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
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.
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.
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
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