Disguised in D.C.

Every city has its secrets. (And if you’re reading this in Detroit and you don’t already know that, well …)

We are constantly encouraged by chambers of commerce to construct tourist-friendly versions of places that hold untold wonders if one were to step off the beaten path — it’s just easier that way. It’s more messy and infinitely more rewarding, however to put away the guidebook and start talking to folks at bars, diners and record stores.

There are, perhaps, no U.S. destinations more oversimplified for consumption than Washington, D.C. Between the monuments, the museums and the seats of power, there’s more than enough to keep the kids from wandering too far from the tour bus. If we are to believe the postcards, people don’t actually live, breathe, eat, work, worship, die and raise families in our nation’s capital.

But we know better, don’t we?

This week, the new documentary film, The Pocket: the DC Go-Go Movement, rolls into town to provide even more evidence.

The Pocket takes as its quarry D.C.’s “go-go” music scene. Born in D.C.’s neighborhoods (or, as we are told, “pockets”) in the late ’60s, go-go is an infectiously funky hybrid of soul, rock, funk and R&B. Commingling with a core of percussion — congas, timbales, and drum kits — the nonstop beats of this underground genre connects tribal Africa to the after-hours dance club. Go-go is a bona fide native D.C. (and predominantly African-American) creation that has thrived for more than three decades, handed down like a family quilt, each generation adding its own mark, flavor and style to the hip-shaking, beat-happy core.

In The Pocket …, filmmakers Nicholas Shumaker (a former Detroiter) and Michael Cahill track a music and its attendant culture that doesn’t show up in the Billboard charts, but can bring together neighborhoods, generations and musical bloodlines for one helluva party. Through interviews with D.C. musicians, DJs, pundits and local historians — including Fugazi member/Dischord Records head Ian Mackaye, poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and writer Norman Kelly — we start to get the picture.

But the live footage and Cahill and Shumaker’s sometimes anarchic visual style communicate the go-go action best.

They freely mix disarming off-the-cuff interviews, cable-access TV show footage, and footage of talking-head newscasters who lament the violence at a go-go show. The color-saturated sequences of performances keep things clipping along apace (even if occasionally losing the narrative thread or lingering too long on a scene better served by a quick take).There’s a lot of information to get across here, and Shumaker and Cahill largely succeed in immersing the viewer in the world of go-go.

The genre’s name might be derived from the ’60s dance clubs that have now become pop-kitsch icons, but the resemblance pretty much ends there (so aspiring Nancy Sinatra knockoffs best step off). Over the course of the film, we come to understand “go-go” as an apt description for the dance-all-night performances; for the lack of silences between songs (with the gaps filled by percussion bridges and toasting); for the energy the music creates; perhaps most of all for the endurance of this organic scene.

The Pocket is an ambitious film that tracks go-go from its roots through today. That it is still a vibrant, thriving scene that shows no signs of doubt. In the flick’s first few minutes, we are treated to a club packed with revelers grooving to syncopated congas and bass funk. And in interviews with current and classic go-go artists, we are shown a scene that brings out thousands of people every weekend yet has scarcely made a blip on the mainstream radar.

Chuck Brown — the oft-acknowledged godfather of go-go — scored a hit in 1979, “Bustin’ Loose,” with his group the Soul Searchers. Chuck Brown shows were as big as any mothership landing. But flirtations with mainstream success never panned out.

The go-go tune that’s probably made the biggest impact on the mainstream psyche is the fun-but-goofy party track, “Doin’ the Butt” by Experience Unlimited. It is a telling, then, that D.C. go-go scene members featured in interviews here mention “Doin’ the Butt” either as an afterthought, a commercially successful anomaly springing from a perennially underground scene made possible only by compromise. Whether comparing go-go to hip hop, funk, soul or R&B, the folks on film here toe a hard line when it comes to commercializing, standardizing what is, essentially, a homegrown music. In fact, there’s evidence here that go-go is able to survive as a cultural phenomenon thanks to its open-ended ability to incorporate contemporary sounds, styles and rhythms while keeping its essential core of long-form, percussion-heavy, dance-friendly jams in place.

And, if only for a couple hours, In The Pocket … gives us a chance to get off the tour bus, drop the sightseeing map, and live in the real world of D.C., far from whatever guy’s currently renting 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.


In the Pocket: the DC Go-Go Movement will be showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak) on Thursday, Feb. 6. Call 248-542-0180 for further details.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected]
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