Reappraising Steady Diet of Nothing

The 30th Anniversary of Fugazi’s Most Underrated LP

“Though the album is a bit of a ‘sleeper’ in many people’s eyes (ears?),” Ian MacKaye recently wrote to me, “the songs on that album were probably played by us live more than the others over the years”.

The band we can't forget. Capital Beltway, 2014.

The songs to which the singer/guitarist refers are those on the chronically underestimated and criminally overlooked Steady Diet of Nothing, Fugazi’s second full-length offering. 

Steady Diet was recorded and released during the fateful year of 1991, “the year punk broke“, or so declared by the title of an infamous VHS tape sold by the David Geffen Company. The Fugazi record celebrated its 30th birthday only a few months ago.

My exchange with Ian MacKaye about Fugazi’s second album came about after my research into the LP hit a strange roadblock. What started on email transitioned to a phone interview, which will be published next week. 

The question that started it all was, I thought, pretty simple: Why had Fugazi decided to call their second album “Steady Diet of Nothing”? Who thought of that title and what did it “mean”? 

A Wikipedia page for the album said the phrase was an allusion to something spoken by the late Texas comedian Bill Hicks. 

Articles about Steady Diet of Nothing on music websites like Kerrang!, PunkNews, and elsewhere repeat the Bill Hicks story. But the Bill Hicks story is wrong.

I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth and just email Ian MacKaye directly.  

There was some precedence to my doing this: When I was a skateboarding teenager in Texas in the early 1990s and had newly — and happily — discovered Fugazi, I quickly acquired as much of the band’s music as I could. 

The first thing I bought was Repeater, on cassette, followed by Steady Diet of Nothing, newly released then and also on cassette. Both albums had an enormous impact on my adolescent brain.

By 1992 I had everything the band had released up to that point, all of it on cassette save for the band’s 3 Songs EP, which I had mail-ordered on 7″ vinyl directly from Fugazi’s label, Dischord. 

After reading about the DC quartet in magazines like Thrasher and Maximum Rocknroll, I gathered the band was serious about the anti-rock star thing, so I decided to write a letter to singer Ian MacKaye. 

I enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope with my missive; this was common snail mail etiquette at the time (and still should be!) Sure enough, about 6 weeks later I received a postcard from Dischord Records: It was Ian in reply. 

This type of exchange happened a few more times over the next few years until I eventually stopped writing in my early twenties. I continued to listen to and love Fugazi at that point, of course, and I was very much into writing letters until then. 

I had experimented with writing to other people in punk bands, a few authors, figures like Mark Anderson of Positive Force DC, and even Noam Chomsky.

The only two people that responded to me each and every time I wrote them, without fail, were Ian MacKaye and Noam Chomsky. 

So emailing MacKaye about the title of Steady Diet of Nothing seemed like a pretty safe bet.

I wrote to Ian that while I was researching an article I was working on about Steady Diet of Nothing’s 30th anniversary, I came across something that couldn’t possibly be true, but which seemed to be repeated as gospel truth all over the web. 

Specifically, the story that Fugazi titled Steady Diet of Nothing as a kind of tribute or reference to Bill Hicks. 

“[Steady Diet of Nothing’s] title is a reference to the bone-dry comedy of the late, great Bill Hicks,” Kerrang! music journalist Sam Law wrote, for example, in the magazine’s “50 Best Albums from 1991” piece just last year. 

At least Law accorded Steady Diet its due place among the top releases of 1991.

My own searching, however, found that the closest thing to “Steady diet of nothing” Hicks ever said didn’t occur until long after the Fugazi LP in question had been released, and even the phrase used by Hicks wasn’t remarkably similar.

To my delight, MacKaye replied and — AND THIS IS IMPORTANT — gave me permission to quote relevant portions of his email wherein he explains the true origins of the title of Fugazi’s LP. Let’s cover that first.

“Steady Diet of Nothing” — Q: What’s In a Name? A: Not Bill Hicks.

“The Internet is a trumpet of misinformation!” Ian MacKaye responded when I broached the Bill Hicks thing to him. 

I couldn’t find an ironclad source for the notion that Steady Diet of Nothing was a sly nod to Hicks. Searches only turned up the late comedian mentioning something about a “steady diet of Westerns” in his 1992 “Revelations” performance, released on video 1993. 

Hicks’ “Revelations” performance didn’t occur until well after Steady Diet was on record store shelves.

MacKaye’s exasperation with the Bill Hicks falsehood was palpable: “Thank you for doing the simple web search that pretty clearly suggests that the ‘Bill Hicks theory’ about Steady Diet doesn’t hold water,” he wrote. 

“I have no idea where that came from as I can assure you that none of us in Fugazi had ever heard of Bill Hicks at that time. Steady Diet of Nothing‘s title had absolutely nothing to do with him or his vaguely similar quote.”

Hicks’ early ’90s humour, it should be mentioned — his satirising of US foreign policy, the Gulf War, jingoist hysteria and the media’s role in it, the corporatisation of rock ‘n roll — a lot of that *does* match up well with Fugazi’s sensibilities, so some confusion is understandable. 

But you can’t argue with Ian MacKaye about his own band. So, what is the origin of the phrase “Steady diet of nothing,” then?

MacKaye, in our email exchange: 

“My journals report that I was considering the title ’Steady Diet’ for a song that had the working title ‘Big Choppy Chord’ in late February of 1991. That song ended up being ‘Polish’. In March of 1991, we decided to call the album ’Steady Diet of Nothing’ and then in April we decided to include the instrumental and called that ’Steady Diet.'”

