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Fugazi: Steady Diet of Nothing (1991)

September 19, 2012

Fugazi Steady Diet of Nothing coverRoll: 3-2-4
Album: Fugazi, Steady Diet of Nothing

Whenever I think of Fugazi‘s Steady Diet of Nothing the thing that comes to mind immediately is “butt ugly silver ink.” Not the music, not the initial sense of disappointment and boredom I experienced upon listening to it—it’s the silver spot-colour that was on the spine of the cassette.

It deeply offended me for some reason.

I’ve since owned the album on vinyl, and hated the ink then, and now on CD and I still find the silver ink hideous. Perhaps it clashes with the colours of the rest of the design. I’m not really sure what it is. It’s also always annoyed me that the photo is only slightly crooked.

At the time of release—the summer after my high school graduation—I thought the silver ink seemed uncharacteristically opulent and self-indulgent for the band. As if they’d sold-out their whole punk philosophy on one graphic embellishment; as if they should have been down at the Kinko’s photocopying all the covers and inserts like “real” DIY punks. I mean, who the fuck did Ian MacKaye think he was using a garish metallic ink? He may as well get Budweiser to sponsor their next tour.

Admittedly, this was a bit of a completely unreasonable attitude.

But more reasonably, I felt like they were trying to polish a turd with this album, which I found boring and impenetrably abstract compared to their earlier work. Though never commercially-minded, songs like “Waiting Room“, “Margin Walker” and “Repeater” are as hooky as can of earworms as alternative rock ever produced.

I remember I was on the Route 19 school bus the first time I heard Margin Walker (1989). It was being played on the ghetto blaster of a girl named Trista. The skies parted like the slashes in the green vinyl of the bus seats. Here was a band delivering on all the promises made by Bad Brains, RHCP and Jane’s Addiction in one tightly controlled blast of aggression. For what seemed like the first time, I was hearing expert musicians playing complex grooves without sacrificing any of their raw, punk attitude. It was something I previously believed was impossible. One or the other, never both.

With Steady Diet it felt like sacrifices were starting to be made. I thought Fugazi were trying to distract their audience from the fact they’d recorded their first crap album with a literally shiny package. I don’t remember exactly what my friend Keith and I said when we listened to it, but I think we both expressed a disappointment their music was stagnating. I do have a vivid memory of my sneering at the silver ink in his bedroom.

Like pop music had for so many other generations before us, it felt like everything was exploding in an unprecedented detonation of passion and creativity for the first time ever. I think “just another Fugazi album” seemed like something the world simply didn’t need. Apparently I’d rather put on a three-year-old Pixies album (or even a decade-old Bauhaus album) instead.

I find these old criticisms of the music terribly amusing now. Taking into consideration the Fugazi albums that would follow—and the other albums released in 1991 (fewer seminal classics and a whole lot more complete dross than I remembered)—in hindsight this is a career, and genre, highlight.

Though there is a drop in intensity from their previous work, at times it’s only a barely perceptible reigning in. It’s the kind  of album at which reviewers toss the words “greater maturity and depth” (and probably influenced me against the album as that phrase is usually code for “bullshit navel gazing with needless musical wanking”). It’s also a statement that’s a tad disingenuous since, from their first EP (1988), Fugazi brought depth and maturity to the table. Their music was always rich in texture and groove, the lyrics were always insightful. As far as punk rock goes, it was always grown up.

On the otherhand, though the production and arrangements on Steady Diet are texturally rich, the songs themselves do come off a bit like b-sides from Repeater (1990). It’s not necessarily the case that listeners willing to put in the time will reap rewards with repeated listens. “Latin Roots” really is perhaps the only song that sticks in your head afterwards and even then I always  hear “Dirty Boots” (the Sonic Youth single from the previous year) instead. The rest, as good as it is in many ways, is kind of just… there.

Speaking of “Latin Roots”, I’ve also always heard the line “It’s time to meet your maker” as “It’s time to meet Jamaicans.” I thought that made sense and for years took it for granted there’s a deep-seeded antagonism between the Jamaican and Latin communities in the D.C. area. Who knows, maybe there is.

What is for sure is Steady Diet has weathered a whole lot better than the big break-out “punk rock” album 1991, Nevermind. Yet not as well as the other biggie, Loveless. And though the songs on Pixies’ ’91 album Trompe Le Monde are better, the music here is better. Make of those irrelevancies what you will.

Bottom line: Steady Diet isn’t the wash-out I always thought it was. Just that horrible silver ink.

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