EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW AMERICAN HARDCORE AUTHOR/FILMMAKER STEVEN BLUSH
Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History is one of the great rock n’ roll history books. And now it’s bigger. Originally published in 2001, the Feral House book nails the golden age of old-school hardcore, from the movement’s inception to the watershed year 1986. The book inspired a documentary, the 2006 film American Hardcore. The movie is a must-see that has inspired as much griping and controversy as the book.
Blush is a fan, manager and promoter turned journalist. (Metalheads will recognize him as one of the talking heads from Get Thrashed — and if you haven’t seen that either, what’s wrong with you?) American Hardcore is practically an oral history of the movement. Blush conducted well over a hundred interviews, talking to everybody who was anybody: Cro-Mags bassist Harley Flanagan, Henry Rollins, Glenn Danzig, Mike Watt, Meatman Tesco Vee, Minor Threat/Fugazi/Evens’ Ian MacKaye, the Beasties Boys’ Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, photographer Glen E. Friedman – you name it, they’re here.
The book is compulsively re-readable, whether you’re plowing through it or cracking it open to a random page. Its longer chapters present detailed histories of the movement’s key bands, including Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, the Misfits, and the Dead Kennedys. Healthy-sized sections spotlight other big groups like Agnostic Front, the Cro-Mags, and Suicidal Tendencies, in addition to lesser-known groups like Boston’s phenomenal SS Decontrol.
Blush covers the entire country by city or region, spotlighting scenes in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Midwest, L.A., and others. The book wraps with a detailed harcore discography. Blush writes many a well-informed transition from topic to topic, but he generally lets the people who made history tell the story. There’s not a better single source for a history of hardcore. But it’s not universally beloved. At issue are some of Blush’s facts, conclusions, and general approach.
Blush’s “Hits From Hell” chapter is the definitive history of the original Misfits, but Danzig has said some of the material about the Misfits-Samhain transition is inaccurate and presented out of context. Dropkick Murphys singer Al Barr has blasted the book because the first edition incorrectly identifies his old band, the Bruisers, as a white-power group. (The second edition corrects the error.) Blush says Agnostic Front guitarist Vinnie Stigma doesn’t plug in guitars onstage any more, which Stigma has wholeheartedly denied. They’re entitled to their perspective, but the book is still an amazing piece of work.
Most controversial, however, is Blush’s blanket statement that hardcore ended in 1986, period. His argument makes more sense in context, but not all readers bothered with the subtleties of his thesis. To a lesser degree, readers have also taken issue with Blush’s assertion “most of the information I’ve seen posted on the internet regarding American Hardcore is wrong, so I’ve chosen to ignore it.”
Blush – who also produced the documentary – addresses some of the flashpoint issues in the new second edition. In eighty new pages, he expands old passages, profiles more bands, introduces additional characters and adds an all-new chapter about spirituality in hardcore. Check it out, and come back after the holidays – there will be a quiz.
Blush is also the author of American Hair Metal, which has text, but it’s more of a visual history. He’s appearing in New York City Wednesday, December 15, at the Strand Bookstore (828 Broadway, 7 p.m.), for a roundtable discussion with Dave Smalley (Descendents, DYS, Down By Law) and author Laura Albert (a.k.a. “JT Leroy”).
How long did you spend researching the book?
I may have done the first interview at the end of ’94. When I wrote the thing about the stuff on the internet being wrong, that was 2001. That was still a weird time; the internet was just getting rolling. When I started doing it, there was no information. You didn’t call up information and ask for the number for [DOA frontman] Joey Shithead. You couldn’t track down people. You had to know people. I had to string this together like archeology, finding the artifacts and creating a narrative.
[But since] because of doing the book and making the film and learning so much more throughout all the processes and all the things I’ve picked up and people I’ve met and things I’ve learned on the internet, I really feel like I had so much more to say. Usually, the second edition is the same exact book with a chapter tacked on. I really rewrote the whole thing. And now I feel like I have the combination of the facts and history, with that punk attitude.
