The death of true spirit.

I've been reading the book "Burning Fight: The 90s Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit, and Sound" by Brian Peterson, lately, and it's led me back to a lot of the records and bands I loved when I was deeply immersed in the hardcore scene during the 90s. I mean, not that I ever really go too long without listening to stuff from that period, but still. It's led me back to some slightly different bands than the ones I return to most often, too, and that seems to be the result of Peterson prioritizing different elements of that era than I do. For me, the progression on a purely musical level, the experimentation in sound, that characterized the era is the most important thing to talk about where it's concerned, with the emotional evolution of the community running a close second. Politics, religion, and some of the other elements that he focuses on in this book were definitely important, and I recognize that, but they aren't the pieces of the puzzle that capture my attention most closely.

I have a lot more than just that to say about "Burning Fight," and I wouldn't be surprised if I devoted at least one full post to it at some point in the future (once I'm finished reading it), but right now, I want to concentrate more on a specific thing that I've learned from "Burning Fight," something that I've probably always known on some level but never consciously considered before. About two thirds of "Burning Fight" is devoted to interviews with various important bands from that time period, and while I do not have a problem with the bands Peterson chose to include, I am struck by the difference in reputation that some of these bands have in the eyes of today's hardcore scene, as opposed to others. Some of them--Shelter, Inside Out, Avail, and Integrity are all good examples--are well-remembered, well-respected, and influential in today's scene. Others, though, are almost entirely forgotten. Spitboy, Groundwork, Los Crudos, and Downcast are the most prominent examples of the latter group, and I don't think this is a coincidence; out of all of the groups profiled in "Burning Fight," these are the bands that were most devoted to remaining underground, keeping their bands separate from any hint of the mainstream, any hint of hardcore-scene-as-business.

Back in my teens and early 20s, I was just as deeply immersed in the underground as these bands were. I went to shows that were held in basements, at which bands got paid in gas money and sold cheaply produced records with xeroxed and silkscreened covers. I loved that scene, loved that it was such a tight-knit community with so little of an air of separation between band and audience, and thought the music coming out of it was brilliant. At the time, I didn't question whether there was a wider audience that this scene should be reaching and wasn't. After all, it was reaching me, so whether it reached other people too wasn't something I really needed to worry about. Plus, the strictures of the DIY ethic that all of us observed in that scene really prevented these bands from getting but so far. The zeitgeist of the scene was such that it enforced an incredibly strict code of self-reliance. While in some parts of the punk scene, the definition of selling out revolved around signing to a major label, within the smaller community of the DIY hardcore scene, even releasing your band's records with a barcode on them, in order to make them easier to stock in stores, was seen as a betrayal.

In contemplating the fate of bands like Groundwork, Downcast, and Los Crudos now, it seems to me that the DIY hardcore scene from which they emerged was largely a victim of its own success. There were, at least ostensibly, far nobler reasons for the strict enforcement of the DIY code as it was defined at the time, but one can't help but note upon reflection that other consequences of that enforcement, intended or not, were parochialism, balkanization, and the violent rejection from the community of anyone who became too successful. "Burning Fight" provides at least one great example of the latter--Avail, who were so well loved at one point that they graced the cover of HeartattaCk #4 (more on HeartattaCk momentarily*), were completely ostracized from the scene by the time their third album came out. They hadn't signed to a major label at the time, and in fact never have, even to this very day. But by signing to Lookout Records for their second album, and by doing very well on that more visible but nonetheless completely independent label, Avail grew to a level that the basement show DIY scene no longer wanted anything to do with them. Tellingly, the same decisions that enabled Avail to make their band a self-sustaining endeavor also moved them out of the favor of the DIY scene.

