Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

October 9, 2008

Memory Lane

Filed under: Entertainment,Magazine articles by MJD — michaeljohndunaway @ 1:04 am
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Today I have a little trip down Memory Lane for you. The article I wrote this week for Paste reminded me of another punk-themed article I had written some eight years ago for Pif magazine (in fact, I borrowed and revised a paragraph from it for the new article). I also tracked down a YouTube video of Hafacat here. It’s interesting reading something you wrote eight years ago; I think my skills of musical analysis have improved dramatically, and I KNOW my writing has improved. You can find the original article in its published form here, but here is the text:

Anarchy in Small Town Washington
by Michael Dunaway

Life in Seattle after the grunge rush is an interesting affair. Pearl Jam is out there, somewhere, still making music (we think), and of course St. Kurt still gets props on everyone’s desert island disc list, but the rise of rap-rock and the resurgence of the boy and girl bands’ bubblegum sound has rendered all that long hair, stubble, distortion pedals, and mumbled lyrics rather quaint. Even the thrift stores have stopped selling flannel.

But Seattle is not New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, or even New Orleans or Nashville. All these cities are big enough (or, in the case of New Orleans and Nashville, have musical identities bigger than the actual size of the city) that they’re not thrown into a crisis of identity when their home-grown musical sound of the moment falls victim to the slings and arrows of outrageous Billboard fortune and the eyes of the world turn elsewhere. Seattle is different. Just like any of a number of mid-sized American cities (Charlotte, Phoenix, and Cleveland come to mind), it is obsessed with its image, and its progress toward the “big leagues” of metropolitan-hood in this country. As grunge began to lose its cool, and Americans stopped paying attention to Seattle’s music, many Seattleites panicked. Dot-coms, Starbucks, and Frasier may a quaint little city make, but to be a “world class city” (as the city planners of Charlotte, for instance, repeat hypnotically), something artistically exciting has to be going on as well. People here were so worried that someone convinced the world’s eighth-or-so richest man to build a big museum for rock and roll, designed by the world’s most celebrated living architect. That’ll stick it to the man, eh? As the rock culture here struggles to maintain its relevancy, though, there’s actually been a surprisingly resurgent punk scene making its presence felt in, and even beyond, Seattle.

And so it was that I found myself on a Saturday night recently, chugging across Puget Sound on a ferry with two friends, headed for tiny Bremerton, Washington, an hour’s ride away. Bremerton is a sleepy island town with a naval base, a state park, and precious little else. It doesn’t exactly scream “Anarchy in the UK” at first glance. But it is the home of three of the members of Hafacat, one of the most exciting bands on the Seattle punk scene, and the band was playing that night at a delightfully seedy bar ten minutes from the ferry dock.

I should hasten to point out that I am no expert in the ways of punk. I had discovered punk as early as seventh grade, first through new wave bands like Blondie and Devo, then later through a local Macon, Georgia band called Vex. From that point my friends and I, high schoolers now, moved on to shows by local Atlanta and Athens bands, and then to records by more established bands — Fear, Black Flag, Velvet Underground, The Ramones, Dead Kennedys. But punk was then, and remains now, only a tile in my mosaic of musical experience — though I’ve since discovered the joys of the Sex Pistols, Husker Du, and The Stooges, my tastes still run as well to the Allman Brothers, Beck, and the Indigo Girls (and just try taking off a sweater at a punk show and realizing you’ve worn your “Swamp Ophelia Tour” shirt underneath — ouch!). So, you’ll have to accept my ramblings for what they are — an enthusiastic amateur’s take on a punk show.

With that disclaimer, let me say that while I may not be an expert on what punk was then, I think I have a pretty good idea of what punk is now, and especially of what punk is not. Punk is not Green Day sneering at the MTV cameras and faking a cockney accent to sound cool. Punk is not intellectual. Punk is not groovy. Punk is elemental and fun and dumb and humorous. Yes, humorous — the Sex Pistols may or may not have had that element, but certainly The Ramones, MIA, The Germs, Fear, The Dead Kennedys, and most others had it in force. And that element of humor and fun is one reason I tend to prefer girl punk bands these days.

I know what you’re thinking, so let’s just clear this up. Yes, I am a straight male, and yes, the three female members of Hafacat are drop-dead, but that’s not the point. At least not most of the point. What Hafacat does, what their opening band Bad Apples does, and what New York’s girl punk band Betty does, is have fun with the music. This does not translate into softening the impact. They just don’t feel they need to put on their tough guy face constantly to put on a good show. Not surprisingly, the show profits as a result.

So the first opening band, the aforementioned Bad Apples, plays an excellent short set to start off the evening. The crowd is just getting warmed up, when along comes the second opener, a band called Linus. Yes, they were all male. And yes, they sucked. I don’t know if their worthlessness can be completely attributed to their gender, but I have my suspicions. With a lead singer that looked like he began getting dressed to look like Matthew Sweet, then changed his mind halfway through and went for a Weezer look, and The Amazing Nameless Faceless Personality-less Three backing him up, the band took the stage and stumbled their way through Dio and Iron Maiden covers while trying their best to look ironic. But the frontman was just a little too obvious in his enthusiasm for crap rock. And what is it with the obsession male punkers have these days with bad old metal bands? Another would-be punker had on an AC/DC shirt — from the Flick the Switch tour, for Pete’s sake. I’m sure his “Pour Some Sugar on Me Leppard Tour” jacket was out at the cleaners. Sid Vicious would not have approved.

