American Hardcore: A Tribal History: Steven Blush, paperback, 333 pgs. By Sean Carswell

Feb 02, 2011

If you ever wanted to take a crash course in early eighties hardcore – like if you went to Hot Topic and picked up a new Bad Brains t-shirt and wanted to have all the attitude and arrogant jaded know-how that wearing that shirt generally requires – American Hardcore would be the perfect book for you to pick up. It’s amazingly comprehensive and it’s almost (almost being a key word, here) worth picking up solely for the sheer girth of information. Blush goes into a good bit of detail about some of the larger early eighties punk and hardcore bands like TSOL, the Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Minor Threat, thereby making this only the third or fourth book about Black Flag and Minor Threat that was released this year. To his credit, though, Blush also interviews most people who were in punk or hardcore bands between 1980 and 1986; a little bit of history is given to most acts. You can really learn a lot about the Dicks, the Big Boys, the Zero Boys, both Youth Brigades, SS Decontrol, the Meatmen, MDC, etc. Even if you know a lot about all of these bands, chances are, you’ll be surprised by some of the stuff Blush digs up.

Still, there are some very fundamental problems with this book, and they have to do largely with Blush’s unique brand of logic (which is to say his complete lack of logic). He constantly contradicts himself throughout the book. In the introduction, Blush claims that “American Hardcore ain’t no revisionist history,” but in the two previous sentences, he explains how the bulk of his information was gathered by interviewing people who were over the age of forty and talking about events that occurred fifteen or twenty years earlier. Now, I don’t care who you are, if you wait fifteen or twenty years before discussing an event, you will romanticize the event or become overly critical of it. You will add fifteen years of baggage to that event, and when you discuss it, you will revise the history of it. Blush isn’t basing his information on fanzines that were published between ’80 and ’86. He’s not using interviews that the bands gave while they were actively involved with the hardcore scene. He’s not using any source material at all. Therefore, it’s a revisionist history. That’s what it is. He uses the same kind of logic when he claims that he’s trying to be objective, but he also claims that he has to tell things from his own point of view. It doesn’t work like that. Being objective means not having a point of view. And I don’t mean to harp on these two points. I know they seem trivial, but they’re indicative of a larger problem of the book. Blush’s complete lack of logical thinking permeates the book and makes it very frustrating to read. I’ll give a few more examples.

When discussing Youth Brigade (LA), Blush claims that they broke up in ’85, but they “occasionally reunite.” Then he doesn’t say anything more about them. But since 1985, Youth Brigade have released Happy Hour, To Sell the Truth, a split with the Swingin’ Utters, and a couple of EPs. They’re currently working on a new album. They went on a national tour last year and have played probably a dozen shows around LA this year alone. I just saw them play last month and most of their set consisted of songs they’d written after ’85 (and the show was fucking awesome). That’s a lot of work for an occasional reunion.

Blush also glamorizes the violence of early hardcore shows (that’s not revisionist, is it?) and implies that hardcore lost its relevance when the violence started to fade. Now, maybe I’m wrong here, but I thought an important point of being a part of a civilization was to move away from violence. Call me crazy, but I think going to a show and not getting punched in the head is a good thing and a sign that hardcore is moving in the right direction.

In one of the greatest gaps between rational thinking and Blush’s logic lies in the line, “I don’t wanna deny the legitimacy of today’s teen angst. I just feel like, ‘Yo, make your own fucking music! Why just ape the music of my salad days?’” As if no rebellious music existed before 1980 or after 1986. As if Greg Ginn, Jello Biafra, and Ian MacKaye were pure visionaries whose inspiration came solely from their genius and had nothing to do with the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, or any other seventies punk band (or from Jerry Lee Lewis, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, for that matter). As if everyone who was influenced by Bad Brains or the Circle Jerks were just a bunch of posers who couldn’t get it right. This kind of arrogance on the part of Blush is indicative of so many aging ex-punks who act like rebellious music only existed during the years when they felt rebellious. I know I say this kind of thing all the time, but punk rock doesn’t end because you quit being a punk. And hardcore definitely didn’t end because Blush wanted to go on to a career writing for such socially relevant magazines as Details, Interview, and Spin (Blush really has written for all three of these magazines. That’s how you know he’s truly hardcore). And I guess it’s this arrogance that really made me hate American Hardcore. It pisses me off that Blush makes blanket statements like “By 1986 Hardcore was over.” Then goes on to give reasons why it ended, like “The new crop of kids weren’t replacing the scene’s intelligentsia.” In the meantime, shortly after hardcore supposedly ended, bands like Operation Ivy and Born Against came out. Those bands were pretty good, too. It seems to me that Op Ivy has had a little bit of influence over music. They did one or two original things. And maybe Born Against’s powerful lyrics about the El Mozote Massacre weren’t quite as socially relevant as when the Meatmen sang “Whippin’ my wood to the girlie mags/Provin’ to myself I’m not a fag,” but Born Against were pretty hardcore.

Hardcore and punk music has just gotten better since then, too. While I was reading this book, I decided to put it down one night and blow off some steam. I drove to the Smell in downtown LA, where 150 or so kids wedged into a dank warehouse space and were subsequently blown away by DS-13. DS-13, who released one of the best albums of 2001 and an album that just about every hardcore band that existed between ’80 and ’86 could only dream of putting out.

There’s a lot more wrong with American Hardcore, but I’m gonna stop my rant before I pop a vein in my forehead or something. I just want to say that there is good information in this book. It is thoroughly researched (not well-researched, but thorough). Still, the only real reason to pick this book up is so that you can spend a lot of time getting angry about some sell-out Details reporter trying to define an underground movement. -Sean Carswell (Feral House, PO Box 13067, LA, CA 90013)

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