Since forming in 1987, Fugazi has managed to reinvent how punk rock is musically defined. Singer/guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally first developed an ever-shifting style in Washington, D.C., that was noticeably more rhythmically driven than other contemporary bands. Pounding guitars gave way to hypnotic patterns that constantly grappled between louds and softs. The group was also predisposed to tackling instrumentals -- ones that functioned more in terms of mood than technical exercises. With MacKaye's and Picciotto's dissimilar voices alternating lead chores, lyrics were delivered in the happy medium between talking and screaming, with words weighted toward political and social commentary. Previously, Mackaye was also the founder of seminal hardcore punk act Minor Threat (1980-83). Fugazi has been on an "indefinite hiatus" since '02. In the interim, MacKaye has put out three albums with The Evens, a duo he formed with his drummer wife, Amy Farina.
"Part of my reticence about speaking to a site that is called Worst Gig is that this is not necessarily the 'worst gig.' There are different ideas about what tends to be good or bad. But often adversity is what makes a gig great. So, in fact, this is not a 'bad' gig. It was just a completely insane situation that we found ourselves in the middle of.
"In my mind, some of the worst gigs I ever played were in front of audiences where I felt like we could do no wrong and therefore didn't have to try doing anything right. I didn't feel good at the end of it; I basically felt like we could have been terrible and people still would have said, 'You're brilliant.' That doesn't move the ball.
"But the story I'm going to tell you is about a particular gig Fugazi played in 1990. It was a gig that happened in circumstances that were completely unmanageable. It got completely out of control, and it was a complete surprise.
"It was our first time to Poland. We had played through Scandinavia. We did a show in Sweden. The next day we took a ferry boat to the north of Poland to a town called Pila. It was a really nice gig. People were dancing together. It was sort of like playing in a discotheque. There was a nice energy.
"The next night we played a university in Warsaw. It was very nice people putting the show on. They were college kids. We got there and it was a beautiful room, filled with wood -- which is always a very positive thing for sound in our book. We sound checked. We were in good spirits. They had prepared a dinner for us down at a dorm house about two blocks away on the campus. We had a rented van from Holland with us, and we took that down and parked it behind the building. We had all our worldly possessions in the van, so we were very keen to keep our eye on it at all times. In Poland and other Eastern European countries, there had been a lot of reports of van theft, so we were nervous about it.
"We met a bunch of university students. Some of them spoke English, which was great because we spoke no Polish. We were grateful for their ability to communicate with us. They made dinner for us. Everything was nice. At some point I thought, 'I'm going to have a nap.' Before showtime I like to stretch out for 10 minutes.
"Later, I heard a bunch of talking outside the room, and one of the band members came in and said, 'The promoters just came down and said we've got a problem with some skinheads. You guys stay here. Don't come to the venue until we come get you.' We decided to stay there. It was not that unusual, so I went back to my nap. Skinheads were sort of the bane of our existence in the late '80s and early '90s. They caused a lot of problems in all countries. I was a little surprised to hear about Polish skinheads. This was shortly after they had left the Soviet bloc. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Skinheads tended to be very right-wing people, and that was a very hard push to the right when the socialist governments started to retreat.
"About five minutes later there was even more of a stir. So someone came in and said, 'They want us at the venue right now. Get up. We need to get up there!'
"I started getting up and getting our stuff together, and I heard like a roar of a crowd coming down the street. It was all this yelling and stuff, and windows started breaking. Basically, there had been a fight with these skinheads, and there were a lot of them. I actually just spoke with a Polish guy recently, and I thought there was maybe 20 or 30, and he said there were 100. So there were a lot of guys. The students had gotten into a fight with them because the students said, 'You can't come to the gig.' Then the skinheads attacked. But, really, skinheads were there only to attack anyway.
"This is still in the late afternoon before doors (opened). The students came running down to us, and they were chased by this army of skinheads. They ran into the house, then it was just a full-on assault against the house. My brother (Alec) was on the front porch when he saw the skinheads come running up. One of the skinheads jumped up on a porch railing and kicked my brother in the face and almost put his head through a window.
"At this point all the Polish students we were talking with were hysterically running around. No one had time to speak English with us, so we couldn't figure out what the hell was going on. I understand it now. But at the time all I knew was that the windows were breaking and there was an army of skinheads out front attacking the building. The students bolted all the doors and jammed them up with chairs, and skinheads were trying to kick their way in. My thinking was, 'We need to get out of here, and we need to get the van out of here.'
"If the van gets destroyed, we were ruined. Our tours generally were many, many shows in row and a lot of driving. If you were to miss one show, it would really screw you up because you were suddenly 12 to 15 hours away from somewhere instead of eight hours away. And we were in Poland. Who knows if the van could get fixed? Also, there's nothing to fix if the van gets burned to the ground.
"We all got together and crawled out the window. Everybody got in the van but me. We could hear the fighting going on out front and we didn't want to risk going back out in the street. Behind these dorms there were grassy lawns, so we drove all the way up the lawns behind the houses to get back up toward the venue. I was in front -- not in the van -- and I would run up to the edge of the building and look around the gaps, then wave them through with the lights off.
"Then we got up to the venue -- we had all the gear at the venue, so we're not going to leave that. A few of us got out and said to the van, 'Just go.' So they headed to central Warsaw and just drove around. At this point there were busloads of military police -- like these riot police guys with white batons and gloves and helmets. The fighting was down the street at this point, but it was making its way back up. We went into the venue, and I remember there were people on the floor with their teeth knocked out. There were all these terribly injured people lying all around. It looked like a casualty ward.
"The police finally got everybody settled down and the fighting stopped. Then there was the discussion like, 'Is this gig going to happen?' Our position was, 'We came to play music. We're not interested in skinheads deciding that we can't, but ultimately it's your venue and your situation.'
They wanted to do the gig.
"The show started, and there was a handful of skinhead kids who were still trying to come into the gig. They were maybe sidelined because they weren't the ones in the middle of the fray, but they were connected and the promoters wouldn't let them in. Finally they said, 'If you come in and start any trouble, then we'll have you arrested. But to make sure you don't, you have to leave your ID papers with us.'
"In Poland you had to always carry ID. So the skinheads agreed.
"The show itself was pretty great. There was a lot of anger because people were very frustrated about the situation. A lot of times people got on the mic and would yell stuff. But I felt like, 'That's the point of music. That's why we're here. We're not going to let violence derail that.'
"Unbeknownst to all of us, the promoters were busily photocopying all the IDs while the show was on. They used those photocopies to put together a class-action lawsuit and took all those kids to court.
"It was an epic gig, I have to say. Coming up with punk rock, through the American punk hardcore scene, then with Fugazi, dealing with the thug repercussions of that explosive moment, I've seen an awful lot of fighting, really insane stuff. But I don't think I've ever experienced anything on that scale. ... I think it was even more underscored by the fact we weren't able to communicate. My strongest power is my ability to communicate. I've waded into so many crazy situations just talking to people. I don't have any problem with that. I have walked 12 to 15 white-power skinheads out of a venue and given them all their money back, discussing and arguing with them all the way. But I can't discuss or argue with people whose language I don't speak, and whose grievance I don't understand or know about.
"I was just taking a nap."
— Ian MacKaye, Fugazi