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It’s New Years Eve and I’m sitting at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. At my current perch, the Starbucks at the end of gate H, I’ve witnessed one impromptu wrestling team practice, two adorable psychiatric service dogs, and about 17 people who resemble Larry Bird in some meaningful way. I’m familiar with this land of a thousand Larrys— a decade ago I spent a semester of college at nearby Lake Forest College and I remember believing for a time that Chicago could be my permanent home. Now its just the middle point between Little Rock and New York.

I wrote that a week ago today, thinking I was going to post something that day, but I quickly got swept up in the New Years eve festivities as soon as I landed back in New York. I really enjoyed being back in Little Rock for the holidays— it still feels like home. While it used to be the place where I worked hard to patch together enough gigs and lessons to earn a musical livelihood, now it is a respite of relaxation. It is always replenishing for me to come back and eat home-cooked meals with my family, take hour long baths, watch an enormous amount of NBA basketball on TV, and get properly drunk at least once with my friends. Yet there comes a time during every trip home when the relaxation has turned into stagnation, and I’m ready again to hustle in the bustle of the big city. Thus, it was from the warm depths of my parents’ comfortable couch that I hatched this ambitious New York City sized New Year’s resolution:

I will write and record a song* everyday*.

I know what you’re thinking (because I can read minds). You’re thinking “Lucas, you doofus, you’re not going to record a song everyday— that’s crazy! I bet you only last like four days….”

First of all, there’s no need to call me names. Words hurt, man. Second of all, you’re a hater. Third of all, I’ve already lasted more than four days so you can go suck a lemon.

Next, you’re thinking, “why are there asterisk next to the words song and everyday?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s start with the word song. The traditional definition of the word song is a piece of music that is meant to be performed by the human voice with or without instrumental accompaniment. That is, songs are meant to be sung (of course there are famous exceptions to this rule such as Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words). Instead of the traditional definition, I’m using the word song in the way 99 percent of Americans use it, simply to mean any standalone piece of music. For instance, the 1999 crossover techno hit Sandstorm by the Finnish DJ Darude isn’t technically a song by historical standards, but people the world over still call it a song whenever they exclaim “I fucking love that song!” or “I fucking hate that song!” Similar to Sandstorm, most of my musical works will be instrumentals that aren’t necessarily “songs” per se, but I’m calling them songs just like your iTunes library would. For I’m not quite pretentious enough to call this project something like “Daily Opus” (although I am clearly pretentious enough to write a long paragraph demonstrating that I know what a song is).

Yes, there’s also an asterisk next to the word “everyday” you noticed. I think we all know what everyday means (define everyday: every day). That asterisk is there because around day six of this adventure I realized that I needed to heed some old testament advice and take a day of rest if I want to sustain this level of output. So here at Lucas Murray Music, everyday actually means everyday except Sunday. I make the rules!

Anyway, it would be easy to write and record these songs, just tell you I did it, and then pat myself on the back. In fact it would be even easier to just straight up lie to you and say that I’m writing and recording these songs, when I’m really just on the couch watching the show Big Mouth over and over again. But for better or worse I’m going to share these songs with you every Sunday. Just check them out on my homepage or at the bottom of this post. I hope you like them! Also, if you want to use any of them for your personal projects please let me know! We can work it out.

Happy New Year!

January 1

January 2

January 3

January 4

January 5

January 6

 

 

Good news everyone! Today I offer you the blog equivalent of that school day in which you got to watch a movie in class! Ooooh you thought it was a real treat to get to watch a documentary about the civil war instead of reading your stuffy old textbook. The truth is, your teacher was just giving himself/herself a break. And that is exactly what I am doing as well.

All good movie days include something at least a little bit edifying, so I’d like to begin with jazz master Bill Evans expounding his views about music, learning, and creativity. I think this should be required viewing for any young musician attempting to learn how to play jazz, but there are also plenty of nuggets of wisdom here that apply to any creative endeavor. The Bill Evans portion doesn’t start until 6:25 in this video, so skip ahead if you want to, but Steve Allen gives a pretty charming introduction that won’t hurt you to watch either.

Ok, that was all well and good Mr. Murray but can’t we watch something fun? Why yes you can, because I’m actually that cool substitute teacher who let’s you do whatever you want. Here’s a bunch of famous singers (and Tyra Banks for some reason) taking spills on stage. My personal favorite falls are by Beyonce, Madonna, and Shakira.

And Finally, I’d like to leave you with Pharoah Sanders playing saxophone in an abandoned tunnel in San Fransisco. Sanders was born and raised in my hometown of Little Rock, AR, and I’m not sure why we don’t have a statue of him somewhere— he’s an all time great saxophonist and a true artist who pushed the jazz language to new creative heights. If you didn’t know Pharoah, you’re welcome, now you know.

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Last night at the Afterthought I watched the Good Time Ramblers play for over four hours to a packed room of familiar faces. Around midnight we all raised our glasses in honor of the bar, around 1am we all danced to the final song, and around 2am Jeff Jackson announced the (truly) last call. It was a bittersweet goodbye to that quirky little corner spot that has seen thousands of performances from both musical giants and local heroes since the late 70’s. The Afterthought meant a great deal to me personally— I’ve been going to hear music there since I was in high school (this was before the 21 and up rule was imposed for all shows at the Afterthought), and in my young musical career I’ve performed there far more than any other venue. The Afterthought’s closing has been hard for me to handle, and for that reason I want to walk myself through the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) for the Afterthought. (Note: I do realize that in real life you can’t just walk through the stages of grief in one day, but this isn’t real life, this is my blog and I get to do what I want)

1. Denial

Last week I heard about the Afterthought closing by reading my friend Olivia’s Facebook post. I played guitar at the Afterthought every Sunday for two years and I hadn’t been told about the Afterthought closing, so my first reaction was indeed denial: She doesn’t know what she was talking about! She doesn’t work there! What does she know! That can’t be true. Even as all the facts of The Afterthought’s closing surfaced, I still went to play brunch on Sunday and treated it just like any other Sunday. Though it was indeed my last Sunday brunch performance at the Afterthought, I didn’t do any special song or send off, I just played and went home like I always do. I didn’t want to acknowledge that it was happening.

2. Anger

The most enraging fact in this whole saga is that I and all of the other performers/employees at the Afterthought were given so little notice about it closing. I was initially angry at the Afterthought’s manager, because I mistakenly believed it was him who had not informed everyone. I can’t apologize enough to Richard Muse for even thinking this— I’ve seen and experienced firsthand how much he cares about the Afterthought and all of the employees, and Richard was in fact given the same short notice as the rest of us. The truth is, the new buyer of the Afterthought is shutting it down for renovations and from what I understand it was he who gave only about a week of notice to everyone working at the Afterthought. It is an enraging injustice that some good, hardworking people are without jobs today because they were not given enough time or notice to find new work before the Afterthought closed. My outrage is amplified by the thought of who the new buyer is. You can look up who that is on your own, I don’t want to mention the name in my blog, but here are some clues: they already turned one long-standing cozy Hillcrest spot into a soulless hipster laptop hell, their coffee tastes terrible, and they make a real good sandwich.

3. Bargaining

Hey Stephanos, sorry about what I said just now about Mylo’s Coffee Co. I didn’t mean it—I’m just upset. Will you just promise to keep the music alive at the Afterthought? I’ll be totally on your side, I’ll put ads up for you on my website, I’ll drink your coffee everyday! Just please keep booking local bands (like mine) to play in that wonderful space. Please!

Ok readers, let me pause for a second and tell you some truth. I’m a bit hungover right now. I had a few too many drinks in honor of the Afterthought last night— what can I say, I love that place. I have some important things I want to say concerning the final two stages of grief about the Afterthought’s closing, but I don’t think I can express those thoughts right now. Instead of over-extending my foggy brain, I’m going to do myself and you readers a favor and make this a two part blog post. Stay tuned next week for Depression and Acceptance! Is this a cop out? Yes. Do I care? No.

