Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Early in his career, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lucian Perkins stumbled into a hardcore show featuring the Bad Brains. He found himself documenting an underground music scene at a moment when bands like Trenchmouth and Teen Idle were coming on the scene. The photos sat in boxes for years, and are now featured in a new book with essays by musician Alec MacKaye, who attended many of the same shows. We speak with Perkins and MacKaye about DC’s unique music history.
- Lucian Perkins Photographer; "Hard Art, DC 1979"
- Alec MacKaye Writer and musician; narrative, "Hard Art, DC 1979"
Photos: Hard Art, DC 1979
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Early in his career, a young photographer interned with The Washington Post. He would go on to win two Pulitzers for his photojournalism. But in 1979, he had the night shift and the assignment to go out and photograph anything interesting going on in D.C. He stumbled on a punk rock show.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe had no interest in the music, but he found the scene fascinating and from there found himself documenting some of D.C.'s earliest hardcore shows. The Post was less fascinated, shall we say, by the pictures, and 50 of those -- and those photos, as a result, spent decades in storage. But they're getting new life in a book of photos and essays about an underground music scene most Washingtonians never saw.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about this is Lucian Perkins. He is the two-time Pulitzer-winning photojournalist we've talked about. He worked for The Washington Post until 2007. His photographs are featured in the book "Hard Art, D.C. 1979." Lucian Perkins, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. LUCIAN PERKINSIt's a pleasure to be here. I've -- I'm an avid listener to you show, so thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Alec MacKaye. He is a writer, singer and musician. He wrote the narrative for the book "Hard Art, D.C. 1979." Alec MacKaye, thank you for joining us.
MR. ALEC MACKAYEThanks. Great to be here.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. Call us, 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Were you a fan of the Bad Brains or The Teen Idles or other local punk bands? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Lucian, how did you end up at a punk show with your camera in Washington, D.C., in 1979?
PERKINSWell, it was a summer night. I went to a place called D.C. Space...
NNAMDII loved it.
PERKINS...which, as you well know, is probably one of the coolest art restaurant bars in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDII used to go there for jazz music. Yes.
PERKINSAnd jazz. They did it all, and they did it very well. And I was at the bar one night, and the ceiling above me literally started shaking, and I heard all this racket, and I was kind of curious. So what was going on? So I went upstairs. It was actually a -- I found out later -- called the Olshansky Gallery, it's an art gallery. And obviously, they let the punk bands play there at night.
PERKINSAnd I came across this wild scene. It was mostly young kids, suburban, middle class, anywhere from 14 to 18-year-old kids wildly dancing to an all-black band called The Bad Brains. And I remember watching The Bad Brains perform, and I was mesmerized by them. They were a very tight, a musically talented band. H.R., the lead singer, reminded me of a cross between Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. He was -- truly had an amazing stage presence.
PERKINSAnd so afterwards, I met with H.R. and just started talking to him, and he told me that next week, his band and other bands would be going to Valley Green at Anacostia to do a Rock Against Racism concert. And that ignited my interest in it.
NNAMDIWe had H.R. on the show last year, as a matter of fact. Alec, you were a part of that scene back in late '70s. Tell us about the pictures in this book and what you find interesting about that.
MACKAYEWell, I mean, one thing that's, you know, these are pictures that a lot of them or a handful of them were used in The Post article, on The Washington Post magazine. But for my taste, and I think my friends, they were the not the most interesting ones. And so the ones that have all this amazing amount of depth to them were left waiting for all these years to be looked at again and mind.
MACKAYESo the ones that, I mean, the ones that we have in this book are just -- there's so many -- there's, you know, so many stories that I can't wait to hear, you know, to for them to unfold and then so many that will never be fully answered. But also, it really is the ones -- the pictures with myself or my friends in it, this was a time before the scene, at least the scene that has processed in the past 30 years, had become really kind of more codified, you know? And so it's really the beginning part, and you see all these kinds of elements together, and it's super interesting to see that.
NNAMDIThis book should've been done such a long time ago. Before I was even aware that you two were going to be on the broadcast, before we even booked you, I saw a copy of the book in the office, and I picked it up, started flipping through it. The next thing I knew, I'd taken it home with me, the next thing I know I was -- and I was not a big fan of the punk scene. Lucian, at that time, had no interest in punk music either, Alec. And his pictures reflect that. You say that's a good thing.
MACKAYEYes. Yeah. Yeah.
MACKAYEI think that by coming in -- and this is for people who might be fans of a band, what you might come away with, there's like 100 pictures of the guitar playing doing a guitar lead or jumping up and down in the air or something, which is great. But for somebody who is coming into this and is kind of just mystified by the entire thing, he has -- he picked just the right places. And it's also because I think he's a great photographer who's, you know, who's trained well by other photographers.
