Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters

Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters

Review by S. D. Stewart

Mutations by Sam McPheetersBack in the early nineties whenever I managed to get my grubby paws on the new issue of Maximumrocknoll it was always a toss-up over whose column I’d read first. Typically this came down to a choice between four of the most loudly opinionated (at the time) columnists in that storied punk fanzine. Would it be the discursive, highly parenthetical stylings of Rev. Nørb, ringleader of Green Bay band Boris the Sprinkler? Or perhaps it would be the transgressive New York attitude of Mykel Board, whose columns routinely and gleefully flexed the muscles of free speech. Then again it could be another slab of Chicago-born punk rock drama delivered by Ben Weasel, vocalist for pop-punk powerhouse Screeching Weasel. Finally, there was Sam McPheeters, whose oft-snide column ‘Currently Fucked’ seemed a logical extension of his rabble-rousing persona in the hardcore punk scene. At the time McPheeters was the outspoken vocalist for the hardcore band Born Against, a favorite of mine and my roommates ever since we discovered a dubbed cassette of one of their albums left behind in our apartment following one of the usual nights of debauchery. McPheeters and his band had in a relatively short time garnered a nationwide reputation, both for their innovative sound and their willingness to call others out over sociopolitical issues they deemed crucial to public discourse. Though the band was only active from 1989 to 1993 it left a lasting mark on the American hardcore punk scene (whether McPheeters is willing to ever admit it or not). Though the book is not meant to be about McPheeters’ bands (after Born Against ended he went on to form Men’s Recovery Project and, later still, Wrangler Brutes), his record label Vermiform, or even himself, per se, by the end bits and pieces of all three manage to seep out through the pages.

As musician Tobi Vail describes it in her foreword, the book is an anti-memoir. It is decidedly not a tell-all airing of grievances amassed over two decades of participation in the hardcore punk scene (a note on terminology: McPheeters prefers the term ‘hardcore punk’ in an effort to narrow focus and distinguish the genre he operated within from the initial incarnation of 1970s punk, but my terms will vary). Nor is it a glorification of McPheeters’ legacy, as it is clear he doesn’t think much of this legacy himself. In one of the best pieces in the book—a conversation between McPheeters and fellow punk writer/musician Aaron Cometbus—he addresses this idea of legacy:

People don’t know what to make of artists who don’t like their own past art. For me, the right to regret mistakes is fundamental. This subgenre—underground, hardcore, whatever name we’re using—is saturated in self-congratulations. There aren’t many people in my position. I’ve always loved hardcore. I just don’t love my contributions to it.

This gets to the crux of why this book is so good and, ultimately, so fascinating to read (though perhaps only to people who were active in the hardcore punk scene at the time). McPheeters is correct in his assessment of the self-congratulatory nature of the genre. Case in point: I recently watched a documentary on the New York hardcore scene (in which McPheeters and Born Against were one-time participants) and, not surprisingly, it ended up being the sort of nostalgia-drenched infomercial McPheeters would abhor. So, rather than go down this road, in his book McPheeters set out to deliberately deliver a dispassionate accounting of what has been important to him about hardcore punk. While he does touch on other issues and musical styles outside this genre, he returns to hardcore as a reference point in nearly every chapter.

It is important to understand the full complexity of the standpoint from which McPheeters writes. He counts his involvement in hardcore punk as the 20-year period between 1984—when at age 15 he bought his first Dead Kennedys tape—and 2004, when at age 35 he played his last hardcore show. Most if not all of the pieces in this book (some are not original to the volume) date from well after his departure from the scene. McPheeters is in midlife now and so in a logical position to reflect on how he spent much of his early adulthood. While he is a few years older than me, I am still basically at the same life stage so can appreciate his point of view. While I played in bands for a much shorter period of time than he did, I count my own introduction to hardcore punk as only a few years later than his in 1987 when I first heard the band 7 Secondsand can say that by the mid-2000s when McPheeters quit playing, my participation in the punk ‘scene’ had waned to the level of only infrequent forays out to attend shows and some minimal involvement in fanzines. The reason the overlap in timing is so crucial to deep appreciation of this book primarily relates to the political and cultural contexts of the late eighties and early nineties. It’s also tied to the nature of the New York hardcore scene during this time, which I’m acquainted with from having grown up in northern New Jersey. A lot of what McPheeters writes about is steeped directly or at least tangentially in this particular milieu during this specific time period.