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New MusicWeek 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 13:  RITZ CLUB  Photo of PRINCE, Prince performing on stage - Purple Rain Tour  (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Let me preface this post by saying that I am not a Prince super-fan. I think he was an amazing musician, a distinguished songwriter, and a delightfully freaky performer. But truthfully I’ve only ever owned about four Prince albums (a drop in the bucket considering his massive discography), and would actively listen to them only once or twice a year. Prince’s passing has forced him into my consciousness and yours in a way that unfortunately nothing else could. Traveling from Little Rock to Eureka Springs (and back again) this past weekend, I had a blast listening to nothing but satellite radio’s Prince tribute station, and during these seven hours of Prince I thought a lot about his life, his image, his fans, and his music. I do recognize that there is seemingly no pressing need for me to throw my opinions into the endless pile of articles, blog posts, and tweets about Prince circulating through the internet, and I would not fault you if you decided to just listen to Purple Rain instead of reading this. But I feel compelled to talk about the Purple One because there are some things that need reiteration, there are some things I haven’t heard anyone else say, and there are some things that I have heard people say that I flat out disagree with. So here are seven thoughts on that peculiar and mysterious little rockstar we loved so much.

  1. While listening to the Prince tribute radio station, I heard a couple of soundbites from fans who had called in and stated that part of the reason Prince’s death is so tragic is that “there will never be that caliber of musician again” and that “musical artists today are not as good as Prince”— You’ll also see this sentiment echoing around the internet in numerous articles that claim that this 2016 is “the year that music died” (with legends like David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey, George Martin, Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Prince and others all passing away). This is undoubtedly not true. Genius and true inspiration are certainly rare in music (as in any field), but also relatively consistent. Let’s not give up on music just because some of our favorite icons have passed away. Some people were likely making the same distressed cries about music being dead, and the loathsome state of current music back in August of 1977 after Elvis passed away, and then guess what: 8 months later Prince released his first album. Prince was a superlative talent and a true original and likely there will never be anyone else quite like him, yet it is a fallacy to think that there will not be new inspired creators to sing the songs of our time, win over our hearts, and make us party like it’s 1999.
  2. Prince was Prince’s real name. His full name was Prince Rogers Nelson. You probably know this by now—I’m not trying to insult your intelligence— I just want to point out that Prince is a really cool name. I might name my son Prince. Or maybe Duke, or Earl…
  3. I love so many Prince songs, too many to name, but there are also a great many Prince songs that I don’t love. This is not a knock against Prince, it is simply a by product of the shear volume of work that he released. Prince released 39 studio albums and he allegedly has enough work in his vault to posthumously release over 39 more. Prince incessantly experimented with new sounds and songs throughout his career, and indeed some of these experiments fell flat. Even great creative geniuses produce sub-par work some of the time—this his does not diminish their genius. Indeed it was Prince’s willingness to experiment, take risks, and fail that allowed him to not only produce hit songs, but to create era-defining sounds that will be imitated for decades to come.
  4. Prince boasted “there’s no particular sign I’m more compatible with,” but as a Gemini (born on June 7th, 1958) he was in fact generally more compatible with Sagittarius, Libra, Leo, and Aries.
  5. I don’t know what Prince’s life was really like and unless you were his close friend or family member you don’t either. What we saw was the celebrity—the image. We saw what Prince let us see, and he certainly didn’t let us see everything. By many accounts from people who knew him, Prince was a warm, genuine, and generous man, and I truly believe that he was a wonderful person. But it is important for me to also recognize that I did not know Prince the man. While most of us are mourning the loss of an icon, some are tragically mourning the loss of Prince as a friend and a family member.
  6. There are a great many things that might seem strange to you about Prince: his androgynous appearance, his genre-bending songs, his subversion of gender stereotypes, his secretive personal life, his religious sect, his many aliases, or anything else you want to name… Yet the most unusual thing about Prince is that he was incredibly famous. There are a great many people who seem weird or different (by the way if you ostracize those people, that’s your shortcoming and not theirs), but there are only a tiny handful people that that are a household name all over the world. That’s the strangest thing about Prince.
  7. The author Chuck Klosterman wrote a book called Killing Yourself to Live in which he argued and demonstrated that the best possible career move a famous musician can make is to die. It is certainly true that since his passing Prince has been the subject of innumerable news stories and sold an enormous amount of music (he reportedly sold one million songs and 231 thousand albums the day after he died). I admit that I’ve listened to more Prince songs in the past few weeks than I have in the past few years combined! We often appreciate someone more when they are no longer around— this is natural. Yet I hope that we can all recognize that we don’t have to wait until something is gone to appreciate it. Look to the living musicians, artists, writers, artists, and people in your life that you most care about; go see them in concert, write them a letter, take them to dinner, give them a hug— express your love and appreciation while they are here to receive it.

