I think that I’d have to turn in my District of Columbia driver’s license if I didn’t include a Dischord band on this list, so I’m not going to try to be cute. I picked Fugazi. The song isn’t completely obvious though, so give me credit for that at least.
I knew of Fugazi in the mid-90s when “Waiting Room” got some delayed-response alternative radio airplay. I would also see kids wearing the iconic “This is not a Fugazi shirt” tees around town and at shows and such. Shockingly, Fugazi made it out to Hawaii in 1996. A pitfall of growing up in a tropical paradise is that touring bands can’t always come through, but Fugazi made it, playing one show in Honolulu and for some reason TWO in Maui. For whatever reason, I did not go. The Honolulu show was on October 16 (thank you, Discord’s website), which was a Wednesday. There’s always so much going on in Octobers. I remember that was the year that my friends and I went for Halloween dressed as the Seven Deadly Sins and we got as much mileage out of those costumes as we possibly could, but the 16th seems rather early to be going through all of that? I can’t explain this. I do recall that they made good on their infamous $5 admission goal, despite the considerable expense it takes to play in Hawaii.
But I didn’t have an album or really get into them until college. Here’s where I admit that then and ever since, I remain a casual fan. I respect them a lot, but they’re intentionally unflashy and I don’t like unflashy music. They’re like punk granola. So here’s the story of my transition from a person who wanted say she liked Fugazi to a person who likes Fugazi fairly well.
I’ve made mention of the radio show Pete and I hosted during college. KTUH’s primary format was jazz, but they also had genre and freeform slots. We started out in the 3-6:00 AM freeform slot Friday mornings where we could play anything we wanted before graduating to a “rock” show, which ran from 9-midnight on Friday evenings. The rock format was basically freeform. I think one of the rock slots was filled by a techno/house guy at one point. Nobody was watching what we did carefully enough to notice whether we broke format, though. It was very college-radio.
I’ve also mentioned before that we mostly brought our own stuff. Ugh, what shit that was, hauling all of our hard-copy compact discs up those stairs. I had one of those long pine storage crates that held like 70 or 100 discs and just used to bring them all with me every week. Pete would carefully pick old favorites and wildcard selections to mix things up. Some songs albums we’d play from every week. We would always close the show which we called Underground Babylon with the eponymous track by nobody-80s punk band Catholic Discipline, probably only known for their appearance in the Decline of Western Civilization.
ANYWAY. Our tenure was just before digital music was very much a thing. KTUH’s in-house collection was moderate. Moderate, I think for a radio station. They had hundreds (maybe thousands?) of CDs and LPs. There was a tape deck in the studio but I don’t think they had any cassettes. A section of one of the walls in the studio had a floor-to-ceiling rack about four feet wide* with what we referred to as “carts,” the technical term for which I learned just now is the Fidelipac. It was a cartridge that looked a bit like an 8-track cartridge but I think it was a little thicker and maybe more narrow. They were developed especially for radio play which makes total sense to me because if you’re feeling lazy they’re LIFESAVERS. There was no cueing, no rewinding, you just stuck it into the player and it played. It was awesome.
*You can get a visual approximation of this in the 1996 major motion picture, Jingle All the Way. Martin Mull plays a radio DJ who teases giving away a Turbo Man action figure. Sinbad and Arnold Schwarzenegger storm the place, get in a scuffle and slam into the cart rack on the wall, jostling a dozen or so carts off of the rack and on to the floor.
Because these were so convenient, we always ended up grabbing them if we were in a pinch because we’d zoned out and didn’t cue anything else up. Unfortunately, there were just a couple of songs on these carts that fit our general format. It was a blue cart with one of those white file folder labels with the colored stripe across the top. In typewritten letters the label said Fugazi “Merchandise.”
We’d never actually heard the song before playing it and because we eventually played it so frequently, it bore its way into my consciousness. The Christmas after we discovered the song, I got Pete a copy of Repeater +3 Songs, which is still my favorite album by them. Pete took this and ran and eventually collected all of them and became my household’s big Fugazi fan.
All of this seems like a lead-up to a sentimental favorite, but it isn’t because this song stands up to the extent that I’m surprised that it’s not a standout to anyone else besides me, Pete and a couple of dozen 40somethings who lived in KTUH’s broadcast range c. 1998-2001. It has everything a Fugazi song should have. The bass* and guitar almost seem to be competing with each other for your attention which sounds like a criticism but isn’t. This all comes to a head in the bridge when the bass takes the spotlight for a sec before the guitar joins back again as if to say “yeah, that’s it.” Ian is on lead vocals in this one but Guy Picciotto steals the show with his minimal echoing which again seems to say “yeah, that’s it.”
*The bass, which is played by Joe Lally, whose nephew I started work with at Westat on the same day. We are still pals.
The lyrics are what first entranced me so. As the title would suggest, “Merchandise” is an anti-materialist anthem where the lyrics are pretty simple. At the time, I saw the theme of minimalism = freedom to be fairly novel. It’s worth mentioning that before I looked the lyrics up during my pre-post prep I’d misheard the refrain
We owe you nothing
You have no control
We ain’t nothing
You have no control
Which makes no sense but I kind of thought maybe to the second person in the song those who have nothing aren’t anything? I like it better as written.