aught in time so far away / From where our hearts really wanted to be / Reaching out to find a way / To get back to where we’ve been!” sings Guy Picciotto in the opening verse of “Spring,” the initial salvo of literate angst we find on the post-harDCore, pre-Fugazi band Rites of Spring’s discography CD, End on End. Where singers before him tended to bellow and blurt (something Ian MacKaye was still up to at this time, but we’ll get to him in a bit), Picciotto favored a near-delicate rasp, something close to a hoarse, damaged croon. I’d be misleading you pop fans were I to say he didn’t do his share of shouting—favoring, at times, a sustained yelp that seemed to originate just past the edge of desperation, then to go a few more yards—but, when he did, he did so wisely. When we think today of Rites of Spring as the originators of what has by now become essentially a household word (read: one we’re sick to death of) “emo,” a derisive what-the-fuck-is-this term first jeered at the band during one of their less than a dozen performances (I’ve always thought of it as the opposite of “aggro”), it could very well be because of Picciotto’s vocal style. I’m going to adopt the Borgesian stance that it has been created anew by its predecessors. Often imitated but never equaled, his frenzied, almost camp delivery— to say nothing of his onstage rubber-legs histrionics— has been subjected to a thousand mannered misreadings by latter-day fret-boys who, I regret to report, seem to have gotten it wrong.
This is not to say that these bands are merely too deliberate, that Rites of Spring’s sonic attitude emerged full-on from some outside-of-time ether, or that the people making this unforgiving music were doing so purely out of the same do-or-die physical necessity that we often bring up when negotiating the prickly corridors of “outsider art,” and refer to just as frequently when discussing the early spasms of punk rock. While they were no doubt possessed of the same more-manic-than-manic urgency as their DC predecessors, Minor Threat, RoS at the same time carefully conceived of their music as a reaction to what Minor Threat and hardcore had spawned.
A few seconds later in “Spring,” which we can see today as a hyperactive creation myth not only for the band but for the DC-scene movement that it spearheaded, Picciotto sings: “And if summer left you dry / With nothing left to try / This time...” Lurking in this ellipsis, the band’s promise, the band’s threat, or, we could say, what they did right and what no one since then has quite done right, or as right.
And summer has left me dry, I can’t help but feel. Tomorrow is the first day of August, and without turning this into a Livejournal-esque laundry list of personal grievances, let it suffice to say that this has been a strange and often sad time in my life, an enervating one. Just out of college, usually doing without air conditioning and walking to a fairly dull job everyday, sometimes wondering if I’m already somewhat sick of the friends I largely left behind while I, slowly but surely, got sick of another set of friends (or, to be kind: not them but rather a, you know, scene that comprised us all, a whole lot of “drama”), at others feeling convinced that these friends have no other recourse than to be sick of me. Rather than burden anyone with this kind of petty bullshit, I’ve found myself enacting, time and again, a kind of grin-and-bear it verité. Meanwhile, music— the one thing in my life that’s seemed corruption-free— has gone into queer, unfamiliar, and arguably shitty places while I wasn’t looking. While I recently rediscovered some of the artier, more screwed-up hardcore currently being made, this was largely as a reaction to tepid indie and increasingly alienating and sub-sub-compartmentalized electronic music, the sort of thing that I can rarely justify purchasing or listening to anymore. It gives me a few cheap thrills, then they pass. (Was I into it for the wrong reasons? Probably. But few things have given me what I felt listening to Tri Repetae++ back in late high school.) Likewise with undie hip-hop, since most of its mainstream practitioners are adrift in a mooring-less wash of materialism-as-an-end-unto-itself glitter-for-its-own-sake bullshit, a hollow, and strangely twee, churning mess of coke-addled sonic effluvium that celebrates repetition for its own sake.
