One of the inexhaustible sources of conversation among fans of hardcore punk is the attempt to identify the onset of a band’s (or scene’s, or label’s) irremediable decline. For example: When did Black Flag lapse into long-haired, noodling weirdness? One connoisseur might offer a contrarian’s apology for the freak-outs of their late album My War, another will insist that it was all over once barrel-chested Henry Rollins joined the band. When did the robust Washington DC scene collapse into the self-flagellating exhibitionism of emo? My own position here is that Minor Threat’s Out of Step from 1983 was already a hopeless case, the veritable death throes of the DC sound, while others are more forgiving, straining to single out modest achievements in what had become mere competency.
Knowledge of hardcore among its partisans easily organizes itself into these canned teleologies. But in the case of New York’s hardcore scene, thoroughly documented in Tony Rettman’s oral history, the reliable trajectory of most scenes—an initial monolithic “sound” ultimately and inexorably giving way to decadence and exhaustion—doesn’t apply. One is dealing instead with something more mysterious, like the enigmatic collapse of the Mayan or Khmer empires. Regrettable trends and eccentricities, which ought to have been lethal, instead became defining and enduring aspects of the scene. And some of the most noxious elements of New York hardcore—its reactionary ideology, the awkward mingling of skinhead and straight-edge versions of male aggression, the detours into religious mysticism—were not symptoms of decline but present from the beginning. But the truth is that every episode and actor in New York hardcore turns two faces toward us, and the passivity of the oral history format succeeds in capturing this ambivalence. The glaring flaws of New York hardcore did not belong to a predictable endgame but were instead indissociable from its triumphs. Brilliance was always mixed with idiocy, and every advance was also a harbinger of decline.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the baffling hurtle of contradictions known as the Bad Brains. Their career is a virtual tour of the emerging scene, both its triumphs and its dead ends. Their story has been told a million times: four black Rastafarians from Washington DC who began as a jazz fusion group before discovering punk, inventing hardcore in 1977 (independently of its West Coast and international pioneers), and then blowing out of town and moving up the coast in 1981 to become the presiding geniuses of New York hardcore.
The scene as they found it was a bunch of kids fumbling with the faster end of punk’s tempos. What would later become New York hardcore was at first a gradual, even tentative, encroachment on the wasteland left behind by the city’s great punk bands. According to Denise Mercedes, guitarist of the Stimulators, 1980 was a kind of interregnum: “There was no scene. We arrived after that Television and Ramones thing. At least in my world, that wasn’t really happening.” Those bands, along with Patti Smith, Johnny Thunders, and the Dead Boys, had been signed to major labels, and were, with the exception of the Ramones, pupils in the Velvet Underground school of visionary heroin rock. Hardcore, by contrast, was music by unpretentious “kids” who released their own records. And they were really just kids. Shows at CBGB had to be matinees to accommodate the underage crowd. No one was hanging out with Warhol and Mapplethorpe.
The hardcore sound was developed elsewhere and forcibly imposed on New York by the singular vision of the Bad Brains. New York’s homegrown acts—the Stimulators, the Mad, and Kraut—weren’t really hardcore, at least not by the standards of 1981. By then, the no-frills template for hardcore—irony-free lyrics delivered breathlessly over a furious, muscular bounce—was already in place across the country (SSD in Boston, State of Alert and Minor Threat in Washington DC, the Fix and the Necros in the Midwest, the Dicks in Texas, Bad Religion in Los Angeles). It wasn’t until 1983, with the release of classic seven-inch EPs by Antidote, the Abused, Agnostic Front, Urban Waste, and Cause for Alarm, that New York solidified its own native style that could, so to speak, compete nationally. So, when the Bad Brains first landed, there was no existing framework available for understanding the compressed tension of songs like “At the Movies” and “I Against I.” It is surely a stretch to compare the Bad Brains to “Stone Cold Crazy” by Queen, or playing “a Van Halen LP on 45,” as Rettman’s interviewees do, but the comparison gives an idea of their unprecedented technicality and speed.