But, thankfully, that set was relatively short as well, and Hafacat soon took the stage. From the opening number, “615.18”, they commanded the stage, and the ears of anyone within hearing range as well. There’s a great immediacy to good punk heard live: it’s impossible to ignore. And this was very good punk. Hafacat’s lead vocals (and indeed the focus of each song) rotate between Rachel Flotard, a wildeyed redhead who attacks songs with all the abandon this side of Janis Joplin, and guitarist Mandy Reed, all blistering solos, rock chick attitude, and newly cropped black goth hair. Heather Madden, who lends a light, sunny, almost schoolgirl air to the stage, lays down the bass. The band’s lone male member, Ben Hooker, pounds the skins with drive and purpose. On this night each cylinder was clicking just right.

And the crowd just erupted. The aforementioned immediacy of a good punk show leads to a communal experience substantially different from that found at live shows in other genres. Because the music is less reflective and more primal, there’s a tendency to give oneself over more completely to it, and of course as all the members (or many of the members) of a group surrender to the sound, they’re drawn in together, not separately. Moshing and slamming, in their purest forms, are expressions of this — the pit forms into an organic unit, and the sense is that you’re not so much an independent entity dancing, but part of a larger unit, being tossed this way and that by forces beyond your control. It’s a great buzz.

That’s the theory, of course. The reality never quite lives up to that promise, in part because there are always people mixed in who don’t “get it” (or worse, mistakenly think they “get it”). To wit, here are an enthusiastic amateur’s rules for how not to listen to punk:

1. You don’t listen to punk and keep your eye on your watch. My party actually started out guilty of this one, planning on seeing the first half of the set only, then catching the second-to-last ferry back to Seattle. Of course, once engulfed in that masterful set, those plans were completely abandoned. Not only did we not leave early, we didn’t even make a conscious decision to stay. In fact, I don’t doubt that had Hafacat played until 2 AM, we would have moshed on, oblivious to the departure of our last ferry home. That’s power.

2. You don’t listen to punk and dance with a groove. Nor do you listen to punk and sway. Nor do you listen to punk, in fact, and do any dance “steps” at all, especially while making eye contact and exchanging “isn’t this cool” expressions with friends. At that point, you’re not dancing to the song at hand anyway; you’re dancing to your conception of what a 4/4 song should be, playing somewhere in your mind. The song at hand bears only a passing resemblance to your song, if that. And it’s at that point, to use cultural critic Ken Myers’ terminology (not original to him, I’m sure), that you’re “using” the music rather than “receiving” it. And that’s understandable, in a way. Punk is a little scary; it has the wild magic in it, and it’s only natural to want to domesticate it. But then you’re missing the point, aren’t you? The right way to dance to punk (and I’m trying hard not to be prescriptive here) is without thinking about it. Jumping (lots of jumping), stomping, and flailing are common responses. Not pretty, but again, if you’re trying to look pretty, you’re missing the point.

3. You don’t listen to punk and feel comfortable. It’s a dangerous musical form, and it’s a dangerous experience live. There was a goateed prick at the front of the crowd who scowled whenever the slammers jostled him, and then tried to pick a fight just after the show, shoving a mosh kid half his size into a wall. I wanted to scream at him that in case he hadn’t noticed, he wasn’t at a Yanni show. This is what happens at a punk show. If you don’t like it, listen to your Green Day discs at home (a Radiohead line flashed briefly in my mind: “when I am king/ you will be first against the wall”). Along the same lines, the management twice broke up moshing they saw as getting too rambunctious. These are the same guys, I remember thinking, that would have told Jimi that lighting his guitar was a fire hazard. But I don’t want to come down too hard on them; I was just so impressed that I was witnessing this scene in Bremerton, Washington in the first place.

But then, punk often springs up from unexpected places. And I suppose that’s another element of its appeal; it’s utterly uncorporate, and usually a labor of love. In a significant way, it’s a lot more fun to see a hungry, up-and-coming band like Hafacat light up a small rural bar than to see some established punk band play an arena. Walking out onto the street, I struck up a conversation with the chief mosh leader of the night, telling him how terrible I thought the management was for discouraging his wild man behavior. “It’s cool,” he said with a joyous smile, his shirt sopping with sweat, “it was still a great set, though, huh?” Not even The Man could keep him down after those twelve blistering songs. I had to agree. Turns out he tends bar with Mandy at a local Bremerton pub. Turns out he’s going to Vegas to visit a friend next weekend, and giving a Hafacat demo to a friend of a friend who’s with a label.

And so the dream continues. Go see Bad Apples. Go see Betty. And for the love of God, if they come within a four hours’ drive of you, go see Hafacat. This is what the music is all about.

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