Archivist Chronicles D.C. Punk Pandemoniumby Sala Levin ’10 | Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle; illustration by Valerie Morgan
Moshing fans, thrashing guitars and ripped T-shirts aplenty may not be what the shushing librarians of your youth had in mind for their archives, but deep within the stacks of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library, punk rock lives. John Davis ’99, performing arts metadata archivist there, started the collection with his personal cache of photographs, concert flyers and fanzines documenting decades of Washington, D.C.’s thriving hardcore punk scene that gave birth to bands like Fugazi, Government Issue and Bad Brains. Davis started off as a fan, then became the drummer in the D.C. post-hardcore band Q And Not U. We talked with Davis about what drew him to punk music, his radical career change and why he thinks punk and archive work go hand in hand.
Were you always interested in music?
Yeah, as far back as I can remember. My dad worked in radio, so we got to go to radio stations and get free records. I eventually started to play music. I was looking for an identity, being 14, 15 years old and not really liking most of what life was like in high school, and not really wanting to be into drugs and drinking and all the things that everybody felt they had to do to fit in. I liked rejecting that. Punk was a good way to do that.
What was working at WMUC like?
I was given the 6-to-9-a.m. shift. I was living off campus at the time, so I once even spent the night at a 24-hour computer lab, then slept on the couch in the radio station for a couple hours and then did my show. The dining hall would open at 7 a.m. or something like that and I’d put on a long song, like a 20-minute Sonic Youth song, and go downstairs and get breakfast.
How did Q And Not U get started?
We all were obsessed with music and local music and we really, really wanted to be a part of it. And we’d all been in bands to some degree, but it never really felt full-on. We were all at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring and we’re like, are we going to do this? And we did.
How did you get into archival work?
I knew Vincent Novara, who’s the curator here. He’s an amazing drummer and he was in punk bands. He was always willing to [offer] me a part-time project that I could work on when I was home from tour. So when I realized that I couldn’t make a living anymore playing music, I got into the MLIS program at Catholic University. Then there happened to be something here part-time, and I just hung around and worked my way to a faculty position.
When did you start your personal collection of punk ephemera?
Starting from high school—those were flyers and photographs I took, and punk fanzines. I had heard of a couple of different institutions that collected stuff like that, so I thought maybe we can do that here. We started with zines, and that wound up being a pretty well-used collection. Once we showed that there’s genuine academic research being done with these materials, we thought, let’s get more.
It seems like a lot of punk people are also into archive and library work. Why do you think that is?
I don’t have a fully formed theory about it yet, but I do think that telling stories, sharing enthusiasm, documenting what went on, documenting ephemeral activities and materials from a community that’s generally overlooked—all of those things sort of fit in with the punk mindset of communicating and sharing ideas and doing it yourself.
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