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The energy of a Void: some lessons on hardcore punk, faith & what not

Recently I had reason to reminisce about hardcore, a music very close to my heart. Want proof? Pictured below is the wall of my bedroom. Below: framed cover of Void/The Faith split 12" (Dischord, 1982) Above: a copy of the etched side of The Locust's “Well I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle” double 12” (Gold Standard Labs, 2000).

And here is a pictorial detail of The Locust 12":

One of the problems with explaining an appreciation for this music is its obscurity, its inexplicability compared to most of what people would consider music, and -- the topic I'm going to focus on in this post -- its energy, an energy so untidy and chaotic it doesn't translate well into adulthood which, if you define adulthood like most people do, means that it does not translate well anywhere that is considered polite society.

Now for some Void videos, sorted by YouTube popularity:

LESSON #1: ENERGY - 58,000 views

So, yes, energy. It's less like music than a rolling storm. The guitar player Bubba Dupree's sway and lean is trance-like, masturbatory in a zen way, completely focused. The singer John Weiffenbach displays a weird athleticism all the weirder for how it's mixed up with a weird rage. Imagine for a second if the jocks were the biggest weirdos in your typical American high school and you get a sense of the threat to the social order someone like Weiffenbach represents. He's a punk but he's proudly wearing short shorts, simultaneously upsetting both the actual weirdo peers (for the way he's dressed) and the more straightforward kids (for the things he's doing in those shorts). If only he replaced then with 80s-era running shorts maybe his band would have been more popular. But no that's an innovation he left for Henry Rollins to master.

The drummer Sean Finnegan will not stop playing when the band does. It seems like whatever he is doing is only half-coordinated with the actions of his bandmates. He's going balls out and won't stop. It would be too clever to say that only death could stop this guy -- or that he had an energy which seems too much, too much, which was destined to make him expire at a young age. But when you hear that his death in 2008 came via a massive heart attack, and that he was only 43 years old you might think those thoughts were correct & appropriate after all.

One of the reasons this video has so many more views than the others is that it's the one bloggers gravitated toward when running his obituary -- making him, perhaps, the single biggest means by which this pre-internet band has been embraced in this medium.


This next video gives a better sense of what makes the band exciting. The camera never moves. The singer has a fearful, will-to-power like intensity. You understand the appeal the group might have to a heedless young person, an appeal much like the original creator of the will to power concept seems to hold on precocious young people -- at least in my experience.

For the most part the band is absent entirely from the shot. But if you're like me you don't much care. There is plenty of visual interest here besides them, and the point of what they're doing up there on stage, finally, is to incite a movement, a violence, a creative spark & persistent impact that goes far & above the music they're making in real time. So yes, a shout out to 19th-century German classical philologists everywhere straight from 1980s era Washington, DC.

LESSON(S) #3 & #4: CHAOS & COMMUNITY - 19,000 views combined

Here's the point to put a finger on it. Watch the second video, where an audience member for a second grabs control of the mic; where singer John Weiffenbach tells the crowd "Stick your fingers in my gizzard" and you're not sure if it's a lyric or a request; where you can barely tell where the band stops and the crowd begins.

Unique to this music is a sense that there is no line between audience and performer, between the chaos of the crowd and the creation of something new, between the artist and the community that supports them. That's what made hardcore punk so inspiring to so many kids that would, eventually, leave the actual music and aesthetic of that culture behind. I recall the Passover Seder I attended a few weeks back at the home of a particularly forward thinking Lubavitcher rabbi in Boro Park. I, myself, neither observe nor practice any religion but I was taken aback by the guy seated to my left at the table -- a Catholic hardcore kid from Connecticut that had recently converted to the Jewish faith and was dressed in the full-out Hasidic outfit -- beard, side curls, black hat, etc.

It made me wonder, was hardcore punk a kind of religion in and of itself?

And finally...


When you're done with the above watch these three songs from Void's chronological peers from the same Washington, DC hardcore scene, a band called Minor Threat, perhaps the most popular hardcore punk band that ever came out of that classic era. Or, more accurately watch what is an almost equal sampling of banter & song. It takes three minutes for singer Ian MacKaye to finish his monologue and for his band to kick into song.

Lesson? Add some stand-up comedy and some melody to the more inchoate mess that was Void and you have yourself the recipe for popularity & sustainability. Minor Threat are probably more famous today than they ever were in their lifetime.

Lesson? It's easier to grow an audience for music that takes a form and adds one or two unfamiliar elements (in Minor Threat's case pop music + speed) than it is to create an audience for music that serves up the pure essence of a thing (in Void's case, sheer youthful rage). The areas of musical agreement among Minor Threat's membership might seem absurd to the punk fan -- they cop to a common love of the Beatles -- but it wouldn't seem at all a surprise to fans of music.

Evidence of persistence: Where the internet has barely thought of Void, another video of Minor Threat -- this live version of "In My Eyes" -- has logged well over 400,000 views! Members of this band have not died young. Rather they are downright respectable. Notice how, in the embedded video above bassist Lyle Preslar wears a white button-up shirt, a hint at the music executive and lawyer he would one day become. Or read this great conversation between two members of the group, MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson, that appeared in Spin in 2003, around the 25th anniversary of the label they founded to document their band, Void, and many others.

Alec Hanley Bemis's picture
Alec Hanley Bemis lives in Brooklyn, NY but spends a lot of time in California. He obtained his B.A. in History from Yale University. His writing has appeared in LA Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Spin,, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2001, he co-founded Brassland, a record label that documents the work of a growing community of musicians, including The National and Nico Muhly. Currently he continues to run Brassland, consults for the UK-based music company All Tomorrow's Parties, co-manages The Dirty Projectors, and acts as general manager at Cantaloupe Music. In the past, he has taught in New York University's graduate journalism program, produced projects for the new media-design firm, Funny Garbage, and written for Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve.