So, a few people independently mentioned “American Hardcore: A Tribal History” (by Steven Blush) to me, and each said “It’s like ‘Please Kill Me‘. It’s pretty good.”. Multiple unsolicited reccomendations from disparate persons, each apparently making the same critical judgement.
“Alright,” I thought. “Let’s read them back to back.”
Reading them crammed against one another is an interesting experience, but not exactly one I’d recommend unless you were intimately involved in the later scene documented by these two books, the hardcore scene. Blush does not explicitly acknowledge it, but it’s clear that Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s “Please Kill Me” is the direct inspiration for his book. Both works use extended interviews with numerous participants in each of the scenes they document as the basis of the book’s content.
“Please Kill Me” does so with great technical rigor: there is no content in the book except for quotes from specific individuals. These paragraph-long quotes are carefully juxtaposed to create a clear, narrative-driven portrait of a very specific place and time. The narrative centers on the personal relationships of a core group, which includes Danny Fields (a music-industry person), Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and Dee Dee Ramone.
At times the narrative becomes a litany of the horrible things these people did to one another and to those around them. Yet McNeil and McCain manage to accomplish the remarkable in squarely facing both the squalor and brilliance of the hairy thread of New York’s alternative music and art scene from 1967 to 1980 or thereabouts. Unfortunately for the reader, but accurately reflecting the perceptions of the participants, the narrative closes just as teenage America began to become aware of what the cast of characters in the book had been up to.
I really wish that the authors had taken the time to write about the Los Angeles scene at the time, and documented the development of the early punk scene there as well; but in such a sprawling tale, covering your home turf is a good idea.
Several interesting aspects of “Please Kill Me” struck me as I read it: the one that McNeil and McCain deliberately underplay is the amount of interchange and contact between their subjects and artists that I thought of as untouchable, not-quite-real, and worthless: as the enemy. Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Todd Rundgren, Led Zeppelin and others flit around the edges of the anecdotes so frequently, it’s clear that the ideological division between punk and rock was some sort of marketing tool, and not a marker of a social division. The first-generation artists from the New York scene were really set to be the inheritors of the rock industry, and were rejected by the industry because of the challenges inherent in molding and marketing nihilism.
Tales, repeated ad infinitum, of drug idiocy, incredibly excessive hotel behavior, cross-country flights to gigs, label-rented houses, and assorted other standard yawners of rock journalism litter the pages. What sets it apart from “The Song Remains the Same” is not the girls or the music (frequently, they are the same groupies, and musicans worked similar circuits) but the violence and retarded self-destruction.
Dee Dee Ramone emerges as a kind of hero, depicted here as the vital creative center of the Ramones, lauded for (among other things) his lyrical sensibilities, songwriting talent, fantastic level of drug dependency, his tendency to violence and his possible murder of persons unknown. He’s just died, but, um, I always thought Dee Dee’s songs were dumb, and frequently, I wouldn’t bother taping them when I picked up a Ramones album. Maybe I need to look at the credits again. I’m pretty sure “Wart Hog” was one of his numbers.
Or maybe the things that McNeil and NcCain have chosen to mythologize were the things I thought I was rebelling against as a teenager, and assumed that the New York crowd to whom I looked as role models were also interested in demolishing rockist sexism, violence and druggery. I guess I never really looked at the persons in question very hard. I suppose that means I was looking in the mirror all along.
That mirror, I suppose, is the one apparently smashed by Henry Rollins’ fist on the cover of the great Black Flag record, “Damaged”. Henry plays a large role in “American Hardcore”; author Blush was an east coast HC promoter who also crossed the country several times during the heyday of the music, the mid-eighties. He’s originally from DC, as was Henry, Ian MacKaye, and the Bad Brains.
Interestingly, the only character who appears in both books is Misfits bassist Jerry Only. In both books, the theme of territorial exclusion repeats over and over: the current kings of cool exclude and marginalize youngsters who appear and become interested in “the scene”.
The relation of the books is much like the relation of the music they are concerned with; “Kill Me” very clearly benefitted from professional backing. It’s a chapter from Joe Gould’s “Oral History” as he dreamed it for his audiences in Greenwich Vilage forty years before. Tightly copyedited, with practically no typos; carefully interweaving narrative viewpoints to create a cubist portrait of its’ people and places, it’s a satisfying read. It’s unquestionably the product of professionals operating within a mature support framework that encourages craft and technical reflection. It reaches for the brass ring of art, as did some of its’ subjects, and it succeeds.
“Hardcore” on the other hand, is clearly an indie effort by someone who loves and is knowledgeable about their topic but who did not have access to, for example, a gifted editor, or even a house style guide. Blush has chosen to Captialize things throughout the book, that while stylistically consistent, irritate me. Caucasians are White, persons of African descent are Black; fast, simple, aggressive music is Hardcore; this music developed from Punk Rock, and so on.
The lack of strong editorial feedback undermines the book’s compelling subject matter: the development of an explicitly anti-commercial, independent music distribution and performance network. By emulating the overlapping oral history approach of McNeil and McCain, detailed historical documentation of this network is minimized in favor of one obscure former punk kid after another relating which shows they played or attended, by and large.
This aspect of the book makes it feel much like a superannuated collection of Maximum Rock N Roll scene reports; only when Blush concentrates on specific band histories does the book pop into focus, ironically underlining the unique brilliance and star qualities of specific individuals: Greg Ginn, Henry, Ian, Glenn Danzig. Ian, unsurprisingly enough, comes across as a particularly thoughtful observer and participant, and spares himself no unflattering stories.
One thing I did not know was that just prior to the 1983 Samhain tour where I first saw them, Glenn had actually formed the band with Brian Baker and Lyle Presslar, the guitarists of Minor Threat. What a band that could have been!
To Blush’s credit, he pulls no punches when analyzing the fatal weaknesses of the music and personalities he covers. McNeil and McCain appear fascinated by the weaknesses of the personalities they allow others to discuss, and apparently retain faith in the power of the music associated with the people.
So in the end, both “American Hardcore” and “Please Kill Me” are appropriate reflections of the music they cover. “Kill Me”‘s artful, powerful construction reflects the artistic and moral values (or lack thereof) of the people it covers; “Hardcore” emulates the naive faith in the possibility of direct communication at the expense of reflective intellectualism that the music did itself. At the same time, it seems that Blush’s clear-eyed view of the limitations inherent in the form of the music and the social expectations of the subculture could inform a more nuanced product.
“American Hardcore” is perfectly true to the values of the scenes it documents, and does not attempt to accomplish an artistic goal, something that frustrated me as a reader. “Please Kill Me” has no values, and accomplishes the trick of becoming deep, reflective art by dint of dedication to craft while gleefully attempting to disguise its’ technical brilliance.
Sadly for me, I don’t give a fuck about either history anymore, and instead of feeling that old sense of possibility and excitement as I read these books, I found myself repeatedly, deeply bored by them. Drugs, groupies, violence: who cares. MRR started a campaign against so and so: so what. So-and-so ripped someone else off: big deal. I believe this may be a result of the development of “punk history” as a discrete subgenre in music publishing; I suppose it’s also a result of the failure of the music, or the writing, to either transcend itself or to immanentize the eschaton, as they say. Whatever, I’m done reading about it. Next time you see me picking up a copy of “Midwest Punk Rock Archaeology Review”, please kill me.