Photo by Richard KernThe London boys have had their stories told ad nauseam. New York City has spit out a few tell-alls in the past several years. And LA—as always, fashionably late—is finally crashing the party with upcoming books by Masque club mastermind Brendan Mullen and Germs drummer Don Bolles.
That means it's about time for someone to get down in the dirt and dig up the story of punk rock behind the Orange Curtain. Maybe that's Steven Blush. As a teenager, the D.C. native spent plenty of time in the trenches with Minor Threat and Bad Brains; now he's put together a book that's a snapshot of an entire nation of kids. Just released on indie imprint Feral House, American Hardcore: A Tribal History is an extensively researched coast-to-coast oral history covering six fiery years of some of the most full-throttle music ever to scare your parents to death, with an entire chapter ("Kids of the Black Hole," naturally) dedicated to the bands caught between the big city and the beach.
We caught Blush in the middle of a book tour—next stop, Cincinnati!—and asked him how he thinks Orange County fits into hardcore.
OC Weekly: So why does the only picture in the whole book of punk rockers robbing graves happen to be from Orange County? Steven Blush: Well, when we're talking about the kind of kids that Orange County produced, like these crazy Jack Grisham [from TSOL] types, there really was a scene of kids that did these things—who think the ultimate statement of punk is to grave-rob, drive through cemeteries, sing songs about fucking corpses. It could only happen in OC: that wise-aleck kind of jock kid who lives the punk thing to the utmost. And those kids were prepared for such action. Guys like TSOL or the Vandals were doing things to be the most punk, and that mindset set off the movement. You've said Orange County was the birthplace of modern American hardcore. If you had to pinpoint that, how did everything start?
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Basically, it's Fullerton and Huntington Beach, though I thought Santa Ana was where the [band] Middle Class came out of—but with Fullerton, you have Rikk Agnew and the Adolescents, Agent Orange, Social Distortion, and then you have the beach towns, with Long Beach a part of that even though it's not technically part of the county. But everyone in the LA scene who didn't like these kids called them all "OC kids." Even Black Flag got thrown in with that. What's most important is that all these bands, at least to people like us on the East Coast, were seen as our generation of bands, coming from a place that wasn't so different from where we lived. Punk was more an urban thing—if you were an artist, you moved to the city to live out an arty kind of life. But most of these kids were probably still living at Mom's house during the hardcore days.
You mentioned that you had actually visited OC a few times back during the hardcore days?
Yeah, I'd known TSOL; I'd booked them a number of times, including at my college. I had this weird experience when I was on tour with [D.C. band] No Trend, and we stayed at Jack Grisham's family's house, and I just remember this incredible scene. Just this surreal kind of experience, with their mom being supernice, and sis and the kids and this kind of perfect—at least to me—suburban thing. If I'm not mistaken, they lived on Ladoga Drive, which is how he got that name—that was a great revelation to me. [Grisham appeared on one TSOL record as "Jack Ladoga."] They always changed their names, partly to fuck with people and partly to stay out of trouble. They really were on every police blotter.
People forget how dangerous it was—the police were trying to destroy a movement. I never met cops as ugly and disgusting as I did when I went down into these counties in Southern California. I understood very clearly that we don't have cops like that in D.C.—cops there did not wear jackboots and look for trouble.
Did that change the way you listened to the music after you'd actually spent some time in OC yourself?
Well, for better or for worse, OC defined the movement. It was an incredible explosion of bands but also this weird fucked-up paradise. It made me understand what those kids went through—in its beauty and its splendor, it's a very oppressive place, too. There's a story in the book about Todd [Barnes, from TSOL] and a couple of his friends who beat somebody blind over a parking space. To me, that's the ultimate statement of suburban punk at its most ridiculous. That kind of defines it for me: everyone who came out of the OC scene was basically good-looking, kind of had it going on, and yet they were some of the most ruthless motherfuckers I ever met. And after seeing that kind of repression—not just cops, but culturally; it was the heart of Reagan country—I saw that's what made hardcore so intense.
Didn't you have to conduct some interviews for the book with people who were in jail?
A few times . . . I try not to talk about it too much, but one person I will talk about: John Joseph from [New York hardcore band] the Cro-Mags—he was in the naval brig. He went AWOL in about 1980 and reappeared in the punk scene, and a few of his old compatriots called the cops on him in 1995. And he was in the Navy brig for about five months. So that interview was intense—very, very intense. But luckily for John, he served his time, and they let him out early.
By comparison, how are people from the OC hardcore bands holding up these days?
No better or worse than anyone else. A few get recognition; most of them are totally fucked. As far as I'm concerned, my visit to Vinyl Solution [record store] is a pilgrimage to OC. I mean that, and I don't mean to sound corny, but I'm paying tribute to OC for being the birthplace of this shit. It's genuine. I really respected those bands, and I really worshiped those records.
Steven Blush signsAmerican Hardcore at Vinyl Solution, 18822 Beach Blvd., Ste. 104, Huntington Beach, (714) 963-1819. Sun., 7 p.m. Free.
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