WHY BE SOMETHING THAT YOU'RE NOT: DETROIT HARDCORE 1979-1985 by Tony Rettman; Revelation, 2010

AMERICAN HARDCORE: A Tribal History (Second Edition) By Steven Blush; Feral House, 2010

To begin with, it's hard to believe that the people who built the house of punk rock are part of history. Weren't we ageless warriors who could defy anything as trite as time?

But I realized when I was re-reading Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me
late last year that as much as I enjoyed hearing about the 70s and NYC and the often-flawed people that made such great music, someone out there cared just as much about the little thing we had in the Midwest in the early 80s.

And most recently it compelled me to talk about it, as much as I had avoided it over the years for no good reason other than to be ridiculously contrarian.

So with these books, we have writers reconstructing reality since neither were there. Such is often the problem with a reconstructed past. Both books are oral histories, though, which makes their story lines subject to available loudmouths. This has its pros and cons in each but with differing end results.

Why Be Something That You're Not, which deals only with the Detroit area scene, goes beyond reflecting the times in day-to-day gossip and baseless chatter by allowing the subjects to tell the story.

American Hardcore continues to amaze for its abject failure to deliver compelling interviews and further alienates via uninformed editorializing. This is a second edition of half-baked history of hardcore in the U.S. Not sure why Feral House thinks we need more.

The ability to report and tell a story plays out in a perfect split; Why Be Something author Rettman never pretends to be a part of the scene he is writing about. American Hardcore author Blush still thinks he was part of the front end of hardcore—or is it punk?—in America.

Why Be Something reads like the story of a mission, told by the people who were carrying it out and helped along by Rettman's undisputedly insightful knowledge of punk rock and music in general. There, we can say it: Punk rock. For so many years the term itself sounded forced, almost touristy, like referring to the blues or some other overbaked genre that welcomed definition and whose purveyors behaved and played in accordance to that definition.

After reading Why be Something, punk rock seems something more proud and noble than trite and restricting. The people who were part of this, squabbles aside, were pioneers when they began to create the music. It was launched with the purest of intentions, that is, to fuck shit up. The Necros description of first seeing the Pagans speaks to the simple prophesies the music creates; "It was our next phase as people," singer Barry Henssler said of the show. Shockingly self-realized, faithful and real.

And the Necros account of an unfortunate exposure to a pretentious Patti Smith at a nearby in-store appearance is laugh out loud, as Henssler says, "I remember flipping out over how tiny Patti Smith was...She had this scarf all wrapped up like a burka and I remember my first reaction being 'Aw man, she looks like a monkey.' " It's a disappointment we should all be able to relate to, and in those days, we expected too much and always got too little from so-called rock stars, even those trolling for votes in the subterranean while playing major label games.

Rettman moves smoothly through the sunrise of Midwest punk rock and ribbons in the creation of Touch & Go magazine by Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson in 1979, which in advertently served as the launch of the entire scene. Member and hangers-on of the Necros and members of the Fix (of which I was one) describe their earliest memories of moving everything in this emerging music world forward. The dirty sniping between the two is presented in balance. Some things never change, seeing as these interviews for this book were given in 2009. It all looks ridiculous in print. Guilty.

The hero of Rettman's account is John Brannon, the truest of rock and roll soldiers. Reflective, wizened, self-critical and introspective, Brannon rarely has a bad word for anyone and his character shows true commitment to the music and in his eyes, anything else is simply a distraction.

Rettman cast a wide net of sources and scored a number of good interviews—I'd always like to see more, but sometimes the best and most accurate picture is given by fewer rather than more.

And he makes a gallant effort to document shows and dates and places in the appendix, including a list of shows at the both the Freezer and Clubhouse in Detroit, which was the incubator for most bands of the era. The package is rounded out by flyers and photos.

Why Be Something's contrast with the rather pedestrian and insipid American Hardcore is stark. Start with the cover of Hardcore, a split-lip vocalist oozing facial blood, a cartoonish Decline-like dream come true for the readers who are sure that bloodied warfare in the pit is what defined punk rock. And it did, in author Blush's world. The producers of the punk rock episode of NBC's Quincy M.E. could not have done better in presenting a sensationalistic cartoon of what mainstream America thought punk rock was in the 70s and 80s. American Hardcore is the literary version of the punk rock Quincy. Recall the classic Jack Klugman-as-Quincy moment in the show, where he renders his take on punk music:

"I believe that the music I heard is a killer. It's a killer of hope. It's a killer of spirit."

This little quote would be at home in American Hardcore. No wonder movie rights for the book were sold. We await the drama version.

This retooling of American Hardcore—recall this is the second edition with some of the mistakes fixed and some additional interviews—makes little difference. It still reads like a high-schooler's journal, a teenaged attempt to document a new world. Maybe that's not always a bad thing, and if the author didn't take such a misguidedly authoritarian voice, there would be some charm.

Instead, his poorly written essays on the various scenes, myopic and often incomplete, are simply poorly informed and amateurish. The interviews do nothing to help—there are few insights, barely a drop of depth and all is told without any sense of humor.

American Hardcore has had a great commercial run, with movie rights, a devoted following and frequent references. As in much of life, the underdog, Why Be Something is more real and true.  While both books are on indy publishers, it reminds that as with the music, it was always the less sincere stuff that drew the pop accolades.

It is true that history will always be penned by the victors. Rettman is the winner here without competition. Blush has failed in his effort but cashes bigger checks.Read accordingly.


Why Be Something @ AMAZON

American Hardcore @ AMAZON

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  1. Tesco Vee says:

    Nice piece..I second that emotion

  2. Alex H. says:

    I admit I liked American Hardcore when it first came out. My friends and I were just excited that someone had written a book specifically on the subject at all. My copy was passed around and is now thoroughly dog-eared as a result. Upon reading though it again, Blush's arrogance and overbearing self-importance was quite alienating. Also, a lot of the material in the book seemed to focus on squabbling and mud-slinging. When the documentary version came out, it was the same: we were just excited that someone had made a film specifically on the subject.

    We weren't there and we would take what we could get when it came to what little info was available on this era.

    After thoroughly enjoying Mr.Rettman's book, it became even more clear what a mess American Hardcore was. My only complaint about WBSTYN is that it was too short. Then again time flies when you're having fun.

  3. Todd Swalla says:

    right on Steve!!!

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