Strange Days Indeed

The Gipper, Tricky Dick, American Hardcore, The U.S. vs. John Lennon and deja vu all over again

"Everyone was saying it was 'morning in America.' Someone had to say, 'It's fucking midnight, man.'"
—Vic Bondi of the Chicago hardcore band Articles of Faith, in American Hardcore

Juggling a cell phone and a land line as he's rushing out the door of his Manhattan pad for the Toronto Film Festival, Steven Blush is asked if this is a bad time to chat. He answers that he'll make the time to get his story out to Orange County. The writer/co-producer of American Hardcore and its director/co-producer Paul Rachman insisted that OC share LA's "official" opening date—this week's previous Tinseltown showings were special, one-night screenings—because "Orange County is really important to hardcore."

"This really incredible, rich music that has lasted more than two decades has its roots in these towns," Blush says. "These families moved to the suburbs to protect their kids from reality, but the boredom created a new breed of monster. That's why you've got guys like Jack Grisham and the HB's and the whole rise of stage diving and slam dancing. That's a product of these towns."

Photo by Barrie Wentzell
Photo by Barrie Wentzell
Hardcore dive
Hardcore dive

If Blush ruled the world, somewhere on the South Bay/Orange County line—I don't have the heart to tell him there is no such place—"you'd have a Mount Rushmore with Jerry Roach, Gary Tovar, Greg Ginn and Jack Grisham." Roach ran the venerable Costa Mesa club the Cuckoo's Nest, which hosted everyone from U2 to 999 and was the setting for the movie and the Vandals' song of the same name, "Urban Struggle." Tovar founded the Goldenvoice concert promotion company that takes its name from a brand of Thai marijuana he was importing before doing a dime in federal lockdown. Ginn, who hails from the Lawndale/Hermosa Beach area, founded the band (Black Flag) and indie label (SST Records) credited with pushing hardcore's hard-driving music, DIY ethic and record distribution nationwide. And Blush includes Grisham, the leader of Huntington Beach's notorious TSOL, "for just being the most intense character of this movement, a real-life Alex from A Clockwork Orange. They terrorized people with the music they were promoting and playing. That's what our film is a tribute to, that attitude."

Blush was a New York City kid who went to Georgetown, became a college DJ and then a successful promoter of Washington, D.C., hardcore shows. He says it was Orange County bands like TSOL, the Adolescents and Social Distortion that most turned him on initially. And OC is represented in American Hardcore with tons of old concert footage and recent onscreen interviews with Grisham, the Middle Class' Jeff Atta and Mike Patton, and the Adolescents' Steve Soto, Frank Agnew, Tony Cadena and Casey Royer (also of D.I.).

Blush echoes a point made in his film: the HB's and other hardcore followers around the country and Vancouver (home of the band DOA, whose album title Hardcore '81 officially stamped a name on the music) did not feel attached to the original punk rock scene ruled by the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Germs and X. As Fugazi/Minor Threat/Teen Idles' front man and straight-edge forefather Ian MacKaye says in American Hardcore, "The Sex Pistols were great, but the focal point was Sid Vicious, a nihilistic junkie. And that's not what we were. So we called ourselves hardcore punk."

"We liked the music, but we were not really part of the culture," Blush explains. "All the original punk rock from New York, LA, London—that still was traditional rock & roll; the Sex Pistols were like a crazy version of rock & roll. Hardcore was a new music, so when Black Flag comes on the scene with that style and sound, it was what the kid from the suburbs could relate to. It's like [Circle Jerk] Keith Morris says in the film: you came in later to the intro, later to the outro and then you got out of it. Nothing was written at all."

"Nothing was written at all" would also explain the impetus behind Blush's American Hardcore book.

He'd left the music biz and returned to New York to launch his own magazine, Seconds—despite having no previous writing experience. It lasted a dozen years and 52 issues. He was freelancing for Spin, Paper, Interview, Village Voice and several other publications when he saw a PBS rock & roll special that cut straight from old school punk to Nirvana. "It was like none of the other stuff happened," he says, still incredulous. Unsure whether hardcore had purposely been skipped, he began a five-year "journey of rediscovery" to get something about the music on record. But, like the music, he experienced a negative reaction. "Halfway through the book, my ex-wife said, 'Why don't you stop that shit, it's not going to lead to anything.' . . . On the other hand, honestly writing about China White records or the Negative Approach from Detroit, or the Freeze from Boston, I thought, 'Who would care about this?' while writing it. But the book still does great. It sells as much as it ever did."

He wrote it for nostalgic 40-year-olds but has been pleasantly surprised by its reception from those young enough to be the offspring of the original HB's. Many of those kids attend shows by the Circle Jerks or TSOL that are opened by neo-hardcore bands, something Blush has mixed feelings about.

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