The Secret of Steven Blush’s Success
A new definition of 'rock star'
Posted Apr 20, 2016
Think you know what it means to be a “rock star?”
The mere mention of the term elicits an escapist fantasy — an exciting and easy life of fame, money and godlike status above the rest of us mere mortals, who trudge through the daily, boring grind. And all because you can write and perform pretty songs while having others take care of the petty details of your life.
Sounds good, right?
But hardcore punk changed all of that. Hardcore presented a punishing, uncompromising sound that was matched by a tireless do-it-yourself (DIY) work ethic that made little distinction between musician and fan. Everyone was in it together and ready to work, because they knew it wouldn’t be easy.
No “rock stars” allowed.
This was the scene that Steven Blush helped to develop and eventually chronicle in his seminal book and eventual movie American Hardcore. Along with books such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me (1996) and Michael Azerraad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001), American Hardcore helped to unveil the punk rock underground lifestyle as a true alternative to the vision we all had of a “rock star.”
And now Blush is at it again with his new book, “Lost Rockers: Broken Dreams and Crashed Careers,” which examines a group that has been mostly forgotten by history — people who tried to “make it,” but didn’t quite reach the conventional definition of “rock star” status. And in doing so, Blush is doubling down on his hardcore vision:
Success can be understood in non-economic terms; namely, sometimes the passion and commitment to the journey can be reward enough.
Unlike the conventional path that was the norm during Blush’s youth — live with your nuclear family, go to school, get a job, raise a family — Blush traveled various divergent paths that made up his education and primed him for his career.
One path was his New Jersey suburban upbringing from his parents, who encouraged him to go to college and become a white-collar professional. Another path that Blush simultaneously traveled was with his father, a war veteran who owned his own business on the gritty 1970s Lower East Side of Manhattan. Blush would help with his father with his business on the weekends, and in the process Blush had his initial exposure to street life and early punk rock.
Next, Blush spent time in England, as part of a high school exchange program, where he learned about the more political and aggressive British punk rock bands like The Clash. And finally, Blush immersed himself in the Washington, D.C., hardcore punk scene that included bands such as Minor Threat and hardcore pioneers such as Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins.
While each of these experiences was in many ways quite different, they all ultimately converged around a simple guiding principle. As Blush told me, “I think it’s just about, ‘Do you have the will?’”
What Blush is referring to can be conceptualized as grit, or the tenacity to work hard to achieve one’s goals. Initial research supports the power of grit. In one study, while grit was unrelated to IQ, grit predicted grade-point average in Ivy League undergraduates and West Point cadets completing their studies. Perhaps not surprisingly, grit has also been shown to be an independent predictor of life satisfaction.
Blush described the radical change in culture he experienced every week growing up shuffling between his parents’ suburban home and his father’s work. “My dad was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Chrystie Street, the worst place on earth,” Blush explained. “I had this double life. I’d go on the weekends on Chrystie Street. I’d run errands for my father and see all the heroin dealers and the mob guys on the West Side. And after helping my father, at around 5PM I’d go out for a couple of hours while he finished up at work. I was drinking and getting hookers and hearing shot bullets. It was a whole different world. But I learned that there was a more primitive world out there. Not like the suburban world I had.”
It was from his father who had lived through WWII and the Depression that Blush got his first taste of the DIY spirit that he still employs to this day. “It was a different worldview. My dad was self-employed, marginally successful, but always happy to go to work,” said Blush.
Blush’s father was grateful for everything he had and derived great satisfaction from his work. “Be thankful for everything you’ve got. Work for everything you’ve got. If you fail, pick yourself up, and don’t cry. Don’t take anything for granted. My dad would talk about rations and not being able to buy things — things we would totally take for granted today,” Blush explained.
“I had all of that instilled in me.”
Eventually, Blush found the early punk rock scene that flourished on those same New York City streets. “CBGBs was around the corner from where my father worked. There was a band that used to practice in my father’s building that I realized now was Talking Heads. I would read the New York Times articles about Patti Smith and John Cale. And Lou Reed had these songs about S&M.”
Blush saw how the minimalism of punk rock and “No Wave” music influenced what was often a more serious side of hardcore. “One of the main precedents of hardcore was minimalism. With these Soho artists making rock — John Cage, Lou Reed, Yoko Ono — what they were forcing you to do was deal with the dissonance. Playing for keeps. I’m not here to give you a good time,” he explained.
“We’re not here to party.”
But Blush’s experience differed from most other kids his age, because he was able to see early punk rock not only in New York, but also in England, with bands such as The Clash and Sham 69. With this expanded exposure, Blush was also able to take in the more political approach of English bands at the time. “I went to a high school exchange program in England,” Blush said. “I was the only American in the neighborhood and had to fight every day. But I met the punk rockers. They took me to see The Clash before they came to America.”
“And I came back to New Jersey and was never the same.”
Altogether, Blush feels that these early experiences prepared him for his eventual immersion in hardcore punk life. “Punk really made sense to me. So when hardcore hit, it wasn’t that foreign to me — the idea of really gritting it out on a grass-roots level and that you could starve,” Blush explained.
