Just as the music of hardcore punk rock was not to everyone's liking and went generally unheralded even during its heyday in the early '80s, so too the relentlessly-charged documentary American Hardcore is not going to be everyone's idea of an evening's cinematic entertainment. Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Greencine's Jonathan Marlow claimed the documentary did "a disservice to its topic, stringing together poorly photographed segments into a largely incomplete history of the genre" even as Greencine's David D'Arcy seemed more accepting of the film on its own "refreshing" merits when he caught it in Toronto. Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to make up their own minds when the film opens mid-October in local theaters.
Paul Rachman began his film career making underground hardcore punk films and music videos for bands such as the Bad Brains, Gang Green, Negative FX and Mission of Burma while he was in college. He quickly rose to become one of the of the industry's top music video directors at Propaganda Films in Los Angeles where he worked with such artists as Alice in Chains, The Replacements, Temple of the Dog, Sepultura, Roger Waters, Joan Jett and Kiss. He has also directed several award-winning short films most notably Memories with Joe Frank (1992), Drive Baby Drive (1995), Bang Bang (1999), Home (2001), and Zoe XO (2004). Paul made his feature film directorial debut in 2000 with Four Dogs Playing Poker starring Forrest Whittaker, Tim Curry and Olivia Williams. In addition Paul was one of the founding filmmakers of the Slamdance Film Festival and is currently its East Coast Director.
Steven Blush's 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History serves as the jumping off point for the current documentary. A prime mover in the scene he wrote about, Steven Blush promoted many hardcore tours and shows, DJed an influential college radio show, and ran a record label. Later Blush published Seconds magazine, and wrote for Paper, Spin, Interview, Village Voice, Details and High Times magazines.
The two were kind enough to meet me at the Prescott for a discussion of American Hardcore.
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Michael Guillén: I had a lot of fun watching American Hardcore. I enjoyed the breadth of its outreach. It's clear the documentary is not just for fans of hardcore punk and that you're actually catering to the prurience of armchair anthropologists like me. During those early Reagan years, I used to work at a law firm on Broadway a half a block from the Mabuhey Gardens. The hardcore punk rock scene terrified me. I was always in suit and tie and felt like a moving target so I used to walk around the block to get to my transit stop because I was too intimidated to maneuver the crowd hanging out in front of the club. Is your outreach to non-punkers purposeful? Did you decide to do that from the beginning?
Paul Rachman: Steven finished the book and I just felt it in me. I had this vision for the film that it needed to be this first person account, this genuine telling of the story from the people who wrote the music, did the tours, etc. It needed to transcend beyond that. It needed to be the story of this piece of American subculture history. It's bigger than the music 25 years later. It's a lot more than that because we've changed so much. It needed to explain a bit in context why this happened, what we really were about, and the energy of the music and the archival footage and their true story clarifies things for people who weren't part of it. They get to experience it firsthand without any kind of expert opinion or narrator trying to explain it from a distance. It's pure. It's simple. And it's their story in a very direct form. In its purest form documentary is creating a platform for your subject to tell their story and that's the way it's the most clear. That's what helps the film reach beyond the fans of hardcore. Other people can come and watch this and think, "I've just experienced something and what I was so afraid of 20 years ago, I now understand."
MG: "Experience" is the key word because, for me, the scene was more than the music, which frankly I found repetitive. You've presented the hardcore punk scene as an experiential performance phenomenon, which the documentary places in cultural and historical perspective.
Steven Blush: Yeah, American Hardcore is a music documentary, but, it really is not at all. It really is a story of youth culture and it's a testament to the power of youth and what youth can create under unbelievable odds. This was not just chord progressions and songs. This was a lifestyle. This was something you bought into full on. Like they say in the movie, once you cross that divide, you can never go back. You could never go back to Journey or Fleetwood Mac once you'd seen Black Flag or the Bad Brains. That's what made it exciting. It was an implicit political movement. Everybody was too young to have a manifesto or a platform but there was this mindset, this zeitgeist going on around the country of kids who knew something was wrong and the punk rock was the avenue to get it out there.
