The new documentary screens Monday at the High Noon Saloon. (Photo: Ian MacKaye performing with Minor Threat in 1983. Photo by Jim Saah.)
The new documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90), which screens Monday at the High Noon Saloon, offers a sober, inside perspective on DC’s fabled punk scene. If you’re a fan of the diverse array of bands that era produced—from Bad Brains to Rites of Spring to Jawbox—there will be plenty of interviews and live footage to latch onto here, but director Scott Crawford is more interested in examining the events, political circumstances, and personalities that created this fertile, revered, and at times misunderstood musical community.
Crawford is uniquely equipped to tell this story: He grew up around these people, going to shows and publishing fanzines since age 12. He appears in the film both as a present-day interview subject giving context and as a baby-faced 12-year-old in photos and old live footage. While Crawford interviewed most of the icons associated with DC punk—Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, and Dave Grohl (who played in the DC band Scream before joining Nirvana)—he also dug deep into their former bandmates and a host of other figures that perhaps only a local would think to interview, from political activist Mark Andersen to writer and DC native George Pelecanos. And while dealing concisely with such pesky cliches as straight-edge and emo, Crawford explores the scene’s deeper political nuances, including the role of women in DC punk and punk’s interactions with go-go (DC’s other famed indigenous music). Crawford won’t be at Monday’s screening, but he took some time to talk recently about how he approached the making of Salad Days.
Tone Madison: The fact that you grew up around the scene that you’re covering in the film, did that help you cut through some of the cliches and myths that come up around DC punk?
Scott Crawford: I think so. I kind of knew all the things that people always talk about—it’s always the same when people talk about DC punk, it’s straight-edge, emo and all this stuff. It just never what anyone else made it out to be, at least in my mind. That was one thing I wanted to do, was set the record straight a little bit. I think If you didn’t live here and you weren’t completely immersed in it, you would miss a lot of the little nuances of things, so it certainly helps.
Tone Madison: And you’re kind of a character in the story you’re telling. What were some of the choices you had to make when it came to incorporating yourself into the film?
Scott Crawford: That part was really challenging because I didn’t want it to be my story. It’s not. But it is sort of my impressions of certain things, and I wanted to create context for people that were watching it—like, who is this guy making this? What I always liked about the storyline that I started working with years ago was just that I would be going back and revisiting a lot of these people that I had first spoken with 30 years ago. I thought that in itself would create an interesting storyline.
Tone Madison: It is kind of funny when you first show photos of yourself in this film, because the reaction is, well, the people in these bands are pretty young teenagers, but that’s a child!
Scott Crawford: [Laughs] I know. A lot of those photos I’d never seen until I started working of the film. It was really surreal for me to see. At 12, you’re not very self-aware, in this case, of just how small and tiny I was. In the video footage of me, the film was done, and that was sent very last minute—there was footage of Beefeater, and I was just scrubbing through it, and then I realized it was me. It was a lot of fun to find those images, but I certainly didn’t want to make it a big part of the narrative.
Tone Madison: How did you end up interviewing George Pelecanos? He’s very much a DC figure, but it’s interesting because most people probably wouldn’t think to interview him for a punk documentary.
Scott Crawford: Well, I’ve known him for 20-some years or something. No one tells a better story about DC in my mind right now than Pelecanos. I just felt like to have him in there, he could paint a picture of the city that in a way that other people might not. I also knew that he was a fan of a lot of that stuff and used to go to a lot of those shows, back in the ’80s, because we had those conversations over the years about that.
Tone Madison: What were some of the things you wanted to tell people with this documentary that they might not know, especially if they were a casual fan but not an insider?
Scott Crawford: I think maybe just overall, there have been other films about hardcore punk in the ’80s and they’re all great films. But I just felt like it didn’t always capture my experience. I wanted to show that DC was unique in a lot of different ways, and the music was just a part of that, but I think there were just other factors at play that made it what it was. I wanted to address some of the misconceptions about the city, whether it was the straight-edge thing, or the politics of it, and I wanted to do that with a fair amount of humor, because that’s another thing that’s always talked about about the city at that point, which that it was just a very humorless, uptight city.
Tone Madison: It’s funny first coming to Black Flag and Minor Threat as a casual fan and getting this picture of them of being really serious, and then later coming across stuff like that Henry Rollins spoken-word bit where he talks about screwing off at work with Ian MacKaye.
Scott Crawford: I just wanted to show them as kids who just discovered this stuff. And they were all working at the pet store or Haagen Dasz or the movie theater. A lot of those photos that you see from back then, they’re so iconic, it’s kind of like when you look at those Blue Note photos from the 1950s with John Coltrane with the smoke and the black-and-white. As a kid, I used to picture just how that must have been.
I missed a lot of [really early D.C. punk] stuff. I didn’t start going to shows until [after Minor Threat broke up]—I had missed Minor Threat’s last show and stuff like that. But they did seem really tough, and just a lot of these guys just seemed like tough guys to me, just sort of larger-than-life, and then you meet them and you talk to them and you realize they’re really funny, smart people.
Tone Madison: In the course of making the film, was there anything that surprised you, anything you hadn’t picked up in your prior experience?
Scott Crawford: Not really. If there was was thing that surprised me, it was when it came time to talk about the role that Positive Force played in the scene. At the time, everyone was very on board with it, especially if you were in a band, because if you wanted to play, chances you were going to play a Positive Force show, because there just weren’t that many clubs that were playing punk rock. It was interesting for me to hear them talk years later about how, “Well, we weren’t always entirely comfortable, playing on these bills for causes that we weren’t entirely either aware of or knew much about or even were in agreement with.” That was interesting to me, and you see some of that play out in the film. The Minor Threat stuff I thought was really interesting, especially how, again, you’re looking back at something 30 years ago and everyone’s got their own version of what happened. It’s interesting to hear how people saw that last Minor Threat show. You have John Stabb saying it was really sad and horrible, and then you have Ian MacKaye saying, “It wasn’t that bad, it was a pretty good show.”
Tone Madison: Did you get a chance to interview Bad Brains?
Scott Crawford: That was a difficult one to pin down. Geographically, two of them are in upstate New York, and they were on tour, and every time we were going to do it, it just never came together. [Vocalist] H.R. tried a couple times and it just didn’t really work out well, so I just felt like, OK, let’s let the music illustrate just how powerful they were and have people like Ian and Henry talk about how much it changed their lives. It would just be a different take, as opposed to having a bunch of people talk about—that Bad Brains documentary, I don’t know if you saw that, but I just felt like on top of everything else there was just so much media attention on Bad Brains, at least when I started, so I kind of just wanted it to leave it to others to talk about their legacy.
Tone Madison: The film really does focus a lot more on the people and the social context of this community than on the music itself, or the individual bands themselves. Was that a deliberate choice?
Scott Crawford: It was, yeah. I wanted it to be a little different. I wanted it to be paced a little differently than your average punk-rock documentary, and I wanted it to focus more on the people and the community and just how the geography of the city and the backdrop of it played into the music, and how it shaped these people.
Tone Madison: Do you have any interesting extras planned for the DVD?
Scott Crawford: We’re working on that right now, actually. I’ve got a bunch of live stuff that’s never been seen that will be on there. I’ll probably be doing a bunch of outtakes from interviews that didn’t make it into the final. There’s so much good stuff. It was really hard to cut stuff. There will be a bunch of outtakes, a bunch of live footage, and there might be a slideshow or something, because Jim Saah, the director of photography, a lot of the black-and-white photographs you see in the film, he shot, and they’re so beautiful and I’d like to maybe do a slideshow.