How many interviews did you do, total?
In the first edition, I did about 110, 120. And in this one, I include another 25. And stuff I did for the film, that’s another 80 people by the time I was done digging through people’s closets and dusty VHS tapes and 7”s.
The first edition, what cause a lot of unforeseen typos was: I had to cut 16 or 32 pages. This one, I had more expansive ground. This one is another 80 pages, and if you look at the typography we use, it’s really tight.
I’m just starting to dig through the second edition — what are some of the things you changed?
A typical conversation I would get into was: Someone would say, “Oh, man, you said that was ’84. That was ’83!” Or, “You mentioned those four bands, but you didn’t mention this fifth one – you’re an asshole.”
On top of that, I offer up some different views on it. The last chapter of the [previous edition of] the book was kind of unforgiving, admittedly.
The press release that preceded the book says, “Most significant, [Blush] has offered a new conclusion, which is an anomaly in the realm of period studies.” I thought maybe you’d back off the your statement that hardcore ended in 1986. But the book lets that stand.
I can’t speak for the press release, but what I do come away from is: I’m correct about the historical arc, from ’80 to ’86. This was much more than a music. This was a social movement, almost. It came out of bands like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, etc. Their entire recording career was exactly those years. ’86 is [Slayer’s] Reign in Blood and the third Metallica record [Master of Puppets] and industrial music and crossover – that’s the end of that. But what I’ve come to learn is that while I’m correct about that, it’s almost missing the point.
I think that if people like what they’re listening to, who am I to bum their trip? I know what I’m talking about, in terms of what this movement was. But like any genre, it’s kind of like saying Eric Clapton is not the blues, only Robert Johnson is the blues. It’s like saying Christianity ended with the death of Christ, right? There’s the believers that come later. That’s what’s happening now: It’s not the pioneers and it’s not the movement — it’s the believers.
It seems to me the most common feedback on hardcore histories is, “It doesn’t concentrate on the era and scene I’m from, so it’s no good.”
I’m totally comfortable with what I said, but what is somebody supposed to say if they were having a great time in a mosh pit in 1997? I mean, I was at Hatebreed shows in the ’90s. I don’t think the music suddenly stopped. But after 1986, everything that came after was music – it wasn’t part of that initial movement that was something new that was being invented as it went on.
You spotlight the handful of big, iconic hardcore groups like Black Flag and the Misfits and Minor Threat. Who’s the best band outside of those big five or six?
SS Decontrol [SSD] in Boston. A band I really like in Akron, Ohio: Zero Defex. The Big Boys in Texas. JFA in Phoenix. Battalion of Saints in San Diego.
I’m based in Cleveland, and it was nice to see you give Zero Defex the extra attention this time.
In ‘84 and ‘85, you had the rise of few bands, a little scene in Cleveland and Akron.
Were the later Cleveland bands on your radar, like Integrity or Face Value?
Yeah. That’s a different book. That’s a different story. My feeling about it is that the definition of hardcore was a way of life, like an ethical code and a way to conduct your life, putting yourself out DIY, during the rise of the Reagan years.
How about Pittsburgh? You doubled the size of that section.
I remember seeing that band Half Life* play, and [its forerunner] Real Enemy. The Real Enemy stuff, I had a second take on. It’s really good. [Pittsburgh punk kings Half life featured Don Caballero drummer Damon Che and Gearhead co-founder Mike LaVella. – Ed.]
What was your involvement in the documentary?
I’m named producer and writer. Paul Rachman directed it. I liked it. It was a hard film to do, because hardcore is something different to everyone.
The approach of the book was to approach it as a social-political history. [With the movie] it’s a story arc, and as a story arc, it’s very strong. If you’re looking for every single band, I couldn’t do that.
I wish there weren’t problems with certain bands that prevented their stories from coming out, [like] the Dead Kennedys. It’s sad for the film, but more sad for history. The story ultimately is not being told because of petty bullshit between the band members.
