"Hardcore Is a Complete, Legitimate California-born Music Form": An Interview with "American Hardcore" Author Steven Blush, Who Speaks Today at Book Soup with Keith Morris and Others
In his 2001 compendium, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, New York writer and former promoter Steven Blush all but dispensed with your dad's glamorized spit-scabs-and-safety-pin punk, instead focusing on hundreds of DIY, anarchic hardcore bands from the scene's peak between 1980 and 1986, proving that this was one genre of rock that wasn't fun and games, especially when the crowd is trying to light the singer on fire.
While Blush interviewed the music's usual suspects, including the Dead Kennedys, Misfits and Bad Brains, a substantial amount the book is not surprisingly dedicated to SoCal, from Hollywood to Orange County to the South Bay of Black Flag and SST. Or, as Blush rightly identified, where "American hardcore was born out of." (You might've notice Bad Brains singer H.R.'s interview in the accompanying 2006 Sony Pictures Classics documentary took place at Griffith Park with a quinceanera in the background).
For the book's second edition, which includes more interviews, flyers and a new chapter, Blush hosts a readings/discussion at Book Soup today, with Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks), Tony Cadena (Adolescents), Lisa Fancher (Frontier Records) and photographer Edward Colver. Before he left the frigid cold for sunshine, we caught up with the author and talked local pride:
How did the book come about?
I started in the mid-'90s when the punk revival had happened with Green Day, Offspring and Rancid. Everybody was talking about hardcore, but it had never really been documented. There was never any written lore other than fanzines, and some great ones, like Flipside in the L.A. area and Maximumrocknroll in San Francisco, notably. But those were from the day. Also, I'd seen The History of Rock and Roll series on PBS, and it goes straight from the Sex Pistols and Clash (I believe it mentions X) to Nirvana, as if this decade had never happened. It was like the untold story of rock.
What was the first hardcore band you saw?
Valentine's Day 1981 during my freshman year of college I went to a show called the Valentine's Day Massacre at the 9:30 club in D.C. It was Black Flag with the Dez Cadena lineup. That's the first time I saw Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye and all their bands. It was like a whole new lexicon of music. I really liked all that British punk and post-punk stuff I'd been exposed to. But it didn't really speak to me. I didn't understand about being on the dole. I didn't get references to Brixton or even the New York bands and their references to Warhol. I was too young for that. But here was music that was reclaiming punk. That's why it was called hardcore, based on angst and energy and speed of suburban kids from around the country, obviously all starting in Los Angeles.
So is it safe to say that L.A. sparked both your interest and the scene?
It's a complete, legitimate California-born music form. It couldn't have happened somewhere else. It was a particular type of punk that could've only come out of the Southland and the beach towns and high schools. Anywhere Black Flag played, a few months later, there was a hardcore scene. It was like Johnny Appleseed. It was fermenting revolution.
Speaking of, Henry Rollins has been rechristened a quasi celebrity (and LA Weekly columnist) in the last couple of years, largely thanks to his radio shows.
The dude really is a genius. People ask me, 'Who's your favorite singer of Black Flag? And I say, yo, there's only one.' There was one tour with Dez Cadena, and that was it. I was lucky enough to see it, but Henry spearheaded this whole thing. He was the best singer and pretty much the prototype for all punk and metal to come. And he really took a lot of shit back in the day. People fucked with him on stage. I remember when he would come out and people would try to light his balls on fire and try to sucker punch him. That was a regular occurrence. People like him and Harley Flanagan of New York's Cro-Mags really took the brunt of it. A guy with no college education, he molded himself out of pure will into a legitimate intellectual. The fact that the true musicologists turned about to be guys like him and Flea (briefly of Fear) proves that this wasn't a scene of knuckleheads.
A lot's changed since both the first book and film. How has social networking and a viral gold mine like Youtube affected the re-writing process?
I'm half and half on new media. Yes to Youtube, but no to Tweeting or Facebook. I'm able to find people really easily and have them refer me to sites. I'm not afraid of the internet as a tool, but in this new age, you need someone who can make sense of the information and process it and put it into a narrative that people can understand. I'm wondering now what's gonna happen with some of the bands, because a lot of the success was their mystery.
You've probably answered this countless times, but I still have to ask why the Dead Kennedys and Misfits (and Fear and Husker Du) weren't featured in the movie.
Business problems. These bands that were so mighty fell due to very petty reasons. And with the two bands your talking about, the singer and the rest of the band don't speak to each other. I assure you every offer was made to all those guys and let it look however they wanted. For whatever reason they didn't say yes. It's a shame for them because it hurts their legacy, too. We whole heartedly tried to tell their history, and I ultimately feel that it's everybody's loss for not participating.
Cut to today and riot that took place during the TSOL gig in West Hollywood earlier this month. Do you find it laughable when you hear about punk rock violence still happening in this day in age?
It's now become a California legend, a rite of passage to have a riot at a TSOL show. There's a side of me that wants more of it. I want rock 'n' roll to still be a force of change, question authority. I thought the whole point was to fight for the right to do that kinda stuff. The cool teenagers aren't rioting at the Avenged Sevenfold concerts. But it is kinda funny that it happened at a show where the band members are 45 and 50.