December 21, 2012
By the dawn of the 80s, punk rock was dead and a leaner, more muscular sound known as hardcore had commandeered the underground. On the West Coast, hardcore pioneers like Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Social Distortion and The Minutemen unleashed rage-fueled anthems that bypassed the cheek of punk and went straight for the jugular.
Chronicling every show, rumor and police raid was We Got Power, a fanzine founded by a pair of first generation hardcore freaks and best friends, Dave Markey and Jordan Schwartz. The epitome of DIY publishing, We Got Power seethed with unchecked passion, snark and attitude, and three decades later, their humble periodical now stands as one of the most vivid and enduring documents of Los Angeles in the Reagan era.
Beyond the impassioned and snarling prose that filled each issue were intimate and often breathtaking black and white photographs of venues, streets and decrepit storefronts that painted a cold and bleak portrait of West Coast urban life in the 80s. Thirty years later, Markey and Schwartz have collected their old issues and bound them into a thick hardcover compilation commemorating We Got Power, including upwards of 400 eye-popping photos of their view from the front lines. Brightly enhancing this document’s authenticity, the authors invited some of L.A. hardcore’s founding musicians—Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, Dez Cardena and Mike Watt, to name a few—to contribute essays recounting their memories from that era; essays that alternate between memoirs, love letters and manifestos.
We recently had a chance to sit down with Dave to talk about the new book, the hardcore scene and life in the Reagan era.
What inspired you to dig up all of this vintage memorabilia and convert it into a book?
It really started eight years ago when I purchased a really cheap scanner and started scanning all my negative archives. I got a hold of Jordan, who’s been a friend of mine for thirty-two years, and we’ve worked together on many projects. Going back to our roots, our fanzine was one of the things that we did together as teenagers, and we had started scanning these negatives and looking at stuff we hadn’t looked at for twenty-five years. It’s now been thirty-plus years since these images were first captured, so you’ve got to bear in mind that there was a lot of time that this stuff just sort of fell from our memories. Of course, when we started seeing the results, we were pretty excited about it.
You guys were so young at the time the scene was exploding. At that age, most guys are looking for ways to avoid extra work. What was it about hardcore that inspired you to transcend simply being a part of the scene and instead become its biographers?
Well, you’ve got to remember that at the time, we were just kids. We were living it, we were into it, we were excited about it enough to document it. I also documented it in super eight film as well as 35mm still photography. We really were into these bands and there was a lot of stuff happening; a lot of really great music. There were all sorts of different kinds of bands, really, and truth be told, I don’t think it was really one kind of music that was going off. It all sort of came together and a lot of bands with different origins would play together on the same bill, just because it was a freer time; there was less restriction of style, as it were, in the early-80s. I think it got a little more rigid as we got into it and people started saying, “No, these are the rules for hardcore.” While it did become rigid a few years in, being inspired by the L.A. punk scene of the late-70s, we were informed by that, and that had a lot to do with our attitudes that we developed from absorbing the bands that were in that scene.
Most musical movements have a genesis, such as a cultural event, or even something more gradual, such as the decay of the old guard. How did the death of punk, if that’s even accurate, birth hardcore?
It was simply an age thing. It was younger kids who were absorbing this stuff. You’ve got to realize that the originators of this scene were getting this all from London and other parts of England. I’m talking about the original L.A. punk people. And they were all older; they had graduated from college and art school. At that point in time, during The Masque (the nightclub that became the epicenter of L.A.’s punk scene) I was twelve or thirteen years old. I was far too young to go there. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered their music and started going backwards and getting into all the bands, really around 1980. I think that hardcore, as it spread nationally, it really was the younger suburban kids who were just getting into it. That brought in a whole new kind of energy and I think it really helped keep it alive, you know? It was still hardcore punk rock to me. I know that now, hardcore itself exists as a musical genre that is outside of punk rock, and I don’t know that today what is considered “hardcore” is the same music that we were on about thirty-plus years ago. It’s an interesting thing, and I think that maybe it was a redefinition of the moniker. I think that we were trying to bring it into our lives in a more meaningful way. Understand that we were just teenagers, too. We were just barely learning about stuff, and music too, so we just needed to make something our own. As all teenagers in every generation do.