     

    For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

     

    Week 1—Nine Months of New MusicWeek 2—That’s Masturbation

    Week 3—Oblique Strategies

    Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

    Week 5—Turn Off the Music

A month ago Whitewater Tavern was packed for the final show of the eight-year old Little Rock band The See. Over the course of the cathartic hour and a half long set, I saw audience members dancing and singing along and at least two bearded band-members kiss former bandmates on the lips. Since 2007, when Joe Yoder (vocals/guitar) and Dylan Yelnich (bass/keyboard) founded the band, The See has played countless shows, recorded two-full length albums, been dubbed the “Kings of the Scene” by the Arkansas Times, and toured the country. Despite numerous cast changes (Louis Watts played guitar and sang briefly before leaving the band, then Eric Michael Morris joined on lead guitar, then Dylan and Eric left the band, and finally Jason Tedford and I stepped in on bass and guitar respectively), The See was able to endure because the signature pieces were always present: Tyler Nance’s heavy drumming and Joe’s infectious singing. The See is finally ending because the voice and vision of the band is going away. Joe is moving to Kansas City, and thus Arkansas is losing one of its best songwriters.

Joe started writing songs in seventh grade when he first learned how to play a power chord on guitar. Enchanted by his new power, Joe brought his mom to his room to hear his first song equipped with verses, chorus, and a bridge. When teenage Joe wasn’t at school or work, he was likely seeing live music at Vino’s or buying CD’s at Rod Bryan’s record store Anthropop (sadly, this is a very dated sentence— Anthropop is closed, Vino’s has declined, and no one buys CD’s anymore). Inspired by local groups like Ho-Hum and Ashtray Babyhead, Joe started his first band Attacking the Audio in 2000 when he was a sophmore in High School. He and his bandmates Mark Chisenhall and Taylor Willet recorded at Blue Chair Studio when it was still just a small shed. Soon after, Joe started another group called the Dischordos with Charles Lyford, Gaines Fricke, and Tim Tellez. In both of these groups Joe was the cornerstone piece, playing guitar, singing, and writing songs. Joe also played bass for a couple of other bands in high school, but recently said to me “any band I have been in, even if it was a jam band that I was playing bass for, I would always write or lead the jam. Song writing is my strong suit, not my ability as a player— it’s how I contribute.”

After moving to Tempe, AZ to attend college at Arizona State, Joe and Mark formed a more mature version of Attacking the Audio with fellow Arkansas transplant Louis Watts. Although Joe’s musical skill and creativity was apparent in college, he was still experimenting with his sound and artfully imitating his favorite groups. A home recording from 2003 called “All for You” showcases not only Joe’s love of Radiohead, but also two trademarks of Joe’s songs that he has carried with him to this day: 1. Long moments without any vocals, highlighting the instrumental side of the song and 2. Drastic section changes, switching from one mood to another within the same song. Listen for yourself.

ALL FOR YOU

Joe graduated from ASU in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in film and theatre. Despite such a practical degree and likely countless job offers, Joe (like many graduates) didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. After a bad breakup he left Arizona and went to Nicaragua for a month to build houses with his dad. He then moved in with his parents in Springfield, MO to save up for an epic road trip with his friend and band-mate Louis, all the while continuing to write and record songs. Joe and Louis spent nearly three months traveling all over America before Joe finally moved back to Little Rock in the summer of 2007, wishing to start a new musical project. By the time Joe moved back to Arkansas, though just 23 years old, he had been writing songs for over a decade.

Given Joe’s musical experience, a talented rhythm section in Dylan Yelnich and Tyler Nance, and numerous connections to the Little Rock scene, The See quickly gained popularity after forming in 2007. Joe even wrote some of The See’s most enduring songs when they were still just a three-piece. The song “Selling Gold,” written during this period, may be the band’s most popular song and to me is the prototypical Joe song, incorporating a long intro (almost a separate song), biographical lyrics, passionate singing, and a catchy guitar riff that can stand on it’s own with out lyrical support. Here is the very first version of the song recorded in 2008 at UALR, (though there’s a more polished version on The See’s debut EP Selling Gold if you can find it).

