Friday, October 30, 2015

The end of NYHC's Golden Era

Can revolutions be interrupted?

New York hardcore was supposed to be a revolution. People today will still you it was a revolution. They want to believe that it was about unity, brotherhood, and passion. They're not all the way wrong in the belief that NYHC changed things forever, but they're also not telling you the whole story. The timeline to the first generation of NYHC is wild. It is loaded with great bands, wild anecdotes, and legendary personalities. The first period is pre-82 New York punk. This is the city's formative years where nothing was anything yet. The second period is 82-86 where the Bad Brains arrived like the big bang and the entire scene exploded with the likes of Agnostic Front, Warzone, Murphy's Law, and more. It is in the second period that NYHC was truly born. The third period is 86-87 which is NYHC's golden era. For two years, the scene was at its zenith with the likes of the Cro-Mags, Youth of Today, and Breakdown holding it down. The fourth period is 88-91 which saw to the end of the first generation of NYHC. Beginning in this era, a lot of the kids within the scene had moved on elsewhere to crossover metal, post-hardcore, and other ventures. The kids that did stay were left to confront the harsh changes that were about to hit the NYHC scene head on.

By 1988, the city was undergoing a great deal of upheaval, particularly in the famed Lower East Side and other parts of lower Manhattan where most of the NYHC community claimed as their stomping grounds. Gentrification, drugs, and growing sectarianism caused fractures within the scene's once united front.

Today's Lower East Side and its neighboring areas resembles an adult Disneyland. Upscale bars, classy dining, and enough good looking people in one area that you'd think the place was a eugenics project. The LES that Raybeez famously sang about was a markedly different place. It was a drug-soaked warzone where basic laws no longer existed and the social contract was effectively replaced by the laws of the animal kingdom. The laws that the 80s NYHC kid lived by were simple: strength in numbers, do unto others before they do unto you, and most of all, survival of the fittest. Where you would measure someone living off Houston St in 2015 by their money, you would measure someone in 1985 by their survival instinct.

By the end of the 80s, beginning with the Tompkins Square Park riots which illuminated to the powers that be that there was a third world country rotting in lower Manhattan, the city began to root out a lot of undesirable parties in favor of more attractive ones. Where this concerned the legendary CBGBs, which resided at 315 Bowery (now an upscale fashion boutique), became an uphill battle to stay put. There were still hardcore shows happening there, especially the famous Sunday Matinee shows, but by the end of the 80s the shows would continue to become more and more violent. Stabbings were a regular occurrence, as were people getting jumped and beaten with most anything kids could get their hands on. CBGBs finally banned hardcore shows as the violence was drawing unwanted attention from the city.

Here's something you should know: it doesn't matter how famous a venue is, no city office will ever want a hardcore punk venue in their town and they will find any excuse to shut it down. With this in consideration, CBGBs banning hardcore shows was inevitable. A lot of people will point the finger at Dmize for the ban saying their shows specifically were the most violent. Because of this NYHC had to find a new home. The scene would set up shop in places like Coney Island High, ABC No Rio (who was also engaged in its own legal war with the city / changing neighborhood) and Wetlands. They served their purpose and the scene survived on. Meanwhile CBGBs stayed put in the Bowery at the heart of a losing war with gentrification. By the time NYHC was welcomed back to the venue by the mid 90s, the disease was thick in the neighborhood and it was clear that CBGBs would not survive. It was only a matter of time.

Growing sectarianism within the NYHC scene at the end of the 80s was another major problem for the scene. At this point, much of the people in the scene had grown up together. A lot of them gelled together like a family, while others were like oil and water. The ABC No Rio scene became a mark of difference between CBGBs kids. Where ABC No Rio kids were punks, CBGBs kids were the hardcore kids. The biggest reasons for these schisms, in addition to sonic differences, was also the arrival of drugs to the scene. This will sound corny, but drugs destroy people. If you consider drug addiction for what it is and not what you've heard, you know that it can hold a person, change them, and eventually take them from you. It is no surprise that the youth crew movement really got its legs in the fourth period of NYHC (the same time drugs, namely heroin, began to invade the scene). The youth crew movement is cliquish by nature and standoffish because it had to be. Kids today often criticize modern day youth crew kids and their attitudes towards substance abuse as immature. The thing worth noting from the original youth crew movement is that it was simply following the rules allotted to them by the scene: strength in numbers and survival of the fittest. Today we joke about edgebreak as this passe ritual, in late 80s NYC if you broke, you were liable to become a full blown junkie.

