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School of hard knocks 

American Hardcore moshes around the early '80s punk scene

Once upon a time, there was a president named Ronald Reagan, a lousy economy, a pox upon the land called disco and a passel of angry kids who were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

"I thought my late teens, early 20s were going to be the most radical years in my life," laments the Minutemen's Mike Watt in the documentary American Hardcore. "And I get there, and it's Pete Frampton in a kimono, man."

Other generations had their communists and anarchists, their Rosa Luxemburgs and Abbie Hoffmans. The early 1980s offered up hardcore, a stripped-down, fury-infused protest movement without meetings, agenda or a philosophy beyond hating the way things were.

American Hardcore, as much as any film born of such a DIY movement as American punk music can, is a random history of the scene. Zig-zagging across the country, Paul Rachman's documentary -- based on Steven Blush's 2001 Feral House book -- touches on this definitive, brief musical moment. Most of the musicians interviewed in American Hardcore retain a still-passionate, furious belief in the importance of their musical subculture.

Even now, well into their 40s and 50s, these men are still decked out in the essential hardcore uniform of Converse high-tops, black watch caps, nerd glasses and dreadlocks. In unacknowledged testament to their altered circumstance, musician Tony Cadena of the Adolescents is interviewed talking about alienation from his suburban background in a back yard now ornamented with a kiddie swing set. But American Hardcore proves that you can take the kid out of hardcore but you can't take the hardcore out of the kid.

Most haven't lost touch with the anger and disgust that defined their youth, and their countercultural enthusiasm is still infectious.

Retaining that teenage rebelliousness, Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins spits out at one point, "The cops always started it," of his many run-ins with the law during hardcore's heyday.

Despite Rachman's frustratingly scattershot approach to the scene -- epitomized by the abbreviated, truncated live footage of hardcore shows from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C. -- what does come through in American Hardcore is the genre's entirely different way of looking at the world. The musicians all attest, with a delighted glimmer in their eyes, to the willful anti-careerism, non-commercialism of a form defiantly opposed to mainstream notions of "making it." Many musicians in American Hardcore affirm that no musician worth his salt ever entertained the thought of getting somewhere commercially with his music, and that philosophy also seemed to preordain the sudden fizzle of hardcore by the mid-1980s when it mutated into heavy metal or just faded away.

Eloquence and penetrating self-analysis is not necessarily a tool of a movement that instead dealt with primal, screaming fury and poured its protest into periodic outbursts of antisocial destruction. The narrative is loosely book-ended by the bummer election of Reagan in 1980, and then the super-bummer re-election in 1984. If hardcore had any iconic enemy, it was the movie-star president who became a fixture of homemade Xeroxed band fliers and album covers, the consummate symbol of "the man."

But it is hard to ignore that the Reagan status quo so relentlessly attacked in the hardcore scene was at times replaced by another kind of male-centric world. Rachman's fanzine approach, free of analysis, to hardcore is both essential to capturing the genre's furious, forward-moving vibe and slightly maddening.

Testosterone was the gasoline in the engine of bands such as Black Flag. Near the end of the film, as if sensing his approach has been fairly one-sided, Rachman interviews Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler, one of the few women who made it up onto the hardcore stage. Roessler makes an appearance to object to Black Flag's raunchy, sexist 1984 album, Slip It In.

"What am I doing here if you guys hate women?" she wondered after getting a gander at that cover. But Rachman never confronts Rollins or anyone else for a response. Roessler's and Rachman's version of hardcore depicts a guy-driven scene centered on raging displays of male angst, goofy "who's tougher?" turf wars and random, senseless violence.

Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye's main complaint eventually came to define that scene: "For me, the violence was stupid." MacKaye would later form the band Fugazi.

But even with the luxury of hindsight, others fail to step in and question some of hardcore's attendant machismo -- like True Sounds of Liberty's Jack Grisham, who attests to the ugly rage of some of hardcore's denizens. About his destructive tendencies Grisham laughs, "Me being a violent, robbing, grave-digging rapist was part of my world. Like, this is what we do, man. Yeah, that chick passed out and I pissed in her face, so what?" Hardcore fans will notice other oversights beyond an avoidance of gender and race, such as the absence of essential bands Hüsker Dü and the Dead Kennedys, who are only glancingly referenced in the film. Also absent are any outside voices: critics, writers, social commentators who might lend some studied context to the argument of hardcore's importance.

Not much sticks in Rachman's perpetually on-the-move approach, except for a backward-glancing respect for a scene so defiantly opposed to commercial success and mainstream definitions of quality. Hardcore is undoubtedly a genre and a lifestyle worth analyzing more deeply, and Rachman's film hopefully will not offer the final word.

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