Graded on a Curve:
Steven Blush,
American Hardcore:
A Tribal History

It was over in a flash. Hardcore was doomed to an early demise, because its rigid, loud and fast ethos put it in a box that only the most unimaginative bands (who generally put out an album or two and faded away) were content to remain in. A music created by angry kids looking to abolish all social and musical norms was soon codified into a narrow set of rules and norms, and your smarter bands (Black Flag, the Minutemen, Husker Du, and the Meat Puppets, to name just a few) skedaddled, getting out while the getting was good.

But what a glorious and infamous few years they were. And the nasty, brutish and short (thanks, Thomas Hobbes) hardcore era is best captured in Steven Blush’s oral history American Hardcore: A Tribal History. In Blush’s book you get the down and dirty from the people who were there, and the tale they tell is one of revolution, youthful enthusiasm, rage, camaraderie, ultraviolence, and good clean fun. The players and their fans are by turn nakedly honest, amused, self-exculpatory, wistful and disgusted by the hardcore era. They were the best of times, they were worst of times, and Blush’s book balances fond reminisces against some very real fear and loathing.

Blush is thorough (the down-to-every-last-45 discography at book’s end is a completist’s dream) and covers every area touched by hardcore on the continent, but he dedicates the bulk of the book to chronicling the going-ons in hardcore’s epicenters (Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Boston, and New York City) and their environs. As for the players, fans, and scenemakers, Blush collects the thoughts of both big and small fish he needs to tell the tale, but he can only dedicate so much space to each in a 335-page book.

Hardcore evolved differently in each major area. The southern California scene began in the artier environs of Hollywood, where bands like X put intelligence to good use in the music. But other bands (such as Black Flag) with less civil fan bases quickly muscled in on the scene, scaring away anyone whose idea of a good time didn’t include having their head busted. On the other hand the DC, Boston, and New York scenes were primarily inspired by Bad Brains and the example of Black Flag, whose relentless touring and records on the SST label inspired kids in the hinterlands to start their own bands.

Blush does more than run down the scenes in each city or area. He includes chapters on hardcore’s origins, straight edge, hardcore fashion, the place of women on the scene (for the most part they were either chased away by the endemic violence or considered sluts), police relations (see Black Flag’s “Police Story”) and (as I mentioned above), the infiltration of the hardcore community by lunkheaded jocks and other outsiders looking for the chance to pulverize other attendees.

Blush’s book is no whitewash or glorified look back at a simpler, better time. Many participants harbor nostalgia feelings about their hardcore days and credit them with positively influencing their later lives. But some take a grimmer, less romanticized, view. Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald is quoted as saying, “The original movement was horrifying, I’m grateful that it’s gone, and I can’t understand why anyone would care.” Adds Jello Biafra, “The saddest part of the perception that there’s a Golden Age of Hardcore is the people who believe it.”

One of the most entertaining aspects of the book is just how many malicious bastards attempt to justify their allegiance to ultraviolence as a benign display of youthful high spirits. “We weren’t out to maim,” the thuggish likes of TSOL’s Jack Grisham, SS Decontrol’s Al Barile, and Cro Mag’s Harley Flanagan say, while other (some violent individuals themselves) retort that the above named and their crews were sick fucks indeed. A few (Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye being a notable example) express regret over their gang-like behavior, but even MacKaye still adheres to the dubious notion that his fighting was intended only to “bruise the ego.” Tell that to the guy with the black eye.

Which isn’t to say everybody on the scene was out to inflict pain on other people. Far from it. Many if not most bands (the Minutemen being one) wanted nothing to do with crowd violence, and many more audience members were disgusted by it. Women in particular express their hatred of violence at shows, and aren’t shy about expressing the opinion that the males on the scene disdained them, and/or were engaging in a homoerotic ritual that excluded them.

I came to the scene late, and the bands I loved had already moved away from playing hardcore per se. But as my interest in hardcore grew I looked backwards and was surprised to discover just how little the early music interested me. Most of records I listened to were relatively generic paint-by-numbers stuff, and if this was their idea of independence and originality God help them.

And by the time I started going to shows they’d degenerated into ritualized simulacra of the scene’s initial anarchic spirit. Dangerous? Hardly. At a Minutemen/Husker Dü show in Philadelphia I wandered into the mosh pit, got knocked about a bit and lost my glasses, only to have a good Samaritan pick them up and promptly return them to me. There was a lot of thrashing, but it was all in fun.

American Hardcore: A Tribal History–which is in its second printing and available from the folks at Feral House–is a must-own for anyone who was there or who wonder what it was like to be there. Me, I’m glad I wasn’t there for most of it–I’ve grown rather fond of my nose over the years and would hate to see it broken. I suspect I’ll hear from people who will tell me I’ve got it all wrong, and that the scene wasn’t as violent as all that, and to a large degree they’re right. Most went to shows to hear the music, but there was those who give the scene a bad name. But Blush’s book gets the balance just right, and I read my own copy over and over again.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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