Punk-rock as a fist in the face
'American Hardcore' documents some music history
by David Lamble
"I was thinking about my San Francisco story, my sexual coming of age in many ways. I was on tour with a band, I didn't have a girlfriend, and I hadn't thought about being queer. I was at a show, the Tool & Die, the old punk-rock club in San Francisco. We were so tired, and we had slept like two hours a night. I go and crash out. I'm asleep and having, like, this wet dream, and I wake up, and a guy's blowing me, and I wouldn't get hard, and that's when I knew I'm not gay." â€” Steven Blush, author of the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History.
The story told in the explosive new music documentary American Hardcore may not at first seem like a queer story. The queer roots of The History of American Punk Rock/1980-1986 are quite deeply hidden. It's not until you've watched almost an hour of Paul Rachman and Steve Blush's raw, intimate, first-person account of boys with their shirts off flailing away at instruments they could barely play, screaming out lyrics you could barely understand, sweating away in shabby suburban clubs without air-conditioning, hurling themselves off the stage into the arms of fans barely distinguishable from themselves, and getting into fights with these same fans that you sense that, for some in those crowds, the mosh pit was a constant, kinetic, ongoing orgy that couldn't wait to shoot â€” the orgasm occurring in the skin-on-skin contact with other sweaty boys, punctuated by the occasional fist in the face.
The film, a kind of sequel to Penelope Spheeris' pioneering doc of the early punk movement The Decline of American Civilization, is a candid oral history of the surviving founding fathers of punk from Henry Rollins of Black Flag to members of the seminal African American, DC-based punk band Bad Brains, to the brazenly queer, Austin, Texas-based Millions of Dead Cops (MDC), to overweight boys in dresses who'd punch your lights out if you said anything sassy about them or the dress.
Rachman cut his teeth filming punk in the early 1980s. In is book, Blush details the tribal history of American punk and its evolution into the distinctive hardcore style that crisscrossed the continent during the early Reagan years. Together, they discovered quite early that there was no serious money available to tell the story of bands who had sold precious few records in their prime, and who were, in their early middle-age, not quite candidates for a public-TV nostalgia pledge-break.
So for five years, the duo scoured the country in an 84 Chevy Blazer, looking for stories and the moldy video master-tapes of the original punk shows. To a man, the artists say they weren't out to top the pop charts. They weren't delusional enough to think that America would prefer them to Bowie, Springsteen or those trendy new wave bands with the skinny ties. No, these kids played badly, loudly and in bad taste for themselves and guys who had no political movement to represent them. "Everyone was saying it was 'morning in America.' Someone had to say, it's fucking Midnight." â€” Vic Bondi, Articles of Faith.
On the record
Fans of hardcore won't need any excuse to just dive in and savor all the wonderfully crappy video clips of passionate punks, alternating with some awesome black-and-white photos that allow you to feel like it's happening right now. For those who need a context, a queer angle to justify watching all this frivolous anarchy, I decided to begin my chat with Rachman and Blush by raising the queer subtext that slithers through two hours of glorious noise and rebellion. Even when I tried to move the subject, Blush kept returning to punk's queer roots.
Steven Blush: I raised the subject with a lot of people. Most of these guys won't go near the subject for various reasons, either protective of their career or their straight lives or whatever they're living. It's a big part of it, and there were a few people who were excited to talk about it, like Dave from MDC, who's really a hero. The fact that you called your band Million of Dead Cops and you were queer in this boys' scene was so radical. And we all knew that they were gay, and you'd see him or Biscuit from The Big Boys, or Gary Floyd being overweight in a dress. And this was way before Kurt Cobain wore a dress â€” when Biscuit wore a dress, it was very distressing! The queer part of this is the hidden history. This is what people don't want to talk about. I raise it in my book, most people get scared away, and of course the openly queer men will speak so much they're almost outing people without even trying to. I wanted to avoid that, because I wouldn't want it done to me.
David Lamble: There does seem to be an interesting dynamic about the Southern bands, the North Carolina and Texas bands.
Paul Rachman: There's a real strong connection between what went on in Texas and in San Francisco. It's almost like an underground railroad to get you out of there. I would imagine [you can't be a bigger] misfit than being queer in the middle of Texas. And that's why San Francisco got MDC and The Dicks. Hardcore was a culture of misfits. This was an arena where nobody cared, you know, and I think that was the key of it. It wasn't like it was a queer culture. It was an open culture, a tolerant culture in a very intolerant world.
Talk about the Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach.
Rachman: It was a drag bar at first, then started booking punk-rock shows. It was the nexus of the Bay Area scene, and the CBGB's of San Francisco. It was where every great band played, and San Francisco was so important to the punk story. So many of the formative bands like Crime, The Dills, Sleepers and Avengers, there were so many of these bands that really led to this national movement.
Blush: And hardcore was a perfect cover for sexual confusion. If you said you were "straight-edge" â€” meaning don't smoke, don't drink, don't fuck â€” well, if you're not hanging out with girls, you could cover for that in your time when you haven't come out. And then there's also the story of a lot of these skinheads who would fag-bash, who were in fact queer, and would get 15 bucks for a blowjob from an old guy, so there's a lot of that weird stuff going on.
I know some of my friends would get very upset with a lot of the older men, the kind of "chicken hawks" who would show up to these gigs. But they provide a very important [service] to the film. A lot of these were homeless boys, they needed a place, they needed a father figure and they needed someone not to abuse them. I knew Allen Ginsberg a little bit â€” it was kind of like [some older men] were looking out for these kids â€” very attracted to them, but looking out for them because they're going to get worse on the streets. There was a certain protection that existed, especially in San Francisco. There were the Squats and the Skinheads, and then there were the older men who took care of them, they provided a vital role to keeping the scene going.