The bathroom sink is bathed in blood, the splatter extending up onto the mirror above it. Near the stalls there's a guy holding his tee shirt to his previously gushing nose.
That's just what you'd expect to see at a Madball show -- tonight I'm at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe to see the legendary New York band, a star of the national hardcore scene -- but not for the reasons you'd expect, necessarily.
Particularly in the Valley, the hardcore scene has not (at least so far) emerged as very bloody -- except by accident. Apparently this bloody nose is no big deal. Another guy tells me the kid was looking the wrong way in the pit and caught a fist accidentally. It's a recreational hazard in the context of hardcore shows -- if you don't want to get hit, stay away from the pit. The next time I'm in the bathroom the sink is wiped clean; the only traces are droplets of blood on the floor and urinals.
Outside the bathroom, fists are flying as Madball growls its way through the set. The punches are swinging through empty air, though; in the pit in front of the stage, the security staff (two Tempe police officers are nearby, as well) is watching carefully as the fans of the band flail about, launching roundhouses and spinning kicks.
For hardcore kids, this is what constitutes dancing. And tee shirts with inflammatory messages pass as high fashion.
Among the crowd here to see Madball, there's a grip of kids wearing several different tees. A few sport the message "X24X" on the front in bold collegiate-style lettering, with "THIS IS FAMILY" on the back. Other kids are wearing various designs of shirts that say "FSU" and "Friends Stand United" on them. Those shirts belong to members of "crews" -- loose associations of friends who look out for one another. I'd be asking for an ass-kicking if I showed up sporting 24 or FSU gear. 24 and FSU, which stands for "Friends Stand United," (or "Fuck Shit Up" depending on who you ask) are both crews of friends that stick up for one another, with an "all for one" philosophy. 24 is a "straight-edge" crew, meaning the members don't drink or take drugs. (I know, "crew" sounds a lot like "gang." But unlike gangs, crews don't conduct business like drug sales or engage in turf wars. And the gang squad at the Phoenix Police Department has never heard of 24 or FSU.)
Even more ubiquitous tonight are the black tee shirts that say "4HATE0." And those, anyone can buy -- at a booth next to Madball's merchandise vendors or online at www.4HATE0.com.
The shirts are filled with vitriol -- along with 4HATE0, they have silk-screened messages including "CHIN CHECKERS," a girl shirt that says "BITCHES GIVE STITCHES," and an upcoming design featuring brass knuckles with the caption "DONATE BLOOD." But their creators insist that, in a way, they're all about the love, or at least the pride, for the East Valley. Hence the play on 480.
Despite hardcore punk's profusion of offshoots over the last 20 or so years -- post-hardcore, emo-core, metalcore, mathcore, and the list goes on -- the sort of pummeling, aggro, in-your-face hardcore that originated with bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Minor Threat (whose song "Straight Edge" spawned the anti-alcohol, anti-drug movement of the same name) still thrives all around the country. Now the torchbearers are bands like Hatebreed, Blood for Blood, Death Before Dishonor, and Madball.
Hardcore isn't for pansies, and if you don't know the scene, with its unwritten protocols and rules of engagement, you're best advised to keep a low profile. This is exacerbated by the fact that hardcore is a scene that's conducive to crews who look out for one another and who will fight in packs. In recent years there's been a resurgence in hardcore's popularity locally and around the country, including here. (Rigg Ross, the drummer of Madball, lives in the Valley.) Many of these new fans are teenagers, eager to prove how hard they are to the elders of the scene.
Hardcore's association with violence stems greatly from the hardcore dancing style employed in the pit. It's a montage of flying fists, martial-arts-style kicks, and fight-inspired choreography, and it's obviously conducive to injury, whether accidental or intentional.
But some of the violent reputation is well-earned, for sure. And the presence of crews like 24 and FSU sporting their gear at shows does little to dispel the perception that the Valley's hardcore microcosm is a powder keg. The reputation isn't necessarily undeserved; just last year at the now-defunct Mason Jar, a middle-aged man got a massive beatdown at the hands of some young, hardcore hooligans. You might have heard about it. The guy's eye was popped out of his head. The Phoenix Police Department says it has no record of the incident. True to form, the members of the hardcore scene like to police themselves.
