Jim Saah Learned How to Use His Camera During the Height of DC Hardcore
I spoke to him about all his amazing photos of your favorite hardcore bands.
In the late 1970s and early-80s, punk was being reinvented in the dingy back-rooms of Washington, DC's Chinese restaurants. Photographer Jim Saah was there on the front line, dodging slam dancers and puddles of vomit to shoot local hardcore bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and S.O.A, as well as those from further afield, like West Coasters Black Flag, who—in the early 80s—appointed DC native Henry Rollins (then an employee at Häagen-Dazs) as their frontman.
Saah's early photographs are featured in Salad Days, a new documentary about the city's hardcore scene. In it, we learn how Minor Threat/Fugazi's Ian MacKaye still gets prank calls about being straight edge at the age of 52, and how his brother, Alec MacKaye, once threw up right at Thurston Moore's feet.
I gave Saah a call to learn more about how he unwittingly documented one of America's most influential subcultures.
VICE: How did you start off photographing DC's hardcore scene?
Jim Saah: I discovered punk rock in 1980, or thereabouts, when I was 16, and quickly found out that people who made this music were in DC, right in my backyard. So I obviously sought it out and started going to every show I could possibly get to.
What are your earliest memories of those shows?
They had shows at all kinds of weird places: the back room of a Chinese restaurant, abandoned apartment stores... There were these hardcore matinees on Sunday afternoons, and those were just amazing. The community and the energy and the camaraderie were all just intoxicating.
What was it like for punks walking around the city when "punk beaters" were still a thing?
In the documentary the bands talk about rednecks pulling up in cars and jumping out and beating them up. A lot of those guys wouldn't take it; none of them were inherently fighters. Like Henry Rollins says in the movie, "I was not a fighter, I went to a private school, I was from the suburbs in the Upper North West. You learn how to throw a punch after a while." So they started kicking some ass back and they would travel in groups. You'd see people get in fights at shows and stuff.
The scene is known for giving birth to straight edge, but there was still plenty of drink and drugs at shows, right?
Yeah, people have a misconception because DC is known for the straight edge thing, but there were a bunch of people who would come to shows drunk, and people were smoking pot.
So were the straight edge kids always a minority at those shows?
They were a smaller group, definitely.
There's a shot of a crowd sitting on the floor watching a band, which you often see at Fugazi shows. Tell me about that.
I think that picture may have been taken in between bands. With the Fugazi shows, sometimes if people got too violent—kicking people and stuff—[the band] would yell at them and say, "Calm down." But people would dance at Fugazi shows. No one really sat down, except maybe for Rites of Spring, or some of the bands where they were trying to get away from the violence and stuff. They'd do shows early in the morning at, like, [the venue] Food for Thought, and people might sit and respectfully watch the band and purposely not slam dance and stuff. But that wasn't the case in the early days by a long shot.
There's a shot of Ian MacKaye preaching to a crowd. How often did you see shows stop mid-song when people were slamming too hard?
Well, that was never with Minor Threat. With Fugazi it would happen fairly often; not every show, but maybe once every other show. There's a part in the movie where, in maybe 1990, they were really over the slam dance thing and [Fugazi guitarist] Guy [Picciotto] stops the show. They finish the song and he dives into the audience and grabs this guy who's jumping on everyone's head, and he's like, "Sit the fuck down. If you wanna kick people in the head, you can get on stage and kick me in the head."
Did those shows ever completely fall apart?
They would usually carry on. Sometimes they'd stop the show and yell at people and then just kick right back into it, and they would never really miss a beat.
Ian also appears at one of the Dead Kennedys shows you shot. He's in the background looking concerned while a guy is being held by the neck, his tongue hanging out. Did people view Ian as a policeman at shows?
I think Ian was just a fan. If it wasn't his show he didn't act like a bouncer or tell people not to do things. He'd just be on the side of the stage watching. If it was his show and he was playing, then yeah, he might. I mean, I can't speak for him, but that's my observation.
Tell me about the famous shot of Guy Picciotto—the one where his legs are spread out on stage.
