Why you should care
Because if you could distill a fistfight into musical form, it’d probably sound a lot like this. Which, if you think about it, is probably a far better way to experience it.
“These guys hung on to this shit for dear life, because it was their life!”
Tony Rettman could just as easily be talking about himself. He’s the author of the forthcoming book NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990 and a fan nonpareil of the super aggro musical stylings that grew out of the death throes of New York City punk rock. Despite his media pedigree, including bylines in the Village Voice, Vice, The Wire and the Philadelphia Weekly, Rettman still works about 40-hour weeks in a banking firm’s copy shop with “brainless slime who just want to talk about reality TV and other pointless bullshit.”
Pointless bullshit that, in Rettman’s mind, doesn’t hold a candle to the electrifying blast of chaos that hit New York in the 1980s right after the earlier generation of punk rockers aged out, or morphed into adults who needed to make a living and therefore made new wave music. Hardcore was the soundtrack for those left behind, and it was laden with all kinds of unspoken, but clearly screamed about, markers of class warfare. Kind of like Rettman’s day job, and an indication of why the music sounds so angry: No one drawn to it is going to go quietly.
So like Alan Lomax, the great chronicler of Southern folk and blues, Rettman decided to document it all. The end product is due this November, a book culled from over 100 interviews with bands and participants who lived it then and are still making noise, and lots of it.
“I was waiting for someone who experienced that entire decade of NYHC to write a book solely on the scene and the way it developed. I couldn’t wait anymore for that. So, I interviewed as many people as I could to find out the stuff I always wanted to know,” Rettman says.
And what better way to put his nine-to-five in perspective? “I was taking shit from junior bankers who were calling me stupid and assuming I was an idiot because I worked in this department,” Rettman says. “All the usual working-class crap you know and love.” Not so far from the circumstances of the blue-collar kids from the outer boroughs and as far as New Jersey who descended on the Lower East Side, fucking up the whole go-go program of the ’80s.
Runaways, first-generation immigrant kids, lost boys and girls, street kids, even the occasional trust-fund kids and other assorted teenagers were drawn by the heat and dark light thrown off by art that couldn’t have said it more clearly: Screw our diminished prospects, and screw you who benefit from their staying diminished.
They went all in on what came to be called New York Hardcore, or NYHC, an enveloping music that went well beyond song and well into a lifestyle. A permanent lifestyle for many, either because they died en route or because of a principled commitment to, well, NYHC.
“The thing that makes NYHC stick out is it went beyond the music and became its own culture and way of life,” says Rettman. “There’s something that runs throughout that music to this day. It’s the palpable desperation in their delivery. That’s something that can’t be duplicated.” Desperation born of living at the ass-end of a war on poverty, coming from broken homes, seeing only a bleak future ahead — all things that living in New York in the 1980s might have caused you to feel. In other words: the blues for kids who knew how to throw a punch.
As Rettman sees it, this decade was special. “It was the last time that music could be made with no game plan. NYHC is definitely more significant now than it was then, but at that time, there was still some wiggle room because there were no reference points,” he says, while cooking dinner for his wife.
“I hate to sound like an old man, but you had to make it up as you went along rather than download every piece of music in the world. And you never knew what to expect when you showed up for a show on Sunday.”
With over 1,000 images to paint the picture, Rettman’s book will make it much easier for those with neither a time machine nor interest in climbing into a sweat-soaked moshpit to enjoy what it was like to hear the sounds of resistance, baby. Truly.