The punk icon Ian MacKaye always wanted to create a tribe. Now an elder statesman of D.C. hardcore, the musician talks about organized religion, breaking toilets, and making peace with his mother’s death.
I’m always looking for some little model world or some metaphoric universe that I can use to rewire people’s brains a little bit so they can see and feel in the way that I find good or natural.
I was being attacked on stage. If you rocked out at all you must have experienced the car going by with the guys jumping out, to rewire people’s brains that way.
There were more than a few kids from D.C. who came to New York shows and were ill-mannered. D.C. boys had a reputation for that shit.
Yeah. We did. I have no regrets. In the very beginning, we were not looking to fight. We wanted to create a tribe. We wanted to have an extended family. Because I think that all of us were marginalized for one reason or another. Most people had bad family experiences. Some people were gay, or white in a black city, or black in a white scene, or they were just weird. All the deviants gathered and I thought, I’m a deviant. Being straight—not taking drugs or getting high or drinking—in those years, that was really deviant.
And your first idea is, OK, we need to protect the tribe.
I had identified as a pacifist my whole life. But that time I thought, all right, I would bruise the ego, not the body. Violence is always wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s never OK for me, but sometimes it’s necessary. When the skinhead thing really started to flourish, I felt, oh this is so depressing. I remember saying to these skinhead kids, “What are you doing? Have you lost your minds?” And they were like, “You started it.”
Something that’s been so present in you, and in your music from the first moment I encountered it, is a powerful ethic of responsibility. It wasn’t control freak-y, but it sounded like you gave a shit about stuff.
Because I gave a shit about stuff.
That’s not what you think of with rock musicians.
That’s why I’m a punk. [Laughs.] I remember some of the random violence we were talking about before. It’s one of the weirdest things about punks, or anybody. Why destroy a toilet? If ever you’ve been to shows in Eastern Europe it’s like, what are you people thinking? You’re breaking all the toilets, we need the toilet to take the shit away. It is our friend. There’s something that’s perverse about people that they have to break toilets. A toilet is such a good thing to have around.
When you have a community that doesn’t have an established hierarchy, like punk, or Jews, or whomever, the bad part is then some asshole stands up and says, follow me and do what I do, I’m the leader of the community. My name is the Lorax, I speak for the trees.
The reason the person who broke the bathroom was so frowned upon was because that person’s decision is putting the venue in jeopardy. So, if some guy who we’ve never met before shows up and breaks up a bathroom, he just did damage to our world.
You must have had over the years many hundreds of people going, “Oh, fucking punk rock, look at you, don’t steal, don’t drink—you’ve torn all the wires out of your head so you could become the ultimate bullshit conformist artist.”
The problem with the Ten Commandments is that’s when the Christians got hold of the obviousness and said like, “This is our grid, check it out.” It’d be like saying eating bread is a Christian thing. Bread predates fucking Jesus. So, the Christians superimposed their concept on what is already there. So, it seemed obvious to me that the really deep ideas are always going to occur with a smaller number of people. Because it’s not performance at that point.
So, now tell me about your dad. He’s a religion editor at the Washington Post. He was a theologian. How did that figure in your home life and in the ever-evolving ethos of straight-edge punk?
My mother was Catholic, my father was Episcopalian. Both my parents got involved with religion on their own, through their own volition to become practitioners. We went to this church, St. Stephen and the Incarnation, on Newton Street, northwest D.C. It was a very poor, very crime-ridden area. It was an inner-city church. It was a white church in what had become a black neighborhood in the ’50s, through block busting. It was a very radical church. In fact, we were part of a gay marriage in 1972. Black Panthers had a headquarters across Newton Street so they were regularly coming through. We had rock bands play there. They pulled the pews out of the front and we sat on cushions on the floor. You didn’t have to dress up, we just wore whatever we wore. We were hippie kids kind of, raggedy kids. I got beat up by kids, these tough kids who were there. There were a lot of homeless guys around.
Did it feel dangerous and scary?
Yeah, because it was dangerous and scary. That neighborhood was really dicey. I told you it was 16th and Newton. Well, there’s no 15th Street there, and 14th Street was where the  riots were. I think two weeks after King was assassinated, Palm Sunday was the 15th, I think, the church decided to do the service on 14th street. So, we marched down to 14th street and all the way down smoldering buildings and National Guard everywhere and police everywhere. And we did a service in front of a house. And the front porch was the altar. And there was a woman named Mother Scott who was a folk-blues singer, and she was a fixture at the church. She was an old woman in her 60s, 70s maybe. But she played, and that moment for me was really intense. She was a blues player, and she played this music and I remember just thinking, “This is beyond, this is it. This is the real deal.” Because, with all the chaos, we could feel a connection within all this madness.
As I grew older in that church, I identified, like, “Yeah, I believe in Jesus, whatever,” but I remember this conversation I had with my sister Katie, who was my older sister, and her boyfriend. We were out on the front porch and we were looking at the stars, and I said, “How many stars are there?” and they were like, “Nobody knows.” In my mind at that time, I thought there had to be a finite number of stars. Because, at some point, heaven begins.
I was 10 or 11, and it just hit me. Like the, “Oh, my God, wait a minute, there’s no heaven.” I ran into the house, and I called my dad, who’s like the religious guy, I called him at the Post, his number was 223 something something. And I said, “Dad, dad, if there’s no heaven, there’s no heaven.” And I was like, “What happens when you die? What happens?” And he’s like, “Nobody really knows. That’s what people go to church for.”
And at that moment I was like, OK, I think I’m done with religion. I got my answer. It was a very heavy moment for me.
And then you created your own community.
It’s an informal collective. I’m not the boss of their lives, it’s just when it comes to this specific enterprise. First off, they’re getting paid to work and they get health care and all that kind of crap. But they want to make a record. But what they don’t want to do, for instance, is have to contend with maybe a really irritating guy who’s calling them, like an old band member who’s bugging them. So, they’re like, “Will you call and do this? I’m sick of it.” And what they don’t want to do is what I do. That’s my job.
So, after the religion beat, my father became the associate editor of the Washington Post. And then the late ’60s, early ’70s, you may remember everyone going fucking insane. Well my parents went insane too. There was total chaos in our family. There was a lot of drinking going on, a lot of some pretty crazy shit going on. Like scary, crazy, screaming, yelling, throwing things. They were upset, they were mad. I had decided very early, 14 or 15 years old, that I understood why the things that happened with my family were so upsetting, and why they’d be angry.
But I thought that almost surely that my parents would die before me, and I just had this sense that people are angry with their parents for many, many years and maybe they make up but sometimes they don’t. And after they die they’re like, “Oh, I regret ‘never.’ ” I thought, I’ll just forgive my parents now. So, I just forgive them, in the midst of it all. I just wanted to spend as much time with them while they’re here, because they’re going to die. I was like, “All right, I forgive you now. I just forgive you right now. You’re just fucked up people, like the rest of us.”
I think that if we see our parents in a way that we should, that they are holy beings. Your parents created you. You couldn’t exist without them. They are the creators. So, when you’re looking at your mom and dad, and you see them, sometimes they turn their head a little bit and see a human being and get freaked out.
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