Interview: Steven Blush, Author
Author Steven Blush was firmly entrenched in the hardcore punk music scene. Irrevocably changed by the music of Black Flag, he built a career as a journalist and music expert. He wrote American Hardcore: A Tribal History and served as writer/producer for a documentary film inspired by that book. But then, the bluesy riffs of Tom Keifer and Jeff LaBar from Cinderella introduced him to the power and suprisingly high-quality musicianship of many so-called hair metal bands. After experiencing that metal revelation, voiced by a host of not-so angelic guitar heroes and spandex-clad frontmen, Blush decided to immerse himself 80’s hair metal. The result of his research is American Hair Metal, a book that captures hundreds of photos and quotes from the rockers themselves.
Blush was kind enough to speak with us about his affection for this music genre, the nature of researching and compiling a book like this, and his task of sifting through more than 500 metal mags.
Slushpile: Your first book, American Hardcore, was published in 2001. I know you’re intimately involved with hardcore music and you’ve said in interviews that, “This was a big part of my life and a very intellectual chapter of Rock history that which was kind of overlooked and forgotten… I wrote it because of this forgotten history and I wanted to put the record straight.” Do you have any similar type of affinity for hair metal? Or was your first book a labor of love and this new one, American Hair Metal, more of academic pursuit?
Blush: I have a unique relationship to Hair Metal. Back in those days, I was a total punk rock fan, and had zero affinity for Hair Metal, or any other “establishment” music. In Punk, I saw myself as a participant in a cultural revolution against all that. But somewhere during the Alt Rock late-90s, during that horrible Radiohead Alt Rock era, I discovered the band Cinderella – and instantly realized that under all their big hair laid a majestic bluesy groove equal parts Aerosmith and AC/DC.
In the Punk scene, it is common to speak of that Ramones album or Bad Brains single that changed your life. For me, here was the line I crossed back to sex and drugs and rock n roll.
Virtually every press outlet today —MTV and VH-1, for example—can only poke fun at Hair Metal. I’m not doing that, I truly appreciate it. As an enthusiastic outsider and an experienced author, I feel I can comfortably discuss it all in a matter-of-fact manner.
Slushpile: What was your experience pitching, and then publishing, American Hardcore? Did you have an agent? How did you end up with Feral House?
Blush: I am old friends with Adam Parfrey at Feral House—we knew each other from the 80s East Village scene, and he later wrote for my publication, Seconds Magazine. From the start, Adam believed in me and in the American Hardcore project. There have been no agents or other typical business shit. I am very satisfied with our author-publisher relationship.
Slushpile: American Hair Metal is combination of photos, your own critiques of the music, outtakes from published interviews, and even fan art drawings of their favorite bands. How did you compile all this material?
Blush: The book’s artwork largely came from my collections of rock mags and rock effluvia. A bunch of old metal friends helped me fill in the holes. The fan drawings was my idea, to exemplify true American folk art.
Slushpile: Did you gather all this material together before writing your critiques and evaluations of the music? Or, did you have certain critiques in mind that you wanted to write, regardless of the photos you discovered?
Blush: The story wrote itself. There’s not a lot to analyze. So it was very easy to find which of the choice photos/artwork reflected the particular text. But nothing in the book is random.
Slushpile: With so many photos, song lyrics, and interview quotes, how difficult was it to get clearances?
Blush: The lyrics and quotes are used as part of a critical essay on the subject, so there were no legal problems. At the same time, we worked very hard to make sure everything printed in the book was correct, and never used derisively or out-of-context. Those quotes and lyrics are in tribute to how much these guys kicked ass!
Slushpile: Many aspiring authors wonder about clearances and permissions. On the one hand, you don’t want to promise a publisher a certain lyric or quote and then not be able to obtain permission to use it. So one strategy would be to get the permission prior to submitting the book to a publisher. But on the other hand, some entities might not be willing to give permission without knowing exact details of the publication. So another strategy would be to wait until a book deal is finalized before asking for permissions. What is your advice?
Blush: Just go for it and be prepared to make changes later. Your sole job as author is to finish the book. In most cases, legal changes by the publisher are a separate issue.
Slushpile: American Hardcore and American Hair Metal are both books that rely heavily on their format, layout, and design. Aspiring authors who want to produce books like this are often confused by how “finished” of a manuscript they need to pitch to publishers. For example, if I were submitting a proposal for a book like this, do I need to include the photos and the captions and make it look like a final product? Or, should I just include placeholders for the photos and notes about what I intend to go there?
Blush: It depends on the author or on the situation. American Hardcore was a unique situation in that I sent Feral House a completely finished book on disc. But that’s just because I’m a control freak, and demand total hands-on. American Hair Metal was designed in-house by Feral House, but with my excuciatingly detailed input. Both situations were very positive.
Slushpile: Were there any bands that you previously didn’t like, but later developed an appreciation for through the research of this book?
Blush: Yes, most notably: Britny Fox, Danger Danger, Roxx Gang, Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and our cover boyz Nitro.
Slushpile: In the introduction, you write that your conversations with some of hair metal’s key players “lacked any cool insight,” and that, “perhaps the characters’ past art embarrassed them.” Why do you think hair metal is so derided? We’ve seen a growing understanding of disco’s cultural place, a growing critical appreciation of early 80’s synthesizer music, but hair metal is still a joke. Why?
