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.
It’s hard to be peaceful but not shut down in the middle of so much violence, whether it’s emotional violence or real violence.
When the planes crashed in 2001, I was here, and people were calling me and saying something just crashed in the World Trade Center. And we had a TV in that front room, and I went and turned the TV on and I saw, like, “Oh, whoa.” Because that’s sort of one of those nightmares. But then the other plane crashed and I was like, “Oh, I get it; it’s not an accident.” And I thought wow, and I turned the TV off. I just turned it off. Because I knew, for the foreseeable future, they’re going to show that over and over and over. And the only reason to watch it over and over and over is to try to make sense of what just occurred. What occurred was incomprehensible. It was pure brutality, that’s what it was. It’s an aspect of human beings that has been going on since the dawn of time.
I was looking at this tree right there, through the window. I could see it, and it was a beautiful day, it was just moving gently. And I thought that tree has been there for God knows how long. And that tree has been around for all these wars. And the birds, they’re flying around, they don’t give a fuck about these planes. It doesn’t mean anything to them. And I said, “That’s where I’m at.” Not that I don’t care. I do care. I don’t want anyone to die. But this idea of brutality, that’s a part of the human animal I just don’t connect to. That’s where I’m more at one with the vegetation.
I remember that day. I was in Brooklyn, where I live now, where I grew up. I crossed the street and I could see some smoke, but I figured it was from a factory or something, I didn’t know what it was. And I went in to get a cup of coffee at the deli, and there was a TV on, they said “a small plane,” and I was like “that’s too bad, that’s weird.” My brother worked near there, so I was worried. And then I came back, and I turned on the TV. And then I saw the second one, and I also turned it off. I was like I don’t want to watch this. But my girlfriend at the time, whom I later married, was like, “Well, we should go see what’s happening,” and I was like, “OK,” more because I didn’t want her to walk out on the street by herself. We walked down to the Promenade, which overlooks the river, and then the wind changed and this heavy black smoke started really blowing toward us. And I said, “We got to get out of here,” and she said, “What is that?” And I said, “It’s people.”
Word. That’s heavy. That’s people. That’s deep on so many levels. That’s just fucked up. [Laughs.] It’s not a joke.
Let’s please try not to breathe them in.
My mom died in 2004. And around that time when she died I really started thinking. And then at some point I thought, I just have to stop thinking about this. I’m not going to get anywhere with it. Make peace with the fact that it’s incomprehensible.
I love my kids. I like to read books. I like to write. There’s some specific music I like to listen to. But in general, I don’t experience myself as so separate from other people. I think there’s a certain kind of energy that I have in a moment, and then I’ll get some energy from someone else. I know I’ve got some energy that’s fucked up and I’ll try not to inflict it on someone else, but then kind of I do and I feel bad about it. So, there’s all this energy going through the world and through people who are all connected to each other in all these circuits, and you can’t begin to imagine where they begin and end and how they came to be. We are just so many pathways that energy goes through. So, if I die, what’s missing, you know? Of course there are specific people that I’m responsible for, and then I worry about what happens to them, but I worry about that everyday anyway. It’s not like that’s some special concern reserved for after I die.
Have you not been around people who are facing mortality? I actually think a lot of people, not all people, they go insane. People go crazy because suddenly they’re like, life is like, oh my God.
I remember my grandmother when she was 92 years old. She lived in Montreal, and she was kind of an insane freak, but in that moment she was just very open. And she said, “All my friends are dead. My husband is dead. The only reason I’m alive right now is because your mother wants me to be alive, and she can’t deal with the fact that I want to die.” And I was like, “Oh, you’re healthy enough, you’re in a wheelchair, you listen to the radio, you read your books.” And she was like, “Whatever. I did all the things I wanted to do in my life. Now I’m in this pain, and this and that.” And then she was like, “Look, the only thing that matters is: Make sure you find someone you really love and who loves you. Make sure you love other people. Nothing else matters. And if you can get your mother to stop bothering me about the doctors and whatever then I can die faster.” And I was like, OK. I kind of walked away and was like, “She’s not supposed to say any of that but she did.”
But in that example, your mother is the crazy person.
I don’t know your mother.
She’s a doctor. They’re afraid to die.
When my mom died, she and I talked a lot about her death. She had emphysema, it was like six years. She was going to die, and it was very clear, and we knew it. And we talked about it the whole time. One evening, when my brother was reading to her, she grabbed the book cover and ripped it off. And took a pen and in her shaking hand wrote, “casual cruelty, horrible food equals the hospital, get me out of here.” So, we were like, we have to get her the fuck out of this place. So, we got her out of the hospital, we got her back home, and we just said, “OK, now you’re dying.”
I was thinking, like, what if you’re a parent dying. And the last thing you hear from your children is like, “Don’t go, don’t go,” and I thought, “That’s not going to help.” So, I said to my mom, “Go. You’re good. Everything is fine.” She said to me at one point in the hospital, “It’s not bad, it’s just different.” So, every time we get in the cycle of dying, I’d say, “It’s not bad, it’s just different. You can do this. You’re safe, you’re supported, go. We’re going to take care of each other, everything is good.”
That’s what a person would want to know.
It was really profound, because that moment at her death—which was something that as a child was my greatest fear in the world; I spent years saying I can’t bear to think about my mother dying—only to find out, in that particular circumstance, it was probably one of the most beautiful, profound moments of my life. It was a deeply beautiful moment when she died. Unbelievable. If only because she had been on a breathing machine for fucking six years and her last breaths we turned the machine off. And after a while you don’t recognize the sound anymore. We turned it off, and it was 5 a.m., it was a beautiful morning, it was June 30, 2004, and the sun was coming up. It was perfect silence for the first time in six years. Her last breaths. We could hear birds, it was a really incredible experience. And then, it’s a lot to go into, but we actually had a friend build a coffin for us. And we had it waiting in the garage. We had the wake in our house. No doctor or professional person ever came. We had a doctor who was on vacation so he just mailed us the death certificate.
Now, I’m reticent sometimes to talk about this, because a lot of people their experience with the death of their parents is not positive at all. I don’t like to talk about it and be like, “Oh, it was so great.”
It was great because of what you brought to it.
Well, that’s what I like to think. But that suggests other people don’t bring that.
People are generally pretty freaked out.
And that’s why I do think about what happens when you die. Because I think that people, if they could make peace with incomprehensibility, then I think we would live better in this world.
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