American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980–1986: DVD

Jun 04, 2007

I think it might have been the sage Malaclypse the Younger who said, “tis an ill wind that blows no minds.” In much the same way, I would suggest that a good documentary is one that busts up the fine china of memories you keep in your head and creeps you to your core a few times, particularly when the subject matter is your own revered idols and romanticized past. History is not only “bunk,” as every good Nazi-liking car inventor knows, but nostalgia can all too easily become a cow-pie of mind waste so vast and gloppy that it can swallow you whole the second you stick your big toe in it. American Hardcore (which is more or less the movie version of Steven Blush’s book of the same title) is a documentary that manages to provide both glowy punk rock remembrances and idol-shattering moments of creepiness. Fortunately for me, the creepy revelations were spaced fairly evenly throughout the film, lodged between more digestible scenes of snotty punk rock mouthiness. My first twitch of uncertainty—although a slight one—came upon seeing TSOL’s baby-eating frontman Jack Grisham being interviewed while lounging on a couch wearing some sort of hot pink disco pants. Now whether they were actually sweatpants or pajama bottoms or Zubaz, didn’t matter; it just didn’t match the picture I had in my head of the notorious Surfer Punk Neanderthal with a sociopathic fondness for stomping on puppies and knocking the dung out of anyone who got in his sizable way. But that was small potatoes compared to what was to come. Later I found myself sitting through the disquieting revelations that 1.) the simpering rave artiste named “Moby” once sang (albeit briefly) for one of my all time favorite punk bands, Flipper, and 2.) that the Bad Brains’ “Positive Mental Attitude” came from having read and bought into a couple of humorless tomes called The Bible and Think and Grow Rich. You’ve probably heard of The Bible, but just in case you’re not up on cornball self-help books, Think and Grow Rich was a sort of forerunner to The Secret, which is the wildly popular New Age wonder book (currently being bought up in record numbers by Oprahphiles worldwide) that promises to teach its readers how to use the “law of attraction” to gorge their own gluttonous emotional and materialistic greeds. I always knew that H.R. and the boys were spiritually minded gents, but I always envisioned something just a little bit loftier. Maybe I should have been reading the lyric sheets a little more closely. And then we come to Steve “Mugger” Corbin, the one-time Black Flag roadie and frontman of the lovably offensive band Nig Heist. Corbin, hardly looking anything like a person who might be nicknamed “Mugger,” is shown at his home in a “gated community,” sipping Chardonnay and acting like a fat cat as he boasts about being “independently wealthy.” I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything evil about being well-to-do, but when you’re that much of a smug douche bag about it, something has most likely started to go rotten at your core. Hopefully this is just good ol’ Mugger trying to jerk people’s chains again like he did in Nig Heist. But I doubt it. On the more positive side, American Hardcore is packed with great live footage of many of the best bands of the early ‘80s hardcore era: Minor Threat, MDC, Negative Threat, SSD, Cro Mags, DOA, TSOL, as well as plenty of footage of the two bands the movie makers most notably dote on: Black Flag and Bad Brains. The danger, of course, of putting together a movie of this sort is that you set your self up to be picked apart for playing favorites with some bands while intentionally or unintentionally shunning others. Being a self-appointed historian can be a thankless job— though I would imagine that members of both Black Flag and Bad Brains are gushing with gratitude toward the people behind American Hardcore. Filmmakers Paul Rachman and Steve Blush admit in their commentary that Black Flag and Bad Brains are the two bands they feel were the most influential, as well as being their own personal favorites from the era. The bands most conspicuous by their absence in the film are the Misfits and the Dead Kennedys. Not only are there no interviews with members of either band or any live footage, but they are almost never even referred to. Bobby Steele, who’s cigarette-break-length stint with the Misfits barely constitutes fifteen minutes of fame, makes a couple quick appearances in the film, but other than that, about the only representation of the Misfits is the presence of their crimson ghost logo that pops on shelves behind interview subjects from time to time. But that’s about it. And a brief interview with artist Winston Smith toward the end of the film is, in one of the filmmaker’s words, “as close as we got to the Dead Kennedys.” Apparently, the ridiculous and sad situation with both bands is that because of legal shit-flinging between the singer and the other band members, Rachman and Blush were forced to knit their history around the two bands. And that alone makes something calling itself “the history of American Punk Rock 1980–1986” patently absurd, no matter how high the overall quality of the film might be. But I’m just jaded enough to not feel like complaining all that much. That kind of shit is bound to happen in these wildly litigious times of ours, even among people we once thought were “cool.” And though several other bands—personal favorites like Fear, Reagan Youth, the Freeze, Angry Samoans, Meatmen, the Fartz and No Trend—were glossed over or outright ignored in the film, I was pleasantly surprised to see Flipper featured as prominently as they are. The footage of Bruce Loose glowering hatefully through a rendition of “Way of the World” is, for me, worth the price of admission alone. As uneven as American Hardcore is from reoccurring bouts with selected perception and problems with legal obstacles, it is still a powerful and alluring look back at a messy, brutal, and provocative period in punk rock. Anyone interested in early ‘80s hardcore—on this side of the pond—will find something here to like. And something here to argue with. Which is a good thing. –Aphid Peewit (Sony Classics, 10202 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232)