MG: In retrospect, I can look at it that way. I can see that at least these kids did something. Granted, the rest of us were becoming disillusioned with Reaganomics—I remember observing things at the time and thinking, "This is wrong"—but I didn't know what to do. At least these kids did something.
Rachman: And you were allowed to participate. It was inviting. You had this moment in this subculture history where you had this angry music coming from the suburbs. These kids really know what they don't want. You had Reagan trying to turn everything back to the 1950s and it was so phony; it was a joke. Then you had this willing audience, this receptacle that's willing to carry the torch. They were invited in to participate. We were fans [gesturing to himself and Steve]. I was exposed to hardcore punk rock in Boston when I was 19 years old and a college student who wasn't fitting in perfectly to what Collegetown, U.S.A. was and I heard this music that didn't sound like music and it was great and I wanted to be part of it. So I picked up a Super 8 camera and I became a filmmaker because of that moment. You were allowed to participate. Bands played on the same level and you could talk to them after. It was so powerful and so energetic that you couldn't wait to turn your friends on to it; it was very proactive in that respect. You had these three things in perfect sync and that's what makes it a movement. You need that intense audience to help take it to other people because it was tiny, it was underground, it wasn't commercial, it had obstacles at every turn, everything was difficult, finding a place to play, putting out a record. But we wanted more. We wanted to make sure that every Sunday afternoon there was a place where we could experience this. It was important. We wanted more. It was addictive. That's what made it so powerful, that participation, that audience willing to do something to help that cause is maybe what's missing a little bit today. Because there's always great artists, there's always new music, that's always there, but, you need that other side to make it something.
MG: How relevant do you think the documentary will be for today's youth experiencing their own share of disaffection and disenfranchisement? It strikes me that young people today are much more acquiescent to the horrors of the world. You refer in the documentary to the re-election of Reagan causing the disillusioned collapse of the hardcore punk "revolution". Was something lost at that time that, perhaps, cannot be recaptured?
Blush: We do not mention the modern era in this film but it is implied. You just watch the Reagan years and it implies the similarity of today. Paul made a very good point there about having all the components in sync and you definitely don't have that. It's really tough for kids right now to make something happen because everything's been commercialized. Three of the main words of this culture were "punk", "revolution" and "anarchy" and all those are marketing terms now. It has nothing to do with overthrowing the government or anything; it's just a way to market things. All the words have lost their meaning. All the terms have lost their meaning. Revolution has been commodified so what is revolution? Right? Revolution sells GM cars. Join the revolution. That's not what our founding fathers meant when they said that. They didn't mean to go work at GM. That's what's missing. The film is an implicit clarion call to kids to seize the moment. We're telling them to take off the Ipod and log off of MySpace and stop thinking that's going to change the world and seize the moment. We're too old to change the world. The hardcore guys are too old to change the world now but what they can do is inspire younger kids. I would say most people over 25 are probably too old even for that. It has to go back a generation to a younger age to let them know this was a youth culture, this was like Lord of the Flies, these were kids who were forced to create their own society. It does go to hell after a while and that's what we say, the scene burns out and fritters away, goes in all these good/bad directions.
Rachman: The audience today is boxed in. There's all kinds of ways of doing things. There's MySpace and the Internet and email and you're boxed in by the corporations. In the late 70s or early 80s at the dawn of this movement the corporations set out to co-opt lifestyle and to sell it back to us their way. Today, while we can tear the wall down and scream loud and voice our dissatisfaction that way, today kids have got to blow up ten walls. They've gotta be more aggressive. They've gotta be louder. They really gotta say, "We don't want this crap that you're just making us want, or telling us what to like." In the hardcore movement it was clear. We don't want that crappy music anymore. We don't believe in Ronald Reagan and turning the country back to 1955. That's a joke. It's phony. We know it's not real. We have this new music, this new voice, and it means something to us, and we know that's special. It energized us, fueled us, however small it was, we knew we were part of something intricate, that had this ethic of helping your friends. Everybody had to work hard to make that show happen on Sunday afternoon at the VFW Hall. Everybody. You had to show up. You had to help. You had to help the band get there. It was a sense of community. You really counted on each other to make it happen because it wouldn't if not. There were too many forces against you.
