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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

American Hardcore

If you read any of those "25th Anniversary of Punk" magazine articles that came out a while ago, skim through any books on the subject or watch the "Punk" installment of that PBS Rock & Roll series, you’ll notice something interesting. According to any of these sources, punk rock began with either the Sex Pistols or the Ramones (whichever), and lasted from about 1975 to about 1978. Then it disappeared completely, until reappearing in Seattle around 1990.

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Read these histories, you’d guess that nothing at all happened, punk rock-wise, in those intervening years. I guess we were all too smitten with REO Speedwagon, Asia, and that Madonna woman to worry about anything else.

Those of us who were in our teens in the early 1980s remember things a little differently. It was during those forgotten years that "punk rock" distanced itself from new wave and transmogrified into "hardcore." It was leaner, faster, and angrier than anything anyone had ever heard before.

By the mid 80s, most every town in America, no matter how small, had a hardcore band–or at least a couple weird kids who dressed the part. Maximumrocknroll and Flipside were both available nationwide–though you needed to know where to look sometimes. Similarly, some of us had to special order our albums, because no local record stores would carry them. Whatever it took, though, we found it, because we needed to: the 12-watt college stations that occasionally played the Dead Kennedys, Intensified Chaos, or Hüsker Dü, or the one kid in your school who’d gotten his hands on the Flex Your Head compilation during a recent trip to Chicago.

We were bored, we were scared, we were pissed at everything for no particular reason. We were (mostly) white suburban kids with too much energy and too much time on our hands, and the inchoate noise and speed of hardcore was our release valve. Even if all the songs sounded the same (which we’d deny, of course), it didn’t matter. This was the music that finally spoke for us. That’s romanticizing it a great deal, but at the time we all seemed to romanticize it.

What we were into–this scene we called a "movement"–was something big, we thought. Big enough that CHiPS, Quincy, and Miami Vice would all eventually feature episodes with hardcore villains, and Real People would feature regular bits about "punk food" or "wacky punk haircuts." Donahue had shows about hardcore kids. Hell, there was even a cautionary documentary hosted by Richard Crenna about how evil we all were and a couple semipopular feature films like The Decline of Western Civilization and Repo Man.

Yet despite all the media exposure we got at the time, no one since had ever bothered to try to pull all the strings together into one big ball, to try to tell the whole, ugly, story about those years when hardcore mattered. Oh, there’ve been books in recent years about hardcore fliers and album covers and photographs–good ones, too–but now, for the first time that I’m aware of, someone has taken it upon himself to try to tell the whole story.

Steve Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House, 333 pages, $19.95) might not be perfect, might not be the book I would’ve written, but I’m hesitant to say anything too damning about it for the simple reason that Blush did a helluva lot better job with the subject than I, or most anyone, ever could have. Fact is, the idea of a "thorough, exhaustive" history of American hardcore seems pretty much impossible (though George Tabb suggested to me that binding all the issues of MRR together would come pretty close). There was just too much going on–too many bands, too many scenes, too many factions all calling themselves the same thing–to get anything coherent out of it.

Blush (founder of Seconds magazine) handles this problem in the best way possible–by constructing the book as an oral history, interspersing soundbites with song lyrics, fliers, photos and editorial comments (both helpful and snotty). By doing this, he preserves all of hardcore’s personality and contradictions. And by illustrating this "tribal history" with dozens of iconic band glyphs, he bestows upon the scene a social significance it may (or may not) deserve.

The book is broken into four simple parts. In the first, he lays out a series of basic notions–hardcore’s origins, straight edge, slamdancing, skateboarding, Reagan, the cops, the scene’s attitude toward women, gays and minorities–and asks a number of witnesses (Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye, Lee Ving, Henry Rollins, dozens of other band members, artists, promoters, and fans) to comment. It’s here that the contradictions are laid bare–the scene was either overrun with Nazis, or the "Nazi threat" was blown out of proportion by the likes of Jello. The scene was violently homophobic, or it was the perfect cover for gay teens. The one thing everyone agrees about is that the cops were pigs, who broke up every single show and beat the shit out of every single punk they saw.

(Actually, I always thought that the cops were punk’s best friend because they gave these suburban kids something to feel oppressed about. Having said that, though, let me add that the fuckin’ cops shut down every single show the Pain Amplifiers ever played.)

Slamdancing’s origins are traced back to an ex-Marine in Huntington Beach who used to go to shows and hit people in the face really hard. Before long, everyone was doing it. There’s also a long back-and-forth about what constituted the first official hardcore single–Bad Brains’ "Pay to Cum" or Middle Class’ "Out of Vogue." Interviewees talk about how quickly straight edge transformed from a rejection of social mores into a quasi-fascist movement and how badly they were oppressed in Reagan’s America because of the way they looked.

