April 6, 2008

Irrelevant Neglected History, Part 4


I had started a column about the dismal state of what passes for music nowadays and what it says about our collective psyche, but them I thought, “Why bother?” I’d just be stating the obvious again: music sucks, and we’re stupid.

            So I scrapped that. Instead, I decided to take a look back at a time when music was still dismal, but at least it was a hell of a lot more interesting than it is nowadays. It’s almost a steaming pile of nostalgia, but not quite. In some ways, it’s worse.

            See, quite suddenly the other day, I found myself with Nothing to Do. This is a dangerous situation for me. The depression kicks in pretty fast, the brain begins feeding off itself, and I find it nearly impossible to force myself into any kind of action.

            After a day of moping about, I shifted over into unfocused, impotent anger. Anger’s always more fun than mopiness. I began slapping old punk rock albums on the stereo. If you’re angry and depressed for no good reason, there ain’t nothing that beats an old Black Flag album. Worked when I was seventeen, and still works in my forties.

            Later that night, seeing as I was on a kick, I popped in one of those documentaries about the history of punk rock, just to see how much they’d get wrong.

            Most writers and documentary filmmakers who take on the history of punk seem to be working with the assumption that punk rock stopped dead in its tracks the moment Johnny Rotten asked the audience at the last Sex Pistols show, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Then nothing at all happened over the next decade, until punk was miraculously reborn in 1990, when (apparently) Kurt Cobain was pulled fully formed from the head of Zeus.

            They completely neglect the Reagan years and the hardcore scene in America—probably because none of the thousands of bands that popped up across the country ever had a major label deal or got played on the radio. But there were a lot of us out there, putting on shows in basements and rented halls. Bored, disenfranchised suburban kids who weren’t gonna be on the football team cut their hair, picked up guitars, and started writing ninety second songs about how pissed they were.

            At the time, hardcore’s existence was recognized by CHiPs, Quincy, Real People, and several talk shows—as well as in films like Repo Man and The Decline of Western Civilization, yet it’s been almost completely ignored since. A hell of a lot was going on back then, but you wouldn’t know it to read the histories.

            Then a few years ago, a fellow named Stephen Blush wrote an excellent oral history of the scene called American Hardcore (which was recently turned into a documentary). That was at least a start.

            After getting through The Stooges, the Ramones, Suicide, the Sex Pistols and The Clash, the documentary I was watching at least acknowledged that there was a hardcore scene in the eighties, thank god. Yet even these admissions that something had happened back then bug me. They tend to focus on what was going on in New York, LA, and Washington, DC, while ignoring the rest of the country. While yes, some great, important and influential bands came out of those cities, quite a bit was happening in the middle of the country, too—which these people don’t seem to be aware of. That’s one of the things that made hardcore so interesting—it wasn’t just something limited to the sophisticates in major metropolitan areas; every little town in the country had at least one hardcore band lurking in its midst, invariably formed by the weird, geeky outcasts in the local high school. And the neat thing is, the Midwest seemed to spawn a particularly odd brand of hardcore, quite unlike what you were hearing coming off the coasts.

            My theory has always been that the punks in the Midwest were, for the most part, isolated enough from both coasts that they weren’t directly influenced by what quickly became a very regimented set of rules regarding the “hardcore sound,” the political outlook, the clothing and the hair—all of which had become fairly uniform by the mid-eighties. As a result, punk bands from Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois were . . . different. They were free to develop their own unique style, quite outside the rules and factions being laid down in LA and DC. I think that’s why I have so much respect for the Midwest—people there really do go their own way and create their own definitions. Michigan, after all, spawned both The Stooges and The MC5—the two bands universally cited as the progenitors of punk rock—which makes it even stranger to me that these historians would ignore the Midwest.

            While there were, indeed, plenty of Midwestern bands which paid due homage to the ruling hardcore orthodoxy of short hair, bland liberal politics and generic “Fuck You Ronnie” songs (as I knew them), there were also more weirdie bands per capita than on both coasts combined.

            Around the same time the Ramones were (accidentally) laying down the ground rules for what would become hardcore, Ohio was already giving us bands like Devo and Pere Ubu, who sounded nothing like the Ramones, nothing like each other, and nothing like much of anyone else. As a result, they’d both be labeled punk at least for a few years, until record companies coined the term “New Wave.” They were never considered hardcore, but nevertheless, they were as emblematic as The Stooges or The MC5.

            In Chicago in the early eighties, Big Black’s front man—the nerdy and adamantly offensive Steve Albini—was insistent on using a drum machine instead of a real drummer. The idea was absolutely alien to hardcore purists. Almost as bad, his lyrics weren’t exactly what you’d call “politically correct.”

            Up in Wisconsin, hell, we had the acoustic folk punk of the Violent Femmes. Again, they weren’t a hardcore band, but they did play hardcore clubs and draw a hardcore crowd before they became a college radio standby (and “Blister in the Sun” was used in every goddamn commercial known to man). We also had the astounding Killdozer, who screamed out tales of rural horror over slow, pounding, grinding melodies which were about as far away from the frenetic hardcore sound as you could get.

            Up in Minneapolis, The Replacements made the mistake of actually having some musical talent (when they were sober enough to play a song all the way through.) They, too, drew a hardcore crowd until college radio picked up on them.

            If you’re willing to extend the idea of the Midwest south into Texas, you’ll find the Butthole Surfers, who took lots of acid, saw a lot of pretty colors and played a cracked, nasty form of psychedelia, with lyrics about necrophilia, mass murder, and aliens.

            And of course, there was The Pain Amplifiers, the band Grinch and I formed back in 1985. We just wanted to cause trouble. We only had one official hardcore song in our repertoire, and it was roughly six seconds long.

            All of these bands were considered punk, and they all received coverage in Maximum Rock and Roll, the magazine that was essentially the hardcore bible. Yet now, twenty years later when it comes time to consider my generation’s cultural history, it’s like they never existed. Even within a forgotten history they’re forgotten.

            I think the reasons are pretty obvious. First, they didn’t follow the rules (and thank god for that). Second, all these bands had a sense of humor. Punks with a sense of humor, no matter where they were located, were generally marginalized as “joke bands,” and therefore not real punks, who as a group were one self-righteous, humorless bunch of sonsabitches, I’ll tell you.

            The most damning thing, however, was the fact that these bands were located in the Midwest, and are being judged by people from New York, DC and LA. Well, we all know what people in New York, DC and LA think of the Midwest—namely, they don’t think about it. It’s a vast and empty wasteland. Nothing of note ever happens there, except for the occasional flood or tornado. If you’re a politician, a filmmaker, a corporate chief or a punk historian, it seems the only things that matter happen on the coasts.

            And, thinking about it, maybe it’s better that way. It’s that attitude, after all, that leaves Midwesterners free to go about their business without trying to impress anyone.

            I got to thinking that the whole Midwest punk scene was interesting enough—and said enough about the culture—that it deserved a book or documentary of its own.

            Then I put on Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and forgot about it.


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