This piece was first composed July 10, 2001, as an email to three friends then expanded and revised in the spring of 2002 in a creative nonfiction course. Yes, it’s a true story—the Real MacKaye. 🙂
If ever you eat at My Viet in Fargo, North Dakota, check out the upright beverage cooler crammed with fruit and ginseng drinks next to the register. On top of it you’ll find an ivory metal picture frame with ornate filigree—a black and white photo of the band Fugazi with a Sharpie caption reading,
Hello My Viet Restaurant! Thanks so much for returning the bag we left, and thanks for the great food! – Ian and Fugazi, Wash D.C.
I’m not even sure I want to go. Yeah, I’d have fun, but the intangible still holds me—the fear of ghosts rising from the cellar of my memory and a basement long ago bulldozed in reality. As Fargo’s most notorious punk house in the early-to-mid ’90s, the Perot House, named for its perpetual Vote Ross Perot poster hung in the window, was eventually deemed unsound and razed to the ground.
Why I attended the shows in this graffitied, broken basement, I’m not sure. An attempt to identify, if only by difference? An admiration for domestic chaos? An enthusiasm for grinding noise and anti-ism action and do-it-yourself philosophy? Whatever the case, I’d stick to the shadows, nameless, fifteen, and not fitting in, warmed yet hollowed by the nods of recognition stopping short of conversation, not that I would have anything to say. On the fringe of the misfits, out of step with those against the grain, I’d walk away estranged.
But five and some years later, on June 28, 2001, with the exception of these memories of stifling frustrations, I have no excuse to stay home, having ready transportation and no other obligations, admission set at only six bucks—such is the profit-scorning, media-eluding, music-industry-defying, sound-is-for-everyone nature of Fugazi. Fugazi. In Fargo, North Dakota.
Punk Rock History Abridged: this Washington, D.C., band is fronted in part by Ian MacKaye, the man responsible for coining the term straight-edge through his lyrics in Minor Threat in the early 1980s. In reaction to the behaviors commonly associated with punk, the straight-edge ethos promotes a lifestyle of abstinence from drugs, alcohol, smoking and promiscuous sex. Though the meaning of straight-edge has been expanded, redefined and unfortunately convoluted, most adherents would agree that the core of the ideology hasn’t changed: demonstrate regard for one’s self and environment and strive for improvement both personal and collective.
While I recall my older brothers cranking the Complete Discography from my dad’s stereo speakers, I don’t remember when I first heard Minor Threat. The band having formed the year I was born, the music and message always felt like intuition, an explanation for behavior and emotions inherent.
For this reason and my acknowledgement that my substance-free stance might eventually change, I don’t claim the X; I think, admittedly facetiously, this attitude of denial has more to do with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground than MacKaye’s “Out of Step.” Nevertheless, the distress yet conscious decision behind “I can’t keep up, I can’t keep up, I can’t keep up. Out of step—with the world” has resounded in the background of my entire existence, providing for me a space to breathe and feel comfortable with and not alone in the choices I make in a culture fixated on getting drunk, stoned and laid.
However profound this formative experience, my immersion in hardcore was cursory at best before techno took over, leaving me with only a passing familiarity with Fugazi, the band Ian later formed with Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally, and Brendan Canty. To attend this show would require me to pretend I know the words to the songs like so many Perot House twenty minute scream-sets with me trial-and-error mouthing along, clinging to a spray-painted and markered wall, though I know—five years later, educated with electric rhythm, I know how to dance to anything and couldn’t control myself did I care to.
To go to this show would mean seeing old faces and experiencing old feelings, the confinement of that teenage angst I want to throw away, though I know—I still feel it at twenty, though maybe… maybe this time will be different. Besides. Considering the void that is Fargo’s live music scene, when a legendary band makes an appearance, you go.
Enter Playmaker’s Pavilion: a warehouse venue with barroom chandeliers, bare walls and a concrete floor. I scan the milling faces, strangers old and new. For two years tucked in Minneapolis, I’m distant from this scene and yes, always was, and long before I left for school, but this is visiting a playground built in a graveyard, wide-eyed kids in band tees with grim and giggly and terrified expressions racing about mingling with the phantoms of my past.
I recognize and am recognized, cutting through the crowd with confidence now, though I can’t escape thinking of that darkened basement I lived and died within within, trying to figure out who the hell I am, always so shy without connecting eyes or saying a damn thing—and nor did I now, to the many without names though there’s knowing nods and smiles as usual, and holding on when falling down in the pit. In the then I knew no one, and no one knew me and I was silent but I went anyway, sunk into the sound, in something that moved me and made me think and feel it hurts to be alive and to be alive is amazing when five years later, sweat is communication, dancing transmission of everything thought, felt, dreamed and known.
Wearing old sneakers, faded tee shirts and resolute expressions, the middle-aged men of Fugazi take the stage, and in the crowd there are no strangers, we all pressing closer to the worn, honest figures we want to connect us further—take us away with sound experimental, stunning and numbing Out of Step? no, stepping beyond the circle of calamity and the cage of youth, confirming that no matter how sincere the frustrations of our yesteryear, angst does not age well.