The Bad Brains were also tremendously infuriating. Their live sets and albums were checkered with long stretches of momentum-killing reggae, and they were given to bewildering religious assertions, like “We read the Bible and see your 666,” or “Israel must unite.” However out of line this was with prevailing punk attitudes, audiences tended to give the Bad Brains a free pass, because their mystifying ideology seemed to be of a piece with the white-hot, unapologetic conviction of their virtuosic performances.
Less easy to stomach was the group’s notoriety as paranoid, virulent homophobes. When their 1982 tour passed through Austin, Texas, the Bad Brains’ singer H.R. was horrified to learn that the singer of the Big Boys was gay, culminating in an ugly scene where H.R. screamed “Babylon bloodclot faggot” at their hosts. (Although not documented in Rettman’s book, this episode is detailed in Steven Blush’s American Hardcore and Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’s Dance of Days.) Even back in New York, the Bad Brains managed to alienate the Cro-Mags’ singer John Joseph by playing Louis Farrakhan tapes in the tour van. By the middle of the decade, the Bad Brains became so renowned as unreliable egomaniacs and rip-off artists that they burned most of their bridges in the punk scene. Given the Bad Brains’ confounding and self-destructive legacy, it is ironic that they are often conscripted to serve as a liberal alibi for hardcore’s reputation as a white boys’ club, or more specifically to offset the troubling prominence of skinheads in New York’s scene. By any standard other than sheer racial tokenism, the Bad Brains were the most reactionary and illiberal band in hardcore.
The most perplexing (and enduring) contribution of the Bad Brains is not their musical brilliance—after all, this could hardly be imitated—or the specifics of their ideology but their grafting of fervent spirituality onto an otherwise nihilistic and antitranscendental genre. If you couldn’t play like the Bad Brains, you could still follow their religious lead. From the beginning, one of the defining oddities of NYHC was young punk kids becoming devotees of Hare Krishna. With its link to George Harrison and psychedelia and its connotations of meditative transcendence, Hare Krishna was almost the total opposite of hardcore’s crudeness and insistent negativity. This cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, some of the most prominent musicians became Krishnas and have remained so: John Joseph and Harley Flanagan (the Cro-Mags), Keith Burkhardt (Cause for Alarm), Louie Rivera (Antidote), Ray Cappo (Youth of Today), John Porcelly (Youth of Today, Judge), and John Watson (Agnostic Front). For the most part, bands had the good sense not to obtrude their newfound enlightenment upon their primitive rock music, although the Cro-Mags were unembarrassed to croon what can only be called a power ballad to Krishna, “The Only One,” on their second album, Best Wishes. With lyrics like, “I won’t forget the way I felt when I first looked in your Lotus eyes,” we look in vain for any trace of the “reality of the streets” that New York hardcore was supposedly addressing. But if this religiosity came into the scene with the Bad Brains, it never really went away and indeed was carried over into the 1990s scene, owing to the perplexing popularity of the “Krishnacore” band Shelter.
With the Bad Brains, it wasn’t difficult for fans to edit out the more objectionable aspects of the band. But in the case of Agnostic Front (who are the focus of two important chapters in Rettman’s book), as with New York hardcore as a whole, it is impossible to disentangle what is regrettable from what is powerful or to say which development was an advance and which was a definitive step off the straight and narrow path. Their debut EP, United Blood, a rickety dash through ten tuneless, two-riff songs in six and a half minutes, will always have its defenders. But their first album, Victim in Pain, from 1984, is an immense leap forward and an astonishing feat of synthesis, somehow combining everything vital from the last flowering of American hardcore. The machine-gun drumming on “United and Strong” and “Society Sucker” recalls the relentless thrashing of bands like D.R.I. and Siege; “Hiding Inside” follows up on the stylistic breakthrough made by Crucifix on their album Dehumanization, from the previous year: vocals were liberated from even the barest melody suggested by the guitars and were free to carry on a harassment campaign roughly in time with the music churning underneath.