That was at a show at the 9:30 Club, where he'd roll around and throw himself off things, and it looked like it hurt a lot of the time. Sometimes he'd fall into the drums and smash himself all over the drums or, like, pull the strings off his guitar on the ground. And that was just near the end of the show. I don't think he was hurt in that picture, but I do think he was spent, and there was a mic stand on the floor and all this stuff around—I thought it was an interesting choice to put on the cover of Repeater. Guy made fun of it himself when it came out; he would tell people, "My ass is on the cover." He might have been a little embarrassed, I don't know.
So the rest of the band approached you about using it for the cover of Repeater?
They specifically asked for that shot. They picked out all the shots. I would just send them things to look at because I photographed so many shows, and then Kurt Sayenga designed it. He did a fanzine and I did a fanzine, and we'd work together on things, so they asked me to send the shots to him.
Henry Rollins gave you a really striking image in his sweaty little shorts. Was it intense shooting him and Black Flag?
He was always very intense. When I started going to shows he'd already left town to join Black Flag, so I would see him when he came back to play shows, and I knew him a little bit from beforehand. He was an intense individual back then. I interviewed him for my fanzine and he was just, like, glaring. I don't know if it was a persona—I wasn't really big pals with him before—but he'd just be squeezing a pool ball and staring while you were talking to him.
And then the live show... everything was just full on: sweating and performing in little shorts that would be soaked, laying in the crowd... it was just kind of a visceral thing, with sweat and spit getting on each other, the loud music. It was very tense.
It seems like Black Flag fit perfectly into the DC scene, even though Henry was the only one who grew up there.
Yeah, he was in S.O.A and a couple other DC bands before he joined Black Flag. I guess some people think they might be from DC, but he did move out to Los Angeles to be in the band, I think.
What do you think caused the downfall of the scene in the late 80s?
When Minor Threat broke up. They were my favorite band—and Faith. Most of the bands I was into in the early 80s had broken up. And then there was this new crop of bands like Rites of Spring and Beefeater and the "Revolution Summer"–era stuff.
Part of that Revolution Summer thing was people taking back the scene—they wanted to play to smaller audiences and not have the violent knuckleheads come by and slam on everyone, and I was fine with that. Those bands enjoyed their quieter little scene, but none of them stuck around too long. Like, Rites of Spring were together for, like, nine months and never really played out of time, and Happy Go Licky and Beefeater would put out records posthumously and then go on to something else. So I think it was a combination.
It seems like most of the bands weren't so keen to promote the political causes that a lot of the gigs were in aid of. Was that another factor?
Brian Baker [of Minor Threat] and other people would say they were good causes, and they were into the politics of it, but it just became the driving force: Almost every show you ended up playing in DC at that point ended up being a [local activist collective] Positive Force show, and some people just wanted it to be about the music and not the politics.
But then a lot of people were into the politics and were interested in the anti-Apartheid movement and the percussion protest that they did. So there were two camps: A whole bunch of kids who were involved in Positive Force, then there were other people who would just go because the band was playing and they'd be like, "Oh, I wish this guy would stop talking and let the bands play."
Thurston Moore said that the scene totally changed once kids got laid. Do you think that's true?
I thought the term he used—"pre-sexual"—was funny. Personally, one of the reasons I went to less shows in 1984 and 1985 was because that's right around the time I got a steady girlfriend. And when he said that, I was nodding my head knowingly. Because I was like, "Yeah, the scene changed for me when I started getting laid." Punk rock was great, but this other thing was kind of cool, too.
I guess that was maybe the beginning of the whole post-hardcore/emotional hardcore thing, where bands started writing songs about girls.
Right, exactly. So the scene did change musically in that regard. People started writing about things they felt, and I think that was just the nature of getting older. I think probably having relationships with women and men had something to do with it. I think it's true, what Thurston says. It's a good point.
You photographed all the major bands from the period—Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Fugazi, etc. Who gave you the most as a photographer?
I'd say, early on, Minor Threat was the band that I loved to photograph, because the band and the crowd were all totally into it. As far as energy and the band I was super psyched to photograph: Fugazi. You can tell by how many times I photographed them; I have thousands of pictures of them. And I never really tired of it because they would always deliver; they never had a setlist, so nothing was ever written. It was always different.
Follow Oliver Lunn on Twitter