SELLING GOLD

The See hit their stride after lead guitarist Eric-Michael Morris joined the band in 2010 and provided the chord support, solos, and counter melodies the band needed. They played numerous shows in and out of town, performed at festivals like Arkansas Sounds and Riverfest, made it to the finals of The Arkansas Times musicians showcase, and continued to write new material. In 2012, Joe, Dylan, Tyler, and Eric recorded and released The See’s first full-length album, Pretending and Ending, with songs inspired and organized by the progression of birth, to childhood, to adulthood, to old age, to death. Fittingly, the tastiest ear-candy comes early on in the 15 track album. If The See had been in a bigger market with wider distribution and better promotion, I think we might be hearing the song “Hey” on alternative radio stations throughout the nation.

HEY

In early 2013, Dylan and Eric left the band on good terms in order to pursue their careers, but Joe and Tyler, encouraged by their strong new album, still wished to continue The See. Furthermore, they had already booked an April gig in Denver for a friend’s birthday that they didn’t want to back out of. Luckily Jason Tedford and I were eager to fill in and provide the missing pieces— I played good lead guitar and Jason gave the band literally everything else it needed (bass, foot pedal synth bass, amps, pedals, practice space, recording capabilities, and tour van). We played our first gig together at a Pizza restaurant in Denver to a largely lesbian audience who loved our big beards and loud rock (the opening artist performing at the party was a local lesbian singer-songwriter who brought out a large lesbian following). We introduced The (new) See to Little Rock at a Garland Street Art Party later that spring, and by summer I had realized one of my teenage fantasies: tour the country with a rock band. You can read about The See’s sandwich fueled do-it-yourself tour of summer 2013 in my past blog posts here.

Joe is not your stereotypical rockstar. Despite an enormous voice and robust appearance, Joe doesn’t revel in being in the spotlight. Joe makes music because he loves to make music, not because he wishes to be the center of attention. I suspect he enjoys writing and recording songs more than actually performing them—The See has certainly spent more time in the studio than on stage the past two years. The result of this time is an album called Borealius. It is a collection of old and new Joe Yoder originals enhanced and updated by the band and recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jason Tedford at his own Wolfman Studios. Tyler, Jason, and I are all pleased and proud of our contributions to this album, but I still think of this as Joe’s parting gift to us all as he leaves for Kansas City (it is quite literally a gift as you can download it for free here).

BOREALIUS

I suppose I should mention that Joe is my brother-in-law. He and my sister Liza are moving in July so that she can do a medical fellowship at a hospital in Kansas City. Joe’s no slouch either: he’ll be going to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to get a masters in social work. They’re facing a new job, a new school, and a new town, yet the most significant change is the new life that one of them could literally be holding in their arms at this moment. This past Wednesday, Liza gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.

Bridget Murray-Yoder is an adorable creature— as my friend Carmien said, “she looks like a human and not a potato-dinosaur, which is what most newborns look like.” I would love to spend the rest of this blog talking about how she is objectively cute and will surely be the most magnificent person this world has ever seen, but you would probably stop reading. Also, this is a music blog (I am reminding myself), so I think instead I’d like to tell you what this monumental moment means to Joe’s musical life. In sum, “suddenly everything has changed.”

You, reader, are warned that this paragraph is going to get flowery for a moment. When I saw Bridget, I felt my world expand. When I held her, I couldn’t stop gazing at her sleeping face— I wanted to make her feel happy, comfortable, and loved forever, and I’m only an uncle. I know that Joe and Liza are experiencing these feelings to an even higher degree. Yet songwriters rarely touch on selfless love. Most songs are about heartbreak or lust. This is because they are true forces that everyone has felt preoccupied with at some time, and good songwriters often sublimate the pain and passion of their life into their art. And that is exactly how I would brand Joe’s songwriting: he takes the real experiences and emotional content of his life and translates them into something that sounds good. Thus, I can’t wait to hear how the new dimension of fatherly love sounds in his future songs.

I am taking it for granted that there will be new Joe Yoder songs. Although he doesn’t (for now) have a band to play with in Kansas City, I know that Joe couldn’t stop writing songs if he tried. Songwriting has been a primal urge of his since he first started doing it in seventh grade. Joe admitted to me that he dreamed of gaining fame and fortune with Attacking the Audio, the Dischordos, and finally The See, yet I’ve seen firsthand that this is not why Joe writes songs and plays music. When we went on tour, Joe enjoyed himself, but also missed being at home with Liza and didn’t try to indulge in the proverbial “rockstar lifestyle.” Despite discovering a mild distaste for touring-band life, Joe was writing songs for the next See album within a matter of months. Joe doesn’t write songs to get rich or to attract girls (though I’m sure those have been motivators at various times in his life), he writes songs because he is good at it and it allows him to communicate his most honest thoughts and difficult emotions. Talking about why he writes songs, Joe recently said “when you believe you’re good at something, and people tell you you are, really cool things can develop in anything you do. So songwriting became a huge part of who I am and how I cope and relate to others. It feels great to create things that others can appreciate and listen to.”

