In the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., a young woman walks with her shaved head down, blocking out the lewd comments shouted at her until she reaches a secluded house, tucked away behind greenery. She slams the door behind her, not pausing to take off her combat boots, and angrily rants to the others in the house — also donning shaved heads and combat boots — about the call-outs she received during her commute.
“Why can’t I walk down a street free of suggestion?” wrote Ian MacKaye for the song “Suggestion” by Fugazi. “Suggestion” was about this young woman’s experience: walking to work every day and facing harassment.
“I walked down the street and people would yell at me either ‘cause I looked fucked up in their eyes, or because I was female,” Amy Pickering, MacKaye’s friend, and inspiration for “Suggestion,” said. “I didn’t know how to deal with that.”
In the Washington, D.C. punk scene of the early 1980s, it was commonplace for musicians to express their frustrations with the world around them through their music, and living in the capital of the U.S. further politically and socially motivated the youth of the era to create a DIY punk scene notably different from the rest of the country. D.C. punk was intellectual, witty, angry, and loud. And it was in this community that Amy Pickering found shelter from the harassment and bonded with like-minded individuals. Pickering wasn’t only the inspiration for Ian MacKaye to write “Suggestion,” but she also had an invisible hand in keeping the D.C. punk scene from self-destructing in the summer of 1985.
Pickering’s introduction to punk was admiring the cool older kids on the street corner in Georgetown. She wanted to be just like them, so she decided to go into a record store owned by a long-haired hippie named Rick that all the kids frequented..
“He had a Youth Brigade 7-inch on his counter, and he said, ‘you should buy this.’ And I said, ‘okay.’ I didn’t know,” she said. “And it was awesome.”
“It was really weird because until I bought the 7-inch [record] I kind of didn’t realize how much I was looking for my people. I mean, I knew I wasn’t quite fitting in with all my high school friends, but it wasn’t until I got that record that I realized, ‘Oh wow. I really have been outside because this is where I wanna be instead.’”
Amy knew she belonged immediately, and she always felt welcome by her peers, despite their appearance. The scene never pushed her out because she was a woman — or a bit “different.”
As a whole, the D.C. punk scene was tight-knit. During the concerts, audience members would often be on the same stage as the band playing. People of all genders and ages slam danced to the fast, aggressive music together, shoving each other around in a playful manner as a way to let off some steam.Pickering continued to delve deeper into the Washington D.C. punk scene. She volunteered at Dischord Records, a local record label started by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, first making sleeves for 7-inches by scrounging up cardboard then pasting on the album cover.
“Me and Jeff Nelson are like the best cardboard connoisseurs on this planet, really,” Amy said. She eventually became a permanent employee at Dischord and was extremely close with her coworkers.
However, things shifted in D.C. as bands like Minor Threat began gaining traction outside of the city limits and pulling in people from out of town and different D.C. factions – such as skinheads and grits, whose ideologies were conservative in comparison to those of punks. The factions began to clash, the bands themselves faced personal tension, and the shows overall became increasingly violent.
“I didn’t wanna slam dance anymore because the guys who were in the pit were hurting you,” Amy said, voicing a common complaint of people who found themselves in these dangerous situations. This violence was also not limited to the duration of the shows; after shows, punks and skinheads would fight on the streets for no reason. Many punk fans didn’t want any part of this, and the community began to dwindle. .
Being based in D.C. added a layer of international awareness to the environment as well, and with global issues such as apartheid dominating the local conversations, there was seemingly no escaping the near constant conflict.
“You can’t just turn off the radio,” Pickering said. She saw the decline of her community, watched her friends decide the music wasn’t worth the drama or the violence anymore. Many people thought the D.C. punk scene would be gone by the summer of 1985.
“We’re just going down the drain like this,” Pickering said, making a downward spiral motion with her hands. “Slowly going down the drain. Let’s make a change.” And make a change she did.
Without any further context, three different paper notes with “Revolution Summer” written on them popped up. No one knew who wrote the notes, but it made those within the scene stop and think. It made people want to make changes again.
Pickering was the one who wrote the notes. “New bands started, we staged a whole bunch of protests,” she said. She said she wanted to make people think, “I wanted it to be self-questioning.”
Because of what Pickering calls her “ransom notes,” the summer of 1985 reignited the dying spark of the Washington D.C. punk scene, and it continued to have a lasting impact upon alternative music. From D.C. punk came D.C. hardcore, a.k.a. harDCore, with bands like Rites of Spring delving into emotional turbulence in their lyrics. Rites of Spring is often credited with jumpstarting the emotional hardcore subgenre; or emo for short.
Positive Force DC was formed in response to the notes as well, which was an activist group that held benefit concerts with D.C. punk bands to raise money for community and activism groups.
Her action continued to give her a community to turn to throughout her life. She worked at Dischord Records for 22 consecutive years before moving away from the D.C. area and working at an art museum in New York until about a month ago.
Pickering is now in her 50s and stays active – both physically and in the music scene. She enjoys rock climbing and going to the gym, and she keeps a drum kit in her garage, which she’s played since she inherited Jeff Nelson’s old drum kit in the 80s. “I like it, but I still suck,” she said.
She plans on returning to the D.C. hardcore community now that she’s unemployed. “There’s some projects at DC I never got to finish,” she said. “So I’m probably gonna go down and work down there a little bit more down at Dischord.”
It is safe to say that whatever Pickering does next in D.C., it will inspire others in the community to keep it alive.