This is Hardcore

It made less history than '77 punk. It sold fewer records than Nirvana. But the suburban rebellion of Eighties America found its own potent way to say no.

From the start, Black Flag had combined the negations of the Pistols with the confessional fight songs of the Clash to make a new time bomb: middle-class self-negation. And because their maniacal work ethic ensured that they would reach most American kids in person before any other live punk band, the bad news spread. Instead of screaming for a white riot, hardcore longed to be a "White Minority." "Gonna feel inferiority!" shouted (Puerto Rican-born) Black Flag singer Chavo Pederast in 1980.

Our Band Could Be Your Life makes this running auto-critique seem heroic. Azerrad can't resist the myth-making details of subsistence touring: Minor Threat getting by for a weekend on government cheese; Jello Biafra helping Hüsker Dü collect food stamps; Black Flag's Henry Rollins scamming on girls for dinner ("you'd hang out all night waiting for that plate of fries," he says). A bit of USDA largess aside, hardcore was a lean life to choose. But as the punk movement of America's privileged suburbs, these kids needed the challenge.

No one in Black Flag welcomed the harassment and brutality showered on them by the LAPD--accounts of police beatings outside shows were legion. Yet many punks welcomed violence as a rite of passage. Soon the fisticuffs that plagued L.A. shows (where the music was banned in clubs) were stylized into dance moves and intellectualized on the street by the wholesome, soda-chugging Bad Brains fans of Georgetown who came to make up Minor Threat.

Jacks of all basements: The Replacements' Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson, and Chris Mars, circa Let It Be
Daniel Corrigan
Jacks of all basements: The Replacements' Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson, and Chris Mars, circa Let It Be

The thrill of retaliation was learned and passed on by Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye, who went to the West Coast and returned in awe of how punks there bashed back. "I don't think we'd been home three days," he remembers in Our Band Could Be Your Life, "before we were walking down M Street or something and somebody says, 'Hey, fag!' And six lightbulbs went on over six little heads and six little guys trounced somebody. And it was a very powerful feeling." The Ian MacKaye of today's Fugazi who pointedly glares at roughhousers in his audience is very much staring down the teenage version of himself.

One reason you don't know this story is that this sort of behavior was exactly what scared away many of the cognoscenti that supported 1977's punk revolution. Where Pere Ubu's David Thomas once lamented that new wave gave creative geeks something to thoughtlessly copy, hardcore was worse: Now the Marcels of the world had a gang. When the D.C. kids brought slam-dancing to CBGB, even the habitually rebellious Lester Bangs thought them "muscleheads." The Washington scene's rep was such that, according to Dance of Days, John Belushi phoned MacKaye to round up a posse to appear on Saturday Night Live as the frightful audience for L.A.'s Fear.

Another reason you don't know this story is that a lot of hardcore punk sucked. The malaise of violence and machismo that D.C. invited is well chronicled in Dance of Days, which remembers 1984 as the year that the national hardcore periodical Maximumrocknroll asked: "Does Punk Suck?" (Soon after, letters tackling that question nearly took over the zine.) MacKaye, whose songs rejected drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and casual sex as a form of fake rebellion, recoiled as both "Straight Edge" and unnecessary roughness became punk dogma.

In the end, hardcore hated hardcore more than you ever could--violence was a cheap way out of teenage insecurity. This brand of punk lacked the grounding class bitterness of doled-down Brits--even in the hands of the Minutemen, who hailed from the navy ghetto of San Pedro, California. Yet confusion improved the flailing culture, and the self-criticism became part of the fun. I still remember loving the anti-fashion of the "post-hardcore" bands--Black Flag showing up with long hair, playing Dio riffs; Hüsker Dü dressing like truck drivers, destroying the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" to save it; and Minutemen, king dorks of them all, using their instruments to bore through the musical deadwood of folk and funk fusion like voracious punk termites. To me, hardcore became about defying your expectations of hardcore.

 

If this music still has power, it's because white kids can sometimes defy our expectations of America, and in ways that run deeper than the common slogan "No Nazis! No KKK! No fascist USA!" At its best, hardcore was a critique of American freedom, from L.A. band Saccharine Trust's "We Don't Need Freedom" to Hüsker Dü's "In a Free Land." And no one dramatized the limits of freedom better than the Replacements, whose youthful violence was always directed at themselves.

I can hear your objections already that the 'Mats were about as thrash as John Denver, but please: Hardcore put these yaps to work. It kicked their ass and sent a kamikaze bar band that otherwise wouldn't have annoyed anyone outside Fernando's careening into the national culture. Their daring barely concealed fear and sadness, and their songs came to dwell on both. In the end, they were punk because punks listened to them. And they seemed to sense this early on. "Kids Don't Follow" was a response to U2's "I Will Follow" (which the 'Mats destroyed live) and perhaps also a warning against making Ian MacKaye a personal savior. Singer Paul Westerberg assumed the mantle of generational spokesman even as he shunned it--clenching the idea as if it were an electrified mic stand.

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