In the late 1970s when Steven Blush was in high school, he was totally into the punk rock scene. On weekends, he would flee the boring metro suburbs for the excitement of New York City’s gritty underground music.
That fall, he went off to college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. There, he stumbled onto a new kind of punk, and it had nothing to do with the David Bowie-Andy Warhol-art-school new wave-punk that was getting attention.
“This was kids from the suburbs, and they were very into the aggressive aspect of punk rock, kind of waving the flag of punk rock as a lifestyle,” said Blush, author of the bible of the hardcore punk movement, “American Hardcore: A Tribal History.”
For Blush, the defining moment came on Valentine’s Day 1981, when the band Black Flag played at Washington’s 9:30 Club. “I had never seen anything like it before — the crowd, the movement, the action, the band. I had never heard music like this before. It was a-melodic. It was like they took the textbook songwriting formula and threw it out the window.”
The moment changed Blush’s life. He became a committed participant in the hardcore punk scene, and in the years since has remained active in the music business as a journalist, producer, promoter and, most recently, historian.
“American Hardcore” first came out in 2001, and it met with great success. The book is in five languages, and served as a basis for the documentary film “American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986.”
Blush has updated the book with a second edition that includes a new chapter and updates throughout, most notably with more than 200 new band bios and an expanded discography.
He’ll be at the Portland Public Library on Oct. 9 to screen the movie and discuss the hardcore scene and its impact on American music and culture. Filmmaker Paul Rachman will accompany Blush.
This gig came about because of Blush’s friendship with teen librarian Michael Whittaker. Back in the day, Whittaker worked for a record label that was a major player in the hardcore scene. Whittaker and Blush knew each other then, and have remained friends.
Whittaker helped arrange a mini-Northeast library tour for Blush, with stops in Portland, Portsmouth, N.H., and Worcester, Mass. This tour will be expanded in 2011 into a national library tour, Blush said.
We recently spoke with Blush by phone from New York.
Q: Let’s start by talking about the book. This is a second edition with a lot of updates. What’s new in there?
A: When I started the book back in 1995, there was no information on this subject. When I wrote the book, aside from all my memories and records and the fanzines collections of me and my friends, all I had to go on was the 100 or so interviews and all the archives I could assemble. It was a lost subculture. I had to assemble all the artifacts into a historical narrative.
So, flash-forward a decade. The book is doing well, there’s a documentary film and I have learned a lot of new information from networking. I’ve also reached some new conclusions, and there is so much more to tell. So many people were saying, “What about me?” — some warranted, some not. I had to flesh all of that out, and I felt a second edition could do that.
Q: What was the best thing about the hardcore punk scene?
A: The most important thing about hardcore is more than the music. It was a way of life that was a political, social movement, and a replacement for family for some. So much of what we see today as DIY comes out of an ethic embraced in hardcore 30 years ago with Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains. They were speaking out to alienated kids all around the country. It was a true youth culture and maybe the last youth rebellion. It opened so many doors.
Q: What is the legacy of the hardcore punk scene?
A: I say that literally hardcore changed the face of rock music. If you look at what was big 30 years ago, it was Journey and Styx, and then you look at the bands of today. The bands of today look more like Henry Rollins — shaved heads, mosh pits, speed-metal, aggressive tones, lack of guitar solos, the modern primitivism and tattooing, and gnarly skateboarding. It was the confluence of so many things, and that’s what made it all so exciting. It was so much more than another rock scene.
Q: You said you wrote “American Hardcore” because you felt that genre of music was overlooked.
A: I guess now upon retrospect, I have helped open the doors and get it some due, between the book and the film. At the time when I wrote it, I was a journalist in the ’90s and I remember watching the PBS series “The History of Rock & Roll.” It was a great series, an amazing series. But it went from The Sex Pistols and The Clash straight to Nirvana. They may have mentioned X. I just felt like I don’t know if it was because people just didn’t know or if it was too ugly to be considered music.
Q: When you come to Portland with Paul, what will your program be like?
A: We’re going to show the film and do a little Q&A. The thing that I have been doing for this library tour, I am doing a little slideshow about the hardcore scene. In the spirit of the movement and the time, instead of a PowerPoint program, I actually will bring a slide projector.
Q: What music are you interested in these days?
A: I’m looking back, but there are definitely bands I like. I live across the river from Williamsburg, and I go see bands and am blown away by the energy. But I find myself at a point of mainly looking back. I have learned over the years that no matter how much I thought I knew about music, I am constantly humbled by what I don’t know.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: