Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer is still turn­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

On June 21, 1985, a few dozen scruffily dressed kids de­clared “Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer” with a thun­der­ous “punk per­cus­sion protest” at the apartheid-era South African Em­bassy. That night, the band Rites of Spring of­fi­cially wel­comed the new sea­son with a sweat- and pas­sion drenched show at the 9:30 Club. Ridiculed by some at the time, 30 years later it has be­come clear these were “shots heard around the world.”

Con­sider this: Ok­la­homa’s Woody Guthrie Cen­ter is plan­ning a two-day seminar on Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer in Septem­ber. A Brazil­ian edi­tion of “Dance of Days” — the D.C. punk history I co-au­thored whose ti­tle is taken from a Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer an­them — is about to be pub­lished. In Rus­sia last month, Nadya Tolokon­nikova of Pussy Riot— a punk ac­tivist whose main in­spi­ra­tion, Riot Grrrl, can be traced back to the Dis­trict in 1985— was ar­rested again. In In­done­sia, “More Than a Wit­ness,” a re­cent doc­u­men­tary on the punk col­lec­tive Pos­i­tive Force DC— again, born in the sum­mer of 1985— is be­ing trans­lated into Ba­hasa. In Mexico, “emo” kids have faced as­sault for adopt­ing a style that traces back to the Dis­trict in 1985. The D.C. Coun­cil passed a cer­e­mo­nial res­o­lu­tion honor­ing Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer and Pos­i­tive Force.

Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer, whose energy and ide­al­ism still echo in far corners of the globe, was an idea hatched by D.C. punk Amy Pickering, who had grown dis­sat­is­fied with the punk scene’s grow­ing vi­o­lence, cre­ative sta­sis and so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy. She first dis­sem­i­nated the idea through cut-and-paste “ran­som notes” sent anony­mously to other like-minded punks.

The idea caught on and came to life in con­ver­sa­tions, group houses, punk shows and protests. It was a re­bel­lion against punk-as-usual and busi­nes­sas-usual. This si­mul­ta­ne­ous chal­lenge to the sub­cul­ture and the wider world in­cluded new­mu­si­cal styles, an op­po­si­tion to “slam-danc­ing” and skin­head gang vi­o­lence, and a cri­tique of the sex­ism of the scene. It em­braced con­fronta­tional, cre­ative protest, an­i­mal rights, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and com­mu­nal liv­ing.

The bands as­so­ci­ated with that mo­ment — Rites of Spring, Gray Mat­ter, Em­brace, Beefeater, Lunch­meat and Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble — burned brightly but flamed out quickly. But Fire Party, Soul Side, Ig­ni­tion, Fi­delity Jones, King­face and Fugazi rose from the ashes, cat­alyzed by a wide-open, risk-tak­ing spirit. Many trace the roots of the “emo” and “post-hard­core” gen­res to this era — and it was un­de­ni­ably the spark that ig­nited the tra­jec­tory of Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble’s Dave Grohl, later of Scream, Nir­vana and Foo Fight­ers.

Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer’s im­pact was hardly lim­ited to mu­sic. Pos­i­tive Force flour­ished and con­tin­ues to do so to­day. Also, in 1991 when a small knot of girls and women in and around the bands Bikini Kill, Brat­mo­bile and the Na­tion of Ulysses in­vented the fem­i­nist punk move­ment Riot Grrrl, they dubbed it “Revo­lu­tion (Sum­mer) Girl Style Now.” Riot Grrrl’s orig­i­nal haven, Pos­i­tive Force House, rose from this energy, as did the Meese Is A Pig guer­rilla poster cam­paign that drew the at­ten­tion of the FBI. The link be­tween an­i­mal rights and the anti-drug “straight-edge” idea would foster con­fronta­tional bands else­where — such as Youth of To­day and Earth Cri­sis— and a new gen­er­a­tion of en­vi­ron­men­tal and an­i­mal ac­tivists. A few joined clan­des­tine ac­tions car­ried out by “eco-ter­ror­ist” groups such as the Earth Lib­er­a­tion Front or the An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion Front.

To be sure, Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer was hardly the only thread in the broad ta­pes­try of lo­cal punk, but it was the most cut­ting-edge and con­se­quen­tial, lead­ing the Dis­trict to be re­garded by 1991 as a “new youth mecca” to ri­val Haight-Ash­bury in the 1960s. This could be seen as open­ing the way to the in­flux of what so­ci­ol­o­gist Richard Florida has deemed “the cre­ative class.” Its energy also per­sists in grass-roots ef­forts to press gen­tri­fi­ca­tion to serve — not sim­ply dis­place — long-term low-in­come res­i­dents.

Revo­lu­tion Sum­mer meant many dif­fer­ent things to many dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But the power of the idea lay in its open­ness, its sense of pos­si­bil­ity and its will­ing­ness to chal­lenge in­di­vid­ual punks and the world. What it com­mu­ni­cated then— as it does right now — is the ut­ter ur­gency to stand, feel and cre­ate in each new, un­fold­ing mo­ment. In this, it de­fies com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion or cat­e­go­riza­tion, for­ever over­turn­ing punk nos­tal­gia to fo­cus on the chal­lenges of now.

In this sense, the rel­e­vance of this sea­son has never ebbed. As was said by punks at the time, it is for al­ways.


Fugazi at the 9:30 Club on July 19, 1989.

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