Squinting through the dim at our expectancy, Ian MacKaye grins, shouting, “Turn up the lights! The stage lights, the house lights, everything, on!” The darkness dies and eyes all around collide we can see, “Can everyone see us?”
Someone in the audience cries out, “Yes, can you see us?!”
“Who said that!” Ian answers with mock severity, and everyone laughs. Everyone. Can see. Everyone.
The next thing out of his mouth concerns a family-run hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant, my favorite restaurant: “We just ate at My Viet—now that is an excellent place to eat, excellent food, excellent service. In fact, one of us forgot something, and the lady got in her car to catch up with us and return it. Everyone should patronize this business,” or along those lines that just keep coming. “Last time we were in Fargo was ten years ago, at… what was the venue? The Elks Something or Other?”
“The Elks Lodge!” scattered voices in the crowd reply.
“That’s it, and the promoter was a great guy, what was his name, Bjork? Christianson?”
“Of course, Bjorn, didn’t he move to Seattle?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right! If anyone sees Bjorn, tell him Ian says hi!” then BAM, into the music / moves me / complex and incredible, I stomping out hard the few songs I know and making do with what I have and there’s a lot inside me for the ones I don’t. I can see who I’m running into, see who sees me, see where I’ve been, see where I’m going, see everything so close to my memories and someone who inspires me—influences my lifestyle, my outlook, my writing, my everything that means anything, and Ian MacKaye is no god, just some guy, grinning, gazing powerfully with the sweat and spit flying I saw a piece of history I felt fifteen. The silence filled, the confusion gone, the lights were on, and I could see.
Twelve evenings later, my dad and I debate about where to eat. I suggest asian but don’t feel like My Viet since we eat there at least once a week, but we go anyway, and it’s not like I’d complain—the tofu is divine, the restaurant one of the few in Fargo where a vegetarian can eat for enjoyment instead of mere subsistence. The kim chee is a kick in the pants and the warm rice noodle and cabbage salads lessons in humility, simple—and simply amazing.
Young children dash about but pause and slow for the customers, then sneak into the adjoined asian-goods store stocked with fifty pound bags of rice and mud puppies coiled in glass jars while Grandma and Father make magic in the kitchen and Mother and Daughter serve with impeccable hospitality. My Viet is a refuge in a city of conventionalities, fast-food chains and smorgasbord blah—a restaurant for the brave who like encountering different tastes, an experience for the jaded who want something new.
As we walk to the entrance, my dad notices the license plate on a van. “These guys came here all the way from Virginia!” he comments jokingly.
“As well they should,” I reply, smiling. Entering the nearly empty restaurant, we take our usual booth and begin to compose the perfect arrangement of appetizers and entrees. A couple minutes pass when someone walks in, and it doesn’t take me half a thought to realize who it is, though I only see his profile before he turns away from me, requesting ice to go and waiting, his bald head bent holy shit, it’s—naaaaw… but Virginia plates! I look to my dad and hiss low, “It’s him! It’s him!”
Feeling grounded by all those times, those faces I knew I’m silent and shy and having nothing to say, but I have to say something. If I don’t, I’ll regret it till the day I die, but what do you say to ordinary people? just some guy and I’m frozen dumb as time slips gone just a memory but I know it’s “Ian!” The figure jumps startled, partially turning one way and then the other, full-around staring at me struck. “Uh… I saw your show a couple weeks ago, it was amazing.”
And he grins.
And comes over.
And we talk.
I tell him I remember him mentioning this place. “This is my favorite restaurant,” I say, “and when you were talking about it, I was like yes.”
“Yeah, we ate here and forgot a bag that had all sorts of papers and passport stuff, which we really needed because we were crossing the border the next day, and they delivered it to the venue. Such great food, too. We’re coming back from Vancouver right now, and we figured we gotta stop at My Viet.”
The conversation continues without direction but it’s shameless and honest and without pretension or the awkwardness of my consciousness and compulsion to write that are in debt to everything he represents: self-respect and forward thinking, doing what you love on a shoestring you choose, an entire life creating a source to move yourself and countless strangers without bending to convention or compromising ideals.
I tell him to take care, and he wishes me the same with another nod and smile before collecting his ice and passing through the door. Only then do I start trembling, or maybe only then do I notice it, care, allow it to control me, staring in disbelief at my dad who sits in the glow of my shock, grinning at my amazement, aware of what this means to me—my dad—who never minded when his kids blasted Minor Threat—my dad—who two weeks ago read an interview with Ian in a local paper, admired Fugazi’s disregard for commercialization, and downloaded several mp3s.
“Wow,” he says.
I. Met. Ian MacKaye. I looked him in the eyes and my life reflected back to me—all the silence, all the shyness, all the anxiety that made me but will never become me.
I’m just some kid—without a name—in just some town. And that’s just fine.