When I found out that Ian Mackaye—of Minor Threat, Fugazi, and The Evens—was coming to talk at Wesleyan, my 16-year-old self was ecstatic. I totally went through a phase in high school when I would sit in my room with my headphones on and listen to early punk music at a ridiculous volume—not exactly the classic punk experience, but everybody’s gotta do it their own way. And my 20-year-old self was just as psyched by the prospects of listening to this seminal figure of punk and post-hardcore talk for two hours.
MacKaye, who isn’t exactly known for using his indoor voice, was extremely articulate and thoughtful. He turned a lecture hall into a conversation, and fifteen or so questions into hours of discourse. He even got us to create an impromptu experimental music piece with everyone’s cellphones ringing simultaneously—Alvin Lucier would surely have been proud.
MacKaye took seemingly simple questions and formed sprawling answers, full of stories about the punk scene of the 1980s and ‘90s, with characters ranging from Henry Rollins and Ted Nugent to his bandmates in Fugazi, and life lessons. “Love what you do,” he said when asked to give advice for aspiring musicians. “If you fail, at least you will have loved it.” He talked about trying to get a punk band going in Washington, D.C., about his vocalist inspirations—Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker—about being straight-edge, about being Vegan (“Who does eating meat benefit?”), about the difficulty of dealing with skinheads and violence at his shows (“I don’t provide a soundtrack for violence”), and a short poem on his vision of punk rock: “Because we said so.”
One of the most impressive elements was MacKaye’s seeming ability to remember even the most archaic of details. Not only did he describe another talk he gave at Wes in the World Music Hall some ten years ago, he was also able to give an entire floor plan of Eclectic from a show that Fugazi played in 1988. (Perhaps related to this, MacKaye is currently engaged in building an online archive of every Fugazi show ever.) Needless to say, Eclectic concerts are almost exactly the same as they were 25 years ago. Here’s the flier from that show:
MacKaye’s subject matter ranged from the sacred to the profane, and in the end he left us with a feeling of hope and positivity that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to get from the Q&A. His words of wisdom applied not only to making DIY music, but life in general. As he put it in the end, “Continue to think about it all.”
Photos courtesy of Adam Wechsler ’13: