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The soft art of D.C. Hardcore 

click to enlarge Alec MacKaye and Trenchmouth’s Charlie Dabury, Madams Organ Artist’s Cooperative, 1979.

PHOTO BY LUCIAN PERKINS/COURTESY OF THE CENTER FOR DOCUMENTARY STUDIES

Alec MacKaye and Trenchmouth’s Charlie Dabury, Madams Organ Artist’s Cooperative, 1979.

In 1979, there was no hint that punk rock in Washington, D.C. would ever amount to anything other than a mild disturbance. But when Lucian Perkins, then a 26-year-old photo intern at The Washington Post, had his dinner at a bar, restaurant and performance venue called d.c. space interrupted by noise coming from upstairs, he couldn't ignore it.

"The ceiling above was kind of shaking," he remembers. "I heard a lot of loud music, so I went upstairs just to see what was going on. It was the Bad Brains performing to a really young group of kids."

Perkins was never drawn into punk as a participant. But when Bad Brains frontman H.R. (born Paul Hudson) said he was organizing a Rock Against Racism performance soon after the d.c. space gig, at the blighted Valley Green Apartments in Washington Heights, Perkins thought he might've found a story. "I figured it'd be a good side project for me to do until I could get enough material and hopefully convince the Post," he says.

When he wandered into that show at d.c. space, it was an interesting but small happening.

"That group that was around the Bad Brains and The Teen Idles, we're talking about a pretty small group—maybe 100 people," Perkins says. "They all knew each other and were friends."

But Perkins clung to it, and in March of 1980, the Post ran a trend-piece on Washington's punk and new wave scenes. His photos accompanied text by Blaine Harden, which barely veiled dismissive snark. "It was kind of a catty article that really pissed off the punk rock scene," Perkins says.

But hardcore has since proven difficult to ignore. The first generation of bands—led by Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat and others—inspired the next. Hardcore established a staunch DIY ethos and a network of bands, promoters, 'zines, record labels and venues that forged a path for indie rock. Perkins' book and exhibit, Hard Art, DC 1979, on display at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies through Oct. 11, reveal the ecstatic roots of that scene, offering a counterpoint to the romanticized nihilism of many other hardcore memorials.

Courtney Reid-Eaton, CDS' director of exhibitions, came of age at the same time, working in theatre in New York City. She recalls being aware of punk rock, but not particularly interested in it. She couldn't seem to relate to what she saw as something made predominantly by and for angry white men. But now, she says, she's reevaluating her perceptions.

That's due, in part, to Hard Art. In his photos, Perkins captured not only images of soon-to-be influential bands like Bad Brains and Teen Idles performing at makeshift venues like the Valley Green Housing Complex, Madams Organ Artist's Cooperative and Hard Art Gallery, but also a vision of hardcore that runs counter to its images as a violent outburst of disaffected suburban youth.

Instead of vicious stage divers, we see joyful congregations of enthusiastic, smiling kids. Instead of scowling, menacing frontmen, we see Bad Brains' H.R. as an electrifying showman and Trenchmoth's Charlie Danbury all sweaty and earnest. The crowd is mixed; men and women, blacks and whites. In the photos, and in the accompanying narration from Alec MacKaye (singer for, most notably, The Untouchables and The Faith), the shows look more like community events or house parties than mob scenes.

For Reid-Eaton, it's the notion that a community formed around shared ideas to make something much bigger—and that it could happen again—that holds the most appeal. "This happened, and this is still happening," she says.

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  • An exhibit at CDS shows us the early days of Washington D.C.'s hardcore scene

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