Obviously, the success that Avail enjoyed in the late 90s, and still enjoy to some extent, is not the success that I meant when I described DIY hardcore as a victim of its own success earlier. What I was talking about at that time was the fact that that scene's code of self-reliance had the goal of separating it completely from any larger, more well-known or easily discovered musical underground. It became less and less accessible to newcomers, and as kids grew older and dropped out of the scene, the amount of younger kids who came into the scene to replace them grew smaller and smaller. At least in Richmond, where I live, the whole thing seemed to implode around 2003. Somewhere around a dozen bands all broke up in the same six-month period, and suddenly there were only two or three active bands left in the scene. Things rebounded within a couple of years, but it was different. In the late 90s, the emphasis on socio-political issues as well as on strict DIY guidelines made people feel like more and more rules were constantly encroaching upon their ability to speak and act freely. I'm not saying that all or even any of these ideas, characterized by detractors as PC, were wrongheaded or overly enforced, and I'm not saying that there weren't problems in the scene that had given rise to the emphasis on these ideas. I'm not even going to make the objective statement that things went too far. What I will say is that things went too far for a lot of people. People new to hardcore who might have been inspired to be part of the basement show scene in 1995 were, by 2003 or so, feeling like they'd be better off joining some other, less strict, scene. And a lot of the people who'd been around for a long while were getting burned out by the constant conflict, and either dropped out entirely or moved on to other subsets of the scene in which things were more relaxed.

It may not seem this way from reading the last paragraph, but I actually think that this outcome was a bad thing, on the whole. Sure, the dogma was overdone to an insane level, and sure, something had to give. In the summer of 1999, I traveled across five states to go to a music festival, only to have a dozen of my friends get kicked out halfway through because they'd made a joke about one of the more poorly-defined political causes being emphasized by the fest's organizers. This led me to get into an hour-long argument with organizers and members of some of the bands I'd come to see in the middle of a hallway. At points, it felt like as many as 100 people might have been watching me have an incredibly stressful argument over something that never seemed to me even worth the expended energy. I'd put over a hundred dollars into driving to the fest, paying my way inside, and feeding myself for the weekend, and for at least those couple of hours, I wasn't having anything remotely resembling my idea of a good time. It cast a pall over the whole weekend, to be honest, and I wasn't even one of the people who got kicked out. So yes, without a doubt, a lot was wrong with the dominant paradigm in that scene.

But there was a lot that was right about it too. A lot of the political, emotional, and spiritual issues explored by the community at large during the glory days of that scene were incredibly important, and needed to be dealt with. What's more, the decision to emphasize political consciousness as the most important defining element of the scene enabled a lot of people to engage in musical experimentation that pushed the state of hardcore and music as a whole forward. All of this was great. And all of it was lost when the dogma overrode the positive aspects and the scene withered away and died. What's more, the bands (and zines, and artists) who were part of this tiny but richly creative subsection of the scene were mostly forgotten too. That was what reading "Burning Fight" led me to realize. When I saw Downcast right next to Disembodied, and thought of the difference between these bands' respective legacies, it brought home to me just how much has been lost, and how rare it'd probably be to find a 19 year old kid in the scene today who has ever even seen a copy of Downcast's LP.

I'm not sure if things could have been done differently, nor if it's really even fair to say that the scene that spawned bands like Downcast and Spitboy doesn't exist anymore. Whatever does exist probably takes some extremely isolated form that has no effect on the larger hardcore scene, though, and I would expect that it's nigh-impenetrable to outsiders. The more widely available hardcore scene, the one that is accessible to kids trying to find something outside the norm, is no more political than the metal scene, and replicates a lot of the same troubling interpersonal dynamics of mainstream society that are also replicated by the metal scene. Nowhere do I see something truly analogous to the hardcore scene I grew up in.

I don't know what to do about this, nor whether there is even anything I can do. All I can really think to do at this point is to try and preserve the history of the scene I was part of. It's for that reason that I want to write a book of my own about 90s hardcore, one that captures my own perspective about what's important and worth preservation ("Burning Fight," for all its positive qualities, has a very different take on this era than my own). And it's for that reason that I've decided to write in this blog specifically about Downcast, a band that deserves far better than the minimal recognition that history has given them.

I'll get into my specific thoughts about Downcast in another entry, to follow later this week.

(*--HeartattaCk fanzine will be explained more thoroughly at that time, too.)



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