On Tuesday, May 7, Ian MacKaye stepped up to a podium in a lecture room at DC’s gargantuan Library of Congress. Most know MacKaye as the subversive frontman of now-disbanded punk bands Fugazi and Minor Threat, and for spreading the ethos of DC hardcore to the rest of the world. But the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program also sees value in the way MacKaye has meticulously documented and archived his first-hand experiences in punk over the past 30 years.
Never one to wait for the validation of institutions (like, say, a museum or university that might be interested in his archives) MacKaye has taken the archiving of hardcore history into his own hands. In 2011, MacKaye started running a website called the Fugazi Live Series, an interactive online archive where the band and fans have posted live recordings from hundreds of concerts, as well as ephemera like flyers, posters, and photos. It’s essentially an expansive online Fugazi museum.
At his lecture -- promoted as about “personal digital archiving and the need to educate creators and users in ways to steward our digital cultural heritage” -- MacKaye packed a room of radically different admirers, ranging from hardcore fans and punk kids to academics and government employees off the clock. MacKaye lectured about the Fugazi Live Series and other archiving projects, as well as the place of the archives in cultural history and the weight they hold on a personal level.
Admittedly, I was quite surprised to hear about MacKaye’s Library of Congress lecture. It didn’t seem right to have the frontman of a movement that directly contradicted DC’s oppressive culture of austerity -- one so often is attributed to the government – in a setting like this. Not that many years ago, hardcore bands were banned in a slew of clubs and venues. When did the government finally find value in the hardcore punks? Would his tone be reassuring, or preachy?
MacKaye is many things: very frank, a great storyteller, and meticulous. His demeanor is calm, and he takes the time to mull words over in his mind before speaking out loud. After a lengthy introduction, MacKaye casually took the podium at the front of the lecture room. No paper, no note cards. The lecture took the very same spirit of spontaneity that made Fugazi shows so raucous and urgent. The band never used a setlist, which MacKaye emphasized: “a live show has to be active and reactive”. He addressed the audience directly, as though he were recounting stories of Fugazi’s early days to children sitting cross-legged on a carpet.
To begin his talk, MacKaye went back to the very beginning. “I’m 51,” he smiled. “I consider myself dated.” History tells us MacKaye has been performing since 1979, which he explained was influenced by the social upheaval of the revolutionary 1960s. “Growing up, though, I couldn’t find any counter-culture or challenging thinking.”
MacKaye was an integral force in the early days of hardcore – a corner of the music world that has devolved into more of a genre than a movement over the years. But MacKaye’s original intentions were pure: he wanted a life without substances. “The only form of rebellion I saw was self-destruction. And that was disappointing.” A self-proclaimed Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix fanboy, he looked at the audience dead-on when he lamented both artists’ early demise: “I want to be present at every moment.” Hardcore, then, was birthed from MacKaye’s distaste for self-destruction, and his subsequent appetite for an alternative form of rebellion. More specifically, challenging a conventional way to live.
Before proceeding to discuss his archives, MacKaye took time to contextualize by explaining his relationship with music. Hearing him speak about his first punk experience sent shivers up my rain-drenched arms. He described the first punk song he ever heard, “Bodies” by Sex Pistols, a song famously about abortion. It scared him. “When something scares the shit out of you, go toward it,” he told the Library of Congress. “You’re about to learn something.”
MacKaye takes care in preservation as an art form. He expressed that value in his descriptions of the early cut and paste days of Dischord (“we pressed the 10,000 records by hand”) and in recounting his grandmother’s fixation with taping conversations. Today, MacKaye has his hands full with several enormous projects, including the endeavor of uploading roughly 850 recordings of Fugazi’s exhaustive online Live Series.
The system, manned by MacKaye, is organized to an almost obsessive degree, clearly from the mind of a meticulous historian. You can browse Fugazi shows by date, city, song, venue or download ability. If you can’t pay the requested $5 for download, you have the ability to select a different amount, but must explain why in under 140 characters. This information goes nowhere, except for the band’s entertainment, MacKaye admitted.
I’ve been hearing for years that the things I love are dead. Apparently punk is dead, journalism is dead, the music industry is dead. Whenever someone says “emerging media landscape”, I feel like claws go up, especially if you work within a journalistic field and are aware of the dwindling lifespan of print media. Yet there’s an unabashed fearlessness that we can all take away from MacKaye’s own journey. ““Music is a far more profound form of communication that pre-dates language. It can’t be stopped -- it was here first,” he stated. The fifth-generation Washingtonian doesn’t seem to have a decisive plan. At this point, he’s just promoting projects that he believes in and can enrich cultural history for generations to come.
The Library of Congress considers MacKaye to be a “citizen archivist,” or a “first responder to history,” as Butch Lazorchak explained on the Library’s Digital Preservation blog. “There’s often a gap between an activity and the entrance of its artifacts into the halls of culture, even while the material may have long demonstrated cultural and economic merit,” writes Lazorchak. “MacKaye doesn’t really consider himself a citizen archivist, but the work that he’s been doing over the past thirty years goes beyond the level of mere collecting and provides models for creative way to gather and provide access to archival materials.”
But to MacKaye, the self-made archive is just another mode of expressing the ideals of punk: it’s about documenting his scene instead of waiting for someone else to do it for him.
“We’ve been working on this for about four years, and we have about 300 shows up – we still have 500 to go,” he said. “This is an insane project. It involves the digitization of all of the cassettes. Then, those files are mastered and edited, so they’re individual songs. It’s a crazy job. And honestly, the amount of money we put into it – not counting the hours – it’s not making any money. But somewhere down the road, some kid very much like me will be interested in what was happening during this time. Because, most of the time, what was happening in the past has always been curated by the mainstream media industry. They’re the ones that decided about the history of rock.”
After an hour and a half of enlightenment, MacKaye asked out to the crowd: “Are we out of time? I guess we are.” Then he smiled and said, “Punk can never die.”