As far as adding the phrase “of Nothing” to the end of “Steady Diet” for the name of the LP: 

“Our recollection is that Joe [Lally, our bassist] came up with the title,” MacKaye says, “as it perfectly represents his sardonic brand of humour, and it became a bit of band lingo.” (“‘Steady Diet of No Reverb’,” Joe Lally remarked — just as sardonically — to interviewer Joe Gross in 2016 when asked about Steady Diet’s “dry” mix reputation. Hah.)

Steady Diet of Nothing Thirty Years Later

While 30th-anniversary write-ups about Nirvana’s Nevermind could be found everywhere in 2021, Fugazi’s release from 1991 didn’t garner the same sort of laudatory tributes. 

Indeed, Fugazi released Steady Diet of Nothing within a few weeks of — if not the same week as — Nevermind.

Steady Diet‘s relative neglect has never sat well with me; to my mind, Fugazi’s album is clearly the superior one of the two releases, a better album musically and lyrically, with greater emotional and intellectual depth than Nirvana’s glum offering that is aggressively focused on self-loathing. 

To some, the two albums may be apples and oranges, but I think Steady Diet of Nothing has also aged better, too; like the true dark horse that it is, the record has outlasted and has matured more gracefully than most other music from the early 1990s.

For one thing, Steady Diet of Nothing‘s thematic concerns have not lost their relevance or resonance.

The erosion of abortion rights, the conservative bias of the US Supreme Court, rampant police brutality, and aggressive American foreign policy — all topics touched upon in the songs of Steady Diet of Nothing — are still urgent issues today, as much as if not even more than they were in 1991. 

Fugazi singer Guy Picciotto’s “Dear Justice Letter” on the album, written about President Bush Sr’s appointing of conservative justices to the nation’s highest court, could just as well have been written a few years ago when Trump worked to get a clutch of right-wing judges pushed through. 

While Bush, Sr.,  managed to place only two high court judges — including arch-conservative Clarence Thomas, who still sits in power — Trump managed to place a phenomenal three conservative justices onto the bench. 

This has put Roe v. Wade back on the chopping block in 2022, something Fugazi sang about thirty years ago in perhaps Steady Diet of Nothing‘s most powerful track, “Reclamation.”

The album, in fact, starts off somewhat like its predecessor, Repeater. That is, on the opening track of Repeater as well as on Steady Diet of Nothing, deceptively “mellow” notes fade in and crystallize into a mid-tempo, postpunk-ish song that gradually builds in intensity as the track progresses. 

On Repeater that first song is “Turnover,” and on Steady Diet the lead track is “Exit Only.” Fugazi singer and second guitarist Guy Picciotto sings on both. Steady Diet of Nothing’s first song is ironically titled “Exit Only,” and it begins with the counterintuitive chant of “Exeunt! Exeunt!” 

This, of course, is a Latin term used in the theatre as a stage direction to close a play or a scene. It means “all leave”. Actors are directed to leave the stage when the “Exeunt” direction is given.

Now, opening an album with a command to leave is starkly ironic, perhaps almost as ironic as insinuating by an album’s title that its contents amount to a steady diet of nothing. After three minutes “Exit Only” comes to a jarring stop; the song is over. Two guitars then quickly roar to life; the second song is beginning.

Ian’s guitar, and then Guy’s, are like twin flamethrowers clearing away the brush for the imminent entrance of “Reclamation”. The first song on Repeater gave way to the frenetic rocker that was the album’s second track and its title song; perhaps the pattern will hold here, too, the listener wonders. 

Drummer Brendan Canty builds expectations with a snare roll — but rather than busting into uptempo thrash, as snare drum rolls generally indicate at the beginning of punk songs, a sucker punch is delivered to the listener as Brendan suddenly pulls  back and bassist Joe Lally begins a lilting, almost hypnotic dub-influenced bass line. 

Ian and Guy continue to bang away on their guitars as if the rhythm section is blasting ahead much faster than it really is. Then the guitars shift gears and become clinking, metallic robots, chirping and beeping. Ian MacKaye’s drill sergeant vocals sternly announce:

“These are our demands. We want control of our bodies. Decisions will now be ours.”

It’s one of the coolest opening moments, musically and lyrically, of not only any song in Fugazi’s catalog, but of any song from the 1990s. Maybe of any punk song ever.

And about “Reclamation,” it has occurred to me — and this is my opinion only — that the song might be, or could serve as, a thematic sequel to one of Fugazi’s best known songs, the emotional track “Suggestion” off their first EP from 1988. 

Whereas Fugazi’s “Suggestion” describes the plight of sexual harassment, of the objectification of female bodies, of the horror of sexual violence, the song abruptly ends with a flat condemnation — “We are all guilty!” — and is then gone.  

“Suggestion” describes a problem, in other words; “Reclamation” prescribes the solution. 

“Reclamation” announces, militantly, a new manifesto of personal autonomy, of personal agency, of the vigilant defence of self and the body against the predation of other humans, against laws that might allow encroachment onto one’s inviolate being. 

“Reclamation” reaffirms the fundamental principle of self-determination, a principle whose sanctity has to be maintained vigorously.

The eleven tracks of Steady Diet of Nothing are a tour de force of stark contrasts, of crisp snare hits enjambed against halting silences, of robust chords that resonate like puncture wounds and sound like they’ve been punched into existence. 

In an interview from a 1988 issue of Maximum Rock ‘n Roll — Fugazi’s first national exposure in any sort of magazine, I believe, conducted before Guy Picciotto had picked up second guitar with the band — Ian MacKaye stated he wanted Fugazi to “bust the genre,” meaning underground hardcore punk.

Guy would later use the “bust the genre” phrase in the lyrics to “Cassavetes” on 1993’s In On The Killtaker. Steady Diet of Nothing is an advance toward that goal, dissecting punk with guitars cutting through hardcore conventions like a flurry of scalpels.

Photograph courtesy of Mike Maguire. Published under a Creative Commons license.