Hardcore and the Have-not Kids

By Gerry LaFemina

Sometime late in eighth grade I discovered punk rock, thanks to a friend, his sister and their cable television, back when MTV stood for Music Television and bands could send “basement tapes” to the network for air time.  This was 1982.  Sure, I knew who the Ramones were. I knew who the Sex Pistols were. But when I saw “All Twisted” on MTV it was music made by and for people like the three of us.  

Only a month or two later, Kraut played a free concert at Tompkins Square Park around the corner from my great aunt’s apartment. They were with bands I’d never heard of: Reagan Youth, The Beastie Boys, and I don’t remember who else. I was a disenfranchised Catholic school boy, a typical early eighties latchkey kid from the lower-middle class outer boroughs. The music was loud, the kids there threw their bodies around, they looked like nobody I’d ever seen before–all shaved heads and dyed hair and jackets and spikes and tattoos, so unlike the Members Only jacket contingent I felt so alienated from. I stood on the grass far away from the thrashing bodies, all that anger and frustration and angst.  

I’d found my people.

In another month I turned fourteen. The month after that I started high school in a different school from Vinny, would move to a crappy rental on the other side of Staten Island.

It would take me another few months to discover the hardcore matinees at CBGB, those Sunday afternoon punk concerts that offered up four bands for five bucks, and still a few more months to gather up the courage to actually go. It replaced mass for me. And I started to have friends–kids who, like me, didn’t seem to fit in in Queens or Brooklyn or homeroom. I was the kid in school who read the Village Voice (The Village! Isn’t that where the homos hang out, I heard more than once [1])–I scanned its music ads for who was playing at the Peppermint Lounge, the A7 Club, Irving Plaza. I’d learned pretty quickly that if you showed up, the bouncers would let you in. It wasn’t like anybody at home noticed my comings and goings.

Punk rock was about community. It didn’t take long till I understood the mores of the tribe, a little longer to cut my hair until it eventually morphed into my first Mohawk. I was terrified of the slam circle (what would later become known as the mosh pit), but I knew I had to jump in. Fists thrown, legs kicking, all in time to the music, everyone going in the same direction like a roller rink. Who knew there were rules? If you fell, people helped you up; you took off your spiked bracelets before you accidentally clocked somebody in the head. And when you were done, sweaty, exhausted, sometimes black and blue, there was exhilaration, the excitement of adrenaline and endorphins.  

That adolescent sense of unbelonging was gone. So what my father didn’t come to see me again, so what I couldn’t get a girlfriend (or even raise enough courage to ask a girl on a date), so what I got picked on by every Guido at St. Peter’s High School. Slam dancing could take it all away, till next week.

We made the scene. We created it. Some of us produced shows. Others produced records, starting indie labels. Some of us produced a record of those events. Others put out ‘zines. Some opened record stores or punk clothing stores. Some, like me, formed bands. We opened for Suicidal Tendencies for our first show; I played to a packed house. It was like nothing I had ever done before.

That’s not to say everything was honky dory, and we all sang a distortion-riddled sped up version of Kumbaya. Like every community there was strife–the CroMags hated Suicidal Tendencies and therefore hated us, too. Part of that was a punk-skinhead divide, during a time, in particular, when skinheads beat up punk rockers over nothing less trivial than wearing Doc Marten boots, a time when many skins proudly displayed swastika tattoos while punk bands (like mine) were playing Rock Against Racism.

And of course, there were drugs and egos. But there was also a sense of equality.  One minute I was on stage, twenty minutes later I was watching someone else on stage from the audience. There was mutual respect and support. In a way I had never known before–not in my family, not in my neighborhood, not in school or in church–people worked together to make something happen. We were have-not kids trying to have something and sharing it amongst ourselves.

When I traveled across America playing hardcore, I saw this time and time again. All the bands traveled with notebooks with lists of contacts for shows in different cities, different record stores, different alternative radio stations. People put us up for the night in garages and basements, rented halls and PA systems, put out zines or made flyers or worked security.  In Missoula, in Sioux City, in Davis, in Louisville. The bigger-name bands shared their stages and sometimes their gear and their advice. D.O.A., the Descendents, the Circle Jerks, Toxic Reasons, Naked Raygun.

The peace and love and get stoned philosophy hadn’t succeeded. The nihilism of the first wave of punk had burnt out but in its embers was a desire to make something from what had broken apart. Not just musically, but in America–after Vietnam and Abscam and the hostage crisis and the obvious failings of Reagan trickle-down economics and the Marine-barrack bombings in Beirut. We lived in fear of nuclear war still. We weren’t happy with the status quo because we'd never have status. Our music wasn’t on the radio. Our art was graffiti and flyers. Our poetry was written on lyric sheets spilling out of cassette tapes.

Some of us thought we might make a model democracy, one in which we all had jobs, and we did them. In cities across America, it was happening. We plugged in our amps.

But we were preaching to the converted. Fact is, the greater society kept us in the background. Bands rolled over members or just rolled over. Metal bands started to steal our riffs, our speed, and bring with them the very things we tried to escape; the very kids who made fun of me when I was 14 were suddenly trying to check out Agnostic Front when I was 17. Some of us moved on only to find that some of what we made was showing up on college radio stations and in college auditoriums, and then in college classrooms. Sure MTV was no longer interested in basement tapes and independent music, but we could hear it left of the dial, usually, where no commercial stations dared. It was a music of disenfranchisement, after all, a music of rage, a howl of hurt, and who couldn’t respond to that?

A Note about the Author: Gerry LaFemina is the author of thirteen books of poetry, fiction, and criticism.  His latest collections are Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist (prose poems, 2013, Mayapple Press), Little Heretic (poems), and Palpable Magic: Essays on Poets and Prosody, both from Stephen F Austin University Press.

[1] Greenwich Village ("the Village") was known for its large number of homosexuals, particularly after the Stone Wall riots.