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."

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.

"On the one hand, it's awesome that kids are diving into this and validating the music of my youth," he says. "On the other, get your own fucking music."

He pauses.

"All kidding aside, the only point I'd like to draw with hardcore then and hardcore now is there was always a political aspect, a political intent, passive or overt, depending on your band. Show me a highly political, anti-establishment, dangerous hardcore band today. That's what hardcore is."

His book drives that point home in its opening chapter, "Living in Darkness," which includes a flier with "HARDCORE" in militaristic capital letters and a portrait of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan—both bald—standing in front of an Oval Office window with a mushroom cloud off in the distance. The following text runs alongside the illo:

Ronald Reagan, another product of Southern California, won the presidency in 1980. He was the galvanizing force of Hardcore—an enemy of the arts, minorities, women, gays, liberals, the homeless, the working man, the inner city, et cetera. All "outsiders" could agree they hated him.

Early in the film, we see the full swearing-in of Reagan at his first inauguration in January 1981.

"In the early '80s, there was a new order," Vic Bondi of the Chicago band Articles of Faith says into the camera. "The Ronald Reagan white man order is coming back. We had that puppet Jimmy Carter, the feminists, Negroes getting uppity. The whole country goes into this really puerile '50s fantasy. The cardigan sweaters. And we were just like, 'Fuck you. Fuck you. Not us. You can take that and shove it up your ass.'"

Hardcore's violent reputation—the very thing that drew kids to it in the first place—had the most to do with the scene imploding. Great bands like Bad Brains couldn't deal and gravitated to new sounds. Others couldn't sustain music careers as cops shut down venues. And then there was the clich├ęd self-destruction amid drugs, prison stretches, nagging spouses and the ravages of Old Man Time. But, as American Hardcore contends, Reagan's re-election sucked the spirit out of hardcore.

Near the end of the film, we see the full swearing-in of Reagan at his second inauguration in January 1985.

"The first time was unbelievable," Dave Dictor of the San Francisco/Austin, Texas, band Millions of Dead Cops tells the camera. "The second time was very disillusioning. Punk rock fragmented into many scenes."

It is still fragmented.

"One thing that has been very distressing these last few months is looking at MySpace and seeing the incredible number of Christian hardcore and deathmetal bands," Blush says. "It is staggering; there are hundreds and hundreds of them. That, to me, is scary. The one thing in hardcore was that everyone pretty much hated church and state. Every major hardcore band was blasted by evangelicals as the work of Satan. That churches have coopted this music makes me think we were right in the day, because to coopt punk rock to sell Jesus is pure evil."

AMERICAN HARDCORE AND THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON WILL BE REVIEWED IN NEXT WEEK'S FILM SECTION.

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