MACKAYESo these are not snapshots, but he also backed off, and he took pictures over and over of the place where the audience and the musicians are meeting. And there's an area there that is generally separated but in this kind of music is mingled. And so -- and he loved that energy. I think he was really interested in the people who came to see the music as much as the people who will perform the music and was examining that over and over again, and that's what makes these pictures to have a kind of really distinctive energy.
NNAMDIYou can go to our website, kojoshow.org, you'll see some of the photos there. Lucian, there are pictures in the book from a Bad Brain show at a housing project in Anacostia that you were, I think, beginning to tell us about. Tell us about that show and how you ended up there.
PERKINSWell, as I was saying, H.R. told me about it, and in my mind this was like amazing because I couldn't think of a more -- a bigger contrast than the white punk rock scene in Washington, D.C., going to Valley Green, which is probably one of the -- at the time, one of the roughest and poorest housing projects in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIPredominantly black. That's right.
PERKINSAnd it was a study in contrast. It was really interesting because I think -- and I think Alec can talk a little bit about it. It...
NNAMDI'Cause Alec was surprised to learn that you even attended that show.
PERKINSBut Alec and, I think, a lot of the people, it was their first experience in a part of Washington that they have never been to. And I think the people at Valley Green were totally mystified at what they were witnessing and what was being -- happening in front of them. They certainly have never heard this music before, and there was a lot of shock. And at the same time, they enjoyed it as well.
NNAMDIAlec, as I said, you were surprised that Lucian even went to that show. Remind us, as he was saying, about what D.C. was like at that time.
MACKAYEYeah. Well, I think anybody who's from here remembers that D.C. -- I mean, after the riots in 1968, there was -- D.C., you know, it hit some pretty hard times economically, and poor neighborhoods got much poorer. And there was -- so it's very hard for people that already had it hard. And so it's true that, you know, as -- I was telling Lucian earlier that my brother and I, we had -- we...
MACKAYEYeah, Ian MacKaye, who's notable...
NNAMDIWho's been on this show, too.
MACKAYEYeah. He's been on this show, yeah. We felt like, you know, the city is our city. We've always loved D.C. We grew up here. You know, our mother grew up here, her father grew up here, and I love the whole city. So we feel like we could go anywhere, do anything, but there are certain parts of the city that we didn't -- hadn't really explored, I'd say, and hadn't had a reason to be there. So, now, by having this Rock Against Racism, really, which was -- I mean, I don't know how much time we have, but it's to unfold all of these kinds of stories.
MACKAYEBut it was a takeoff. They had some Rock Against Racism shows in London. There were much more substantial things that were produced. And H.R. said, well, we should do one in D.C. And he was parking cars, I think, or guarding parked cars at Greater Southeast Hospital at the time, and he asked somebody, can we play in your courtyard? And the guy said, sure. You know, you can plug into my living room, and that was the entire production situation. And so it just kind of appeared in this -- you know, in the courtyard of this -- of Valley Green. And it was very -- and, yeah.
NNAMDIWell, the goal was to take punk to the streets.
MACKAYEYeah. I mean, so...
NNAMDIWhat was the reaction you got?
MACKAYEYeah. I mean, this was it in the most, you know, hardcore manner. Mostly -- I mean, like I wasn't at this actual show that's in the book. But the band that is in at the time, The Untouchables, and my brother's band, The Teen Idles, did the same show with the Bad Brains in the same spot a few months later, and people really thrilled. I mean, these are tons of little kids who just -- it was great to have a diversion. They didn't need to necessarily be fans of the music. It was really fun and -- yeah. I mean, I think that going there, on the way over, we were a little nervous about the whole situation. But...
NNAMDITurned out very well.
MACKAYEYeah, very well.
NNAMDILucian, despite the fact that The Washington Post had told you to go out and find something interesting going on in D.C., they didn't seem to be that much interested in the pictures at the time. You went to the Metro editor at that time, some guy named Bob Woodward. What was his reaction?
PERKINSWell, he -- it was really funny. He looked at these photographs, scratched his head and just kept shaking his head as he went through them. And he just finally dropped the photos down on his desk and said, this doesn't exist in Washington, does it? And he just walked out. And...
NNAMDIWhich would have been my reaction at the time also. I would have said, no, no, this is not true. You made these photos up.
PERKINSWell, I -- absolutely. And I don't want to give Woodward a hard time because, after all, he was the Metro editor. And this was probably, actually, the more I think about it, a style in Sunday magazine story, and it actually did run in the Sunday magazine later that part of the next year.
NNAMDIAnd just a few of the photos, I believe.
