August 1, 2015

The Next Best Thing to Being There: Tony Rettman's "NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990"

If you’re old enough, the scene you came up in helped shape who you are - the people you surrounded yourself with and the music you listened to and the drugs you took (or didn’t take). I was shaped by the early 2000s in Morgantown, WV. There were various scenes there, centered on one of the hippie bars, or the 123, which drew some national acts but was filled most nights with local bands. The punks centered on a house on Pearl Street, that burned down under mysterious circumstances. I was part of all this, and the bands and the people went their way, with no real hit on the national consciousness.

Some scenes stick though. One of those was the birth of Hardcore music out the of the refuse of the punk scene in New York in the early 80s. Some of the bands that came out of that scene still have national relevance today, like Agnostic Front and Sick of It All, and it helped shaped other scenes national from Chicago and DC to LA. In NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990, Tony Rettman explores that scene in considerable depth, bringing the reader the memories of the people who were in the scene and in the bands and worked at the clubs and radio stations.

The chapters are structured as brief conversations about certain aspects of the scene, so there are chapters on a band or a club or a record store. It gives the fan who was not there context for the music as it was developed and the people who put it together. There are also a lot of nice visuals from show pictures to flyers to illustrate the total artistic aspect of the Hardcore scene. It is an amazing document, but it does have some weaknesses. It was as if the writer interviewed the participants in depth, but he cut those interviews up to apply directly to the topic that was being covered. I haven’t read much oral history of music, but I am a big fan of the oral history as Studs Terkel did them, allowing the people he interviewed to share their full stories. I think the method here eliminates some depth of the experience.

A second concern is that when people are interviewed, they are identified only on their first appearance. This means that if you don’t recognize how they fit in the broader narrative the author is trying to create, you have to page back and try to figure it out for yourself. There is a listing in the back, but I only found that out after I finished the book.

Overall, I enjoyed it a lot, and I bought a couple of similar titles, hoping that they can deepen my appreciation of the music I listen too. One odd bit that didn’t fit anywhere: Vinnie Stigma comes off as a very flat character. He just loves being Italian and eating Italian food. There’s got to be more to him than that.