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Chronicles of a Fan Girl: Life Lessons From Ian Mackaye

The power of music is something of a debate. It seems like when the subject arises, it is in relation to music’s presumed negative influence. That is to say, the heavy metal that allegedly drove teenagers to commit some heinous crime, or how the catchy grasp of pop music is unraveling the moral fabric of our society.

I recently encountered a professor and theologian who saw no value what-so-ever in music, or the character of those who made it. In his eyes musicians are, for the most part, existentialists. In a lively display, he addressed his university class on this subject. Existentialists were described as people who “buck the system,” “blaze their own trail,” or  feel that social norms and tradition are not good enough for them. He pointed to rock n’ roll as the greatest example of existentialism’s inherent danger. I was initially tickled that anyone would still use the words “danger” and “rock n’ roll” in the same sentence. I imagined that somewhere Jerry Lee Lewis’ ears were burning.  I hoped that this professor had just made rock n’ roll so alluring to his young class that the students would seek out this fantastic, forbidden fruit.

My mind drifted momentarily and I imagined myself lurking below a street lamp in the dead of night. In sunglasses and a trench coat, I would pass unmarked mixed CDs chock full of The Ramones, The Kinks and Black Sabbath, to the vulnerable, impressionable student body with hopes this would be the gateway leading to blues, jazz, soul, and hip-hop.

What dawned on me next was far less humorous.  I was looking at a man who had no idea the real power of music. He saw no value in the paths that are forged by those who find the current path unacceptable.  I had honest pity for a man who would paint such a broad and misinformed stroke. It is sad because while he is my elder and my professor, I know something he doesn’t. I know who Ian Mackaye is. Ian Mackaye is a singer, songwriter, artist, activist, icon and co-founder/owner of Dischord Records. He is a prolific and influential musician who is best known for bands like The Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Embrace, Fugazi and The Evens.

Mackaye and his family became important members of the Washington D.C. music scene, and his house on Beecher Street became a hangout and a landing pad for bands passing through town. Mackaye is rather well known for pioneering the concept of “Straight Edge” and being the cornerstone of the DIY movement.

Brian Gay, Henry Rollins, John Stabb and Ian Mackaye at Irving Plaza, NYC

By my assessment, Mackaye is a reluctant and accidental hero to many. He never intended to start a movement or influence the masses. This seems to be the case with some of the best individuals in history. I surmise he simply set out to do what he loved the most, which is to play music.When I was 16 years old, I was in trouble. Not the kind of trouble you could see from a mile away, but instead, the most frightening kind, a violent drift, a trouble Elliott Smith described as “Hidden cracks that don’t show / But that constantly just grow.”  In a fateful moment, I went from aimlessly dangling on the edge of an abyss, to turning on my heels and walking, with purpose toward life. I found what I was looking for in a moment. Not only did a light go on in my mind, but everything around me became illuminated.

Personally, I never saw Mackaye as a dictator or an author of rules, but instead as an individual with great strength, integrity, and dignity. Mackaye was someone who set himself apart at the great risk of being completely alone. His life inspired and drove me to deviate from a path that would have led me astray without a doubt. The lessons I have learned from Mackaye carry me today. In all actuality, and by some miracle, his personal choices left him far from alone. He was a game changer for so many, including me. He took an impossibly unpopular path without much regard for the consequences, but because it was what he believed in.

And so began a laundry list of lessons I took from Mackaye:

Fugazi

Integrity may feel like a heavy weight to drag around, but you will be stronger than those who abandoned it 10 miles back. Legend has it that Rolling Stone Magazine wanted to feature Fugazi in one of their issues. Mackaye asked, in return, that they not run any liquor ads in the issue. Rolling Stone refused, and Mackaye politely passed on the offer. Would that feature have been great? Absolutely, but it was not worth it to him. I admire his unwillingness to compromise. [Listen to Fugazi’s”Waiting Room”]

Do what you love because you love it, and share it with those who share that love as well. Though making a living must be important to him, he never, ever seems to be out for a buck. His bands always played their shows to audiences of all ages for a staggeringly low price. I believe I saw Fugazi for $6. They played everywhere from theaters to school auditoriums. Many Fugazi shows were recorded, and there is now a large archive of these shows that can be downloaded for nearly the same low price.

Ian Mackaye and Amy Farina of The Evens.

They play because they love it and they share that with all who share the sentiment. Be respectful. Be polite. Doing the right thing is so “rock n’ roll.” On April 12, 2001, I saw Fugazi at the Celebrity Theater. Mackaye stopped the show twice, as I recall. The first because a young girl was being hit or pushed by a guy in one of the rows. Mackaye made it clear that no one would be hurt at the show, and this guy needed to stop. This, of course, was a revelation to me. On more than one occasion, I had been battered and bruised at various shows– a somewhat common outcome for a 5-foot-1-inch girl.

Later in the show, a bottle of water flew on stage spraying the equipment. Mackaye took the mic, and asked who had thrown it. A man raised his hand, after the crowd pointed him out. Mackaye asked him to come on stage. The man, looking ashamed, made his way up there. Mackaye said the band would be taking a break, handed the man paper towels, and asked him to please clean up the mess. The band left stage and the grown man got on the floor and cleaned it up. Mackaye hadn’t threatened to beat him up. He didn’t even touch him, he simply asked him to please clean up what he had done, and the man did it! My mind was blown. Where one would have expected aggression, there was civility.  

There is no substitute for sincerity. Mackaye is a consummate professional who conveys his respect for his audience and all people by dedicating himself to what he holds true. I cannot tell you how many shows I have attended in my time where the artist seems inconvenienced by the audience, or bored to be on stage. You just won’t see this with any show that involves Mackaye. When I played in a band, I made sure that my affection for what I was trying to accomplish, as well as my adoration for audience, was clear. Because of Mackaye, I have a hunger to live a sincere life, and I demand it in every song I hear, and every show I see. Mackaye continues to create music and to be an ambassador and advocate for the arts and audiences alike.

Watch Ian Mackaye testify against a ban on all age shows

I should hope this continues for many, many years to come so that more people find his music, and draw at the least a sense of entertainment from it. I would love for people to take even more from it as well, because, after all, he is my personal hero.

To put it plainly, I owe this man my life. If I am ever to do any good with my time here on Earth it will be because I had the good fortune of crossing paths with his music, his name, and the shining example that he has set.    

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