Sometimes We Need a Guide
by Jason Christian
It was a mere cassette tape, no case, with mysterious song titles: “Styrofoam,” “Reprovisional.” And I was all too eager to surrender to it. Fugazi Repeater, that’s what it was called. Two strange names. Which was the band, which the album title?
This tape was a door opener, a peak into a world as fantastic as science fiction. It was as though I possessed a real-life copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. I could draw a door and knob on a wall, pretend to open it and enter another dimension. To a fourteen-year-old kid from rural Oklahoma—pre-internet—that world looked urban, coastal, highly serious, politically engaged, aware of history. The domain of those willing to sacrifice and take a stand. The terrain of the underdog giving bullies their just desserts. This was cacophonous noise, angry chords. Words emotive enough to draw tears.
I came upon the tape by chance. I was a country boy, though by that age firmly wanted not to be. I had somehow shed my love of the land that I wouldn’t revive until well into adulthood. At fourteen, I was searching hard and yet blindly, without much to cling to. Movies and music were keeping me sane, that and my small cadre of friends. I finally got a skateboard and practiced on the concrete slab, but I longed for paved streets, alleyways, tall buildings—not cow pastures and wind-battered patches of stunted woods.
As it happened, my mom worked at a law firm with another woman (both secretaries) whose son, Luke, was just the gatekeeper I needed. They lived in Shawnee, a town under 30,000, where my mom worked, ten miles or so from our home. Luke was a year older, listened to punk rock‚ skateboarded and could actually do tricks. He wore baggy clothes and skate shoes, and kept his hair over his eyes in an I-could-look-at-you-if-I-wanted-to-but-I-don’t sort of way. The infamous “Skater Cut.” The arrogance of his style elicited from me a defiant jealousy. I always wore my hair neat and short. I couldn’t even do the most basic trick: the ollie. And my mom, unlike his, kept me guarded like a child; which I suppose I was, her only child, in fact, until my half-sister was born three years later. To her credit, though, my mom wanted me to feel less alone in the world and somehow arranged for me to hang out with this kid one summer day. For some reason, perhaps out of pity, Luke seemed to take a shine to me. It became a regular thing. He showed me tricks and we skated around his neighborhood. I was given my first taste of freedom, but the most important gift he gave me was exposure to new underground music.
I remember one time he played for me the Ramones. The lyrics were funny and pleasantly irreverent but the music was only two steps from the Beach Boys. A contrast I find amusing enough today, was a nuisance to my irony-free adolescence. Later he played Suicidal Tendencies. Yeah, that was more like it. I had already been in love with the stridence of metal so this was a bridge worth taking. Then he played for me Danzig, and for some reason they failed to impress. At some point he said I should take home a tape that he didn’t know what to make of. He didn’t like it, truth be told. It was Fugazi Repeater, which had only been out for a couple of years. This was 1992.
I tried the tape out alone in my bedroom and I understood what he had meant. The music was weird: not heavy like Metallica and almost funky with its prominent bass lines and steady rhythms. And then there were the vocals: two singers? Who had ever heard of such a thing outside of pop? Strangely it didn’t at first occur to me that they were actually two people. How strange, I thought, that that the singer’s voice varies so widely within a single song.
All of the elements were new to me and I didn’t yet know how to read them. The lyrics gave me the most pause; the ones I could understand were downright radical. The band had no problem using big words. Not the species of big words that metal bands used—words with biblical connotations or medical references or words that just sounded, well, metal: like “degradation.” Fugazi belted out inscrutable phrases like “sieve-fisted find.” What the hell was that?
Like my friend I was flummoxed at first but in time grew to love this strange new tape. It was like that back then. You had a few tapes and you listened to them over and over until you knew every word by heart, whether you understood them or not. You obsessed over your favorite bands and hated everything else. That was the definition of going against the grain for me at fourteen: love and hate. There seemed to be no in between. The bands you loved were like your private discovery, a treasure that you hoped never caught on.
Not long before, I was fortunate enough to get a subscription to Thrasher magazine. When all I could learn of underground culture came by word of mouth, and very little of that, a magazine with the scope of Thrasher was another vital portal. It turned out that in December of 1991 Thrasher ran a brief but—to me—profound profile of Fugazi, a two-page spread in which it confirmed what I had already assumed: the band and the men behind it were smart, earnest, they cared about their fans, and rejected the status quo. They were from Washington D.C., which I knew nothing about. They played shows for a $5 limit and often for free for a number of worthy causes. The vocalist/guitarist Ian MacKaye had been in a bunch of bands before. According to the article, one of Ian’s old bands was kind of punk-famous: Minor Threat. I would have to give them a try.
There was so much in that brief profile that was new to me. MacKaye owned and ran their own label, the band did everything themselves, and they were all clean-cut—they wore knit sweaters for crying out loud! Perhaps the most surprising discovery: they advocated against drugs and alcohol. Everything I knew about underground music before this was just the opposite.
MacKaye expressed his frustration at record stores for bootlegging the band’s logo and making shirts to line their own pockets. Money was in short supply and going to the wrong people. Fugazi didn’t care to get rich but they refused to be exploited. “If people really want to support the band,” Ian said in the Thrasher profile, “they should design and make their own Fugazi T-shirts.”
Time moved on. I passed through new phases—from grunge to goth—but I always seemed to return to Fugazi. At some point I revisited that Thrasher profile and thought about the whole DIY idea, of making your own music, your own culture, your own clothes. That was what I’d do, I thought. I’d make my own Fugazi T-shirt.
I got a plain white T and a black permanent marker and wrote out FUGAZI on the front. On the back I scrawled in two lines:
WE OWE YOU NOTHING
YOU HAVE NO CONTROL
The boldness of the statement was enough to speed up my heart.
Soon enough I wore my shirt to school and braced myself for trouble. By then I had fully assumed the band’s politics as well as I understood them. I had buzzed my head, pierced the top of one ear, and walked around with a self-righteous glare like an unsheathed dagger.
In 1995 and again in ’98 I got to see Fugazi play live. I stood up front, shouted each song until I frayed my vocal chords hoarse. They became a staple for my life and an ethical guiding post, a whetstone with which to hone my fledgling but growing politics. They are like my Beatles or Bob Dylan. You don’t listen to them everyday, but they are always good for a dose of nostalgia or a reminder of the politics you should have never thought to question.
Now, just as it did then, something physical happens when I hear the beginning of the first song, “Turnover.” The warm tone rising and abruptly fading, and then again, this time louder with a hint of feedback, and then again, just a little louder and slightly more unstable, the tone’s unruly cousin finished with a squeak, and then again, now met with confident drum pounding and the signature loping bass, so much bass. I ask myself now as I did then: How can punk music have that type of bass? When I heard this beginning, just as I do now, I got a shiver down my back and across my arms. Not a sustained sensation but more of a quick jolt and then brought back a second time by the heavier guitars played in chords and then again—dear God!—as the vocals arrive. The strangest opening line in history to a foureen-year-old boy from Oklahoma: “Languor rises reaching,” whaaaaaaaah, whaaah, whaaah, whaaaaaaaah, “to turn off the alarm,” whaaaaaaaah, whaaah, whaaah, whaaaaaaaah, “And there’s never so much seethin” and on it goes, the lyrics a cold glass of water back at the face of waking up early for school, an invitation in my bedroom to scream along with my heroes.
Jason Christian was born and raised in Oklahoma. His work has appeared in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University and Assistant Fiction Editor at New Delta Review. He lives in Baton Rouge.