Another nuance to McPheeters’ point of view that is important to understand is his being at odds with the idea of punk as a source of community, which is to say the least an uncommon experience among people who’ve participated in a punk scene anywhere in the world. In his conversation with Aaron Cometbus he describes not really feeling a sense of community since maybe when he was in high school. Not having these memories of camaraderie and/or shared vision feeds into his aversion to nostalgia and contributes to the detached, outsider perspective he brings to the page. Yet, even though he has now physically distanced himself from hardcore punk his fascination with it remains hardwired inside him. It amounts to an aphoristic phenomenon: you can take the individual out of punk, but you can’t take punk out of the individual. Part of the book shows him grappling with what significance that has in his current life, if any. While McPheeters has surely exited the scene, as it were, it’s as if he is keeping the door to its history propped open with his foot, so he can peer back in at will. In moments varying between lightly mocking and utterly bemused, it’s McPheeters’ stylistic blend of middle-age befuddlement (exaggerated or not) with incisive, reflective commentary born of years of insider experience that makes the book so unique and compulsively readable.

There is a subtle elegance to the organization of the book, and this organization also contributes to its readability. It is divided into three sections: Questions, Artists, and Problems. Although the book is not without what are known in the fanzine world as ‘filler’ pieces, these serve to extend what feels like a purposively slow reveal of McPheeters’ personal story. The aforementioned conversation with Aaron Cometbus is a key first ‘personal’ piece in the jigsaw puzzle, appearing early in the first section. The two briefly discuss the dickish quality to McPheeters’ public persona during the heyday of Born Against and his fanzine publishing, for which Cometbus takes him to task. He was notorious for slagging off bands and specific individuals during interviews and in his own writing. He also had a reputation for sarcasm that he still finds himself trying to live down 20 years later, to the point where he occasionally has to clarify in the book when he is indeed being sincere. It is clear that McPheeters experiences some regret over this, and yet he doesn’t morbidly dwell on it in the book. I should note also that this contrariness was built into the Born Against ethos, stemming as much from guitarist Adam Nathanson’s penchant for calling people out on issues the band wrote about in its lyrics and in his own one-sheets as it did from McPheeters himself. These included inflammatory topics such as abortion rights, decidedly unusual for an all-male hardcore band in the late eighties New York scene.

What is fascinating about McPheeters’ conversation with Aaron Cometbus is how different these two individuals manifest on the page. It reads almost as a symbolic meeting of the minds between East Coast and West Coast punk, with the two of them representing archetypes of their respective scenes: the cynical, sarcastic East Coast loner in McPheeters and the personable, optimistic West Coast idealist in Cometbus. And despite both of these individuals finding hardcore punk and devoting a significant part of their lives to it, it seems like they’ve had almost diametrically opposite experiences. Cometbus came of age in the East San Francisco Bay Gilman Street scene (based around an all-ages DIY, volunteer-run space known as 924 Gilman) which thrived on unity, positivity, and getting things done together. He has an air of the emotionally sensitive Californian about him. The bands he played in were on the poppy side of punk and the lyrics he wrote while playing in these bands leaned more toward the personal. McPheeters spent his punk formative years in and around the highly divisive New York hardcore scene, where fights were inevitable and personal safety was never guaranteed. His favorite album remains Cro-Mags The Age of Quarrel, which if you know that album should tell you all you need to know about where his taste registers on the punk style spectrum. The lyrics he wrote were confrontational and politically charged. He also claims not to be a musician and to have no musical skill at all. To this I would argue that at the very least one needs a good sense of rhythm and timing to pull off the vocal style McPheeters employed. This was one case where his tendency toward extreme self-deprecation felt slightly ridiculous.

All of this is to say that it’s a testament to the weird, twisted miracle of punk that it can foster two such different individuals. The only obvious commonality in their experiences that I can see is the crucial DIY ethics that they both employed. On the other hand, what is most telling of their differences reveals itself in their discussion around community, as I touched on above. Cometbus clearly has had better experiences in this department, having participated in 924 Gilman Street and also through his work in a local food co-op. For his part, McPheeters presents as a perpetual outsider in a movement known to thrive as a source of community support for those social refugees who have typically felt rejected everywhere else. Regarding the Gilman Street project, McPheeters states he’s ‘never achieved the suspension of disbelief required to be part of the long-haul gruntwork’ necessary to sustain such a project. Furthermore, he writes, ‘I’m too lazy, too cynical, and, above all, don’t know how to bypass my deep and enduring distrust of all communities.’ It is unfortunate for McPheeters that after he did appear to have found a source of community in New York’s ABC No Rio scene—as he alludes to several times throughout the book—the people he counted as comrades there later condemned him for various personal failings, eventually leading to his departure from the city.

