Fugazi in Nebraska: The Whole Story

Sept. 14, 1991. Centennial Hall, University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

Ritual Device and Sideshow have already opened and Fugazi is three songs into their set. It’s the last date of their tour. They’ve already admonished the audience to act civilly, their latest attempt to keep the meatheads in line. By this point, as they play “Latin Roots,” the crowd has already reached a fever pitch. They’ve just told a man that he’s bullying others in the audience with his moshing. Then Fugazi stops the music altogether.

“Hey you,” Ian MacKaye, guitarist and vocalist, says. “Sir, you are a real problem already. You want your five dollars back? Because I don’t want you here at all. You suck.”

“You’re a big fucking asshole,” Guy Piccoto, the other vocalist and guitarist who shared the role with MacKaye, chimes in. “I’ll give you five dollars out of my pocket if you beat it.”

MacKaye wasn’t done.

“Yeah, you suck. Give him his five dollars back and tell him to go the fuck home,” he says. “What the fuck? One person comes up and wreaks total havoc. This is ridiculous. Come on. There are a thousand other people here who want to see a show. They don’t want to see people kicking shit all over the place.”

Download the Sept. 14, 1991, concert recording here.

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For the 16 years they were together, Fugazi was THE band. An arbiter of aesthetic, they pushed hardcore from its meathead roots of angry teenagers into a leaner, meaner, aggressive agitprop incorporating a variety of influences including hip-hop, reggae, metal and whatever form and function came to mind.

With the sound came an ethic — no merch. Shows were $5, albums were $10. Slam dancing, and other forms considered alienating to fans who might not hold their own in the pit, were expressly forbidden. And then there was the relentless touring from the band. They toured the entire nation, hitting every state at least once. Yes, including Alaska, in November 1995.

As they did this, the D.C.-based band continued the rich tradition of the punk DIY network. They created connections nationwide, charting a path previously blazed by forebears such as Black Flag. MacKaye showed up across the map, even in regional punk documentaries, such as Towncraft, a chronicle of the little-heralded Little Rock, Ark., punk microcosm.

In the last few years, Fugazi has further established their globetrotting by releasing live recordings of thousands of past shows. There were seven total Nebraska shows, six were recorded, and three have been released so far.

“Omaha, like a lot of towns like this, is a landlocked town and it’s isolated and not necessarily on the tour circuit,” MacKaye said in a phone interview with Hear Nebraska. “Some bands would come through, but many don’t. It’s just not New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or San Francisco or Boston. Washington, D.C. to some degree, especially in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, suffered from a similar kind of thing, where some bands would come through, but by and large you were sort of left to your own devices.

“In those kinds of settings, and especially when I think about being out in Omaha, sort of the expanse that lies on either side of you, especially to the west, just meant that a lot of people congregated, the people who were looking for some kind of connectivity or some tribal affiliation in terms of viewing society or the world in a different way.”

And along with his impressions of the scene(s), there are, of course, some rather vivid memories.

“I remember there was a band, Ritual Device, they were a cool band,” he said. “I think at Peony Park they threw a pig face into the audience? It sounds about right to me. I think there was a pig face involved.”

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At three of those shows, Lincoln’s venerable Sideshow opened. Sideshow lead singer Bernie McGinn ran a record label, Caulfield Records, out of his home, something MacKaye could relate to. He runs his own DIY label, Dischord Records, where he still works, day in, day out, booking, promoting and putting out records. MacKaye said he’s “always felt a kinship with Bernie.”

In the 1980s, there was no ready access to email, no text messaging, no online access to MP3s and tour dates. There were tapes traded, word-of-mouth passed along to build the DIY scene. And in that time, an important cornerstone was correspondence. That’s how the Fugazi/Sideshow relationship began.