In fact, the Phoenix cops say they have no record of any violence at any hardcore shows in the recent past. Ditto for Tempe. Which says to me that the violence associated with hardcore here in the Valley is hyperbole, maybe even wishful thinking on the part of some tough youngsters. If anything, I've learned, the hardcore scene's reputation for violence has made the fans -- including the crews -- more fastidious about policing their own and dispelling the brutal mythology.
That's one of the reasons that a consortium of the scene's veterans started the streetwear company 4HATE0. Besides being an entrepreneurial venture, they're trying to unite the scene through a clothing line that proclaims pride in its geographic roots, while retaining the thuggish, testosterone-fueled aesthetic associated with hardcore. The creators also say they want to shepherd younger hardcore fans along, to teach them the art of self-policing and limit violence.
Though the 4HATE0 gear has sold well in its brief history, it hasn't been without controversy. There was talk of a ban on crew gear by the biggest hardcore promoter in the Valley; 4HATE0, because of its similarities to the shirts worn by the actual crews (and the unfortunate decision by the proprietors to screen-print "CREW" on the backs of their own shirts), ended up in the middle of the controversy, asserting the right of the fans who fuel the scene to wear whatever tee shirts they choose.
Will Anderson of AMJ Concerts and Lucky Man Concerts (the promoters of the Madball show and many other hardcore shows in the Valley) was the promoter who considered banning the crew gear, but in the end decided not to do so, after a post he made on Azpunk.com in July caused a huge stir. "It's more of a problem than it's worth," Anderson tells me a couple of days after the Madball show. "You hear all this stuff about [crew violence] in other states and scenes, but it's not our scene. They shouldn't be punished for what those other people are doing."
Local DIY hardcore promoter Tyler King and several of his friends had a flash of inspiration a few months back. They pooled their resources and launched a streetwear company called "4HATE0," a play on the area code and an assertion of pride for their East Valley locale. Much like New York's Pitchfork clothing brand and, locally, the Team Loco gear sold by a group of board and bike enthusiasts, 4HATE0 gear can now be purchased by anyone online and, soon, in stores.
King, along with Mike Stevenson, "Boston Eric" Matthews, Derek Burford, and a handful of other friends as investors, thought they'd put a positive spin on the local scene by throwing out a catchphrase that locals could identify with. Becoming entrepreneurs in the process didn't sound so bad either.
When King and Matthews moved out here eight years ago, the hardcore scene was considerably different from those in their hometowns -- New York City and Boston, respectively.
King (who resembles the Al Swearengen character on HBO's Deadwood) was deeply involved in the New York hardcore scene in the early '90s, throwing shows that underage kids from the tri-state area would drive hours to see. He worked at the infamous CBGB for a long time, booking the venue's all-ages hardcore matinee shows for five years, as well as throwing shows at other venues.
When he moved to the Valley, he found his entertainment options sparse.
"A lot of my friends' bands weren't coming through here," says King, who's now in his thirties, while we're talking hardcore in the living room of Stevenson's Tempe apartment. "I started doing shows from time to time that the bigger punk and hardcore companies were passing on because they weren't familiar with the bands. I'm from New York, I wanted to see these bands, and nobody else was booking them, so I did."
Matthews adds, "When me and Tyler came out here, and a few others, they weren't hardcore dancing. We came out here, we were the ones doing the hardcore dancing. We made it safe; now all the other kids are growing up and they're wanting to actually hurt people. We didn't know any better when we came here -- that's the way we did it back East, that's the style, that's what we did."
"They couldn't differentiate the fact it was dancing from the fact it looked like a fight," King continues. "The people I bump into the hardest when I still jump in -- I roughhouse with my buddies. It's our energy release, it's our high-five. It's guy-orientated."
Tyler King and I met for the first time last year, when I tried to find out what happened about the middle-aged man who got the shit kicked out of him at one of King's shows at the Mason Jar. I'd seen pictures of the man's face with his eye popping out of his head posted on AZPunk.com, and I wanted to write about the incident.
I hit a silent brick wall. Even King wouldn't talk.
No one would talk about the situation on the record back then. Now that a considerable amount of time has passed, King agreed to explain the situation at the show -- which featured Six Feet Under, the Red Chord, and On Broken Wings -- from his perspective.