Joe played his first song for his mother in seventh grade because he wanted to show his new means of expression to the person that he was the most deeply connected to. 18 years, 6 bands, 2 albums, and scores of songs later, and Joe now has a child of his own. I imagine that she will now be the first to hear his new songs. Because, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

MOM

Last week was the Little Rock Film Festival (May 11th-17th) — the annual event in which the city’s cultural movers and shakers come out to socialize and see independent films. I put my normal routine on hold (as I am wont to do) so I could attend a handful of the festival’s films and parties, justifying it as a networking opportunity. Though I probably just wanted to get out of the house and see people, I did in fact end up meeting or reconnecting with a number of writers, musicians, actors, directors, program directors, and venue owners who were eager to talk about their craft and mine; cards were exchanged, facebook invites were sent, and gigs were offered. Little Rock is a small pond— if you want to get plugged in to the music and arts community here, it is relatively easy to swim around and meet the right fish. I can’t expect for my music to be supported unless I too am supporting the arts and investing time in meeting my audience and potential collaborators. So in the spirit of mutual support I’d like to express my appreciation for a handful of things I experienced during the festival:

  1.  The short film “The Dealer’s Tale”— a sleek and enjoyable adaptation of a story written by my friend Frank Thurmond.
  2. The short film “Monotony Broken”— I had no prior connection to this two person silent film, I just sincerely liked it and ended up having good conversations with both the director JC Cocker and the male lead Kristof Waltermire (it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to talk to the female lead either).
  3. The KUAR radio program Arts & Letters— I met the host Brad Minnick at the premiere of the previous two films, and he told me all about this wonderful radio show which features local artists, musicians, and authors.
  4. Cache Restuarant and Lounge— the location of the film festival’s opening night party, and consistent host and supporter of local musicians.

But most of all, I just want to talk about punk rock.

On Monday I saw the documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990) at the Ron Robinson Theatre. True to it’s title, the film documented the rise of such DC punk bands as The Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man, and Fugazi, most of whom released their records on the local independent label Dischord Records. Some people sitting in the theater with me were audibly nostalgic, greeting certain people, pictures, and comments in the film with warm knowing laughter; many of them lived through the period, collected the records, and perhaps even saw some of these bands live. I on the other hand, having neither lived through this time (I was born in late ’88) nor listened to the music, approached the subject as an outsider eager to learn about a musical culture different than my own.

One thing struck me as encouraging: the idea that anyone can and should play music if they want to. The punk scene allowed young people a new avenue of musical expression that didn’t require one to conform to the pop-music standards of the time; you didn’t necessarily have to be an adept musician to play in a band or make a record— the DC scene offered a community of support for anyone who wanted to get on stage and make some noise. Furthermore, if you didn’t want to be in a band, you could make a fanzine, or engage with the band at shows— there was a way for everyone to actively participate in the music and lifestyle. One former punk rocker in the film insightfully pointed out that it is common in most musical cultures throughout the world for everyone to play or participate in music. In this sense, punk rock is perhaps more in line with the traditional communal functions of music than other Western music genres which essentially adorn certain musicians as untouchable genius superstar gods. I too believe that everyone should be given opportunity to play music, and any community or genre that allows for that is certainly doing something positive.