“So when it was time to go it alone with hardcore, I had really no fear.”
At that point, Blush assumed that music would be a fun hobby, and he followed a more conventional path and went to college. “I went to The George Washington University in D.C. And I was all prepped to be a lawyer or something,” he said.
That all changed dramatically when he first saw the legendary hardcore band Black Flag play a show in Washington, D.C. Blush was immediately drawn in by the music. “It starts in 1981 at the 9:30 Club, Black Flag, Valentine’s Day Massacre. It’s called hardcore because it’s hardcore punk — the most intense version of punk,” Blush said. “And I had never heard a band like that. Even in punk rock — the Sex Pistols, The Clash — it was still kind of rock ’n’ roll — still verse, chorus, Chuck Berry kind of music. When I saw Black Flag, there was no chorus. It was turn up the feedback and somehow the screams get tied together behind these riffs and rolling beats.”
And there was something else. Hardcore made a very specific statement about what it was to be a “rock star.” While there is a great divide between musician and fan in mainstream music, hardcore made no such distinction. Not only did the musicians and fans often share the stage or floor (a la Iggy Pop), but also the hardcore stars were accessible to fans.
“I’d never seen anything so utterly tearing down the rock ’n’ roll formula, also seeing the crowd tearing down the barrier between crowd and stage. And this was a huge part of hardcore,” said Blush. “The first show I saw was Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden in 1977. And I saw how important the rock stars were. I loved the experience, but ultimately it was very unsatisfying because so many people were placing an emphasis on these rock stars. Hardcore wasn’t like: ‘Here’s some genius on the stage, and you’re going to watch their genius.’”
In fact, the geniuses were right there to talk with. “I’m trying to describe how rare it was for such a situation. I actually go downstairs, and I see for one time there was no bouncer at the door for the backstage,” Blush said. “Here was Black Flag holding court and kids sitting on the floor listening to them talk. And I remember sitting on a chair and just listening in and then getting slowly drawn into this conversation. And I met (Black Flag founder) Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, and they started talking to me about success in non-economic terms. Seeing Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye there, meeting them a little while later.”
“And I never really recovered from that.”
Blush’s worldview was changed forever. “I still went to school. I still took my classes. But that’s not what I was daydreaming about,” he explained. “I was dreaming about punk rock and the opportunities of doing what you want to do and not worrying about the money.”
Hardcore seemed a perfect confrontation of the political zeitgeist of the early ’80s, in which the message was to work within the existing system and make money. “I really thought there was going to be a revolution when Ronald Reagan took office. And you hear all these Republicans dropping Reagan’s name and ‘Morning in America Again.’ That was a fucking nightmare.”
“It wasn’t morning in America. It was midnight.”
Blush was already leaning towards a more radical perspective — but hardcore pushed him over the edge. “I was already looking at the extremes. I was a political science major, and I wasn’t just reading Marx and Engels, I was reading Mikhail Bakunin, who was the nihilist,” he explained. “So when Black Flag were talking about tearing down all structures because they’re evil, and we have a better chance by getting away from all of this, it was incredibly powerful.”
This change in Blush’s viewpoint was not easy: Many of the people in Blush’s life were not as moved by hardcore or Blush’s newfound professional aspirations. “People looked at me like I was fucking crazy. I went to that show with five other guys from my college, and they all hated it. I remember one of my friends almost got beat up at the show,” he recalled. “My family didn’t know how to react to it. I mean my family was very cool considering but nobody knew how to deal with it. They were like, ‘Just graduate.’”
Graduation may have been no easy task as Blush’s love of hardcore brought the ire of his university. “I was already a deejay on the radio station. I started playing these bands on the radio. I booked the Dead Kennedys in my college cafeteria through my radio station. Almost got thrown out of school,” he said.
But for Blush, you were either hardcore or you weren’t: “Hardcore was about tearing it down to the root level and then building it. It was such a dividing line. It was such a line in the sand.”
Moreover, Blush had found what would eventually become his life’s purpose. Positive psychology theorists posit that leading a “meaningful” or “purposeful” life, in which one uses his or her strengths in the service of a higher cause, is a key to well-being. For example, one research study followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years and found that those who had a higher sense of purpose lived longer than those leading a less purposeful life.
It was at that point that Blush immersed himself as not only a fan, but also as one of the builders of hardcore culture. “And I became a punk promoter and promoted lots of well-known shows from the D.C. hardcore scene, probably most famous being Minor Threat and Trouble Funk. The first time punk-funk was really put together,” Blush explained. “I went on like five tours in the early ’80s. We really put ourselves out there. I could have lost everything on some of these tours. And every one of us just had a profound love for this music.”
Blush did eventually graduate, but his heart was set on hardcore and the underground music scene that he pursued when he returned to New York City. “So I came to New York, and I had this attitude. I was a deejay in the clubs here for years. I worked at this club called Mars for a couple of years,” he said. “And it was Red Alert or David Morales on the first floor, Dmitry from Dee-Lite on the second floor, me on the third floor, Moby on the fourth floor and Vin Diesel working the door.”