But when the time came for Agnostic Front to write a follow-up album, Cause for Alarm, they were so uninspired that they had to invite new musicians into the band to write their songs for them, more or less hiring out the composition of a pretty mediocre thrash metal album. In Rettman’s book, a contemporary remembers, “They were sitting there writing songs, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God, this sucks.’ I told Vinnie, ‘Please don’t do this, these songs suck.’” The new album included an anti-welfare song called “Public Assistance” that redirects the perpetual derogatory resentment of punk lyrics onto minorities and the poor. It’s a bad look:
You spend your life on welfare lines
Or looking for handouts
Why don’t you go find a job
You birth more kids to up your checks
So you can buy more drugs
Cash in food stamps and get drunk
“Public Assistance” is an egregious lapse of taste, but it only made explicit what many had suspected all along. Agnostic Front was the punk band of New York Post ideology: its anti-intellectualism, its parochial outlook, its mélange of spontaneous moral outbursts (against corruption, against corporate greed), its sorting of the working class into “decent” guys and interloper scum, combined with its anecdote-centered worldview that incredulously rankles over every new failure of urban capitalism, taking it as a personal affront. On early songs like “Remind Them,” and “Fascist Attitudes,” you can hear Agnostic Front trying to frame their anomie in the time-honored leftist slogans of punk—but at the same time boiling over with contempt, with idiotic myopia, with the flailing violence of self-castigation. After all, these are angry, ill-adjusted people who haven’t put much thought into anything. Why, they ask, every day, am I shat upon, blamed? I’m ready to fight ANYONE. But the real cause is not something I can punch. Is it “society”? the “capitalistic prison”? this fucking guy right in front of me?
They hate us, we’ll hate them
They deny us, we’ll defy them
They ignore us, we’ll remind them
They taught us to hate and lie
To obey them and look into their selfish eyes
. . . .
We won’t adjust to their society
Their capitalistic form of prison
Remind them they taught us to lie
Remind them they’ve corrupted our lives
This is not so different from Shylock’s warnings to a hypocrite society: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. . . . The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” Their cynicism and bristling defensiveness has the same purpose—trying to piece together some dignity, however ineptly—but also the same result. As with Shylock’s emasculated burrowing into all the ways he has been wronged, Agnostic Front’s agonies must in the end be chalked up to their own doing. Their best songs are little dramas: how to scrape through each day, without insight or intelligence or sympathy, when there are only false consolations available.
Hardcore is an ugly art form that openly advertises its limitations and rigidity. There are no points to be scored by dissecting its spontaneous ideological reactions and tribalism. Its version of utopia can be dirty and damp; hardcore threw too many cultural babies out with the bathwater. (And many participants ought to have kept the bathwater as well.) New York hardcore in particular saw itself as an uncompromised report about reality. But, thirty years on, these records are less compelling as reportage or observation than as a revaluation of that reality. The insight boiling up, across all of these records, is: the world doesn’t care about you. There are no merit badges awarded for normalcy and complacency for the likes of us in straight society. It’s a long slog, and some days you are just a piece of living meat unhappily compelled to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of your relationships, just because it is too much trouble to do otherwise. Hardcore starts from the minimal, almost entirely swallowed-up spark of human life, maybe just the faint, unwanted heartbeat whose persistence means, “I have to go to work today.” The young Marx thought that mankind would attain its “species-being” in the free time obtained for human development after the attainment of communism. Hardcore says: our species-being is a pretty ugly thing, for now, but we have to own it. It—we—can’t wait.
The eventual decline of Agnostic Front took place against the crepuscular background of hardcore’s larger destiny. When the troubled Cause for Alarm was released in 1986, the great bands of the first wave of American hardcore—Black Flag, Minor Threat, Negative Approach, Crucifix, Jerry’s Kids, and Articles of Faith—were all over. That New York hardcore still soldiered on for another four years is due not to any uncontaminated purists who kept the original light still burning but to a band that fully plunged into the “manure of contradictions,” in Marx’s phrase. The Cro-Mags prolonged and revitalized New York hardcore but in a way that rendered it unrecognizable. Recently I saw a guy on the subway wearing a shirt for their debut album: AGE OF QUARREL IS MY BIBLE. On the other hand, some true devotees dismiss the band as a (still-ongoing) freak show whose members still stab each other at competing reunion concerts. In any event, many of the New York bands that came after Age of Quarrel—Breakdown, Sheer Terror, Leeway, Killing Time—were “throwbacks” not to bands from 1982 but to the Cro-Mags sound of one or two years before!
