16 August 2004 10 am est


Bill Asp, promoter of DC punk and new wave bands and founder of Wasp Records, has died at 53.

Bill saw punk as a way to take rock and roll back from its corporate masters. Through his independent label and promotional efforts, he put DC bands on the national map and college radio charts.

Bill was a communist — not a Marxist academic, not a leftist who enjoyed reading about the Spanish Civil War, but the genuine card-carrying article. This might seem an odd political and economic stance for a manager of rock bands, and it was. But Bill’s goal was not to make his bands or himself rich or famous. All he wanted was get the music out there and to help build a vibrant, sustainable, and authentic local scene. In this he succeeded.

Bill managed and recorded, among others, the Insect Surfers, with whom I briefly played and toured in the mid-1980s. The Surfers did to instrumental surf rock what the Ramones had done to the two-minute pop song.

In the band I played synthesizer, plastic organ, and Casio VL-1, a $29 portable keyboard slightly larger than a cigarette pack. You could program notes into the VL-1 in advance of a show, and trigger them by pushing two tiny blue buttons at the top right of its little plastic case. I used this capability to subvert the “guitar hero” paradigm that was such a huge part of rock before punk.

Old-school “guitar heroes” not only played “expert” solos, they generally thrashed about the stage while doing so, as if in the grip of some powerful Wagnerian force. During an Insect Surfers set, I “played” a pre-programmed solo by pushing the two little buttons on the Casio — making it clear to the audience that that’s all I was doing, just pushing two little buttons. But I hopped around and writhed and sweated and jerked like a rock star while doing it, to debunk or at least make fun of the notion of heroic rock theatrics.

I was a few years older than the other band members and Bill Asp worried that I would be the first to quit and take a real job. He was right.

After I left the band, I worked as a journalist and music columnist for the City Paper and The Washington Post. In this role, I covered DC’s exploding go-go and punk scenes — and fought with editors who urged me to report on national performers instead. “Springsteen’s in town,” an editor might say. “Rolling Stone will handle it,” I’d shoot back. Bill Asp’s belief in the importance of local music drove my brief reporting career (and contributed to its brevity, as the editors really did want someone to write about Springsteen).

I’m sure, too, that, years later, William Asp’s Wasp Records stuck in the back of my mind when my colleagues and I were trying to figure out a name for The Web Standards Project (WaSP).

In later years, the Post reports, Bill provided demographic analysis services for Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, and the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s Bill all over.

He was taken, too young, by a disease we know too little about.

Rest in peace.

Previously in The Daily Report...

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The quirky slab serif has been quietly undergoing a renaissance similar to that enjoyed by Helvetica in the 1990s.