ROCK AND ROLL ARCHAEOLOGY Steven Blush & American Hardcore

“It’s the only music
that didn’t sell out. Maybe it’s the only music that
couldn’t sell out.”

 

BY JONAH FLICKER

 

The second edition of Steven Blush’s seminal 2001 book American
Hardcore
was published last month; a firsthand account of the years between
1980 and 1986, it details how a subset of punk rock took over as true American
underground music, and was subsequently turned into a 2006 documentary film
directed by Paul Rachman. Through interviews with band members and scenesters
including Black Flag, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, and the Bad Brains, Blush
tells the story of what he considers to be an oft-ignored chapter in music
history. It’s certainly a compelling story, and Blush and his subjects are
meticulous in detailing the power, energy, and fury of the music, especially at
live shows. He also doesn’t shy away from controversial issues that played a
part in the scene: sexism, racism, homophobia, violence. Ultimately, the power
and spirit of DIY that originated with hardcore remains its legacy, and for
Blush, this is why this story needs telling. I recently caught up with him
during CMJ in New York City to discuss the book. (American Hardcore: A Tribal History – 2nd Edition, is
available from Feral House publishing.)

 

***

 

BLURT: You did a CMJ panel yesterday? What was that
about?

STEVEN BLUSH: I did a panel called “American Hardcore and
the Rise of Modern Rock.” It comes back to my contention that so much of what
is modern music goes back to what Black Flag and Minor Threat and all those
bands set in motion 30 years ago. Namely, the whole DIY notion, the idea of not
sitting around and waiting for that million-dollar record contract. The idea
that you’re never gonna get signed, that you just have to make your own way.
The hardcore bands set up the independent record networks that we have today.
You think about the labels: SST was Black Flag’s label; Touch & Go was
Meatmen,  Necros; Epitaph was Bad
Religion; Dischord was Minor Threat. So these were all real entrepreneurial
things by these misfit kids who were getting their voice out. So my panel was
basically talking about the legacy of all of that in terms of the rise of
modern rock. ‘Cause Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Pepper, Sonic Youth,
everybody has something you can bring back to hardcore.

 

Do you think that bands that are running their own labels
and have that DIY aesthetic now are doing it better? Is it experience, learning
from mistakes?

I think you’re right. I think there’s a few things that go
with that. I think other people paved the groundwork, did the dirty work, they
paved the path. They built the road so now everybody can travel down that road.
I think people are more attuned to this. “DIY” is part of our lexicon now. So I
think people are more receptive to it. And I think they’re better at it. People
really studied it, people went to college, or took some business classes, or
learned and asked lots of questions. I think about the fact that someone like
me, I was booking shows, I had never booked a show before. I put out records, I
had never put out records before. I started a magazine, I had never written a
major article before. So it was just this idea that you could just do it. The
hardcore guys stumbled and fell a lot. Some of them dusted themselves off and
went on to bigger and better things.

 

As far as labels that survived, I guess Dischord is one
of the last standing…

Most of the ones I mentioned, Touch & Go, Epitaph are
major forces in their own way.

 

Is SST currently active?
I wouldn’t really consider them a label at this point. But just how important
they were. I think some people just really had the acumen to do it. I ended up
being a writer. I obviously didn’t have the acumen to really be a businessman.
I was just so inspired by it all.

 

Can you talk about your background?

I was kind of lucky. I was from the suburbs of New Jersey,
but I got turned onto punk rock kind of early. I went to a high school exchange
program in England, so I saw The Clash before they came to America. My
girlfriend, probably the only other punk rocker in town, she had the hip
brother and sister in New York who had tickets to Joy Division before Ian
Curtis killed himself. They were that kind of hipster. So they brought me to
see amazing stuff in retrospect. I saw Kraftwerk, I saw Gang of Four before
they came to America. I saw the whole post-punk thing happen. I was at these
shows.

       Then when I
moved to DC to go to college, I got there in the fall of 1980, early ’81. And
they had the early 9:30 Club, and I was seeing amazing things and no one was
there. So I was going to see Birthday Party with five people there or Bauhaus
with seven people there. I remember I talked to Peter Murphy about it a few
years ago. He said to me, “You’re the first person I talked to in America who I
actually believe saw me back in the day.” Everyone says they saw Bauhaus. There
would have been 50 million people there.

