Alec MacKaye: On the Hard Art, DC 1979 Book Signing at Politics & Prose
When I rolled into the parking lot that Politics & Prose shares with several businesses, I was met on three sides by three sets of friendly faces I know from three different decades.
From that point on, I was immersed in the rushing jet stream of the evening, toggling back and forth between explaining why certain places and people from long ago–DC meant more to me than many of the others did back then, and why that matters now. It’s a relative thing; everybody has their story and their set of songs, myths, and ultra-personal heroes. We all like to compare What, but I think the longer conversation revolves around Why, and further than that: how historical photographs can offer much more than just the direct facts depicted.
When I arrived, Lely and our daughters, Ava and Bella, were already at a restaurant down the block, sitting with Henry and Lucian, waiting in vain during a frenzied, early-dinner rush. The whole dinner part of the plan had to be abandoned and pizzas went into boxes to be eaten, cold, at 10 pm, standing out in the alley, next to a Dumpster—or, in Henry’s case, alone in a hotel room, a few hours before jetting off to his next destination somewhere in the world.
By the time the talk got under way, there were people sitting in all the chairs that P&P could find—and twice as many more people standing in the book rows, all the way to the far end of the store. Lucian started off with some remarks, including a bombshell revelation: he had been told that the Washington Post had gotten rid of all its photographs from the Vietnam and Watergate era.
This touches on an element of the Hard Art story, and further examples in photographic history abound. Artifacts that disappear either by accident or negligence can help transform the missing objects and the things they represent into myth. In Hard Art‘s case, the pictures weren’t totally lost: they were uncovered from among a loosely-organized collection of tens of thousands of images. Luckily, Lucian did not leave the negatives in the Washington Post archives. Lucian’s career with them went in a very different direction for a quarter century or so, during which the negatives sat relatively safe, but vulnerable (among other potential threats, Lucian has cats; my own house growing up was like a Booth cartoon at times, so I can state with authority: cats can be diabolically destructive urinators).
Myths are open source stories that can take whatever form the teller wants and enter the imagination however the listener or reader desires to hear them. This characteristic makes myths stronger, not weaker, as opposed to the way a single snag in a factual story can pull the whole thing down. In the case of these pictures, there is a delicate balance.
Because the future value of the pictures in Hard Art was unknowable, and because they were apparently flat-out rejected by some people when Lucian first shot them, the slow-burn adventure of their existence is as compelling as any aspect of the book. It made for an exciting opening to the conversation before Henry and I spoke to the parts we know best: personal accounts of the music and people and places in the pictures.
Suddenly (though I suppose it may have seemed like an eternity for some of the folks in the room), the moderator said it was time to wrap up. We had covered a lot of ground, including a couple of shout-outs from the proverbial left field, but I hadn’t had a chance to sufficiently lionize Lely and Jayme for making the book and the traveling exhibition happen. It can’t be said enough: it was Lely’s keen eye, faith in the work, and unflagging interest in pursuing the book, and Jayme’s energetic involvement and creative problem-solving that kept the project together and pushed it all across the goal line. I suppose I can only speak for myself, but their work, and the continued energy in carrying the spark that was required to conceive, edit, and pitch the book and its attendant exhibition, are an endurance trial that Lucian, Henry, and I did not have to suffer. For that matter, the layout work that Nick Pimentel—and, later, Lisa Hill—provided was amazing, calmly and generously administered, even through a maddening welter of revisions.
Something that made the DC opening for Hard Art powerful in a way that no other book event will come close to is the concentration of people in the room with direct or very close connections to DC and the scene at the time. However, anyone who looks at the book will find themselves relating, either to a history past or a current eruption that is right now generating tomorrow’s stories.
I personally think Lucian’s pictures have the depth and strength to stand alone, even without the “real” stories that were happening when he clicked the shutter. They have an immemorial otherness that some photographers do not allow, in the pursuit of professionalism or polish.
That all being said, there is no denying the allure of looking at the past, which leads to a longer conversation: the conversation about why we care so much about things past. It isn’t always just because the time is gone.
Memories are things that have marked us to our core and stay inside us forever, whether bitter or sweet. We use them for touchstones and guides when we feel unmoored. Sometimes they hound us to death.
That’s what makes some people look back. And that’s something we can talk about at another book event, right?
* * *
ALEC MACKAYE is a singer and musician best known for his bands the Untouchables, Faith, Ignition and the Warmers. In more recent years, MacKaye has focused on other artistic pursuits such as painting and writing. He is a contributor to Hard Art, DC 1979.
Posted: Jun 11, 2013
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Politics & Prose, Music, Henry Rollins, Lucian Perkins, Alec MacKaye, Washington DC, Hard Art DC 1979, Punk, Ian MacKaye, H.R., Bad Brains, Lely Constantinople, photography, The Teen Idles, Trenchmouth
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