Other groups formed for the simplest of reasons. For example, a group of kids across the bridge from Queens who liked to write graffiti and go to hardcore shows started their own clique. It would come to be known as DMS (a derivative of NYHC forerunners Agnostic Front's Doc Marten Skins). DMS bands like Madball, Crown of Thornz, Merauder, and others would become the backbone of NYHC in the 1990s. Without DMS in the 1990s, NYHC as we know it dies.

Where there no groups or cliques existed pockets of outliers. Kids who were still in the scene but held no real designation or clique. They just played hardcore to what they knew. This group of bands like Uppercut, Life's Blood, and Citizens Arrest played music that sounded angry, cynical, and exhausted. You could actually hear how tired they were in their music and voices. They were voices of people who had become frustrated with what the scene had become. They made hardcore their entire lives only to see it beaten back by the establishment and from within. They were voices of kids who had nowhere left to go and no idea what to do with themselves. They had been defeated. By society, by their own principles, by their own people. They felt betrayed by the very scene they gave themselves too. This sounds dramatic but it is a reality in the subculture. You grow up with the same group of kids living a certain way and, I'm not saying it happens to everyone, but for some you say "this isn't me" and you begin to question all of it.

Coming up in NYHC, you don't really have many modes of expression, there's aggressive and outright confrontational. A lot of these bands were confronting their own scene and its perceived failures. For failing to stop drugs from getting in and for failing to stay united in the face of change. They didn't want to fight about it nor did they want an apology. They were just wanted to declare that it was over. The golden days were done. What they had, their subculture utopia, was gone. I think they just needed to tell themselves that more than anyone. Listening to bands like Uppercut and Life's Blood is a sad experience because you can hear them lamenting over the loss of it all. By 1991, you saw most of these bands completely gone. Much like a great deal of the NYHC scene, they had departed to other projects.

Did the revolution fail? I don't know. Hardcore stayed alive and well in NYC thanks to the likes of Madball (they even wrote an album called Hold It Down if that gives you an idea of how they feel about the 90s) and others. Kids who left would eventually call back to their roots with great fondness. Today's NYHC has undergone a renaissance. This is thanks in part to CBGBs efforts to keep from closing in 2005-2006. Just about every band you could think of got back together to help do their part to keep the place open. Unsurprisingly they failed and the famed venue still shut down, but for the first time in almost twenty years the scene felt whole again. Beyond that, the work of the Black N Blue Radio and their annual Black N Bowl festival helped to bring back bands like Judge and Burn to the stage in recent years.

To revisit the question one more if the revolution failed or not, I guess that all depends on your perspective. Revolutions aren't always fought with soldiers, front lines, and battles. Sometimes they're deeper than that. All it takes is belief. Belief in what you're fighting for and, more importantly, who you're fighting alongside. NYHC's revolution didn't fail and it didn't end, it just assumed new forms.

1 comment:

  1. You bring up an excellent point that is still lost on increasing generations of punk and hardcore kids, despite all the songs going back 30+ years warning us about what happens when a few people fuck up the scene for everyone else (from DK to Infest to SOIA to Op Ivy):

    Every time a venue closes due to some kind of stupid violence... The "outside world" doesn't care how many good shows have happened at Venue X -- all it takes is one stupid event to fuck everything up. This should be a reason for people to be smart, and look out for one another, and protect their scene. At some point we have to accept responsibility for our actions.

    Anyway, keep up the blog. I share your enthusiasm for NYHC. Take it easy - H