MG: The DIY aesthetic, which was so strong among the hardcore punk scene, is certainly admirable. One of my favorite scenes in the documentary is when they're making their own album covers, which provides amazing insight into their resourcefulness. In terms of what is suggested to today's youth, perhaps it's not so much about having to blow up ten walls as it is about reminding them to return to some simple concepts.
Blush: You're absolutely right about that.
Rachman: You're right, but, they gotta go around the pitfalls because there's too many things there to distract you. Back then, it was almost like there was plenty of time to sit in a basement and fold ten thousand record covers. Today, it's "I've got to check my email and my cellphone's ringing" and there's so many distractions. MTV hadn't happened yet. Yeah, you don't have to blow up ten walls but you gotta think a little stronger, you've got to have more willpower, willingness to commit and not be distracted by all these other things. This came out of bored suburban youth. Suburban youth isn't bored anymore; they have videogames, they have all this stuff now. I think it's a little more challenging but I hope people walk out of the theater after American Hardcore and go, "What the hell happened? Why don't we have this visceral artery of angry youth that we so desperately need?" Because it makes a difference. It's that extra dimension that makes us who we are. It was so intricately American. It was pioneering. It was, "I'm going to do this against all odds." It's just as pioneering as taking a wagon and mule across the Rocky Mountains. "I'm going to go to California from getting off a boat from Europe with sails on it, and I'm going to go there and nothing's going to stop me. I'm not going to give up. I'm committed to it." And it was very similar. It's not a European thing. It's an American thing and these kids had guts, we had guts, we were allowed to participate in this.
MG: I appreciate that you've carried that DIY aesthetic forward into the making of this documentary, which I understand you've done completely by yourselves, right?
Rachman: It was totally done like that.
MG: When you were first trying to "develop" the project, my understanding is it wasn't to be developed? It started with your book, right Steve? What inspired you to write the book?
Blush: I had been part of the scene. Like I said, I was the kid who had booked all the shows. Like everybody else in the scene, I had bailed on it. By the mid-80s, I was like, "This sucks. I'm over it. I've grown-up. I don't think like this anymore." In New York I went to be a journalist and had a publishing and journalism career, and somewhere in the mid-90s I started realizing how much this subculture had played into who I am as a person. In other words, I had the ethics from my family, and then I had the ethical code from this scene, which was how I ran my life and the two were in total stark conflict with each other. The hardcore ethic was do it yourself, question authority, do things because they feel right, don't do things just for the money: all those kind of things was how I lived my life. So that was a real drive. I realized the history had been lost. These bands had never been on MTV. They were never written about in the Rolling Stone. If they were, it was just to make fun of it. I would talk to people and they would tell me about hardcore and I was shocked how wrong they had it. It was almost like when you're a kid you play that game of telephone, you sit in a room and whisper into each other's ear and by the time it gets [back to you], it's totally different. That was like the history of hardcore.
The final nail in the coffin—this all happened within a few weeks of each other—there was the History of Rock n' Roll series they had on t.v. It's great, it's really good, but it goes from the Sex Pistols straight to Nirvana. What happened? Did they ignore this? Did they not consider this real music? Just like in hardcore fashion, I had never written a book before, there was no advance on the book, there was no interest in the book, and I worked on it for five years until I got it right. I rewrote it three times until I finally got it. That was the journey that got me here: getting the history of the music straight and the component of figuring out my life. Working shit out through the writing. Somewhere around the time I finished the book, I ran into Paul again who had gone off and had a pretty damn impressive MTV video career. He had made Alice in Chains, Men in the Box, Temple of the Dog, Hunger Strike, all these videos that people are still trying to recreate today. When we reconnected, it was a no-brainer. I was painfully tapped into the ethic and the history and he had the artistic vision so it was a really smooth marriage but it's been five years since our first shot. December 2001 was our first shot.
MG: Did you go to concerts together or were you experiencing the scene in different cities?
Rachman: I was in Boston. But what happened was my roommate was the punk promoter in Boston. So these bands were staying at my house too. They were crashing on my floor. What's great is that Steve is booking TSOL and the Circle Jerks and they're playing Washington, D.C., they come up through New York, they come to Boston, we're hearing the stories like, "Oh yeah the show in D.C. was so fucked up, the cops showed up and the promoter got screwed" and that was Steve. We would hear these stories. It was a tight network. I picked up this great camera after my first show and I became a filmmaker. The music so changed my life that I committed to this. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't go to film school. The ethic that existed was that you don't fear failure because there's nowhere to fail to. You trust your gut instinct because that's what everything was. The music, the bands trusted their instincts, they were writing this music that wasn't even considered music, it was this new dissonant sound that was very intense and it hit me in the stomach. It got under my skin. I wanted more. It meant something to me. I didn't know why, but it did. You stuck by your guns and you never gave up. That was a very strong feeling.
I went through this journey after that. As Steve said, I went to Hollywood, I was doing videos, that was great, but then it gets diluted, all the Hollywoodisms start making an impression on me, you should do this, you should do that, and then I got depressed. It wasn't until I moved back to New York in 1999 while Steve was finishing the book, and we were able to revisit this after this almost 20-year filmmaking career, that I re-energized myself with this project. It was like, "Let's go back to this." The first stuff that I ever shot is in this film. It's incredible that I can re-visit that as a filmmaker with such intense energy from within, and the ethic that I want that in all of my films now. I know exactly what it is and it can exist whether it's a scripted narrative or anything. There's this visceral energy that's in me because of Hardcore and I don't ever want to lose it again. It's like having a second chance with Hardcore as an artist. I can revisit that visceral 19-year-old pure energy that I had, and now apply it—I'm in my 40s—and reapply it and I have all this experience of failure, and the ups and downs, and it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter because I've been there, I've been up, I've been down, I've won awards, I've made stuff I don't even want to watch anymore. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what other people think. If you trust your gut instinct, that's what it's all about, you go with it, you act on it in pure and simple form. You just do it.
MG: Steve, in terms of the story, since you wrote the book and you worked on the film, is it different than the book? Have you gone in different directions?
Blush: The book is a roadmap. In other words, basic tenets—that it was a suburban movement, that it was a regional movement, women's issues, sexual issues, straightedge—all those, that's the frame of the book. Of course the book is excruciating detail about bands. If you're a fan and want to know where Black Flag was in December 1983, I can tell you; but, that's not what our film's about.
Rachman: The detail that Steven put into the book is such a gift back to the hardcore scene because the hardcore scene was somewhat fragmented. We were kids when we were experiencing this and we never looked at it stepped away looking at it as kind of a national issue. We were part of it and we were within it and we were connected and it was very immediate. Steven was able to put this into historical perspective, give it a chronology, give it detail, trace back events that connect to each other. It was incredible.
The vision I had for the film was that the film is not going to be able to be exactly like the book because the film was new interviews and the vision I had for the film was let's make this first person account of the story, let the people tell their story, and we edited the story out of that. I didn't want a narrator. I didn't want an expert opinion or somebody explaining things because hardcore wasn't like that. Hardcore had no experts telling you the way it was. It needed to be pure. It needed to be first person. It was essentially going to be different than the book because of that because people don't talk like that. When you're writing a book, you can take quotes from an interview you did at the end and put it on the first page. You can move things around to make them connect. In a film, you can't cut that up that way.
I knew going in that the film was going to be an extension of [the book] but it was going to be the first person account. You were going to see the people who were heroes in a sense, who were pioneers, on the big screen and they were going to make this impression upon you, juxtaposed against the music, the images, the photography, it was going to create this compressed energy that was going to tell the story. That was my vision. We were lucky to have five years because it allowed the film to talk back to us in the edit room and really get it right.