But Blush’s family still tried to convince him to go back on the original mainstream path. “My family talked me into starting an MBA program,” he said. “I was talking about building a culture. They were talking about cashing in on every last penny.
“And I’m saying the money doesn’t matter, because you’re doing something for a higher good.”
Over time, Blush found a way to earn a modest living doing what he loved — helping perpetuate the underground music scene in many ways and across many genres. In addition to continuing to deejay, Blush wrote articles for several outlets, including Spin magazine, Details magazine and Kerrang, for whom he interviewed such legendary hardcore bands as Bad Brains, the Beastie Boys and Mudhoney, as well as eventual hip-hop stars such as Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane. Blush also started his own magazine, Seconds, which ran for 15 years and included interviews with bands like Soundgarden and Danzig. And he eventually wrote a book in 2006, “American Hair Metal,” describing a very different subculture of heavy metal that reached its peak in the 1980s.
So when Blush approached his new book, Lost Rockers, he had an opportunity to learn about a slightly different subculture: people who in theory had bought into the concept of “making it,” but had not quite reached their sought-after pinnacle of success.
“Basically, the book is a history of a dozen or so musicians who I delineate from one-hit wonders. These are people who have had many goes at it with their craft and somehow it just doesn’t quite hit,” he explained. “And why is that? They were beautiful. They were talented. They were gifted. They were on major labels. They were on television. Yet you don’t know who they are.”
Interestingly, what came from the book was a reaffirmation of Blush’s hardcore values: “Making it” was mostly about hard work. “A lot of it is intestinal fortitude. A lot of it is just about going for it. A lot of people are scared. That’s what bogs you down.”
Moreover, those who appeared to be happy with their careers regardless of financial success were those who were just happy to continue their art. “On the broader level, it’s about everybody who had an artistic dream. Whether it’s that you wanted to be a death-metal vocalist, or you wanted to be an architect, or you wanted to be a poet. It’s about coming to terms with how you make a life of that.”
Overall, Blush feels that his worldview has in part been confirmed through the lasting success and influence of hardcore music. “It’s such a radical construct, and it took 30 years to make sense. Like all great art movements, it was way ahead of its time. The importance of hardcore today speaks for itself,” he said. “There are scores of hardcore labels still standing. Because these people didn’t wait around for the record company to sign them; they didn’t wait for a manager to say ‘hello’; they didn’t wait for someone to get them a tour. These kids sold 3,000 records back in the day. They probably sell 50,000 a year now. Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins came out of this scene. The Beastie Boys came out of this scene. Dave Grohl came out of this scene.”
And the message seems to reverberate among millennials, who appear to be particularly interested in having a sense of purpose at work. And businesses are taking notice. As an example, Citigroup has installed a new policy allowing its young bankers to take a year “sabbatical” to pursue meaningful life goals. Blush sees the roots of this attitude in hardcore. “Hardcore is the musical starting point for most millennials. It’s not Woodstock. It’s not the ’70s,” Blush said. “The ethic is all hardcore.”
Still, the life Blush chose can still be a struggle, with many remaining skeptical. “My mom, even a couple of years ago, said, ‘You fucked up. You should have really been a lawyer. And only your mom could say that to you, right?” he explained. “And I’m thinking, ‘No, I didn’t fuck up.’ My mom is really into movies, and she’d talk about people walking down the red carpet. I’m like, ‘Mom, I walked the red carpet for American Hardcore.’ She can’t put the two together.”
“That’s the cross you bear.”
And Blush is clear that if you are looking for the conventional definitions of rock stardom, this path isn’t for you. “I can’t ask other people to live like this. I wouldn’t recommend it, frankly. I don’t think most people can handle it. I can barely handle it.”
And if you want a hardcore lifestyle, be prepared to work hard. “People say, ‘Don’t sit on your laurels.’ There are no laurels to sit on here. That’s how you have to be. You suffer so much to pursue an artistic vision,” Blush said. “I didn’t have an art. I couldn’t paint per se. But hardcore opened me up to the idea that you didn’t need that. You just needed the will. I was promoting shows with a thousand, two thousand kids when I was 18, 19 years old. I started a magazine without ever having worked at a magazine. I became a writer without any journalistic experience. I wrote a book with no advance. You just have to believe in it.”
“At a certain point, you just have to go for it. You just have to tune everybody out and do what you believe in. And it’s a clusterfuck, but I never lost focus on the goal.”
“If that’s radical, then it’s radical.”
But if you can hack it, like Blush, you can find a new definition of “rock star.” “I wake up every morning excited to write. My future’s looking good, but it’s only because I paved it. I worked so excruciatingly hard and dedicated myself to this one focus. I’ve had real success and real failure. And I don’t really look at it any differently because it’s all about the process. It’s all about the making of the art or the making of the scene or whatever you’re doing.”
And Blush has never looked back. “When I was around 17 years old, I watched a lot of my father’s friends die. I watched these tough New York motherfuckers, and they all had regrets,” he said.
“I was involved in the last great American underground, and I carry those values with me. And it’s gotten me pretty far. I swear to you, I wake up, and I have never, ever regretted getting up to work,” Blush said.
Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.