Sometimes I love this music in a cynical way, but at others it’s the worst thing imaginable; this is essentially how I feel about an album like El-P’s Fantastic Damage, which I find I love and hate in equal measure. Usually I see it charitably, as the refreshing equivalent of a slightly deranged, maximalist, preachy indie iconoclast’s film in a climate of near-absurdist I-can’t-believe-they-thought-of-this-shit summer movies like The Country Bears and Like Mike (having seen the latter, though, I can assure you that Crispin Glover’s surreal-for-about-16-reasons performance almost makes it worth watching). Still, though, I can’t see myself listening to this for too long. I’m at loose ends. Live shows are usually entertaining, but there aren’t many I’m psyched about seeing and I have few, if any, friends who want to go to them, or at least the ones I want to go to; there’s that whole old-at-22 thing to deal with, here, too. I love American Idol but then I also hate it: Simon Cowell’s brutal honesty entertains me, but then I remember he executive-produced a Teletubbies album.
So, you know where this more or less shapeless rant is leading. What to do but slam into another dead end, to while away another evening in front of the Playstation 2 or reading cryptic novels you don’t like very much? Listen to music again. Find the joy again. That sort of thing. And this is why I’ve rediscovered the albums of the post-hardcore-boom era, Dischord 1985-6. It seems like music made by people who had to have felt a bit like I do.
Minor Threat broke up because Ian MacKaye’s bandmates wanted to sound more like— get a load of this!— U2. (Maybe I’m mistaken, but I can almost hear a touch of arpeggiated, sprightly Edge-work in “Salad Days,” the final we-hate-each-other-by-now-but-let’s-get-something-out single. And then there’s the matter of the tolling bells.) According to Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ Dance of Days, Ian was “literally suicidal” when the band disintegrated, unable to get another project off the ground for more than a brief timespan (see Egghunt) and at the same time staring down the negative subcultural legacy of US punk’s recent developments, i.e. straightedge and violent “loud fast rules” hardcore: moronic punk-metal, skinhead gangs, diluted interest in the DC scene with many of its key figures leaving for college, watered-down synth-MTV-pop, fuck-all goth-and-heroin nihilists, ill-fated indie-to-major signings like Hüsker Dü’s, militant Boston true-‘til-death crews and equally reactionary drunk-punks, even Black Flag’s mystifying later output.
But the violence was surely the worst of all. H.R. of the Bad Brains, lead singer of as legendary and formative a punk band as could possibly exist at the time—a fellow who was pretty out of sorts himself by this time, with things slated only to get worse—once responded to MacKaye’s dejected surveying of the truly ugly tinge punk shows had taken on at the time with a cutting “You started it.”
When we look at Embrace’s self-titled LP in this historical context, it’s not hard to understand the motivations behind it. Maybe this, as seems the case with many radical political movements of the past, is our biggest obstacle to appreciating it: it seems faintly unpalatable today, I tend to think. It is, after all, a relic from a wholly different era, whether or not some Dischord-obsessives think it might be better than Minor Threat’s output (which is also a relic from another era, yet one that doesn’t sound as distant to us today). To some of us, it might sound lyrically ham-fisted— this perpetually over-the-top, too-emphatic-for-words record contains as many of Ian’s best message-from-the-pulpit lines as it does his worst— or at the very least musically inadequate in today’s jaded times: I really can’t picture anyone from within the currently faux-brain-dead, rock-fuckin’-rules! indie subculture doing anything but bursting into sour laughter at the weak burst of Yamaha keyboard that introduces the lagging “The End of a Year,” and howling in some whatever-dude way a few seconds on at the dryly stated opening line, “I don’t like parties / They avoid the truth.” It’s like Joy Division without the glamour and mystery, without the knowledge that it ended in shambles. Attempts to narrativize Embrace’s music in this way will surely end without hope unless you’re a fan of what came afterward, and even then you’re just as likely to nod politely and reach for Repeater or In on the Kill Taker (something I find myself doing quite often).
But one can immerse oneself in this album and begin to understand it—looking not at its expressionless black, white, and gray cover art of a gaunt, hairless male nude, with thorny foliage blooming from one of its armpits, but at the image’s tiny, Hirschfield-ian inscription, “Be aware of this passion.”