"Basically there were kids dancing in the style of hardcore dancing, going a little off. An older gentleman, mid-forties/early fifties, bigger guy, got beat up by more than one guy. I saw the tail end and dragged the guy out.
"There's conflicting accounts of what happened, but he basically yanked some kid down that was crowd-surfing, gave him a chastising -- or he just pushed some kid the wrong way or grabbed some kid the wrong way. I did not witness the beginning of the situation, but they jumped on the guy and gave him a real good beating to the point where his eye popped out of his head. People in crews were involved, but people who just wanted to be part of the excitement were involved as well."
King says that the incident was settled without the help of police or attorneys, and by keeping information from snoopy media types. King and the Mason Jar held benefit shows and paid out of their own pockets for the man's medical bills, and even got him a job at the Mason Jar, at the time. I was not able to reach him for comment.
Despite the hardcore scene's volatile reputation, that's the only incident I've heard of that caused serious repercussions in the scene, causing promoters and venues to rethink their involvement with hardcore shows. King actually stopped booking hardcore shows for a while because he was so disheartened by the situation.
There was a specific crew that was blamed for the incident at the Mason Jar: the straight-edge crew 24. I spoke to a member of 24, who asked that he only be identified as Myc, about the Mason Jar situation.
"My friends were blamed for that, but half of the people involved weren't even in 24. Everybody only wanted to hear one side," Myc tells me. "It was a big drunk asshole who didn't like little kids bouncing off of people."
When I ask Myc about 24's reputation, he replies, "To be dead honest, we've gotten a bad rap. Any young kid that calls themselves straight-edge and does something stupid gets blamed for being in 24, whether he is or not. Nine out of 10 times, it's none of us."
The managers and owners of the clubs that host hardcore shows have the best perspective on how volatile the scene actually is. Leslie Barton, manager of the all-ages, no-alcohol venue and art gallery Modified Arts in Phoenix, says the incidents of violence are sporadic and not endemic. "It's like anything else, there's instances where shit happens," she tells me. "But given the number of hardcore shows we have here, the percentage is really low. There's months when we practically have nothing but hardcore shows."
Because of the few instances of fights at the shows, Barton requires the promoters who bring the bands to Modified to provide security, and she sensibly removes the art from the walls. But she does think the hardcore scene is self-policing to a great degree, especially because of its violent reputation and the prospect of not having venues that will host hardcore shows.
Jake Slider, co-owner of Neckbeard's Soda Bar in Tempe -- another alcohol-free all-ages venue that has a lot of hardcore shows -- has been around the local hardcore scene for years, formerly working security at other clubs, including the Clubhouse. "Do we have the violence? Yes. I hate it more than anything," he says. "The younger ones try to make a name for themselves with the older guys who are running the hardcore and straight-edge scene."
Slider's threatened to halt hosting hardcore shows when fights have broken out previously, and the older members of the crews seem to have taken the threat to heart. "The crews are policing themselves much more now, and I have some crew members on my security staff. They could lose their job, and it makes them see how bad [the violence] can be. These kids in the hardcore scene are starting to realize it, the older people in the scene, and they're saying to the younger ones, 'you better not fuckin' lose this for us.'"
Exactly, says Tyler King.
"It's time for us to take back some of what is ours, time for a bunch of guys who've been involved to take back their scene, for the kids to take back their bands, take back the clothes they wear, take back the places they hang out -- everything."
I agree with him. In an inherently violent scene, the participants should be policing themselves and providing for themselves if they want it to retain the free-spirited ethos that the scene was born with. That seems to be exactly the case these days with the hardcore scene in the Valley. And besides that, removing a crew shirt from someone bent on brawling isn't going to chill him out. The hardcore scene belongs to the kids; attempting to regulate them will only aggravate their anti-authority attitude.
If anything, I see the presence of the kids in crews at hardcore scenes as a positive factor. The older members of these crews are smart enough to put a leash on the younger ones who get out of control. It's a unique synergy that ought to be encouraged.
Will Anderson, of AMJ, says some of the 24 kids are his best friends. "I don't really see them as gangs. I see them as friends hanging out, who happen to be wearing the same shirts. There's fights at every show, not just hardcore shows."
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