One thing struck me as interesting: almost every band member interviewed in the film defined themselves against someone or something else. There were few if any actual affirmative definitions of the music and lifestyle, but a multitude of “I am not them” definitions. Early on in the film, the first wave of punks defined themselves against the musical and societal norms of middle-class America. Henry Rollins, then front-man for the band State of Alert, recounted a belligerent confrontation with a muscle-car driving jock-type who was “probably listening to Boston or Kansas.” The implication was that this was precisely who the punks were not. As the punk scene evolved, bands began to define themselves not only against the music and behavior of society at large, but even against other punk bands. Ian Mackaye, founder of Dischord Records and then front man for the band Minor Threat, famously wrote a song called “Straight Edge” in reaction to the heavy drinking and hardcore drug use in the punk community— exclaiming in the first lines of the song that “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do, than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead.” Yet shortly after the “Straight Edge” movement spread throughout the DC punk scene, other bands in the scene such as Black Market Baby arose in opposition to the straight edge movement, claiming the title “Bent Edge,” representing their open indulgence in drugs and alcohol. This trend of counter-definition (and subsequent counter-counter-defintion), continued as mini-movements like girl punk, positive force, revolution summer (1985), and emo ebbed and flowed throughout the DC punk scene; punks consistently defined themselves by what they were not.

This style of defining oneself and one’s music is ultimately neither good nor bad. Surely it can sometimes be counter-productive to be overly invested in trying not to be something, but deciding who you are not is a useful step in uncovering who you are (whether musically or personally). Furthermore, if you think beyond its capitalistic, religious, or cathartic purposes, Western Music has essentially been a progressive dialogue about what is possible in and good about music. Original music can either affirm a tradition or challenge and expand it; this has been happening throughout music history. So many of our culture’s great musical icons have engaged in defining themselves and their music against the trends of the time and were made greater for it (Beethoven bending the rules of the classical symphony, Bob Dylan adopting the electric guitar, etc…). And sometimes the greatness of an oppositional musical act is not measured in personal fame, but in the endurance of that act; e.g. the relatively unknown Grand Wizzard Theodore utilizing the turntable as an instrument rather than merely a passive audio player by inventing the technique of scratching. Music evolves through challenge and opposition to existing musical forms and methods. The DC punk musicians, with their many schisms, were simply continuing to do what countless composers, musicians, and artists have done or tried to do throughout the ages: challenge and expand music and art.

Either that, or they were just being punks. Which brings me to the one thing that struck me as problematic: most of the music was pretty bad, and some of it bad by design. In saying this, I do realize that musical taste is subjective and that many people sincerely enjoy what I am deeming “bad”— yet to me there are certain qualities that make some musical performances better than others (i.e. rhythmic accuracy, correct pitch, dynamic range, melodic and harmonic variety, etc…) which seemed to be lacking in most of the songs I heard in the film. So often drummers sped up past the starting tempo, guitars were out of tune, band-mates were not synced up rhythmically with each other, and there was essentially no dynamic variation (abrasively loud was the preferred volume). It was a deep breath of fresh air when the film explored the punk fascination with Washington DC Go-Go music, and I got to briefly listen to danceable grooves and accurate melodies. I understand that punk is deliberately rough around the edges, yet I disapprove when some members of the scene deliberately eschew technical proficiency in music. One former punk band member stated in the film that “there was this idea during the time that you had to be like Jaco Pastorius to be in a band. Well we knew we weren’t very good, and we didn’t care.” This statement does partly articulate the inclusionary nature of the punk scene (which above I claimed was a positive trend), but it also ignores the legitimacy of trying to improve at the craft of music. I am not indicting punk as an entire genre; of the DC bands featured in the film, I do really enjoy Fugazi. Yet I don’t think it is a mistake that they became the most famous and successful of the bunch; musically they were the best band. Their bass player and drummer (Joe Lally and Brendan Canty respectively) each had great musical chops and locked in with each other to form the tight rhythmic foundation of the band, and singers/guitarists Ian Makaye and Guy Picciotto were veteran punk rockers of over half a decade when Fugazi was founded who each wrote and performed songs with catchy hooks and dynamic changes. Some punk bands may embrace shoddy musical performance, but those are not the bands which succeed. Regardless of the genre, if you want to be a good band, you have to play music well.

As I said at the beginning of my philosophical foray into DC punk territory, I am an outsider. I’ve attended some house parties with punk bands, and even briefly performed with a punk-ish band, but I’ve never been immersed in the community. I admit that my opinions on this issue do not come from a place of deep experience or emotion. It is clear to me that punk rock is meaningful to a large number of people, and I invite any of those people to talk to me about what they feel I’ve missed or misunderstood about the scene. I don’t mean to temper my stance too much— I still believe everything I just wrote is true and am ready to defend it, but I recognize that my education is incomplete. I would love to hear from anyone with different theories about punk— feel free to drop me a line.