Embrace’s record—which didn’t appear until roughly a year after the band played its final and regrettably violent show, ending when Ian literally kicked bassist Chris Bald in the ass, sending him offstage—begins innocuously enough, with a melodic guitar figure. But soon Ian’s begun his astonishing vocal performance, sustained for virtually the length of the album, with some truly pitiless self-examination: if Minor Threat picked its targets and tore them to shreds, Embrace’s lyrics (often written by Bald) focus on the territory within. “Give Me Back” finds MacKaye singling out his emotions, and discounting what he’s received from each, claiming that they are, after all, his enemies “for being on [his] side.” There is no way he could be anything but wrong for feeling the way he does, in feeling the way he does, and all he wants is for it to stop; he needs control. This may seem a strange way to gain the clarity of the self it requires, but I think of this song, and the next, “Dance of Days,” as portraits of the artist in deeply purgative states. With no clue how to proceed from here, and every clue that his past pose as hardcore aggressor was ultimately empty (if an effective way to make himself heard—to lay down an uncompromising artistic stance—and to ultimately, perhaps without knowing it, promote intelligent discussion of, and action regarding, all the stuff so many others merely shouted on about and would be powerless without the eternal presence of), he has no choice but to take a look at the goals he set up. Didn’t he accomplish them, touring the US with Minor Threat before they imploded and the long silence set in? So why, then, is it that “We all struggle for our dreams to be realized / They end up objects of our own despise [sic].” Ian has no easy answer, but it has to do with the slow process that gives the song its title. We do, after all, grow old, and is punk really something for kids to dabble in? Is the constant uncertainty that comes with questioning every aspect of one’s life something we’re all doomed to get sick of?
“Maybe we went a little too fast,” he begins to breathlessly intone halfway through the song, just as it builds to a startling crescendo; just as Ian is telling us another possible course of action—should we slow down? Now that the mania has faded, should we stop cannibalizing ourselves, spawning divisions, and instead focus on the serious and truly demanding business of trying to change things, even if we’re doomed to fail?—the song (his voice shifting to its apex of in-the-red turbulence) ironically does just the opposite, intensifying and building to a sinewy catharsis that rivals Minor Threat’s for pure adrenal rush, even if its volume is compromised a bit. The crackling sprint of “Building” contains another of these too-heightened-for-words moments, as its tuneful, midtempo guitars politely step out of the way for another pained and truly intense vocal, notable not only for the fact that it offers a bizarre chance to hear Ian MacKaye, source of relentless straight-edge positivity, howl with naked honesty about how he’s a failure and how he’s fucked up everything—the only thing that we can feel being built in the song is failure itself—but because it’s as honest and powerful a moment on record as I can name. (It seems to spell out what’s latent in Rites of Spring’s more mystical, occasionally abstruse these-words-fail moments.)
It’s with “Past” that Ian begins to take aim at specific incidents and people who’ve troubled him; if we think of the album as an organic whole that’s been recorded in sequence, we can begin to see him turning in the opposite direction from some endless catacomb of self-loathing. A robust drumroll explodes into another taut, melodic sprint, while the lyrics deconstruct the overdose of a cohort: “I suppose I’m naïve / But I find it hard to believe / A person could make / Life so cheap.” But with the bridge, Ian’s again taking aim squarely at himself, taking the matter-of-fact route in citing his own guilt and fear of making an emotional connection with his departed friend, or not-quite-friend; the forced poignancy of relationship poetry this decidedly unpoetic lament isn’t. “Spoke” is another dispatch from the grimmer side of this warring-with-oneself acknowledgement of philosophical shortcomings, but it ends with an impassioned tribute to the “driving force that makes me speak / And care and care”—if occasionally not care enough, but what else is it that makes us human but the accumulation of our small failures?
“Do Not Consider Yourself Free,” “You Should Be Ashamed,” and “No More Pain” seethe with the barely-contained rage that made Minor Threat so powerful, but find them refracted through a new lens: that of humanistic, righteous anger, highlighted by an utter loathing for the distant apathy, the “tough-guy stance” currently pervading the subculture as MacKaye sees it. Wailing out the chorus of “No More Pain” (“Your emotions are nothing but politics / So get control”), then issuing a series of calls for an end to substance abuse and empty shit-talking, he sets himself up for ridicule, but perhaps that’s the point of this truly courageous music; it’s easy to damn a fallen paradigm in retrospect, but standing toe to toe with the domintant mentality is another thing entirely.