Blush: I feel I’m the right to person to have created this book because one, I’m totally into it, and two, unlike the scene’s participants, most of whom have done everything possible to whitewash their Aqua Net pasts, I’ve got absolutely nothing to be embarrassed by.
The American Hair Metal book came out only 90 days ago, and is already in reprint. The book’s success shows that people may finally be ready for a critical re-evaluation of Hair Metal. We’ll see…
Slushpile: You write that these bands “were pure entertainers—no tortured artist trip or subversive political intent, no stewing over Reaganomics, El Salvador death squads, nuclear holocaust, or any of society’s other ills.” What are your thoughts about the rare moments of hair metal political awareness, such as Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime album?
Blush: Operation: Mindcrime is far dumber than anything Britny Fox ever did, or wore.
Remember: it’s much much harder to be smart and act dumb than it is to be dumb and act smart.
Slushpile: You write about the hair metal uniform of bright colors, make-up, and teased hair. “The participants were not intellectuals or sophisticates and they were definitely not transvestites;” you write. “They were simply blue-collar uber-heteros who dressed sorta like chicks because that’s what got them laid.” But where did this style come from and how did it get to be considered sexy? Front men like Robert Plant (nicknamed “Percy” by his bandmates due to his outré stage presence) often displayed a bit of femininity. And of course, influential bands like The New York Dolls and T. Rex took androgyny to the extreme. But that’s still a long way from Aqua Net and lime green spandex. How did the hair metal fashion evolve?
Blush: Hair Metal was nothing new, it was simply the biggest version of the same ol’ thing. The Stones, Led Zep and the Dolls set the stage for bands like Aersomith and Van Halen, who in turn set the stage for the Hair bands. Rock cliches like dressing quasi-fem in tight leather pants and singing in castrati vocals was the template for Alpha Males expression, so that’s exactly what the Hair bands did. These Hair bands did not dress that way out of irony or out of sexual confusion. They just thought it looked cool, and knew that it got ‘em laid.
Slushpile: Many of the hair metal bands were infamous for their egos. “Overnight fame and fortune, rampant intoxication and unbridled sexual attention made for mind-boggling cases of self-delusion and self-importance,” you write. “Even modest levels of success led to enormously swollen heads, and bodacious claims of invincibility.” Compare this braggadocio with what we see today in rap music, where unknown MCs brag about their skills and bank accounts.
Blush: They are one in the same. No difference at all. But while the Hair bands were dismissed as stupid and sexist, the rappers are embraced for “keeping it real.” The cultural implications to that answer are outside the realm of this conversation…
Slushpile: You point out that after the explosion of Grunge music, the industry abandoned the hair metal bands. “The bands themselves are also to blame, as they bailed on their sound and style, too… Instead of staying true, hair metal bands tried to change with the times—and failed. Simply put, debaucherous big-haired boyz, by their own definition, could never be part of the Grunge generation.” What lessons do you think aspiring authors can learn for the musicians’ failed attempts at staying cool?
Blush: Stay true to your art—to your vision—and you will never fail. Had Warrant or Cinderella not gone Grunge, we probably would not be having this discussion. I’m certainly not implying that these bands would’ve endured beyond the Nirvana years, but their fall would not have been so damn steep and tragic.
Slushpile: The last third of the book is dedicated to an alphabetical listing of the important bands with key facts about each group. How did you research this section? I’m a trivia fanatic (and I thought I knew it all) about this music, but there were some facts here that were completely new to me. How did you dig up this information?
Blush: The research of this book was quite in-depth. The majority of the book’s trivia comes from my intensive notetaking of over 500 issues of 80’s rock mags like Circus, RIP, Creem, Hit Parader, Metal Edge – a mind-numbing experience, to put it politely. The rest of the information was miniutae I picked up on over the years (and fact-checked against my bad memory!).
Slushpile: One of the great things about American Hair Metal is the fantastic photographs of hair metal guitars. I always loved the graphics and paint jobs that 80’s axe slingers came up with. What’s your favorite guitar from that era?
Blush: The guitar on the cover – Nitro’s Michael Angelo’s Charvel Quad X-400 with 4 necks in a V formation, each with a seventh string, for a higher octave. The most over-the-top guitar ever!!
Slushpile: What other music genres intrigue you? Do you have plans for any future American… music books?
Blush: I think I’ve taken this “American” thing as far as it can go…
Slushpile: Your work has appeared in magazines such as Spin, Details, and the Village Voice. What tips can you offer for freelancers trying to place articles in publications like these?
Blush: Newspapers and magazines exist to generate advertising revenue, and editors are notoriously self-absorbed and nepotistic, so expect frustration and disappointment. Many of your great pitches will get nixed, and your best writings will get cut or re-written—all for little pay, usually paid late. Then some features get cancelled, perhaps for no good reason, sometime with no cancellation fee. The one real upside is your byline, but expect that to be omitted, poorly-placed or omitted altogether. That said, there’s far worse jobs…
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Blush: Never ever give up. Once you give up, you’re no longer an author.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Blush: Be prepared to starve for your art.
To learn more, visit the American Hair Metal website.