D.C. punk rock lives on at Gelman

Hidden among Gelman Library’s textbooks and scholarly journals is a small but growing collection of one of D.C.’s loudest and proudest cultural traditions – the International Counterculture Archive’s D.C. punk rock collection.

The library’s D.C. punk rock collection features recordings, memorabilia and DVDs of bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains. The project is the brainchild of Dr. Mark Yoffe, curator of the archive and a specialist at GW’s Global Resources Center, who began collecting memorabilia in 1989 when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

Yoffe’s dissertation on the history and traditions of Soviet underground rock led to an examination of underground music in America, which reached its peak in the 1980s and was largely driven forward by bands from the District.

Ironically, Yoffe himself grew up listening to heady progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and Yes, a stark contrast to the simplicity, anger and do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock. The “social ethic of punk,” as Yoffe described it, was a rejection of the “pompous, overproduced” music of the 1970s. With simple, fast rhythms, three-chord progressions and a forceful political message, the punk movement Yoffe archives was like nothing that had come before it.

Though Yoffe began the archive in 1996, the D.C. punk collection is only four years old and, at about 90 items, still has plenty of growing to do. The collection developed from conversations Yoffe had with fellow Gelman librarian and local musician Tina Plottel, and D.C. punk fixture Ian MacKaye, formerly of Fugazi and a co-founder of indie label Dischord Records.

Working with an extremely tight budget, Yoffe began the collection with a number of his own acquisitions, mainly memorabilia he had collected over the years. Though he described Gelman as being “extremely supportive” of the collection, the project is greatly restricted by a lack of funding, he said.

The majority of the collection is audio samplings, many of which are archival recordings MacKaye. There are also a small number of DVDs, manuscripts and other reading materials, all of which are available to students on the first floor of Gelman.

Yoffe said the D.C. punk collection is truly unique and is of great interest to any GW student of history, music or both. No other library in the U.S. – except the Library of Congress, where Yoffe worked from 1992 to 1994 – has a collection of this kind, he said.

Citing a desire to add the work of more record labels to the collection, as well as the music of more world regions to the archive, Yoffe hopes to raise awareness of his work on campus. When not in his office on the seventh floor of Gelman, Yoffe is also an adjunct professor of Slavic languages and a regular lecturer for the music department.

Among music aficionados, the hardcore punk scene that rocked the D.C. underground throughout the 1980s might seem like an anachronism, a relic of a bygone era in political and music history. “Few bands sound like the Sex Pistols or Bad Brains today,” Yoffe said, “[but] there’s no rock music in the world today that exists without some degree of punk influence.”

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