       But to answer
your question, when I was ending my freshman year, I was working at the radio
station. I went to a TSOL show in Clifton, New Jersey. And there I met the Dead
Kennedys manager, Mike Rainey. He was saying, “I work with The Dead Kennedys,
we’re having trouble getting a show in DC. Why don’t we sponsor one through
your radio station and I’ll walk you through it.” So of course I did it. Next
thing you know, I’m putting The Dead Kennedys in my school cafeteria three
blocks from the White House and almost getting thrown out of college. But it
really set me off on this path. All of a sudden, I booked a couple of Minor
Threat shows, I booked the first punk funk show, I did Black Flag, Dead
Kennedys, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, GBH’s first American show, The Faith’s
last show… It was pretty impressive. All these bands crashed on my couch. I
did that for three years. I graduated college.

       The next
summer, I moved to New York, I just kind of moved on. I got into the whole East
Village thing as that was coming up. It was kind of the end of the whole
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Avenue A art gallery thing. But it was still an
incredible time. I started booking shows and promoting and writing. I worked
for Paper Magazine and started my own
Seconds Magazine.

       I totally left
hardcore for ten years, at least. Then there started to be interest in it again
with the rise of Green Day and The Offspring. Everything I started hearing
about it was a little bit wrong. It was like a game of Telephone. Everybody had
heard the story, it was just a little bit off. It kind of bothered me. Then I saw
the History of Rock and Roll series… PBS maybe? Really good. I’m not bagging on it. But it went directly
from The Sex Pistols and The Clash, they may have talked about X, then it went
directly to Nirvana. Like none of this happened. I couldn’t tell if they were
ignoring it, or what I think it was, it wasn’t even considered real music. If
there was a Rolling Stone or Spin article, it was to make fun of it
or talk about the violence, calling everybody a thug. In retrospect, you can
say what you want, but Ian MacKaye or Henry Rollins, they’re not thugs. They’re
very erudite men.

       What attracted
me… I came to Washington, I was probably on a path to become some hot-shit
lawyer. And I was just so moved by this thing. I always liked the punk bands
and post-punk, but I never felt part of it. They were all art students, they
all went to art school and came out of Warhol and Bowie, that kind of thing. I
was like a suburban rock kid who was turned on by the power of it. That’s what
hardcore was. It was called hardcore punk, and it was kind of a sub-sect of
punk. Punk was burning out and turning into new wave, this corporate label
dance music. Talking Heads had moved on, there was only The Ramones left.
Everyone’s telling you it’s over, you missed it. You show up in a leather
jacket at a hip club, people made fun of you. “Don’t you know you’re so
yesterday?” There was a lot of anger and interest in the speed aspect of it.

 

For someone new to this music, can you really get the
experience by just listening to the records, without having been at the shows
and performances?

A lot of this stuff doesn’t stand up, historically,
musically. It was really about, “Were you there?” So there is that huge aspect
of it. I think the success of the book and the film is I do break it down. I
asked my mom to read the book. I wanted to know if it makes sense to her. She
understood what I was getting at. I could convey the story. Whether I can
convey the fury, I’m not so sure. But it was important for me to at least be
able to convey the story, first of all, in a universal way. Sony Picture
Classics and Sundance didn’t pick up the American
Hardcore
film because they loved Minor Threat. They picked it up because
they understood the story.

 

How involved with the film were you?

It probably seems like I did less, but it was really Paul
Rachman and I. We shot everything, I was there for everything, for every edit.
But I certainly defer to him artistically. I am not a filmmaker and I don’t
plan to be. I found it interesting that a lot of things I thought for sure
would be in the film never made it to the film. I think that’s more about story
arc, what fits. It’s a different experience than the book.

       The book, I
could really bring it with my voice and all of the stories and history and
shout-outs. What I’ve learned from making a film is that – by the way, I’m the
producer/writer of American Hardcore [the film] – nobody in rock likes rock films. Nobody liked the Woodstock movie,
no one liked the punk movies… There’s a split audience, I don’t mean nobody.

       It’s kind of a
drag because what I’ve learned is there’s a lot of incredible rock films that
got pushed to the side. We went up to see Sony a couple of months ago and had
this conversation about how the great movies are the ones people are still
talking about five or ten years later. I think we’re on that path. American Hardcore will make more sense
as it goes on because a lot of people are too invested in it now. I watched it
for the first time in three years [recently], and I liked it again. I always
liked it, but I realized how different it was from my book, and I like it. So I
think they accompany each other. The problem for the film for some is that it
really is an intro. I’m just introducing a subculture, and if you want more
information, go to the book.

 

What are the essential hardcore bands for you?

I think everyone has their band. For me, it was Black Flag.
I saw Black Flag about 25 times. I saw them in all their incarnations.

 

What’s your favorite incarnation?

