There’s so little to be happy about these days that when something comes along that sparks some joy we cling to it like a life raft. The Tiger King didn’t do shit for me but I couldn’t put Sam McPheeters’ book Mutations down. I tore through it in a day and a half, skipping meals and work along the way. I doubt I would’ve read it any slower if there was no plague outside my door or if we had a human being for a president, it’s that good.
The book is a collection of essays centered on what McPheeters calls hardcore punk music. There are endless sectarian and semantic debates about what is and isn’t hardcore or punk or underground and as a participant in the scene he has no shortage of views and doesn’t shy away from the occasional turf war. But because McPheeters stopped playing in bands years ago, he has the critical distance and sense of humor to acknowledge that even some of his own most ardently held opinions shouldn’t be taken as the lord’s gospel. In fact it’s the levity with which he describes his own musical contributions that are one of the most refreshing aspects of his book.
Some of these pieces have appeared in magazines but I’d only read the epic, heartbreaking profile of deranged former lead singer of the Crucifucks, Doc Dart, prior to picking up the book. I’ve still never heard a single song by his most well-known band, Born Against. But I read each successive essay — whether about touring life or zine writing or a visit to a closing record-pressing plant—with a velocity and hunger not unlike McPheeters’ vivid descriptions of his own music/art obsession.
We are about the same age so many of the cultural reference points McPheeters explores hit close to home. The feeling of coming of age a few years too late is especially resonant. He talks about this in relation to his entry into the hardcore scene but I think it’s true for a larger swath of culture for those who grew up in the 80s. Once anything worthwhile became available—usually via underground channels like independent record stores and ragtag DIY performance spaces—it felt like the ship had already sailed. Perhaps this is the case for other generations, but in the dull, conformist, Reagan 80s, that feeling was in especially prevalent. The party was over and you weren’t invited.
Though McPheeters is merciless in his assessment of his own music and stresses that he walked away long ago never to return, cumulatively these essays are clearly an oblique memoir. No matter how insignificant he makes his role out to be, he’s the through-line and prism by which the reader traces the history of an underground scene which became codified and mass-marketable. Even if we take him at his word that he was part of the problem, it’s his problem and he clearly loves it.
Starting as an 80s teenager learning the rudiments of DIY culture through zines and bands and ending a few years ago as an extra in a pop singer’s high-gloss recreation of a punk club in LA, McPheeters is an eloquent and often hilarious guide to a world which formed him but is now all but gone. Monoculture has swallowed much that was unique and special about the music and art he loved (and still loves, no matter how much he argues otherwise.)
There’s so much to chafe against in our current situation that there must be new, young McPheeters out there passionately making the thing that matters to them as much as drawing breath. Let’s hope that when it comes time for them to look back they can be as clear-eyed and self-deprecating as he is.
Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk
by Sam McPheeters
Rare Bird Books; 312 p.