After the complete and utter denunciatory fuck-you-yes-you of “Money,” “If I Never Thought About It” strikes an entirely different note, a complex and metaphysical one. An examination of mortality—and our denial of it—backed by a beautifully sloppy scrawl of roaring guitar (provided by co-producer Eddie Janney of RoS), it gives MacKaye a chance to hit his most exhortative notes on the record. When the song grinds to life, he’s lonely and bitter and tormented by a battle he’ll clearly never win, but by the soaring chorus he makes a decision. He’s going to fight back in the best way he knows of, damn the thousand doubts, even as he’s afraid that life really does, as fabled, mean nothing. If life means nothing, then the pronouncement that it means nothing certainly holds no special valence; anyone can say it. Anyone can say anything. And even (to paraphrase Beckett) if we can’t go on, we must go on. Even if this is not exactly a confident statement of purpose, Ian’s got no choice in the matter: there will be no giving in. Choosing life could be the bravest thing of all.
If not as directly angst-driven as Embrace, Rites of Spring are no less inspired in their fighting-back stance, no less ready to offer some solution to the hapless individual. If End on End has a cental theme, it’s this: even if we occasionally find ourselves with nothing left to try, there is no reason to abandon our hope and longing. Indeed, DC’s “Revolution Summer” that both bands highlighted held the importance of this aspiration—a wish for something better—as its starting point.
Often far more sensuous and abstract than MacKaye’s band both in terms of music and lyrics (and woodcut cover art, too), Picciotto’s nevertheless knows when to let artistic aspirations take a backseat to delivering a straightforward message: honesty is foremost among RoS’s virtues, and the smoldering trilogy of “Spring”—a manifesto for all those who’ve felt left behind by and burnt out on not only the state of punk rock circa 1985, but by life itself—“Deeper Than Inside,” and “For Want Of” is one of the most honest, thrilling and cathartic mini-song-cycles I can think of: by the time the second track, even speedier and more raw-yet-achingly-melodic than the first, kicks in, the listener gets the sense they’re caught in some unrelenting assault. “The world is my fuse,” Picciotto blurts out in staccato fashion; the band rages and crashes around him with an intensity that at times recalls the more polished-yet-volatile, pop-savvy cousin of Minor Threat; as guitars splinter in appropriately chaotic fashion—this is one of those songs, and albums, that threatens to fall apart at any moment but everything hangs together due to some unknown principle—one can feel the accumulated amateurism of all the subpar we-don’t-care punk rock they’ve heard up until now crumbling away into sudden irrelevance. All the rage, all the noisy hell-bent-on-fucking-shit-up vitriol, can’t really compare to a song like “For Want Of,” a revelatory, concise blast that seethes with longing. Over a stinging, simplistic guitar figure and some rollicking drums (provided by future Fugazi-mate Brendan Canty), Guy rages at himself and a lost love: “I—I’ve learned the taste of days / That will always burn.” The final third of the song, ushered in by several declaratory bursts of guitar, cements its perfectly executed impact.
“Hain’s Point” and “All There Is” don’t lower the level of gasping intensity (Dance of Days reports that the recording of Rites’ LP was indeed a turbulent session, with strobelights flickering and impromptu wrestling matches) an iota; while one senses in their fairly standard-issue lost-love-and-deception lyrics what may have seized all the emo bands of the past ten years and impeled them to start bands of their own, it’s nice to finally hear them done right (and in the, so to speak, long-Xeroxed original format). Picciotto’s explosive—yet perfectly intelligible—vocal performance on the latter, especially, has yet to be matched by even the most hoarse-throated and self-consciously intense screamo lyricist.
The succinct thesis of “Drink Deep”: “I believe in moments / Transparent moments / Moments in grace when you’ve got to stake your faith.” Backed by some hectic, martial drums and some equally percussive guitar, with a good deal of feedback thrown in for good measure, Guy is suddenly sent into moaning orbit by a tempo change. He pants and squeals over a molten waltz-time rave-up, which is surely the kind of thing you’re bound to either love or hate. The pieces are abruptly picked up before one has much of a chance to recover, and “Other Way Around” is the result, a bruising plea to rise up against a world that “wants you weak”—to quote “By Design,” we understand that, to Picciotto, “passivity equals compliance”—that’s got as many truly incendiary sonic moments as anything else the record contains; it may go on for a bit too long, but the production is so perfect, and the playing so awe-inspiring, you certainly won’t mind. (While Embrace’s main strength was MacKaye’s vocal performance, and the sheer strength of conviction he conveyed, RoS upped the musical ante enormously. I can’t imagine many bands aside from Hüsker Dü producing anything as sophisticated at this time.)
And “Theme (If I Started Crying),” “Remainder,” and “Persistent Vision” all have their careening, shining passages and endlessly quotable lines; listening to these songs, I’m actually awed that a band could create such a sustained, yet seemingly spontaneous, statement of frenetic genius without faltering on vinyl at least a little. It’s not until the destructive epic of a title track, though, that my mind is fully blown. After Guy’s delivered all his lyrics, the band finds a searing punk groove and sticks to it, which could have disastrous or merely nerve-wracking consequences, but there are enough rhythmic innovations and delicate changes in coloration: the first half of the song ends in a downtempo bass interlude that builds, inexorably, back to a reprise of the track’s raging, absolutely brilliant fury (which, in itself, rises to unbelievable, amp-ravaging levels). We can hear despair—described, in the song’s narrative, as a cycle of days where “nothing changed ‘cause nothing ever began”—being cast into the crucible of art and returning as affirmation; we can hear life being made something to live for.
What, then, became of the Revolution Summer’s bands? The termination of Embrace’s brief existence led to the beginning of MacKaye’s tenure as a producer. Rites of Spring recorded a 7” to follow up their LP, but its slightly muted mix (despite more mature songwriting) and less passionate performances didn’t point to great things in their future. Succumbing to internal tensions then reuniting as the absurdist, possibly-Sonic-Youth-influenced, and tape-loop-crazy Happy Go Licky—a messy, boombox-recorded live-plus-demos document of their existence exists (including songs with titles like “Torso Butter,” and an even goofier semi-cover of “White Lines”) on Picciotto’s present-day label, Peterbilt—the band, minus bassist Mike Fellows, eventually re-emerged as One Last Wish.
Unfortunately, One Last Wish lasted less than four months in 1986, but a record of their demos from the period ultimately saw the light of day on Dischord in 1999. “Burning in the Undertow,” a finely-honed track that makes a good case for OLW as a somewhat tidied-up and poppy condensation of Rites’ formula that retains most of its strengths, appeared on Dischord’s late-eighties, expanded-roster-showcasing State of the Union compilation; everything else was at the time previously unheard except by those who wrote Picciotto for a copy of the tape. There are mind-blowing highlights like the snapping “Break to Broken,” the restrained and mildly Cure-esque “Three Unkind Silences,” and the hyperbolic, truly amazing “My Better Half”—which manages to come off as almost more rhapsodically unhinged than any RoS track—but there are also rather lackluster, somewhat pretentiously distant lead vocals by Eddie Janney on two songs, and several others, many slowed-down, that never quite cohere. Still, as a footnote to one of the greatest punk bands of the 1980s, and as something of a prelude to Fugazi (who went, however, in a wholly different direction than OLW, but it’s interesting to see the paths not taken), it’s pretty great, and essential listening for fans.
When I think about all these records, it seems that clarity is what they have in common. Maybe they are not the most clearly, maturely written (Picciotto’s occasionally inchoate howls and moments of could-be-better poetry; MacKaye’s classic-yet-corny “I hear your mommy calling—Loo-loo-loo!”, which I purposely avoided discussing earlier) albums in my collection; maybe they are guilty of a number of excesses that are, in their own way, just as bad as those of their coked-out, arena-rock counterparts—strangely, we’ve ended up in an irony-in-excess microcosm where the first Motley Crüe album is a cooler disc (certainly a sexier one) to have in one’s collection than the Embrace LP. Still, I think it’s a hunger for clarity, an adolescent desire (that, for some, does not end with adolescence) to see the world as it really is, to live one’s life correctly, to find something that is pure, that Ian and Guy had in common. Of course, when they joined forces in Fugazi, they created another body of work entirely (and it’s Fugazi who will probably end up in mainstream rock history, even if they’re relegated to its margins), but that doesn’t make these albums less important, nor does it take away any of their potential to be life-transforming. May they find their way to all of us in our time of need.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2002-08-12