Well, like anything, like a drug fix, sex, the first time is
the best, right? So first time seeing Black Flag launched me into this whole
thing. What I forgot to say was I had come to DC and was still kind of into the
post-punk stuff. Then I saw Valentine’s Day 1981 Black Flag with Dez Cadena
singing. In the crowd was Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye. But that was the most
exciting time for me. All the insiders like to say what was their favorite
singer of Black Flag, and I totally get that. But Henry Rollins is Black Flag.
Henry Rollins carried the weight of that band for five, six years, over 400-500
shows.

 

I didn’t realize until I read the book what kind of
backlash there was against Rollins. For me, that was Black Flag.

And to be honest, nobody outside of Southern California saw
anybody but Rollins. So it’s super insider. I thought it was an interesting
view of how everybody reacts so strongly to this guy; that is what I was trying
to get across. His whole demeanor, that whole intensity is about being fucked
with for five years. I remember standing there, he’s out in his Speedos and
long hair, people are pissed, pulling the hairs out of his legs and lighting
his balls on fire. I have a lot of respect for the guy. He went through a lot.

       Somebody, I
wanna say it was the drummer Bill Stevenson, said he developed into a great
performer. It was trial by fire. He was in the hardest position in the world,
almost. One of the things I try to get across about hardcore in general is it’s
so much more than about music. It’s this whole lifestyle. And Black Flag were
the kingpins of this thing. It was almost like a cult. Anybody who was in that
band or worked for SST, they’re fucked up from it because it was so intense.

        I remember at
that show I was describing talking to Black Flag… First of all, nobody could
go backstage at a show, but there was no bouncer or anything. I had never seen
anything like it. I talked to Chuck Dukowski, the bass player, him and Greg
Ginn. We’re sitting in a circle talking to these guys after a show. They’re talking
to us about success in non-economic terms. I had never thought about that,
especially as a college kid. They really blew my mind. Greg Ginn, for better or
worse, was a really important figure in my life. What I learned from him was to
have no fear. That band used to get arrested. It’s not just like a regular, “I’m
gonna be some hard-ass and be cool.” There was nothing cool about it. Outside
of that cult that loved you, it was war.

 

It seems that Black Flag and a lot of the SST bands
pushed against being shut into the confines of hardcore and what people thought
they should be.

Yes, and that’s part of what killed the insularity of the
scene. These guys were so powerful, and they’re saying, “Fuck your punk rock.
That’s soft. We’re gonna grow our hair.” And I grew my hair. Black Flag did it.
And I learned about Black Sabbath with Dio because of that. What they were
saying and what I loved about them and what Ian MacKaye did and what Jello
Biafra did.

       This is why I
talk about this ’80-’86 arc of hardcore. This is when it was this insular,
cohesive movement. After that, it became another musical form. It was protected
from the rest of the world. Because of the Internet, I don’t know if you could
ever have something like that again. When I did this panel, there were some new
punk rock kids. I said, “I’m not saying your music sucks. I’m saying that you
have a voice and a power to change the world around you. You gotta take it.
Otherwise, you’re not part of this.” Robert Johnson played the blues in the
1930s. That’s the blues. Eric Clapton played it in the ’70s. You could say
there’s a connection there. I bet you most Eric Clapton fans feel that way. I’d
say that there’s not. I dig Sick Of It All and Madball, I dig the energy. It is
the next most intense music form after heavy metal at this point. It’s not a
social movement.

       In ’86 Black
Flag breaks up, Minor Threat breaks up, Dead Kennedys break up, Husker Du signs
to Warner Brothers, which is the end, D. Boon from the Minutemen died. It was
the start of the crossover metal and alternative rock. That’s where you first
had those Boston bands doing the jangly guitar thing. It kind of fits
perfectly. There’s some killer early ’90s hardcore records. I love the first
Hatebreed record. I like the first two or three Sick Of It All albums. Los
Crudos, Avail. There were a bunch of these bands that really had it. They kind
of had the same thing. Born Against… All those bands is how you get to Rage
Against the Machine. That’s the start of all that.

       What I’m
talking about is the social movement, this radical youth movement. What I
figured out is that historically they talk about the history of American
post-war subculture. And it’s the beatniks, the hippies, the punks, and
hip-hop. I think hardcore really fits as part of that continuum.

 

I wanted to ask about specific people in the scene. I
grew up knowing Fugazi before Minor Threat, and my image of Ian MacKaye is so
different from what you describe in the early Teen Idles/Minor Threat days.