“I had been a big fan of Ian’s music with Minor Threat and Embrace before Fugazi. I remember ordering Minor Threat records by mail, and at one time sending a gushy fan letter to Ian about how much I liked Embrace,” Bernie McGinn said. “I was surprised to get a personal reply, which I suppose only encouraged me to send off other notes or zines. I can only imagine the mountain of mail he had at the Dischord office.

“Ian sent me a tape of the first Fugazi demos, and we finally got to meet when Fugazi played in Omaha in ’89. Sideshow and Fugazi played shows together in Lincoln and Omaha, and Ian and other guys from the band would be at our shows in D.C. That always meant a lot.”

The bands played together at Sokol in 1990, UNL Centennial Hall in 1991 and the Peony Park/pigface show in 1993, where, in addition to Nebraska’s noise rock ruckus builders Ritual Device’s porcine antics, Fugazi was being trailed by director Spike Jonze in his skatepunk days for a BMX documentary.

On the way to the show, McGinn and bandmates Pawl Tisdale and Rich Higgins were assembling their Eggplants and Sunspots CDs in the van, dubbing it their “CD release show.”

A lot of things might have stood out about the show, which MacKaye called “a really good gig” in a “really surreal setting.” But for McGinn, like many of the shows he attended, it was the sheer joy of seeing Fugazi blister the audience with their sets.

“By far, my fondest memory was watching Fugazi,” he said. “Absolute fucking *masters* at their craft. I was always amazed at how they would not use a set list and audible every song, and how they would break down certain songs. The videos you see on YouTube give you about five percent of the energy and intensity that was in the room. It was really beyond music.”

Download the Oct. 18, 1995, concert recording here.

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photo taken at June 10, 1990, concert at Sokol Hall in Omaha

In the years since Fugazi and the ‘80s underground scene highlighted in such books as Our Band Could Be Your Life, new technologies and forms of promotion have developed. But then, it was a time when “punk rock was barely a teenager,” according to McGinn, and “you learned about new music via record reviews in zines.”

“It was a big deal when a band from out of town played,” he said. “It was an opportunity to see a snapshot of another scene. I don’t think it was better or worse than the music scene today, but it had a low-tech charm.”

In the fog of the new, though, there are some ways in which MacKaye thinks the plot may have been lost.

Despite many of the bands becoming something resembling household names, not everyone was a Sonic Youth or Fugazi… or even a Negative Approach. No one was definitely making a career out of it. Just read Henry Rollins’ Get in the Van to see how the members of Black Flag, pre-competing-reunion-tours, were near starvation even at their height.

“As years progressed, I think that in the ‘90s and into the 2000s, I think that people started to think of music as a possible career path or something,” MacKaye said. “That was just not on people’s minds, I don’t think, coming out of punk rock, this wasn’t what people were thinking about. But if you watch television, there’s so many advertisements for any number of products, cars or computers, credit cards, telephones, that somehow revolve around some people in a band, in some indie band, and there’s this sort of notion that it’s a pastime that’s a possible career path.

“I think when bands think like that, I’d say they’re more self-conscious about what they do, because they’re thinking about it in a different way. There were bands in the ‘80s that just didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. They were just interested in fucking with people’s minds. I’m not saying this is always better! In fact, a lot of those bands were terrible but at least it felt like there was something occurring, there was something that was happening that actually had to be grappled with.”

Right now, for MacKaye, it’s also about subverting the expectations. Since Fugazi’s break-up, he and his wife, Amy Farina, have recorded and toured as The Evens, an aesthetically stripped-down outfit.

The tours have avoided the clubs, something Fugazi did their best to avoid in favor of all-ages spaces, and other traditional venues to break down the walls of scene expectations. For MacKaye, each venue comes with a connotation and a built-in audience, and by removing people from those places, he hopes more people will come out.

The shows now take place in used bookstores, yoga studios, art spaces — whatever the band can find. There are no openers. The show starts at 8 and ends at 9, allowing the performance to be a part of an evening, not the entirety. It calls to mind MacKaye’s fondness for early hardcore shows that might take place at noon on a Sunday.

