Sorry, Fred and Ginger; Today the Music Is Hardcore and the Action Is Slam Dancing
The scene on the dance floor looks like bumper cars without the cars, football without the ball. As the band blasts music from the stage, skinheads in black leather and combat boots stalk the floor, fearsome scowls on their faces. Suddenly they explode into quick, spastic movements, crashing into each other and the spectators around them. One teenager hurls himself off the stage and into the crowd. Another with a bright red Mohawk and three safety pins through one ear literally dives, headfirst, into the mob. The band gets louder. The crowd gets wilder. Stephan Ielpi, lead singer of the False Prophets, leans menacingly into the crowd, an earring clamped to his nose. His long fingernails are lacquered in black, his James Dean T-shirt soaked in sweat, Ielpi takes a pitcher of water from the stage and throws it into the audience as he grabs the mike and shrieks the lyrics of Good Clean Fun! "We're too smart to watch the TV/ Because it's filled with violence/ So we like to go out dancing/ And knock ourselves devoid of sense."
The music is "hardcore." Louder than New Wave, more frenzied than punk. The action is slam dancing. "It's a way to work off frustration," says John "Riz" Rizzo, 19, lead singer of the Misguided. "Instead of kicking in someone's door or shooting drugs, you slam. It makes you feel good."
Under names that frankly evoke mayhem (MOB, Kraut, Reagan Youth, Armed Citizens, Urban Waste), hardcore bands are shouting their repetitive, scatological, often downright incoherent lyrics at slam dancers from coast to coast. From the Channel Club in Boston to the 930 Club in Washington, D.C., from C.O.D. in Chicago to the Elite Club in San Francisco, hardcore has emerged as the latest musical protest from the '80s youth subculture. "It's what's happening with the new generation—it's their music," says Hilly Kristal, the owner of New York's CBGB, a spawning ground for such groups as Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones.
While the slammers tend to be teenage leather boys, the audience is more mixed, with a fair number of suburban kids represented. Some of the toughest-looking dancers, like Jimmy Gestapo and Steve Hate, adopt names to match their outfits. A surprising number of the most murderous-looking turn out to be regular kids who still live with their parents. "My family doesn't like it," admits Vinny Vespole, 18, who lives at home in Brooklyn. "So I only dress up on weekends." A six-foot bruiser with black hair sticking straight up in spikes ("I fix it with Ivory soap"), Vespole wears paper clips through his ear. "I do it because it drives people crazy," he says grinning.
While mainly a showcase for adolescent male aggression, the slamming ritual depends on a sense of mutual support from the participants. "They never go in feetfirst," explains Anthony Countey, manager of the Bad Brains. "They catch each other and cushion each other—support each other, not hurt each other." There are occasional broken bones and fist-fights, but most slammers emerge with bruises only. "Sure it hurts," one says, "but we're young, we heal quick." Interestingly, CBGB's Kristal has no additional liability insurance covering accidents or property damage.
Most female hardcore fans prefer to watch the antics from the sidelines. "Slamming is a macho energy trip," says Kristal. "Too rough for girls." Kitty Hawk, 24-year-old bass player with XKI, is an exception. "Sure I slam," she boasts, "and I do a good job of it too. Broke a guy's ribs once."
Despite all appearances, slam dancers and hardcore musicians claim to be anti-violence and pro-family. "We respect our parents as people," says Ielpi, "but their values are a little outdated. Parents will say spiky hair looks so ugly. Well, my mom's orange beehive used to look pretty outrageous too."
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