What you’re seeing is how they got there. It’s somebody who
was called to action; was kind of like a thug. I remember those guys. When they
started becoming soft and sensitive, it kind of surprised me. But it was part
of their maturity. None of those guys went to college. So by the time they’re
21, 22, they kind of get to a point where it’s over. No more violence. In the
movie, Ian says something like, “I beat up the last person I was ever gonna
beat up at this Minutemen show,” something like that. But it’s coming of age.
Hardcore was a teen coming of age scene. That’s why you had a scene that was an
umbrella of alienated misfit kids of all stripes. Everyone knew something was
wrong with the American dream, but didn’t really have the answers. In the end,
nobody agreed on any answers and moved on and grew up and had their lives. I
describe it at some point in the book as Lord
of the Flies
. It’s this teen society that has to create its own society. At
the beginning it’s really impressive, and then it kind of goes to hell. That’s
the story of hardcore. Another thing about it was one thing that kept it alive
till today was that it got so radicalized. Particularly with Maximum Rock and Roll, that was
preaching Maoist… something on that verge…

 

It seems like you and other people had this very
love/hate relationship with Maximum Rock
and Roll.

Of course, we were enamored with a magazine that created a
scene report. This was how you learned about hardcore all around the world. All
of a sudden, some kid would write in a little thing about Providence, Rhode
Island: “I’m booking shows at the VFW Hall. Here’s my phone number.” It was
really powerful. It was an incredibly unifying force. But for a lot of us… the
part about not agreeing on the answers. If you look at Greg Ginn or Henry Rollins
or Ian MacKaye, Circle Jerks, they’re not really leftists. They’re kind of
alienated patriotic kids. You knew something was wrong with the stuff you were
being taught in school. You were smart enough to know that the hyper-conformity
of your peers and what you were being taught was wrong, government was too in
your life. It was very much like – I don’t wanna say it was libertarian. That’s
like saying Tea Party, and that’s a bad word. But it is kind of that “live free
or die” kind of thing, and very entrepreneurial, which is definitely not
communist.

 

The Bad Brains chapter was really fascinating. I was
wondering, did you try to interview [vocalist] HR for it?

I have a quote from him in there that I got from the film.

 

He sounds kind of bat-shit.

He’s a combination. I’m not a doctor, but he’s kind of like
a manic-depressive. All that bullshit in combination with ungodly amounts of
pot being smoked probably feeds into that paranoia and stuff. That was the
craziness that they were dealing with. My film partner, Paul Rachman, made the
“I Against I” video, he made the “Quickness” video, so he worked with the Bad
Brains. We kept calling and calling. Every few weeks [HR] would stay somewhere
and then burns out his welcome and goes somewhere else. That’s kind of his
life. We tracked him down in LA one time. Some guy called us and said he’s
here. So we ran there and got that interview. I don’t think there’s any
sit-down interviews that exist with HR; you do a sit-down with Darryl or one of
those guys. In between the stuff that he blabbed, there was some… the guy is
a genius, he’s just a mad genius. So the madness is what takes over. Every once
a while, there’s this incredible moment of gravity. So I took what I could get.

 

Have you been going to any of the CMJ shows, or do you go
to shows in general?

I go a little bit. From 1999 to 2006, I was running the club Don Hill’s. I had
worked in clubs as a DJ, I have a long history in clubs. So I did the rock
party. They used to have this party called Squeeze Box, a famous gay rock
party. After that collapsed, I came in and took over. All of a sudden, I was
back in the business and checking out bands again. There’s good stuff, but I’ve
come to realize that what’s happening in music now… If you study art, there’s
a movement and then there’s a post-movement. I think we had rock. Maybe it was
Elvis to be generous, the closing of CBGB. I think it was earlier, but
whatever. Now we’re in a post-rock movement. There’s lots of bands now that use
that term. I think it’s perfect, because that’s really what we’re in. People
are still playing the instruments, it’s still based on the rock form, but it’s
a little bit off. It’s not like Elvis, not like Guns and Roses, not the rock
spirit today.

 

Is there a hardcore spirit today?

This is the great battle in my mind. I go to the shows, I
see the energy, I see the excitement, I see the old bands, I have lots of fun.
But I’m troubled by it. For instance, two days before the CMJ panel, I did a
show at the Knitting Factory, a Sunday matinee. I had Urban Waste play a couple
of New York hardcore bands, Jimmy Gestapo came up and did a song. I loved it, I
saw old friends. But my feeling about modern is mixed. On one hand, I’m
flattered that we had such an influence. On the other hand, you should be
reacting against me and have your own music. So that’s my issue. That’s my
trouble with hardcore today.

 

In today’s indie rock, do you hear hardcore’s influence
at all?

