In his autobiography, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote that he walked out of the 1913 debut performance of his ballet “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps) after “derisive laughter” broke out right at the introduction. “I was disgusted,” he recalls. Despite Stravinsky’s lack of details, that night lives on in infamy through others’ accounts. Stories of police, rioting, and fighting have all became ingrained in mythos surrounding the piece itself. The initial response to Stravinsky’s music has become inseparable from the piece itself.
But according to American musicologist and Russian music scholar Richard Taruskin, the music was not what offended the audience but rather “the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by [choreographer] Vaslav Nijinsky.” Stravinsky writes that he “had to hold Nijinsky by the clothes, for he was furious and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal.” But scandal ensued regardless. Nijinsky’s choreography was only performed eight times before being replaced by that of Leonide Massine in 1920, and a laundry list of 20 choreographers even after that. The Rite of Spring would live on, but Nijinsky’s original was almost forgotten forever.
I received a text message on June 30, 2016 at 8:11 PM of two photos. The first was a letter. The let- terhead featured a simple drawing of a desk in purple against the words “from the desk of Guy Picciotto” (pronounced Gee Pi-CHO-toe) written in a fake cur- sive font. The letter reads like a postmodernist poem:
Headstock from my blue 1981
Gibson SG #80231606
Smashed April 25 1985
at Columbia University Concert
with Beefeater + H.R. from the
Rites of Spring
The second photo was of the headstock itself. The headstock, which is actually painted Gibson “Pelham Blue” to be exact, features an inscription, made by Guy, of the band’s name (Rites of Spring), the date of the show (4/25/85), his signature (x Guy x), and a drawing of a small flower.
“Where did this letter come from?” I asked.
“It’s up for auction on eBay right now.”
The band Rites of Spring was formed in Washington DC in 1984. Just a few year prior, DC had established itself as one of the most important scenes in the new genre of American hardcore through bands like Minor Threat, The Faith, and Bad Brains, and through Dischord Records, a label ran by Minor Threat/Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye who was responsible for releasing and documenting the major- ity of the city’s bands. By 1983, many of the bands that had defined harDCore were breaking up as the scene was becoming increasingly violent.
Guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto (previously of Insurrection), guitarist Eddie Janney (previously of The Faith), bassist Michael Fellows (previously of Government Issue), and drummer Brendan Canty (previously of Deadline) formed Rites of Spring in direct response to what was happening in their hometown scene. Rites of Spring’s demo starts off with a simple acoustic guitar saturated with delay and someone singing “All is quiet / on Arbor Day” only to be cut off mid-sentence to start the track “End on End,” where Picciotto sings “I’ve had days of end on end / When nothing changed cause nothing ever began.”
In February of 1985, after a quick hiatus due to Fellows going to California to work on balloon arrangements for the LA Olympics, Rites of Spring would record their debut LP which was released later in the year under Dischord. They were challenging hardcore norms, following in the footsteps of the bands that had come before them but forging nonetheless a path all their own. The band’s live shows were as frantic as their music powerful. People credited them with creating “emo,” a claim Rites of Spring denies. DC was having a renaissance in what they called their “Revolution Summer” with bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace, Gray Matter, and Fire Party. Rites of Spring recorded four more songs but broke up in January of 1986 before the record was released.
“Everyone was bringing in songs and it felt really productive, so when we stopped playing it was really a damn shame to be honest with you,” Canty said. “If had been up to Guy and I, we would have done it indefinitely.”
Rites of Spring has gone on to become a canonical band remembered for their introspective lyrics, frenzied songs, and also for their equipment smashing.
In 1987, after sixteen years of intense research and labor, the Joffrey Ballet company re-debuted the lost choreography to “The Rite of Spring.” Dance and art historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer meticulously recreated Nijinsky’s direction by consulting an original score by Stravinsky which included staging descriptions, interviewing Nijinsky’s rehearsal assistant Marie Rambert, and even literally going as far as going to India to inter- view Nicholas Roerich about the ballet’s original costume designs.
Nijinsky’s movement was finally able to be appreciated as critics and fans enjoyed this new-old version. Maybe now Stravinsky wouldn’t be holding Nijinsky back from rushing the stage. But it wasn’t as simple as waiting years for audience to catch up to artist. The reconsideration and reconstruction of “The Rite of Spring” required a group of experts pulling together copious amounts of research to create something that had ceased to exist.