MG: Have you read Kelefa Sanneh's review of American Hardcore for The New York Times? His review had a seminal observation that I found to be an intriguing critique of the hardcore scene and I wanted to get your feedback on it. He questioned how much differentiation there was between the violence of these angry young white boys and the violent white culture they were protesting?
Blush: I actually liked that point; it was very observant. They're inexorably intertwined. The problem is that these were kids and you still hadn't broken out from what you were—high school, athletic, that typical stuff that is the mainstream—and you're trying to break out from it but you bring a lot of the baggage with you. It's like when Henry Rollins says the Huntington Beach kids were punk rock but they still had that jock "What's up, dickhead?" mentality. He's right about that. He was one of them and he can say that because he was one of them. He was an athletic, hulking guy with this thing. We do live in a violent society. America is formed on violence. Our whole history is based on that. I don't think we can escape it. In many ways it was like a perfect reflection of it.
MG: Almost as if the anarchic violence reflected the institutionalized violence.
Blush: Exactly. That's good.
Rachman: But you know what? The one difference is that the kids in the hardcore movement, it was truthful. There was no lying necessary. There was nothing to hide. It was honest. It was real. You didn't second guess yourself. But all those other people that Sanneh is comparing [hardcore] to, the Reagan administration, they were hiding tons of lies, they were a complete lie. Turn the clock back to 1950s America; that was bullshit. So differentiate it in terms of that. There was a certain innocence to these kids just doing what was in your gut. There was nothing to hide. It didn't matter. You didn't care what people said about you. It didn't matter. There was no fear of failure. There was no reason to hide behind an image. The image was raw. Whereas, that establishment was all about image. It was all about hiding what they didn't want you to see. It was all about creating a façade. Hardcore was against all of that. It had nothing to do with any of that.
Blush: And part of adolescence is the conflict and the hypocrisy: you're a man, but you're a child; you're responsible but you're irresponsible; you're focused and ready to vote yet you're a child. I think [hardcore] perfectly represents that. As I said, that's a great point Sanneh brings up but I think it's that conflict, it's that conflicted stuff, that is the essence of this scene. This is a music based on frustration and inner conflict. It did make sense that half the kids who were queer bashers ended up being queer. That's just the way it was. We don't try to hide that. We're trying to say that there was a moment in time where a new particularly American form of revolution took place in the suburbs and this was the music that represented it. Upon analysis, there [are] highly dubious things about it.
MG: You've done an admirable job of providing a fascinating glimpse into that conflicted scene. Your footage amazed me, that all of these performances were videotaped—whether grainy or not—that you have this record amazed me.
Blush: We needed five years to do that. There's two guys in Philly who had shoeboxes full with stuff, and you'd call up a band and you'd say, "Hey, do you have any videotape of your footage?" and by the fourth phone call they're like, "Oh yeah, I'll get it out of my closet." There was one thing that we got, which was a second-generation VHS tape with an episode of Star Trek recorded in the middle of it, and that's what we used—not the Star Trek—but the….
Rachman: Some of these tapes were shot in 6-hour 8-hour ELP mode and there's like 17 shows on one tape. It's like a year's worth of archives right there and that's what it was and that's the master. A lot of my early footage is in the film. I'm able to revisit the first thing that I shot. I get this validation of like, hey, the first things that I shot are on the big screen now, bigger than any of my other movies, y'know?
MG: Has Henry Rollins interviewed you for his IFC show?
Rachman: No. They tape the shows six months ago or something so they're running now.
Blush: So we'll see what happens with that.
Rachman: And he's a little cautious. He doesn't want to be the poster child. He wants the film to come out. Sony Pictures Classics is a great company; they could never make this movie. I did bring them the book when I started out….
MG: They refused it, didn't they?
