Fugazi became something else besides a band long ago, and its appearances have since become more than a show. The most memorable scene in Jem Cohen's documentary about the group, Instrument, isn't from concert footage, but composed of interviews from a Georgia concert crowd. These are awkward and oddly touching, from the liberal, toddler-toting mom in tie-dye who "heard about Fugazi on NPR" to the inspired small-town punk-rock kids. Cohen's film is one of many attempts made in recent years to understand the Fugazi phenomenon, and undoubtedly the most successful.
You can either joke about or praise their integrity, or make the statement that one of front men Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto's other bands--Rites of Spring or Embrace or Minor Threat--was better. (All of them really were.) It's hard to believe that people still argue those points, but exciting to think that someone could still be inspired by them. The impossibility of Fugazi's history has led to its veneration.
It's not just the cult of Fugazi that has made the actual band behind them incidental--a couple of stinker albums have helped. But this is a band, not just a weird happening in the fringes of pop-consciousness. It complicates things that their newest record, last year's The Argument, is good; it's an immediate, urgent and listenable record, even if you tend to roll your eyes and grumble about 1983 at the thought of it.
Seeing Fugazi is proof that there's no such thing as a failed experiment. Taking part in the ritual is so attractive that the ritual proves its worth by way of being a huge hassle. Chances are, if you play an all-ages show for five bucks in most cities in America, you'll end up in the worst venue available with a crowd of people who can't quite master that mutual respect thing. I have seen Fugazi twice in the past five years, and both experiences have been unpleasant. It's kind of like going to the dentist or confession, something you have to do occasionally for the sake of reassurance.
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