Preserving DC’s Punk Culture

We have a special treat in our March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly. Editor Matt Connolly moonlights as a local musician and he has a great piece on the history of the famous punk scene in the District of Columbia.

It’s actually more of a look at how gentrification and zoning issues are placing stress on the local music scene and making it difficult to keep up the tradition of offering all-age shows.

What I thought was the coolest part of this piece was Connolly’s explanation of how the classic 1980’s punk scene is now getting recognition as something that should be historically preserved.

What may be surprising is that local government resources are going toward preserving and honoring the city’s punk culture. The D.C. Public Library is collecting and digitizing materials as part of its new D.C. Punk Archive, set to house everything from music recordings and show videos to flyers and handmade zines. “I grew up around here and went to shows and stuff a lot as a young person,” says librarian Bobbie Dougherty. “When I started working in the library world I started thinking about this differently—I started to realize it should be something that is being saved and preserved and talked about.” Dougherty and others solicit donations from scene veterans—Andersen donated multiple huge filing cabinets full of materials—and count some younger punks as volunteers, entering metadata and obtaining bands’ permission to make their songs available to play online. (The library is hoping to build on the Punk Archive’s success by using many of the same tactics to strengthen its go-go collection.)

The library has even gone a step further to institutionalize itself in the scene by hosting free punk shows in the main branch’s basement. “Historically it was just this dark scary room,” Dougherty says. “The first time I went in there I thought, ‘This would be great for shows.’ Because it’s a terrible room in a basement.” Hemlines was part of the first show, and Yoder credits it with kick-starting the band’s success. As a music venue in general it’s an amazing addition—free, for all ages, and extremely accessible, especially for younger fans. Mom and Dad in Silver Spring might be wary of their little punk going to a stranger’s house to see a show, but how can they argue with a trip to the library?

There’s a kind of strange tension about the DC punk scene getting support from the local government, but it’s the right thing to do. For a generation of Generation X’ers, there’s no way to explain what it was like to be part of that scene in the 1980’s. It’s like hippies trying to explain Haight-Ashbury or the punks of New York trying to explain CBGBs. The best that can be done is to preserve as much of it as possible, in oral histories, in video and audio recordings, in posters and paraphernalia, and in keeping alive the spirit of the times by finding a way to keep the music scene alive and not completely wedded to the over-21 bar culture.

It’s a really fun piece, so make sure to read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.