One of the most interesting quips here comes from Meatmen vocalist Tesco Vee, one of the liveliest of Blush’s subjects. "I never sold my butthole–but gay porn mags were onto us. They thought we were hot! Both Henry Rollins and I were in this gay magazine from LA called In Touch. I posed in my bare ass with a milkbone sticking out–an action shot of my 140-pound Hungarian guard dog biting the milkbone. Henry was shot live as ‘Stud of the Month.’"

Which Blush follows with his own comment: "Photos of Henry in a gay porn mag launched one of the most frequently asked questions of the era: Is Henry Rollins gay? The truth is, he just does a lot of ‘gay’ things..."

In part two, Blush provides brief portraits of the scene in various parts of the country–L.A., New York, Boston, DC, Texas–as well as mini oral histories of a few of the more prominent bands–Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Misfits and Black Flag. (Nobody, it turns out, liked Henry Rollins all that much. It was Greg Ginn’s band, they say, and Henry was only the last in a long series of frontmen. Dez Cadena was the vocalist who really kicked ass. Henry, we’re told, was "a joke," "a poseur" and "a dick.")

It’s in this section where many of my troubles with the book arise. But again, there’s only so much room, so much time, and it would be impossible to include everything. Blush has his favorites, to be sure–favorite bands, favorite scenes–so that’s what he concentrates on. As a result, quite a few bands and scenes get short shrift. In order to focus on L.A. and DC, he rips through the Midwest without bothering to look around. Killdozer, for instance, is dismissed with a single sentence. Big Black and the Replacements get a snide paragraph each. In another section, GG Allin is little more than a rumor, and several other personal favorites are nowhere to be found. I’m guessing that it’s because some of these bands don’t fit into the strict parameters Blush sets down in defining "who’s hardcore" and "who’s not." Still, though–where are the Angry Samoans? Where’s Suburban Mutilation? My God, where are the Russian Meatsquats?

When it comes to the band histories, you very quickly realize that hardcore bands had just as little to say as any other rock band. The infighting, all the different drummers they had, the trials of touring here and there. It gets pretty bland, especially when you start wondering about all the band members Blush didn’t talk to (East Bay Ray and Klaus Flouride of the DK’s, for instance) who might well put a different spin on what happened. Still, though, I’m nitpicking what is, on the whole, a very good job.

Part three chronicles hardcore’s arrival into near-mainstream culture (culminating in Fear’s notorious appearance on Saturday Night Live) and analyzes the forces that, according to Blush, killed the scene for good in 1986. He cites the dissolution that year of several influential bands–Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and the Minutemen (following D. Boon’s death) as well as Minor Threat’s transformation into Fugazi and Hüsker Dü’s major label contract. He also cites how stagnant the codes of sound and dress and ritual had left the scene, and how poisonous the heavy metal crossover became (in the guise of Metallica and Slayer). On top of all that, he notes, hardcore kids were simply growing up.

Again, I differ with Blush here. Not that those things weren’t factors, but to my mind, politics started killing the scene early on, as more and more bands not only embraced politics, but embraced boring politics. They all claimed to be "anarchists," but when you got down to it they were nothing more than tedious, self-righteous liberals with guitars and funny hair. What should have been an apocalyptic movement became little more than the next stage of hippiedom. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

Blush ends his book with a discography (composed of the records found in his and his friends’ collections), and an interesting "summing up" by several of his interviewees. In response to the question, "What does hardcore mean to you now?" this group of adults–people in their late 40s now, with jobs and families and mortgages–respond almost as a unit. "Hardcore changed my life"; "to this day, it colors the way I look at things"; "it was the most important thing that ever happened to me," etc. Essentially, you’re asking a bunch of old men if they’d like to be 17 and wild again. How else would they answer?

The only detractor–and this is to be expected, I guess–is Jello Biafra. People who believe there was a "Golden Age of Hardcore," he says, are "falling into the same glassy-eyed nostalgia that gave us Happy Days." Then the man who, just a few short years ago, put out a series of albums with Mojo Nixon, proclaims that "retro is a poison."

In the end, reading Blush’s rose-colored take on those years, the one impression it left me with when it comes to my own hardcore days of yore was "Man, that was all really dumb." And it was. The music was pretty dreadful, and the kids weren’t nearly as scary as they thought they were. But I can accept that. We were kids, for godsake–kids who could just as well have settled for doing nothing at all. For a while there, we were everywhere. And man, did we have some great band names.