Seeking total immersion in the early to mid-’eighties, the time in which my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, is set, I dove into the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s show, Pump Me Up, which explores the DC go-go, punk, and hardcore subcultures through memorabilia, photos, videos, and iconic Globe posters in knock-your-eye-out Day-Glo orange, red, yellow, and hot pink.
The exhibit’s chronologically arranged “funk-punk spectacular” wraps around the open first floor atrium. Times were tough then. Neighborhoods were crumbling, lethal drugs like PCP were rampant, AIDS had begun its horrifying rout of the gay population, and gangs ruled. A corrupt, but, in some quarters beloved, Marion (“Mayor for Life”) Barry had been busted for cocaine possession. Ronald Reagan, cloistered in the White House, likely had no idea what was going on in the “other Washington.”
The other Washington’s raw creative energy was bifurcated: punk was a white art form, go-go, an African American one. The twain, as far as I could see, rarely met. The joy of this show was being able to experience both halves of the underground scene: the Cramps, The Slickee Boys, Trouble Funk, and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers all coexist here in a way that they would likely never have done back in the day.
One exception was the captivating video of the boys in the Junk Yard Band playing their paint tub, hub cap, cans and pans drums on M street in front of the long-gone Gusti’s restaurant. White folks are loving it! Everyone is moving to their syncopated, utterly infectious beat. Suddenly a guy is spinning on his head on a sheet of linoleum laid out on the sidewalk for spontaneous break-dancing demonstrations, and the kids, in their powder blue matching sleeveless T-shirts and shorts, slide into choreographed dance moves worthy of the doo-wop era.
Other stand-out items include: Chuck Brown’s red leather jacket, a lurid poster for the movie “DC Cab,” skate boarders’ graffiti art notebooks, posters for a boxing match pitting Darryl “Too Sweet” Coley against Che “The Destroyer” Lars, and a “Gotta Go-Go” record jacket with a “Reagan Wants You” illustration.
I came away with a newly gritty and authentic perspective of the era and some juicy details to insert into the novel. Instead of seeing anonymous graffiti on the side of a bodega in Adams-Morgan, Mariah now sees “Cool Disco Dan’s” omnipresent tag next to a poster for “Tony Perkins and the Cramps.” When Mariah’s cab driver turns on the radio, they both hear a very specific summer hit, Chuck Brown’s “Block Party,” announced by WOL’s DJ, Moon Man. Want more? You can read an excerpt under “The Book” tab on my website.
If you live in DC, enjoy the show. It’s up until April 7. If not, check it out here: http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/pump-me-dc-subculture-1980s
And, for a real treat, pop into NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert featuring Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go: http://m.npr.org/story/130083430