“It’s funny, I was just sitting around going like, ‘Do I remember much about this show?’ We played with H.R., right?” Brendan Canty asked me over the phone. I told him that, yes, H.R. was on the show.
The thing that made this show peculiar, I told him, is that I never even knew it happened until I saw that Guy auctioned off the headstock (which sold for $3,200) this summer. Canty laughed. “I never even knew Rites of Spring really played out of DC,” I said.
In fact, the whole history of the band seemed to be slightly obscured. The Dischord website lists the band as having played fifteen total shows while Picciotto recalled nineteen shows. Canty cited two out-of-town shows, Picciotto three (the other out-of- town shows being the agreed upon Detroit with Sonic Youth and Laughing Hyenas and a Baltimore show that only Picciotto mentioned).
I started to dig for information about what happened on April 25, 1985. I found out that the show, booked by DC punk and Barnard alum Lydia Ely, was at The Ferris Booth Hall Entertainment Complex, or The ‘Plex for short. From what I could gather, The ‘Plex was essentially the equivalent to Lerner Hall Party Space but with a fully stocked bar. The Spectator wrote that “The Complex provides a video game room, a dance floor, and a lounge with a food counter. While the dance floor is small, the sound system and lights are highly sophisticated.”
Canty thought it was like playing in a cafeteria and Picciotto remembered “the ‘Plex space” as “having a slightly antiseptic vibe.” He recalls: “It wasn’t a club or an underground venue but more like a student center with fluorescent lights and tables for eating – does that sound right?” I didn’t know how to answer his question, I had never been there and there were no pictures or video. I was five years from being born when this show happened.
I also found out that the show wasn’t very well attended. Picciotto said the show “wasn’t a big gig by any mean[s]” while Canty laughed telling me that “It’s not like... the greatest show.” Canty added, “There weren’t a ton of people there, I remember that much.”
And of course, I already knew that a guitar was smashed. In an interview with Greed Fanzine in 1986, Eddie Janney remembered that when the band started they “destroyed everything, even before we played live.” Rites’ destructive nature seemed to become as much a part of their legacy as the music itself. One of the most iconic photos of the band is one in which Janney is just throwing a guitar into the air while Picciotto is face down on the ground, shirtless. Ian MacKaye, of the band Fugazi (who Canty and Picciotto were also both members of) and Dischord Records, actually pointed out that this photo is from the Columbia show that “ate Guy’s guitar,” as he remembers it.
“It was a pretty amazing gig!” MacKaye said. When asked about smashing guitars, Picciotto said, “It mostly wasn’t done intentionally and was definitely never premeditated–more of a heat of the moment type thing. For sure we never had any back-up guitars with us. Most of the time it was like colliding on stage and snapping the neck off by accident. That is what happened at Columbia. I think I broke my mine about 2/3 of the way through the show and had to just sing without a guitar for the last couple of songs – then at some point Eddie broke his guitar too so the show was over.”
My original attempt to reconstruct a show that seemed to be swallowed up by time was quickly being thwarted. The thing that I was most certain of was that the people involved were unable to retrieve many specific memories from that night. Picciotto told me that his “memories of that gig aren’t super specific or detailed” while MacKaye didn’t “remember many specifics about the ROS performance.” And what could I expect? I was looking for people to remem- ber 30 minutes of a night that happened over 30 years ago.
In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes, “In reading what I have written about ‘the Sacre,’ the reader will perhaps be astonished to notice how little I have said about the music. The omission is deliberate. It is impossible, after the lapse of twenty years to recall what were the feelings which animated me in composing it. One can recol- lect facts or incidents with more or less exactitude, but one cannot reconstitute feelings without the risk of distorting them under the influence of the many changes that one has meanwhile undergone. Any account I were to give today of what my feelings were at that time might prove as inexact and arbitrary as if someone else where interpreting them.”
While talking to Picciotto, I told him that beyond the difficulty of asking people to talk about a night from 1985, it seemed almost more difficult to simply be able to talk about the past in a way that seemed authentic, especially with a band whose entire career and performances can now be reduced and romanticized to describing a band who played fifteen shows and smashed their guitars while also giving a substantial contribution to music.
“I agree with you on the memory thing,” Picciotto told me. “A lot of time it’s like comparing a piece of beef jerky to a living cow–there is some shared substance there but it’s pretty far removed.