The Misfits, I have respect for Glenn [Danzig], but Glenn does what he wants to do, and he’s into controlling it. He’s kind of petty in that regard. He should have stayed with [Misfits] Jerry [Only] and Doyle [Wolfgang von Frankenstein], and he should have stayed with [early Danzig group producer] Rick Rubin, and so many things down the line. I talked to all those guys on numerous occasions. So things like that sadden me, because the film could have had another level.
What bands have been happy or unhappy with it?
I don’t have problems with anybody. I hear stuff every now and then. As a writer, you’re an outsider. Ultimately, everybody in the book and the movie was in it because I knew them and contacted them. But no matter what feelings they had after that… anybody I talked to told me they liked it. Jello Biafra doesn’t really like [the book]. But I stayed at his house in 1983. And I told the story of his divorce. It’s embarrassing for him, but I told the story.
You haven’t bumped into anybody like Vinnie Stigma?
I see all the New York guys.
I read an interview where he seemed pretty aggravated about the book saying he doesn’t plug in for live shows.
Yeah, but it’s true. I know because somebody in the band told me. What you’re dealing with — I live in New York, I see these guys, you know what I’m saying? When you’re doing interviews, what are you going to say?
Have you seen any of the other punk histories, like the Punk: Attitude and [the book] Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music?
I haven’t read any of them. I know all this stuff had come. They are riding my coat tails.
Radio Silence is really good. It’s like the picture equivalent of your book.
I don’t see early ‘90s hardcore as a movement like [‘80s] hardcore, as this larger than life thing. I like a lot of the stuff. I love the first Hatebreed record. I’m not ignorant to any of this stuff.
Your Misfits chapter is the Misfits story. Do you think they’re the best band from the era, musically? What or who do you think is the biggest or best talent to come out of hardcore?
Thanks. The Misfits, as I discuss in the book, there are many things about them where you could say they were not a hardcore band, even though they definitely embodied it in some ways. They were melodic compared to their contemporaries. They were this incredible band that was a little more approachable. I go to some of the hip bars in Williamsburg, the capitol of the new indie rock, and on the jukebox, the Misfits play like Led Zeppelin for my generation.
Every scene has one guy or a handful. The most successful is the Beastie Boys, or Henry Rollins. He went all over the world. He got himself out of the hardcore ghetto. Not necessarily in my eyes, but in a general view, he’s an iconic social character. Bad Brains, I see black kids on skateboards, and they still talk about the Bad Brains. That’s not a be-all, but I think that says a lot.
Is there a distinction between a heritage act like the Drifters and a hardcore band like Agnostic Front that’s still recording and touring with different members, or a reunion like Negative Approach, with half the band present?
While I don’t see a fierce political movement going on, I see these guys as the revival. I went to a couple of these hardcore bands, and I do have a moment like when I saw Tony Iommi’s Black Sabbath – like, “Where’s Ozzy Osbourne?” The Cro-Mags now tour without Harley Flanagan, and that’s one of the most important characters in the history of hardcore. But these guys are making money, and they never made a lot of money. It is a revival, make no mistake about it.
Lear more at the book’s website, which features a pre-programmed playlist of 900 early-80s hardcore songs. Blush appear at Miami’s Sweat Records Thursday, January 13. Saturday, January 19, he’ll visit LA’s Vacation Vinyl for a discussion titled “The Process of Weeding Out: American Hardcore and the Rise of Stoner Rock,” with Kyuss’ Brant Bjork, Black Flag’s Chuck Dukowski and others.
D.X. Ferris is the author of 33 1/3: Reign in Blood, the first English-language book about Slayer, which is available cheap in hard copies and for the Kindle machines. (He’s been know to send bonus swag in exchange for a proof of purchase.) You can friend it on the Facebook, or follow his bullshit daily on the Tweeters: @dxferris and @SlayerBook.