“You take music into a yoga studio where nobody’s played in, there’s no connotation really except that it’s a weird place to have a show, and I like that, I like escaping the built-in stuff that’s in the walls of these rooms,” MacKaye said. “And by extracting ourselves from the circuit, then we don’t have to play by the circuits rules or its economy.”

That circuit is part of the problem, according to MacKaye. The venue booking has gone from DIY to being run by agents and other people within the music business.

“If there’s ever a time that you talk to someone who books a club, an in-house booker, they’ll tell you that there are dates right now for November and December, and they’re being held by agents, and they’re blind holds,” he said. “They might be two or three deep, meaning two or three agents have all put holds on a certain date to be announced. You don’t even know who the band is. And that means that if agent B decides that they want to get that night, they have to challenge agent A to get that night, but agent A might not want to release that night.”

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photos by Kerry L. Rice | taken at June 3, 1989, concert at Radial Social Hall in Omaha

At every show Fugazi played in Nebraska, Bernie McGinn’s younger brother Brendan was there. This includes the first show in 1989 at the Radial Social Hall in Omaha, though he and his family only caught the tail-end as they were returning from a trip.

Thanks to his kinship, Brendan often had a vantage point where he could watch the band in action, watch the chords as they were strummed and learn by example.

If Sideshow was influenced by Fugazi as a contemporary, Brendan and his band Her Flyaway Manner would have been part of the next wave, the bands influenced by Fugazi.

Like everyone else, he remembers the Peony Park show. He was 13, and was able to escape the almost 3,000-person crowd.

“That was one of the shows where I got to watch from the side stage,” Brendan said. “For me, as a musician in the formative years, to watch that awesome of a band work without getting pummeled by the audience people doing slam dancing or stage diving or all that… I just took notes, essentially, mental notes to see how they were making the sounds out of their equipment, and how the band worked, and a lot of their non-verbal communication.“

In 2001, at the final show Fugazi played in Nebraska, the younger McGinn got the chance to open for Fugazi himself, with a little help from his roommate, Bright Calm Blue’s Ian Whitmore.

“It was interesting. I remember Ian mentioning something when they started, that they’d come full circle,” Brendan said. “Ten years prior, Sideshow had opened up for them in that same hall. To be able to open up for a band that’s been incredibly inspirational was a real treat. Adam [Anderson, aka Adam 2000], the bassist, and I, used to joke about when we’d be able to open up for Fugazi, so that was the joke and dream come true.”

Chelsea Schlievert Yates was in attendance at the show and remembers it well. Fugazi was always true to their politics and helped foster a safe-space for all their fans, especially women.

“What I remember about the performance was the energy — it was so intense,” she said. “That, and it was one of the only aggressive shows that I could actually make my way to the front without getting hit, stomped on, groped or smushed.

“I was young [21 years old] and pretty petite at the time, and the Fugazi show was one of the few concerts I remember attending where I felt safe standing right in front of the band. As a young woman who sometimes just wanted to lose herself in music, this was huge, and I have always admired Fugazi for looking out for the safety of its fans.”

Download the Nov. 17, 1998, concert recording here.

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MacKaye started his first band, Teen Idles, in 1979. They self-released their first and only EP before breaking up, and MacKaye went on to the now-famous hardcore outfit Minor Threat. 34 years later, he’s still at it.

And his ethics are still as fierce as ever.

“People often say, ‘Well, you live off your music,’ and I often say, ‘Well, I live off my work, and my work is the infrastructure that allows me to play my music, which is different,’” he said. “I’m not playing music right now, and I haven’t played music all day today. I run a record label, I book the tours, I just do the work. I’m always working.”

“I did a talk the other day and said, ‘I don’t have a full-time job, I have an all-time job,’ and it just is what it is… I try really hard to say that I never make a decision on music based on money.”

John Wenz is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Read more of his Echoes here.