PERKINSJust a few of the photos, and it was a blend of the punk-new wave scene, and, of course, the punk rockers didn't like being mixed in with the new wave scene and vice versa. But I think it gave a little flavor of part of Washington that, at that time, no one knew anything about.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you've called, we'll get to the phones. If you have not, the number is 800-433-8850. Were you aware that there was a hardcore scene here in Washington in the late '70s? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Lucian Perkins. He's a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who worked for The Washington Post until 2007. His photographs are featured in the book "Hard Art, DC 1979." Alec MacKaye is a writer, singer and musician. He wrote the narrative for that book. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Before I go to the story, how this all came about, Lucian, the negatives sat in a box for a couple of decades until they found the light of day. How did that happen?
PERKINSWell, that was thanks to Alec's wife, Lely Constantinople, who...
NNAMDIKind of great name.
PERKINSAnd if I pronounced it correctly.
PERKINSWho was helping me archive my photographs, and she went -- she was going through -- actually, I think she was going through some work I had at Kosovo and came across these punk rock photos. And as she started going through them, she noticed that her boyfriend at the time and now husband, Alec, were in these photographs. And she was all excited, ran up and showed me these photographs.
PERKINSAnd she said, Lucian, you have to do something with these. These are -- this is taken at such an important moment in the whole punk rock scene in Washington, D.C. And she made some contact sheets, showed them to Alec, and I'll let Alec explain...
NNAMDIAlec, what was your reaction to seeing these pictures, some of which include a very young Alec MacKaye and his brother Ian?
MACKAYEMm hmm. Yeah. Well, I, you know, of course, remembered when they did this article. I remembered actually Lucian being at these shows 'cause nobody really took pictures. And also he was, you know, a bit older than most of us there, so I remembered...
PERKINSI was 26, by the way.
MACKAYEI know. Well, he was old enough...
NNAMDIHe was an old...
PERKINSAnd Alec was 14.
NNAMDI...an old guy of 26, yeah.
MACKAYERight, yeah. Old enough to have a moustache, though. We were like -- but I -- so I remembered all that, and we, you know, we wondered what happened to those pictures. But I think that we just assumed that, you know, they picked some of the, you know, handful, and then the rest were just gone. And then, you know, I guess we could have looked him up in the phone book and ask, but didn't.
MACKAYEBut it wasn't until -- you know, Cynthia Connolly did a book called "Banned in DC," and I think she got in touch with you then, and that was sort of -- began the resurrection. But even so, you hadn't really gone back through these, you know, hundreds of other photographs. So we were just -- it was like this holy grail for us, in a way, having these -- I mean, I think in the moment that it was happening, none of us looked forward to the future. We didn't think that the photographs mattered much, I don't think. But a few years on, we really wanted to see again how it began.
NNAMDIThe book is titled "Hard Art." What is Hard Art?
MACKAYECan I? Yeah.
PERKINSYeah. Go ahead.
MACKAYEIt's -- it was an art gallery that -- and really, one of the thesis for this thing, this book that I wanted to get onto is that it was hard for bands to get any kind of places to play then, particularly in clubs, and most of us were too young to get in, and the clubs didn't want us anyway. There's a lot of -- and then, of course, the music had it's, you know, it was very energizing music as people do things that the club owners didn't like. And then -- but there is art galleries and artists who were -- they're sympathetic in a way.
MACKAYEAnd beyond just wanting to have an event in their place, I think that they appreciate the energy that -- this really authentic energy. And a lot of people -- artists of every kind of discipline enjoy that. So they would have shows in Madam's Organ, which was an art collective then. It was -- it had nothing to do with, I mean, other than the name with the place that everybody knows now. But that was Corcoran arts students. And then Hard Art was a place that Rogelio Maxwell sort of revived. It had been an art gallery before but...
PERKINSAnd it's basically just an old beat-down townhouse on 15th and P Street, which at the time was kind of a rough area in Washington, D.C., and now, it's, well, a block away as Whole Foods.
NNAMDIGot to go to the phones but you got to tell one more story, Lucian, because you remember a particular show at Madam's Organ where a number of people were in town for a protest. Having grown up in San Francisco in the '60s, you were perhaps more familiar with this scene -- that scene there than the punk scene. Tell us that story, punks and hippies.
PERKINSWell, there was huge protest in Washington, D.C., that weekend called tear down Washington. It was a protest because the FBI had just arrested Bobby Avakian, who -- I believe he was the head of Communist Workers' Party or...
NNAMDINo, the RCP.
NNAMDIThe Revolutionary Communist Party...
PERKINSRCP. There you go.
NNAMDI...which still exists by the way.
PERKINSAnd so there were people from around the countries coming to protest. And there were a lot of sort of hippie radicals staying at Madam's Organ the same weekend that the Bad Brains and The Teen Idles were performing there. So this was a very interesting mix. And I remember walking and -- to photograph the Bad Brains and The Teen Idles that night. And lined up against the wall are sort of all these aging hippies. And I say aging, they were probably in their 40s then. But they were -- they look aged to me because I was 26.