Beyond appearance, there was an intellectual dimension to hardcore that is rare in other genres, and I think you see that represented in the zine culture.
Zines were very crucial. There wasn’t a lot of information dispensed about this music back then. No mainstream media would cover it. Everything was outside of everything. You had some bands that had some sort of pop success here and there on the landscape of L.A. in the early-80s, but with this music, it just said, “To hell with that, we’re going to do our own thing.” I think the fanzine was really just part and parcel to all of that. Once again, we saw that it wasn’t going to get covered by the mainstream media or if it was, it was going to be painted negatively. It was going to get slandered, it was going to get belittled, and it was going to get trashed, basically. A lot of people didn’t get the music. A lot of people were threatened by it in the city of Los Angeles, which is really one of the only cities in the world that had this problem. We had to contend with Chief Daryl Gates’ LAPD, who had an agenda to keep down the punks here. They would raid these shows and beat kids up and the cops would mace them. I saw this countless times. So seeing that…experiencing that, pushes you to a whole new level. You wonder, “Are they protecting and serving us?” but no, they were trying to stomp us out. That sort of in a strange way, galvanized us more. It made us even more serious at the time.
Then does the movement’s vitality come from having an enemy?
That was part of it, I think. It certainly gave you something to write songs about, and it certainly gave you something to rally against. I mean, there are certain dangers inherent in that too, but I think the way it all came together as a whole was really pretty organic. It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t the exact perfect thing; I’m not saying it was the best. There were problems within the scene itself, too. There was a microcosm of society at large, but at least for us at that age, during those impressionable teenage years, it all really meant a lot.
You enticed some pretty notable figures in that scene, like Henry Rollins and Keith Morris, to participate in this book by contributing original essays. How did you decide what people to invite?
It was pretty simple—we just looked at our photos and at the people in the photos. Actually, not everyone who wrote in the book is seen in the book, but the majority are, so it was more of a question of Jordan and I splitting up the list of people to call. A lot of people were still involved with us in certain projects. Keith Morris, for example. While we were in the final stages of editing this book I was simultaneously shooting and editing a documentary on the Circle Jerks. That also just came out this year and it’s called My Career as a Jerk. So I was working with Keith on that and said, “Hey, you’ve got to contribute to our book.” Keith had contributed to the magazine way back when. He wrote a few articles for it. As for Henry, I had toured for six months with Black Flag on their last tour in 1986, so I go way back with Rollins. A lot of the other people were people whom we’ve known for so long.
Understanding that it might not be fair to ask you to play favorites, but as you began to receive these essays from the various authors, was there one essay that resonated particularly strongly with you?
You know, I really like the way they all come together and tell the larger story. I really love Henry’s piece and the way it sets up the time and the place, the environment, the climate, the personalities. I really love that. I love Keith’s; I think it’s very much Keith, and it’s very much his personality. Some of the stuff is very serious and some of the stuff is very humorous, and that’s exactly how the scene was. We were actually able to laugh. We didn’t take it all that seriously, although we did the work seriously, for sure, but humor was definitely an important factor in the fanzine and in our lives and you see that in some of the pieces.
Looking back at that time, is there a moment or experience that for you best encapsulates what was right about West Coast hardcore?
Well, there was a lot of that with this book. Just jump-starting the memory banks and getting the rusty wheels spinning…that yielded all sorts of stuff. It was sort of a giant flashback. Other people’s memories—once we started conversing about it with old friends—that started leading to other things. It was quite an experience doing this book, personally.
Thirty years after all of this went down, what do you see as the most enduring contribution of the hardcore scene to not music?
Really, I think a lot of the music has stuck around for a reason. I don’t think back then I would have had any sort of thought that thirty years from now, I’d be discussing this and doing what I’m doing now. I think it’s just quite simply because there was so much great music there, that’s what really kept it around. Of course, the Internet helped spread a lot of this stuff around. I mean, this stuff was so underground that it never got radio airplay, outside of the occasional college station. These college stations might have one punk show or one hardcore show, but even that was marginalized even within that world. So the music was really outside of society and it created its own sort of society in a way. But really it has to do with the music. I think that’s why kids today like it. They seek it out because there’s a certain thing there. There’s an honesty or good ideas musically, and I think it’s really that simple.
Thanks for your time, Dave.
My pleasure, Joe.