The only piece in the book that I’d previously read also appears in this first section. Entitled ‘The Troublemaker,’ it is McPheeters’ 2008 VICE profile of former Crucifucks’ front man Doc Dart, now known simply as 26. Black sheep of the Dart family—known for their bank and their foam cups—26 is a uniquely American type of crank, who over the years has alienated himself from most of the population in his hometown of Lansing by way of such activities as decorating the outside of his house—situated in a staid, conservative suburb—with inflammatory slogans in the wake of September 11th. This in-depth profile of a deeply compelling figure in (and now mostly out) of the punk scene is possibly McPheeters’ most well-known journalistic piece and it really showcases his writing chops. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again the second time around.

In the second section of the book McPheeters works his way through a number of artists who are major touchstones from hardcore punk history (though a few are included more for their punk spirit than for having an explicitly hardcore punk sound). These include key formative favorites of his own such as Die Kreuzen, SSD, 7 Seconds,1 and Discharge (in one of the best examples of his frequently pithy closing sentences, McPheeters concludes: ‘The world has become a Discharge record.’). Though in truth it may be a stretch to call these bands favorites of his, as his attachment to each of them usually boils down to only a seminal record or two, typically early in the band’s career, and after which any further efforts led only to disappointment in McPheeters’ eyes.2 Also included in this section of the book are bands not normally classified as hardcore punk, but which in McPheeters’ eyes embody its spirit, such as The Casual Dots, Thrones, and The Flying Lizards. These are bands whom McPheeters also forged personal connections with, either through actual friendship or, in the case of The Flying Lizards, an interview.

Finally, closing out the second section is the piece on Youth of Today (YOT), which thoroughly skewers the straight edge hardcore movement, particularly focusing on YOT, its founding member Ray Cappo, and the panoply of lookalike, soundalike New York hardcore (NYHC) bands that spawned in the wake of YOT. For McPheeters, this is personal as he had grown up in and around this scene, for better or for worse. YOT and their related offspring, perhaps more than any other bands, seem to excel at simultaneously pushing all of McPheeters’ buttons. The social conservatism inherent in the straightedge scene chafed at McPheeters’ leftist ideals. There was also a sameness and tendency toward conformity among these bands that literally is at odds with the daring individualism that hardcore punk came to embody. The lyrics were bland and humorless; there was no room for McPheeters’ beloved satire and irony. Then there was the commercial aspect to this scene—the adoption of athletic attire made by major brands like Nike and Champion and the abundance of band-related merchandise. And let’s not forget one of McPheeters’ major pet peeves about these bands: their overuse of collegiate fonts, which in an endnote he viciously refers to as ‘collegiate-ass heavy line bullshit fratboy roofie typeface’ (by the way, it is in the copious endnotes to this book that McPheeters really shines, often letting down the guard of his authorial persona to expel vehement opinions or to share poignant moments of self-reflection [note: due to the voluminous—yet also often contextually helpful to read in-text—amount of endnotes, I highly recommend the ebook edition, which facilitates easy endnote reading]). In the end of this piece, McPheeters concludes with an air of resignation not uncommon to his writing that the phenomenon of the NYHC scene was just another ‘market correction’ along the spectrum of punk, one which left an ‘artistic echo chamber, reacting solely to its own brief but deep past.’

In the third section, McPheeters delves into more personal territory again, beginning with ‘The Debate’. It is in this section that he works up to his account (from the little he can recall) of the now-infamous (strictly in hardcore circles, of course) debate between members of Born Against (McPheeters and guitarist Adam Nathanson) and two members of NYHC band Sick of It All (the Koller brothers, Lou and Pete). Each side also had a ‘third’: Rorschach vocalist Charles Maggio on the Born Against side and, across the table, In-Effect Records head Steve Martin, who had recently signed Sick of It All (SOIA) to his new subsidiary of Relativity Records. The crux of this debate hinged on the censorship of the word ‘shit’ on the SOIA album’s lyric sheet. Unfortunately for the members of Born Against, the entire premise of the debate was flawed, as each side was coming to it with a separate set of ideals and assumptions around the perceived act of censorship. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of the debate (it can actually be heard in its entirety on multiple YouTube channels), but suffice it to say that the Born Against argument was rendered moot by the fact that these working-class SOIA guys didn’t perceive the censored lyric sheet to be indicative of anything other than a mild concession necessary to get their album into the hands of more listeners (specifically in parts of the country with record stores that might not carry the record if the lyric sheet included the word ‘shit’ in all its expletive glory). For McPheeters this perceived failure of he and Nathanson to make their case, which led to disappointment among his peers in the ABC No Rio scene, was the beginning of the degradation of his personal reputation in New York. McPheeters includes other personal revelations in this section, which I won’t go into here, all of which fit together to culminate in his (and Born Against’s) ‘expulsion’ from New York.

