Think You Know Punk Rock? Hardcore Vets Recall 'Real' Blood-And-Sweat Years

Ex-Black Flag/ Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, T.S.O.L.'s Jack Grisham share gritty memories in 'American Hardcore.'

"It's morning again in America!" Ronald Reagan's political ads declared, trumpeting a new dawn for the country in the 1980s. The punk-rockers at the center of Paul Rachman's new documentary, "American Hardcore," would like to tell you exactly where they wanted to stick that sentiment -- and it wasn't on the 9 o'clock news.

" 'I like to drink and steal. I'm a bully and an a--hole.' I mean, that's basically what I was, growing up," T.S.O.L. singer Jack Grisham recounted. "Reagan, Bush, who gives a sh--? None of them are any different, they are all the same. I didn't know what I was angry about, I just was. And basically punk rock was a license to do whatever I wanted to do."

Based on Steven Blush's book "American Hardcore: A Tribal History," the documentary, opening in limited release Friday (September 22), follows the American punk-rock scene during the early to mid-'80s. It culls rare concert footage and in-depth interviews from many of the artists who were at the forefront of the movement.

The genesis of hardcore punk was as much an often-unconscious reaction to then-contemporary values as it was a wish to create something new. It was angst stripped to its core, a primal sound trimmed of fat. In the end, it was little more than kids gone wild.

"I never [gave] much thought to it," Grisham said. "I mean, it wasn't actually something that you're saying like, 'OK, we are doing this because of this and it's because of these social reasons.' It was just kids. I mean, growing up [in] the area I came from, everyone was an idiot. That was basically the deal: Let's just get drunk and be idiots."

Reckless and brash, these self-proclaimed "idiots" made a habit out of unleashing unpredictability at their shows -- sometimes getting into fights, sometimes jumping offstage and breaking bones on the way down. According to ex-Black Flag and Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, that devil-may-care attitude wasn't just an act.

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"[Punk] was not premeditated," he said. "There was no map, there was no plan, there were no managers, there were no marketing strategies, there were no major record labels. No cell phones, security guards and no barricades."

And often there were no real venues either. Many of the era's most notorious concerts took place in churches, basements, garages, abandoned houses -- anywhere groups could quickly set up and play. While hooliganism at these events ran rampant, Grisham makes no excuses.

"Rock is supposed to be dangerous. Just going out and not knowing what's going to happen: It's like, you might go to jail, you might end up here, there -- that's excitement!" he said. "I remember guys used to get mad at us because they would invite us somewhere and their stuff would get stolen and their house would get wrecked. It's like, what do you expect? You invite animals in the house and you are mad because they sh-- on the carpet?"

It would be misleading to say this sort of behavior burned bridges, because a lot of the groups didn't have bridges to begin with. Punk acts were underpaid or not paid at all. Grisham called the process of making records "a joke."

"A lot of us didn't care, we were clueless. You know, just making records, [we] didn't think it was a big deal," he contended. "The first record we did we spent $500 making. The second record we did we spent $1,200. I used to sign contracts in blood -- it was like a joke. ... A lot of those people ripped us off, took advantage of us."

Everybody always says it isn't about the money. When Grisham says it, though, you believe it.

"If I had any more money, it would have killed me, because I did what I wanted anyway," he confessed. "I mean, can you imagine somebody that is so selfish and so self-centered that [thinks], 'I'm going to do whatever I want, no matter what happens to you or to anyone around me' -- and then on top of that, let's throw in a couple million bucks. I would have been done. I'm glad I never got a cent."

That narcissism and anger fueled hardcore bands' music, a raging cocktail served in three-part harmony. Although their songs inspired a new generation of artists, Morris sees very little of himself in today's so-called "punk" bands -- which he, by and large, views as little more than shills for the record industry. Unfortunately, he said, the better-known bands overshadow the true inheritors of hardcore.

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"Well, the bands are there, but they are being masked over by all of the bigger bands who these record companies have now seen and noticed," he claimed. "There is an opportunity to make money on this mall anger, or this pre-packaged, pre-fab anger. The underground will always be there, but we are being bombarded with what the record companies want us to hear, the videos that they want us to see."

And if punk-rockers were going to be angry, they were going to be true to their anger. In the early '80s, punk clashed with the decadence of contemporary life. Today, many musicians say, it's the opposite. To Grisham, these new "McMusicians" have turned the meaning of punk upside down.

"All of the sudden, they turned it into a money-making thing," he said. "I mean, have you seen the latest McDonald's commercial? They got some punk chick with a ring in her lip going, 'Have it your way.' I mean, come on, man. I got in a lot of fights so this little girl can get on a McDonald's commercial and wear crap like that. For a little veggie burger or whatever the hell it was. They took a look and started selling it. It's real, and I get really angry and depressed about a lot of this crap."

Depressed, angry -- these are the buzz words "American Hardcore" uses in telling the story of early punk music. But there's another one too, one used far more often: fun.

"It was pretty wild. I think that really would be the best way to sum it up. It was just a giant party," Morris explained. "Everybody knew each other, there was no competition, there was no backstabbing. We knew what the agenda was, and that was to have a great time. It was just to make as much noise as we could."

It's midnight in America -- and for the musicians at the center of "American Hardcore," that's about as good a thing as we could wish for.

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