Friday, March 4, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing (1991)

Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) followed Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing (1991) by a couple of months. More than any other record, Nevermind launched the Grunge rocketship into orbit. It is ranked number 17 on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

My suspicion though is that Kurt Cobain would have loved Nevermind to sound more like Steady Diet of Nothing. Cobain was openly critical of the slick, commercial, classic rock mix that Butch Vig produced for Nevermind. But the kids loved it so much it created a situation that, as Guy Picciotto, one of Fugazi's two vocalists and guitarists, has noted (or something to the effect): "After Nevermind other bands might as well have been hobos pissing in the forest playing ukuleles."

This week and the next we'll look at two albums that appeared at the same time as Nevermind -- Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing, released in July of the all-important Grunge year of 1991; and Bullet LaVolta's Swandive, released the same day in September as Nirvana's Nevermind. Let's call it an homage to the "Ghost of Testosterone Past."

In 1991 I was a young man living alone in the megalopolis. I had copies of both Steady Diet of Nothing and Swandive, which I listened to frequently. When I look back on that time in my mind's eye it always seems to be at night and in the winter. I am alone in my studio apartment drinking quarts of beer and typing letters to friends. I didn't own a copy of Nevermind. I was suspicious of all the hoopla surrounding Nirvana. It seemed to me more about record industry marketing than the music. (I finally sat down and listened to Nevermind at the insistence of my friend and musical mentor Oliver when he visited New York City the summer of 1992. At first I thought Kurt Cobain was Sting.)

I recently found a used CD of Steady Diet of Nothing for $5. I happily snatched it up and loaded it into my iTunes. Walking to work in the February morning dark, saturated by the Pacific Northwest winter gloom and drizzle, and hearing Ian MacKaye, Fugazi's other guitarist and vocalist, sing "Reclamation," followed by Picciotto belting out "Nice New Outfit," I became transformed. The word I want to say is "tumescent," minus any sexual connotation. I was full, powerful. It felt like I was mainlining testosterone. I had the sense that muscle was stronger than the strongest metal. When "Stacks" followed "Nice New Outfit," it felt like I was about to blast off; literally, I could feel myself leaving the Earth.

Steady Diet of Nothing is an album like no other. It's the combination of the two guitars of MacKaye and Picciotto, their muscular male vocals, and the attacking drums of Brendan Canty. What's funny is that it is a record the band dismisses as a novice initial attempt at producing, one where each player was overly careful not to piss the other guy off; plus, MacKaye, Picciotto, Canty and bassist Joe Lally were fried from back-to-back tour dates. Nonetheless, for me at least, I'd say it is close to perfection.

Listening once to the 20th anniversary edition of Nevermind this week, I understand why Nirvana had such enormous appeal. Cobain was an unparalleled rock vocalist. He could shift on a dime from rager to crooner better than anyone else. Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, for instance, could do one song as a rager and then another as a crooner, but Kurt Cobain could do both in the same song effortlessly. Also the songs on Nevermind have a consistent vibe of blissed-out suffering. Cobain was a junkie who had an amazing ability to communicate a wide-panorama, unblinking view of the world.

Fugazi was the direct opposite of Nirvana. The band had its own label, MacKaye's Dischord, and sold its music at a much lower price than any other label, including other independents. I remember going to the record store in the early 1990s and Fugazi albums were $5 cheaper than the rest. You have to figure that took some hard bargaining by Dischord because the tendency of record stores at a time when big chains like Tower still existed was to mark up everything to the established retail price.

While Fugazi was radical commercially, it was even more so socially. Ian MacKaye is a founding father of the straight edge movement. Straight edge is a refutation of the mindless glorification of sex and drugs that goes back to the Hippies and their confused (and failed) ideas of liberation. Straight edge advocates abstemiousness and vegetarianism; it is against the worship of violence. In college straight-edge people were referred to as "Peace Punks." (One summer evening when I was an undergraduate a young black woman on a BMX-type bike who called herself a "Peace Punk" followed me home from Telegraph Avenue and asked if I wanted to hook up. I demurred, saying I lived with my girlfriend. )

Now, at 51, other than a devotion to coffee, I can declare myself straight edge.

Let's wrap things up with an assessment of Fugazi by the "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau:
The most principled band of the '90s declined to send out promos, a decision I would have respected even if they hadn't been so stalwart in minimizing ticket prices, staging all-ages shows, and otherwise putting punk's D.C-based straight-edge ethos into practice. Since their Dischord label remained solvent as other indies went mainstream or under, I'm sure they understood venture capital better than me. I bought three early-'90s albums: 13 Songs, Repeater, and Steady Diet of Nothing. These were enough to convince me that from the strictures of Minor Threat's razor-sharp hardcore to the confrontational formalism of Fugazi's surgical AOR, Ian MacKaye has always been a musical puritan as well as all the other kinds. Obsessed with corruption, he figured out that words and voices don't excise it as efficiently as a well-honed guitar--specifically Guy Picciotto's precise, rock-solid distorto riffs. On Repeater, Picciotto offered something like pleasure. On the other two the resemblance was more abstract. I'm not any kind of puritan. So I stopped buying their records.
If you are a man, and you want to find purity, listen to Steady Diet of Nothing

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