Rachman: Well, yeah, yeah, I was bringing them this book where the cover is this kid's bloody face that doesn't look like this thing they can sell. But they were the ones who were first in line to want the film. If there's any star in the film or anybody who comes close to that, it's Henry, and any company is going to want to take advantage of that so we understand him and he'll have us on his show maybe in the future when it's not so much like a selling point. We respect that.
Blush: It's very hard for us for him to have us on his show when he's kind of like a star of it and it's also….
Rachman: …and it's weird for us.
Blush: It's weird for us because we're his friends. We're in contact with him all the time so it's not like any issue; but, I do understand that it's kind of weird for him to have us on his show, talk about a movie that he's in, that's showing a side of him that he's not particularly proud of, so it's very difficult on that level. We're bringing back the old gnarly, violent Henry Rollins and not the sophisticated, poetic Henry Rollins. Look, all the conflict is inherent in youth. Because you are fucked up. I was. I found my way. I stumbled my way through this and found it. I know Henry—I certainly don't mean to compare our paths—but I know from knowing him well enough that that's part of his path—him, Ian MacKaye, maturing, like that article you were talking about, now they're at the Guggenheim, right? So they're trying to get away from that and we're dragging them back in by doing this. Having said that, ultimately Henry Rollins is a hero of music. When you see a rock singer today, they're like Henry Rollins, they're not like Robert Plant, know what I'm saying?
MG: My final question: were you ever punched out?
Rachman: I remember my days in the pit getting hit or beat up. I was never violently hit. There was a way of doing it that you kind of got into this flow. By '85-'86, I wasn't going into the pit anymore. I had done that, been there. But in the earlier days, '80, '81, '82, there was a flow to it. You didn't really get punched.
Blush: This was an umbrella movement. There were all kinds of kids involved in this scene. There were the intense skinhead shaved head kids who were really part of the fashion and the look and then there were people like Paul and I who were college kids. We weren't living that. We were part of it intellectually. Our hair was a little crazy for the day and the clothes and all that but I was definitely more of a voyeur. I think that set me on the path to be a journalist. I was quiet and would observe. I would put on shows and sit in the back and check it out.
Rachman: And I was on the side with a camera. If not, I was in the back of the room with my arms crossed watching this stuff. I was a little bit shy. I wasn't there to be best friends with the bands. I was there to experience this music and to participate and my participation was picking up the camera and documenting it and trying to bring it to others in that way.
MG: Speaking for audiences, we're fortunate that you've done that. As a person who was terrified of this scene, it has proven fascinating to watch American Hardcore.
Blush: That means a lot because, again, we're not trying to preach to the converted here. We're trying to get out a message. And it seems like you got out of it what we were trying to get across.
Rachman: Most importantly, this is the story of this generation that fell between the cracks. We weren't Baby Boomers. We weren't Gen-exers. We came after Carter's America and there was recession, inflation, no jobs, America was a failure, coming in to this Ronald Reagan fantasy-America that didn't ring truthful. There were no answers either way so we fell through the cracks. By the time the Reaganomic jobs hit, that was the late '80s already, that didn't apply to us, we weren't getting those jobs because we were these misfits who just didn't connect to that. So this music, this movement, this whole generation of peers fell through the cracks. The hippies had Woodstock. My parents had Frank Sinatra. We had this and it hasn't been acknowledged. As people in the movie finally see the movie these last few premieres, they thank us. Dr. No, the guitarist of the Bad Brains, who I worked with a lot back then and I was an avid fan, he just came up to me in New York, he kissed me and said, "You did it right." That's all he said and that's all he needed to say. In a way I know because of that that this film will validate these peoples' lives. Now it means something more than this music that didn't sound like music to certain people. More than this underground of misfit kids who didn't accomplish anything in some people's minds. It validates it. It's important. It's a piece of American musical subculture history. I don't think there's been another youth movement like it since. The closest thing I can think of was in the mid-'90s, this kind of subversive computer hacker kids, it's the closest thing that comes to anything like this, y'know? So we're thankful that it turned out this way.
MG: Well congratulations and thank you very much for your time. Have fun with the movie!
Cross-posted at Twitch.