PERKINSBut anyway, I'm standing next to them as the performance begins. And one of the hippies turns to me and he goes, this is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen.
PERKINSAnd, of course, it -- growing up in San Francisco during the Haight-Ashbury period, it reminded me of a Jimi Hendrix song, walking down the street, the businessman looking at me.
PERKINSSo it was just this kind of full turnaround of...
MACKAYEYeah. (unintelligible) the generation gap. Yeah.
PERKINS...of a reaction -- a reaction against a reaction.
NNAMDIThe hippies putting down the punk crowd. Here is Zach in Ashburn, Va. Zach, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZACHHi everybody. I just want you to know, first, I'm a big fan of all you all's work. But I want to ask Lucian. Is there any plans to exhibit these photographs publicly?
PERKINSYes. We -- we're actually putting together a traveling exhibition, and hopefully, we'll have some people interested in showing them.
ZACHAll right. Have a good day.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Zach. On to Rick in Silver Spring, Md. Rick, your turn.
RICKThank you. It's a great opportunity. I really appreciate it. I have two questions if there's time. The first question is, what relationship, if any, do you see between the D.C. hardcore movement and the other movement that D.C. has, the go-go movement, whether it's a for shared perspective or shared impulse or structural similarity? And my other question if you have time is, what activist can do now to make sure that we have house shows and that the word from the youth gets out? Thank you. I'll take the call (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOh, Rick, you should know that we did a show earlier on graffiti in D.C. And graffiti was one of the things that both hardcore and go-go seem to share in common. But here is somebody who knows a lot more than I do. Alec.
MACKAYEYeah. Just quickly, I mean, I guess the main -- there is an affinity with go-go and the D.C. punk scene, mostly it's just being from D.C., though. I mean, I think that the people get super, you know, regionalist, and I think it was hard. And being a punk rocker in D.C., everybody say, we'll we had to go to New York. And that was -- it galvanized us to make D.C. the place where we're going to come from. And I think go-go has had the same kind of situation where it never seem to breakout in other cities, but it never ever could be killed or even slowed down in D.C. So...
NNAMDIWell, Alec, there is some people who say today has no underground scene in D.C., that the city is too expensive, these spaces just don't exist anymore. You disagree.
MACKAYEYes. Well, I think that there is always an underground. And the way that an underground works is you don't know about it.
MACKAYEAnd so when it's discovered it's above ground and then somebody figured out a way to capitalize on them in some way then it's -- but it is expensive to be in this city. It is hard to find up house shows and things. I know that they -- I've been to them. I went to a show in somebody's dining room on Monroe Street and saw an amazing band that was on tour. They are from the Midwest somewhere, and they were playing these kinds of shows.
MACKAYEAnd it was about 20 people there, and they killed it. It was a great show. And then I've just heard another show in Alexandria in somebody's basement with a band from Japan touring, so...
NNAMDIThere is an underground. Lucian...
PERKINSAlec, I think you're going to have to start a blog to get these things going.
NNAMDIOther people will find these places. Lucian, you later won two Pulitzers for your work with The Washington Post. One for a series on the effects of poverty on three generations of a Washington, D.C., family and another for coverage of Kosovo refugees. What draws you to a subject?
PERKINSAs a photographer, I'm really interested in the human dynamic and the cultural around us and world around us. And I just love photographing people and what they're doing. I think working for a newspaper, what's so great about it is that you're forced to look at every aspect of humanity and life, whether it's punk rock, whether it's following three generations of the family in Washington, D.C. I have that opportunity, and it's something that I just love doing.
NNAMDIToday, you're focused on documentary photography and films. You're working on another project related to Adams Morgan. Tell us about that.
PERKINSI'm currently finishing up a film that I did on Joseph's House, which is -- actually 26 years ago, I photographed for The Washington Post Sunday magazine Dr. David Hilfiker, who was an activist doctor that ran a clinic for the poor. And in 1990, he turned his house in Adams Morgan into a hospice for homeless people dying of HIV.
PERKINSAnd I went back three years ago, and I've been following this very -- each year, they bring in four volunteers, people in their early 20s, who'll spend a year there. And so I've been photographing and following these young volunteers and how their year at Joseph's House has a change and effect to them.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time. Lucian Perkins is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. He worked for The Washington Post until 2007. His photographs are featured in the book "Hard Art, DC 1979." Lucian, thank you so much for joining us.
PERKINSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlec MacKaye is a writer, singer and musician. He wrote the narrative for the book "Hard Art, DC 1979." Alec, thank you for joining us.
MACKAYEThanks. Thanks for having us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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