American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush
Reviewed by Bosco
I’m a second generation punk rock kid now grown up. The harder version of punk called hardcore was my passion and driving force for many years. I still catch a hardcore show now and again with almost as much excitement at almost 50 as I felt at 15. Though much of that excitement is probably generated by teenage son who has come to share my love of this music. I read the first edition of Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History when it came out in 2001. I liked the oral history aspect of the book. He interviewed many of the key people from the genre. There were some voices missing but finding everyone connected to Hardcore is probably an impossible task. There were dozens of bands in almost every city and many more in places like New York and Los Angeles. Overall, he got a good foundation story from a good representation of the right people.
I was very interested to see what was new in the second edition of American Hardcore. It remains a fun read about a really interesting musical period that inspired creativity and work ethic among all it’s participants. Most everyone who was active in any hardcore scene in the country feels some sort of residual influence from their participation. It was a scene of equalization with little time for hero worship or rock star b.s. It was a scene where most everyone did their part to make it happen. Some people will say that punk rock saved their lives. That isn’t true for me, but punk rock and, especially hardcore, changed my life. My tolerance for the inconsequential is minimal. My work ethic is pretty strong in the things I am passionate for. Hardcore punk became a fixed filter on the lens through which I viewed life. My story is the same as most the people that I knew back then. We created the scene we lived in and we worked hard to make it interesting and worthwhile. That impact had repercussions that were felt well past the prime of the hardcore scene. The people of that scene, the bands, the promoters, the fanzine writers and the radio DJ’s carried their hardcore influences with them into the rest of their lives. Much of what they came to do later had a profound impact on American music. The “Alternative Rock” scene that would come to fruition and dominate the landscape for more than a decade later grew from the seeds of the hardcore scene. American Hardcore communicates that facet of the hardcore story well.
The author’s personal prejudices do bleed into the text from time to time. His values and opinions are occasionally presented as consensus rather than personal. The structure is sometimes puzzling. I would grant that most of this is probably editorial failings rather than authorship. I imagine he put the whole thing together with a D.I.Y. approach. Whatever the few shortcomings of the book, it tells a story no one else has been willing or able to tell thus far. Hardcore scenes were insular musical ghettos populated by disaffected misfit kids with little tolerance for mainstream existence. It’s a difficult story to tell because there is no single collective point of view about what hardcore was, what it meant and what it’s impact was or is. Overall, the closest you might get to a collective point of view is to say hardcore punk was a mess of angry, bored kids trying to find fun and meaning in a world they did not fit into. The book delivers that sense in spades.
I tell people that we used to go to these shows where on the way in or out, it was possible if not likely that we would be arrested just for being there, that cops could hit teenagers without consequence and that once inside the venue it could be so violent that you really had to question if you wanted to be there. They look at me like I have three heads. Hardcore was a scene that had a personal price. It was often heavy. It was often out of control. It was also, as often as not, the most satisfying experience I have encountered before or after. If you are interested in a book that helps you understand the motivations of people who are driven, often beyond rationality, to pursue a life of their own creation, on their own terms, American Hardcore is a good book. It’s not the last or only word on the subject. It’s not a definitive look at that scene in any sense that I understand that word. It’s a good starting point and offers some excellent insight into a punk subculture that has ceased to exist as it did. As Tyrell tells Roy in Bladerunner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly.”
Copies of American Hardcore are available on our shelves & via bookpeople.com.