It think, in general, the world has moved away from hardcore
music. That’s not a problem, the world should evolve. And I think these people
appropriate certain elements from it. I went to go see Les Savy Fav. Obviously,
they have it. That dude has his record label, they’re intense and scary and
into playing fucked up music. I was talking with Juan Maclean from DFA. He
comes out of hardcore. I see it, that attitude. His music’s got a lot of
attitude. He was in Six Finger Satellite also. Great band. He’s a smart fucking
guy. That’s smart, subversive music. That’s what I like seeing. I still like
bands that are a little subversive. I like music that makes people squirm.

 

Who do you listen to these days?

It’s hard for me because I’m in the middle of all these
writing and film projects. So all of that is looking back. My new book is a
history of New York rock, this 50-year period which I’ve been describing. But
because of that, I’m listening to all these new bands. I like Les Savy Fav,
Yeasayer. There’s a bunch of bands like that that are kind of like old vocal
groups like Crosby Stills and Nash or Peter Paul and Mary or The Mamas and The
Papas, with that weird Beefheart, fucked-up thing. Like Animal Collective. I do
find that very interesting and subversive. I’m not a lo-fi guy, but I do like
that next step that I’m describing. Akron Family, that kind of stuff.

 

What did you think of the LA melodic hardcore punk scene,
like Bad Religion, Descendents? Was that something you were into?

I was really into it. Back then, I was saying it would be
really great if music went in this direction. Mommy’s Little Monster by Social Distortion is definitely one of my
top ten albums. They were the ones who made it OK to have a melody, almost.
They were more Rolling Stones style. But they were the first ones to do that.
Then the Descendents, of course. I like All. I was a big Adolescents fan.

 

You hear that influence more in modern rock these days
than that of traditional hardcore.

Yeah, I was listening to Blink-182, and I’m hearing parts of
those bands. That’s pretty much how you got the Hot Topic mall punk. They took
the melodic parts of that. They’re good. Offspring is a killer band. But they
do sound like their influences. I don’t think they’d argue about that either.

 

Why did you decide to do a second edition of the book?

When I did the book, it was before the Internet. It was kind
of like archaeology. I could take these relics and build a house, the
constructs of it, and fill it in a little bit. Then after writing the book and
the feedback from that, working on the film and coming back to all these
characters again. Then the 2000s, spending all this time networking on the
Internet, I had so much more information. I had so many different views on
things.

       This might be
one of the only second editions of a book that changes its conclusion. My
conclusion being I was correct about this ’80-’86 arc, historically correct,
but I’m not taking into account the believers, the followers. It’s like writing
a story about Christianity and saying it ended with the death of Christ. It’s
almost like mine was the Old Testament of this, if you’re gonna use that
analogy. It’s the old story. I’m using the morals and conclusions of those
stories as lessons to pass on. I think I’m a little more benevolent.

       That thing I
was describing to you earlier about – it’s a very different world from when I
wrote this book. When I was writing it, people had ignored hardcore and
forgotten it. A big part of my thing was reclaiming and setting the record
straight. So by doing that, you had to be very harsh and lay down the gauntlet.
I say at the intro to the 2010 edition that I let my throat off the neck. I’m a
little more forgiving. I love hardcore, I love the influence of it, and I
showed it a lot of tough love. I think that’s what it took to get it to the
point where it is now. Despite it all, I’m really in awe of the fact that kids
today talk about the music of my youth like it was yesterday. There’s something
very powerful about that. That never happened before in my lifetime. The people
before me, the rock and roll people and hippies and first punk, they never
listened to music from 20 or 30 years ago. That was sacrosanct. You were
reacting against that. The fact that it’s so important to people today is very
powerful.

       But the point
of my book is the lessons of hardcore, how it changed the face of popular
music. 30 years ago, bands were like slick corporate rock, like Van Halen, Styx
or Journey. Bands today don’t look like David Lee Roth or Robert Plant. They
look like Henry Rollins and Harley Flanagan, the tattoos, shaved heads, fast
music. But also the DIY aspect, the disdain for authority and the music
business. These are all things that trace back to hardcore, and that’s the
power of it. Not the mosh pit, but the legacy.

 

Do you think hardcore would flourish if it had come about
in today’s era of social networking and the Internet?

No. The thing that
kept hardcore so strong was that everybody ignored it. There were no agents
showing up to sign the bands. There was no Rolling
Stone
article to break it all. Nobody was interested. I think the fact that
it was ignored is what made it, the insularity of it is what protected its
legacy intact.  Otherwise, it would have
been commercialized like every other music form. I believe that kids today love
hardcore because it’s the only music that didn’t sell out. Maybe it’s the only
music that couldn’t sell out.

 

 

[Photo Credit of Black Flag: Frank Mullen/Wireimage]

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