, because in way, and Mark Jenkins would probably disagree, but to me in some sense, part of what this book is about is arguably a failed effort to prevent rock music from simply turned into a consumer commodity. In a way punk is trying to revive certain romantic ideals around rocknroll, where it’s kind of a street music, the music of the disaffected, of the rebel. You know, Bill Clinton, his campaign song was a rock song. All of our TV advertisement at this point... Who would have believed someone like Iggy Pop’s “Search & Destroy” could be used for a car commercial? It’s an intense song that’s borne of this raw outrage and confusion of the Vietnam War, and the nuclear threat. But it has been. I just saw this terrible ad with David Bowie. I don’t know what David Bowie is up to, but it’s an Absolut ad that takes the Aladin Sane cover graphic and turns that into an ad. There’s this great quote that I quote in the last chapter from Ira Robbins, who was from Trouser Press, which was this really cool magazine, and he says, “Overwhelming economic synergy has rendered absurd the idea that rock still exists in opposition against anything. Above the lowest grass roots level of independents everything is for sale, and nothing is forbidden.” He goes on to say, “It’s obvious any traditional beliefs in rocknroll as a vehicle for social and cultural progress are obsolete.” Rock is so thoroughly part of the mainstream fabric and so thoroughly coopted. That’s why I brought up rave. Because rave in a lot of ways reacts against... It’s not rock music. It’s something entirely different. Who knows. The basic answer to your question is I simply don’t know. But I do believe that anytime people try something idealistic and utopian, which punk in many ways, had a lot of those elements, you’re going to fall short. And the fact you’re falling short will provide, in a weird way, fuel for another endeavor, another utopian endeavor. There are certain elements out there in the rave culture.
M.Avrg : Were there any stories you wanted to include in the book...
Mark : (laughing) That aren’t in there? I’ll answer the question this way, I did a rough draft of this book that is quite boring of the book that exists now. When I did the rough draft I was shocked and horrified of how much of these really extraordinary stories, all these stories that I had to leave out.
M.Avrg : Wasn’t it supposed to be on Pressure Drop Press?
Mark : That’s who I was working with when I was doing the rough draft, Martin Sprouse, from Pressure Drop Press. I would have continued to work with him, but when it was delayed for so long we developed an understanding. My intent was to return to Martin, and when I decided I did want to work on it again, I did talk to Martin and, basically, he was at a place after Tim Yohannon passed away, I kind of got the sense that Martin needed to move on to other things, and let go of Pressure Drop.
M.Avrg : Let’s talk about Positive Force. I remember in the late 80s and early 90s it was very visible to the punk scene at large. And then after a while I hadn’t seen anything about it, and I thought it was over. Then in the book, and seeing the literature tonight, I see it’s still happening.
Mark : Absolutely. Positive Force represents the DC ethic in a lot of ways. At least the DC ethic as I understand it. A lot of people may have a different understanding. But my understanding is, you do the work, and the work is not... you just go get your job done. You make your music, you set up your demonstrations, you get food to hungry mouths. You let your actions speak for themselves. Positive Force continues to do the same things it’s always done. Arguably, there have been big changes in the community, maybe it has led it to being a little less high profile. I never felt like we had a very high profile. I feel like a lot of people know about it largely because of Fugazi, who had such a profound impact. People know because they care about, and have been passionately moved by Fugazi. We’re actually headed toward what I think is a huge step forward for us. Which is a community center in DC. We’ll have a performance space there, an office space, an art gallery there, a library. All sorts of mixing of radical arts and direct service for people in the neighborhood, which is a low income neighborhood.
M.Avrg : How many people are currently involved now?
Mark : See, it’s hard to know. If we’re talking about meetings, then that’s one level of Positive Force. An average meeting, we meet every Saturday... Our house, which was a communal house was sold and demolished to build a luxury home there. We haven’t gotten into the community center yet. It won’t be ready until early next year. Actually a bunch of our stuff is in storage so we meet at my apartment. At any given meeting there’s half a dozen people there, or two dozen. Who knows. That’s not even a good way to look at Positive Force, because a lot of people who are active in Positive Force don’t necessarily come to meetings regularly. They’re out there supporting us in bands, in other organizations... I have to say, that it’s inspiring me to see that Positive Force, over 16 years after it started, is still seems relevant to people. They keep coming in, doing great stuff. It’s a continual inspiration for me. And that’s personally. There is a transition. Punk is a very transitional community. People come in and they do a lot of stuff, and maybe they move on...
M.Avrg : Are there any people involved who have been around for a while?
Mark : There are a number of people who have been around for a good period of time, but no one nearly as long as I have. Which is kind of tough. Like I said, I still find it inspiring that it’s an all volunteer group that meets every Saturday afternoon. That’s prime time for leisure activity. It just seems to be motoring along. No guarantees or anything. But I think it’s a testament to the strength of the DC community.
M.Avrg : How could someone start a Positive Force chapter in their town?
Mark : Well, basically, they certainly don’t need to call it Positive Force. There have been literally a couple of other Positive Force groups in existence. We have the resource material to give based on our experience. The basic thing is very simple, we just want a place where some people can get together and talk about what they’d like to see happen. It’s very simple, but it is revolutionary. One of our early slogans, one of our early ideas was borrowed from Chumbawamba actually, years and years ago in ‘84. In a Maximum Rocknroll interview actually, with Chumbawamba. And they said, “Isolation is the biggest barrier against change.” First and foremost, what Positive Force has strived to do, and we encourage other people to do, is to create space where kindred spirits can spark off each other. The things that are in your head that seem so impossible, when they come out of your mouth into a space of other people who share some of those ideas, suddenly it’s not so impossible at all. And that’s a beautiful thing. Very simple, but very profound.
M.Avrg : Going back to the book. There’s a part in there where you say when punk is political or socially aware, is punk at its best.
Mark : Punk, to me, is about life. It’s a window into a universe of possibilities. Which life is. I don’t think every single song has to have some profound political message. In fact, some of the silly songs are revolutionary in a way, because it’s getting in touch with another possibility in life. I do think that is essential we also ground these things in, some sense, ultimately, in awareness of our social surroundings. Or we’re just not going to be able to achieve our potential of our lives. That’s one of my big personal beliefs; that punk is not a musical style, it is not a hairstyle, or a style of clothing, or tattoos and piercings. These things are a very important part of it. But punk something is way more open ended, and something non-commodifiable. Which is part of what makes it so great. To me, it’s a spirit. No one has to agree with me, it’s just an opinion. A label is a label. What I’m interested in is life. A rich, rewarding, and beautiful life for everybody. Punk is just a word. Life is what I’m about. In the end, life is what really matters.
M.Avrg : Do you think the underground will be as strong as it was before the labels were being bought out and bands getting signed?
Mark : Good question. I think it might be stronger now than it was already. This is a challenge for us. Some of this corporate stuff actually can help the underground. Money comes in, and what do you do with it? I know labels like Epitaph and Lookout, and others, Dischord to some degree, benefitted from this. Sub Pop certainly did. Now, what do we do with those resources once they flow in? That’s a good question, and I can’t answer it. That’s a question for each one of us to ask. That again, is another thing in my book; to bring the questions back to us personally. To be less concerned with this certain figure in punk. Did that person sell out? To ask yourself, Can I sell out? Am I selling out? What does that mean? What is my life meant to be about? Am I being courageous enough to pursue that, or am I copping out? Those are the questions I ask.