In the early 80’s, the phenomenon known as Hardcore Punk whipped through the U.S. like the pissed off, privileged child that it was. By the mid ’80s though, most of the bands who coined the sound and term were either donning black and weeping or doing bad AC/DC impressions. There were also those who simply hung up their instruments and checked out into the great, monotonous beyond of college.
But it is in that grey area where the New York Hardcore scene flourished. Not only did bands like the Cro-Mags or Straight Ahead fill a void for a generation of kids too late for the first wave, but their primal, no nonsense sound attracted the fans and bands on the New York Metal scene. Pretty soon it wasn’t uncommon to see Nuclear Assault or Agnostic Front share bills at both the CBGB’s Sunday Hardcore matinees or out at the rock capital of Brooklyn itself, L’Amour.
One of the longhairs from that time who jumped ship to Hardcore was Staten Island’s Lewis Dimmick. He details his transformation from hesher to Hardcore in his brand new book, This Music: Pieces on Heavy Metal, Punk Rock & Hardcore Punk. The brief but potent read is a collection of extremely personal remembrances from the time that’ll get the now-naturally-bald old fogies misty and the youngsters jealous.
We checked in with Dimmick to discuss the book and the infamous mid-80’s NYHC scene it sprung from.
The book really captures the vibe of New York and all its boroughs in the ’80s. What do you think made the New York Hardcore scene — and NY in general — so unique in that timeframe?
I think New York was so unique in the ’80s because a style of music was coming out of it, NYHC, that was its perfect representation. I was 15 when I started seeing bands at CBGB’s. That was 1986. I can’t distinguish between the feeling I got discovering the Lower East Side at that time and the first 45s I bought from underground bands like Token Entry, Underdog, and Warzone. It’s hard to explain, but that music was the sound of the city. It was exciting to discover and jump into the middle of something that was so alive. Now that the documented history of hardcore is getting deeper, I’ve read a lot about how 1986 is the year hardcore died. That was not the case in New York — 1986 to 1988 were historical times in New York. A lot of what has happened in music since then was influenced by it: the look, the sound, the attitude, etc. Like any living thing, of course, it had both pros and cons.
What got you thinking about writing This Music?
I had been thinking for several years about how I could combine my graduate studies (creative writing, poetry) with the hardcore music I grew up listening to. I started to consider how a subject like hardcore could be approached in poetry, or if it could be. I could never figure out a way to do it. Music is nearly impossible to write about. There is the great quote (no one is sure who said it): “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The two just don’t compliment each other. Music doesn’t require thinking. Writing, on the other hand, is all thinking. So the feeling you get when you’re lost in a song can’t really be captured in words. That’s why I attempt very little in the way of describing the music I loved. I just tried to capture moments in my life that all involved music in some way. In the end I decided on short prose pieces rather than poems because it seemed more natural. As I got into the project a little bit I noticed that the entries were getting shorter. I was surprised by that and I liked it. A lot of the entries are comparable, I hope, to good hardcore songs: short, direct, and solid in idea, containing depth. I was lucky to experience a unique time in music in my own city when I was the perfect age to appreciate it and take it all in. Writing about my youth and writing about all this music is pretty much one and the same. I’m glad I was able to bring the two together.
Even though the book does not talk directly about your crossover from Metal into Hardcore, it does reflect on it. What sold you on Hardcore coming from the Metal scene?
I’ve always been attracted to simplicity. I loved the shorter songs and raw sound. And I’m attracted to substance. I liked that hardcore music challenged traditional ways of thinking and considered the message it was putting forward important.
NY was pretty well known as sort of the “crossover capital” in the mid-80s when hardcore and metal came together. Could you feel something changing at the time?
On one hand you had bands like Token Entry, Underdog, and Warzone. Those bands were most definitely hardcore punk, meaning the punk influence was very evident but it was even harder and faster. Then you had Agnostic Front, the fathers of New York Hardcore. If hardcore in NY had ended after Victim In Pain, you could argue that not much would have been lost. That’s saying a lot! In 1986 AF started to incorporate more metal into their sound. My impression is that, first, having conquered one style, it’s natural for a band to want to try another. There was also the potential of increasing your audience. And no real musician wants to do the same thing over and over. No artist. It stops being spontaneous and exciting and becomes predictable and boring. Hardcore bands were starting to sound more metal, but they still had hardcore ideals. A band like Nuclear Assault, for example, was much more metal than hardcore, but they had a hardcore approach and attitude, and they were loved at CBGB’s.
The pieces that make up the book are short but packed with observation. Did you have any certain writers in mind when creating the pieces?
I wasn’t thinking of them at the time, but there’s no doubt I was influenced by some of my favorite fiction writers, like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver for his understated style and Tobias Wolff for his precision. I wanted the writing to be clear and direct, and have a lot of thought behind it. The writers I mentioned taught me that what you don’t say is equally important to what you put on the page. If a piece is successful, what is left out can also be felt. That’s what makes a piece of writing worth re-visiting. This Music is a short book with lots of short pieces. It’s not necessarily the book you take with you on a three-week vacation. But I hope it’s a book that is just as good if not better the second time you read it. Every book should be that way.
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n the late ’80s, you were in Our Gang, one of the more underrated bands from the NYHC scene from that time. What was it like to finally take part in something you’d be admiring for so long?
There are six sections in the book, and one of them is dedicated to that: writing songs, recording, playing live, especially doing all that at a young age. Keep in mind, we weren’t exactly well-known. But that’s a theme in the book. The experience of making music and being part of a scene is very powerful, even for the people who played in bands you never heard of. The experience of creating something of your own is one that people don’t forget, and something I think they continue to crave. Playing live for the very first time was a highlight. I was 17. I looked up from my guitar and saw kids jumping off the stage and going nuts on the dance floor. Suddenly I felt like I was in a very real band. Recording at Don Fury stands out, hearing those first recorded songs blasting back at us through his speakers in the booth. Writing a piece of music and hearing words fit to it, hearing it become more than you imagined it could be, is pretty incredible. I joke sometimes that all those experiences at a young age kind of soured me on the rest of life, that not much could really compare to them after that. OUR GANG was my first band and the one that made the greatest impression on me, so I’ll stick to just discussing them for now.
Now that book is completed and printed, how do you feel? Do you feel you have another one in you?
I’m proud of the book. I worked hard on it, writing and re-writing the pieces, hiring the greatest artist on the planet, Sean Taggart, to do the cover, getting a great photo from my old friend from the hardcore scene Tracy Sham for the back cover. I feel I have another book in me for sure. I’m looking forward to finding the next project I can get lost in.
Who are some of your current favorite NYHC bands?
I don’t think I’m involved enough to say much about the current scene. This book is a testament to the fact that in my mind it’s still the mid to late ’80s. So Straight Ahead is my favorite band. I also like Krakdown, Raw Deal, and Rest In Pieces.
This Music will be released April 23rd. Pre-orders for the book are being taken here.
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