While many hardcore bands had previously succumbed to the dark side and introduced heavy metal into their sound, the Cro-Mags legitimized and disseminated heavy metal in NYHC, because they incorporated it from the beginning. Instead of rapidly churning cycles of power chords, a Cro-Mags riff was a substantial, monolithic roar. Instead of the juvenile ressentiment of the typical hardcore vocals, John Joseph adopted a ranting sneer (“you” is invariably rendered “yow!”) that veered into a wavering, dramatic bellow. One observer in Rettman’s book recalls how “scary” Age of Quarrel seemed when it came out—even the band photo conveys not an enviable cool but an imperviousness to affection or love. (Although the fur-cap-with-T-shirt look sported by the drummer never took off.) But while John Joseph stresses that he “sang about street justice and survival on the streets because that shit was real,” and it was the world he knew, the musical effect is closer to the over-the-top theatrics of Ozzy Osbourne or perhaps late 1980s gangster rap.
In the long run, the Cro-Mags’ influence ruined hardcore, as the band became on subsequent releases (in the disgruntled words of their ex–lead singer) a “straight-up sellout to be the next fuckin’ Metallica.” By the 1990s, as zine-writer Howie Abrams remembers, “hardcore as a separate thing from metal, the kind of hardcore that still recognized punk as a distant cousin, that stuff was pretty much wiped away.” But one can’t simply write off every hint of metal as an unforgivable contamination. As with Saint Augustine’s idea of the fortunate fall, one would not wish that the sin of metal had never crept into the world. Even in hindsight, after such execrable 1990s NYHC epigones as Crown of Thornz and 25 ta Life, I still would not strangle the Cro-Mags in their tattooed cradle.
Rettman’s book begins in 1980 with the Stimulators and ends in 1990 with the demise of the CBGB Saturday matinee shows, the formation of alternative rock bands like Quicksand out of the dissolution of the big straight-edge bands Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today, and the debuts by hip-hop influenced metal bands Biohazard and Madball. The reasons for the chosen starting point, 1980, are a bit fuzzy: bands like the Mob, the Abused, and Antidote didn’t really get going until 1982. The end of the decade, on the other hand, was like the slamming down of an enormous portcullis. Bands like Citizens Arrest, Killing Time, Sick of it All, Burn, and Born Against were still releasing great records in 1989 and 1990, but after that—no more good NYHC records ever. Not that everyone’s guitars suddenly turned into pumpkins at midnight on December 31, 1990, but a creeping entropy finally broke the gravitational force of the original hardcore sound. For those groups that didn’t devolve into simplistic chug-chug metal, riffs became more hollow and angular (this is a way of saying that bands started to sound like U2), and lyrics became tuneless paragraphs of man-feelings.
To be sure, Rettman’s book is not analytical in this way. There are no editorial introductions or interventions to set the record straight, and for the most part the participants are happy to recollect their glory days. Like all histories, this one is narrated by the victors, the somewhat charmless “characters” of the scene who have perceived legacies to burnish. The oral history produces a sort of Rashomon effect, since there is no editorial apparatus to steer the reader’s credulousness. Needless to say, the oral history format does not permit the journalist to ask the (in any case unanswerable) question, “Why did your band start to suck?” So the book ends with a curious structural problem: the closer we get to the present day, the more obfuscation, the more nostalgia, the more glaring the ellipses in the story. There is a sudden urgency to draw the curtain and to abruptly skip twenty-five years ahead to the “enduring legacy” of the music. (But surely the enduring legacy was just what happened in the meantime?) Rettman’s book is therefore an unexpected confirmation of Thomas Mann’s dictum in The Magic Mountain: stories belong to the past, and the more firmly in the past they are, the better.