Was hardcore meant to grow old?
More For Our Consideration
In We Got Power!, an excellent new photo-and-essay book about the early-’80s hardcore scene, Henry Rollins starts the nostalgia party on a grim note: the story of a dead friend. Not long after Rollins joined Black Flag in 1981, the D.C. native was thrown into the deep end of the California hardcore scene. One of his many new acquaintances, a woman named Kim, introduced him to LSD—and, on a fundamental level, to the romantic notion of cultivating risk and chaos as a state of existence. In Rollins’ essay, when Kim dies of drug abuse a few years after he loses touch with her, he wonders whether “life for her was perhaps too much, or not enough.” Then he addresses the reader point-blank and says, with guilt and disbelief, “Somehow, you and I are still here.”
Hardcore was not built to last. Rollins’ friend Kim is only one of the many casualties of the ’80s hardcore scene, an environment where punk rock—itself an accelerated form of rock-’n’-roll recklessness—was accelerated once more, often to the point of insensibility. That’s one of the music’s greatest strengths, and ironically, one of its most enduring. Hardcore has, of course, outlived many of its live-fast-die-young originators. So has Rollins. The man who once screamed Black Flag lines like “I wish I was dead” is now, at 51, a successful author, publisher, media personality, and spoken-word artist. What he doesn’t do anymore, perhaps tellingly, is play hardcore.
Not all of Rollins’ contemporaries have hung it up. One of the singers he succeeded in Black Flag, Keith Morris, never stopped playing hardcore—throughout the decades in his stalwart group Circle Jerks and now in Off!, the raging, Black Flag-esque outfit he formed three years ago with fellow hardcore survivor, Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. Morris and McDonald are two of the many ’80s hardcore vets who contribute to or appear in We Got Power!. Some of the unluckier legends featured in the book, like Darby Crash and D. Boon, never got the chance.
Then again, books and documentaries about hardcore are rife with those who think hardcore should have died in the ’80s. Some even think it did die—and that the hardcore that followed has no right to call itself hardcore at all. By any sane estimation, though, hardcore simply rode out a rough period in the late ’80s before being reborn, and it continues to flourish in many iterations today. In fact, it’s the younger generations of hardcore kids that have enabled all the old-timers to get in front of the keyboard and camera to tell their stories; without those converts, silverbacks like Rollins would be selling their records and delivering their spiels to shrinking audiences, not bigger ones.
Granted, there are many pop-culture genres that never expected themselves to last; pop music itself has persisted in spite of its planned obsolescence, not because of it. There’s a difference, though, between disposability and self-destructiveness. Hardcore was a time bomb, a flame-out, a young person’s game—mainly due to the fact that the human metabolism isn’t meant to withstand decade after decade of breakneck speed, throttling volume, flying elbows, and the privation that comes from playing such a defiantly anti-commercial style of music.
Fortunately for the members of Bad Brains, their metabolisms were never human. The band singlehandedly invented East Coast hardcore in the late ’70s, when the quartet was based in Washington, D.C. (Prior to moving across the country to join Black Flag, Rollins was a regular at local Bad Brains shows.) Frontman HR became infamous for radical stage acrobatics that made Iggy Pop look like Lawrence Welk. Contorting his voice and frame into demonic forms, he was still only barely able to keep up with Bad Brains’ music—a fluid, frantic, and deceptively virtuosic leap forward that made punk sound plodding by comparison.
But another thing set Bad Brains apart. Rather than spitting nihilism, HR screeched and howled in favor of P.M.A., or Positive Mental Attitude—a tenet of the pioneering self-help guru Napoleon Hill. It doesn’t get less punk than that. And yet, the hardcore scene turned out to be in desperate need of such a message; “positivity” became a buzzword in hardcore throughout the ’80s as fresh-faced neophytes like Youth Of Today devoted themselves to keeping the genre alive. The fact that the guys in Youth Of Today are now in their 40s and have recently reunited to sing the hits of yesterday might seem oxymoronic—but in a way, the band’s longevity is the logical extension of everything it ever preached. (Another seminal hardcore band of the ’80s, the venomous and aptly named Negative Approach, has also recently gotten back together. Nostalgia isn’t always idyllic, even by hardcore standards.)
Bad Brains succumbed to its own backlog of negative vibes in the ’80s—most notably after HR began making homophobic statements that he said stemmed from his newfound Rastafarian faith. Like so many of Bad Brains’ offspring, however, HR and crew have hung on. The group’s first album in five years, Into The Future, comes out this month, and it’s a deliberate throwback to the P.M.A.-fueled hardcore of 30 years ago. The album doesn’t come close to bottling that old lightning, and the first song that’s being pushed—“Into The Future”—essentially idles on the fumes of the past. It’s a good thing those fumes remain fairly potent, even if the 56-year-old HR isn’t quite the firecracker he once was.
Rollins isn’t the only budding hardcore icon who was warped and empowered by Bad Brains in the early D.C. days. Another regular attendee of the band’s hometown shows in the late ’70s and early ’80s was Ian MacKaye. A childhood friend of Rollins—and one who pops up frequently in Rollins’ autobiographical work—MacKaye became a hardcore figurehead as the singer of Minor Threat. In addition to founding, albeit unwittingly, the straightedge movement, he took HR’s manic positivity and put an almost militaristic spin on it. There’s a reason MacKaye’s vocals in Minor Threat have long been compared to a drill sergeant’s bark.
What was most striking about Minor Threat’s songs, though, wasn’t just the severity of the message; it was the celebration of youth, one that’s stamped in the band’s name as well as its eponymous anthem. “We’re not the first, I hope we’re not the last / ’Cause I know we’re all headed for that adult crash,” sang the 19-year-old MacKaye. Later he adds, “Early to finish, I was late to start / I might be an adult, but I’m a minor at heart / Go to college, be a man, what’s the fucking deal? / It’s not how old I am, It’s how old I feel.”
By coincidence, The Odds—the new and third album by MacKaye’s current group, The Evens—comes out on November 20, the same day as Bad Brains’ Into The Future. The two discs make for a stark contrast. Into The Future aims for the opposite direction its title would indicate; The Odds is another quiet, thoughtful step forward for MacKaye. A guitar-and-drums duo MacKaye formed with his wife, Amy Farina, following the hiatus of his previous group Fugazi, The Evens make hushed, tense post-punk that chimes with melody and combines the couple’s powerful voices: his a restrained echo of its former bluster, hers a full-throated thrum. And The Odds is the band’s best album yet, one that lulls, twists, and even builds to an occasional roar—relatively speaking.
Meanwhile, MacKaye’s old comrade Rollins is content to reminisce about the halcyon days of hardcore rather than try to relive them. He doesn’t need to. Hardcore is undergoing one of its periodic spurts of rebirth and renewal, with established bands like Fucked Up morphing into idiosyncratic standard-bearers—and upstarts like the stunning young group Code Orange Kids tearing off the scene’s dead skin and laying bare its nerves. Not only are they keeping the tropes and traditions of Black Flag and Minor Threat alive, they’re remaking hardcore in their own image, rebooting and updating it for a fledgling millennium and its own passions, horrors, and hopes.
Rollins—a product of both East Coast positivity and West Coast pessimism—doesn’t have to hurl himself across filthy stages and into fist-filled mosh pits anymore. He’s inspired legions of recruits to do it for him. It’s true that he’s the man who once sang the lyric, “I wish I was dead”—but it was immediately preceded by the line, “I want to live.” Or as he says in his essay in We Got Power!, “I wasn’t like [the others in the West Coast hardcore scene]. Not in the least. I had no interest in dying young.” And neither, it turned out, did hardcore.