This is another of one of the key chapters in the book, along with the Cometbus conversation, due to the tokens of insight it offers into McPheeters’ personal history, the sum of which informs how he approaches his subject matter throughout the book. Learning about his subsequent panic attacks and struggles with depression deepens the significance of the other less personal essays. At one point, in another endnote, when considering the enraged feelings he experienced in 2017 after accidentally going off his antidepressants for a few days, he wonders if his own contribution to Born Against was simply ‘the product of a serotonin imbalance’. This poignant remark struck home for me, as I’ve asked myself similar questions about the inexplicable rage I channeled into my own vocals during the time I spent playing in punk bands in my early twenties, years before finally coming to terms with my own depression.

The remainder of the final section finds McPheeters ruminating on such topics as muzak, the closure of his label’s record pressing plant, and finally, the severing of ties between his label and its distributor Mordam. It is a fitting conclusion to the book, as it brings both literal and symbolic closure to McPheeters’ direct involvement in hardcore punk.

I sincerely hope this book finds its audience, because it contains the best nonfiction writing I’ve read that has arisen from the hardcore punk milieu. Unlike some other books written by punk insiders, it is not simply a wholesale compendium of past writings, which it easily could have been. While it’s impossible to tell (from the book, at least, which unfortunately lacks original publication dates of previously published pieces) how much of this material was written explicitly for the book, there is clearly enough new writing and sufficient attention paid to details such as endnotes and organization that it all coheres into a relatively seamless volume. Some readers may be disappointed that the book is not packed with scene gossip, or that it’s not an endless parade of hilarious tour anecdotes. McPheeters could have easily gone this route (he did go on tour 17 times), but he instead managed in a thoughtful and engaging way to weave elements of his own story into a broader survey of a genre of music that has meant so much to so many people. Above all else this is a very human book. McPheeters is frank and self-reflective in his discussion of mental health and in what he perceives to have been his past personal failings. We need more smart, honest writing like this from critical thinkers who were deeply embedded in the punk scene and who are not afraid to write openly about their personal experiences and perspectives. It only serves to further enrich this already vibrant continuum of musical expression.

1 I disagree with McPheeters’ take on 7 Seconds and his conclusion that they did not successfully ‘soar away from their hardcore larval stage’ as he so eloquently describes a process repeated by many early hardcore bands, though this disagreement is admittedly in part rooted in my sentimental attachment to the band, and in particular to their 1986 transitional album New Wind (which McPheeters pans in his essay). New Wind was the first punk album I heard. In 1987 my sister had gone away to college and returned with her discovery of what at the time was known broadly as ‘alternative music’ (a now meaningless appellation). Most of this comprised what you’d expect from this time period: bands like The Smiths, The Cure, The Pixies, Echo & The Bunnymen—all of which I also devoured and loved. But the one cassette she returned with that she didn’t really care for was 7 Seconds New Wind, and so she passed it to me (only after much wheedling on my part, as I recall). Objectively speaking, I admit this is not their best album by a long shot—when I listen to it now it has admittedly lost some of its luster. It’s a curious mixture of the faster, punk anthems the band exploded on the scene with and the slower, more melodic songs that would come to define their mid-career period. It’s a strange brew, sounding as if they were literally experiencing this stylistic transition in the middle of the album’s recording sessions. But for me at the time, it represented a new sound (a ‘new wind’ if you will)—one that I didn’t even know I was craving. I’d gotten into Metallica the year before but something about metal didn’t click with me on a primal level the way the punk sound did once I discovered it. That New Wind cassette led directly to my discovery of Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Hüsker Dü, and many other bands. The other reason 7 Seconds is so significant to me is that it was the band that connected me to my first close friend who was into punk music, Chris Roberts. It was the 7 Seconds logo painted on my backpack that prompted Chris to strike up a conversation with me. It turned out he was a huge fan and had all of their records dubbed on cassette. I think I only had two or three of their albums at that point, so he kindly shared what he had with me and we bonded over the band and so much more.

2 Although McPheeters sometimes seems unusually harsh in his criticism and/or complete dismissal of bands after a certain point in their careers—typically either as the result of an unwelcome change in style or a nostalgic resurrection from dormancy—it’s worth noting that his own band Born Against actually serves as a textbook example of the ideal way for a hardcore punk band to conclude its career. As McPheeters presents it, the current members decided the band just wasn’t fun anymore so they disbanded on their own terms without any animosity between them; they even lived amicably together for a year afterwards. Despite the many changes to its rhythm section over its brief history, Born Against managed to maintain a consistent, singular sound on their recordings—not an easy feat by any means. Even more importantly, perhaps, they never reformed after playing their final show in 1993—thus leaving their musical legacy intact.

1 Comment

  1. Dan O’Mahony interviews Sam McPheeters about this book, as well as a few larger issues engendered by Dan’s reading of it. It’s an excellent interview that provides context for some of the more puzzling aspects of the book. Highly recommended.

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