Talk Hardcore to Me
Hardcore punk from the 1980s has been written out of rock history so many times that even old fans might feel a jolt of discovery watching the new documentary American Hardcore. The music, which fills an accompanying soundtrack album on Rhino, feels new because it hasn't been used to sell anything, least of all itself. The live footage—dozens of screaming, speeding bands, from white Milwaukee longhairs Die Kreuzen to black D.C. dreadlocks Bad Brains—is mostly rare and exclusive.
This aging punk has issues with the picture—the definitive-sounding subtitle (The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986), the suggestion that hardcore died (reviewers using the past tense should visit a record store), the inevitable blind spots (for my own take, see "This Is Hardcore," CP 9/5/01). But I still walked out blinking and elated, suspecting that the music I love now is hopelessly slow, quiet, and compromised.
Writer Steven Blush digs deeper here than he did in his more slapdash book American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House), while director Paul Rachman (who edited the first season of Chappelle's Show) mercilessly cut his 90-plus talking heads to verbal snippets, allowing the music to dominate. Both Blush, 44, and Rachman, 47, were game to talk about their punk pasts during a recent press stop in Minneapolis.
City Pages: So what were your first shows?
Steven Blush: I came back from a high school exchange program in England in '78, and nobody was into punk rock at all, especially not in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was one of those kids buying import seven-inches from England every week; I saw the Clash on their first American tour. Then I went to college in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1980, and there was this new energy. I saw Black Flag's first tour with Dez Cadena as the singer, on Valentine's Day 1981, with Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye in the crowd. I just got it. I'm sure I was going to get a law degree, and that night fucked up my career path. I ended up becoming the punk-rock promoter in town.
Paul Rachman: I was at Boston University from '78 to '82, and I wasn't really the perfect fit for this College Town, USA, environment. My roommate knew about this new angry hardcore scene coming out of the suburbs, and he became a promoter. The first show I went to was at the Gallery East in downtown Boston, with Gang Green, the Freeze, and the FUs. It just instantly changed everything. I'm there watching these 16-, 17-year-old kids from Arlington and Norwood, Massachusetts, towns that college kids did not go to, and the music just pounds my stomach and creeps under my skin. You instantly wanted to participate because you wanted to hear this music more, and it wasn't playing in clubs. Within two weeks I bought my first Super-8 camera, and I essentially became a filmmaker because of this.
Blush: I think there was something about Boston and D.C. hardcore that was really militant. We hated hippies, but we did buy into their thing about changing the world through music. I don't think we succeeded. We didn't change the world, but we did change music. You look at bands today—stage diving, slam dancing, indie labels, indie touring. That's out of Black Flag and Minor Threat, that's not out of Styx and Journey.
CP: How did you go about making the film?
Rachman: I had this vision of the film as a [series of] first-person accounts from these people. When I watched it, I needed to feel the same way I felt when I first walked into a hardcore show—to wake up my stomach with these evil butterflies. I knew it could be made, but it took five years. Nobody gave us any money. I took this book around [American Hardcore], even to the guy at Sony Pictures Classics, and he took one look at this picture [Danny Spira of Wasted Youth, covered in blood], and said, "I'm not making this movie." It was a two-and-a-half-minute meeting.
That really gave me the message that we have to make this film the same way the music was made. I owned a camera. I owned an edit system. It was really about taking time. Which was a blessing in a way, because documentaries now get budgeted, and you've got six weeks to shoot, six weeks to edit, and, boom, it's going to be on the air. This film was like: go on the road, hook up with old friends, sit down, and have like a two-hour conversation. Over time, you reach that point in the editing room where the film starts talking back to you.
Blush: The editing process was basically us two hanging out with his laptop editing system, a bag of pot, and a six-pack.
CP: Midwestern punk appears only briefly in the film. Did you want to add anything?
Blush: I have to point out that Bob Mould [of Hüsker Dü] was amazing. He was so pure; his music was so incredible. And I can tell you that I was with a little shit band [as manager of D.C.'s No Trend], and those guys split the money with us three ways every night when we toured—us, Articles of Faith, and Hüsker Dü. That's the kind of scene it was. I'm kind of bummed we don't have Bob in the film, but it was just a scheduling problem. We never got to the Midwest and we never got to Texas. But Bob Mould was a hero.
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