When you find yourself taking a trip down memory lane every once in a while, it might happen that you catch yourself with a kind of transfiguring smile on your face. It could be triggered by phrases you parked in the shoals of your subconscious, it could be souvenirs of places you almost forgot you’ve been to or the fading silhouette of people you hung out with. In my case it’s all of the above. And very often they’re all connected by memories of going to hardcore shows in the late 80s until the late 90s.
Going to a hardcore gig almost felt a bit like a conspiratorial act of rebellion for many different reasons. A) The venues were always in rather shady parts of town which offered an antidote to all the alleged glamour and glitz usually connected to big cities. B) You learned about questioning things and making decisions for yourself, you learned about going against the grain, you learned about animal rights and feminism and human rights and politics and religious freedom - whether you liked it or not. C) There was an almost intense sense of community, a misfit wonderland for two hours, where band and audience alike celebrated the possibility of an all indians-no chief society. In Berlin you met at venues such as K.O.B., SO 36, Ex, Tommy Weissbecker Haus, Block Shock or Köpi. In Washington DC it was most definitely the Safari Club. And luckily Shawna Kenney was there and now shares her memories of the legendary venue for which she started to organize shows for nearly ten years in the late 80s when she was just 18 years old. These days Kenney works as a famed writer and journalist, with the focus of her work being feminist and countercultural artists. Lodown had a chance to hook up with her in early June.
“The early days of DC’s music scene have been well-documented, with most stories ending in the mid-eighties, depending on what book you read or which documentary you watch. Our question is this: if punk died in ’85, what the hell was it that we were doing? Plenty happened after Washington DC’s Revolution Summer. When the first generation of punks started making different music, a second and third wave of youth culture rose up, putting on their own shows, forming bands, record labels, and lifelong connections. (...) By the late eighties, DC was dubbed the “murder capital of the world,” University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine-related overdose, and DC Mayor Marion Barry had been caught on tape smoking crack with a prostitute. The Chinatown neighborhood where the Safari Club stood housed many homeless people, crack dealers, prostitutes, boarded-up rowhouses, and a few grimy bars. Still, teenagers gathered here every Sunday afternoon to youth-crew, stage-dive, fight, sing, and sweat together, week after week, for nearly ten years. (...) This space was important to the underground culture of our city. It was what we made it. It is more than a structure. Our hope is that this book serves as a document of an era, a feeling, and a scene that meant so much to so many.“ - Shawna Kenney and Rich Dolinger
Shawna, Washington DC is famous for groundbreaking punk/hardcore bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains or Nation Of Ulysses, to name just a few. Would you say the scene was generally a bit more open and slightly avant garde compared to what was happening at the same time in other major cities in the US? It was pretty avant-garde, especially in the mid-80s when I started going to shows as a young teenager. This was post-Minor Threat and during Revolution Summer, so I got to experience bands like Soul Side, Ignition, Marginal Man, Kingface, The Holy Rollers, Fire Party, The Hated and more. They were people from the first wave of DC punk but they were experimenting with different kinds of music, which would be the germination of bands like Fugazi and Jawbox.
There was a time when going to hardcore gigs almost felt like a precursor to Palahniuk’s Fight Club. It’s almost like a paradox because the scene and community was very inclusive, yet it became very high on testosterone and violence. Was it pretty much the same at the Safari Club? There could be violence and the scene was mostly male... but I’d say the energy and aggression were part of what attracted me, too. I was an angry young woman - and riot grills had not yet happened - so this was the best place for me at the time, even if it looked a little rough around the edges to an outsider.
What are the most precious moments you experienced back then? And would you say that the Internet basically killed subcultures as we experienced them? Or does it simply come down to the majority of kids today having a rather different set of values? I loved the feeling of having a community… running into people I knew - some just by face, some by name, some actual friends, but all familiar characters - at a record store, at a show, while out skateboarding or eating or at a festival. It made Washington, DC feel like Sesame Street, a place where people knew one another and connected in person. It made me feel less alone in the world.
I don’t know if the internet has totally killed that… people come together in different ways now - some meet online first before meeting in person and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do prefer face-to-face interactions, though. Too many people looking down into their phones lately… these electronics are just tools and they can divide us if we use them in that way or bring people together in acts of solidarity and citizen journalism, etc.
Please tell me a bit about the No Scene zine you did back then. Did publishing this fanzine basically smoothed the way for you to live and write about associated countercultures already? Yes, my fanzine created an easy way for me to talk to people and opened up my whole future as a writer/reporter. I was shy and having the excuse of asking for an interview or a photograph - or asking another zinester if he or she wanted to trade zines - helped me crack the code of communication. Since I was immersed in the counterculture of punk, I guess I have always taken an interest in fringe and counterculture people, which has informed the range of subjects I cover now as a freelance writer an author of four books.
Speaking of which, do you actually write on a new book right now? I’m working on a longform story about co-housing for Narratively, where I also serve as a contributing editor. I’m also writing didactic texts for a huge graffiti and street art show that’s coming up in New York called “Beyond the Streets“. Furthermore I’m working on a book on writing, tentatively title “Upside Down and Backwards: A Writer’s Journey.” I’m always juggling a lot of projects.
Live At The Safari Club / by Shawna Kenney, Rich Dolinger and A.C. Thompson / 144 pages / Rare Bird Books / ISBN 978-1945572456
photos: all b/w images by Joe Wongananda / pic of Judge by Chris Yornick / image of the burned down Safari Club by Rich Dolinger /
Bands in order of appearance:
In Your Face // Absolution // Supertouch // Sick Of It All // Judge //