Oct. 22 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing is central to a new Detroit hardcore history book

    Freelance music
    writer Tony Rettman was a kid in suburban New Jersey when hardcore punk hit in
    the early ‘80s. His older brother was a college radio program director who
    brought home the freshest singles from then-new imprints, like Dischord, SST
    and, of course, Touch and Go.

    “Being 11 or 12, I
    really connected with Touch and Go records more than the others,” Rettman said
    during a phone interview from his home in New York. “The guys weren’t that much
    older than I was, and I thought that was pretty cool. There were kids in high
    school putting out records and touring the country.”

    It didn’t hurt that
    the Lansing-born punk label had its own propaganda machinery in the fanzine of
    the same name, full of sophomoric humor and sardonic prose by Tesco Vee and
    “D.S.” Dave Stimson.

    “Probably I liked
    that because it was super-juvenile and right on my level,” Rettman said.
    "At that time, I was learning about the...”— he laughed — “male reproductive system. I don’t know. It
    was so juvenile and well-written and had a lot of cool bands in it.”

    The fact that a kid
    from New Jersey, with no connections to Detroit or Lansing, spent a good chunk
    of his high school years and, later, college student loan money tracking down
    bootlegs of obscure 7-inch records from this neck of the woods says plenty
    about the impact this music had, despite being basically overlooked by the
    recent stream of American punk histories documenting the “important” bands of
    the era.

    That is until now.
    Last summer, Revelation Records issued Rettman’s first book, “Why Be Something
    That You’re Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979–1985,” a quick-hitting oral history of
    the regional hardcore punk scene that flares up and burns out about as quickly
    as the bands it documents. If for nothing else, die-hard fans and casual music
    historians should pick this up for the 80 pages of discography, venue and show
    history, and photo and flyer gallery that close out the book.

    A no-brainer
    companion to the recently released “Touch and Go” fanzine anthology, “Why Be
    Something That You’re Not” tells the story of how a census worker and a school
    teacher from Lansing, high school skaters from Toledo and Detroit, and a few
    rogue, college-age groups from Lansing and Kalamazoo booked their own tours,
    staged mind-blowing hometown gigs featuring the biggest bands in hardcore and
    recorded some of the most aggressive, honest music of an era, from the “Process
    of Elimination” compilation EP to unheard demos by Detroit’s Bored Youth.

    To do this, Rettman
    compiled interviews with the usual suspects of the “Detroit” scene — John
    Brannon (Negative Approach), Tesco Vee (Touch and Go, The Meatment), Steve
    Shelley (The Crucifucks), Steve Miller (The Fix), Barry Henssler (The Necros),
    Kenny Knott (Violent Apathy) — as well as plenty of lesser-known players and
    supporters, and sewed it together with his own deft, succinct segues.

    Considering the
    hours of tape Rettman retrieved from interivews, the book’s brevity and
    matter-of-fact tone is a feat in itself — no doubt a nod to the raging,
    minute-long songs and Midwestern workman’s attitude that inspired it.

    “If you get
    anything, it’s that it was this brief golden moment that sort of got tired. By
    the time 1983 happens, you burned out on ‘1-2-3-4,1-2-3-4!’ I just wanted to
    work in these broad strokes and get the story out in the same way it happened.”

    A couple of glaring
    omissions from the book are the voices of Necros bassist Corey Rusk, who
    eventually took over the label side of Touch and Go and continues to run it
    today, and Crucifucks vocalist and local troublemaker Doc Dart. For the former,
    it wasn’t for lack of trying, but the same can’t be said for the latter.
    Rettman said he decided not to contact Dart after reading a 2009 Vice Magazine
    interview with the notorious Okemos resident and former frontman of The
    Crucifucks, opting to talk with Shelley, who took up drums for godhead
    underground rock group Sonic Youth shortly after splitting from the Crucifucks
    in the ‘80s.

    As with any scene,
    if not more so, punks have their pissing matches — in this case, an
    entertaining hatefest between The Fix’s Steve Miller and Necros’ Barry

    “It’s really
    mind-blowing that over 30 years or something that these guys still hold
    grudges, but at the other end, it’s really entertaining and people seem to
    respond to it and think it’s really funny.”

    On his visit first
    visit to Michigan, Rettman checked out historical sites first-hand, visiting
    the spaces that housed venues like The Freezer Theater, The Club House and City
    Club in Detroit. In Lansing, Vee and Miller took him to the former Club Doobie,
    in Haslett, today the Watershed Tavern and Grill. 

    “They were pointing
    and saying, ‘That’s where Black Flag set up there. People were slam dancing
    here,” Rettman said. “They told me how they saw Lydia Lunch, Screaming Urge,
    all these weird, obscure bands. Today, it’s kind of a karaoke bar. That was
    kind of bizarre.”

    In Kalamazoo, the
    Violent Apathy guys showed him where they would host touring acts like Black
    Flag, Minor Threat and the Circle Jerks.

    “I grew up in New
    Jersey, where it’s not necessarily a cultural mecca, but you’re close enough to
    New York and Philadelphia,” Rettman said. “It was cool to see these guys were
    going it on their own and doing it for themselves in these little towns.”

    "Why Be Something
    That You’re Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979-1985"

    By Tony Rettman

    239 Pages

    Revelation Records